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I've come here many times for meditation on the breath. I've come to understand this meditation better, but I encounter problems unrelated to meditation.

I've noticed that my memory is rather bad, and that my thought process relies mostly on verbal means. However, I remember being extremely visual at an early age, scoring quite well on visual aptitude tests, and these days I can sometimes visualize complex things. Yet, I fail to use visualization in every day life because I understand Buddhism discourages mental fabrication. I am thus very focused on exterior reality, either sensing reality or thinking abstractly.

I'm wondering if visualization meditation would help me with memory and conceptualizing. I must also mention that I have a mood disorder, and though I doubt visualizing could affect this, I am still worried of the possibility. Thus, my questions are:

  1. Is intentionally visualizing something very different from fantasies discouraged in Buddhism?
  2. Is visualizing generally different from engaging in visualization in meditation?
  3. Are there any risks involved in visualization practices, in visualization as a general trait of mind?
  4. Would visualizing improve memory, retention, or modelling?
  5. Could visualizing in a free and unrestricted way liberate or affect emotions, undo repression?

I am thankful for any replies.

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I'm familiar with visualization meditation, in the context of Tibetan Buddhist meditation.

Those specific meditations were good for my mood as well as a training in concentration. For me it was a very useful start into meditation, though I have stopped doing it for now.

I think it's a mistake to avoid something you're good at, just because you heard that the Buddha is against mental fabrication. I have studied Buddhism quite extensively (though not exhaustively) and I have not heard that one before.

It is a Buddhist truth that thoughts can be misleading, but that should not stop you from thinking. It is merely a useful hint that not all your thoughts are true.

One difference between fantasy and visualization is that in visualization you take control of your mental processes and visualize what YOU want to visualize (or what the instruction is). Fantasies are basically day-dreams: you let your mind go where it will. Observing those thoughts can also be meditation - but then it becomes mindfulness.

What makes it meditation is that it is deliberate.

So if you are doing visualization meditation - you focus on (in two steps)

  1. making the image clear
  2. concentrating on that image.

If you're doing mindfulness meditation, you will simply note you are fantasizing when you are in fact fantasizing. The noting itself will take you out of the fantasy for a bit, by the way.

There is also Buddhist analytical meditation: it means analyzing a Buddhist truth from all sides. It does go back all the way to the Buddha. And if that is a good thing, then surely ordinary analysis ought to be OK too. It falls under the heading of seeking wisdom.

More about Buddhist meditation: http://www.katinkahesselink.net/tibet/thought.htm

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Yet, I fail to use visualization in everyday life because I understand Buddhism discourages mental fabrication.

Verbal fabrication are not limited to metal verbalisation or subvebalisation. It includes anything to do with thinking which includes visualisations. Thinking is not only verbal fabrication, also provides nutriment, give rise to volition for karma.

Use of visualisation, verbalisations, sub verbalisations, imagination, conceptualization leads to fabrication, nutriments, pannatti1 (more particularly nama pannatti when using labelling with verbalisation or sub verbalisation and nimitta pannatti2 in Samatha), etc. The meditation exercise is to understand the ultimate realities and the universal laws of nature (dhamma), penetrating beyond concepts. So this (self create verbalisation or sub verbalisation or metal image) cannot be used for Satipaṭṭhāna meditation, if a concept spontaneously arise let it be, and be aware of the sensations / feeling this bring about; this (Verbalisation, visualisation, conceptualisation, thinking and pondering, etc.) also leads to fabrications (more particularly verbal) and nutriment (Āhāra - more particularly Manosañcetanā Āhāro). Samma Ditthi Sutta mentions the end of fabrication and also nutriment is the right way. More on pannatti on this site see this search. A related concept is nirutti, more this see this search.

I.e. this visualisation, results in:

  • verbal fabrication generally based on unwholesome root of ignorance, since concepts are not ultimate realities, which can lead to undesired future experiences
  • nutriment to keep existance which can lead to future unwholesome experiences
  • use of concepts than ultimate realities which has the basis of the unwholesome root of ignorance, where as ignorance is displaced when you meditate with ultimate realities as the object of meditation
  • concept proliferation, though controlled, is not in touch with ultimate realities, but uses a stream of repetitive concepts objects ("thoughts, thoughts, thoughts, ...", "sounds, sounds, sounds, ...", ..., etc.)

