30 Using our Full Intelligence to Dispel the Suffering of Ignorance

15 Apr 2016

In order to explore the differences between shamatha and vipashyana, Alan begins explaining the meaning of the term bare attention coined by the great German scholar and practitioner named Nyanaponika Thera, the primary teacher of Bhikkhu Bodhi, one of the finest scholars and translators of Theravada Buddhism and the Pali Canon. Alan and Bhikkhu Bodhi never met but they have a long correspondence on the nature of mindfulness and its relationship to vipashyana. Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote to Alan: “Nyanaponika himself did not regard “bare attention” as capturing the complete significance of satipaṭṭhāna, but as representing only one phase, the initial phase, in the meditative development of right mindfulness. He held that in the proper practice of right mindfulness, sati (mindfulness) has to be integrated with sampajañña, clear comprehension, and it is only when these two work together that right mindfulness can fulfill its intended purpose.”

So bare attention is not a placebo; it’s the first stage, baby steps, prior to shamatha and vipashyana, and if it’s presented as that it’s very beneficial, very good for stress reduction. But the misinformation comes from equating it to mindfulness, to vipashyana, states that are not dhyana to dhyana, experiences that are not stream-entry to stream-entry. This is counterproductive and undermines the integrity of Buddhist tradition. Mindfulness has become big business as yoga already is, secularized, commoditized, consumer-driven, devoid of any relation with ethics or any path of liberation. But there are very authentic yoga teachers and there are vipashyana teachers who teach with integrity, knowledge and with context. So Alan did not make a generalization; he is just cutting misinformation away.

The problem was summarized in The Economist in a much better way than Alan ever saw in Buddhist journals: "The biggest problem with mindfulness is that it is becoming part of the self-help movement—and hence part of the disease that it is supposed to cure. Gurus talk about “the competitive advantage of meditation”. Pupils come to see it as a way to get ahead in life. And the point of the whole exercise is lost. What has parading around in pricey Lululemon outfits got to do with the Buddhist ethic of non-attachment to material goods? And what has staring at a computer-generated dot got to do with the ancient art of meditation? Western capitalism seems to be doing rather more to change eastern religion than eastern religion is doing to change Western capitalism." Ref: http://www.economist.com/news/business/21589841-western-capitalism-looking-inspiration-eastern-mysticism-mindfulness-business'

Alan has also quoted an explanation made by Sujato Bhikkhu: “Just as if, Nandaka, there was a four-legged animal with one leg stunted and short, it would thus be unfulfilled in that factor; so too, a monk who is faithful and virtuous but does not gain samatha of the heart within himself is unfulfilled in that factor. That factor should be fulfilled by him.... A monk who has these three but no vipassana into principles pertaining to higher understanding is unfulfilled in that factor. That factor should be fulfilled by him. The description of vipassanā mentions the seeing, exploring and discerning of activities(saṅkhārā). The mention of ‘activities’ here implies the three characteristics​—​impermanence, suffering, not-self​—​of phenomena, conditioned according to dependent origination. The meditative discernment of the nature of conditioned reality is the core meaning of vipassanā. While this definition may be too narrow for some contexts, still vipassanā is commonly used in this sense in the Suttas and in the present day. Samatha is the steadying, settling, and unifying of the mind.... Vipassanā refers to the wisdom qualities such as understanding, discrimination, discernment. Samatha soothes the emotional defilements such as greed and anger, while vipassanā pierces with understanding the darkness of delusion.” Ref: http://santifm.org/santipada/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/AHistoryofMindfulnessBhikkhu_Sujato.pdf

Alan says he slightly disagrees from Bhikkhu Bodhi: sati (mindfulness) and sampajañña (clear comprehension; Alan translates it as introspection) are enough for shamatha but not for vipashyana. If you want to go beyond shamatha into vipashyana, you’ll need prajña - intelligence, wisdom, and discernment. As Buddha said, in each of these four applications of mindfulness, contemplate the factors of origination and the factors of dissolution. In a secular way, in a very good psychoanalysis, we also investigate where a troubling emotion or memory came from - factors of origination - and how can we heal it - factors of dissolution. In contrast, psycho-pharmaceutical drugs only suppress the symptoms and make more livable to live with a dysfunctional mind; this anesthesia may become a tragedy. It is the opposite of what Buddha said in The Four Noble Truths.

Moving to the discussion about vipashyana practice, Alan says we start from awareness and appearances for the six senses, including our feelings about them, and then we ask, “Where do they come from?” Of course, modern science has made physical questions, using physical instruments to make physical measurements, and has got a picture of a physical universe, where there is no place for consciousness. So when we make questions about the non-physical - appearances and awareness - scientists have no clue. But here we are, 2016, we’re conscious, appearances are happening, none of us was here 100 years ago, so there was some point when the first moment of awareness and appearances arose for each of us. Is there any example in the universe of non-physical arising from physical? No, there is no evidence at all! So, as consciousness may not arise from nothing (as anything else) nor from physical, maybe the truth is that latter configurations of appearances and awareness emerge from earlier configurations of appearances and awareness. And also, when we’re dead, consciousness does not turn into nothing - configurations of human consciousness transform into bardo consciousness, and bardo appearances, and continues to get reconfigured.

All of this is contemplation, not bare attention. So, we should not miss the chance to use this intelligence we have, and only for a short time. Alan closes this talk citing the scientific research, including data from Shamatha Project, showing that meditation may ward off senile dementia, reduce cortical thinning, increase neurogenesis, and so on.

Meditation is on vipashyana and starts at 33:03.

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