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Serenity meditation and the four essential points

Chapter 9-11

Part of a series of teachings on His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s book titled How to See Yourself as You Really Are at Sravasti Abbey in 2015.

  • Remedies to laxity and excitement
  • The nine stages of meditation
  • Questions and answers
    • When it is appropriate to do a long retreat on shamatha
    • What clarity means in visualization
    • Difficulties with visualizing the Buddha
  • Chapter 10: Meditating on yourself first
  • Chapter 11: Realizing that you do not exist in and of yourself

The film Venerable Thubten Chodron refers to in this teaching can be found here: Powers of Ten

Okay, so let’s continue on from where we were this morning. We’re on page 108.

So, he’s [His Holiness the Dalai Lama] going to talk now about applying the remedies, or the antidotes, to laxity and excitement.

Applying the remedies

When through introspection you realize that your mind has come under the influence of laxity or excitement or you have a sense that these are about to arise, you need to apply remedies immediately. It is not sufficient to just notice these problems without counteracting them. Remember that failure to enact remedies is itself a problem; make sure to implement them. Do not make the mistake of assuming either that these problems are not important or that you could not possibly stop them.

He’s talking here specifically about generating serenity and how important it is to apply the antidotes to the difficulties that we encounter. But what he’s saying applies to our entire life. When we notice that our mind’s going in the wrong direction, that there are afflictions arising, or that we have a lot of harmful intent, or a lot of greed, or our mind is just throwing a self-centered tantrum, then at that time, we really need to not just notice it but apply the antidote. Because noticing it would be like you got in a car accident. “Oh, yeah, I’m bleeding.” And you just sit there; you don’t do anything. That’s stupid, isn’t it? So same way, thinking either that it’s not important: “Oh, yeah, I’m bleeding but, hmm, doesn’t matter. It’s kind of pretty going along here.” Or thinking that you could not possibly stop it. You cannot do anything about your problem. “Oh, I’m bleeding, but there’s nothing to do, so I’ll just sit here” you know? That’s really rather dumb.

It’s the same thing in our meditation. It’s the same thing in our life. When we have problems, don’t just notice them and sit there and get discouraged and feel helpless, but do something. Do what we can. If we don’t know what to do, then ask for help and ask for people to tell us and explain it to us or guide us on what to do. So this is important in all aspects of our life. So we talked a little bit the other day about giving up on ourselves before we even try and how ridiculous that is. So that’s exactly what His Holiness is saying here, too.

It’s amazing how much we self-sabotage. It’s just amazing. We want to be happy and we see something’s not a good decision, and we go ahead and do it anyway. We need to kind of change that habit for our own benefit and for the benefit of those around us.

Remedies to laxity

In laxity, which is caused by over-withdrawal inside. [So they’re saying the mind that has laxity, you’re too much inside. And the mind becomes too relaxed.] Lacking intensity, the tautness having weakened. [Okay. So our apprehension of the object is too loose.] Heaviness of mind and body can lead to becoming lax which can lead to losing the object of observation as if you have fallen into darkness; this can even turn into sleep.

Ever had that experience meditating? Hmmm? Usually when you’re sitting in the front row and everybody notices when you’re falling asleep.

When laxity begins to occur, it is necessary to uplift the mind by making it a little bit tighter. [Or taut, neither ones of these; we think of tight and taut as tense, but it doesn’t mean tense.] If you need a further technique to intensify the mind, brighten or elevate the object of meditation, or pay closer attention to its details; notice the arch of the eyebrows on the Buddha image if that is your object.

You’re visualizing the Buddha in the space in front, so if your mind is–the intensity is too lax–and you’re losing the object or it’s not very bright, then make the yellow color or the golden color of the Buddha’s body–make it a bright color. Okay, turn up the brightness. You know how to do that. I mean we all visualize all the time. So turn up the brightness or notice the details. What is the shape of the Buddha’s eyebrows? Or look at the Buddha’s eyes; develop more of a personal relationship.

If that doesn’t work, then while remaining in meditation, leave the intended object temporarily, and think about a topic that makes you joyful, such as the marvelous qualities of love and compassion or the wonderful opportunity that a human lifetime affords for spiritual practice.

If your mind, you know, you try to make it brighter or focus on the details, but that’s not bringing your mind out of the laxity, then he’s saying, leave, stop focusing “on the image of the Buddha and do a short little meditation on another topic that is going to energize your mind.” Such as thinking of your precious human life, the advantages of your life, thinking of the three jewels, thinking of the “marvelous qualities of love and compassion.”

