An introduction to the way of meditating by Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche

All the 84,000 types of teachings given by our compassionate teacher Buddha Shakyamuni can be condensed into the Four Seals of the Dharma. In this book I will explain these four seals to the best of my ability.

Before I begin, I'd like to define the qualifications for the Dharma teacher and the Dharma student. I will talk about the different types of teacher we can learn from and the need to integrate learning and reflection within meditation training.

The teacher, who is sometimes referred to as the 'spiritual friend,' should possess numerous great qualities. In brief, he or she should have gone through the proper training of learning, reflection and meditation involving the view, meditation, conduct and fruition of each of the vehicles. The master who possesses confidence and experience in the view of emptiness will never err concerning the meaning of the teachings. Although some minor mistakes in the phrasing might occur, someone with stability in the view will be able to immediately correct such inaccuracies.

The spiritual friend should, of course, be perfect in learning, reflection and meditation, but we, the students, also should never separate these three. Learning alone is not sufficient: what has been learned should be firmly established within one's being through reflection. What is meant by the word reflection? It means to investigate and examine the teaching. So please discern what is said and what is meant. Investigate what the words and the meaning indicate. Understand the purpose as well as the benefit of the teaching - really work it over and ponder it. This kind of reflection clarifies our understanding of what we study.

Without some degree of study and reflection, our devotion to the spiritual master and to enlightened beings is inconsistent. Likewise, our love and compassion for others tends to be fickle and transient. Especially concerning the view of the ultimate nature, without study or reflection it's very hard to be really stable. Without a proper basis in studying and reflecting, we can easily be interrupted by doubts and hesitation. Maybe we don't get completely wrong views, but subtle wrong views can easily sneak in. Therefore, it's very important to gain some intellectual comprehension of the teachings through studying and reflecting upon them. However, if we simply leave the matter with learning and reflection we are still mere intellectuals. There is no doubt that we need meditation training. Meditation here means the process of bringing what we have learned and reflected upon into the realm of personal experience.

When speaking of spiritual masters, there are four types of teachers that we should follow, all of whom are indispensable and can bring us great benefit. Later on in this book I will go into greater detail about these types of teachers, so here I will just briefly mention them. The first of these four categories is the 'living lineage teacher,' an actual physically embodied master who belongs to a lineage. The second type is the 'teacher who is the scriptures of awakened beings,' which includes the words of the Buddha and statements made by accomplished and learned masters of the past. The third type of teacher is called the 'symbolic teacher of experience,' our personal experiences gained from living in this world. To fully grasp the Buddhist teaching which states that samsaric existence should be discarded, we need to comprehend what the nature of samsaric existence is. By understanding the characteristics of our own daily life experiences we come to realize that samsaric existence is futile and unreliable, not something in which to put our trust. In this way, ordinary life becomes our teacher. It instructs us in futility and impermanence. That is what is meant by the symbolic teacher of experience.

We need to meet, follow and take guidance from these three types of teachers. Ultimately, however, there's only one true teacher. This is our enlightened essence, the self-existing wakefulness within ourselves, also called the 'ultimate teacher of the innate nature'. All sentient beings within the six classes of living creatures possess this enlightened essence. Among these six classes, the three inferior types - hell beings, hungry ghosts, and animals - also possess an enlightened essence, a buddha nature. But because of their unfortunate circumstances or, in the case of animals, their stupidity, they are unable to put it into practice and realize it. However, anyone who experiences and realizes this enlightened essence does attain complete enlightenment. No matter how miserable or how deluded we may be, if we can bring our buddha nature into our experience and train in it, we can be enlightened. On the other hand, if we don't experience and realize this enlightened essence, we will not attain complete enlightenment. To meet and realize this enlightened essence, we must utilize learning and reflection; most importantly, we need to practice meditation.

This ultimate teacher of the innate nature is present in everyone, all beings, without any exception. Although this is so, we don't acknowledge it; we don't recognize it. That is why it is said to be shrouded in a veil of ignorance. We have to use that analogy, speaking as if there was something hidden which we need to see. Since our innate nature is locked up inside an encasement of dualistic fixation, we need to destroy this dualistic experience. Now, let's examine whether this statement is true or not.

In terms of destroying this encasement of dualistic experience: unless we use some method, some technique, it just doesn't happen. The best method is of course effortlessness, but effortlessness cannot be taught. Even if we try, we do not become effortless automatically. Effortlessness just doesn't seem to spontaneously take place. But this encasement in dualistic experience falls apart the moment we simply let be in a nondualistic state. Another way to look at it is to realize that every moment of ordinary experience is governed by habit, by conditioning. Our present habit is dominated by deliberate effort. We have therefore no choice but to use our present habit of being deliberate and using effort in order to arrive at effortlessness.