One justification of using the labeling is use of controlled vocabulary which relates or close to the ultimate realities:

  • 4 elements: earth, air, heat, water or equivalent names / labels like motion, highness, etc.
  • function of 6 sense organs: seeing, smelling, touching, hearing, tasting, thinking
  • 5 aggregates: conscious, perceiving, feeling, etc.

But as iterated before labeling is conceptual and not ultimate realities.

Samatha meditation like Kasina uses nimitta (nimitta pannatti2). This also be avoided and to prefer the framework of the body (4 sathipattana) as the object of meditation. Reason for this is many meditators get attached to the Sukha this bring and it is not possible to see the impermanence of the Nimita, the unsatisfactoriness of the feeling the Nimita bring when it ends and the fact the Ninita is not fully in one's control and also it brings unsatisfactoriness hence should not be identified as me or mine. Generally, a Samantha practitioner will miss identify the Nimita as permanent, satisfactory and controllable (as controlling and manipulating the nimita part of the excecise) which leads to the unwholesome root of ignorance. This is one of the Adinava of the Samatha practice. Jhana should be developed using the 4 Foundations of mindfulness or 4 Brahmavihara.

Also some quotes by Meditation Master S.N.Goenka on this:

Some meditators start with walking, even mentally repeating "walking", "itching", or whatever. There is no paññā: but at least the practice concentrates the mind.

Source: Discourses on Satipatthana Sutta - S. N. Goenka

But you are required to observe bare respiration, as it naturally is, without regulating it; no word or imagined form may be added.

...

Similarly visualization—mentally picturing a shape or form—can become a barrier to progress. The technique leads to the dissolving of apparent truth in order to reach ultimate truth. Apparent, integrated truth is always full of illusions, because at this level saññ± operates, perception, which is distorted by past reactions. This conditioned perception differentiates and discriminates, giving rise to preferences and prejudices, to fresh reactions. But by disintegrating apparent reality, one gradually comes to experience the ultimate reality of the mental-physical-structure: nothing but vibrations arising and passing away every moment. At this stage no differentiation is possible, and therefore no preferences or prejudices can arise, no reactions. The technique gradually weakens the conditioned saññ± and hence weakens reactions, leading to the stage in which perception and sensation cease, that is, the experience of nibb±na. But by deliberately giving attention to a shape, form, or vision, one remains at the level of apparent, composed reality and cannot advance beyond it. For this reason, there should be neither visualization nor verbalization.

Source: The Discourse Summaries by S.N.Goenka

1) Is intentionally visualizing something very different from fantasies discouraged in Buddhism?

Thinking, verbalisation, imagination are all verbal fabrications which intern is accompanied by initial and sustained application (Vitakka - Vicara)

2) Is visualizing generally different from engaging in visualization in meditation?

In meditation, say Kasina, you visualise a coloured disk. This is the same as any imagination unless you are aware of its impermanence.

Any imagination if there is a perception that it is permanent, pleasurable and controlled by self then it becomes unwholesome.

You are not fully in control of your image. When practicing in meditation or otherwise, when you bring about a visualisation you get the notion I created this, I control this, this appeared as I wanted it to be. You might think abiding in these meditation states is Sukka or imagination of by liking or some beautiful object of imagination. Also the imagined object may seem real, solid and permanent.

Similarly you lose touch that it is dependently arisen, sustained by nutriment, etc.

Also there is Paramattha Dhammas (Citta, Chethesika, Rupa, Nirvana) and Pannatti (Kala, Nama, etc.) which represent totality dhamma according to the Abhidhamma. Visualisation is Nama Pannatti which is not an ultimate reality.

This leads to future pleasant, unpleasant and neutral experiences.

3) Are there any risks involved in visualization practices, in visualization as a general trait of mind?

What ever that creates a future experience, the experiences fall into 3 categories (pleasant, unpleasant, neutral), but if the experiences were created with the unwholesome roots it will be unpleasant or neutral.

