WHAT IS MEDITATION?
"It is extremely hard to rest undistracted in the nature of
mind, even for a moment,
let alone to self-liberate a single thought or emotion as it rises.
We often assume that simply because we understand something intellectually,
- or think we do -
we have actually realised it.
This is a great delusion.
It requires the maturity that only years of listening, contemplation,
meditation, and sustained practice can ripen."
Some words directed at Westerners from Sogyal Rinpoche's book The
Tibetan Book of Living and Dying:
"We are so addicted to looking outside ourselves that
we have lost access to our inner being almost completely. We
are terrified to look inward, because our culture has given
us no idea of what we will find. We may even think that if we
do, we will be in danger of madness. This is one of the last
and most resourceful ploys of ego to prevent us from discovering
our real nature.
So we make our lives so hectic that we eliminate the slightest
risk of looking into ourselves. Even the idea of meditation
can scare people. When they hear the words egoless or emptiness,
they think that experiencing those states will be like being
thrown out the door of a spaceship to float forever in a dark,
chilling void. Nothing could be further from the truth. But
in a world dedicated to distraction, silence and stillness terrify
us; we protect ourselves from them with noise and frantic busyness.
Looking into the nature of our mind is the last thing we would
dare to do."
Please realise that these pages just deal with
Buddhist meditation, some techniques are found exclusively in Tibetan
Buddhism. The Tibetan word for meditation, "gom" can be translated
as familiarising, habituating. In short, it means to familiarise
with a positive state of mind, which actually refers to training
the mind. Meditation is not just relaxing, rather it is trying to
develop a highly concentrated and clear state of mind which one
can use for clear analysis, and which can be blissful to be in.
This blissful state is called "Shamatha" in Sanskrit (see below).
Once we have reached this very advanced concentrated state of mind,
we can learn what we want very quickly, including transforming our
mind and developing deep wisdom and insight. Not only our conscious
thoughts can be brought under control, also our emotions and 'unconsciousness',
as they are all based on concepts which can be changed.
WORKING WITH THE MIND
In Buddhist meditation, we try to develop wisdom,
learn to observe our own mind, decrease negative mind states and
develop positive mind states. To develop wisdom and insight, we
need a calm, clear and concentrated mind. To observe our own mind,
we need to develop a kind of inner "spy" - a part of our attention
that checks our state of mind. To decrease negative mind states
we need to understand where they come from and transform them into
positive energy with the wisdom developed from observing our own
mind. To develop positive mind states, we need to focus away from
selfishness and again develop wisdom by observing our own mind.
As you may realise from the above, we should actually become our
own psychologist, or like the title of a booklet by Lama Yeshe:
"Becoming Your Own Therapist".
In order to find the right state of mind for meditation,
we need concentration instead of being scattered, and clarity of
mind instead of dullness. We need to observe our own thoughts and
mind states instead of getting lost in emotions or becoming prejudiced.
We need to be honest towards ourselves instead of fooling ourselves
and walk away from unpleasant problems. Furthermore, we need to
be patient (one does not become a meditation master over night),
generate self-acceptance, confidence and enthusiasm to make the
All these factors need to be in balance: we need to be somewhat
relaxed as well as concentrated, we need to avoid both sleepiness
A quote from the late Lama Yeshe:
"Many meditators emphasise too much on concentration:
if you are squeezing, then there is no control of anger if someone
disturbs you. The beauty of real meditation is, that even if you
are disturbed, you can allow space and time for this."
Another misunderstanding about meditation is that
we should stop thinking. I assume this comes from the emphasis in
many Zen schools to "stop thinking" - which I understand
to mean that one cannot realise or experience emptiness when being
only caught up in conceptual thoughts about it. That would be similar
to trying to experience a beautiful sunset while discussing with
yourself, "Is it the colour of the clouds that make it beautiful,
or is it the quietness; why does the sun turn red etc."
As Allan Wallace writes in Tibetan
Buddhism from the Ground Up:
"The point of Buddhist meditation is not
to stop thinking, for ... cultivation of insight clearly requires
intelligent use of thought and discrimination. What needs to be
stopped is conceptualisation that is compulsive, mechanical and
unintelligent, that is, activity that is always fatiguing, usually
pointless, and at times seriously harmful."
Or, as the late Ajahn Chah said:
"Try to be mindful, and let things take
their natural course. Then your mind will become still in any
surroundings, like a clear forest pool. All kinds of wonderful,
rare animals will come to drink at the pool, and you will clearly
see the nature of all things. But you will be still. This is the
happiness of the Buddha."
