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What is meditation?

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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"It is extremely hard to rest undistracted in the nature of mind, even for a moment, let alone to self-liberate a single thought or emotion as it rises. We often assume that simply because we understand something intellectually, - or think we do - we have actually realised it. This is a great Delusion. It requires the maturity that only years of listening, contemplation, reflection, meditation, and sustained practice can ripen."

Sogyal Rinpoche


Some words directed at Westerners from Sogyal Rinpoche's book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying:

"We are so addicted to looking outside ourselves that we have lost access to our inner being almost completely. We are terrified to look inward, because our culture has given us no idea of what we will find. We may even think that if we do, we will be in danger of madness. This is one of the last and most resourceful ploys of ego to prevent us from discovering our real nature.

So we make our lives so hectic that we eliminate the slightest risk of looking into ourselves. Even the idea of meditation can scare people. When they hear the words egoless or Emptiness, they think that experiencing those states will be like being thrown out the door of a spaceship to float forever in a dark, chilling void. Nothing could be further from the truth. But in a world dedicated to distraction, silence and stillness terrify us; we protect ourselves from them with noise and frantic busyness. Looking into the nature of our mind is the last thing we would dare to do."

Please realise that these pages just deal with Buddhist meditation, some techniques are found exclusively in Tibetan Buddhism. The Tibetan word for meditation, "gom" can be translated as familiarising, habituating. In short, it means to familiarise with a positive state of mind, which actually refers to training the mind. Meditation is not just relaxing, rather it is trying to develop a highly concentrated and clear state of mind which one can use for clear analysis, and which can be blissful to be in. This blissful state is called "Shamatha" in Sanskrit (see below). Once we have reached this very advanced concentrated state of mind, we can learn what we want very quickly, including transforming our mind and developing deep Wisdom and insight. Not only our conscious thoughts can be brought under control, also our emotions and 'unconsciousness', as they are all based on concepts which can be changed. This page refelects my own limited understanding of meditation, but do also have a look at His Holiness the Dalai Lama's advice and this lovely summary of What meditation is not from Bhante Henepola Gunarantana.



In Buddhist meditation, we try to develop Wisdom, learn to observe our own mind, decrease negative mind states and develop positive mind states. To develop Wisdom and insight, we need a calm, clear and concentrated mind. To observe our own mind, we need to develop a kind of inner "spy" - a part of our attention that checks our state of mind. To decrease negative mind states we need to understand where they come from and transform them into positive energy with the Wisdom developed from observing our own mind. To develop positive mind states, we need to focus away from selfishness and again develop Wisdom by observing our own mind. As you may realise from the above, we should actually become our own psychologist, or like the title of a booklet by Lama Yeshe: "Becoming Your Own Therapist".

In order to find the right state of mind for meditation, we need concentration instead of being scattered, and clarity of mind instead of dullness. We need to observe our own thoughts and mind states instead of getting lost in emotions or becoming prejudiced. We need to be honest towards ourselves instead of fooling ourselves and walk away from unpleasant problems. Furthermore, we need to be patient (one does not become a meditation master over night), generate self-acceptance, confidence and enthusiasm to make the mind peaceful. All these factors need to be in Balance: we need to be somewhat relaxed as well as concentrated, we need to avoid both sleepiness and excitement.

A quote from the late Lama Yeshe:

"Many meditators emphasise too much on concentration: if you are squeezing, then there is no control of Anger if someone disturbs you. The Beauty of real meditation is, that even if you are disturbed, you can allow space and time for this."

Another misunderstanding about meditation is that we should stop thinking. I assume this comes from the emphasis in many Zen schools to "stop thinking" - which I understand to mean that one cannot realise or experience Emptiness when being only caught up in conceptual thoughts about it. That would be similar to trying to experience a beautiful sunset while discussing with yourself, "Is it the colour of the clouds that make it beautiful, or is it the quietness; why does the sun turn red etc."

As Allan Wallace writes in Tibetan Buddhism from the Ground Up:


"The point of Buddhist meditation is not to stop thinking, for ... cultivation of insight clearly requires intelligent use of thought and discrimination. What needs to be stopped is conceptualisation that is compulsive, mechanical and unintelligent, that is, activity that is always fatiguing, usually pointless, and at times seriously harmful."

Or, as the late Ajahn Chah said: "Try to be mindful, and let things take their natural course. Then your mind will become still in any surroundings, like a clear forest pool. All kinds of wonderful, rare Animals will come to drink at the pool, and you will clearly see the nature of all things. But you will be still. This is the Happiness of The Buddha."

