samatha (shamatha) meditation

The Buddha’s radical path of jhana

buddha statue

Jhāna — a progressive series of meditative states of absorption — is a strangely controversial topic in Buddhism. I say “strangely,” because it’s rather amazing given that the Buddhist scriptures emphasize jhāna so strongly, that there should be anything controversial about deeper meditative absorption.

In the Eightfold Path, Right Concentration is consistently defined as the four jhānas. The Buddha said things like, “There is no jhāna for him who lacks insight, and no insight for him who lacks jhāna.” The jhānas are enumerated over and over again in the Pāli scriptures. They’re also implicit in teachings like the Seven Bojjhaṅgas, the 12 positive nidānas, and the Ānāpānasati Sutta, which mention various of the jhāna factors.

Despite the scriptural importance of jhāna, some teachers, like Thich Nhat Hanh, have argued that jhāna was something that the Buddha rejected, and that it was smuggled into the suttas after the Buddha’s death:

The Four Form Jhānas and the Four Formless Jhānas are states of meditational concentration which the Buddha practiced with teachers such as Ālāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta, and he rejected them as not leading to liberation from suffering. These states of concentration probably found their way back into the sutras around two hundred years after the Buddha passed into mahāparinirvāna. The results of these concentrations are to hide reality from the practitioner, so we can assume that they shouldn’t be considered Right Concentration. (Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, page 29)

The specifics of this objection are interesting because they contain some fundamental misunderstandings, and I’d like to explore in this article the topic of the relationship of the so-called “formless jhānas” (I’ll explain that qualification in due course) to the “jhānas of form,” and the role of these “formless jhānas” in the Buddha’s biography — specifically his training under Ālāra and Uddaka, and the Buddha’s later realization that jhāna was the “path to Awakening.”

First, there’s the assumption that Ālāra and Uddaka taught the Buddha the four jhānas. Now, the Buddha never mentions that he learned or practiced the jhānas with his two teachers. He says that he learned to attain the “sphere of nothingness” (ākiñcañña-āyatana — I prefer “no-thingness” as a translation) from Ālāra Kalama, and the “sphere of neither perception nor non-perception” (nevasaññānāsañña-āyatana) from Uddaka Ramaputta. (Uddaka had apparently not experienced this himself, and was merely passing on Rama’s teaching).

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“But,” many Buddhists will object, “if Ālāra and Uddaka taught the Buddha how to attain these spheres, then they must also have taught the Buddha how to attain jhāna, since these spheres are the seventh and eighth jhānas — part of the four ‘formless jhānas’ that follow on from the four ‘jhānas of form.'” (The first two “formless jhānas” are the sphere of infinite space and the sphere of infinite consciousness.) But this is the very error that I am keen to address.

The suttas never refer to any “formless jhānas.” What are nowadays called the “formless jhānas” are in fact never referred to as jhānas in the scriptures, but are referred to consistently as “āyatanas” or “spheres.” It’s only in the later commentarial tradition that the two lists are presented as one continuous list of “eight jhānas.” They should really be known as “formless spheres.”

Now this is important, because the four formless spheres are in fact not jhānas at all. Many meditators have discovered that it’s possible to experience these formless spheres without having first gone through the jhānas. There has been much confusion for some who have had such experiences, because the assumption that the āyatanas can’t be experienced without first having traversed the jhānas is so prevalent. I am in fact one of the many people who has experienced that confusion.

There are suttas in which there is reference to experiencing the āyatanas without first going through the jhānas. Most people would tend to assume that in these suttas the jhānas are assumed, without being mentioned explicitly, but there’s no need to make that assumption, and experience shows it to be false. Certain forms of meditation predispose to direct experience of the āyatanas. Suttas discussing the six element practice and the divine abidings show those meditations leading directly to the formless spheres. I don’t disagree that it’s possible to reach the āyatanas via the jhānas, but there are other ways.

The fact that it’s possible to reach the formless spheres without going through the jhānas helps us make sense of an important episode in the Buddha’s life. In the Maha-Saccaka Sutta the Buddha described how he intuited, prior to his enlightenment, that jhāna was “the way to Awakening”:

I thought: ‘I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities — I entered and remained in the first jhāna, with rapture and joy born from seclusion, accompanied by initial thought and sustained thought. Could that be the way to Awakening?’ Then following on that memory came the realization: ‘That is the way to Awakening.’

That’s a strong statement. The Buddha had not just a hunch, or an idea, but an actual realization that jhāna is the way to Awakening.

