Thursday, October 14, 2010

Meetings with a Remarkable Monk


   Meetings with a Remarkable Monk

Bhante Nanadipa

In Sri Lanka
This year marks the 35th anniversary of my ordination as a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka. One wish that I had while on this visit was to reconnect with, if only briefly with The Venerable Nanadipa. Bhante Nanadipa is of  Danish origin but has been living, studying the Dhamma and practicing meditation as a Buddhist monk here since 1968. He took Upasampada ordination at the famous Polgasduwa or Island Hermitage in 1969. I had first heard about him and met with him in 1975, in the first year of my 'pabbaja' or novice ordination. He was living at the time in a remote kuti near the scrub jungle village of Bundala on the south coast. The name of the kuti was in fact, Bundala kuti. I spent a few days visiting him and having inspiring Dhamma discussions with him. He had a vast knowledge of the Pali suttas and could articulate on some Dhamma topics and meditation about which I wished clarification. We also shared an interest in practicing Yoga, especially the headstand as it helped the body/mind in the process of meditation. He said that he stood on his head for over thirty minutes a day.
      To get a better idea of what motivated Ven. Nanadipa to live in this remote place it is worthwhile to learn of the prior inhabitants of this famous kuti. It could be called the ‘kuti of death’.  Not a inspiring name for people with strong craving and attachment to Self, but for meditating monks with an ascetic bent, it is challenging. The most famous of the prior occupants of Bundala kuti was an English monk named, Nanavira. He died in this kuti in 1965 apparently by suffocating himself with a plastic bag. It was said he committed suicide because he had been suffering for a long time from an incurable (it seems) gastric ailment. The only way he could get any relief from the pain was to indulge in certain fantasies unbecoming of an ordained bhikkhu. So he felt that there was only two alternatives open to him: either to disrobe as a bhikkhu and return to a layman status, or to end his physical life. He believed that physical death was preferable to ‘Bhikkhu death’ (disrobing) and continuing to suffer. He believed in rebirth so he knew that he would be reborn. It was assumed by some of his close friends (through letter correspondence) that he had already attained the level of ‘Stream Entry’. Theoretically, having reached this first stage of Enlightenment would have the effect of mitigating or partially justifying his seemingly contradictory action of taking his own life. There was a lot of subsequent debate on this issue as to whether someone who had attained Stream Entry would be capable, ethically speaking, in taking even their own life. Would it not be a breach of the first precept, not to kill, something a Sotapanna would supposedly be incapable of?
     Ven. Nanadipa was quite interested in studying the letters and notes on Dhamma which Nanavira had left behind in his kuti and later made into a book called, Clearing the Path. In these letters to friends he had discussed his dilemma. However at these first meetings with Ven. Nanadipa we did not discuss this topic. It was beyond my understanding at the time to bring up the subject and he did not volunteer to bring it up himself. Ven. Nanadipa did have a vast knowledge of the Pali suttas even at this relatively early stage of his bhikkhu life. His main interest was to integrate his understanding of the Buddhas’ instructions with the correct and diligent practice of meditation. He was single mindedly bent on persuing the life of a reclusive ‘hermit’ monk following the outline and details of the Dhamma-Vinaya of the Buddha. It was his dedication to earnest study and practice, not wasting time on frivolous things, which inspired me in this formative year of my own monk life.
Another of the former western monk inhabitants of Bundala kuti had unmindfully trodden on a poisonous serpent while stepping out of the kuti one night and was promptly fatally bitten. But this had not deterred the courageous hermit, Nanadipa from choosing to live there. It may have in fact encouraged him to challenge whatever remaining fear of death he may still have had. He told me his own personal close encounter with a highly poisonous snake while living in this same kuti. He had already been meditating outside in the full lotus posture and had just reached his limit of bearing up the pain when he felt a serpent slither up onto his legs. The snake proceeded to drape its’ long body over Ven. Nanadipas’ shoulder to take a nap it seems. Needless to say the great ascetic held his ground motionless and sent ‘metta’ to his new uninvited friend. After some time the serpent moved harmlessly on, much to Nanadipas’ relief. At least the experience helped him sit another thirty minutes bearing up the excruciating pain in the full lotus posture, which he may not have done on his own initiative at the time. This story inspired me to live in a remote cave at Dolukanda, near Kurunegala where I had some similar close encounters with poisonous snakes. These remote forest/jungle abodes provide a good environment to exercise more vigilance/mindfulness and ’contemplation of death’ (maranasati), much praised by the Buddha.  As it turned out, however, I was not able to match the Venerable Nanadipas’ long unyielding resolve in virtually shunning the world of social interactions, teaching, and even very limited contact with other monastics. He was and still is a real ‘loner’ after 40 years, hell bent on attaining complete Nibbana in this very life.  Even after my 30 years of travelling, teaching and living actively with other monastics in monasteries and reaching the age of 62,  Bhante Nanadipas’ dedication and ascetic way of life still inspires me.

