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Insight Meditation:
Questions and Answers on

Practice and Benefits

Dr. Nay Dee

12th May 2000

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        Why do we practice insight meditation?

        The answer is to realise and recognise the ultimate truth. The human being is made up of mind and matter. Insight meditation is making an analytical and contemplative study of mind and matter phenomena, realising things in their ultimate sense against the conceptual form (or in other words seeing things as they truly are). Therefore this cannot be sought elsewhere apart from contemplating one's own body. Beginners should be aware that this is a progressive development and discovery.

        Dhamma is like a travel guide ( leading the way) towards (the way to) achieving enlightenment. Buddha reminds us that his teaching should be examined and not to accept simply out of respect to him. The ultimate truth is there and this can be discovered by progressing through the successive stages of the path that leads to spiritual realization by practising insight meditation.

        First experience of insight meditation as a beginner.

        Starting point of insight meditation is to sit in a quiet place, shut the eyes and try to focus the mind on one particular event. i.e. noting the breath in and out either focusing on tip of nostrils or noting the rise and fall of the abdomen. Methods vary but the objective is the same. It is not necessary to follow all methods. Choose one of them and put it into practice regularly. If one is noting the rising and falling, every moment has to be focused intensely. Then it is interesting to notice that despite attempting to focus the mind on particular movement (although one is sitting and practicing meditation) thoughts are floating from one to another, the mind is travelling from one place to the next, feeling arises. A person's mind can be absorbed in the content of thought, and one starts to forget that one is meditating During meditation one will feel itchy at one place, that itchiness can shift to another place or increase in such intensity that one wants to scratch it. One will feel muscle or joint pain and aches that make you want to change the position. One hears the noise of a car passing by or sound made by a crow or birds. One might want to swallow saliva .

        As a beginner it is extremely difficult to focus mind at one point , sometimes the concentration power is so weak that the person does not realise that his mind is wandering. As a beginner it is also difficult to sit and practice meditation continuously for an hour. (Mind you we can watch the movie or TV programme continuously more than how many hours?). After about 15 minutes there is a tendency to stop practising meditation giving self excuse to stay longer next time.

        What do we realise from this experience?

        We start to realise that the mind wanders, it is uncontrollable and has a tendency to dwell on pleasurable thoughts, feelings and unwholesome sense objects. Mind can be compared to a spider running about in a web of ideas. This spider find itself surrounded with various alluring baits, so it is this spider (mind) that we have to control in order that it may always run in the direction which we have chosen, and thus improve the ability to see things as they truly are and will reach the final state of perfection.

        As a beginner can I meditate on my own?

        It is advisable to attend meditation course to learn the basic principles and knowledge. If there is no opportunity to attend the courses one can try to meditate on your own. If possible make sure you are not disturbed at the time of meditation. Meditation alone requires more discipline. Make sure you adhere to your programme. Main prerequisite is following the correct instruction ,willingness, desire to know and punctuality. I would like to recommend the Practical Insight Meditation (Basic and Progressive stages, ISBN 955-24-0089-9, published by Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy and Discourse on The Basic Practice of the Satipatthana Vipassana, published by The Buddharama temple, the Netherlands, both written by the Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw as a guide books to study for insight meditation.

        For a beginner how long will it take to learn to meditate?

        Learning is not primarily a question of being taught but of doing it. As long as you are keen and follow the basic instruction or technique and as soon as you try it for yourself you will realise that you can meditate like others. We individuals are different in character and intellectual so the progress depends upon how much effort each individual puts into it. There is a pathway to be followed and progress to be made to achieve wisdom and perfection. As a beginner one has to discipline one's self and the main secret to achieve progress is punctuality. Once one can continue to practice it for a while both the results and the benefit will become apparent.

        As a beginner I can only practice 15 minutes insight meditation. What benefit do I achieve at this stage.?

        The very basic achievement is three fold.

