A guide to Shamatha Meditation

By The Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche

The meditator eager to get exact instructions on meditating may be tempted to breeze through the sections on devotion, faith, the lineage prayer and focus on the very practical techniques such as how to hold one's posture in meditation, but this is to miss the whole essence of meditation, which is an all encompassing way of viewing the world, a method of developing one's individual relationship to self and others. To get the most out of these instructions is to read each sentence as if it were embossed on the page in gold, which is how some of the early sacred texts were done.
Since everyone's mind is different, everyone's meditation is also different. This is why individual instruction is so necessary. It is extremely important that before one actually begins to practice meditation, one seeks advice from a qualified meditation instructor. Karma Triyana Dharmachakra (352 Meads Mountain Road, Woodstock, NY 12498) maintains a list of Tibetan meditation centers around the world if one is seeking instruction. For more detailed information on meditation, one can consult Thrangu Rinpoche's Shamatha and Vipashyana Meditation.
- - Clark Johnson, Ph. D

Studying the Dharma
We should begin by examining our mental disposition, which means turning our mind inwards and examining whether our attitude is pure or impure. Because we are just ordinary beings, sometimes our attitude will be pure and at other times it will be impure. There is nothing surprising about this. When we find our attitude is pure, we can rejoice and let it remain pure. When we find our attitude is impure, there's no reason to become disheartened, because we can change it. If we change it, again and again, little by little our negative attitude will naturally become pure. To develop this disposition for enlightenment, we should think that whatever we are doing, we are doing it to help all beings reach Buddhahood.

The Need for Meditation
When we do a physical action, this action can have either a positive or a negative result. When we say something, it can be either good or bad. So with words and actions we can see tangible results, but with thoughts there is no concrete action expressed. The mind, however, determines all of our physical and verbal actions because whatever we do, there is thought behind it. When that thought is positive, the actions that follow are good; when that thought is negative, the actions that follow are negative. The starting point of changing what we do is to change the way we think.
When we try to change a mental disposition, we must modify our habits. We can do this though meditation, that is, using our mind in a more concentrated, controlled way. What is troubling the mind can be removed with meditation so our mind can exist in its purity. If our mind is distracted, we can change it into an undistracted mind through meditation. We can change bad habits into good habits through meditation. Then when we manage to change our mental habits, we can change our physical actions and verbal behavior. Once we have changed these, we can reach the ultimate goal of our practice, Buddhahood.

Faith and Devotion
The one thing common to all meditation practice is having the right motivation of wanting to benefit all persons, not just ourselves. Besides this, we also need to have very strong devotion to our guru and all the gurus of our lineage. If we pray to them with really sincere devotion, we can receive their blessings which lead to a very quick growth of our meditation. It is said that the source of the growth of the four main and eight lesser schools of the Kagyu lineage was the blessings created by these persons praying to their gurus with true devotion. They received the blessings and were able to develop their meditation and understanding quickly.
With the practice of meditation, we can actually get the mind to rest on, what we want it to rest on and the mind becomes clearer and more peaceful. The Vajrayana tradition (footnote 1 - see below) has developed a practice that makes it possible to go through this process much more quickly than other meditation practices. In this practice one prays to one's guru and to all the gurus that have come before and develops a very strong devotion--an openness to receive their blessings. If one prays to the gurus, one receives the blessing, and through this blessing one's meditation progresses rapidly and naturally.
How is it possible that blessings are not felt by some? It is not because the Buddhas and the gurus feel, "Well, he doesn't pray to me, so I'm not going to give him blessings." The Buddhas and gurus look upon all beings with the same kindness and love as a mother has for her only son, but only persons open to these blessings can feel them. For example, if we have a hook and try to catch an egg, we can't do it. However, if we try to catch a ring with a hook, it is easy. In the same way, the compassion and the blessings of the Buddhas are there constantly, but there has to be something in beings that is open to receive the blessings. Faith and devotion are like a ring for the hook of the Buddhas' compassion and blessings to pull us out of samsara. No matter how much compassion the Buddhas have, without devotion nothing will happen.