But can we change our mind just like that? His
Holiness the Dalai Lama explains in 'An
Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life':
"Though not physical, our states of mind
also come about by causes and conditions, much the way things
in the physical world do. It is therefore important to develop
familiarity with the mechanics of causation. The substantial cause
of our present state of mind is the previous moment of mind. Thus,
each moment of consciousness serves as the substantial cause of
our subsequent awareness. The stimuli experienced by us, visual
forms we enjoy or memories we a react to, are the cooperative
conditions that give our state of mind its character. As with
matter, by controlling the conditions, we affect the product:
our mind. Meditation should be a skillful method of doing just
this, applying particular conditions to our minds in order to
bring about the desired effect, a more virtuous mind."
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The definition of shamatha is: the ability to hold
our minds on the object of meditation with clarity and stability
for as long as we wish, conjoined with mental and physical pliancy.
It is also called single pointed concentration.
With shamatha, the mind becomes extremely flexible and drastically
reduces the power of disturbing attitudes, gross anger, attachment,
jealousy etc. do not arise.
"People learning the way should first empty
and quiet their minds. This is because the mind must be empty
before it can mystically understand the subtle principle. If the
mind is not emptied, it is like a lamp in the wind, or like turbulent
water, how can it reflect the myriad forms?"
Yuan-hsien (1618-1697) - Excerpted from "The Teaching
of Zen" edited by Thomas Cleary
Prerequisites to achieve full-blown calm abiding:
1. Agreeable place: easy to obtain food without
wrong livelihood, powerful place (blessed by holy persons) and
quiet, not disease-ridden, proper companions and one should have
heard and studied the teachings.
2. Have few desires in terms of food, clothes etc.
3. Knowing satisfaction: acceptance of what you haven and who
4. Pure ethics: try to prevent any negative actions.
5. Forsaking commotion/excitement: few purposes outside meditation,
reduce any other activities
6. Abandoning thoughts of desire and lust: contemplating faults
of desire and impermanence.
As you may understand from the above, the achievement
of shamatha is not a small task. It is said that if one is completely
focused on the practice in solitary retreat, some people can achieve
it in 6 months. There are not many people around who can claim to
have mastered shamatha. To seriously engage in this practice, the
advice of a teacher should be sought, and several good books have
appeared on the subject.
A warning from
Venerable Ajahn Chah (Pra Bhodinyana Thera):
"Samadhi is capable of bringing much harm
or much benefit to the meditator, you can't say it brings only
one or the other. For one who has no wisdom it is harmful, but
for one who has wisdom it can bring real benefit, it can lead
him to Insight.
That which can be most harmful to the meditator is Absorption
Samadhi (Jhana), the samadhi with deep, sustained calm. This samadhi
brings great peace. Where there is peace, there is happiness.
When there is happiness, attachment and clinging to that happiness
arise. The meditator doesn't want to contemplate anything else,
he just wants to indulge in that pleasant feeling. When we have
been practicing for a long time we may become adept at entering
this samadhi very quickly. As soon as we start to note our meditation
object, the mind enters calm, and we don't want to come out to
investigate anything. We just get stuck on that happiness. This
is a danger to one who is practicing meditation.
We must use Upacara Samadhi. Here, we enter calm
and then, when the mind is sufficiently calm, we come out and
look at outer activity. Looking at the outside with a calm mind
gives rise to wisdom. This is hard to understand, because it's
almost like ordinary thinking and imagining. When thinking is
there, we may think the mind isn't peaceful, but actually that
thinking is taking place within the calm. There is contemplation
but it doesn't disturb the calm. We may bring thinking up in order
to contemplate it. Here we take up the thinking to investigate
it, it's not that we are aimlessly thinking to investigate it,
it's not that we are aimlessly thinking or guessing away; it's
something that arises from a peaceful mind. This is called "awareness
within calm and calm within awareness." If it's simply ordinary
thinking and imagining, the mind won't be peaceful, it will be
disturbed. But I am not talking about ordinary thinking, this
is a feeling that arises from the peaceful mind. It's called "contemplation."
Wisdom is born right here."
Tai Situ Rinpoche, from 'The Third Karmapa's
"'The waves of gross and subtle thoughts
subside in their own place.
The stream of mind rests unmoved in itself.
May we be free from the stains of agitation, stupor, and dullness,
And establish a still ocean of calm abiding'
This prayer describes the ideal state of calm abiding.
In this state all gross and subtle thoughts are naturally pacified,
which is to say that they are temporarily calmed down. When the
mind is free from any disturbing thoughts, it becomes stable and
abides in this state without there being any need for deliberate
effort. In this situation two things can happen. The first is agitation
(Tib. 'jing wa'). This refers to an extroverted state in which the
mind, figuratively speaking, falls into a gaze, in which it is very
fascinated or 'spaced out'. The second consists of two types of
an extremely introverted state of mind, stupor and dullness (Tib.
'mug pa' and 'nyog pa'). These are almost the same, though dullness
is slightly more active, while under the influence of stupor one
easily fall asleep. It is a state of real blankness, while dullness
is a state of extreme cloudiness that can be compared to water polluted
by so much dirt that one cannot see through it."
