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Tibetan Buddhist Meditation

B. Alan Wallace
WE CAN BEGIN to stabilize our minds from the beginning of our spiritual practice, while placing
our chief emphasis on ethical discipline. B ta!ing out some time each da for the practice of
meditati"e #uiescence, we become increasingl aware of how our minds function$ and in the
process we begin to disco"er how scattered our minds ha"e been all along. %ecognizing this, we
ma earn to e&plore the potentials of the human mind that become apparent onl when the
awareness is still and lucid.
In Buddhist practice we can choose among a wide "ariet of ob'ects for stabilizing the mind. (ne
common method in the )ibetan Buddhist tradition is to focus on an image of the Buddha. *irst we
ta!e a phsical ob'ect, either a statue or painting of the Buddha, and gaze at it until we are "er
familiar with its appearance. )hen we close our ees and create a simulation of that image with our
)he actual practice is not the "isual one + this is onl a preparation + for the point is to stabilize the
mind, not the ees. When we first tr to "isualize the Buddha, the mental image is bound to be
"ague and e&tremel unstable. We ma not e"en be able to get an image at all. . . .
While the abo"e method has man benefits, it is not ideal for e"erone. *or it to be effecti"e, one
must ha"e a fairl peaceful mind, and it is helpful to ha"e deep faith and re"erence for the Buddha.
*or people of a de"otional nature, this practice can be "er inspiring, and effecti"e at stabilizing the
mind. (ne,s heart is stirred b bringing the Buddha to mind with de"otion, and conse#uentl one,s
enthusiasm for the meditation grows. (n the other hand, if one has a "er agitated mind and little
faith, this and other "isualization techni#ues ma "er well lead to tension and unhappiness. And
these problems ma increase the more one practices.
With an agitated, conceptuall congested mind, the sheer effort of imagining a "isualized ob'ect
ma be too ta&ing. -o if one is engaging in "isualization practices, especiall during se"eral
sessions a da, it is important to be aware of one,s le"el of stress. It is important not to let it get out
of hand$ for if it does, instead of stabilizing the mind the practice will damage one,s ner"ous sstem.
Another method that is practiced widel, especiall in the Buddhist countries of East and -outheast
Asia, is focusing one,s awareness on the breath. A !e attribute of this practice, as opposed to
"isualization of the Buddha, is that in breath awareness the ob'ect of meditation, the breath, is
present without our ha"ing to imagine it.
Awareness of the breath is practiced in man different was. -ome people focus on the rise and fall
of the abdomen during the in+ and out+ breath. Another techni#ue is to focus on the tactile
sensations, from the nostrils down to the abdomen, that are associated with the respiration. In et
another method one focuses on the sensations of the breath passing through the apertures of the
nostrils and abo"e the upper lip. All of these are "aluable methods, and the can be especiall useful
for people with highl discursi"e, imaginati"e minds. )he offer a soothing wa to calm the
conceptuall disturbed mind.
A third method of stabilizing the mind in"ol"es directing one,s awareness to the mind itself. )his is
the most subtle of all the techni#ues mentioned here, and its rewards are great. I shall elaborate on
this practice in a moment, but first would li!e to discuss some of the themes common to all methods
of stabilizing the mind.
)wo facets of awareness are instrumental in all the abo"e forms of meditati"e training. )hese are
mindfulness and "igilance. .indfulness is a mental factor that allows us to focus upon an ob'ect
with continuit, without forgetting that ob'ect. -o, if we are focusing on the sensations of our breath
at our nostrils, mindfulness enables us to fasten our attention there continuousl. When mindfulness
"anishes, the mind slips off its ob'ect li!e a seal off a slic! roc!. /igilance is another mental factor,
whose function is to chec! up on the #ualit of awareness itself. It chec!s to see if the meditating
mind is becoming agitated and scattered, or dull and drows. It is the tas! of "igilance to guard
against these e&tremes.
)here are man inner hindrances to stabilizing the mind, but the boil down to the two e&tremes of
e&citement and la&it. E&citement is a mental factor that draws our attention awa from our
intended ob'ect. )his hindrance is a deri"ati"e of desire. If we are meditating and suddenl find
oursel"es thin!ing about going to the refrigerator and getting a snac!, we can identif this impulse
as e&citement born from desire. E&citement draws the mind outward. It can easil be stimulated b
sound such as that of a car dri"ing b. It compulsi"el latches onto the sound + a !ind of mental
hitchhi!ing + and elaborates on it with a series of images and thoughts.
When the mind is not agitated, it is prone to slipping off to the other e&treme of la&it. )his mental
factor does not distract the attention outward, but brings on a sin!ing sensation. )he mind becomes
absorbed in its ob'ect without clarit, and drowsiness is bound to follow. At that point the ob'ect of
the meditation is submerged under wa"es of letharg or obli"iousness.