  1. Sitting with shutting eyes, restraining from verbal and physical misdeeds. If you manage to meditate for 15 minutes one is "refraining from doing bad deeds" for that 15 minutes.
  2. Attempting mind to focus on one point, trying to achieve mindfulness. A person is "doing good deeds". It is also like mind exercise, this will increase one's mind concentration power .
  3. Mind always wanders, dwelling on pleasurable feelings. A person when awakened is living with either pleasurable feelings, unpleasurable feelings or neutral feelings.

        Practising insight meditation will not allow mind to dwell in these feelings therefore it will give "purification of mind"

        For us, the Buddhists we believe in Parami (fulfillment from less to more, from small to great , from ignorance to enlightenment). Therefore practicing insight meditation is sowing seeds which we will reap in the future, (when the time is right). Therefore practising Meditation is fulfilling three basic Buddha's Teaching.

  1. Refrain from all evil
  2. Do what is good
  3. Purify the mind.

        These are an immediate benefits and achievements.

        Next stage: To improve mind concentration and mindfulness.

        Insight meditation is two fold.

        (One) - Mind concentration and

        (Two) - Mind contemplation.

        Mind concentration is focusing one's mind on one particular fixed point. Because of the uncontrollable nature of the mind, which we now experience as a beginner, we know that the mind wanders and dwell in pleasurable and unwholesome sense objects. Mind contemplation is awareness about this wandering nature of mind. Insight meditation is training the mind to note these changes and to become mindful of every moment and event. So for a beginner it is important to be aware of the wandering nature of the mind. It is also important not to become absorbed in the content of thought. Noting mind should be aware when ever the mind wanders. While meditating, if you notice that you are thinking instead of focusing the mind at one point, then the noting mind should note - thinking, thinking, and following that, drive the mind back to the rising and falling abdomen movement. If you feel itchy note - itching, itching. If intensity changes be aware of this and note the change of intensity. Noting mind should note these changes and following that, the mind should focus back on abdomen movement. Progress of meditation can only be achieved by practicing insight meditation punctually, with patience and determination. Same thing, it is like a weight exercise for a body builder. One has to gradually build up the exercise programme and has to attend the gym regularly to achieve his goal. Therefore as a beginner one has to discipline one's self and should allocate fixed time (i.e. 15, 30, 45 minutes or an hour) each day to practice punctually. With regular practice one will notice that the concentration power will become stronger and it will become much easier to focus on abdomen movement. Once mind concentration is improved, noting mind becomes sharper and whenever the mind wanders, it is aware and easy to drive back to abdomen movement. Progress can be achieved by cultivating the mind with strict discipline and regular practice. What we have achieved now is improvement in mind concentration power and awareness. A person will also experience that by practising punctually, insight meditation becomes less difficult compare with the very beginning attempt.

        What is the benefit of mindfulness?

        Human beings have six sense bases of which five receive information from the outside world. (Hearing, smell, sight, taste and touch). The sixth one is the mind door (the mental world).

        In every day life we are exposed to various stimuli all the time. When ever the sense bases come into contact with a sense object, the particular sense or consciousness arises. We feel it, analyse and react to all objects that come into contact with the six sense doors. Feelings can be positive, negative or neutral. Anger, hatred, ill-will, delusion and jealousy are the examples of some negative feelings. Through the mind door negative feelings can be provoked to any lay person because these defilements stay as a latent phase in the mind. If at all possible we should react to surroundings, circumstances and events of daily life reasonably and not instinctively or emotionally. This can only be achieved by mindfulness, (awareness about state of the mind). It is important to be aware when self destructive dark emotions arises as actions are born from thought. Untrained mind in a state of primitive awareness will react with instinct or emotionally. With trained mind (mindfulness) one can attain a higher awareness and react appropriately and correctly which can then prevent self-imposed suffering.

        According to Buddha teachings dark emotions (defilements ) have three stages. These stages are expressed as follows. The bottom one is a latent phase. They do not become manifest up to the level of thoughts or feelings yet they lie latent in each of us. This is not a theory, we can prove it. The fact that we can be provoked or triggered to make excited and angry shows that we have certain tendencies like anger and hatred. This stage is very quiet but the roots remain latent within us. In Pali it is known as Anusaya akusala.

