Saturday, September 3, 2011

Can someone attain liberation without meditation?

In one of the Dhamma talks by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, a distinguished meditation teacher, at the Buddhist Library in Singapore, during the Q & A session, one of the audience asked Bhante this question: “Can someone attain liberation without meditation?” Bhante answered with reference to the five bases of liberation in which one’s mind could be liberated. I have no idea from which Sutta it is stated that way, but certainly it had created much interest not only me, but the Buddhist Library Spiritual Advisor himself to look for the source of the quotations.
Alas, finally, I’ve found it in the Aṅguttara Nikāya, V,26:

There are five bases of liberation:
1.      By listening to the Dhamma from a Teacher: When a certain monk in the position of a Teacher teaches the Dhamma to a monk, that monk experiences the meaning and the Dhamma. When he gains such experience gladness arises. When he is gladdened rapture arises; for one uplifted by rapture the body becomes calm; one calm in body feels happy; for one who is happy the mind becomes concentrated.
2.      By teaching the Dhamma to others: The monk himself teaches the Dhamma in details to others as he has learnt it and mastered it. That monk experiences the meaning and the Dhamma. When he gains such experience gladness arises…the mind becomes concentrated.
3.      By reciting the Dhamma: He recites the Dhamma in detail as he has learnt it and mastered it. As he recites the Dhamma, that monk experiences the meaning and the Dhamma. When he gains such experience gladness arises…the mind becomes concentrated.
4.      By investigating the Dhamma: He ponders, examine and mentally investigates the Dhamma as he has learnt it and mastered it. As he ponders the Dhamma, that monk experiences the meaning and the Dhamma. When he gains such experience gladness arises…the mind becomes concentrated.
5.      By concentration on certain object: He has learnt well a certain object of concentration, attends to it well, sustains it well, and penetrates it thoroughly with wisdom. As he learns well an object of concentration, that monk experiences the meaning and the Dhamma. When he gains such experience gladness arises…the mind becomes concentrated.

So, when a monk dwells diligent, ardent and resolute in any of the five bases, his unlibrerated mind comes to be liberated, his undestroyed taints undergo destruction, and he attains the as-yet-unattained unsurpassed security from bondage.

The key phrase that is common to all the five here, is “mind becomes concentrated”. Let’s take a look at what commentary has got to say on this: (pertaining to the first base) “As he listens to the Dhamma, he comes to know the jhānas, insight, the paths and fruits whenever they come up (in the course of instruction). When he knows them, rapture arises, and on account of that rapture he does not allow himself to backslide midway; rather, he brings his meditation subject up to the level of access concentration, develops insight, and attain arahantship. With reference to this it is said, ‘the mind becomes concentrated.’”

The purpose of pointing to this phrase is to examine if it is really that the bases of liberation, at least on the first four, has nothing to do with meditation. Perhaps, commentaries is not the ultimate point of reference as they are not the original Buddha’s words. Hence, falling back to my style, which is non other than resorting to examine the terms used in its original sense:
-          Concentration: The original Pāli word is Samādhi. “One who is happy the mind becomes concentrated (Sukhino cittaṃ samādhiyati)”. According to the Pāli-English Dictionary by Rhys Davids and William Stede, Samādhi means concentration; a concentrated, self-collected, intent state of mind and meditation, which, concomitant with right living, is a necessary condition to the attainment of higher wisdom and emancipation. (Samādhi exists in Hindu meditation as well, but the objective of the practice is different from that of the Buddha.)  
-          When we talk about meditation, conventionally, one will associate it with the practice of closing eyes with cross-legged and focusing on breathe. Well, that is a very narrow perception on this rich and broader sense of Buddhist path. It is natural for yogis and ascetics to sit cross-legged when practicing meditation, but it is not so in our time. Perhaps some may have misconception of it being too ritualistic and something mystic. Well, if that is not so, what then, is “meditation” really? When we trace to the original word spoken by the Buddha in which the translation comes from, it is often associated with “Bhāvana”. According to the dictionary, Bhāvana comes from the word “Bhāva” meaning being, becoming, condition or nature. It rarely appears on itself, so Bhāvana is a more meaningful term, which carries the meaning of “producing”, “dwelling on something”, “putting one’s thoughts to”, “application”, “developing by means of thought or meditation”, and “cultivating by mind”. Etimologically, it is said that the Buddha employs the term in the sense of cultivation, pertaining to the farmer performs bhavana when he or she prepares soil and plant a seed, in view of the agriculture background at the time of the Buddha’s dwelling. When it is discussed in relation to the cultivation of mind, this is where the term is used in a richer and deeper sense in comparison to the mere term of “meditation”. It carries the smell of earthiness, the ordinariness, suggesting that no matter how damaged a field have become, it can always be cultivated and enriched, producing satisfactory harvests – the results of cultivation! What do we actually develop and cultivate? It is the development of particular faculty that is intended to: Citta-bhāvana (development of mind/consciousness); Kāya-bhāvana (development of body); Metta-bhāvana (development of loving kindness); Pañña-bhāvana (development of wisdom); Samādhi-bhāvana (development of tranquil-wisdom - covering everything from worldview, to ethics, livelihood and mindfulness). The Theravādan teachers made us of both Samatha-bhāvana (development of tranquility) Vipassana-bhāvana (development of insight) which are added to the above.

What is the relation between Samādhi and Bhāvana then? Can Samādhi, as concentration be explicitly equated to Bhāvana as meditation? I was told that Bhāvana is the process, Samādhi is the result. In Samādhi, rupa and arupa jhānas are the results/fruits of sufficiently sustained concentration. Mind as the “earth” as mentioned above, in its stable condition – free of floods, parasites, and landslide, is a perfect “working place” (kammatthana) for crops cultivation. In the same sense, with a stable and concentrated mind, it becomes a fertile ground for the insights to take place and finally awakened to the true nature of the world.

Visit the five bases as expounded in the AN again, the first four are seemingly not related to meditation practice. But looking at them closely, each of them achieve the concentrated mind via “experience” (paṭisaṃvedī) on the wholesome knowledge he has gained. Take it for example the reciting of the Dhamma, we be reminded of the chanting of the name of Amitabha practice. Chanting (recitation) is the tool, developed and concentred mind is the result, and liberated mind is the fruition. This is “Bhāvana”, glamourly translated as “meditation”. We study the Dhamma, examine it, ponder on it – these are the means to cultivated mind. The whole process… is what we call “Bhāvana”. Bhāvana embodies all the five bases. It also runs through the whole Noble Eightfold Path. Hence, it is not limited to a particular way of folding the body or residing in a particular retreat centre. At the Buddha’s time, many liberated through hearing the Dhamma itself, or merely sweeping the floor. What is important here is what is really “at work”, at the right place and the right fruition will take place.

A Bhikkhu friend of mine told me this after consulting him regarding this topic: “Don’t just read the menu, can see cannot eat”. Similarly, don’t just look at the mere superficial meaning of words and terms, and examining the etimological meaning here and there – more importantly, understand it, experience it, and realise it!

Pāli-English Dictionary by Rhys Davids and William Stede
Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: An Antology of Suttas from the Aṅguttara Nikāya. Translated and edited by Nyanaponika Thera & Bhikkhu Bodhi