The purpose of meditation is to realize the true nature of mind, the achievement of Buddhahood. Mind is the basis for both our present experience of conditioned existence and enlightenment. Enlightenment is realizing mind's true nature, whereas ordinary life is being unaware of this nature.
How should we understand everything to be an appearance of mind? Presently we experience confused states of mind which result in disturbing emotions such as anger, attachment, stupidity, jealousy and pride. The true nature of mind is unaffected by disturbing emotions. When we experience disturbing emotions, we tend to act them out. These actions create imprints in our mind, like habits or tendencies to experience the world in a particular way. When such a tendency later is activated, it creates the appearance of an illusory world.
Even a tiny imprint in the mind can create a lifetime of illusion. The world we experience now is based on such imprints created by former actions. This is how mind perpetuates illusion. There is no limit to how many imprints can be stored in our mind, each of which will continue to create illusion. Conditioned existence, or the world as we experience it now, is therefore without beginning or end. In this way everything we experience is a product of our own mind. The point of meditation is to provide skillful means for removing this illusion. When we can eliminate ignorance in one moment, then naturally all of the endless imprints of karma will fall away by themselves.
Different Buddhist lineages emphasize different kinds of meditation. In the Kagyu tradition it is Mahamudra. In the Nyingmapa tradition the main practice is Maha Ati (Tibetan: Dzogchen). In the Gelugpa and Sakyapa traditions the practice of yidam (deity) visualization involves a completion phase of dissolving the wisdom aspect of the yidam into oneself. This is a style of insight meditation, similar to Mahamudra. In the Theravada tradition, the first practice is to rest the mind on the breathing or on a statue of the Buddha, after which is the main practice of contemplation on egolessness.
All of these different kinds of meditation can be summarized into two general categories. The first is resting meditation. In Sanskrit this is called shamatha (Tibetan: shinay). The second is insight meditation, or in Sanskrit, vipashyana (Tibetan: lhagthong). So all Buddhist meditation practices can be grouped into resting and insight, or shamatha and vipashyana. What follows is the general presentation of shamatha and vipashyana, which are explained in seven points.
The Conditions for Practicing Meditation
- The first point is the outer condition - the basis for practicing shamatha and vipashyana. This is to have a proper place to meditate, a place without obstacles. For example, in some places people are prejudiced against meditators, which can create problems. The best place for meditation is one that is blessed by great meditators of the past.
We also need certain inner conditions to meditate properly. The first quality is to not be too attached to outer sense objects and not so concerned about getting what we want. We simply should have few desires.
- The second quality is to be satisfied or content with the situation we have. How to encourage these two qualities can be illustrated by how parents talk to their children about meditation. If the parents are good practitioners, they will encourage their children by saying, 'Try not to be too ambitious. Don't strive too much for outer things. Be content and satisfied with what you have, and in this way you will be able to practice meditation. Otherwise you'll be wasting your time.' Parents who do not practice meditation give the opposite advise: 'You should strive very hard and be very ambitious. You should try to become very rich and get ahead. Acquire property and hold on to it. Otherwise you'll be wasting your time.' So we can see here how to encourage these qualities properly.
- The third quality is not to be involved in too many activities or responsibilities. If we are too busy, then we will not be able to practice meditation.
- The fourth quality is to have good conduct. This means that we avoid negative actions which bring harm to others. All Buddhist vows are concerned with avoiding actions that produce negative karma. There are different kinds of vows, those of a lay-person, a novice monk, a fully-ordained monk, and a bodhisattva. When lay-people practice meditation, it is good to have taken the five lay-person vows, which in Sanskrit are called the upasaka vows. These are to avoid killing, stealing, lying, harming others sexually, and drinking alcohol and taking drugs.
Since our main practice is the bodhisattva path, it is important to take the bodhisattva vow, which can be practiced as a lay-person. Monks and nuns also take the bodhisattva vow. Both lay and monastic practitioners can combine the practice of a bodhisattva with the upasaka vows. For example, Marpa the translator was a lay-bodhisattva, whereas the Indian master Nagarjuna was a monk-bodhisattva. Both were enlightened.