After these few days with Bhante Nanadipa I never personally met with him again until now, 35 years later. Though I had lived in Sri Lanka until 1977 and again from 1980 until 1986 our paths did not cross. He relished near total seclusion and did his best to minimize contact with the outside world, even visits with other monks. When people found out where he was residing and began to pay him visits he would surreptitiously change his dwelling place. He kept moving to more remote, difficult places to access. I respected his wish for solitude and did not make the effort to seek him out. Anyway I was caught up doing my own thing. But occasionally I would hear from others about where he was living and especially about one near fatal incident that happened to him.
 Some years ago he had been living in a remote forest area inhabited by elephants when he directly encountered one. Despite the venerables’ radiation of Metta the elephant charged him, knocked him down and stepped on his groin/hip area. Painful to say the least. Unable to walk and with nobody around to see and help him Ven. Nanadipa laid there on the bare ground in scrub jungle for two days in and out of consciousness, until he finally managed to crawl for help. This accident resulted in one leg becoming one inch shorter than the other. But this unfortunate incident did not daunt the ascetics great courage and resolve. He continued living in remote creature infested areas and walking two kilometers each day on alms round-- to this very day.

I was very fortunate that I was able to have this brief but memorable reunion with Bhante Nanadipa. Normally he agrees to see visitors for only one week per year. Usually monks spend the traditional three months rainy season ‘vassa’ period living in one selected place from the full moon day of July to the full moon day in October. But Ven. Nanadipa, ever out for more self imposed discipline, adds on an extra three months, making a total of six months without seeing outside visitors, save people offering him alms food. After this six months solitude he travels a couple hours away to stay in a certain monastery, to tend to any personal needs, see a doctor etc. During this time he allows those wishing to have Dhamma discussions to come meet with him—but keep it to Dhamma please! Through a mutual Sri Lankan friend, a message had been conveyed to him that I was visiting Sri Lanka and requested a chance to meet him, even though it was outside his specified time period. Besides just wishing to see him I had a few Dhamma questions I wanted to pose. Out of compassion, and perhaps remembering our friendly encounters 35 years ago, he kindly agreed to this 'Samananan ca dassanam' (seeing of recluses).

This meeting took place during his normal morning pindapata (alms collecting) routine. He walked two kilometers through the scrub jungle from his cave kuti at the base of a hill, to a designated spot where the village people also had to walk one kilometer. There he sat on a chair covered with the traditional white cloth. The villagers paid their respects to him and offered him some rice gruel to drink. Then they offered him the meal in his alms bowl which he would afterwards carry back to his cave kuti to partake of it in solitude. After he received the alms food in his bowl I came up (with two Sri Lankan monks who had brought me), paid my respects, sat down and had our friendly exchanges and lively Dhamma discussion. I informed him briefly of what I had been doing the last thirty years-- traveling, teaching Dhamma and meditation retreats, helping to run the Bhavana Forest Monastery in the USA. At the end of our discussions I asked for any kalyana mitta (spiritual friend) advice he might have for me. He replied that though what I had been doing for spreading the Dhamma in the world was a good thing. He thought that thirty years of outward service was enough. I had paid my dues, put in my time in that regard. Now I was near the normal retirement age. He advised that I should come back to Sri Lanka and spend my twilight years here meditating in more solitude in order to finish the Dhamma business that was started over 35 years back. Good advice!!  Indeed, that is what I have been inwardly longing for over the past few years. This is part of the reason why I have separated myself from active involvement with the Bhavana Forest Monastery in West Virginia, to help facilitate this gradual transition.
There is a saying: “Be careful what you wish for; it might come true”.

I then took my leave of great ascetic and departed.
He calmly smiled, slung his alms bowl over one shoulder and slowly headed back down the sandy path through the scrub forest from where he had come.

