Posts by Tejananda

Making meditation practice your own

When you first learn to meditate, it’s appropriate and helpful to take on structured practices. There are plenty of such practices available – ones for cultivating absorption, such as mindfulness of breathing, or for ‘positive emotion’, such as metta bhavana, or general overall mindfulness, such as systematically cultivating awareness of the ‘four foundations’ – body sensations, hedonic feeling-tone, mental activities and dhammas or ‘ultimates’.

Structure is usually very helpful for learning the ropes. All Buddhist practices are pragmatic – the main question to bear in mind is ‘is this working’? Is it effective in cultivating the quality that it’s intended to cultivate? If it is, then it makes sense to continue pursuing this approach as long as it is effective. If not, then it’s necessary to review our approach and try another.

For example, we may have learned the mindfulness of breathing as a way of settling the mind. If we’ve never tried anything like meditation before, it’s very likely that the first thing we notice is that the mind wants to do anything but settle! Pragmatically speaking, it’s often useful to give the thinking mind a simple ‘task’ to do, so that there’s less likelihood of it getting carried away with endless thoughts. Hence, it’s often recommended to start the practice using counting of breaths – this can be very effective in keeping the mind from wandering while focussed attention is being paid to the sensations of the breathing itself.

Note that we’ve got two quite distinct things going on here. First, there is the counting, which is a conceptual activity. Second, there is the directing and settling of attention (i.e. awareness) on the sensations of the breathing, which is non-conceptual. Being unclear about this basic distinction is where unhelpful views can appear. For instance, the thinking mind can subtly take over and make it into ‘mindfulness of counting’ rather than ‘mindfulness of breathing’. Or it could ‘usurp’ the function of awareness so that we are attending to thoughts of the breathing rather than the immediate tactile sensations of the breathing itself.

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These views may be unhelpful but nevertheless, if we recognise them, they represent a great opportunity to learn something about how the thinking mind functions. It functions by taking over! That’s to say, it literally thinks that it is experiencing the breath (and everything else that we experience through our senses). In fact, all the mind can do is abstract from our direct experience. We can think of the taste of a strawberry or an orange and, in imagination at least, there is some ‘sense’ of what that taste is like. This is presumably how we recognise the particular flavours of those fruits when we eat them. However, the memory of a taste is completely different to the immediate experience of the taste when eating a juicy strawberry or orange right now. Similarly, we can think of the sensation of the breathing without realising that this is just a mental activity and not the actual experience of the breath.

Clarifying this distinction between mental activities and immediate sense impressions is crucial to learning to meditate. In fact, it’s always crucial, however long we’ve been practising. Attempting to focus on thoughts won’t lead to very much real tranquillity or absorption because thoughts are, ultimately, precisely what underlies our lack of tranquillity. All we have to do is notice the difference – ‘this is a sensation’ and ‘this is thinking’. We don’t have to eliminate thinking in order to become more absorbed – all we need to do is to let it fall into the background as we recognise the actual object – the immediate tactile sensations of the breath arising in awareness.

Another unhelpful view comes from an attitude of ‘should-ism’, e.g. ‘I’ve been taught the practice in this particular way, so I should always do it in just this way’. This kind of view can be insidious as there’s often a positive basis – e.g. respect for the tradition, method or teacher. ‘lf thousands of people have meditated in this way for thousands of years, who am I to do it differently?’ Well, if such thoughts do arise, rest assured that the only people who meditate according to exactly the same structure for their whole ‘meditation career’ are those who give up before very long! And they probably give up because they don’t seem to be getting anywhere with their meditation.

Structure enables us to learn more effectively, but the implicit question we always have to bear in mind is, as I mentioned above, is this effective? We learn what’s effective by doing it, and by making mistakes. ‘Mistakes’ is a misnomer really because we’re simply learning from experience. This experiential and exploratory attitude is fundamental to the Buddha’s teaching. According to one sutta (discourse), he tells a group of lay followers not to depend on what they’ve heard, or on tradition, or revered texts, or views, or reasoning or what seems to work for someone else, or what’s said by a respected teacher. Rather, he says, when you know in direct experience that an approach is good, blameless and wise, and leads to benefit and happiness, that’s self-evidently how to practice.

