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Not Everything Is Written In Stone. . . - Dhamma Wheel

Not Everything Is Written In Stone. . .

The cultivation of calm or tranquility and the development of concentration
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IanAnd
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Not Everything Is Written In Stone. . .

Postby IanAnd » Thu Sep 16, 2010 11:48 pm



Whenever anyone takes up the study of a subject, they endeavor to obtain the clearest, most inclusive explanations of that subject that they are able to obtain in order to get an accurate and truthful conception of the material at hand. In the case of general subjects like meditation (and Buddhist meditation in particular) it can be somewhat confusing and frustrating to have to sift through differing accounts describing meditation instruction. Especially when one comes across instruction from different sources that are either dissimilar or that contradict one another. For how is someone who is new to the practice able to weed out the truth from the misperceived with regard to what is being stated?

The only answer to this question is: through one's own direct experience. Yet, even that, at times, can become confusing, as things are liable to change (or at least our perception of them is) as their development matures. This is no different with meditation than it is with other subjects which are liable to subjective opinion. For the most part, the path (the Noble Eightfold Path) that the Buddha laid out for others to practice in order to arrive at the same realizations as he had is rather straightforward and unambiguous. At least as far as it goes when dealing with the larger issues of right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, and right mindfulness. It's when we get to the area of right concentration, the area dealing with meditation, that things can become a bit confusing if we are not given the correct conceptual maps with which to deal or are unable properly to discern the ones we are given.

One of the most difficult subjects to teach in Buddhist meditation is the practice of absorption (also known as jhana). Not because absorption itself is necessarily difficult to achieve. But because it can be difficult to get a conceptual handle on if one has not been able to connect the experience to something that they have experienced in their past. I contend that virtually everyone has, at one time or another in their life, experienced absorption (at least the first level) whether they were aware of it or not. From this point, as an instructor, it's just a matter finding an experience that the person can relate to in order to communicate to them what absorption "feels like" when they experience it. Once they get the idea, then you have something to work with.

One of the other hindrances to being able to recognize absorption when it is occurring is thinking that one has to be able to recognize the factors for absorption: vitakka, vicara, piti, and sukkha, and how these change from one level of absorption to the next higher level as they are utilized for a unification of the mind on an object. In a perfect world, while it would be nice to be able to recognize these factors when we're first starting out, the fact of the matter is that the mind of the beginning practitioner is likely not settled enough (still enough) to always be able to adequately identify these subtle factors. Therefore, it is probably best not to fret over one's inability to identify these factors in the beginning. The most important thing is to be able to find a way to enter absorption at will whenever one wishes and to recognize that this has occurred. We can work on noticing the details later.

Now, this isn't meant to be an essay about the nuts and bolts of practicing absorption. It is meant to address an issue regarding the perception of instruction and how that perception can be manipulated by the language used in description. The English language can tend to be rather harsh and unforgiving in its written form. Ideas can seem to be set in stone just in the course of composing a description of a phenomenon that is constantly in flux and therefore subject to change, such as the present subject matter of the mind and its relationship to the practice of meditation.

When these descriptions become cauterized by tradition, they can seem to be almost impossible to break through in order to rediscover the actual truth of the matter. In other words, the mind accepts one description as being unalterable truth, and then shuts down to the possibility of any change or alteration of that description which might occur in actuality. What this presentation will endeavor to accomplish is to explore some aspects of the experience of absorption in order to arrive at a more fair (and hopefully more fact-based) conceptual template of this experience.

This isn't meant to be combative or to offer up for debate any of the ideas express here. It's meant to allow others, who might perhaps have had similar experiences to the ones being described, a place to voice the discernment of their experiences and to confirm, correct, or add to the possibilities being explored here. Hopefully, people long in the tooth with absorption experience, like Geoff and possibly even Tilt and Kenshou, will contribute their impressions.

One of the first (and most important) lessons I learn from a former spiritual preceptor was that if I was going to speak at all, I should speak only from my own experience of the matter under discussion, and not make things up that I had not experienced in order to forward my own view of the matter. If you speak only from your own experience, there may be occasions in which you are not able to speak at all (on account of a lack of experience in the subject matter). This acts as a kind of filtering mechanism, to filter out biases and prejudices (as well as preconceived ideas that haven't been tested in actuality) so that they do not get in the way of the facts under discussion. It would be good if those who respond to this thread would keep this in mind before they post here.
"The gift of truth exceeds all other gifts" — Dhammapada, v. 354 Craving XXIV

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IanAnd
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Re: Not Everything Is Written In Stone. . .