)he chief antidotes to e&citement and la&it are mindfulness and "igilance, and the results of
o"ercoming those hindrances are mental stabilit and clarit. )hese are the fruits of the practice.
.editati"e stabilit necessaril implies an underling ground of rela&ation and serenit. )he mind
is peaceful, and the attention remains where we direct it for as long as we wish. Clarit refers more
to the "i"idness of sub'ecti"e awareness than to the clarit of the ob'ect. When it is present we can
detect e"en the subtle and most fleeting #ualities of our ob'ect. *or e&ample, if we are "isualizing
the Buddha with clarit, he will appear in our mind,s ee in three dimensions and "er lifeli!e. We
will be able to see the color of his ees, the indi"idual folds in his robe. 0e will appear almost as
clearl as if we were seeing him directl with our ees. -uch sub'ecti"e clarit is instrumental in
focusing on the breath as well as on the mind.
All of us ha"e e&perienced moments when our attention is e&tremel "i"id. )his ma occur, for
e&ample, while dri"ing a car or motorccle at high speed on a winding road, or when roc!+
climbing. But when such mental clarit is e&perienced it is usuall combined with a high degree of
tension, and the mind is neither serene nor stable. (n other hand, mental stabilit is a common
e&perience when we are pleasantl tired and we lie down to sleep. But in such cases there is rarel
much clarit of awareness.
)he challenge of meditati"e #uiescence practice is to culti"ate stabilit+integrated with clarit,
generating an e&traordinaril useful #ualit of awareness. )o bring this about, e&perienced
meditators ha"e found there must be a se#uence of emphases in the practice. *irst see! a rela&ed,
wholesome, and cheerful state of mind. (n this basis, emphasize stabilit, and then finall let clarit
ta!e priorit. )he importance of this se#uence cannot be o"eremphasized.
Focusing Awareness on the Mind. . .
)o engage in meditation on the mind, one first finds a suitable posture. . . . It is important to sit in an
erect posture, with the spine straight. It is important not to become slouched forward or to tilt to the
side or bac!ward. )hroughout the meditation session one should !eep the bod still and rela&ed.
At the outset of this or an other Buddhist practice, it is helpful to ta!e refuge 1see pages 234+2256.
It is also "ital to culti"ate a good moti"ation, for this will profoundl influence the nature of the
practice. *inall, it is helpful to be cheerful, cherishing this wonderful opportunit to e&plore the
nature of consciousness.
Although the main practice here is awareness of the mind, it is useful to begin with a more tangible
ob'ect to calm and refine one,s awareness. Breath awareness can be perfect for this. We should
culti"ate a general awareness of the breath coming in and going out. 7uring inhalation, we should
simpl be aware that this is ta!ing place. 7uring e&halation, we note that the breath is going out.
Awareness is allowed to rest calml in the present, while we breathe in a natural, unforced wa.
As we now mo"e on to the main practice, we ma follow the counsel of )ilopa, the great Indian
Buddhist contemplati"e8 97o not indulge in thought, but watch the natural awareness.9 9Natural9
awareness has no shape or color, and it has no location. -o how can we focus on it: What does it
mean 9to watch9 it:
*irst of all, our tas! is to focus our attention on the mind, as opposed to the phsical sense fields.
(ne wa to do this is to focus our awareness initiall on a mental e"ent, such as a thought. )his
thought could be an thing + a word or a phrase +but it is helpful if it is one that does not stimulate
either desire or a"ersion.
(ne possibilit is the phrase8 9What is the mind:9 )he point here is not to speculate on this
#uestion, or to tr to answer it. %ather, use that thought itself as the ob'ect of awareness. /er
shortl after ha"ing brought that phrase to mind, it is bound to fade out of our consciousness. At
that point we !eep our awareness right where it is. We ha"e now directed our attention on the mind,
and what remains between the "anishing of one thought, and the arising of another, is simpl
awareness, empt and without obstruction, li!e space.
An analog ma be helpful. Imagine ourself as a child ling on our bac!, gazing up into a
cloudless s!, and blowing soap bubbles through a plastic ring. As a bubble drifts up into the s!,
ou watch it rise, and this brings our attention into the s!. While ou are loo!ing at the bubble it
pops, and ou !eep our attention right where the bubble had been. ;our awareness now lies in
empt space.
In the actual meditation practice one focuses initiall on the bubble of a thought. When this thought
"anishes one does not replace it with some other mental construct. %ather, one stabilizes one,s
attention in natural awareness, uncontri"ed, without conceptual elaboration.
)his practice is so subtle we ma find we become tense in our efforts to do it right. -ome people
e"en find the intensit of their concentration impedes their normal respiration + the restrict their
breathing for fear it will disturb the delicate e#uilibrium of their minds. -uch tension and
constricted respiration can onl impair the practice and our health in general. -o it is crucial that we
engage in the meditation with a sense of phsical and mental rela&ation.
