Buddhist Meditation

by Samdhong Rinpoche | 29,256 words

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If a person continues with his practice of concentration certain changes will take place in his body and, later on, in his mind also. These changes will come about quickly and easily in the case of some meditators, while in others they come only after much effort and practice. This is so because they depend on many factors such as the meditator's background, his karma, the quality of his practice, and so forth. But any person who continually practises concentration and who does not make any basic mistakes ought to achieve good results sooner or later.

This change is first noticed in the body because the superficial mind used by ordinary people, which is inclined to be gross (sthula), depends for its function on the body. The subtle mind, however, does not depend on the body at all. Beginners meditate with the gross mind, and the subtle mind does not function in the early stages of meditation. However, as the aspirant gains control over his gross mind and brings it to a standstill through continual practice in one-pointed concentration on a particular object, he creates a change in his body. This is because when the mind is one-pointed, the flow of the vital airs in the body is brought under control. In the ordinary state, when the mind is scattered, the vital airs which carry the subtle forces are in disorder and this affects not only the body but the mind. Therefore, by controlling the mind, the body is also brought into a state of harmony. When the meditator reaches this stage, he feels a pleasant sensation throughout his body. This pleasant feeling, or lightness, which enables the meditator to handle his body with much greater ease, is often mistaken as an achievement and people frequently stop here, wallowing in this pleasant feeling. This may lead to the meditator losing everything that he gained with so much effort. The feeling of lightness in the body is a sign that a certain progress has been made and that one is coming near to the achievement of real meditation; it is not a result in itself. Therefore, when the meditator feels his body growing lighter he should not allow his mind to be scattered. On the contrary, he should intensify his one-pointed concentration, meditation and recollectedness. Then, after about a week, the pleasant feeling in his body will settle down. He may feel that it is decreasing but in fact it is not. He is gaining control over the situation and therefore his mind is not disturbed by his feelings.

Almost directly following on this pleasant bodily feeling comes an indescribable feeling of contentment and happiness in the mind. This feeling does not come during meditation but after it. This sensation creates another problem because once more the meditator is inclined to hold on to it. But he must be firm and break off his meditation at'the proper time and have some leisure when he can go out for a walk, talk to people, listen to music, and so on. In this way, he will prevent himself from 'drowning' in meditation in order to experience the after-effects of contentment. When he is firm with himself, this feeling of happiness of mind will also settle down.

One can clearly see that the pleasant feeling of the body combined with the sense of happiness in the mind together form a yoke. In Sanskrit, yoga means a harmonious combination of two things, which in this case are body and mind. Concentration under such conditions is called shamatha because all disorderly functions and scattering of mind have now been pacified and eliminated.

When the mind and body are thus in harmony and the meditator directs his mind on to a material object for concentration, he will experience a sort of samadhi. At present, we have not the equanimity of mind necessary to concentrate on objects exactly as they are, because our mind is always active and therefore constantly distorts things. Perhaps without having achieved samadhi there is no way of perceiving anything as it is in reality.

The first part of the word, sama in samadhi, denotes equality. 'Equality' means, in this case, that the content of the object and that of the mind should be equal. 'Equality' and 'harmony' can exist even between a pot and its lid at the place of union, but if the lid does not fit the pot exactly there is neither equality nor harmony between them. Similarly, there should also be equality between the known and the knower, or the mind. But at present, due to the way in which the mind works, there is disorder in that area. For example, the mind works through the eyes. Sight is supposed to perceive the object directly and present it without distortion to the mind. But does it? Is the colour which we perceive, for instance, always exactly correct? And when we look at a round shape which is about a hundred meters away, do we see it in its true size? Distance reduces the clarity of colour and shape and so the object gradually changes according to the distance and the acuteness of our eyesight. So, by the time the image touches the field of our perception we see something different. The same could be said when an object is placed so near to a person that his eyes cannot perceive it properly. Thus, because the mind distorts, there is an inequality between the mind and the object.

When the mind works through the ears the same thing applies. If someone speaks from a great distance, depending on the distance and our ability to hear, we either hear distorted words or only vague sounds. Naturally, different people hear different distortions. However, if the distant speaker comes nearer the reception becomes clearer, and when he is very near there should no longer be any distortion. But if thought comes in when one is in the process of listening, or looking at a distant object, there is a,great deal of distortion and a wrong apprehension of the spoken word or perception of the object.