Now we will discuss the requirements for practicing vipashyana. It is essential to follow and rely on a proper teacher, someone who can explain the teachings correctly. In the Theravada tradition a teacher must be able to explain meditation on selflessness from his own experience. In the Mahayana tradition a teacher must have an understanding of emptiness - the Madhyamaka or Middle Way teachings - and be able to explain it clearly.
The second quality for practicing vipashyana is to properly analyze the teachings we have received. If we have received Mahayana teachings on emptiness, then we should study different commentaries and receive instructions from our teacher on how to understand them. We then need to analyze and contemplate these teachings and instructions, which will benefit our vipashyana practice greatly.
Obstacles for Practicing Meditation
The second of the seven main points is an explanation of the eight obstacles or mistaken states of mind which can prevent us from meditating properly.
- Agitation. The first obstacle is agitation. Here mind becomes very active with wanting or disliking something. The mind then goes on and on thinking about it. Thinking and worrying about other things instead of meditating is called agitation.
- Regret. The second obstacle is regret. Regret is thinking about something that has already occurred. It has passed and cannot be changed. Still we feel enormous regret.
- Heaviness. The third obstacle is heaviness, which is connected to karma. Heaviness here means that you want to do something positive such as meditate, but you feel that you can't. You immediately feel tired and heavy both physically and mentally. But when you want to do something negative, you suddenly become very active and feel very fresh.
- Dullness. The fourth obstacle is dullness or lack of clarity. Here we should distinguish between feeling heavy and feeling dull. Both are connected to karma, but dullness is more closely related to our health and physical state. An example is eating sugar. Sugar first brings the blood sugar way up and then it drops very low. Then you experience this kind of dullness.
- Doubt. The fifth obstacle is doubt. This is actually a fundamental problem for practicing both shamatha and vipashyana. Doubt means that we feel uncertain. For example, we may think, 'Maybe there is enlightenment but maybe there isn't.' Then you will not meditate properly, because this doubt will drag you down. Sometimes you progress, but then doubt pulls you back again. Doubt is a very tenacious obstacle.
- Wishing harm. The sixth obstacle is to wish harm on others or to think negatively. This means being ruthless, selfish or arrogant. You become jealous and start to dislike others intensely. This is also a serious obstacle for meditation.
- Attachment. The seventh obstacle is not quite as serious, which is to be greedy or attached. This simply means having many desires.
- Drowsiness. The last obstacle is drowsiness, becoming completely unaware and falling asleep.
For shamatha and vipashyana, there is another set of obstacles. These are called the five kinds of distraction.
- Engagement. The first distraction is to abandon the Mahayana. The meditation practices of the Mahayana are extremely vast; hearing about them you might feel discouraged. Receiving teachings on the Hinayana, the Narrow Vehicle, you mistakenly think you can achieve liberation in this lifetime through Hinayana practices. Thus, even though Hinayana meditations are not as expansive as Mahayana, you are deluded to think you can achieve results much faster. Abandoning the Mahayana for the Hinayana is a great distraction.
- Outer distraction. The second is outer distraction, meaning that you are overly concerned with sense pleasures such as wanting to become wealthy, to obtain luxury and so on.
- Inner distraction. The third is inner distraction, which refers to the different states of mind which disturb meditation. These are especially agitation and dullness. Another inner distraction arises in more advanced practice. Becoming adept in meditation develops a pleasant inner tranquillity. This feeling of mental pleasure is one of comfort or relief, since mind has become very tranquil. Attachment to that tranquility is an obstacle.
