Book Review – Stages of Meditation by Dalai Lama XIV

Stages of MeditationStages of Meditation by Dalai Lama XIV
5 of 5 stars

This book records the commentary on Kamalashila’s Stages of Meditation” as rendered by His Holiness Dalai Lama to his close followers in Manali 1989. Acharya Kamalashila was a great scholar-saint of the ninth century and a disciple of the great abbot Shantarakshita. Kamalashila composed the text in three parts , initial, intermediate and last stages of meditation. In this book His Holiness Dalai Lama covers the intermediate stages of meditation.

The introduction to the book covers the reasons why everybody should pursue meditation. Compassion, altruistic thought, and the perfect view are the fundamentals and lifeblood of the path to highest enlightenment. In words of the Superior Nagarjuna

“If you wish to attain the unsurpassed enlightenment
For yourself and the world,
The root is generation of an altruistic thought
That is stable and firm like mountain,
As all-embracing compassion.
And a transcendent wisdom free of duality.”

One thing everybody should be very clear is that Dharma teachings have only one purpose: to discipline the mind. In the process of our spiritual practice, we must examine ourselves thoroughly and use Dharma as a mirror in which to see reflected the defects of our body, speech, and mind. When we are able to reduce the defects of the mind, its good qualities increase. We should pay attention to the fundamentals like the practice of the three trainings – renunciation, the awakening mind of bodhicitta, and the wisdom realizing emptiness. The first step is to cultivate within our minds those positive qualities taught by the Buddha. After properly discipling our own minds, then we may hope to help discipline other’s minds. Acharya Dharmakirti has taught this principle in very lucid terms:

“When the technique is obscure [to you]
Explanation is naturally difficult”

For a Dharma practitioner, one of the main challenges is to counter our disturbing emotions and finally free ourselves from them. The difficulty of this is due to the simple truth that disturbing emotions have from beginingless time caused us to suffer all kind of miseries. The whole purpose of meditation is to lessen the deluded afflictions of our mind and eventually eradicate them from their very roots. This constitutes the elimination of the three defects and cultivation of six favourable intentions.

The first of the three defects is listening in a way that is like an upside down container. So when someone is teaching, we’re in fact not listening at all. In such a case we have no interest in the teachings and do not hear anything that is taught. The second of the defects is to listen in a way that is like a container with holes, This mean though we’re listening to the teachings, we do not retain their contents due to lack of mindfulness. The third defect concerns the motivation, and is likened to a vessel containing poison. All Dharma practices must be done with a wholesome motivation and all deluded motives should be erased. These defects are obviously a great obstacle to learning, and we must eliminate these problem and attend to the teachings with keen interest.

Chapter One looks at Mind and Consciousness. There are two types of existent phenomenon: those that exist permanently and those that exist at some times but not at others. What is the implication of this second kind – existing at times but not existing at others? The implication is that temporary things depend on causes. The fact that certain things are produced at certain times proves the existence of causes. Causes are of different types, such as substantial cause, direct cause, indirect cause, cause of equal state, concomitant cause and so forth. Similarly, there are various types of conditions like objective condition, causal condition, immediate condition, and so forth. So those phenomenon that depend on causes and conditions change by nature; they do not abide in one place and they are not permanent. Conditioned phenomena in turn can be classed under three categories – form, consciousness, and neither of the two. Form consists of such aspects as shape, colour, and so forth, which can be sensed. Consciousness has neither shape nor colour and cannot be measured in any physical terms, but it exists in its nature in ability to feel and sense. Time, on the other hand, has neither form nor consciousness and belongs to the third category. The state of omniscience is the ultimate goal encompassing every perfection, and of the three categories of conditioned phenomenon, it belongs to the category of consciousness. Knowing or understanding is the function of consciousness. Consciousness vary in the scope of their knowledge and in their intensity or sharpness e.g. human consciousness is much bigger then animal’s. The consciousness of human beings also vary with education and experience – the more educated you are and the more experience you have, broader your consciousness. Knowledge and understanding develop on the basis of a consciousness that has the ability to perceive its objects. When necessary conditions are met, its ability to perceive increases, the scope of its objects of knowledge expands, and understanding deepens. In this way the mind can develop its full potential of Omniscience, which is the full consummation, or perfection, of the mind’s ability to perceive objects.

