Serenity and insight

Serenity and insight

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.

  • Definitions of serenity and insight
  • Four ways to attain samatha and vipashyana
  • Beneficial internal and external factors for their development
  • Different objects of concentration and their purposes
  • Meditating on the image of the Buddha

Gomchen Lamrim 123: Serenity and Insight (download)

Contemplation points

  1. Venerable Chodron said that to have serenity, we have to eliminate the distractions towards external objects of the senses. Why is this such an important step in cultivating serenity? What are distractions you face in your own meditation? What antidotes can you apply to begin cultivating focus on your object of meditation?
  2. Venerable Chodron said that countering mental chatter, a big hindrance on the path, is about shutting off our “opinion factory.” We think our opinions are who we are. In what ways do you find this true in your own life?
  3. Clarity and stability are two qualities we want to develop in serenity meditation. What are they and how do they contribute to serenity?
  4. Why is it so important to have the proper conditions to do serenity meditation (having few desires, cultivating contentment, having few activities, practicing pure ethical conduct, and rejecting thoughts of desire)? How do each of these contribute to attaining serenity?
  5. Consider each of the benefits of serenity: the body is comfortable and satisfied, the mind is happy and peaceful, the mind can easily be directed towards virtue, we don’t create as much negativity, our virtue is potent, using it to realize insight, we overcome rebirth in samsara. What does thinking of these benefits do for your mind? How might having them transform your interactions with others and the world? How might having them transform your own confidence and joyous effort?
  6. How do mindfulness and introspective awareness work to help the mind counter laxity (which hinders clarity) and restlessness (which hinders stability)?

Overview and a quick lesson

We’re towards the end of the Gomchen Lamrim text. His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave the lung and some teachings on this when he was giving the 18 lamrim texts. It’s not a long text, but it’s very juicy. We’ve been in the chapter on serenity for quite some time, and I’ve left the Gomchen Lamrim behind and gone off and talked in depth about various topics that the text only mentioned in a sentence or two. I want to come back to the text so that you have the oral transmission. What we’ll go through now will be like a review of what we’ve covered so far.

Before we do that, I wanted to mention that I sent out to the residents this afternoon something that was put together by the Singaporeans who are doing the course. They do it Saturday morning. There were two Saturday mornings when we were doing our Vinaya program that they continued to meet. They went through the ten non-virtues, and they pulled out a lot of quotations from the Pali Sutra’s about that. Then they especially went into speech and what constitutes right speech and wrong speech. I sent it around to you because I thought it was very helpful, especially since it had many quotations in it.

Also, I wanted to point out that here is a group of people didn’t get any instructions on what to do during the days when there was no class, but from their own enthusiasm for the course and their wish to learn the Dharma, they gave themselves an assignment and fulfilled it. I think that’s quite praiseworthy. I wanted to send what they did out of love around to you all.

How to train in serenity and insight

Coming back to Gomchen Lamrim, we’re in the section on how to train in the last two perfections in particular. I don’t think I covered that. I’m not going to go through the entire outline because it’s quite detailed, and if I read it all to you, you’d probably get very confused. It’s in the text that you have, and  you can look at the outline itself. I’m just going to go to the main topics.

It’s talking about how to train in the last two perfections—in particular in meditative stability and in wisdom. For meditative stability they’re emphasizing serenity, and for wisdom they’re emphasizing insight (samatha). He first talks about the benefits of meditating on serenity and insight. In part of this section things are not translated so well, or at least I can’t understand them very well. I will tell you what I understand, and I will tell you what I don’t understand.

Under “The Benefits of Meditating on Serenity and Insight,” it states:

One pointed focus on a virtuous object and even the premises of subtle wisdom, analyzing discriminately are classified respectively as serenity and insight.

Serenity is particularly one-pointed focus on a virtuous object. It’s not just focus on any old object. For people who like to stare at candles there’s a little bit of a problem because a candle isn’t really a virtuous object. Also, serenity is attained with your mental consciousness, not with your visual consciousness. Then it says:

The imprints, whatever they may be, that generate more and more incorrect perceptions in the mind is known as dysfunctional tendencies.

The usual meaning of “dysfunctional tendencies” is not this. I don’t have enough Tibetan to be able to check with the term they use. Basically, the imprints that generate more and more incorrect perceptions, those are the cognitive observations. It is the latencies of the afflictions, especially the latencies of ignorance.

The states of mind that activate these imprints, wrong clinging to objects, is known as bondage to signs.

Lots of times we hear talking about signs. The word “sign” in Tibetan can mean so many different things. Like when we’re doing the debate class, their sign means the reason in a syllogism. Here sign means sign of inherent existence—bondage to grasping at inherent existence. These are eliminated by meditating on serenity and insight.

States of concentration

Then the explanation of how all states of concentration are included in the two:

Since all the diverse good qualities of concentration and wisdom are all qualities of serenity and insight, by practicing both serenity and insight, which encompass all meditative states, you achieve the root of the three vehicles, good qualities taught by the conqueror.