Villagers paying respects to the great monk

Taking the morning rice gruel

Engaging in a Dhamma discussion

Recieving his alms bowl of food
Returning to the solitude of his kuti


Sunday, October 10, 2010

How about an M&M

     Life the way we know it, (our views of ourself and the world) is largely created by the mind, in, by and for each person’s mind. One of the most profound statements uttered by the Buddha was: “The world, the arising of the world, the ceasing of the world, and the path leading to the ceasing of the world, is right within this five or six foot long body with its sense organs, feelings, and consciousness.” For the Buddha, the 'world'  is synonymous with suffering. So suffering arises and ceases right here in this body and mind. The mind is the most important thing to understand, but the mind operates so quickly that it is difficult to catch hold of or see it. For this reason the Buddha taught us to approach it through the breath/body. We use the breathing/body as the gateway or threshold to directly perceive our thoughts or intentions. In this way, we can make progress to purify our bodily actions, speech, and thoughts that are the source of our kammic actions that bring us suffering.
     There are two basic aspects of the mind, the active and passive, or the aspects of doing and being. We are called human beings, but a more accurate description would be 'human doings'. From the moment you wake up in the morning until the time you go to sleep at night, the body and mind are usually doing something. Even while sleeping most people dream, which is another doing. When the sense organs are touched by something, the mind usually gets excited and neurotic or unmindful activity is activated. It is like driving a car and manual shifting through 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and then into overdrive, the mind gets triggered off  into doing.  With all this activity, we tend to lose our centeredness and mindfulness and make mistakes. We get dragged into the past and pushed into the future; we get caught up in anger, craving, worry and delusion.
     Most people have probably not experienced what might be called, 'pure being,' when the mind is at absolute rest. When the mind can rest in the present moment, this is 'being'  because the mind is not doing any specific activity at that time, it is simply aware. It does not go to the past or future, but quietly rests in the 'Now.' It is like a car with a perfectly tuned engine that is quietly idling in neutral gear, or a cat gently purring. (However, I am not saying that a cat has this kind of awareness). In the same way, the mind can rest in the present moment, with 'knowing', or 'awareness'. At that time it is not going anywhere or doing any neurotic activity, it is simply 'being'. When the mind rests in 'being' it feels like an artesian well,  infusing the body and mind with energy. This is the universal life energy  from which we are usually consciously cut off and have no idea of, because we are caught up in near constant doing and becoming. 
 One of the hardest things for most people to do would be to sit down, not move the body, close their eyes and not go to sleep. Not many people could do it for more than a few minutes before they would become bored, agitated or anxious, unless of course they know how to meditate. The mind will become restless because it is not trained and accustomed to non-physical activity and mental silence. The mind will want to do something and therefore will create some mental and/or physical activity. This doing/activity makes the sense of self, I or ego feel more alive. When the mind is active, it will usually be moving between the past and the future, just like a pendulum of the clock that is constantly moving back and forth in order to create time. When the mind rests in the present moment, time seems to disappear because time as we experience it is created by the active mind.
     So, how do we experience “being” or “awareness?”  For starters we have to learn how to move more slowly and mindfully, to downshift the body and the mind so that they may be more integrated and abide more calmly. From time to time we need to stop what we are doing completely, come to the present moment of breathing/body, to reconnect and dip into silent awareness or “being.” When we get continually caught up in unmindful neurotic activity without taking any 'pure rest', we become cut off from the source of life. Our energy is drained at the end of the day and we became exhausted. This happens because we do not mindfully stop and pause during the day in order to get reconnected to the energy source.
    There are a lot of misconceptions, even among Buddhists, about what meditation is all about. Some people think that meditation can be practiced only by monks who live in the jungle, that lay people can not really do it. Meditation is not pushing out the world and entering some abstract, hypnotic or blank state of mind. It is really getting in touch with the world. People have accused forest-dwelling monks of escaping from reality or the world. Actually it is opposite. People who indulge in alcohol, drugs, sex, movies and other sensory obsessions—they are the ones escaping from the world. Monks, or other serious meditators, directly confront the world, the world of the mind; there is no place else to go. Meditating monks cannot turn on the television, open the refrigerator and eat food whenever they want, rush off to the movies, or drive the block to distract themselves. They really confront the world through meditation. When you sit and hear loud distracting sounds, feel sharp pains in the body, and/or see your own confused mind and defilements, you don’t run away from them. Normally, people will do something to get rid of distractions or pain, For example, if you hear a loud sound, you shut the windows or turn on the stereo. If you have pain in the body, you take a pill. If it’s too hot you turn on the air conditioner. All of these are ways to escape from the pain of the real world.