When loving friends want to console or to relieve another's pain, they say, "Relax, don't worry." This is really one of the finest statements that a person can make. Relaxation - especially mental relaxation - is something basic and extremely beneficial. It is human nature to strive for material gain, sense pleasures, a good reputation and appreciation from others, often in an intense or even desperate way. Unless we can relax and not be so caught up, our relationship to enjoyments and wealth becomes hollow and substanceless, almost as if we were robots.When someone whose heart is troubled and worried is, out of true affection and kindness, told "Relax, don't worry," this statement helps and can make a big difference. Telling someone to let go and relax can instill a sense of peace. This holds true not only for human beings but also for animals. When you show a genuinely loving expression on your face and kindly stroke an animal with your hand, these actions help it to feel at ease. Most important is to behave with love and compassion, expressing these feelings by being gentle and affectionate. The opposite of this is to act out of anger and to be aggressive towards others.

This is why the perfectly enlightened one, the Buddha, said "Rest calmly." In fact, teachings on the practice of shamatha sound very much like "Relax, don't worry." When we tell each other "Relax!" the power of just that one word has some kind of deep impact. Most people using the word don't really know the true depth of the meaning of "relax." We say "Relax!," but that which prevents us from being relaxed is, on a coarse level, our own disturbing emotions. On a more subtle level, that which prevents an utterly relaxed state of mind is subconscious thought activity, an almost unnoticed undercurrent of conceptual thinking.

When the Buddha said "Practice shamatha, rest calmly," he was giving affectionate advice. He was telling us to try to be at peace with ourselves, to remain like an ocean unmoved by the waves of disturbing emotions. We must realize that the degree to which our mind is occupied by disturbing emotions generates a corresponding degree of pain, of feeling unsettled and upset. If there's a medium degree of disturbing emotions, we feel that degree of pain. Even when there is simply an undercurrent of concepts, a subconscious flow of thoughts, this still prevents us from feeling totally at ease and remaining in the peaceful state of shamatha. So, the Buddha said, "Rest totally free, completely without any disturbing emotions, without any thought activity." This practice is called shamatha, and in the Sutra teachings it is taught in incredibly great detail. All the practices of shamatha can be condensed into two types: shamatha with the support of an object and shamatha without any object.

For a beginner it is difficult to simply be at peace, to rest calmly and free from a mental focus. This is because all our activities and ways of perceiving are dualistic, due to the habit of holding an object in mind. Therefore, the beginning practice of shamatha is to keep some concept or object in mind - not a complicated point of focus or multiple ones, just a single simple one.

The most widespread and generally accepted form of shamatha with focus involves placing the attention on the movement of our breath or on an object like a pebble, a stick, an image of the Buddha, or the like. Focusing our mind on one simple object prevents it from being occupied by anything else. We are not planning the future, reacting to some past event, indulging in being upset about this and that or pondering some choice object of love or hate. By concentrating on just one thing, it is possible for a feeling of peace, relaxation and comfort to take place.

Imagine a monkey locked inside a small box with four openings; it is really restless. It sticks its head out one side after the other, so rapidly and repeatedly that someone observing from the outside might think that there are four monkeys. Our present state of mind is very much like that restless monkey. It doesn't linger in one place from one moment to the next. All the time our minds are busy, constantly thinking. When we practice this form of shamatha, focusing our attention on just one object, we become accustomed to this new habit after some time. That is how it is possible to attain stability in a calm state of mind, in shamatha.

Compared to a state of mind that is occupied by nervous, restless thoughts, it is much better to be in a focused, relaxed state of peaceful attention. The benefits of this can be seen immediately: the very moment mind is simply focused on one object, the waves of disturbing thoughts and emotions are absent. Spending a session meditating in this way is like taking a break. It becomes a time of peace and calm, of feeling comfortable with ourselves. When our attention begins to stray away, when we are unable to keep an object in mind, we get distracted, and the feeling of being at ease also disappears. Then we remember the object of attention and continue as before, and the feeling of being at peace reoccurs.

At this point of meditation training, please don't believe that dualistic fixation is absent; it hasn't collapsed yet. Yet, the moment of resting calmly with focused attention is free of gross disturbing emotions; it's free of anger, attachment, and dullness. Say we're focusing on a vase of flowers. We're not involved in reacting against the flowers, in aggressively disliking them, which is anger. We are not attracted to them either, thinking how nice they are, which is attachment. Neither are we indifferent to them, which is dullness. Although the mind is free from the gross expression of these three types of emotions, there is still some sense of focus, of "me," "that," and "I'm focused!" As long as one retains such concepts of subject and object, dualistic fixation is not absent. In this way, it's not yet the perfect type of shamatha, and it is definitely not the awakened state of mind. Nevertheless, compared to an ordinary disturbed state of mind, shamatha with an object is much more preferable, because it's free from gross disturbing emotions.

