12 Q&A session on Asanga’s method of Mindfulness of Breathing

05 Apr 2016

The meditation starts immediately and it is silent. The practice is the full-body awareness of mindfulness of breathing.

Questions: (1) Is there a written account of Asanga’s specific technique of Mindfulness of Breathing? (2) A clarification of the meditation object in this specific practice of Mindfulness of Breathing (3) Since I’ve started the retreat, I’ve been experiencing lots of mental chatter & physical discomfort. I’ve shifted my practice to “Taking the Mind as the Path” now, is that a good approach for that?

The meditation is silent (not recorded)

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Olaso. Good Morning. So this morning I would like to do something a wee bit different. I would like to go into the meditation immediately. It will be a 24 minute silent session. I think you’ve had a fair amount of instruction on this one simple practice. I’d like to continue in this current of this Asanga’s approach or full body awareness of mindfulness of breathing. And then afterwards we’ll have a bit of time for a question and answer. Specifically about this method. And everybody of course, is always welcome, auditors are equal members here. And so let’s go right into the practice and we’ll have a bit of discussion afterwards.

[01:14 Meditation bell rings three times]

Meditation is silent not recorded.

[01:37 Meditation ends bell rings three times]

[02:33] So questions or comments about this practice, any points of clarification? Yes, please Andreas, and please do say your first name.

[Student] My name is Andreas, I just have a quick question. I would like to know where can I find this practice of Asanga’s, where is it written down, or is there any?

Alan: There is, yes. It’s written down, it’s a rather long exposition about maybe fifteen pages, fifteen or twenty. It’s in one of the major classic works of Asanga from the 4th and 5th century. It’s called in Sanskrit the Sravaka Bhumi or The Grounds of the Sravakas, the Grounds or Levels of the Sravakas. And I have translated it from the Sanskrit and the Tibetan and haven’t quite decided what to do with it yet. If I ever want to publish it, then I just can’t let it go on, into the public domain, then it’s unpublishable. At the same time I would like it to be available. But that’s the answer to your question. It’s there and it’s very detailed and if you’ve studied the Anapanasati Sutta from the the Buddha, and the commentary, there’s a great commentary from Buddhaghosa. They’re probably both available online. It’s simply the Anapanasati Sutta and commentary by Buddhaghosa. You’ll find in the sutta and of course in the commentary that the Buddha explains this practice of mindfulness breathing in sixteen phases, you recall. And the first four are shamatha, and the last twelve are vipashyana, and they culminate in becoming an arhat. When you come to the culmination of these sixteen phases you are an arhat. That’s straight Pali Canon and the Theravada. While interestingly Asanga picks up on these sixteen phases as well. But he comments on them you know from the Sanskrit Indo-Tibetan well Indian, Indian Buddhist tradition, but of course he’s a Mahayana. So it’s a very interesting interface, someone, some really bright scholar should do a comparative analysis of these sixteen phases in Theravada and in the Mahayana tradition. But that’s the answer to your question.

[Andreas] Thank you.

Alan: So anything else coming up? Yes, please. So we don’t have a portable microphone, it’s portable people. That’s good yeah. Your name, your name.

[Student] My name is Brendon.

[Alan] Thank you Brendon.

[Brendon] I would like a point of clarification on the object, because I understand that it’s the sensations of the prana associated with the respiration.

[Alan] Exactly

[Brendon] In between the nostrils and the lungs.

[Alan] No, no, no not the nostrils to the lungs, the passage of the air in your body is from the nostrils to the lungs of course, then comes out again. The passage of prana is a different deal. The two are related, the breath and prana are related, they’re not identical. And so as Asanga explains this, the flow of the prana is from the apertures of the nostrils down to the navel chakra.

[Brendon] Ok

[Alan] Down here, yeah.

[Brendon] And so I guess there’s sort of two things going on for me. I guess one is maybe, that I am so used to attending to the actual physical sensation of the breathing. So that may be competing, but also that at times it just seems much more coarse than the prana that I’m able to detect. And should I ignore that or treat the physical sensations of the breathing as a distraction?

