I was recently asked to answer some questions on meditation and death for a new Buddhism text book that’s being written for 11 – 14 year old school children. The word limit was 600 for each topic. Thought I’d post the meditation questions and my answers here. Death ones to follow.
Tell us a little about yourself
I was born in 1981 and grew up in Warwickshire. Although I was never religious I always had lots of questions: Why am I here? Was I anything before I was born? What’s the point in all this? Who am I? I also found life quite difficult and was often unhappy. Then, when I was eighteen, I tried meditation and within a short space of time it became the most important thing in my life. It seemed the best way to find happiness and to get answers. About seven months later, after having read about Buddhism and finding a monastery near my home, I decided to become a monk.
What Buddhist tradition do you follow?
I follow the Theravada School of Buddhism, and in particular the Thai Forest Tradition, which was founded at the turn of the Twentieth Century and was driven by a desire to get back to the original teachings and practice of the Buddha. It emphasises strict observance of the monastic rules (such as not using money), the practice of mindfulness and meditation, and the observance of certain challenging practices (such as eating one meal a day).
What types of meditation do Buddhists practise?
There are many meditation techniques and although they might appear quite different they all enable us to concentrate, observe and develop the mind. The most widely practised in Theravada Buddhism is Anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing), which is suitable for most people. Metta Bhavana (development of loving-kindness) is also very popular and is great for overcoming hatred. Some Buddhists concentrate on repeating certain words in their minds, such as ‘Buddho’ or ‘Arahang’. And there are a number of contemplations, such as Mindfulness of Death, which reminds us to make the most of our time.
Describe one that you practise regularly
Mindfulness of breathing has always been my main practice. After sitting down in the half-lotus position and closing my eyes I’ll usually begin with a brief ‘body scan’. This helps me to notice physical tension and let it go. Once I feel relaxed and alert I’ll focus on my breathing, allowing it to come and go naturally. Some people like to focus on one point where they feel the breath, such as the nose tip, but I like to be mindful of the whole body breathing. When thoughts and feelings interrupt I try to observe them, without reacting to them, so that I can understand their nature. A typical session will last anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour.
What are the challenges of meditation as a practice?
One of the biggest obstacles is the monkey mind! This is the mind that doesn’t want to be still. It jumps all over the place – from thoughts, to feelings, to sounds – like a monkey jumping from tree to tree. There are also the Five Hindrances, which the Buddha often spoke about. They are: desire for pleasure; aversion and anger; dullness and drowsiness; restlessness and worry; and doubt about the teachings and your own ability to reach enlightenment. These hindrances stop the mind from becoming concentrated and clear.
What is the purpose of meditation as a practice?
The purpose of meditation is to calm the mind so that we can see things as they are. We call the practice of stilling of the mind ‘samatha’, or tranquillity, and the clear seeing ‘vipassana’, or insight. Developing a calm, still mind brings great happiness; but it’s only when we see things clearly that we can be truly free and at peace. When our mind is clear we can see that everything that we experience – our body, feelings, thoughts, and so on – is anicca (impermanent), dukkha (unsatisfactory), and anatta (without self or soul). Once we understand this, our craving and selfishness will disappear and we’ll live at peace. This is what we mean by Enlightenment.