Read an Excerpt
Prelude to the Practice
The practice of samatha, sometimes translated as meditativequiescence or calm abiding, is not unique to Buddhism. It iscommon to non-Buddhist traditions as well. In fact, it is anessential aspect of most spiritual meditative practices becausemeditative quiescence is an indispensable tool essential for attainingliberation, nirvana, or the full awakening of buddhahood.
These are lofty goals, and many obstacles lie in the path ofanyone who seeks them. The chief obstacles to liberation areknown as afflictive obstructions. The chief obstacles to the fullawakening of a buddha are known as cognitive obstructions.They are the collective obstacles to omniscience, and to go beyondthem one must apply the proper antidote. In the caseof both the afflictive and cognitive obstacles, that antidote isthe realization of emptiness.
In and of itself, the realization of emptiness is a lofty goal,and the attainment of the wisdom that realizes emptiness requiresan extremely stable mind able to focus on the ultimatetruth.
What does that term, "extremely stable mind," mean?
It means a mind sufficiently stable to be able to focus uponemptiness without wavering to any other object. In order tocultivate such a stable mind capable of focusing upon emptinesswithout wavering to any other phenomenon, samatha, ormeditative quiescence, is indispensable.
Equally indispensable for the attainment of the state ofsamatha is proper motivation. This is the first step in theprocess,the cultivation of a proper motivation that will create amomentum to carry the meditator through the course of thepractice, however long it may last.
The primary objective of cultivating samatha is the attainmentof liberation and full awakening as a means to be of serviceto others. However, there are subsidiary effects or benefitsof meditative quiescence, namely the development of psychicpowers and other forms of heightened awareness. Thesesiddhis, too, can be used in the service of others. However,it is important to remember that the primary reason for thecultivation of samatha is the attainment of liberation or fullawakening.
In order to focus in on the proper motivation, one must askthe question: What is the point of attaining the full awakeningof a buddha?
Just as space is without limit, so it is true that sentient beingsare without limit. Buddhist cosmology says that amongthe various realms inhabited by sentient beings the majorityabide in the hell realms, a smaller number abide in the realmof tormented spirits or pretas, still fewer in the animal realms,still fewer in the human realm, fewer yet in the realm of thedemi-gods and a very few in the deva world. Moreover, thereare limitless numbers of beings in the intermediate state betweendeath and rebirth who are not classified in any of thesix realms of existence.
If we look at this question from a Western perspective, usingall the available scientific technology, we see that althoughthe ground is solid it is permeated by various types of organisms,as is the air, as is the water. Taking the Western scientificperspective one step further, it is said that something likea billion organisms live in the human body. So again we havethe sense of a limitless number of sentient beings stretchinginfinitely into space.
Now, let us return to the Buddhist perspective and ask thisquestion: What is the point of attaining the full awakeningof a buddha? The answer is almost too obvious. Upon attainingfull awakening, it is possible to be of unimaginable benefitto countless sentient beings, especially to those who havea close relationship with one's own being, the organisms inone's own body. Undoubtedly there is a close relationship withthose.
If you were able to release from samsara simply the billionorganisms in your own body, that would be a tremendousachievement. To attain full awakening each would need to developbodhicitta, the awakening mind, and in order to do thatit is virtually necessary to have a human body. Imagine bringingeach of these sentient beings with whom you have this intimateconnection to the brink of full awakening by affordingthem the opportunity just to be born with a human body. Eachwould also have a billion organisms within it. A billion timesa billion beings offered the opportunity of liberation by theact and motivation of a single individual.
In the abstract, the motivation of bodhicitta, the aspirationto attain full enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings,may seem impractical and impossible. However, lookingat it from the perspective of our interdependence with justthe beings within our own bodies can put the impossible withinreach.
The quest for the attainment of nirvana or liberation is chieflydiscussed in the Hinayana scriptures. When one investigatesthis issue of liberation, it is helpful to look back to the precedinglife as well as the lives preceding that life. That investigationwill lead to an understanding that there is no beginning to one'sprevious lives, that life is indeed limitless.
If you follow the rim of a metal disc you will see that it hasno end and no beginning. Samsara, or the cycle of existence,is very much like the rim of that metal disc. Its beginning andits end cannot be found. It is our mental distortions and theactions conditioned by them that propel us through the endlesscycles of samsara. It is a self-perpetuating process.
While this is true of the cycle of life, it is possible to searchfor and find the beginning of one specific lifetime.
What is the origin of the specific human rebirth?
It is ignorance.
If we take this present body as an example, whence doesit arise? It arises from ignorance, from ignorance and karma,from the distorted action of a person of the same continuumas ourselves in a previous life. There was the ignorance; therewas the action; it gave rise to this birth.
And whence arose that ignorance, that karma? It arose frompreceding ignorance, from preceding karma, preceding withoutbeginning.
