Chapter Five
Tranquillity and Insight
 
 
 

 
MEDITATION IS PART of a spiritual path which leads beyond ordinary human limitations.  This `path' does not consist of a series of external waymarks for us to follow.  We are the path; the path is our development, the unfoldment of our own life in awareness.  And this path begins, at some time or another, with questions.
 
What are we? What is humanity? What is this experience we call `life’ - and what is the point of it? Does it have any meaning or purpose, or is it all some kind of dream? Why do people suffer? Does anything determine the future? What happens when we die? How did we get here? How is it that we were born in our particular set of circumstances and others were born in theirs?
 
Many people wonder about such questions from early childhood onwards - but they come up against apparently insuperable barriers.  If we were really capable of exploring these questions in depth, and coming to conclusions based on our own experience, there would be no problem; we would very soon comprehend `life, the universe, and everything'.  But it is hard to imagine anyone really capable of arriving at such definite conclusions.  So when people find themselves up against these barriers, they may either be forced into accepting a religion which simply tells them what to believe, or they may cynically conclude that such questions are a waste of time.  Neither answer is very satisfactory - and the inner conflicts still remain.
 
Fortunately Buddhism has a point of view which avoids both these extremes.  Firstly, it provides methods of practice - meditation, the development of awareness, ethics, and spiritual friendship - through which we can develop our minds until we can see into these issues for ourselves.  Then there are deeper, more metaphysical teachings, which can provide us with a provisional framework for getting to grips with such issues.  These ideas are not offered as fixed dogma but simply as operational concepts - they are suggested ways of engaging with our existential dilemmas.  We have already looked at a number of Buddhist methods of practice, so now we are going to look at a few of its teachings.  First of all, we are going to explore how Buddhism sees the nature of existence.
 
our conditioned nature
 
Some questions may reveal vast areas of unnamed, uncharted territory.  One such question is `How did we get to be as we are?' Apart from a few biological and psychological facts, we don't know much about how we got here, or why we are the kind of person we are.  Each of us has his or her own set of attitudes and responses, likes and dislikes; each of us has a certain way of speaking, moving, looking at things.  But how did that come about?
 
We can see how the course of our life has been influenced by many things.  We are conditioned, for example, by our nationality, our religion, class, and gender - there are a large number of such conditioning factors.  We are fairly passive in relation to most of them - we simply get born into a set of influences, and these influences incline us to act in certain ways.  Later, we may modify these `inborn' inclinations in response to new events that happen in our life.  Throughout our whole life, this ongoing process of adjustment has been forming and re-forming our attitudes, likes, and dislikes.
 
Buddhism, too, sees existence in terms of conditioning.  It takes a broad overview of life, and sees that the inclinations we form provide the conditions for future sets of circumstances to arise.  In other words, our interests and emotional drives tend to get us into particular situations.  We can see how often our friends get themselves involved in incidents which are somehow `typical' of them.  (Our friends may see that we do the same.) Our life is very much defined, and limited, by our conditioning.  And even though external factors influence us, it is we who respond, and who modify our responses, to those external factors.  We ourselves create our own conditioning.
 
According to Buddhism each of us is subtly re-conditioning ourselves in every thought-moment, and that process of `becoming now this, now that' has been going on since beginningless time.  The momentum cannot be stopped: we cannot simply stop acting.  Even when we seem to be doing absolutely nothing we are still acting - we are still thinking, still making tiny semi-conscious decisions.  In the space of a single hour, we carry out hundreds of minute physical deeds and react to circumstances with countless thoughts and emotions.  Most of them, viewed separately, may be insignificant.  But they work together: like different currents combining in a single river, a momentum builds up which propels us in some particular direction - at least for a while.  Buddhism asserts that unless we break out of this, there will never be an end to conditioned existence: we will be bound to becoming now like this, now like that, for ever into the future.
 
Yet it is possible to change, or re-channel, the direction in which our actions are taking us.  And, if we want, we can develop the capacity to break through these limitations completely.  According to Buddhism it is possible to reach a state beyond all conditionings.  This is what is ultimately implied by spiritual development: a release from every kind of self-imposed limitation, and a new kind of freedom.  The highest level of spiritual attainment is the unconditioned or `Enlightened' mind of Buddhahood.  We may begin to realize the first glimmerings of this through the insight that we are not something separate from this process of becoming: that we are this momentum, nothing more - and nothing less.  Such an insight can free us from the tendency to grasp selfishly onto things as `ours'.  So here, at least, is a kind of answer to the first question that was posed at the beginning: `What are we?' We can say that we consist of a self-modifying flow of action which we can choose at any time to direct positively or negatively.
 
While there is immense disparity regarding the degree of choice available, all living beings are like this.  One Buddhist scripture describes existence in terms of innumerable beams of coloured light, all criss-crossing and penetrating one another.  All beings participate in a universe - are a universe - consisting of the currents and counter-currents created by all their actions, simultaneously influencing and being influenced by each other.
 
we always expect permanence
 
It is quite easy for us to understand - in theory - that everything is subject to impermanence and change, but it is actually very difficult indeed to accept it in our own lives.  We resist the idea emotionally.  Our resistance to the truth of impermanence is the basic reason why life is so often frustrating.  We tend to expect things to remain just as they are.  We never want the things we enjoy to come to an end, or even to change in any way - but they always do.  When our expectations are so unrealistic, frustration is inevitable.  When things change, we can feel insecure, hurt, angry, embittered, and cynical.
 
