Vipassana or Just Awareness

thumbnail
Wet Paint, modified 14 Years ago at 2/14/08 1:45 AM
Created 14 Years ago at 2/14/08 1:45 AM

Vipassana or Just Awareness

Posts: 22924 Join Date: 8/6/09 Recent Posts
Author: transcolin
Forum: Dharma Overground Discussion Forum

Greetings! I just joined this Wiki and thought I'd just jump right into the deep end (well, maybe this won't be terribly deep).

I have been practicing Soto Zen meditation for nearly two years; though, admittedly, my consistency is less than my ideal. I have stretches of meditating regularly for months, then not actively sitting for months, though I am increasingly able to watch what is arising in daily life.

Recently, I emailed my "informal" Zen teacher, an abbot at the zendo of which I am a member, about some aspects of my practice, including a recent meditation experience. I am copying my words followed by this teacher's (hopefully not a breach, since I'm not identifying the teacher). I'm hoping for some feedback here about goals or directions, not a critique of the answer.

I wrote: I have noted increased ability to concentrate while sitting to the point of inquiring into that which is arising. This manifests as the sense that there is a pure locus of focus at the center of the breath and, visually, the wall in front of me with quick awareness of various sense signals (arising thoughts that are non sequitors - appearing, releasing and dropping away; body sensations; sounds; etc.). I had one signicifant experience last week in which I could see them coming and going really quickly (per second or less). It was a bit disorienting and disconcerting to experience that what usually comes through to consciousness is a mere fraction of all that is arising in any given moment, but then I saw that phenomenon (the disorientated, unsatisfactory feeling) and experienced a profound release which I then also saw and released. It was like: See, Drop, See, Drop, See, Drop.

Note: I started this "inquiry" based on reading much of your book, Daniel.

Teacher reply to follow in next post (due to char limit).
thumbnail
Wet Paint, modified 14 Years ago at 2/14/08 1:50 AM
Created 14 Years ago at 2/14/08 1:50 AM

RE: Vipassana or Just Awareness

Posts: 22924 Join Date: 8/6/09 Recent Posts
Author: transcolin

Teacher wrote: Teacher replied: This increased awareness is along the lines of Vipassana, where each phenomena is noticed and dropped or deconstructed. That can be very useful when we're caught in a pattern. Our method, however, is see through or past these arisings to the space around them; between, behind, in front of them. Shifting awareness to spaciousness, the arisings become quieter and quieter. Sometimes we can sit in a clear, spacious awareness that is very refreshing. That awareness is called "samadhi," and can take on various colorations; different experiences at different times. Samadhi is not really an end in itself, but is a very instructive exercise. We learn so much from paying attention to how and when it arises, and by learning to balance effort and non-effort in response to it.

So, what I'm wondering: Vipassana seems active. Just sitting and perhaps opening to samadhi seems more passive. Given my past in jumping around to different, often contradictory seeming (Zen vs Vedanta) practices, it seems appropriate to focus on one school or path. I can't discern whether to stop what seems like active inquiry and just sit OR continue what I seem to be desiring or pulled to do in terms of Vipassana. I'm not terribly worried about it, just curious.

Perhaps someone who is more experienced can help unpack my experience and point out what I am unable to see at this point?
thumbnail
Wet Paint, modified 14 Years ago at 2/14/08 1:55 AM
Created 14 Years ago at 2/14/08 1:55 AM

RE: Vipassana or Just Awareness

Posts: 22924 Join Date: 8/6/09 Recent Posts
Author: transcolin

One additional note: I started experiencing what I subjectively feel to be kundalini flow about two years ago. I've had what felt like electric, crazy energy flowing from whatever is contacting the ground (feet, butt, knees), get "stuck" around second chakra, release from there and shoot towards my head. Based on others' accounts since then, it seems that my experiences range from mild to moderate (no overwhelming, uncontrollable shaking other than one time). I can now summon such flow at will during meditation; though, for months I avoided doing so, for fear that I was distracting myself. That's it, just trying to fill in some blanks.
thumbnail
Wet Paint, modified 14 Years ago at 2/17/08 3:17 AM
Created 14 Years ago at 2/17/08 3:17 AM

RE: Vipassana or Just Awareness

Posts: 22924 Join Date: 8/6/09 Recent Posts
Author: transcolin

OK, perhaps I jumped into the pool with a cannonball instead of a swan dive. Lemme try a basic dive by reformulating questions about general practice rather than my own.

In Soto Zen, it seems that "just sitting" is the focus. Does this mean that insight and concentration are not directly practiced at all, or are they considered advanced practices that aren't even hinted at until you're a disciple with several years of practice under your robe?

Does each school of Buddhism define enlightenment in different ways?

Is it possible to attain enlightenment by "just sitting"?

If one is seeking enlightenment, do concentration and insight practices put one on the fast track?

Given the awe-inspiring levels of development laid out by Daniel, would someone take a stab at explaining why Soto Zen, a school that came after Theravada, doesn't explicitly discuss development of skill in such a manner or even in a rudimentary manner (again, from the view I've had as a non-disciple)?
thumbnail
Daniel M Ingram, modified 14 Years ago at 2/17/08 11:02 AM
Created 14 Years ago at 2/17/08 11:02 AM

RE: Vipassana or Just Awareness

Posts: 3231 Join Date: 4/20/09 Recent Posts
Your many questions, from the historical to the terminological to the developmental and more, are quite complex, rich, not straighforward, and could the the focus of large discussions, and perhaps they should be.