    When you sit and meditate, you confront the world of pain or any other mental states. You watch them, even the unwanted ones and don’t try to run away from them. Hopefully, you will cultivate the  ways to observe and skilfully deal with them so they don’t cause you suffering. Then you won’t have to try to escape from them.  This way of practice is different from the artificial means that society has created to escape from the pains of life. Meditation is not running away from pain, but not fighting or struggling against it either. The art of meditation is learning to open up and allow the world to pass through your body and mind without it causing or turning into suffering. Remember the formula: “suffering = pain × resistance.” Most people tend to push out the pain of the world. During meditation we let it pass through us, but we don’t build up a resistance. The resistance is the suffering. The Buddha taught us that the source of suffering is craving or desire. Basically, it means the desire to acquire something that we don’t have now, or to reject or get away from the pain you encounter. Much of our waking time is taken up in this dual pursuit.
    We have become over-dependent on material stimulation. People don’t know how to be simple. We’ve lost the simplicity in life because of modern advancements and advertisements that make us too dependent on external things. We’ve come to believe that happiness comes from outside, such as having a new car and other gadgets, or having enough money to get and do what you want when you want. For some people, happiness means having family and friends who act the way you want them to act, or not having any sickness. Each person’s definition of happiness depends on how their mind defines it, but all of these depend on things that are impermanent, constantly changing and are beyond our control. It is not a real or secure sense of happiness when you depend on things that are changing. It will end up with dissatisfaction and some source of conflict because you will keep on wanting more. The Buddha taught that real happiness is already inside; the happiness of not wanting. If you don’t want anything, then there’s nothing to lose; then there’s no insecurity or unhappiness. Actually, happiness is our inherent birthright, the natural state of awareness/being which is complete within itself. It doesn’t need anything else to be happy. Knowing that I have been a monk for a long time, people frequently ask me if I am happy. They think that monks must be suffering if they can’t get or do what they want. I tell them that I am not unhappy and I am not searching for happiness. All you have to do is remove the cause of suffering, and happiness will already be there. It is nothing that you can search for or bring into yourself.
     We have to understand the nature of suffering. This is why the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths: Suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the path leading to the end of suffering. Where is the word happiness? The Buddha mentioned suffering four times but does not directly mention anything about happiness. Why is that? Because there is no need to. All you have to do is know what suffering is, remove the cause of suffering; then, automatically you will be happy, you will reach the end of suffering. Some people misunderstand the Buddha’s teaching. They say, “Buddhism is pessimistic, it talks only about suffering.” They say, “I’m not suffering, my life is great; everything goes the way I want it. I don’t know why the Buddha mentions suffering so much.” This kind of person does not understand what the Buddha meant. This is looking only upon the superficial meaning of the words.
     In the practice of mindfulness, we want to learn how to deconstruct or slow down the mind so we can see that we are overly dependent on doing, wanting, and craving. We can see how craving for material satisfaction is superficial. Our insatiate desires and struggles to avoid or get rid of pain actually compound our problems instead of solving them. Most people are trying to “do things” in order to make themselves happy. But in so doing they often create more unhappiness through their unmindful actions. One has to look at this phenomenon with a clear mind. During daily practice of meditation, when the mind is quieted down, you can be sitting there and be perfectly happy. At that time you don’t need or want anything, you can be perfectly content. You may even wish that it would never end. This can happen when you simply sit there being in the present moment, not needing anything from the outside. This is the true nature of the mind that rests within. We have to learn how to reconnect to this “awareness” by learning to slow down and pause. 