But can we change our mind just like that? His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains in 'An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life':

"Though not physical, our states of mind also come about by causes and conditions, much the way things in the physical world do. It is therefore important to develop familiarity with the mechanics of causation. The substantial cause of our present state of mind is the previous moment of mind. Thus, each moment of consciousness serves as the substantial cause of our subsequent awareness. The stimuli experienced by us, visual forms we enjoy or memories we a react to, are the cooperative conditions that give our state of mind its character. As with matter, by controlling the conditions, we affect the product: our mind. Meditation should be a skillful method of doing just this, applying particular conditions to our minds in order to bring about the desired effect, a more virtuous mind."


The definition of shamatha is: the ability to hold our minds on the object of meditation with clarity and stability for as long as we wish, conjoined with mental and physical pliancy. It is also called single pointed concentration. With shamatha, the mind becomes extremely flexible and drastically reduces the Power of disturbing attitudes, gross Anger, attachment, jealousy etc. do not arise.


"People learning the way should first empty and quiet their minds. This is because the mind must be empty before it can mystically understand the subtle principle. If the mind is not emptied, it is like a lamp in the wind, or like turbulent water, how can it reflect the myriad forms?" Yuan-hsien (1618-1697) - Excerpted from "The Teaching of Zen" edited by Thomas Cleary

Prerequisites to achieve full-blown calm abiding:

1. Agreeable place: easy to obtain Food without wrong livelihood, powerful place (blessed by holy persons) and quiet, not disease-ridden, proper companions and one should have heard and studied the teachings. 2. Have few desires in terms of Food, Clothes etc. 3. Knowing satisfaction: acceptance of what you haven and who you are. 4. Pure ethics: try to prevent any negative actions. 5. Forsaking commotion/excitement: few purposes outside meditation, reduce any other activities 6. Abandoning thoughts of desire and lust: contemplating faults of desire and impermanence.

As you may understand from the above, the achievement of shamatha is not a small task. It is said that if one is completely focused on the practice in solitary Retreat, some people can achieve it in 6 months. There are not many people around who can claim to have mastered shamatha. To seriously engage in this practice, the advice of a teacher should be sought, and several good Books have appeared on the subject.

A warning from Venerable Ajahn Chah (Pra Bhodinyana Thera):

"Samadhi is capable of bringing much harm or much benefit to the meditator, you can't say it brings only one or the other. For one who has no Wisdom it is harmful, but for one who has Wisdom it can bring real benefit, it can lead him to Insight.That which can be most harmful to the meditator is Absorption Samadhi (Jhana), the Samadhi with deep, sustained calm. This Samadhi brings great peace. Where there is peace, there is Happiness. When there is Happiness, attachment and clinging to that Happiness arise. The meditator doesn't want to contemplate anything else, he just wants to indulge in that pleasant feeling. When we have been practicing for a long time we may become adept at entering this Samadhi very quickly. As soon as we start to note our meditation object, the mind enters calm, and we don't want to come out to investigate anything. We just get stuck on that Happiness. This is a danger to one who is practicing meditation.


We must use Upacara Samadhi. Here, we enter calm and then, when the mind is sufficiently calm, we come out and look at outer activity. Looking at the outside with a calm mind gives rise to Wisdom. This is hard to understand, because it's almost like ordinary thinking and imagining. When thinking is there, we may think the mind isn't peaceful, but actually that thinking is taking place within the calm. There is contemplation but it doesn't disturb the calm. We may bring thinking up in order to contemplate it. Here we take up the thinking to investigate it, it's not that we are aimlessly thinking to investigate it, it's not that we are aimlessly thinking or guessing away; it's something that arises from a peaceful mind. This is called "awareness within calm and calm within awareness." If it's simply ordinary thinking and imagining, the mind won't be peaceful, it will be disturbed. But I am not talking about ordinary thinking, this is a feeling that arises from the peaceful mind. It's called "contemplation." Wisdom is born right here."

Tai Situ Rinpoche, from 'The Third Karmapa's Mahamudra Prayer':

"'The waves of gross and subtle thoughts subside in their own place. The stream of mind rests unmoved in itself. May we be free from the stains of agitation, stupor, and dullness, And establish a still ocean of calm abiding'

This prayer describes the ideal state of calm abiding. In this state all gross and subtle thoughts are naturally pacified, which is to say that they are temporarily calmed down. When the mind is free from any disturbing thoughts, it becomes stable and abides in this state without there being any need for deliberate effort. In this situation two things can happen. The first is agitation (Tib. 'jing wa'). This refers to an extroverted state in which the mind, figuratively speaking, falls into a gaze, in which it is very fascinated or 'spaced out'. The second consists of two types of an extremely introverted state of mind, stupor and dullness (Tib. 'mug pa' and 'nyog pa'). These are almost the same, though dullness is slightly more active, while under the influence of stupor one might easily fall asleep. It is a state of real blankness, while dullness is a state of extreme cloudiness that can be compared to water polluted by so much dirt that one cannot see through it."


