PREPARING FOR A RETREAT: Outer & Inner causes & conditions necessary for Vipassana & Samatha meditation practice

PREPARING FOR A RETREAT: Outer & Inner causes & conditions necessary for Vipassana & Samatha meditation practice

A reflection on practice by Marcia Rose, Sayadaw Vivekananda

From The Mountain Hermitage editor: Buddhist meditation is described as a training method for purifying mind & heart. This purification process is what leads one towards liberation/Nibbana. The first of Seven Stages of Purification is Purification of Virtue or Sila. Other conditions are also important to undertaking meditation in a retreat setting for wholesome & liberating results to occur. Below, we hear from Sayadaw Vivekananda & Marcia Rose, both teachers of the Summer 2019 Five-week Vipassana retreat, on how to make best use of retreat time by following the Precepts & developing wholesome qualities of heart & mind, before & during practice in a retreat. As Sayadaw emphasizes, “A retreat offers a precious opportunity to develop concentration & intuitive wisdom, and so we need to make good use of our time.”

Understanding the Necessary Prerequisites:
INTRODUCTORY OVERVIEW from Teacher Marcia Rose

Outer causes and conditions: 1) the guidance of a qualified teacher. 2) One must be able to practice continuously in a quiet, healthy & pleasant environment, such as at a retreat center, where one’s material needs are easily met. 3) It’s crucial to have good companions whose ethical discipline & views are compatible with one’s own.

The inner requirements are more exacting: 1) One must have few desires for things one does not have & one must have a strong sense of contentment with what one does have… & not continually seek after better accommodations, food, various accessories, etc. 2) One must devote oneself to a simple lifestyle, with as few extraneous activities, such as socializing, doing business or seeking various types of entertainment, as possible. 3) One must maintain an exceptionally high standard of ethical discipline, avoiding all modes of conduct of body, speech & mind that undermine one’s own & others’ sense of wellbeing. 4) Both during & between formal meditation practice sessions, one must overcome what is for most people a deeply ingrained habit of letting one’s mind get caught up in involuntary thoughts & ruminations. Our baseline as meditators needs to remain silent, calm & with an alert mindful presence/an alert mindful awareness.

Also of importance as preconditions for practice are the paramis of a generosity of heart & mind, patience, enthusiasm or a vigorous energy for and within practice, a base of metta & a developing degree of equanimity.

Understanding the Importance of Sila/Ethical Conduct:

Many conditions have to be fulfilled to go on a retreat. We should prepare by purifying our ethical conduct before the retreat begins. On multiple occasions, the Buddha emphasized the importance of ethical conduct as the foundation for development of concentration and wisdom:

“One always perfect in ethical conduct,
Endowed with wisdom, well concentrated,
One energetic and resolute
Crosses the flood so hard to cross.”
(SN 2:15, translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi, adapted)

This consists of ethical conduct that has been purified prior to meditation (pubbabhagasila), as well as ethical conduct that is being purified during meditation (sahajatasila). The Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma explains that ethical conduct purified prior to meditation serves as a distant condition or prior cause (pakatupanissaya) for the arising of concentration & wisdom in insight meditation, eventually culminating in path concentration & path wisdom. Moment-to-moment mindfulness of predominant objects of observation during intensive insight meditation contributes to pure ethical conduct, which is an immediate condition or present cause (sahajatanissaya) for the arising of concentration & wisdom.

Obviously, insight concentration & insight wisdom are strong when based on both, ethical conduct purified prior to a retreat and during a retreat, rather than being based on ethical conduct purified during meditation alone.

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