Teaching Meditation

by David Guy

Today Iíd like to talk about how to meditate. Not that I know how to meditate. Iíd just like to talk about it.

The fact that I donít know how to meditate should probably be disturbing to this group, because Iím a meditation instructor here. Actually, I can give the instructions. One of the things I think about meditationóitís like writing in this wayóis that the longer you do it, the less you think you know about it. I used to know how to meditate. I donít anymore.

Whenever I see a new book on Buddhism in a bookstore, I always pick it up to see if itís got meditation instructions. I always read them, and invariably think, yes, yes, that is how to meditate; why canít I remember that? Then I put the book down, and five minutes later I donít know how to meditate anymore.

When I do give instructions, I always talk about the three major Buddhist meditative traditions in this country, Theravada Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, and the Chan/Zen tradition. I do that because I think itís helpful, and because I was quite confused about those traditions when I began. Part of the reason was that my first teacher, Larry Rosenberg, was in the Theravada tradition, but really taught from all three traditions. He was just as likely to quote a Chinese master or the Dalai Lama as a Vipassana teacher, maybe more so.

Iím going to be talking about Larry a lot, so maybe I should tell a little about him and about our relationship. I began studying meditation with him at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in 1991. I took a number of classes, and also did some all-day sittings and other retreats. Even after I returned to North Carolina in 1993, I continued to do retreats with him, at least one and sometimes two per year, until this year, when our schedules didnít mesh. In 1995 or so, I interviewed him for a magazine, and we decided at that time to do some writing together. We have published two books, Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation, and Living in the Light of Death: On the Art of Being Truly Alive. Writing the books has deepened our relationship, and Iíve learned a lot from the process.

Larry has bounced around in different spiritual traditions. He started off as a student of the Indian teacher J. Krishnamurti. Krishnamurti famously taught that truth is a pathless land, but Larry felt he needed a path and some structure, so he studied in the Hindu Vedantic tradition for five years. After that he began studying Buddhism, for five years with the eccentric and colorful Korean Zen teacher Soen Sunim, then for a while in the Soto Zen tradition with Katagiri Roshi and others. Finally he discovered the Theravada tradition, and has taught Vipassana meditation since that time. He teaches both in Cambridge and at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.

Although this background makes him sound like a New Age airhead, the truth is that he was one of the pioneering students of Eastern spirituality, there wasnít as much available when he was getting started, and he moved to new things as he heard about them. He couldnít have started with Soen Sunim in those early days because Soen Sunim hadnít moved to this country yet. All his changes in direction have been away from ritual, and in the direction of simplicity, pure awareness. Krishnamurti was his first teacher, he says, and probably heíll be his last.

Larry believes, and I do too, that itís fine to learn from all three traditions, but itís best to practice in just one. I have actually practiced at least briefly in all three; after I moved back to North Carolina, I practiced with a Tibetan group for a year before I found the Zen Center. People sometimes get caught up in the distinctions among the three traditions, but I think theyíre trivial. As Zen says, theyíre all fingers pointing at the moon, and it seems senseless to make a big deal out of whether the finger is Burmese or Tibetan or Japanese. We should be looking at the moon.

The way I think of it is that the Buddha taught in roughly 500 BC, and since then various people have heard his message, filtered it through their personal and cultural biases, and tried to pass it along. The Theravada tradition goes back to the "original" teachings of the Buddha (inasmuch as we know what they are), but I often think the Zen tradition speaks better to what he really meant. Maybe it just speaks better to me.

I also think that the important thing is to find a teacher you resonate with. I have found two such teachers, and consider myself lucky in that regard. But I didnít consciously decide to switch to the Zen tradition. I began practicing here because Taitaku reminded me of Larry. Their teaching seemed the same.

So Iíd like to talk today about the teaching of meditation in those two traditions, the Theravada and Zen traditions. They seem to wind up in the same place. Larry himself says that those traditions are the two that are most alike. But the ways their teachers get us there are quite different.

On "our" side, our most basic meditation teaching is the Fukanzazengi, the meditation instruction that Dogen wrote when he came back from China and that he apparently revised for the rest of his life. Iíve always found that to be a thrilling piece of spiritual literature, and it still sometimes sends chills up my spine when we chant it. But when you actually come down to it, once heís reviewed the physical posture (and of course posture is quite important in our tradition), the whole of his instructions are in two lines, translated as something like: "Think not thinking. How do you think not thinking? Non thinking. That in itself is the essential art of zazen."

So thank you, Eihei Dogen. Thanks very much for all your help.

Actually, Dogen stole that line from the Chinese. He stole much of the Fukanzazengi from the Chinese. (Like many great poets, he was a thief.) And there is meaning to what heís saying. There is a function in our mind that we can see as thinking. There is at least a theoretical function called not thinking, when thinking ceases. But there is also something that is beyond either of those categories, something that can see both of them. Sometimes that final phrase is translated as "Beyond thinking." Thatís where our practice is headed.

