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Seeing yourself in a clearer light

STORIES BY PATCHARAWALAI SANYANUSIN, PHOTOS BY ANUSORN SAKSEREE, The Bangkok Post, May 23, 2008

Some of the things you should know before taking a course in vipassana meditation

Bangkok, Thailand -- Are you one of those who can't help feeling surprised - and maybe suspicious - when you hear of people deciding to go on a vipassana meditation course? Do you, perhaps, think it's just because it's a trend? Or do you think more charitably that these people must be suffering and in need of a temporary retreat from this cruel world?

<< Vipassana can be practised anywhere and any time in your daily life, just make sure that you're aware of what your body and mind are performing in each present moment.

For overseas visitors, its attraction is that the classes are easily available here and that this form of meditation is non-denominational - you don't have to be Buddhist to appreciate it, even though the teachers may be Buddhist monks. They generally seem to be rather proud of welcoming people of all faiths, or none.

No doubt you'll hear about how they enjoyed peace of mind during the long course. You might even notice they've changed for the better after they come back. Even though they might not be able to find the right words to explain why they were so happy with the course, most of them would encourage you to give it a try yourself. However, there are also a few cases of people complaining that they found it boring, painful and so unbearable that they couldn't make it through to the end.

Now you probably can't decide whether you should take a course as they suggested. On the one hand you think you're already quite a good and happy person and you can acquire such a peace of mind through other fun activities rather than by walking with steps as slowly as a snail (known in Thai as dern jong krom), or sitting with legs crossed and eyes closed under a tree. But on second thoughts you still feel that there must be something good about vipassana, otherwise it wouldn't be praised as the best kind of dhamma practice in Buddhism.

But what is vipassana and what does one actually do on a vipassana course? "Vipassana means to see the truth in a special way. In other words, to see the materiality and mentality, or body and mind, as they truly are," says Phra Acharn Sawang Tikkhawiro of Wat Mahathat Yuwarajarangsarit in Bangkok. "On a vipassana course we just come to learn about ourselves and to see the truth about ourselves.

"The more often we see our bodies and minds as they truly are, the more insight knowledge, or panya, about ourselves we will accumulate. And this is a stepping stone to the end of all suffering - the highest goal of vipassana," says Phra Acharn Sawang.

This insight is simply the ability to see the true nature of our bodies and minds: that they are impermanent, suffering and uncontrollable. You might find this hard to accept if you've spent your life convinced that your body is yours and all the emotions and feelings that crowd into your mind are yours, and you can control them.

But one thing you should take note of is that the insight knowledge here is completely different from the worldly wisdom which we can commonly acquire through thinking, reading, listening, contemplating or analysing.

"Insight knowledge in a variety of degrees can occur to us only if we get down to observe our bodies and minds as they truly are," the monk points out. That's why only those who have practised vipassana until they gain the highest level of insight can see with their minds. They can accept wholeheartedly that the body and mind are just things being felt and observed, and they don't belong to us at all.

However, to be able to see the body and mind as they truly are we need mindfulness or sati - the fundamental and most important tool for vipassana practice.

"Vipassana practice is based on the four foundations of mindfulness, or satipatthan see," says Phra Acharn Sawang. "They are the mindfulness of body; feelings or sensations; mind or consciousness; and phenomena."

To practise vipassana is to constantly observe the body as a body, feeling as feeling, consciousness as consciousness and phenomena as phenomena. While you are practising, your only duty is to observe with a neutral mind the characteristics of any physical and mental phenomena that occur to you. You must do this not only during the walking and sitting meditation but also during every action you perform from the time you wake up in the morning until you go to sleep at night.

"But in reality, most fail to do this," says the monk. "A pain in the legs, for example, is what most practitioners encounter while doing the sitting meditation. Instead of trying to find a way to overcome the pain, we should keep watching its characteristics with a neutral mind from the beginning to the end.

"At the same time, we should also be observing our restless minds or the mental states that may arise at any given moment. If we follow this, more levels of insight will be accumulated until we see for ourselves that the pain is just a feeling arising in the mind and not something that belongs to us."

Even though there are many kinds of physical and mental phenomena happening to us all the time, it's difficult for beginners to be able to detect them clearly. That's why the monk teaches his students/practitioners to be very slow in their actions and also make a mental note of those phenomena constantly, though the slow movement must be made with mindfulness and diligence.

