Meditative stability

The text turns to training the mind on the stages of the path of advanced level practitioners. Part of a series of teachings on the Gomchen Lamrim by Gomchen Ngawang Drakpa. Visit Gomchen Lamrim Study Guide for a full list of contemplation points for the series.

  • Concentration in daily activities is different from meditative concentration
  • Precautions before we reach serenity
  • Six conditions necessary to develop concentration
  • A list of scriptural sources for teachings on serenity
  • Four basic categories of meditation objects

Gomchen Lamrim 110: Meditative Stability (download)

Contemplation points

  1. As important as having concentration is in our daily life, meditative stability is different in that the goal is to single-pointedly put the mind on an object without going to another object. Consider how that is different from having concentration in your everyday life and why being able to concentrate single-pointedly is vital to the spiritual path.
  2. Consider some of the benefits of meditative stability that Venerable Chodron listed. How do these benefit you personally? How does it allow you to benefit others?
    • Our virtuous activities become more focused.
    • We can understand the teachings on a deeper level.
    • It is necessary to having a direct perception of emptiness.
    • It is essential for generating the superknowledges.
  3. Consider some of the precautions that Venerable Chodron listed. Why is it important to be aware of these early in our spiritual growth?
    1. Be cautious of becoming attached to the bliss of concentration.
    2. Be cautious of confusing serenity with liberation.
    3. Be cautious to maintain a Dharma motivation.
    4. Be cautious to always follow the guidance of a spiritual mentor and to check your experiences with them.
  4. With all the wonderful benefits of generating meditative stability, why is it that our teachers don’t encourage us to make it our principal practice at the beginning of the path?
  5. There are six conditions necessary for generating serenity. Consider why each is important and what you can do now to help to set up these conditions in your life:
    • Living in a favorable place
    • Having a clear and correct understanding of all the methods to developing serenity before going into retreat
    • Being free from coarse desires, having few desires
    • Being satisfied and content
    • Being free of involvement in worldly activities and commotion
    • Living in pure ethical conduct
  6. Remember, even if we don’t have these six conditions to do retreat, we can still cultivate some level of meditative stability that is helpful to our spiritual progress. What are ways you can cultivate meditative stability in your current practice, both on and off the cushion?
  7. Inspired by the benefits of cultivating meditative stability, make a determination to take steps to develop it both on and off the cushion now, as well as begin to accumulate the causes and conditions necessary to do serenity retreat in the future.


There are many, many sentient beings in this universe—many on this planet. In comparison to the number of sentient beings there are, those who have the opportunity to listen to the Dharma are actually very few. We have that opportunity. It’s important that we make good use of it instead of waste it in joking around, insulting other people, or defending ourselves against this, that, the other thing. It’s important that we really apply the Dharma to our mind and use it to change our emotions and our attitudes. In that way, we also change our behavior.

In changing our emotions and our attitudes, we also change what we consider to be important and what is the meaning, purpose and aim of our lives. As little kids, we were never taught the idea of escaping from cyclic existence or being liberated from it. We were never taught the ideas of being of great benefit to living beings and attaining buddhahood in order to do that. These are things that were never taught to us as aims to pursue or as the purpose of our lives. So, as adults, we really have to consider them and think about them carefully.

If they seem to be valuable aims and purposes, then we need to engage with them and really do it wholeheartedly. This means not keeping Dharma as a hobby or something we do once in a while when we’re bored, but making sure it is something very meaningful in our lives. With that kind of motivation, let’s share in the Dharma teachings, and then practice them and apply them to our minds so that we can actualize our long-term purposes.

The perfection of meditative stability

The last two Fridays I was traveling, and you completed the perfection of joyous effort, so you are all now full of joyous effort in the Dharma, right? We’re taking delight in virtue. The next of the perfections is meditative stability, and so we’ll start that one today.

The teachings on meditative stability center around cultivating serenity mostly, and then after that, they talk about gaining the dhyanas—the form realm absorptions—and gaining the four formless realm absorptions. All of that is included in the perfection of meditative stability. Concentration, or samadhi, is a very important part of that. Concentration is being able to focus our mind on something that’s important, even in our daily life. If we can’t keep our mind on what we’re doing and we’re bouncing around and doing this and that, then we never really accomplish anything. Instead, we live in a state of perpetual distraction.

Nowadays we have more distractions than ever; we’re constantly bombarded with sense stimuli everywhere we go. People don’t cherish silence anymore. In every public space there’s music, there are flashing things and colors, and people are glued to their screens. We have sensory overload basically, so the mind is constantly distracted, and I think this constant distraction makes it harder to concentrate because we can’t focus on one thing. Our mind somehow seems bored when it has to focus on one thing because we’re used to this excitement. The next thing is coming right away, and we’re waiting for it to happen.

