Discovering Basic Sanity

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Section 1

  • The view of Buddhist Meditation
  • Hindrances in Meditation
  • Mindfulness and Awareness

    Section 2

  • Absolute and Relative Truth
  • Emptiness

    Section 1

    The view of Buddhist Meditation

    According to the Buddhas teaching all sentient beings desire happiness and do not want to experience suffering and human beings are no exception. According to the Buddhist teachings although human beings are superior to other sentient creatures in terms of intelligence none the less, they do not have proper insight into themselves. We do not know how to achieve happiness or how to overcome our suffering. Even though our basic desire or drive is to experience happiness, which we are constantly seeking , the manner in which we seek our happiness is misguided, due to our lack of understanding, our ignorance. This is because we think that happiness is achieved only when we are able to satisfy all our desires, that happiness is intertwined with satisfying our desires, our craving. This is a misconception, however, according to the Buddhist teachings. When we equate happiness with the satisfaction of desires we become involved in the attempt to satisfy one desire after another and this is an endless process. All desires cannot be satisfied, it is impossible practically and cannot be done. Therefore we engage in this futile task of trying to satisfy all desire and this is totally self defeating, as the happiness we are trying to attain to cannot be reached by this means.
    According to the teachings we have to look at the whole thing from another angle. We have to look at how we can achieve happiness in a way that does not lead to further dissatisfaction or further experience of suffering. If we try to satisfy all our desires, instead of this leading to happiness, this leads to increase of suffering. Because of craving and attachment whatever we try to attain in order to satisfy our desires can become overwhelming, and can take over our lives, whatever the objects of our desires are. For example, if one becomes totally attached to one's friends, one's relatives or one's children then one becomes totally dependent upon their love and affection.
    From a Buddhist point of view what needs to be done is not to try to satisfy every single desire but rather to try to contain craving and to try to overcome attachment. There is a big difference between ridding oneself of desire and overcoming or ridding oneself of craving. Many people think that according to Buddhist teachings we have eventually to give up all desires. It is not the giving up of desire however so much as dealing with craving, which desire gives rise to and the attachment which comes from craving which needs to be overcome. In order to overcome these we need to have some kind of method. Even if we recognise that craving is a problemn and that attachment gives rise to problems and perpetuates our suffering and dissatisfaction, there has to be a method we can use in order to overcome those problems.
    In Buddha¼s teachings the method to overcome attachment and craving is the practice of meditation. There are two types of meditation: Meditation of tranquillity and meditation of insight. Meditation of tranquillity is used in order to settle the mind, to pacify the mind. If any of you have tried to meditate you would have noticed how hard it is for the mind to be calm, how difficult it is for the mind to be focused and attentive. So first of all one needs to learn how to rest the mind which helps somewhat to stabilise the mind. Once one has learned how to stabilise the mind through the practice of tranquillity meditation then one engages in what is called the practice of insight. Having stabilised the mind it is possible to clear the mind of defilements and of various cognitive distortions, through engaging in analysis. So through this, one can try to understand the nature of the self and the nature of the mind, how delusions and attachment arise and how craving comes about.
    Before one can try to gain insight into the workings of the mind it is important to learn how to let the mind rest, how to cultivate a focused mind . In the Buddhist tradition we use two different kinds of meditation in order to overcome two different types of obscuration. One is the obscuration of emotional conflict associated with craving and attachment (and so on). The other is the obscuration of cognitive distortions which is associated with the ignorance or lack of insight into the nature of our mind. We have this innate tendency to think that there is a self, that there is something called immutable self, which is unchanging, permanent (and so on). Through the practice of meditation of insight, we come gradually to realise that this belief is just a mental construct. When we engage in the practice of vipashyana or insight meditation, we are observing sensations in the body and mental processes going on in the mind; what we perceive, what we experience, thoughts coming and going, concepts arising and subsiding, emotions arising and dissipating. We do not experience something else apart from all that. We do not experience something separate and underlying, or above our feelings or emotions or the various things we remember or think about in terms of the future or the past. There is nothing that we can experience which we can say is the self, as being completely separate from all these things.