As beginners, we should stay focused on the object of attention. And yet we need to understand that as long as the mind stays focused on an object, something is still incomplete. Deciding "I will rest my attention on one thing" is quite beneficial. But it would be even better if we could simply rest our attention free from focus, in a total openness free from reference point. This is the second type of shamatha. As long as we remain focused upon a particular object, we retain the idea of "that" and "I," meaning the one who focuses and the object of focus. There's still some degree of fixation or grasping occurring. In Buddhism, grasping or fixating on duality is considered the root cause of samsaric existence. Thus, to practice a meditation that is an exercise in retaining dualistic fixation can't be called perfect. Still, it is a stepping-stone. If we don't learn our ABCs in first grade, we'll never start reading. In the same way, once we grow accustomed to the practice of shamatha with focus, it becomes very simple to learn how to rest calmly free from focus. When our attention remains totally undisturbed by emotions, thoughts, and concepts, free from all reference points, and free from focus, that is called objectless shamatha.

Having cultivated this state of shamatha, the next step is to embrace it by clear seeing, by vipashyana. The practice of shamatha, of being at peace, is by itself insufficient to obtain liberation from the three realms of samsaric existence. For this reason it is extremely important to carefully study the teachings, to reflect upon them and to become clear about how to practice. If we don't do this, if we simply identify the ultimate meditation state with shamatha, even though we may become very stable, we may never go beyond a samsaric state called the 'formless meditation gods'. We may remain here for a very long time, but when the experience eventually wears out we end up back in other samsaric states. So it's very important to be careful, to see clearly.

We should understand that shamatha practice has both pros and cons, a good side and a bad side. The good side of shamatha is that it is free from any disturbing emotions, free from the agonizing thought activity of the three times. The bad side of shamatha is that in itself it does not lead to liberation from samsara. It only becomes a cause for liberation when embraced by vipashyana. The realization of all the buddhas is described as the unity of shamatha and vipashyana, never as shamatha by itself.

To reiterate, first of all, when we're not involved in disturbing emotions and thoughts, there is an immediate sense of peace, of relief from suffering. The state of shamatha is unspoiled by thoughts of the past, present or future. By not thinking of anything in these three times, we are free from disturbing emotions. In addition to shamatha, there is also the practice of vipashyana, which means 'seeing clearly'. The basic nature of our mind, our innate nature, is a wakefulness in which emptiness and cognizance are indivisible. Unless there is some clear seeing of this innate wakefulness, to merely rest calmly in a state of stillness is to essentially be ignorant. We need to do more than simply be free from disturbing emotions and thought activity. Excellent as it is, a tranquil feeling is not enough to clearly see our innate nature. Self-existing wakefulness, the unity of being empty and cognizant, is totally free from any fixation on subject and object. To rest evenly in that is called the unity of shamatha and vipashyana. So, straighten your back. Stop talking, and don't force or control your breathing - just let it flow naturally. The realization of all buddhas is the unity of shamatha and vipashyana.

The Buddha gave different levels of teachings aimed at different types of persons, so we should apply whatever teaching fits us. If you know how to practice the state that is the unity of shamatha and vipashyana, then you should do that. If you feel that you are better able or more ready to practice the state of shamatha without object, you should do that. And if you feel that's difficult, that you must focus on an object in order for the attention not to waver from one thing to another, then practice shamatha focused on an object. We should practice according to our individual capacity, which is something we ourselves know. It doesn't help to fool ourselves, thinking we can practice something that we don't really understand. Be honest and practice in accordance with your own level. Then the session is not wasted.

Meditation training is the opposite of the ordinary conceptual state of mind that thinks "I am here, the world is there." Because it's so different from our ordinary state of mind, it's vital to study and reflect in order to eradicate any lack of understanding, misunderstanding or doubt that we may have about the correct view, meaning the correct understanding of how things are. If we, after arriving at certainty in the correct view, implement that in meditation practice, even a short period of meditation will have a great impact. On the other hand, if we don't gain an authentic understanding of the view of the innate nature of things, the effect will not be that great no matter how diligent we are. In short, don't separate learning, reflection and meditation, because these can clear away all the faults of not understanding, misunderstanding, and doubt.

Extracted from Indisputable Truth, © Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, '96