We drove to St. Pete yesterday morning to attend the Meditation Retreat for a Dialog with our Minds conducted by Bhante Upananda organized by Samadhi Buddhist Meditation Center and held at the Southwest Florida Buddhist Vihara. But we were there only for part of the time, staying to listen to the Dharma talk on How to move to Vipassana from Samatha.
We have been to the Vihara several times before, recalling the majestic outdoor model scenes depicting the various momentous events in the life of Syakyamuni Buddha, all in sparkling white. We note that several mini wooden crossings have been added since then.
We first handed over several vegetarian dishes to the kitchen, and tiptoed into the main hall where Bhante Upananda had already began his Dharma talk.
Bhante likened our life to being on a psychological marathon, always on the move. And we are lost amidst the tremendous technological advances that we have forged, mechanically moving forward but perhaps spiritually deficient. To fill this void, we need dialog, and talk to ourselves. Hence the purpose of the retreat, which is to try to look at ourselves.
Bhante notes with concern the fixation of college students on cell phones. They are often seen fidgeting with the cell phone in hand, scrolling up and down for someone to call. The outlook is often one of seeking pleasure from without, rather than addressing the inner turbulence that is constantly brewing, bordering on bursting at the seam.
In this respect, the word meditation as is commonly understood fails to convey what it is meant for. In Pali, the word is Bhavana, which means to cultivate, to enhance, to increase, through reducing turbulence.
Samatha (an English translation is Calm Abiding Mediation) is then aimed at emptying our mind of negative feelings, akin to clearing out the garbage that is occupying space in the kitchen, as a tool for fulfillment.
All Buddhas profess to do no evils, do all good, and to purify the mind, achieved by removing moral garbage. We inherit 52 types of tendencies by birth, the majority of which is negative. And good tendencies feed on good feelings, and vice versa.
While meditation as a practice predates Buddhism, Vipassana (an English translation is Insight Meditation) is where true Buddhism/Dharma begins.
Bhante believes that the word "religion" fundamentally carries cultural connotations. A preferred alternative term, which is increasingly used in US, is spirituality, which is perceived to be culture-neutral.
He also believes that there is no religion other than emotions, which are the functional aspects of the mind. One particularly pernicious emotional display is a deep level of helplessness, sometimes manifest in our crying out for help.
Thus, Samatha deals with the inner turbulence engendered by our emotional upheavals so that in the process positive tendencies would pop up, leading to good results. What Buddha did was to change the Samatha meditation as practiced then by not surrendering to some unknown higher level/source. The Buddha taught us to seek internal divinity instead, by internalizing and humanizing the God within us.The Buddha then rediscovered Vipassana, the insight meditation that permits us to see things as they truly are through letting the dust settle such that the water is no longer troubled. Otherwise it's like trying to see through a pond of troubled water but we cannot see because there is no way to see.
He cited a personal example of a back pain sustained during a fall in Toronto in 2002. While the doctor can prescribe clinical relief, he had to deal with the pain by seeing the pain as it is, to transform the pain as is often cited by Dalai Lama.
The easiest avenue to Vipassana is through dealing with aches and pains. By believing in the ability to deal with the pain, we can realize our inner potential. Scan the body, identify the pain as one whose primary existence is in the mind, recognize that we are mortals, are in a state of perpetual change, and hence, impermanence, thereby educating our mind in the process.
Vipassana connotes discernment and wisdom, and entails diving into the mind to see its beauty. While he does not encourage everyone to do so, Bhante engages in seeing his own skull as a way to understand impermanence. As an analogy, a medical practitioner has an anatomical understanding of the body, but the Buddhists need to have a spiritual understanding of the same, peeling off the robe, the skin, the flesh, the bone, the marrow, and ultimately nothing, the ultimate emptiness.
At this point, Bhante concluded the session on the Dharma talk and the attendees then adjourned to a scrumptious vegetarian lunch prepared by volunteers. We left soon after lunch while the other attendees continued with the afternoon session on walking meditation, earning a well-timed respite from their busy schedule by engaging the mind in a dialog through meditation.