THE BUDDHIST WAY OF TRANQUILLITY AND INSIGHT
A Comprehensive Introduction to Buddhist Meditation
Annotated Web Edition
Original book published by Windhorse Publications, 11 Park Road, Birmingham, UK B13 8AB
Paperback Reprinted 1995.
New edition 1996, reprinted 1999
Read reviews or buy the printed edition online from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
© Kamalashila 1992-2002
About The Author
Kamalashila was born Anthony Matthews in England in 1949 and grew up in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. He studied art and drama from 1966 and intended to devote himself to fine art before meeting his teacher, Sangharakshita, and discovering Buddhism in 1972.
In 1974 he was ordained into the Western Buddhist Order and given the name Kamalashila by Urgyen Sangharakshita. He began teaching meditation at what was then the main centre of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order in Archway, North London. Over the next five years he continued to teach meditation, and also hatha yoga, whist establishing a new FWBO centre and community in West London.
In 1979 Kamalashila decided to leave the city to focus more on spiritual practices. With a team of builders, he spent a year renovating a remote Welsh farmhouse to house a semi-monastic meditation community, named Vajraloka. At first the community spent their time deepening their experience of meditation. Then, after some years, they began to teach meditation on retreats.
Kamalashila has become popular as both a speaker and a meditation teacher. In recent years he has led retreats in India, New Zealand, Finland, Estonia, Russia, and the USA as well as setting in motion a comprehensive Dharma studies programme for the FWBO. In 1994 he was asked by Sangharakshita to join the Preceptors’ College, a body of men and women with overall responsibility for the Buddhist movement Sangharakshita originally founded.
Not much to offer you
just a lotus flower floating
In a small jar of water.1
I first realized the need for a comprehensive introduction to Buddhist meditation in 1975, while I was studying Chi-I's Dhyana for Beginners. Sangharakshita, my teacher, had drawn my attention to the text - he led a seminar on it, though unfortunately I wasn't able to attend. Yet I was attracted by the material, and as transcriptions of the tape-recorded seminar became available I continued to reflect on Chi-I's text, and tried to put its methods into practice.
At that time I was newly ordained as a Buddhist, and not in a position to devote all my attention to meditation, but my life changed radically when I joined a semi-monastic community dedicated to meditation practice. We meditated together for some years, but after a while it became clear that we must do more than simply get on with our own practice. There were now many visitors to our meditation centre, and we needed to give more of an emphasis to teaching meditation.
It also became clear that we needed a book to explain our approach, since (and this is still the case) very little has been written about Buddhist meditation practice. Though the art of meditation has been very thoroughly developed in Buddhism, only a comparatively small proportion of its literature is specifically devoted to techniques and principles. The finer points of meditation teaching have always been handed down orally, from teacher to disciple - not out of any desire to preserve esoteric secrets, but because it is a practical matter that cannot be expressed adequately in words. Meditation is really something to be practised and experienced - and then discussed on the basis of experience - rather than read about.
Nevertheless there is a need for clear written information about meditation. There are many people who will look to meditation - and, very likely, a book on meditation - to provide a direction for their aspirations. So I hope some of them will find this offering useful. I would like this book to be two things: an introduction to the basic meditation practices of Buddhism and the ideas underlying them; and a reference manual to help meditators deepen their commitment to practising the Buddhist Path.
Many people have helped me in this. I am of course immensely grateful to Sangharakshita, whose example ignited my interest in the Dharma in the first place, and who provided a number of useful suggestions for the book. Various members of the Vajraloka community have contributed in all kinds of ways: I have learned greatly - and not only about meditation - from the many friends, now too numerous to mention, with whom I lived so happily for so many years. I would like to make particular mention of those making a major contribution to the meditation teaching at Vajraloka in the early years, such as Satyananda, Dharmananda, and Vajradaka. Several of the ideas in this book, especially in the chapters on 'Meditation Posture' and 'Working in Meditation' derive from a time in the mid-eighties when the four of us were working together. The acronym PIPER, for example, is Vajradaka's invention, and the reference to the six Qualitative Factors resulted from Dharmananda's researches. We are all, of course, still learning. I would also like to thank many other friends and companions in the Sangha who commented on my drafts from the early editing stages. There was Satyapala, Kulaprabha, Ruchiraketu, Dharmaghosha, Ken Robinson, Subhadra, Dhammadinna, Parami, Ratnabandhu - and Dhammarati, who also took the photographs (of Harriet Tipping, Joe Chandler, Paramartha, and Danavira) and designed the cover. I hope no one has been forgotten. Maitreyi advised me about the Alexander Technique; special thanks are also due to Robyn Alton (now Viryaprabha) for her editing work towards the end of the process, and to Shantavira for his compassionate exposure of my mixed metaphors, tautologies, and non-sequiturs. Above all I am indebted to Nagabodhi for his consistent encouragement and useful comments over the years, not to mention the hard work he put in at several points during the evolution of the text. It's good to see his dedication to Windhorse Publications bearing fruit these days.