Now, many people have struggled to make sense of this episode. The Buddha had previously attained the seventh and eighth “jhānas” (in reality the third and fourth āyatanas) under Uddaka and Ālāra’s instructions, so how could a memory of first jhāna be so significant in pointing the way to Awakening? All sorts of explanations for this apparent contradiction have been made, but the simplest is one that may be least obvious: that the Buddha had not in fact previously explored the jhānas with Ālāra and Uddaka, and that he had explored the āyatanas through means other than by going through the jhānas. Confusion arises because we’re so conditioned by the commentarial belief that to enter the āyatanas we must first go through the jhānas, that we assume that the Buddha must have had experience of the jhānas.

I see the jhānas and the āyatanas arising in different ways. Jhāna involves paying more and more attention to less and less. In going deeper into jhāna we progressively “tune out” first our thinking, then the pleasurable sensations that arise in the body as we relax, and finally joy. This leaves only one-pointed attention on an object of attention, accompanied by a sense of great peace. Jhāna is a form of progressive simplification — more and more attention being focused on a smaller and smaller subset of our experience.

The āyatanas involve the opposite approach. Rather than “homing in” our attention so that it’s focused on less and less of our experience, we allow our attention to be all-inclusive, excluding nothing from our awareness. Speaking of my own practice, when I enter the āyatanas, what I do is pay full attention to all of my experience: that which arises from within (thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations) and that which arises from outside (light, sound, space, etc.). I then maintain an awareness of both of these fields of experience, finding a point of balance of inner and outer. AS that balance is maintained, the mind becomes very still. At a certain point, the boundary between “inside” and “outside” is lost, and there is simply a single field of awareness. This process is speeded up if I consciously focus on the supposed boundary between inside and outside. In meditation this boundary is perceived to be very fuzzy, and in fact, the closer you look at it the less it seems to exist. Later, other distinctions are lost as well, and there is a loss of the sense that the body has a three dimensional orientation in space.

In the suttas, all of the entry points to the āyatanas have one thing in common: equanimity. The jhānas culminate in an experience of equanimity; having narrowed down our experience and brought the mind to a state of peace, we then broaden our experience once again and enter the formless spheres. (Or so I am told; I have never entered the formless spheres this way.) The fourth divine abiding is of course equanimity, which is also a springboard to an experience of the āyatanas. And the sutta describing the six element practice says that it beings the mind to equanimity and thus into the āyatanas. The formless spheres can be experienced from any meditation that brings about a state of tranquil equanimity.

The Buddha experienced the formless spheres to the furthest possible extent, but he didn’t manage to become enlightened by so doing. Instead, he intuited, jhāna was a more likely route to spiritual liberation. Why should this be? We can only speculate, but my sense is that the teachings of Ālāra and Uddaka explained the āyatanas in terms of unifying oneself with the wider universe. In the āyatanas, certain discriminative faculties — those that produce a sense of spacial separateness — are progressively shut down. (These faculties are a function of the brain’s parietal lobes, which become less active in non-dual meditation.) This sense of religious union would fit with pre-Buddhist views of there being an atman (Self) that is part of a larger “Brahman” (a cosmic reality). Ālāra and Uddaka may not have used those precise terms, but a sense of unity with the cosmos is a common religious trope, and it’s reasonable to assume that they saw that experience as the desired outcome of practice.

What does jhāna do? What is its function? It allows us to focus in exquisite detail on minute aspects of our experience. And that allows us to see that everything that constitutes the self — or what we take to be the self — is in fact an experience that is changing moment by moment. By repeating this minute examination of our experience, we come to the realization that there is no possibility of there being a separate self that needs to be unified with the cosmos.

The Buddha in fact was fond of saying:

I tell you, friend, that it is not possible by traveling to know or see or reach a far end of the cosmos where one does not take birth, age, die, pass away, or reappear. But at the same time, I tell you that there is no making an end of suffering and stress without reaching the end of the cosmos. Yet it is just within this fathom-long body, with its perception & intellect, that I declare that there is the cosmos, the origination of the cosmos, the cessation of the cosmos, and the path of practice leading to the cessation of the cosmos.

Although we would often like the Buddha to be like a modern scientist, in some important respects he wasn’t. He didn’t seem particularly interested in what we would think of “cosmic” questions, and in fact saw them as distractions from the spiritual life. After all, at the Buddha’s time, when it came to questions of whether the universe was finite or infinite, had a beginning or was eternal, etc., there was no possibility of doing more than speculating. These cosmic topics are all matters that the Buddha thought of as being useless subjects for discussion. Rather than indulging in speculation, he preferred to put his attention onto matters where he could have knowledge arising from direct observation. In that regard he did, in an important sense, take a scientific approach. And his work was akin to that of a scientist who finds that in order to understand the nature of stars, we must look at how subatomic particles behave. The way to understand our place in the cosmos, the Buddha was suggesting, is to examine ourselves. And this is what jhāna allows us to do. Jhāna supports insight.