[Alan] No not as a distraction. I’ll just articulate it a bit more clearly, reiterate. And that is what you’re focusing on are the movements, and I like the word fluctuations because that corresponds to what I experience, but they’re both perfectly good translations from the Sanskrit and Tibetan. The movements are fluctuations within the body that correspond to the respiration, that’s it. Now does that include the rise and fall of the abdomen? Sure. Does it include any subtle kind of energetic flows within the body, from the nostrils to the navel chakra? Yes. How about peripherally, might it also include kind of fluctuations you feel perhaps in the rest of your body in your limbs for example? The answer is yes. So it’s kind of the center focus is going to be on this trajectory on this path, on this path from the nostrils to the navel chakra but bear in mind unlike in some Tibetan practices, and they’re perfectly good in their own right, but unlike some Tibetan practices of mindfulness of breathing this does not entail visualization. Ok Gyalwang Gendun Drupa the one on Tsongkhapa’s right, one of Tsongkhapa’s major disciples, he wrote a commentary to the Abhidharmakosa, the Abhidharmakosa by Vasubandhu, who’s Asanga’s brother. And in this he gives an explanation of mindfulness of breathing. And who knows it may be totally rooted in India but to my mind it has a definite Tibetan quality to it. And there he goes into full blown visualization, you really are visualizing the whole thing. So that’s another way. I’m not going to say it’s superior or inferior but I find for myself I like this kind of this bare attention mode. And then of course a visualization will get clearer and clearer and clearer as your vividness of your attention increases. Whereas the sensations become subtler and subtler and subtler and thereby arouse, or invite you to enhance the vividness of your attention. So we’re going to follow Asanga here. [inaudibly Brendon thanks Alan] You’re welcome. I thought I saw another hand here. Yes. [08:15]

[Student] I’m Shawn. I’m finding since being here that I have a lot of mental chatter as well as physical discomfort during the practice. And yesterday and the day before I shifted to taking the mind as the path for a bit and then came back to the practice and it seemed there was less chatter. But I’m wondering is that a good approach or to just stick with it? And eventually I found at night when I’m practicing I seem to settle down a bit more than during the day. So I’m wondering what’s better? To just stick with it or take this alternate route and come back?

[Alan] In terms of the mental chatter. There are two ways that can be understood. And one is, as in [09:07 nam dok? Tibetan] the compulsive thoughts, mental chatter is a pretty good translation. Obsessive compulsive ideation, that kind of thing. But then the notion of mental chatter can also be translated over into excitation, mind wandering, agitation. And these are in fact distinct, right. So when you’re practicing settling the mind in its natural state. Let’s imagine you get to stage four, which is pretty formidable. So this means you’re sitting down for forty five minutes maybe even an hour and you just, you’re never off target. You never completely disengage. So you’ll have background noise, chatter, but it will be like my attending to you but having wandering thoughts while I’m still engaging with you, right. And so when you’re there then the, it is said like in the classic descriptions, this is specifically Lama Mipham Rinpoche, one of the great 19th century Dzogchen masters. And in this phase, your flow of mindfulness is pretty darned good, you know. It’s coming into its strength because you’re no longer subject to coarse excitation, which again means complete disengagement. Completely forgetting the meditative object, but, do you recall how he characterizes the kind of the volume or the flow, the magnitude of thoughts of? Do you remember that? It’s worth memorizing. He says it’s like a swiftly flowing mountain brook flowing down through a gorge. Which is just a lot of volume, right. Prior to that it’s like a cascading waterfall which is chaotic and lots and lots of volume, just all over the place. But now when you get to this stage, then he said, okay now it’s like a mountain brook, swiftly flowing down through a gorge. But which still implies a lot of chatter. I mean that’s a lot of flow, but here’s where we really are highlighting for this particular practice settling the mind in its natural state. Your awareness is still, but the flow of chatter is still quite strong. And so when you say there is a lot of chatter, well on the one hand welcome to your mind, you know. When I was first taught shamatha and I say this in friendliness you know that, but that’s the way it is. When I was first taught shamatha by Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, he said the first, the very first sign that you’re progressing in the practice is that for the first time you recognize how chaotic your mind is. You just recognize the sheer volume, because of course what we attend to is our reality. So if I, I as many many people are most of the time, focusing outwards and outwards and outwards, I could be under the illusion that I’m quite sane. And it’s the world that’s crazy. [11:47]

