Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Samatha Practice — A Study Guide

This is based on the introductory chapters from
Alan Wallace, “The Four Immeasurables”

Foundation of Practice – Ethics

The fundamental obstacle of the spiritual path is delusion, the mental afflictions that distort or twist the window of the mind so that we misconstrue reality. The Tibetan word for an adept is drang song, meaning straight, not twisted. While the antidote for hatred, self-centredness and indifference is loving kindness, the antidote to delusion is insight.

The perception of self without identity — this does not mean self does not exist but that it is not separate and autonomous — realized as an experience (not just as a philosophy) can be a precious treasure and utterly transformative, or it may be perceived as the loss of the greatest possible treasure. If the latter, then meditation is time not very well spent! Some groundwork is therefore needed to ensure insight can be welcomed so that it enriches and empowers rather than giving you a sense of existential impoverishment. In inter-relationship, our ego softens. This is not self-negation, but rather self-contextualization. It is possible to get tantalizing glimpses that drift away elusively, like smelling something cooking. Some groundwork is needed so that we can sustain our realizations and they are not reduced to mere episodes in memory. If worthwhile, how much more so to enter repeatedly, deepen, and let it saturate your experience. With continuity and clarity, this is radically transformative. Otherwise, it is mere flirtation.

Ethical discipline is the via negativa, entailing a quality of protection, that allows our efforts in spiritual practice to take root and flourish. The 253 precepts of the Buddhist monk all come down to a single precept: avoid inflicting harm on yourself or others. As our wholesome qualities become stronger, the virtue of our own mind protects itself and the need for discipline falls away. An enlightened being can be utterly spontaneous without restraint. When we notice our minds occupied by an affliction, the eighth century bodhisattva Santideva counsels us to stop and do nothing. Do not repress or pretend it’s not there, just pause, be present and wait until it passes. Restraint is not eradication, but a kind of quarantine. It helps prevent the illness of a thought or of a person from spreading to other thoughts or persons until we find the cure.

The positive approach is the guidance of intuition, opening up to all the insight, love and realization that is latently present. The purpose of spiritual practice is merely to awaken and bring forth the limitless potential for compassion, insight and power. The metaphor is of the cosmic atom-splitter revealing Buddha nature within each atom. The sense is of discovery rather than cultivation, a simple unveiling rather than arduous effort. If the heart leaps to affirm something positive beyond your knowledge, then don’t forsake it.

It is said that when the wisdom of the mind has been completely unveiled, you can raise a question, attend to it, and the truth will become evident. It is said that a Buddha’s compassion for every sentient being is like that of a mother. It extends like an ocean: even, calm, embracing, and with an ocean’s depth of concern and caring. It is said that a Buddha’s mind has extraordinary power, a power that can engage with the physical world to transform reality. In so emphasizing our material power, we have, perhaps inevitably, de-emphasized the power of the mind. “…if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” When Jesus said that, he was speaking literally of the power of the Holy Spirit.

The foundation of ethical discipline is so simple that if we care for that foundation, a lot will become evident, but if we skip it, the foundation is missing. Note that it’s a matter of restraint, rather than doing good. When we try to avoid things that cause harm, the goodness arises in and of itself. This may seem negative, but the implicit message is very optimistic. This may be experienced first-hand without any deep mystical realization with regard to quiescence of the mind. In so far as the mind is free of turbulence and torpor, a sense of well-being and calm arises from your mind. Knowing that well-being is not utterly dependent on things outside your control is a great insight. It gives us back our freedom.

The jewel in the lotus, Om Mani Padme Hum is a wonderful metaphor for the essential nature of the mind. It integrates two very different approaches, that of engaging in practice, and that of recognizing the perfection that is already there. The mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” is associated with Avalokitesvara, the embodiment of enlightened compassion. Om signifies the manifest body, speech and mind. Mani in Sanskrit means “jewel”. Padme, pronounced pémé in Tibetan, means “in the lotus”. Hum, pronounced by the Tibetans as hoong, is a syllable suggesting the transcendent deepest essential nature of consciousness. On the one hand, “Strive diligently!”, on the other, “the jewel is right there!”.

As you chant the mantra, bring out the poetry of the metaphor. Imagine this jewel of the purity and perfection of your own Buddha-nature as a pearl of white light emanating from your heart and suffusing your body from the inexhaustible source of joy and compassion, so that your body becomes this light. Then let the light spread forth in all directions, bringing the same quality of purification, joy and compassion to those individuals and communities in the world who most need it.

