Early post; revised September 11, 2018; December 17, 2019; March 10, 2021
Nibbāna Is Not Possible With Rituals
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 apparent (to me) that many people could not think about anything else but their pain due to the uncomfortable posture. That 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 that one needs to remove before attaining the Sōtapanna stage. This particular practice is a “silabbata parāmāsa” or “engaging in “rituals.”
- Such practices do not make sense. Sitting in the lotus position is not a requirement for meditation. Meditation is contemplation. That can be done in any posture, sitting, standing, walking, or lying down.
We Need to Know What to Meditate On!
2. It is helpful to think about the goal of meditation. The ultimate goal is to remove greed, hate, and ignorance from our minds and attain Nibbāna. One needs to understand the fundamental concepts of Buddha Dhamma first.
- But even for those who are just interested in achieving some “cooling down” from everyday stresses, it is the same fundamental idea 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.
- Many people automatically associate “breath meditation” with “Buddhist meditation” and spend years on it, and end up discouraged; see a person account, “Meditation-Experience-of-Paññobhāsa-Bhikkhu.“
- The correct Ānapānasati Bhāvanā is NOT breath mediation; see the posts at, “Bhāvanā (Meditation).”
- Purification of the mind is the way to achieve temporary relief to the mind. In the long run, it helps attain even the Arahantship. There is no one else monitoring one’s progress. It is one’s mind that is keeping tabs on one’s progress.
- When one does a “formal meditation,” one should sit in a comfortable position. It could be the lotus position for those who have practiced it. One could be in the lotus position for several hours when one gets good at it. It is just sitting in a chair for most people, one that is not too comfortable that one may fall asleep!
Bad Idea to Remove ALL Thoughts
2. Getting rid of evil thoughts can be and should be done ALL THE TIME. The Buddha said, “bhāvanāya bahuleekathāya.” That means “meditate as much as possible, whenever possible.” And it is done in all possible postures: sitting, standing, walking, and lying down.
- Ven. Ananda is the only known person to attain Arahanthood while not in any of those four postures. He was making an all-out effort to become an Arahant before the first Dhamma Sangāyanā (Buddhist Council.) Only Arahants were able to attend. But since Ven. Ananda was the only one who had memorized the whole of the Sutta Piṭaka; he needed to attend the Sangāyanā. The night before the Sangāyanā, 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. Before his head touched the pillow, that particular point came clear to him, and the “Arahant phala citta” was realized.
- Another story from the Tipiṭaka relevant to #1 above is about a minister of King of Kosala, named Santati. He attained Arahanthood while listening to a single verse by the Buddha: “Dhammapada Verse 142“.
Removing ALL Thoughts Lead to Births in the Asaññā Realm
3. I have seen many meditation programs that describe Nibbāna as removing perception or saññā from the mind.
- Many people wrongly advise that one needs to remove ALL THOUGHTS from one’s mind to attain Nibbāna. One time a Deva expressed the same idea to the Buddha: “Isn’t Nibbāna attained via removing all thoughts?”. The Buddha replied, “No. Nibbāna is realized by removing greedy, hateful, and ignorant thoughts”. That account is in the “Manōnivarana Sutta (SN 1.24).”
- Some others say that when a thought comes to the mind (about a loved one, a place, or anything material), to say “that does not exist” and forget it. Just because the Buddha said everything changes rapidly, he did not mean phenomena did not exist. Things do not exist for eternity either because they are continually changing. That is the same argument that we discussed in “What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream“: the Buddha rejected both “self” and “no-self.” Paṭicca Samuppāda explains all phenomena. They arise due to causes and would not occur if such reasons are absent.
- If one cultivates asaññā meditation (by removing all thoughts that come to the mind), may be born in the realm of asañña Brahmā. In that realm, no thoughts arise in mind. One would stay there for a very long time, only to come back to the human plane and start the rebirth process all over.
- All the above meditation techniques are dangerous. As one develops them, one may become forgetful; saññā or perception is a critical mental factor associated with recognizing external objects. If one starts losing memory, that will be a sign that one is on the wrong path.
Nibbāna is the Removal of Greed, Anger, and Ignorance
4. An Arahant has not removed the capacity to generate thoughts OR perceptions. An Arahant has removed greed, hate, and ignorance (about the Four Noble Truths.) Thoughts arise in him/her with saññā, i.e., he/she can identify people or things. They can experience the whole world just like any other human: they can see, hear, taste, smell, touch, or think about any place.
- The only difference is that an Arahant will not generate any greedy, hateful, or ignorant thoughts about anything.