These practices are the root of the practice of the Three Vehicles. Whether you’re practicing as a sravaka, pratyekabuddha or on the bodhisattva vehicle, serenity and insight are very important in all of that. There’s no way to skip over those at all.

You’ve heard me mention that often in America we hear talk about vipassana as if it’s a specific Buddhist tradition. There are Vipassana Dharma Centers, and so on. Actually, vipassana is a meditation technique. It means the insight meditation that you’re using to try and gain  understanding of the nature of reality. The people who learn this in the Theravada tradition extracted it from Buddhism. Basically, it was taught it as a meditation technique, and that’s why it’s called vipassana—which is misleading because the vipassana meditation is found in all the Buddhist traditions.

All states of concentration are included within serenity and insight.

That is important to remember, and that means that we have to develop both of those. Like I said, I’m using this as a review of what we’ve covered before. Then the nature of serenity and insight:

Once distraction towards the exterior is appeased, the non-analytical state of mind that observes its object one pointedly and gives rise to the bliss of pliancy is meditative serenity. 

That’s kind of like a definition, or at least a description. To have serenity, you have to eliminate the distraction towards external objects. That is not easy because we are beings in the desire realm. So much of our mind is involved with desire towards external objects of the senses. We’re always looking for beautiful things, wanting to hear beautiful things, smell nice things, taste good things, touch good things, to think about nice external objects. Our mind is usually totally distracted towards the external world.

This is what we study in our school system. What is Science? It’s studying the external world. What is Sociology? It’s studying how groups of people external to us get along. Much of what we learn in school is just the external world, and we remain in many ways largely ignorant of our own internal world. Sometimes when we do become aware of our internal world then we just spin around it. “My emotions, my feelings, my-my-my-my”—like that. This is how we get confused. First, the distraction towards the external things has to be appeased or subdued. And then it’s a non-analytical state of mind.

The insight is an analytical state of mind, but serenity is not analytical. Why? Because serenity is focused one-pointedly on its object, and when you’re doing analysis, you’re looking at the object from various perspectives. You’re not just staying on one object. You’re looking around and investigating.  It’s a non-analytical state of mind that observes its object—one point at least. It doesn’t go around the universe looking at all sorts of other things. It gives rise to the bliss of pliancy.

Before, we talked about the nine stages of sustained attention. After that comes various other things, and one of them is the bliss of pliancy. It’s only when we have that then we actually attain serenity.

Attaining insight

When analytical meditation that rides the mount of serenity by its own power gives rise to pliancy, insight is attained.

Insight is an analytical meditation that rides the mount of serenity by its own power and gives rise to pliancy. What it means is this analytical mind is able to give rise to the bliss of pliancy. Before, with serenity, it’s only a non-analytical mind  that can get you the bliss of pliancy. An analysis disturbs that because analysis is changing objects, but with insight, that analysis ceases to disturb the one-pointedness. Instead, it reinforces it and gives rise to pliancy. With that insight, their pliancy no longer disturbs the one-pointedness, and one no longer prevents you from analyzing. It’s a very powerful mind. What we want to do is use that to focus on emptiness.

This is how the order of serenity and then insight is certain. Some people assert that while serenity’s clarity aspect lacks intensity, insight’s does have it. This is incorrect, for the difference lies in the presence or absence of laxity.

And serenity, too, must be free of laxity.

That sentence is not very well worded; it is quite difficult. I think what it means is in order to have serenity, you have to be free of laxity. It’s not just a thing of getting rid of lethargy, which is much grosser, but this subtle kind of laxity that obscures the mind and makes the clarity not so intense has to be absent in order to have serenity.

Meditation free of laxity

All meditative states free of laxity are guaranteed to have the aspect of mental clarity.

Laxity is what obscures the clarity of the mind. Your mind may have some clarity, but the intensity, the sharp clarity, is missing. They say that some people get really involved in that meditative state. They can stay in it for a really long time, and they can even think that they’ve actualized serenity or even one of the dhyanas. But they haven’t. They say that subtle kind of laxity is something to be very careful of in our meditation. But you have to be fairly advanced to even get to the point where subtle laxity is a problem for you because most of us, our problem is distraction. We need to cultivate stability which holds the mind on the object.

Whether it is serenity or insight that meditates on emptiness, it must realize.

In other words, it must have the aspect of emptiness.

However, non-discursive meditative states do not necessarily realize emptiness.

Non-discursive means you’re not conceptualizing. There’s not discursive thought; there’s not chatter. Some people think that you just get rid of all your mental chatter, and you have blank mind. That must be the realization of emptiness, to just empty your mind of all thoughts. That’s what he’s saying here—that just being a non-discursive state without having a lot of mental chatter doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve realized emptiness. You could just be spaced out.

Meditation free of mental chatter

You should know that both states of concentration that are not directed towards emptiness, and states of concentration realizing emptiness, issue from blissful clear non-discursiveness.