        The middle one, the second stage is in the realm of thoughts and feelings. Although a person remains silent mindless negative rage is building in his thoughts, and the person is full of anger and hatred. In Pali it is known as Pariyutthana akusala.

        The top one or final stage is that the person become fierce, dreadful, uncontrollable both in words as well as in actions. He will shout, hit, hurt or even kill a person. In Pali term it is known as Vitikama akusala.

        Buddha teaches us how to control and overcome these evil tendencies that are lying latent in us.

        This can be achieved by following noble eightfold path which includes Sila, Samadhi and Panna (Morality, Concentration and Insight Wisdom). Sila (Morality) by observing precepts, (control of words and action) will allow us to overcome the final stage of defilments. (Outward visible stage) not the other two stages. It is like cutting branches of a tree. Samadhi (Mind Concentration Meditation) can dispel the defilements for a considerable time and it is like cutting a tree by the trunk. Panna (Wisdom). Once you have developed wisdom by insight meditation than one can only dispel the bottom stage. It is like cutting a tree by the root which will never allow to grow again.

        Next stage, the changing nature on mind and matter. Actual process of rising and falling of abdomen with each breath is caused by the motion of muscle bulk (matter) and awareness of each moment by the (mind). With progress in practice of insight meditation, during the time of noting rising - falling, rising, falling, one will perceive that the matter and mind are two separate things.

        The two elements of matter and mind are linked up in a pair and the material process of rising coincides with mind knowing it and the material process of falling coincides with mind knowing it.

        Touch, contact, movement is matter and knowing or awareness is mind. With further progress, a person will start to recognise the moment of events during meditation: each moment of in- breathing (a rising of abdomen) is immediately followed by moment of out-breathing (falling of abdomen). There is a continued rising and falling breathing phase, uncontrollably changing all the time. At this stage even with improved concentration power the mind will still wander. But noting mind becomes more sharp that it will not allow to dwell on wondering and will drive back to abdomen movement quickly. Whenever the mind wanders, noting mind is aware that the mind is wandering (with progress in meditation). The wandering nature of mind is changing all the time. Once the mind is more attentive on noting the abdomen movement (observing the rising and falling movement) less it will wander to other senses and objects. Once one can focus the mind on abdomen movement without any interefence, one will start to see the actual nature of mind and matter. With purity of mind and progress in meditation one will no longer feel abdomen movement as a bulk muscle movement, but will recognise and experience as a rising and falling phenomena (becoming and dissolution phenomena).

        What do we experience up to this stage of insight meditation?

        We now have a clear perception of what mind - matter is. One will start to notice how fast the mind wanders, changing from one to another uncontrollably. Even when one thought that his concentration is strong and has managed to keep mindfulness on each phase of breathing (abdomen movement), mind can slip out easily. One realises the impermanent nature of mind and matter, always changing from one moment to another (anicca); the shifting and changing all the time is unsatisfactory (dukkha), and each moment replaced by subsequent moment and one is observing the insubstantial nature of existence of so called self (anatta). Regular, continuous practice of this contemplation will eliminate the notion of atta or self. Though it is difficult to sit and concentrate at the beginning of meditation one will experience that it becomes less difficult to concentrate in the middle and later part of meditation. Mind becomes subdued with the nature of practice. Therefore our duty is to contemplate diligently and to practice punctually. No doubt we will encounter difficulties at first in practising insight meditation, but with conscientious practice (in compliance to Buddha's teaching) one will overcome these obstacles.

        Can we prove that we have achieved to this stage?

        The answer is yes. We can.

