Seven Points on Meditation (Part 2)

by Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche

The Essence of Shamatha and Vipashyana

The third point is a concise explanation of how shamatha and vipashyana become natural. In the beginning stages of shamatha and vipashyana, our meditation is not natural, it is somewhat contrived. Meditation is only completely real when it is natural, as I explained briefly in point two.

What is meant by genuine shamatha? In the beginning of shamatha practice, the mind is directed on the object of meditation which is to keep the mind concentrated, rather than following thoughts. When meditation is natural, in true shamatha, effort is no longer required to keep the mind concentrated. At first one has to apply effort, but later it becomes completely natural.

I will give an example which illustrates the difference between contrived and genuine shamatha. There is a special kind of meditation which results in very clear recollection of the past, even to the extent of remembering previous lives. Mind never stays the same. It only exists moment to moment. The mind constantly changes. If we look at one moment, it first comes into existence, then stays, and finally disappears. It consists of past, present and future in this way. One moment arises, then it ceases in order to create space for another moment to come into existence, and so on. In this way, mind goes on as a continuous stream of moments of awareness. In this type of shamatha, the practice is to remain aware of each moment as it arises. Do not analyze, just focus and observe the moments arising, one at a time. Without missing any or mixing up their order, simply observe them passing by. Concentrate completely; stay focused on that. Again, this is how we could meditate now, in the fashion of contrived shamatha.

This becomes genuine shamatha when it becomes natural, when we no longer apply effort to keep the mind focused. There will simply be a natural awareness of the moments passing by. You become so used to it that once you focus on that awareness, it continuous automatically, without the need to apply force. It just continues naturally.

When we achieve this level, a special kind of memory appears. We can remember the past and even former lives, to the same extent that meditation has become natural. Memory expands in this way: first you remember everything in childhood, then the experience of being in the mother's womb, and after that, it is possible to remember it, just as you remember what you did yesterday. When shamatha has become natural, this memory arises automatically.

What then is meant by true vipashyana? To continue with the same example, where you focus on each moment, vipashyana means to analyze the nature of each moment. During shamatha you only observed the moments without analyzing them, but now you examine them analytically. Vipashyana becomes natural when the analysis stops being intellectual. You have a direct experience of the nature of each moment, an experience where names and ideas do not apply.

When you look at something, in the very first moment there is a direct experience of it, and only afterward do you name it. The Buddhist teachings distinguish between different kinds of direct experience. For example, right now we also have direct experiences, but we immediately project our ideas onto things, even though these ideas are not real. For example, in seeing a white piece of paper, we mix up that direct experience with our concept of whiteness. The concept white is a general one that applies to many other things such as white cloth, white flowers, etc. The direct experience is much more complete than this. In real vipashyana, you have direct experience of the world, you see the true nature of things. This is also called yogic direct experience.

To put it very simply, true shamatha and vipashyana are related to the removal of the meditation obstacles discussed in point two. Shamatha becomes genuine when heaviness, dullness and sleep have completely disappeared from meditation. Real vipashyana develops when agitation, regret and doubt have been completely neutralized. They then never arise during meditation. In post-meditation they still may occur, since you are not yet enlightened, and there still is a difference between meditation and not meditation. But when you experience the mature fruition of shamatha and vipashyana, meditation is free from these obstacles. This concludes the third point, the essence of shamatha and vipashyana.

The Levels of Shamatha and Vipashyana

This point will only be touched upon here, as it is explained completely in the detailed explanations which follow. [Rinpoche refers to the explanations given in his Mahamudra teaching, which are not included in this article.] There are nine levels of shamatha and four levels of vipashyana, which describe the stages of meditation.

The nine levels of shamatha are:

  1. to settle the mind inwardly
  2. to settle the mind continuously
  3. to settle the mind intactly
  4. to settle the mind intensely
  5. to tame the mind
  6. to pacify the mind
  7. to pacify the mind completely
  8. to make the mind one-pointed
  9. to settle the mind in equanimity

The four levels of vipashyana are:

  1. to distinguish phenomena
  2. to distinguish completely
  3. complete examination
  4. complete analysis

In Tibetan there are two different words for examination and analysis, where examination means a coarse examination and analysis implies a more profound and detailed analysis. So there is a difference between these two words in Tibetan which does not come across in English, that one is more subtle than the other. When shamatha has become natural, you can accomplish the four levels of vipashyana.