Non-discursiveness means to have serenity on either emptiness or some other topic. You have to be free of discursive thought. We have to shed all that mental chatter, which means that we have to close down our opinion factory, because a lot of our mental chatter is our opinion factory. Isn’t it? “I like this. I don’t like that. Why is this person doing this? Why aren’t they doing that? Things should be this way. They shouldn’t be that way.” It’s all of our opinions over things that really are not very important in the big picture of the world. And yet, our mind latches onto them. That’s discursive thought.

We have to subdue the opinion factory, which is quite difficult because we’re quite attached to our opinion factory. Our opinions make us who we are; they give us our unique personality. If we give up having opinions, we’re so afraid that we’re just going to be like a bump on a log and sit there. Somebody asks us a question, and we’ll just sit there: “I don’t know. I don’t have any opinions. Duh.” They think it’s like some spaced-out drug state. Yes, we’re very afraid of becoming like that. “Opinions make me. I have something to fight for, and something to be, and something to make me a unique individual.” You see how that all fits in with the grasping at a self? If you lay-off the workers in the opinion factory, they don’t want to go easily. They’re going to make a fuss.

Meditation free of instability

Having achieved serenity, the wisdom analyzing reality is free of the fault of instability.

Instability is one of the problems we have. Instability means we can’t stay on the object. Lack of clarity is the other problem, which means even when we can stay on the object, the object isn’t very clear. Those are two of the qualities that we want to develop in serenity: stability and clarity.

Furthermore, analytical meditations of all topics requiring it to avoid the fault of excessive instability with regard to those objects rendering potent whatever virtue you perform.

There has to be an easier way to say that. Analytic meditation can help us avoid excessive instability. Because when we do analytic meditation—for example on the lamrim—then that really helps to counteract our opinion factory because we learn to differentiate what is something useful to think about, and what is just our opinions about this and that and all sorts of inconsequential things.

If we can’t stay on the object then it weakens all the meditation we do because when we’re meditating, doing analytic meditation, to really have an effect on you there has to be some stability in the mind. Let’s say you’re meditating on precious human life. You start that then notice the color of the meditation hall. We still haven’t figured it out; is it a peach or is it pink? We had a huge debate about that many years ago. You think it’s peach, and I think it’s pink. You see what I mean? These are the things that our ego latches onto. “She doesn’t know the right color of the walls of the meditation hall.” It’s this mind that goes all over the place, that can’t stay on what we are meditating on. How are we going to get any deep kind of understanding of it?

First serenity then insight

Now there is a section of how to train in each, in serenity and in insight:

To the followers of the present system according to which serenity and insight must be produced in succession.

First serenity then insight.

If you ask, before that, what is wrong with a person who has an initial understanding of selflessness concurrently achieving serenity and insight in relation to emptiness?

It sounds like here is someone who has some general understanding of selflessness, and they think that if they just continue with that, they’ll have serenity and insight concurrently, simultaneously, and get it all.

The answer is:

We do not say attaining a simple experience, an understanding of reality, requires first achieving serenity.

We can have an initial, general experience of emptiness without first achieving serenity.

However, for a person who has not attained a realization of emptiness arising from meditation

This means that the realization of emptiness arising from meditation is a union of serenity and insight on the object of meditation of emptiness. Having that is the demarcation line for entering the path of preparation because that’s when the wisdom arising from meditation begins.

 —they haven’t unified serenity and insight. Attaining insight arising from meditation that takes emptiness as its object without prior analytical meditation is possible in highest yoga tantra. Nevertheless, in the three lower classes of tantra and in the present context, although you may seek an understanding of selflessness and analyze it repeatedly, before achieving serenity that alone will be insufficient to make serenity possible.

In other words, just having an understanding of selflessness when you haven’t attained serenity before is not what will get you to a realization of serenity. That alone will be insufficient to make serenity possible. However in highest yoga tantra there’s a way of doing analytic meditation that can quickly bring a union of serenity and insight. That’s why it has that phrase “if you haven’t done that in highest yoga tantra, then in the three lower tantras and in the present sutrayana context.” Just analyzing wisdom is not going to get you the two serenities or the union of serenity and insight. I think that’s what it means. It’s difficult to understand, at least for me.  I would like to have a re-translation of this.

If you practice non-discursive stabilizing meditation, although you will achieve serenity, since there is no training and insight, serenity will come first and insight after, and the order will not differ.

If you practice non-discursive stabilizing meditation, you’ll achieve serenity. But since you’re not training in insight meditation, then you won’t attain serenity and insight at the same time. First, there will be serenity, then—when you switch to insight-style meditation—you can attain insight. Insight actually is a union of serenity and insight.

This order concerns an initial attainment. Subsequently, you may meditate on insight first thanks to insight included in the preparation stage of the first dhyana. Some achieve the serenity that is included in the actual dhyana.

Analytical meditation to gain insight

As for the way to achieve insight, it is by discriminating wisdom’s analysis that pliancy occurs.

