Learning meditation from the Buddha: a meeting with Ven Analayo
I met German-born Analayo some years ago when he was living a life of intensive meditation and study in a small retreat centre in Sri Lanka. He told me how his study of the Buddha’s original meditation teaching had led him to question established approaches to practice.
Since then, he has published an acclaimed work on the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s main teaching on mindfulness, taken full Bhikkhu ordination, published many groundbreaking essays on Pali Buddhism, especially comparisons between the Pali Suttas and the Chinese versions, the Agamas and become a widely respected scholar and academic. As this interview shows, he is above all a deeply devoted Dharma practitioner
Vishvapani: How do you come to be living as a Buddhist monk here in Sri Lanka?
Analayo: I studied martial arts in Berlin and I found that the discipline offered a way to express and contain my anger, but it didn’t address the root of the problem. Along with martial arts I also learned Soto Zen meditation, and when I found that through practising that some of my anger no longer arose I became very interested in meditation. I travelled to Asia and ended up in Thailand where I did a course in mindfulness of breathing with Ajahn Buddhadasa. With Zen you are told to just sit, but no more, and through Buddhadasa’s teaching I now received some instruction in meditation.
Then came the start of the rainy season and the custom in Thailand is for many people to become monks for the three months of the rains. So that’s what I did, and I stayed in a cave on a hilltop, surrounded on three sides by the sea, and there I had the opportunity to live a very meditative life.
Once I was in robes I found that the monastic lifestyle supported meditation so I decided to continue with it. Later I came to Sri Lanka and stayed with Godwin Samaratane, who was an excellent meditation teacher, and in 1995 he sent me to develop the Lewelle Meditation Centre. Here we have a main house with a small community, and we’ve built several kutis on the hill where I stay and other visitors can come to meditate.
Godwin brought out aspects of meditation that are in the suttas [the records of the Buddha’s discourses recorded in the Pali language] but which have been neglected in Theravada tradition. He had a very open-minded approach that emphasised emptiness, working constructively with emotions, and developing metta (loving-kindness). He wanted me to provide scholarly back-up for what he was doing, so he introduced me to a university professor and the people at the university just told me that I would be doing a PhD!
V: As a dedicated meditator, what was your motivation for engaging with academic study?
A: I wanted a better understanding of the Buddha’s teaching, and I hoped to approach Buddhism both from the inside perspective of a Buddhist monk and meditator, and also to look at it scientifically. Being a meditating monk the most obvious topic was satipatthana, the development of mindfulness, and I found that there is almost no research on satipatthana or the Satipatthana Sutta, the principal canonical text concerning it.
The book I have eventually written is not only a vindication of Godwin’s teaching, but also an attempt to go back to the roots and ask, what were the Buddha’s basic ideas? What did he mean by insight meditation? What is written in the Satipatthana Sutta, and how can other suttas illuminate it?
The book reflects my particular perspective as both a scholar and a practitioner. Academics sometimes go off at tangents because without experience of practice they can get caught up in ideas that are a long way from the original meanings. On the other hand meditation teachers tend either to express their ideas and experience without going back to the sources, or else to be steeped in the Theravada tradition. For traditional Theravadins the suttas, which recount the Buddhas discourses, and the commentaries, which were written later, are one block. They see everything through the eyes of Buddhaghosha, the author of the Visuddhimagga [the most important commentary] unaware that there was an historical gap of 800 years between the Buddha and Buddhaghosha. So I wanted to separate these out. The ideas and techniques in the commentaries may well be good, but it’s important to know that some weren’t taught by the Buddha.
V: How would you characterise the Buddha’s approach to meditation as it emerges from the discourses?
A: In the discourses when a monk comes to the Buddha and says he wants to meditate, the Buddha usually just gives him a theme like, ‘don’t cling to anything.’ The monk goes off and when he returns he is an arahant! [one with a high level of realisation]. In other words, the Buddha gives the general pattern, not a precise technique such as you find in the Visuddhimagga, whose approach we have inherited. When the Buddha discusses concentration he talks about what happens with the mind. He says that when pamojja (delight) arises the mind naturally becomes joyful, and from that come happiness, calm, tranquillity and concentration. So you should enjoy meditating, and in enjoying itself the mind becomes unified.
At the same time the Buddha has a very clear, analytical approach, and when he speaks of ‘the five hindrances’, for example, he is pointing to specific experiences that imply specific antidotes. But that’s different from issuing technical instructions. You could say that the Buddha didn’t teach meditation so much as the skill of meditating or the ability to meditate. He was concerned with stirring the natural potential of individuals to awaken the mind on the basis of a very clear distinction that never gets lost between what is wholesome in the mind and what is unwholesome.
V: What difference does the distinction between commentarial and sutta approaches to meditation make for what you do when you meditate?
A: Being an ‘anger-type’ I thought it was important to develop metta. (loving-kindness). In Thailand I followed the Visuddhimagga approach of sending metta to oneself, a friend, a neutral person and an enemy, and verbalising good wishes. I found I got stuck in ideas, and when I turned to the suttas I saw that the Buddha just says that, ‘with a mind full of metta’ (that is an attitude or feeling of loving-kindness) ‘he radiates metta in all directions’. There’s no verbalisation, no particular people, just this radiation. That made an incredible change in my practice and from then on it evolved very strongly.
Another example is the counting methods in the commentarial approach to the mindfulness of breathing, which are also not found in the suttas. The Anapanasati Sutta describes how in sixteen steps you can be aware of the breath, the body, feelings, and what is happening in the mind. This extends to seeing the impermanence of the breath.
