The View of Buddhist Meditation
by Traleg Rinpoche
According to the Buddha’s teaching all sentient beings desire happiness and do not want to experience suffering and human beings are no exception. According to the Buddhist teachings although human beings are superior to other sentient creatures in terms of intelligence, nonetheless, they do not have proper insight into themselves. We do not know how to achieve happiness or how to overcome our suffering. Even though our basic desire or drive is to experience happiness, which we are constantly seeking, the manner in which we seek our happiness is misguided, due to our lack of understanding, our ignorance. This is because we think that happiness is achieved only when we are able to satisfy all our desires, that happiness is intertwined with satisfying our desires, our craving. This is a misconception, however, according to the Buddhist teachings. When we equate happiness with the satisfaction of desires we become involved in the attempt to satisfy one desire after another and this is an endless process. All desires cannot be satisfied; it is impossible practically and cannot be done. Therefore we engage in this futile task of trying to satisfy all desire and this is totally self-defeating, as the happiness we are trying to attain to cannot be reached by this means.
According to the teachings we have to look at the whole thing from another angle. We have to look at how we can achieve happiness in a way that does not lead to further dissatisfaction or further experience of suffering. If we try to satisfy all our desires, instead of this leading to happiness, this leads to increase of suffering. Because of craving and attachment whatever we try to attain in order to satisfy our desires can become overwhelming, and can take over our lives, whatever the objects of our desires are. For example, if one becomes totally attached to one’s friends, one’s relatives or one’s children then one becomes totally dependent upon their love and affection.
From a Buddhist point of view what needs to be done is not to try to satisfy every single desire but rather to try to contain craving and to try to overcome attachment. There is a big difference between ridding oneself of desire and overcoming or ridding oneself of craving. Many people think that according to Buddhist teachings we have eventually to give up all desires. It is not the giving up of desire however so much as dealing with craving, which desire gives rise to, and the attachment, which comes from craving, which needs to be overcome. In order to overcome these we need to have some kind of method. Even if we recognize that craving is a problem and that attachment gives rise to problems and perpetuates our suffering and dissatisfaction, there has to be a method we can use in order to overcome those problems.
In Buddha’s teachings the method to overcome attachment and craving is the practice of meditation. There are two types of meditation: Meditation of tranquility and meditation of insight. Meditation of tranquility is used in order to settle the mind, to pacify the mind. If any of you have tried to meditate you would have noticed how hard it is for the mind to be calm, how difficult it is for the mind to be focused and attentive. So first of all one needs to learn how to rest the mind which helps somewhat to stabilize the mind. Once one has learned how to stabilize the mind through the practice of tranquility meditation then one engages in what is called the practice of insight. Having stabilized the mind it is possible to clear the mind of defilements and of various cognitive distortions, through engaging in analysis. So through this, one can try to understand the nature of the self and the nature of the mind, how delusions and attachment arise and how craving comes about.
Before one can try to gain insight into the workings of the mind it is important to learn how to let the mind rest, how to cultivate a focused mind. In the Buddhist tradition we use two different kinds of meditation in order to overcome two different types of obscuration. One is the obscuration of emotional conflict associated with craving and attachment (and so on). The other is the obscuration of cognitive distortions, which is associated with the ignorance, or lack of insight into the nature of our mind. We have this innate tendency to think that there is a self, that there is something called immutable self, which is unchanging, permanent (and so on). Through the practice of meditation of insight, we come gradually to realize that this belief is just a mental construct. When we engage in the practice of vipashyana or insight meditation, we are observing sensations in the body and mental processes going on in the mind; what we perceive, what we experience, thoughts coming and going, concepts arising and subsiding, emotions arising and dissipating. We do not experience something else apart from all that. We do not experience something separate and underlying, or above our feelings or emotions or the various things we remember or think about in terms of the future or the past. There is nothing that we can experience which we can say is the self, as being completely separate from all these things.