You have to do discriminating (analytical) meditation to gain insight. You don’t have to do that to gain serenity. Like I said before, the key here is you’ve attained serenity that has pliancy and the bliss of pliancy. You’ve gotten through non-discursive meditation just focusing one-pointedly on an object. Then to get insight, that analytical meditation, or discriminating wisdom, is analyzing, and it’s by the power of an analysis that the pliancy and the bliss of pliancy arises. Whereas, before that, analysis would have disturbed the stability. Now analysis furthers the stability.

Then the other sentence that I read:

Whether it is from relation to the way things are or to the diversity—

In other words, the ultimate and conventional truths respectively.

 —the order is certain.

First serenity then insight.

If it were otherwise it would contradict the sutras and numerous scholar’s and meditator’s treatises.

It’s interesting. I read the Pali sutra that was talking about this, and the Buddha described four ways that it could be. One is first serenity and then insight. Another way was first insight and then serenity. The third way was both of them at the same time. And the fourth was by some way that is not very clear what he meant, but it seems to refer to some monk who had some ripening of karma and got it in a flash—something like that. In Theravada countries there is a lot of discussion on which one you do first, which one you attain first, and how they come together. There can be different views on this.

Then it says:

This order concerns an initial attainment.

This is when you initially attain insight. After you’ve attained serenity, after you’ve attained insight, then when you sit down to meditate and if you want to, you can meditate on insight first and then serenity.

Training in serenity

This part is about how to train in each. It’s going to talk about serenity first. A lot of what comes now is stuff that we covered in depth before. The first one is finding a good place to meditate:

Residing in a harmonious place with five good qualities.

This is important if you want to attain realizations. If you’re living next to the highway and you have a busy job, and life is happening, if you think in that kind of situation you are going to gain serenity, good luck. As much as we can, we should put ourselves in a situation that has any of these qualities. That helps us because we are so influenced by the external situation.

Some of these are inside qualities:

Having few desires.

We’ve talked about that. If you have a lot of desires, you’re not going to be able to sit and concentrate. You’re going to want to go fulfill your desires—like when you’re back in Germany and you can get real German chocolate. It means cultivating contentment: learning how to be content with what we have instead of having a mind that wants more and better.

Just those two, having few desires and contentment, are qualities that are essential for progressing on the path, whatever else we do. And Vinaya helps us cultivate these too because Vinaya is particularly helpful to us in creating a good environment for ourselves by not letting us put ourselves in situations where our afflictions are going to get provoked.

Few activities.

We’re not busy doing this, that, and the other thing.

Pure ethical discipline.

If we don’t have that, we’re going to have a lot of guilt and remorse, and we won’t be able to concentrate.

Rejecting thoughts of desire.

This means having some control over our mind. Usually in this list is living in a place where you can get your four requisites easily. If you can, stay in a place where there’s a Sangha community, or where there are other meditators, or where previous meditators have lived. It’s very good to make sure you have a support system, because when you’re meditating all sorts of stuff comes up. If you’re an inexperienced meditator you’re not going to know how to handle it. We need to be near people with more experience than us, who can help us. Stuff comes up. We think, “Oh, sit down, close my eyes. I’ll get it real quick,” but all sorts of stuff comes up. Lots of psychological issues come up.

One of my friends was telling me jingles from commercials that she heard as a child. You’re purifying your mind when you’re trying to get in serenity, and whenever you’ve purified, the dirt comes out. You have to know how to work with all this. Otherwise, you just go, “Aaahh!”

The preparatory stage for meditating on serenity is renunciation and bodhicitta.

In other words, we know where serenity fits in the path, and we know why we want to generate serenity. It’s not just because we want to have far-out experiences that come from having a single-pointed mind. That’s not the motivation for why we’re meditating on serenity. Rather, it’s because we’ve really looked good and hard at what samsara is, and we understood the first two of the four truths, and want to get out of samsara. We want to attain liberation. We want to actualize the last two truths. And we have some feeling for bodhicitta—wanting to be able to lead other beings to awakening—and therefore we know we need to attain it ourselves first.

If we have that proper motivation when we sit down to do serenity meditation, then if we gain serenity it will really help us in our practice. But if we don’t have the proper motivation, we could gain serenity or even go through to the dhyanas, but then get stuck in the bliss of those stages.  Or maybe we’ll be born in those stages after death and never really make any progress on the actual path to liberation. We always think “preparatory” means easy. “That’s simple. We can skip over it.” Actually, preparatory things are really important. Even if you’re going to make something in the kitchen you have to prepare your ingredients, right? You do this before you start mixing them together and cooking, otherwise the food’s not going to turn out so good.

The physical posture.

We’ve gone through that before. It’s about your position. The right hand is on the left with thumbs touching; this is in your lap against your body. You have lowered eyes, and you’re breathing through your nose. Your tongue is touching the upper palate. We’ve been through that.