Mundane versus meditative concentration

Having said that, it is important to distinguish between concentration in our daily activities and meditative concentration. Concentration in our daily activities is very important, but it’s not the same kind of concentration you use in meditation.

In meditation, when we’re talking about serenity or the dhyanas—meditative absorptions—we’re talking about single-pointed concentration where the mind, the mental consciousness, holds an object single-pointedly without going to another object. When you go to school, you need to be able to concentrate on your studies, but what you’re studying and reading is constantly changing. If you’re painting or playing music or doing sports, you need to be able to concentrate on what you’re doing, but that isn’t meditative concentration because your object is changing. When you’re playing music, there are different notes. When you’re doing art, there are different colors and shapes. When you’re doing sports, you’re moving.

Meditative concentration is really focused on one object, and it’s the ability to keep the mind on that object—full serenity—for at least four hours without the mind getting anxious, getting dull, getting distracted, getting lax. There’s nothing like that. It’s being able to be completely absorbed in that way. I say this because sometimes people think, “When I’m playing golf, I have incredible concentration,” or “When I’m fixing the computer, I really have to concentrate.” That’s general, daily life concentration, but it’s not meditative concentration.

Two processes: serenity and insight

In meditation there are two processes in general. One is serenity and one is insight. Serenity is samatha, or sometimes it’s translated as calm abiding. Calm abiding is a literal translation of the Tibetan, but it doesn’t make much sense to have those two words linked together, does it? I think serenity is a little bit better because the mind is serene and concentrated, but that also isn’t exact. It’s one of these terms where we can’t get it exact.

Serenity meditation relies predominantly on concentrative meditation or stabilizing meditation. Insight relies more on analytical meditation. Actually, having the combination of insight is a union of those two. It’s important to understand the significance of generating serenity. First of all, all of our virtuous activities become more focused when we can meditate and keep our mind on the object of our meditation. When we are more focused and not so distracted, then we can understand things more deeply because the mind is on the object. Then even if we switch over to analytical meditation, at least we can stay in doing that analysis. Our mind isn’t bouncing around all over the place. 

That makes the lamrim meditations we’re doing have a stronger effect on our mind. When you’re doing the lamrim meditations, you’re doing analytical meditation, so you have to be able to keep your mind somewhat on the object—maybe not single-pointedly, but at least not distracted. Then after you come to some conclusion in your lamrim meditations, after some experience or conclusion comes to you, then you want to be able to hold your mind on that so your mind can integrate that experience.

This doesn’t means that for one flash of a second you feel compassion, and then the next moment you’re off on something else. This means to really be able to hold that experience of compassion, or to hold the object of emptiness, or to hold the joy of having a precious human life. It’s very helpful in those regards. We really need concentration. Serenity is the foundation for generating insight, and the union of serenity and insight is essential—on emptiness in particular. Realizing emptiness can be done with analytical meditation, but to have a direct perception, there has to be single-pointedness as well.

Special knowledges

In addition, through concentration we can generate all sorts of superknowledges—these different kinds of abilities that come from concentration—and these are very important for being able to benefit sentient beings. These are things, like knowing other people’s minds, knowing previous rebirths, clairaudience [being able to hear things far away], clairvoyance [being able to see things far away], and so on. Those abilities are very important if you’re following the bodhisattva path. For hearers and solitary realizers, some of them actualize those superknowledges; some of them don’t. It’s not really essential for them because their aim is their own liberation whereas these superknowledges are really important for benefiting others.

In addition to teaching us the benefits and importance of serenity, our teachers and the texts give us some precautions to observe. They start telling us the precautions now even when we haven’t generated serenity just so we can have them in our mind for later when we do. One of the precautions is to not get attached to the bliss of the concentration, because apparently it’s quite blissful and so it’s easy to get attached to that. If you haven’t generated renunciation, if you haven’t realized emptiness, you just stay with that bliss and you get stuck. Then after the karma to be reborn in one of the form or formless realms ends, then you go kerplunk back down to the desire realm; that’s where we are now.

Another warning is not to get attached to the bliss of serenity, but don’t confuse it with liberation. Because apparently there are some non-Buddhists—and it’s easy for Buddhists to do as well—that may think, when you have that kind of bliss: “This is the utmost bliss and so it must be liberation. I must be liberated.” There are stories of these people who think they are liberated, and then at the time of death, the afflictions, the self-grasping becomes very strong, and they realize, “I’m not liberated.” Then they begin to have a lot of doubt and a lot of wrong views and may think, “I’ve practiced the path this long and they told me this was liberation. It’s not. There’s no such thing as liberation.” Then they generate these wrong views at the time of death, and that does not bode well for a good rebirth. So, it’s important be aware of that.