    So gradually through reflection on ourselves and on the mind, we begin to gain some insight into what is called selflessness or 'anatman' in Sanskrit. This does not mean that one realizes that there is no such thing as self at all. What one realizes is that the innate tendency to think that a self is something simple, indivisible and irreduceable, something that is permanent and unchanging, is revealed as a mental construct. That does not mean one ceases to function as an individual, as a person because a person or an individual is made up of many different factors, physical and mental. This innate tendency to think that there is 'me' who is the bearer of all these attributes is encouraged because normally we say 'my' body, 'my' feelings, 'my' emotions, 'my' memory. All the while we are thinking that all these things are something that belong to åme¼. That 'me' is something separate from all these things.
    When we engage in the practice of insight meditation we realise that there is no 'me' apart from all that. Because if you ask the question, „What is me? If I'm not my body, my feelings, my memory, my emotions, then what is me?¾ Then you say, „I don't know¾ and that's why the Buddhists say that sort of self,that sort of 'me' does not exist and this is called 'anatman' or selflessness. From that realisation then it is possible to become less greedy, less selfish, less egotistical and less emotionally charged. Because when one realises that there is no underlying unchanging entity called self, then there is less need for one to feel defensive and show aggression or feel jealous or indulge in all kinds of like feelings such as pride (etc). This discovery opens up possibilities in terms of relating to others, in terms of opening up to others and also of developing compassion and so on.
    Thus from a Buddhist point of view one needs to engage in the two types of practice; for stabilizing the mind and then for gaining insight. One without the other is not profitable. If one tries to practice meditation of insight without practising tranquillity meditation, when the mind is not settled enough and focused enough to be able to think clearly then it is difficult to obtain insight. Likewise, if one engages only in tranquillity/shamatha meditation and not in the practise of insight/vipashyana, then one might be able to develop gradually an ability to practice meditation in a way which brings about a more stable, harmonious, peaceful mind without many disturbing thoughts arising but according to Buddhism without insight that type of meditation is also limited. It might relieve a person of tension, anxiety or emotional upheaval (etc), but such mental agitations are only temporarily pushed aside or superseded. The essential nature of the emotions, the essential nature of the mind, the essential nature of the self, these are not dealt with. Just practising meditation in order to settle the mind so it is not so distracted or restless has a very limited use. So these two, the practice of insight and practice of tranquillity meditation must go together.
    Through these two different types of practice one can gain insight into the nature of the mind, insight into the nature of the self, then one can become enlightened. That is the aim of a Buddhist practitioner, to become enlightened. When one becomes enlightened according to Buddhism, when we talk about overcoming suffering and attaining happiness etc, what one attains is mental tranquillity and mental peace. This does not mean that an enlightened person has overcome suffering altogether but because of the transformation that has taken place in the attitude of that individual then the suffering that exists in the world is experienced differently, related to differently and handled differently. The person has more ability to deal with it but that does not mean that an enlightened person has overcome all suffering, but there is a sense in which such a person has overcome all mental suffering and that is the goal of Buddhist practice.
    The Buddhist teachings, which are called the Dharma, are normally compared to the medicine, the Buddha, who is regarded as the teacher and founder of Buddhism, as the doctor and the people who practice and assimilate the teachings are seen as the patients. The reason for this is that, according to the Buddha, the sense of sanity or mental integration is not to be understood in relation to being able to function properly in society; so that one is not seen as weird, or that one is not causing a lot of damage to society and oneself, because of certain mental problems such as psychosis or other forms of mental breakdown. Actually, even this whole idea of conforming to what everybody believes in, is a form of madness, it is a form of mental affliction.
    To practice the Dharma, to use the Dharma as medicine, one has, in a sense, to go against the wisdom of commonsense or to go against the beliefs of mass psychology. Just because everybody says this is true or this is how one should go about doing things, does not make it true or correct. As we know, until very recently, until modern science told us differently, some people thought that the earth was flat but now we know that is not true. Many people assume that if a large number of people believe in something then it must be true but there is no reason or basis for that assumption.