The heading says, “What to Do Before Focusing the Mind on the Object of Meditation.” This means first contemplate the benefits of developing serenity, because whenever we see the benefits of something then we want to attain it. The benefits of serenity:

Possessing joy and bliss, you are physically satisfied and have the visible result that is happiness.  

That sounds good. Your body is comfortable; your body is satisfied. Your mind is happy; it’s peaceful.

Since pliancy has been achieved, your mind can easily be directed to virtue.

It’s not like now, where getting our mind oriented towards virtue is sometimes like pulling teeth.

As uncontrolled distraction towards incorrect objects is appeased; misbehavior does not occur.

We don’t create as much negative karma due to an uncontrolled mind.

Your virtue is potent, and you will soon attain the superknowledges and the supernormal powers.

Supernormal powers are one of those superknowledges. This refers to clairvoyance, reading other’s minds, seeing past lives.

Realizing insight into the profound, you overcome rebirth and samsara.

That’s a good result. To sum up: whatever you meditate on, see the virtues of concentration and  be inspired by them, faithful. From faith arises aspiration, and from that, joyous effort.

From that arises pliancy—

Do you remember this sequence? What is this sequence about? From faith to aspiration, and

joyous effort to pliancy. Those are the four antidotes to the obstacle of laziness, and laziness is what’s preventing you from getting to the cushion. I can tell that you didn’t read any of this beforehand because the next sentence actually tells you the answer to the question.

From that arises pliancy, which puts a complete stop to laziness that weakens concentration.

Meditation on the object

We’re going to talk about the actual objects, so again all this is review. It lists different kinds of objects. One is universal, or extensive, objects. These are analytical images, non-analytical images, the limit of phenomena, limit of diversity—something like that. That’s what’s meant by universal or extensive objects.

The objects purifying behavior.

This refers to having problems with anger, attachment, conceit, jealousy, or confusion, and the specific meditations you do to overcome those—the skillful objects.

Those purifying afflictions.

Those are the skillful objects: the 18 constituents, 12 sources, 5 aggregates, 12 links. Those are the skillful ones.

Then showing which objects are for what person:

In particular the object for those with strong attachment

What are you going to meditate on? The ugliness of the body.

—for those with strong discursiveness—

You would meditate on the breath.

—for those with strong anger, those with strong jealousy, rage. Furthermore, examine the way attachment and so forth arise with great, average or minor intensity in relation to the objects of attachment and so forth so as to discern the remedies that reject attachment.

The rest you know.  So, you look not only at what affliction it is, but you also determine if the affliction at that moment is very strong, or in the middle, or weak? Also look at it overall. Is that particular affliction in our life a strong one, a middle one, or weak one? Like I was saying the other day, we should really work hardest at the beginning on the strong afflictions because they’re the ones that really create havoc. Study the afflictions. How do they arise? How do they abide? How do they cease? Where were they before they arose? Where are they after afterwards?

Meditating on the image of the Buddha

Identifying objects in the present context:

When discursiveness is dominant, breathing is a good object that quiets the mind down, as taking the body of the Tathagata, and so forth, as an object serves many purposes. Practice that.

Here he’s really emphasizing using the body of the Buddha—the visualized body of the Buddha—as the object. And it serves many purposes because it generates faith, it makes us contemplate the Buddha’s qualites, and it strengthens our refuge in the Three Jewels. There are many good qualities. This is a good choice of object especially if you’re going to enter Tantra, which involves visualization. Having more visualization practice here is very helpful.

Observing repeatedly an excellent likeness of the Guru’s body, retain its characteristics.

Look at statues, paintings or whatever of the Buddha, and remember what he looks like.

This serves to make a mental image of the Buddha appear.

Even though you’re looking with your eyes first at a physical object, that’s only so you can know what the object looks like. The real meditation starts with your mental consciousness where you visualize the Buddha in your mind. And you visualize an actual Buddha, not a statue or a painting.

Visualize it in your mind as the actual Buddha to facilitate it appearing to you. Start by meditating on the body’s general features.

You go around and you note the general features of the Buddha’s body.

When these are stable, meditate on the details.

What we want to do is get a good general overall picture of the Buddha’s body before going too much into the details of any particular part.

When these are stable, meditate on the details. Varying the object of meditation precludes achieving serenity.

If you keep changing your object of meditation, it will impede your ability to gain serenity. Similarly, if you’re visualizing the Buddha, but then you keep changing what the Buddha looks like—sometimes he’s round, sometimes he’s skinny, sometimes he’s sitting, sometimes he’s standing—all those changes prevent developing stability on the object.

Visualize several times successively, the head, the two arms, the torso and the two legs. In the end when you can get a general picture in your mind of the whole body at once and can distinguish the features roughly from head to toe with the limbs, although it may not be clear and include the light, make yourself content with that as you have found the object.

If the image of the Buddha you get is some kind of golden blob somewhere that looks a little bit like the Tathagata, start with that. Don’t squeeze your mind trying to get all the details and make everything super clear at once. You’ve got the general thing. You focus on getting some stability on that.

