Tuesday, 21 July 2015 00:07

Words Daleena Samara Photographs Rasika Surasena

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May is the month of Vesak in Sri Lanka, a time for inner reflection. The most important date of the year in the country's Buddhist calendar, May's full moon day (poya) marks the anniversaries of the birth, death and enlightenment of the Buddha. White-clad devotees throng temples for spiritual succor, the sermons reminding them of the most important message the Buddha gave mankind-only by taming the mind can suffering be overcome.

Key to Buddha's dhamma, or doctrine, is meditation, a practice with an ancient history. Millennia-old rock carvings in the Indus Valley show men in meditative poses. The earliest documented record of meditation practices goes back to the Vedas, to 1500 BC India, where rishis found that it enabled them to reach higher states of consciousness and perform extraordinary physical feats.

It was in 500 BC that Gautama Buddha shone the light on meditation as central to permanent happiness-nibbana or enlightenment, liberation from the endless cycle of disease caused by the dissatisfaction intrinsic to samsaric (worldly) existence. Having spent six years testing various esoteric practices, he settled on simply sitting still and meditating. It resulted in enlightenment. The numerous statues of the Samadhi Buddha, deep in meditation, across the Island are a reminder of this fundamental tenet.

Ven Professor Dhammajoti, Glorious Sun Professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Hong Kong and Editor of the Journal of Buddhist Studies of the Centre for Buddhist Studies, Sri Lanka, explains Buddhist meditation in this way: 'Ordinarily, we are influenced by conditioning and tend to see reality through tinted glasses. Meditation helps us to see reality for what it truly is. The negative side of ordinary conditioning can be summed up into raga, dosha and moha (greed, hatred and ignorance), which colour our experiences causing dukha (suffering) to permeate our world and happiness to be short-lived'.

Meditation allows us to respond to life in a positive way, which if pursued can lead to nibbana, he says. That's why the Buddhist path requires the threefold training of sila, samadhi and prajna. Sila (moral discipline) ensures your way of life is conducive to your mental transformation. Samadhi is the actual mental training, the taming of the mind, through meditation. It is the basis on which wisdom or prajna arises. The dhamma is not about accumulating knowledge, but the transformation of mind through meditation up to a stage when you gain the ability to see reality face to face, a state called wisdom. You cannot gain samadhi without sila, and you cannot gain prajna without samadhi.
The Dhamma Is Not About Accumulating Knowledge, But The Transformation Of Mind Through Meditation Upto A Stage When You Gain The Ability To See Reality Face To Face, A State Called Wisdom

Without meditation, you cannot experience what it means to be a Buddhist, says Ven. Dhammajoti. Samadhi is much more than concentration. It is the integration of an individual's psychic energy through mental taming, creating a state of mind that enables wisdom to shine forth.

Harsha Abeywickrama, a former fighter pilot, turned to Buddhist meditation in the height of war. His initial training was to gain an understanding of the tri-lakkhana: annica (impermanence), dukkha (suffering), and anatta (not self, the nature of all phenomena). Then he learned mindfulness and insight meditation to experience them firsthand. "The monkey mind has to be calmed first. Attempting to meditate in the midst of war wasn't easy. Meditation brought harmony and strengthened my mind. Stress levels dropped. There was clarity and understanding about reality," he says.

Monasteries and meditation centres in Sri Lanka offer training in Buddhist meditation techniques, especially samatha and anapanasati meditations on the breath leading to single-pointed concentration, vipassana or insight meditation, and metta bhavana, meditation on loving kindness.

Buddhism teaches many methods of meditation, says Ven. Dhammajoti. Books such as the Vishuddimagga (The Path of Purification) describe 40 different meditation objects. The choice is suitability. The distracted may be directed to mindfulness meditation; the aggressive, to metta.

He adds, however, that the Buddha recommended some fundamental meditations of universal benefit, which, if practiced correctly, can be complete transformational systems in themselves. Anapanasati, training in mindfulness by focusing on the breath, is one. If practiced according to the teachings, it takes you from concentration to calm to insight, he says.

Likewise metta bhavana can be much more than a method to counteract hatred. You start with yourself and expand the scope of loving kindness to those close to you, then others including enemies, and finally all sentient beings. Metta bhavana can make life eminently more meaningful, and by refining your emotional energy through love and kindness, raise consciousness, insight and the experience of anatta. Boundaries dissolve and you have a direct experience of metta.
The Buddha’s Teachings Inspire And Give You Confidence, And There Is Support From Community. Importantly, There Is The Goal: The Unfolding Of The Highest Potential Of A Human Being

Because even basic renunciation is difficult for ordinary minds, some Buddhist traditions, such as the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), a Mahayana Buddhist school, employ frequent and focussed mind training practices to assist practitioners along the path. The Kadam lam rim (Stages of the Path) practice, for example, is a series of 21 short individual meditations for practitioners to do, one a day. At the end of the cycle, they start all over again, making their lam rim a lifelong daily practice. Each meditation has five parts: preparation, contemplation, meditation, dedication and a subsequent practice that helps incorporate its benefits into daily life. "The realisations of these meditations are actual spiritual paths that lead us to the great liberation of full enlightenment," says Ven. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Rinpoche, founder of the NKT, in The New Meditation Handbook.

The benefits of meditation have been documented scientifically. For example, a 2011 study by Harvard University researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, USA, found that mindfulness meditation produces positive changes in the brain. An analysis of MR images of the brains of participants who practiced a daily mindfulness meditation over two weeks showed increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, an important area for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection.

For Buddhists, however, the mind is more than a neural network. It is a state of consciousness that determines the very nature of a being, a continuum that passes from one life to the next after death. Ven. Dhammajoti cautions against stand-alone meditation practices. As meditation takes you to a deeper level of consciousness, you have to contend with the unconsciousness. For example, you may have to confront suppressed negativity. Then context and goal become crucial. Buddha's teachings inspire and give you confidence, and there is support from community. Importantly, there is the goal: the unfolding of the highest potential of a human being.

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Words Daleena Samara Photographs Rasika Surasena

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