So, with the mindfulness of breathing (though this applies to any practice), there comes a point sooner or later when it’s appropriate to diverge from the way it’s been taught. It’s not indispensable always to start by counting the breaths. How the practice goes is contingent upon many factors – you might be doing the mindfulness of breathing before or after a busy and hectic day, or you might be doing it in the middle of a meditation retreat. In the first instance, counting breaths is likely to be helpful, in the second, it could well be unnecessary as the mind is already quite settled and tranquil. If your intention is to enter the absorptions (jhanas), any structure will naturally drop away. In fact, if you ‘religiously’ keep to the structure or cling limpet-like to instructions like ‘cultivate one-pointed effort to stay with the breathing continuously’, deeper absorption will be prevented from arising even if the conditions are otherwise very supportive.

Once the basic structured practice has been explored sufficiently (what is ‘sufficient’? Adapt the Buddha’s advice above!) you can make it more ‘your own’ by approaching the various stages you’ve learned as ‘tools’ that you can use as appropriate, rather than as an invariable format. Keeping to the basic practice is a bit like a piano player never playing anything but scales – to discover our potential we have become competent at the basics and then be prepared to let go, explore, make ‘mistakes’, learn, and eventually discover how to improvise, letting go of the form altogether.

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“Happiness and How it Happens” by Suryacitta Malcolm Smith

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Happiness and How it Happens

“Happiness and How it Happens,” by “The Happy Buddha” Suryacitta Malcolm Smith

At first glance, the most obvious thing about this excellent little book on mindfulness and meditation is just how beautifully produced it is. It’s a pleasure just to pick it up and browse through it. Somehow, the care the publishers have taken with the book’s appearance both reflects its theme and adds to its impact.

So, how, according to Suryacitta, does happiness ‘happen’? He gets straight to the point – “Happiness is our natural state. It happens when we stop making ourselves unhappy by believing in the stories the thinking mind throws up”.

It’s all very well to say this, one might think, but anyone who’s tried to make miserable thoughts ‘just stop’ will know that it’s not easy at all – it can seem quite impossible.

Title: Happiness and How It Happens
Author: Happy Buddha (Suryacitta)
Publisher: The Ivy Press
ISBN: 978-190733-293-7
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Fortunately, many Buddhist traditions have been exploring this for millennia, and what Suryacitta presents here epitomises some of the most pithy and direct methods that these traditions offer. “Being in the present moment is the secret to a life of unconditional happiness and freedom. But how do we do it? The key is simply to notice, without judgment or criticism, what takes you away from the present and then return to the felt experience of the present.”

That just about sums it up. I like the way that Suryacitta keeps emphasising that while this is simple, it’s not necessarily easy. This goes against our conditioning – it feels like simple things should be easy. Cultural norms tell us that happiness lies in having desirable objects, desirable relationships. Simplicity sounds a bit … boring. Yet we long for it “People complain about their lives being stressful, hectic, over-complicated and with little or no room for the simple things that they want to enjoy”. Changing our external conditions is really just more of the same. Simplicity, and hence happiness, is right here ‘within’. What’s needed is a change of orientation – to look for happiness where it’s actually to be found.

Suryacitta offers very practical ways into the practice of mindfulness together with a very simple ‘just sitting’ kind of meditation where we “simply … notice the bodily sensations and thoughts that take us away from an open and direct experience of the moment”. He spices the book with helpful quotes from other authors, anecdotes and a good deal of warm-spirited humour, which is very much part of his style (see his Happy Buddha website).

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Over recent years there have been an increasing number of books published around mindfulness and meditation as ways of overcoming stress, depression and chronic physical and mental pain. It’s great to see this development and it’s certainly good to see these ancient Buddhist practices being used for what they were always intended – the alleviation of suffering.

