Sunday, August 15, 2010

Tibetan Teachings on Shamatha for Theravadins

The following essay is an attempt to describe in a succinct but useful way common Tibetan teachings on the cultivation of "calm abiding", also known as tranquility or concentration meditation- samatha (Pali) or shamatha (Sanskrit). My intended audience is Theravadin yogis and yoginis who practice some form of calm abiding meditation based on the approach of the Visuddhimagga, a Sri Lankan work which encapsulates certain commentarial traditions on the path of practice. In terms of the Visuddhimagga the teachings I am summarizing here present the passage from parikamma-samadhi (preperatory concentration) through upacara-samadhi (access concentration).

The following is based on Lati Rinpoche's "Oral Presentation of the Concentrations and Formless Absorptions" translated by Jeffrey Hopkins (Meditative States in Tibetan Buddhism, Wisdom Publications) and Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche's commentary on Jamgon Kongtrul's "Treasury of Knowledge", 8th chapter, translated by Peter Roberts (Tranquility and Insight, Snow Lion Publications).

In the Visuddhimagga tradition there are three stages of concentration prior to entering jhana, or full meditative absorption (sanskrit dhyana). The first, parikamma-samadhi or preperatory concentration, signifies the stage of taking up the object and beginning to focus the mind. The second, upacara-samadhi, or access concentration (also known as neighbourhood concentration) signifies the stage where the five hindrances are largely abandoned (these are: sense desire, aversion, sloth and lethargy, restlessness and remorse, and doubtful vacillation) and one is therefore in the neighbourhood of, or has access to, jhana. In the third, appana-samadhi or immoveable samadhi, one is inevitably on the road to jhana.

In the Tibetan teachings the passage from parikamma-samadhi into appana-samadhi is broken up into nine or four stages. An understanding of these stages can be helpful, especially for lay practitioners who are likely to spend a lot of time in parikamma- and upacara- samadhi! It is interesting to note that in the Tibetan teachings when one has attained final stage in the nine or four, one is said to have "attained calm abiding". This differs from Theravadin usage, where calm abiding refers to the entire spectrum of samadhi practice including the four jhanas and four formless attainments. The "attainment of calm abiding" appears to me to be equivalent to the attainment of apanna-samadhi in the terms of the Visuddhimagga.

The Tibetan teachings describe progress in samadhi with regards to setting the mind on one object, most commonly a visualized object such as a yidam (meditation deity) or the Buddha. The teachings can be applied as well to meditating on the breath. They discuss the four stages and nine levels of samadhi, the five faults, the eight antidotes, and the six powers.

The Four Stages and Nine Levels of Samadhi

The Five Faults

1) Laziness/Resitance (kausidya).

 This can come in the form of of lack of confidence, a desire to do something else, or resistance and/or aversion to meditation itself. This first fault is a very serious one- if you do not apply an antidote, meditation will never begin in the first place! The antidotes are:
A) Faith. When resistance to meditation sets in, one rouses faith with appropriate thoughts. Think about the danger of distraction and the downward spiral it creates, or the dangers of failing to learn how to control the mind and the perils of being trapped in samsara.
B) Aspiration. One thinks of the positive benefits of practice and what one aspires to.
C) Effort. One simply applies will power.
D) Pliancy. This refers to the state of physical and mental pliancy which comes with meditation practice- here one does not do anything, laziness and aversion are naturally overcome though the familiarity of one's own body and mind with meditation.
The antidotes here address resistance and aversion but not lack of confidence. In Theravadin terms one could reflect on the regularity of the Dhamma (practice will yeild results for anyone) or the natural radiance of the mind.

