Buddhist Meditation

by Samdhong Rinpoche | 29,256 words

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I am not an expert on Buddhist meditation. If one does not himself know how to sing how can he teach another? However, let us attempt to come to some understanding of the subject. Let us begin by considering two basic questions: Why do we meditate? What is meditation? A sensible man takes on an assignment only after proper consideration of the means and the likely outcome. To start something without this does not seem to be wise.

It is true that people are intelligent enough without meditation. Science has developed beyond our expectations without meditation; the computer operates much more rapidly without meditation than the human brain that built it. Why then should we concern ourselves with it? Our innumerable births have already heavily conditioned our minds; surely they do not need further conditioning even through meditation! Why are so many people nowadays eager to meditate? In some places it is more difficult to find a good tea-shop than a centre for meditation – or at any rate, a centre where it is taught!

And what is the result of meditation? People have meditated for years and yet they seem to be as human and miserable as those who have not. It is not my purpose to discourage you from meditation, but I mention this in order to draw your attention to this fact so that you may think about it yourself. For if you find meditation a useless exercise, it is better to do something else.

My first question to those who want to meditate would be: Why do you want to do it? I consider this question very important, for it is the intention which decides the entire value of the meditation. If our motivation is not as pure as it should be it is our duty to correct ourselves by right thinking. Some people want to meditate because they have a disturbed mind and they want a peaceful one. They do not know what a peaceful mind is or the real nature of peace. They want a kind of peace which is restful and can produce the same effect as deep sleep; this has no connection with wisdom. They only want to be free from their restlessness, or their tiredness, or their frustration. It would be better for them to take a couple of sleeping-pills for these not only work faster but produce the desired result without any effort on the part of the sufferer. Other people think of meditation as a kind of therapy for curing physical and mental diseases and although this may happen occasionally it is not its primary function. Modern medicine with its chemical remedies and techniques has far greater efficacy in this field.

Then there are those who want to gain magical powers or some sort of special powers that feed their already enlarged egos. They want something uncommon that ordinary people do not have – just to show oft", in fact. For these people meditation will be an utter failure; it may even divert them into immoral activities.

We should be very careful, then, and examine our motives as to why we want to meditate. And first we must know what meditation is. For our two questions – why do we meditate? what is meditation? – are closely interrelated.

I do not know the derivation of the English word 'meditation', but in Sanskritic tradition meditation has two aspects, dharana and bhavana. Dharana means to concentrate and bhavana is to ponder, think upon, investigate, analyse. So real meditation must consist of these two parts – one-pointedness of mind and the power of analysing. These two together form the totality of meditation that is shamatha and vipassana. Shamatha is to concentrate and vipassana is to analyse. Analysis with total concentration makes meditation. Now, what do we concentrate on and what do we analyse? Generally, in the outer world one does not need a concentrated mind, a fullness of mind, in order to analyse.

Even the scientist, without meditating, and depending only on outer instruments, has analysed the material world with great skill. But he has left untouched the inner self. The truth of the inner side of things cannot be explored by scientific methods or equipment. The existence and the importance of the spiritual dimension are gaining more acknowledgement in the present day. Earlier, when science was developing, most people thought that spiritual things and the inner wisdom were irrelevant. But now scientists themselves are realizing that there is still something to be discovered and that perhaps it can only be done by some method which is beyond materialism. Meditation is concentration and reflection and these must be inward, not outward. Meditation is the instrument that we need in order to go inside to search for that which is yet beyond ourselves.

Methods of meditation are to be found in most religious writings. The Buddhists have no special methods which could be described as purely Buddhist. But they have several insights that are specifically their own; for instance on the nature of shamatha or calmness of mind, and of vipassana or alertness of mind. But the techniques are derived from those known in the Samkhya, Vedanta and other Hindu schools of philosophy, and perhaps in other religions which teach meditation.

Our mind, as it is, is really not qualified or equipped to search into the innermost depths of ourselves. We have been given guide-lines as to how to search for things outside ourselves but hardly any directions have been given on how to look inwards. We have to train ourselves to look inside and the only way to achieve this is through meditation. In order to meditate, the mind should be channelled, otherwise it will not have the power to concentrate on one object. In that case, what we often imagine to be meditation is not meditation at all. Our undisciplined mind is like a candle flame which flickers in the wind. Objects distorted by such a light seem to be vibrating and cannot be clearly distinguished by the eyes. Even a few moments of meditation make one realize how quickly the mind moves from one object to another and how disturbed it is by many causes such as emotions and memories. The mind resembles a crowded street in which cars, motor cycles, bicycles and people are moving. When we are in the crowd we are aware only of the rush and fuss around us, but if we look down from the top floor of a tall building we shall see how large the crowd is and how numerous the people. Similarly, when the mind is full of disturbance and obstructions we do not notice how fickle it is. When we start to meditate and are able to detach ourselves we become aware how crowded and restless the mind is. The mind of the ordinary man is usually fragmented and divided, full of thoughts and illusions. In this condition concentration is absolutely impossible. Thus, in order to look inwards, so that we come to know our inner selves better, the mind must be trained in concentration,