Postby IanAnd » Fri Sep 17, 2010 12:09 am



In order to establish the correct foundation for this thread, I need to recount some of my own personal history with the practice of meditation so that readers can establish a baseline with regard to the matters being discussed. I will endeavor to keep this short and to the point.

I have been practicing meditation for over thirty years, a fact which is not much different from several on this forum; but a fact, nevertheless, that gives me some experiential background on which to propose some of the ideas I intend to propose. I'm not asking anyone to accept what I am proposing; only to keep an open mind as you go through the material.

Perhaps needless to say, my experience (or rather perception) of meditation and what it is like has changed over the years. My education and practice in meditation began coming from the background of Hindu techniques as practiced by Paramahansa Yogananda and his practice of kriya yoga. I was taught a mantra based technique which I practiced for the better part of twenty years, until about ten years ago when I came upon the techniques taught in the suttas, generally known as samatha and vipassana. This change in techniques happened to coincide with a renewed interest in studying the Buddha's Dhamma, in returning to the root of the practice that had been taught in the earliest days following Gotama's enlightenment and up until his death, having been preserved in the Pali discourses of the Buddha. I wanted to "hear" the teachings from the horse's mouth and to practice them myself.

Practicing the technique of anapanasati was like a literal breath of fresh air. It was such a different style from that which I was used to that I took to it like a fish to water. It didn't require a complex visualization of bodily energies coursing up and down the body, but rather direct attention paid to the process of breathing itself. It was the simplicity of the Buddha's instruction which intrigued me and which I began to see the wisdom in. Not only that, but the clarification of ideas I was reading related to what the Buddha taught made more sense to me than those things which Yogananda taught. As I began to read a translation of the Majjhima Nikaya I realized that the man who had first taught me how to meditate seemed to know far less about meditation practice, how to use it and how to describe it, than the Buddha.

In picking up this new meditation technology, I was also having to work with revamping my ideas about what meditation is and what I should actually be paying attention to. In other words, I was having to root out preconceived ideas I had developed about meditation and to just go with the flow of whatever came up. Being able to quiet the mind was the first hurdle needing to be overcome. Once I was able to achieve that, everything else now had the foundation it needed to fall into place.

Inevitably my attention was drawn to this practice known as jhana or absorption. The very first thing I wanted to know was: what does it "feel like" to be in jhana meditation. A lot of my meditation practice had been guided by intuition, and I was confident that if I could determine how absorption felt when practiced, that I could eventually locate the intersecting factors from my own meditative experience which amount to a definition of jhana practice.

I read two or three accounts about how to enter absorption and stumbled upon my own method based on a childhood experience I had had with swings and the pleasant sensation it created in the center of my forehead when swinging back and forth. I used that pleasant sensation as a doorway (a nimitta) in order to enter absorption.

For the first five years of this practice, much of my view of jhana had been colored (conditioned) by what I had read it was supposed to be like. It wasn't until my practice began to mature (in the sixth year and beyond) that my perceptions about absorption began to change. As the mind becomes more and more still, rather than having mystical experiences (although not to say that that cannot occur) I was beginning to experience what the Buddha described in the Digha Nikaya (DN 2.83; i 76): ". . . with mind concentrated, purified and cleansed, unblemished, free from impurities, malleable, workable, established, and having gained imperturbability. . ."

In other words, it was a state and clarity of mind that was able to become more and more established in the present moment via mindfulness. The increase in my ability to remain concentrated on an object or subject (whether during meditation or in waking consciousness) was directly proportional to the increase in mindfulness and vice versa. Rather than viewing absorption as some kind of dull "altered state of consciousness," I began to see it as a clear and lucid state in which all phenomena became crystal clear almost to the point of boredom. Mundane phenomena, for lack of an alternative description, became "bright and unblemished, purified and cleansed," like bright pebbles over which sparkling clear water flowed. One could see the phenomenon for what it was, "free from alien admixtures and from points of view not pertaining to it," to quote Nyanaponika Thera.