When the state of shamatha has been achived our minds are able to concentrate on the object with great equanimity and perceive it exactly as it is without the least distortion. But this achievement does not mean that we have reached absolute reality or have realized the ultimate truth of the phenomenon. We have to go much further if we want to arrive at that point. But what has been achieved is a power of mind which can concentrate on an object with great equanimity. When samatha has been achieved the meditator can greatly reduce his efforts at concentration for the danger of scattering of the mind or the slow sinking down of the mind has now been overcome. Also, once the meditator has gone through the process of harmonizing his mind and body he need no longer keep his powers of recollectedness and recognition on the alert. This can all be dropped because these disturbances will not occur again. Moreover, he will also find that no inconvenience, such as tired-ness of the body stiffness in the legs, will arise while practising meditation, for the body will have learned to adjust itself and will make no demands to be fed or to be exercised at a certain time. It is now capable of doing any work for any length of time.

The achievement of shamatha is indeed a landmark in meditation. We must not forget however that it is not the ultimate goal, but it is the point from which real meditation starts. Until its achievement we are only training our minds to concentrate without being disturbed by thought, or getting into the sinking condition. Eventually, the serious person perseveres with his meditation for the sake of meditation only and enters into the eight types of samadhi; that is to say the four types of rupa samadhi and the four types of nirupadhi samadhi.

It is a real luxury for the meditator to explore these different grades of samadhi. But let us not go too far ahead; let us stay with the meditator who has achieved samatha and who is about to explore the first stage of rupa samadhi.

The meditator has achieved a harmonious relationship between his body and mind. When he begins to concentrate his mind, his body immediately co-operates. In the beginning, when a person is trying to achieve samadhi, thought and discrimination are needed to probe into certain aspects of, for instance, contemplation. Thought is needed to produce a picture of the object he is concentrating on and discrimination is needed to assess whether he is meditating rightly or wrongly, and whether the picture he has made is clear or not. The use of thought and discrimination are thus indispensable for the beginner before he enters samadhi and directly after he comes out of it. But when he develops more spiritually and meditates for the pleasure of meditating there are certain higher states to be achieved all of which are prescribed in the shastras.

The shastras mention three different realms. The first is the realm of kama which is the ordinary stage in which most people live. The second is that of rupa which is the stage of form. The third is the stage of nirupadhi, the realm of the formless, or the realm beyond form.

The mind in the stage of kama is the ordinary uncontrolled mind. When samadhi has been achieved (that is to say the first stage of rupa samadhi) the mind has become much more refined and the meditator finds himself in a state of peace. If he has been meditating at this stage for a while he finds that there is no need for thought or discrimination. So he may now eliminate these and develop a samadhi without them. When he has achieved this second stage he neither needs thought to get into samadhi or to get out of it. Before samadhi, during samadhi, and while coming out of it, the meditator remains without thought.

After the cessation of thought, the feeling of happiness that remains in the mind of the meditator becomes a disturbance for he finds the state of samadhi more peaceful without the additional feeling of happiness. Therefore the meditator will set out to eliminate it. The cessation of happiness can be achieved by practising either samatha or samadhi and when the meditator has successfully accomplished it he will find himself in a neutral state which is neither happy nor unhappy. This is the third realm of rupa samadhi; it is much higher and much more peaceful than the stage of samatha.

When this mental state of happiness has ceased, the meditator will notice that there remains one more disturbing factor. This is caused by a pleasurable sensation in the body (sukha vedana) which has a disquieting effect on him. So, finally the meditator takes this disturbance also in hand and gets rid of it. When this feeling has also subsided to a neutral point (upeksha) where there is neither pleasure nor unpleasantness, the meditator has achieved the fourth and highest stage of rupa samadhi.

After this he will feel that the relationship between mind and body is not really helpful to his meditation and he will try, therefore, to make the mind completely independent of the body. In order to achieve this he has to practise the samadhi of bodylessness (nirupadhi samadhi). Nirupadhi samadhi is also divided into four stages. To begin with, the meditator will have to give up concentrating on any object which has a shape, form or any other embodiment, and meditate only on unlimited emptiness. This is not the emptiness of shunyata but the unlimited emptiness of akasha (space), which the meditator takes as his subject for samadhi.

Next, after he has been meditating in this way for a while, he feels that he must no longer concentrate on a subject which seems to be outside himself and so he focuses his meditation on the limitlessness of consciousness. This means that he is entering the second stage of nirupadhi samadhi.

Again, after a while, the meditator begins to feel that even the subject of consciousness becomes an object, or a sort of embodiment, and he knows that he must eliminate the necessity of having a subject to concentrate on. So he starts to meditate on nothing;

he just concentrates on nothing. This is the third stage of nirupadhi samadhi.