The first step in meditation, then, is to train the mind to concentrate on one point, one object, for a definite period of time. This is in order to overcome the limitation of our present mind which can neither concentrate fully on one object nor remain concentrated even for a little while. For example, while we are talking, our mind should be fully concentrated on the subject under discussion. But actually, only a part of it is attending to what is being said for at the same time we hear the sound of a bird outside and notice the movement of the people about us. The mind, then, is doing several things at the same time such as listening, seeing and speaking. This shows clearly that it is seldom able to concentrate on one point only, although sometimes the opposite is true. For instance, it may happen that when we are looking at a beautiful picture or at a sunset, we become so absorbed in it that we fail to hear that somebody is speaking to us. This kind of concentration, however, usually lasts for a few seconds only and then all is gone again.

The first step in meditation, then, is to train the mind to concentrate on one point without being distracted or disturbed. But we shall soon notice that due to the intense and continual exercises in concentration, we are apt to lose our ability to analyse and think. It is very important not to do this because, while concentration is the first step in meditation, thinking, pondering and analysing is the second step. It is on these vital activities that meditation is built, namely, one-pointed concentration on a subject or object, and the retention of the ability during concentration to see clearly and ponder its many aspects. If this is understood we shall understand what the Buddhists mean by meditation.

Now we shall go back to the reason for meditation. Meditation will only be useful and worth while if we are really serious about finding ourselves, or if we are, in Buddhist terminology, 'searching for our selflessness' or 'searching for that which is illusive within'. If we are in earnest to find that truth – not for our own satisfaction, but in order to help other people who have not found it yet – then it is well worth while to study meditation and to practise it. But if our motivation is not pure, meditation will just be a waste of time for it cannot be used to serve any worldly aims such as the obtaining of pleasure or power.

The world is full of wretchedness. Nobody can deny it. Our bodies are subject to decay, disease, pain and death. And there are the miseries of the world such as poverty, inequality, hatred. Every single person whether well known or unknown, rich or poor, young or old, carries his own bundle of misery – his body – to which he is bound by karma. A sensible person should not only recognize the immense misery in the world but should also enquire into its cause. According to Buddhist doctrine, misery is caused by karma which is conditioned by pleasure, the product of an impure mind. This impure mind is created by the illusion of the self, avidya or ignorance. The illusion of self can only be eradicated by prajna (wisdom) or the understanding achieved through samadhi, the concentrated mind. And the concentrated mind can only be achieved if we have observed shila, the moral or righteous way of living. Therefore, the entire Buddhist teaching is summarized in trishiksa, the three doctrines. These are the doctrines of shila or the righteous way of life; samadhi or concentration of mind; and prajna or wisdom. It is clear from this that meditation becomes indispensable for anybody who tries to achieve right understanding of Truth, the realization of Truth, the realization of selflessness or of Self as it is. Thus, we should meditate in order to develop our mind and attain an insight into the inner nature of man. We must have a fully concentrated mind which we shall achieve through right meditation. This has two aspects: shamatha or calmness of mind and vipassana or the faculty of analysis.

Having defined meditation and discovered why we wish to meditate, we might now look at our preparation for meditation. Preparation is very important; it can neither be overlooked nor neglected. Buddhist meditation is in three stages. The first stage is study – to hear from your instructors and seniors, to study books and discuss your findings. Shruti, to hear (understanding by hearing), is the first stage. This is followed by the second stage which is vichara, to ponder, to think over what has been heard and whatever explanations you have received. Then you have to consider carefully whether the methods you are about to use are correct and are suitable for your own particular condition. Only then, when your mind is made up and you are definite about the methods you are going to use, can you go on to the third stage which is bhavana, to meditate.

There are also certain conditions which are absolutely necessary for a beginner. For instance, he must have a suitable place to live in. It must be calm and quiet, a place where he can sit without fear of intrusion, without mental stress or uneasiness, conscious or unconscious, for fear of any kind is the end of meditation. It should also be reasonably near to the market or shops so that he may easily obtain his food, clothing, medicine and other necessities. In the early stages, an isolated place is not advisable. To have to travel for miles to a doctor would be a waste of time which the meditator cannot afford, especially at the beginning of his enterprise.

Our lives should be clean, physically and, especially, morally. We must be content to live a simple life, subduing our desires for luxury. We must stop thinking about obtaining better, more, or newer gadgets and other goods, because all these thoughts disturb and distract the mind. We should learn to be satisfied with what we have, whether it be food, clothing, or the place we live in. The fully advanced meditator can do as he wishes, but it is best for the beginner to turn away from outer objects altogether such as watching television, going to the cinema, reading newspapers, or moving through busy streets.

In order to further curb and quiet the mind we should give attention to our daily routine. This means rising, eating, sleeping and so on, following a strict time-table. We must also eat simple food in moderation, preferably pure vegetarian. Finally it is important to understand that living a clean life means that the livelihood of the aspiring meditator should never be involved with immoral earnings. A person who has been comfortably settled in one place for a while and has seriously practised this routine should find that his body and mind have largely calmed down.