There are three major emphases in traditional Buddhist practice: ethics, stabilizing the mind, and insight practice. All too often, the first hardly even gets mentioned; we skip past the kid’s stuff. Many come away from ten-day retreats with their lives radically changed by insights into avenues of experience they never knew were possible. The experience is valuable, but also fragile. The stronger the ethical grounding, the longer the half-life of the practice before it degenerates after the retreat, faced with real-world challenges. Not-harming is an on-going introspection throughout the day. That is not to say we need to be too hard on ourselves. A gentle approach fares best, and over time our need for indulgences will fall away. It’s a matter of timing. If an indulgence seems redundant or pointless, it probably is. That is the time to drop it. All of this is a path of freedom, not just a path to freedom, as we begin to be able to free ourselves from compulsive behaviour.


Entering Practice – 
Peaceful Concentration

What impedes the flowering of loving kindness? I have no answers, but one thing which certainly bears on the issue is our sense of inadequacy and neediness with which we engage with other people, and in so doing objectify them. This is the realm of the eight mundane concerns: our desire for material acquisitions, pleasurable stimuli, praise and acknowledgment, and our fear for the opposites of these four. A mind that reaches out to other people to provide what it seems to lack itself is a mind ignorant of its own resources for peace and happiness. Through attention to something as simple as our breath, we may learn to recognize and experientially come to know that there is nothing we need.

The purpose of samatha meditation is to make the mind serviceable, that however you wish to use it, it is fit for purpose. The dysfunctional mind is heavy, stiff, dark and prone to negative influences. The samatha mind is buoyant, light, stable and clear, ready to devote itself to the cultivation of wholesome qualities.

Abide in the moment, and rest your awareness on the tactile sensations of your body. Do a body scan from the contact of your body to the ground to your head and back to the ground. Witness the sensations of your breath as it enters deep within your belly and then out again. Soften your abdomen. Observe the shallow breath that is felt only in the abdomen, the deeper breath that raises your diaphragm, and the yet deeper breath that moves up into the chest. Then move your attention just to the point of entry of the breath at the mouth or nostrils, and rest with the rhythm of the oscillation, noting particularly the sensation just following the in-breath and just prior to the out-breath. Let your awareness rest in this soothing place.

There are three keys to the practice of meditation to attain peaceful mind: relaxation, stability and vividness. In two words, peaceful concentration.

Relaxation is the beginning of the end to distraction, not directed concentration, but rather the resting of awareness from its roamings. Instead of clamping down on mental agitation and distraction, we release it and return to the rhythm of the breath. Especially on the out-breath, release the energy and effort you are expending on distraction letting it blow away like the autumn leaves, and so that it’s as if the body breathe itself. Can we witness without trying to control? This is not just a superficial problem. Can we just let go and like a surfer ride the wave from the end of the out-breath to the beginning of the in-breath. Posture is very important; the breath effortless, the mind awake. You can also do this lying flat on your back, the spine slightly extended by stretching out at the chin and tail-bone. Shoulders relaxed, face relaxed, eyes soft. Each breath is an adventure. Can you relax fully for one full cycle? This would be a great accomplishment. Can you do better?

One breath after another, and we attain continuity. The main problem is the unwitting disengagement of the mind from the breath or gross excitation as it attends to something else. It is time now to attain stability. Keep going, but gently, without losing the quality of relaxation. Discipline is valuable, but not if you sacrifice the sense of ease.

With good continuity, of five, ten, twenty minutes or more, it’s almost certain that a laxity or complacency sets in, called laya, a feeling of deep settling like sinking into a huge armchair. The third and crucial component is vividness. It gives a feeling of being on a high. If the vividness lacks stability, it is fragile and tends to collapse, so just as relaxation must precede stability, stability must precede vividness. Sustain ease, maintain focus, and then when you find the first trace of laxity setting in, observe more closely, increase the sense of interest, even imagine flooding your body with light. If necessary, wash your face with cold water, or switch to objects of meditation which inspire, uplift and invigorate you. Breath awareness is the staple, but some prefer more complex visualizations. In the case of the latter, imagine turning up the brightness of the object by a million volts. Laxity is conquered by the vividness of illumination.

If the attention and breath can move like two dancers, without one grabbing the other and pulling it around, then there is not much space left for a gross sense of ego. The fine-tuning of samatha requires you to be so much in the moment that you are very near insight practice, and it’s relatively easy to develop one from the other.