Chapter Two is about training the mind which entails a process of familiarization with worldly reality. In the Buddhist context, familiarization, or meditation, refers to the positive transformation of the mind, that is, to the elimination of its defective qualities and the improvement of its positive qualities. Through meditation we can train our minds in such a way that negative qualities are abandoned and positive qualities are generated and enhanced. In general we talk about two types of meditation: analytical and single-pointed. First, the object of meditation is put through a process of analysis in which one repeatedly attempts to gain familiarity with the subject matter. Second, when the practitioner has gained a good deal of certainty about the object of meditation, the mind is made to concentrate on it without further analysis. We must recognize the importance of training the mind, It arises from the fundamental fact that each and every one of us innately desires happiness and does not want misery. The basic purpose of education, for instance, is to gain happiness and avoid misery. Individuals struggle through the process of education so that they can enjoy a successful and meaningful life. We’ve looked at mind or consciousness and also at the importance of training the mind. The human mind does not have any existence independent of the human body. The consciousness that has particular relation to the human body is referred to as human consciousness. The human mind, or consciousness, actually consists of a vast number of minds, some subtle and some coarse. Many of the coarser types are connected to a sense organ like the eye, and many of them are definitely connected to the brain. It is obvious that these external bases, or factors, are essential for a consciousness to arise. But the main cause of any mind is the preceding moment of consciousness, whose nature is clarity and awareness. This is referred to as the immediate condition. The Four Hundred Verses of Aryadev mentions the logical requirement that a root cause of consciousness must have the potential to transform and have a nature of clarity and awareness. Otherwise, consciousness would either never be produced or it would be produced all the time.

Chapter Three, covers compassion which in Buddhist philosophy is the only root, or foundation of consciousness. The word “only” stresses that compassion is an essential cause of omniscience, but does not negate other causes and conditions. It is on basis of compassion that the awakening mind of bodhicitta is generated. In fact, individuals must rely primarily on logic and reasoning to gain faith and conviction in the philosophy. Objects of knowledge can be broadly classified as obvious phenomenon, partially concealed phenomenon, and completed concealed phenomenon. There is no reason to use logic to prove the existence of obvious phenomena. We can experience and understand then directly and thus ascertain their existence. Since partially concealed phenomena cannot be ascertained through direct experience, they need to be established by applying logic. The object of analysis is then understood by inferential cognition based on experience. Several lines of reasoning may be necessary to achieve the purpose.

Chapter Four, covers developing equanimity or how to meditate on compassion. Compassion is a mind that focusses on the sentient beings that are miserable and wishes them to be free from suffering. Compassion can be of three types, depending on the aspect of wisdom that accompanies it. These three are: compassion focussed on sentient beings, compassion focussed on phenomena, and compassion focussed on the unapprehendable. They are distinguished not in terms of their aspect, but in terms of their object of focus, because all three have the same aspect of wishing sentient beings to be separated from suffering. If we examine the state of our minds, we may see how they segregate sentient beings into three groups – those to whom we feel close, those for whom we feel aversion, and those to whom we are indifferent. Our compassion towards others is one sided and superficial, therefore, in order to generate true compassion for all beings, we must first develop an attitude of equanimity, an impartial thought that views all sentient beings equally. Broadly there are two major techniques for developing equanimity. According to the first, we think about the certainty of relationships, and about impermanence, and suffering, and come to see the futility of clinging to some people and hating others. According to second technique , seeing that all beings are the same in terms of wishing to gain happiness and to be free of suffering, we try to develop an impartial attitude toward all beings. Kamalashila puts this succinctly in his text

After the mind has developed equanimity toward all sentient beings, meditate on loving-kindness. Moisten the mental continuum with the water of loving-kindness and prepare it as you would a piece of fertile ground. When the seed of compassion is planted in such a mind, germination will be swift, proper, and complete. Once you have irrigated the mind stream with loving-kindness, meditate on compassion.

Chapter Five deals with identifying the nature of suffering, so that we can generate compassion and have equanimity towards all sentient beings. Kamalashila deals with the various types of miseries that torture all sentient beings. The three types of miseries are the misery of suffering, the misery of change , and pervasive misery. The misery of suffering refers to what we usually recognize as suffering, physical pain, sickness, and mental anxiety. What we usually recognise as happiness is characterized as the misery of change. Contaminated happiness is not perfect happiness, but rather the mere absence of the grosser kinds of suffering. Since contaminated happiness does not last , but is brought to an end by unpleasantness, it is characterised as misery of change. Pervasive misery refers to sentient being’s collection of mental and physical constituents , known as the contaminated aggregates, which result from past karma and disturbing emotions, and act as agent to generate further karma and more misery. Now how can we get the mental training to be free from such misery. In order to train the mind to be compassionate, you must maintain a practice that includes both formal meditation sessions and awareness during the period that follow. It is important to cultivate a practice that unites a calm abiding mind with special insight. Calm abiding is single-pointed meditation, whereas special insight refers to discriminative awareness. Through the union of these two, you will be able to engage in a fruitful practice of both method and wisdom. Buddha Shakyamuni taught these two practices, calm abiding and special insight, and they are the only methods which you can achieve all the levels of concentration. Kamalashila says in his text

“Yogis cannot eliminate mental obstructions merely by familiarizing themselves with calm abiding meditation alone. It will only suppress the disturbing emotions and delusions temporarily. Without the light of wisdom, the latent potential of the disturbing emotions cannot be thoroughly destroyed, and therefore their complete destruction is not possible.”

