By Laksiri Fernando –
I was pleased to read another great piece by Dr Upul Wijayawardhana on the subject of meditation, titled “Scientific basis of mindfulness meditation” on last Saturday (The Island, 4 March 2017). I am using neutral language as much as possible by purpose without glowing him in praise. It is also my personal experience that ‘meditation to the mind is like physical exercises to the body.’ I am particularly referring to the mindfulness meditation or Vipassana, as he has explained.
I became attracted to Buddhism at the age of ten when my Mahappa (father’s elder brother) became a Buddhist in 1955. I was inquisitive what he was doing in his room, sitting on a mat in a strange posture; and sitting there for long hours, keeping his eyes closed. It was in 1958 and thereafter, I came across many of E. W. Adikaram’s articles in the Silumina newspaper, one of which was “Jathivadiya Manasika Pisseki” (Communalist is a Lunatic). He also published a series of short booklets thereafter called “Sithuvili” (Thoughts) where he explained some simple methods of meditation. I also had the opportunity to listen to him at Moratuwa town hall as a youngster and on radio. He came for a series of lectures. Everything became forgotten later, engrossed in studies, ‘student politics’ and in a busy professional life thereafter. However, when I look back, even ‘student politics’ (!) could have been enriched, if there was a touch of ‘mindfulness.’
In Australian schools today, mindfulness training is extensively used and there will be a “Mindfulness Teacher Training Certificate Course” in Sydney in a week’s time on 15-16 March. As Dr Wijayawardhana says “Though the purists may argue that these variants negate the original aims but I am sure Gautama Buddha would not have minded his technique being used, even with modifications, for the good of many.” The important point to ask here is whether and how far the Sri Lankan schools use these methods of ‘Mindfulness’ in a scientific manner for the benefit of the students and the society. Three objectives that Australian schools attempting to achieve are: (1) Relieve anxiety and stress of students (2) Let go of anger and frustration and (3) Overcome worrying and negative thinking.
Wijayawardhana has given a useful exposition to the benefit of many medical personnel at the 39th Annual Academic Session of the Kandy Society of Medicine (15 February) about the various ways the medical science/s today using the methods of meditation, beginning with the initiatives by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 in USA. When I encountered the first symptoms of acute angina in early 1997, after what they called an angioplasty, I was put on a heart rehabilitation program at the Concord Hospital in Sydney. After several weeks of physical exercises, I was surprised when the instructor introduced what he called the ‘Breathing Meditation.’ It was similar to Anapanasati and when he was talking, he looked at me and said, ‘Fernando, you must be familiar with this,’ to which I just nodded.
It was mainly sitting relaxingly, and inhaling and exhaling for ten minutes, closing your eyes. There was a cassette available at a reasonable price to take home. The important thing was to be conscious about the process, and the instructor during the training, and also in the cassette, was asking us to concentrate on the nostrils, and how the air goes into the lungs and coming out when you exhale. During this exercise, your mind really becomes focussed. After the process, you feel much calmer and relaxed. This was mainly for stress control, as he said. Only after sometime that I realized, the name of the hospital, Concord, was well suited for this meditation lesson. During that time, we were also living in Concord.
For Peace and Harmony
On a more social or ‘spiritual’ application, Dr Wijayawardhana has highlighted the recent contributions made by U Ba Khin (the Burmese) and more particularly, Satya Narayan Goenka, to popularize meditation and mindfulness in society. He also mentions its relevance to peace and harmony in the world, referring to Goenka’s speech at the UN Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders for World Peace in August 2000. This is immensely relevant for Sri Lanka today.
Goenka started his speech by saying that “Religion is religion only when it unites. Religion is no more religion when it divides.” He ended his speech by quoting Emperor Dharma Asoka’s Edict XII, which begins with declaring “One should not honour only one’s own religion and condemn the religions of others, but one should honour other’s religions for this or that reason.” He did quote the whole Edict, which further explains ‘this or that reason’ why other religions should be respected.
What is more important is what he said as the main thrust of his speech relating to Vipassana Meditation. He related ‘the peace in the world to the peace in the mind.’ This is also in the motto of UNESCO taking from the Buddha directly which says “We must construct the defences of peace in the minds of women and men.” He further said, “If there is no peace in the minds of the individual, I cannot understand how can there be real peace in the world.”
