The Essential Two Wings: Concentration and Insight Wisdom

The Madhyamika is considered the highest school because of a prophecy of Buddha Shakyamuni. In this prophecy, he stated that after his mahaparinirvana, there would be a bhiksu named Naga, who would be able to understand the true nature of these teachings, and be able to explain the true view of the perfection of wisdom. Just as the Buddha predicted, the great master Nagarjuna came and explained the Madhyamika view, which is also called the "Middle Way" view. In Nagarjuna's teaching, he explains all dharma in terms of two truths: relative truth and absolute truth. At the level of relative truth, cause and effect and interdependent origination operate. Because of certain causes, certain results arise; and due to this everything is interrelated. From this perspective, not a single thing can exist independently. Everything is dependent on everything else: the result is dependent on the cause, the cause depends on the seed. Everything is interrelated and interdependent.

On the relative level, we accept this point of view without reservation. But, when Nagarjuna, with his sharp reason, examined this on the absolute level, he could not find anything. Ultimate reality is beyond all extremes, extremes such as existing, not existing, both and neither. It is completely beyond the perception or description of our present relative mind.

Relative and absolute do not contradict each other. We completely understand the relative truth - for example, that each and every thing must have its own cause, right cause, and complete cause. Due to a particular cause, a particular result arises. Due to causes, we see things, we hear, we taste. We understand these things on a relative level. We can understand the absolute level in that it cannot be described In this sense, relative and absolute truth do not contradict each other.

The root of all samsara, nirvana, happiness and suffering, is one's mind. It is the mind that suffers, that experiences happiness, that is caught up in this realm of existence. And, it is the mind that attains liberation and enlightenment. Since the root of all experience is the mind, if one realizes the true nature of mind, then one will be able to understand all outer and inner phenomena. In order for this sort of realization to arise, we practice concentration and insight wisdom.

When we practice concentration, we develop the capacity to remain in the true nature of mind without the interference of thoughts and on a level of calmness. Having accomplished a degree of concentration, we can then practice insight wisdom, which removes the curtain or cover of the dualistic present, where we see things from the dualistic perspective of subject and object. We attempt to remove the curtain of dualistic vision in order to see the true "naked face," the true nature of mind. As it is said in the sutras: "what is concentration? - concentration or shamatha is when one's mind remains single-pointed without interference of thought." And, "what is insight wisdom? - insight wisdom is to be able to see the true nature of reality."

These meditative practices begin with the practice of concentration. In order to concentrate, we must first be free of outer and inner obstacles. Outer obstacles consist of attachment to activities; while inner obstacles consist of getting involved with worldly activities out of desire or hatred. To practice concentration, one should go to a place that is free from worldly activities, examine the five faults, apply the eight antidotes, and undertake the nine methods.

We begin by examining the five faults, which are laziness, forgetfulness, sinking or scattering mind, not applying the antidote, and applying the antidote too much.

The first fault is laziness - which means not practicing virtuous deeds. The second fault is forgetfulness. Even if one applies oneself, due to forgetfulness, one forgets the techniques or instructions that one has been given. The third fault is sinking or scattering. Even if one does not forget the techniques or instructions, faults occur due to a sinking or scattering mind. Sinking means that, due to heaviness, one's mind is not awake enough. The opposite extreme is scattering, where one's mind is so awake that it cannot remain in one place. The fourth fault is that, even if one knows that one's mind is going in the wrong direction, sinking or scattering, one still does not apply the correct antidote. The fifth fault is to over-apply the antidotes.

So, to know the five faults to concentration is essential. After knowing the five faults, one must apply the eight antidotes.

The eight antidotes are: strong intention, effort, faith, the result, mindfulness, watchfulness, mindfully applying the antidote, and applying equanimity.

