About the Talks
THERE IS a meditation session held every Tuesday at the Sri Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre, Northwest London, England. Since July 1996, Venerable Galayaye Piyadassi, the head of the Centre has entrusted me with the responsibility of conducting the session. This book is a collection of some of the Dhamma talks I have given to the meditators coming to the Tuesday sessions for the first three years. There are, in fact, not many as Vipassana meditation requires repetition of instruction and content.
I do not usually have a record of my talks and the interviews on Vipassana meditation experience. I do, however keep notes on most of them in my meditation diary. These talks are essentially an edited version of those notes.
Although most of these talks were originally intended for the Tuesday meditation sessions, I have, however, tried my best to make them relevant to the readers of this book. Nevertheless, it must be said that without personal experience in the mindfulness meditation practice, Vipassana Bhavana, it may be difficult to grasp what is contained in these talks. They are aimed at dealing with the practical aspects of mindfulness as taught in the Vipassana meditation and therefore, necessarily, demand a basic practice to appreciate their purpose.
The meditation session at the Centre lasts for about 90 minutes. The majority of the talks are short as they are meant to be preparative before the sitting starts. They are not the actual meditation instruction but practical Dhamma talks aimed at developing the right understanding and the right attitude of the Noble Eightfold Path. More of the practice, in fact, has been taught during the report sessions than in these introductory talks.
My own training is essentially monastic in both academic disciplines and meditation. The formats I became familiar with in those trainings are hardly relevant to people with a working life in London. People cannot shut themselves away from all distraction, commitment and family life. They may have a holiday of perhaps four weeks in a year. However, very few would decide to use their holidays for intensive meditation. If the intensive meditation format were the only way open to them, there would be very few people practising meditation. Moreover, it is extremely hard for people coming from cultures other than Buddhist to decide to go into intensive practice immediately There needs to be an elementary stage such as this where one learns the essential basic teachings of Buddhism through meditation sessions of this kind. These talks have been primarily intended for people with a working life. Despite a modest start, many people in our meditation sessions have become regular meditators on a daily basis although just a tiny portion of them have ever joined a retreat.
One does not necessarily start meditation in a retreat. Nor does one need to wait until retirement to start the practice. One is more active physically and mentally during ones working life. This provides a good condition for a successful meditation. Besides, as frustration, agitation and anxiety are faced on daily basis we can make good use of them by tackling them through non judgmental awareness before they become so strong that they change our personality
Attachment — A Cause Underlying All Problems
It is hard to see through reasoning that our daily experiences such as frustration, agitation, irritation and anger have indeed attachment as their original cause. We discuss this aspect of the mind a great deal in question and answer sessions. Pain, noise and a wandering mind are the common objects people very often feel frustrated with. There is nothing in them that one wants to cling to. It is in this sense that attachment is rarely seen as having any role in sustaining frustration.
If, however, one observes carefully through constant awareness, one will come to see that one has a preconceived notion of what meditation is, for example, an idea that focusing on breathing alone is the right way to meditate. In other words, one is attached to breathing or the like primary object and cannot accept pain, noise or the wandering mind. One feels frustrated and disappointed in seeing one self unable to concentrate on breathing. Frustration and disappointment in this case are necessarily linked to the already existing attachment to an object or idea. As ones mind is attached and already occupied with something (in this case a meditation object), one is not ready to live with any object that may arise at each present moment.
Rejection becomes therefore a manifestation of the attachment. Through rejection, one can easily become agitated, impolite towards colleagues at work, and family at home. Ones reasoning ability in ordinary life is tempered in this way. Reason has sharp limits in both philosophy and ordinary life.
David Hume, one of the worlds foremost moral philosophers who lived in 18th century AD, made a breaking point in moral philosophy when he declared that there was a link between human passions, which he often called sentiments, and behaviours. Many philosophers before him like Plato (5th - 4th BC), the Stoics, St. Augustine (4th - 5th AD), Spinoza and others disapproved of behaviour driven by passions (of like and dislike) and viewed passions as irrational and sometimes overpowering influences in need of the disciplined control of reason.
Spinoza went as far as saying that reason alone can free human beings from passions. Hume, by contrast thought that passions need not be censurable. They are vital and worthy dimensions of human nature. He said that we should accept our nature rather than fight (reject) it. Reason cannot liberate us from the passions. Instead, reasons can only be the faithful servant of the passions.
