What follows is taken from conversations with and the unpublished manuscripts of Venerable Shinzen Young, Meditation Master at the Los Angeles Meditation Center. (Venerable Shinzen’s Curriculum Vitae can be found at the end of this essay.)
There are many paths for entering the reality of Nirvana, but in essence they are all contained within two practices: Stopping and seeing. Why? Stopping is the primary gate for overcoming the bonds of compulsiveness. Seeing is the essential requisite for ending confusion. Stopping is the wholesome resource that nurtures the mind. Seeing is the marvelous art which fosters intuitive understanding. Stopping is the effective cause of attaining concentrative repose. Seeing is the very basics of enlightened wisdom.
The person who attains both concentration and wisdom has all the requisites for self-help and for helping others. It should be known then that these two techniques are like the two wheels of a chariot, the two wings of a bird. If their practice is lopsided, you will fall from the path. Therefore, the sutra says:
To onesidedly cultivate the merits of concentrative repose without practicing understanding is called dullness. To onesidedly cultivate knowledge without practicing repose is called being crazed. Dullness and crazedness, although they are somewhat different, are the same in that they both perpetuate an unwholesome perspective.
The Buddhist world comprises three broad traditions. Much of Southeast Asia (Ceylon, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia) preserves an early form of Indian Buddhism, the Theravada. A very late and highly evolved expression of Indian Buddhism, Vajrayana or Tantra, has dominated in Tibet, Mongolia, and Nepal. In East Asia, we find Buddhism greatly transformed at the hands of the Chinese. It is this “sinofied” form of Buddhism which enters Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.
Within each of theses three spheres, numerous schools, traditions, and individual approaches exist for the practice of meditation. Yet concerning basic principles, there is remarkable agreement among Buddhists as to what is involved in the meditative process.
This distinctive Buddhist orientation towards meditation can be summed up concisely. The first, called samatha in Sanskrit, is the step by step development of mental and physical calmness. The second, Vipasynana,2 is the step by step enhancement of awareness, sensitivity, and clarity of mind. These complement each other and should be practiced simultaneously. Some techniques develop primarily calming, others primarily clarity, still others both qualities equally. It is of utmost importance, however, that one component not be enhanced at the expense of the other. To do so is no longer meditation. Tranquillity at the expense of awareness is dozing; awareness at the expense of calm is “tripping.”
Samatha, if taken to an extreme, leads to special trance states; these may be of value, but they are not the ultimate goal of Buddhism. The practice of clear observation, on the other hand, if developed with sufficient intensity and consistency leads to a moment of insight into the nature of the identification process. At that moment, awareness penetrates into the normally unconscious chain of mental events which gives us rock-solid convictions like “I am so and so” or “such and such really matters.” This insight brings with it a radical and permanent change in perspective, a refreshing sense of freedom which is not dependent upon circumstances… The attainment of this perspective and the full manifestation of its implications in daily life are the goals of Buddhist meditation.
Samatha is the practice of stilling the mind through letting go. In Buddhist usage, it is virtually synonymous with the term samadhi. This later term is usually translated as “one-pointedness” or concentration. Unfortunately, the word concentration often carries a connotation of repressing the mind, forcing it not to wander from a certain object. Such a tug-of-war between the desire of the mind to hold an object and its desire to wander is exhausting and produces unconscious tensions. This is the very antithesis of the samatha state.
The nature of concentration is detachment. Realizing this marks an important step along the path to the attainment of a mental power. In real concentration one simply rests the mind on the object at hand and then proceeds to let go of everything else in the universe. The mind then remains on that object until it is appropriate to shift attention. Thus, the ability to focus, to concentrate totally on one thing, is essentially equivalent to the ability to let go of everything. But in order to do this it is necessary to relax the body in a special way.
First, one learns to keep the body upright and utterly motionless entirely through balance and relaxation without muscular effort. The ideal posture for this is the cross-legged “lotus,” although satisfactory results can be achieved with a variety of postures, even sitting in a chair. The important thing is to align the vertebra, find a position of equilibrium, and simply let the body hang from the spine by its own weight. This feeling of letting go then extends to the breath and finally to the mind itself.