The Lineage Prayer
To develop devotion we imagine our guru as the embodiment of all the Buddhas in the form of Dorje Chang (Skt. Vajradhara).(fn 2) The prayer to Dorje Chang is of special value. It was composed by the guru of the seventh Karmapa. (fn 3) For 18 years he lived on a very small island in the middle of a lake in Tibet and meditated on the mahamudra. (fn4) He spent all that time just meditating until he reached full realization of the mahamudra. At this point he spontaneously composed the Dorje Chang prayer, and so this prayer has a great deal of blessing connected with it. When we say this prayer,(fn 5) we should be aware of the meaning of the words. We should do this prayer trying to really concentrate on what we're saying, to be very attentive, and not to let our mind wander to other things, all the time praying with sincere devotion to remember all the qualities of our guru.
When we begin meditation, we should put our mind in the disposition of enlightenment so that the other conditions for true meditation will arise in us. In the vajrayana teachings, it is said real meditation will arise naturally if we receive the blessing of our guru and the gurus of the lineage. This is why we say the prayer to Dorje Chang, who is visualized in the space in front of us surrounded by the lamas of the lineage. If we cannot manage to visualize that many objects, we can just imagine the form of Dorje Chang, but think of him as a condensation of all the qualities and essence of the lamas of the lineage.
The Dorje Chang prayer has four parts. The first part is to turn our mind away from samsara so that we can see its illusion and develop disgust with samsara and want to practice the dharma. The second part is to cultivate devotion towards the lama and the dharma so we will be able to receive the blessings of the lamas and develop true meditation. The third part is that we pray to achieve peace of mind and not be distracted so we will develop true meditation. The fourth part is trying to understand that the essence of our thoughts is the dharmakaya. When we have understood this, we actually become Dorje Chang. After that we just remain in meditation. Whatever thought comes up, we just rest within the essence of that thought.
When we imagine Dorje Chang, we think of him as being blue in color, with one face and two arms, holding a dorje and a bell. He is sitting in the vajra posture. (fn 6) We can either think of him as being on top of our head or being in front of us in space. We usually visualize him in front of us and if possible with all the gurus of the lineage around him. We imagine that the lamas are not in their ordinary form with a solid body with flesh and blood, because if we did, they would arouse ordinary thoughts in our mind. Having ordinary thoughts during this meditation is a sign that we do not have much devotion. So we visualize our guru in the form of Dorje Chang to develop a pure vision in us and to see him not as ordinary flesh and blood, but in a pure way. We know that it is our guru, but in the form of Dorje Chang. If we cannot visualize all of these lamas, we simply imagine Dorje Chang and think that he represents all the aspects of the three jewels. (fn 7) While praying, we try to remember all the good qualities of our lama and the lamas of the Kagyu lineage and try to feel as genuine devotion as we can. We try to feel as much genuine faith from the bottom of our heart. Feeling this we say the lineage prayer. (fn 8) When this happens, we think, "I have received all the blessing of body, speech, and mind of all the Buddhas and the guru." At the end of the prayer, we imagine that our guru and all the other gurus melt into light and this light is absorbed through the top of our head and goes into our heart. At that particular moment we think we have received all the blessings of the body, speech, and mind of our guru and all the other gurus. We think we have received exactly the same qualities that they possess because our mind and their minds are now one. So all their qualities of complete freedom from obscurations and their complete realization are now ours; it is as if they had imprinted a picture of their enlightened qualities on us. We think we've obtained the full blessing and whatever realization is in the mind of our guru is now in our mind.

The Posture in Meditation
There are two important points in meditation--the body and the mind. As far as the body is concerned, it is important to keep the body straight so that the subtle channels (fn 9) of the body will be straight, too. If these subtle channels are straight, then the subtle energies within these channels will circulate freely. It is said that the mind is like a horse riding the circulation of the subtle energies of the body. When it is riding this energy freely, it is relaxed and peaceful.
There are many descriptions of good meditation posture and we will use the fivepoint description. (fn 10) The first point is that the body should be straight and upright. It should be "as straight as an arrow" which means one's back should be straight and one shouldn't lean forwards, backwards, or to either side. The second point is that the throat should be slightly bent downwards like a hook. There are two subtle channels inside the throat, and if they are bent slightly forward, the energy will circulate in them reducing mental agitation in one's meditation. The third point is that the legs should be crossed in "patterns of latticework" which means that the legs should be kept in a crossed position. If one can put them in the full lotus posture, good. If not, simply cross them in the half lotus posture. The fourth point is the body should be "gathered together like chains." After straightening the body, lock it in that position as with iron shackles. The way to do this is to join the hands, placing them the width of four fingers below the navel. The fifth point is to keep one's mind and body reasonably tight exerting a certain amount of effort so the body and mind are composed and focused. This is compared to one's tongue when one, for example, pronounces the Tibetan letters "li" and "ri" which requires a certain amount of tension in the tongue. In the same way, one should always maintain a certain amount of effort and alertness in the body and mind.
The great teacher, Marpa, said that there are many different instructions on meditation posture, but he preferred this fivepoint posture saying that if one could keep the body in this posture, the subtle energy circulating in the body would be ideal and would actually circulate though the central channel of the body.( fn 10)