When your mind–the laxity is there, he’s saying there, you think of something that’s going to uplift the mind. That’s not the time to meditate on death. Okay? Death is what you meditate on when you’re when you’re suffering from excitement, but not when you’re suffering from falling asleep, because you need to invigorate your mind.

If that does not work, [he’s given us two things so far. If neither of those work,] and you still are subject to coarse laxity or lethargy, you can even leave off meditating and go to an elevated place or to a place where there’s a vast view. Such techniques will cause your deflated mind to heighten and sharpen.

So, if you’re trying and you’re not getting anywhere with either of the antidotes, then break the session temporarily, and it does not say, go and sit and have a cup of tea and talk to your friends–doesn’t say that–it says “go to a high place where you have a vast view.” So, you know, come climb to the top of the hill, and look over at the vast view, you know that it expands your mind. Something else that’s good to do, especially when you’re here, is in the evening, look at the nighttime sky with all the stars. It’s incredible what you see here when you look in the sky. It gives you much more of a sense of space. Also if you suffer from laxity, before you sit down for your session, splash really cold water on your face. Or do some prostrations or get some exercise. If you’re a couch potato during your breaks between sessions, then your body becomes lazy, and very easily your mind gets heavy, too.

Remedies to excitement

Then, remedies to excitement.

In times when your mind is excited and you would try to loosen the tightness of the mind, but this has not worked, you need a further technique to withdraw the mind. At this point it can help to lower the object and imagine it as heavier.

Okay? So the Buddha in front of you, you lower it just a little bit. And you make it seem kind of heavier or denser in some ways. Because your mind is too excited with, “Oh, I get to go to the Steppenwolf concert,” except it had already happened. But when you lower the image you tighten your concentration.

If this doesn’t work then, while continuing to meditate, leave the intended object temporarily, and think about a topic that makes you more sober, such as how ignorance induces the suffering of cyclic existence by putting us under the influence of destructive emotions.

Really sit and think about your situation in samsara and how ignorance gives rise to the afflictions and how those are afflictions would create the karma which binds us in cyclic existence. Or at that time, that’s when you also think about death because you need to make your mind that sober. Especially when you’re excited and you’re planning and, “I’m going to do this and that there’s going to be all this fun and Oh, goodie,” and then you think, “Well, you know, I’m going die one day. And what kind of meaning is this going to have for me when I die. Is this really going to be that important when I die? No. So let’s come back to the meditation object because developing serenity is going to be important when I die.” And that’s his next sentence. He says,

or you could reflect on the imminence of death. It also helps to think about the disadvantages of the object to which you have strayed. [Yeah, whatever version of chocolate you’re on,] and the disadvantages of distraction itself. Such reflections will cause the mind’s excessive tightness to loosen a little, making you better able to keep your mind on your object of observation, your object of meditation.
When that happens, immediately return to the original object. Sometimes I find that if my time for meditation is limited, because of work I have to do, this sense of urgency will promote greater exertion in a way that strengthens mindfulness.

So if you don’t have very much time to meditate, then you don’t have the luxury of just kind of messing off, and that can help your concentration, too. You have to just focus on what you’re doing because you don’t have so much time to do it in. So in each of these he gave three different ways to deal with things.

Desisting from the remedies

When you’ve applied a remedy successfully it is important to desist from applying it and return your full attention to the object of meditation. Over application of antidotes to laxity and excitement, when these defects have been removed, will itself disrupt the stabilization that you are seeking to achieve.

One problem he mentioned before was there’s laxity or excitement and you don’t apply an antidote. That’s one problem. The other one is there’s laxity and excitement, you apply the antidote, the laxity or excitement go away, but you keep on applying the antidote. Okay, that’s like, you know, your kid has wandered away. You’ve called the child to come back, the child’s back, and you still keep saying, “Come here. Come here.” Yeah? So just that itself becomes distraction.

At this point it is crucial to stop applying the remedies, and just stay on the object, checking from time to time to see if either excitement or laxity is about to rise.
Later, when you have become highly skilled in meditation, and there is no longer any danger of becoming too loose or too tight, even maintaining concern about the possible need to apply remedies will interfere with developing one-pointed concentration.

If you are already a skilled meditator, yeah, then don’t sit and think, “Oh, do I need to apply an antidote?” Because you already know what you’re doing. It’s kind of like, you know, when you know how to drive, and you can drive without thinking about it because it’s natural. If you start becoming very self-conscious, and, “Oh do I have my blinker on?”, you’re going to make yourself neurotic.

But do not stop being alert to these problems too soon. I will describe in the next section when this is appropriate.