These emotions are painful, and they create the conditions for more pain, both for us and for others.  They can cause us to lash out blindly, automatically, to defend dubious pleasures and ward off imaginary threats.  Yet the anger we sometimes feel does nothing to heal the pain (in fact, it makes it even worse), and our increased desires bear no relation to our actual enjoyment of pleasure - they just increase our sense of insecurity.
 
living in an impermanent reality
 
And there is no way out - there is no escape from reality.  Unless we can learn to sit more easily with the fact of impermanence, we are going to keep hurting ourselves and others.  We need to realize that ending, renewal, death, birth, and change continue endlessly - and that it's actually a very good thing that they do.  If it were not for impermanence nothing could ever happen! It is because of the very fact that life is so changeable that we can change ourselves.
 
With that understanding we hold the key to happiness; we are in a position to participate creatively in reality instead of seeing ourselves as passive victims of circumstances.  The activities of a Bodhisattva, a person whose life is dedicated to Enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, are referred to in some Buddhist scriptures as `play'.  This does not mean that he or she doesn't take them seriously.  The Bodhisattva is said to play in the realm of Reality because he enjoys it.  He has accepted impermanence, and is able to participate joyfully in the fact of change.
 
what we do, we become
 
We will change anyway, in one direction or another, whether we deliberately try to do so or not.  We should be aware of the changes that are taking place in us now, and consider what changes could take place in future.  According to Buddhism there are no limits to the extent that we can change, and no limits to the possible kinds of change.  The whole universe is our field of spiritual development - or degeneration.  We cannot help changing with every tiny act, becoming now like this, now like that.  Over time, we have the potential to become anything from an Enlightened Buddha to a psychopath or some harmless animal.  Of course developing into some of these states of being could take a very long time, from our present position.  Traditional Buddhism has a very broad time-scale indeed, viewing the process of development from here to Enlightenment - or other forms of life - as normally taking place over several lifetimes.
30
 
 
modes of cyclic existence
 
We may view this process in various ways.  According to the Tibetan Wheel of Life we can enter any of six `realms' of existence.  Apart from our present human state, we can in time become an animal (due to wilful stupidity), a `hungry ghost' (through intense craving), a competitive Titan (through jealousy), a suffering hell-being (through hatred), or a divine being (through good deeds).
 
You may find the idea of hells, gods, and heavens quaint, off-putting, and even out of touch with reality.  But here Buddhism is speaking the language of myth and archetype to communicate some general truths; the traditional modes of expression do not have to be taken completely literally.
 
Yet there is no reason why these should not be viewed as objectively possible states of existence - why it should not be possible to be reborn, for example, as an actual animal, or in an actual hellish realm.  We know, unfortunately, that many such situations exist, even in our visible world.  According to traditional Buddhist teaching, divine beings exist in some objective sense, though invisible to normal consciousness.  In the Pali scriptures, we see the Buddha spending a significant part of his time teaching the devas.  This, of course, runs counter to the popular scientific world-view that we all inherit - but since our world-view is the product of particular historical, religious, and philosophical conditionings, it may be limited in its perspectives, and in this area could be wrong.  The existence of higher life-forms cannot be proved or disproved by scientific methods.  Here Buddhism does not take its evidence from ordinary sense data but from the experience of higher states of consciousness acquired in meditation.  From a common sense point of view, if one looks at the variety of known life forms it does not seem unreasonable that there could yet be more to be discovered.
 
The six realms may also be regarded as the mental states predominating in a particular human life situation.  Viewed in these terms, we could imagine our mental state becoming fixed in animal sensuality, tight-fisted meanness, jealous competition, paranoid hatred, or delight and bliss.
 
 

I then said to him: Even in the present we are transmigrating,
we go from birth to birth even when we are awake and this succession
of births continues when we sleep.  When after awaking and sleeping
we come to death, how then should it be any different? As there are
dreams in the night following the experiences of the day, so at our
death, owing to the store of deeds committed, our karma leads on from
life to life.  It is like this: When you are enjoying with your wife,
then your mind is at animal level; but if she makes some mistake and
you should want to kill her then you have sunk down into the Hells;
while after forgiving and restoring harmony if a beggar comes and
you give him alms, then that is heaven worlds; but if [you] see someone
else doing good deeds and thereby [become] envious, you go to the
Asura-demons; perhaps in your life you did not do anything so good,
[or] so bad, then you keep the human state; though if your servant
gets only a little food and you do not pay him properly because of
your meanness, that is the realm of the hungry ghosts.  So many events
of the day-time are stored in the sub-conscious and these same sorts
of things are dreamed at night: and this goes on, day-night, night-day
until death, and as the dream continues from the day-life, so life
continues after death though there is nothing more real about this
life than any other since we find upon examining it that it is composed
of so many levels of existence.
31

 