2) Non-identification of laxity and excitement. This fault consists in failing to recognize the presence of these two faults and apply relevant antidotes.
Laxity here refers to a lack of clarity or vividness in one's meditation. This can refer to a dull or unclear state of mind or stable attention without maximum vividness. In Theravadin terms one is lacking in precise moment to moment mindfulness of the object. Excitement refers to either losing the object altogether or to a background babble of discursiveness in the mind.
The antidote to this fault is introspection (samprajanya, pali: sampajanna) commonly known to Theravadins as "clear comprehension". Once one has introspected the presence of laxity or excitement one applies countermeasures. The general antidote to laxity is to "tighten" the apprehension of the object. It is considered better to err on the side of over-tightness, since excitement is easier to identify and deal with than laxity. Overall the quality of attention is to be balanced between the two, like in the well known metaphor of the lute strings (originally spoken by the Buddha to Venerable Sona in AN 6.55, see:
One way of overcoming laxity is said to be to brighten the object, imagining it to be suffused with light. Although this advice is obviously meant to be applied to a visualization, it can also work with the breath. Try it!
If that doesn't work one can drop the object temporarily and contemplate teachings that will give rise to a sense of urgency and then return. If that doesn't work one can try "mixing the mind with the expanse of space" several times. One does this visualizing the mind as a white light the size of a pea in the heart. One shoots the mind up the central channel (the spine, approximately) and out the top of the head, where it explodes into space while you simultaneously yell "Phat!" This might not work so well if one is meditating in a group, so one can also rely on another instruction to visualize a white lotus growing from the heart up the central channel and out into space, where it expands. Both of these methods are reminiscent of the advice in the Visuddhimagga to contemplate light to overcome sloth and torpor. One can also open the eyes and look upward for a moment.
To overcome gross excitement  we should attempt to sober the mind by reflecting on impermanence, suffering, death, or compassion (the good we could do to others if we progressed in purifying our own minds). We can also visualize a black lotus growing out of our heart downward below us, where it blooms; meditate on the earth below us; or count the breaths. If our attention is over tight with subtle agitation we can consciously relax the mind.

3) Non-application of the antidote. The antidote to this fault is to apply the antidote! Anyone smell scholars? a

4)The fifth fault is over-application of the antidote. It consists in applying antidotes when they are not needed or past the point where they are needed. The antidote may be applied prematurely to excessively.
The antidote is equanimity.

The passage through the nine stages of increasing concentration is described as follows:

1. Forcible Engagement (balava): This first mental engagement contains the first two mental abaidings, Setting The Mind (cittasthapana) and Continuous Setting (samsthapana).This involves identifying the object and willfully applying the mind to it. Here we set the mind on the object occasionally, forgetting, remembering and re-setting. When we can keep the nmind on the object continuously for 21 breaths we have entered the second abiding, Continuous Abiding.

2. Interrupted Engagement (Saccidravahana). This next engagement includes the next five mental abidings. Resetting (avasthapana) involves not only longer periods of continuous setting, but an automatic awareness of deviations from the object and a bringing back of attention to the object. In Close Setting (upasthapana) one is thoroughly familiar with the object and true concentration begins to develop. The object is no longer lost. The faults of forgetting the instruction and coarse excitement disappear.
In Disciplining (damana) laxity becomes a problem. The mind is relaxed and confortable and may become dull or apathetic. By vivifying the attention it is disciplined. In the 6th abiding, Pacifying (samana) any latent dislike for meditative stabilization is overcome. Coarse laxity is also overcome, though not subtle excitement. In the seventh abiding, Thorough Pacifying (vyuposamana) the afflictive emotions (klesha) are largely suppressed. Laxity and excitement disappear.

3. Uninterrupted Engagement (nischidrvahana). In the eighth abiding, One-pointedness (ekotikarana) the mind becomes completely one-pointed.

4. Spontaneous Engagement (anabhogavahana). In the ninth abiding, Setting in Equipoise (samadhana) meditative stabilisation becomes effortless, or "spontaneous".

After this stage one more obstacle to the "attainment of calm abiding" remains: bad prana (wind energy). Once the bad, or impure, prana in the body is clarified or settled, calm abiding is attained.