Then wanting to make it clear, if you visualize it again and again it may become clearer, but will hinder your concentration and your stability.

If you keep going over all the details again and again and again—“Where’s his little finger? How many folds in the robe does he have?”—you’re going to drive yourself crazy, and that’s going to make your mind very agitated rather than increase the stability of your concentration.

Although it may not be very clear if the object is unmistaken form of the Buddha, you will achieve stability soon and attain clarity easily. At this stage if the color, shape, size or number of the object of meditation changes, do not accept it. But unerringly maintain the initial object.

If you’re visualizing the Buddha and he’s sitting down, and then all of a sudden he’s standing up, you go back to a seated Buddha. This is of great importance.

If no matter what you do, it is difficult to get an image of the deity to appear, place your mind on any of the other objects mentioned earlier—

This is so as to counteract the different afflictions, and so on.

—or on the view ascertaining emptiness and maintain it there. The chief purpose is to achieve serenity.

If focusing on the body of the Buddha is not the object of meditation that really works for you, it’s fine to choose another one. But since this one has many advantages, they recommend that. I was thinking that if you’re in the hospital, but you know they’re going to put you under, if you can visualize the Buddha before they do that, your mind is going to be so peaceful. Then you wake up and there’s the Buddha for you, too. Thinking about the Buddha again and again and remembering the Buddha’s qualities really helps our refuge. It helps us feel closer to the Buddha and has many benefits.

Stability and clarity

The flawless method for how to focus the mind on the object:

 The two traits of concentration to have are great mental clarity [so the clarity aspect with intensity] and the non-discursive stability aspect that abides one pointedly on the object whatever it may be.

That’s what I said before. We need stability and clarity, and then helping the clarity to be intense.

Some adding bliss and limpidity assert four traits. However, limpidity or a calmness is achieved by clarity, and bliss is not necessary at this point. Therefore, as explained above, it is certain that it has two traits. A stability and clarity. Laxity hinders the achievement of intense clarity, and restlessness thwarts one pointed non-discursiveness.

I was talking about this a little bit earlier: when you have some clarity on the object, but it’s not intense, that’s because the mind has laxity in it. The concentration is too loose. The clarity isn’t very clean. It’s not crisp. It’s not vivid. Laxity is the problem with having clarity, and what interferes with having stability is restlessness, or agitation, excitement—however you want to translate it. The mind is restless, and it wants something interesting to think about. We have it most of the day—at least some of us do.

Having identified the contrary conditions, course and subtle laxity, and course subtle restlessness, prize relying on the favorable conditions, mindfulness and introspective awareness.

The antidotes to both laxity and restlessness are mindfulness and introspective awareness. It goes on to describe this.


Having pictured the previously ascertained object of meditation

You visualize the image of the Buddha.

—it is said that intense mindfulness ties the mind to the object and keeps the mind from being distracted by other objects. Thus, the traits of mindfulness in this context are three: relative to its objects, relative to its object motive apprehension, and function.

Here mindfulness has a very specific meaning. It’s not what mindfulness means in your mindfulness app. Here mindfulness is the mental factor that is essential for having stability, for being able to keep your mind on that object. Because mindfulness is a mental factor that remembers the object of meditation and focuses on it in such a way that it prevents the arising of other distracting things. Okay, so that’s mindfulness. When we sit down to meditate, we have to remind ourselves at the very beginning: “I’m going to remember this object. I will keep my mind on it so that it doesn’t start going off to roaming the universe.” 

Furthermore, as explained before, once you have found the object of meditation, the mind holds it thinking the mind is tied to the object.  

I don’t think you actually sit there and you’re single-pointed, developing some focus on the Buddha, and thinking, “My mind is tied to the object.” I don’t think that’s a conscious thought, but when you have strong mindfulness your mind is tied to the object. It’s focused on the object.

Once you have heightened the intense mode of apprehension without analyzing anything further, maintain the strength of that state of mind uninterruptedly.

Once you have some stability on the image of the Buddha—you have some clarity and even heighten the intensity of the clarity a little bit—then you stop analyzing. You stop going over all the details of the image; you just maintain the strength of that state of mind. You maintain your mindfulness uninterruptedly. Once you have some image of the Buddha and a little bit of clarity, you focus your mind on that. This is the instruction on how to rely on mindfulness. Mindfulness is the thing that is really important at the beginning, in the middle, at the end. But it’s especially important at the beginning because without mindfulness we aren’t on the objects. What’s happening?

When cultivating concentration, meditation’s main object is the cultivation of mindfulness. As for mindfulness, the aspect of its mode of apprehension is recollection. Mindfulness remembers the object, and recollection’s mode of apprehension is tight.