C.M.Chen

 
The message of the Wheel of Life is, of course, that each of these conditioned realms is a trap - whether we take them literally or figuratively we should avoid them altogether by striving to gain Enlightenment.  Otherwise, we move a step towards one of the realms every time we reaffirm one of these basic tendencies.  If our life is dominated by any one state, that tendency is likely to continue establishing itself more and more firmly, so that any future life will be strongly conditioned in that direction.
 
dhyana is the realm of the gods
 
As an interesting application of this principle, just consider the lives of very good, happy, well-favoured, perhaps even famous people.  Many people are highly creative and intelligent, well loved and respected - some people seem to have lives which are like those of gods in comparison to our own.  And yet the Wheel of Life seems to present this state of the gods as something to be avoided.  What is wrong with being good, happy, creative, and intelligent? Aren't these just the kind of fruits one might expect from living the spiritual life? That is certainly true.  Spiritual development does indeed involve becoming a better, happier, more creative, more intelligent person.  It really does mean becoming more god-like.  The Wheel of Life teaching does not deny that such an improved quality of mental health is valuable; it simply says that certain dangers exist even for a very healthy person.
 
The main danger is complacency - the possibility of getting stuck on an enjoyable plateau in life, with no other perspective on existence.  A distinction is therefore drawn between the devas (i.e.  gods and goddesses) of the Wheel - who make no further spiritual progress and eventually lose everything they have gained - and the devas of the Path.  Since human development involves increasing happiness, one of the special dangers of the spiritual life is settling down as a deva of the Wheel.  As we develop ourselves we may become happier, more satisfied, stronger, and more self-sufficient.  The process of deepening happiness may continue for years.  But eventually we may become so satisfied with the transformation in our life that we get complacent, stop making an effort, lose awareness of the plight of other living beings, and so come to a standstill on the spiritual path.  It is the danger of this type of stagnation that is symbolized by the realm of the gods.
 
While taking to heart this warning about complacency, we can still use the `realm of the gods' as a symbol for higher states of consciousness.  From that point of view, it is very much to be encouraged.
 
our existence reflects our consciousness
 
Tradition says that divine beings are in a state of dhyanic consciousness, and that when we reach the dhyanas in meditation, we too are temporarily elevated to the status of a divine being.  In general, one's level of existence is said to be determined by one's state of consciousness: Buddhism sees the universe as made up of states of consciousness `bodying forth' into the visible world at different levels of spiritual development.  According to the quality of consciousness pertaining at each level, it distinguishes three great planes of existence.  These are known as the kama-loka, or plane of sensuous enjoyment, the rupa-loka or plane of pure form (alternatively, subtle form), and the arupa-loka or plane of no form (or `exceedingly subtle' form).
 
Each of the three planes may be experienced through developing the dhyanas in meditation - so here we have yet another way of describing higher states of consciousness.
 
Human beings, animals, and the more exotic inhabitants of the Wheel of Life - except most kinds of gods - are said to spend most if not all of their time on the plane of sensuous enjoyment.  If we consider what we ordinarily think about and how we use our time, we may agree that this is, indeed, our usual state of consciousness.  Our main interests are in all the kinds of enjoyment that we can get from material objects.  When we enter the first dhyana, however, things change: the quality of that desire becomes subtler as we enter the plane of pure or subtle form.  At this level of consciousness we perceive forms to be composed of fine or subtle material, as though made of light - perhaps because the mind itself seems light and, as it were, transparent.  You may recall that in access concentration and above, one's meditation object appears in the form of a nimitta or subtle counterpart of the original material object.  The Pali word rupa-loka may also be rendered `the realm of archetypal form', for it is also here that we enter the realm of image and mythic symbolism.
 




Plane of Exceedingly Subtle Form


7. Realm of No-thing-ness
6. Realm of Infinite Consciousness
5. Realm of Infinite Space

(various levels)

Plane of Subtle Form


3rd Dhyana
2nd Dhyana
1st Dhyana
Access Concentration


Plane of Sensuous Enjoyment


Five Hindrances

Humans
Asuras
Animals
Hungry Ghosts
Hell-beings
Plane of ConsciousnessState of consciousness as experienced
 
Consciousness Embodied as
ArupalokaFour Arupa dhyanas8. Realm of Neither Identification Nor Non-IdentificationGods of Exceedingly Subtle Form
RupalokaFour Rupa dhyanas4th DhyanaGods of  Subtle Form (various levels)
Kamaloka Access concentrationKamaloka Gods

The Three Planes of Conditioned Existence

 
 
furthest reaches of higher consciousness -
the `formless' dhyanas
 
The four dhyanas that we explored in Chapter Four
32  all occur within the rupa-loka.  On the highest plane, that of `exceedingly subtle' form, the four so-called `formless' absorptions - or arupa-dhyanas - may be experienced.  These formless dhyanas may be developed on the basis of the fourth rupa-dhyana.  We saw earlier that this state of concentration is the highest experience-point in conditioned existence.  It represents the climax of individual integration.  From this high point one is in a position to experience the infinities, and the subtleties, of space and consciousness.  It is not, however, that we literally see infinite space and consciousness.  The `formless' dhyanas are inner experiences of infinite freedom and expansion that grow out of our complete attainment of integration.
 