Within a short span of time, given to him at the summit, Goenka tried to illustrate the problem by explaining the common or normal nature of the human mind which is agitated with often-times with ‘anger, envy, hatred and animosity.’ This is how he tried to emphasise the importance of meditation and mindfulness which are necessary for peace within and in the world. He categorically said, “If I have anger, I am the first victim of my anger” which is absolutely true.
Therefore, we should thank Upul Wijayawardhana for bringing Goenka’s speech and other matters to our attention. He says, “When I retired I directed my attention to an organ more obscure than the heart; the brain. I was fascinated by the mind and consciousness and started learning Abhidhamma…” In my case, my knowledge of Abhidhamma is almost nil. But when he says he considers the ‘Buddha to be a scientist and a philosopher’ it resonates with my understanding as well. One of my recent journal articles was “Origins of research methodology, Buddhism and the Four Noble Truths” (Sri Lanka Journal of Social Sciences 39 (2), December 2016).
He has also said “A great disservice had been done by making him [the Buddha] a religious leader thus limiting his discoveries only to his followers but, fortunately, it is changing though slowly….” I am not going to deduct simplistic conclusions from that statement for the current debates on ‘foremost place for Buddhism’ in the present or a new constitution. But it might give some food for thought for the Buddhists to think about, while I have no objection for that ‘foremost place’ or hesitation to appreciate Buddhism as a great religion. It is my observation that Buddhism has given many (or most) people some civility, discipline and a particular serene culture. Listening to Bana (sermons), observation of Sil (precepts) and worship of Bodhi (Bo tree) are good ethnical practices which would be meaningless to those who consider Buddhism only as a philosophy and/or science.
Personal Benefits for Anyone
Be as it may, more pertinent is Wijayawardhana’s emphasis on ‘mindfulness’ and ‘meditation,’ now for some time in Sri Lankan newspapers. It appears to me that the mind is a jumble of thought processes for whatever the reason/s. I am not sure whether there is a physiological/medical explanation for its erratic nature. When you try to focus on it, it is almost uncontrollable at least at the beginning. That can be one reason why many people (including myself!) are usually grievance ridden, aggressive, agitated and intolerant. That cannot however be the only reason. There are some other objective or external reasons why your agitations are generated. For example, if a person is deprived of possessions or unnecessarily harassed by someone, then the agitation is almost natural.
Thoughts in the mind come and go quickly, unless you are engaged thoroughly in a particular task (i.e. talking, writing, driving) and they usually come and go as images or in words. Your thinking is audio-visual! What comes to mind, when you first observe, usually are grievances or offenses. That your spouse, brother, neighbour or colleague has done such and such a thing to you. Most hearting (particularly among the middle classes) is what happens to your dignity or pride. Most intriguing is the grievances and antagonisms coming in enlarged forms. Some of them can be pure misunderstandings.
Of course, there are thoughts that come to your mind because of sensual or sexual impulses. However, they are (presumably) less, if you try to meditate. If you can observe your thought processes through simple meditation and analyse them for rational reasoning, that renders much peace to your mind than anything else. You also might be able to identify some root causes for your disturbances. Continuous doing so definitely calms you down and your productivity in whatever you do would be increased. Your thoughts become more cohesive and logical and also objective without (much) prejudice. You feel more harmony in life and less conflicts and animosities. You may achieve some ‘detachment.’
Therefore, what Upul Wijayawardhana has been saying in his numerous articles in Sri Lankan newspapers should be taken seriously. Three major conclusions that can be drawn could be (1) the introduction of mindfulness training in school curricula with an interfaith or secular emphasis, (2) the setting up of mindfulness/meditation training centres in universities for the benefit of students and academics, and (3) the incorporation of a purposeful ‘Peace of Mind Program’ (i.e. UNESCO motto) in the national reconciliation and peace building work. It should be emphasised that meditation and mindfulness are common to all religious traditions, and more particularly to Hinduism and Buddhism.
Further, could it be useful if a ‘Mindfulness’ training program is launched for the Parliamentarians and politicians?