So gradually through reflection on ourselves and on the mind, we begin to gain some insight into what is called selflessness or ‘anatman’ in Sanskrit. This does not mean that one realizes that there is no such thing as self at all. What one realizes is that the innate tendency to think that a self is something simple, indivisible and irreducible, something that is permanent and unchanging, is revealed as a mental construct. That does not mean one ceases to function as an individual, as a person because a person or an individual is made up of many different factors, physical and mental. This innate tendency to think that there is ‘me’ who is the bearer of all these attributes is encouraged because normally we say ‘my’ body, ‘my’ feelings, ‘my’ emotions, ‘my’ memory. All the while we are thinking that all these things are something that belong to me. That ‘me’ is something separate from all these things.
When we engage in the practice of insight meditation we realize that there is no ‘me’ apart from all that. Because if you ask the question, What is me? If I’m not my body, my feelings, my memory, my emotions, then what is me? Then you say, „I don’t know¾ and that’s why the Buddhists say that sort of self that sort of ‘me’ does not exist and this is called ‘anatman’ or selflessness. From that realization then it is possible to become less greedy, less selfish, less egotistical and less emotionally charged. Because when one realizes that there is no underlying unchanging entity called self, then there is less need for one to feel defensive and show aggression or feel jealous or indulge in all kinds of like feelings such as pride (etc). This discovery opens up possibilities in terms of relating to others, in terms of opening up to others and also of developing compassion and so on.
Thus from a Buddhist point of view one needs to engage in the two types of practice; for stabilizing the mind and then for gaining insight. One without the other is not profitable. If one tries to practice meditation of insight without practicing tranquility meditation, when the mind is not settled enough and focused enough to be able to think clearly then it is difficult to obtain insight. Likewise, if one engages only in tranquility/shamatha meditation and not in the practice of insight/vipashyana, then one might be able to develop gradually an ability to practice meditation in a way which brings about a more stable, harmonious, peaceful mind without many disturbing thoughts arising but according to Buddhism without insight that type of meditation is also limited. It might relieve a person of tension, anxiety or emotional upheaval (etc), but such mental agitations are only temporarily pushed aside or superseded. The essential nature of the emotions, the essential nature of the mind, the essential nature of the self, these are not dealt with. Just practicing meditation in order to settle the mind so it is not so distracted or restless has a very limited use. So these two, the practice of insight and practice of tranquility meditation must go together.
Through these two different types of practice one can gain insight into the nature of the mind, insight into the nature of the self, then one can become enlightened. That is the aim of a Buddhist practitioner, to become enlightened. When one becomes enlightened according to Buddhism, when we talk about overcoming suffering and attaining happiness etc, what one attains is mental tranquility and mental peace. This does not mean that an enlightened person has overcome suffering altogether but because of the transformation that has taken place in the attitude of that individual then the suffering that exists in the world is experienced differently, related to differently and handled differently. The person has more ability to deal with it but that does not mean that an enlightened person has overcome all suffering, but there is a sense in which such a person has overcome all mental suffering and that is the goal of Buddhist practice.
The Buddhist teachings, which are called the Dharma, are normally compared to the medicine, the Buddha, who is regarded as the teacher and founder of Buddhism, as the doctor and the people who practice and assimilate the teachings are seen as the patients. The reason for this is that, according to the Buddha, the sense of sanity or mental integration is not to be understood in relation to being able to function properly in society; so that one is not seen as weird, or that one is not causing a lot of damage to society and oneself, because of certain mental problems such as psychosis or other forms of mental breakdown. Actually, even this whole idea of conforming to what everybody believes in, is a form of madness, it is a form of mental affliction.
To practice the Dharma, to use the Dharma as medicine, one has, in a sense, to go against the wisdom of commonsense or to go against the beliefs of mass psychology. Just because everybody says this is true or this is how one should go about doing things, does not make it true or correct. As we know, until very recently, until modern science told us differently, some people thought that the earth was flat but now we know that is not true. Many people assume that if a large number of people believe in something then it must be true but there is no reason or basis for that assumption.
