Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ajahn Brahm - Stepping Toward Enlightenment

A good dharma lesson from Ajahn Brahm at Tricycle Magazine.

Stepping Towards Enlightenment

How deep can your meditation go? Thai forest monk Ajahn Brahm traces the path from mindfulness to profound meditative states through the sixteen steps of anapanasati.

By Ajahn Brahm

STepping toward enlightenment

THE ESSENCE OF BUDDHISM is the enlightenment of the Buddha. Many centuries ago in India, the wandering monk Gautama remembered a childhood experience of jhana, mental or meditative absorption, and realized that jhana is the way to awakening. He went to a quiet stretch of forest on the banks of a great river, sat on a cushion of grass under a shady fig tree, and meditated. The method of meditation that he used is called anapanasati, mindfulness of the in and out breaths. Through this practice, he entered jhana, emerged, and quickly gained the insights of enlightenment. Henceforth he was called the Buddha, the Awakened One.

The Buddha continued to teach anapanasati for the remainder of his life. It was the method that had given him enlightenment, the meditation practice par excellence, and he imparted that same method to all his disciples both in the monastery and in the city. This foremost method of meditation is bequeathed to us today in the original Buddhist texts as part of many suttas, but most notably the Anapanasati Sutta.

The Buddha described the practice of anapanasati as consisting of preliminary preparations followed by sixteen steps. The first twelve of those steps are instructions for entering jhana, and the final four steps are instructions on what to do when you emerge.

Before giving instructions for experiencing the bliss and beauty of jhana, I will briefly cover the preliminary stages of meditation. If you pass through these initial stages too quickly, you may find that the preparatory work has not been completed. It’s like trying to build a house on a makeshift foundation—the structure goes up very quickly, but it may come down too soon! You would be wise to spend a lot of time making the groundwork and foundations solid. Then, when you proceed to the higher stories—the ecstatic states of meditation—they will be stable.

Foremost, the Buddha said, go to a quiet place where you will not be disturbed by people, sounds, or things like mosquitoes. Tough guys might want to meditate in mosquito-ridden jungles or in the middle of tiger paths, but this is more likely to build only endurance and not the ease of jhana. The Buddha instead praised pleasant places like orchards or parks similar to Bodh Gaya, where he gained enlightenment. Next, sit on a comfortable seat. You may sit on a cushion, on a bench, or even on a chair as long as it isn’t too comfortable. The comfort required for success in breath meditation is that level where your body can be at ease for long periods of time and also alert.

You are now asked to set up mindfulness “in front of you,” to give it priority. We establish this preliminary level of mindfulness by practicing present-moment awareness (giving up the baggage of past and future) and then silent present-moment awareness (refining your practice of being with every experience as it happens to the level where you do not have the space for inner speech). When you let go of the past, you will be free in the present moment. As for the future—the anticipations, fears, plans, and expectations—let that go too. Now you should proceed to the even more beautiful and truthful silence of the mind. A useful technique for developing inner silence is recognizing the space between thoughts. Attend closely with sharp mindfulness when one thought ends and before another begins—there! That is silent awareness! It may be only momentary at first, but as you recognize that fleeting silence, you become accustomed to it; the silence lasts longer. You begin to enjoy the silence and that is why it grows. But remember, silence is shy. If silence hears you talking about her, she vanishes immediately.

The mind can do wonderful and unexpected things. Meditators who are having a difficult time achieving a peaceful state of mind sometimes start thinking, “Here we go again, another hour of frustration.” But often something strange happens; although they are anticipating failure, they reach a very peaceful meditative state. My first meditation teacher told me that there is no such thing as a bad meditation. He was right. During the difficult meditations you build up your strength, which creates meditation for peace. We may want to spend much time—months or even years—developing just these first two preliminary stages, because if we can reach this point, we have come a long way indeed in our meditation. In that silent awareness of “just now,” we experience much peace, joy, and consequent wisdom.

WHEN YOU ARE SILENTLY AWARE of whatever it is that is happening right now, in front of your mind, then you have established the level of mindfulness required to begin progressing along the sixteen steps of anapanasati. In steps one and two the Buddha says to first experience long breaths and then experience short breaths. You do not need to control your breathing to fulfill the instructions; this will only produce discomfort. Instead, you are meant to simply observe the breath long enough to know whether it is long or short, or, as some practitioners note, deep or shallow, rough or smooth. This gives you more to look at, makes mindfulness of breathing more interesting so that you do not get bored.

The third step is experiencing the whole process of breathing. This is where your mindfulness increases its agility sufficient to observe every sensation involved in the process of breathing. You are aware of the in-breath from the very start when it arises out of the stillness. You see the sensations of in-breathing evolve in every moment, reaching its peak and then gradually fading away until it has completely subsided. You have such a degree of clarity that you even see the space, the pause between the in-breath and the next out-breath. Your mind has the attentiveness of a cat waiting for a mouse, as you wait for the next out-breath to begin. Then you observe the first stirrings of the out-breathing. You watch its sensations evolve, changing with every moment, until it, too, reaches a peak and then enters into its decline before fading into nothingness again. Then you observe the pause, the space between the out-breath and the subsequent in-breath. When the process is repeated breath after breath, you have fulfilled the third step, experiencing the whole breath.