The first fault is laziness, and since it is the main fault, it has four antidotes. The first antidote to laziness is strong intention - bringing a strong intention to the practice or meditation. The second antidote is effort itself - not only does one have the intention to meditate, but one actually brings oneself to the point of concentrating. The third antidote is faith - the faith that if one undertakes the practice, one will achieve the result. The fourth antidote is the result, the calm-abiding, the practice of concentration and the physical comfort and mental calmness that one experiences as a result. Of these four antidotes, the most important one is effort, which enables us to overcome laziness, and brings us to the point of actually practicing concentration. To remove the cause of laziness, we also should remember the consequences of samsara and the difficulties of obtaining a precious human rebirth, as well as the nature of impermanence and death.

The antidote for the second fault, forgetfulness, is remembrance or mindfulness. One must keep the techniques of the meditation continually in mind. So, when one receives the instructions, one must very carefully follow them.

The antidote for the third fault, which is the sinking or scattering mind, is to watch whether or not the mind is going in these various directions. Since sinking or scattering is the main obstacle to meditation, if one does not know whether one's mind is going in the wrong direction, then one can't apply the antidote, and so here we must take great care.

The antidote for the fourth fault, which is not applying the antidote, is to mindfully apply the antidote. In this way, one recognizes that one's mind is going into one or the other extreme. One then applies the antidote, and raises oneself from that state of the mind.

The antidote for the fifth fault, which is the over-application of the antidote, is to apply equanimity. With every action we take, maintaining balance is important in order to fulfill one's efforts and one's wishes. And so, in this way, we apply equanimity as the antidote to the fifth fault.

Because the root of all phenomena is the mind, as one comes to realize the true nature of mind, on then realizes the true nature of all outer and inner phenomena. For this reason, it is very important to realize the true nature of mind. However, from their origin until now, our minds have had strong propensities, with defilements and thoughts. The mind is so busy with thoughts that one cannot establish insight wisdom without cultivating tranquility or concentration.

The first step in cultivating concentration, as was mentioned earlier, is to recognize the five faults and apply the eight antidotes.

There are nine methods used to reach the point of actual concentration:.

1. concentration on an external object

2. increasing the frequency of meditation sessions

3. returning the mind to the object whenever distracted

4. disciplining the mind

5. recalling the benefits of concentration

6. pacifying the distractions

7. avoiding thoughts of desire and hatred

8. cultivating single-pointedness

9. experiencing the result of applying the first eight methods


The first method is to place the mind on an object. Because our minds are so busy with different thoughts, it is difficult to do insight meditation right away. So, the first method is to simply concentrate on an outer object, such as an image of the Buddha or a blue flower, or some object on which it is easy to place one's mind. The first method is based on an external object: placing the mind as firmly as possible on an object positioned at the distance of about two feet away from the eyes. Then, without blinking, and without moving the body, concentrate on the object with your eyes, your mind, and your breath. When using this method, one should try not to think about the qualities of the object, its shape or color, but simply attempt to place the mind on the object without the interference of other thoughts.


The second method is to begin to apply the first method as frequently as possible. When we begin to practice methods of concentration, it is difficult to concentrate for very long. For beginners it is best to do several short sessions and to repeat this method as frequently as we are able.


The third method is called "returning the placement [on the object]." If we are distracted while focussing on an object, for example, by a noise, then the mind is also distracted. So instead of going after the sound, we bring our mind back to the object and again attempt to remain in concentration on it.


The fourth method is disciplining the mind. If there are certain outer conditions which create a distraction, instead of following the distraction, we try to bring the mind back. Instead of feeling disturbed, we should use the distraction as a way to pacify the mind. In this way, we can discipline the mind by continually applying the mind to the object of concentration.


The fifth method is perfecting calmness by always remembering the benefits of doing concentration practices. If you meditate, you gain peace, tranquility, physical comforts and mental peace. So, by remembering the benefits of meditation, whenever an obstacle, such as sinking and scattering arises, one tries to remove it and return one's focus to the object.

Using the first four methods we try to recognize that the mind is going in the wrong direction, and we try to bring it back to the object of concentration. Using the fifth method one tames the mind by remembering the benefits of meditation. When one gains benefits, one has more enthusiasm and interest in the practice.


