How To Meditate!

The following article is from the Autumn, 1992 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

Two New Books on Shamatha Meditation

Snow Lion is pleased to announce the publication of two new books on shamatha meditation in die Tibetan tradition: Walking Through Walls and Shamatha Meditation.

Shamatha Meditation: Tibetan Buddhist Teachings on Cultivating Meditative Quiescence

By Gen Lamrimpa (Ven. Jampal Tenzin), translated by B. Alan Wallace, edited by Hart Sprager 148 pp., $10.95 paper, available November

On January 6, 1988, at Cloud Mountain Retreat Center in Castle Rock, Washington, a group of twenty-four American dharma students and aspiring meditators began a shamatha retreat under the guiding hand of the Tibetan lama Gen Lamrimpa (the Venerable Jampal Tenzin). Some had made a three-month commitment to the practice, others were there for six months, and eight had committed themselves to a year of meditation. The body of this work is made up of teachings on shamatha Gen Lamrimpa gave during the first two weeks of that retreat. The following are excerpts from the book:

THE EXCELLENT QUALITIES OF SHAMATHA

One of the excellent qualities of meditative quiescence is that upon its arising there occur both physical and mental pliancy. This brings about a tremendous state of physical and mental well-being which is called visible joy because it is something that you can experience in this very life. In dependence upon the joy of mental and physical pliancy experienced in this life, one's spiritual practice is greatly enhanced, and this is something of benefit in future lifetimes.

Moreover with the attainment of shamatha, mental distraction is pacified and because the compulsion for mental distraction is also pacified, one is far less prone to unwholesome behavior. Not only is one less likely to engage in unwholesome activities, but one's engagement in virtue is tremendously enhanced.

If one engages in a practice before the attainment of shamatha, in the cultivation of proper motivation there is a great deal of competition from all kinds of conceptual activity. One is bombarded, confused and congested with other conceptual processes right at the outset of the practice. During the course of the practice, because the mind is subject to distraction, to conceptual congestion, the virtuous practice will be diluted. Then upon the conclusion of the practice, as one seeks to dedicate the merit, again the mind is congested with other conceptualizations and the dedication gets diluted as well. So, for the whole course of the practice, from beginning to end, it is difficult for the practice to have the potency that it would if one had already attained shamatha.

When we arrive at the point of death, the determining factor for the type of birth we will take in the next life depends on whether our store of imprints from previous actions is predominantly wholesome or unwholesome. As a consequence of that predominance, one takes a more favorable or less favorable rebirth. If one has enhanced one's spiritual practice with the cultivation of meditative quiescence, which tremendously empowers one's engagement in wholesome activities, this will lead to a much greater store of wholesome imprints, which in turn will naturally lead to future favorable rebirths as well. The attainment of shamatha has long-term effects.

Moreover, upon the attainment of shamatha, it is possible to be completely focussed upon ultimate truth while cultivating insight, and by means of attaining such insight it is possible to cut the root of the cycle of existence. By doing so, one is completely and irrevocably liberated from suffering. Beyond that, it is also possible to attain the full awakening of a Buddha by engaging in appropriate practices with the single-pointed concentration of shamatha.

A true familiarity with the excellent qualities of shamatha will be very helpful to the practice in two specific ways. First: When laziness occasionally occurs, reflecting upon these points will act as a direct antidote. And second: In a case where laxity arises, then contemplation on the advantages of shamatha will arouse the mind and act as an antidote for laxity.

ASCERTAINING THE SPECIFIC OBJECT OF MEDITATION

The breath as an object of meditation is recommended for those who are strongly inclined to conceptualization or imagination. In the practice of shamatha there are four classifications of types of objects. The breath as an object is included in the one called objects of purification for specific types of behavior. Here, behavior refers to over-conceptualization. Breath is simply one among several objects that are included in a category that specifically refers to predilections that result from habitual behavior in previous lives.

There is another object for those who have a strong predilection for attachment, and yet others for people dominated by other specific mental distortions. Those who have a low level of mental distortions, and those whose mental distortions are all about on the same level can choose anything they like.

For those who have a more or less even levefof different mental distortions, there is a special purpose or benefit in focusing on the image of the Buddha. In fact, the Buddha as an object of meditation has many advantages. The development of stability in that visualization is useful for the practices of the accumulation of merit, for the purification of obscurations and unwholesome imprints. In addition, to be able to bring the Buddha image to mind at any moment is very useful. Finally, the Buddha as an image can be very useful for those who are doing or hoping to do tantric practices involving visualization.

ESTABLISHING THE FAULTLESS APPROACH

In order to establish the faultless approach, it is said that one needs to cultivate two properties of awareness. First, one's mind should be endowed with non-discursive stability. Second, it should be endowed with a vigor, or strength of clarity.

Non-discursive Stability

The manner of achieving this first required property is through mindfulness. To initiate that process, first of all there has to be an object of mindfulness with which one is already familiar. Mindfulness, then, entails a lack of forget-fulness. Its function is being free of mental distraction. It is the antidote to forget-fulness and, like forget-fulness, is a mental factor.

Concentration refers to a mental factor having the function of focusing continually upon a designated entity. Here, the expression designated entity refers to a mental image or object. If the breath is the object of meditation, it would also refer to a physical object. Elsewhere it will have a different meaning. Moreover, concentration has the function of yielding insight. This is a precise definition of the term samadhi, which acts as a basis for the arising of insight.

Keep in mind that what we are discussing here is the manner of directing the mind to the object. Within that framework, what does directing the mind to the object mean? It means to apprehend. Remember the term. It will come up again.