In the Buddha’s view, samatha (the cultivation of the jhānas) and vipassanā (the cultivation of insight) were not mutually exclusive or antagonistic activities, which is how they are sometimes seen today. In the Samaññaphala Sutta, for example, the Buddha describes the practitioner moving deeper into the jhānas and then, “With his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he directs and inclines it to knowledge and vision.” Jhāna makes it easier for the mind to observe impermanence through minute examination of our experience, and thus makes it easier for insight to arise. Conversely, insight also makes it easier for jhāna to arise, and so he says elsewhere, “There’s no jhāna For one with no wisdom (pañña), No wisdom for one with no jhaāna).” Samatha and vipassanā are complementary and synergistic.

If you want to know your place in the universe, it may seem intuitively obvious that you need to reflect on (or speculate on) the universe. So it was a radical departure on the Buddha’s part to withdraw from speculation on the universe, and to turn his attention inwards. It was also a radical departure for him to turn away from the experience of the formless spheres, which bring about a temporary sense of unification of self and cosmos, but which do not entirely remove our self-clinging. It was a massive leap of intuitive wisdom for the Buddha to arrive at the conclusion, “Jhāna is the way to Awakening.”

But why, having failed to gain insight through the āyatanas, should the Buddha have kept them as part of his teaching? Wouldn’t it make more sense to jettison the formless spheres and focus exclusively on the jhānas? I see two possible reasons for him doing this.

First, the assumptions that Ālāra and Uddaka made about the āyatanas (that they were an experience of a permanent self uniting with the universe) may have been the main reason that the Buddha didn’t find them conducive to insight, assuming, as is likely, that he’d picked up on the same assumptions. Stripped of those assumptions, experience of the formless spheres, he may have reckoned, may be more spiritually useful.

Second, the experience of the āyatanas, even if it doesn’t lead directly to insight, does a valuable job in changing our sense of self. Learning that our sense of self is malleable may not directly help us to lose our attachment to that self, but it does help us to loosen such attachments. There can be less grasping after something that is fluid and malleable rather than something that is solid. Experience of the āyatanas helps us to appreciate that our sense of self is not fixed, but can be dramatically different than it normally is. In my own experience, the altered states of self-perception that I experienced in the formless spheres did seem to have a bearing on my later experience of non-self.

A parallel is to be found in that way that experience of psychedelic drugs has brought many people to Dharma practice. Having had the experience that their “normal” sense of reality is just one possible configuration of their experience can lead some to wonder what other modes of perception there might be. Psychedelics have even been used experimentally to help treat anxiety and depression — conditions that tend to involve a very fixed sense of self — sometimes bringing about long-term positive change very rapidly.

So, the Buddha had no formal experience of the jhānas until shortly before his awakening. He had not been trained in the jhānas by Ālā ra and Uddaka, although he did have extensive experience of the āyatanas. The intuition that jhāna might be the way to Awakening was the beginning of a process whereby he began to explore his experience in minute detail, learning to observe its impermanence. And it was through this means that he became Awakened.

It’s time to lay aside the notion that the āyatanas are jhānas, and that they can only be experienced by traversing the jhānas. It’s time also to lay aside the very non-traditional notion that the samatha (cultivating the jhānas) and vipassanā (cultivating insight) are mutually antagonistic activities, and to recognize them as synergistic parts of one path.

And lastly, it’s time to recognize the radicalness of the Buddha’s decision to turn his attention away from meditations that lead to an apparent unity of the self with the cosmos, the radicalness of using jhāna to hone the mind into a powerful focused instrument, and even the radicalness of refusing to settle for the blissful and peaceful experiences that arise in jhāna, so that he could enter into a minute examination of the nature of his experience and find that there was, in a sense, no self there.

Rather than jhāna acting to “hide reality from the practitioner,” as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, it is jhāna that allows us to lay reality bare, so that we may attain awakening.