But in one vital respect, this one differs from most that I’ve come across. Suryacitta doesn’t hold back from presenting ways into the deepest and most profoundly transformative perspectives that Buddhism has to offer: the illusory nature of the view of a separate ‘self’, the nature of awareness, and the meaning and possibility of waking up (awakening, ‘enlightenment’). I suspect that a lot of the books based on fairly recent applications of Buddhist method combined with western science and psychology, such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, avoid these areas to the extent that their authors are concerned to present mindfulness and meditation in a secular / scientific context. This is understandable and I certainly have no problem with it, but it seems to me that practising without bringing in these further perspectives can only take you so far.

‘Happiness and How it Happens’ shares common ground with the ‘mindfulness based’ approaches in showing readers how to set up a meditation and mindfulness practice, to work effectively with fear and other ‘negative’ emotions as well as how to engage positive emotions such as compassion. But as you work through it, you also discover what it means to truly accept whatever experiences arise (negative as well as positive) – which is the same as ‘letting-go’, and to realise the importance of learning to trust awareness as the main key to leaving behind, for good, what makes us less than happy.

As Suryacitta point out, we can “give up the idea of trying to change ourselves. We can let go of trying to rid ourselves of aspects that we don’t like, and of trying to add anything on to ourselves. This is just aversion and attachment in more subtle forms.” What’s wrong with trying to change ourselves? In the ultimate sense, it’s because we’re trying to change something that doesn’t really exist: ‘my self’. “The root of our suffering … is a sense of self separate from all the other selves out there … We build an identity out of this sense of self …. In doing so, we lose contact with our true nature.” Trying to change ourselves is like trying to make a prison cell a more comfortable place to live. “Never mind tinkering with the place”, he writes “it’s about escaping the prison altogether.”

A great thing about the book is that, by the time you’ve worked through the earlier chapters, this radical and apparently counter-intuitive perspective comes across as obvious. It is, in fact, the very core of Buddhist insight and practice. The methods Suryacitta offers for investigating one’s immediate experience open up a real possibility of getting a direct glimpse of our true nature – and discovering for ourselves that this is how happiness, in fact, happens.

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“Never Turn Away: The Buddhist Path Beyond Hope and Fear” by Rigdzin Shikpo

Never Turn Away, by Rigdzin Shikpo

Tejananda, Buddhist practitioner, meditation teacher, and author of The Buddhist Path to Awakening, gives an overview of a new, fresh approach to translating the wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism into a western idiom.

Rigdzin Shikpo (Michael Hookham) was one of the earliest Western students of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Trungpa, who died in 1987, was a brilliant yet controversial figure. But whatever his flaws, he was undoubtedly one of the key figures in transmitting and translating Tibetan Buddhism for the western world: not so much translating in the linguistic sense as being prepared to take risks in creating new forms and expressions out of the 1000-year-old Kagyu tradition in which he was reared from early childhood, in “honest collision” with western culture and values.

Trungpa was also trained in the older Nyingma tradition, the heart of which is the Maha-Ati or Great Perfection (Dzogchen) teachings, and it was these in particular that he transmitted to Rigdzin Shikpo during his period in the UK between 1963 and 1970. Trungpa Rinpoche is still very much Rigdzin Shikpo’s root guru, a fact clearly reflected in Rigdzin Shikpo’s deep devotion to his teacher.

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It also is clear in the content of this book, which frequently makes reference to Trungpa’s Dharma teachings. At the same time, it’s obvious that Rigdzin Shikpo has assimilated these teachings deeply, and they come across in his own voice and manner.

The book expounds the four Truths, traditionally the Buddha’s first, and certainly his most fundamental, teaching: suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the path or way (which enables the cessation of suffering). The book is more concerned with practice than with doctrinal exposition, with Rigdzin Shikpo discussing each Truth in relation to a significant area of practice.

Title: “Never Turn Away – The Buddhist Path Beyond Hope and Fear.”
Author: Rigdzin Shikpo
Publisher: Wisdom Publications, Boston (2007).
ISBN: 0-86171-488-1
Available from: Amazon.com.

