Extracts from the new edition

New Meditation Book

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I have just completely re-written the original 1992 Meditation: The Buddhist Way of Tranquillity and Insight. It will be published early 2012 - here's one of the roughs for the cover.

When I started the project in the mid 80s, meditation and Buddhism were hardly known about in the general population, and certainly not widely practised, as they are today.  A comprehensive manual of Buddhist meditation practice from a western teacher was virtually unique.   But since 1992, so much has changed. Everyone knows about meditation, Buddhism is a standard subject in schools in the UK, and mindfulness has become an important form of therapy.  Meditation is well taught by many western teachers in numerous traditions, and there is an abundance of good written advice on meditation if you know where to look.  So can such a well-aged book add to or enhance any of that? You'll have to buy a copy and let me know!

The main change is that the whole book is now explicitly oriented around the ‘system’ of meditation devised by Sangharakshita in the 70s. This brings out how the practices I described fit together as part of an integrated path to awakening. I have also woven in an appreciation of a view of the nature of mind that in western tradition is known as the Imagination, since that makes an accessible link to our own philosophical and cultural traditions.  Imagination is just another way of viewing our mental and emotional reality, but it is useful connecting with one that’s familiar from our own arts and literature, and which speaks in a more poetic voice than the technical language of the Pali texts.  

The other major change is a greater emphasis on the Buddha, who taught most of these meditation methods in the first place.  In the earlier edition I cited many other teachers, but the practices in which they taught all derive from the Buddha himself and aim at the state of awakening he discovered.  So I have tried, within the limits of the original text, to establish the Buddha as the principal reference point and inspiration for the whole tradition of Buddhist meditation. I have made more references to the historical Buddha, and also updated the material on sadhana to include less formal, more experimental ways to connect with the living reality of the awakened mind.  Finally, I wanted to emphasise the balance required in an effective meditation practice between active and receptive approaches. So the Buddha’s teaching of mindfulness has a larger place in this new edition, along with the practice of Just Sitting.

In the original edition I quoted Ryokan:
Not much to offer you – just a lotus flower floating / In a small jar of water.
In re-offering my lotus along with some fresh water, I feel the same tentative and ironic pleasure. I’m somewhat more aware, twenty years on, of this book’s failings as a container, yet I know the lotus flower of Dharma floating in it is the real thing. So I hope I have made this understandable, so you can accept, use and enjoy it.

I'll be including some extracts from the new book in the following pages.


Tong Len or Bodhicitta

Here are some assorted bits of information and advice relevant to the many practices known as Tong Len or Bodhicitta. Tong Len can be a very useful approach to Metta Bhavana and the other Brahmavihara meditations because it incorporates the breathing. This can get round problems people sometimes have with mettabhavana becoming abstract or disembodied (see also the article on Kurukulle and compassion on the dharma reflections blog.)

Note that here I use the Sanskrit term 'Maitri' as an alternative to 'Metta.

Below are two approaches to 'giving and receiving' along with the breath.

My experience of the incoming breath
My experience of the outgoing breath
Myself as experienced in the present moment, taken in with the in-breath
My response to my present experience, let out with the out-breath
The presence of all others and their influence on me, with the in-breath
My acknowledged influence on all others, with the out-breath
The fact of others’ suffering, with the in-breath
My response to others’ suffering, with the out-breath
The fact of others’ good influence, with the in-breath