What Dogen is really saying that this is not a process to be learned. (The next lines in the text are among my favorites: "This is not learning meditation. It is the dharma gate of true repose and bliss.") I think part of the reason that the instructions are so brief is an honest belief that anything you can say about it will be wrong. "Open mouth already a mistake," (which makes you wonder why Iím giving this talk at all). Also, as Ed Brown said when he was here for a sesshin a number of years ago, the idea is that we already know how to meditate. In our deepest part, we really do know. We donít need to learn it. We need to remember. We just need to sit until it comes back to us.

In stark contrast to such an idea is Theravada teaching. The section that discusses how to meditate in Breath by Breath covers 175 pages, and the Buddhaís teachings on meditation, though nowhere near that long, are quite extensive. Zen makes learning meditation sound somewhat vague and mysterious, which I think it largely is. The Buddhaís teaching can make it sound prosaic and almost banal. Just follow these steps and youíll be enlightened. My problem was, I could never complete any of the steps.

The Buddhaís most basic teaching on meditation, the Sattipatthana Sutta, is a huge grab bag of meditative techniques. It seems to cover everything you can focus on. Larry calls it the Declaration of Independence for Vipassana meditators.

Larryís teaching comes from a much smaller, more streamlined sutra called the Anapanasati Sutta. Itís generally translated as "Full Awareness with Breathing." It includes sixteen steps, and the unique aspect of it is that the breath accompanies every step.

When I studied with Larry, I was a complete beginner, and he talked about the sutra so much that I thought the Anapanasatti Sutta was Buddhism. I thought the whole Buddhist world knew about it. Actually, almost no one knows about it. Thich Nhat Hanh has written a book about it. So has a Theravada teacher named Ajahn Buddhadassa. But even some Theravada monks have not heard of it. When Larry mentioned it to them, they said, "Oh no, that isnít possible."

What they thought wasnít possible was that the Buddha had offered a teaching in which you followed the breath all the way to enlightenment. The normal Vipassana teaching is that you follow the breathing until you achieve "some degree" of concentration. For some monks, that means deep states of concentration called the jhanas. Then, once youíve mastered concentration, you drop the breathing and open the field of awareness to whatever appears. The two stages of the process are called samatha and vipassana. Those skeptical monks couldnít believe you didnít ever move beyond the breathing.

But the Anapanasati Sutta has you following the breathing in all sixteen steps, all the way to the last step, nibbana in Pali, the word we pronounce "nirvana," Enlightenment. The idea is that if youíll just follow this program youíll get there.

When I first read the sutra, as Larry and I began working on the book, I thought it was an odd document, oddly put together. But over time, as we worked on it, I came to think that the organization was brilliant. Itís not quite logical, but itís organized around the way practice proceeds. I also think Larryís interpretation is brilliant. He brings things out in the sutra that no one else does. In a way he seems to put his whole lifeís work into the interpretation of this one sutra.

I donít have time to discuss all sixteen contemplations. (When Larry lectured on the sutra, he gave thirty-one lectures in all. So the whole thing is out of the scope of one lecture.) But the sutra is organized into four sets of four contemplations each, and the four groupings are the traditional Four Foundations of Mindfulness: focusing on the body, focusing on sensations, focusing on the mind, and focusing on wisdom. (Elsewhere the fourth foundation is mental formations, but in this sutra it is just the dharmic principle that all things are impermanent. You go back and look at the impermanent nature of all formations.)

A good example, to give you the general flavor of the sutra, is the first four contemplations, on the body. The first contemplation says, "While breathing in long, one knows, ĎI breathe in long.í While breathing out long, one knows, ĎI breathe out long.í" The second contemplation says the same thing for a short breath, "While breathing in short...." Larry feels that these first two contemplations actually cover all the features of the breathing, long and short, smooth and ragged, deep and shallow, whatever you can say about the breathing. You donít actually try to breathe in any particular way; you just allow the breathing to happen and notice how it is. So in the first two contemplations you concentrate very closely on the breathing, and notice all the qualities of the breath.

In the third contemplation, still noticing the breathing, you allow your attention to spread to the whole body. "Sensitive to the whole body, I breathe in." And in the fourth, you allow the breathing to relax the body. "Calming the whole body, I breathe in." Again, Larry would say, you donít try to do that; you just allow it to happen. As you watch the breathing, feel it in the whole body, the body will gradually relax.

So in one way, this is a program, a viable program, for learning meditation. In another way, it just describes what naturally happens as you meditate. You begin by focusing closely on the breathing. You might do that for a long period of time, months or years. I certainly did. But gradually, as you sit, your focus expands. You notice different parts of the body. Eventually youíre sitting with awareness of the whole body. And as you do thatóagain, over months or yearsóthe body learns to relax.

The general progression of the sutra is to move from the smaller to the larger, from things that are simple to those that are more complex. So you go from the breathing to the whole body. Eventually, if you really examine the sutra, it seems to cover everything we see as we meditate.

