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The Four Protective Meditations

Updated: Dec 28, 2021

Ayya Santacitta of Aloka Vihara Forest Monastery offered this weekend retreat. The four protective meditations are:

1. Contemplation of the body

2. Reflection on Death

3. Metta Meditation

4. Recollection of the Buddha

They are called protective because they guard the mind from negative activity and encourage the mind to relinquish old habits and develp wholesome qualities essential to the Path to Awakening.

After introductions Ayya started the retreat with a guided meditation touching on all four of the Protective Meditations:

She then gave a Dhamma talk to briefly introduce each of them:

Each morning of the retreat Sanghamitta led a Shaking Qi Gong session as a counterbalance to all the sitting meditation. The morning after, while doing her personal Qi Gong pracitice she realized she'd inadvertently left out two moves. Please look at this video on the "missing moves" prior to the Qi Gong teaching video, so you can learn and insert the missing moves.

On Saturday morning Ayya elaborated on Contemplation of the Body.

This is referred to as "asuba meditation", meditation on the unbeautiful. The goal is to help us to stop clinging and to not feel separate from the natural world around us. After the Dhamma talk she led us in a guided meditation (starting at 22:30 in the video) of the first five body parts, those visible to the eyes: head hair, body hair, teeth, nails and skin. Repeatedly bringing attention to each of these can be a samadhi meditation. Ayya then directed us to pay attention to the three layers of the body: skin, flesh and bones. It's a simplified way to look at the 32 parts of the body. It's very grounding. Finally she opened our awareness to the elements in the body and externally: earth (hard - eg. teeth, bones, rocks, furniture), water (cohesion, fluidity, wetness - eg. flesh, blood, rain, rivers, lakes), fire (heat and coolness), wind (motion - eg. breath, change, wind), space (eg. body cavities like the mouth and rib cage, external space). Ayya suggested we allow our body to dissolve into space. Our bodies are in constant exchange with the external elements so in reality there is no division between the nature of our bodies and the nature of the environment. Our body is empty of a separate, unchanging self. The self exists from causes and conditions and is constantly changing. Finally, she encouraged us to drop the experience of the elements and just become aware of the knowing (i.e. there is a difference between what is known and the knowing of it).

Before lunch Ayya gave a short talk about our relationship to food:

Then she shared the traditional reflection that monastics do when they take the lid off their bowl and look at the food within:

Wisely reflecting I eat this (alms )food. Not for fun, not for pleasure, not for fattening, not for beautification. Only for the maintenance and nourishment of this body, for keeping it healthy, for helping with the Holy Life (practice). Thinking thus: I will ally hunger without overeating, to continue to live blamelessly and at ease.

Saturday afternoon Ayya spoke of maranasati, death meditation and then offered a guided meditation.

This meditation helps prepare us for our inevitable death so we can meet it with peace. Ayya usually started each guided meditation by asking us to call to mind our motivation for attending this retreat, for having a meditation practice. Why am I doing this? And in the evening Ayya held a question and answer session.

Sunday's Dhamma talks were on the two meditations that open and brighten and expand the mind. In the morning was Metta Meditation (loving friendliness) followed by a guided meditation on the Seven Factors of Awakening transforming into Metta. The Seven Factors of Awakening are the qualities that are an outcome of our meditation practice. They are: Mindfulness, Investigation of Dhamma (eg. taking a real interest in our meditation object). pity (joy), tranquillity, samadhi (stillness) and equanimity. Once equanimity is developed it allows us to see everything from a wider, deeper perspective so we can transform the equanimity into metta.

Sunday after noon Question and Answer session.

Ayya's final Dhamma talk was on Buddhanusati: Recollection of the Buddha. This is both a samadhi practice and a means to uplift the mind and heart. Recollecting the qualities of the Buddha is means to reflect back to ourselves how we have the potential for these qualitites. The recollection helps us develop confidence in our own capacity to embody the qualities of the Buddha. Nine qualities are mentioned, five internal qualities which are the basis for the Buddha being a reliable teacher and four external qualities that denote how the Buddha interacts with others and is able to teach and guide them. The internal qualities are:

1. Complete purity - complete elimination of greed, hatred and delusion.

2. Fully Awakened without a teacher and possessing complete wisdom.

3. Perfect knowledge and understanding and perfect conduct and virtue.

4. "Fully gone" along to the Eightfold Path to Nibbana.

5. Knower of the world

And the four external qualities:

6. Unspurpassed teacher

7. Teacher of humans and devas

8. Able to awaken others

9. Motivated by great compassion.

She then led us in a guided meditation on Buddhanusati.

During the retreat Ayya did several readings from the Therigatha, poems written by nuns contemporary with the Buddha. Various translations can be found here:: Ayya also read from Matty Weingast's modern book of poetry, The First Free Women, that was inspired by the Therigatha.

Ayya's talks from this retreat can also be accessed in audio form at Dharma Seed.

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