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Happy 85th birthday, Bhante Gunaratana

The Venerable Henepola Gunaratana Nayake Thera — often known as “Bhante Gunaratana” or just as “Bhante G” — is 85 years old this week. He’s a well-known writer and a highly respected teacher, who has now lived in the US for 50 years. This tribute comes from the Sri Lankan monk and former parliamentarian, Ven. Udawatte Nanda Nayake Thera. (Wikipedia says Bhante G’s birthday is in December, but he’s such a noted figure that he can have two birthdays if he wishes!)

Born to Ekanayake Mudiyanselage Punchi Bandara Nilame and Herath Mudiyanselage Lokumenike on October 07, 1927 in a family of seven in Thumpane of Galagedara, the Ven Henepola Gunaratana Nayake Thera at his young age received education in Dehideniya Primary College and subsequently entered the monkhood under the tutelage of Ven. Karmacharya Kiribathkumbure Sonuttara Mahanayake Thera, the incumbent of Malandeniya Sri Vijayarama Pohoyamalu, Weuda, Kurunegala at the age of 14.

He received his primary education from Vidyasekera Pirivena, Gampaha Bandiyamulla and entered Peliyagoda Vidyalankara Maha Pirivena for higher education and subsequently received the Higher Ordination in 1947 at the Mangala Uposathagara Seema Malakaya of Malwatte Mahaviharaya. At the invitation of Most. Ven. Madihe Pannaseeha Thera, Ven. Dr. Henepola Gunaratana Thera visited the First Theravadi Buddhist Temple in Washington – USA where he held the General Secretary post from 1968 to 1988 and ascended to the position of President there. During this period Ven. Nayake Thera engaged in the propagation of the Buddhism in the USA and several other countries.

Having admitted to a world renowned university in Washington Ven. Nayake Thera penned a research book on Buddhist ways of meditation for which work he was awarded a Doctorate and thereafter engaged in teaching the Buddhism in George Town University and many other Universities for more than 10 years as a lecturer.

The experience gathered through preaching the Buddhism and Vipassana Meditation in almost every State of the United State of America made the Ven. Nayake Thera think of the urgent need of a Training Centre to teach Theravada Buddhism, which prompted the registration of a dedicated Dhamma Centre with the government.

A portion of land located in Virginia more than 100 miles away from Washington was purchased for the purpose in 1984 and an Aranya Senasana was put up on a land in extent of 10 acres and later it was possible to purchase some other portions of adjoining lands. This place consists of a large meditation hall, a shrine room, a library, a conference hall and accommodation for both bhikkus and bhikkunis.

Sri Lankan devotees residing in distant States visit this seat of meditation with alms and beverages to be offered as was the practice in Sri Lanka.

In appreciation of the religious mission performed by Ven. Henepola Gunaratana Nayake Thera, the honorary title of ‘Sri Sonuttara Gunarathana’ and the position of Chief Sanghanayake of America was conferred on Ven Nayake Thera by the Most Venerable Mahanayake Anunayake Karaka Sangha Sabhawa of Mahaviharaya Chapter of the Syamopali Mahanikaya in 1996.

The government of Myanmar conferred the honorary title of ‘Aggamaha Pandita’ on Ven. Gunaratana Thera.

Devoting the entire life for religious interests of the people living in India, Malaysia, Europe, Australia and Africa the Most Ven. Nayake Thera has undertaken a noble mission following the teachings of the Buddha ‘Maniwatta Abhikkama’ (continue to proceed) facing many untold hardships, being away from the motherland, with perseverance: making use of every moment available for some productive purpose. Ven. Nayake Thera wrote and published a number of books in English and Sinhala.

He has ordained more than 25 Americans and taught ‘Samatha’ and ‘Vipassana’ meditation to many people abroad.

A felicitation ceremony has been organized in appreciation of the services rendered by Ven. Gunaratana Nayake Thera towards the Buddhasasana of Sri Lanka and throughout the world by his first disciple Ven. Katugasthota Uparathana Nayake Thera, incumbent of Maryland Buddhist Temple in Washington, America, Dr. in Sinhalese Language and Civilization – Foreign Affairs Ministry of the State Department of America, Advisor of Buddhist Affairs in Washington American University and the Chief Sanghanayake of America Ven. Talgaswewe Seelananda Thera in collaboration with the Meditation Society Performance Board and the subscribers in the vicinity of Washington along with ambassador of Sri Lanka in Washington Jaliya Wickramasooriya, deputy ambassador Esala Weerakoon and the staff.

An all night Pirith chanting was held on October 6 and an alms giving (Dana) on the following day and a felicitation ceremony in the afternoon.

Via the Sri Lanka Daily News

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Opening to insight

Flowers at various stages of opening

Fundamentally, we don’t know anything about anything. How then can we even begin to cultivate insight into how things really are? Author, practitioner, and Dharma teacher Kamalashila suggests how we can learn to open up to reality.