The first formless dhyana is called the sphere of infinite space, the second the sphere of infinite consciousness, the third the sphere of no-thing-ness, and the fourth the sphere of neither identification nor non-identification.
 
The sphere of infinite space represents a state of consciousness in which there is no object, or at least our experience of `objecthood' is exceedingly subtle - this is characteristic of the arupa-loka generally.  All that remains of objecthood is the sense of our awareness expanding to fill the whole of space.  This state is attained (after the fourth absorption has been reached) when the meditation object (the nimitta, i.e.  our experience of the meditation object) expands to fill infinite space.  The meditator transfers his or her attention from this infinitely large object to the infinite space which it is occupying.  This may produce a further degree of concentrated harmony and tranquillity, and this provides access to the first formless dhyana.
 
The sphere of infinite consciousness arises when we give attention to the fact that we are experiencing infinite space.  This implies that in some way our consciousness also becomes infinite - if we are aware of an `object' of infinite space, then there is, as it were, a `subject' of infinite awareness.  Experiencing this fact, we then withdraw our awareness from infinite space, concentrating entirely on infinite consciousness.  This is the point at which the second formless dhyana arises.
 
At the stage of the sphere of no-thing-ness, we concentrate our attention on the fact that within the context of our infinite consciousness, there are no particular things that can be distinguished.  In this expanded state, we cannot identify any one thing as distinct from another, even though our mind is unprecedentedly clear and bright.  Focusing on this produces an even more exalted state of consciousness which is the third formless dhyana.
 
When the sphere of neither identification nor non-identification arises, we go almost completely beyond the distinction of subject and object.  We now concentrate our attention on the way that we are identifying, or recognizing, the experience of infinity.  This causes one more final stage of dhyana to arise.  At this point `we' are hardly separate from the experience.  There is, in a certain sense, no subject who identifies, so that the process cannot be described either as an identification or as a nonidentification.
 
Since these dhyanas of the formless plane are subtler than the `highest experience-point in conditioned existence' marked by the fourth dhyana, they are, in a sense, at an even higher level.  They almost take us right out of conditioned existence, inasmuch as the distinction between subjective experiencer and objective experience becomes increasingly subtle.  Yet these higher states of consciousness are still conditioned.  They do not necessarily indicate any insight into the ultimate nature of reality.  Being conditioned, they are also impermanent - we can still fall back into lower states of being and consciousness.
 
introducing insight meditation
 

[Samatha] is a refreshment of the lower consciousness, while
[vipassana] may be compared to a golden spade that opens up a treasure
of transcendental wealth.  [Samatha] is an entrance into the wonderful
silence and peacefulness of potentiality; while [vipassana] is
an entrance into the riches of intuition and transcendental intelligence.
33
 

Chi-I

 
samatha and vipassana distinguished
 
So far we have been talking about meditation in the context of higher states of consciousness.  Now it's time to introduce the kind of meditation which develops transcendental or Unconditioned consciousness.
 
The meditations we have explored are of a type known as samatha meditation.  The Mindfulness of Breathing and the Metta Bhavana are samatha practices.  They are so called because they cultivate mental integration and mental health, as manifested in qualities like concentration, calm, and positive emotion.  The term samatha has both a broad and a specific meaning.  Specifically, samatha refers to any meditation practice aimed at developing higher states of consciousness.  More broadly, it applies to any means of achieving higher states of consciousness, whether through meditation or otherwise.  For example, the general notion of samatha also includes ethics, since ethical actions create a foundation for positive mental states.
 
The other kind of Buddhist meditation is directed towards wisdom or insight, and is called vipassana meditation.  The aim of vipassana practice is to gain insight into things as they really are.  Insight does not mean abstract understanding, but direct experience of the real, ultimate nature of existence.
 
the method of insight meditation
 
The nature of vipassana will become clearer as we describe how the meditation is practised.  Vipassana meditation requires the ability to concentrate the mind, so it needs to be practised on the basis of samatha meditation.  A session of vipassana practice is therefore best preceded by a session of samatha practice - unless a general basis of samatha has already been well established.  The concentration and emotional positivity that is established through samatha meditation will act as a support for the activity of vipassana, which is more illuminating and penetrating in character.  One could say that samatha meditation develops our mental potency, while vipassana uses this potency to penetrate into the truth of things.
 
reflection within tranquillity
 
We use our thoughts in vipassana practice.  Not distracted thoughts, of course - the clarity of our thinking is sustained by the higher states of consciousness which we have developed through samatha practice.  As we know, thinking cannot take place at all beyond the first dhyana.  So to avoid distraction, vipassana meditation must be practised either in access concentration or the first dhyana, and preferably the latter.  The dhyana factors of initial thought and applied thought, which are particularly strong and clear (see Chapter Four), are employed in a contemplation of the nature of reality.  We take our attention to a basic truth - which could be in the form of an idea, or an image, or a phrase which encapsulates some universal truth - and focus our thinking faculty upon it.  We reflect upon reality.  Buddhist tradition uses many ideas, images, and phrases for this purpose.  For example, there are said to be three universal characteristics of existence - impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-selfhood.
 
the nature of this kind of reflection
 
We shall be exploring these universal characteristics shortly, but as an example of the basic method of practice, let's imagine that we are meditating on impermanence.
 