Adhisthana of awakened tradition

to all beings

Breathe in with awareness
Breathe out with awareness
Breathe in maitri to self
Breathe out maitri to all beings
Breathe in the blessings (Adhisthana) or awakened beings
Breathe out maitri-mudita(Bodhicitta)
Include with the adhisthana the sufferings of all beings, supporting generation of karuna (compassion) and upeksha (equanimity)
Breathe out maitri-karuna-upeksha to all beings
Bodhicitta’ is the ongoing attitude of love you can have towards others when you know, out of your own deep experience of suffering and joy, that what they really need, underneath all the show, is spiritual awakening. Bodhi means awakening; Citta means heart or attitude of mind. Bodhicitta is not pity and does not involve a sense of superiority. It is the great equaliser; it is the essence of friendship and love. In practice, it is simply a mature and responsible attitude towards others. There are many levels of Bodhicitta: the more we truly understand what moves others, the more love we naturally feel, and the more we are able to give.
Bodhicitta is not just a meditation method; it is generated in the context of actual relationships. But meditation is helpful, because it brings us much more deeply into contact with the quality of these relationships. When we are actually with others, it is often hard to see what goes on. The universal perspective given by the practice enables us to see that our attitudes towards one person is affecting all our relationships. The meditation also draws to our attention the fact that our lives are bound up with those of many beings we are never likely to meet.
The essence of this meditation is that we make contact with the actual reality of others’ existence, and generate true compassion for them. It is a Mahayana form of the karuna-bhavana meditation taught in Theravada Buddhism. There are many ways you can work with Bodhicitta. Well known are various ways to integrate its generation with breathing, often called Tong Len. Tong Len means 'sending and receiving' with the breath.
The method in brief is to make contact, with a loving mind, with the billions of other unenlightened beings surrounding us. We cultivate empathy with them. We do that by recollecting that to the extent they do not know how to overcome their own negative emotions, their lives are relatively, if not extremely, unsatisfying. We know this from our own suffering. We acknowledge their influence on us now, and take responsibility for our influence on them now and in the future. We take this step not in some theoretical way but through generating a very deeply felt love for all beings.
Indeed we do every part of the practice – make contact, reflect on their situation, cultivate empathy, acknowledge their influence and take responsibility for our own – through generating this loving kindness or maitri. We also take courage from the inspiring individuals who make up the age old Dharma practice tradition. We recollect that countless practitioners have cultivated Bodhicitta to completion and gained full Enlightenment.
Preliminary recollections: the Elements and Buddha Nature
As we sit here we’re breathing in and we’re breathing out. We’ve been doing it since we were born. But what has been born? What is here? What are we?
Well, this is the big question! Supposedly, it’s the kind of thing Buddhist practice can shed some light on.
And one way Buddhism approaches it is to say that our existence is made up of the six elements of earth, water, fire, wind, space and awareness. You might wonder how does that help. Well, with dharma practice generally we start to experience ourselves more deeply. So it’s on that basis that we can notice how the elements are in our existence. See the continually changing experience that we have of relative hardness, relative wetness, relative heat and cold, of physical and mental movement, of all that happening in space. And, above all, that it’s an experience of awareness itself, of experience itself in fact – a kind of space of changing experience, experience which is not just thought or perception but is also full of feeling and emotion.
And then life is like that for all beings. All of us live in worlds of elemental experiences. We don't understand what it means, but we do feel we are alive. We do feel that this display of the earth and other elements is real, that nature is alive.
It’s good to remember this. We easily lose touch with the basically extraordinary, elemental, reality we are in. As we get caught up, get older, identify with me and mine much more, get stuck… we forget that our true nature is something amazing, that it’s what tradition calls Buddha Nature. The experience we call ‘me’, is a mystery that none of us, not even a Buddha, can adequately describe. It can only be realised by individual practitioners.
But this realisation of Buddha Nature is doable. We can do it. We can commit to it and make progress in it. And enjoy it and get tremendous satisfaction from it. So here we are sitting here, breathing in and breathing out, and existing in this amazing way which we don't understand… and with that, we can have this motivation of realising Buddha Nature.
This motivation to realise Buddha Nature is called Bodhicitta. Bodhicitta means the Heart Mind of Awakening. The meditation practice associated with this heart mind, called the Bodhicitta practice, is sometimes also called Tong Len or sending/receiving breathing. It's very useful, because it links the breathing meditation with metta, love and compassion. Not only that, it takes the meditator right out of him-or her-self into the big picture. That is, the big picture of the community of all beings. All beings that includes grass and trees and just everything, because everything is alive, everything is moving, and everything that is alive has needs. And all beings also includes Enlightened beings – Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, dakas and dakinis and whatever else is out there. And all beings includes devas, nagas, hungry ghosts… or whatever other unenlightened beings are out there. We identify with all beings.
The Bodhicitta practice takes place within the big picture, but it’s done with our experience here and now. Breathing in, this is my experience. Contented, confused, irritated, peaceful, happy …or dull and heavy and needy… whatever it is, breathing in I experience myself. Actually to do this is a big undertaking. It’s very much in line with our commitment to realising the Buddha Nature, but it is hard to do when we feel like just dulling out and eating some chips. But with practice we learn that it’s enough to allow ourselves to experience that unsatisfying state with awareness, because once we’ve started doing that we can move on, we can understand, we can go deeper.
