Principles of Meditation

There are 2 dimensions to meditation
1.  Shamatha      Calming/stabilizing/tranquility meditation

Because it calms the mind down and stabilizes it, allows it to reach tranquility.

Here, you focus the mind on 1 object and you let go of everything else for the time being.

This anchors the mind so that it doesn’t keep wandering off everywhere – it stays put much like a boat stays put when you anchor it.

The strong winds of the restlessness can no longer randomly buffet the waters of the mind every which way because now, it’s anchored down and the mind can start to calm down.  This allows the waters of the mind to settle down, quieten down.  The water is now peaceful, tranquil and will be clearer so that it will be easier to see through it.

2.  Vipashyana      Insight meditation

Because once your mind is calm enough (through shamatha), because it is no longer caught up in things – you will be able to gain a greater perspective on things and see things with greater clarity.  Whereas with Shamatha, you are closing the mind down to a single point of focus, with Vipashyana, you are opening the mind up again to accept whatever comes and investigate things with wisdom.

So Insight meditation allows you to be able to understand the nature of things better, allows you to be able to penetrate things and see through to the meaning.

Why do we need to develop skill in both aspects?

Ajahn Brahm gives us a good analogy.  Imagine someone is waving a piece of paper around and you’re trying to read what’s on the piece of paper:

  • You need the paper to be still (calm) before you can read it properly (insight).  The stiller the paper is, the easier it is to read.
  • The stiller the mind is, the clearer it is.  And when you see things with greater clarity, this is when the insights develop.

And if you get good at both, you can do both at the same time (as they’re not mutually exclusive) as one enhances the other.  You can even switch between the two back and forth whenever you want – so there’s really no rules as to how you use them.  As everyone is different, you can experiment and see what works well for you – experiment and evaluate the results for yourself.

As for how to do Shamatha and Vipashyana… stay tuned…

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3 thoughts on “Principles of Meditation

  1. Thanks. I have learned of the connection, but it took a while to see. Some mediators, such as those following S.N. Goenka teaching & training, emphasize Vipasanna, but I think most Mahayana Buddhists place more accent on Shamantha. As you explain, they are perfectly complementary. Do you think it helps to train in both, or just discover one via extended practice in the other?

    • I don’t think think there’s a “You must do 50% Samatha and 50% vipassana” thing. I do feel its important to learn and understand both though – so that you have both sets of skill under your belt – it just comes in more handy and you become more well rounded.

      Whatever you do though, try to approach it from right view – and this comes from study of the Sutras. So try to use the unconditioned mind from the outset rather than the thinking mind which arises and ceases. So try to use “that which is aware”, the “knower”, “that which knows” – especially with the vipassana insight part.

      I suggest you experiment and see what works best for you – you can always change it and adapt it to how your current mental state and how you’re feeling at the time. You can always switch back and forth between them or do one to the exclusion of the other.

      The key is to work with the mind, not against it.

  2. Also, as we are talking about Meditation, I think it is important to bring up the Shurangama Sutra’s caution of the 50 Skandha Demon States. This is a must read for meditators so that they don’t lose their way to the temptations and confusions that heavenly demons employ to derail him and cause him to commit offenses.

    Here are two of the Skandhas and the explanation for it ( by Master Hsuan Hua):

    J8 With wisdom comes lightness and ease, which leads to complacency.

    K1 The characteristics of its beginning.

    Sutra:

    Further, in this state of samadhi, the good person sees the disintegration of the form skandha and understands the feeling skandha. In his refined understanding, he awakens completely to subtle principles. Everything is in accord with his wishes. He may suddenly experience limitless lightness and ease in his mind. He may say that he has become a sage and attained great self-mastery.

    K2 Giving the name and instructions to awaken.

    This is called ‘attaining lightness and clarity due to wisdom.’ If he understands, then there is no error. This experience does not indicate sagehood.