Maintain a strong motivation

It’s very important when we’re doing the serenity meditation to maintain a very strong and clear motivation. It’s important to be very clear that we’re doing it not just for the experience of bliss, not just for the superknowledges, and not even just for liberation, but we’re doing it to attain full awakening so we can really have what is necessary to benefit sentient beings. It’s important to have a clear motivation, to maintain that motivation, and then to check our experiences with a qualified spiritual mentor. It’s important to follow the advice of our spiritual mentors. We shouldn’t go making up our own kind of meditation because it sounds good and all. Having said that, within whatever technique we’re taught, there are ways in which you can adjust it to your own personality or whatever—you don’t have to be rigid, but we need to follow the instructions.

His Holiness makes the comment that if you don’t have concentration then even if you recite the mantra in the Heart Sutra—gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā—then what we’re saying is meaningless because we can’t focus on the deeper meaning. We can maybe have an intellectual understanding of it, but without concentration, we can’t go into the deeper meaning of these things.

Atisha talks about the importance of concentration:

All the Buddhas say the cause of the completion of the collections,
whose nature is merit and pristine wisdom, is the development of the

Isn’t it interesting that the super knowledges are based on concentration?

Just as a bird with undeveloped wings cannot fly in the sky, those without
the power of the superknowledges cannot work for the good of living

Even though the superknowledges are not our ultimate aim, Atisha’s talking in terms of somebody who’s a bodhisattva who wants to fulfill all collections of merit and wisdom. They need these superknowledges to act out their bodhichitta and concentration, or serenity, is the key to gaining those.

Here is another verse from Atisha:

In order to develop the super knowledges and the beyond samsara
path, [the paths that lead to liberation or full awakening] you
should first cultivate serenity. If your serenity practice is weak, you
will gain no power even through sustained efforts. Therefore,
accomplish the trainings in the various levels of samadhi.

Our mind is weak if we can’t focus it and sustain any concentration.

Shantideva says:

Recognizing that the afflictions are eradicated by insight imbued or
informed with serenity, one should first seek serenity. This is achieved
with detachment towards the world and with joy.

So, he’s saying that we have to gain serenity prior to gaining full insight. Now, we tend to hear all this about the benefits of concentration, and then we say, “Okay, I’m going to make that my principal practice. I’m just going to develop concentration and gain samadhi.” Our teachers generally don’t encourage that because what they want us to develop first is stability in the Buddhist worldview and stability in the three principal aspects of the path.

Without some experience of the three principal aspects of the path, we’re not going to have the correct motivation for doing serenity meditation. So, even if we develop single-pointedness, we’re going to wind up taking rebirth in the form or formless realm. That was one of the warnings that we just had before of getting attached to the bliss and then just taking rebirth in those realms and getting stuck there, and then falling down later or mistaking those realms for liberation.

Our teachers don’t start us off at the beginning of the path telling us to generate concentration. They start us off on all sorts of other things because becoming a Buddha isn’t just concentration, and it isn’t just realization of emptiness. A lot of the path is character development. It’s developing a good character. It’s learning how to be an ethical person who has a kind motivation and can cherish others more than self. Don’t just think of the path as gaining some super-duper experience that’s out of this world, but realize the path is really about becoming a healthy human being who can function in the world without harming others and who is able to benefit them. So, we start with building our character, our inner strength, our mental clarity about what to practice and what to abandon, and we increase our ability to restrain from non-virtue and so forth. 

In fact, when we hear about the three higher trainings as being the path to liberation, the first one is ethical conduct; the second one is concentration; the third one is wisdom. They come in that order on purpose, because we need firm ethical conduct. It makes the development of concentration much, much easier, and then concentration will make the development of wisdom easier. Also because—we’ll talk more about this when we get further into how to develop serenity—there are two mental factors. One is mindfulness and the other is introspective awareness that are very important in the development of serenity. They are very, very important, and you begin to develop and strengthen those two mental factors when you practice ethical conduct. If you don’t practice ethical conduct, then you’re starting with the higher bar of mindfulness and introspective awareness. It’s better to start with the low bar and then go to the high bar.

Prerequisite conditions

To develop full serenity, to really actualize serenity, you have to have a very conducive environment. In Asanga’s Sravaka-bhumi (Hearer Grounds), he listed thirteen prerequisite conditions for the development of serenity. Kamalaśīla summarized these into six. If any of the six are missing, we won’t be able to attain full serenity. When you hear the six, you’ll realize that to really attain serenity requires a retreat situation. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to improve our concentration at all simply because we don’t have the six prerequisite conditions right now. We definitely can practice these teachings and improve our concentration, but don’t expect to gain serenity if we don’t have all the conducive circumstances. It’s like how you can cook something even if you don’t have all the ingredients, but it’s better if you have all the ingredients.

Let’s go through the six conditions. The first one is living in a favorable place. This is a place that’s calm, quiet and healthy. It has clean water and clean air. You can attain your requisites—food, clothing, medicine and shelter—easily, so you’re not disrupted by having to go down to the bazaar or into Safeway to get what you need. Or you don’t have to go without and therefore be exceedingly hungry or whatever. It’s also good if we can meditate in a place where great meditators meditated before because it’s like a blessed place. It’s imbued with the energy of their meditations so that encourages us and helps us.