Be alert to the problems, but when you’re already very good and your meditation is at a certain standard, then don’t worry about it so much. But don’t go to the other extreme and be negligent either.

Levels of progress towards calm abiding

Okay, then the next section is levels of progress towards calm abiding.

Buddhist teachings, [I think this is from Maitreya] describe nine levels of progress towards actual calm abiding; they are a meditation map telling you where you are and what you need to do to advance.

They’ve laid out nine stages and then what happens after the ninth stage, too.

Level 1: Putting the mind on the object

When, after hearing or reading instructions on how to set the mind on an object of meditation, you initially draw the mind inside and try and put it there [we try and do that, right?] it may be that you will not be able to keep your mind on the object and will be subject to a waterfall of thoughts, one after the other.

Anybody have that experience?

You may even have so many thoughts that it seems as if trying to meditate makes the thoughts increase, but you are just noticing the previously unidentified extent of your own ramblings. Your attempts at mindfulness are causing you to notice what is happening.

It isn’t that your mind is noisier and more uncontrolled than before. It’s just now you’re noticing how noisy and uncontrolled it is and has been.

Level 2: Periodic placement

As you energetically employ mindfulness, and ask yourself again and again, ‘Am I staying on the object?’ [So, mindfulness and introspective awareness. With those two] you become able to put your mind on the object for brief periods, though there is still more distraction than there is attention to the object. This is the second level, during which rambling thought sometimes takes a rest and sometimes suddenly arises. The main problem during the first two levels comes from laziness [So discouragement, giving up on yourself, being too busy procrastinating,] and forgetting the object, [Those are two big problems at the beginning; laziness and forgetting the object] but laxity and excitement also prevent a steady continuum of meditative attention.

The principal problems at the beginning are laziness and forgetting the objects—so we have to hone in and counteract those–but there’s also laxity and excitement that are preventing us having a steady continuum. But that’s not the urgent problem at that moment.

During the first two levels, you are working at getting your mind on the object; later you will be working to keep it there.

Okay? So the first two stages we’re just trying to get our mind to stay on the image of the Buddha instead of thinking about the past and future and everybody else’s business and everything else in the universe.

Level 3: Withdrawal and resetting

As you gradually come to recognize distraction sooner and sooner through more mindfulness, you will become able to place your attention back on the object when it has wandered, as if putting a patch on a cloth.

So, as you start meditating more and more, you’re able to catch the distraction sooner, and you’re able to bring your mind back.

Mindfulness has now matured to the point where you immediately recognize distraction.

That’s kind of good, isn’t it? Sometimes it takes us 20 minutes to recognize distraction. Yeah, sometimes the whole meditation session is gone, and it’s only when we hear the bell that we think of, “Oh dear. I was supposed to be thinking about, meditating, on this and that. Yeah, and, where was I? Oh let’s see. I was in the Bahamas. I was in Kabul. I was…”

Level 4: Staying close

When due to the full maturation of mindfulness, you are able immediately to counteract laziness and forgetfulness, you pass to the fourth level in which you do not lose the object in forgetfulness.

That’s already something, isn’t it? Okay? So your mindfulness is really strong now, so you’re able to immediately counteract laziness and forgetfulness. And, so thus, you’re now on the fourth stage, where due to the power of your mindfulness you don’t lose the object? Yeah, that would be pretty nice. Huh, wouldn’t it?

Coarse excitement is over, but subtle versions persist, interfering from time to time though not causing you to lose the object.

So you may still have the coarse excitement that’s going off, you know, traveling here and there and doing this and that, that doesn’t come anymore. But now still this underlying kind of restless thought is there and ready to perk up when it can.

On the first three levels, laziness and forgetfulness were the main problems, but now laxity and excitement have become the chief concerns.

When you vanquish the core of the original problems of laziness and losing the object, then you face a new set of problems that were still there before, but now you’re becoming aware of them.

Level 5: Disciplining the mind

Introspection now becomes stronger, and through your own experience you recognize the advantages of meditative stability; [so] coarse laxity no longer arises. The withdrawal of the mind from extraneous objects now proceeds too far, so it becomes necessary to apply remedies to subtle laxity and thereby heighten the mind.

Okay, so in level 5, we’ve gotten rid the gross excitement and everything. So we’ve withdrawn the mind inside. But it’s too far inside now. Okay? And so there’s subtle laxity that’s coming, which means that you’re on the object–there’s some clarity of the object–but it’s not very intense. The clarity is not very intense. It’s a bit low-grade clarity.

Level 6: Pacifying the mind

By applying remedies to subtle laxity, you attain the sixth level.