Whereas when you direct the awareness inwards, it’s like whoa, it’s noisy in here. [laughs] And it’s also chaotic and this is not exactly a healthy mind it’s uptight, agitated and then poops out in dullness and then I wake up and I’m uptight and agitated again. So this fluctuation is ADHD, which is generic nowadays. And so the recognition - now you’re in this very quiet environment you know, with the kind of the punctuation marks of the rock quarry across the valley, you know. It’s kind of nice like punctuation marks of quiet. But now that you’re here and we have very few demands on our time, it is a time when we can be more vividly aware of the amount of mental chatter going on. That’s a good thing. But then just being swept away by it, in coarse excitation, that’s not a good thing that’s just same old same old. So now to answer your question explicitly. Shamatha is completely pragmatic. I’d say the criteria for choosing one method over another and the criteria for evaluating, is this practice helping? Because that’s a perfectly good question. Having goals, I want to achieve 4th state in six weeks or whatever, that mudra always comes up. The mudra by the way for the people on podcast is I’m looking at my fist, I want to achieve, you know. Why don’t we start grinding the jaws, grinding the teeth, I want to achieve shamatha or bust. That’s not helpful. And to be kind of obsessively concerned with progress. Am I progressing, am I progressing, how far am I? How long’s it going to take, are we there yet? You know that kind of thing, not helpful, not helpful. It’s all fixation and grasping. At the same time we’re in general meditating rather than not meditating, and we’re choosing one type of method over another type of method, because we’d like to see benefit. That’s perfect, that’s not, that’s not grasping that’s being sensible. And so in this regard, if we choose shamatha, among the wide array of practices to choose from, then we can ask why are you doing it? And the answer is so transparently clear: relaxation, stability and clarity always, always, always. And then as we’re practicing from week to week, month to month, then it’s perfectly legitimate saying, is it working? Am I feeling more at ease in body and mind? And if the answer is yes, good! And again to elaborate just a little bit on that. Let’s say if one goes to a gym or a physical fitness center, and you have a trainer, so you’re taking it pretty seriously, and let’s say you’re meeting with your trainer for a week every three times a week, for example. Pretty serious fitness person. If after the first session you turn to your trainer and say - well I’m not any skinnier, and I’m not any stronger and I just spent an hour with you, what’s up, you know. [laughter] Should I find another trainer? I mean, we’re all laughing, you know. But if you go after one week and say well you know I’ve only lost one half of a pound, I’m quite disappointed and then we still laugh you know. So then we can ask but again, you’re going to the gym for a particular purpose. It’s not just because there’s nothing else to do. So when is a reasonable time where we don’t start chuckling, and the answer is after a month. After a month, that’s what I’ve heard from people. I have no professional training, but I know people. And after a month of regular exercise, bump bump bump, then you can say, “All right after one month, now how do I feel? Do I feel any stronger?” And so forth, the basic criteria. I think that’s reasonable for shamatha. [15:19]

