02 Asanga’s Method of Meditation on Mindfulness of Breathing

B. Alan Wallace, 30 Mar 2016

Alan says that for each morning session we will proceed directly to meditation practice on the basis that each of us have individually undertaken our daily preliminary practices and prayers of Refuge, Bodhicitta etc. Alan describes Asanga’s powerful method of meditation focussed on the breath whereby one lets the body settle naturally without mental forcing and, following the Buddha’s instructions, one closely observes the in and out breath with repeated letting go of any thought. This allows the breathing to become relaxed, shallower and calmer. With practice, one’s sensations become subtler with the aim to withdraw all sensory perception and rest in the substrate consciousness, being then aware only of the rhythm of the breath. Alan says that Asanga’s method has proven to be one of the most effective meditation practices and that we should even adopt this stance outside of formal practice as a baseline or default mode of mind in our everyday activities.

Meditation is on Mindfulness of Breathing.

After the Meditation Alan indicates that his notes including references will be posted daily on the SBI website. He also encouraged us to practice in the supine position as a means to develop full body relaxation with care not to lose mental clarity.

The meditation starts at 1:30

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Olaso. So as is quite obvious, we are starting the day relatively late, I’m sure probably all of you have already had some time for practice. I’m a morning person myself I like to start early, get to bed early. So today and then for the rest of our retreat, I’m going to simply assume that you’ve already done your basic preliminaries, everything you like to do to just kind of launch the day. Refuge, bodhicitta, maybe your sadhanas, preliminaries practices, that those are done. Because our time together here collective is really quite short so I’m going to assume that. That is true for me and then when we gather here we’re just going to go straight into the main practice ok. So please find a comfortable position, sitting or supine as you wish. And we’ll, I’ll now offer a practice that traces back to Asanga and it’s going to be our baseline for the entire retreat.

[01:30] Meditation bell rings

[02:02] So as many of you will recall in terms of bodhicitta, there is the aspiring bodhicitta, and the engaged bodhicitta. Engaged bodhicitta is when you’re actually immersing yourself in a certain practice with the motivation of bodhicitta. So with such engaged bodhicitta, in a spirit of loving kindness for yourself and all those around you, release your awareness right to the ground and settle your body in a state of relaxation, stillness, and vigilance.

[03:31] Then in order to settle the inner voice of the mind in its natural state of effortless silence, settle your respiration in its natural rhythm, breathing as effortlessly, as unimpededly, as if you were deep asleep, allowing the body to breathe without any intervention on your part.

[04:35] Only with a spirit of renunciation or a spirit of definite emergence can we truly release all of our attachment and grasping to mundane concerns, including those of the future and the past. So rouse this now as you set your sights single pointedly on the liberation, the awakening of the mind. Release everything else, all mundane concerns.

[06:23] And in that release, just as you release tension in the body, you release tension in the mind, all stemming from grasping. In that release your awareness naturally settles, effortlessly settles, in stillness. And awareness by nature is clear, it’s not something added to it. So in this way rest your mind, settle your mind in its natural state relaxed, still, and clear.

[07:52] And now for the main practice we shall turn to Mindfulness of Breathing as taught by the arya Asanga in his Sravaka Bhumi, in which the object of mindfulness is the fluctuations within the field of the body. These energetic fluctuations, corresponding to the respiration, the immediate experience of your body breathing in and breathing out. So attend to the space of the body and the sensations corresponding to or correlated with the respiration throughout the entire body. This is the object of mindfulness. So ground your awareness, anchor your awareness, in this field of sensation, corresponding to the in and out breath.

[09:54] It is essential to this practice that you are allowing the breathing to flow unimpededly, effortlessly, egolessly. It’s not so easy to release control over something that we closely attend to and that we can control, but this is exactly what is called for here. Closely apply your mindfulness to the sensations of the respiration throughout the body but release all control, all influence. And a key to learning this skill is the out breath, of releasing in every way with every out breath. With every out breath more and more deeply relax and release in the body. Including the muscles of the face soften, loosen. With every out breath release the breath fully, all the way through to the end, holding nothing in reserve, fearlessly releasing the breath all the way. With every out breath, release all the activities of the mind; thoughts, memories, imagination, desires, give it all away. And like water sinking into the sand, let your awareness become immersed in this nonconceptual field of tactile sensations, right down to the ground. Immerse your awareness in the nonconceptual, non discursive space. Whatever thoughts come up release them instantly, especially on the out breath.