Laziness and forgetfulness were the big ones on one, two, and three. On four it was laxity and excitement, the gross kinds. On five it was subtle laxity. And so now we’re on six,

By applying remedies to subtle laxity, you attain the sixth level. Introspection has fully developed, and through your own experience, you know the faults of scattering to thoughts and destructive emotions. Subtle laxity poses no great danger; however, those very remedies for overcoming subtle laxity by heightening the mind may lead us to an overly invigorated mind, and now there is danger of generating subtle excitement.

So when we went from four to five, we got rid of the gross excitement; we went too far inward. So there was subtle laxity, so we oppose the subtle laxity. Now, we make the mind a little bit too tight, so there’s subtle excitement.

Level 7: Thoroughly pacifying the mind

By applying remedies to subtle excitement, you reach the seventh level. As soon as desire, scattering laxity, lethargy, and the like are produced in even subtle form, you abandon them through exertion.

So here you’re using the power of exertion.

Now you no longer need to be concerned about coming under the influence of subtle laxity or excitement. Effort is now able to stop laxity and excitement so that they cannot damage your concentration even if they make slight interruptions.

By seven your laxity and excitement are very well pacified, you’re able to put out a little bit of effort and they’re subdued. Your meditation is going pretty well; you’re able to stay on the object. You have some clarity of the object–some intensity of the clarity. Then, but you still have to exert effort. And you still have to have to pay attention with the mindfulness and make sure the introspective awareness checks what’s happening.

Level 8: Making the mind one-pointed

Now the power of effort has fully matured so that, with a little exertion at the beginning of the session, the entire session of meditation remains devoid of laxity and excitement [Wow! Wouldn’t that be nice?], and you are able to maintain meditative stability without interruption.

At this stage you sit down to meditate [and] with a little bit of exertion at the beginning you’re able to go on the object and have the right level of intensity of clarity and so on.

Analyzing whether laxity or excitement are about to arise is no longer needed during the session.

Because you’ve already brought the level of your concentration up to a point where those two things are not going to be able to interrupt your concentration.

Now such exertion can be set aside, but this does not mean loosening the intensely clear mode of perceiving the object.

You still need some exertion at the beginning, but during the session things are kind of going along, you don’t need to have a lot of exertion, but that doesn’t mean that you just kind of loosen your whole attention and let things fall apart.

Level 9: The mind placed in equipoise

Now that you have gained the power of familiarity from this training, the exertion of implementing mindfulness and introspection is no longer needed. . .

When you sit down to start your session, you no longer need to exert yourself to have mindfulness on the object; you no longer need to exert yourself to have introspective awareness and see if laxity and excitement are interfering. All that is no longer necessary.

. . . and the mind places itself on the object of its own accord; . . .

So you sit down, and your mind goes right on the object. Wouldn’t that be nice? It’s like when we feed the cats; you put the food down. They know exactly where to go, kind of like that.

. . . so the ninth level is spontaneous. When at the start of a session, you set your mind on the object, meditative stability is sustained without interruption for a long time through its own force. . .

You don’t need to try and exert effort. You put your mindfulness on the object, and it’s strong enough that just through its own force it stays there. Okay?

. . . without needing to rely even on the slightest initial exertion required on the previous level [on the eighth level] you now have no need to apply remedies to any type of laxity or excitement.

You’re still not at serenity yet. But coming very close, okay?

Features of calm abiding

The ninth level, despite being spontaneous, still preceeds the level of calm abiding. Through further cultivation of one-pointed attention free from the defects of laxity and excitement, flexibility of mind and body is generated.

So this is the flexibility we were talking about the other night, where your mind is flexible. Sometimes it’s translated as pliancy, or responsiveness, or serviceability, but your mind is flexible/pliant. You can put it on an object, and it goes there and stays there. It isn’t resistant to concentration anymore.

First your brain feels heavy, though not in an unpleasant way. Also, a tingly sensation is felt at the top of the head, like the feeling of a warm hand put on top of the head after it has been shaved.

You don’t know that feeling. [Laughter] We can help you. [Laughter] Okay, so it’s right after you’ve shaved your head. Not now.

This is a sign that the mental flexibility that removes mental dysfunctions preventing completely easy meditative focus is about to be generated.

So those physical signs indicated that your mental flexibility, or mental pliancy, which you’ve been developing all along, it hasn’t been mentioned before, but you’ve been developing it at all along. It’s not like it just comes everything all at once. You’ve been developing it for a while, but it’s about to really be generated in a kind of big way.

It is a mental lightness generated only for meditation when the mind happily stays on its object.

That’s going to be nice, isn’t it?