When visualising you cannot be fully in touch with reality hence ignorance is present. Also verbal fabrications are created. In addition, there is thinking and pondering which gives nutriment for future existence. All this created with unwholesome base will result in future experiences. Even Jhanic attainments give result in certain planes of existence. When higher fetters break then desire for such exitance also goes away.

4) Would visualizing improve memory, retention, or modelling?

Yes. I might. Any training now will have a future consequence. Some of the practices (perhaps not all) may lead to a future existence with improved memory and modelling capabilities.

This is also temporary and any future existence ends in unsatisfactoriness.

5) Could visualizing in a free and unrestricted way liberate or affect emotions, undo repression?

Many of the Kammaṭṭhāna has visualisation of imagination as a basis. Practicing them the right way leads to existence in higher planes. These are part of the higher fetters (uddhambhāgiyāni saṃyojanāni). Unless you realise this is conditioned, dependently arisen, sustained by nutriment, etc. cannot liberate you.

Vipassana is the best way to deal with emotions: vipassana meditation experience, vipassana meditation testimonial


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The Atthasalini uses different synonyms for nama pannatti (concepts that are names). It is an interpretation, an expression that renders the meaning of something in language (nirutti). A name is a distinctive sign that shows the meaning of something (vyancana). There are sounds which people utter, letters combined as words which express the meaning of something (abhilapa). These synonyms explain the meaning of nama pannatti, a name or term. A term makes the meaning of something known. The idea or notion that is made known can also be called a concept. Thus, there are, generally speaking, two kinds of pannatti:

  1. That which is made known (pannapiyatta or atthapannatti).

  2. That which makes known (pannapanato), the name or term (sadda pannatti or namapannatti) which makes known the meaning of things. If we remember these two classes of concepts it will be easier to understand what a concept is. There are many kinds of concepts and they can be classified in different ways. One way of classifying them is the following (see Abhidhammattha Sangaha Ch. VIII, section 4, on pannattis):

i) concept of continuity: (santana pannatti), corresponding to the continuity of things, such as land, mountain or tree, which concept is based on the rapid succession of the elements.

ii) collective concept: (samuha pannatti), corresponding to modes of construction of materials, to a collection of things, such as a vehicle or a chariot.

iii) conventional concept: (sammutti pannatti), such as person or individual, which is derived from the five khandhas.

iv) local concept: (disa pannatti), a notion or idea derived from the revolving of the moon, such as the directions of east or west.

v) concept of time: (kala pannatti), such as morning, evening.

vi) concept of season: (masa pannatti), notions corresponding to seasons and months. The months are designated by names, such as Vesakha.

vii) concept of space: (akasa), such as a well or a cave. It is derived from space that is not contacted by the four Great Elements.

viii) nimitta pannatti: the mental image which is acquired through the development of samatha, such as the nimitta of a kasina.

We read in the Abhidhammattha Sangaha:

All such different things, although they do not exist in the ultimate sense,

become objects of thought in the form of shadows of ultimate things.

They are called pannatti

because they are thought of, reckoned, understood, expressed,

and made known on account of, in consideration of,

and with respect to, this or that mode.

This 'pannatti' is so called because it is made known.

As it makes known, it is called 'pannatti'.

It is described as 'name', 'name-made', etc.

Source: Concepts II - Pannatti

Question: When there is seeing through the eyes and we know that it is a pen, it shows that we know the word pen through the mind-door. Is that right?

Sujin: Before we can think of the word pen, we already know a concept. A pannatti is not merely sadda pannatti (a concept of sound) a word or name.

Question: After seeing I remember what was seen. Is the object then already a concept?

Sujin: The Pali term pannatti means: it makes something known (derived from pannapeti).

Question: Must each of the sense-door processes be followed by a mind-door process so that the meaning of things can be known?

Sujin: The five sense objects which are visible object, sound, odour, flavour, and tangible object appear through two door-ways. Thus, visible object appears through the eye-door and then, after there have been bhavanga-cittas in between, it appears through the mind- door. In the same way, sound, odour, flavour, and tangible object appear through the corresponding sense-doors and then through the mind-door.

Source: Concepts II - It makes something known

Question: You said that concepts could be known through the mind-door. Therefore, I am inclined to think that if there is awareness through the mind-door, concepts can be the object of satipatthana.