Experiencing this is mindfulness. Breathing in, I accept that my present experience is thus. Evam. Just thus. And there is a response, as there always is - some samskara, some element of volition, some kind of wanting. And this response is just the raw beginnings of the real, enlightened Bodhicitta. We have made our first steps on the path and somewhere we know we want to realise our Buddha Nature. We might be kicking and screaming in response to our current experience, but somewhere our response is mixed in with that very undeveloped Bodhicitta. So breathing in, I take in whatever is happening, pleasant or painful. Breathing out, I give what I can, I know it’s partly reactive but I acknowledge also that it’s partly creative.
Receiving and sending breathing, it’s called. On this level, we receive our own rather mixed experience and we respond with our Bodhicitta - our motivation, such as it is, to realise the Buddha Nature. On this level we are concerned just with our own existence.
On the next level of the practice we acknowledge that we exist in the world with other beings, indeed with all beings. in other words we are subject to the influence of others, and we ourselves are an influence on others. So in the meditation we respond in some way to all those we’re influenced by, and all those we are an influence on.
Well who are these people? As we breathe in, we imagine all beings around us. There are all those we have direct connections with. Our parents, our friends, people we live with, work with, all those people we just know about, or occasionally see, all those people we’ve interacted with at some stage in our lives, all those people who remember us because of these contacts, even just a single contact, maybe just a single moment, maybe we just passed them in the street or on the phone… every one of these connections, however seemingly remote, however brief, actually happened and had its effect. It affected our life, influenced our life in different ways. This is what I mean by the influence of others. To varying degrees, all these people exist in our minds. In our memory at least. Even if we cannot access the memory, it is still there somewhere. Every memory contains its story and its emotional charge. It is not just the past of course, we are also taking in whole lot of influences right now, and there are all the potential influences that will happen in the future. But there has been so much experience in our past, and in many ways it is that great mountain of built up past experience that we identify with as ‘me’. My life, my past. That’s me.
And in the Bodhicitta meditation, we breathe all this into ourselves. We take it all in. In a way it’s a kind of imaginative way of making more conscious a reality that’s there all the time. We take in all beings – I mean, it’s not only those we actually have some connection with, I've mentioned them simply they are closest to us and in some sense actually are part of us since our identity is so bound up with their memory. Al beings. And we look, in our minds eye, at all these beings, and we see how their lives are characterised by so much that is unsatisfactory. Just like our own lives are. Maybe as Buddhist practitioners we’re able to avoid getting too upset about that - at least some of the time our expectation is not that we’re going to get some kind of permanent satisfaction from the impermanent ups and downs of ordinary life. But we know, from our own imperfections and lack of insight, how it is for others in the world. Everyone is suffering in various ways, getting what they don’t want, and not getting what they do want. So all this we are taking in with the inward breath. We can identify strongly with their situation because it’s pretty much the same as our own. In this way others are just like us, or as in Tibetan tradition they are seen as just like our parents, so fallible, so human, so vulnerable, so irritating, so impossible, so lovable. We take in all these influences and it’s such a mixed, complex influence it’s seen as like smoke, like a black cloud of smoke coming into our body. Something that’s not at al easy to take in, not desirable at all really.
And still on this level of the practice, the level of our coexistence with other beings, we also, of course, breathe out. We receive the dark, mixed cloud of influence from all other beings, and on the out breath we give out, we give – we give what we can. What have we got? What do we have that can possibly help this situation? Well, the only thing that has any chance of helping is spiritual development, insight, wisdom and compassion. The only solution is developing the Path and gaining Enlightenment. That is what we can give, at least at some future time, if we continue our practice. And here there is a tremendous meeting of streams of experience. Our aspiration to Enlightenment, our Bodhicitta, relatively weak and mixed though it might be, meets here, in the practice, the reality of the unsatisfactory world that we and all other beings inhabit. The more we open to their reality, the more heartfelt and real our response of Bodhicitta can become. The stronger our feeling to commit to the Dharma, the more we can open to the reality of others’ existence. According to the practice the black cloud of others’ influence comes into our body, enters our heart, and is transformed by our wish to gain Buddhahood for the sake of all beings. Our heart wish to gain Enlightenment is what we breathe out in the form of delicate silvery moonlight which falls on all beings and confers on them the great bliss of liberation.
In other words we wish to be a good influence on them throughout our lives.
So that’s the second level of the practice.
In the third level of the practice we begin to go beyond the distinction we arbitrarily make between ourselves and others. What actually is ‘me’ is in fact a rather mysterious question, as we saw earlier on, and the more we see that it isn't like it seems, the more we can sit loose to our assumptions and let go a bit. In fact after a while with this practice, we can have more confidence and allow all the stuff that is coming in through the in breath to affect our sense of ‘me’ – to extend it and relax it. But the main thing we do in this third stage is to remember that in our life there have been so many positive influences. All kinds of folk have done so much for us. Our parents, teachers, friends, and all kinds of people have done us amazing kindnesses. And this all comes in with the black smoke because it’s all rather mixed, but it’s good and we appreciate it, we open to it. Even though most of it happened in the past it is still live for us, it’s still affecting us now. We can still feel immense gratitude, and their actions can still encourage us in our life and make us feel like acting for the benefit of others. So this also transforms and dissolves our hard sense of self because so often our me sense is quite negative, we tend to think that we are pretty worthless really.