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SPECIAL INSIGHT, VIPASYANA (vipassana)
Vipashyana is defined as: the correct discernment
of the object of meditation, coupled with single-pointed concentration:
a combination of analytical meditation and calm abiding. To develop
it, we need to learn to analyse the meditation object. But not only
conceptual; it is a more fully understanding the object. Our conceptual
understanding will eventually turn into direct, non-conceptual experience.
As the Buddha said:
"Like fire arises from two pieces of wood rubbed
together, so does analytical wisdom arise from the conceptual
state. And just like the fire increases and burns away all the
wood, analytical wisdom increases and burns away all conceptual
2 Types of analytical meditation are distinguished:
- To transform our attitude. For example, by understanding the
problems and misunderstanding of anger, we can reduce and ultimately
- Analysis of the meditation object to understand and perceive
When doing analytical meditation, never take for
granted the first quick answer that comes up. When you ask "why,
how and when" again regarding your initial answers, you may discover
the "real", underlying answers. Also, the answers should not only
come just from the intellect, also check your feelings and emotions,
as long as you don't get caught up in them..
An example: in death meditation you can think of
death. When you ask, "Will I die?" the immediate answer will be
"Yes", and it seems you are finished. But take some time to check
with yourself if you really live your life consciously in the realisation
that you can die any minute. Asking yourself, "How would it feel
to die right now?" will get you into another level of the mind.
Ask, "How will I die?" and "How will I feel?"
and the simple question about death becomes intensely acute and
Then ask for example, "Why will I die?" and you may answer, "Negative
karma". But rather than giving just the textbook answers, check
how these things feel: "What is negative karma really? How
does negative karma feel? Do I really believe in karma, and do I
act that way?" etc.
Analytical meditation is not just about giving the instant logical
answers from the books, but verifying what your OWN answers are.
For me personally, often the real answers appear to be stowed away
in emotions and is hiding behind the logical straightforward answers.
After doing the analysis in a very slow and calm
way, one should single-pointedly focus on the conclusion made in
the end, without analysis, just "look at the conclusion". This really
works to let your own conclusions "sink in", and make them part
of your understanding and wisdom.
As example using above meditation, you may conclude
that you are really not so sure whether you believe in karma. The
conclusion may well be something like: "I have to check about karma
more" or "I need to check why I often don't act as if I believe
in karma". Personally, this is the kind of stuff that makes me more
sensitive and aware about my state of mind, and it stimulates to
meditate more on the subjects of philosophy and psychology.
For the complete text of "Mindfulness In Plain
English", a well-loved 'how-to meditate' book on Vipassana
by Venerable Gunaratana, click here
page of realization.org.
According to the Buddha and the many great masters
following in his footsteps, we need to practice both single-pointed
concentration and special insight. Slightly edited from http://geocities.com/dhammapada2all/:
"In the Anguttara Nikaya Sutta (4.170):
Venerable Ananda (one of the main disciples of the Buddha) says
that monks and nuns who informed him that they had attained arahantship
all declared that they did so by one of the four categories, i.e.
there are only these four ways to arahantship (liberation):
o Samatha followed by vipassana - after which the path is born
o Vipassana followed by samatha - after which the path is born
o Samatha and vipassana together, simultaneously - after which
the path is born in him/her, and
o The mind stands fixed internally (i.e. on the cognizant consciousness
or 'self') until it becomes one-pointed - after which the path
is born in him/her.
... Charity (dana) and morality (sila) are the
positive and negative aspects of doing good (actively doing good
and refraining from doing bad actions.). Likewise, samatha and
vipassana can be said to be the positive and negative aspects
of meditation. Samatha is the positive aspect which brings one
closer to Nibbana. Vipassana is the negative aspect, because one
sees everything in the world as it is with proper wisdom thus:
'This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self' -- as a
result, one will naturally withdraw from and let go of the sensory
world. In other words, samatha meditation pulls one towards Nibbana,
in contrast to vipassana meditation, which pushes one away from
Or, as found in text from the Ming Dynasty by an unknown
master; Taoist Meditation – Methods for Cultivation a
Healthy Mind and Body, translated by Thomas Cleary :
"When you see reality, no illusions can confuse
when you develop stability, things cannot shake it or take it
If you have a few minutes, do have a look at this nice video on meditation by Ringu Tulku Rinpoche.
Teachings on Shamatha
by Tranghu Rinpoche
His Holiness the
Dalai Lama's advice on meditation
Theravada texts on Vipassana: The
Progress of Insight by Mahasi Sayadaw, also the Satipathana
Sutra and Commentary
I think it would be totally inappropriate for me to even contemplate
what I am thinking about.
Don Mazankowski , former Candian Minister of Finance
Life is hard.
It's breathe, breathe, breathe, all the time.
Never miss a good chance to shut up.
Out of my mind.
Back in five minutes.
June 22, 2013