The first and the underlying theme of the whole book, is openness, in relation to the truth of suffering (duhkha). According to Rigdzin Shikpo, Trungpa Rinpoche “always emphasized direct experience and mostly had students work with the single instruction of openness.” This “provides the basis for greater awareness in meditation and everyday life … it is the combination of openness and awareness that lays the ground for seeing significance in our experience.”

The fundamental attitude of Dharma practice is always “turning toward” whatever life presents to us…

But significance can’t be learned from words, even words about Dharma. Its the qualities they “point” to that have to “affect our guts … hit us in the deepest part of what we are.” This is the import of the book’s title: “Never Turn Away.” In other words, the fundamental attitude of Dharma practice is always “turning towards” whatever life presents to us. Not going into denial, not blanking out with intoxication –- any kind of intoxication –- but simply being open to life, just as it is.

Of course, what we want to “blank out” is pain and suffering. Bearing with pleasure is not a problem for most of us! But always to be shying away from pain and attempting to prolong pleasure amounts to our manufacturing a “reality” which is itself painful and unsatisfactory. This “seeming reality” in which most of us live “is fundamentally false.”

The first step towards seeing through this delusion is — never turn away. “Openness is a way of learning about the world that enables us to relate to things properly and act skilfully.”

In practice, learning the “skill” of openness is best served by meditation. What kind of meditation? Rigdzin Shikpo notes that “meditation, by itself, is not necessarily helpful” and can even be harmful, because it “can powerfully reinforce our world view.” So, it’s vital that meditation is done on the basis of right view.

The practice of openness is a natural gateway into the area of wisdom…

“View, in this sense, is a way of seeing that leads to a deeper understanding of the nature of experience, rather than holding a particular dogma or set of beliefs.” This view is nothing other than “an attitude of complete openness to whatever arises in our minds and daily lives.”

Much more than “calm” or “peace of mind” (a common motivation for taking up meditation), the practice of openness is a natural gateway into the area of prajna or wisdom, and helps us to “develop a robustness of mind that can work with any circumstances that arise” and “to develop as truly human beings.” In the next several chapters, Rigdzin Shikpo goes into a lot of useful detail on the basics of this approach to meditation practice.

The second Truth, the cause of suffering, is expounded in the context of “mandala principle.” Mandalas are often identified with colorful Tibetan thangka paintings of elaborate circular diagrams. But the mandala principle on which they are based is universal: “every aspect of our experience, both internal and external, can be understood in terms of mandala … everything in the universe expresses itself in terms of mandala and interlocking mandalas within mandalas.”

Every mandala has a center and a periphery, and “at the center is the basic organizing principle, which is something active and powerful.” Emanating from this “are various related subprinciples” forming the body of the mandala. These are often depicted as a sphere, with a boundary. “Whenever mandalas have to do with people and their concerns, the boundary is a very emotional place.”

What has this got to do with the second Truth, the origin of suffering? The answer lies in ego, or self-view, “which narrows our world and creates a closed and sometimes crushing mandala.” This “ego mandala” gives rise to suffering because of our “continually projecting expectations onto our experience,” especially in the relation between the conceptual structures we create, and our emotions. Consequently, exploration of and penetration into the significance of this relation is a vitally important element of meditation practice.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, Trungpa Rinpoche taught that negative emotions like anger or desire were not themselves really a problem: “Emotions arise in our bodies, but they don’t have to be expressed in external activity.” The problem lies not in the basic emotion but in the “negativity of the negativity” which refers “to the ideas we have about our emotions, the reasons we give to justify their presence and continuance.”

Ego, or self-view, narrows our world and creates a closed and sometimes crushing mandala.

So, it’s important to recognize the conceptual link between emotion and response. “Negative” emotions only grow because we dwell on them with thoughts. “We use concepts to narrow our vision and drive our hatred and desire toward some ego-centred goal.” To open and expand our vision through meditation, Rigdzin Shikpo recommends “treating thoughts, feelings and emotions as guests.” That is, you “greet” them by allowing yourself to experience them as clearly as possible, then “let them go and return to the breath.”

Importantly, “you never need to think of them as interruptions. They are all part of the meditation practice, part of the dance of your mind.” This advice seems particularly apposite to those developing a meditation practice, as it’s often assumed that “thoughts are the enemy” and somehow have to be got rid of.