     One of the great practical benefits of practicing mindfulness meditation comes from learning to slow down, pause and stop from time to time. Train yourself to come back to the present moment, feel the breathing/body, get regrounded, if only for a few moments or even just for one minute, from time to time during the day. This is a practice that I call an, 'M&M', a minute of mindfulness, or a minute meditation.  You train yourself to pause, freeze, stop for one mimute once an hour. Whether you are sitting or standing, whatever you are doing, just stop the physical activity and feel your feet pressing the floor, take a slow deep breath and relax. Let go of what’s going on in the mind and come back to the physical reality of the present moment or Now. You can simply remind yourself of, 'standing breathing, standing breathing, standing breathing'. Or at the same time,you could also forgive anybody who had hurt you in the last hour and send out Metta.You remain like this for one minute and then mindfully continue what you were doing. You try to do this at least once an hour throughout the day.  This will help reduce stress hour by hour instead of allowing it to accumulate as most people do. This practice will get you at least ten minutes of valuable meditation or 'down time'. This practice will be of a great benefit especially if you cannot manage to get in longer meditations in the morning or evening. This will prove to be a tremendous help.
     Normally we live a fast-paced life. If you continue to neurotically rush around unmindfully it will be unlikely that you will experience any 'deeper' meditation. We have to train ourselves to slow down. We learn to stop and take inventory of what we are  doing each day. We cram our days with many things to do, but if we check up and investigate this we’ll see many things we do are not necessary. When we do things quickly we tend to make mistakes and then have to correct or redo the mistakes.  A common problem is misplacing things and then forgetting where you put them, such as your keys or wallet. You come in the house and unmindfully put them down somewhere, then rush off to do something else. When you are ready to go out again you will have to spend twenty minutes looking for them. This scenario is often repeated several times during the day with different things. This wastes a lot of valuable time. If you do things mindfully then you can avoid this senario. If you do things more slowly and mindfully, you will more easily remember the things you do and say. When you mindfully put something down, it means that you actually see where you put it down, it registers in the consciousness. Normally we do things unconsciously so the memory does not register things properly. We forget and then become angry with ourselves. The simple habit of learning to slow down is very useful.
This may be enough for your consideration.

 Don’t forget to take an M&M
throughout the day day.