The area should also be safe, not with lions and tigers and bears circumambulating your hut. If the bears stay away in the forest, that’s okay, but you want to be in a place that’s safe. Also it’s important to be near other meditators or to be near your teacher or other Dharma friends, because if you live near other meditators it’s the same as living in a monastery. Everybody’s doing the same thing, so it becomes very easy to do it.

Up above Dharamsala, on the other side of the valley, there are all these huts where the different meditators go. They are all there. They have their own hut and they meditate separately, but they live near each other so if somebody has difficulties in their meditation, they can go and ask questions or seek the advice of a fellow meditator. If they get sick, there’s somebody else around who can help. We get this idea of going out into the forest or into a cave where no one has ever been before, but that’s not so smart. It’s really not so smart. If you look, the meditators all live in close proximity to other meditators.

In Dharamsala it’s very nice because it’s usually the older monks who are living in the huts, and they had disciples who would do the shopping. One of my teachers lived up in those huts—Geshela Thubten—and one of his disciples who went to the dialectic school every Sunday would do shopping, and then he would carry the supplies on his back to get to Geshela’s hut. I went with him once or twice. It was very inspiring to do that. This disciple was really dedicated and enabled Geshela’s retreat to go very well. So, living in a favorable place is the first condition.

The second favorable condition is before going into retreat, developing a clear and correct understanding of all the methods to practice to develop serenity and how to overcome the hindrances, how to overcome the faults—the things that interfere with practicing serenity. We really need to study and have a very clear idea. What’s even better is if we have a teacher who has done long retreat, or has this realization, who can also share some of their personal experience with us.

Around 1988, Alan Wallace organized for Gen Lamrimpa to come to Dharma Friendship Foundation. Gen-la was one of those meditators up in the mountains, and he led a retreat at Cloud Mountain. Everybody had their own room, and he gave all the teachings. I think they did a year-long retreat although some people were only there for three months. It was a very good retreat. They edited Gen-la’s teachings into a book. I forget the name of it, but I highly recommend it. So, it’s important to have the correct intellectual understanding.

Audience: Calming the mind.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Is the author listed as Gen Lamrimpa? Okay. Of course, that was his nickname; that wasn’t his real name. He practiced the Lamrim, so he was Lamrimpa: “Lamrim person.”

Now we’re getting to things that are more difficult. The third favorable condition is that we should be free from coarse desires and have few desires. We may live in a cave or a hut somewhere, but if we crave a soft bed, delicious food, a companion, music, or a good sci-fi book, our mind is going to be constantly distracted. Here you see why doing the preliminary training before going into retreat is so important. If you don’t have a mind that has few desires, you’re going to sit there on your cushion, and you might sit up straight and everything, but your mind is going through all the advertisements—everything you want, everything you should have had.

It all comes up, and it’s just one big, big, big distraction. I had a friend who was going to do retreat. She got all the perfect conditions. She built a house with good neighbors nearby, and then she had to renew her visa, which I think worked out okay for her. But then other people were having visa problems, so she decided to help all of them with their visa problems. Goodbye retreat. This was her own doing basically. She wanted to be active, wanted to do something. It’s hard to be alone all the time, and it’s hard to really strengthen your mind to do concentration meditation like this. So, she found another activity to do. That wasn’t a desire like craving music or craving chocolate cake, but it was maybe craving company, a project, something to do.

Also, when you do long retreat, it’s like there are always things that happen. You may make your cave of the renunciate as comfortable as you want with central heating, and you may arrange for your attendant to bring you three-course meals, and you may have everything just exactly the way you want it, but with samsara being the way it is, something’s going to go wrong. Your electricity’s going to go out, or your meditation cushion is going to get filled with mice—something’s going to happen.

So, you really have to have some level of determination to be free of samsara and some level of reduced desire and craving in order to keep on. Otherwise you throw a fit: “There’s a mouse in my meditation cushion! Get it out. I need a new meditation cushion quick!” Or: “There’s mold. All my cheese has mold on it. I can’t eat my cheese. I’m going to starve during the retreat.” Even though you have a whole pantry full of stuff: “I’m going to starve because there’s mold on my cheese. I can’t eat cheese. I don’t have enough protein. I’m going to die!” When your mind’s like that, you can’t concentrate, can you? This is why we need some freedom from gross desires beforehand.

The fourth condition is that we must be satisfied and content, not wanting more and better. This kind of contentment is very rare in modern society because they’re always telling us we need something new and better. Even if you go to do your retreat and have a plan to write up all your Dharma notes during the break time, then your computer breaks! Or you hear there’s a new kind of computer because you have wi-fi in your cave. [laughter] I mean, why not? In India they have the big towers, so you can get wi-fi. “And there’s a new kind of computer that will make writing out all my notes on serenity so much easier, or keeping my journal on my meditation easier—I want that new computer!”

