At our Buddhist centres the Mindfulness of Breathing, the Development of Loving-kindness (Metta Bhavana) and Just Sitting are the main meditation practices taught. In addition to walking meditation, reflection and devotional practices, these are the primary meditations up to the point of ordination into the Triratna Buddhist Order. This is because concentration, mindfulness and emotional positivity are the essential basis for meditation. Our approach emphasises the importance of steadily developing the qualities one needs to meditate.At the point of ordination, which is a wholehearted commitment to make Dharma practice the core of one’s life, Order members usually take up a meditation on a Buddha or Bodhisattva.
They also take on Insight meditation practices — such as contemplating Conditionality, or the insubstantiality of the Six Elements of mind and body.The Triratna system of meditation can be seen as a consecutive set of meditations that you progress along, or as a ‘mandala’ a circle or spiral of practices, which you go around in order to approach the centre, Enlightenment. In fact, this system reflects the two main approaches to meditation found in virtually all Buddhist schools: samatha (‘calming’) and vipassana (‘insight’), plus Just Sitting, which in a sense isn’t a practice at all but is simply allowing whatever happens to happen, in awareness.
In the Triratna system, the calming approaches are described as ‘integration’ and ‘positive emotion’ (most often put into practice as, respectively, Mindfulness of Breathing and Metta Bhavana), while the insight approaches are ‘spiritual death’ and ‘spiritual rebirth’.All of these practices are followed by Just Sitting — so there is a pattern of activity then letting-go, or making effort followed by receptivity. This dynamic is very important in mitigating two possibly unhelpful directions: wilful, goal-oriented striving on the one hand, or vagueness and spacing-out on the other.
There are a number of practices that could be done to cultivate each of the four stages in the System of Meditation. However, this is not a rigid system — most meditation practices could be used to cultivate the whole system. For example, although Mindfulness of Breathing is usually the first practice taught to cultivate ‘integration’, it can in fact be used to cultivate all four aspects of the system. The same is true of Metta Bhavana, and so on.
Integration implies bringing mental and emotional ‘energies’ together so that attention is not fragmented or divided. This is usually achieved by bringing attention to an object (say, the breath, a visual object, a sound), or using that object as an anchor for awareness. In everyday life, as well as in formal meditation, integration is also developed through mindfulness practices such as walking meditation and body awareness. Mindfulness can be cultivated in any circumstances whatsoever.
‘Positive’ emotions are essentially those that are not self-centred. They are more outgoing and orientated towards others, though their positivity naturally includes ourselves. The most fundamental of these positive emotions is metta — a Pali word which means unlimited loving-kindness or benevolence. The development of metta (Metta Bhavana) is generally the first practice taught to cultivate this aspect of the system of meditation.
Metta Bhavana is one of a traditional set of four practices that cultivates different aspects of positive emotion. When, with metta, we encounter pain and suffering, the well-wishing naturally becomes compassion. When we encounter happiness, it becomes sympathetic joy; we delight in someone else’s good fortune. When we contemplate all the ups and downs of human (and non-human) existence, the positive emotion becomes equanimity; this is a steady, empathic and unshakeable positivity, which embodies deep insight into the human condition.
Achievement of a reasonable degree of integration and positive emotion (samatha) is the basis for the next two aspects of the system, involving the cultivation and realisation of insight.
This term may be slightly off-putting, but it isn’t meant to suggest physical death. What ‘dies’ are all our illusions and delusions about who we are and how things really are. This is usually spoken of as ‘insight practice’ (vipassana). Insight can be cultivated through a huge range of meditation, mindfulness and awareness practices. All of those already mentioned have insight dimensions. Others widely practised in the Triratna Buddhist Community and Order include reflections on the three lakshanas (‘Characteristics’, or ‘Marks’) of conditioned existence.
The first, impermanence, involves contemplating the transitoriness of all composite things. Then comes contemplation of unsatisfactoriness: reflecting that seeking security or meaning for our life in such transitory things will inevitably lead to being let down and consequent suffering. Finally, reflection on insubstantiality involves contemplating that there is no ultimately existing, graspable ‘essence’ in anything. Contemplations such as this can lead to a loosening of the human tendency to grasp onto life, and opening up to the ultimate mystery of our true nature.
The third stage, of Spiritual Death, is not of course the end of the process. After you have been integrated, made your mind positive and refined, and ‘died’ spiritually, the question arises – ‘What is there? What is left? What comes into being?’. What comes into being, in Sangharakshita’s system of meditation, is a new being, the new you – a new being based not on selfishness, but on wisdom and compassion. That new being is the Bodhisattva. So the meditator is reborn (not literally, of course, but metaphorically) as a Bodhisattva. He or she becomes something quite new, quite different. Instead of being driven by ego it is the Bodhicitta that comes through you: this is the stage of spiritual rebirth.
When a session of practice of any the four ‘active’ aspects of the System of Meditation is over, it is important to ‘just sit’ for some time before finishing. Just Sitting is a space of non-action in which anything can emerge. Often the fruit of the previous practice only emerges when you stop ‘doing’ it. And Just Sitting is the non-doing space in which that may (or may not) happen. Just Sitting also allows assimilation of what has just been done, and provides the necessary counterpoise to activity and effort. Just Sitting is a matter of simply ‘being’ with whatever happens in awareness, without attaching to it or rejecting it.
Especially when done as a meditation in its own right, Just Sitting enables the qualities of the previous four stages of the System of Meditation to emerge.