This mental flexibility causes a favorable energy to circulate through the body, producing a physical flexibility, removing all physical awkwardness and dysfunction that leads to fatigue and a lack of enthusiasm for meditation.

Okay? So first you had the mental flexibility, so there’s no mental resistance now, and then from there you go to physical flexibility. Now the heaviness in your body, the awkwardness, the aches and pains, the inability to sit up straight, you know, all of that kind of goes away. You no longer have “fatigue or lack of enthusiasm for meditation.” Now your body’s not going to bug you anymore either. There is alleviation from back pain and knee pain.

Your body feels light like cotton. This physical flexibility immediately engenders a bliss of physical flexibility, [which is] a feeling of comfort pervading the body.

Okay, so you had mental flexibility, physical flexibility, now you have the bliss of physical flexibility because your body feels just incredibly comfortable. Your entire body.

Now you can use your body in virtuous activities in accordance with your wish.

Nice, huh?

This physical pleasure leads to mental pleasure called the ‘bliss of mental flexibility’ making the mind full of joy, that initially is a little too buoyant but gradually becomes more steady.

Okay? So having had the bliss of physical pliancy, then you have the bliss of mental pliancy. Your mind is a little bit, you know, when you get a little bit too joyful, a little something, and it’s ragged or something. Something’s not smooth about it. So initially that happens, and then the mind settles down. At that point, at that juncture, you attain an unfluctuating flexibility.

This marks the achievement of true calm abiding. Before this, you have only a similitude of calm abiding.

After mental pliancy, physical pliancy, bliss of physical pliancy, bliss of mental pliancy, that bliss settles a little bit and you have unfluctuating flexibility, and that itself is serenity. And that also is the access concentration which is a preliminary stage prior to the first Jhana. Remember we talked about the four Jhanic levels. It’s prior to the first one. That’s where serenity is on that whole thing.

With fully qualified calm abiding, your mind is powerfully concentrated enough to purify destructive emotions when it is joined with insight.

This is very important: when you have this access concentration, that your mind–if you conjoin it with the insight that knows reality–you can begin to eliminate the defilements completely from the mind. You can get the unification of serenity and insight, then you can directly perceive emptiness and start eradicating the acquired afflictions. Then you can start eradicating the innate afflictions. People sometimes ask, “What’s the minimum level of concentration you need in order to combine it with your understanding of reality, in order to access the path of seeing?” It’s the access here, serenity, that that’s the minimum level; you can have higher levels, up to the fourth concentration. I think, the formless realms, you’re too spaced out.

When you enter into meditative equipoise, physical and mental flexibility are quickly generated, and it is as if your mind is mixed with space itself. When you leave meditation, your body is like new to you, and aspects of mental and physical flexibility remain. Outside meditation, your mind is firm like a mountain and so clear that it seems you could count the particles in a wall, and you have fewer counterproductive emotions being mostly free from desire for pleasant sights, sounds, odors, tastes, and touches as well as free from harmful intent, lethargy, sleepiness, excitement, contrition, and doubt. Also sleep easily turns into meditation in which you have many wonderful experiences.

Okay? Hmmm? So, this is where we want to go. His Holiness talks about the benefits here, and it’s really appealing. Once you attain this stage, once you attain serenity, you need to keep practicing. It isn’t like you attain serenity and now it’s never going to go away. Because remember we were talking before, that we’ve all been born in the Jhanic realms and the form realm and formless realms, and that’s because we actualize serenity in even deeper levels of concentration. We–the bliss was so great that we just hung out there. We got born in those realms, and then when the karma ran out, kerplunk, fell down again. So it’s important to keep practicing and to really unite your concentration with wisdom. And your use your concentration to really imprint bodhicitta in your hearts and minds. That’s quite important. And not get egotistical about it because they have stories of people who get kind of proud of their level of concentration, and then, of course, misuse it because they use it instead to get offerings, or to get some kind of good status, or something like that. So even though when you have serenity, your gross afflictions are suppressed temporarily, they have not been banished from the mind. And when your concentration lessens, then they all can kind of come up again. So we still have to keep good ethical conduct. We still have to practice very well and not just get kind of complacent. Very important.

Then His Holiness sums it up here in the meditative reflection.

To counter laxity, which is a too-loose way of perceiving the meditative object:
First try to tighten, just a little, your way of holding the object.
If that does not work, brighten or elevate the object or pay closer attention to the details.
If that does not work, leave the intended object and temporarily think about a joyous topic, such as the marvelous qualities of love and compassion or the wonderful opportunity that a human lifetime affords for spiritual practice.
If that does not work, leave off meditating and go to a high place or one where there’s a vast view.