But now having said that, this is complex. With physical fitness it’s kind of straightforward. Are you stronger? Are you more resilient? If you have excess weight, is that dropping off? That’s pretty straight forward. But as we’ve seen, I’m about to sneeze, that will be interesting.[Pause] No, maybe I’m not. [laughs] People listening by podcast you were about to have a big explosion. This as we see is more nuanced. Because, and this is something you don’t see in the media, I have my eyes wide open for any media coverage of meditation, its pros and cons, and so forth. And I’ve seen it frequently in the general media, and even sometimes like in Buddhist journals, that if people meditate and then they start having some unpleasant experiences, “Ahhgg”, and then the finger, “You see meditation is bad for you.” And this is the downside of meditation, you might feel anxiety, you might feel, you might feel bad in your body, you might feel you know, it just shows they’re clueless. I mean it’s so naive. Let me, I just want to elaborate on this, it’s kind of like, the pope was in Mexico not long ago. And he held mass for like a million people. Enormous turnout. And I think we all have a sense of who he is. He really strikes me as an extraordinary individual, a truly saintly man. And during this mass somebody came over to him, he’s right there among the people, he’s not surrounded by bodyguards. And somebody came over to him and grabbed him, and then wouldn’t let him go, and then pulled him down on top of a man who is in a wheelchair. A cripple, and the pope turned to him with a little bit of sternness and scolded him. The media lopped off and - oh you thought the pope was so nice, look here is really getting angry. Like it’s so naive, if you’re a holy man you should always just be, [Alan changes to a timid voice] Oh yes, you just pulled me [down] on a crippled man, that was too bad that happend, awww. [laughter] Geez you’d have to have bananas for brains, you know. So I think, not you, but generally we have to start growing up here. That saints do not always appear like marshmallows and honey. [laughter] And those of you who have had Tibetan lamas you know they may avail themselves of peaceful, expansive, powerful and wrathful, and they all have their place in the appropriate time with the same motivation. So having said that, now I’ll get off my soap box, we need to finesse this a little bit. And that is, you may be practicing this mindfulness of breathing, very authentically, not pushing it, doing it just impeccably and you may have some really strange, weird, even unpleasant, sensations come up in the body, that’s not a bad sign. It’s not that meditation is bad. It’s not that you’re doing it wrong. It is supposed to happen you know, that’s the pranic correlate of the kind of unknotting, the unraveling of the mind. And likewise when we settle the mind in its natural state well on the first day you start opening up the Pandora’s box. You might just have more coming out than you expected. And then what comes out is not again all marshmallows and honey. You know, it can be all kinds of things, cockroaches, scorpions, etc, etc, and that’s a good thing, that’s what supposed to come out. So we, you’re a savvy practitioner, then you want to apply your savviness to evaluating, you know. Is this a deviation? Is this something wrong? Or is this right on track? But always with the criterion come back to the stillness and motion. That is not a bad thing, of unpleasant sensations arising in the body. It’s not a bad thing, if unpleasant emotions are coming up, even mental afflictions are getting catalyzed. It’s not a bad thing, but are you identifying with the sensations of the body? Getting caught up in them, then that’s not very useful, not useful at all actually, you’re just feeling bad. And likewise if you’re getting caught up and carried away but the emotions, by memories, by mental afflictions, well that’s not meditation that’s just reliving or getting immersed in one’s mental afflictions. So the finesse is there. [19:29]

But we have the three qualities, and then the three qualities of shamatha, by which to evaluate, and then beyond that then we always are coming back to this, the stillness in the midst of the motion. So the emotions let them be, whatever they are, and that we have this in the microcosm, when we’re sitting on a cushion or we’re in the supine position, the microcosm is there within this phrase from Marvin Minsky: “The society of the mind. The society of the mind.” And that is, within the society of the mind, sometimes muggers come up, and sometimes friendly neighbors and sometimes irascible and sometimes rabid dogs, all kinds of things come up. That’s the society of the mind, but here we have a little microcosm where the society of the mind is all the people who show up in the mind’s eye. But then we step off the cushion, whether we’re going over to the Tsongkhapa Institute for meals or we’re coming out of this retreat and we’re meeting with you know, global society. And it’s going to be the same principle at work. And that is, in the midst of the sometimes very pleasant activity, sometimes unpleasant, sometimes sane, sometimes really quite crazy. Movements of the world around us. In the midst of all that can we sustain that quiet, calm, that stillness, that clarity, that discernment, that is not, and I’ll end on this point, that is not dissociation, it’s not withdrawal, it’s not fear, it’s not anxiety, it’s not I can’t handle it and an expression of escapism. Nor is it, so that would be the extreme of quietism, to use classic Buddhist terminology. The extreme of quietism which the total extreme of that is fading off into nirvana and never coming back. That is escapism, what else do you call it? The great escape, you know? And then the other extreme, from the Mahayana perspective, the other extreme of course is, same old, same old. Just twirling around in the hedonic treadmill of samsara. Immersed in everything, identified with everything and perpetuating our own samsara with delusion craving and hostility. So this is the middle way. [21:29]