It is late summer and 10:22 in the morning.

I am in my room in Birmingham. Just a few yards away, framed in the open window, are the upper branches of a luxuriant copper beech, its leaves displaying to the eye subtle, dark greens (olive, patinated bronze) as they reflect the morning sunshine.

The fine outer branches shift almost imperceptibly, shedding complex darker shadows within.

The tree is full of beech nuts, and the leaves on a few small branches have already turned a dead, uniform orange-brown. In such a calm moment as this, I can enjoy describing to myself the rich detail of a beautiful object.

But do I see it as it really is? There is a framework of assumptions that we impose on the reality we perceive. “It” “is” “10:22” “in” “the morning.” “I” “am” “in” “my” “room” “in” “Birmingham.” Just a few yards “away,” framed “in” the open window, “are” the upper branches of a luxuriant “copper beech.” These accentuated words point to ideas that we use continually, ideas with which we make sense of life. We built them up painstakingly, over the long years of childhood.

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Yet on each of the countless occasions that we have uttered these names and prepositions, we have to skip over fundamental problems that arise in communicating our experience.

We don’t really know anything at all

We forget that we are raising matters concerning being, time, space, and form — matters which we profoundly do not understand. We do not even know what the word “is” implies. We don’t really know anything at all.

In our daily dealings with others we disregard this great ignorance we hold in common, devastatingly basic though it is. Otherwise, everything anyone said would entail long, irresolvable discussions on metaphysics. Everyone tacitly agrees to put these matters aside, since we cannot readily understand them. Yet they really are mysteries. We do not understand what a copper beech, or any particular object, truly is. Of course in the ordinary way we do know that a copper beech is a “tree.” It is a large woody perennial “plant,” with a distinct trunk, giving rise to branches or leaves at some distance from the ground.

Yet do we really know what a plant is? Yes, a plant is any living “organism” that typically synthesizes its food from inorganic substances, possesses cellulose cell walls, responds slowly and often permanently to a stimulus, lacks specialized sense organs and a nervous system, and has no powers of locomotion.

But then what is an organism? The dictionary explains that unless it happens to be an “animal,” an organism can be any living “plant.” But we have only just seen that a “plant” is a living “organism.” So all we can discover is that a tree is a plant, which is an organism, which is a plant, which is an organism.

We must wonder, sometimes, if there is any way to see reality as it is. Religions may tell us that we cannot expect to, that such an idea is hubristic, even blasphemous. And the accepted materialist theories about life all miss this point. So the mystery eventually becomes too much; it appears that we can only speculate – which seems idle, a waste of time. Most of us end up taking the position that we (whatever we are) just need to get on with living (whatever that might be).

The way we see our existence is thickly colored by the emotions and assumptions we hold, and leaves little room for compassion. Our world is perceived in a flickering half-light of wants and dislikes, and accounted for by an unquestioning common sense. We are so used to this perspective that it is difficult for us even to realize there is any problem. We repress the uncomfortable awareness that we understand nothing about life.

 …when death and other exposures to reality force open our eyes, we can bear to look at them only briefly, if at all

What can set the seal on this repression is that pain and fear often accompany our glimpses of reality. Despite the childhood years spent learning about life and developing an urbane adult shell, we have still not fully adjusted to it. For when death and other exposures to reality force open our eyes, we can bear to look at them only briefly, if at all.

We really cannot bear much reality. It shakes the jelly at our core when friends or lovers separate from us, or when they die. Such experiences can be like lightning striking at night. Seeing for an instant just how much what we relied upon was founded on wishful thinking, we are reduced to a bare and naked state, in a vast, unfathomable universe.

Yet life must go on. Numbly, we piece it back together. It is the old, old story: human existence is fragile, uncertain and inexplicable. Samsara, the endless cycle, is profoundly unsatisfactory. So it is a definite relief when, soon enough, the terrible questions are washed over by familiar concerns: work, chat, shopping, washing-up, bedtime drink. We welcome the crack in reality closing again. Yet, as we return to normal we know something has been lost. Along with the relief of returning to daily life, we feel once more imprisoned by a wall of unknowing.

Can there be a middle way between the unbearable intensity of reality and the unbearable dullness of ignorance? If there is, it must somehow be through relying on something real, and not on wishful thinking The path that transcends these painful extremes is the Dharma. Buddhist practices, because they arise out of an insight into reality, are effective in helping us to come to terms with it.