Being able to sit in meditation without all of this going on in our mind is going to be much easier if now, when we’re living our regular life, we practice contentment and having fewer desires. You can start doing that even with your food now. Try not adding any condiments and learning to be happy with whatever you eat—even if it doesn’t have enough salt or sugar, or if it’s too this or it’s too that. Can you endure it? Or are you going to try it for one day and then get your bottle of Tamari sauce, and your bottle of chili sauce, and your sugar, and all your other things, and make sure that you have everything you like.

Remember when I was telling you the story before about how one person gets up in the middle of meditation and opens the window, and then 15 minutes later the next person goes and closes the window? Try being the person who does not open or close the window, who just deals with whatever the temperature is. It’s too hot, or it’s too cold—you deal with it. Try that and see if you can make your mind happy. So, satisfaction and contentment was the fourth one.

The fifth condition is that we must be free of involvement in worldly activities and commotion. This was the one that distracted my friend with the visas—just kind of being everybody’s visa expert. If we’re involved in many projects—we write letters, we write emails, we read other unrelated books, we have to take care of our family, or we get involved in family dramas—then many distractions are going to take us right away from our meditation.

They may take us physically out of retreat because somebody in the family is ill, and we may think, “I’m the only one who can take care of that family member, so goodbye retreat.” So, you go and take care of your family member who has the flu. Somebody else may have been able to take care of that family member, or they may have been able to recover on their own, but you feel: “I’m the only one who can do it.” And it seems like compassion, but it’s goodbye retreat.

This is one of the reasons when you come here to the Abbey, we have guidelines for the guests about not going online more than every ten days. Because then, all of a sudden, you’re writing to this friend and writing to that friend and checking this and checking that, and your mind is no longer here. Your body’s here, but your mind is with all your friends. You think, “Well, I’m just checking my email for one thing.” And then it’s, “Well, as long as I’m on email, I’ll see what other things came in. Oh, this and this is going on, maybe I should read the news article about it. Oh, maybe I should check my friend’s Facebook page or…” And then gone—body here, mind somewhere else.

And what can also easily happen when you’re here is that you’re planning the next place you’re going to go. You want to go online and do a Google search for Buddhist monasteries in the U.S. so that you can plan where you’re going to go after you’re here, and on which dates they have courses and retreats. And then you want to send in your application, and then you have to buy your air ticket or bus ticket or whatever. Then again, the body’s here, but the mind is somewhere else.

If we can’t do that here when we have plenty to distract us, how are we ever going to do that on retreat? Because you go on retreat, and then you want to keep up a blog. We had somebody who was here who wanted to become a wandering monk. He wanted to wander and meditate in the forest, going place-to-place here in America. So, he went off to do that. The day he was leaving, another monk suggested that he keep a blog of what he’s doing as a wandering monk, and so that’s what he did. Forget meditating in the forest—he was keeping a blog. That friend who told him to do that wasn’t a real friend. That’s an example of a bad friend, because a real friend would not encourage you to write a blog when you’re going to do a retreat or a wandering retreat or something like that.

But we fall for it, don’t we? We think, “I can write a blog. And then pictures—I want pictures of what I’m doing.” Those days there wasn’t Instagram. Now there’s Instagram, so you can imagine what it would be like. Then, of course, you sit down to meditate, and you think of all these great writing ideas: “I want to write a book about this. I want to write a book about that. I want to do a photo album.” You think of all these ways to spread the Dharma: “When I get out of retreat, I’m going to organize a panel discussion on this, and then I’m going to go, and I want this person to meet that person because that will revolutionize the whole field of chemistry forever.” You’re planning all this stuff. You have everything planned out, but no retreat is being done. That’s the fifth one—being free from involvement in worldly activities.

The sixth one is living in pure ethical conduct. Whatever precepts and commitments that we have accepted, that we’ve taken on, we should keep those. At the very least we should abandon the ten destructive actions, because if we aren’t able to control our coarse activities of body and speech, how are we going to control the mind, which is what developing concentration is about? That’s why ethical conduct comes before concentration. Because it’s so much easier to control physical and verbal actions than mental actions. For the body and mouth to move, the mind has to move, so there’s some delay. Another step is needed there; there’s some delayed response. Whereas to control the mind, that thought comes in your mind, and you’re off and running. So, ethical conduct is a very good prerequisite and foundation for being able to control the mind like that. Also, you don’t have so many distractions because getting involved in all sorts of destructive actions is a huge distraction. And then, of course, you feel bad about it afterwards, so then your mind’s very restless, and you feel remorse and more distraction.