        During sitting meditation, if one attempts to sit for about an hour one will always experience bone or joint pain. Sometimes pain will disappear while meditating, but at one point (testing time) it will revisit again and again. The intensity, site and nature of pain will change. The pain is so much, so intense and disturbing that one cannot focus on abdomen movement. One cannot bear the pain and one will change the position expecting that the pain will go away. Frequent changing of position (even with mindfulness noting that one wants to change and mindful every steps of changes made), will weaken the mind concentration. Changing the position will temporarily relieve the pain but the pain will come back later on. The main weapon is to be patient, concentrate and focus on pain and note the pain as it is. Insight meditation means seeing things as they really are. Once you can fix the mind on the pain you will observe that the pain may increase with each noting leading to becoming excruciating in nature. It may decrease again, disappear or shift to another part of the joint or body. If your noting mind is firm and strong enough one will begin to comprehend the intrinsic nature of pain. You will realize anicca, dukkha and anatta. The true nature of pain is not continuous it comes and goes. It is impermanent. Noting, shifting and changing nature of pain is suffering and it is uncontrollable. Saddhamaransi Sayadaw has described the overcoming of pain as follow. When you note painful, painful, pain disappears. Afterwards it arises again. You note it, it disappears again. Arising is becoming and disappearing is dissolution. Whereupon pain is no longer the principal object of noting, however the noting mind is fixed on the process of arising and disappearing. There upon noting mind overcome the pain. Therefore there is no longer a pain because you are observing the true nature, the becoming and dissolution phenomena. Whoever practices insight meditation, pain will visit at some stage. One will only over come the pain after grasping the arising and falling ( becoming and dissolution) phenomenom of mind and matter. Once you have managed to eradicate the pain, it will never interfere again one will be able to sit and practice longer without being hindered by pain. Even if it recurs it can be easily overcome by simply noting the pain again.

        What is the benefit of realising impermanent nature (anicca), unsatisfactory nature /suffering (dukkha) and non-self nature (anatta) of mind and matter?

        According to Buddha nothing can be sustained and everything is subject to change. Buddha teaches us " the truth of the suffering of the conditioned world." Natural kind of suffering includes suffering of birth, ageing, illness and death. Suffering can be a physical pain or a state of deep dissatisfaction a mental experience. Suffering arises when the self is threatened or doesn't get what it wants. We suffer when we encounter adversaries, losing those dear to us, or living with those to whom we dislike, or if we do not manage to fulfil one's desire or wish. Buddha teaches us "the truth of the source of suffering". Suffering is born from attachment, desire and clinging which arises out from the notion of self "me". Attachment to the self is a basic expression of ignorance and cause of negative emotions .The very root of all negative emotions is the perception we have ourselves , as a person, as an I. Self doesn't exist anywhere in the body. It is a rising and falling phenomena. Self seems to be no more than a label attached to an apparent continuity. By realising anicca, dukkha and anatta, there will be less attachment and less suffering.

        I have been practising insight meditation at home just by reading books. I don't think that I am progressing. How can I achieve progress?

        Practising insight meditation is subtle. It will be extremely difficult to progress by practising alone at home with book knowledge. Modem day life is very hectic and demanding. How easy or is it possible at all to practice meditation at home without being interrupted by telephone calls, loud music etc. Interruption will lessen the mind concentration. A person feels lax practising at home and it is easy to give excuse to finish meditation earlier than the intended allocated time and easy to skip the regular time table. Furthermore a person with no instructor and only depending on bookknowledge will be as cautious and hesitant as a traveller who has never been on a particular journey. Therefore the progress can be delayed. To achieve progress one has to learn properly and it is advisable to attend a meditation course for at least for seven to ten days to grasp the basic principle, following that a person should proceed at home with great earnest, and with full confidence trusting that it will surely lead to the development of Magga-nana.

        What is the advantage of attending a meditation course?

        One can practise continuously without any interference. One observe eight precepts ,which fulfills the moral purity. A good instructor can encourage you and guide you and show you the correct route along the path and hence progress can be made. At meditation course one has to follow their rules and regulation. Minimum time allocated to practice sitting meditation is an hour. Even a beginner should attempt to sit for an hour. I was lucky enough to attend the meditation course (while ordained as a monk) when late Mahasi Sayadaw was alive at Mahasi Yeiktha, Rangoon.

        The following is an every day programme of a meditation course run at Mahasi Meditation Centre Rangoon. One observes eight precepts. This fulfills moral preparation for insight meditation. Eight precepts includes: "Not to kill, not to steal, to be celibate, not to lie, not to take intoxications, not to eat after midday, not to dance, sing, listen to music and using cosmetics, and not to use luxurious beds."