Overcoming laxity is difficult. Try shortening your practice. Recall your original motivation. If you can start to get a taste of vividness along with continuity, then it will be much easier to keep going as the meditation reaps its own rewards in a sense of well-being. It is also useful to meditate in a bright environment, and to imagine inner light. When the mind closes down it needs to be centred with effort. Bring in some high-voltage awareness.

The practice of samatha meditation seeks not only controlled attention, but also mastery, so that we have the freedom to place it where we choose. William James is very insightful on the subject, as are the Buddhist teachings. The Tibetans distinguish between mindfulness and introspection. The sole task of mindfulness is to attend to the object with continuity. Introspection serves rather like quality control, checking on how it’s going. Note that the latter is not continuous, but an intermittent pause, for example if we notice gross excitation or agitation and the object of meditation is forgotten. With practice, this doesn’t arise any more, but still there may be a chatter of subtle excitation about the edges. This too disappears in time. Like a row of dominoes, the spaces in between the moments of mindfulness get smaller and smaller until it is fixed in a smooth continuous chain. Laxity is now almost bound to arise. The Tibetan word for it bying ba literally means “sinking”, and you need introspection to detect this. Then you need to add a spark of vividness. Even when vivid, a subtle degree of laxity may remain in which the object does not have full intensity. Gross and subtly laxity overcome, you no longer need introspection and it is even a hindrance. A feeling arises of just being. No more needs to be done. And yet, do not be premature about this.

Subject and object break down and you are left with the pure experience. This is the beginning of samatha. It is an advanced state, peaceful and incredibly creative. What to do with the ideas that arise in it? Just hold onto the spark. When you come out of meditation, you can let that spark re-ignite. Write down the ideas, follow them through as you like, and come back with a sense of completion. Sometimes buried difficulties will arise also. Then it is time for stalking the self, processing them with self-acceptance and compassion. In the words of Tiffany William,

You weren't born to feel guilty all the time. So cheer up,
promise yourself not to make the same mistake again 'cos
it’s your time to SHINE


In summary,

I think the way Wallace imagines the practice is as a sequence of successive refinement of mental circuitry (as we establish greater and greater ability to maintain concentration on the object of our practice, from a relaxed awareness, to the addition of stability as we turn away from distraction, to the addition of vividness as we turn away from laxity), and each time we practice, we make progress, though it may not feel like it. Yet between our practice, we also lose some of that progress. So it's a very simple equation... of building more than we lose... and it's here where ethical foundations help minimize our losses and keep us on track. This is a very goal oriented approach, so we risk falling into a “desire to become” if we are not careful but perhaps it is merely motivation to set us on our way…

So, what do we need in between practice to keep the practice strong? A suitable environment? Perhaps the quietness and spaciousness on the outside can help us to cultivate quietness and spaciousness inside, which is why Tibet became such a centre for spiritual practice in the past. Quietness and spaciousness both come with their opposite urges to fill the space, so this is where we must rest content in our inner space to not be disturbed by their lure. Again and again, we will be attacked by the idolatorous desires such as the eight mundane concerns mentioned already: material things, pleasure, praise, acknowledgement, and fear of the opposite of these four, and no doubt there’s a supra-mundane list also, which will also be worth looking up some time, including such things as the desire for security expressed through ideas and beliefs, and the “desire to become” and the “desire to extinguish”. And as the other Alan, Alan Watts, would say, it is only when the iron bull once and for all rejects the futile attempts of the mosquito to bite its iron hide, that the natural instincts of the mosquito are vanquished. And in the pause, there opens a way for grace and awakening. Or else we keep on biting the same old mind-addictions forever.

Another thing which occurred to me is that the moment immediately after waking is particularly interesting… because it is a natural pause! And our mind seeks to quickly fill that pause with thoughts, often futile or busy, and the movement of our mind after that pause is a powerful sign of our mental addictions. They are mostly harmless probably, and yet they exist. They might change from month to month, and yet they always lurk beneath the surface of consciousness. Are they mundane concerns? Or supra-mundane concerns? Or are we genuinely aware of them as expressions of our purpose. If we are to hope to make any progress, the strength of our practice must be greater than the strength of our mind-addictions, and our greatest aid is awareness and acceptance of their existence. That which is understood is no longer threatening. That which is named is recognised. That which is recognised triggers a reminder in us to "pause", to "stay", to "concentrate". And if we should fail, then to forgive and move on and not make the same mistake again. As Wallace says, the "road to freedom" is in fact a "road of freedom". And the Tibetans are really great! When the completely vivid, stable and tranquil samatha mind is realised, they have another four stages of practice to go beyond it, lol.
Another pause: the moment after you complete something! The mind is addicted to "next, next, next..." and sooner or later our actions follow, "next, next, next..." The authentic action on the other hand is always nestled within the pause and does not seek to end it. It comes from within, instead of coming from without in an attempt to fill a "gap".

