Meditation's less-known counterpart
First, I should say that this week's article is a break from what we've been doing so far this year, going case-by-case through the collection of Zen stories called the Gateless Barrier. So if you were hoping to read about case 17, please come back next week! The fact is that this summer I'll be assisting my teacher Leigh Brasington with a retreat at Gaia House, and my role in this retreat has recently expanded, so I have quite a few talks to prepare between now and then. I also work a full-time job, so, rather than try to fit in retreat prep in addition to my regular class planning - and run the risk of phoning in some of my weekly classes and articles - some weeks I'll use the Wednesday night class and the corresponding article to do some of my retreat preparation. Fear not, the material I'll be presenting here (and on Wednesdays) will still be accessible to people who are not experienced meditators on a 10-day retreat!
An outline of the Buddhist path
At a high level, we can divide the Buddhist path into three areas, or 'trainings'. We have sīla, the training in ethics, which focuses on living a life which avoids causing harm to others; samādhi, the training for the mind and heart, where we learn to settle and focus the mind and open the heart; and pañña, the training in wisdom, where we learn to see clearly what's going on.
We don't talk a lot about ethics in these articles - maybe that's a shortcoming. But basically the idea is to lead a life which gives us as little cause for regret, shame and worry as possible, treating one another with kindness and compassion. People wishing to become Buddhists formally may go through a precept-taking ceremony in which they commit to upholding at least the Five Precepts - not to kill, not to steal, not to misuse sexuality, not to misuse speech, and not to misuse intoxicants. (Zen has five more precepts for lay practitioners, which you can read about on the Zenways website.)
The second training, for the mind and heart, is where meditation makes its first appearance. Developing samādhi can be accomplished through jhana practice, or more generally through any kind of focused attention practice, where the emphasis is on placing the mind on an object and returning whenever the mind wanders. Heart-opening practices such as the Brahmaviharas are also included under this training, since the focus is on stabilising and cultivating the positive qualities of the heart that those practices open up for us.
The third training, in wisdom, is the domain of insight practice, and that's the focus of today's article.
The intention of cultivating wisdom
In the traditional stories of the Pali canon, the Buddha often presents the teachings in what has become known as the 'gradual training' - first, a monk or nun undertakes the training in ethics, then cultivates the jhanas to develop a stable, focused mind. Finally, 'with a mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, one directs and inclines it to knowledge and vision.'
So in the third training, we shift our intention from stabilising the mind or cultivating the heart qualities of the Brahmaviharas, toward seeing clearly what's going on, as it really is. We can examine our experience in many, many ways - and some suggestions from the early Buddhist tradition are provided on my Insight practice page, while koan study offers a Zen-based approach to insight.
Some insight techniques look superficially pretty similar to samādhi practice. For example, we might pay attention to the sensations of the breathing, or the body. However, the difference is in the intention. In a samadhi practice, we emphasise the continuity of awareness of the object, allowing the mind to settle and stabilise over time. In an insight practice, we might instead choose to examine the breath through the lens of one of the Three Characteristics - impermanence (anicca), essencelessness (anatta) or unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and in future articles we'll look at how to do exactly this.
For today, however, I'd like to talk about a different approach to the cultivation of insight, which is perhaps a little less widely discussed - the practice of contemplation.
What is contemplation?
In contemplation, we take a theme of interest - perhaps the Four Noble Truths, or Dependent Origination - and examine it in detail. We consider it from many angles, look to see whether we agree with what's being proposed, how it manifests in our lives, and what the implications might be for us.
Whereas meditation tends to be primarily a wordless experience (although see the caveat below), contemplation can involve plenty of thinking. We can also contemplate through journalling, talking to a spiritual friend, or pretty much anything else you can come up with. The only real 'rule' in contemplation is to try to stay on topic - so if you find that you've drifted away from contemplating Dependent Origination and have started to plan what you're doing at the weekend, it's time to come back to the contemplation.