The cultivation of insight requires two qualities known as samatha and vipassana. Through a long-term development of samatha (which broadly means calm), the mind becomes strong, happy and confident.

Along with that strength comes greater receptivity, so we’re more able to see things as they are, without being seared by the experience. The ability to look is samatha; the actual seeing is vipassana. It is not that reality as a whole is intrinsically painful, but that we are not sufficiently large or awake to sustain the totality. In our weakened state, the light streaming in through the crack is too intensely brilliant to sustain; yet we know it is an opportunity, as an experience of a universal truth.

…the light streaming in through the crack is too intensely brilliant to sustain

We can take up this opportunity if we begin to cultivate that calm, receptive strength. Through so doing, we shall eventually become strong enough to sustain the sight of the total reality. Some degree of such a vision is to be expected in more experienced meditators, whose senses are somewhat calmed, and who look closely at their experience.

Vipassana can be induced by meditation, and that is generally the way it is cultivated. But insight into reality can arise anywhere, at any time, when circumstances make us question our assumptions about reality.

This may be sparked by some critical occurrence like a death, or a relationship ending. But it may arise at a quiet moment when our thoughts come together at a single point — we see that all things really are impermanent and we experience, as in a vision, what this central reality implies for our human potential. These experiences seldom arise, however, unless the mind has been prepared over a long time by meditation.

Having created a foundation of samatha, we generate vipassana by reflecting on the Dharma with the mental lucidity conferred by that tranquil state. Achieving this tranquil state requires considerable preparation in the rest of our life. We can prepare in a general way by cultivating mindfulness, and following a more ethical way of life. This brings integrity, consistency of character, and a buoying happiness.

We take the integration deeper by regularly practicing samatha meditations, such as the Mindfulness of Breathing and the Metta Bhavana.

At the same time as establishing this foundation in samatha, we also cultivate a second foundation of Wisdom, in its preliminary stages. That is, we learn about the Dharma, and reflect repeatedly on what we have learned. We mull over what we hear and read, make sure we understand what is being said, apply that to our own experience, ask clarifying questions, and in this way cultivate a thorough understanding of what the Buddha taught.

These two preliminary stages of “learning” and “reflecting” prepare the ground for Wisdom itself. Learning and reflecting on the Dharma are strands of spiritual life that one never stops cultivating. To examine afresh our understanding, even of the most elementary aspects of the path to Enlightenment, always bears fruit. Our appreciation of the Dharma is enriched as it gradually loses its tendency to literalism.

To examine afresh our understanding always bears fruit

Along with meditation, reflection is the most important Buddhist practice. Given some understanding of the Dharma and regular meditation, it is quite easy and natural to reflect. It is a more or less spontaneous activity, provided we are not too distracted. But it is more difficult to create a mental environment in which reflection can happen.

Nearly all of us are deeply addicted to filling our time with activities. This habit not only allows us no time simply to sit and sift our thoughts as they disentangle themselves and spread out in the mind, it also stunts our ability to reflect. Understanding needs an inner space in which to unfold.

If we can see the importance of developing the inner life of our thought, then that will naturally become our main priority. All other Buddhist practices will then aid this project of deepening reflection. Mindfulness (of body, feelings, mental states, and mental objects) will particularly help as a focus, as we notice our response to every experience, and remind ourselves in each response of our overall aim.

Developing the inner life of thought is an essential preparation for meditation, because through it we move towards a synthesis that allows us to have faith in the possibility of Insight. This is not an intellectual synthesis, even though we could probably formulate some aspects of it verbally. It is a kind of knowing, yet its character is also emotional and volitional, so that with it comes sufficient confidence for us to open to whatever the truth might be.

Freedom from emotional conflict is essential if we are to do this, because the method of cultivating vipassana is to open the mind to some crucial point of Dharma, such as the truth of impermanence. It is a considerable step, and we must want to take it.

Nearly all of us are deeply addicted to filling our time with activities

To be effective, this opening up must be carried out when our minds are calmed and purified by dhyana, the conflict-free concentration brought about by samatha meditation. Thus in our samatha practice we need to have moved, at least to some extent, beyond conflicting emotions.

We have to entrust ourselves to the samatha practice in order to concentrate the mind, and move beyond the distractions of craving, anger, dullness and excitement — tendencies always present in ordinary consciousness. It is only in a mind unified and elevated by dhyanic meditation that vipassana contemplation can be nurtured and matured, through openness, into Wisdom (prajña).