[14:32] And in his explanation of this practice Asanga follows very closely the core instructions of the Buddha. When the in breath is long, note that it is long. When the out breath is long, note that it is long. And when the in breath is short, note that it is short. When the out breath is short, note that it is short.

[17:50] And now let’s introduce into this method a technique taught by Padmasambhava, very common in the Dzogchen tradition, for shamatha. And that is introduce the element of an oscillation. As the breath flows in, each time, let this be an occasion for really focusing your attention, unifying your awareness single pointedly, non conceptually, ground your awareness. And as the breath flows out, then deeply relax, releasing the body, releasing the breath, releasing thoughts, let your awareness come to rest in this tactile field right down to the ground. Arousing with each inhalation and relaxing deeply with each exhalation and to the best of your ability sustaining an ongoing flow of mindfulness of these sensations of the breath throughout the body. Let’s continue practicing now in silence.

[24:40] Meditation bell rings three times

[25:28 ] Olaso. There are a number of theories and practices that were taught in the sutras and also in the great commentaries by the great pundits and siddhas of India, which became deemphasized or kind of marginalized in the Tibetan tradition, because it seemed it just wasn’t quite appropriate for them. They highlight it of course as they should, the theories and practices they found most helpful, most essential and they certainly covered it. It was a great success frankly, for a thousand or twelve hundred years. But some practices like the sravaka bhumi, this magnificent masterpiece by Asanga includes teachings that I’ve not found in any Tibetan literature but I’ve found that over the years, I think decades by now, His Holiness Dalai Lama in teaching globally, keeps on coming back to India, back to India. When he’s teaching Tibetans he’ll often teach Tibetan literature, but when he’s teaching globally he’ll often go back to Shantideva, to Nagarjuna, to Kamalashila and Asanga was again one of those greats. And I found that his approach, quite detailed explanation, to mindfulness of breathing, is very powerful and very meaningful, very closely in accordance with the Buddha’s own teachings on mindfulness of breathing. And this is his practice, just your object of meditation is not focusing here at the nostrils, or rise and fall of the abdomen, it’s not visualizing anything. When the Tibetans get their hands on mindfulness of breathing, they just start visualizing you know, because they just love to visualize. And of course it’s a perfectly fine method but I find myself very drawn to this method of Asanga. And if you ask how it turns out, we’re just just starting right and what would happen if you took this as your main practice for shamatha, augmenting it of course with other practices, the four immeasurables and so forth. If this became your main practice to actually achieve shamatha. Let’s imagine we get that property up there and you go into an open ended retreat, shamatha or bust, right. Just continue practicing, like Gautama sitting under the bodhi tree and say I’m not moving until I have achieved awakening. Well a little mini awakening, a little mini awakening of shamatha and this is your method. We can tell you, we can tell you, and that is we, the lineage, can tell you what happens is; you sit down whether you’re in the supine position and I’ll address the issues of posture a little bit later on, citing my sources. But whether you’re in the supine position or sitting, the two primary methods you may adopt, you may adopt both of them, alternatingly for practicing shamatha. As this whole system calms down, then of course your body needs less air, which means over time, but letting the body do this. Don’t try and go into manual override, don’t try to outsmart your body. Think, I know what’s supposed to happen, I’ll make that happen. Don’t do that. Let the body sort itself out by settling the respiration in its natural rhythm. And over time, whether it’s days, weeks, or months but over time, you’ll find not only sporadically, but continually, the breathing becomes shallow because your body just doesn’t need as much air. So when breathing in short, you know that it is short, breathing out short, you know that that is short.