But this is not the only positive influence because there is the influence of the Buddhas on us. This really stretches our sense of who we are and what the universe is. Actually in one way it’s quite straightforward that the Buddhas have an influence on us, if we are Buddhist practitioners. We are incredibly influenced by Sakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha. His teaching is perhaps the biggest influence of all on our life. We have entered his mandala of influence and we are very receptive to his teachings. I said that in the practice we imagine that we are surrounded by all beings, and in that I included all the Buddhas. And so with each in breath, along with the smoky dark clouds of others’ oppressed lives, we inhale the positive encouragement of the Buddhas, the Bodhisattvas, and the whole tradition of Dharma practice. This is also known as receiving the adhisthana or the blessing of the Buddhas and it can be a very powerful experience indeed if we can have the confidence to open ourselves to it. This receiving of the adhisthana of the practice lineage is an important aspect of the sadhana or visualisation meditation which comes especially from Tibetan tradition and which is also practiced in the Western Buddhist Order.
This raises a new question about the nature of Enlightenment. What happens to Buddhas after death? Are they just dead? As I understand the tradition: no. Buddhist liberation goes beyond life and death and from that point people exist in a completely different kind of way – or rather, they realise that they have always existed beyond life and death and this gives them much more power to choose. As Bodhisattvas, for example, they can choose to be reborn in ways that benefit others.
From this it’s clear that the intention to benefit others is inseparably part of the Enlightenment experience.
Level 3 of sending and receiving (or Tong Len) breathing works to dissolve the distinction between myself and others. The previous levels challenge ‘me’ to give to others. Despite the emphasis that ‘we are all together in this boat of samsara,’ the tremendous pressure to be generous may, if I am not careful, actually intensify my sense of separateness from others. So now I look more closely at what that really means: for surely, the nature of ‘me’ is an extremely mysterious issue. The more I can see that this ‘me’ is not as it seems, the more I can sit loose and undo my assumptions about it. Thus, having sat a while with the second level of the practice, I start allowing all the dark material I am breathing in to extend and relax my sense of ‘me’. Since I do not really know at all what ‘me’ is, I open ‘myself’ to the possibility of undoing its mystery with each incoming breath.
At the same time I work with my imagination, allowing the corrosive smoke-cloud of all beings’ delusion and negativity to cut into my own clinging to the illusion of a fixed, permanent self. It is ego-delusion that causes the negative responsiveness that prevents everyone from awakening. So deepening insight into non-self (
anatman) is what frees Bodhicitta motivation.
That reflection is now linked to the incoming breath. At previous levels, the in-breath was the medium for taking in the truth of the present moment (first my own truth, then that of others). Now, I see that the more deeply I can accept that truth (now starting to see its emptiness of self), the more my stuck energy will be freed and the more I will be able to give. The incoming and outgoing breaths start co-operating more closely as I now ‘let go’ on both the in-breath and the out-breath. As the smoky breath comes in, I let it cut away my clinging to the idea of a self; as it goes out, I ‘let myself go’ into the generous Bodhicitta attitude. Taking responsibility becomes virtually identical to relinquishment of self-clinging and leads on to liberation.
How amazing that others’ negative influence can be so helpful! But there is more – there is of course others’
positive influence. Obviously, I get even more from the encouragement of my friends and the blessings of my mentors. So now I start to include this special trace of the smoky incoming breath. Clearly, it is not all toxic; this is more like rare incense. I cannot ignore the many positive influences there in my life. My parents, teachers, friends and many others people have done me amazing kindnesses which are still affecting me. Their example empowers me, makes me feel I can act for the benefit of others. This transforms my fixed self-view in a very liberating way. My sense of ‘me’ can be quite negative; I can still sometimes believe the voice telling me that I am worthless.
But these are not the only positive influences I benefit from. What about the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas? The Buddhas have certainly been an important influence on me, for I am a Buddhist practitioner, a follower of Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha. His teaching has probably shaped my life more than anything else. I am blessed by the Buddha; I am also blessed by all who have practised and realised his teaching ever since. Their influence has come down, through my own teacher and his teachers, to me.
So when I imagine myself to be surrounded by ‘all beings,’ I of course include all those who are Enlightened, who have fully realised the Bodhicitta I am trying to awaken. So flowing down and along each incoming breath, along with the dark smoke of others’ oppressed lives, I also detect an exquisite perfumed incense – the positive encouragement of the Buddhas, the Bodhisattvas and the whole tradition of Dharma practice. It is as though they are saying ‘yes, you can do it, Kamalashila!’ This is also known as receiving the adhisthana or the blessing of the Buddhas; a deeply inspiring experience if I can have the confidence fully to open myself to it.
Including Buddhas in the range of helpful influences might sometimes raise some questions that I need to reflect upon. I do not think I have ever met a Buddha, so what am I doing at this point? What in fact are Buddhas? How would I recognise one? What happens to them after death? If Sakyamuni has simply been dead for the last two and a half millennia, aren’t I just deluding myself?
It does not seem to me that I am. These are very open questions; it is useful just to reflect on them. No one really knows what death is. The liberation bestowed by Buddhist practice goes beyond life and death. Those who realise it exist in a different way from the moment of their Awakening,. for they understand what this means. It gives them the power to choose their manner of existence, especially to choose to be reborn in ways that benefit others. Compassion, the intention to benefit others, is inseparably part of the wisdom of awakening
So with sending and receiving what we receive from others is the adhisthana of the awakened tradition, plus the ordinary good influence of friends and mentors, plus the sufferings of all unawakened beings. What we give to others on the outgoing breath is (our best attempt at) the Bodhicitta.


