Presented to the Buddha Center on Sunday, July 5, 2015.
The Essence of Meditation
It is not correct to speak of “meditation” in the Pali Canon. Rather, one should refer to “meditations’ in the plural. The Buddha did not merely teach one method of meditation. Rather, he taught numerous methods, each suited to the personal needs of the individual with whom he was speaking.
These are included in the 84,000 dhammakhanda (lit. “dhamma collection”). The number 84 is not arbitrary. It is an ancient sacred Vedic number that also appears in Sumerian culture. 84 is 7 times 12, the number of anciently known planets multiplied by the number of signs of the zodiac. It is also 8 (2 x 4) and 4, the symbol of Infinity (the Buddhist “endless knot”) and the Four Elements. It also adds up to 12 (3 x 4). It is also the duration of the luni-solar calendrical cycle, being the product of 3, 4, and 7. This cycle was also used by the Celtic Christians to calculate Easter. Interestingly, it is also the period of Uranus. It is also a positive feng sui number. 84 x 1,000 is, therefore, a number of completeness and spirituality. Thus, when we speak of the 84,000 teachings of the Buddha we refer, in addition to being a large number, to their qualities of completeness and totality, especially in relation to higher consciousness.
The Pali Canon includes references to many different types of meditation. Sarah Shaw collects many of these texts in her book, Buddhist Meditation: An Anthology of Texts from the Pali Canon (London: Routledge, 2006). One of the best-known of these is the metta meditation, in which one projects feelings of love and compassion to the six directions, consisting of the four horizontal directions (north, south, east, west) plus above and below (the zenith and the nadir). This meditation is frequently mentioned in the Pali Canon. However, in this talk, I would like to take an integral approach to the topic of Buddhist meditation, for, if there are 84,000 iterations of something, then there must be an underlying unity of which there are 84,000 iterations. That unity is mindfulness, the essence of meditation. In taking this approach to Buddhist meditation I am influenced by Sri Aurobindo and Ken Wilber, and I will be largely using Shaw’s translations, aided by the comprehensive understanding of the Pali Canon that I am building up as a consequence of my vow to read the Pali Canon through five times over the next five years. In order to achieve this integral view I will be keeping this discussion as universal as possible.
As I have discussed in my talk, “The Status of Women in Ancient India and the Pali Tradition,” the Buddha clearly taught that women are capable of emancipation, despite the highly patriarchal and indeed misogynistic views of the arhants of the First Buddhist Council.
One of the consistent themes relating to meditation in the Pali Canon is where it is conducted. Originally, the Buddhasangha did not occupy monasteries and did not meditate enclosed in temples. Rather, they meditated in the forest, outdoors, either in secluded places or in huts. Later on, they meditated in parks, donated by wealthy patrons such as the courtesan Ambapali. Of course, one reason for meditating out-of-doors in the forest was seclusion, which is the precondition of the first jhana and frequently mentioned in the texts. This seclusion is not merely or even, perhaps, primarily external. The Buddha makes it clear that external rites and practices are of little value. Rather, real seclusion consists in withdrawing the mind from attachment to stimuli, including sensory stimuli and the stimuli of the mind itself. In Buddhism, the mind is simply seen as a “sixth sense.” However, the texts themselves frequently allude to the quality of natural beauty as another significant factor, in addition to subsequent Buddhist practice. Historically, Buddhist monasteries are not merely located in remote places. They are also located in places of great natural beauty, so-called “power points.” This is somewhat paradoxical, but Shaw herself notes that emancipation seems to enhance one’s appreciation of the natural, even though the explicit goal of emancipation is transcendence of the natural. This paradox may represent a survival of the deep shamanic roots of Buddhist theory and practice, as we do elsewhere. The practice of solitude is, therefore, not merely negative. It results in the “stirring of energy” that itself furthers the attainment of the meditative state.
Another significant factor that arises in the practice of meditation that leads to the experience of emancipation is what Shaw refers to as “the moment,” a surprise event or shock that results in an instantaneous change of state in the context of meditative practice. The influential European mystic George Gurdjieff also refers to it in his doctrine of “the shock.” Shaw mentions schools that regard this as a necessary preliminary to enlightenment, referring probably to Zen, but it is certainly also found in the Pali Canon. I have referred to this in a previous talk. Ananda refers to this as the fourth cause of enlightenment, along with serenity and insight. This is discussed in Chapter 8 of my book, Fundamental View: Ten Talks on the Pali Canon. Sometimes this attainment results in the spontaneous utterance of ecstatic poetry.