    Commentary:

    Further, in this state of samadhi, the good person sees the disintegration of the form skandha and understands the feeling skandha. In his refined understanding, his understanding becomes even more refined than before, he awakens completely to subtle principles. At this time, he gains a thorough understanding of very fine and subtle principles. Everything is in accord with his wishes. He may suddenly experience a state of limitless lightness and ease in his mind. He may say that he has become a sage, a Buddha, and obtained great self-mastery, the greatest happiness and ease.

    This is called “attaining lightness and clarity due to wisdom.” Having uncovered a little wisdom, you obtain a state of lightness and purity, and that’s all, it certainly does not count as an extraordinary state. If he understands, then there is no error, no problem. This experience does not indicate sagehood. You should not think this state is the realization of sagehood, for it is not.

    K3 Showing how confusion will certainly bring a fall.

    Sutra:

    But if he considers himself a sage, then a demon that likes lightness and clarity will enter his mind. Claiming that he is already satisfied, he will not strive to make further progress. For the most part, such cultivators will become like the unlearned bhikshu. He will mislead living beings so that they will fall into the Avichi Hell. Lacking proper samadhi, he will certainly fall.

    Commentary:

    But if he considers himself a sage, if, upon having this state of light ease, he thinks he has already been certified to the fruition of sagehood, then a demon that likes lightness and clarity will enter his mind. This demon, who also experiences the state of light ease and sublime clarity, will possess the person. Claiming that he is already satisfied, that he has perfected everything, he will not strive to make further progress. Above there is no Buddhahood to accomplish, and below there are no living beings to save. He does not need to become a Buddha, for he has already become one. Nor does he need to save living beings, for he has already finished saving them. He has already accomplished the Buddhahood he was supposed to accomplish, and he has saved the living beings he was meant to save. Therefore, he does not seek further progress.

    For the most part, such cultivators will become like the unlearned bhikshu mentioned earlier. Lacking wisdom, he thought the fourth dhyana was the fourth fruition of Arhatship. He will mislead living beings, so they do not know the proper path and do not recognize the Buddhadharma. He confuses and hinders living beings, so that they will fall into the Avichi Hell. In the future, this sort of person will fall into the Relentless Hells. Why? Lacking proper samadhi, he will certainly fall. Since he has lost his proper samadhi, he is bound to fall into the Relentless Hells.

    J9 Becoming attached to emptiness and slandering precepts.

    K1 The characteristics of its beginning.

    Sutra:

    ?Further in this state of samadhi, the good person sees the disintegration of the form skandha and understands the feeling skandha. In that clear awakening, he experiences an illusory clarity. Within that, suddenly he may veer towards the view of eternal extinction, deny cause and effect, and take everything as empty. The thought of emptiness so predominates that he comes to believe that there is eternal extinction after death.

    K2 Giving its name and instructions to awaken.

    [This is called ‘the mental state of samadhi dissolving so that one loses sight of what is right.’] If he understands, then there is no error. This experience does not indicate sagehood.

    Commentary:

    Further in this state of samadhi, the good person sees the disintegration of the form skandha and understands the feeling skandha. At that time, in that clear awakening, when he seems to understand but does not truly understand, he experiences an illusory clarity, which is not real. Within that illusory clarity, suddenly a change occurs. What is it? He may veer towards the view of eternal extinction, deny cause and effect, and take everything as empty. He says, “When a person dies, he is gone and dead forever. Therefore, to talk in terms of cause and effect is incorrect. There is no cause and effect. When people die, they no longer exist, so how could there be cause and effect? Everything is empty. Committing offenses is empty and so is creating blessings. It is all empty!” The thought of emptiness so predominates that he comes to believe that there is eternal extinction after death.