Principles of Meditation on the Breath

Principles of Meditation on the Breath
Anapanasati is meditation on the breathing, or simply awareness of breathing leading to calmness of mind and insight into reality. Many readers will be familiar with anapanasati – see my meditation book here on site for details. This article is for more experienced practitioners and is concerned with deepening the practice.

The method: LET GO and RELAX!
The question though is how to do that without letting go the purpose of the practice and ‘relaxing’into vacuity or daydream – though that is not actually a relaxed state.
Experienced meditators already know the principles connected with dhyana based meditation – avoid the five hindrances using antidotes, cultivate the dhyana factors, practice in a suitable environment at a suitable time, etc. But beyond that and in combination with those principles, ‘letting go and relaxing’ into the practice may be done in a profound way that cultivates both insight and calm.

LET GO through:
1. Nonattachment to purpose (i.e. the idea of purpose)
2. Nonattachment to the past and future (and even the very idea of time)
3. Nonattachment to suffering (i.e. the idea of it).
Let go purpose, let go the past, and let go suffering
4. Relax confidently and single pointedly into the touch sensation of the breath.

1. Non attachment to purpose
Paradoxically, this is really part of the purpose of the practice.
Let go any idea that one is trying to achieve a particular thing in a particular way, because one cannot know exactly how, in experience, the practice will deepen. Holding on to an idea of what is likely to happen is a sure way of staying on the surface of the practice.
Let go of any image or identification of oneself. Be open to experience beyond ‘me’ and ‘mine’

2. Nonattachment to past and future
Let go thoughts about the past and future. Notice how often these arise and let them go when they do, see they are just reflexes due to previous emotional investment. Think about them later, not now.
Let go into the present moment. Cultivate a genuine interest in it. It is incredibly interesting that we so rarely allow ourselves to experience it.
Each breath really is fresh and unique. However we are deeply attached to the notion that the next breath is going to be more or less like the last one. Attachment to that keeps us on the surface of the practice.

3. Nonattachment to suffering
Let go the idea that ‘my posture is uncomfortable’; ‘this mental state is so disharmonious’; ‘this is a horrible feeling’, etc. On one level all that may be true, but we are also attached to the
idea that we are suffering, and that attachment keeps the practice at a superficial level. Realise: discomfort is not the only thing that is happening; it is changing all the time; and it is not ‘me’ and it is not really ‘mine’. Let go the idea that ‘I am suffering’ and be open to pleasure and joy.

4. Relaxation at a single point
Let go into the practice. Have confidence in it. Trust the practice as fully and wholeheartedly as you can. Ask, Why don’t I trust it? Why can’t I let go fully into it?
Really this stage means letting go in the fullest possible sense. It means being open in the fullest possible sense – open in a sunyata sense, open in an avatamsaka sense, openness in a tathagatagarbha sense.
This degree and quality of openness is also applicable in the three nonattachments already mentioned.