Vipashyana is defined as: the correct discernment of the object of meditation, coupled with single-pointed concentration: a combination of analytical meditation and calm abiding. To develop it, we need to learn to analyse the meditation object. But not only conceptual; it is a more fully understanding the object. Our conceptual understanding will eventually turn into direct, non-conceptual experience. As The Buddha said:

"Like Fire arises from two pieces of wood rubbed together, so does analytical Wisdom arise from the conceptual state. And just like the Fire increases and burns away all the wood, analytical Wisdom increases and burns away all conceptual states."

2 Types of analytical meditation are distinguished:

To transform our attitude. For example, by understanding the problems and misunderstanding of Anger, we can reduce and ultimately eliminate Anger. Analysis of the meditation object to understand and perceive it directly.

When doing analytical meditation, never take for granted the first quick answer that comes up. When you ask "why, how and when" again regarding your initial answers, you may discover the "real", underlying answers. Also, the answers should not only come just from the intellect, also check your feelings and emotions, as long as you don't get caught up in them..

An example: in Death meditation you can think of Death. When you ask, "Will I die?" the immediate answer will be "Yes", and it seems you are finished. But take some time to check with yourself if you really live your Life consciously in the realisation that you can die any minute. Asking yourself, "How would it feel to die right now?" will get you into another level of the mind. Ask, "How will I die?" and "How will I feel?" and the simple question about Death becomes intensely acute and serious. Then ask for example, "Why will I die?" and you may answer, "Negative Karma". But rather than giving just the textbook answers, check how these things feel: "What is negative Karma really? How does negative Karma feel? Do I really believe in Karma, and do I act that way?" etc. Analytical meditation is not just about giving the instant logical answers from the Books, but verifying what your OWN answers are. For me personally, often the real answers appear to be stowed away in emotions and is hiding behind the logical straightforward answers.

After doing the analysis in a very slow and calm way, one should single-pointedly focus on the conclusion made in the end, without analysis, just "look at the conclusion". This really works to let your own conclusions "sink in", and make them part of your understanding and Wisdom.

As example using above meditation, you may conclude that you are really not so sure whether you believe in Karma. The conclusion may well be something like: "I have to check about Karma more" or "I need to check why I often don't act as if I believe in Karma". Personally, this is the kind of stuff that makes me more sensitive and aware about my state of mind, and it stimulates to meditate more on the subjects of philosophy and psychology.

For the complete text of "Mindfulness In Plain English", a well-loved 'how-to meditate' book on Vipassana by Venerable Gunaratana, click here on this page of COMBINING SHAMATHA AND VIPASYANA

According to The Buddha and the many great masters following in his footsteps, we need to practice both single-pointed concentration and special insight. Slightly edited from

"In the Anguttara Nikaya Sutta (4.170): Venerable Ananda (one of the main disciples of The Buddha) says that monks and nuns who informed him that they had attained arahantship all declared that they did so by one of the four categories, i.e. there are only these four ways to arahantship (liberation):

o Samatha followed by vipassana - after which the path is born in him/her, o Vipassana followed by Samatha - after which the path is born in him/her, o Samatha and vipassana together, simultaneously - after which the path is born in him/her, and o The mind stands fixed internally (i.e. on the cognizant consciousness or 'self') until it becomes one-pointed - after which the path is born in him/her.

... Charity (Dana) and morality (sila) are the positive and negative aspects of doing good (actively doing good and refraining from doing bad actions.). Likewise, Samatha and vipassana can be said to be the positive and negative aspects of meditation. Samatha is the positive aspect which brings one closer to Nibbana. Vipassana is the negative aspect, because one sees everything in the world as it is with proper Wisdom thus: 'This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self' -- as a result, one will naturally withdraw from and let go of the sensory world. In other words, Samatha meditation pulls one towards Nibbana, in contrast to vipassana meditation, which pushes one away from the world."

Or, as found in text from the Ming Dynasty by an unknown master; Taoist MeditationMethods for Cultivation a Healthy Mind and Body, translated by Thomas Cleary :

"When you see reality, no illusions can confuse you; when you develop stability, things cannot shake it or take it away."