Speaking of the twelve links of dependent origination, thegreat sage Asanga points out that the three primary mentalafflictionsattachment, aversion and ignorancearise from twotypes of karmaaccomplishing and propulsive karma. Theseboth arise from ignorance. The three interact in a self-perpetuating,beginningless, endless cycle. In this manner then,samsara is a cycle without beginning and without end.
If one reflects upon the unsatisfactory nature of suffering,one finds that it too is beyond all bounds. Suffering is not somethingwe like to look into very much. When we do look, however,we see how pervasive it is. Even if one has a quite pleasanthuman rebirth, even then the extent of suffering isimmense. First there is the suffering of the very process ofbirth. Then following birth there are times of frustration whena child's desires go unfulfilled, the suffering of the disciplinethat forces the child to conform to its parents' and society'snorms. The suffering continues through youth, as one goesto school and struggles to get good grades, all the sufferingsof growing up, the suffering of not attracting the boy you like,or the suffering of getting the girl you like and finding sheis not the person you wanted, but only the person you thoughtyou wanted.
The suffering continues in adulthood. It becomes the sufferingof seeking work, of seeking work that seems meaningful,of economic survival, trying to get one's act together, tryingto get one's possessions together, struggling for success andattaining it. Eventually, when you have everything together,even when you're all set with success and everything you toldyourself you wanted, then you have to protect it from all thosewho would take it from you if they had half the chance. Thenyou die, and you are back to being a beggar again, a baby again,coming into the world naked and without even a single possession.
This is the case in the human situation with a very pleasanthuman rebirth. But look at the beings with less fortunate humanrebirths, at beings in the hell realms, in the preta realm,in the animal realm. There is yet more suffering in those.
At this point, each of us has had limitless experience in bothlower and fortunate realms. But where has it gotten us? Righthere, even in this fortunate situation in which we have the leisureto devote time and energy to spiritual practice, we are stillsubject to suffering. How much good has all that suffering doneus?
We do not and can not stop it by saying, "I've gone throughlimitless lives. I've had my share. I'm satisfied with that. Ithink I'll move on now, on to something else." The truth isthat we helplessly cultivate the very sources of our sorrow, wecontinue to be subject to suffering regardless of how muchsuffering we have had in the past, and continuing in this waywe are bound to experience more suffering than we want toexperience in the future.
On the one hand there is the suffering we have discussed.On the other, there are also sources of pleasure and happiness.Paradoxically, however, in the midst of the struggle tomaintain happiness, to insure the continuance of pleasure, orpervaded by dissatisfaction with pleasures that have becomefamiliar, these too become part of suffering.
When does this continuum of suffering end? It ends withthe cessation of ignorance which brings about the attainmentof liberation or nirvana. If we truly seek happiness for ourselvesit is that liberation that we should aim for. In the freedomfrom suffering that comes with liberation lies the truesense of happiness.
Considering all this, as we embark on a one-year retreat,a three-month retreat, or any other form of samatha practice,what objective, what aspiration shall we hold in our mind?What motivation shall we choose?
If our motivation is the increase of our reputation, greater acquisitions,praise, affluence, etc., then our whole practice willbe less than insignificant. Moreover such a motivation will makethe attainment of samatha impossible.
What is the attainment of samatha?
It is the access concentration to the first dhyana, the firstmeditative stabilization. This belongs to a different dimensionof existence known as the form realm. The prerequisite to theattainment of that dhyana is the turning away from sensualdesires. If the motivation for attainment entails attachment tothe sensual or desire realm, then that very motivation for thepractice becomes the primary obstacle to attainment.
Another unsuitable motivation is the personal satisfactionthat comes from serving others. A doctor, for instance, servesothers; but if his principal motivation for serving is the satisfactionhe himself receives by serving and healing others, hiseffort becomes self-serving and self-centered. That motivationis centered entirely on benefits attainable only within thislifetime.
This kind of motivation would be equally unsuitable for thecultivation of samatha. If one works to attain samatha in orderto bring benefit to other beings but is ultimately interestedin the personal satisfaction to be gained through that seeminglyaltruistic act, that too is said to be an aspiration entailingconcerns of this life, and it will become an obstacle forthe cultivation of meditative quiescence.
You might logically ask if we are supposed to forget this lifetimeall together. If I attain samatha, will it bring no benefitin this lifetime?
This is not the case. If we turn our awareness to having ahigher, truly altruistic aspiration, the benefits in this lifetimeinevitably occur without any special thought or effort on ourpart. The lives of the historical Buddha, Buddha Sakyamuni,and the great pandits and contemplatives of India, Tibet, Thailand,Burma and China are the proof of the pudding. Somesought to attain the full awakening of a buddha, others strovefor liberation, others hoped for favorable future lives. All thesemotivations extended beyond this life, yet their effectivenessin serving others in this lifetime was immense.
