Meditation is an integral part of the Buddhist path leading to the end of suffering. The Buddha taught – again and again – the ‘threefold way’ of ethics, meditation and wisdom. This was the path which he himself evolved and which led to his awakening (‘Buddha’ literally means ‘awake’) or enlightenment.
Most of us, these days, begin our practice of Buddhism by learning to meditate. For some, meditation as means to relax and calm the mind and body is an end in itself. For others, deciding to tread the path the Buddha taught, it is indispensable as a tool to help us to transform.
In his study and practice of meditation, both alone with many teachers over a long period in India, Sangharakshita discovered that there is a recognizable sequence of unfolding in the life of someone who follows the Buddha’s teachings. There are certain key elements and patterns which emerge again and again and which we can support and enhance by the approach to meditation which we choose to follow. It’s not that we literally travel through these stages ‘once and for all’ – its much more as though we are traveling up a spiral path and will revisit the different stages at different times, each time building on what we have learned before.
Known as the ‘great stages’ of the path in traditional Buddhist texts the stages of the system of meditation are
There is also a fifth element in this sequence which comes between each and every stage and, ideally, as part of each and every session of meditation practice. This is known as ‘just sitting’ and is a dimension of practice which involves just that – as Sangharakshita so enigmatically put it ‘don’t make an effort, don’t not make an effort’! This dynamic is very important in mitigating two possibly unhelpful directions: willful, goal-oriented striving on the one hand, or vagueness and spacing-out on the other.
Whilst particular meditation practices can be associated with the different stages, it is also possible to see aspects of each stage in each practice – an almost kaleidoscopic image.
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’.
This brief introduction to the complex matter of the Triratna system of meditation is offered to provide a glimpse of how the most basic practices we teach, these form part of a path and framework which can take us a very long way indeed, if we let them.
This diagram is likely to have had an influence on Sangharakshita’s thinking about meditation. It comes from a work by C.M.Chen, otherwise known as Yogi Chen, who was one of Sangharakshita’s main teachers during his years in Kalimpong. Chen was a scholar, meditator and hermit, though his hermitage was in the local bazaar (picture here). His extensive dialogues with Sangharakshita about meditation were written down by Khantipalo Bhikkhu in ‘Buddhist Meditation’ which was printed for free distribution and is of course now available on the internet.