Myths about Meditation

Early post; revised September 11, 2018

1. Once I attended a meditation retreat. Everyone was sitting down on the floor with crossed legs, but after a while many people “could not endure the pain” and were stretching their legs out or were fidgeting. It was obvious (to me) that many people could not think about anything else but their pain due to the uncomfortable posture. This went on for two days. Other than those who were long-time meditators and were comfortable with the lotus position, I do not believe the others enjoyed the retreat that much.

  • Such nonsensical “rituals” are part of the set of wrong views (this particular one is included in “silabbata paramasa”), that one needs to remove before attaining the Sotapanna stage.
  • It is helpful to think about the goal of meditation. The ultimate goal is to remove greed. hate, and ignorance from our minds and to attain Nibbana. But even for those who are just interested in achieving some “cooling down” from everyday stresses, it is the same fundamental idea that is at work: We need to keep greedy, hateful, and ignorant thoughts from arising in our minds; the more we do that the more relaxed our minds will become.
  • Purification of the mind is the way to achieve temporary relief to the mind as well as to attain the Arahantship. There is no one else monitoring one’s progress; it is one’s own mind that is keeping tabs on the progress.
  • When one does a “formal meditation”, one should sit in a comfortable position (it could be the lotus position for those who have practised it), because one could be in that position for several hours when one gets really good at it and starts enjoying the session. For most people, it is just sitting in a chair; one that is not too comfortable that one may fall asleep!

2. Getting rid of bad thoughts can be and should be done ALL THE TIME. The Buddha said, “bhävanäya bahuleekathäya”, or “meditate as much as possible, whenever possible”. And he said it can be done in all possible postures: sitting, standing, walking, and lying down.

  • Ven. Ananda is the only known person to attain the Arahanthood while not in any of those four postures. He was making an all-out effort to become an Arahant before the first Dhamma Sangayana (Buddhist Council); only Arahants were able to attend and since he was only one who had memorized the whole of the sutta pitaka, it was critical that he attained Arahantship before that. The night before the Sangayana, he had been exhausted by the effort, but he was still  thinking about a dhamma concept while getting into the bed. He sat down on the bed and raised his legs, to lie down; but before his head touched the pillow, that particular point came clear to him and the “Arahant phala citta” was realized.
  • Another story from the Tipitaka that is also relevant to #1 above is about a minister of King of Kosala, named Santati. He was riding an elephant and the Buddha was walking on the road. The Buddha, with his supernormal powers, saw that Santati was capable to attaining the Arahanthood and that he was going to die very soon. The Buddha delivered a discourse right there with Santati still on the back of the elephant, and he attained Arahanthood. What really matters is whether someone can grasp the Dhamma, NOT what one’s posture is.

3. I have seen many meditation programs that describe Nibbana as removing perception or sanna from the mind.

  • Many people wrongly advise that one needs to remove ALL THOUGHTS from one’s mind to attain Nibbana. One time a Deva came to the Buddha and said the same thing: “Isn’t Nibbana attained via removing all thoughts?”. The Buddha said, “No. Nibbana is attained via removing greedy, hateful, and ignorant thoughts”. It is in the Manonivarana Sutta. I will discuss this sutta in the future.
  • Some others say that when a thought comes to the mind about a loved one, a place, or anything material, just to say “that does not really exist”. Just because the Buddha said everything changes at a rapid pace, he did not mean phenomena did not exist. Phenomena do not exist in a concrete sense either, because they are constantly changing. This is the same argument that we discussed in the “Concept of a Lifestream”: the Buddha rejected both “self” and “no-self”. All phenomena are based on paticca samuppada; they arise due to causes and are not there when the causes are absent.
  • If one develops any type of samatha meditation (breath, kasina, rising of stomach, etc), AND attains an Anariya  jhana at or above the fifth, then one may be born in the realm of asanna brahmas with no mind for very long times, only to come back to human plane and start the rebirth process all over.
  • All the above meditation techniques are dangerous. As one develops them one may become forgetful; sanna or perception is a critical mental factor associated with recognition of external objects. If one starts losing memory, that will be a sign that one is on the wrong path.

4. An Arahant has not removed the capacity to generate thoughts OR perceptions. An Arahant has removed greed, hate, and ignorance from the thoughts that arise. Thoughts arise in him/her with sanna, i.e., he/she can identify people or things. They can experience the whole world just as any other human: they can see, hear, taste, smell, touch, or think about any place. The only difference is that they will not generate any greedy, hateful, or ignorant thoughts about anything that is experienced. The concept of Nibbana is very simple: “ragakkhayo Nibbanan, dosakkhayo Nibbanan, mohakkhayo Nibbanan”.

5. And one CAN experience the “cooling down” as one makes progress on removing greed, hate, and ignorance, even before the Sotapanna stage. Instead of becoming forgetful, one’s mind will actually become more sharp and alert. One will be able to remember things BETTER, not less. One will become happier, not gloomy or depressed. It is hard for normal people to fathom how much stress is associated with a mind that is burdened with greed, hate, and ignorance.

