Survey of Meditation (cont.)
2. The Seven Different Types of Meditation Practice
Comparative study of the manifold meditation techniques of the different religions, schools, and sects is a difficult and fascinating subject, beyond the scope of this book. But the major meditation practices of Mahayana Buddhism can be summarized in seven groups.
Practicing Meditation Through
According to the basic theory of the Identicalness of Mind and Prana, if one can tame his breath, his mind will also be tamed. The breathing exercise is, therefore, one of the best approaches to Samadhi.
The term "breathing exercise" alludes to the conditioning of one's breath through certain repeated manipulations according to a pre-determined scheme. The commonest methods are either counting the breath, or suppressing or holding it.
Of these two approaches the first is perhaps the easiest and safest. It has been highly recommended by many Buddhist teachers, and widely practiced by most Buddhist meditators for centuries. Unlike the others, this type of meditation may be practiced without absolute reliance on the constant guidance of the Guru if one has a good knowledge of breathing techniques and understands the basic principle of Dhyana practice. The great Master, Chih I, the founder of the Tien Tai School of China, explained the "counting and following" breathing exercises very clearly in his celebrated book Lu Miao Fa Men, or The Six Wondrous Entrances [to Enlightenment]. These so-called Six Wondrous Entrances are interpreted in ten different ways from the viewpoints of ten respective fields of study, thus making a total of sixty items or angles of approach to the principle of the "Six Wondrous Entrances."
When this principle is applied to the field of breathing, six successive steps or stages are formed.
The first step, called "The Stage of Counting the Breath," is to focus one's mind on the count of each inhalation or exhalation—never both at the same time. Count from one to ten very slowly and calmly. If the counting is interrupted by a single distracting thought, the yogi should go back and recommence his counting at "one." Through repeated practice he will gradually become well-versed in this counting exercise, all distracting thoughts will be eliminated, and the process of counting from one to ten will be completed without interruption. The breathing will then become very subtle, light, and tamed. Now the need for counting the breath diminishes—counting has even become a burden to the yogi. This experience is called "Realizing the Counting of Breath." When the yogi has reached this point, he stops the counting exercise and proceeds to the second step, known as "Following the Breath."
Here the yogi's mind merges itself with his breathing, following it in and out with ease and in perfect continuity. He will now feel that the air he takes in spreads throughout his entire body, even reaching to the tip of every hair; and his mind will become very calm and serene. This experience is called "Realizing the Following of Breath." When the yogi reaches this point, "Following the Breath" also becomes a burden, and he should then abandon it as he did the counting and proceed to the third step, known as the "Stopping Practice."
In this stage the yogi should completely ignore the breath and "stop" his mind on the tip of the nose. He will now feel extremely tranquil and steady, and soon both his body and mind will seem to have vanished into nothingness. This is the stage of Dhyana—a stage of perfect cessation. When it has been reached, the yogi should remind himself that, although the experience of Dhyana is wonderful, one should not, as Buddha has admonished, cling to it or linger in it.
After this the yogi should take the fourth step, called 'The Observation Practice," by observing his extremely subde breath and all the contents of his physical body —the bones, flesh, blood, muscles, excrement, etc. 3 This will bring him to the realization that all of them are transient, momentary, and delusive—having no self-nature whatsoever. By repeatedly applying this scanning or "Observation Practice," the "eye" of the yogi's mind will gradually open, he will be able to see clearly all the minute functions of his organs and viscera, and will realize that both physical and psychic existence are within the bounds of misery, transiency, and delusion— subject to the illusory idea of ego. When this point is reached the yogi should then enter the fifth stage, or the "Returning Practice," to bring his mind back to its original state.