The Mind in Meditation
When one meditates, do it for a short time; but do it again and again and again. The whole point is to develop a habit of meditation. If one meditates at first for too long, the mind just becomes more and more agitated and difficult to control. If one meditates for a short time and renews the session many times, then each time the mind will be fresh and clear and able to settle down more easily. So meditate again and again until the habit of meditation grows stronger.
It is important to control the mind in meditation. The uncontrolled mind is very strong and dangerous like an angry elephant. Not only can it not be controlled, but the mind just goes its own way. If a very strong negative feeling of anger or desire arises, we are normally not able to control it. But it is our mind, so we can control it if we use the right tools of mindfulness and awareness. Awareness is knowing exactly what we are doing while we are doing it. Mindfulness is having control of our mind and not letting it run out of control.
When meditating, we should not follow a thought about the past, we should not anticipate the future, and we should not be involved with thoughts of the present. Thoughts of the past are like what we did yesterday; thoughts of the future are like what we are planning to do tomorrow and thoughts of the present just pop up. In all cases we shouldn't follow the thread of these thoughts. We should just relax and leave them alone by not following them one way or another. For instance, in our meditation we may think of something that happened a month ago or think of a thought we just had and think, "I've been thinking about this." We then just end up following that thought. So we should not follow any of these thoughts. Similarly, we may be planning something for next week and immediately think, "I shouldn't be thinking of this!" We must avoid following thoughts in our meditation because meditation is simply leaving things just as they are without being too relaxed or too tense. If we manage to do this, we will find that the mind calms down quite naturally by itself.

General Obstacles to Meditation
During meditation the mind must have the right tension. For example, if we have a cat and we lock the cat up in a room, the cat will go crazy. Not finding a way to get out, it will start running up and down, mewing, and tearing things apart. But if we leave the door open, the cat will go out and take a little walk and then just come back in and fall asleep in the room. Similarly, if we begin our meditation thinking, "I really must stop thinking and keep my mind very concentrated and peaceful," we will constantly be worried and think, "Oh, I've had a thought!" or "Now I'm getting too tense." We will then work ourselves up so much that we can't stop thinking. So relax, just let the mind go and think, "Whatever comes, it just comes and goes." If we sit there very relaxed and let it all happen, we won't have very much trouble meditating.
If we use mindfulness and awareness properly in our meditation, our mind will become tranquil. There are two main obstacles to the tranquility of the mind. One is becoming too relaxed and the other is becoming too tense. When we become too relaxed, we start to follow our thoughts and become absorbed in them. When we are too tense, we make too much effort focusing on the idea of concentrating and being tranquil so that in the end our mind cannot remain tranquil and we become distracted. We have to constantly try to find the balance between being too tense and too relaxed by finding just the right amount of effort to put into our meditation. Saraha, a great mahasiddha, said that when we meditate, the mind should be like a thread of the Brahmin. In India the Brahmins used to spin a lot of thread. If one puts too much tension on it, the thread breaks. If the thread is too loose, then it won't be strong enough. In the same way, when we meditate, the mind should maintain the right amount of alertness; neither too tight, nor too loose.

Meditating on an Outer Object
There are three main techniques of meditation: concentrating on an outer object, concentrating on an inner object, and concentrating on no object. The goal of meditation is to reach the point of not needing any object in meditation. But to prepare for this goal we need to gain familiarity with meditation using outer objects and then inner objects.
In the beginning it is useful to meditate on an outer object such as a statue of the Buddha. Meditating on an outer object is not to examine or think about its shape or composition or color, but to simply remain aware of the statue in front of us and not become distracted by other thoughts. When looking at the statue, our eyes shouldn't strain and we should just register the picture of the Buddha in our mind. If other thoughts arise, we should try to become aware of these thoughts as quickly as possible and immediately drop them and return our awareness to the statue.
For the beginner this meditation is difficult to do for a very long time because we become lost in our thoughts very easily. So we meditate for a brief time with good concentration so our meditation doesn't become entangled with thoughts all the time. We do it for a short time in the beginning, and when we find that it is becoming a little easier, we can extend the duration of the meditation session.
Tilopa said that one should abandon all physical activity and just remain very quiet when meditating. One should stop talking and stop thinking; just leave the mind at rest. If we meditate on a buddha statue, we should not stare at it with a forced or fixed gaze because this will just give us a headache and eye strain. We must relax letting our eyes rest on the statue, merely registering the image. Whether our sight is sharp or blurred makes no difference. And when we look at it, we don't think, "Statue, statue, statue." We just look at it and try not to let the image drift out of our mind. If we start having an important thought that is taking us away from the statue, we just gently bring our attention back to the statue because if we follow the first thought, then another will come, then another and we will completely forget about the object of our meditation. When the thought comes, it is important to acknowledge its presence. If our mind starts to follow the thought, just recognize this fact and bring the mind back to the statue.
We should always focus on what is called the "support" of the meditation which is the statue or other object we are focusing on. If we develop the habit of trying to avoid the two defects of being too tight or too loose in our meditation, our meditation will improve. If we practice this kind of meditation more and more, we will then gradually have more and more mental peace with the mind being able to concentrate and there will be increasing clarity of one's meditation.

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