    The more he thinks, the more he feels he’s right. “Oh! It is empty. Once you die, it is all over. Everything is empty.” At that point, he becomes convinced that people are gone forever after they die. The text reads: “If he understands, then there is no error. It is not an indication of sagehood.” One sentence must have been left out of the text when it was originally copied. We can insert it here: This is called “the mental state of samadhi dissolving so that one loses sight of what is right.” At this point, his samadhi is gone, so he develops the thought of emptiness and loses his sense of what is right. If he understands, then there is no error. This experience does not indicate sagehood. This is not the state of realizing sagehood.

    K3 Showing how confusion will certainly bring a fall.

    Sutra:

    But if he considers himself a sage, then a demon of emptiness will enter his mind. He will slander the holding of precepts, calling it a ‘small vehicle dharma.’ He will say, “Since Bodhisattvas have awakened to emptiness, what is there to hold or violate?” This person, in the presence of his faithful danapatis, will often drink wine, eat meat, and engage in wanton lust. The power of the demon will keep his followers from doubting or denouncing him. After the ghost has possessed him for a long time, he may consume excrement and urine, or meat and wine, claiming that all such things are empty. He will break the Buddha’s moral precepts and mislead people into committing offenses. Lacking proper samadhi, he will certainly fall.

    Commentary:

    But if he considers himself a sage, if he views this as certifying to the fruition of sagehood, then a demon of emptiness will enter his mind. It will enter and possess his body. He will slander the holding of precepts, calling it a “small vehicle dharma.” He will say, “Don’t observe the precepts. That’s a dharma for the small vehicle. Great vehicle Bodhisattvas do not have so many bothersome restrictions. You don’t have to pay attention to them. As it is said, “The great elephant does not travel along the rabbit’s path. The great awakening is not confined by petty details.” Once you are greatly enlightened, nothing matters anymore. Everything is empty. “Wine and meat pass through the intestines; the Buddha dwells in the mind.” To the Buddha, everything is made from the mind alone. The mind is just the Buddha, and the Buddha is just the mind!” That’s what he says. He even slanders the holding of precepts, saying, “Only adherents of the small vehicle observe precepts. Followers of the great vehicle do not need this.”

    Actually, the precepts for the great vehicle are even more explicit and even less should one violate them. He just fools these uninformed people, who have never studied the Buddhadharma and do not understand any of the principles explained by the Buddha. That’s why, no matter what he says, they take it as an order to be followed, believing that what he says is right. Why do they believe him? Just because they have never heard the Buddhadharma and don’t even know what the Buddhadharma is.

    He will say, “Since great vehicle Bodhisattvas have already awakened to the emptiness of all dharmas, what is there to hold or violate? How can there still be a holding of precepts or a violating of precepts? There’s no such thing.” This person who is possessed by the demon, in the presence of his faithful danapatis, in the homes of dharma protectors who believe in him, will often drink wine, eat meat and engage in wanton lust. The phrase “engage in wanton lust” is very important. Buddhism teaches people not to have lust and desire, yet his desire is excessive. He engages in defiled practices of lust, yet people still believe in him because he has a demonic power. The power of the demon will keep his followers from doubting or denouncing him. They have tremendous faith in him.

    After the ghost has possessed him for a long time, he may consume excrement and urine or meat and wine, claiming that all such things are empty. Because he is possessed by a ghost, he will not think of excrement as something unclean, and he will also casually drink urine. He will say that eating excrement and drinking urine are “neither defiled nor pure,” using the phrase from the Heart Sutra. That’s how he will distort the sutra’s meaning. This demon will behave in a way which shows that he doesn’t care whether something is clean or dirty. He will say that eating meat and drinking wine are empty, and that eating excrement and drinking urine are empty. In general, everything is empty. He will break the Buddha’s moral precepts and mislead people into committing offenses. Then, lacking proper samadhi, he will certainly fall. He deserves to fall into the hells.

    Links:

    Ven. Master Hsuan Hua’s Commentary on the Shurangama Sutra:

    http://www.cttbusa.org/shurangama1/shurangama_contents.asp

    Note: See Volume 8 (scroll to bottom) to see the section on the 50 states.

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