    To practice the Dharma means to rise above that way of thinking. For example our tendency when it comes to looking for happiness, is to want to satisfy all desires, rather than to look for the source of unhappiness or suffering properly. There is a common sort of belief that the main thing to do in life is to seek happiness and avoid suffering; that as long as we can eliminate and eradicate all kinds and all forms of dislikes and increase our pleasure then we will have happiness. This belief is a grave mistake.
    In Buddhism the teachings and practice are used in order to gain insight into how we become influenced by certain presuppositions, certain ways of thinking, that are common to all human beings. Such as the belief in a permanent immutable self (etc). So the practice of meditation is done in order to make us realise what sort of delusions we indulge in; both in terms of emotional reactions to things and also in terms of what sort of beliefs and what sort of presuppositions we have.
    When we do meditation we just simply pay attention to what is going on in our mind, we do not react either positively or negatively, we do not place any judgements; either in terms of saying this is good or this is bad,but we simply pay attention to what arises in the mind. If we pay attention and suspend our judgements, if we just simply observe, then it is possible gradually to overcome our presuppositions. If we continue to evaluate what is happening during meditation then we will still be using our familiar categories of thought to relate to our meditative experiences. So we say "Oh this experience is good because of this, that and the other thing¾, and „that experience is bad because of this and that¾, but if we allow ourselves just to observe simply what is happening during meditation then it is possible to have insight.
    When we have insight we realise something new. We cannot gain insight if we are constantly trying to fit fresh experiences into familiar categories of thought, familiar ways of thinking. Our familiar ways of thinking are totally non-dharmic; they might be common sense or they might be widely held beliefs or whatever but they are just mental constructions nonetheless .
    So in meditation we simply observe whatever arises either in terms of emotions or thoughts. If we have positive emotions we do not think this is a good thing, and if we have negative emotions arising in our mind, we do not say to ourselves, this is a bad thing. If we have varieties of mental images arising in the mind, for example, images of the Buddha or Jesus or any number of things, we do not say, "Oh this is good, must be some kind of portent, some kind of spiritual attainment or realisation," or if we are thinking about other things, for example about sex or this or that, then we do not say, "Oh, this is bad, I am wasting my time, I¼m supposed to be meditating and I am thinking about these things." We use whatever arises in the mind as a part of meditation. From a Buddhist point of view, with the practice of meditation, the idea is not to suppress thoughts, not to get rid of mental images, mental impressions etc, but the idea is to use these very mental processes as part of meditation. According to Buddhism, thoughts and ideas, concepts and emotions that arise in the mind, are not enemies of meditation. If there is an enemy to meditation it is lack of attention. As long as we are aware of what is going on in the mind then we are in the meditative state. To be in the meditative state does not necessarily mean being in a mental vacuum, of not having any experience. As one Buddhist master said, "you can achieve that if you ask somebody to knock you over the head, you do not have to do meditation for that."
    If you want to be in the meditative state what you have to do is to be attentive and to take notice. When we do that, what happens is that we start to see that everything that we experience during meditation is transient, impermanent and ephemeral. This insight is very important. Normally when people hear that Buddhism teaches about impermanence, they say "I know that, I know everything is impermanent, that¼s nothing new." When we do the practise of meditation, and actually observe and experience our emotions and thoughts, coming and going, then we have a direct experience of impermanence on an existential level. There is a big difference between really knowing and experiencing impermanence, to simply understanding intellectually what impermanence is. Everybody, to a certain degree, understands that everything is impermanent, but how do they react to situations that happen in their particular lives?. For example, if a person loses their job or their partner leaves, or some other crisis occurs, they may well not say," I can accept this because everything changes and is impermanent." The person may be completely outraged or hurt or depressed or feel suicidal etc.
    Through the practise of meditation it is possible to understand impermanence first hand. We become less serious about what happens in our lives, and we can develop a sense of detachment. Which is not to say that we become indifferent, It is possible for one to let things be, and not always try to create some form of false security, to be able to work with the whole idea of things being impermanent, transient and so on.