-tarting from rela&ation one culti"ates meditati"e stabilit, resting in natural awareness without
being carried awa b the turbulence of thoughts or emotions. *inall, it is important to recognize
that this practice is not based upon a "ague sort of trance or dull absorption$ rather, it calls for "i"id,
clear awareness.
)o culti"ate these three #ualities of rela&ation, stabilit, and clarit, it is usuall helpful to !eep the
meditation sessions relati"el short. )he chief criterion for determining the length of one,s
meditation sessions is the #ualit of one,s awareness during the practice. *i"e minutes of finel
conducted meditation is worth more than an hour of low+grade conceptual chatter. Another useful
criterion is one,s state of mind following meditation. )he mind should be refreshed, stable, and
clear. If one feels e&hausted and dull, one,s session was probabl too long or of low #ualit.
Phases of the Practice
(nce we ha"e entered into this discipline, it ma not be long before we e&perience short periods +
perhaps up to ten seconds or longer + during which we are able to abide in a natural state of
awareness, without grasping onto the thoughts and other e"ents that arise in our consciousness. We
ma well find this delightfull e&hilarating, and our minds ma then leap upon the e&perience with
glee. But as soon as our minds grasp in this wa, the e&perience will fade. )his can be frustrating.
)he remed is to enter into this state of awareness repeatedl. As we become familiar with it, we
can then ta!e it in stride, without e&pectation or an&iet. We learn to 'ust let it be.
As the mind settles in this practice, our awareness of thoughts and other mental e"ents is also bound
to change. At times we ma no longer sense oursel"es thin!ing, et a multitude of thoughts and
images ma arise as simple e"ents. . . .
7o not cling to these thoughts, identif with them, or tr to sustain them. But also do not tr to
suppress them. -impl "iew them as spontaneous outflows of natural awareness, while centering
our attention on the pure, unelaborated awareness from which the arise.
(n man occasions we are bound to find oursel"es carried awa b trains of thought. When we
recognize this has happened, we ma react with frustration, disappointment, or restlessness.
All such responses are a waste of time. If we find our minds ha"e become agitated, the antidote is to
rela& more deepl. %ela& awa the effort that is going into sustaining our conceptual or emotional
turbulence. It is best not to silence the mind with a crushing blow of our will. Instead, we ma
release the effort of grasping onto those mental e"ents. Grasping arises from attachment, and the
antidote is simpl to let go of this attachment.
(n other occasions we ma e&perience mental la&it . Although the mind is not agitated, it ma rest
in a nebulous blan!ness. )he antidote for this hindrance is to re"italize our awareness b paing
closer attention to the practice. )he 9middle path9 here is to in"igorate our awareness without
agitating it. )he great Indian Buddhist contemplati"e -araha sas of this practice8 9B releasing the
tension that binds the mind, one undoubtedl brings about inner freedom.9
)ilopa spea!s of three phases of the meditation. In the initial stages the onslaught of compulsi"e
ideation is li!e a stream rushing through a narrow gorge. At this point it ma seem that our mind is
more out of control, more conceptuall turbulent, than it was before we began meditating. But in
fact, we are onl now realizing how much the mind normall gushes with semiconscious thoughts.
As the mind becomes more #uiescent, more stable, the stream of mental acti"it will become li!e
the Ganges + a broad, #uietl flowing ri"er. In the third phase of the practice, the continuum of
awareness is li!e the ri"er flowing into the sea. It is at this point that one recognizes the mind,s
natural serenit, "i"idness, transparenc, and freshness.
7uring earl stages of practice, we ma e&perience moments of mental #uiescence relati"el free of
conceptualization, and we ma wonder whether we are now ascertaining natural awareness. .ost
li!el we are not. (ur mind at this point is probabl still too gross and unclear for such a
realization. <atience is needed to persist in the practice, without e&pectation or fear, until graduall
the essential #ualities of awareness become apparent. When we ascertain the simple clarit and
!nowing #ualities of the awareness, we are well established in the practice. We can then proceed to
the attainment of meditati"e #uiescence focused on the mind.
The Attainment of Meditative Quiescence
In Buddhist practice the achie"ement of meditati"e #uiescence is clearl defined. As a result of the
practice outlined abo"e, one e"entuall e&periences natural awareness, and the duration of this
e&perience graduall increases. E"entuall we no longer become distracted or agitated. At this point
the emphasis of the practice should be on culti"ating clarit. *or the mind, e"en after it has become
well stabilized, can still easil slip into la&it.
When we finall attain meditati"e #uiescence, we are free of e"en the subtle forms of e&citement
and la&it. 7uring the earl phases of practice, considerable degrees of effort are re#uired, but as we
progress, more and more subtle effort suffices. Graduall the meditation becomes effortless, and we
can sustain each session for hours on end.