There is a good deal of further meditation advice in this section of the book. What is particularly useful is the emphasis on principles and views informing meditation practice, more than details of technique. This is true of much of the book, which means that it will probably be of more relevance to those who have been meditating for some time than those who are just setting up their practice.

The third section, The Collapse of Confusion, corresponds to the Truth of the cessation of suffering. Confusion, the deluded view of the “ego mandala,” collapses when we see “the falseness of our old vision of the world” through meditative investigation. For example, all our basic assumptions about time, space and “objects” –- including “self” or “me here” and “other” or “things out there” -– can be investigated in direct experience and discovered to be just that -– assumptions that don’t stand up to investigation.

Rigdzin Shikpo stresses that when our assumptions do actually collapse, this can be “emotionally shocking” and even feel like “death.” But what “dies” is only the confused ego-mandala, or at least some aspect of clinging to the notion of “self,” and its collapse means liberation from suffering. However, this is unlikely to happen until our basic wrong assumptions are investigated, and this section offers some simple yet potentially far-reaching meditative investigations.

Most of us might well prefer a familiar pain to an unfamiliar kind of bliss…

As Rigdzin Shikpo writes, these can lead to “a real sense of emptiness, a state beyond concepts” which may sound “high and wonderful and difficult to accomplish,” but in fact, given dedicated application, confidence, is “difficult but not that difficult.” Encouraging words.

The final section examines the fourth Truth, the Path, as “The Pursuit of Truth.” Of course, the previous sections have been concerned with elements of the path too; this one is largely about deepening these insights. “Our biggest job … is to work with that fundamental emotional grasping itself: that grasping at things as real, and grasping at some solid ground to stand on.” This is why, for example “most of us might well prefer a familiar pain to an unfamiliar kind of bliss.”

From the point of view of the delusional ego, the unsatisfactory world that nevertheless confirms its “reality” is preferable to freedom. Hence, although freedom is directly available, we really, really don’t want to go there. One take on the path, then, is that it’s whatever is necessary to get us to the point of embracing this always-available freedom.

There’s a very useful discussion here around “form” and “formless” practice. In terms of the “inner tantras,” there is a “generation” or “form” stage (kye-rim) and “completion” or “formless” stage (dzog-rim) to any system of practice. Practice with form helps us “establish the sense of the presence of awakening and a strong sense of going for refuge, taking the Bodhisattva vow, or making offerings.” Formless practice allows “a vivid sense of formlessness which is not vagueness, but a kind of clarity beyond appearances.”

Eventually, as he points out, form practice can reach a point where “it seems to be getting in the way” of the actual experiences that it initially enabled us to contact. When this point is reached, we can “link directly into those experiences in a completely formless way,” and here they are “even more powerful, not less so” than they had been in the form stage of practice. However, he cautions “…we can’t approach this powerful level of genuine formlessness without first working extensively with form.”

I found it interesting to note the parallel with Sangharakshita’s system of meditation here, in which “practice” (e.g. mindfulness of breathing, metta bhavana, etc.) is always followed by “non-practice” (just sitting) – clearly the same underlying principle is reflected. It’s noticeable that many people working within this system of practice tend to find increasing “formlessness” tending to emerge spontaneously, over the years and decades of practice.

Every section of the book goes into far more areas of practice than could be mentioned here, all very interesting and useful. Though clearly written to be suitable for those relatively new to meditation and Buddhism, the subtleties of what’s being discussed would probably, as mentioned above, be more helpful to more experienced practitioners. So, while the book can be warmly recommended to anyone who is interested in this approach to practice, if you are new to Rigdzin Shikpo’s writings, it would be better to start with his previous book “Openness, Clarity, Sensitivity.”

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“The Meditator’s Atlas: A Roadmap of the Inner World” by Matthew Flickstein

The Meditator's Atlas

Support local bookshops: buy from Indiebound (US) or Bookshop.org (UK)

What is the Buddhist Path? Can we become spiritually awakened through meditation alone, or do we have to take a more rounded approach? If we’re already free, why do we need to follow a path anyway? Looking for answers, Tejananda, long-term Buddhist practitioner and meditation teacher, follows The Meditator’s Atlas on a spiritual road trip to purification.