One of the most well-known examples might be the Tibetanyogi and saint, Milarepa. A teacher of great renown andreputation, he is esteemed by Tibetan Buddhists of every order.Milarepa had utterly renounced the concerns of this life.His objective was very simply to attain full awakening for thebenefit of all creatures. His renunciation was complete. Hedispensed with all concerns for food, clothing, reputation, allmundane affairs. Paradoxically, he became the recipient of allthe things he had renounced.
When most people get ill they want to make sure everyoneknows about it, for the sake of sympathy, or in the hope thatthey will get the best care, the best hospitals, the best doctors.When they're on their death bed, they want comfort, wanttheir loved ones around them. Many think a big funeral willbe the best funeral. Still others leave intricate instructions onwhat should be done with their remains, insuring that a lotof people will be concerned with their bodies after death.
Milarepa's attitude was completely opposite. In one of hissongs, he said, "When I am ill, may no one know about it;when I die, may there be no one to weep; and when I am dead,may there be no one who has to dispose of my body." At theend of his life, word of his final illness spread far and wide.In spite of his wishes his disciples came from every corner ofthe country to be with him at the moment of death and weepfor him. After he died there was great concern over his remains.The dakas and dakinis wanted them; his students anddisciples wanted them; the people from the village in whichhe had been born wanted them.
On the surface one might think that if one simply concernsoneself with altruistic intent and future lifetimes, the practicalaspects of this life will not be accomplished, and one willbe a failure. This simply isn't true. On the contrary, when onereally does renounce or let go of this lifetime everything is takencare of by force of the deeper motivation.
There are three levels of meaningful or authentic motivationfor the practice of samatha:
To attain rebirth in the form or formless realms
To attain liberation or nirvana
To attain full awakening
REBIRTH IN THE FORM OR FORMLESS REALMS
Such a rebirth can result in a life that lasts billions of earthlyyears and is filled with tremendous bliss. The first four dhyanasin the formless realm, as well as the fourth to the eighth, areso subtle that it is almost like being in a deep, blissful sleep.
Some non-Buddhist contemplatives confuse rebirth in eitherof these two realms with the attainment of nirvana. Withthat in mind, they make its attainment the motivation for theirpractice of samatha. To strive for that is still of greater meaningthan simply striving to attain samatha as a means of accomplishingthe affairs of this life. However, if you follow thisroute and obtain such an exalted rebirth, after so many billionsof years when the power of the samatha that got you thereis exhausted, you fall from that blissful state and quite possiblycould be reborn in the hell realms. Looking at its culmination,such a rebirth seems less significant. It simply decaysuntil one falls back again.
LIBERATION OR NIRVANA
Liberation, or nirvana, irrevocably cuts the continuum andsource of one's own suffering. It is a very powerful motivationand a magnificent attainment. Upon attaining nirvana,while abiding in meditative equipoise, one is of no evident benefitto any other sentient being. One is in a state of total inactivity.
There are many accounts of beings who have attained liberationbeing stimulated to seek and attain the full awakeningof a buddha. But it is said that it is far more difficult for sucha person to attain full awakening than it is for a person whohas not attained liberation.
Why is that?
Liberated beings are so free of suffering, so totally beyondsuffering, that it is difficult for them to develop any sense ofempathy or sympathy for those who do suffer. Thus, it is difficultfor them to generate great compassion or bodhicitta, alsoessential prerequisites for the attainment of full awakening.
Of the three authentic motivations for engaging in the practiceof samatha, the altruistic aspiration for full awakening isthe most meaningful. In terms of altruism or serving the welfareof others, even if one is not engaged in an actual activity,in some active service, it lifts the practice to the highest level.Aryadeva says that the aspiration to serve, in and of itself, isan aspect or means of serving others.
We see that there are basically two avenues to the attainmentof full awakening. One is to attain liberation, remain therefor some time, get stimulated, get back into gear, and thengo on to seek full awakening. The other is simply and directlyto go to full awakening. This being the case, why not take thedirect path?
It is very much an individual choice. Some may simply feeloverwhelmed because the enlightenment of a buddha may seemto be beyond reach. To such a person it might seem more practicalto say, "I could handle liberation," and go in that direction.If one has the feeling that it would be more appropriateor satisfactory simply to attain liberation, then let that be themotivation. Remember, however, that through that attainmentyou really check out of society; that is, you are free of birth,out of the worldat least for a time.
Apart from that special kind of attitude one might as wellstrive for full awakening for the benefit of all creatures fromthe outset and then think of samatha as the instrument forattaining that goal.
Excerpted from CALMING THE MIND by Gen Lamrimpa (Ven. Jampal Tenzin). Copyright © 1992 by B. Alan Wallace and Gen Lamrimpa. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.