All this is as a prelude to the next section.
Last edited by IanAnd on Fri Sep 17, 2010 12:10 am, edited 1 time in total.
"The gift of truth exceeds all other gifts" — Dhammapada, v. 354 Craving XXIV

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Re: Not Everything Is Written In Stone. . .

Postby IanAnd » Fri Sep 17, 2010 12:09 am

Last edited by IanAnd on Fri Sep 17, 2010 12:41 am, edited 1 time in total.
"The gift of truth exceeds all other gifts" — Dhammapada, v. 354 Craving XXIV

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Re: Not Everything Is Written In Stone. . .

Postby IanAnd » Fri Sep 17, 2010 12:37 am

Last edited by IanAnd on Thu Sep 23, 2010 10:53 pm, edited 2 times in total.
"The gift of truth exceeds all other gifts" — Dhammapada, v. 354 Craving XXIV

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Re: Not Everything Is Written In Stone. . .

Postby 5heaps » Fri Sep 17, 2010 1:13 am

A Japanese man has been arrested on suspicion of writing a computer virus that destroys and replaces files on a victim PC with manga images of squid, octopuses and sea urchins. Masato Nakatsuji, 27, of Izumisano, Osaka Prefecture, was quoted as telling police: "I wanted to see how much my computer programming skills had improved since the last time I was arrested."

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Re: Not Everything Is Written In Stone. . .

Postby Ben » Fri Sep 17, 2010 1:18 am

Hi Ian, thank you for this interesting thread and for taking the time to produce a very eloquent exposition on the jhana from your experiential perspective. While I am sure your posts will generate an interesting discussion and provoke some people to chime in with anecdotes from their experience, I have to admit that I find discussing my experiences in an open forum - difficult. In part, its due to language conspiring against my attempts to describe certain experiences. And that is not to suggest by any means that my experiences are anything out of the ordinary. Some of your comments resonate with me, while others are raising questions.
My own context is that I have been meditating since 1985 and have remained under the guidance of my teacher, SN Goenka, since then. I practice the samatha-variation of anapana during the first 1/3 of all retreats I have attended before switching to and remaining with vedananupassana for the remainder of the retreat. Meditation in daily life, for me, is centred around practicing vedananupassana and finishing with metta bhavana.
kind regards

Ben
“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.”
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Learn this from the waters:
in mountain clefts and chasms,
loud gush the streamlets,
but great rivers flow silently.
- Sutta Nipata 3.725

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Re: Not Everything Is Written In Stone. . .

Postby Modus.Ponens » Fri Sep 17, 2010 1:30 am

Thank you Ian for speaking openly about your experience in a series of long posts. :bow:
He turns his mind away from those phenomena, and having done so, inclines his mind to the property of deathlessness: 'This is peace, this is exquisite — the resolution of all fabrications; the relinquishment of all acquisitions; the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Unbinding.'
(Jhana Sutta - Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation)

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Re: Not Everything Is Written In Stone. . .

Postby IanAnd » Fri Sep 17, 2010 7:47 am

"The gift of truth exceeds all other gifts" — Dhammapada, v. 354 Craving XXIV

Kenshou
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Re: Not Everything Is Written In Stone. . .

Postby Kenshou » Sat Sep 18, 2010 4:01 am

My teeth are as of yet quite short, but I can't say I object to anything you've said on this topic, Ian. I am currently of the opinion that the whole jhana thing is not such a terribly complicated, difficult, or mystical thing, but not to imply that it doesn't take practice, that'd probably be the single most important factor.

It's really quite simple. By sitting mindfully, keeping the mind in line, guiding it back to our chosen object, supported with daily mindfulness and sense-restraint, we are able to overcome the 5 hindrances. The unhindered mind naturally is unperturbed and calm. By continuing in this way, the mind becomes more still, mindfulness more stable, concentration stands more firmly, as it would for anyone who practices diligently. As these factors mature the pleasure of the still mind grows proportionately, even moreso if we allow ourselves to be attentive to it, though to regard it with craving tends to subvert this whole thing. Because this process is pleasant, the mind is more keen to keep at it, and so the satisfaction of freedom from the hindrances, happy non-irritation, "vivekajam pitisukha", bolsters the mindfulness and concentration already established, and so all these factors help each other grow.