Vajraloka Meditation Centre
The Great Transformation
The different headings employed in this book, such as
transcendental- powers and wisdom, tranquillization and reflection,
are all derived from the same source. If you trace out this source
and terminus, or should trace out the practices and attainments of
the Buddhas, they would all alike be found in this practice of dhyana
[meditation]. Briefly speaking, the dhyana which our Master Chih-chi
[i.e. Chi-I] had practised, and the samadhi which he had experienced,
and the lectures which he had delivered with such eloquence, were
nothing but the manifestation of this [tranquillity and insight].
Or, in other words, what the Master had been teaching us was simply
the narrative of the operation of our own minds; and the profound
teaching of the T'ien-t'ai School, and the voluminous literature to
be studied, are no more than an elaboration of this single subject.3
Bhikshu Yuen-tso, speaking of his teacher Chi-I
the aim of buddhist meditation
This book draws some of its inspiration from the teachings of Chi-I, a great meditation master. Chi-I taught in the sixth century CE, on T'ien-t'ai mountain in China, when Buddhist methods of human development like meditation were just beginning to gain popularity.
Fourteen centuries later, in our own very different time and culture, `meditation' has become a familiar idea. You will almost certainly have some sort of impression about it already. You might well have tried some form of meditation yourself - maybe you are even a regular practitioner. So let us clarify what exactly we are talking about, for there are many different approaches to meditation. Some of these may appear similar to Buddhist meditation practices - the actual techniques may, indeed, be identical. However, their aim can be different. Consider the way meditation is recommended by some doctors: their view is usually that meditation is simply a therapy for reducing stress. It is true that the ability to manage stress is a likely fringe benefit of meditation. From a Buddhist perspective, though, the point of meditation is to stimulate a process of change and development towards the ultimate goal of Enlightenment.
Enlightenment is the perfectly developed human state - an attainment of wisdom and compassion to a degree that transcends all our ideas about what `human' and `existence' might mean. It's certainly a high ideal, though not an impossible one.
Nowadays it seems that every kind of group, from the `alternative' fringe to establishment Christianity, teaches some form of meditation, but there are important differences between these and the Buddhist approach. For example, Buddhism has a unique view of the spiritual path. It says that all men and women can gain Enlightenment through their own efforts, without resorting to blind belief. And in terms of actual spiritual practice, Buddhism draws on a tradition of 2,500 years experience of meditation - experience that has passed from teachers to disciples ever since the Buddha gained Enlightenment. Western Buddhists thus inherit a tradition that remains very much alive. Since it is a communication of individual experience rather than a dogma, the teaching remains fresh; Buddhism finds new forms and expressions whenever necessary.
Buddhist meditation includes any method of meditation that has Enlightenment as its ultimate aim. We can't expect to gain Enlightenment all at once - we need to do some groundwork first. Some meditation practices, therefore, are of a more preparatory nature, while others are much more advanced.
In the short term, there are Buddhist meditation practices designed to provide a grounding in certain basic qualities. We must first of all become a happy, healthy human being - and at this fundamental level Buddhist meditation shares similar objectives to many `growth' groups. Each of us needs to harmonize our life by working on our habits - the moral peccadilloes, the psychological problems, and the negative emotions that stop us from entering into our full humanity.
But this isn't enough - even being happy in the ordinary way isn't fully satisfactory, because such happiness is usually so conditioned by the circumstances of life. So even when someone has established a certain degree of positivity and self-confidence, they are advised not to rest on their laurels but to start looking at their life in more depth - for true happiness can come about only when we understand, through insight, the true nature of reality. That deeper, more essential happiness is the way to enter into the stream of Enlightenment, and entering that stream is the long term aim of Buddhist meditation.