For Hume, it is very important to experience directly the phenomena - that is the appearances and events. He was closer to Isaac Newton (1642 -1727 AD), the scientist who was his senior contemporary when he mainly used experience and observation to formulate the principles and laws of psychology
Vipassana, Mindfulness Meditation, is a mental discipline that has non judgemental awareness, also called bare attention. It is the major instrument used to observe the experiences, thoughts and emotions one has. No denial but acceptance is the principle. Awareness and acceptance of the phenomena will lead to a discovery of their true nature and comprehensive understanding, which alone can control and liberate the mind from the circle of frustration and disappointment. It is a testable scientific law. We start not from the unknown but from that which is obvious to us such as breathing, sound and pain categorising them into primary and secondary objects.
According to the Buddha, like and dislike are judgement of the mind. They are expressed in many ways like greed, craving, lust, obsession, pride, dishonesty, dogmatism, jealousy, irritation, anxiety, fear, worry, restlessness, which are all fetters (samyojana) limiting and tying people to the circle of suffering (samsara). Attachment is the titanic cause behind any problem human society may come across. It underlines anything unwholesome and has different forms of manifestation.
The mindfulness meditation practice at the Centre, therefore, has been mainly focusing on relieving stress for people with working life. Awareness rather than concentration is the main theme. In addition, right attitude and understanding are among the most emphasised topics. It is the humble aim of our regular meditation session to help people see and accept things such as frustration, irritation and anger that are truly there in their life. So, the atmosphere is understandably not a monastic one but of a working life.
We talk about real life during interview sessions. In addition, many people with personal problems at work or in the family have come to see me privately. They have given me a chance to understand life in a giant city like London. Many of these talks given in the later periods reflect the problems faced in their day to day life.
Awakening to their Working Life
The topics in this small book reflect our efforts in trying to realise the various aspects of an awakened mind using daily life as a practical basis for exploration. They start from reflection on meditation practice such as how to focus the mind on objects. They then progress to dealing with depression and letting go of the conditions associated with that. The aim is to awaken the mind through mindfulness of their daily experiences. The students are not asked to suppress their thoughts and emotions. They are instead encouraged to face, acknowledge and accept them. I try my best to help them understand their own reactions. It is to help them start from where they are and go forward as far as their ability enables them.
This is a path to being awakened to reality as it happens, however uncomfortable it may be.
As our Centre is not affiliated to any particular meditation tradition there is more opportunity of exploring a flexible mind than if we followed a certain tradition like Mahasi, Mogok, U Ba Khin or Pa Auk and so on. We do, however, stress that learning a certain meditation technique properly is important. Equally important, too, is to have the right attitude towards a particular meditation technique. A meditation tradition is not something to be identified with but to be made use of to achieve a life of constant mindfulness and awakening. We appreciate all the techniques of Vipassana meditation. We try to benefit from all their proven teachings.
I myself have trained under different meditation and Dhamma teachers in Burma. When in Burma I was often puzzled as to why many people could not appreciate meditation methods other than the one they were presently following. When a tradition becomes a source of identity, there can be grasping rather than releasing and freeing from bondage. It is like a passenger who becomes attached and refuses to leave the ship. The purpose of the ferry is not being served in this way
Each tradition that teaches mindfulness (Vipassana) meditation adopts a physical object as starting point. They are, for instance, breathing, rising and falling of abdominal movement or the four elements. An object, however is just an instrument, not meditation in itself. Strictly speaking, breathing, rising and falling of the abdominal movements and the four elements are not in themselves Vipassana (insight meditation) but objects. Vipassana is the way one views such an object. Therefore, there is no point arguing about an object one focuses on or clinging to it as the only correct one. For an untrained mind, such an object is where an identity is created. Through that created identity one comes to cling, defend, be offended and reject the others. A dogmatic tendency (silabbata paramasa) is the result.
This is why it is so crucial to the practice that we have the right attitude towards our own practice and the technique we follow. Flexibility comes, according to my experience, by being exposed to many different teachers. I came to appreciate Mahasi Sayadaws teachings under which I had my initial training more after I had practised under the late Sayadaw U Dhammathara of the Mogok meditation tradition. As I get to know more of other meditation traditions in the Theravada school itself, I come to see that there is no contradiction among them although they teach differently.
