I’m sharing this as somewhat of a coda to Ven. Sujato’s excellent new book comparing Early Buddhism and Theravāda. This article in Insight Journalemphasized text**is a very concise summary of a full-length book on the same topics which has just been published (23 January 2022) by Barre Center for Buddhist Studies press. Unfortunately it seems to only be available in paperback - no ebook edition. EDIT: Āgama Research Institute has just made the complete book available as a free PDF: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1HnlKe8cv2oNgNqIDVnao6eUqj–dTJ2A/view
The summary article is here:
The synopsis reads:
“The present article briefly surveys four developments in Buddhist meditation traditions from the viewpoint of an apparently ongoing interaction between theory and practice: a gradual reduction of the sixteen steps of mindfulness of breathing to just focusing on the breath; an apparent fascination with light and fire imagery leading to investing the mind with intrinsic luminosity and purity; a tendency to grant increasing importance to absorption as indispensable for progress to awakening or even as intrinsically liberating; and a change of compassion meditation from a boundless radiation to directing this quality toward specific individuals and eventually just aiming it at oneself.”
I found the article to be clear and helpful, and having done a number of online programs with Ven. Anālayo, along with being an avid reader of Ven. Sujato’s books over the years, the sometimes stark differences between EB and (especially) popular contemporary Theravāda techniques (principally Mahasi and Goenka) is pretty clear to me, but as I said half-jokingly to a friend who teaches at Spirit Rock the reaction from many participants in these programs who are often dedicated lay practitioners with very little exposure to scholarship or history is often something like: “so, tunnel-vision joyless fixation on the tip of the nose isn’t what mindfulness of breathing is about, “luminous mind” and its later offshoots (bhavanga, alaya-vijñana, Buddha Nature, rigpa and so on) are just a big misunderstanding and closet theism (no matter how much Tara Brach or Jack Kornfield revel in them), jhāna isn’t a separate practice path let alone constituting “Right Concentration,” and the way you’ve been doing mettā practice (using phrases and a series of objects) may be more of a way to cultivate papañca than liberating, ownerless warmth - and isn’t found in the suttas. Other than that your training in meditation is perfectly fine and exactly what the Buddha taught.”
Setting aside the luminous mind and jhāna issues for the moment, what strikes me is that the two most popular “introductory” meditation practices in the Spirit Rock/IMS world are what Ven. Anālayo would call “tunnel vision” narrowly-focused mindfulness of breathing (or rather, mindfulness of touch, either at the tip of the nose or abdomen) - reducing ānāpānasati practice from 16 steps to one - and phrase-based discursive Brahmavihārā practice directed to specific objects and categories.
In contrast, Ven. Anālayo offers satipaṭṭhāna practice as the foundation (with strong emphasis on the anatomical parts, elements and death contemplations that are all pretty much avoided in teaching the first establishment of mindfulness at the aforementioned centers), with ānāpānasati being undertaken in seclusion after the practitioner has some skill in taming the 5 hindrances, while the Brahmavihārās are more “advanced” still, marking a transition from doing towards being and acting as a gateway to further letting go in emptiness practice.
Given that Spirit Rock and IMS have “rebranded” themselves as EB rather than Theravāda it will be interesting to see if the hodgepodge (or smorgasbord if that sounds better) of meditation instructions offered to beginners that come mostly from 20th century Burmese teachers is supplemented or replaced with ones grounded in the suttas and āgamas.