    Hindrances in Meditation

    When we meditate we need to be aware of certain hindrances or obstacles in meditation. There are five different kinds of hindrances:


    The first is the hindrance of craving. This is important because it is normally translated as desire, but I think that is a bad translation. If we obliterate desire then we will not be able to function as human beings. It is impossible to overcome desire, but it is possible to overcome craving. For somebody who has no desire whatsoever there is no point in doing anything, for example, why get out of bed in the morning, why not just lie there? I think people do not understand that difference. It is possible and it is important to overcome craving, because craving causes all kinds of mental afflictions.
    As long as there is craving, then we develop attachment, greed and all kinds of things, whereby our mind is robbed of its peace. In meditation we can see the same thing happen, even with our spiritual aspirations. We may crave a nice, peaceful state during meditation,. and if we have an experience like that, then we may want to cling on to it, we may not want to let go of it. If it is not there we may get worried, we may get frustrated and think we are not making progress etc. etc.
    So from a Buddhist point of view we should be aware of craving, both in terms of material things, as well as pursuits and aspirations. Trungpa Rinpoche, for example, calls it spiritual materialism, if a sense of attachment or craving comes in. Even if we are doing something spiritual it becomes contaminated and polluted by all kinds of our emotional afflictions.


    The second hindrance is, ill will or aggression. That tendency to think that whatever is pleasurable is something that we should pursue and cultivate. All the little irritating things, even the very simple and very basic irritating discomforts are something to be avoided at all costs, we must reject them. We must avoid pain as much as possible, and pursue pleasure as much as possible, at all times in any place.
    This has to be dealt with during meditation. When we meditate we do not try to run away from irritating things. You know, it is not a very comfortable position to be sitting, it is much more comfortable to lie on your back. When we sit we get pains in our knees, our back, our shoulders. Instead of trying to will this pain away, or trying to change our position, always shifting and always trying to make ourselves a little bit more comfortable all the time, we try to deal with that pain. Getting angry and agitated, thinking "this stupid body of mine it can't sit properly, my knees are not flexible enough, I can't do lotus position," (or whatever thoughts come in,) is not important, What is important, is to deal with those little irritations, so that one is not always trying to run away from pain and discomfort. And the same thing with the mind, whatever happens in the mind.
    If there are a lot of disturbing thoughts coming up during meditation, we do not react to them with a sense of anger or frustration, but we stay with them and work with them. That is what happens in meditation. As we begin to sit with our physical discomfort and our mental irritation, gradually we discover that it is workable. Actually, trying to be with irritations and discomfort makes the whole thing more pleasant. Always trying to run away from them, one has no level of tolerance at all, and any little thing can irritate you . I mean one might look at everything as being something annoying or irritating or upsetting or whatever. So in meditation we can deal with that.


    The next in the list is, stupor. So when we meditate, a lot of the time we feel drowsy, we feel sleepy, there is no sense of mental clarity and the mind is sort of foggy. Even though the mind is not agitated, nonetheless there is no sense of mental clarity. We need to be aware of that during meditation. The way to deal with that is to straighten ones position and pay more attention to the shoulders, chest, and the position of the head. If this persists try to get some fresh air, and it is sometimes useful to have a wet towel or something that one can use in order to wash ones face with etc. It is also recommended not to eat too much. And so basically one tries to increase the sense of alertness during meditation.


    The other obstacle or hindrance that arises during meditation is mental agitation, which comes from worries and all kinds of what Trungpa Rinpoche calls subconscious gossip. So in meditation we are thinking about doing the shopping, or thinking about cooking, or all kinds of little things that come up. We have to be aware of those mental agitations. When they arise we try to pay more attention to the lower parts of the body, the position of our legs, buttocks and abdomen, so that the general attention is moved to the lower portion of the body. Also we generate a sense of being grounded and being earthy.

    Sceptical Doubt

    The last obstacle or hindrance is what is called sceptical doubt. Which means that as human beings it is very difficult for us to develop trust or confidence, either in people, or what we do. Sometimes this sort of sceptical doubt can become extreme; whereby it is almost impossible to trust anyone or to believe in anything we do. If that happens, even when we meditate, we may start wondering what benefit there might be. One might start to think, "how do I know meditation works, how do I know that sitting like this is not just wasting time? Maybe I should be doing something else, maybe I should be jogging instead, I mean that might be more beneficial than just sitting here doing nothing." All kinds of doubts and uncertainties may arise which would disturb the mind, and also take enthusiasm away in the practice of meditation.

    So those five hindrances are the main hindrances, of course as we know there are, (I mean if you have been doing meditation) all kinds of hindrances. But the five main hindrances are something that are persistent, and something that we are all familiar with. When we practise meditation we have to be aware of them at all times, so that we do not become victimised by them, and yield to them, and get carried away and loose focus and attention.

    Mindfulness and Awareness

    So when we meditate, first we try to make use of mindfulness in order to develop concentration. Then from the practise of mindfulness we gradually try to develop awareness. Mindfulness is called 'Dranpa' in Tibetan, which literally means something like recollection. What that means is that at the beginning, when we are learning how to meditate we have to try to remember the object of meditation. Whatever it is, the breath or some kind of object that we have in front of us, on which we can focus and concentrate; we use that object to anchor our mind so that it does not wander. The idea of mindfulness is to always remember to go back to the object of meditation, and not allow ones mind to wander. If we do that properly, if our mind becomes more stable, less restless, and if we develop a certain amount of concentration, then it becomes easier to develop awareness. Awareness is different from mindfulness insofar as, when we are aware, we are not deliberately trying to go back to the object of meditation. It is a way of being, one is not actually involved in any kind of deliberate attempt to settle the mind, or trying to go back to the object of meditation, but simply being aware of whatever is occurring in the mind.
    So it is awareness that gives rise to insight. In Tibetan awareness is called "She Zhin", "She" means, "to be aware, to be conscious," "Zhin" means, "continuously." So one is continuously aware of what is going on. So mindfulness and awareness are quite different. The object of meditation is to gradually transform mindfulness into awareness. And then awareness would lead to the development of insight, which is actually the final goal of the practice of meditation.