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«Mindfulness In Plain English By Ven. Henepola Gunaratana Preface In my experience I found that the most effective way to express something in order ...»

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Mindfulness In Plain English


Ven. Henepola Gunaratana


In my experience I found that the most effective way to express something in order to

make others understand is to use the simplest language. Also I learned from teaching that

the more rigid the language the less effective it is. People to not respond to very stern and

rigid language especially when we try to teach something which normally people don't

engage in during their daily life. Meditation appears to them as something that they cannot always do. As more people turn to meditation, they need more simplified instructions so they can practice by themselves without a teacher around. This book is the result of requests made by many meditators who need a very simple book written in ordinary colloquial language.

In preparing this book I have been helped by many of my friends. I am deeply grateful to all of them. Especially I would like to express my deepest appreciation and sincere gratitude to John Patticord, Daniel J. Olmsted, Matthew Flickstein, Carol Flickstein, Patrick Hamilton, Genny Hamilton, Bill Mayne, Bhikkhu Dang Pham Jotika and Bhikkhu Sona for their most valuable suggestions, comments and criticisms of numerous points in preparing this book. Also thanks to Reverend Sister Sama and Chris O'Keefe for their support in production efforts.

About the Author Venerable Henepola Gunaratana was ordained at the age of 12 as a Buddhist monk at a small temple in Malandeniya Village in Kurunegala District in Sri Lanka. His preceptor was Venerable Kiribatkumbure Sonuttara Mahathera. At the age of 20 he was given higher ordination in Kandy in 1947. He received his education from Vidyalankara College and Buddhist Missionary College in Colombo. Subsequently he traveled to India for five years of missionary work for the Mahabodhi Society, serving the Harijana (Untouchable) people in Sanchi, Delhi, and Bombay. Later he spent ten years as a missionary in Malaysia, serving as religious advisor to the Sasana Abhivurdhiwardhana Society, Buddhist Missionary Society and the Buddhist Youth Federation of Malaysia.

He has been a teacher in Kishon Dial School and Temple Road Girls' School and Principal of the Buddhist Institute of Kuala Lumppur.

At the invitation of the Sasana Sevaka Society, Venerable Gunaratana came to the United States in 1968 to serve as Hon. General Secretary of the Buddhist Vihara Society of Washington, D.C. In 1980 he was appointed President of the Society. During his years at the Vihara, he has taught courses in Buddhism, conducted meditation retreats, and lectured widely throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

He has also pursued his scholarly interests by earning a B.A., and M.A., and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the American University. He taught courses in Buddhism at the American University, Georgetown University and University of Maryland. His books and articles have been published in Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka and the United States.

Since 1973 he has been buddhist chaplin at The American University counseling students interested in Buddhism and Buddhist meditation. He is now president of the Bhavana Society in West Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley, about 100 miles from Washington, D.C. teaching meditation and conducting meditation retreats.

–  –  –

The subject of this book is Vipassana meditation practice. Repeat, practice. This is a meditation manual, a nuts-and-bolts, step-by-step guide to Insight meditation. It is meant to be practical. It is meant for use.

There are already many comprehensive books on Buddhism as a philosophy, and on the theoretical aspects of Buddhist meditation. If you are interested in that material we urge you to read those books. Many of them are excellent. This book is a 'How to.' It is written for those who actually want to meditate and especially for those who want to start now.

There are very few qualified teachers of the Buddhist style of meditation in the United States of America. It is our intention to give you the basic data you need to get off to a flying start. Only those who follow the instructions given here can say whether we have succeeded or failed. Only those who actually meditate regularly and diligently can judge our effort. No book can possibly cover every problem that a meditator may run into. You will need to meet a qualified teacher eventually. In the mean time, however, these are the basic ground rules; a full understanding of these pages will take you a very long way.

There are many styles of meditation. Every major religious tradition has some sort of procedure which they call meditation, and the word is often very loosely used. Please understand that this volume deals exclusively with the Vipassana style of meditation as taught and practiced in South and Southeast Asian Buddhism. It is often translated as Insight meditation, since the purpose of this system is to give the meditator insight into the nature of reality and accurate understanding of how everything works.

Buddhism as a whole is quite different from the theological religions with which Westerners are most familiar. It is a direct entrance to a spiritual or divine realm without addressing deities or other 'agents'. Its flavor is intensely clinical, much more akin to what we would call psychology than to what we would usually call religion. It is an everongoing investigation of reality, a microscopic examination of the very process of perception. Its intention is to pick apart the screen of lies and delusions through which we normally view the world, and thus to reveal the face of ultimate reality. Vipassana meditation is an ancient and elegant technique for doing just that.

Theravada Buddhism presents us with an effective system for exploring the deeper levels of the mind, down to the very root of consciousness itself. It also offers a considerable system of reverence and ritual in which those techniques are contained. This beautiful tradition is the natural result of its 2,500-year development within the highly traditional cultures of South and Southeast Asia.

In this volume, we will make every effort to separate the ornamental from the fundamental and to present only the naked plain truth itself. Those readers who are of a ritualistic bent may investigate the Theravada practice in other books, and will find there a vast wealth of customs and ceremony, a rich tradition full of beauty and significance.

Those of a more clinical bent may use just the techniques themselves, applying them within whichever philosophical and emotional context they wish. The practice is the thing.

The distinction between Vipassana meditation and other styles of meditation is crucial and needs to be fully understood. Buddhism addresses two major types of meditation.

They are different mental skills, modes of functioning or qualities of consciousness. In Pali, the original language of Theravada literature, they are called 'Vipassana' and 'Samatha'.