First of all we would develop the first dhyana - perhaps by spending forty minutes or so on the Metta Bhavana practice.  Then we would take the general notion of impermanence, or perhaps some image which evokes impermanence for us, and `turn it over' within a tranquil, concentrated state of mind.
 
In ordinary consciousness our mind is affected by the hindrances, which either tend to make our thoughts vague, or stubbornly hard and fixed.  But in the first dhyana our thinking is very sharp.  At the same time, it is pliant - easily workable - so that we can quickly direct our attention in exactly the way we want.  We can maintain our reflection on the vipassana-object without interruption, since it is supported by the foundation of samatha that has already been established.  The samatha also ensures that we stay emotionally engaged - we are interested and inspired.
 
This kind of thinking is more akin to initial thought (`thinking of') than applied thought (`thinking about').  In dhyana our mind is so receptive that we hardly need to do any `thinking about'.  In a concentrated state, we may only have to think of impermanence for a very short while, and a great richness of meaning will reveal itself.  We may simply lay the thought or image of impermanence within our receptive mind, and remain with the experience as it unfolds further.
 
It is rather like gazing at a lovely jewel that has been laid on a piece of dark velvet cloth.  We do not have to make any effort to see its beauty; more and more beauty simply reveals itself as we become more accustomed to looking.  At this stage we do not even try, actively, to understand anything; we simply allow ourselves to be affected by the truth, by the reality of our contemplation.  For this to be effective, a basic understanding needs already to have been established - some study may have been necessary beforehand in order to clarify exactly what we are meditating about.
 
the role of the dhyanas in developing insight
 
So to practise insight meditation effectively, we need at least a little conceptual understanding (see Chapter Nine for more about this).  But insight itself is not an abstract understanding - it is direct experience of the real, ultimate nature of existence.
 
Before we can even begin to appreciate that depth of experience, we must acknowledge that we ourselves do not see things as they really are.  This does not mean that we are being asked to regard things like trees, tables, and people as something else - it isn't that our senses misrepresent the world.  Perhaps in certain respects we are sometimes misled by our sense experience, but that isn't important.  The point is that we misunderstand the meaning of reality - we are ignorant of the real nature and significance of our existence.  It is this kind of ignorance that restricts our potency, freedom, and happiness.
 
You may wonder how such fundamental misunderstandings can exist.  If you have been practising meditation for some time, then you will certainly be aware of one thing that hinders people from seeing how things really are: our capacity for paying attention is limited.  You will probably know from your own experience that even a well-organized, efficient person can have a relatively distracted mind.  Even at its best, the mind can still be surprisingly chaotic.
 
Thus one very good reason for our lack of insight is our lack of samatha.  We have seen how, through samatha meditation, we may gradually integrate our conscious mind with our unconscious - how it is possible to become stronger, more `ourselves', as we work through the hindrances and increase our experience of access concentration and the dhyanas.  We've seen that the general concept of samatha refers to a healthy state of consciousness: it is joy, strength, and power; it is calmness, tranquillity, receptivity and openness.  We know that qualities that are normally opposed to one another may combine through deeper samatha experiences - as, for example, our more powerful, `masculine' qualities may come to co-exist, in the same moment, with the peaceful, `feminine' qualities of receptivity and supportiveness.  We have seen that dhyana, in this sense, is a necessary basis for the arising of insight.
 
We have also seen that vipassana meditation can only take place in access concentration or, ideally, the first dhyana.  This does not mean that the seven dhyana levels beyond the first have no relevance to the development of insight, because the stronger our basis in dhyana experience, the more effective this reflection is likely to be.
 
The ideal way of practising vipassana is first to develop as full an experience of the dhyanas as possible.  Then, even if we have reached one of the higher dhyana levels, we should introduce some reflection on reality.  Since this involves thought, the effect will be that we `come down' to the first dhyana.  But this should not be taken too literally.  If we have just experienced the third dhyana, for example, the quality of the first dhyana will be far more peaceful and inspired compared to how it feels when we have just moved out of the hindrances - even though, technically, they are at the same dhyana level.  Remember that the dhyanas and dhyana factors are broad categories used for describing states of mind; in experience, there may be different positive emotions contained within them.  So in `coming down to the first dhyana' it isn't as though we necessarily lose the concentration and inspiration that we were experiencing in the higher dhyana state.  If we remain mindful, those qualities can remain with us, even though we are now - to some extent - using thought.
 
the universal characteristics of existence
 
More will be said, in a later chapter, about the method of vipassana.  At this point, with this outline understanding of what this type of meditation involves, we can explore the three universal characteristics of existence - impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-selfhood - that we encountered a little while ago.
 
impermanence and unsatisfactoriness
 
Impermanence, as we have seen, is the universal truth that nothing lasts, that everything changes.  Since the principle of impermanence is inseparable from that of unsatisfactoriness, we'll explore them both together.  The universal truth of unsatisfactoriness means that because no source of satisfaction lasts forever, we can never be fully satisfied.
 
This isn't really a very `nice' fact.  You must already have noticed that these reflections on the nature of reality involve us in an encounter with rather challenging truths.  This is very characteristic of vipassana.  Its practices draw attention to aspects of life which we normally try to ignore - facts which we may find difficult and confusing because they arouse anxiety.  This is another reason why samatha meditation is a necessary basis for vipassana: the emotional stability it provides makes an essential buffer to vipassana's more ego-challenging aspects.
 