You know, take a cold shower, get some exercise, something like that. So actually he gave four antidotes there.

To counteract excitement, which is a too-tight way of perceiving the meditative object:
First try to loosen just a little bit your way of imagining the object.
If that does not work lower the object in your mind and imagine it as [being a little bit] heavier [denser].
If that does not work leave the intended object and temporarily think about a topic that makes you more sober, such as how ignorance brings about the sufferings of cyclic existence, or the imminence of death, or the disadvantages of the object to which you have strayed, or the disadvantages of distraction itself.
[And if that doesn’t work, go shopping [Laughter] — joking, okay.]
By learning these techniques you will gradually develop the ability to apply them when you notice problems with your quality of attention while meditating.

These two chapters that we just finished going through, he’s really explaining how to develop single-pointedness, and you can see there’s a whole step-by-step method to do it. It isn’t accidental, like you just sit down and go, “Well, what do I do now?” Yeah? “Roll my eyeballs back? What do I do?” No. There’s a whole method and you go one two, three, four, five. I mean, there’s going to be some differences according to individuals, but there’s a whole tried-and-true method that we can practice, and so we can put our energy into that. And like I said before, even if we don’t have the physical circumstances right now to develop full serenity, we can still improve our concentration.

Audience: unclear

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Well, if you look at where meditative serenity comes in the lam rim, it’s not in the first and second levels of practitioners, is it, so you really need a strong foundation in the Dharma. Because if you don’t have a strong foundation, then first of all your mind’s going to be very, very distracted because you don’t have the Buddhist world view. So you’re going to be dealing with this wild elephant mind that doesn’t have any antidotes to even the grossest defilements. And second, even if you did attain serenity, if you don’t know the other lam rim topics, what are you going to do after you attain serenity? Well, that’s something that you would work on together with your teacher, you know. If your teacher feels like you’re ready to do that kind of retreat or not. Because the thing is, we come in, and I’ve seen this with all sorts of idealism; I mean, when I went to Nepal, I wasn’t going to come back here until I got fully enlightened. We go in with this kind of enthusiasm, and then we realize that it’s naive enthusiasm. It is not the first ingredient needed on the path: that we really need to understand how the whole spiritual journey works, and we need a good relationship with our teacher who knows us well, who’s going to be able to tell us when we’re ready to do that.

I’ve always found it very interesting to see what happens to people who go and do long retreats. And different traditions do different things in their retreats. Some people in their retreats, their three-year retreats, they’re basically doing the ngondro practices. So that’s one thing, that’s different than, let’s say, doing a three-year serenity retreat or a three-year deity retreat or something. But we just had a situation: somebody who was one of the students here, who had taken the five precepts, had for many, many years been doing serenity meditation. I don’t know how far up she got or anything like that but was really doing the practice quite sincerely for a number of years. She had had some teachings and knowledge of Dharma and lived in a center before and everything. But after she finished her retreat, then she went back to school, and she started working, and then she wrote and said she wanted to give back her intoxicant precept. And I thought, hmmm. What’s the final result of doing the retreat for that long if you want to start drinking and drugging again, which is clearly going to destroy your meditation? But what happened in that whole retreat, that then there wasn’t the maturity in the Dharma with the Buddhist world view to hold that person steady, and I don’t know what her financial situation was or anything like that, so that may have played into having to do those things. But still, you know, I was going, hmmm? I wonder, I wonder what . . . you know, yeah?

Audience: unclear

VTC: Well, you have to pay it, be a 2 or a 2.73. Yeah, and 2.72 is too little, 2.74 is too high, and they’re devising a machine that you can balance on the top of your head that will generate, that will tell you how much bodhicitta you have. Some people say that to enter the path, the bodhisattva path of accumulation, you need not only spontaneous bodhicitta, but also serenity. Other people say, “No, you don’t need serenity to enter the bodhisattva path of accumulation.” And “You just need spontaneous bodhicitta, and then you can develop the serenity while you’re on the path of accumulation.”

Audience: unclear

VTC: Yes. Yes, it’s just the translation. I use the translation term serenity because calm abiding doesn’t always give you the feeling of what it is. Usually it’s first the serenity–attaining the serenity–then attaining the insight and conjoining them. That does not mean that you don’t do any insight until after you’ve obtained serenity, and it doesn’t mean that you don’t do any serenity until after you’ve perfected generosity and ethical conduct, or fortitude. You do all these practices together; you’re developing many different facets of your mind at the same time, even though you emphasize certain practices more than others at specific times, according to where you’re at and what you really need to do.