Sujin: In order to have more understanding of satipatthana we should begin with this very moment. Is there a concept while you hear sound now? Sound is a paramattha dhamma. When citta knows the meaning of the sounds it knows a concept and it knows this through the mind-door. Citta thinks about different words. Sati can follow and be aware of that citta, so that it can be realised as just a type of citta that thinks of words.

Question: Thus, satipatthana can know the reality that is thinking, but it cannot know concepts. As far as I understand, each of the sense-door processes has to be followed by a mind-door process, it cannot be otherwise. When there is seeing there is an eye- door process, and after there have been bhavanga-cittas in between, there is a mind-door process of cittas which experience visible object. Is that right?

Sujin: The víthi-cittas of the mind-door process, which follow víthi-cittas of a sense-door process, have to experience the same rupa. If the javana-cittas of the sense-door process are lobha-mula-cittas (cittas rooted in attachment), the javana-cittas of the first mind-door process after that sense-door process have to be the same types of lobha-mula-citta. The mind-door process follows extremely rapidly upon the sense-door process. With respect to this there is a simile of a bird perching on a branch. As soon as the bird perches on the branch its shadow appears on the ground. Even so, when the object has been experienced through the sense-door and there have been many bhavanga-cittas in between, arising and falling away very rapidly, it is immediately afterwards experienced through the mind-door. Since cittas succeed one another so rapidly one does not know that visible object which is experienced through the eyes is only a paramattha dhamma that can appear because it has impinged on the eyesense.

Source: Concepts II - Can a concept be an object of satipatthana? II

Also see: The Dhamma Theory Philosophical Cornerstone of the Abhidhamma by Y. Karunadasa

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nimitta pannatti: the mental image which is acquired through the development of samatha, such as the nimitta of a kasina.

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  • I hope there's an alternative to copying the same large block[s] of text into several answers. One way, in a new answer, is to reference and link to the text of a previous answer, for example, "see the description of the pannatti, nimitta pannatti etc. in this answer". – ChrisW Apr 3 '17 at 12:11
  • Things seems to be more useful and easy for the reader to keep self contained. I have done this before and noticed one answer refers another which goes on to more than 3 or 4 levels deep. It also becomes unclear which parts expand on the other and is hard to navigate back and forth when the referred part ferest to another. End of the day the user will not understand and will be a waste of my and user time. Also quality of the experience and content will be low. One there a few loner thorough content I plan to do this but periodically having a full / self contained answer. – Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena Apr 4 '17 at 6:22
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I can't answer but (in case you don't already know this, and in case it helps you to research further if you want to) there are some forms of Buddhist visualization meditation, from different schools, including kasiṇa and mandalas.

Another example of a harmless (perhaps even recommended) form of "visualization" might be the wheel of life. Apparently the pictorial representation of it isn't used in Theravada (I don't know why). I think it's an example of a picture being worth a thousand words (i.e. learning the picture and its symbolism is a way to memorize those doctrines).

I think the suttas mention other forms of meditation too, which involve visualization or imagination. Devices in Meditation says,

In kammattana, it is permissible to use certain devices, such as the earth or color kasina, as focal points for the attention. A candle flame, a hole in the wall, or some metal object can also be used, and the method of using them is found in the Pali texts and the Visuddhi-magga. In the texts themselves it is to be noted that the Buddha gave objects of meditation to disciples in accordance with their individual characteristics, and his unerring knowledge of the right technique for each came from his insight into their previous births. Similarly with recursive meditation, a subject would be given which was easily comprehensible to the pupil, or which served to counteract some strong, unwholesome tendency in his nature. Thus, to one attracted by sensual indulgence, the Buddha would recommend meditation on the impurity of the body, or the "cemetery meditation." Here the object is to counterbalance attraction by repulsion, but it is only a "skillful means" to reach the final state, in which attraction and repulsion both cease to exist. In the arahant there is neither liking nor disliking: he regards all things with perfect equanimity, as did Thera Maha Moggallana when he accepted a handful of rice from a leper.

The Visuddhimagga has about 300 pages on various "objects of meditation": including kasinas. They're categorized as Samadhi (Concentration) meditations. Another example is Metta-Bhavana, which can involve your visualizing various types of person (e.g. people who are dear to you).

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