We’re going to go into some more things here as we go on—the five faults and eight antidotes. They’re from Maitreya’s Distinguishing the Middle from the Extremes, and the nine stages of sustained attention and the six powers are from a Asanga’s Hearer Grounds (Sravaka-bhumi) as well as the Compendium of Knowledge, Maitreya’s Ornament, and Kamalashila’s Three Stages of Meditation. And then the sutra Unraveling the Thought also has instructions on how to practice serenity. Those are the scriptural sources.

It’s very important when you cultivate serenity that you don’t have grandiose expectations. Don’t think, “I’m going to get serenity really quickly and have all these abilities, and maybe I’ll be famous too.” Just do the practice. 

Correct posture

Your physical posture is also very important. These are the eight points—or seven points sometimes they say—of Vairochana. Sitting in not just the regular cross-legged position but the vajra position with left foot on the right thigh, right foot of the left thigh is the optimum. If you can’t do that, then do half vajra, which is putting your right foot down. If you can’t do that, then also put your left foot down, and then it’s kind of like Tara’s position. And if you can’t do that, sit cross-legged. And if you can’t do that, sit on a bench. And if you can’t do that, then sit on the chair. That’s for your legs.

Then your hands: right palm sits in the left with thumbs touching to form a triangle. Your hands are against your body so that the top of your thumbs are right at your navel. Your arms aren’t sticking out. They’re against your body. Very naturally there is space between the side of your body and your arm. Your arms aren’t sticking out like chicken wings, but they aren’t squished either.

The eyes look downward. Keep them a little bit opened so that some light comes in. That prevents distraction, but you don’t tuck your head down. The head should be level, or just slightly tuck-in the chin. You don’t want your head going down because it will keep going that way. Breathe through your nose if you can. If you can’t, it’s a problem. I know from having allergies how distracting that could be. Then, of course, you want to make sure that you start your sessions with taking refuge and generating bodhichitta. It’s also good to offer the Seven-Limb Prayer and to request our spiritual mentors to provide inspiration at the beginning of a session.

Your object of focus

There is a whole thing here about the observed objects—which focal object you’re going to meditate on to develop serenity. In one way, you can say any object can be used to cultivate serenity, even a twig, or a candle, or whatever. But if you use an external object like that, the external object isn’t actually your object of meditation. It’s the visualized image of that. So, you’re not going to develop serenity just sitting there staring at a candle because serenity is developed by the mental consciousness, not by the eye consciousness.

Let’s say you’re using the visualized image of the Buddha—or in the Theravada tradition, the Pali tradition, they use the kasinas, so they may use circles of certain colors. You look at that, but then you lower your eyes, and you have a mental image, and it’s the mental image that is your object of meditation. We all grew up with movies of people staring at candles, didn’t we? Didn’t you ever get together and stare at a candle with your friends? Yeah, after that we did something else, right? [laughter] We may gain familiarity with the observed object through our visual consciousness, or if we do it with mantras with the auditory consciousness, but it’s the conceptual appearance that is the actual object on which we develop our serenity.

The Buddha spoke of four basic categories of observed objects for serenity. There are extensive objects, objects for purifying behavior, objects of skillful observation, and objects for purifying afflictions. I’ll just go quickly through these, and then there are some other possible objects to develop serenity on. The first observed objects is extensive objects; these are four types.

Extensive objects

The first one is analytical images. Those are the ones used in the process of developing insight. Non-analytical images are those observed by serenity without doing any analysis. The limits of phenomena is the third. That means phenomena can either be permanent or impermanent. That’s the limit of what phenomena can be. The five aggregates are the five aggregates: that is the limit of what impermanent phenomena can be. The fourth one is the purpose that we seek to accomplish. That is referring to the fruit of our concentration. It’s not totally clear how you would develop serenity on some of these objects, but anyway they are listed, so those are the extensive objects.

Objects for purifying behavior

The objects for purifying behavior are suitable for the temperament of different individuals. They serve the purpose not only of developing concentration but of helping us overcome certain disturbing emotions. Over our previous lives we have developed a lot of habits. We have certain strong emotions, and then these objects are the ones that will help us counteract those particular defiled states of mind. Someone who suffers from great desire and craving meditates on the ugly aspect of the person or the thing that they’re attached to. Meditating on the body to counteract sexual desire is an example of this.

Your object might be the insides of a body. Your object may be corpses or whatever. There is a beautiful meditation on bones that is very helpful. So, that’s your object, and by focusing on that object, it really helps you overcome craving and attachment because you see the object for what it really is. Someone who has a lot of animosity, resentment or anger—someone who is always getting irritated, annoyed and then exploding—should meditate on love, especially the four immeasurables. Immeasurable love would be their object of meditation. That helps them develop concentration, but also, when you meditate on love and you can focus on that single-pointedly, your anger, belligerence and those types of afflictions go down. You’re retraining your mind.