So, for example, when you’re brand new to the Dharma, you don’t want to start out with either serenity or insight because you don’t even have the basic notion of what samsara is and why you should want to be free of it. And without that understanding–what samsara is and some wish to be free—then you’re not really sure why you’re meditating on serenity and insight. And when you don’t understand why it’s important to do those meditations, then when you face a little bit of difficulty in them, you give it up. And you say, “Well, I thought I was going to be like Milarepa by next month, and I work so hard, and I still have attachment and anger. So the Dharma is of no use, let’s go get drunk instead.” We have to really see what is, it at any particular time, that we need to put our attention on, and develop.

I think at the beginning, I mean, my teachers have always emphasized, “build your foundation first then build the walls. The roof is the last.” And for my experience, and looking around, that seems to be a good strategy to work. Because otherwise, you try and build this beautiful roof and it’s all intellectual. You don’t have any experience of emptiness, or even if you have some kind of experience, you don’t know what to do with it. Because you don’t know, you don’t understand yet, from your own experience, how ignorance keeps you bound in cyclic existence and why you need to eliminate ignorance.

Those initial things that we have to do on the path, they’re actually not so initial; understanding samsara and why we should get out of it is not so easy, and even before we have a full understanding of that, we have to overcome the eight worldly concerns. Is that easy, overcoming our addiction to praise, and good reputation, and nice sense objects, and possessions? It’s not easy to overcome that attachment, not easy to overcome our dislike of people criticizing us behind our back, or having a bad reputation, or being poor, or these kinds of things–bad experiences. We’re so attached to the happiness of this life. Aren’t we? And yet we want to be Buddhists tomorrow. So that’s kind of like, you’re in kindergarten and you want to apply for Harvard next week. [Laughter] So if you’re in kindergarten, master kindergarten, and master first grade. Still you can learn about what you’re going to do when you get your fourth PhD, you can still think about that and aspire to that, but go step by step. What you’re doing now.

Audience: unclear

VTC: Yeah, well, the level of clarity means something like that. But of course, you’re never going to see it like it is with your eye consciousness, but if there’s a certain, that what the object you’re meditating on is clear to you. It’s like having good eyesight except this is with your mental consciousness. It would still be very clear. I mean they say that when you would visualize the Buddha, I mean you could see all the details, and it would feel as if you were sitting in his presence. It would be that clear, but it wouldn’t be exactly like seeing with your eyes. But the clarity of what you’re seeing is there. Yeah? It’s detail, but it’s not like you’re sitting there, “Oh, yeah, he has 14 eyelashes”, and not like that.

Audience: unclear

VTC: You just practice, you know, like look at things that are colorful, and then imagine them, or look, go outside when it’s a bright summer day, and then imagine that brightness. Yeah, most of us do, it’s like we’re just doing a picture, but then as you do the meditation, especially the one with the light and nectar and everything coming, then you develop more of a personal relationship with the Buddha. And more of a feeling of him being alive. It doesn’t mean that the Buddha’s going to go, “Oh, hi Brian,” but you get a feeling, much more of an intimate feeling. But it’s interesting because even if you’ve never met His Holiness, you could look at a picture of him and imagine an alive being. Why can’t we look at a picture of the Buddha and imagine a live being? It’s the same, isn’t it? Mmm? Now these are all things that you work with over time in refining your meditation.

Remember earlier in the book, His Holiness started off talking about the motivation. Then he talked a lot about dependent arising, which was easing us into the whole topic of emptiness. Then he went off to talk about meditative stabilization as a skill that we need in order to deepen, in order, when we have a correct understanding of emptiness, to stay on that correct understanding long-term. And now he’s coming back to the actual meditation on emptiness. So how the part four is how to end self-deception.
So here he’s going to go into–there’s many different meditations on emptiness, many different ways to meditate on it. He’s going to be teaching one that’s called the four-point analysis.

Chapter 10: Meditating on yourself first

It starts by meditating on yourself first. The Buddha said,

Through one all are known. Through one all are seen.

His Holiness:

Since it is the individual person who undergoes pleasure and pain, makes trouble, and accumulates karma–all the noise and mess being made by the self–analysis should begin with yourself.

We’re usually saying you’re not the only one; it’s not all about you. Don’t be so self-centered. Here His Holiness is saying it, but since the self– our idea of who we are—is the big troublemaker, and since we do things that cause problems, we have to start out focusing on ourselves first.

Then when you understand that this person is without inherent existence, you can extend this realization to the things that you enjoy, undergo, and make use, of in this sense the person is principal.