[28:41] You’ll settle into a steady frequency of breath, my strong hypothesis is it’s going to turn out to be about 15 cycles per minute, about four seconds for a complete respiration. But very very relaxed, very shallow, very calm and then over time the amount of air you’re taking in that the body needs, decreases. And so the amplitude, if we look at this as a sign wave, well the cycle is fifteen cycles per minute, but then the amplitude, how much air are you taking in, it’s like a damped sine wave and that is it just gets shallower and shallower shallower. Well those of you who’ve studied Buddhism, studied Tsongkhapa for example, you’ll know perfectly well that you cannot achieve shamatha, you cannot cross the threshold over into the form realm, if you’ve dropped the anchor of your awareness in some object in the desire realm. Because that will keep you in the desire realm and you won’t cross over into the form realm which means you won’t achieve shamatha. What happens here, because Asanga makes no reference to acquired sign, counterpart sign which are very common, classic in the Theravada tradition. He simply says do this practice. What does occur is, the sensations get subtler and subtler and subtler, until you actually achieve shamatha. Well when you’re achieving shamatha you’re, your senses are withdrawn from all five of the sensory fields. There’s complete agreement here, Vasubandhu, Asanga, Tsongkhapa, Padmasambhava, it’s a consensus. If you disagree, you’re wrong. There we go. Your senses withdraw from all of the five sensory fields entirely, you have no experience of your body, no tactile sensations. So then what about your meditative object? If you’re unaware of your body, then how do you possibly attend to the sensations of the breath. And there’s a very interesting catch here. I’ll elaborate just a little bit. Because we’re going to try and keep these mornings sessions short. It turns out that when your breathing, when you’re dreaming, when you’re dreaming, you’re generally just unaware of your body lying in bed entirely because you’re awareness is totally absorbed into the mental domain. So if you’re aware of any body, it’s only the body in the dream and that’s not a physical body at all of course, it’s a figment of your imagination. It turns out that the cycle of your respiration in a dream, if you hold your breath in a dream, your body lying in bed holds its breath. If you’re breathing is fast in the dream, the body lying in bed has fast respirations, they corresponds exactly. So you can send morse code you know long breath short breath short short long long short. From inside the dream and send messages to somebody who’s observing your body. You can send it morse code. Spooky hmm? [laughter] But this means by attending to the respiration of your body in the breath which is not physical, then you can be, you are in fact, attending to the same rhythm of your body lying in bed, which is physical,right. Now is that still desire realm? Of course it is. Your dream is in the desire realm, but it’s purely mental, as in a mental image like focusing on Buddha Shakyamuni. Focusing on a mental image of the Buddha Shakyamuni, that’s a perfectly legitimate object, there’s just no question. Tsongkhapa teaches it, they all teach it in the Mahayana tradition.

[32:02] So what happens when you achieve shamatha according to Asanga? You achieve shamatha let’s imagine on a buddha image. You’ve gone through all the nine stages, total stability, and you achieve shamatha and then you release that object. You release the object, and you rest as Asanga says, in a space devoid of appearances and now you’ve achieved shamatha. You follow these sensations subtler and subtler and subtler. But what’s very interesting here it turns out, scientists have discovered that this correlation between breathing and the dream and breathing and the body lying in bed. Contemplatives, this is preliminary but I think it’s true. Contemplatives, contemplatives that I know, have made another discovery which is more subtle it’s I think actually more interesting still. And that is when you’re simply resting in the substrate consciousness, ok, so a lot of you I think know the term by now. Or the bhavanga in the Theravada tradition, when you’re simply resting in this relative ground stream of awareness and you have no experience of your body at all, no tactile sensations, no sensations from any of the five sense fields. Even while resting there in this alaya, this space devoid of appearances, you’re still aware of the rhythm of the breath. How about that? You’re aware of the rhythm of the breath even without being aware of the tactile sensations in the body. So this would indicate that in fact you could be focusing on the rhythm of the breath right through the first dhyana, the second dhyana, third dhyana until there is no more rhythm of the breath because the breathing has stopped entirely. So this is a complete practice. You don’t need to add some other technique. This is the technique. It just gets subtler and subtler and subtler until you achieve shamatha. Now the significance of this is and this is the point I’ll end on. We’re attending to the body and how significant is that? In the teachings of renunciation we learn about how to you know, we just kind of focus on how disgusting the body is, it’s decomposing, it’s smelly, it’s stinky. Your body, the beautiful womans body, the handsome man’s body, all equally stinky, impure. So get over it you know, all the attachment and that business. But of course there’s a lot more to the body than the fact that it’s made of flesh and it’s kind of stinky, there’s more to it. We find that in Vajrayana, but we also find this in the Pali Canon. I’ll read this, then we’ll take a break. This is from the buddha in the samyutta nikaya, and by the way everything I read I’m going to be adding notes throughout the entire retreat. I’ve been doing this for years and at the end of the day, what I’m going to do this time is, at the end of the day when I whatever I wanted to add, I’m going to send this to, shall I send it to, ok to Claudio. Claudio will then send this to Sangay and as the podcasts come up then for each day’s podcast you’ll also get the notes for that day. Ok. So then you’ll have it verbatim, you don’t have to look for it. Here’s the quote it’s very short, some of you may know what’s coming the buddha stated: It is in this fathom-long body. Fathom is your two arms outstretched, more or less that is considered to be your height. Unless you have very short or very long arms. [Laughter] and so this in other words well fathom-long, well the height of your body. It is in this fathom-long body with its perceptions and its mind, so the body but integrated with mind, the mind body system with its perceptions and its mind that I describe the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world, and the way leading to the cessation of the world. You just noted the four noble truths there. of the world. In other words this may be very significant to really fathom the nature of this, fathom-long body with its perceptions and mind. It’s this body that’s unlike a cell phone or glass of water, permeated by consciousness, permeated by consciousness, and not just consciousness, but perceptions in the mind, the activities of the mind, emotions, thoughts, it’s permeated by this, influenced by this. And so fathom this. Well what happens at the end of the world that of a world system of a loca or a jigten? What happens? It’s destroyed of course and it dissolves into the form realm.