Our modern era has been called `the age of anxiety'.  But even if we lived in an age free from modern kinds of stress, we would still experience anxiety.  We have deeper anxieties rooted in the fear of impermanence, in a fear of being separated from what we love because `things change'.  People always try to cling on to what they like, try hard to make any changes as painless as possible for themselves - all this is anxiety-provoking.  Buddhism, however, asserts that our ignorance of the significance of impermanence provokes an even deeper sense of insecurity.  If we really understood the significance of impermanence we would be liberated from our fear and a far fuller, far more enjoyable experience of life would be unlocked.
 
Our spiritual ignorance makes us incomplete beings, and it is mainly because of this incompleteness that we tend to feel so insecure.  In spite of our continual searching for security in external things such as prosperity and personal relationships, we can never really expect any more than a temporary feeling of security.  In fact, there is no security in life whatsoever - which, again, is not a very `nice' fact to have to accept.
 
It is all very unsatisfactory, and because of our anxieties and insecurities, we try to hide from the implications of impermanence.  Yet times will inevitably come when we are forced to acknowledge them.  We may, for example, be deeply shocked by some great loss or bereavement, which may shatter our previous view of life.  Sometimes people take up the spiritual life after such occurrences, because the experience has shown them the human situation so clearly.  This serves to illustrate how powerfully charged these themes are.  It also demonstrates the value of having a good basis in samatha whenever we contemplate them: vipassana can be very strong medicine.  However, any potential dullness or depression will be counteracted if we develop the emotional stability and `sparkle' of dhyana.  Dhyana also helps us to accept and assimilate the experience afterwards.
 
Over a period of sustained vipassana meditation practice we may develop a general ability to acknowledge and accept the nature of impermanence.  We may even become able to `dance with it', to be active and creative in the realm of reality.  For when it is practised correctly, systematically, and under the right conditions, vipassana meditation will eventually lead to a profound realization and insight into the meaning of our existence.  It is an insight which opens a gateway to true freedom - for if we see things as they really are, we will no longer react blindly to circumstances.  Through our understanding, we shall no longer suffer from emotional turmoil.
 
the sky dancer - image of liberation from fear
 
This is the ultimate liberation and a special source of inspiration.  The qualities of this kind of inspiration are given many symbolic forms in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.  One such form is the dakini (Sanskrit), or `sky dancer'.  At first, her appearance may seem a little outlandish: she is completely naked, except for her ornaments - ornaments made out of human bone.  Her hair is waist length and dishevelled, as though she really doesn't care about it.  She is a brilliant ruby red colour - her whole complexion is flushed with excitement.  As well as the other ornaments, she is wearing a necklace of human skulls around her neck.  And she is laughing.  She's dancing for joy, and she is drinking blood - out of another human skull, hollowed out specially for the purpose.
 
The impression that the dakini conveys seems somehow like insight itself.  She is very attractive - but at the same time rather frightening.  But putting yourself in her place (which is partly the idea)adorning yourself with the bones, dancing and drinking the blood from the skull -  you may begin to feel how the dakini feels.  She expresses such a joyous freedom from the fear of death.  It has been said that all fear derives from our unconscious anxiety about death - from fear of the existentially unknown.  The dakini, having realized the Enlightened consciousness, has completely overcome this fear.  Because it stresses that acknowledging impermanence will free us from fear, Buddhism has been described as `one great meditation on impermanence'.
 
non-selfhood
 
Nothing is fixed, nothing is independent.  Like unsatisfactoriness, the universal characteristic of non-selfhood arises out of impermanence.  Things have no `self' (or essence) because they are impermanent.  Every part of every material object, for example, is constantly changing; it therefore cannot have a fixed, consistent nature.
 
Nowadays we are used to the idea that matter is not as solid and fixed as it appears, because modern physics has revolutionized our conception of `solid matter'.  Even so, our emotional response to material objects is still very much as though they were fixed entities.  We are always creating entities like this.  We tend to think of our car, for example, not as a collection of components bolted and welded together, but as `the car'.  And if it is scratched, we think at once that our car has been damaged.  Our emotional attachment creates an impression of this `car' in our mind, an impression which differs from the objective reality of co-existing components.
 
We look at all material objects in this way, from the food on our plate to continental land masses, from hi-tech gadgetry to rocks and trees.  We tend to think of them as things which exist independently of anything else - in many cases almost as though they had a kind of `self', a separate existence.  But actually, everything is created by conditions.  Everything is defined by everything else and cannot exist apart from everything else.
 
To make sense, this all requires considerable reflection.  Probably the unconscious assumption that there is such an `essence' in physical things isn't that obvious.  But it may become a little more obvious if you examine the way you see yourself and other people.
 
Our unquestioning attitude to ourselves tends to be that `we are what we are'; we think that somewhere, behind the shifting façade of our daily life, we never really change.  Something, somewhere deep inside us, seems eternal: we may well think that we have a soul which remains aloof and unchanged by the incidental phenomena of our life.  We may also like to think of others like this.  We may tend to feel that behind someone's changeable everyday persona is `the person themselves', pure and incorruptible.  We think, `old Fred hasn't changed a bit since I first knew him.' We may actually like this - it’s rather a comforting notion.  We may like to think of an essential, eternal Fred.  It's rather similar to the way parents sometimes think of their grown-up offspring as though they were still small children.
 
But, says Buddhism, in reality, people do change.  So why do we have this feeling that they don't? Perhaps part of the feeling comes from the degree to which we identify with our own habits.  We may associate our feelings of `me’ - or `them’ - with the confirmed, ingrained habit patterns that we - or they - have.  And since our behaviour mostly consists of such habit patterns, it appears that no one ever changes.  But even the most ingrained habits do, in fact, alter over time.
 
the illusion of the `eternal soul'
 
The feeling of having a permanent essence or soul may be quite strong.  It is possible that at some time in our life we became aware of a much deeper level of our selves, or of the nature of existence itself.  Perhaps this happened in a momentary visionary or mystical experience.  Perhaps it was even under the influence of drugs.  Or maybe we have sometimes had a sense of some powerful personal myth, some archetype of the unconscious.  Many people have experiences of this kind at one time or another; it may be that everyone does.  But very few people recognize their value, and even fewer know how to respond to them.
 
Our religious or cultural conditioning usually provides us with ready-made labels for attaching to such experiences.  For example, when a practitioner of one of the great theistic creeds like Hinduism, Islam, or Christianity has some deep experience they will usually interpret it as relating to God or an eternal soul.  But if we employ the methods of samatha and vipassana meditation sincerely, we can test for ourselves whether particular religious ideas - including those of Buddhism - actually fit our experience or not.
 
relativity of selfhood
 
Though Buddhism sees ideas such as the belief in a permanent self or soul as an illusion, it would be absurd to think that we have no self of any kind at all.  From what I said about samatha meditation earlier, it would seem that self-experience is an extremely important part of a particular stage of our development.  Whatever the ultimate truth about selfhood, we still have an experience of a self; and certainly for the time being we need to strengthen our individuality, to become confident and integrated.  Samatha development is the stage of refining and strengthening the `ego'. 
On a practical, day-to-day level the experience of a self ought not to be denied, even though insight may increasingly reveal that this is not ultimately how things are.  We will only be ready properly to experience our non-selfhood - or, as we could put it, the infinite changeability of ourselves - when we are psychologically whole and healthy in the dhyanic sense.
 
It is unfortunate, therefore, that the language of `ego' can sometimes be used to suggest that spiritual development requires us to weaken and `destroy the ego'.  This terminology can be misleading.  In Buddhism the idea is not literally to destroy, but to progressively refine, our experience of selfhood through the experience of higher states of consciousness in samatha meditation.  At first we need to become more ourselves.  Once that stage has been reached, vipassana meditation can refine our experience of selfhood still further, this time to induce an awareness of its relativity and lack of permanence.
 
samatha, subject, object
 
When insight is fully developed, the apparent division between subject and object is completely dissolved and we see that in reality there is no distinction between what is experienced and what experiences.  At present we experience everything within a subject-object framework.  This means we experience a feeling of being separate, which reinforces our idea of `me'.  This feeling of separateness also strengthens our emotional attachments, so that we tend to want to `fill the gap' with experiences of pleasant objects - and woe betide anyone that obstructs us from doing so!
 
Insight meditation is certainly the ultimate antidote to all this, but there is another, more intermediary, way.  So long as one's overall goal is seen in the perspective of insight, the gulf between subject and object may also be narrowed, or at least begin to be narrowed, by the practice of samatha meditation.  Through this practice we become mentally richer - more relaxed, contented, and inspired - so that our selfish needs diminish; we also become stronger, less easily threatened by the prospect of losing things.  The more of this kind of integration we gain through our dhyana experience, the weaker becomes the urge to incorporate objects into ourselves (craving), and to destroy threatening objects (hatred).
 
In fact, although there is no permanent progress, the gulf experienced between subject and object generally lessens as we progress through the dhyanas.  In the highest arupa-dhyanas, where there is only the very subtlest distinction between mind and matter, selfness and otherness almost become one.  But it doesn't quite happen.  On the subtlest level the delusion of self and other remains - with the possibility of its eventually hardening and becoming the cause of reactive, unskilful emotions once again.  Even the highest gods are subject to backslidings.  Samatha is thus the process which attenuates the subject - object distinction, while vipassana is the process which dissolves it finally and forever.  Looked at in this way, the whole process of samatha and vipassana can be seen, not as two separate methods of practice, but as a progressive deepening of spiritual experience.
 
metta and insight
 
This is illustrated very well in the case of the Metta Bhavana practice.  Metta Bhavana is not traditionally considered to be a vipassana practice; indeed, the commentarial tradition states that it can lead only to dhyana, not ultimate liberation.  However, most samatha practices may also be approached from a vipassana point of view, and the Metta Bhavana is especially interesting in this respect.
 
In the Metta Bhavana we try to develop a disinterested emotion of well-wishing towards another person.  `Disinterested' doesn't mean that we don't feel anything, but that we want them to be happy on their own terms - there’s no reference to any personal enjoyment that we might get out of their happiness.  If we develop this kind of objectivity in our emotional life, then the Metta Bhavana will work both on ourselves as subject and on ourselves in terms of our attitude towards others.  Metta can work with the tension which always exists between subject and object, and may eventually transform the way that we relate within the self - other, subject - object framework.  This is, as we have seen, also the working ground of vipassana.  When metta is developed to an advanced degree, there is no distinction experienced between ourselves and others: we wish happiness equally for all, quite unreservedly.  The Metta Bhavana meditation and its associated practices, the Brahma-viharas - such as the development of joy and the development of compassion (which we shall soon be exploring)thus approach the realm of insight, and may even lead us into it.  Further on, flowering out of the development of these Brahma-viharas, is a state known as Great Compassion.  This is a state of fully developed insight.  One who possesses Great Compassion experiences the non-selfhood of others as keenly as his or her own.  Such a person's compassion is directed, not towards the fixed personalities of the people concerned, but towards their real nature, their non-selfhood.  In plainer language we see their potential for development far more clearly than is possible without insight.
 
poetry of shunyata
 
In Buddhism the great themes of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-selfhood were developed, over the first thousand years after the Buddha's death, into the comprehensive philosophy of shunyata (Sanskrit).  The word means `voidness' or `emptiness', and is intended to be taken poetically rather than literally.  To the Enlightened mind, things appear as it were transparent and `empty'.  Everything is seen to undergo transformation through the influence of everything else; things are `empty' of any core or essence which holds them together.  The word was never intended to suggest nothingness or negation - in fact, the intention was very much the opposite.  It is an expression of the nature of reality in terms of a dynamic universe, not a dead, static one.  Were it not for the fact that reality is shunya, there could be no growth or development of any kind.  Realization of the truth of impermanence and non-selfhood will mean that we awaken to the full potential and power of life: since nothing is restricted by permanence and selfhood, anything is possible!
 
the principle of regular steps

 

As we are sitting up and practising dhyana, especially by
the means of insight, it is possible that all of a sudden we will
be enveloped in a wave of intuition and intelligence, but as our power
of concentration is still weak, our mind will be weak and fluctuating
like a candle flame in the wind, so this measure of transcendental
intelligence will not be lasting.
34

 

Chi-I

 
Compared to samatha, vipassana meditation is, in a sense, a higher form of meditation.  For this reason we may find it supremely attractive and inspiring.  But our appreciation of its profundity may not necessarily mean that we can usefully practise it immediately.  We cannot practise vipassana effectively unless we have a basis of samatha.
 
Someone who is trying to develop insight without any basis in concentration is like a candle in a draughty room.  Because of the draughts, it cannot burn and light up its surroundings but gutters and blows here and there, sending out only a flickering light.  If we close off the draughts, however, our candle will burn high and bright.  Likewise, in a concentrated mind, vipassana intensifies and illuminates our experience.  But without samatha, someone practising vipassana is likely either to be dull in energy or lost in distracted thoughts.
 
Sometimes it may seem as though we are able to force ourselves to contemplate impermanence - even though our mind is not really very receptive.  But in doing so we may strain ourselves, perhaps ending up with a headache or, even worse in the long run, a wrong idea of what insight is.  We should follow a path of regular steps in our meditation and not practise in ways we are not properly prepared for.
 
In spiritual practice there exists a path of regular steps and a path of irregular steps.  People generally tend to follow the latter, and might begin at the second stage and then - since it looks much more interesting - go on to try a little of the eighth stage.  Finding that a little too demanding, we then have to go back to the first stage.  There we establish our foundation, and start back again on stage two.  But after beginning the second stage, we try to practise some of the fourth stage - and are even able to make a little progress - but it is not long before we have to retrace our steps.  Before we can go much further, we must return to our practice of the second stage until it is complete.
 
We will make the best progress if we can get ourselves established more firmly on the path of regular steps - starting by practising stage one, and once that is established, practising the second stage until that stage too is established.  Then we begin on stage three - and eventually, stage by stage, go on to more advanced levels.  This is the ideal way of making progress, and in theory it certainly sounds straightforward.  However, in practice, we may find it impossible to organize ourselves in such a straightforward manner.  To some extent we cannot but follow an irregular path, and in that irregular way we will make progress - but only at times when the stage we are practising actually rests on the basis of an already established stage.  Higher stages of practice are dependent on the establishment of lower ones, just as each level of a ziggurat or pyramid depends for support on the previous level.  Sometimes we can make a little progress beyond our seeming capability, but we will not be able to sustain it without a real foundation.
 
insight and the intellect
 
Another common result of premature vipassana meditation is that we think we have gained real insight when what we actually have is an improved intellectual understanding of the teaching we have been meditating upon.  An improved understanding is certainly a very good thing - but it is not insight.  What is the difference? The characteristic of insight is that it turns us upside down and inside out - its impact is shattering.  Intellectual understanding does not have this quality.  Understanding something intellectually can be exciting and challenging, may make us feel clearer, but it does not imply radical transformation.  Understanding which is not shattering is not vipassana.  Vipassana is revolutionary - is, as the Lankavatara Sutra expresses it, `a turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness'.