Meditation, while necessary, is not sufficient to attain emancipation, however. The Buddha says that meditation without wisdom is ineffective, and that wisdom without meditation is ineffective, but it is clear from the texts that the cultivation of wisdom is the first and essential salvific principle, corresponding to the attainment of Right View and the stage of a “stream enterer” or a “stream winner.” Converts are typically shown hearing a dhamma discourse by the Buddha, by which they are then known as “hearers’ (savakas), and then going into solitude for a short period of meditation, followed by the attainment of arhantship. Contrary to what one often reads in popular expositions of Buddhism, meditation does not need to be pursued for years, decades, or lifetimes in order to achieve emancipation. The Buddha says that as short a time as one week will do, depending, of course, on one’s karmic “readiness.” This is probably an approximation, since Kondanna and several others attained enlightenment after five days of continuous meditation.
One of the essentials of meditation that appears throughout the Pali Canon and indeed the whole Indian and Buddhist tradition is the cross-legged posture. This is the paradigmatic physical position in which meditation is undertaken. Seated, the legs are crossed, the pelvis elevated above the knees, and the hands are placed together in the lap, or sometimes on the knees. The spine is straight, the shoulders square, the head tipped slightly forward, and the gaze, neither focused nor unfocused, with eyelids neither completely closed nor completely open, directed towards the middle ground, neither far nor near. This posture is a physical embodiment of the balanced, harmonious state of the middle way. The crossing of the ankles and the hands creates a closed energy loop whereby the subtle energies of the body begin to circulate internally. This posture is very ancient, going back at least to the Indus Valley civilization.
Retiring to a secluded natural spot; seating oneself in the cross-legged posture; centering oneself in the present moment, the “now;” practising awareness of the body; and arousing energy, what one finds most frequently emphasized throughout the Pali texts is the practice of “breathing mindfulness.” The Buddha says that this method of meditation includes everything required to attain emancipation. The Buddha refers to it uniquely as “the Tathagata’s dwelling,” and practised it himself, even after his enlightenment. In the Buddhist system, one does not try to control the breathing, but simply directs one’s attention to the exhalation and the inhalation as they occur. The breath will deepen and become more refined naturally. The mind will become still. Consciousness itself will come to the forefront, while thoughts will become transparent, mirage-like, and secondary, and progressively diminish in intensity and frequency. Thought disappears. The body is suffused with bliss. Shaw cites Buddhaghosa’s comment that mindfulness of the body is a practice unique to the Buddhadhamma. According to the Pali Canon, mindfulness of the body alone is capable of bringing the practitioner to emancipation.
The Buddha also recommends a visualization practice in which the body is imagined as being suffused with light. Shaw notes that some of the visualizations described in the Pali Canon are reminiscent of the practices taught in “Northern” or Tantric Buddhism, once again demonstrating my thesis that one finds the seeds of Tantra in the Pali tradition. This practice culminates in the direct realization of the natural radiance of the empty mind, the quality of self-conscious sentience devoid of content. This is the kinetic mind stream or mental continuum that is the “true self” of the individual, as distinct from the “false self” of the static atta or atman. Which is merely a projection of the ego and an object of attachment. This quality is experienced naturally in the moment between thoughts (although this moment is so infinitesimal that it is normally not noticed), in deep sleep, at death, and at other times as well. Thus, deep sleep is meditation without reflexivity. Meditation is deep sleep with reflexivity. In fact, this is the literal meaning of “mindfulness,” sati, which literally means “self-recollection.” This concept, which occurs in the Pali suttas, is the forerunner of the Mahayana concepts of the “clear light” and the tathagatagarbha, the Buddha-nature (or “Buddha-embyro”) that is the inherent potential of every sentient being. Its full realization is equivalent to enlightenment itself. Any person who attains this state, even for a moment, is declared by the Buddha to be ordained. According to the Pali Canon, this radiance is actually visible and results in a clear, bright complexion that develops in the course of meditation. This is the origin of course of the halo that appears in the portraits of Buddhist saints. Similarly, monks in the Pali Canon are consistently described as healthy, fit, and attractive, to the point where women are constantly seeking them out and tempting them to break their vows.
Other subjects recommended by the Buddha for meditation that leads to emancipation include the Buddha himself and the devas, from whom the Buddha also received teachings. The Buddha recommended the recollection of the devas at the time of death. In addition to mindfulness of the breathing, the Buddha also practised the meditation on the Buddha (in his case, he meditated on Buddhas of the past). These practices, including chanting, purify karma and the mind, thus eliminating impediments and obscurations and progressively revealing the self-radiance that is inherent in sentience itself. Chanting has been found to purify the spinal fluid, for example. The Buddha likens this process to the purification of gold ore.