Picking just a few:

1) Soto Zen does not have a straightforward relationship to vipassana, though both are wisdom traditions. I am prepared to argue their similarities and their differences, though if one reads Dogen, one can find what appear to be contradictions, some for vipassana, some that seem along other angles and tangents, some that seem to nearly contradict it. Examples follow. From Rules for Zazen: "[Zazen] is not a conscious endeavour", and then "engage in zazen as though saving your head from a fire." One seems all passive, and a paragraph later it seems all active. From Guidelines for Studying the Way,"The thought of enlightenment, as was mentioned, is the mind which sees into impermanence," and, "So when a notion of self arises, sit quietly and contemplate it. Is there a real basis inside or outside your body now? ... From beginning to end a drop of blood or lymph is empty. So none of these are the self. What about mind, thought, awareness, knowledge? Or the breath going in and out... what is it after all? None of these are the self either." That all is straightforward vipassana, if you ask me.

That said, Zazen does also emphasize that within practice is enlightenment, which adds an immediate component that some people can miss when they practice what seem like more goal-oriented traditions like vipassana, though this is their own misunderstanding of vipassana. Bare investigation, which can arise from very passive practice, like sitting by a clear pool, or very active practice, like noticing all sensations arise and vanish on their own, is key, and balancing effort and surrender takes time and development. Dogen teaches through paradox and contradiction to support balance.
thumbnail
Daniel M Ingram, modified 14 Years ago at 2/17/08 11:14 AM
Created 14 Years ago at 2/17/08 11:14 AM

RE: Vipassana or Just Awareness

Posts: 3231 Join Date: 4/20/09 Recent Posts
2) Is it possible to attain enlightenment by "just sitting"? It is definitely possible, but as one Zen Master once said, "Don't just sit there like an idiot!"

3) As to the question of concentration and insight practices putting you on the fast track, I would say that for concentration practices that is a qualified "no" and for insight practices is a qualified "yes". Concentration practices can be an endless dodge and content trap, like honey quicksand, but developing concentration helps insight practices for those who don't get stuck in them. Insight practices, such as more goal-oriented traditions such as the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition are definitely fast for those who can actually do them, which is basically those who can avoid getting lost in their "stuff" and actually keep up the practice, particularly on retreats. That said, they can cause some wild side effects and instabilities.

4) As to the maps, I am such a chronic map-loving freak that it is unfair to ask me. I think they are amazing, a technology that revolutionizes spiritual practice, extremely useful for navigating both in daily life and on the cushion, a tremendous source of both faith and wisdom, a priceless treasure. That said, I have seen them cause confusion, distract people from practice, cause unhealthy competition and comparison, and some other complexities. When used well by mature people with good guidance, they perform as advertised. I could say all sorts of things about technologies that Soto Zen threw out that I think are useful, but this is one biased opinion and should not discount the attempt at reform that occurred in Soto Zen, one that I believe is now in need of reform, but then I'm just one voice in this. I got a lot out of my exposure to Zen and Soto Zen in particular, and it was a healthy counterbalance to my map obsession. With Zen as one of many supports, my map obsession and hard-core practice worked well.
thumbnail
Daniel M Ingram, modified 14 Years ago at 2/17/08 11:22 AM
Created 14 Years ago at 2/17/08 11:22 AM

RE: Vipassana or Just Awareness

Posts: 3231 Join Date: 4/20/09 Recent Posts
5) As to different schools defining enlightenment is differing ways, the answer is a definite "yes". What does that have to do with reality? I would say little, but then again, opinions vary. I quote again from Dogen, "The thought of enlightenment has many names but all refer to one and the same mind." This is also my take on it: at the end, it all looks the same, though there is lots to be said about what the territory on the way to the end can look like.

These are relatively superficial, conceptual answers to your fine questions. I would recommend that if you want to know for yourself, consider retreats, Soto Zen retreats, Mahasi retreats, or some other style retreat, so long as you have good teachers, good practice conditions, and sufficient time. Dogen himself was a great fan of very intense practice, the highest quality of teachers, and doing what it takes to attain the goal, as evidenced by his own story, which I assume you know. He is a great example, and is worthy of following. There are many others as well. The key is to do it for yourself. Do you have the time and resources to go on retreats of significant duration?
thumbnail
Wet Paint, modified 14 Years ago at 2/18/08 1:21 AM
Created 14 Years ago at 2/18/08 1:21 AM

RE: Vipassana or Just Awareness

Posts: 22924 Join Date: 8/6/09 Recent Posts
Author: transcolin

Wow, Daniel. Thanks for taking the time to answer each of my questions. Lots to chew on; I'll have to read through a few times before coming back with responses.

In answer to your most-important question: Unfortunately, I do not particularly have the resources right now to go on extended retreats (common answer, yes?). I am strongly considering applying to be a resident at San Francisco Zen Center next fall, if I get accepted to the graduate school program I have applied to. As a resident, I would take every opportunity for extended retreats, in addition to the grounding influence of daily practice. Also, when I DO have the resources (time and money), I will do retreats outside of that potential opportunity at SFZC. Your writing, along with commentary by other teachers that stuck, makes it clear to me that retreats are a critical component of a serious practice.

Thanks again.

Breadcrumb