Since samatha has the dual nature of letting go and one-pointedness, two approaches to the mind are possible. One is to simply allows the emotional and conceptual content of the mind to settle of its own weight. A way this may be achieved is through the elegant technique of analogy (anumana). One feels a part of the body such as the arm, relaxing then discovers the mental analog of that feeling, i.e., what it feels like to relax thought.
The second approach is to rest the attention on a specific object and habit weakens; then disappears. The object may be physical or visualized, outside the body or within. The so-called “Elephant Taming Pictures” of Tibet portray this process in detail.
It is common in all Buddhist traditions to give beginners some form of meditation which brings the mind to rest on the breathing. Chanting is also common to all traditions, but is not generally considered to be so efficacious as breathing meditations.
Samatha is thus a continuum of states of progressive settling of the mind associated with growth in detachment, concentration power, and a distinctive set of physiological changes. At the end of this continuum, these phenomena become extreme, and states called in Pali, jhanas (Sanskrit, dhyana), are entered. The deep jhana drives, to which everyone is normally subject, are actually suspended, though not necessarily extinguished. This may last for a few hours or several days. One does not feel driven to move, eat, sleep, or think. Indeed, the metabolism so slows that the breath seems nonexistent. The mind, which in its uncultivated state is like a torrential cataract, becomes a rippleless, limpid lake. The deepest jhana state. The characteristics of the jhanas are distinct and well-defined in the Abhidharma literature. In all, nine levels are distinguished.
Samatha is best developed by a daily sitting meditation practice. What are the typical experiences of a person who takes up such a practice? How is it likely to affect his or her day-to-day life?
At first, the body strains to remain upright during sitting, the breath is rough, piston-like, and the mind wanders terribly. One may even feel more agitated than usual. Actually, one is just becoming aware for the first time of the appalling extent and intensity of the chaos within. This awareness is really the first stage of process. In the Tibetan tradition, it is called “realizing” the mind as a waterfall.”
As with any other art, however, time and regular practice bring skill at samatha. The body learns to settle into the posture, breathing becomes smooth and slow, and irrelevant thoughts no longer scream for attention but whisper and are more easily ignored. But the end or each half-hour or hour meditation period, one experiences a noticeable calm, lightness, and openness. Then the task is to remember this calm state and to remain in it throughout the activities of the day!
For many samatha practitioners, the events of the day are seen as a sequence of opportunities to deepen and apply skill at one-pointedness. Peculiar inversion in values may take place. Normally unpleasant situations turn into gold. Overwork and physical discomfort become “negative feedback devices.” Uncomfortable? Go deeper! Chaotic and fearful situations are accepted as challenges to one’s meditative prowess. Wasting time is no longer conceivable. Being unexpectedly kept waiting for an hour somewhere means an hour of “secret use, hidden enjoyment.” The Sung dynasty Ch’an master Wu-men summed it up when he said, “Most people are used twenty-four hours a day; the meditator uses twenty-four hours a day.”
The classical Raja Yoga of Patanjali distinguishes three states along the continuum of settling which are called the “inner branches” of yoga. The first is dharana, holding on, during which the yogi strives to hold the object of concentration, returning to it each time the mind wanders. When the second state, dyhana, is reached, concentration upon the object is unbroken, “like a flowing stream of oil.” Finally, all mental fluctuations cease, trance is attained, and the yogi feels the mundane limitations have been transcended. Patanjali calls this last stage samadhi. Note that, while in Buddhism the word samadhi is usually used as a general term for any state of one-pointedness, here in classical yoga it refers only to the very deepest of such states. Nor is the experience of samatha found only within the context of religious mysticism; it sometimes crops up in the arts, sports, and other “secular” activities which require intense concentration and relaxation.