This is very Mahayana, it’s very Mahayana. You don’t find this technique the, you don’t find this, taking the mind as the path in the Pali Canon or the Theravada. Could be, it’s compatible, but it is in fact a Mahayana path and it’s really kind of resonant with the whole theme of the bodhisattva ideal. And that is you’re in the midst of, whether you’re following the shepherd like bodhicitta, the helmsman like, or the king like bodhicitta, you’re in the midst of samsara but you’re not caught up in it. And again the analogy is that of a lucid dream. You don’t just escape. And there are all kinds of strategies you can follow if you become lucid and some really nasty things start happening in the dream. You have all kinds of options, lots of options. Number one if you just want to wake up you can. Say this is a rough dream I’m out of here. Phew, you hit the ejector, you find the little [popping sounds] and you pop out you know like out of a cockpit in a jet. That’s always a possibility, to wake up, “I don’t want to be here.” Or if the unpleasantness is over here, just turn into superwoman. And fly away. Or turn into, we need another mythical character, the female of godzilla. Godzilliss? [laughter] I don’t know, and just overwhelm that which is disturbing you. Or be a magician, a great sorceress and transmute, transform it, you can do all kinds of things. You can escape, you can dominate, you can transform, you can wake up all together, or you can just be present in the dream. And be totally present with it and see how it plays out. Stillness in the midst of the motion of the dream. So that’s what we’re emulating here of course. We’re moving in the direction and the continuance is very strong from going from non lucidity in a dream to lucidity, with respect to the mind while dreaming. And then especially, specifically in settling the mind in its natural state, we’re going from non lucidity to lucidity with respect to the mind. In the waking state we’re becoming lucid with respect to the mind while we’re awake and we’re recognizing mental events as mental events. This is really powerful and that’s exactly what you do when you’re having a lucid dream. Those are all mental events, there’s no people there, there are no places, there are no knives, there are no, they are sheer apparitions like holographic displays of your own mind and there’s nothing there. And therefore you can be fearless. And here in the waking state, in settling the mind in its natural state in particular, it’s the same. We’re also attending to the same cinema as in the dream, same cinema, it’s the same cinema complex, it’s the same room. It’s the domain of the mind and it’s the same kind of events arising but when we’re having mind wandering, rumination, reliving past experiences, and so forth it’s exactly like a non lucid dream, but in the waking state. And therefore we are vulnerable. People kill themselves because of what’s going on in their minds, they can’t stand it any more. And they figure the only way out is you know stop existing. They wish, they wish. I kind of wish that were possible for them in a way. But actually I don’t because then they would have no more buddha nature. If they actually stopped, they would be able to kill their buddha nature and that would be really quite something, but it’s not possible. And so we’re seeking to become lucid with respect to the mind in the waking state, in settling the mind in its natural state, and then we take one step further and we seek to become lucid in the waking state with respect to everything that’s around us. And maintain that same sanity even when things around us may be not all that sane. So, that’s that. Enjoy your day and let’s continue practicing through the day and enjoy it. Cheerio…

Transcribed by KrissKringle Sprinkle

Revised by Cheri Langston

Final edition by Rafael Carlos Giusti


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