But this example is just that of agitation (one of the five hindrances to meditation). The mind is also addicted to day-dreaming, boredom, doubt and aversion, and then the actions follow, either time-wasting or sleepiness, or hesitation, or judgment, so the five hindrances are just as much a reality of life as of meditation.

The rest of Wallace's book is then devoted to the cure to all afflictions of the mind, and that is love. The four immeasurables" of the title are: loving kindness, compassion, joy in the joy of others, and equanimity.

Happy practicing!

This is an alternative Zen guide to meditation
Lecture given by master Sheng-yen during the Dec. 1993 Ch'an retreat

(edited by Linda Peer and Harry Miller)
Source: Chan Newsletter #106 (Feb. 1995)

The Japanese term "shikantaza" literally means "just sitting." Its original Chinese name mo-chao means "silent illumination." "Silent" refers to not using any specific method of meditation and having no thoughts in your mind. "Illumination" means clarity. You are very clear about the state of your body and mind.

When the method of silent illumination was taken to Japan it was changed somewhat. The name given to it "just sitting" means just paying attention to sitting or just keeping the physical posture of sitting and this was the new emphasis. The word "silent" was removed from the name of the method and the understanding that the mind should be clear and have no thoughts was not emphasized. In silent illumination "just sitting" is only the first step. While you maintain the sitting posture you should also try to establish the "silent" state of the mind. Eventually you reach a point where the mind does not move and yet is very clear. That unmoving mind is "silent" and that clarity of mind is "illumination." This is the meaning of "silent illumination."

Faith in Mind a poem attributed to the Third Patriarch of Ch'an Seng-Ts'an (d. 606) begins with something like this: "The highest path is not difficult so long as you are free of discriminations." "Discriminations" can also be translated as "choices" "selections" or "preferences." The highest path is not difficult if you are free from choosing selecting or preferring. You must keep the mind free from discrimination and attachment. The method in which the mind is kept free from discrimination and attachment is what is called "silence" here. But "silent" does not mean the mind is blank and cannot function. The mind is free from attachment clear and yet it still functions.

We also read in Faith in Mind that "This principle is neither hurried nor slow. One thought for ten thousand years." "This principle" is the mind of wisdom and from its perspective time does not pass quickly or slowly. When we meditate or work we may fall into a worldly samadhi state and feel that time passes very quickly. In an ordinary state we may feel that time passes quickly or slowly. However in the mind of wisdom there is no such thing as slow or hurried time. If we can say there is thought in the mind of wisdom it is an endless thought which never changes. This unchanging thought is no longer thought as we usually understand it. It is the unmoving mind of wisdom.

In the Song of Samatha of Master Yung-chia Hsuan-chueh (665 - 713 also the author of the Song of Enlightenment) two Chinese terms are used which can be translated as "quiescence" and "clarity." Master Yung-chia uses them in two phrases "quiescence and clarity" and "clarity and quiescence." They describe a person whose mind is both clear and unmoving. When an ordinary person's mind is clear and alert it is usually also active and full of scattered thoughts. Quiescence of mind is difficult to maintain. When the mind is quiet it usually is not clear even in a samadhi state. But Yung-chia describes these two states quiescence and clarity as well as clarity and quiescence as goals.

Master Hung-chi Chen-chueh (1091-1157) who invented the term "silent illumination" in his poem the Song of Silent Illumination said this

In silence words are forgotten.
In utter clarity things appear.

"Words are forgotten" means you experience no words no language no ideas and no thought. There is no discrimination. This in combination with the second phrase "In utter clarity everything appears" means that although words language and discrimination do not function everything is still seen heard tasted and so on.

Someone told me that when he uses the Silent Illumination method he eventually gets to a point where there is nothing there and he rests. That is not true Silent Illumination. In Silent Illumination everything is there but the mind is not moving. A person may think he has no thoughts because the coarser wandering thoughts are absent but there will be fine subtle wandering thoughts of which he is unaware. He may think there is nothing there and so stop practicing. In Chinese this is called "Being on the dark side of a mountain in a cave inhabited by ghosts." The mountain is dark so there is nothing to see and in the cave of ghosts what can one accomplish?