The walking meditation is known as dern jong krom, which means to walk with mindfulness. So as long as we take each step with mindfulness, we're practising dern jong krom. But what the practitioners are taught to do on the course is much more sophisticated - they have to take each step much more slowly than normal, while at the same time making a mental note of every movement from lifting the foot to moving forward and to putting it down.

With a dozen years' experience of vipassana meditation teaching, Phra Acharn Sawang can point to the most common problems that bar practitioners from progress.

"Most expect only pleasant sensations and want to hold on to them," he says. "They reject all the unpleasant phenomena and try to push them away. But to practise vipassana, we have to stay neutral in every situation. Trying to hold on to or push away a particular feeling is a form of suffering, and as long as we're stuck with this suffering, how can we break free from it?"

So what should a good practitioner do? Apart from keeping strictly to the rules set for each course, there are principles that all practitioners must follow. "They must be free from all tension and stress and must be naturally slow in every movement," he says.

"They must keep glances under control, focusing only on what is happening at the present moment and constantly observe every feeling. They must neither reject nor welcome any feelings."

Understanding the concepts and principles will keep practitioners on the right track. The principles can be employed in every course with every method of practice, whether it's breath counting, inhaling and exhaling, the rising and falling of the abdomen, Buddho recitation or rhythmic hand movement.

Many people might find it a headache choosing a vipassana course because there are so many and all with different timetables. They are organised nearly all year round by well-known temples, dhamma centres and some private groups of dhamma practitioners. They differ from each other only in the methods they use, and some might question which method the Lord Buddha actually taught his disciples.

Phra Acharn Sawang makes it clear that the Lord Buddha taught only satipatthan see in detail, and all the different approaches people are using now are reinterpretations of each of the four foundations of mindfulness developed by his followers in the later times. They introduced their own sophisticated techniques which they were confident could effectively help lead to greater self-awareness.

This means it doesn't really matter which method we're using as long as we perform it correctly. To do this, we must observe comfortably but with mindfulness. For instance, if we are watching the rising and falling of the abdomen, we have to make sure that we're not focussing too intently on the abdomen and becoming absent-minded. One of the most difficult tasks is to keep the balance between the two extremes - intense concentration and losing self-awareness through wandering thoughts.

Apart from the walking and sitting meditation, vipassana courses may also include dhamma lectures, a chance for the visitor to understand something of the roots of vipassana in Buddhist teaching.

Now, you may be asking yourself one last time whether you really need to take a course, and whether it will be possible to attain any level of insight knowledge in such a short time. But this is not at all what we should expect from practice.

According to Phra Acharn Sawang, people who came to his courses are from all backgrounds and they have different aims. Some are seeking only a peace of mind while those who are Buddhists may be seeking to free themselves from the circle of birth and death.

"However, they should understand that we are coming to learn about ourselves and see themselves the way they are. That should be our target," says Phra Acharn Sawang. "The main purpose of a vipassana course is to enable us to put what we learn from the course to good use in our daily life so that we can live in this world with less suffering."

He suggests that a vipassana course for beginners should last no less than seven days to enable them to experience as many kinds of physical and mental phenomena as possible. And they should come back as often as possible every year. However, he emphasises that vipassana should be practised constantly in everyday life, and we can evaluate our progress by noticing if mindfulness is growing faster than before, or how much faster we can detect our own emotions before and while acting.

Vipassana practice is a process in which we use our mindfulness to observe our bodies and minds as they truly are until we gain the insight to uproot the misconception that they belong to us, and finally free us from clinging to them.

This kind of meditation has been around as long as Buddhism itself, but surprisingly few people know how to practise it correctly. That's why taking a vipassana course is such a good option.

The course is not to train us to be emotionless robots, or to somehow manipulate ourselves into being good people, or to become Buddhists, but to be people who are mindful, who can see themselves and all people the world over with understanding eyes. As a result, we will be able to live in this world with decreasing suffering but increasing peacefulness.

So perhaps you may feel that it's time for you to leave behind superficial worldly pleasure for a while in order to try the path to the real happiness through vipassana meditation. This path might not be all roses, but it will not be too tough for a determined traveller who is prompted to kick-start the experience by seeing herself or himself in a clearer light.

For those interested in a vipassana meditation course, please contact Young Buddhists Association of Thailand on 02-805-0790/4 ext 0 or 02-511-0439 (for English speakers) or visit http://www.ybat.org.



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