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Lama Gelek Rinpoche
Tsong Khapa (1357-1419) taught that we should practice both contemplative meditation
and concentration meditation. In the former of these we investigate the object
of meditation by means of contemplating it in all its details, whereas in the
latter we focus single-pointedly on one aspect of the object and hold the mind
there without movement.
Samadhi is a meditative power that is useful in general application to either of these two types of meditation. However, in order to develop samadhi itself we must cultivate principally concentration meditation. In terms of practice this means that we must choose an object of concentration and then meditate single-pointedly on it every day until the power of samadhi is attained.
The five great obstacles to samadhi are laziness, forgetfulness, wandering mind or depression, not correcting any of the above problems when they arise, and applying meditative opponents to problems when in fact the problems are not there, that is they are purely imaginary.
The actual antidote to laziness is an initial experience of the pleasure and harmony of body and mind that arise from meditation. Once we experience this joy, meditation automatically becomes one of our favorite activities. However, until we get to this point we must settle for a lesser antidote to laziness. We require something to counteract our laziness and to encourage us in practice until the experience of meditative ecstasy comes to us. This lesser antidote is contemplation of the benefits of having the power of samadhi, by hard work and by desire.
What are the benefits of having samadhi? One can attain the siddhis very quickly, one is able to read others' minds, one can see into the future, one can remember one's own past incarnations, and one is able to perform magical acts such as flying and levitating: these are some of the advantages gained. Another important benefit is that one's sleep is transformed into profound meditation. By contemplating these benefits, laziness disappears.
The second obstacle to samadhi is forgetfulness. One simply loses awareness of the object of meditation. When this happens, concentration is no longer present. Nagarjuna gave an illustration of the samadhi process in which the mind is likened to an elephant to be tied by the rope of memory to the pillar of the object of meditation. The meditator also carries the iron hook of wisdom with which to spur on the lazy elephant.
What should we choose as the object of our meditation? One can select anything—a stone, fire, a piece of wood, a table, and so on. However, we should not choose an object which arouses delusions such as desire or aversion within us, or an object which has no qualities specifically significant to our spiritual path. Some teachers have said that one should begin with fire, then later change to swirling clouds and so forth. This is not an effective approach. We should choose one object and stick with it.
Many people choose the symbolic form of a buddha or a meditational deity as their object. The former has many benefits and is a great blessing; the latter provides a special preparation for higher tantric practice. In the beginning we can place a statue or painting of the object of meditation in front of us and look at it as we concentrate. But as it is our mind, not our eyes that we want to develop, this should be done only until familiarity with the object is gained. The most important point is to settle on one object and not change it. There are stories of great saints who chose the form of a yak as their object, but generally it is better to select an object of greater spiritual value. Then do not change until at least the first of the four levels of samadhi is attained.
Consistency in practice is also important. Once you begin you should continue each day until the goal is reached. If all conditions are perfect, this can be done in three months or so. But to practice an hour a day for a month and then miss a day or two will produce minimal progress. Constant steady effort is necessary. You have to fix a daily schedule of meditation and then follow it.
Let's say our object of concentration is the symbolic form of Buddha. The first problem is that we cannot immediately visualize the form clearly. The advice is this: don't be concerned with details; just get a sort of yellow lump and hold it in mind. At this stage you can use an external image as an aid, alternating between looking at the object and then trying to hold it in mind for a few moments without looking. Forgetfulness, the second of the obstacles, is very strong at this point and you must struggle against it. Get a mental picture of the object and then hold it firmly. Whenever it fades away, bring it back as forcefully as a glass image held in the hand.
This forceful holding of the object gives rise to the third problem. When we try to hold the object in the mind, the tension of the effort produces either agitation or depression. The forced concentration produces a heaviness of mind, and this in turn leads to sleep. The sleep itself is a coarse form of depression. The subtle form of depression is experienced when one is able to hold the object in mind for a prolonged period of time, yet without any real clarity. Without this clarity the meditation lacks strength. To illustrate this with an example: when a man in love thinks of his beloved, her face immediately appears radiantly in his mind and effortlessly remains with clarity. A few months later, however, when they are in the middle of a fight, he has to strain to think of her in the same way. When he had the tightness of desire the image was easy to retain clearly. This tightness is called nye-shak in Tibetan, or "close placement" (Sanskrit: satipatana). When this close placement is lost, the image eventually disappears and subtle depression sets in. It is very difficult to distinguish between proper meditation and meditation characterized by subtle depression, and remaining absorbed in the latter can create many problems.
Secondly, mentally wandering away from the object of meditation must also be guarded against. Most people sit down to concentrate on an object, but their mind quickly drifts away to thoughts of the activities of the day, or to a movie or television program that recently was seen. Pabongka Rinpoche, root guru to both tutors of the present Dalai Lama, told a story of a very important Tibetan government official who would always put a pen and a notebook beside his meditation seat whenever he would do his daily practices. The official used to say that his best ideas came from mental wandering in meditation. The mind wanders off on some memory or plan and we don't even realize that it is happening; we think we are still meditating, but suddenly realize that for half an hour our mind has been elsewhere. This is the coarse level of the wandering mind. When it is overcome we still have to deal with subtle wandering: one factor of the mind holds the object clearly but another factor drifts away. We have to develop the ability to use the main part of our mind to concentrate on the object and another part to watch that the meditation is progressing correctly. This side part of the mind is like a secret agent. Without this secret agent we can become absorbed in incorrect meditation for hours without knowing what we are doing. The thief of mental wandering or depression comes into the house and steals away our meditation.