So the idea is that you first realized the emptiness of the person and then it becomes easier to realize the emptiness of other phenomena.

“This is why Nagarjuna first presents the selflessness of persons and then uses it as an example for the selflessness of phenomena. His ‘Precious Garland of Advice’ says, [actually this is ‘Precious Garland of Advice,’ yeah, to the King. Come on Thursday nights and you’ll hear it; tune in.]

‘A person is not earth, not water,
Not fire, not wind, not space,
Not consciousness, and not all of them.
What person is there other than these?

Just as due to being set up in dependence upon an aggregation of the six constituents
A person is not established as its own reality.
So due to being set up in dependence upon an aggregation
Each of the constituents also is not established as its own reality.’

So what this is meaning–in the first verse, the person is not earth, water, fire, wind, space, or consciousness and not the collection of them. Here His Holiness is looking at the person; we examine who we are. It’s said that our body has five elements: earth, water, fire, wind, and space. So is the person, “I,” who we are, any of those five elements? Or the sixth element, or sixth constituent, is consciousness. Are we consciousness? Yeah, or are we the collection of all those six? And what this verse is saying is that the person is not any of these elements or constituents, individually, and it’s not the whole collection either, because if none of the constituents are the person how can you have a collection of non-persons being a person? So you go through in your meditation, “Am I the earth element? Am I the water element?” You really look at your body. Are you your body or any part of your body? And are you your mind? And if your mind, what mind? Because we have many, many different types of consciousness. “Well maybe I’m the whole kit and caboodle all mixed together.” So you’re really examining the person using the first verse.

Then in the second verse, he’s saying that just as the person is not inherently existent, meaning it can’t be found as any of its individual constituents or as the collection of constituents, just as the person can’t be found that way, when you investigate each constituent, you can’t find it either. Because the water element, the earth element, all these things can be subdivided more and more. Our consciousness can be subdivided into types of mind. We can also talk about different moments of mind. Just as the person cannot be found amongst its parts, so too the parts themselves cannot be found among their parts. You following me? So that’s basically what those two verses are saying.

His Holiness comments,

Just as a person does not inherently exist because he or she is dependent upon a collection of the six constituents–earth (the hard substances of the body), water (fluids), fire (heat), wind (energy or movement), space (the hollow spaces in the body), and consciousness–so it is that each of the [other] constituents also does not inherently exist because it, in turn, is set up in dependence upon its own parts.

It’s like if we look at a car, the car doesn’t inherently exist because it’s not the wheel, or the engine, or the axle, or the brakes, or the pistons, or the seats, or any of these things. So just as the car can’t be found in its parts, if you take any of the parts that you can’t find that part in its part so you can’t find the wheel in the rubber, or in the rim, or in the spokes, or any of the other parts of the wheel. Okay? So that’s basically what he’s saying here.

Examples are easier to understand than what they exemplify. Buddha speaks to this in the ‘King of Meditation Sutra’:

‘Just as you have come to know the false discrimination of yourself,
Apply this mentally to all phenomena.
All phenomena are completely devoid
Of their own inherent existence, like space.
Through one all are known.
Through one all are also seen.’

So, first know your own lack of inherent existence, then through that you can see the lack of inherent existence of phenomena.

When you know well how the I really is, you can understand all internal and external phenomena using the same reasoning. Seeing how one phenomena–yourself–exists you can also know the nature of all other phenomena. This is why the procedure for meditation is first to strive to generate realization of your own lack of inherent existence and then to work at realizing the same with respect to other phenomena.

We start out examining the self and then go to examining other phenomena.

This inherent existence that we’re negating, His Holiness is going to talk about it. Yeah, actually in the next chapter. But what it means is this feeling we have of being some entity that exists in and of ourselves without depending on anything else. This feeling of: Me, I’m here.

Do you have that feeling? “I’m here!” And they’re telling me what to do, and I don’t like it! Or they have something good that I want. I’m really happy. But this feeling of an independent self that is somehow mixed in with the body and mind but is not exactly either of them. And we’ve had this self all along since we were born. We just take it for granted that this self exists.
Just as we feel like there’s a real me sitting here, that there is a real findable thing that is me. Solid. Here. And what we’re going to do is start to investigate: if there’s this real independent me, then we should be able to identify exactly what it is. And we should be able to find it. And so then we start the search to find out who we really are.

The meditative reflection here says,

The person is at the center of all troubles [Agree?].
Therefore, it is best to work at understanding your true nature first [Do it on yourself. Stop looking so much at others].
After that, this realization can be applied to mind, body, house, car, money, and other phenomena.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.