Samatha is merely a tool which facilitates the attainment of Nirvana. The word Nirvana literally means ‘extinction.’ Not the extinction of self, but the extinction of the klesas, the afflictions which prevent happiness. The klesas may be broadly grouped under three headings; raga, dvesa, and moha. Raga (desire) is the drive to repeat pleasant experiences. Dvesa (aversion or antipathy) is the rejection of unpleasant experience. Moha is confusion and lack of clarity. Moha is responsible for our sense of limited identity and prevents us from noticing the subtle malaise and discomfort which underlie all experience.
There are two ways in which samatha serves as the tool for attaining Nirvana. First, it confers a sense of letting-go, which aids in the gradual renunciation of desire and aversion. Second, it gives the mental stability and one-pointedness necessary for effective vipasyana practice. Vipasyana destroys moha.
Moha means basically not knowing what is going on within oneself. According to Buddhism, it is the fundamental klesa lying at the root of all our problems. The cure is extending clarity and awareness into the normally unconscious processes. This sounds like much of Western psychology. The difference lies in the fact that, in meditation, awareness is cultivated within the samatha state, that distinctive profound settling of mind and body. This allows for an exposing of the unconscious which is far more direct, unrelenting, and keener than that usually attained in psychotherapy.
Sustained vipasyana leads to a moment of liberating insight when huge masses of moha fall away like chunks of concrete revealing a vista of freedom. In scholastic Buddhism, this is called “entering the stream of nobles.” The Rinzai school speaks of kensho, ‘seeing one’s nature,’ or satori, ‘catching on.’ Sometimes in English it is referred to as initial enlightenment or breakthrough. At that moment, the wisdom eye opens, but wider for some than for others. I any case, it never closes again. This is no “peak experience” which later fades. It is a permanent change in perspective, a revolution the basis of the mind.
Accompanying the initiatory phases of this is the realization of “no-self.” This expression, no-self, which Buddhists are so fond of, can be very misleading. At first, the idea seems uninviting, if not absurd. It sounds like a negation of individuality, a frightening loss of the controlling center, of a kind of deluded regression. But what is meant by no-self is becoming free from the concept of self, Satkayadrsti. And this is not quite the same thing as losing self nor does it necessarily even imply the absence of a concept of self.
What is meant by becoming free from a concept? One is free from a particular thought or concept if that thought always arises without the slightest unconscious tension, repression, or break in awareness of the thought as thought. Then one is experiencing the thought so fully that there is no time for the mind to tense and solidify the thought. And so the thought ceases to be in one’s way. In other words, a thought, concept, mental image, or memory has no hold over us if we always experience it totally (vipasyana) and yet remain relaxed (samatha). This is no easy matter in any case. Initial enlightenment comes when we discover that it is possible to allow our deepest moment to moment image of me and mine to arise in this full, empty way. From then on, the distinction between self and other or between enlightenment and non-enlightenment loses its hold.
Along the way, as one moves closer to complete Nirvana, there may come a point where priorities shift from wisdom to compassion, i.e., from meditation to action. If you really feel oneness with everything, it is only natural to take responsibility for all your parts. Helpful words and actions begin to flow forth spontaneously.
Although in Mahayana, compassion is conceived of as on a par with wisdom, in practice priority is usually initially placed on gaining liberation. It is just more efficient that way. Clearing away some moha first makes it less likely that one’s efforts to help others will be misguided. Eliminating raga and dvesa makes it less likely that one’s zeal will lead to aggressiveness and the sacrificing of principles for an end. Further, after one is free from the concept of helper, helped, and helping, there need be no feeling of chagrin or loss of enthusiasm when one’s efforts help fail. The specific direction which such activities take depends upon the culture, circumstances, abilities, and personality of the individual. They range from wizardry to political activism.
To summarize what has been said so far, samatha and vipasyana then are tools for attaining enlightenment, a non-self-centered perspective. That perspective is a tool which facilitates the achievement of complete Nirvana. According to some Mahayana conceptualizations, Nirvana itself is a kind of tool, a tool which allows a person to effortlessly and efficaciously exert a beneficial influence on others. If your influence is such that it benefits a great many people at the very deepest level as did that of Sakyamuni, you are a Buddha. (For Ven. Shinzen’s Curriculum Vitae, see Appendix 8 in Frost PhD appendices.)