The practice of meditation leads to the cultivation and progressive refinement of the mind, culminating in the fourth jhana, characterized by equanimity, a state of freedom from pleasure and pain, the indifference of serenity, and mental integration or “one-pointedness.” In this state, one ceases to be aware of one’s breathing (the texts imply that breathing itself stops). The realization of the fourth jhana leads to the attainment of psychic powers (iddhi), including astral projection (I’m using the common terms here, the term used in the Pali Canon is the “mind-made body”; Tibetans refer to the “body of light” or “rainbow body”), clairaudience, clairvoyance, the recollection of past lives (much emphasized in the Pali Canon), and seeing the karma of others. The “mind-made body,” which, the Buddha states, is created “magically,” is not a metaphor. It is an actual physical experience. The sensation of one’s body literally slipping out of one’s feet is an indescribable and unforgettable experience.
- The Pali word is abhinimmināti, consisting of abhi + nimminati. Nimminati (nimmita) means “to build, fashion, create, produce, shape.” Abhi clearly derives from iddhi, “power, potency, psychic power, supernatural power, magical power, miraculous faculty, miracle.” Maurice Walshe (Wisdom Publications) translates this compound simply as “produce,” whereas Shaw includes the connotation of spiritual or psychic power or potency. The latter is more literal and etymologically correct. Both PTS Dictionary and Tamilcube have “to create (by magic).” See CSCD Tipikta, Sāmaññaphalasuttaṃ, 236f.
THE PRACTICE OF DZOGCHEN
Origin and Provenance of Dzogchen
The Tibetan word “dzogchen” means “the great completeness.” Within Buddhism, Dzogchen is associated with the original, Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. Dzogchen is also found in the older Bon tradition of Tibet, but the direction of influence is uncertain. We do know, however, that Dzogchen was introduced to Tibet by Padmasambhava, the Buddhist Tantric adept who is credited with the conversion of Tibet to the Buddhadharma in the late 8th century CE. Padmasambhava left Tibet in 774 CE, having transmitted only part of the Dzogchen tradition before his departure. Over the subsequent centuries many so-called “terma” (hidden treasure) texts were discovered by a variety of spiritual practitioners, including the famous Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo. All of these texts concerned Dzogchen and were attributed to Padmasambhava. The Dzogchen tradition was subsequently developed in Tibet by other Dzogchen masters, including Vairochana and Vimalamitra. Padmasambhava himself received the Dzogchen transmission from Garab Dorje in what is now known as the Swat Valley, from which Padmasambhava himself also originated. This area is referred to as Oddiyana in Sanskrit and Orgyen in Tibetan. This region was associated with the development and dissemination of early Vajrayana Buddhism, and became the basis of the Shambhala mythos. Dzogchen texts were never included in the Kangyur, which therefore lie outside the sectarian organizational system of the Tibetan ecclesiastical establishment. Nevertheless, it is widely practised throughout Tibetan Buddhism by all sects and schools and in the Nyingma system Dzogchen is regarded as the highest yana (vehicle) of Buddhist teaching and practice.
The main Dzogchen system practised today is based on Longchenpa’s Heart Essence Teachings, revised by Jigmey Lingpa and amplified by the First Dodrubchen, but these are merely culturally and historically contingent interpretations. Dzogchen itself is not a system, nor is it subject to samsara by definition. It is also considered transcendent to both sutra and tantra, and indeed, universal. Dzogchen is the highest possible realization of Enlightenment itself, and therefore the holiest and most precious teaching.
Practice of Dzogchen
Dzogchen philosophy includes ontology, soteriology, and ethics. According to the Tibetan ecclesiastical system of the Nyingma, Dzogchen is the highest Buddhist yana (vehicle) and can only be practised properly after satisfying a number of conditions, which if interpreted strictly could be quite onerous. These prerequisites of Dzogchen practice, however, seem to contradict Dzogchen’s emphasis on the non-causal path, in which, according to the formula, “the goal of the practice is taken as the practice itself.” It appears rather that Dzogchen has been appropriated and incorporated into a causalist structure as its apex and crown, in which the essential preconditions of practice have been elaborated into a system the primary motive for which is to maintain the power and authority of an ecclesiastical hierarchy that sought to limit access to and therefore control the Vajrayana teachings. Nevertheless, these elaborate preconditions are not universally observed.
According to the orthodox approach, the practice of Dzogchen is preceded by the practice of ngondro, which is in turn preceded by the so-called “common preliminaries.” Ngondro, however, was invented during the 16th century. Dr. Alex Berzin has stated that no one can approach Dzogchen meditation who has not spent many years practising samatha (Tib. Shyiné) “tranquility” meditation. Again, these requirements smack of causalism and an imposition of later times, both as a way to protect the teachings during a period of great ignorance but also as a way of establishing and maintaining the power and authority of the religious elites. When one analyzes these preliminaries, one discovers that they are all essentially identical with Dzogchen itself. Indeed, this is true of all practices, for Dzogchen, as the highest, is also the universally inherent spiritual practice that incorporates all other spiritual practices into itself and of which all other spiritual practices are aspects. Therefore, there is no theoretical objection to pursuing Dzogchen directly rather than through an historically and culturally contingent program. A single example will suffice. Much is made of the fact that one must experience rigpa before one can practice Dzogchen in a satisfactory way, but Dzogchen and rigpa are really the same thing, so what is being said here (sure, scholastic philosophers will split hairs here. but we know these too from our own, Western traditions)? Moreover, in the next breath it is stated that rigpa is the natural state of the mind and therefore universally inherent in all living beings, including human beings, yet somehow obscured from itself by involvement in samsara. This is true. This is the essential paradox of the trans-dual. Nevertheless, as the natural state of the mind where else can we look for rigpa other than to the mind itself, which, as stated, is our universal endowment. Therefore, it does not take years of meditation to experience rigpa. Anyone can see it instantly, simply by choosing to look at it. You do not not even need to close your eyes. It is right here! This is really the most radical “pointing out” instruction. Making things seem more difficult than they really are is an old ploy of those who wish to control access to knowledge.
Ngondro is a system of practice widespread through India, and in its simplest basis consists of six moments:
- Taking refuge;
- Offering the mandala; and
- Guru yoga.
These practices are held to purify pride (2), jealousy (3), hatred (4), attachment (5), and delusion (6). Each of these practices must be repeated 100,000 times at least in order to be “recognized” as a “qualified” Dzogchen practitioner. Moreover, according to this theory they must be practised under the direct authority of a “qualified” lama, who one is also bound to regard as a living Buddha! However, this structure commits several essential errors, either directly or by implication. First, it implies the error of causalism. Second, it implies that enlightenment is obtainable mechanistically, by the following of rules. Third, it implies that quantity is superior to quality (the Buddha Himself stated that there is no correlation between attaining enlightenment and time. Awakening may be attained in as long a time as seven rebirths, or in as short a time as a single week. Therefore, duration is not the significant factor.). Fourth, it is historically and culturally contingent. Fifth, it is sectarian (which is a violation of the Bodhisvattva vow). In fact, there are many variations of ngondro. Sixth, it ignores the factor of karma. Seventh, it subordinates the individual to the authority, contrary to the Buddha’s final advice to seek the light within oneself. Eighth, it is based on a falsehood, i.e., that the lama is a Buddha (except in the sense that we all are, or in some symbolic sense). And, finally, ninth, it is based on a metaphysical error, for what are pride, jealousy, hatred, attachment, and delusion in themselves? According to the view, the purpose of ngondro is to “purify” the “karmic obscurations.” This is the same thinking that underlies the path of asceticism that the Buddha rejected just prior to his enlightenment. However, there are no karmic obscurations in reality, samsara itself being essentially illusory. Since there are no karmic obscurations, there is no need to purify oneself of them. One has only to recognize the identity of nirvana and samsara, and this is done by Dzogchen. On the other hand, the Buddha identifies meditation with renunciation and karmic purification. Ethics as such are irrelevant. This is true emancipation.
The self-practitioner can satisfy these requirements by aspiring to the Absolute Guru, the Tathagatagarbha, calling upon Padmasambhava Himself as lama to witness his refuge in the Dharma and his correlative vow of aspiration (bodhicitta). By calling upon Guru Rinpoche the transmission occurs automatically. Dzogchen itself, as the universal and essential spiritual practice, subsumes prostration, mantra, mandala, and religion. None is necessary.
In the age of near universal ignorance (not so distant nor dissimilar from our own time) transmission was the essential means by which the spiritual integrity of understanding and practice was communicated from guru to disciple. As the repository and channel of spiritual teachings that teacher was held in highest esteem. Such transmission was always private, secret, and intimate – not involving crowds of hundreds or thousands or communicated at a distance through a vertical ecclesiastical hierarchy. This was the environment in which Dzogchen flourished. Nevertheless, the Buddha eschewed secrecy and condemned it amongst the Brahmans.
The common preliminaries all refer to Right View, the first step of the Aryan Eightfold Path, specifically, the preciousness of human rebirth, change (anicca), karma, and suffering (dukkha). In other words, the foundation of practice is wisdom. Wisdom and method. If one recognizes and accepts the truth of these doctrines, not merely as abstract theoretical concepts but as spiritual facts that one has personally realized experientially, one has already fulfilled the preliminary requirements without regard to any ritual that in itself is meaningless.
The Buddha said that a Brahman is not made by birth or caste or by wearing a robe, but by their personal and spiritual qualities. Similarly, the true spiritual practitioner cannot be restrained or inhibited by external social, political, or even ecclesiastical criteria but is established only in and by himself or herself. The Buddha himself was self-ordained and self-recognized. He warned his disciples against attachment to rules and based the hierarchy of the order purely on seniority, not claims of spiritual attainment, rejecting the efforts of Devadatta to impose an even more rigorous external discipline.
As stated above, rigpa – our own natural sentience that is the universal ground of all living beings – is inherently devoid of reflexivity. This is the essential condition that underlies even ignorance, and is therefore more fundamental than the pratityasamutpada. It is ontologically given. This non-reflexivity of rigpa gives rise to the phantasmagoria of experience that we call samsara. Because rigpa is not aware of its own intrinsic nature (ignorance), it becomes attached to the objects of experience, to which it attributes its own qualities of permanence, self-identity, and satisfactoriness. This is the essential condition in which we find ourselves. We can speculate about “why” or “how is it” that this is so, but such discussion is ultimately futile. Therefore, the essential endeavour of Dzogchen is to establish the reflexive state. This is done by a simple act of the mind: recognizing the objects of experience, both gross or subtle, as essential voidness, and “redirecting,” as it were, the attention towards the simple, perfectly empty state of rigpa-sentience that is already present but non-reflexive. This is synonymous with enlightenment itself, and includes within itself both wisdom (i.e., the recognition of the true nature of things) and ethics (i.e., self-control). Indeed, Dzogchen, as the highest and most universal path, contains all paths, traditions, and practices within itself. Nothing else is required, but the Dzogchen practitioner may make use of all of them as he or she will. Therefore, Dzogchen alone is both fundamental and essential.
Meditation is to remain balanced, free of distraction, without particularly rejecting or accepting anything, at ease
Dza Patrul Rinpoche
- “As scholar David Jackson describes, the particular Kagyu tradition of pointing-out instruction outside of the tantras was popularized, if not originated, by Gampopa. ‘One of the special Great Seal (phyag rgya chen po: mahāmudrā) teachings for which sGam-po-pa was best known was his so-called ‘introduction to the [nature of] mind’ (sems kyi ngo sprod), by which the disciple was led to confront and directly recognize the nature of his or her mind. sGam-po-pa is said to have given such Great Seal instructions sometimes not as secret Vajrayana precepts in connection with initiation and special yogic practices, but rather as a Sūtra-based Great Seal instruction, or even as a doctrine going beyond both Sūtra and Tantra. Later critics such as Sa-skya Paṇḍita (or Sa-paṇ, as he was known for short) maintained, however, that all true Great Seal instructions were Mantrayana teachings that necessitated full, formal Tantric initiation into a maṇḍala. These masters denied in general the existence of any Sūtra-based or non-Tantric Great Seal, and in particular they considered the existence of any Mahāyāna doctrine outside of the classes of Pāramitāyāna and Mantrayāna to be impossible.'” (Wikipedia, s.v. Pointing-out instruction). See also “To Kiss and Tell or Not: Dzogchen Ponlop, Ngondro and More”; “Re: Dzogchen and Ngondro”; “Three Classifications of Mahamudra,” by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche; etc.
- “Therefore, rid yourself completely of close relationships of dependency on followers, friends, or relatives, and make a definite effort, from today on, to practise the hallowed Dharma, alone in isolation. Supreme hallowed beings of the past have said that from living in isolation, they found the nectar (of Dharma experience). Therefore, (resolve that) I too shall live alone in isolation in a forest in order to actualize a state of being stilled. Living in isolation has been praised by the Triumphant (Buddhas). With no one unruly (around you), you increase your absorbed concentration on what is profound. You naturally practise the Dharma and develop sombre thoughts of impermanence. You put material possessions aside and have no busy-work or distractions.” (Longchenpa, Klong-chen Rab-‘byams-pa Dri-med ‘od-zer (APrecious Garland of the Four Themes), tr. Alex Berzin)