'Vipassana' can be translated as 'insight', a clear awareness of exactly what is happening as it happens. 'Samatha' can be translated as 'concentration' or 'tranquility'. It is a state in which the mind is brought to rest, focused only on one item and not allowed to wander.

When this is done, a deep calm pervades body and mind, a state of tranquility which must be experienced to be understood. Most systems of meditation emphasize the Samatha component. The meditator focuses his mind upon some items, such as prayer, a certain type of box, a chant, a candle flame, a religious image or whatever, and excludes all other thoughts and perceptions from his consciousness. The result is a state of rapture which lasts until the meditator ends the session of sitting. It is beautiful, delightful, meaningful and alluring, but only temporary. Vipassana meditation addresses the other component, insight.

The Vipassana meditator uses his concentration as a tool by which his awareness can chip away at the wall of illusion which cuts him off from the living light of reality. It is a gradual process of ever-increasing awareness of the inner workings of reality itself. It takes years, but one day the meditator chisels through that wall and tumbles into the presence of light. The transformation is complete. It's called liberation, and it's permanent. Liberation is the goal of all buddhist systems of practice. But the routes to attainment of the end are quite diverse.

There are an enormous number of distinct sects within Buddhism. But they divide into two broad streams of thought -- Mahayana and Theravada. Mahayana Buddhism prevails throughout East Asia, shaping the cultures of China, Korea, Japan, Nepal, Tibet and Vietnam. The most widely known of the Mahayana systems is Zen, practiced mainly in Japan, Korea, Vietnam and the United States. The Theravada system of practice prevails in South and Southeast Asia in the countries of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia. This book deals with Theravada practice.

The traditional Theravada literature describes the techniques of both Samatha (concentration and tranquility of mind) and Vipassana (insight or clear awareness). There are forty different subjects of meditation described in the Pali literature. They are recommended as objects of concentration and as subjects of investigation leading to insight. But this is a basic manual, and we limit our discussion to the most fundamental of those recommended objects--breathing. This book is an introduction to the attainment of mindfulness through bare attention to, and clear comprehension of, the whole process of breathing. Using the breath as his primary focus of attention, the meditator applies participatory observation to the entirety of his own perceptual universe. He learns to watch changes occurring in all physical experiences, in feelings and in perceptions. He learns to study his own mental activities and the fluctuations in the character of consciousness itself. All of these changes are occurring perpetually and are present in every moment of our experience.

Meditation is a living activity, an inherently experiential activity. It cannot be taught as a purely scholastic subject. The living heart of the process must come from the teacher's own personal experience. Nevertheless, there is a vast fund of codified material on the subject which is the product of some of the most intelligent and deeply illumined human beings ever to walk the earth. This literature is worthy of attention. Most of the points given in this book are drawn from the Tipitaka, which is the three-section collected work in which the Buddha's original teachings have been preserved. The Tipitaka is comprised of the Vinaya, the code of discipline for monks, nuns, and lay people; the Suttas, public discourses attributed to the Buddha; and the Abhidhamma, a set of deep psychophilosophical teachings.

In the first century after Christ, an eminent Buddhist scholar named Upatissa wrote the Vimuttimagga, (The Path of Freedom) in which he summarized the Buddha's teachings on meditation. In the fifth century A.C. (after Christ,) another great Buddhist scholar named Buddhaghosa covered the same ground in a second scholastic thesis--the Visuddhimagga, (The Path of Purification) which is the standard text on meditation even today. Modern meditation teachers rely on the Tipitaka and upon their own personal experiences. It is our intention to present you with the clearest and most concise directions for Vipassana meditation available in the English language. But this book offers you a foot in the door. It's up to you to take the first few steps on the road to the discovery of who you are and what it all means. It is a journey worth taking. We wish you success.

Chapter 1

Meditation: Why Bother?

Meditation is not easy. It takes time and it takes energy. It also takes grit, determination and discipline. It requires a host of personal qualities which we normally regard as unpleasant and which we like to avoid whenever possible. We can sum it all up in the American word 'gumption'. Meditation takes 'gumption'. It is certainly a great deal easier just to kick back and watch television. So why bother? Why waste all that time and energy when you could be out enjoying yourself? Why bother? Simple. Because you are human. And just because of the simple fact that you are human, you find yourself heir to an inherent unsatisfactoriness in life which simply will not go away. You can suppress it from your awareness for a time. You can distract yourself for hours on end, but it always comes back--usually when you least expect it. All of a sudden, seemingly out of the blue, you sit up, take stock, and realize your actual situation in life.

There you are, and you suddenly realize that you are spending your whole life just barely getting by. You keep up a good front. You manage to make ends meed somehow and look OK from the outside. But those periods of desperation, those times when you feel everything caving in on you, you keep those to yourself. You are a mess. And you know it. But you hide it beautifully. Meanwhile, way down under all that you just know there has got be some other way to live, some better way to look at the world, some way to touch life more fully. You click into it by chance now and then. You get a good job. You fall in love. You win the game. and for a while, things are different. Life takes on a richness and clarity that makes all the bad times and humdrum fade away. The whole texture of your experience changes and you say to yourself, "OK, now I've made it; now I will be happy". But then that fades, too, like smoke in the wind. You are left with just a memory. That and a vague awareness that something is wrong.

But there is really another whole realm of depth and sensitivity available in life, somehow, you are just not seeing it. You wind up feeling cut off. You feel insulated from the sweetness of experience by some sort of sensory cotton. You are not really touching life. You are not making it again. And then even that vague awareness fades away, and you are back to the same old reality. The world looks like the usual foul place, which is boring at best. It is an emotional roller coaster, and you spend a lot of your time down at the bottom of the ramp, yearning for the heights.

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