In this "Returning Practice," the yogi must observe carefully the very nature of all the meditation practices which he has so far employed. He will then see that all of them are bound within a pattern of dualism, for there is always a mind that practices and an object or scheme that is practiced upon. To relinquish this face-to-face dichotomy and bring the mind back to its primordial state—the one absolute Void-Whole—is the central theme of the "Returning Practice." This primordial state is to be entered into by contemplating the nonexistent or void nature of the mind. If one realizes that his mind is void by nature, from whence could the dichotomous "subject and object" possibly come? When the yogi arrives at the realization of this truth, the great Transcendental Wisdom will suddenly blossom as he dwells naturally and spontaneously in the primordial state.
Nevertheless, the yogi should still go one step further to work on the sixth and last stage, the "Purity Practice," in order to cleanse the subtle "defilement-of-doing," and to perfect and complete the transcendental Wisdom that has blossomed within him.
"Observation," "Returning," and "Purity" practices are actually not Dhyana but Prajna practices: the Observation Practice is to observe the voidness of sentient being; the Returning Practice, to observe the voidness of the "concrete" dharmas; and the Purity Practice is to observe the voidness of dichotomy and to merge one's mind with the all-embracing Equality. It is only through practice of Voidness that any form of Buddhist meditation is brought to completion. The foregoing six stages of meditation practice comprise the six successive steps highly recommended by the Tien Tai School of Chinese Buddhism.
Practicing meditation through "suppressing or holding the breath" is perhaps the most powerful and direct approach. It is capable of producing prompt yogic results, and thus quickly bringing the yogi to the state of Samadhi. However, it may be very dangerous and harmful if not properly applied. It is, therefore, not advisable to attempt this technique without proper guidance from a teacher, together with a sound foundation of easier breathing practices of the "softer" type (such as counting the breath, etc.).
In these breath-holding exercises the Prana in the earlier stages should be held below the navel, and in the advanced stages, in different centers of the body for different purposes and uses. 4
Practicing Meditation by
Concentrating One's Mind
on a Point
This is an apparently simple, yet actually difficult, way of meditating. Many Gurus recommend that the yogi should first have mastered the breathing exercises to a certain extent before he engages in this "concentrating-on-one-point" meditation; otherwise, he will find it very difficult and boring. To concentrate on a point outside the physical body, viz., to focus the attention on any object in front of one is safer than, but not as effective as, concentrating the mind on a particular spot within the body. Focusing the attention on any part within the body will produce extraordinary and sometimes astonishing results. A specific psychical experience will always be brought forth by concentrating on a specific body center. For instance, concentrating on the point between the eyebrows will produce the experience of "light," and concentrating on the navel-center that of blissfulness. When the concentration is on the heart-center, the positive and negative forces of the body will soon become united and will thus, in time, produce the "illuminating-void" or "blissful-void" experience. Buddhist Tantrics assert that each of the five main centers (chakras) of the body has its special functions and preferential applications. Only an accomplished Guru can explain them with authoritative intimacy. Detailed information concerning this topic may be found in the literature of Tibetan Tantrism.
A person who has not studied or been trained in the practice of mind-control can hardly realize the difficulty of taming his own mind. He takes it for granted that he can order it to think anything he wishes, or direct it to function in any manner he wills. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Only those who have practiced meditation can understand the difficulty encountered in controlling this ungovernable and ever fluctuating mind. For instance, if we close our eyes and try to visualize a picture, we will soon discover how difficult this is. The picture is usually hazy and unsteady; it fades, fluctuates, and refuses to stand still or to "come whole." To untrained people this so-called visualization is, at most, a feeling rather than a "seeing." Once I meditated for one hundred days in a hermitage on a remote mountain in Central China, practicing the visualization of an image of Buddha sitting upon my head. Every day I worked from eight to nine hours at nothing but this one visualization. In the first few weeks the picture was very hazy, indistinct, and unsteady. When I visualized the head of the Buddha I lost all traces of his arms and torso; when I saw the arms and torso, I forgot the head and legs. Only once in a great while could I momentarily visualize the whole of Buddha's image clearly without its wavering or fading out. Finally, after about seven weeks of continuous practice, the visualization gradually became so vivid and clear that it appeared even more distinct than the image itself seen with the naked eye. Some people may find this hard to believe, but it is a fact to which yogis who have practiced and experienced this type of meditation testify.