 Mindfulness a day
keeps Dukkha away.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Can Yoga and Buddhist Meditation Mix-Part 2

The ABCs of Mindfulness Meditation

               The main teachings of the Buddha are summarized and centered in the Four Noble Truths: Suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the eightfold path to end suffering. It is no secret that the world is full of confusion , hatred, madness, and suffering. This suffering arises because people are trying to manipulate or change the external world to suit their viewpoint and satisfy their desires; they are caught up in greed, hatred, and delusion. The Theravada Buddhist approach advises a person to first change one’s inner world, to change and purify one’s mind; then the external world will gradually come along and be more peaceful. When people purify their own mind and learn to live peacefully and harmoniously within their surroundings, then they will be able to live at peace with the whole world. This is just a brief and basic overview of the Buddha’s teachings. Mindfulness and meditation play the most important roles in bringing about this inner mental transformation. The inner transformation brings about the outer transformation.
              In Buddhist teachings taking care of the body is not often addressed. But the truth is that the mind operates through the body. The mind is not separate form the body and the body is not separate from the mind. They are intimately connected, especially for the day-to-day activity of ordinary persons. If the body is sick and weak, if it has tired blood and/or poor energy, this will affect our life. Because of poor shallow breathing and stiffness and inflexibility in the body, our psychic energy, the nervous system energy, is not able to flow freely throughout the body. Thus, the body and mind remain lethargic and dull, or will be easily excitable and restless. Our perceptions and thinking ability won’t be very orderly and clear. So Yoga practice emphasizes and enhances having a healthy nervous system and body, having good posture and blood circulation. The posture is important in meditation, especially keeping the spine straight.
              Most people have difficulty in meditation because they are not able to keep their back straight. This is because we sit in chairs most of the time; when we travel in the car, sit at the computer, watch television or sit at the dining table, people are usually slouching or hunched over. So the back muscles are not very strong and it is difficult to keep sitting up straight. It becomes a constant battle to keep your back and head erect in order to have a clear and relatively painless meditation. Despite keeping the back straight, however, there will still be a certain amount of physical discomfort and pain involved in meditation. Learning how to skillfully deal with physical pain and mental pain is a large part of meditation. There is a saying: “Pain is a fact of life, suffering is optional.” When people  are born into this world pain is “a given;” they’re going to experience pain. But the struggles against pain and the mental anguish that arises is optional. When you have physical pain and then add mental suffering onto it, then you get “double trouble.” There is also a mathematic formula you can remember: “suffering = pain × resistance.” The Buddha’s teaching and meditation practice is not about removing pain. However, it is about the lessening and eventual eradication of the causes of suffering.
              The simplest, most basic definition of mindfulness is “to remember.” To remember what? In the Dhamma teaching, mindfulness is very specific. It means remembering the present moment, remembering what the body is doing right now and remembering what the mind is doing right now. Normally, our body is doing one thing and the mind is doing another. We might be eating or driving a car but we are often lost in thought and/or distractions. The first stage of mindfulness then is to bring the mind back to the body, remembering what the body is doing. The beginning of mindfulness practice is mindfulness of the body. The body is always in the present moment, it is always here and now. Now you’re sitting. That’s what the body is doing right now. But, as you will see in meditation, after five minutes of sitting your mind may have gone traveling around the world several times already. So, when your body is sitting you should be mindful that it is sitting; when breathing in and out, you should be mindful of breathing in, breathing out. At any time of the day the body is sitting, walking, standing, or lying down, and, of course, breathing. To remember that this body is sitting/breathing, or standing/breathing, walking/breathing or that it is lying-down/breathing, this is the basic grounding in mindfulness practice. This is our bodily life process that is going on 24/7. You have heard the expression 24/7, but we have to add one number, 24/7/365. It’s 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. and the next number we don’t know, because we can die at anytime.
              We use our centered attention on the body to act as a home base or anchor in order to restrain the wild mind, to tame the “monkey mind.” The mind of the untrained person is constantly thinking about this and that, getting lost in worries or anxieties, is in the past or future, is running here and there all over the inner world. This is what produces stress, tension, anxiety, and suffering. The mind is usually lost in the past and future; all problems arise from dwelling in the past or the future. When the mind is resting fully in the present moment no problems can exist. This is an essential but hidden truth. So the basic practice is remembering what the body and mind are doing right now. You remember by directly feeling your body: you feel the weight or heaviness of the buttocks pressing into the seat; you feel the way your feet are tucked under your body; you feel the straightness of the back or the head balanced between the shoulders; you feel the hands touching together. You are aware of “sitting” and aware of “breathing in—breathing out.”
              Breathing awareness forms a special focus of concentrated mindfulness. In the beginning we want to develop what is called “deep slow breathing.” The breath and the mind are related. The quicker and shorter your breaths are, the more agitated your mind is. However, the slower and deeper the breaths are, the more calm and peaceful the mind is. That is because the body needs oxygen to live. Every cell in this body needs oxygen to do its work, but because we often breathe in a very shallow way, the cells do not get enough of this essential life force. We have to breathe faster and the heart and lungs have to work harder. This causes wear and tear in the body and agitation in the nervous system. When you breathe deeply, you get enough oxygen in one breath. When you hold the breath in for two or three seconds, even more oxygen will absorb into the blood and enter into circulation. So the heart does not need to beat faster. The body and mind become more peaceful and we can get into meditation more easily.
              What you need to learn when starting to meditate is to establish a good foundation for the practice. We talk about establishing a long-term foundation because the practice of meditation is a continuous life-long process. Most people sit in a slouching posture that constricts the abdomen and rib cage/chest so the lungs cannot expand fully; the body does not get enough oxygen, and the cells in the body are half dead. In meditation this results in a constant fight with pain and drowsiness. Establishing a good foundation will help the mind go into deeper meditation more easily. I have seen many people whose meditation stagnates because they did not build up a good foundation. That is why I stress so much about how yoga helps, how important the posture and breathing is. Don’t worry about getting into deep Samadhi (deep concentration) too quickly.
              One misconception about meditation is that you have to block out all your thoughts. It is true that thoughts distract from meditation, but you can’t block them out. You need to learn to observe and be aware of them, to not get lost in them, and keep coming back to remember, “breathing-in/sitting, breathing-out/sitting.” Thoughts will still be coming and going but so long as you are linked by mindfulness to the sitting/breathing body you will not become totally lost. You can maintain some sense of centeredness. What we are trying to develop is being grounded or being centered in the body, which is the same as being in the present moment. This helps us see clearly what is happening. The body is like a tethering post. In the school yard game of tetherball, when you hit the ball, the ball goes around the post. If the chain or rope breaks the ball will fly away and perhaps be stolen by thieves or squashed by a passing car. In the same way, if we get lost in the past and future, our mindfulness can be stolen by outer distractions or inner thoughts; then defilements and suffering arise. The post is the breathing body and the ball is the mind. The rope is mindful attention that connects the mind to the body. When you hit the ball it goes around the post but does not get lost. In meditation the breathing body is in the center of awareness even though sounds and thoughts still arise and pass away in the mind. The calm awareness of breathing remains in the middle, so you don’t get exhausted. People get lost in their thoughts because they are not grounded in the present moment of “Now,” or they go to sleep because too many scattered thoughts have drained their energy.              
              The basic practice is using the breathing body, in whatever posture, as the focus of present moment attention. The secondary objects are the external loud sounds, bodily discomfort, itching sensations, and scattered thoughts that will distract you. You have to mentally note these potential distractions, to “know” that you are hearing, feeling and/or thinking, and getting distracted by something. This “knowing” will help you to let go and come back to the center, to sitting and breathing. If you have a pain or an itch, you do the same thing by a mental recognition that “discomfort is pulling at the mind.” This will allow you to let go of it, get objective distance to the discomfort, and relax around and through it.
Now sit down and try it.