For me, one of the most brilliant aspects of the sutra as a whole, of the Buddhaís whole teaching, is the four foundations of mindfulness. You start with the body. Then you move on to sensationsósounds, sights, smellsówhich naturally take you out of the body, into the larger world. In a way they take you out and in another way they donít. The sound of the bird singing is out there, in the tree, but itís also in here, in your head. Itís as you observe sensations that you begin to realize the whole distinction of outside and inside is rather dubious.

In any case, the sensations are the point of contact with the outside world. Theyíre also the place where much thinking begins. With every sensation, there is a reaction: we think itís pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Reactions are different for different people, of course, and maybe a lot of sensations are neutral, so we hardly notice them at all. But the Buddha said that when thereís a pleasant sensation, we cling to it; when thereís an unpleasant one, we push it away; when thereís a neutral one, we get bored, and tend to fill the space with fantasy. Those are the general tendencies of our mind.

So letís say weíre on sesshin. A pleasant sensation might be the sound of birds singing in the trees, or the smells of food from the kitchen. An unpleasant one might be the loud trucks that sometimes roar by, or somebodyís lawnmower starting. There might be a whole host of neutral things.

In any case, we often start to think. "I wonder what weíre having for lunch today," when we smell cooking in the kitchen. Or "Why canít people in this neighborhood be more considerate?" when the lawnmower starts. Or thereís nothing much going on for a while, and we start to daydream.

A good example is a pain in the knee, which often produces a whole cluster of thoughts which proliferate into a mental formation. "Oh my God, my kneeís starting to hurt again. I hope it isnít as bad as at the last sesshin. How can I ever make it through this sitting with an aching knee? What if it hurts at every sitting? What if it gets worse?" This kind of thinking proliferates rapidly, and can get pretty far from the pain in the knee. "What if I actually need surgery? Why donít I have better health insurance? Why doesnít this country have better health insurance? How can we get Bush out of the White House?" The questions get more and more complicated, and the emotion more complicated and heated. But they all come from a pain in the knee.

The question the Buddha asks is: Can you let a sensation be a sensation? Can it just be a pain in the knee, instead of turning into a campaign for a new president? Oróif it proceeds a little furtherócan a thought just be a thought? Can you see the thoughts as they go by, and just see them as thoughts, before they develop into raging hysteria?

Eventually, of course, in this sutra, the Buddha wants you to be able to be with raging hysteria. That kind of mental formation is part of the program too, when you look at the mind. But it really is easier to be with a pain in the knee, however unpleasant that might be. Once itís developed into a mental formation, thereís a lot more going on, and itís a lot harder to watch. A pain in the knee is simpler and more concentrated.

Obviously, the Anapanasati Sutta gives you more to go on than those two lines of meditation instruction that Dogen gave us. The question is, is all that teaching helpful? Many people find that it is. I found it very helpful to go through the Anapanasati Sutta and hear all of Larryís commentary on it, but I wouldnít want to practice as it suggests. To me it focuses too much on accomplishment and achievement. It becomes something youíre doing, something youíre trying to do. The very open kind of instruction that Zen gives is more helpful for me. But as I sit, I see many of the things that the Anapanasati Sutta has talked about.

Ultimately, I think, the most important task of the teacher is just to keep the student on the cushion long enough to see the benefits of sitting. If a lot of instruction does that, fine. If a bare minimum does it, fine. Different teachers have different methods. And in part what these methods reflect is just the teachersí personalities, and how their teachers taught.

But both methods wind up in the same place. When Okumura Sensei was here, to mention a man from our own tradition, I had dokusan with him, and asked him about his practice. I felt funny just talking about myself, and wanted to try to learn from him.

So I said, "What do you do when you sit?"

He was trying to be polite, I know, but he looked at me as if I didnít know anything, as if I were out of my mind.

"I donít do anything," he said.

"But when I sit and donít do anything," I said, "a lot of thinking comes up."

"I have the same problem," he said.

I didnít seem to be getting anywhere.

"But donít you ever tell your students, donít you ever suggest that they might, I donít know, follow the breathing?"

"How can I teach them something that I donít know how to do?" he said.

He wasnít going to give me any help no matter how I asked.

Hereís how Larry answered the same question from an interviewer at Tricycle.

What happens to you when you sit?

"The breath is still there. But my practice now for the most part is doing nothing. I just sit there. I know it sounds dopey [laughs]. Typically Iíll start off with the breathing... And sometimes thatís all Iíll do [follow the breathing]. But ninety-nine percent of the time, I just open the field of attention. If I had to put it into words, itís learning the art of doing absolutely nothing. So youíre sitting there, attentive, and enjoying the show."

The teachings are different, but I donít think the results are. Weíre all just moving toward doing nothing. That, it seems, is the hardest thing to do.

© Copyright David Guy, 2003

Zen Talks Page   Home Page