Chapter Six explains Wisdom. According to Buddhist tradition, the validity of a philosophical doctrine is determined by logical reasoning. Kamalashila says in his text that “wisdom helps you attain a pure pristine awareness”. Wisdom derived from meditation alone can enable us to eradicate the obscuration to liberation and to knowledge.

Chapter Seven deals with common prerequisites for meditating on calm abiding and special insight. According to the text by Kamalashila, “the prerequisites for the development of calm abiding meditation are: to live in a conducive environment, to limit your desires and practice contentment, not being involved in too many activities, maintaining pure moral ethics, and fully eliminating attachment and all other kinds of conceptual thoughts”. He further states that “a conducive environment should be known by these five characteristics: providing easy access to food and clothes, being free of evil beings and enemies, being free from disease, containing good friends who maintain moral ethics and who share similar views, and being visited by few people in the daytime and with little noise at night. Limiting you desires refer to not being excessively attached to many worldly goods. The practice of contentment means always being satisfied with any little things. Not being involved in many activities refers to giving up ordinary activities like business, avoiding too close association with householders and monks, and totally abandoning the practice of medicine and astrology.

Chapter Eight refers to the practice of calm abiding, which is “that mind which has overcome distraction to external objects, and which spontaneously and continuously turns toward the object of meditation with bliss and pliancy.” First develop the ability to engage in calm abiding meditation by developing mental pliancy and then physical pliancy, so that mind is conjoined with bliss. Calm abiding meditation is a single pointed mind. The object of meditation here is primarily ultimate truth, but conventional phenomena are not excluded. The concentration that generates physical and mental bliss by the force of analysing the object is special insight. Thereafter, a union of calm abiding and special insight is attained. In this context, the mode of meditation is to deliberately stop all kinds of thoughts and perceptions, followed by stopping the mind to reflect on sensory experiences like feelings of joy or misery. Focus the mind on its present and natural state without allowing it to become preoccupied with memories of the past or plans for the future. When mind is free from all kinds of thoughts and concepts, suddenly a form of vacuity will appear. If the mediator tries to gain familiarity with that vacuity, the clarity of the consciousness will naturally become more obvious. Throughout the process of practicing calm abiding meditation, we should be fully aware of the five defects and the eight antidotes. The five defects are laziness, forgetting the object of meditation, mental dullness and excitement, not applying the antidote when afflicted by mental dullness and finally unnecessary application of the antidotes. The eight antidotes are faith, interest, perseverance, pliancy, mindfulness, conscientiousness, application of the antidotes and discarding unnecessary antidotes.

Chapter 9 describes how to actualize special insight. Kamalashila says “after realizing calm abiding, meditate on special insight, thinking as follows: All the teaching of the Buddha are perfect teachings, and they directly or indirectly reveal and lead to suchness with utmost clarity. If you understand suchness, you will be free of all the nets of wrong views, just as darkness is dispelled when light appears”. In order to meditate on the special insight that realizes ultimate reality, we need to develop the wisdom that understands selflessness. Before we can do that, we must search for and identify the self that does not exist. We cannot be satisfied with merely believing in its absence. We must ascertain from the depths of our heart that there is no basis for such a self to exist. Selflessness is of two types: the selflessness of persons and the selflessness of phenomena and both need to be negated. To ordinary perception, a person appears in relation to the mental and physical aggregates as the ruler over the body and mind. This notion of a self-sufficient person, which we ordinarily cling to very strongly, it is the self to be negated. The selflessness of phenomenon refers to the perceived object’s lacking true existence and the perceiving mind’s lacking true existence. The perceived object’s lacking external existence, and the perceiver and the perceived object’s lacking separate identity or substance, constitute the grosser level of the selflessness of phenomena. The analysing wisdom must discern the self to be refuted, after refuting that self, its opposite selflessness will be actualised.

Last chapter looks at unifying method and wisdom. It explains the practice of the union of special insight and calm abiding meditation where practitioner is engaged in the practice of both single pointed meditation and analytical meditation. The practitioner should place equal emphasis on generosity and other practices during the post-meditation period. During the time, dependent origination and emptiness must be understood as interchangeable. Emptiness in this context means that things lack their own intrinsic self-identity; it does nor mean non-existence. Therefore it does not fall into the extreme of nihilism. The implication is that when you understand the philosophy of emptiness, there is no contradiction in presenting the law of cause and effect on the conventional level. Emptiness does not mean nothingness; it means that things are empty of intrinsic existence. The meditation should be continued, with the awareness that full coordination between the method and wisdom aspects is crucial. Through these practices, the meditator becomes fully absorbed in suchness, like water being poured into water, free from the stain of duality.

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