Now I would like to explain how to use the method of shikantaza. First your posture should be upright. Do not lean in any direction. Be clear about your posture because if you practice shikantaza just sitting at the very least you should be conscientious about sitting. It is also important to remain relaxed.

Next be aware of your body but do not think of it as yourself. Regard your body as a car you drive. You have to handle the car well but it is not you. If you think of your body as yourself you will be bothered by pain itchiness and other vexations. Just take care of the body and be aware of it. The Chinese name for this method can be translated as "just take care of sitting." You have to be mindful of your body as the driver must be mindful of the car but the car is not the driver.

After a period of time the body will sit naturally and cause no problems. Now you can begin to pay attention to the mind. If you were eating your mind should be the "mind of eating" and you would pay attention to that mind. When you are sitting your mind should be the "mind of sitting." You watch this sitting mind. Two different thoughts alternate: the mind of sitting and the mind or thought that watches the mind of sitting. First you watch the body sitting with little attention to the mind. When the body drops away watch the mind. What is the mind? It is the mind of sitting! When your attention dissipates you will lose awareness of this sitting mind and the sensations of the body will return. Then you should again watch the body sitting. Another possibility is that while you watch the mind you fall into a dull state like "Being on the dark side of the mountain in a cave inhabited by ghosts." When you become aware of this situation your bodily sensations return and you should go back to watching them. Thus these two objects of attention the body and the mind are also used alternately.

In the state where you watch the mind are you aware of the external environment sound for example? If you want to hear sound you will and if you do not want to hear sound you won't. At this point you primarily pay attention to your own mind. Although you may hear sounds they do not create discriminations.

There are three stages in this practice. You should start at the beginning and progress to deeper levels. First be mindful of your body. Then be mindful of your mind and of the two thoughts alternating in it. The third stage is enlightenment. The mind is clear and as the poem quoted said "In silence words are forgotten. In utter clarity things appear." When you first practice you will probably be in the first or second level. If you use this method correctly you will not enter into samadhi.

This last point needs clarification. It depends on how we use the term "samadhi." In Buddhadharma samadhi has many meanings. For instance Sakyamuni Buddha was always in samadhi. His mind was not moving yet he still continued to function. This is wisdom. Sakyamuni Buddha's samadhi is great samadhi and this is the same as wisdom. When I said that in the practice of Silent Illumination you should not enter samadhi I meant worldly samadhi where you forget about space and time and are oblivious to the environment. The deeper kind of samadhi which is the same as wisdom is in fact the goal of Silent Illumination.

What good is this explanation of Silent Illumination for people who are not using this method? If you are using another method of practice and you reach a point where it is impossible to continue you can switch to Silent Illumination and watch your body and mind. For instance if you use the method of reciting Buddha's name with counting and you can no longer count switch to Silent Illumination. If you use the hua-t'ou method but find that rather than generating great doubt you are simply repeating your hua-tou you may reach a point where you can no longer recite it. You can then switch to Silent Illumination and watch your body and mind. Eventually you will be able to use your own method again. Silent Illumination can provide a continuum for you in this in-between state so that you do not waste time.

I was just asked whether the enlightenment that comes from Silent Illumination is sudden or gradual. Enlightenment is always instantaneous. It is the practice that is gradual. As I mentioned earlier the third level of Silent Illumination is enlightenment. But how does one get there? As you practice your attachments discriminations and wandering thoughts gradually subside. Eventually you simply have no discriminations but this change is instantaneous. When the change happens you are in the state Hung-chi Cheng-chueh described as "In silence words are forgotten. In utter clarity everything appears.

After you have some experience practicing the sentiments and vexations you ordinarily experience may not arise during practice. It does not mean that they are gone. It just means that when you practice they do not arise. When you use Silent Illumination this may happen especially at the second level but that is not enlightenment. Practice is not like trying to clear thoughts from your mind and vexations from your life as if they were dust on a mirror. You cannot wipe the dust away and make yourself enlightened. It is not like that. Whether you use the methods of the Lin-chi or Tsao-tung sects within the Ch'an tradition once enlightened you realize that enlightenment has nothing to do with the practice that brought you there.

So why bother to practice? Practice is like a bridge that can lead to enlightenment even though enlightenment has nothing to do with practice.

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