How to meditate using a meditation object – Ajahn Maha Boowa, Thai Buddhist Master – Part 1

Ajahn Maha Boowa was a great Thai Buddhist Master of recent times.  He only passed away a few years ago.  A friend of mine got a chance to see him a few years back and he had predicted that in such and such a year, he would pass away.  A few years later, when I heard that the great Ajahn had passed away, I asked my friend again – so was it true?  Did his prediction come to pass?  My friend replied – yes.

Now in Buddhist meditation – it has 2 aspects:

  1. Samatha/Shamatha – Focuses the mind, stabilizes and allows it to settle down and become calm and tranquil – much like how waves on the water calm down if there is no wind.
  2. Vipassana/Vipashyana – is developing insight into the mind and its nature.

First, we need a Samatha base, then once the mind is calm and strong – then we can develop insight.

So here, Ajahn Maha Boowa talks about how to develop that Samatha base – by finding a concrete anchor for your mind to always return to, driving a stake into the ground to prevent the mind from wandering (usually into the past and future).

He uses the meditation object of the mantra, “Buddho” – the One Who Knows.  But the same principles can be applied to any mantra – so you can pick and choose whatever you want.  For example:

  • You can use holy names like Amitofo (the name of Amitabha Buddha) or Gwan Yin Pu Sa (the name of Gwan Yin Bodhisattva)
  • You can use long mantras to keep the mind interested – like the Shurangama Mantra or the Great Compassion Mantra.
  • If you’re not Buddhist, you can even use words like, “Calm”, “Compassion”, “Peace” or even phrases like “Let it go” or “It’ll pass” etc…

The Buddhist holy names and mantras carry great power and are often used in Mahayana Buddhism.

The key is whatever word/mantra you choose as your object to focus on, you just repeat it in a relaxed yet focused manner, over and over and over again to focus your mind and anchor it down. The great thing about this is that you don’t have to be in traditional full or half lotus posture to do it – you can do it in any posture – walking, standing or sitting (though if you’re reciting holy names and mantras whilst lying down or in toilets, do it silently in your mind, as it’s considered disrespectful if you do it aloud.  And don’t go too deep into meditation whilst driving as you need your attention for the road).  So you can adapt it to however you choose – so it’s very flexible.

The mind likes to think – so we are intentionally giving it something to think – to drive a stake into the ground to and prevent this monkey mind from scattering off to wherever it feels like going.  And when the monkey mind gets tired, it will settle down where it is and become calm.

So let’s get to Ajahn Maha Boowa’s instructions:

Background Mental Preparations – keep your mind in the present and try not to let it drift off to the past and future

Whether we’re engaged in formal meditation practice or not, if we earnestly endeavor to keep our minds firmly focused in the present moment, we constantly offset the threat posed by the kilesas (afflictions).
The kilesas work tirelessly to churn out thoughts of the past and the future. This distracts the mind, drawing it away from the present moment, and from the mindful awareness that maintains our effort.
For this reason, meditators should not allow their minds to wander into worldly thoughts about the past or the future. Such thinking is invariably bound up with the kilesas, and thus, hinders practice. Instead of following the tendency of the kilesas to focus externally on the affairs of the world outside, meditators must focus internally and become aware of the mind’s inner world.  This is essential.

Use a meditation object to anchor your mind for your Samatha Meditation base

I always teach my pupils to be very precise in their pursuit and to have a clear and specific focus in their meditation.  That way they are sure to get good results.
It is important to find a suitable object of attention to properly prepare the mind for this kind of work. I usually recommend a preparatory meditation-word whose continuous mental repetition acts as an anchor that quickly grounds the meditator’s mind in a state of meditative calm and concentration.
If a meditator simply focuses attention on the presence of awareness in the mind without a meditation-word to anchor him, the results are bound to be hit and miss. The mind’s knowing presence is too subtle to give mindfulness a firm basis, so the mind soon strays into thinking and distraction, lured by the siren call of the kilesas.
Meditation practice then becomes patchy. At certain times it seems to progress smoothly, almost effortlessly, only to become suddenly and unexpectedly difficult. It falters, and all apparent progress disappears. With its confidence shaken, the mind is left floundering.
However, if we use a meditation-word as an anchor to solidly ground our mindfulness, then the mind is sure to attain a state of meditative calm and concentration in the shortest possible time. It will also have the means to maintain that calm state with ease.

The Pitfalls of NOT having something concrete to anchor your mind in Meditation

I am speaking here from personal experience. When I first began to meditate, my practice lacked a solid foundation.
Since I had yet to discover the right method to look after my mind, my practice was in a state of constant flux:
  • It would make steady progress for awhile only to decline rapidly and fall back to its original untutored condition. Due to the intense effort I exerted in the beginning, my mind succeeded in attaining a calm and concentrated state of samãdhi.  It felt as substantial and stable as a mountain.
  • Still lacking a suitable method for maintaining this state, I took it easy and rested on my laurels. That was when my practice suffered a decline.

My practice began to deteriorate, but I didn’t know how to reverse the decline. So I thought long and hard, trying to find a firm basis on which I could expect to stabilize my mind.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that mindfulness had deserted me because my fundamentals were wrong: I lacked a meditation-word to act as a precise focus for my attention.

Drive a stake into the ground for your mind – to prevent it from wandering

I was forced to begin my practice anew.
This time I first drove a stake firmly into the ground and held tightly to it no matter what happened. That stake was buddho, the recollection of the Buddha. I made the meditation-word buddho the sole object of my attention.
I focused on the mental repetition of buddho to the exclusion of everything else.  Buddho became my sole objective even as I made sure that mindfulness was always in control to direct the effort.
All thoughts of progress or decline were put aside. I would let happen whatever was going to happen.
Ajahn Maha Boowa continues:
This time I resolved that, no matter what occurred, I should just let it happen. Fretting about progress and decline was a source of agitation, distracting me from the present moment and the work at hand.
Only the mindful repetition of buddho could prevent fluctuations in my meditation. It was paramount that I center the mind on awareness of the immediate present. Discursive thinking could not be allowed to disrupt concentration.

Having the Deepest Commitment, the Most Serious Mind

To practice meditation earnestly to attain an end to all suffering, you must be totally committed to the work at each successive stage of the path. Nothing less than total commitment will succeed.
To experience the deepest levels of samãdhi and achieve the most profound levels of wisdom, you cannot afford to be halfhearted and listless, forever wavering because you lack firm principles to guide your practice. Meditators without a firm commitment to the principles of practice can meditate their entire lives without gaining the proper results.
In the initial stages of practice, you must find a stable object of meditation with which to anchor your mind. Don’t just focus casually on an ambiguous object, like awareness that is always present as the mind’s intrinsic nature. Without a specific object of attention to hold your mind, it will be almost impossible to keep your attention from wandering. This is a recipe for failure. In the end, you’ll become disappointed and give up trying.
When mindfulness loses its focus, the kilesas rush in to drag your thoughts to a past long gone, or a future yet to come. The mind becomes unstable and strays aimlessly over the mental landscape, never remaining still or contented for a moment. This is how meditators lose ground while watching their meditation practice collapse. The only antidote is a single, uncomplicated focal point of attention; such as a meditation-word or the breath.
Choose one that seems most appropriate to you, and focus steadfastly on that one object to the exclusion of everything else. Total commitment is essential to the task.

Signs of Progress

As mindfulness gradually establishes itself, the mind will stop paying attention to harmful thoughts and emotions. It will lose interest in its usual preoccupations. Undistracted, it will settle further and further into calm and stillness.

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