Can Yoga and Buddhist Meditation Mix? Part 1

The Physiology of Meditation

              It has been a widely held belief among traditional Theravada Buddhists that the practice of Yoga and Buddhism do not or should not be mixed. Yoga comes out of the Vedas and Hindu tradition with its central belief in the “Atman” or “Supreme Self,” which appears to be diametrically opposite to the Buddha’s teaching of “Anatta” or “No-Self.” In addition to that is the stigma of the Buddha having practiced self-mortification (associated with ancient yogic practices) and ultimately rejected it being as futile. And it doesn’t help that, outside of India, Yoga is perceived and practiced mainly as a system of physical exercises for health, energy, relaxation, not to mention a good figure.
              At some vipassana meditation centers there are rules against doing yoga exercises while undergoing intensive retreat; they are considered to be a distraction from the pure inward mental focus or an escape from dealing with the physical pain of long motionless sitting or from boredom. I have experienced these disapproving attitudes myself (from others) during my initial training in Asia, and when starting to teach vipassana retreats in Sri Lanka.  I included some yogic breathing and exercises during these retreats. There may be a degree of truth that certain yoga postures and pranayama may not be compatible during intensive samatha/vipassana retreats. However, it doesn’t mean that we have to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” The Buddha, in the opening segments of some prominent Pali suttas, recommended sitting cross-legged ( the full lotus yoga posture) and keeping the spine erect to begin sitting meditation. But little else concerning specific physical conditioning, besides good health and walking meditation, is mentioned in the Pali texts, the oldest of he Buddha’s teachings. In the Ningyma School of Tibetan Buddhism, a system of physical awareness exercises called Kum Nye has been developed and taught to Western practitioners. Many Chinese Buddhist practice Tai Chi, Qi Gong or other martial arts. Other than this, physical exercise as an aid to meditative/spiritual development has been largely neglected among Buddhists, besides sometimes being frowned upon. This has resulted in some earnest Buddhist meditators resorting to being “closet yogis,” not wanting to be seen doing yoga.
              However, the recognition and popularity of Hatha Yoga practice among Western Buddhist meditators is increasing. Even some prominent Western Dhamma teachers have recently “come out” to more or less endorse it. A well-known Yoga magazine has done a feature article on Yoga practice for Buddhist meditators. This current Western Yoga practice is confined primarily to the notion of Yoga being a system of beneficial body and breathing exercises to promote health, cure physical problems, increase physical energy, etc….all of which are beneficial for meditation. Long-time meditators, as well as beginners, who have suffered through stiff, sluggish, or sick bodies, and restless or drowsy minds have experienced noticeable, sometimes dramatic, improvements in their meditation after practicing Yoga exercises even for just a short time.
              To be fair, Yoga is an ancient spiritual science of body and mind that also has as its goals, “Enlightenment” and “Moksha” (liberation from “Samsara,” the repeated rounds of birth and death), as does Buddhism. And, like Buddhism, Yoga has its own version of the “Eight-fold Path;” “Ashtanga Yoga” (Eight-Limbed Yoga”). “Asana” and “pranayama” (posture and breath control), which comprise current popular Yoga, are the third and fourth steps of that eightfold path. They precede the higher “inner practices” of concentration and meditation. Under the Yogic system, purifying, strengthening, and balancing the respiration, circulation, glandular, and nervous systems are seen as necessary prerequisites for deeper meditation to progress steadily toward the goals of “Realization” and “Enlightenment.” Whether the Hindu/Yoga goal of “self-Realization” and “Moksha” is equivalent to the Buddha’s “Enlightenment” and “Liberation” is beyond the scope of this article, and could be a testy debate among scholars.
              What would probably not be a testy debate is the connection between the body and mind, at least on the relative level where most of us live and meditate most of the time. The body affects the mind and the mind affects the body. When one is sick, in chronic pain, or weak in energy, one finds it difficult to put forth the effort to meditate. If the body is stiff with poor blood and life force circulation, if one cannot keep the spine erect and sitting is uncomfortable, then meditation is less enjoyable, painful, discouraging and of slow progress. Only those who have already attained a high level of meditative development could perhaps transcend the body/mind connection. Physical pain and drowsiness are two main obstacles that hinder the beginner in meditation. A regular practice of Hatha Yoga can help correct and alleviate some of the physical and energy blocks that make meditation more difficult than it needs to be. And this holds true for other body/energy based disciplines like Tai Chi and Qi Gong, both of which are also gaining a modest following among Buddhist meditators in Western countries.
              The main purpose or effect of Hatha Yoga is to purify and condition the body/mind nervous system so that it becomes a fit vehicle for the practice of meditation. Meditation happens through the nervous system. The mind is affected by the state of the nervous system. Purifying and strengthening the body allows you to progress in meditation without undue physical hindrances such as poor circulation, inability to keep the back straight, pain due to stiff joints or tense, tight muscles, low energy, or poor health. Hatha Yoga deals with generating and circulating generous amount of vital life force called prana (Chi in Chinese) throughout the entire body/brain nervous system. You can think of prana as the invisible cosmic electricity which pervades the Universe and which sustain all life forms, animate and inanimate. If you believe in Astronomy, then each star is a sun and all of their energy combined pervades the entire solar system. Since there are millions of suns throughout the Universe, it is not hard to imagine and/or sympathize with this concept of prana. We all know what happens when exposure to sunlight is cut off for too long. Similarly, prana is not oxygen, hydrogen, or nitrogen, but it is what gives life to these essential elements which keeps our cells alive. Prana is referred to in Yoga as the “cosmic plasma.”
              This body, any material body, is made up of billions of cells. Prana life force must pass through each cell to keep it charged up. This is similar to how a battery is kept charged by the steady current flowing from the positive to negative post.  If the flow of the current is interrupted then the battery loses its power and the battery becomes dead. Sickness, disease, undue aches and pains, and even mental problems arise when not enough life force is available and/or is not circulating properly to maintain the body’s defenses and other vital functions. The breathing and physical exercises in Hatha Yoga are designed to keep this prana life force flowing through the body in a harmonious way and in perfect balance. (See fig1.)
              The body receives most of the prana through the breathing process. Smaller amounts come in through the food eat and the water we drink. Prana circulates through the body along innumerable invisible etheric channels called nadis, which allow the life force to reach all areas/cells of the body. In yoga anatomy, these nadis pass through major nerve plexi (such as solar plexus) and those located along the spine. These nerve plexi are associated with centers called chakras that have specific emotional and psychic characteristics associated with them. The circulation of prana can become inadequate and inhibited due to poor shallow breathing, slouching posture, stiffness and inflexibility of muscle tissue and joints, and even by negative emotions such as anger, lust, stress, anxiety and fear. When the flow of prana is inadequate, disturbed or blocked, pain and many other physical and psychological problems can ensue. Restoring the adequate and free flow of the vital force is most important for the overall health of the body/mind system. This is all the more true and pertinent for people who are beginning to meditate or who have been meditating but find that their progress is stagnating or degenerating; they are meditating more but enjoying it less.