Buddhist meditation offers such profound possibilities that words can hardly do them justice. Everyone is invited to participate in a tradition of imaginative adventure, a `journey into vastness' that is still, after millennia of exploration, producing new insights and insightful people. Yet, imaginative and `vast' though our tradition may be, there is nothing cloudy or vague about it: we find that the whole great journey is mapped out for us in an extremely clear, systematic, and practical way.
aids to enlightenment
But meditation is not the only kind of provision for us to take on our journey, even though we may find it the most direct and inspiring one. If we are really going to change ourselves, every department of our lives must be involved in the enterprise.
Say, for example, that we would like to develop deeper and more positive emotional responses to others. To achieve this, let's say we decide to meditate on friendliness, otherwise known as metta, one of the main practices that the Buddha taught. This meditation will be much more effective if we also cultivate friendships, clarify our communication, and lead an ethical life.
Each of these activities is a spiritual practice in its own right. Indeed, we can view Buddhism simply as a huge collection of these aids to Enlightenment, from which we can choose what works best for us. We can learn to live very effectively, use every moment skilfully - and enjoy it more, too - if we take responsibility for our own actions and states of mind. There are many ways of achieving this kind of creativity. For example, people often find that an effective way of practising the Dharma (i.e. Buddhist teaching) is to share a house with like-minded friends; some Buddhists team up to earn their livelihood. Participation in the arts and culture can help, too, by providing inspiration. Generally, practising the Dharma should stimulate our ethical awareness, a special sense that will eventually influence everything that we do - influence even, for example, the way we shop. After all, every article we buy, including food and clothing, has some kind of effect on the lives of others, not to mention our own state of mind.
our mind - the determining factor
Whatever we choose to do with our time, it is always our mental state that determines how creative we can be in our actions. Mind is the great determining factor in Buddhism. The state of our mind from moment to moment - its happiness or unhappiness, wisdom or ignorance, compassion or cruelty - is the key influence on our development. According to one of the earliest recorded sayings of the Buddha, our whole life is the creation of our mind - if we act with a pure mind, joy follows; if we act with an impure mind, suffering follows.4
In other words, our actions reflect our present state of consciousness: we act the way we do because of the mental states we are in. But what is the mind? If the mind is so vital to our development, then we need to understand something of its nature - to the extent that this is possible.
what is the mind?
Our mind is a strange and wonderful phenomenon that is, in the end, impossible fully to describe or define. Despite all mankind's efforts at philosophical, religious, scientific, and psychological thought, no one (not even Buddhist teachers!) can really say, definitively, what the mind actually is. We can only try to describe it. We can say a little about how it functions, we can tell that it has some connection with the physical brain and the nervous system, and we know that we experience memory, feelings, knowledge, perceptions, and thoughts. But we do not fully understand these phenomena. We cannot get beyond the framework of the mind and see, as it were from the outside, what is really happening and what these experiences really are. Nor can we understand what, essentially, the `outside world' is, because, again, the world is always our own perception of the world, our particular experience of it. We can never get to `the thing itself' beyond our own viewpoint on it.
To understand the mind, we need to enlarge the framework within which we have placed it.
Usually we think of our mind as receiving impressions and
experiences from outside, but that is not a true understanding of
our mind. The true understanding is that the mind includes everything;
when you think something comes from outside it means only that something
appears in your mind. Nothing outside yourself can cause any trouble.
You yourself make the waves in your mind. If you leave your mind as
it is, it will become calm. This mind is called big mind.5
We probably do not think very much about the nature of our mind. Most of the time we simply regard it as `me', and this `me' is what seems to control `my' life. `Me' is obviously very important to us. Yet this me-sense is a relatively small part of our mental experience - it’s the tip of an iceberg compared to what happens below the conscious surface. Our dreams remind us of this. When we go to bed at night it can be fascinating to see the images arising as we sink into a half sleep - it is as though the dream world were always there, playing on continuously like a drama beneath the surface. By watching what happens as we go to sleep we can sometimes catch a brief glimpse of this deeper region of our mind as we cross the borderline of consciousness.
But being conscious is not just a question of being awake or asleep - we are only relatively conscious, even while we are awake. This is demonstrated by the fact that we rarely know precisely why we do things - we usually, rather vaguely, `feel like' doing them, which shows that we are influenced by subconscious motivations. Spiritual development requires that we work to unravel the knot of our ignorance of ourselves. Occasionally, in the course of our investigations, we catch glimpses of such impulses as they prompt us, so to speak, from the sidelines of our awareness. As our experience deepens, we will discover aspects of ourselves that we never expected, some far nobler than we could have imagined, others very dark and disturbing. We develop through becoming `larger', assimilating these different aspects of our mind into a deepening harmony.
learning to live in full colour!