        Only eat breakfast and lunch before midday, two meals a day. You are allowed to drink juices after twelve noon. Mahasi method is to be mindful at all times. Sitting meditation for an hour followed by walking meditation for another hour. This continues alternatively except time for breakfast and lunch (during which you are reminded to be mindful all the time even when eating i.e. awareness of all activities). There is one hour break for bathing, one hour break to see visitors and an hour to listen to sermon. Last session for walking meditation is from 9 to 10 pm and you are allowed to return to your room after this session. One will be woken at 3 am in the morning to assemble at the meditation hall to commence the early morning meditation. One to one interview was conducted by meditation instructor in the afternoon. With intensive practice and being coached closely, a progress in meditation can be achieved. Encourage to attend minimum of 10 day course and allowed to stay more if a person wishes to continue the course. The main advantage of attending the course is that one does not need to worry for every day life , which gives an opportunity for a person to practice continuously in a favourable surrounding.

        How will I know that I have achieved progress?

        Practising insight meditation will allow you to become a better human being. Once one is committed to insight meditation, it is essential and important to check and review, that over the months and years of practising insight meditation are we really freeing ourselves from anger, hatred, ill-will, jealousy and above all from the ego-centredness and ignorance. At least the way you act, the way you speak and the way you think will reflect whether one has achieved the progress by practising insight meditation. You can lie to others but you cannot lie to yourself. If attending a meditation course this can be discussed with an experience instructor.

        The Hinderance.

        Once one grasps the rising and falling phenomena (Realizing anicca, dukkha and anatta) practice of meditation becomes much easier. With proper balance in faith, energy, concentration, mindfulness and understanding noting mind becomes more sharp and can comprehend each change of moment more clearly. As a result of mind purification and insight, a person can see a brilliant light whilst meditating with closed eyes. It can be a very intense light, a glow or luminous. Sometimes one is enjoying seeing this light and forgets to note about this. Sometimes one feels a floating sensation. Sometimes the mind becomes so tranquil that it is as if there is no object to be noted at all. Because of the calm nature of mind and experiencing joy, happiness which one has never experienced before one can shed tears, tears falling from closed eyes while meditating. It is important for a person to be aware that these are the hinderances. This will prevent the progress to the next stage if a person is enjoying and inclining in these states of rapture. Therefore a person should not reflect on these happenings. Whenever these objects arise, each should be noted mindfully and with detachment. Because of the law of anicca, dukkha, anatta finally these will disappear.

        Mature Insight Knowledge.

        Insight meditation is to seek the ultimate truth, (The truth of mind, matter, mental factors and nibbana). This cannot be sought elsewhere apart from contemplating one's own body. With penetrating insight one will recognise that mind (nama) and matter (rupa) exists, but exists as a swiftly changing process of the rising and falling (appearing and disappaering) phenomenom. There is no such a thing as soul (self) and nothing is permanent. In fact it is a different type of nama (mind) and rupa (matter) phenomena occurring one after another with extreme rapidity, giving the appearance of a lasting and coherent whole. Those who are unmindful and without trained mind would not notice this actual truth. Those who realise anicca, dukkha and anatta will only be aware of this phenomenon. Therefore two consecutive moments are never the same. Moments, conditioned by past moments, arising for an instant, then passing away again to be followed by the next moment's arising. Once one grasps the anicca, dukkha and anatta, there is less self centredness, less attachment and less craving. End result of clinging to things, objects and people will only bring sorrow, pain, grief and lamentation. Realising of anicca, dukkha and anatta will remove us from all our self-imposed suffering. "Paticcasamuppada", law of dependant origination is the Buddha's explanation of how states of existence come to be and how they conditioned each other. Clinging, Craving and attachment will result in continual rebirth in the wheel of existence.

        The Ultimate Truth.

