Associate Professor Chutatip Umavijani, retired Professor, Thammasat University
My interest in meditation has been from a very young age. I was busy playing by myself when I was about 5-6 years old. Then for a moment, I asked myself: If there is no outer world, and if there is no me, what it is like? Then all of sudden a sense of silence came to me for a few minutes. I never forgot that experience.
When I grew older I questioned about life. What it is all about? Why we are here? And, what is the meaning of life?, etc. I had plenty of time to read back then and I reflected upon myself. I started reading many books from my young age through my teenage years. Many books were from my father’s shelf that he got from attending Thai funerals or cremation ceremonies. Thais at that time, and even now, love to give away books about the deceased’s life story on their cremation day. These funeral books gave me photographs of how a person’s life started and ended. Then I realised there is no substance or essence of life. Fame and fortune are all intangible.
Until one day my father went golfing at Bangsane, Chonburi. While walking on the golf course with him. I talked to one of his good friends, even though he died many years ago. I still remember his name, Khun Viroj Unakul. He was a member of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, the same as my father. From what we were talking in the golf course, Khun Viroj asked if I am interested in meditation. He said he will take me to see a guru monk. He first asked what would I like to gain through meditation, clairvoyance or wisdom? I said wisdom, as clairvoyance can be gone if you are not strong enough and it can lead one to greediness. So the next day he took me to see the guru monk, Pra Achan Assapathera, who had come to visit Thailand from Burma. He was the disciple of the renowned Mahasi Sayadaw in Burma. The reason he came here is that one of the leading head monks of Pra Phimonlatham invited him to come and stay. Later on that monk became Thailand’s Supreme Patriarch until he died. He invited my guru to teach the Thai people how to meditate. As Burmese meditation systems are very keen on Apiddhamma and well practised there, he taught that. In the old days of Thailand, we had monks who are well trained in meditation, but the practice mainly circulated among monks, nuns, and a few laymen. Only they were not so widely practised then as they are now.
There are many types of meditation. These include Transcendental, Zen, Kundalini and breath awareness amongst many others. However, I will discuss the two types that are used in Thailand: Samatha Vipassana Kammathan and Vipassana Kammathan.
Samatha Vipassana is putting your mind at one pointedness to the one word you are concentrating on, such as ‘Budd’ (or breathing in) ‘Tho’ (or breathing out). You do not pay attention to anything else until your mind is at peace and becomes one with the present. Then your mind is lifted up to Vipassana or is being mindful to gain wisdom through awareness of what is happening within the mind and all surroundings. But with Samatha meditation, in the old days, all the gurus can gain extra knowledge of clairvoyance. This may lead to wanting more and a neverending desire or needs in normal people. But with strong determination and mindfulness at the end, one is able to gain wisdom as well, and many forest monks attained Nirvana through this method.
Vipassana Kammathan is also called mindful meditation. This is being aware of one’s thoughts from moment to moment. If by observing the stomach’s rising and falling, the mind may start to wander elsewhere. One has to remind oneself of the task and return to the present. Through this kind of mindful concentration, one can gather the complete awareness little by little of oneself to the point of being completely one with reality or oneness of the whole. There are 16 stages done step by step taken all together to reach the first of the four stages in realising the truth: Sodaphan, Sakakame, Anakame and Arahan. Self-awareness or Sati is being mindful is the keyword for awareness of one is doing. These four stages will eradicate all kinds of defilement, ignorance, anger, greed, etc.