- The concept of Nibbāna is straightforward: “rāgakkhayō Nibbānam, dōsakkhayō Nibbānam, mōhakkhayō Nibbānam.”
Nibbāna Is Approached With the Removal of Greedy, Angry, and Unwise Thoughts
5. And one CAN experience the “cooling down” as one makes progress on removing greed, hate, and ignorance, even before the Sōtapanna stage. Instead of becoming forgetful, one’s mind will 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 ordinary people to fathom how much stress is associated with a mind contaminated with greed, hate, and ignorance.
- The constant stress in an average human mind arises due to greed, anger, and ignorance. That is why people seek sense pleasure, basically to get some relief. But the problem is that any such relief is temporary. Furthermore, many people do immoral things to get such pleasures. So it can make things much worse. Not only does one 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.).
- That is why one can feel the relief right away when one starts living a “clean, simple life.” That should be the “base” for beginning meditation. It is impossible 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 Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā, the progress will accelerate with time because one’s mind starts being able to see more clearly. One will be able to quickly grasp the real meaning of anicca, dukkha, anatta.
Do All Things “Appear, Destruct in a Moment, and Re-Appear”?
6. Another series of “desana” that I listened to described how an advanced meditator could actually “see” the ”formation/breakup” of the material world. That person says that one could see the “impermanence” described in the “Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma” post. He explained how he got so afraid when the “world disappeared” momentarily before re-formation!
- A citta never arises as a single unit. It appears in a citta vithi (series of cittā,) which generally have 17 citta if the citta vithi occur 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. They were able to complete the Abhidhamma Piṭaka only by the third Dhamma Sangāyanā.
- Even in many textbooks on Abhidhamma, sometimes it is stated that “.. rupa is very short-lived – it endures only for 17 conscious moments. What arises is almost instantly gone”. That 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 the time taken to experience that external sense event, i.e., 17 thought moments. (During that short time, the mind grasps an impression of the external rupa); see, “Does any Object (Rupa) Last only 17 Thought Moments?“.
Fake Teachings Are Not Restricted to Mahāyāna
7. The problems with Mahāyāna teachings have become apparent due to the advances made in science and technology. See, “Key Problems with Mahāyāna Teachings” and “Saddharma Pundarika Sutra (Lotus Sutra) – A Focused Analysis.”
- However, some of the “fake teachings” that I mention in this post originated in Theravāda countries, particularly in Sri Lanka. That is why it is critically important to learn pure Dhamma before or, at least, during meditation.
- How can one follow the path of the Buddha without knowing the actual path? “Bhāvanāya pahātabbā” (or removal of defilements via meditation) comes AFTER “dassanena pahātabbā” (or eradication of defilements due to wrong views via understanding the true Dhamma.) That is also why Sammā Diṭṭhi is first, and Sammā Samādhi is last in the Noble Eightfold Path.
- I highly encourage everyone to read as many posts as possible to learn about 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 the following. It is hard to comprehend the related advanced material if one does not get the basics right.
“Feeling Better” Does Not Necessarily Indicate That One Is on the Correct Path
8. In “weeding out” the wrong 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 terrible consequences.
- Getting “addicted to” anariya (non-Buddhist) meditations like breath or kasina meditation is only somewhat better. Many get addicted to them because they do not seem to have any adverse consequences in this life. Even though that may be true, they do have harmful implications 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 apāyā.
- Just because one starts feeling better using a particular technique does not mean it is THE solution. That 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 “techniques” because they “feel better” with what they do. As we just discussed, a “good experience” does not rule out a “better experience” with the correct approach.
- The only way to make a sound judgment 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? Similarly, why some live relatively better than 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.
Formal and Informal Meditations
9. Finally, once one looks at the evidence and decides on the Path, meditation can be “formal” or “informal.” To engage 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 one reads/listens when the mind is calm, one will grasp more.
10. Informal meditation is possible at any time, anywhere.
- Merely thinking about a Dhamma concept or trying to clarify a Dhamma concept is meditation. That can happen at any time. While lying in bed trying to fall asleep, waiting at the doctor’s office, riding a bus or subway, etc. Instead of daydreaming or generating greedy, hateful, or useless thoughts, one could spend that time contemplating Dhamma.
Suppression or Removal of Five Hindrances Lead to Samādhi
11. In all these cases, one can experience a calming effect due to the five hindrances’ suppression. That can lead to even deeper Samādhi 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 terrible consequences. One needs to use wisdom (being mindful of consequences) while cultivating understanding.
- Five hindrances discussed at “Key to Calming the Mind – The Five Hindrances.”