THE ESSENCE OF BUDDHISM is the enlightenment of the Buddha. Many centuries ago in India, the wandering monk Gautama remembered a childhood experience of jhana, mental or meditative absorption, and realized that jhana is the way to awakening. He went to a quiet stretch of forest on the banks of a great river, sat on a cushion of grass under a shady fig tree, and meditated. The method of meditation that he used is called anapanasati, mindfulness of the in and out breaths. Through this practice, he entered jhana, emerged, and quickly gained the insights of enlightenment. Henceforth he was called the Buddha, the Awakened One.
The Buddha continued to teach anapanasati for the remainder of his life. It was the method that had given him enlightenment, the meditation practice par excellence, and he imparted that same method to all his disciples both in the monastery and in the city. This foremost method of meditation is bequeathed to us today in the original Buddhist texts as part of many suttas, but most notably the Anapanasati Sutta.
The Buddha described the practice of anapanasati as consisting of preliminary preparations followed by sixteen steps. The first twelve of those steps are instructions for entering jhana, and the final four steps are instructions on what to do when you emerge.
Before giving instructions for experiencing the bliss and beauty of jhana, I will briefly cover the preliminary stages of meditation. If you pass through these initial stages too quickly, you may find that the preparatory work has not been completed. It’s like trying to build a house on a makeshift foundation—the structure goes up very quickly, but it may come down too soon! You would be wise to spend a lot of time making the groundwork and foundations solid. Then, when you proceed to the higher stories—the ecstatic states of meditation—they will be stable.
Foremost, the Buddha said, go to a quiet place where you will not be disturbed by people, sounds, or things like mosquitoes. Tough guys might want to meditate in mosquito-ridden jungles or in the middle of tiger paths, but this is more likely to build only endurance and not the ease of jhana. The Buddha instead praised pleasant places like orchards or parks similar to Bodh Gaya, where he gained enlightenment. Next, sit on a comfortable seat. You may sit on a cushion, on a bench, or even on a chair as long as it isn’t too comfortable. The comfort required for success in breath meditation is that level where your body can be at ease for long periods of time and also alert.
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