The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) is Buddhaghosa’s classic commentary on the way to full awakening. Buddhaghosa was a fifth-century Indian exponent of the Theravada or “Doctrine of The Elders” school. The Theravada bases its approach on the Pali canon which contains some of the earliest extant records of the Buddha and his teachings.

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While it’s an invaluable resource for meditators, the Visuddhimagga is a huge tome and it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. Matthew Flickstein’s “The Meditator’s Atlas” (formerly titled Swallowing the River Ganges and now totally revised) is a fairly short and clearly written commentary on the Visuddhimagga. It not only elucidates the nature of the path of insight according to Buddhaghosa, but also provides useful tools and meditations for every stage of that path, many of them based on the Satipatthana Sutta, the discourse on the foundations of mindfulness.

But what is the Buddhist path? In a telling passage right at the end of the book, Matthew Flickstein writes:

All paths, religions and spiritual practices are just more stories. There is ultimately nothing that we need to do or practice, since we are already free. And, again, the greatest freedom is freedom from the illusion that we are not already free – and all maps of the true spiritual journey lead us right to where we are.

So the question naturally arises “what stops us being where we are already?” Different Buddhist traditions have somewhat different approaches, different paths (including, naturally, the “path of no-path”) but all of them inevitably have to address the fundamental issue. We suffer because we unquestioningly believe that things are other than they actually are. This erroneous belief — delusion — leads us to fixate on what we take to be our “self” and we uphold this “self-view” by constantly engaging in stratagems of craving, grasping and aversion, and revulsion. The underlying delusion and these stratagems that arise from it — the “three poisons” — are what are preventing us from being “right where we are.”

Buddhaghosa outlines a “path of purification” leading to the eradication of the three poisons and the consequent realization of nibbana (nirvana). According to the author,

Although nibbana cannot be realized without having completed the purification process, nibbana does not arise as a result of the process. Nibbana is a self-subsistent reality that is not the result of anything. By following the path of purification, we merely eradicate the delusions and perceptual distortions that prevent us from discerning this ultimate truth.

The path –- and the book –- is structured round the fundamental “three trainings” of virtue, meditation and wisdom, subdivided into seven stages of purification. Acts that arise from craving or aversion — unethical behaviors of every kind – “sabotage the possibility of realizing the deeper states of spiritual purification.” Sitting meditation alone is not enough: “To reach the pinnacle of spiritual realization, we must align every aspect of our lives with that goal.” So the path begins with the purification of virtue (though it is never left behind). The author details the practice of the main precepts and the importance of “guarding the sense doors” against impulses of greed, hatred or delusion, while cultivating their opposites: generosity, loving-kindness and clarity of mind.

Then, “the purification of virtue manifests as states of mind unstained by thoughts or feelings of remorse.” This is the basis for the next stage, purification of mind, which is primarily about the cultivation of what the author (in common with many others) refers to as “concentration” of mind. It’s an unfortunate term, given possible connotations of furrowed brows; I think alternatives like “one pointedness,” “absorption,” or “integration” have much more helpful connotations. Nevertheless, whatever you call it, it’s a necessary quality, although, as the author points out, teachers differ greatly as to how much concentration is necessary for the cultivation of insight. Most of this section is, quite sensibly, devoted to one concentration practice –- mindfulness of breathing –- rather than the forty that Buddhaghosa outlines in the Visuddhimagga.

There are some useful observations in this section. For example, people sometimes comment that at a certain point the breathing “seems to disappear.” This can be taken as a “good sign,” or it can lead to anxiety and a loss of absorption. The author comments, “The reason we cannot perceive the breaths is because our concentration is not strong enough. If we keep our focus on the touch-point and make a concerted effort, we will be able to perceive the breathing process once again.”

