I joined the course thinking that it was just about a meditation technique, but the truth is that it is not possible to avoid discussions of Buddhism during the discourses. Terms like karma and rebirths and life cycles will be used, and that is fine. Because there is also a strong emphasis on how it is not about sectarian beliefs and how everyone- Hindu, Muslim, Christian etc- can practice Vipassana.
It is the art of observing your respiration, the area below the nostrils and above the upper lip, to make your mind sharper and more aware of the sensations in your body. The second stage is sensations, where you move from your nostrils to everywhere on your body. Sweeping your awareness from your head to the tips of your toes, and back again. And finally, reaction. Where you will experience unpleasant or pleasant sensations, but to remain unoffended or without craving for those sensations. Vipassana teaches that suffering is natural, but if we understand the origins of suffering- our cravings and aversions- we are able to put an end to our suffering. And meditation is one of the paths that can lead to the cessation of suffering.
At the end of every session the teacher will say “may all beings be happy!” It is such a nice phrase, to hope for peace and equanimity to come to everyone, that we will all be able to recognise our own insecurities and miseries. And to spread that joy and infinite peace to others. However, the truth is that Vipassana is the practice of a lifetime. I might be able to see results within a year, but that requires daily practice of an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening. I am not sure if it is for me because there are other things that I want to do, and meditation has never worked for me before. But anyway, overall, it was a good experience minus the mosquito bites.
I had a question on my mind when the course ended, which is the same question that I asked S and A. S is a Christian and has been a Christian for 26 years, A practises Tibetan Buddhism and has been a Buddhist for 24 years. I spoke to both of them separately on the last day of the course, when noble silence was broken. My question to S was given her beliefs, will she still practice Vipassana, given that it is surrounded a different set of laws from Christianity? Do not kill animals, not being able to eat snake or dog meat (there are no restrictions on the type of food you can eat in Christianity), and accumulating of merit in Buddhism by doing things instead of relying on “grace and not good works”. Although the main tenets of Christianity are to love one another, it is also acknowledged that good works alone cannot bring you to heaven. The non-acknowledgement of a specific God, the worship of other living beings (karmapas) who are enlightened.
S. told me that she remains open-minded, while being a staunch Christian, to her friends’ religions. She goes to mosques sometimes too. It was just a thought in my mind that I didn’t want to be wrong about my religion, and while some may say that Buddhism isn’t a religion because it is about recognize man’s true nature, praying to Guan Yin and reciting the diamond sutra is definitely not doable as a Christian.
I tend to be perfectionistic- it is either all or nothing, and I get very discouraged when I realise that my faith might be wrong or imperfect. After all, I am still learning. And then I thought to myself- maybe God had intended many religions to co-exist in this world, because not everyone can subsume themselves under God, and it is a test of one’s faith to be a compassionate and loving person even while persecuted by other believers. Can I still practise Vipassana, and not acknowledge anything else that comes with it? That there’s no karma or debts from past life etc.
S. shared with her own encounters with God. Frankly, I am jealous that she encountered God, or her brain told her that that was an encounter. I am someone who has never felt the grace of God personally, and everything that has happened in my life so far can be seen as a raw coincidence to other secular thinkers. Nothing special has happened so far. Of course, I am attributing everything, all the turns and twists, to God. But it is not something that can be used to convince other people. S. shared that when she was younger, she lost her mother. It was one of the strong turning points in her life, her really low points. She shared that as she was walking home before 3pm (the time of the day that Catholics believe is the best for prayer), she felt this deep sense of joy that made her want to skip and dance and leap in praise, and she also heard God telling her ‘footprints in the sand’. That even though she might have appeared alone in those dark times, God had carried her and not forgotten her, even though there was only one set of footprints in the sand.
She shared about how she had a flashback of all the negative points in her life and I could sense that she was sincere about her faith- it was a genuine moment of joy that she never felt again, joy that cannot be experienced in daily life. And because of that moment of joy, which cannot be easily explained, as well as several other encounters (do I have a mental blockage in my head or what that prevents me from hearing anything), she became a devout Christian. But S. is also open-minded to other faiths. Whereas I tend to think- there is only one path. Which is the path prescribed by Christianity- acknowledge God above all other gods, and songs that praise him being greater and stronger than everyone else. And such a narrow-minded view sometimes leaves me feeling lost and a bit annoyed that He did not make thing easier for everyone on earth. Why can’t he just put a sign in the sky every Easter or something. Like a God answering machine, so that we will keep his laws and learn to love him.
A. was different- she came from Medan, Indonesia. She spoke to me about how she travelled to India to discover her guru, an enlightened being who is able to help her attain her own enlightenment. She does not acknowledge any of the Christian or Hindu gods, and she only prays to a select few- Guan Yin etc. I asked her how has Buddhism changed her life and she said that she actually decided to be a Buddhist when she was about 10 years old. She read about Buddhism and was touched by how compassionate the teachings were, and decided to be a vegetarian. She stopped killing mosquitoes for 7 days and by the end of the seven days, while her arms were covered in bites, she had paid her karmic debt and mosquitoes did not bite her from then onwards. That is 24 years of being bite-free, and she did not put any insect repellent while she was staying at St John’s. A. also mentioned how she left her high-paying job to help others, and the practice of Buddhism has helped her with her anger management problems.
When I was sitting with her I felt this deep sense of conviction and peace that appealed to me, because she is living a good and proper life without any God. A. believes in doing good works, and it is a very useful practice for secular believers. She kept mentioning that Buddhism isn’t about observing a set of rules and making yourself uncomfortable and obedient, rather it teaches you to recognise your nature and to liberate yourself. Whereas in Christianity I sometimes do feel like a trapped ant- pacing back and forth, reading this and that, and trying very delicately to not do anything wrong. She shared with my vedic horoscope-
If you look at the entire year, you would see that your ability to think on your feet, ability to impress others with your ideas, your expression would be your best way forward. Very good skills relating to expression and the ability to come up with new ideas as well as new schemes will improve matters to a large extent.
I feel like I am existing between states, trying to figure something out. On an intellectual level I can understand what happens in the book of Daniel, the goat and the ram etc. Acting like a wild animal and burning in the furnace. But Christianity to me still is a cage- it is a set of rules that you have to follow. Even though the most amazing thing about Christianity is grace, God’s grace in forgiving us for all our sins. That there is nothing we can do in return to earn grace. And above all, acknowledge God as the only God, and observe all of his commandments, in which I will find freedom.
It is like what S. said, you will have the darkest of days when you feel like everything has gone wrong and everyone has abandoned you. When that happens, when you lose your faith, how can you help yourself?