To practice the Dharma means to rise above that way of thinking. For example our tendency when it comes to looking for happiness is to want to satisfy all desires, rather than to look for the source of unhappiness or suffering properly. There is a common sort of belief that the main thing to do in life is to seek happiness and avoid suffering; that as long as we can eliminate and eradicate all kinds and all forms of dislikes and increase our pleasure then we will have happiness. This belief is a grave mistake.
In Buddhism the teachings and practice are used in order to gain insight into how we become influenced by certain presuppositions, certain ways of thinking, that are common to all human beings. Such as the belief in a permanent immutable self (etc). So the practice of meditation is done in order to make us realize what sort of delusions we indulge in; both in terms of emotional reactions to things and also in terms of what sort of beliefs and what sort of presuppositions we have.
When we do meditation we just simply pay attention to what is going on in our mind, we do not react either positively or negatively, we do not place any judgments; either in terms of saying this is good or this is bad, but we simply pay attention to what arises in the mind. If we pay attention and suspend our judgments, if we just simply observe, then it is possible gradually to overcome our presuppositions. If we continue to evaluate what is happening during meditation then we will still be using our familiar categories of thought to relate to our meditative experiences. So we say “Oh this experience is good because of this, that and the other thing, and „that experience is bad because of this and that, but if we allow ourselves just to observe simply what is happening during meditation then it is possible to have insight.
When we have insight we realize something new. We cannot gain insight if we are constantly trying to fit fresh experiences into familiar categories of thought, familiar ways of thinking. Our familiar ways of thinking are totally non-dharmic; they might be common sense or they might be widely held beliefs or whatever but they are just mental constructions nonetheless .
So in meditation we simply observe whatever arises either in terms of emotions or thoughts. If we have positive emotions we do not think this is a good thing, and if we have negative emotions arising in our mind, we do not say to ourselves, this is a bad thing. If we have varieties of mental images arising in the mind, for example, images of the Buddha or Jesus or any number of things, we do not say, “Oh this is good, must be some kind of portent, some kind of spiritual attainment or realization,” or if we are thinking about other things, for example about sex or this or that, then we do not say, “Oh, this is bad, I am wasting my time, I’m supposed to be meditating and I am thinking about these things.” We use whatever arises in the mind as a part of meditation. From a Buddhist point of view, with the practice of meditation, the idea is not to suppress thoughts, not to get rid of mental images, mental impressions etc, but the idea is to use these very mental processes as part of meditation. According to Buddhism, thoughts and ideas, concepts and emotions that arise in the mind, are not enemies of meditation. If there is an enemy to meditation it is lack of attention. As long as we are aware of what is going on in the mind then we are in the meditative state. To be in the meditative state does not necessarily mean being in a mental vacuum, of not having any experience. As one Buddhist master said, “you can achieve that if you ask somebody to knock you over the head, you do not have to do meditation for that.”
If you want to be in the meditative state what you have to do is to be attentive and to take notice. When we do that, what happens is that we start to see that everything that we experience during meditation is transient, impermanent and ephemeral. This insight is very important. Normally when people hear that Buddhism teaches about impermanence, they say “I know that, I know everything is impermanent, that’s nothing new.” When we do the practice of meditation, and actually observe and experience our emotions and thoughts, coming and going, then we have a direct experience of impermanence on an existential level. There is a big difference between really knowing and experiencing impermanence, to simply understanding intellectually what impermanence is. Everybody, to a certain degree, understands that everything is impermanent, but how do they react to situations that happen in their particular lives? For example, if a person loses their job or their partner leaves, or some other crisis occurs, they may well not say,” I can accept this because everything changes and is impermanent.” The person may be completely outraged or hurt or depressed or feel suicidal etc.
Through the practice of meditation it is possible to understand impermanence first hand. We become less serious about what happens in our lives, and we can develop a sense of detachment. Which is not to say that we become indifferent, It is possible for one to let things be, and not always try to create some form of false security, to be able to work with the whole idea of things being impermanent, transient and so on.