When you are comfortably at one with the breath, it will calm down automatically. There is so little remaining to disturb your progress that you naturally experience the sensations in each moment becoming softer and smoother, like a piece of rough denim changing into fine satin. Such a refinement of attention is only achieved through a gentle and persistent letting go; it is never attained by the brute force of sheer willpower. At this fourth step you will not know whether it is an in-breath or an out-breath, beginning, middle, or end. As your breath calms down, your attention becomes so refined that all you know is this one moment of breath.

As your unbroken mindfulness watches the breath calming down, joy (step five) and happiness (step six) naturally arise like the golden light of dawn on an eastern horizon. This will happen gradually but automatically because all of your mental energy is now flowing into the knower and not the doer. In fact, you are not doing anything, only watching. The sure sign that you are doing nothing is the tranquility of your breath. Mental energy flowing into the knower makes mindfulness full of power, and energized mindfulness is experienced as happiness and joy. The breath at these fifth and sixth steps appears so tranquil and beautiful—more attractive than a garden in springtime or a sunset in the summer—that you wonder if you will ever want to look at anything else.

As the breath becomes ever more beautiful, as the joy and happiness grow in quiet strength, your breath may seem to completely disappear. This seventh step does not happen when you want it to but when there is enough calm.

A well-known passage from English literature might help clarify the experience of one’s breath disappearing. In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Alice is startled to see the Cheshire Cat sitting on a bough of a nearby tree and grinning from ear to ear. Like all the strange creatures in Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat has the eloquence of a politician. Not only does the Cat get the better of Alice in the ensuing conversation, but it also suddenly disappears and then, without warning, just as suddenly reappears.

Alice said, “. . . and I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy!” “All right,” said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone. “Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice; “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life.”

This story is an eerily accurate analogy for the meditation experience. Just as the Cheshire Cat disappeared and left only its grin, so the meditator’s body and breath disappear, leaving only the beautiful. For Alice, it was the most curious thing she ever saw. For the meditator it is also strange, to clearly experience a free-floating beauty with nothing to embody it, not even a breath.

TWO COMMON OBSTACLES occur after this seventh step: exhilaration and fear. In exhilaration, the mind becomes excited: “Wow, this is it!” If the mind thinks like this, then the jhana is unlikely to happen. This “wow!” response needs to be subdued in the eighth step of anapanasati in favor of absolute passivity. You can leave all the wows until after emerging from the jhana, where they properly belong.

The more likely obstacle, though, is fear. Fear arises from the recognition of the sheer power and bliss of the jhana, or else at the recognition that to go fully inside the jhana something must be left behind—you! The doer is silent before entering the jhana, but is still there. Inside the jhana, however, the doer is completely gone. Only the knower is still functioning. One is fully aware, but all the controls are now beyond reach. One cannot even form a single thought, let alone make a decision. The will is frozen, and this can be scary for beginners, who have never had the experience of being stripped of control and yet so fully awake. The fear is of surrendering an essential part of one’s identity.

This fear can be overcome in the eighth step through confidence in the Buddha’s teachings, and through recognizing and being drawn to the enticing bliss just ahead. The Buddha often said that the bliss of the jhana should not be feared but should be followed, developed, and practiced often. So before fear arises, offer your full confidence to that bliss, maintain faith in the Buddha’s teachings, and let the jhana warmly embrace you in an effortless, bodiless, ego-less, and blissful experience that will be the most profound of your life. Have the courage to fully relinquish control for a while and experience all of this for yourself. Maintain the causes of this bliss. Remain in the stillness, otherwise the bliss will go away.

Ajahn Chah’s famous simile of the “still forest pool” can help us understand this. When he was wandering in the jungles and forests in Thailand, he’d always try and find a stretch of water when late afternoon came. When he found a pool, stream, or a spring somewhere in the forest, he’d camp nearby overnight.

Sometimes after drinking and bathing and settling in, Ajahn Chah would sit in meditation a few yards away from the pool. He said that sometimes he used to sit so still with his eyes open that he would see many animals coming out of the jungle. They wanted to bathe and drink as well. He said they would only come out if he sat very, very still. When they emerged from the bushes they would look around and sniff to see if it was safe. If they detected him, they would just go away. But if he sat absolutely still, the animals wouldn’t be able to hear him. They wouldn’t even be able to smell him. Then they would come out and drink. Some would drink and play in the water as if he weren’t there. He said sometimes he was so still that, after the ordinary animals came out, some very strange animals emerged, beings whose names he didn’t know. He’d never seen such extraordinary creatures before. His parents had never told him about them. These wonderful creatures came out to drink, but only if he was absolutely still.

This is a well-drawn simile of what happens in deep meditation. The pool or the lake is a symbol for the mind. At this eighth step of anapanasati you are just sitting before it and watching. If you give any orders, you’re not being still. Beautiful creatures, like jhanas, will approach only if you’re absolutely still. The ordinary ones come out first, then the very beautiful ones, and lastly the very strange and wonderful ones. These last are the amazing experiences that you have no names for, the ones you never imagined could exist because they’re so strange, so blissful, so pure. These are the jhanas.
Read the rest of the article.

No comments: