In July 2019 I had an opportunity to spend ten days with the discovery of Buddha that led to his enlightenment. It is the meditation technique called Vipasana. The experience changed forever my impression of what Buddha stood for. I held him in high regard for giving the world the middle path following his enlightenment previously but here I learnt that his quest for truth shaped his genius as a scientist of mind.
The ten days I spent at the Vipassana retreat gave me a flavour of his inner pursuits. The meditation path that Buddha propounded, Dhamma, involves four steps (simple, yet they require incredible discipline). The wondrous discovery of Buddha consisting of these four steps led him to nirvana.
Step 1: Develop good character. Good character means you don’t steal, tell lies, indulge in sexual misconduct, kill living beings, or get intoxicated. In the Buddhist tradition, these are the five precepts (called pancha sila).
Step 2: Develop a focused mind. This can be achieved by first focusing on one’s breath, and subsequently by focusing on the sensations that one experiences in and around the nostrils. Throughout the process, it is important to not force a particular breathing pattern but simply observe the natural flow of breath (yatha butah—observing things as they truly are). This will lead to right concentration (called samma samadhi).
Step 3: Be equanimous. Once the mind becomes sensitive to the sensations arising around the nostrils, examine every part of the body for any sensations that are arising moment to moment and be equanimous while remembering that neither pain nor pleasure are permanent as both forms of sensations are transient. This is the Vippasana meditation technique. It leads to the ultimate truth through experienced wisdom (called bhavanamayi panna).
Step 4: For the preceptor who gives this technique, offer gratitude. This gratitude is to be expressed in the form of wishing for the well-being of everyone and everything in the entire universe. It involves a soulful prayer for the welfare of all beings.
Buddha’s genius lies in the discovery that thoughts arising in mind and sensations on body are like two sides of a coin. Observing the mind is the secret to conquering it. However, it is not easy to observe it because mind is an abstract entity. As one example, we can conquer anger by observing anger but it is not easy to observe it. When we try to observe anger we land up observing the object of anger and not anger itself. This leads to more anger within the mind. Buddha’s unique discovery offered a practical approach of observing the mind without actually observing it.
By connecting mind with the sensations arising on the body, and focusing on the sensations on the body with equanimity, Buddha found that one can purify the mind of anger, hared, attachment, craving and others that afflict it. Vippasana in essence is this continuous examination of the sensations arising on the body with equanimity. Practically, this translates to remaining still without reacting if there is a sensation of pain or pleasure or an itch or any other sensation on the physical frame while observing these sensations consciously. Buddha transcended mind using this technique. That transcendence led him to enlightenment. It made him see the atomic structure of the universe and the dissolution of his identification with his physical structure.
While liberation is the grand goal and aspiration, the technique offers an alternative approach to mental health and well-being.
It does not carry the baggage of any sect or narrow religious belief with it but offers something unique and powerful that has an empirical validation in the experience of Buddha himself and the large number of people who have experienced its benefits. For those who practise it regularly, it holds the promise of bringing them closer to being Buddha!