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- Published on Friday, 23 December 2011 09:16
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There are two main banches in Buddhist meditation: samatha (calmness, concentration) and vipassana (insight), which stresses mindfulness. This doesn’t mean that the two are entirely separate, since you cannot be mindful unless you have at least some level of concentration.
The techniques of samatha meditation are many, some older than Buddhism, others developed after the time of the Buddha. Among the most commonly practiced here is anapanasati, or “mindfulness with breathing.” This technique was advocated by the Venerable Buddhadasa Bhikku (1903-1993), founder of Suan Mokkh Forest Monastery in Surat Thani. Meditators at Suan Mokkh (Garden of Liberation), follow the 16 steps of anapanasati as laid down in Pali texts.
Mantra meditation, in which you repeat a few words over and over, is also widely practiced. Followers of this technique may chant “Buddh” as they inhale, and “dho” as they exhale. The words may vary, but the purpose of chanting is really to get the mind focused. Yet another widely taught technique is kasinas, where meditators concentrate on an object outside themselves, such as the flame of a candle, or a crystal ball.
Sati, or mindfulness, is key to vipassana meditation. You train yourself to be aware of the body’s action, the rise and fall of your chest as you inhale and exhale, the movement of your feet and legs as you walk, as well as your feelings, your thought, and finally, the state of mind you are in. Walking, sitting and lying meditation are but a few of vipassana techniques. When the mind is untrained, concentration can be shattered by the slightest stimuli -noise, smell, heat, hunger, pain, etc. The key is to become aware of what happens, but not dwell on it. Still, a novice can only ward off so much distraction, and that’s one reason why vipassana retreats are usually held in peaceful and isolated settings.
Meditation teachings are widely available in Thailand. You can attend a class at one of the teaching monasteries for an afternoon or evening. Wat Mahadhatu near the Grand Palace, for example, has two meditation training centers open to locals and tourists. Or you may join a vipassana retreat, which usually takes a weekend or longer. A number of retreat centers, most of them located in the provinces, run intensive courses of up to four weeks on an ongoing basis. All vipassana retreats require you to follow the Five Buddhist Precepts. These include refraining from harming all living beings, from taking what is not given, from improper sexual behavior, from lying and incorrect speech, and from taking liquors and drugs that will cloud the mind. Some retreats may require that you take you take the Eight Precepts, which in addition to the first five include refraining from dinner, from all forms of entertainment and bodily decoration, and from sleeping on high mattresses.
Respect for one’s teacher is inherent in Thai culture. At the start of a vipassana session, you must attend an opening ceremony, where you pay respect to the meditation masters and present them with traditional Buddhist offerings of incense sticks, candles and flowers - usually three lotuses or a hand garland. There is also a closing ceremony, where you thank your teachers and bid them a formal farewell. Even if you cannot stay for the duration of the course, be sure to perform this ritual before you leave, since not doing so is considered very rude.
Once you get enrolled in a course, be sure to follow only the technique taught there. Mixing techniques will only confuse you. Usually, you are given instructions daily, and required to report your progress - or lack of it-to your meditation master on the following day. After the interview you will be given advice and new instructions, or old ones to repeat.
All-white, modest clothing is required at vipassana retreats. Check ahead if there is a shop on the compound, or if you have to bring your own. At most monasteries, simple accommodation and food are provided, usually free of charge. Talking, reading and writing are discouraged, as they will distract you from your meditation. And meditators are not allowed to leave the retreat compound unless absolutely necessary, so be sure to bring enough change of clothes, toiletries and personal items for the duration of the course.
For first-time meditators, it might help to attend a day session or two before you join a long retreat. Bangkok has a number of meditation centers offering day classes in English. Many temples around the country also teach samatha and vipassana meditation. Contact the nearest office of the Tourism Authority of Thailand for a list of local temples where English-speaking classes can be arranged.