The Order for Practicing Shamatha and Vipashyana

Generally, first you practice shamatha and after that you practice vipashyana. That is according to the Theravada tradition. But in the Mahayana, Vajrayana or Mahamudra tradition, it is not always the case. Sometimes they can be practiced simultaneously, depending upon the individual practitioner. Your teacher should decide what is best for you, as long as the teacher is qualified in meditation.

One result of accomplishing shamatha is the ability to know the minds of other beings. An accomplished teacher uses this ability to see what is best for his students. The method for doing this is the same as remembering the past, but here the teacher concentrates on the minds of others instead of on themselves. This is of course easy to say, but not so easy to do.

The normal order is to practice shamatha first and vipashyana afterwards, and it is best to do in this way.

The Union of Shamatha and Vipashyana

How to unite shamatha and vipashyana? It is possible to practice vipashyana without shamatha, but it is not advisable.You can go to a teacher and receive vipashyana instructions, and use your confidence and intelligence to accomplish the practice. Even though you can have direct experience of the nature of things, this experience will not become stable without first accomplishing shamatha. This is also true for practicing vipashyana without a shamatha practice which has become natural. It is comparable to a candle in the wind; although it provides light, it is very unstable. Similarly, you can have a direct experience through vipashyana, but without shamatha it remains unstable.

One the other hand, if you practice only shamatha without ever practicing vipashyana, you cannot become liberated from samsara. This was explained before, in the obstacles to meditation. Accomplishing shamatha without practicing vipashyana carries the risk of being reborn in long-lasting meditation states, which are still in the domain of ego. In the final achievement of shamatha, mind is in a profound rest. It is deeply relaxed, beyond what we can now imagine. But ignorance, the root of illusion, has not yet been removed. That explains the necessity for practicing both shamatha and vipashyana.

How can we unite them into one practice? This is not something we can accomplish yet. You can work with them in certain ways, but it is only when you have achieved the highest level of shamatha, that you can unite them completely. The ninth level is to rest the mind in equanimity. At that point, vipashyana develops naturally, and the two practices become one.

The Result of Shamatha and Vipashyana

The result of accomplishing shamatha is that mind becomes completely pure, that all the gross disturbing emotions are subdued and purified. The result of accomplishing vipashyana is that wisdom becomes completely pure. This means that basic ignorance is purified and removed, and by that disturbing emotions are also removed.

Another way to express the results of these two practices is by the removal of the two kinds of bondage or veils. One veil is to be trapped by concepts or neuroses. The other is to be trapped by ignorance or illusion, and therefore continuing to be reborn in samsara. Shamatha releases the veil of concepts and vipashyana liberates from the veil of ignorance. Another result is that shamatha removes attachment to phenomena. It overcomes hopes, doubts and worries. We hope to get what we want, but when we don't get it, we worry. This comes from desire and attachment. The result of shamatha is that even if you try to achieve something, you never need to hope, doubt or worry, because attachment and desire have been overcome.

When you achieve true shamatha, there is also all the extraordinary play. From shamatha you achieve clairvoyance. You can see past lives and know the minds of others. But advanced meditators discourage us from playing with that, because there is a great risk of becoming attached to shamatha and then our problems will increase. But if someone is strong enough, they can control it without attachment.

Devadatta was a cousin of the Buddha, and he was very wicked. He wanted to compete with Buddha, so went to an advanced student of Buddha, an arhat named Kashyapa, to learn shamatha. Arhats have the fault that they cannot use their powers except while they actually meditate. In his post-meditation he could not see Devadatta's negative motivation. So he thought, 'Before this man was very evil. Now he wants to learn meditation. I should teach him properly, so he may change.' So he taught him shamatha, and Devadatta learned it very well. He achieved a powerful level of shamatha, and then used his powers against Buddha. First he deceived the king of that area, and then split the sangha into two, taking the old king on his side. Then he encouraged the young prince to revolt against his father, and with his monks he attacked Buddha. He did all this because he was jealous of Buddha, and he used powers accomplished through shamatha. That is why teachers encourage their students to do shamatha for liberation, but then discourage them from going too far. Special disciples such as bodhisattvas with pure motivation will not misuse these powers.

The result of vipashyana is quite straightforward. It is liberation and enlightenment.

- The talk given in Hong Kong in 1995 as a part of a Mahamudra teaching

Buddhism Today Vol.2, 1996