On day one of the ten-day meditation workshop taught by S.N. Goenka via prerecorded audios and videos (as he passed away in 2013), one learns to pay attention to the breath, not a mantra, not a name of God, not an external object as these things might be sectarian, and misery is universal. The steps to liberation from misery are available to all. One sits in one’s assigned place on a meditation cushion and mat on the floor of the meditation hall, or in a chair (if one prefers), and meditates, three or more hours during that first day, and puts one’s full attention on the ingress and egress of one’s breath through the nostrils. The Discourse Summaries; is a book of summaries of transcripts of the eleven talks given by Goenka for ten evenings and one (the last) morning, during two of the 10-day Vipassana meditation retreats that he personally led in 1983 and 1984.
Vipassana means, as it is, and the student is constantly exhorted throughout the ten-day course to become aware of sensations as they are in the body, starting, the first few days, with the area of the nose and upper lip. Little instruction is given on how to sit. I didn’t see in the book, nor do I remember during my recent Vipassana, experience, at the Southern California Vipassana Center in Twenty-nine Palms, any exhortations to maintain a straight back. One learns quickly enough what kind of posture results in discomfort when held for an hour, and learns to sit correctly on his or her own.
The second day’s discourse was given, like the others, on two large video screens at the front of the meditation hall, one on the right and the other on the left, and through the speakers at the front of each side wall, at 7 pm, and this one after the second full day of meditation. The Pali word, Dhamma, is used a lot in the Discourses of S.N. Goenka. Its meaning is roughly similar to the Sandskrit word, Dharma, and the English word, piety. Quoting Goenka, “Any action that harms others, that disturbs their peace and harmony, is a sinful, unwholesome action. Any action that helps others, that contributes to their peace and harmony, is a pious, wholesome action.”
The meditation hall has a left and right half, divided by an isle from the front to the rear. On the right sit the women enrolled in the program, on the left sit the men. The residences, for the students use during their 11-day stay at the campus, are strictly segregated on the basis of sex, as are the two dining rooms. During the program, the participants each give their written pledge to observe celibacy during the program, along with non-killing, non-drinking alcoholic beverages, non-use of drugs, non-smoking, and being content with the (delicious) vegetarian meals provided. The segregation of the sexes tends to remove one large distraction, and meals being prepared by others removes another. Having nothing much to do other than meditate in the hall or your private room tends to insure that a lot of time gets spent in meditation. Observing silence for the first nine days, except when talking to the teacher or teaching assistant, does add to the meditative atmosphere.
S.N. Goenka makes the claim that Vipassana meditation is completely non-sectarian, anyone from any religious background, or no religious background, is made welcome. However, the points of Buddhist doctrine are pretty thoroughly covered. I remember Christ being mentioned once, by Goenka, during one of the discourses that I watched on the video monitor while a student in the course. He said, “Jesus, while being tortured and killed, prayed, ‘Forgive them, they dont know what they are doing.’ That is real compassion!” Buddha, of course, was mentioned many, many times during the course, with many entertaining anecdotes from the life of Buddha being told, and the various doctrines of Buddhism being well explained. Personally, I was thankful for that, because I felt I needed to learn more about the life and teachings of this Great Man. It is no conflict whatsoever with my own religion, the Baha’i Faith, which believes in the Harmony of Religion, and the Exalted Station of All Its Founders. The lovely anecdotes of the life and sayings of the Buddha, that were given in the videos played during the course, do not all appear in the book under review. There is another book that focuses more on these stories. Perhaps I will review that one in a future post.
The Path of Dhamma is called the Noble Eightfold Path. Sila is morality, Samadhi is developing mastery over one’s mind, Panna is the development of wisdom which purifies the mind. Right Speech, right action, and right livelihood, the first three of the eightfold path, constitute Sila, or morality. Right effort, right awareness, and right concentration, the second three of the eightfold path, constitute Samadhi, developing mastery over ones mind. Awareness of what is, right now, bringing the mind back to the present moment, if it strays to the past or the future, is largely what the second discourse is about. Still, through the end of the third full day of meditation, the student focuses on the breath at the nostrils.
