The Breath, and Cherry-Picking for Cultural Convenience

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The Breath, and Cherry-Picking for Cultural Convenience

Postby mettafuture » Tue May 21, 2013 4:38 am

Master Gautama detailed 40 meditation objects over the course of a 45-year teaching career. So why is it that Western Buddhists focus on just 1 or 2 of these objects (eg. anapanasati and metta)? Is it because our dhamma teachers don't feel that contemplating the elements or recalling the qualities of the Buddha could be compatible with our cultural sensibilities? Perhaps they aren't. But if that's the case, maybe we need to change something about ourselves rather than continue to selectively disregard large portions of the dhamma.

I also feel that it may be a mistake to introduce breath meditation to every new Buddhist as their first meditation object. I've heard people try to make the point that anapanasati can fulfill all four satipatthanas, therefore special attention doesn't need to be given to the individual satipatthanas. But does it really make sense to skip developing at least a rudimentary understanding of the body, feelings, consciousness, and mental objects before jumping ahead to the breath?
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Re: The Breath, and Cherry-Picking for Cultural Convenience

Postby Sekha » Tue May 21, 2013 5:53 am

There are many ways to practice the Dhamma. The Buddha highly recommended breath awareness, which is one of the reasons why teachers also recommend it as well. Another reason is that the breath is an object that suits everyone, even though it may not be the best object to start with for everyone. Other objects on the other hand may not suit everyone and must therefore be assigned personally, which requires specific skills that imo are not easy to develop.

In short, the breath is a sure bet, unlike other objects.
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Re: The Breath, and Cherry-Picking for Cultural Convenience

Postby Sam Vara » Tue May 21, 2013 8:12 am

The monks at my local monastery who teach meditation do teach meditation on the elements and on the qualities of the Buddha. But speaking for myself, I had to do quite a lot of focusing on the breath before I could make sense of contemplation of the elements. In so far as I have any understanding of the elements, the breath was the gateway to this.

I also feel that it may be a mistake to introduce breath meditation to every new Buddhist as their first meditation object.


It might be, but how would teachers determine the best object for particular students? There might be teachers around who have supernatural insight into exactly what people need, on first meeting them. But I've only met one in my entire life, and they weren't a Buddhist. Most meditation teachers - including monastics - seem to be people who are just better at meditating than me, and have good ways of explaining things. And these ways of explaining things seem to work for large groups of people. Within a monastery, it would be much more likely that a teacher could spend time with the pupil and get to know lots about them. But for a lay meditation teacher or monastic dealing with a group of lay beginners for a "taster" or even a retreat - how would they know?
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Re: The Breath, and Cherry-Picking for Cultural Convenience

Postby mettafuture » Tue May 21, 2013 8:44 am

Sekha wrote:The Buddha highly recommended breath awareness, which is one of the reasons why teachers also recommend it as well.

The Buddha held anapanasati in high regard, but he didn't prescribe this meditation first when encountering a lay follower. For the laity, ethical and/or devotional practices on the precepts (AN 8.25) and recollections (AN 11.13) often took precedent.

Another reason is that the breath is an object that suits everyone

I doubt the Buddha shared this sentiment. If he did, he wouldn't have bothered teaching 39 other objects of meditation. One size clearly doesn't fit all.

Other objects on the other hand may not suit everyone and must therefore be assigned personally, which requires specific skills that imo are not easy to develop.

There's nothing inherently more difficult about the recollections. I meditate on them daily, and they have been exceedingly helpful in cultivating samadhi and confidence in the triple gem.
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Re: The Breath, and Cherry-Picking for Cultural Convenience

Postby mettafuture » Tue May 21, 2013 8:48 am

Sam Vara wrote:The monks at my local monastery who teach meditation do teach meditation on the elements and on the qualities of the Buddha.

That's excellent.

But speaking for myself, I had to do quite a lot of focusing on the breath before I could make sense of contemplation of the elements. In so far as I have any understanding of the elements, the breath was the gateway to this.

I found it easier to meditate on the breath after doing metta meditation (hence the username).

It might be, but how would teachers determine the best object for particular students?