Buddhism declared centuries ago that human beings do not see things with their eyes, but with their minds. The organs of the eye are stimulated by the differing degrees of light reflected by various objects around us. This stimulation, in turn, is interpreted by the mind and resolved into visual pictures—resulting in what we call sight. Since whatever we "see with the eye" is necessarily a processed product, no matter how closely or how accurately it has been reproduced, it cannot be a perfect replica of the original. This processed "vision-of-the-eye," compared to the vision projected directly from and seen by the mind, can hardly be considered "high-fidelity." If this theory is valid, the claims of the yogis are neither exaggerated nor the product of pure imagination.
Returning to our original topic, visualization is one of the best exercises for mastery of mind and Prana. Tantrism especially emphasizes its usefulness, and applies it in almost every form of meditation except Ma-hamudra. Hundreds of different visualization practices are provided for different individual needs and for special applications. Visualizing a static object or a picture outside of the body is generally considered as a preliminary and preparatory exercise; visualizing a moving object circulating in a definite orbit within the body is regarded as a more advanced practice. The attempted visualization of a highly complicated picture with all its details is excellent for beginners who are learning to harness their errant minds; and visualizing a simpler picture or object is advisable for higher meditations. Certain specific effects may be achieved by the different colors, forms, shapes, positions, and orbits of movement of the objects visualized. In the more advanced types of visualization the yogi has to construct visually a large picture in a very small space. Many Tibetan yogis can visualize clearly a vast Mandate 5 within the space of a tiny bean! Visualization, therefore, on the one hand can unfold the great potential power and flexibility of the mind, and on the other can bring the yogi to the advanced stage of Samadhi.
Although in its beginning stages visualization is mainly an exercise for the training of the Sixth Consciousness (mind) and is therefore confined largely within a dualistic and "clinging-bound" pattern, its advanced stage may well be very close to the realm of the nondualistic higher consciousness. It is the most comprehensive and complex of all meditation practices.
Practicing Meditation Through
Mantram Yoga—the Reciting
or Intoning of Incantations
or Mystic Words
While "visualization" is a meditation practice employing the mind's eye, Mantram Yoga employs the mind's ear. Sound, as well as sight, can be utilized as a means of bringing one to the state of Samadhi. To recite a prayer or Mantram, or to intone a single word of blessing, such as "Om," or "Ah," is a major meditation practice widely followed in the Orient. Although Buddhism does not stress the importance of sound to the extent that Hinduism does, still "sound Yoga" [shabd] has always been one of the mainstays of Buddhist meditation, and is extensively practiced by Buddhist monks and laymen. There are three reasons for its popularity: it is the easiest and safest type of meditation, it is a highly devotional one and it fulfills the religious needs of the masses. The previously mentioned types of meditation —breathing, concentration, and visualization—are mainly psycho-physical exercises, having little of the "religious" element in them. By themselves they cannot satisfy the spiritual longings of the people. To meet such needs the meditation practice of reciting a prayer, a Mantram, or a name of Buddha was established. It is the most popular and influential of all the different types of meditation, and is widely used by Buddhist devotees at all levels.
Yoga: Hatha, Shabd, and Raja by Richard Rose (PDF)
Samadhi is a state of mind that can be attained by a number of methods of which, on the whole, the most direct is the "still" type. But this is by no means the only way of reaching it. Certain special movements can also lead to Samadlii. For instance, the famous Chinese Taoist Movement of Tai-chi (Primordiality), invented by the great Taoist yogi, San Fung Chang of the Ming Dynasty, is an excellent way of practicing meditation. This Primordial Movement is a very gentle exercise ingeniously devised to bring the negative and positive forces in the body into perfect harmony, thus automatically taming the mind, controlling the Prana, and even bringing one directly to the state of Samadhi. This Primordial Movement has now become one of the most popular gymnastic exercises, widely practiced by Chinese people in all walks of life. Despite the marvelous hygienic value of this exercise, its present application is considered by many Taoist yogis to be a degeneration of the Movement, which was originally devised for a much higher purpose.
