What is taught in a Buddha retreat?

Question:

Please would you explain what is taught in the Buddha retreats? I have statues of Buddha at home but am totally unaware of his teachings. Please enlighten me about what is Vipassana, Samatha, Jhanas, etc.

Answer:

Here is a Pali Sutta, given by the Buddha explaining the techniques taught by him.

Samatha and Vipassana are ONLY Pali words that have a specific meaning, they were not terms coined for the technique. There is really no technique, it is just a practice of ‘bearing the reality as it is now’ OR ‘being with the present moment as it is right now’. Let’s look at the Sutta now. [ AN 2.31 –

Dve me, bhikkhave, dhammā vijjābhāgiyā. Katame dve? Samatho ca vipassanā ca.

These two qualities lead to clear knowing. Which two? Tranquillity (samatha) & insight (vipassana).

Samatho, bhikkhave, bhāvito kamatthamanubhoti? Cittaṃ bhāvīyati. 

When tranquillity is developed, what purpose does it serve? The mind is developed.

When we practice being with the present moment as it is and just dive into the present moment, automatically there is a calming that happens in the mind and joy wells up. This natural calming proceeds automatically and organically in stages. These naturally occurring stages are called the Jhanas.

As one naturally proceeds higher, one reaches a stage of natural pleasantness that comes from calmness and relaxation of thought. This pleasantness automatically transforms into a quiet feeling of Tranquility/Serenity or Samatha.

With this tranquillity, the mind is developed means the mind gathers the strength to remain stable and steady amidst the power of silence. Usually mind just keeps running from one thought to another. With the strengthening of tranquillity/serenity, it naturally manages to hold onto inner silence.

Cittaṃ bhāvitaṃ kamatthamanubhoti? Yo rāgo so pahīyati.

And when the mind is developed, what purpose does it serve? Passion is abandoned.

When this inner silence is strengthened, one reaches a stage beyond the pleasantness states where there is neither pleasure nor pain. This is a very important milestone and is termed as Uppekka or Equanimity. A constant straight-line graph of equanimity exists here. Equanimity means neither the graph goes up in excitement, nor does it go down in depression, it just remains stable. It is the true and real experience of peace. One clearly experiences that Peace is a state devoid of emotion. It is like a calm, serene, still, quiet lake.

Now when the first thought arises in this state of equanimity, it is like a stone was thrown into the calm lake. It brings up several ripples and disturbs the stillness. Not only an ugly thought disturb the stillness, but even a beautiful thought ripples it. A thought is nothing but noise. And thought is nothing but desire.

Thought = Desire = Noise = Mind = Burden

The mind is a thorn in the stillness of the experience of No-Mind.

When the meditator realizes this truth in experience not just intellectually, it is called Vipassana or Insight. Gradually, with the practice of being in the state of No-Mind, he develops the strength to remain in the stillness without letting any desire pull him into the noise of the mind. The passion for thoughts, ideas, concepts drops away. Slowly the lake quietens down further. In this way, a mind developed by Samatha becomes free of passion or craving, first in meditation, then gradually this trickles into real-life.

Vipassanā, bhikkhave, bhāvitā kamatthamanubhoti? Paññā bhāvīyati. 

When insight is developed, what purpose does it serve? Discernment is developed.

Vipassana or Insight slowly develops further as he starts acknowledging the truth that every sensation of pleasant and unpleasant spoils the quietness of the mind. Once you acknowledge one truth, the next truth automatically shows up. This is the magic called Insight/Vipassana. The next truth becomes apparent that every pleasant or unpleasant sensation arises, stays for a while and passes away, it is temporary. The thirst is for that which is permanent. That’s why one keeps reacting to the impermanence of sensations, but one mistakes it as a reaction to external people/situations/things. This is just one example of the development of Insight or Vipassana. Vipassana is the slow revelation of the Truth to oneself. It is not a technique that anyone outside can teach you. It is a natural inner opening up.

As Insight naturally opens up in you, one becomes more and more able to discern between the real and the unreal. Thus you become wiser.

For e.g.

Unreal – I react to noisy neighbours.

Real – I react to the unpleasant sensation produced inside me because an unpleasant sensation is uncomfortable to be with and I want to rid myself of this uncomfortable sensation.

Thus with the development of Vipassana [Insight], Discernment / Wisdom [Panna] develops.

          Paññā bhāvitā kamatthamanubhoti? Yā avijjā sā pahīyati.

         And when discernment is developed, what purpose does it serve? Ignorance is abandoned. 

Obviously, with the development of Discernment/ Wisdom [Panna], the unreality slowly starts dropping away. Ignorance fades away. And this is the goal of Spirituality that the Ignorance/Maaya/Inability to see the truth should give way to Wisdom/Satya/Ability to see the Truth.

        Rāgupakkiliṭṭhaṃ vā, bhikkhave, cittaṃ na vimuccati,

Defiled by passion, the mind is not released.

Summarizing the above, one can easily see that if craving/passion/desire remain in one, the mind will always be stuck in noise and will never ever find the silence of No-Mind. The Mind will never be free of misery. One who is free from the noise of the mind, he is established in the all-pervading awareness.

        avijjupakkiliṭṭhā vā paññā na bhāvīyati. 

Defiled by ignorance, discernment does not develop.

If ignorance is not wiped away, one cannot develop Panna, the skill to discern between the real and unreal, between fake and authentic, between belief and self-experience.

         Iti kho, bhikkhave, rāgavirāgā cetovimutti,

Thus from the fading of passion is there awareness-release.

When the craving/desire/thirst dies, the noise quietens down, and with that, a transformation happens from sound to silence, from mind to pure all-pervading awareness. This is called awareness-release or Cetovimutti, as if to say metaphorically that the silence of awareness was trapped by the noise of the mind.

        avijjāvirāgā paññāvimuttī”ti.

From the fading of ignorance, is there discernment-release.

Ignorance/Maaya/Inability to see the truth gives way to Wisdom/Satya/Ability to see the Truth to shine forth. Thus discernment-release or Panna-vimutti is metaphorically saying that the Wisdom is released from the clutches of Ignorance.

That brings us to the end of the Sutta explanation.

This may sound a little complicated but it is very experiential in a Buddha retreat. The technique is explained clearly and one is hand-held until one experiences these stages in the Buddha retreats. One is taught to remain steady in silence devoid of any external crutch of guided instructions or sound. This is definitely for spiritually mature and advanced meditators only. Beginners are too busy stuck in concepts and ideas i.e. Mind. They find it too hard to be interested in the real experience of Silence or No-Mind.

Lastly, anywhere you do Buddha’s meditation, with a monk in a monastery or a with a simple householder teacher, the first level of beginners meditation on the Buddhas path is going to be similar all over the world. No discrepancies there like other paths will be found. Wherever in the world, you learn Anapaana, Vipassana, Satipatthana, Samatha or Jhanas, it will bring you to the same destination of Shunyata. Only Buddha’s technique has that kind of power to be able to retain the ‘sameness of the technique’ over 2500 years. That is what makes it authentic.

Of course, there will be a few regional, subtle differences in the way it is explained & taught but the essence of the teachings of the Buddha have been retained. No teacher who explains the Buddha’s techniques owns them. They are just instruments to bring knowledge to you.

Learn the techniques anywhere and you are bound to get to the same destination of Shunyata!

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