It is a wonderful thing to have an interest in meditation. However, before we get started with the practice there are four things we need to be clear about:
1) What are we going to practice?
2) What can we expect to achieve from this practice?
3) How do we engage in this practice?
4) When we practice, are we actually doing what we intended?
Regarding the fourth point, we want to do what we set out to do, and shouldn’t slip into practicing something other than what we intended without immediately knowing that we have done so. Being mindful of these four points is essential as they provide the foundation that directs our practice and keeps it from slipping off track. They are a basic type of wisdom, which in the Pali language is called sampajañña. In English we can call it clear comprehension.
Whenever we observe objects of meditation, there must always be two assistants present. The first assistant is called sati, the mindfulness which recognizes the object that is being observed or has arisen in any given moment. The second is sampajañña, the clear comprehension that keeps our practice in check. Together, sati (mindfulness) and sampajañña (clear comprehension) make up the overall awareness that is essential for all meditators. Without these two assistants, without knowing what objects arise and without being clear on what we are doing, it is easy to lose our way and falter in our practice.
Samatha and Vipassana Meditation
There are two main types of meditation found in Buddhism: Samatha and Vipassana. In coming to the practice of Samatha or Vipassana, we need to have the mental clarity to know which one we have selected and for what purpose. The purpose of Samatha is to bring a mind that is not peaceful to a state of peace, to bring a mind that is not happy to a state of happiness, and to bring an unwholesome mind to a state of virtue. In Vipassana, we do not practice to change anything in this way, but to gain a proper understanding of the way things are (sammā-dhitti). We practice so we can see the true nature of body and mind.
The body and mind were seen by the Buddha as five distinct groups or aggregates called the five khandhas. Each of which has the inherent characteristic that is called non-substantiality and unsatisfactoriness (dukkha). We must come to know the truth of this in our experience. So our job is to become aware of the body and mind regularly with an inner watchfulness. This is the practice of Vipassana. When we practice in this way with frequency, wisdom arises – we come to know the true nature of the body and mind. This kind of wisdom is called right understanding (sammā-dhitti). We come to know that the body and mind are impermanent, suffering and are not our self, not us. When we have enough wisdom to see the truth of this clearly, authentically, consciousness can then let go of any attachment to the body and mind, and automatically comes to know nirvana (nibbāna), the end of suffering.
If we practice watching the body and mind a great deal, one day we will truly see that the body and mind are just aggregates, elements of nature, fractions of the earth. They are not us, nor do they belong to us. When we see the truth that there is nothing we can constitute as being ourselves, we will reach the first stage of enlightenment called stream-entry (sotāpanna). If we continue watching the body and mind carefully to the point of letting go of all attachment to them, then we become an arahant — one who has completely ended suffering. An arahant is not someone who is able to make the mind something permanently good, or create permanent happiness or permanent peace. He or she is one who no longer takes interest in such things. Peace, happiness and the like are worldly endeavors. An arahant knows the futility in trying to pursue satisfaction through worldly measures. He or she knows the true nature of body and mind and is beyond any attachment to them. We need to practice Vipassana to learn the truth about the body and mind that we consider our own. True liberation, the end of suffering, is not in trying to make the mind permanently happy or peaceful, but in seeing the nature of the body and mind as impermanent, suffering and not us – and then letting go.