It is obvious that the mind is now in a quite different condition than at the preparatory levels of learning and reflection, when we are thinking out our understanding with the ordinary, relatively distracted mind. With vipassana in the context of meditative absorption, the mode of contemplation is uniquely light, flexible and spacious. It combines potential for lucid thought with great receptivity.

In this way we rest our mind on some aspect of the Dharma, perhaps the “emptiness” that is said to characterize all phenomena. A tree, a plant, an organism, a being, a Buddha: does any “thing” have a nature of its own, and if so what is that nature? There can be no fully satisfactory verbal answer. Yet our willingness to relax and open ourselves to the truth, cultivated over years of practice, may tip the balance so that truth is glimpsed and begins to light us up from within.

It is encouraging to know that Buddhism makes us happy, yet this form of happiness cannot be relied upon

The Buddha saw things as they actually are. His teaching is a way to cultivate the same insight into reality, and that insight is the aim of all Buddhist practices, from Right Livelihood and skillful communication, through mindfulness, to the various kinds of meditation. We easily lose sight of this aim. Left alone with Buddhist practice, we tend to grind to an agreeable halt at the foundations, at the happiness that comes from skillful actions and states of mind.

It is encouraging to know that Buddhism makes us happy, yet this form of happiness cannot be relied upon. Our skillful mental states are not permanently established; there is a danger that when circumstances change, our confidence and habitual goodness may deflate like a punctured bubble. Only Wisdom, once developed, provides a reliable response to the ravages of impermanence.

Morality and happiness, important as they are, are insufficient in themselves; happiness can even be so intoxicating that it obscures spiritual vision. So if we never develop insight, we will sooner or later lose the conditions for our happiness. In the end, in a large and unfathomable universe, it is our openness to wisdom that really matters.

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The Mind and Life conference

Marissa Kimsky, Emory Wheel: While scientists are searching for a cure-all pill for mental disorders, new research shows that the cure may not be in a bottle, but could rather be found in Tibetan meditation.

Hundreds gathered in the Woodruff Physical Education Center to hear discussions on this pioneering research on meditation and mental disorders. This research was presented in a dialog in the 15th Mind and Life conference: Mindfulness, Compassion and the Treatment of Depression.

Mind and Life was organized by a scientist and an entrepreneur in 1987 to establish a dialog between Buddhist philosophers and scientists. It has proven to be extremely successful, encouraged countless studies on the benefits of meditation. The organization has inspired an initiative to teach Buddhist monks science, and it encourages a common goal between researchers and Buddhists to improve minds, lives, societies and the world.

Emory, one of the leading institutions for meditation research in the country, hosted the conference for the first time on Saturday, prior to the installation the Dalai Lama as a presidential distinguished professor on Monday.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama entered the room and immediately showered the crowed with affection. He lowered into a bow and clasped his hands together, blessing the audience.

The Dalai Lama was an extremely active participant throughout the conference, asking several scientifically in-depth questions and suggesting new directions for future research projects.

Co-founder of Mind and Life Adam Engel reflected as he opened this conference.

Twenty years ago, when the conference series began, the Dalai Lama had a request of the scientists.

“First investigate the positive effects of meditation,” the Dalai Lama said. “If you find it successful, please teach it to your society in a purely secular manner in order to benefit everyone.”

This has been the goal of the researchers for the past 20 years. Researchers Richard Davidson, Helen Mayberg, Charles Nemeroff, Charles Raison and Zindel Segal presented findings from multiple successful neuroscience projects geared towards improving the mind and mental balance. Buddhist scholars at the conference, including the Dalai Lama, John Dunne and Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, connected these studies to Buddhist philosophy.

This was not necessarily an easy task for the Buddhist scholars.

“Speaking to the Dalai Lama on Buddhism is like speaking to Jesus on Christianity,” Dunne said.

Throughout the conference, both Buddhist scholars and scientists agreed that depression could be characterized by the sufferer’s inward focus.

Buddhism strives to accomplish the opposite — to turn one’s perspective outwards through compassion and mindfulness meditations.

Both of these forms of meditation were investigated by scientists in their experiments. Psychological and physical evidence showed that individuals suffering from depression were able to overcome the symptoms through compassion meditation.

Davidson used samatha, a Tibetan Buddhist form of mindful meditation, in his studies and found that it improves concentration. The functional MRI brain scans taken during this practice showed more activation in the frontal-parietal areas, regions of the brain designated to higher cognition.

Raison foresees using meditation to prevent more than just depression. He also thinks it can help prevent diseases associated with stress, such as depression, anxiety, heart failure, high cholesterol, cancer and diabetes. “Our interest is in looking at meditation as a potential strategy to protect against the emotional and medical diseases that arise from stress,” he said.