The teacher could take a traditional approach and start with the 5 recollections. What makes the Buddha an arahant, perfectly enlightened, accomplished in true knowledge and conduct, fortunate, a knower of the world, an unsurpassed leader of persons to be tamed...

If the teacher doesn't want to chase away secularist students, he/she could start with the usual dhamma study and breath meditation. However, if someone is having difficulty following the breath, the teacher should offer a different meditation object to counter whatever is hindering their concentration; foulness to counter sense desire, metta to counter ill-will, and so on.

But for a lay meditation teacher or monastic dealing with a group of lay beginners for a "taster" or even a retreat - how would they know?

Pre-interview. Meditation teachers must stop passing out a bunch of size 7 shoes and hoping that they'll fit everyone's foot. Retreats need to begin with a group dialog, or utilize anonymous surveys so that the teacher can have a feeling for the kinds of problems the students may encounter during meditation.
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Re: The Breath, and Cherry-Picking for Cultural Convenience

Postby Sekha » Tue May 21, 2013 10:03 am

mettafuture wrote:
Sekha wrote:The Buddha highly recommended breath awareness, which is one of the reasons why teachers also recommend it as well.

The Buddha held anapanasati in high regard, but he didn't prescribe this meditation first when encountering a lay follower. For the laity, ethical and/or devotional practices on the precepts (AN 8.25) and recollections (AN 11.13) often took precedent.

The recollections work well for those who have deep confidence in the three jewels, which is not necessarily the case in the west nowadays where the majority of people do not want to be involved in any kind of purely devotional practice, and prefer practicing something which is disconnected from any form of folkloric background. For that reason, it makes sense to introduce breath awareness by default to the western public. Another reason for this choice is that anapanassati leads all the way to Nibbana whereas the 3 anussatis lead to the first jhana at best. So while they are certainly useful to the "faith-tempered", the 3 anussati will have to be replaced by some other object anyway.

mettafuture wrote:
Another reason is that the breath is an object that suits everyone

I doubt the Buddha shared this sentiment. If he did, he wouldn't have bothered teaching 39 other objects of meditation. One size clearly doesn't fit all.

Please quote me properly:
"the breath is an object that suits everyone, even though it may not be the best object to start with for everyone."
Your commentary completely ignores the fact underlined in the part of the sentence you deliberately decided not to quote so as to deform my statement. If you are correct, then how do you explain the following statement:
"If a monk should wish: 'May I, with the complete transcending of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, enter & remain in the cessation of perception & feeling,' then he should attend carefully to this same concentration through mindfulness of in-&-out breathing.
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .than.html


mettafuture wrote:
Other objects on the other hand may not suit everyone and must therefore be assigned personally, which requires specific skills that imo are not easy to develop.

There's nothing inherently more difficult about the recollections. I meditate on them daily, and they have been exceedingly helpful in cultivating confidence in the triple gem and samadhi.

I was talking about the 39 objects as a whole. In the specific case of the recollections, it may be easier to assign them to the practitioners than in the case of other subjects like the four elements. Some teachers though may feel concerned that the person being assigned one of the recollections may disregard an object that allows to dig deeper in the mind (the breath) for objects that work only on the surface (recollections).
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Re: The Breath, and Cherry-Picking for Cultural Convenience

Postby Sam Vara » Tue May 21, 2013 10:23 am

mettafuture wrote: Meditation teachers must stop passing out a bunch of size 7 shoes and hoping that they'll fit everyone's foot.


That would certainly be a good idea, but if they lack the skill, time or inclination to do that, there is some canonical evidence that the Buddha might have discovered a "one-size-fits-all" training shoe:


Ven. Ananda went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, bowed down to him and sat to one side. As he was sitting there he addressed the Blessed One, saying, "Is there one quality that, when developed & pursued, brings four qualities to completion? And four qualities that, when developed & pursued, bring seven qualities to completion? And seven qualities that, when developed & pursued, bring two qualities to completion?"

"Yes, Ananda, there is one quality that, when developed & pursued, brings four qualities to completion; and four qualities that, when developed & pursued, bring seven qualities to completion; and seven qualities that, when developed & pursued, bring two qualities to completion. And what is the one quality that, when developed & pursued, brings four qualities to completion? What are the four qualities that, when developed & pursued, bring seven qualities to completion? What are the seven qualities that, when developed & pursued, bring two qualities to completion?

"Mindfulness of in-&-out breathing, when developed & pursued, brings the four frames of reference[1] to completion. The four frames of reference, when developed & pursued, bring the seven factors for Awakening to completion. The seven factors for Awakening, when developed & pursued, bring clear knowing & release to completion.
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Re: The Breath, and Cherry-Picking for Cultural Convenience

Postby daverupa » Tue May 21, 2013 11:14 am

mettafuture wrote:Master Gautama detailed 40 meditation objects over the course of a 45-year teaching career...


There's a sutta where one wanderer/monk describes his breath meditation, and the Buddha says yeah, that's breath meditation all right, but let me show you how to really get something done (I paraphrase). He then frames it in terms of satipatthana tetrads.

So, I suspect that the Buddha always taught satipatthana, and as the various wanderers brought in their various methods they got put together in the list if they could be done so as to align with that. The thing about anapanasati is that we have the specific way the Buddha "satipatthana'd" breath meditation, while the other methods (kasina discs, etc.) are not as clearly described, at first. Since anapanasati is also heavily lauded throughout the Nikayas, I find a focus on it entirely appropriate.

The other 39 objects may be functional, but while I mightI see them as interesting from a historical point of view, I also see them as an unnecessary additional complexity.

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Re: The Breath, and Cherry-Picking for Cultural Convenience

Postby mettafuture » Tue May 21, 2013 11:15 am

Sekha wrote:The recollections work well for those who have deep confidence in the three jewels, which is not necessarily the case in the west nowadays where the majority of people do not want to be involved in any kind of purely devotional practice, and prefer practicing something which is disconnected from any form of folkloric background.

People prefer sense pleasures as well. Teachers shouldn't only give talks on select portions of the dhamma simply because Westerners prefer a watered down version of it. Before metta, satipatthana, and the 4 elements became more acceptable, I had to search very hard (too hard) to find information on these topics.

For that reason, it makes sense to introduce breath awareness by default to the western public.

Possibly, but it shouldn't stop there.

Another reason for this choice is that anapanassati leads all the way to Nibbana whereas the 3 anussatis lead to the first jhana at best. So while they are certainly useful to the "faith-tempered", the 3 anussati will have to be replaced by some other object anyway.

There are 10 recollections (anussatis), and, according to the Vera Sutta (AN 10.92), the first 4 can lead to stream entry.

Your commentary completely ignores the fact underlined in the part of the sentence you deliberately decided not to quote so as to deform my statement.

That was a mistake. I was copying and pasting quotes between tabs, trying to type replies for you and Sam Vara at the same time.

"If a monk should wish: 'May I, with the complete transcending of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, enter & remain in the cessation of perception & feeling,' then he should attend carefully to this same concentration through mindfulness of in-&-out breathing.
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .than.html

As with all of the discourses directed to monastics, a lay follower can also apply the lessons found in this sutta. However, considering there are over 330 suttas which directly address lay followers, perhaps we could at least add the teachings of these texts into our repertoire.

mettafuture wrote:In the specific case of the recollections, it may be easier to assign them to the practitioners than in the case of other subjects like the four elements. Some teachers though may feel concerned that the person being assigned one of the recollections may disregard an object that allows to dig deeper in the mind (the breath) for objects that work only on the surface (recollections).

I don't see any reason why a student would disregard breath meditation if they started with something other than the breath.
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Re: The Breath, and Cherry-Picking for Cultural Convenience

Postby Sekha » Tue May 21, 2013 12:38 pm

mettafuture wrote:
Sekha wrote:The recollections work well for those who have deep confidence in the three jewels, which is not necessarily the case in the west nowadays where the majority of people do not want to be involved in any kind of purely devotional practice, and prefer practicing something which is disconnected from any form of folkloric background.

People prefer sense pleasures as well. Teachers shouldn't only give talks on select portions of the dhamma simply because Westerners prefer a watered down version of it.

I don't regard the practice of anapanassati as a watered down version of the Dhamma. But I think I see what you mean. However, the Dhamma must be 'inviting to come and see', so it is understandable that teachers would take their time to address the matters that are liable to make people run away instantly. They prefer convincing first their listeners with things they would agree upon more easily, before tackling the tough matters, which imo is advisable.
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Re: The Breath, and Cherry-Picking for Cultural Convenience

Postby mettafuture » Tue May 21, 2013 12:46 pm

Sam Vara wrote:
mettafuture wrote:That would certainly be a good idea, but if they lack the skill, time or inclination to do that, there is some canonical evidence that the Buddha might have discovered a "one-size-fits-all" training shoe:

You could do that. Or you could meditate on something else. My point is that there are several roads to stream entry and nibanna, and there may be people who could benefit from learning about those other roads.

Personally, I've gotten a lot more from the first 5 recollections than I've gotten from breath meditation. The more I reflected on the qualities of the Buddha, the easier it became for me to see the Dhamma outside of my personal and cultural attachments.

I also had a deep seated fear of death. Contemplating impermanence and not-self through the 4 elements helped me overcome this fear.

daverupa wrote:The thing about anapanasati is that we have the specific way the Buddha "satipatthana'd" breath meditation, while the other methods (kasina discs, etc.) are not as clearly described, at first.

The Mahāhatthipadopama Sutta (MN 28) has very clear instructions on how to meditate on the 4 elements, impermanence, and not-self. The Mahārāhulovāda Sutta (MN 62) covers the 4 elements and the 4 divine abodes, and it wraps it all together with a breath meditation bow.

The Buddha spent a lot of time prescribing different approaches for different people.

Since anapanasati is also heavily lauded throughout the Nikayas, I find a focus on it entirely appropriate.

Renunciation is also heavily lauded, but you don't see many Western teachers giving talks on it.

The other 39 objects may be functional, but while I might see them as interesting from a historical point of view, I also see them as an unnecessary additional complexity.

I'm not saying that we need to learn how to use every meditation object, but we should know they exist.
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Re: The Breath, and Cherry-Picking for Cultural Convenience

Postby Spiny Norman » Tue May 21, 2013 12:59 pm

daverupa wrote:So, I suspect that the Buddha always taught satipatthana, and as the various wanderers brought in their various methods they got put together in the list if they could be done so as to align with that. The thing about anapanasati is that we have the specific way the Buddha "satipatthana'd" breath meditation, while the other methods (kasina discs, etc.) are not as clearly described, at first. Since anapanasati is also heavily lauded throughout the Nikayas, I find a focus on it entirely appropriate.


But the 40 objects described in the Visuddhimagga relate to samatha bhavana, not to satipatthana.
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Re: The Breath, and Cherry-Picking for Cultural Convenience

Postby Spiny Norman » Tue May 21, 2013 1:03 pm

mettafuture wrote:Is it because our dhamma teachers don't feel that contemplating the elements or recalling the qualities of the Buddha could be compatible with our cultural sensibilities?


I suspect that most western meditation teachers simply don't have enough experience or knowledge of the other 39 objects of samatha, because these have been neglected in favour of the breath. So it's chicken and egg. I've dabbled with kasina practice for example, but it's very difficult to find teachers who are competent to advise.
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Re: The Breath, and Cherry-Picking for Cultural Convenience

Postby Zenainder » Tue May 21, 2013 1:08 pm

If I may weigh in (haphazardly), I am from the States and was introduced to breath as my first meditation object. This is likely a limited comment coming from limited knowledge, but culturally speaking for a westerner to be still and focus on anything is an incredibly daunting feat. The western culture is fast paced and encourages perpetual distraction. It is also encourages to doubt, rather unskillfully I will add. With that in mind the breath is what I would consider a favorable meditation object for Westerners because it is easily relatable, leaves less room for doubt, and easy to understand.

It may be "cherry picking" to fit the culture, but one of the greatest things that struck me about Buddhism is that it is not cookie cutter and very personal. Westerners also tend to refrain from what may seem religious tradition and other objects may have that poor association. Personally, I consider it a skillful means of teaching.
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Re: The Breath, and Cherry-Picking for Cultural Convenience

Postby Spiny Norman » Tue May 21, 2013 1:14 pm

Zenainder wrote:With that in mind the breath is what I would consider a favorable meditation object for Westerners because it is easily relatable, leaves less room for doubt, and easy to understand.


I used to think that. Then I came across the 4 tetrads of anapanasati. ;)
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Re: The Breath, and Cherry-Picking for Cultural Convenience

Postby Zenainder » Tue May 21, 2013 1:25 pm

Perhaps I am mistaken, but do not these come after stabilizing some rudimentary form of concentration on only the breath and cultivating stillness? Again, to throw the 4 tetrads, which are important, at a Westerner early on may overwhelm them. I am no meditation teacher, but being consistent and successful in the most basic of meditation for a Westener is no easy task. I would think that after stabilizing a consistent practice I would then introduce the tetrads. (Again I may be completely mistaken).
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Re: The Breath, and Cherry-Picking for Cultural Convenience

Postby mettafuture » Tue May 21, 2013 1:36 pm

Sekha wrote:I don't regard the practice of anapanasati as a watered down version of the Dhamma.

Neither do I. But when a teacher prescribes anapanasati for everything and everyone, and doesn't take into consideration which hindrances or fetters the student may be struggling with, I do feel that they are watering down the practice.

porpoise wrote:I suspect that most western meditation teachers simply don't have enough experience or knowledge of the other 39 objects of samatha, because these have been neglected in favour of the breath. So it's chicken and egg.

I'm not saying every teacher must know and teach every meditation object. But they could, at the very least, have instructions on a few other topics (metta, recollections, elements) on hand for those who may need them.

Zenainder wrote:The western culture is fast paced and encourages perpetual distraction. It is also encourages to doubt, rather unskillfully I will add. With that in mind the breath is what I would consider a favorable meditation object for Westerners because it is easily relatable, leaves less room for doubt, and easy to understand.

For most Westerners, the breath would likely be the ideal starting point. But, depending on a person's hindrances, fetters, and/or medical issues, a different meditation object may suit them better.

Westerners also tend to refrain from what may seem religious tradition and other objects may have that poor association. Personally, I consider it a skillful means of teaching.

I think we can handle a teaching on the elements. It might be construed as a little depressing at first, but it's not supernaturalistic. There are 3 large suttas on the elements in the Majjhima Nikaya (28, 62, 140), and Samyutta Nikaya has an entire section on them.
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Re: The Breath, and Cherry-Picking for Cultural Convenience

Postby reflection » Tue May 21, 2013 2:06 pm

Medtation on breathing is what the Buddha supposedly used himself before his enlightenment. Or am I mistaken here? Don't know if there is any scriptural support, but this is what I heard.

I find many teachers teach other methods as well, but not as the main point. I don't have a problem with that because I myself think breath meditation is an all-encompassing way to samadhi while many other meditation methods are not - or less easy to be.

Also I think people have a tendency to switch from one thing to the other, do too much stuff in their meditation. The more objects they have, the more this may be.
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Re: The Breath, and Cherry-Picking for Cultural Convenience

Postby Alex123 » Tue May 21, 2013 3:25 pm

mettafuture wrote:Master Gautama detailed 40 meditation objects over the course of a 45-year teaching career. So why is it that Western Buddhists focus on just 1 or 2 of these objects (eg. anapanasati and metta)?


IMHO, generally speaking breath meditation is safer than other types of meditation and it can suit more people.
It is also relaxing and without imposing any views that westerners may not like. In life affirming west, some meditations such as asubha and maranasati are not really popular... But metta, it sounds good.
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Re: The Breath, and Cherry-Picking for Cultural Convenience

Postby marc108 » Tue May 21, 2013 4:49 pm

Buddhism has cultural bias within all cultures... that being said, the Buddha himself placed special emphasis on Anapanasati and I think that rather than being cherry picked for cultural convenience, the emphasis on breath meditation simply reflects the Buddha's own emphasis.

Also, nearly all of the Monastic and Lay Teachings I am familiar with that are giving teachings to westerners are including various forms of practice including the elements, recollections, etc.
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