The key to deepening, and broadening, our mind is the development of reflexive consciousness or self-awareness. This is the state of being aware that we are aware, and of knowing that we know. Reflexive consciousness is what brings colour and depth - and sometimes pain too - into our lives. Sometimes we can feel when this dimension is missing - life lacks its usual colour and interest, and our experience seems to be painted in unrelieved shades of grey. It may be that at such times we would really prefer not to be self-aware; sometimes we feel that awareness is all too painful, and so we retreat into ourselves, or deliberately distract ourselves.
But at those times when we do fully acknowledge our own existence, we start living in full, glorious colour. The colours we experience may sometimes be harsh and garish, but they can also be beautiful. It is in these moments of reflexive awareness that we are fully alive and fully ourselves.
Reflexive consciousness is natural to human beings - it is the distinctively human factor, the factor that gives us our sense of humour, our ability to think creatively and to empathize with others. But we certainly aren't self-aware all the time. We are often just absorbed in our thoughts and sense experiences, without reference to anything or anyone beyond them, in a state that has been called simple consciousness. It is sometimes said that animals exist on this wavelength. I do not know whether that is true, but it certainly seems that we humans can lapse into simple consciousness, particularly when we are somewhat emotionally `off colour'. If we want it, self-awareness is not difficult to develop. We simply need to appreciate it in all we do, noting when `something' seems to be missing from our experience - noting when we are missing from it! - and then getting back into contact with what we are really feeling and thinking at that particular moment.
beyond self and other
Compared to simple consciousness, self consciousness is a much higher dimension of development. But occasionally we may experience a higher dimension still. Perhaps as the result of some insightful reflection, or maybe in a spontaneous moment of illumination, we may see `ourselves' and `the world' in a deeper, more universal way, so that these words no longer fit what we are experiencing. Whenever, to any extent, we transcend this experience we call `self', we experience a dimension known as consciousness>transcendental consciousness.
Thousands of tree-bodies and mine.
Leaves are waving,
Ears hear the stream's call,
Eyes see into the sky of mind,
A half-smile unfolds on every leaf.
There is a forest here
Because I am here.
But mind has followed the forest
And clothed itself in green.6
Thich Nhat Hanh
The goal of meditation is the transformation of our whole existence from simple consciousness, through self consciousness, to transcendental consciousness. This transformation begins to happen, quite naturally, whenever we try to be aware. Like a softly glowing lamp, our meditation will begin to illuminate all the marvellous qualities that were previously covered over by confused emotions and attitudes. As awareness develops, the obstacles to our freedom gradually dissolve away - confusion begins to be displaced by clarity, ignorance by wisdom, and negative emotion by positive emotion. In this way meditation, and other aids to Enlightenment, will gradually change our whole life for the better.
No doubt to some people - at least in certain moods - all this grand talk of spiritual transformation will appear naively optimistic. Of course, it is important not simply to accept new ideas uncritically. Indeed, sincerely held doubts can be very useful for our growth, if we are really prepared to explore them. But sometimes doubt can be no more than a bad habit. I have met many people who are inclined to be sceptical in a way that is not only unrealistic, but very damaging to their own natural self-confidence. Perhaps we are only too familiar with the obstacles to our freedom; maybe we know, only too well, the chaos that our minds are capable of. But that is no real cause for doubt - in fact, our self-knowledge puts us in a good position to make progress. There are many, many more people who are truly nave about themselves! We need to take heart in the Buddha's message that all the obstacles we experience - whatever they may be - really can be overcome, and that we - whoever we may be - really are capable of overcoming them. Confidence that we can change ourselves, at least by degrees, is the foundation of the whole spiritual life.
Spiritual change is most definitely worth the effort, for our development benefits not only ourselves, but also the whole of society. Those who are making that effort are an asset to everyone around them, not to mention themselves. In the longer term, over the course of one's entire life, there is no limit - absolutely none, according to the Buddha - to what a man or a woman can make of themselves. Very few people realize this. It is true that such change is a major task which will demand our very best efforts. But as a Tibetan saying goes, undertakings that place no demands on us are probably not particularly worthwhile. Spiritual development is said to be the most worthwhile possible use of human life; this book is meant to help you, the reader, begin the great transformation.