Meditation should be a compulsory subject in Buddhist universities. In Theravāda Buddhism Pariyatti is the theoretical learning that is the foundation of all other learning processes. Without a proper theoretical foundation, no effective practices are possible and therefore no realization of the truth can be expected. Even a minor vocabulary error in the meditation manual can cause a futile practice as in the example, “through mistaken reading of the word ‘udayabbaya’ as ‘udakabaka’ in the manual, a meditation student may end up with watching a heron instead of contemplating arising and falling of phenomena”.
Grammarians like Vimalabuddhi and Kaccāyana have provided the importance of learning proper Pāḷi grammar by way of illustration. Practice that relies only on translation or on the instruction of some meditation instructors who is not well-versed in the Pāḷi literature can sometimes lead to futile ends. In fact Pāḷi is the language used to preserve the teaching of the Buddha that has passed 2500 years of its journey. It was the media language that the Buddha and his disciples used in their teaching career. In the Visuddhimagga, the commentator Buddhaghosa Thera gave systematic explanation to provide the fact that learning before the actual practice is necessary.
“Ādikammikena kulaputtena pubbe vuttanayeneva sīla parisodanadāni sabbakiccāni katvā vuttapakārassa ācarariyassa santike pancasandhikaṃ kammatthānaṃ uggahetabbaṃ.” [Visuddhi: 1-269, (222)]
“So if a clansman who is a beginner wants to develop the meditation subject, firstly, he should do all the work connected with the purification of virtue, etc., in the way already described, after which, he should learn the meditation subject in five stages from a teacher of kind already described”. (299-186)
The basic qualifications of a meditation instructor are mentioned in the Visuddhimagga as follows:
Piyo - He is dearly loved
Garu - His personality is respectable
Bhavani - He is encouraging
Vatta - He speaks ingeniously
Vacanakkharna - He is unshakable by criticism
Gambirañca katham katta - He utters profound speech
No ca thane niyocako - He never urges into unwholesomeness
Likewise the meditation students have the stages to follow.
Uggaha - Learning the meditation subject
Paripuccha - Questioning and examining about the meditation subject
Upatthanam - Establishing the meditation subject
Appana - The absorbing of the meditation subject
Lakkhaṇa - (Penetrating) the characteristics of the meditation subject
When he learns the meditation stages in this way, he never tires himself nor worries the teacher.
Let me mention a few points here that would explain how the meditation could be mistakenly practised if the instructor did not teach well or the meditation student did not learn well.
In Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta, the Buddha taught, "sabbakāya paṭisamvedi assasissamīti sikkhati, passasissamīti sikkhati." Here some people who cannot follow the explanation given in commentaries and sub-commentaries misunderstood the word “Sabbakāya”. They take the word “Sabbakāya” literally which means the entire body.
Nevertheless the context here is not contemplation on the entire body; it is on the entire breath. Again some people say that the breath begins at the navel point, the middle is at the chest, and ends at the tip of the nostril. So, one has to follow the breath from the navel point to the tip of the nostril. In fact, as the words, “Nasikaggeva (only on the tip of the nostril)” (Vi. Tha. 1-265) and Phutthathane cittam thapetvā (keeping the mind on the touching place) (Vi. Tha. 1-273), explain the object of contemplation should be confined to the tip of the nostril where the air touches. The aforementioned words of the Buddha that occurs in the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta explain that the entire body of breath the arising of breath, the presence of breath, and the disappearance of breath — must be observed; the meditation student should not miss any of these points. Therefore, a systematic meditation method requires thorough knowledge on Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta, Visuddhimagga, and Patisambhidāmagga Pāḷi and commentary and devoted learning under a teacher well-versed in Piṭaka.
Another important point to mention here is that when the Vipassanā practice is well developed, at the stage of acquiring knowledge on arising and passing away of phenomena, the fantastic qualities of mind may be experienced. These qualities are obhasa (light), pīti (zest), passadhi (tranquillity), sukha (pleasure), saddhi (confidence), viriya (energy), upatthana (stability), upekkhā (equanimity), nana (sharp intelligence), nikanti (delight). These qualities might defile the practice if he is attached to those qualities. Here a meditation student is bound to possess a sharp and penetrating intellect that can penetrate the phenomena clearly and precisely. Then he might think that he has acquired magga and phala that is his final aim in the practice. As he thinks he has accomplished the task the endeavour he made through out the practice is weakened. In fact the attachment to those qualities is direct opposite of the practice itself.
Many people who do not have thorough knowledge in Piṭaka understand anicca superficially. They say, “People die because they are impermanent; wealth, health, etc., are subject to destruction and therefore they are impermanent.” In fact, vipassanā penetrates deeper than that. Anicca should be understood as the arising, passing away, and as unstable and discrete nature of things. The penetration should reach inside the five aggregates. In the Visuddhimagga, the commentator explains, “Aniccanti khandhapañcakam, kasma uppada vaya annatthattabhava”. That means “The impermanent are the five aggregates. Why? It is because their essence is rise and fall and instability in the same aggregates.”
So, penetrating the characteristic of anicca means the penetration on the arising, falling, and instable nature of the five aggregates. One who realizes anicca realizes dukkha and also anatta. (Khandhavagga Samyutta, Yadanicca Sutta)
Pariyatti teaches theory. Practice should be based on a concrete theory. Practice that is not based on a concrete theory is like a building built on a soft soil. Therefore, Theravāda universities, colleges, and academies should accordingly teach Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta, and Patisamhhidāmagga which are the essential themes of meditation, as well as the Visuddhimagga, which is the essential theme of the three Piṭaka.
To conclude I would like to point out that in Theravāda Buddhism the academic guideline is given: learning first, practice second, and penetration the last. Therefore meditation should be thoroughly and systematically taught as an academic subject before we carry out the actual practice that would help us to the purification of mind.
1 Presented at The International Conference of All Theravāda Buddhist Universities held at The International Theravāda Buddhist Missionary University, Yangon, & at Woodlands Hotel, Popa Mountain Resort, Bagan, Myanmar, 9-12th March 2007