When you remember something, your mind is on it. Although it says “tight,” don’t think of tight like squeezing. It’s not like that. Whenever you hear “tight focus,” don’t think of squeezing your mind. What is means is that you keep your mind steady on that object. If your mind gets too tight, it actually causes restlessness, and you have to loosen the mode of apprehension a little bit. If your mode apprehension is too loose, then the intensity, the clarity decreases, and laxity comes in. You have to tighten a little bit. I’m really emphasizing this because we hear the words “tight” and “loose,” and we’re very reactive to those words. We’re not talking about that. We’re not talking about extremes here.

Otherwise, although clarity may be achieved, the clarity aspect will lack intensity. Those who believe in objectless meditation too must assert a distraction-free form of meditation.

When they talk about “objectless meditation,” I’m wondering if they’re talking about using emptiness as the object of serenity, because emptiness is often what’s meant when you hear the term objectless—like “objectless compassion.” That’s compassion combined with seeing sentient beings as empty.

If you’re doing objectless meditation you must assert a distraction-free form of meditation, in which case the way of meditating with mindfulness without distraction and without losing the object of meditation does not differ.

No matter what your object of meditation is, you still have to meditate the same way.

Questions & Answers

Audience: [Inaudible]

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): There are different ways to visualize the Buddha. Usually when you’re using the Buddha to develop serenity you’re using the Buddha in front.

Audience: That’s for the size and placement, like distance?

VTC: Yes. They usually say maybe like a body’s length in front of you, although when I do it Buddha’s much closer. Then for the size of the object, some people might say about the distance between one’s fingers and one’s elbow. But they also say if you can get it smaller that’s very good because it focuses the mind more.

Audience: What if that’s uncomfortable?

VTC: Then you can make it bigger.

Audience: Can you use Je Tsongkhapa as the object of meditation, as in guru yoga?

VTC: I would think so; why not?

Audience: Are the kasinas considered virtuous objects?

VTC: That’s interesting. I wouldn’t think the kasinas would be virtuous objects in particular. The kasinas are the different elements and the different colors, and by themselves those things are not virtuous. Yet, when we were going through how you develop the superknowledges, then it’s based on kasina meditation.

Audience: In that case, I’m not sure what would make the kasinas virtuous and something like meditating on a flame unvirtuous.

VTC: First of all, the flame is flickering, and flames go out.

Audience: But things like flames are like the brick wall. How is that different from an earth kasina?

VTC: The earth kasina is maybe about the size of a cantaloupe. You use some clay and you form it. If you want to visualize Trump’s wall in front of you, his isn’t even brick. It’s steel. And he wants 1.5 billion or a trillion to build it. That’s going to have a certain effect on your mind. The things you visualize have effects on the mind. I found it interesting that Bhikkhu Bodhi said that not so many people meditate on the kasinas nowadays.

Audience: Maybe because it’s coming from an instruction from a teacher, so the mind doesn’t separate it necessarily at a point when you focus so strongly on the kasina. But still your teacher is giving you this object as compared to something like the wall.

VTC: Clearly if your teacher gives you an object, you’re going to have much more faith in using that object then you will if you just invent your own object.

Audience: The other thing is, what’s the difference when you have the Buddha as an object versus just a part of the Buddha, like his eyes?

VTC: They say that if your attention at the beginning is automatically drawn to one part of the body in particular, then it’s fine to focus on that. It will help you get that part clear.  But I think having the whole body is different than two eyes floating in space.

Audience: I think after we went through the thirty-two marks and the causes in the Precious Garland, it makes your visualization very rich, or it just makes me more appreciative. It’s like, “Wow, in every part you need how much merit?” I guess if you start getting into the causes then that’s analysis.

VTC: That’s analysis. But if you do that analysis in another meditation session then when you visualize, it makes your visualization much richer. And it makes your mind more interested in the object.

Audience: Concerning the difference in serenity versus insight when switching objects, when they are united does one support the other? Does insight support the other? You were explaining that serenity focuses on the object and insight on analysis.

VTC: No. It isn’t the object that differentiates serenity and insight, it’s the mode of meditation that differentiates them—not the object.

Audience: Would you say one remains, and one switches objects?

VTC: First of all, I said if you’re meditating to develop serenity, you don’t want to be switching objects. You have to be careful and not do a lot of analysis when you’re trying to develop serenity. Because if you’re analyzing about emptiness, you’re going to be looking at the aggregates and trying to discern the relationship between the aggregates and the person. There are a lot of objects there; that impedes just staying on one particular object. In order to get insight, you get to a point with your analysis where the analysis causes the pliancy instead of interfering with the pliancy. But that’s a bit further on. Is that what your question was about?

Audience: Yes. Then at that point the analysis creates pliancy, but in terms of the objects that are being focused on or realized or the aspect of the mind, is it still moving between an object?

VTC: If you’re doing analytical meditation on emptiness, you’re analyzing the relationship between the aggregates and the person. You’re having different objects there and you’re studying the relationship between them. Once you come to some conclusion of that—you get some feeling like the person is not the aggregates and the person is not separate from the aggregates, so there’s no inherently existent person—then focus just on that absence of an inherently existent person. Focus on that emptiness; stop analyzing.