A helpful emphasis of the book is that, although the author details the potential for deeper levels of absorption (jhana), he also brings out the potential for insight-cultivation on the basis of initial concentration. As he points out “unless we have an extended period of time to devote to the practice of serenity meditation, and have the proper environmental and teaching support, we face an extremely difficult challenge when we pursue the attainment of these jhanas.” If we believe that “insight meditation” can only be effective on the basis of extensive experience of the jhanas, we may hold back from insight reflections that we are perfectly ready for, and hinder our penetration into the essence of the Buddha’s teaching.

All paths, religions and spiritual practices are just more stories.

And it’s the path of insight (wisdom) that most of the rest of the book is about. The ways to insight that he describes are mainly around the contemplation of the impermanent, unsatisfactory and selfless nature of body, feelings, consciousness and dhammas (“phenomena”). But he covers a lot of ground, including all the stages of purification, and a lot of approaches, including elimination of the five “hindrances,” walking meditation, balanced effort and mindfulness of pain. Particularly helpful are the exercises and practical hints he provides for approaching each area of practice. For example, in the area of mindfulness of pain, he recommends sitting completely still for long enough that pains begin to appear. The issue with pain, he writes, “more than the unpleasant feeling itself is the fear of being overwhelmed by the experience” which leads to mental and physical tightening, intensifying the unpleasant experience. By softening and settling into the painful feeling, he suggests, we begin to see through our misperceptions about it. “We will then be able to … discover that there is no pain in the knee, back or other location as such. The place in which we feel the pain actually keeps shifting from moment to moment. Further, … between pulsations of pain, there is the absence of pain.”

The exercises, reflecting the Path of Purification itself, are carefully and progressively structured. Of course, when reading a book such as this, it’s always a temptation to skip the earlier and apparently less exciting stages. This is one reason why a book alone is not really enough without access to personal teaching or mentoring –- exactly as most books on meditation emphasize. However, any degree of penetration into the truths of the Dharma can have a revolutionary effect –- including what here appear to be preliminary exercises. If there is any area that is given slightly short shrift, it’s the place of positive emotions such as loving kindness in the path of insight, which Buddhaghosa does cover in some detail. But to deal with that adequately may have needed a much longer book. Overall, The Meditator’s Atlas is a helpful adjunct for those already practicing within a sangha (the general approach sits quite harmoniously with that taught in the Triratna Buddhist Community, in which I practice) and a good overview of the path for those new to meditation.

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“The Attention Revolution – Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind,” by B. Alan Wallace

The Attention Revolution

Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

The Attention Revolution is a thorough outline of the stages leading to the achievement of shamatha—full mental stabilization—according to Indo-Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Anyone buying the book in the hope of a quick fix, though, is fairly soon put right. The achievement of shamatha, Wallace tells us, is liable to involve “five to ten thousand hours of training—of eight hours each day for fifty weeks in the year.”

At this point I nearly stopped reading. I live in a meditation retreat centre, but even my lifestyle allows for nothing like this amount of meditation—and how much more so for people who have “normal” lives. But I’m glad that I persevered. The book is, in fact, a useful and stimulating resource for experienced meditators, while for those newer to meditation it gives an interesting and sometimes inspiring overview.

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I’m aware from personal experience that the shamatha states of “access” concentration and “the first meditative stabilization” (dhyana) are more readily accessible than the book suggests. The extraordinary levels of shamatha to which long-term full time training can give rise are beyond the scope of all but a very few, but I’d contest that a level of shamatha consistent with effective cultivation of insight is accessible to those with a regular, but not full-time practice, especially if this includes regular periods of meditation retreat.

The book is structured around each of Kamalashila’s ten stages of meditation, with interludes outlining important supportive practices such as the Brahma Viharas. There are also some instructions on how to achieve lucid dreaming as a basis for dream yoga—making the dream state a basis for insight. In fact, it becomes obvious as the book proceeds that shamatha and insight (vipashyana) are increasingly inseparable.

Bearing in mind the reservations above, there is a great deal of valuable material packed into a relatively short book. While the full path that it describes would require extensive practice under a qualified teacher, the book contains much that could enrich the practice of anyone who already meditates regularly.

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