(The caveat: especially for people coming from the Christian tradition, this way of using the words 'contemplation' and 'meditation' might feel back-to-front. In most cases, 'meditating on a subject' means 'thinking about it' - see, for example, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - whereas 'contemplating something' often points to a more wordless experience, such as when we contemplate a sunset or a work of art. Unfortunately, however, when Buddhism first came to the West, the translators chose the word 'meditation' to describe the wordless practice, and it's so firmly established now that probably more people associate 'meditation' with something like mindfulness practice than with thinking deeply and carefully about a subject. That leaves us with a 'spare' word, contemplation, and a practice which involves thinking about a subject that we can't call 'meditation' because that's already taken - and so here we are. Sorry about that.)
Enough theory - let's contemplate something!
There's a classic set of five contemplations in the early Buddhist tradition, taken from AN5.57 in the Numerical Discourses in the Pali canon. The Buddha presents these as 'five themes that should often be reflected on by a woman or a man, by a householder or one gone forth' - in other words, by everyone. 'Often' came to be interpreted as 'every day', and these became known as the Five Daily Reflections or Five Daily Recollections.
There are many ways to work with these. One option, which I'll present below, is to take all five themes and spend some time contemplating each one, say five to ten minutes on each theme. (Adjust the length of time to taste, but less than five minutes on a single contemplation probably won't get you very far.) Another approach is to read through the whole list right away, and notice which of the five stands out the most for you, either positively (perhaps it seems interesting) or negatively (perhaps it seems like something you really wouldn't want to contemplate!), and then spend the rest of your practice time on that one. A third approach is to take one of the five and spend a week or more just working with that one - personally, I've found that, like working with a koan, these contemplations tend to bring up a bunch of stuff pretty much right away, after which things go quiet for a while, but then another wave of material will start to come up after a while, and so the contemplation goes deeper and deeper over time.
What I'll present in the remainder of the article is pretty close to the way my teacher Leigh does things on retreat. For each of the five themes, we'll start with the headline statement, which you're encouraged to say out loud to yourself to begin the contemplation. Then I'll include a variety of other statements and questions designed to help you probe into the subject matter. If these aren't helpful, there's no need to use them - just stay focused on the theme you're contemplating. But some of these probes might help to open up aspects of the contemplation which wouldn't otherwise have occurred to you straight away. I'll also include some additional reflections on each theme from the Buddha which come a little later in the discourse.
I tend to shy away from doing these contemplations in class because I often get beginners and new people showing up who I don't know anything about, and the subject matter of the contemplations is pretty stark at times. We're going to examine old age, sickness, death and loss, and these subjects can hit us hard. A certain amount of discomfort is likely to come up in the practice, but if you start to feel overwhelmed, remember that you can come out of the practice at any time - open your eyes, stand up, go for a walk, take a shower. If you have a history of trauma and it starts to come up in this practice, it's generally best to work one-on-one with a trauma-aware professional rather than trying to 'meditate through it' on your own.
Getting started with the contemplation practice
It can be helpful to begin with a period of samādhi practice - perhaps a few minutes, perhaps longer if you have time. Remember the Buddha's advice: insight practice is best done with a mind that is 'concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability'. You can meditate on the breath, on the body sensations, do some loving kindness practice, or whatever else you find has a calming, stabilising effect on the mind.
Once you're ready to move into the contemplations, read the first contemplation aloud and see what comes up for you. As mentioned, the subsequent questions and statements are offered as options to help the contemplation, but there's no need to use them if you get enough out of the primary statement.
1. I am subject to old age; I am not exempt from old age.
2. I am subject to illness; I am not exempt from illness.
3. I am subject to death; I am not exempt from death.
4. All that is dear and delightful to me will change and vanish.
5. I am the owner of my actions, the recipient of my actions, born from my actions, bound to my actions, inseparable from my actions. Any action that I take - whether it is good or evil - I will receive its result.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!