Audience: If it was first a mind that is a union of the two, or a mind where the analysis is creating pliancy, then what’s the object?

VTC: What you would do in your session is you would probably start out with some analysis of the relationship between the aggregates and the person. When you’ve got some conclusion to that and it becomes your object, then it changes into the emptiness of inherent existence of the person. Then you’re focusing on that emptiness. At that point you’re not analyzing anymore. The analysis has produced the pliancy, and now that pliancy—which is part of serenity—keeps you on that object.

Audience: So, the union of serenity and insight is really like a span of minds.  I mean, it’s not like a moment; that’s like how they work together.

VTC: Yes, it’s the two working together and combining so that the analysis does not disturb the stability but actually enhances it.

Audience: It seems like there would be a first moment of that union of calm abiding and special insight, though, because that’s the demarcation of the path of right preparation. So, there would be some creation of that union.

VTC: Sure, but it’s not like one moment and then it stops. No.

Audience: I haven’t had one of the classes that are being offered that were vipassana—maybe in the Goenka tradition? I never got the sense from talking to people that there was actual analysis going on during those courses, so I get confused when I hear vipassana.

VTC: That’s because there are many different ways to meditate on vipassana. If you look in different Buddhist traditions, the meditation is done very differently. It comes to the same point, but the technique can be different. I haven’t done Goenka meditation, but from what I know about it, you’re focusing on the body scan, and in doing that you’re analyzing what the body is made out of, and what’s going on with the body. Remember, analysis does not mean you’re sitting there intellectually conceptualizing. We hear the word “analysis,” and we think, “Now I’m focused on my liver, and my liver is this color.” All this chatter going on in the mind. That’s not what is meant by analysis. Analysis is a probing mind that’s trying to understand. It’s not an intellectual blah blah mind.

Audience: I went for a Goenka ten-day course, and the first ten days are just for a beginner student. We focused mostly on this body scan—being aware of the body. But they don’t really tell you what the returning older students are doing. They might be doing something a lot more. I don’t know what they’re doing, but it could be quite different. It might qualify more of what we think of as analytical meditation.

VTC: Remember, with analytical meditation, don’t think that you’re sitting there thinking, “Blah, blah, blah.” It means you’re investigating to gain understanding and knowledge and wisdom about something.

Audience: I think that’s kind of what we were doing. We were looking at the sensations of the body and scanning and just becoming aware of them in order to try and get some insight into their nature.

VTC: But there’s a lot in there to do that.

Audience: I remember the translation that Thupten Jinpa told you. Was it that analysis uses probing awareness?

VTC: That was Soso Rinpa, but what they sometimes translate it as is “individual discrimination,” or something like that. It kind of means analysis. This word analysis is very tricky because we hear analysis and our Western image is putting something under the microscope and intellectually thinking, “This is that. What about here? And how does it combine with that?” Then we write a dissertation on it. But that’s not the meaning of analytical meditation.

Audience: When we’re trying to calm the chatterbox, the opinion factory, if there’s something that keeps returning again and again to the mind, even though we see why it’s ridiculous and understand the affliction that’s present and why it’s baseless, what’s the antidote? What is the antidote for when it just keeps coming like a windstorm even though our understanding of it is present?

VTC: Then you need to stop your serenity meditation and apply lamrim antidotes to whatever that affliction is. You need to really meditate deeply with those antidotes, not just:  “I’m distracted by attachment, so the body’s ugly. Yes, that’s one. The next thing is bodies are impermanent; yes, done that. Yes, the body’s the nature of dukkha. But I still feel attachment.” If that’s your meditation on opposing attachment, you’re not meditating on applying the antidotes. You have to go deeply, really deeply, into the antidotes and really focus on the nature of the body. You have to really focus on impermanence so that you get some feeling for it. It’s not just putting a quick meditation at the beginning to block something out. You really have to go into it deeply and develop an understanding and some wisdom regarding it.

We will continue next week with rejecting flawed methods. I wanted to go through this review quickly, but it takes what it takes.

Answer to previous night’s question

I wanted to add a little something to last night, and I hope you can clip this off and attach it to last night’s teaching. I think I finally understood the question that was coming up about when you have the union of serenity and insight. At that time, you can do analysis within concentration. It’s no longer either analysis or concentration, you can do both at the same time.

In terms of realizing emptiness, you can do the analysis at the beginning of your session. By this time, you’re on the path of preparation, so you’re high up there. You can do your analysis at the beginning to identify emptiness and get your object of meditation clear, and then you don’t leave the union of serenity and insight. Because the analysis is not disturbing it, you shift more to do more on the concentration side. You don’t need to do so much analysis because now you’ve identified your object of meditation.

You’re in that union. I think that was the question that came up last night. Some people thought you got the union and then you left it and you went and did stabilizing meditation again. That’s not the case. It’s all that continued.

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.