[36:53] And this world here in the Buddhist cosmogony, this world that we call the universe, the world that we’re familiar with, this in the desire realm emerged from the form realm. Emerges from the form realm, lasts for some billions of years and then dissolves back into the form realm. So what happens to your body from your perspective, it’s not going to be from anybody else’s perspective, from your perspective when you achieve shamatha? From your perspective, the body disappears. Disappears, all the appearances of the body slip back into the substrate and the substrate is right on the cusp, right on the threshold of the form realm. So in a way you’re seeing the end of the world. As you know it. Your body dissolving into the ground from which it arose. All the appearances of the body arose from the substrate in the formation of the fetus in the mother’s womb. And at the end of the day when you die, all the appearances from your perspective, of your body, all dissolve back into the substrate. From form realm to desire realm back to form realm. Microcosm to macrocosm, interesting hmmm?

[38:23] Ok so what I would encourage you today especially, but then throughout the whole retreat is use this method a lot. Use this method a lot because this is certainly one of the most effective methods, I won’t say it’s the most because I don’t know that. But one of the most effective methods for establishing a new baseline. A baseline of your default mode when you’re not doing anything particular. You’re not meditating, you’re not answering indispensable email, and so forth. What’s your baseline? What’s your default mode of your mind? When scientists study people in an MRI or so forth they now go into your default mode. They assume you’re just going chattering away. They assume that, that’s probably true for their minds, they will assume that’s true for other people’s minds. And they’re generally right, if people would just relax, then they just chatter. Imagine you did that with your mouth. Let’s all relax and then we all just start talking. By ourselves, soliloquies you know and just mumbling and babbling and going on and on disjointed. And imagine fifty five people say let’s all just rest now and people, fifty five mouths turn on and just start rambling and rambling. And we had outsiders come in, they would think this is definitely a mental institute of a very special kind. [Laughter] We’re people that are mentally debilitated and that’s because we’re doing publicly, what we’re normally doing privately. But the fact that we’re doing it privately and not publicly doesn’t make it any saner. So establishing a baseline of sanity when there’s nothing to say, don’t say anything. Nothing you need to think about, don’t think about anything. Be present with what reality is dishing up and that’s your default mode. This practice with a release every out breath. And imagine the image, we all know it it, if you pour a bucket of water in the sand what happens to the water? Disappears quickly. Let all the activities of the mind seep down into the sands of the body. Not releasing into space, we’ll get to that later, very powerful. But we need to get grounded in our 21st century, we need to get grounded first of all. We need relaxation more than probably any civilization in history. We need to learn how to loosen up, to unwind, to relax. You know people in the amazon didn’t need to learn that. In Tibetan nomadic culture they didn’t need to learn that. Tibetan traditional cultures generally, they have mental afflictions like everybody else, but we are the most uptight civilization in history I’m quite sure. Italy may be a little bit less than more, but still you’re part of modernity, tough luck. And so this is the way to do our remedial work of just ground ourselves, ground ourselves, and ground it in the body,ok. So as much as you can and from starting today I really strongly encourage you really start exploring the supine position because in that position you can relax totally in the body, totally relax, just don’t lose clarity, ok. And if you’re still having jet lag, then go ahead and lose clarity. And have, get naps, sleep it out, get rested, get on this time zone and then we’ll be all cruising together. Enjoy your day. I’ll see you at four thirty this afternoon.

Transcribed by KrissKringle Sprinkle

Revised by Rafael Carlos Giusti

Final edition Cheri Langston


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