The last two of the eightfold path, right thoughts and right understanding, constituting Panna, the development of wisdom, are discussed in the third discourse. Quoting Goenka, “Rationally one examines what one has heard or read, to see whether it is logical, practical, beneficial; if so, then one accepts it.” I am reminded of one of the principles of the Baha’i Faith: the independent investigation of truth. Each one has the right and the responsibility to examine what one reads and hears to determine if it is true, or at least possible. Dogma should not be taken on blind faith. This principle, of which much has been written in Baha’i literature, is also enunciated by S.N. Goenka in his discourses about Vipasanna meditation. Goenka goes on to say that merely accepting or rejecting what one reads or hears, on the basis of ones intellect, is only the first step. One must then develop wisdom by experiencing truth for one’s self.
The third discourse prepares the student for day four. During the first sessions of day four, the student practices what is called Anapana, awareness of the breath. Then, during the afternoon session, the student begins, Vipassana. During an audio of D.N. Goenka speaking at the beginning of the afternoon meditation, the student is instructed to practice awareness of bodily sensations, some pleasant, some unpleasant, that arise or are present in the various parts of the body. This instruction bids the student to start having awareness of any sensations at the top of the head, then to work down to the face, and in increments to become aware of each part of the body, in turn, from the head to the toes, spending from one to ten minutes on each. Sometimes the bodily sensation is pain. In that case, one stays with the pain in awareness, and maintains equanimity. This too shall pass, all sensations are temporary, all conditions are temporary. Quoting Goenka’s Day Four Discourse, “In the past, because of ignorance, these sensations were causes for the multiplication of your misery, but they can also be tools to eradicate misery. You have taken a first step on the path to liberation by learning to observe bodily sensations and to remain equanimous.”
Craving and Aversion are the two antagonists to equanimity. Once we decide we like something or we don’t like something, we want something or we don’t want something, equanimity becomes more difficult to attain or maintain. It is a fact of life that things happen that I don’t want. The things I do want don’t always take place. Maintaining equanimity throughout the ups and downs of life is the art of hanging very loosely to one’s expectations. Still, we must have expectations, but we must not be overly attached to them.
While meditating on day four of my Vipassana course at Twenty Nine Palms, I was encouraged to maintain the same sitting position for a little over an hour without repositioning. I held it for about a half an hour before giving into the body’s demand for a repositioning. My right knee started hurting, hurt more and more, until all I could think about was the pain in my right knee. Then I thought, I don’t want to hurt my leg! That is when I repositioned myself. Later, when the session was over, and I rose to my feet, I found that I had not hurt my leg at all! It was as good as ever, maybe even better. It was soon after that that I did manage to hold the same position for an entire hour.
Quoting Goenka: “To begin, while you sit for meditation, most of the time you will react to the sensations, but a few moments will come when you remain equanimous, despite severe pain. Such moments are very powerful in changing the habit pattern of the mind. Gradually you will reach the stage in which you can smile at any sensation knowing it is… bound to pass away.”
From Goenka’s Day Five Discourse: “Wherever there is attachment, there is bound to be misery, and the greater the attachment, the greater the misery. The way to end suffering is by eradicating its cause. One begins by learning to observe without reacting.”
There are four kind of attachments, according to S N Goenka. The first is craving, the second is, I and mine, the third is, my views and beliefs, and the fourth is, rites, rituals and religious practices.
“This is what Siddhattha Gotama did to become a Buddha: he started observing reality within the framework of his body like a research scientist, moving from gross, apparent truth to subtler truth, to the subtlest truth. He found that whenever one develops craving, whether to keep a pleasant sensation or to get rid of an unpleasant one, and that craving is not fulfilled, then one starts suffering . It was clear to him that the cause is the attachment that one develops. Out of attachment one generates strong reactions, sankhara, which make a deep impression on the mind . Previously, every sensation gave rise to a reaction of liking or disliking, which developed into great craving or aversion, great misery! But now, instead of reacting to sensation, you are learning just to observe equanimously, understanding, ‘This will also change.’ In this way sensation gives rise only to wisdom, to … understanding.”
Life is an amazing laboratory for learning this! How many times an hour do things come up that either I don’t like or I like a little too much? These are my opportunities to practice nonattachment and equanimity.
I will discuss the rest of the book in a future post.