Continuing in this way, one eventually becomes "absorbed" in the process, and mind, body and everything else are brought together lucidly and attentively to this cooperative process of mindfulness and pitisukha. When it really becomes "absorbing", there's little question about it, and though the senses are by no means turned off, attention is firm enough that what little sounds or perturbations might come at you make so little impact on concentration that they may not even be noticed. And though the capacity to form thoughts is not disabled, it is calmed and under control, though a subtle flux of attention always remains. Not proliferative thought by any means but the acts of noticing and comprehension continue to operate, and preferably are put to work on insight themes. And in this place where everything in the body and mind, the 5 aggregates you might say, are brought together calm and collected, insight is ripe for the picking.

I'll stop the babbling since I've babbled about this before. But it's as simple as establishing mindfulness, overcoming the hindrances, allowing the peacefulness of an unperturbed mind to be noticed, and continuing on in that way and allowing the mind to become more and more concentrated. As long as that practice is kept in context, that is, the Buddhist context, and not used as a support for funky wrong-views, it's extremely helpful.

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Re: Not Everything Is Written In Stone. . .

Postby cooran » Sat Sep 18, 2010 4:32 am

Hello Ian,

I had a phone call from Ben this morning. His computer is disabled due to some sort of virus and it won't connect at all to the internet. He mentioned this thread and asked me to let you know the reason he hasn't got back to it at this point. He hopes to continue towards the end of next week when his computer woes should be fixed.

with metta
Chris
---The trouble is that you think you have time---
---Worry is the Interest, paid in advance, on a debt you may never owe---
---It's not what happens to you in life that is important ~ it's what you do with it ---

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Re: Not Everything Is Written In Stone. . .

Postby IanAnd » Sat Sep 18, 2010 6:23 am

"The gift of truth exceeds all other gifts" — Dhammapada, v. 354 Craving XXIV

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Re: Not Everything Is Written In Stone. . .

Postby tiltbillings » Sat Sep 18, 2010 6:53 am


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Re: Not Everything Is Written In Stone. . .

Postby tiltbillings » Sat Sep 18, 2010 7:28 am


elcfa
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Re: Not Everything Is Written In Stone. . .

Postby elcfa » Sat Sep 18, 2010 8:52 am


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Re: Not Everything Is Written In Stone. . .

Postby Kenshou » Sat Sep 18, 2010 9:41 am

Depends how we define "thoughts". I would agree with what Ian has stated that the "verbal" articulation of thoughts is not necessarily somehow impossible, but superfluous, you might be able to but you've got no reason to. Subtler mental activity remains but I wouldn't call that thought so much. Of course you've got a problem if the mind is buzzing out of control, though.

Aaanyway though, as Tilt has pointed out there are a variety of interpretations on the jhana issue, to start cross-comparing them all has been done to death and I don't think there'd be much benefit in doing it again. It kinda comes down to the individual choosing what's good for them and seems sensical, as far as I'm concerned whatever concentration practice you do is going to be beneficial..... when kept in context, that is. Weather or not you're doing some thingie fit to be called a "jhana" is beside the point. Not that we can't discuss it.

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Re: Not Everything Is Written In Stone. . .

Postby Ben » Sat Sep 18, 2010 10:04 am

“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.”
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Learn this from the waters:
in mountain clefts and chasms,
loud gush the streamlets,
but great rivers flow silently.
- Sutta Nipata 3.725

(Buddhist aid in Myanmar) • •

e: [email protected]..

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IanAnd
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Re: Not Everything Is Written In Stone. . .

Postby IanAnd » Sat Sep 18, 2010 7:48 pm

"The gift of truth exceeds all other gifts" — Dhammapada, v. 354 Craving XXIV

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Re: Not Everything Is Written In Stone. . .

Postby IanAnd » Sun Sep 19, 2010 2:53 am

"The gift of truth exceeds all other gifts" — Dhammapada, v. 354 Craving XXIV

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Ben
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Re: Not Everything Is Written In Stone. . .

Postby Ben » Sun Sep 19, 2010 3:34 am

“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.”
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Learn this from the waters:
in mountain clefts and chasms,
loud gush the streamlets,
but great rivers flow silently.
- Sutta Nipata 3.725

(Buddhist aid in Myanmar) • •

e: [email protected]..

Reductor
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Re: Not Everything Is Written In Stone. . .

Postby Reductor » Sun Sep 19, 2010 5:12 am



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