  • The “baseline” state of a normal human mind is heavily burdened. That is why people seek sense pleasure, basically to get some relief. But the problem is that such relief is temporary AND many people do immoral things to achieve such pleasures. So it can make things much worse: not only that one does not get permanent relief, but one will have to pay for the bad kamma that were accumulated by such immoral acts (lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, etc).
  • This is why one can feel the relief right away when one starts living a “clean, simple life”. That should be the “base” for starting meditation. It is not possible to make any progress, no matter how much time one allocated to “meditation”, if one is engaged in immoral behavior; one needs to start reducing the BIG EIGHT.
  • What the Buddha prescribed was simple, yet profound. As one clears the mind of the five hindrances (pancanivarana) via living a clean life AND start doing the proper Anapanasati bhavana, the progress will accelerate with time, because one’s mind start being able to see more clearly. One will be able easily grasp the real meaning of anicca, dukkha, anatta.

6. Another series of “desana” that I listened to described how an advanced meditator can actually “see” the ”formation/breakup” of the material world; that person says that one could see the “impermanence” that is described in the “Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma” post. He described how he got so afraid when the “world disappeared” momentarily before re-formation!

  • A citta never arises as a single unit; it arises in a citta vithi (series of cittas) which normally have 17 citta if the citta vithi arise due to an external sense input coming through one of the five physical sense inputs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body). And that there are many billions of thought moments per second. However, only a Buddha can actually “see” such a fast time scale.
  • The Buddha described to Ven. Sariputta such minute details in summary form, and it took Ven. Sariputta and his immediate followers hundreds of years to finalize a detailed description of mental/physical phenomena based on such information provided by the Buddha. This Abhidhamma was not finalized until the third Dhamma Sangayana; that is when the Abhidhamma pitaka of the Tipitaka became complete.
  • Even in many text books on Abhidhamma, sometimes it is said that “.. rupa is very short lived – it endures only for 17 conscious moments. What is formed is almost instantly gone”. This is wrong! That is the lifetime of a “hadaya rupa“. A hadaya rupa is generated in the hadaya vatthu by a sense event through one of the five physical senses. The lifetime of a hadaya rupa is basically the time taken to experience that external sense event, i.e., 17 thought moments (during which an impression of the external rupa is made in the mind by a citta vithi); see, “Does any Object (Rupa) Last only 17 Thought Moments?“.

7. The problems with Mahayana teachings can be readily seen, since they have such apparent contradictions with the advances made in science and technology. However, some of the “fake teachings” that I mention in this post originated in Theravada countries, in particular in Sri Lanka. This is why it is critically important to learn pure Dhamma before or, at least while one is doing meditation.

  • How can one follow the path of the Buddha without knowing the actual path? Bhävanäya pahäthabbä” or removal of defilements via meditation comes AFTER “dassanena pahäthabbä” or removal of defilements due to wrong views via understanding the true Dhamma. This is also why Samma Ditthi is first and Samma Samadhi is last in the Noble Eightfold Path.
  • I highly encourage everyone to read as many posts as possible to learn Dhamma. Regardless of one’s familiarity with Buddha Dhamma, one should read those posts in the “Moral Living and Fundamentals” section at least once, because they provide the foundation. I know from experience that if one does not get the basics right, it is harder to comprehend the related advanced material. Please send me comments if anything does not make sense.

8. In “weeding out” the bad approaches, a key point to understand is that there are many ways to “feel better”. A drug user can instantly get into a “relaxed state of mind” by taking a drug. We don’t do that because, (i) we know it is a temporary solution, AND (ii) it has very bad consequences.

  • Getting “addicted to” anariya meditations like breath or kasina meditation is only somewhat better. There are many who get addicted to them because it does not have any bad consequences in this life; even though that may be true, it does have bad consequences for the long term because one is wasting one’s precious time in this human life on something that does not help in avoiding rebirth in the apayas.
  • Just because one starts feeling better using a certain technique does not mean it is the THE solution. This is why one needs to look at the UNDERLYING BASIS of that approach. I have come across several groups where they are convinced of their “technique” because their experience got better. But as we just discussed, a “experience” does not rule out a “better experience” with the correct approach.
  • The only way to make a good judgement of “any theory” or “approach” is to critically examine it and see whether it can explain the realities that we see around us. Can it explain why people are born different, why some live relatively better compared to others, why do only some people get horrible diseases, why do animals experience pain but still cannot do anything about it (i.e., why they have limited minds)? Only pure Buddha Dhamma can explain all these and more.

9. Finally, once one looks at the evidence and decides on the Path, meditation can be “formal” or “informal”. In formal meditation, one allocates a time and place and it could be any of the following:

  • Conventional sitting or walking meditation session. But this is not the only formal way to meditate.
  • Listening to a Dhamma discourse delivered by an Ariya (one who has grasped anicca, dukkha, anatta) is an excellent  formal meditation session.
  • Reading (and contemplating) on a Dhamma concept, say anicca, is also formal meditation. If it can be done when the mind is calm, one will grasp more.

10. Informal meditation can be done at any time, anywhere.

  • Merely thinking about a Dhamma concept or trying to clarify a Dhamma concept is meditation. This can be done while lying in bed trying to fall asleep, waiting at the doctor’s office, riding a bus or subway, any time one has time that is normally spent day dreaming or generating greedy, hateful, or useless thoughts.

In all these cases, the five hindrances are suppressed and one can experience a calming effect, which can be extended to even samadhi if one’s mind becomes focused on the Dhamma concept. One could develop a habit of doing informal meditations. But avoid doing that while driving or even when concentrating on a task at work! That WILL have very bad consequences. One needs to use wisdom (being mindful of consequences) while cultivating wisdom.

Next, “Is Suffering the same as the First Noble Truth on Suffering?“, ………..

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