        Our goal as a lay person is to gain penetration insight and to attain Magga-nana, the very first stage of enlightenment and to become "the stream-winer". One of the fundamental teaching of Buddha is the Four Noble Truth. Ignorance or not understanding these Four Noble Truth causes us endless suffering.

        The following are the Four Noble Truth

        The truth of Suffering of the conditioned world.

        The truth of cause or source of suffering.

        Truth of Cessation of suffering.

        Truth of the way leading to the end of suffering. (Eightfold path)

        Part of practicing insight meditation is to follow this eightfold path, and when we are practising insight meditation day after day, we are developing each of these factors piece by piece until they are all perfected. The Eightfold path includes: Right Understanding, Right Thoughts (Wisdom); Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood (Morality); Right Effort, Right Mindfulness,

        Right Concentration.(Concentration). Transient bliss of Magga-nana (Observing transient Nibbana or moment where whole-some moment of wisdom arises) requires accompaniment of all eightfold path factors at that particular moment. Magga-nana is a mental phenomena but is different from consciousness and mental factor. It is the object of experience, experienced by supra-mundane consciousness, (i.e. the consciousness that contains fully developed wisdom. It cannot be understood intellectually only experienced with development of wisdom when all eightfold path strikes together). This is the very first stage of enlightenment known as Stream-winner or Sotapanna. They are still ordinary beings but gain some achievements. They have personally experienced the ultimate truth of nature of mind and matter. They no longer have any doubt in Dhamma. They have analysed and understand the mechanism of suffering . They know the keys to inner peace and suffering. They have developed an inner certainty. It is no longer a blind faith and nothing or no one can ever take away their belief. They know that this is a beginning to attain final perfection and will continue the insight meditation , which one is practising, which will lead to nibbana.

        How does a person realise Magga-nana?

        One is fulfilling and achieving the Morality and Concentration part of eightfold path whilst practising insight meditation. Mogok Sayadaw proclaimed that one will achieve Magga-nana (self experiencing wisdom) by penetrating the four noble truth whilst practising insight meditation. With mind concentration and mind contemplation one is observing ever changing impermanent nature of mind and matter one is observing insubstantial non self nature. That is realising" The Truth of Suffering " As mind concentration is so powerful that the noting mind manages to focus on arising and falling or becoming and dissolution phenomena so called self can no longer appear or exists. One is abandoning self-centered attachment and craving. Thus eradicating "The Cause of Suffering" There is no wandering of mind either to wholesome or unwholesome thought. The inner state of mind is so much so pure that once the eightfold path" Truth of the way leading to end of suffering" is well balanced or understanding , energy, mindfulness, concentration are developed in an even manner Magga-nana. "The Truth of Cessation of Suffering" is realised. It has been expressed as "Like the moment when lightning flashes and dispels the darkness is the moment when the light of the stream-winning path arises and dispels the darkness covering the truths. Like the manifestation of the way when darkness clears is the time of the manifestation of the four truths in the stream-winning path."

        This is a very first experience of spiritual realisation of the ultimate truth the mind/matter/qualities of mind and transient nibbana.

        How easy is it to attain Magga-nana?

        The late Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw proclaimed that this object can be achieved possibly in a month, twenty days, fifteen days, or on rare occasions even in seven days for a selected few with extra-ordinary Paramis. Therefore although insight meditation is subtle with the right approach it is achievable in our life time.

        Conclusion: Pathway to perfection the enlightenment.

        With sheer compassion Buddha pointed out the way to enlightenment. Inspiration is there, the path is there. By putting teaching into practice, following the example of Buddha, little by little we ordinary folk (struggling through every day life), can attain the perfection. I would like to conclude by briefing the significance of practice of taking the Three Refuges to achieve wisdom.

        Buddham saranam gacchami: I take refuge in the Buddha: as a symbol of enlightenment

        Dhammam saranam gacchami: I take refuge in the Dhamma; As a path to enlightenment

        Sangham saranam gacchami: I take refuge in the Sangha: Those who are dedicated in practising, preserving and proprogating Dhamma, from whom I have learnt the practice of meditation directly and indirectly.

        May all yogi gain insight and success in making progress towards enlightenment.

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