All that is left now of the practice of meditation is concentration; but concentration itself is now a source of disturbance and he has to eliminate it also. This means that the meditator is entering the fourth or highest stage of nirupadhi samadhi.

It is interesting to note that in order to rise higher and higher in his meditation the meditator has to gradually eliminate one refined sensation after another and one practice after another. When he has finally emptied himself completely he achieves the fourth stage of nirupadhi samadhi. From now on the system of samadhi will not work for the meditator because, by eliminating concentration, he relinquished the last active tendency of his mind and therefore he will need to enter into a different type of meditation.

The Buddhist and Hindu teachings about the different stages of samadhi are similar. The technical terms may be different but the grading of the stages and the systems of elimination are, with an occasional slight variation, common to all the ancient traditions of Indian meditation. Although meditational systems may differ in the beginning they all correspond to each other in the higher stages, especially in the rupa and nirupadhi samadhi stages.

I have briefly sketched for you, without going into complicated technical points, the progress of meditation in an orderly way, and pointed out what can be expected in the way of disturbances before achieving the higher stages. This is the general pattern up to and including the stages of shamatha and samadhi. However, in the Buddhist system a meditator who has achieved the stage of shamatha is usually not encouraged to go ahead and luxuriate in the eight stages of the two types of samadhi. As soon as shamatha has been achieved, the meditator's mental qualifications are held to be sufficient to develop a more spiritual kind of meditation and they therefore recommend that from the achievement of shamatha onwards, the meditator should concentrate his mind on investigating the reality of things for a number of years. As mentioned previously, Buddhists always work with a two-tier system of temporal or relative truth and ultimate or absolute truth. The reality of things is also divided into two tiers, namely that of the relative world and that of the absolute world. So in order to discover the reality of things, or approach the absolute truth, it is recommended that meditation on the Four Noble Truths should be practised. For Buddhists, the ultimate goal to be achieved is Nirvana, the state in which all shortcomings of the mind have ceased to exist. The method for the achievement of Nirvana is twofold, namely:

  1. prajna, the establishment of right insight, right knowledge or wisdom,
  2. upaya, the means or the method by which prajna may be established.

When shamatha has been achieved, meditation on the Four Noble Truths is recommended and later on shunyata, or Thatness. These meditations are designed to help root out avidya, or the state of inner misconception and ignorance. Because of ignorance, we live in samsara, the ever-changing scenes of life, and it is through perseverance with the practices of these prescribed types of meditation that the serious meditator finds that shamatha becomes the method (upaya) by which prajna is established. Prajna is the knowledge which knows the Is-ness, the That-ness. It is the Wisdom which knows the Truth.

Every phenomenon which exists in a particular form is misunderstood by the 'I', the individual person. The 'I' exists; we cannot deny that. But we can deny the existence of the individual as understood by us at present. The concept of 'I' comes to us through avidya, or ignorance, by which we perceive an entity who has an independent nature of his own (svabhava). But Buddha said that nothing of this kind exists; everything exists in a field of relativity. If a thing exists – as we think it does – as an independent being, it should be able to know when we analyze it. But everything is not in a position to recognize this. For example, we usually think in the following manner: 'I am' and 'I am here'. We casually think about 'I', but we do not know in which reality the image of the 'I' exists. We take the 'I' for granted and think that it exists and is not dependent on anything else. But when we begin to investigate the matter further what do we find? We say: I am here and this is my mind, but the mind is not 'I'; This is my name, but the name is not 'I'. And by probing deeper and deeper we learn that there is nothing in particular which can be pointed to as being the 'I'. This is possible because the 'I' is only apparently in co-existence with other phenomena such as the body, the mind, one's name, one's actions and thoughts. Moreover, the 'I' is related to and dependent on all these phenomena. So, the 'I' exists in an interdependent way in time, space, thought and so on. On analyzing the matter, one finds that while outwardly no 'I' can be pinpointed, there is something of that nature in the realm of interdependence and that this fact is not realized or comprehended by the present, ordinary mind. But when a meditator has achieved the power of concentration (shamatha), he can investigate every object or phenomenon with a powerful one-pointedness of mind which enables him to penetrate into absolute reality.

Absolute reality, or voidness, or Thatness, is called shunyata in Sanskrit. Even renowned scholars of both ancient and modern times have not understood correctly what Nagarjuna meant by his exposition of the doctrine of Voidness (shunyata) and they mistakenly interpreted sunyata as annihilation. However, to establish truth, or even a relative truth, by negation, is quite a different matter. This system is equivalent to reaching the positive through the negative. For instance, there is a pot. We look at it and perceive it in a distorted way, as usual. What we have to do now is to negate our distorted interpretation – all our conceptions about it – and then, washed clean of our superimposed distortions, the reality of the pot as it is will appear. In a similar way, we shall perceive reality when we develop insight and wisdom.