This is an excellent approach to practice. Firstly, you calm the mind by staying predominantly with bodily phenomena. Then you become aware of your whole self as it sits in meditation, and then you notice how the breath and the body become calmer. As soon as that happens thinking activity also calms down, and joy arises. You’re aware of these changes and encourage them, and that takes you away from the thinking activity of the mind.
The commentarial approach implies narrowing the focus of attention onto one point and only prescribes contemplating the most prominent characteristics of the physical breath – not the many other dimensions that are described in the sutta. Because you have so little material to work on, the practice can become boring, so your mind wanders, and you need counting as food for the mind. But counting can take you away from the bodily experience of the breath to conceptual ideas about it. However, if the mind has something it likes it will stay with it, and that’s the way to get into deep concentration.
V: What about the importance of one-pointed concentration (ekagata), which is usually taught as the way to become fully absorbed?
A: Ekagata can also be translated as ‘unification of the mind.’ So in developing meditative absorption it’s not so much that you narrow everything down to a fine point. It’s more that everything becomes ‘one’. If I take a large object and move it around you have no trouble following it; but if you try to stay with a pin-point it’s very difficult and that can create tension.
As you go deeper into meditation (in developing the higher states of meditative absorption known as jhana/dhyana) you need a reference point. But to enter jhana you have to let go of the five physical senses. So the experience of the breath becomes a mental equivalent of it (a nimitta) not a felt experience. Sometimes meditators experience a light that is an equivalent of the breath, which may envelop you entirely. Or the nimitta could be an experience of happiness or metta, or just mentally knowing the breath, and the mind becomes one with that.
An important term for meditative absorption is samadhi. We often translate that as ‘concentration’, but that can suggest a certain stiffness. Perhaps ‘unification’ is a better rendition, as samadhi means ‘to bring together’. Deep samadhi isn’t at all stiff. It’s a process of letting go of other things and coming to a unified experience.
V: I practice the five stages of the mettabhavana and I find that there’s a definite psychological value in that approach.
A: I’m not saying that the commentarial approach is wrong, only that if it doesn’t work for you then there is an alternative. And whatever practice you follow be aware if it comes from the Buddha or someone else.
I know people who say the five-stage mettabhavana or the mindfulness of breathing with counting works for them. That’s completely OK. I’m trying to add to the commentarial view, and to broaden perspectives, not to ask people to throw out the commentaries or their teacher’s approach, and only listen to me. I have been practising the Goenka technique for ten years and I got very good results with it. But I wouldn’t say that it’s the only correct technique.
In the discourses the Buddha didn’t say that there’s one way for everybody. In the Theravada tradition there have been many debates about the relationship between samatha (absorption) and vipassana (insight) as goals of meditation. But the discourses say that you can practice samatha first, and then vipassana, or the other way around, or both together. Both samatha and vipassana develop the mind and the two co-operate, but how you engage with them depends on the individual.
V: The breadth of this approach implies knowing yourself sufficiently so that you can plot a course.
A: The process of developing insight is a matter of gaining self-knowledge and learning to act accordingly. If you sit down to meditate you need to feel the tendency of the mind – what it needs and what it wants to do. More broadly, I know that my tendency is towards anger and that means that I need to develop tranquillity to balance my personality.
V: You place great emphasis on mindfulness, and also to have a very broad view of its implications.
A: The presentation of mindfulness in the discourses suggests an open, receptive state of mind in which you let things come to you. It’s different from concentration (samatha) in that concentration means focus and mindfulness means breadth, but without mindfulness you can’t develop concentration. It’s also an important basis for insight meditation (vipassana). Mindfulness has many facets. Many teachers speak of mindfulness of the body, but people don’t talk much about the contemplations of feelings, mind and dhammas that are also in the Satipatthana Sutta. But if you take any experience – like sitting here now – you can be aware of the bodily aspect, how you feel about what we are discussing; the state of mind that we are each in; and you can see it in the light of the Buddha’s teachings. Each situation has these four aspects and mindfulness can focus on one or all of these as appropriate
V: How has studying these suttas affected your own meditation?
A: It’s the ground of my practice. Before I started my academic work I decided that however many hours I studied I would spend more hours meditating. That’s why it took me six years to complete my work. I would never lose touch with my meditation practice for the sake of theoretical study. On the other hand, though, a good knowledge of Buddha’s teachings ‘clears the path’ as it enables you to know what you’re doing and then you don’t experience doubt. Now I can learn from various meditation teachers without getting confused because I know what lines I am pursuing in my own practice.
The Buddha gave the talks that are recorded in the suttas because he thought people should know what they are doing. Meditation is like eating and the knowledge you have gained from the suttas is like the digestive juice that makes it possible for your body to digest the nutrients. The two belong together, but meditation has to have the priority. Doing PhD research is perhaps going to an extreme. But studying informed sources can be helpful for everyone. They can shine a beam of light onto your practice and that can inspire it.
Ven. Analayo’s book on the Saitpatthana Sutta is Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization, Windhorse Publications, 2003.
The following excellent works are available as free online downloads. They deserve to be much better known and make excellent study material
From Craving to Liberation, Excursions into the Thought-world of the Pali Discourses (1), Buddhist Association of the United States, 2009.Download PDF
From Grasping to Emptiness, Excursions into the Thought-world of the Pali Discourses (2), Buddhist Association of the United States, 2010.Download PDF
The Genesis of the Bodhisattva Ideal, Hamburg University Press, 2010.Download PDF
Bhikkhu Anālayo is a Privatdozent of the Centre for Buddhist Studies at the University of Hamburg and works as a researcher at Dharma Drum Buddhist College, Taiwan. He is also a professor at the Sri Lanka International Buddhist Academy, Kandy.
This interview first appeared in Dharma Life issue 19