There are people from across many cultures and faiths attending meditation sessions at our Centre. The majority of them profess no Buddhist faith. As we emphasise awareness and direct experience, not a belief, the teachings are not confined to any particular culture or religion. Buddhists by virtue of being born Buddhist do not necessarily benefit from the sessions more than non Buddhists. A believer gets no automatic advantage over a non believer. Individuality is what makes people different in mindfulness meditation, not their backgrounds.
People with Hindu Yoga experience, Tibetan visualisation meditation, different methods of Samatha and Vipassana meditation, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sai devotees and atheists - all have a place in our meditation session. Cultural and outward appearances may be different between the East and the West, nevertheless, the way the human mind functions is basically the same. And in principle, we have common experiences, sensations, emotions, fear, worry, and anxiety that transcend creed and gender, colour and nationality. Constant mindfulness is what we need since mindfulness itself means knowing and under standing such common experiences, accepting and being flexible with them, being at peace and not clinging to them.
Attachment to something, material or ideological, makes one confined and dependent — not flexible and free. Flexibility in both theory and practice is what we have tried to make a principle feature of our meditation session. Flexibility (mudu bhute) in its highest point is synonymous with a state of mind untouched by all defilement (vigatupakkilese). A flexible mind is a pure mind and a pure mind is practically a detached mind, which is often compared to a lotus. This very detached mind is the one which is ready for and capable of (kammaniye) realisation of things as they really are. Mindfulness is the foundation of all (satipatthana). Moreover, mindfulness helps one advance along the way. It makes the practice steady and effective in every step. It is extremely necessary at the learning stage as well as in realisation. It can be described as the foundation and standard of all.
I should say a few words of thanks to those without whom this small booklet would never have been in your hands. Mr. Karl Goonesene, the former editor of the Budumaga, the quarterly newsletter of the Centre and his wife Mrs. Rene Goonesene, the Librarian, Buddhist Society, London should unfailingly receive my special thanks for going through these talks patiently time and again and for making most valuable suggestions. Barbara Jones of Kingsbury High School, North west London has always been helpful with all my work. She took care of me when I was very ill with gastric ulcers. She has made various invaluable suggestions to the preface. I thank her for all her kindness.
Amanda Lwin, one of the brightest students I have ever had, produced the illustration with some assistance of her father. She asked me what kind of idea I had for the design. It was a question I found most difficult to answer as I am not gifted in that field. She drew the illustration while waiting for her GCSE examination results. I admire her talents and wish to record here my heartfelt thanks for her.
Venerable N. Sumana, the layout designer of our newsletter has my genuine thanks for doing an excellent job in helping me with some computer work.
Dr. Tin Tin Lwin, a Mahasi yogi since her university days — is very keen to have these talks published and has given me every encouragement. I am most grateful to her for all the efforts she put into this book.
Dr. Maung Maung Lwin & Dr. Yi Yi Myaing, son - Zaw Maung Lwin and daughter - Amanda Lwin; Dr. Aung Kyee Myint & Dr. Htay Htay Yi, son - Michael Myint; Dr. (Mrs) Chandra Silva and family; U Tin U & Dr. (Mrs) Khin Kyi Nyunt; Dr. Peter Khin Tun & Win Win Mar, sons - Michael and William; Drs. Yin, Dr. Aye Naing and family; Mr. & Mrs. Goonesene and my friend over twenty years Venerable Nandamedha and David & Yu Yu Wei are the other sponsors to the cost of this book. Drs. Lwin, Drs. Myint and Dr. P Khin Tun, Drs. Yin and Dr. Aye Naing and family came to know me through the need of a Buddhist education for their children. They have been very supportive towards my activities in propagation of the Dhamma.
Dr. Chandra Silva started Vipassana meditation practice with me in December 1997. She was very keen to learn Vipassana properly that she came a long way from South London to our Centre every week ignoring the torture of English winter. She has been to many retreats since then. I am very glad that she has found a real refuge in the Dhamma.
As always, may I record here how grateful I feel all along towards Mary Ng CL, Visco Enterprises, Singapore for all her encouragement and help in communication, Sunanda HE Lim for the excellent cover design and layout; and Layla Peternstone, Cambridge, England for proof reading.
The publisher, Inward Path, also has my blessing and heart felt thanks for their care and professional expertise, which they have put into this work.
May all beings overcome suffering through mindfulness meditation practice! May all beings be well and happy!