We are always full of thoughts and words because we work through them constantly, and without them we would not be able to do anything at all. For whatever we talk and think about, we make use of images. These images are usually negative and have a distorting effect on our action as well as on our comprehension and perception. Therefore, because we are conditioned, we never see anything as it really is. An untrained person is in no position to perceive accurately or precisely the details of an outer object. Similarly, when one looks into the inner realms it is very difficult to see any phenomenon without distorting it. But .as we mentioned before, for a serious and advanced meditator, insight into the reality of things can be obtained through prajna because it negates all the distorting forces which appertain to the imagination of 'I' and 'mine'. Thus he succeeds in his investigation of phenomena as they really are.

So the meditator in the state of meditation divides phenomena also into two parts; one part contains all that belongs to the 'I' and the 'mine' and the other part all the other things. Thus a division is made between the Pudgala (which is the individual) and the Dharma (which is everything else which does not belong to the individual) and then prajna investigates them. It investigates, on the one hand, the pudgala-nairatmya, or the essence of the centreless-ness of 'I', or egoless-ness, and on the other, dharma-nairatmya, or the centreless-ness of all other things, the non-substantiality of things. If the meditator has realized these two truths he will keep on investigating everything and thus learn to know the Truth. This is not at first by direct knowing, but by inference or anumana. He will discover that things are not as solid, as independent or as unchangeable as they appear to be. In this way the meditator acquires a knowledge or insight into the voidness (shunya) of the phenomenon. And as he continues with this sort of meditation he comes to a stats where he can perceive reality without thought or distortion, with a direct vision of nairatmya, atma-lessness. This is prajna, the wisdom of insight which knows the Truth, or vipassana, the special vision into reality.

Naturally prajna itself can be meditated upon and developed further. When this stage has been achieved, a complete transformation takes place. This means that the whole world of phenomena as perceived hitherto by ignorance and misconception will disappear and an absolutely new type of seeing and knowing will take its place. Ignorance has given place to wisdom. This is vipassana.



Q. Could you tell us more about prajna and the action of shunyata?

A. Things are always in the realm of sunyata, but we do not see it or realize it. Prajna enables us to look into the nature of things as they exist.

Q. Can one say that prajna is awareness of emptiness, or that it is the wisdom which is awareness of emptiness?

A. Yes, but even the word 'emptiness' is difficult to understand in this context because in Buddhism emptiness does not mean non-existence.

Q. Can one say that wisdom is awareness of emptiness?

A. Yes.

Q. And that attributing an independent, changeless existence as the centre of anything is avidya or ignorance?

A. Yes, up to the stage of emptiness.

Q. What is the relationship between shunyata and prajna?

A. Shunyata is the object and prajna is the awareness of the object. Prajna investigates and comes to know the sunyata, which is the dissolution of the 'I'.

Q. Are is-ness and awareness synonymous?

A. No, the is-ness is the object and the awareness is an attribute of consciousness. So the consciousness is aware of the is-ness.

Q. You said that if a person lived a pure life and was sincere, he would achieve a state of harmony and wisdom with or without meditation. Then you described a method by which he might reach Nirvana. Is not living a pure life in itself meditation? I realize that living a pure life is not the work of a moment and that it may take a lifetime or even many lifetimes to achieve wisdom and realization. We need awareness in order to lead a pure life: why, then, do we need a special method to reach this insight? Do we really need a method, such as you described, since awareness of the pure life is itself meditation?

A. In an interdependent nature, a pure life and meditation go together. I do not think that at the present stage of our development (in which there is a disorderly state of mind) it is possible for us to live a pure life. Naturally, the very effort to try to do so will purify the mind to some extent and this, in turn, will help one to lead a pure life Purity of life and purity of mind, then, help each other and if we do not meet any obstacles these qualities will increase. It is true that our very awareness of a pure life is a part of the effort to lead it. However, methods and systems of meditation are scheduled to work within a time limit. This means that if a person wants to end this ordinary sort of living as soon as possible – either in this life or, if that is not possible, In other lives – he would have to follow the described methods and systems of meditation and not wait for his natural development, which would take very much longer.

Q. Does every person who is training for meditation need a guru?

A. That depends on the person. According to Buddhist training methods, an absolute beginner cannot do. without an instructor; every shravaka needs a guru. But for how long the instructor is needed depends entirely on the progress of the individual pupil. In a few cases, a guru is not needed. A Pratyeka Buddha in the becoming does not need a guru.

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