The sixth method is called pacifying, which means that if due to a distraction, your mind is agitated or disturbed, then one tries to remove the agitation or disturbance by pacifying it.


The seventh method is to avoid thoughts of hatred or desire. Instead, you should try to bring the mind back to the object of concentration.


The eighth method is the application of single-pointedness as a way to remove any agitation and return to the object of concentration.


The ninth method is the result of consistently applying the first eight methods. When you begin, you will face many difficulties, but if you practice every day, your practice will become easier, and finally you will be able to place your mind on objects without much effort. Gradually as you continue, you will experience the actual benefits: true tranquility, peace of mind, and great physical comfort.

One should try to meditate using this method of recognizing the first five faults, applying the eight antidotes and practicing the nine methods.

There are five "experiences" or signs of progress in this kind of concentration practice:

1. recognizing thoughts

2. experiencing gaps in the stream of distractions

3. experiencing the thoughts calming down

4. experiencing waves of distraction

5. experiencing the combination of calmness and clarity.

Your first experience will be that many thoughts will arise one after another This happens because it is our normal experience: we always have many thoughts coming one after another, and we don't even notice it. But, if it seems that many thoughts are arising when we try to concentrate or meditate, we should not be discouraged. This is simply the start of your meditation practice. This first sign is called "the experience of recognizing our thoughts."

As you continue your practice you will have the second experience, which is that thoughts still come, but there are gaps between them. The second experience is the experience of gaps in the stream of distractions.

Then, as you continue, after a while, although there are thoughts, one will experience more calm and clarity. This is the third experience - the experience of thoughts calming down.

As you continue, the fourth experience is called "the waves." In this experience, like the waves of the ocean, although there is calmness in one's mind, and one experiences clarity, occasionally thoughts arise. After the wave of distraction fades, one simply goes on and continues one's meditation.

When distracting thoughts cease in your meditation, you are then able to experience complete calm and peace. This fifth experience is called "the ocean without waves." This state of the mind is the combination of remaining in calmness with the experience of clarity. When one's mind remains in single-pointedness, then one experiences complete clarity, like the flame of a candle unmoved by the wind. When one has such an experience, one then turns back, without outer objects, and tries to concentrate the mind on the clarity of consciousness itself. If one still experiences obstacles like scattering or sinking, one should simply remove them through the application of the methods.

In this way, seated in the full meditation posture, one should attempt concentration meditation, and eventually one will be able to develop the experience of concentration.

If, on the basis of these experiences one can maintain complete calmness with clarity, then one can undertake insight meditation. Without insight meditation, all other Buddhist practices, such as loving kindness and compassion only work on the "surface" of thought.

In order to completely eradicate self-clinging, and to completely awaken from illusion, one must have wisdom. Through wisdom, and with the skillful means of the method, one can achieve enlightenment. A bird needs two wings to fly in the air, and we need vision and limbs to move. Similarly, in order to attain enlightenment we need both method and wisdom.

Self Clinging: The self does not inherently exist

The main fault that keeps us caught in this realm of existence is self-clinging. All of us cling, without authentic or logical reason, to our form and consciousness, which together we think of as the "self." However, if we carefully examine this idea, we realize that we cannot find a "self" anywhere. If there is a "self," it must be the name, or the body or the mind. A name is simply an external label, a name could be given to anybody - and is not in the body or in the mind. The body is also not the "self," because the body consists of different aggregates which have come together. The mind is not the "self," because it is changing at every moment. Thinking the mind is the "self" would be like mistaking a colorful rope for a snake. Until you realize the colorful rope is not a real snake, you might experience anxiety and fear. Until we realize selflessness, then we will cling to this realm of existence.

In order to completely free ourselves from all illusions, we need to cut the root of samsara, which is self-clinging. To do this, we need the kind of wisdom that realizes selflessness. When we realize this inner selflessness, we will also come to realize that all outer objects are also not real.

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