Buddha Shakyamuni with Arhats (18th c) © Himalayan Art Collection

Calming our minds is the first step

By Shamar Rinpoche

Teaching given at Bodhi Path Washington, DC Metro Area in Spring 2004.

Today, I will give you instructions about mind nature that will be helpful for your meditation. And, I will give you reasons for doing the shamatha or calm-abiding meditation practice. To meditate, you first need some understanding about your mind. Our normal concepts about mind, which really are not accurate, can disturb your meditation. Therefore, it is very important to have a correct understanding about the nature of mind.

Generally, people today view mind from a scientific perspective. Perhaps they equate mind, which is a process, with the brain, which is a bodily organ. In this case, it is easy to see mind as no more than a collection of nerves transmitting and processing electronic signals, like a computer made of flesh. I should tell you that if mind functioned in this way, then there would be no need to meditate. In fact, you could not meditate at all with such a mind. However, for Buddhists, mind is not like this. In Buddhist terms, we say that mind is clear. Clarity here means mind can understand itself. We can understand things because the mind’s true nature is self-understanding. Otherwise, we could not learn anything. To learn in the Buddhist sense means to gain self-understanding.

All conceptual knowledge comes to us as pictures in our minds. The physical objects that we comprehend are not themselves of the same material as our minds. Physical objects have atoms, while minds do not. This makes physical objects different than mind.

Mind itself is not made of atoms. Thus, mind has its own, separate nature from physical objects. If we reason this out, it means that in reality, there is no contact between mind and matter. When you understand that objects are just reflections in the mind, then you realize that what your mind comprehends are not objects themselves, but merely images or pictures. Through this concept of mind you can then approach the more difficult idea that mind-nature is defined by self understanding and self-realization. Every moment mind is working, it is moving. Mind is not a fixed thing with some permanence, but a process; a true mind-stream. So, as thoughts pass through mind, they themselves ensure mind’s continuance. If mind were to remain always on one thought, then it would get stuck. It would be frozen. But because mind is always moving, because it is dynamic, then you can perceive the outside world through ever-changing sense data. You can see, hear and feel. For example, we might compare the mind-stream to reading a series of words quickly. Each word is connected to a thought. The only way you can comprehend a series of thoughts is because your mind is not a fixed, unchanging entity. If your mind was not dynamic, then it would get stuck on "A," and never able to get to "B." So, in every moment, the mind is moving; it is passing by its former position. When we are fully awake, mind is free of the object with which it connects to through thoughts, perceptions and feelings. Mind is unobstructed. You neither have a single thought nor many thoughts. Mind does not exist substantially. Mind is no longer ignorant or stupid in the deepest sense. But we should understand that self-realization is not like being in a coma. Instead, there is clarity and power. Self-realized mind is free from the influence of phenomena. It is mind free from all need to occupy itself; it is now an independent mind.

This, we might say, is good mind, non-dualistic mind. Of course, this kind of mind is not easy to obtain. Our habits are strong, and the unrealized mind is easily carried away by the flow of thoughts. If you examine your own mind, you will understand this. Mind does not exist in tangible substance; it is not a physically existing thing. Mind is not limited by any size, any shape, or any color. It is boundless and spacious. When you can realize an open state of mind—and keep it stable—then you can develop this state without limit. You can call this state enlightened mind, but enlightenment is difficult to realize. You may be able to realize this state of mind through examination or analysis. But your mind won’t stay in this state for long. It quickly disappears because of your mental habits. I’m talking primarily about the mental habit of confusion and agitation. This habit of agitation is very, very strong. Our minds and those of all living beings are nothing if not restless. While the basic nature of our mind is clear and limitless, our present mind is restless because agitation is a mental habit. Therefore, meditation is the natural antidote. Systematically organized meditation techniques are available to solve this problem of mental agitation. In other words, we have to train our minds. Right now, our minds are wild and agitated, like a confused hurricane. To realize our full potential, we must tame our minds. And the good news is that we can use the mind to tame itself. We need to develop new mental habits. Among the many varieties of methods used to tame the mind, one of the most powerful is taught at Bodhi Path Centers—the practice of shamatha meditation. You should concentrate on practicing shamatha a great deal.

Shamatha is the best tool to pacify your mind. It will help you develop the habit of mental concentration, and help you keep your mind from wandering. And, if you can remind yourself from time to time about the concept of mind that we explained earlier, you will be able to meditate better. If you forget the true nature of your mind is calm, peaceful and radiant, then you may create unnecessary stress in your meditation. You may try to force your mind to stay focused. This will make you tense and will impede your progress. Relax, and you will do better. As I explained earlier, mind is very spacious. As you concentrate, you need to be relaxed. It’s much easier to concentrate if you aren’t tense. In anything you do, like swimming, for example, you will not do well if you’re too tense. You should be relaxed as you meditate. You will be successful if you have a proper concept of the mind and then apply the method of shamatha.

Initially, shamatha meditation is very useful. But don’t push yourself too hard—you will need patience to get used to this practice. Just remember, meditation is something that you can do right now to achieve peace of mind. Everybody is looking for peace of mind, and meditation is the way to achieve it. Why do you need patience? If you’re not patient, then you won’t continue to practice once you’ve started, and then you won’t get anywhere. You get as much as you put into it. If you don’t meditate, you won’t gain anything. So, please be patient.

Generally, people today spend a lot of time working and cannot just sit down and meditate whenever the mood strikes them. So, at least in the early stages, it usually helps to schedule a time in your day for meditation practice, either in the early morning, the evening, or after work, when you can be alone in a quiet, peaceful place.

However, once you learn to meditate well, you can meditate anywhere. You can schedule a specific time to meditate, but if you meditate whenever you have free time, you will get used to it quickly. While you’re in the office, if there’s spare time to do a little bit of meditation, maybe at the end of your lunch hour, why not try a little meditation? Wherever you are, do some meditation.

Often meditation teachers advise their students to be like a cow eating grass; just as the cow is always chewing on her cud without thinking about it, so we should develop the habit of continuously, almost automatically, meditating. Whenever you can, meditate in this way. Then it will really become part of your everyday life.

When you start to meditate, you may want to focus the mind by using some kind of external object of concentration. It need not be a physical object—the most common meditation "object" is the breath—but it should be something simple and still. If moving, then it should be something repetitive, like the breath. A good practice is to count to 21 breaths in and out, and then rest your mind by letting your attention wander for a bit. Then, gently bring your attention back to your breath, counting to 21 again. Rest again, and then repeat this cycle for the duration of your meditation session. You will develop quickly if you focus on counting your breaths in this way. After a while, once you are accustomed to concentrating, you can stop using an external object of focus. Instead, you can then start to focus on mind itself. At this point, you can also focus on the passing moments of mind. Before starting this more advanced practice, you should first go through the concentration training of shamatha. Later, once your concentration is stable, then you can begin to meditate on mind itself.

What else is there to consider in shamatha? Most of you have heard your sitting position is important. You want to be comfortable, but alert; either on a cushion on the floor or in a chair. Also, look at your diet. Eating a lot of rich food can create drowsiness, making you feel sleepy during meditation. However, becoming too weak from not eating isn’t good either. If your body is weak, then you won’t have the energy to focus your attention and remain alert. In meditation, as in all things, seek the middle way.

Potomac, Maryland, Spring 2004.