38 The Benefits of Shamatha and its Potential Pitfalls

20 Apr 2016

Following up his commentary in the last few days on the description of mastering the dhyanas and the resultant siddhis, Alan says that in all traditions there is no specific “meditation manual” on achieving the dhyana levels except in the academic literature. Alan explains however that each tradition have their own practice and developmental methods e.g. lam-rim, stage of generation and completion, six yogas etc. However, all traditions agree that access to the first dhyana (shamatha) is sufficient to be able to venture into all other practices with full effectiveness in reaching the path, proceeding along and completing the path. Following the gradual path of sutrayana (without Vajrayana), you will need to achieve all the dhyanas and it will take from three to seven aeons to achieve enlightenment. All schools and sub-schools of Tibetan Buddhism use the sutrayana as a launching pad into Vajrayana practice. All the siddhis mentioned in the dhyanas arise during the Vajrayana stage of generation and completion by-the-by. The practices for realizing emptiness, for guru-yoga, for visualisations and mantras can be viewed as high-tech meditation. What are the benefits of achieving the access to the first dhyana (shamatha)? The five obscurations become dormant and the five dhyana factors are at one’s fingertips. At a subtler level there is a fundamental energy shift in the whole body and a corresponding fine-tuning of the mind which becomes pliant, malleable, supple and ready to engage in more advanced practices (bodhicitta, emptiness, tong-len, etc.). This is the big deal of shamatha. In achieving shamatha, Alan warns us that there is going to be an enormous temptation to get stuck in the experiences of bliss, luminosity and non-conceptuality. If one stops there, thinking these qualities are “as close to nirvana as I care about”, the great masters, including the Buddha, state that one has not moved one hair’s breadth towards the path to enlightenment. Alan says that we have to start being prepared now about this, by developing the skill of maintaining the stillness of our awareness in the midst of these spikes of effective practice (bliss, luminosity, non-conceptuality). When spikes come up, be at ease, loose, totally present with no preference. If you can’t do this for the small spikes that come in stage 1 to 4 of shamatha, then you’ll be sucked in when you will be up there in shamatha. Maintain the stillness, free of grasping, in the midst of the motions of bliss, luminosity and non-conceptuality. We need to break the habit of grasping to both pleasant (bliss, etc.) and unpleasant nyams (sadness, fear, depression, low self-esteem, etc.). It is ever so easy to fuse with the unpleasant nyam (I’m such a loser…, everyone else is doing well except me) and to identify with the pleasant nyam. We need this skill to keep on moving and reach the authentic path.

Alan answers a question about this meditation practice concerning what to do with non-virtuous thoughts. Do you apply any antidote? Alan’s response covers cognitive fusion, stillness of awareness, other practices (four applications of mindfulness, four immeasurables, lam-rim, lojong) and faith in the inner capacity of one’s own mind.

Meditation is silent (not recorded).


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