- Miraculous powers. The fourth distraction is connected to understanding the nature of things. We could also call it distraction of miraculous powers. From accomplishing shamatha, you can concentrate very deeply on the physical nature of things and can manipulate how they appear. It is control through concentration. In Buddhism it is taught that physical things are made up of four elements: earth, water, fire and air. Concentrating in the way of shamatha, you change the elements. Water becomes fire; fire becomes air, and so on. In our present state of development, we cannot understand how such a power could function. It is not something to be explained through the laws of physics. If you become attached to this miraculous power, this becomes an obstacle.
- Negative state of mind. The fifth distraction is that of a negative state of mind. When one accomplishes shamatha it becomes very deep and stable. But shamatha is limited to resting the mind; ego clinging is actually still present. It is only through practicing vipashyana that ego clinging is eliminated. Therefore, continuing to practice shamatha, making it deeper and vaster,
without applying vipashyana, brings the distraction of a negative state of mind.
At the present time, we have been reborn as humans and our bodies have been produced by actions from previous lives. When the karma for a human being is exhausted, we die and are reborn elsewhere in a state determined by our previous actions. If in this life we only practice shamatha without vipashyana, this creates the karma of being reborn in a state similar to deep meditation, which is still within samsara. Such a state of meditation can last a very long time. It is very peaceful, but it is not liberation. So when the karma for being in that state is exhausted, you will again fall back into the other realms of samsara. This distraction is described as a negative state of mind because meditation that is misused in this way does not lead to liberation but leads to rebirth within conditioned existence.
There are four meditation states which are fixated on tranquility. The first is an experience of endless space, the second is to experience mind as infinite, the third is an experience of nothing at all, and the fourth is an experience that things are neither there nor not there. But this is still not liberation, only experiences arising from mind. One can remain in these absorptions for millions of years. In one way this is of course pleasant, but it is not of any benefit, because eventually one can fall out of this state back into other realms of samsara.
1. The first obstacle is agitation. Why does agitation occur? It comes from ordinary attachment to this life. We are born with a human body, we are naturally attached to that and concerned about it. Due to the habit of attachment we start to worry about it. However, in this human life there is nothing we can really achieve. Once we die our likes and dislikes do not exist. Remembering this, there is no reason to grasp or to be so irritated with what happens. Therefore, the remedy is to contemplate impermanence. Understanding this calms agitation.
We can contemplate impermanence both during meditation and during daily life. This can be done on a coarse level by meditating on the impermanence of the world and on the beings who live there. To contemplate the impermanence of the world, think about how the world changes over time. The years pass, and every year consists of different seasons: winter, spring, summer and autumn. The seasons consist of months. The months consist of days. The days consist of hours. The hours consist of minutes. The minutes consist of seconds, and so on. Every moment the world changes.
We can also contemplate the impermanence of beings who live in this world. Here we can think that we and all other beings constantly grow older, and we are all going to die. First is childhood, then adulthood, then old age, and finally death. No one has escaped death so far.
You can also contemplate impermanence on a more subtle level. If we consider physical matter, it consists of tiny particles or atoms. These particles never remain the same but move around constantly. As they change all the time, each moment the particles cease in order to produce new particles in other combinations. Every moment of matter is therefore new, because its particles have changed since the previous moment.
The meaning of shamatha is to concentrate. The result of shamatha is to produce tranquillity of the mind. Although concentrating on impermanence is not the main shamatha practice, it also results in tranquillity.
In our daily life we can also contemplate impermanence to decrease our attachment, by training ourselves to consider impermanence. Whatever happens do not feel hurt or find things sensational. No matter what the problem, it helps to contemplate impermanence. Otherwise, you might be shocked when sudden obstacles arise. The problem itself may not change, but understanding impermanence softens your reaction to it.
2. When feeling regret we should simply understand that it is a pointless feeling, because the past is already gone. We cannot change it even if we think a great deal about it. Therefore, we should just let it go and forget about it.