We have to watch, yet not over-watch. Over-watching can create another problem. It is like when we hold a glass of water: we have to hold it, hold it tightly, and also watch to see that we are holding it correctly and steadily, without allowing any water to spill out. Holding, holding tightly and watching: these are three keys in samadhi meditation. The fourth problem is failing to correct problems that arise. By not correcting any depression or wandering that arises, we fall under the fourth obstacle. How do we correct these two fundamental problems? The antidote to depression is tightening the concentration and the antidote to wandering is loosening the concentration.
When depression arises and you don't counteract it with tightness, the fourth obstacle is produced. On the other hand, too much tightness on the object created by a lack of natural desire to meditate is also to be avoided. We must balance tightness with relaxation. Sometimes when we try to counteract depression with tightness the mind gets too tight. When this happens, just relax within the meditation. If that does not work, forget the object for a while and concentrate on happy thoughts, such as the beneficial effects of bodhicitta, until the mind regains its composure. Then return to the object. This has an effect similar to washing the face in cold water. If even contemplating a happy subject does not pick you up, visualize that your mind takes the form of a tiny seed at your heart. Then visualize shooting the seed out of the crown of your head into the clouds above; leave it there for a few moments and then bring it back. Should even this not help, just take a break from the meditation for awhile.
Similarly, when mental wandering arises you can think of an unpleasant subject, such as the suffering nature of samsara. When the mind is low we change to a happy subject which brings it up again; for mental wandering we change to an unpleasant subject in order to bring the mind down out of the sky and back to earth.
The fifth obstacle arises by applying antidotes to depression or wandering which in fact are not present, or by overly watching for problems. This obstructs the development of meditation.
In brief, these are problems to be overcome in the development of samadhi meditation. Next I'd like to speak of the meditation posture, or the seven-point posture of Buddha Vairochana. On a comfortable cushion sit in the vajra posture, with both feet crossed and the soles upturned. The Indians call this the lotus posture; we Tibetans translate it as the vajra posture. This sitting posture is the first of the seven characteristics of the Vairochana posture. If this or any other of the seven points are overly difficult for whatever reason, sit as is most convenient and comfortable. The seven-point posture is actually the most effective for meditation once one develops familiarity and comfort with it, but, until then, any of the points that are too difficult may be substituted by something more within one's reach. One should try to keep one's back straight and head leaning slightly forward with the eyes cast down along the line of the nose. If the eyes are cast too high, mental wandering is encouraged; if too low, depression easily sets in. The eyes should not be closed; they should be cast along the line of the nose to an imaginary point five feet or so in front. In order not to be distracted by environmental objects, many meditators sit facing a blank wall. The shoulders should be held level, the teeth lightly closed and the tip of the tongue placed against the hard palate. This latter point prevents thirst from developing when one engages in prolonged meditation.
We can open our meditation sessions with a prayer to the lineage gurus in connection with a visualization. Then go directly to concentrating on the chosen object, such as a buddha image. At first the main difficulty is to get hold of the mental image. Even getting a blurred image is difficult. You have to persist at trying to create the image. Once this is accomplished you have to cultivate clarity and correct tightness, while guarding against problems such as wandering, depression and others. Just sit and pursue the meditation while watching for distortions. Sometimes the object becomes too clear and we break into mental wandering, or it becomes dull and we lose it to sleep or torpor. In this way, using the six powers and the four connecting principles, we can overcome the five obstacles and climb up the nine stages to shamatha, where we can meditate effortlessly and ecstatically for as long as we want. In the beginning our main struggle is against wandering and depression. Just look for the object and as soon as a problem is noticed, correct it. On the ninth stage one can concentrate effortlessly for a great length of time, but samadhi is not yet attained. First one must also develop a certain sense of pleasure and harmony within both the body and mind. One concentrates until a great pleasure begins to arise within the head and spreads down, feeling like the gentle invigorating warmth of a hot towel held against the face. The pleasure spreads throughout the body until one feels as light as cotton. One meditates within this physical pleasure, which gives birth to mental ecstasy. Then when you meditate you have a sense of inseparability with the object. Your body seems to disappear in meditation and you sort of become one with the object. You almost want to fly away in your meditation. After this you can fix the mind on any object of virtue for as long as desired. This is the preparatory stage or the first level of samadhi. Meditation is light and free, like a humming bird in mid-air drinking honey from a red flower.
Beyond this you can either remain in samadhi meditation and cultivate the four levels of samadhi or, as advised by Lama Tsong Khapa, turn to searching for the root of samsara. No matter how high one's samadhi, if the root of samsara is not cut one must eventually fall. Tsong Khapa likened samadhi to the horse ridden by a warrior, and the wisdom that cuts the root of samsara to the warrior's sword. When you gain the first level of samadhi you have found the horse and can then turn to the sword of wisdom. Unless you gain the sword of wisdom, your attainment of samadhi is prone to collapse. You can take rebirth in one of the seventeen realms of the gods of form, but eventually you will fall. On the other hand, if we develop basic samadhi and then apply it to the development of wisdom, we cut samsara's root as quickly as a crow knocks out the eyes of an enemy. Once this root is cut, we are beyond falling.
Lama Gelek Rinpoche studied at Drepung Monastery in Tibet and later in India, where he gained the geshe degree. He has held several teaching and other positions in India and has also taught abroad several times. He has been the most regular teacher at Tushita, and we are most grateful for his kindness. The following has been edited from his discourse of April 25, 1980 one of the many lam-rim teachings he has given us.
From Teachings at Tushita, edited by Nicholas Ribush with Glenn H. Mullin, Mahayana Publications, New Delhi, 1981. A new edition of this book is in preparation. Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre is the FPMT centre in New Delhi, India.