Strength of Clarity

The second of the two properties one needs to cultivate in establishing the faultless approach is vigor, or strength of clarity. The term strength of clarity means just what it says, that one just has great clarity. This does not refer to the clarity or lucidity of the object. It refers to the mode in which the mind apprehends the object. The distinction between the clarity of the object and the clarity of the mind is an extremely important one. If the mind is very vividly apprehending its object, strength of clarity is present.

We can draw an analogy with television. Sometimes the image on the screen will be hazy around the edgesit appears with a ghost image. In this case, the fuzzy image with the ghost would be lacking strength of clarity. If the mind of the viewer watching the screen is apprehending its object but going in and out of focus, if its mode of apprehension is hazy around the edges, then it is the mind that is lacking clarity. In this case, both the mind and the image lack clarity. If you have a really terrific thousand-dollar TV set with a perfecdy sharp picture, and it is still apprehended by the mind as unfocused, then it is the mind that is lacking in clarity, not the object.

In the meditation practice, when the meditator lacks that strength of clarity of mind the object generally appears hazy. Generally, when one has strength of clarity of mind, the outlines of the object are very crisp.

Walking Through Walls:
A Presentation of
Tibetan Meditation

By Geshe Gedun Lodro
Translated and edited by Jeffrey
Hopkins; co-edited by Anne C.
Klein and Leah Zahler

441 pp., $19.95 paper; $35.00 cloth. Available now.

This is a systematic and detailed presentation of shamatha meditation by one of the foremost scholars of Tibet. In a series of lectures at the University of Virginia during the spring and summer of 1979 Geshe Gedun Lodro gradually unfolded for a group of advanced students the Tibetan landscape of mental development. The environment for meditative change is comprised by the jungle of beings' afflicted states with hidden potential for change. The restoration of the landscape to its pristine state is wrought by techniques that are built from inner potentialities for stability, clarity, and calm, but these very techniques are fraught with pitfalls from inner habitual weaknesses. The dangers of not recognizing the actual causes of deprivation and distortion are great, and the possibilities of implementing the wrong antidote or of over-extending an appropriate one until it becomes counter-productive are many. Subtle distinctions between types of interfering factors are needed; there is no simple way to coax the mind back to its natural state. The very measures taken to purifv it can exacerbate old problems and introduce new ones. Walking Through Walls refers metaphorically to the walls of distracting afflictive states, doubts, and distortions that must be melted in order for the mind to become stable, calm, and alertly clear. The false sense of solidity of both inner distortions and the outer material world prevents the unfolding of the mind's potential.

Scholastic Buddhism is often thought to be dry, numericlly oriented listings of mental and physical phenomena that fail to capture the vibrancy, the force, of life. In this series of lectures, Geshe Gedun Lodro shows that the heritage of Indian and Tibetan meditative lore that he embodied lives and breathes in a relevant and realistic atmosphere of intimately interwoven nuance. By constandy placing techniques of meditation in their larger Buddhist cultural context he reveals a living world of mental practices replete with resources for describing, facing, and counteracting both superficial and systemic disorders. The Table of Contents gives a good overview of the material covered in the book.

Preface

Part One: Calm Abiding

Introduction

1- æ- æPrerequisites

2- æ- æPhysical Posture

3- æ- æThe Physical Basis

4- æ- æMental Bases

5- æ- æObjects of Observation: I

6- æ- æObjects of Observation:II

7- æ- æOrder and Benefits of Cultivating Calm Abiding and Special Insight

8- æ- æThe Nine Mental Abidings

9- æ- æAchieving Calm Abiding

10- æSigns of Calm Abiding

11- æRising from Meditative Equipoise

Part Two: Special Insight

12- æModes of Procedure

13- æProgressing on the Mundane Path

14- æMundane Path of Special Insight

15- æIndividual Knowledge of the Character

16- æSummary

Appendices

1- æ- æHinayana and Mahayana

2- æ- æThe Path of Seeing and Related questions

3- æ- æTextbooks and Debate

Glossary, Bibliography, Index

In chapter five is a discussion of the various types of objects of observation used for the cultivation of shamatha or calm abiding meditation. Different objects of observation (such as the breath, or an image of the Buddha) are recommended for persons of differing predispositions. Objects of observation for purifying behavior are used by persons in whom one of the afflictive emotions predominates. One example is meditation on the unpleasant as an antidote to attachment. Here is an excerpt:

Vasubandhu in his Treasury of Manifest Knowledge gives three meditations on the unpleasant. The first of these consists of meditating that a piece of skin is removed from the area between one's eyes, exposing the white bone underneath. One is to think that the piece of skin Ms off as though causelessly, adventitiously, and one then directs the mind to that white bone. When the meditator is able to set the mind on that, he or she gradually enlarges the area of bone until the entire body is exposed as just bone. After this, the meditator considers that all the lands and oceans of the world are filled with skeletons. Having succeeded in extending the scope of the meditation to include the whole world, one then withdraws the observation gradually until one is again observing just one's own body. At that point, one is seeing just one's own body as a skeleton and remains in contemplation of this as long as possible. This is the meditation which is the yoga of a beginner at mental contemplation.

The second meditation begins as before. The scope is extended to include all the earth and sea and is brought back again, but this time the meditator continues to withdraw the observation so that only the top half of the skull remains as skeleton. One then remains in contemplation of this as long as possible.

The third meditation also begins as before, starting with the white bone at the forehead and extending the scope. The observation is also withdrawn as before, but this time it recedes until only a small area remains between the eyebrows. The smaller, the better; but if one cannot meditate on a small area, a large one is suitable. It is good, however, to make the area as small as one's mind is capable of observing because, since the' mind collects on that area, making that areas as small as possible enables the mind to remain steady there. One meditates on this small area as long as one can. This is the subtlest of the ways of meditating on the unpleasant mentioned in Vasubandhu's Treaty of Manifest Knowledge; it is called the yoga of one whose mental contemplation is perfected.

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