From what has been said, it will be seen why a busy executive or, for that matter, any busy person living a hectic life, attending public meetings," rushing from here to there and working at all hours, will not be able to prepare for meditation. The necessary calming down is not achieved through meditation, but by living an ordinary routine life. Even technicians and scholars will find it difficult to start meditation, as meditation and research do not combine well together in the beginning, certainly not for the first three to six months or so. However, if the technicians and scholars are advanced meditators they should have no difficulty whatever in doing their work and meditating as well. But to start with it is better to give up all those varied activities that are not helpful to one who wants to practise concentration. Moreover, it is advisable for the beginner to possess only a few books and these should deal with the subject of meditation only. Besides his books it is also to his advantage to have a teacher or congenial friends so that if any doubt arises about the methods he is using, or the ways in which he is trying to improve his meditation, he can discuss it with them.

When all the above preparations are completed the aspirant should review his entire life. He must examine again his intentions, his understanding of what meditation is, and why it is he wants to meditate, because he must now decide either to give up his desire to meditate, or to go in for short periods of meditation only. He must also re-examine his environment and the preparations he has made. It cannot be emphasized too often that meditation is not easy and can often become dangerous, leading the slipshod meditator into an abnormal life. All these precautions should therefore be taken by those who wish to enter into a serious meditative life, who are in earnest about wanting to achieve a more spiritual way of life and to search for truth.

If a person is not in a position to undertake protracted and regular meditation he should take a limited course and that will also help him to a great extent. He could go into a retreat of from a few days to several months. It is important that he should decide on the exact duration of such a course so that there will be no uncertainty about it in his mind. The curriculum should be properly planned and the programme should be drawn up so that at the end the participant will have achieved something, such as perhaps a better understanding of meditation.

After having attended two or three courses the meditator will perhaps be able to start out on his own and undertake a little longer meditation without the constant help of a teacher. However, it must be understood that the beginner needs a great deal of help in the early stages of his development, notwithstanding his own studies or the instructions he has received from his teacher, or how confident he may be about the methods he is using. It is therefore advised that the aspirant should discuss his progress with his teacher or fellow .aspirants from time to time, because a wrong method of meditation adopted at the beginning and practised for a lengthy period may prove harmful.



Q. You spoke about clarity and alertness of the mind and also about concentration and analysis. What do you mean when you speak about analysis as a part of meditation? I ask this because you started by saying that the mind is crowded with so many thoughts and that analysis is an activity of thought. Therefore, does not the process of analysis crowd the mind with more thoughts?

A. That is a very important question and it has been discussed at length in the Buddhist shastras. The Buddhist acharas (techniques) may be divided into two parts. The first one is vipassana, to think, to analyse, and the second part is samatha, to concentrate. Many acaryas or teachers recommend shamatha (concentration) only, for meditation, and do not refer to vipassana, the process of analysis. But there are also well-known acharyas who advocate that the two aspects should go together in meditation. Samatha is the calming down and concentration of the mind, while vipassana or analysis is a process of thought. In the ordinary mind this process is neither concentrated nor fully channelled, while the analysing process of thought during meditation is fully concentrated and channelled. Thought will not jump from subject to subject while it is under discipline. Moreover, the meditator chooses only one thought for his analysis and in this context analysis means the searching of the self to find out whether it is an entity or a projection of the mind, whether its nature is Interdependence and 'avoidance of is-ness'. Unless we analyse and ponder this we cannot find truth. In the first stage, the realization of truth can only be reached by anumana, inference. Anumana is, of course, thought, but when one progresses in meditation, anumana or inference, becomes less and less necessary. Thus the part which thought plays in the meditative process gradually diminishes until it fades out completely when one obtains pratyaksha or direct realization. The process of thought is now not crowded but systematic and one-pointed, as there is only one subject to be analysed. Therefore, with full concentration of the mind, analysing will be sharp and forceful. In this way the process of thought is used to eliminate the thought processes.

Q. What about the use of pranayama in meditation?

A. Pranayama is commonly known in Buddhism as concentration on the breath. But the pranayama prescribed in Hindu yoga and the breathing tradition in Buddhism are for different purposes. In Buddhist meditation we do not call it pranayama. We just count the breath as it goes in and out of the nostrils and we concentrate at the same time on the tip of the nose. Breathing has an effect on the physical body and this in turn helps us to bring the mind under control. In Mahayana Buddhism many beginners start their meditation by concentrating on their breathing instead of on an outer object, and this concentration on the breath purifies the body as well as the mind.

Q. What is the role of mantras in meditation?

A. Mantras are sometimes very useful in the higher stages of meditation. In Buddhism, they are only used in Tantric meditation, not in ordinary meditation. Meditation normally begins with the training of the mind. Tantric meditation, however begins with the combined development of mind, body and speech, all three together. This being the case, mantras (involving speech) are indispensable.

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