Somebody who suffers from confusion meditates on the twelve links and the dependent arising process by which we get reborn in samsara. That will reduce your confusion. It will also make you humble because it’s not so easy to understand. Someone who is very conceited and arrogant reflects on the five aggregates, the twelve sources, the eighteen constituents. Focusing on all these different categories of phenomena functions in two ways. One is they are not always so easy to understand, so it lessens your arrogance. Secondly and very importantly, the five aggregates, the twelve sources, and the eighteen constituents all describe the parts of a person, a human being, so when we meditate on these, then instead of seeing ourselves as one concrete human being, we see actually just a collection of different parts. That reduces the conceit, especially the conceit of I am.

Somebody with many distracting thoughts and discursive stories going on in their mind meditates on the breath because that helps to calm the mind from all those distracting and discursive thoughts. Somebody who suffers from jealousy would meditate on rejoicing at the good qualities of others and the virtue of others, and so on.

Skillful observation

Objects of skillful observation is next. Becoming skilled or knowledgeable in these objects is an aid to realizing emptiness. The first one is the five aggregates because if we understand that, we’ll know that the I and mine don’t exist separate from the five aggregates. Being knowledgeable about the eighteen constituents will enable us to understand how these eighteen arise dependent on their own causes and conditions. I’m not going to go into what all these categories are right now because it will take us way off base. You can look them up. They’re in Meditation on Emptiness.

Being skilled in the twelve sources helps us understand the different causes for the arising of consciousness, for the object, for the dominant condition or the sense power, and for the immediately preceding consciousness. Being knowledgeable in the twelve links entails realizing impermanence, and the nature of dukkha of all phenomena, and selflessness—what they often call the three characteristics. Knowing appropriate and inappropriate results leads us to understand karma very well because it is appropriate that happiness arises from virtue and inappropriate that suffering arises from virtue. Those are the objects of skillful observation.

Objects for purifying

The objects for purifying afflictions help us to purify the coarse and subtle afflictions of the desire, form, and formless realms. We’re not purifying the afflictions in terms of cutting them off from the root, but we’re learning how to temporarily suppress them in order to attain the next highest state—to attain serenity, to attain the first dhyana, the second dhyana, the third, the fourth, and on up. Some people prefer to generate serenity, enjoying tantric practice. That’s fine as well.

Some masters say it is good to do it according to the sutrayana path first because then it encourages you in your renunciation, and bodhichitta, and correct view, which are helpful for you in tantric practice. If you do it in tantric practice, that’s fine. If you do it on the lower tantras, then you do it during the phase of the yoga with signs. If you do it during highest class tantra, then you’re doing it during the generation stage. Here you may meditate on having dissolved your own aggregates into emptiness, and on your wisdom realizing emptiness appearing as the deity. Yourself as the deity could be your object of meditation, or seed syllables at different places in the deity’s body could also be your object of meditation.

I think we’ll pause here. There are some other objects that can be our observed objects, but with those I’m going to explain a little bit more—like the conventional nature of the mind, and the image of the Buddha, and so on.

Questions & Answers

Audience: When it says inhalation and exhalation, is it talking about breathing meditation? How is that a conceptual appearance? How would that object be a conceptual appearance? Or is that an exception?

VTC: What the Theravada tradition says is that you focus on the breath—they recommend focusing at the upper lip and the nostrils—and then at a certain point you get what’s called a nimitta. That’s a little glowing something that appears to your mental consciousness, and then that becomes your object.

Audience: When I listen to people talking about the meditation on the breath and seeing the nimitta, they say that at some point it stops being a meditation on the sensation of breathing, and it becomes a mental object of the breathing.

VTC: The nimitta becomes your object.

Audience: [Inaudible]

VTC: She’s asking about meditating on the mental object, and what they said is you start with the physical experience of it, but it does at some point become a mental object. I thought that is what I said. At least that was what I meant if that wasn’t what I said. That’s what I meant.

Audience: How does concentration lead to the superknowledges? What’s the mechanism?

VTC: Let’s say you want to develop the superknowledge of seeing your previous rebirth. You start concentrating. You think of what you did yesterday and the day before and the day before, and that takes a lot of concentration to think about all these things and trying to remember what you did before. Yes, that requires a lot of concentration to do that. Similarly, to develop the other powers, you need to be able to really focus the mind on something without it going all over the place and without laxity, without agitation.

Audience: Specifically knowing what others are thinking, knowing other’s minds?

VTC: I don’t know, but I would imagine that you would have to know your own mind very well, and then you would start trying to perceive what other people’s minds are doing. I haven’t received the specific instructions on how to develop the supernormal, supernatural powers, or superknowledges. I think because they only give those to people who are ready to develop them. It’s quite explicit meditations that you do to learn to control your mind, probably involving going in and out of different levels of dhyana and so forth.

Audience: You mentioned that for people suffering from confusion, they meditate on the twelve links of dependent arising, and in the process of doing that, it makes you humble. I’ve never connected the need to be humble with confusion.