              The ABCs or foundation of yogic breathing is learning how to breathe into the three main sections of the lungs. (See fig.2) This is called three-part breathing or complete breathing, (vibhaga pranayama). The lungs have three main lobe/sections; the lower or abdominal lobes, the middle or intercostal lobes and the upper clavicle lobes. Each of these lobes affects the flow of prana life force to a specific part of the body, Air in the lower lobes affect the flow of prana to the pelvis, hips and legs; mid-lobe breathing affects the whole trunk section of the body and the vital organs therein; upper lobe breathing sends prana up to the neck, head/brain and arms. If we do not breathe sufficiently into these three lobes, then those corresponding body areas do not receive enough vital force to maintain optimum correct functioning; therefore, many associated problems may arise. It is a fact that most people under normal conditions breathe only about one tenth of the lung’s capacity, usually only a small amount into the lower or middle lobes. Rarely does air reach up to the high lobes unless one is doing some heavy exertion. Nature made the lungs the shape and size they are for a good reason—to use fully! But, because of slouching postures, modern stress, neuroses and other negative emotional states, breathing in most people is short, quick and shallow. Because of short, shallow breathing, the body must breathe quickly in order to get more oxygen to keep the cells alive.
              From a yoga point of view this is unhealthy. Healthier breathing is slower, deeper, complete breathing that evenly bathes the whole body, including the brain, with gentle waves of cosmic electricity. An ideal rate of breathing involves taking between four to eight seconds to breathe into all three lobes, holding the breath for three or four seconds (to allow for the complete absorption of the oxygen into the blood), allowing four to eight seconds for breathing out, and pausing one or two seconds before breathing in again. Training one to breathe like this, even just for three to five minutes several times a day, allows more oxygen and life force to be brought in and evenly distributed throughout the whole body in a relaxing mellow way so respiration rate and heart rate may go down. This is one of the main reasons why Yogis practice pranayama breathing; to regulate, purify and slow their respiration in order to facilitate the practice of deeper meditation. Breathing in this regulated way also helps as an initial concentration technique to draw attention inside and get the mind off the external world and out of our thoughts.
              In addition to three-part breathing, the body itself needs to be strong and flexible so that it can handle and distribute the vital life force in the most effective way, especially in terms of aiding meditation. Asana (literally, firm seat) is the third step of the Yogic Eightfold Path. Traditionally this seat is one of the various cross-legged sitting positions; generally, the padma asana or lotus posture. In order to develop deep concentration (Samadhi) the body should be held still for long periods of time (one to three hours) with the spine erect so that the breath and prana energy can flow freely, allowing the mind to become calm, concentrated and focused. If the joints and muscle tissue are stiff and inflexible, then blood and life force has difficulty penetrating them. Numbness, discomfort, and pain easily arise to disturb the mind, hindering concentration. This is where yoga exercises come in.
              There are two main ways of doing yoga exercises. Postures can be held for varying periods of time—thirty seconds to three minutes. Or, they can be done as rhythmic movements in coordination with deep slow breathing. In this latter method, one goes into a position with a slow (4-6 seconds) in-breath, holds the position with the breath a few moments, then returns to the starting position or opposite direction on a slow (4-6 seconds) out-breath. One pauses a moment or two and repeats the sequence two more times for a total of three repetitions. Then, one takes a longer pause to relax and feel the subtle body sensations before going on to different exercises done in the same flowing, mindful way.
              It is this style of doing yoga exercises, coupled with deep slow breathing, which I have found to be of the greatest benefit especially for practicing body-based vipassana meditation. Awareness of the breathing is the first foundation of mindfulness. Coordinating slow, even breathing with the repetition of fairly simple bending and stretching movements generates a powerful but soothing current of life-force sensation which can be noticeably felt. It tranquilizes the nervous system naturally and helps the mind become calm and concentrated. If done just before sitting in meditation it allows for a nice light breathing/body awareness and one feels nicely grounded, hitting the cushion already meditating or having created the space for deeper mediation.
              In yoga, the body is regarded as a temple that needs to be fit enough to sustain the development of spiritual awareness. The mind has to function through the body/brain nervous system to accurately experience and understand the conditioned world in its three characteristics, “Anicca,” “Dukkha,” and “Anatta” (impermanence, suffering, and “not-self”), in order to transcend attachment/clinging to experience the spiritual dimensions. If respiration and circulation are faulty, this disturbs the nervous system and other vital organs that, in turn, give rise to many disturbances in the mind/body. This makes it all the more difficult to develop mindfulness, concentration and wisdom.
              In brief, this is the physiology of meditation. This outlines the benefits of yoga on meditation practice and demonstrates how it is appropriate for vipassana and other Buddhist meditators.