3. The best way to overcome physical and mental heaviness is to develop strong confidence and trust in the qualities of the Three Jewels. Contemplate the superior qualities of the Buddha. Consider the qualities of the teachings that bring us to realization, the profound methods. The teachings are true; they actually work. Finally, we consider the qualities of the practitioners, the sangha. Here sangha does not refer to ordinary monks or laypeople, but to practitioners who have achieved realization. Through developing trust and confidence in the Three Jewels we can overcome the obstacle of heaviness.
4. The next obstacle was dullness or lack of clarity. The way to work with this is to refresh yourself by encouragement and stimulation. When a general prepares for war, he begins by building up the morale of his people. If the soldiers hesitate, they could become fearful and petrified. But when properly encouraged they become quite brave, and can attack effectively. Dullness is a very subtle enemy arising in meditation, so you have to encourage yourself to defeat it.
5. The remedy for doubt is simply concentration. Initially it is better not to follow your doubts, but to just continue to practice. Another way to remove doubt is to use logic. For example, if we doubt whether there actually is a path towards enlightenment, we should ask ourselves what does such a path consist of? The path is to remove ignorance. What is ignorance? Ignorance is a product of mind and is caused by clinging to an ego. By continuing to analyze in this way, you can clarify doubts and finally eliminate them. This is precisely the purpose of study. Not everyone has time to study, but then those who have studied a lot can help others by explaining things to them in a simple way.
6. For the problem of wishing harm to others you should contemplate kindness, which can be done in two ways. One way is to look for the true nature of kindness. Kindness is not something solid. Even though it is empty in essence, a feeling of kindness arises. Another way is to generate kindness, first toward those you like, such as parents, children or friends. Gradually, extend this feeling out to more and more beings. These meditations on kindness are very powerful practices. Accomplishing them, you can even affect others. If a meditator practices alone in a cave, he could affect all the beings living in that area. People and even animals could naturally start to feel kindness also.
7. Attachment or having many desires can be remedied by considering problems involved with having wealth and possessions, by contemplating cause and effect. If you are attached to your possessions, you have to put in a lot of hard work to preserve them. When you see how much effort this takes, your greed will naturally decrease. Another method is to contemplate the feeling of contentment, to understand how much freedom there is when you are content with what you have.
8. The next obstacle is drowsiness. Here it helps to imagine light, like the red autumn sky at sunset. It is a clear, soft red light. Do not imagine light which is strong and direct like sunlight; this doesn't help.
Actually, once you get used to meditating and it has become completely natural for you, you are no longer bothered by all of these problems and obstacles. Meditation has become a part of you. When the mind has achieved this level, it also affects the body.
All the energies in the body become peaceful and tranquil; you feel very comfortable meditating. Normally we think that the body controls the mind, but at a deeper level, the mind really controls the body. Therefore, when meditation has become natural, the tranquil mind takes over our system and makes the body fit for meditation.
To develop natural meditation, we need two qualities: mindfulness and remembrance. Mindfulness is to be aware of what occurs in the mind, not missing anything. Through mindfulness, when you notice a problem in meditation such as agitation, then you must remember which remedy to apply. Mindfulness and remembrance always go together; they are essential in making meditation a part of you. When you become adept at meditating, you will understand how they work together.
Generally, all obstacles fall into two categories: agitation and dullness. As protection from these two obstacles some general advice is useful. Avoid having addictions to smoking, drinking, etc. Avoid eating too much, which develops dullness. Working people of course have to eat, but you can be aware of what you eat. Serious practitioners who sit a lot do not need as much to eat. That is why during the time of the Buddha, monks would not eat after one p.m. This brings success for shamatha practice and helps the mind. At this level, to forgo dinner does not affect your sleep. Normally monks are forbidden to drink alcohol, but vipashyana meditators are advised to drink a little. Of course you cannot get drunk. Vipashyana develops a lot of energy, and that energy can cause insomnia, which does not occur in other practices. Another piece of advice is to sleep at the proper time: go to bed after ten in the evening and get up at five. If you go to bed after midnight, although you may sleep eight hours, it is not really of benefit. So go to sleep before midnight.