Surely, most of you had had experience with the following most common approaches towards establishing a Buddhist practice:
- Scanning through bits and pieces of Buddhist literature and patching them together into your own personal regiment.
- Following the (ad-hoc) instructions of a specific (charismatic) teacher who explains in his own terminology or particular tradition
- A training according to a (streamlined) meditation system.
Some might finally end up at option number three and yes, one could argue that even the noble eightfold path is a systematic approach in practicing the Dhamma – though open to lots of interpretations.
Here is a short list of why meditation systems seem to have such a benefit over other less organized approaches:
A meditation (development) system is….
- Clearly defined / structured
- Student and teacher can compare progress and results (!!!)
- The same terminology and concepts are used. This too helps explaining, understanding and comparing progress / results
- It is independent of a teacher or guru. Even after the death of a charismatic master the system can be applied. It relies less on “people” but rather on application of the system.
- The system itself can be considered the teacher (like the Buddha venerated the Dhamma as his teacher)
- A system can easily be taught and distributed. Well, at least easier than the specific heritage of a teacher personality.
- A system has a scientific element: Like an experiment that someone tries to replicate successfully.
- A system motivates students: The path is clearly structured, many other former students can help and define the path. Progress is made step by step and can be compared with others.
- Teachers of such a system are able to better judge the progress of individual students based on their prior experience with the same set of instructions on former students…. This will lead to better teachers and an ever refined system.
- It is better, the more detailed it is and/or the better teachers can anticipate and judge another person’s progress
BTW, this is not about advocating any particular Buddhist meditation system. Looking at the Suttas we can see how system(s) were in place already during the time of the Buddha. And even a certain methodology needs to allow for variations based on the character of the meditator – but this too, could be approached in a ‘systematic’ fashion.
Of course, once such a system becomes merely recorded on paper and dies out (no person-to-person transmission left) it is kind of hard to re-surrect it properly just from the “words” used for recording it.
One more reason to be thankful that recent decades have seen many authentic varients of meditation systems (Mahasi, Goenka, Nyanarama etc.) even though they cannot always be matched literally and perfectly to the ancient days some of the posts on this blog might highlight what seems to me at least a closeness in spirit 🙂
So while personally looking back into the texts for verfication and inspiration (for instance on this blog) there is nothing I would trade a proper step by step “living” meditation system in for.
Possible improvements of these meditation systems would be to further refine their instructions (after mastering them) and by updating them based on experience of students of those systems and their relationship to the clear instructions left by the Buddha which – obviously – make more and more sense to those who actually walk along their lines. This would benefit teacher and student alike who can take a look at the textual “evidence” left by the Buddha and compare it 1:1 to their own experiences.
That the Buddha’s teaching was intended as a systematic approach (or containing systematic approaches) can also be drawn from this famous remark:
“Sariputta, Buddha Vipassi’s, Buddha Sikhi’s Buddha Vessabhu’s teaching did not last long. Sariputta, Buddha Kakusandha’s, Buddha Konagamana’s and Buddha Kassapa’s(*) teaching lasted long.”
“And what, Lord, is the cause, what the reason why when Vipassin was Buddha and when Sikhin was Buddha and when Vessabhu was Buddha the teaching did not last long ?”
“Sariputta, the Buddha Vipassin and the Buddha Sikhin and the Buddha Vessabhu were weary of [lit. ‘exhausted’ from kilāsu] preaching dhamma in detail to the disciples; and these had little of the Suttas in prose or in prose and verse, the Expositions, the Songs, the Verses of Uplift, the Quotations, the Jatakas, the Miracles, the Miscellanies; the course of training for the disciples was not made known, the Patimokkha was not appointed.
After the disappearance of these enlightened ones, these Buddhas, after the disappearance of the disciples enlightened under these enlightened ones,’ those last disciples of various names, of various clans of various strata, who had gone forth from various families, caused this teaching&practice rapidly to disappear.
It is as if, Sariputta, various flowers, loose on a flat piece of wood, not tied together by a thread, are scattered about, whirled about and destroyed by the wind. What is the cause ? Inasmuch as they are not held together by a thread, even so, Sariputta, at the disappearance of these enlightened ones, these Buddhas, at the disappearance of the disciptes enlightened under these enlightened ones, those last disciples of various names, of various clans, of various social strata, who had gone forth from various families, caused this Brahma-life rapidly to disappear. Andthese Buddhas were untiring in exhorting the disciples, for they read their minds with their own:
Formerly, Sariputta, the Buddha Vessabhu, perfected, all enlightened one, in a certain awe-inspiring jungle-thicket exhorted and admonished a congregation of a thousand monks, reading their minds with his own, and saying: Apply the mind thus, you should not apply the mind thus ; pay attention thus,’ you should not pay attention thus; forsake this; having attained this, abide in it.
Then Sariputta, when these thousand monks had been exhorted and admonished by Vessabhu, the Buddha, perfected, all enlightened one, their minds were freed from the cankers without grasping. Moreover, Sariputta, whoever not devoid of passion, is in a terror of the awe-inspiring jungle-thicket, and enters the jungle thicket, as a rule his hair stands on end. This, Sariputta, is the cause, this is the reason why, when Vipassin was Buddha and when Sikhin was Buddha and when Vessabhu was Buddha, the Brahma-life did not last long.”
” But what, Buddha, is the cause, what the reason why when Kakusandha was Buddha, and when Konagamana was Buddha and when Kassapa was Buddha the Brahma-life lasted long?” 
” Sariputta, the Buddha Kakusandha and the Buddha Konagamana and the Buddha Kassapa were diligent in giving dhamma in detail to the disciples, and these had much of the Suttas in prose or in prose and in verse, the Expositions, the Songs, the Verses of Uplift, the Quotations, the Jatakas, the Miracles, the Miscellanies….