There is another unique meditation practice devised by the Taoists, called "One-Word Instruction" (Chinese: I tzu chueh) by which a yogi may raise the Kundalini (life force) in a few days by certain special movements of his two thumbs. The exact manner of these movements is kept highly secret.
Generally speaking, Buddhism does not emphasize the application of movement for meditation purposes, although it does not rule out its usefulness, and even applies it on certain occasions. As a whole, however, Buddhism holds that "movement" is a good subsidiary exercise, but that it should not be treated as a primary form of meditation practice.
These movement practices are taught in various ways by different religions. Before beginning them, however, it is well to analyze and evaluate them carefully so as to avoid wasting time, and to safeguard oneself from any unwanted effects that inexperienced use of these mystic exercises might produce.
Practicing Meditation by Absorbing
One's Mind in Good Will, or Devotional
From the spiritual point of view this meditation is much more important than any of the other five types we have just discussed. There is a teaching, widely practiced by Buddhist yogis, known as "The Four Unlimited Thoughts," which is used to cultivate devotional thinking and good will toward all beings. These Four Unlimited Thoughts are: friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and evenmindedness. The aim of meditating upon these virtues is twofold—to cultivate compassion toward all beings, and to reduce those barriers between oneself and others that have contributed so much to the misfortunes of the world. This meditation is regarded by Buddhists as the foundation of and preparation for all other meditations. In Tibet the stanzas of these "Four Unlimited Thoughts" are recited and contemplated upon before any meditation practice takes place. Without the spiritual preparedness that is brought about by the cultivation of good will and devotion, any type of meditation can hardly bear wholesome fruit, and instead may often lead one astray. Yogis who were unable to gain Enlightenment after a prolonged period of meditation often found that their preparatory work in the devotional and spiritual field was insufficient. Then they would turn back to practice the groundwork such as the "Four Unlimited Thoughts," the "Bodhisattva's Vow," prayers, prostrations, etc., to remove their deficiency in this field. The devotional type of meditation is, therefore, the foundation of all others; and it should never be neglected by those who are serious in striving for Enlightenment.
Practicing Meditation by
Identifying the Mind Essence
This is the "effortless" meditation of Zen and Mahamudra. It is a meditation without any thing to meditate upon, the spontaneous and wondrous work of one's own mind, the pinnacle and essence of all Buddhist teachings. To those who have not entered into the "gate" this is the most difficult, but to those who have already entered this is the easiest of all meditations. All other exercises and practices are merely preparations for it. The critical point of this work is to recognize the nature of one's own mind, or at least to glimpse it. Once the Essence of Mind is recognized, the yogi will be able to absorb himself in it at any time or place without difficulty. In activity or in quietness the illuminating-void consciousness will always shine brightly within him. Although after the recognition, or beholding, of the Mind Essence there is still a very long way to go, the first "glimpse" is regarded by all Buddhist sages as the most important thing, that which every yogi must first try to obtain. Once the "gate-less-gate" is entered, meditation will no more be a "practice" or an effort. It now becomes a natural and spontaneous act of life. Sitting, walking, talking, or sleeping—all activities and conditions of life become marvelous meditations in themselves. No effort need be made, and no object or idea need be worked upon.
But in order to reach this gateless gate, one must work hard on the practice of this "nothing-to-practice" meditation, following either the path of Zen or that of Mahamudra. The former has been discussed in the previous chapter on "The Practice of Zen"; and for a discussion of the latter the reader may refer to Evans-Wentz's Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation and his Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines, Book II.