Dean Robert Paul and University President James W. Wagner also spoke at the event. Paul said he sees Emory’s research moving towards developing meditation as a prescription within preventative psychiatry, the medical practice of preventing mental disorders.

Mind and Life is also working to facilitate inter-religious dialog. Currently centering prayer, a contemplative Catholic tradition is also being investigated by other Mind and Life researchers and the conference strives to integrate various other contemplative traditions into the studies as well. Dunne believes that the research benefits not only neuroscience but an enormous array of disciplines.

“Mind and Life research also helps build a greater research network on contemplative based interventions,” Dunne said.

Original article no longer available…

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

The Attention Revolution

Available from and

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.

See also:

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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Wallace sees common ground between Buddhist introspection and Western science (Brown Daily Herald)

Ari Rockland-Miller: Alan Wallace, one of the preeminent Western scholars of Tibetan Buddhism, stressed the importance of introspection as a mode of academic inquiry in the first annual Mary Interlandi ’05 Lecture on Contemplative Studies on Monday night.

Wallace’s lecture, “Observing the Mind: A Buddhist Approach to Exploring Consciousness,” focused on the interface between traditional Buddhist methods of introspection and conceptions of the mind, and the modern Western scientific approach to neuroscience and physics.

This unique interdisciplinary fusion reflects Wallace’s diverse background. He spent 14 years training as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, ordained by H.H. the Dalai Lama, before studying physics at Amherst College and earning a doctorate in religious studies at Stanford.

Wallace called it “socially irresponsible” to isolate the academic studies of science and religion, which are often regarded as disparate disciplines.

Both deeply philosophical and profoundly pragmatic, Wallace’s speech emphasized the fruitful implications of studying the contemplative mind, both from a third-person and from a critical first-person perspective.

The critical first-person perspective is typically neglected by science because the modern scientific paradigm reveres absolute objectivity and impersonality, rendering the subjective “taboo,” Wallace said. This subjective method would include critically examining one’s own experience during meditation as a form of academic study.

Wallace fervently argued that this type of subjective, introspective study of the contemplative mind is vital, when coupled with the more traditional third-person mode of scientific research. Furthermore, Wallace said this type of contemplative study should be worked into the formal American higher education system.

He cited his personal hero – 19th century American psychologist and philosopher William James, who said that an education that improved the individual’s ability to maintain sustained, voluntary attention would be “the education par excellence.”

Wallace spoke about a groundbreaking study he is currently leading, which he said will “scientifically prove meditation’s fruitful effects” through assessing changes in the brain functioning and behavior of subjects who meditate intensively every day for an entire year. Wallace spoke with a high regard for this type of empirical scientific study, but simultaneously noted that this study would only be proving a fact that “Buddhist monks have known for 100 generations already.”

Audience members reacted very positively to Wallace’s lecture, and most stayed throughout the lengthy question and answer session.

“I really thought it was brilliant, his idea that you should train your introspective skills before you can study (the contemplative mind),” said Joshua Bocher ’08.

Pablo Gaston ’05 reacted similarly. “He raised some really interesting questions I had really never thought about before, in terms of using introspection as a tool,” he said.

Interlandi, who died in 2003, showed a great passion for contemplative studies, and wanted to create a concentration in the field. She studied Buddhism, feminist theory and eastern philosophy while at Brown, according to the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life’s Web site.

Professor of Religious Studies Hal Roth, who had Interlandi as a student in RS 88: “Great Mystical Traditions of Asia,” said, “When the funds came up, (Wallace) was the first person I thought of.” The lecture, in addition to a two-day meditative retreat led by Wallace last weekend, was made possible both by the Interlandi family and by the Francis Wayland Collegium for Liberal Learning, with support from the Chaplain’s Office.

Roth, who has spearheaded a movement to establish contemplative studies as a concentration after Interlandi’s death, said he would like to sponsor at least one such retreat and lecture in contemplative studies every year at Brown. Brown’s contemplative studies program recently received a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies, which will help make this goal possible.

Roth said he was moved by Wallace’s lecture, particularly its emphasis on incorporating contemplative studies into the setting of the prestigious American university.

“I liked the way he phrased the dangers we face as a global society, and the importance of integrating the third person and first person critical modes of study,” he said.

Wallace, for one, seemed equally excited by Roth and his mission to bring a contemplative studies program to the University. “I’m very impressed by what’s happening here at Brown,” he said.

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