The course of training for disciples was made known, the Patimokkha was appointed. At the disappearance of these enlightened ones, these Buddhas, at the disappearance of the disciples who were enlightened under these enlightened ones, those last disciples of various names, of various clans, of various social strata, who had gone forth from various families, established the teaching and practice for a very long time.
It is as if, Sariputta, various flowers, loose on a piece of wood, well tied together by a thread [lit. ‘sutta’ – the thread], are not scattered about or whirled about or destroyed by the wind. What is the reason for this ? They are well tied together by the thread.
Even so, Sariputta, at the disappearance of these enlightened ones, these Buddhas, at the disappearance of the disciples who were enlightened under these enlightened ones, those last disciples of various names, of various clans, of various strata, who had gone forth from various families, established the teaching&practice for a very long time.
This, Sariputta, is the cause, this the reason why when Kakusandha was the Buddha, and when Konagamana was the Buddha and when Kassapa was the Buddha, the teaching and practice lasted long.”
[Slightly adjusted but based on I.B. Horners translation of the Vinaya text. Here.]
‘bhagavato ca, sāriputta, vipassissa bhagavato ca sikhissa bhagavato ca vessabhussa brahmacariyaṃ na ciraṭṭhitikaṃ ahosi. bhagavato ca, sāriputta, kakusandhassa bhagavato ca koṇāgamanassa bhagavato ca kassapassa brahmacariyaṃ ciraṭṭhitikaṃ ahosī’’ti.1.) Wiederholbar2.) Klar abgesteckt3.) Schuler und Lehrer koennen Fortschritt mit anderen vergleichen (!!!! so wichtig)4.) Es werden die selben sprachlichen Konzepte benutzt um den Fortschritt vergleichbar zu machen5.) Das System kann unabhaenging von einem “Guru” oder “Meister” gelehrt werden.6.) Das System IST der Meister (Buddha verehrte den Dhamma als seinen Lehrer)7.) Das System kann weitergegeben werden. Ein “Guru” stirbt irgendwann8.) Ein System baut auf einer nahezu wissenschaftlichen Vorgehen auf…Wie ein Experiment, dass man versucht erfolgreich zu wiederholen9.) Ein System motiviert Schuler: Der Weg ist klar strukturiert. Schritt fuer Schritt Fortschritte.10.) Lehrer eines solchen Systems koennen aufgrund gleicher/aehnlicher Anweisungen bei vielen Teilnehmern besser lernen wie sich der Fortschritt gestaltet….das wird sie zu b e s s e r e n Lehrern machen, je oefter sie das System lehren……..
19. ‘‘ko nu kho , bhante, hetu ko paccayo, yena bhagavato ca vipassissa bhagavato ca sikhissa bhagavato ca vessabhussa brahmacariyaṃ na ciraṭṭhitikaṃ ahosī’’ti? ‘‘bhagavā ca, sāriputta, vipassī bhagavā ca sikhī bhagavā ca vessabhū kilāsuno ahesuṃ sāvakānaṃ vitthārena dhammaṃ desetuṃ. appakañca nesaṃ ahosi suttaṃ geyyaṃ veyyākaraṇaṃ gāthā udānaṃ itivuttakaṃ jātakaṃ abbhutadhammaṃ vedallaṃ. apaññattaṃ sāvakānaṃ sikkhāpadaṃ. anuddiṭṭhaṃ pātimokkhaṃ. tesaṃ buddhānaṃ bhagavantānaṃ antaradhānena buddhānubuddhānaṃ sāvakānaṃ antaradhānena ye te pacchimā sāvakā nānānāmā nānāgottā nānājaccā nānākulā pabbajitā te taṃ brahmacariyaṃ khippaññeva antaradhāpesuṃ. seyyathāpi, sāriputta, nānāpupphāni phalake nikkhittāni suttena asaṅgahitāni tāni vāto vikirati vidhamati viddhaṃseti. taṃ kissa hetu? yathā taṃ suttena asaṅgahitattā. evameva kho, sāriputta, tesaṃ buddhānaṃ bhagavantānaṃ antaradhānena buddhānubuddhānaṃ sāvakānaṃ antaradhānena ye te pacchimā sāvakā nānānāmā nānāgottā nānājaccā nānākulā pabbajitā te taṃ brahmacariyaṃ khippaññeva antaradhāpesuṃ. (etc) found in [Vinaya, I, Veranjakanda]
(*) Note: Seems like the Buddhas changed their strategy in teaching the Dhamma. The last four Buddhas established and left a systematic organization of their teachings.
I stumbled on your blog when checking a reference for an article on my blog – using the Māluṅkyaputta Sutta as a commentary on the story of Bāhiya Dārucīriya. I’ve been reading it ever since. I particularly like the content and tone of this post on systematic approaches to meditation. Even within a tradition there is the temptation to look for new methods, always restless searching for some ‘easy’ way forward. I think you’re drawn out some important points about sticking with a system.
…really interesting that you say that (Malunkyaputta-Bahiya). There are not that many people who know about this connection and honestly, I just by accident happened to connect these two suttas when doing some research with the ksana pali search engine. The Malunkyaputta’s verses are such a great valuable input into early Buddhist insight meditation.
I enjoyed your article on the Chariot and reference to the khandhas as explanations of experience. Very good blog, nice mixture of thoughtful pali studies and reflections. Keep up the good work, Jayarava.
With regards to systems: Having been on both extremes (no system just my own) and being pulled through a very systematic and intense system I have definitely expressed my bias towards the letter in this blog post :-). No, seriously, I think there is so much to gain from a well established system following in the footsteps of experienced meditators and the list, though not being complete, gives a little idea of how that feels like in retrospective.
metta & lets stay in touch,