VTC: It is not that humility and confusion are linked, but I’m just saying for me, when I contemplate the twelve links, it makes me very humble. I’m not saying that there is a connection between confusion and humility.

Audience: Did I understand that you would use the antidotes as an object of calm abiding in that case?

VTC: For the objects of purifying behavior? It sounds like it’s the antidote to certain afflictions, so for people who have a very strong affliction, developing serenity on the antidote to that affliction is going to be very helpful to them.

Audience: And if you keep that object, at a certain point would the affliction lessen? And then if the affliction lessened would you then take another object of calm abiding?

VTC: No. Let’s say your focus is the four immeasurables. So, for love, you have to do a certain bit of contemplation and analytic meditation and everything to break down your barriers to really having an affection and love for sentient beings. And then you focus just on that experience of love. That’s your object of meditation, and you don’t switch to any other object. Your serenity is developed with that as the object. After you develop serenity—because then your mind is very flexible, very pliant, very concentrated—then you can use your concentration to meditate on many other objects. That enables you to really know those other things very deeply. But here we’re talking about just the process of developing serenity.

Audience: So you would use the same object?

VTC: You use the same object. When you’re developing serenity, you don’t switch objects midway.

Audience: Are these objects from the Sanskrit tradition?

VTC: Yes, what I just went through—the extensive objects—is all from the Sanskrit tradition.

Audience: Do you think these are the same as from the forty objects described. There’s a lot of overlap.

VTC: Some are and some aren’t. What’s interesting is that the Sanskrit tradition doesn’t list, let’s say the ten kasinas that are very popular in the Pali tradition, but the ten kasinas are also found in the Sanskrit tradition. I don’t understand why they don’t put them here because they do mention them. I’m not quite sure. They must be mentioned in this context, so I’m not sure why they aren’t here. This is a question I have for Geshe-la. And then the Sanskrit tradition also, those ones that I just mentioned, not all of those are found in the Pali tradition. There are some overlaps and some differences.

Audience: If you only pick one object to develop serenity with, it would seem like you should be pretty careful which one you pick for yourself. Or you should have a teacher pick for you because you want something that enhances your particular mind rather than aggravates or exasperates?

VTC: Yes, that’s why you don’t use Rambo or you don’t use the person you’re sexually attracted to. You already have samadhi on that person’s body. [laughter]

Audience: Is it wrong to want to practice meditation sometimes to just calm the mind, with that being the main purpose for doing the meditation.

VTC: You mean just to do a meditation to calm your mind? Yes, that’s fine. No problem. If you have a calmer mind, you’ll probably create less negative karma. Yes, start out with that motivation, but also start to expand the motivation and think, “It’s not just so I’ll feel good having a calm mind, but if I have a calm mind, I’ll keep better ethical conduct, I won’t harm as many people, and so I want to calm my mind so that I can be a kinder person.” You can build on that. It’s not just so that I feel good by calming my mind. Actually, for it to be Buddhist meditation, we have to do the meditation with refuge in the Three Jewels. If we just have the motivation to calm our mind, we’ll calm our mind but we wouldn’t necessarily say we’re doing Buddhist meditation because we don’t have a Buddhist motivation—we don’t have refuge.

Audience: If you feel pulled towards a specific object, towards developing calm abiding, should you follow it tentatively or should you check with a teacher?

VTC: Check with the teacher. Always check with the teacher. Because, like I said, our mind tends to think, “I want to focus on something I find really attractive—you know, Marilyn Monroe or Rambo.” That’s not going to be helpful for you, and if you have a good teacher, they’ll tell you so.

Audience: So, when we do meditations around here, we’re doing different sadhanas and stuff, and so the different deities become the objects of meditation. So, I guess it’s alright to be changing the object like that when we’re not necessarily in a retreat for serenity meditation?

VTC: Yes, if you’re doing a retreat, then you’re going to stick with one deity and develop serenity on that deity. But you may have commitments to do other deity practices, so you do those, but you do them quickly. It’s always better to stick with one object. If you’re doing several deity practices, pick one of them and focus more on doing that one, and do the other ones more quickly. When you focus on the one you’re doing, just in terms of daily practice, then you may use that as your objective for serenity. You may use that sadhana where you really explore emptiness. If you try to do all your daily practices equally, with equal time on every one of them, and you want to do every single part of every single sadhana with full attention, you’re not going to be able to do anything else during the day. That’s one reason why I don’t encourage people to get a lot of commitments. If you do what my teachers have said, you put more energy on one and do the others more quickly.

Audience: But when I’m not in retreat, trying to focus some on serenity, is it alright that even though my usual object of meditation is an image of the Buddha, sometimes I need to use my breath to calm my mind?

VTC: Yes. In the Tibetan tradition, they usually recommend starting with breathing meditation for five minutes or whatever to calm your mind, and then go into your object for developing serenity.

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.