Dharma - Merit - Meditation - Nectar - Liberation - Emptiness - Process - Awakening


in Buddhadharma

On Meditation

Contents  SiteMap of Philosophy SiteMap of Ancient Egyptian Sapience SiteMap

"It occured to me, monks, to wonder : 'Of what kind of deed of mine is this the fruit ? Of what deed's ripening am I now of such great accomplishment and power ?' And then it occured to me : 'It is the fruit of three kind of deeds of mine, the ripening of three kinds of deeds that I am now of such great accomplishment and power : deeds of giving, of self-mastery and of refraining." - Itivuttaka, 22 ; 14-15.

"... by this racking practice of austerities I have not attained any superhuman distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. Could there be another path to enlightenment ?" -
Madhyamâgama (Majjhima-nikâya), 30.

"The mind becomes motionless like a lamp in a windless place, through the force of 'śamatha'. Through 'vipaśyanâ' is generated the glow of the true knowledge due to the revelation of the real nature of knowing Dharma." -
Kamalaśîla : Bhâvanâkrama, III.

The Indian Background of Meditation
The Hindu Yoga Tradition
Buddhist Philosophy of Meditation
The Eight Jhânas
Buddhist Meditation

Meditation in the Hînayâna
Meditation in the Great Perfection Vehicle
Meditation in Tantra
Non-Gradual Meditation
& Dzogchen


Siddhârtha Gautama starving himself
Wat UMong, Chiang Mai, Thailand


Meditation or "bhâvana" is a method to cultivate the inner life, bringing the potential of enlightenment to fruition and producing vast amounts of merit. It is one of the three division of the Eightfold Path as well as one of the Six Perfections called "concentration". Without the practice of meditation it is impossible to experience emptiness, and hence the radical cognitive transformation sought is intimately linked with this practice.

In Western philosophy, the Greeks incorporated self-realizing practices addressing all faculties, but their practice was lost when Catholicism took over. In India, meditation was a school of philosophy in its own right. Recently, in the practice of philosophy, we see a return of self-realizing techniques being incorporated in Western philosophy, although the academia lag behind and do not yet teach the philosophy of the practice of philosophy.

Before Siddhârtha Gautama was enlightened and known as the Buddha, he practiced austerities, starving himself in a pointless attempt to achieve release from suffering.

"I considered : 'It is not easy to attain that happiness with a body so excessively emaciated.'" - Madhyamâgama (Majjhima-nikâya), 33.

 The Indian Background of Buddhism

Siddhârtha Gautama attained enlightenment while meditating, and so the icon of the seated cross-legged Buddha is a constant reminder of the close association between the Buddhadharma, meditation & enlightenment. However, meditation ("bhâvanâ" or "cultivation", "making become", "familiarization") is the experiential dimension of all Indian religions. Buddha did not invent meditation !

The traditional Upaniśads, composed shortly before the time of the Buddha, point to an upsurge of interest in the inner planes of reality (cf. hylic pluralism), seeking to explain the relationship between the so-called inner, microcosmic self or "âtman" and the macrocosmic ground of being ("Brahman"). Interest in the inner life may go back to the Vedas, composed before 1900 BCE, and, according to some scholars, is suggested by the iconography of the Indus Valley civilization (ca. 2600 - 1200 BCE), in particular its mature phase known as the Harappan culture.

During the third millennium BCE, on the basis of indigenous Neolithic culture, a city-based civilization grew. This Indus Valley Culture was supported by agriculture, overseas trade & fishing. The mores & beliefs are largely unknown, although ritual bathing was among them. The numerous seals found show a form of writing as yet undesciphered.

Male Deity in Yogic Position ?
Mohenjo-daro - Steatite (2.65 x 2.7 cm)

According to one cherished interpretation, this square seal depicts a nude male Deity with three faces, seated on a throne in yogic position, wearing seven bangles on both arms and an elaborate headdress, with his hands resting on his knees. The heels are pressed together under the groin and the feet project beyond the edge of the throne. Five symbols of the Indus script appear on either side of the headdress, made of two outward projecting curved horns. A single branch with three pipal leaves rises from the middle of the headdress. The feet of the throne are carved with the hoof of a bovine.

Although we know quite a lot about the daily life of the people of the Indus Valley, focused on urban civilisation at Mohenjo-Daro, Harappa and elsewhere, little or nothing is certain about their religious practices. Reading later Yoga or Tantric practices into the available material is easy, but not convincing.

Around ca. 1200 BCE, the Indus Valley culture began to decline. This coincided with the arrival, around ca. 1500 BCE, of migrating Indo-Aryan-speaking groups of nomads, pushed out from central Europe into Central Asia, making their way South & East. Did they find a culture in its death throes ? Was violence used ? These newcomers were Indo-Europeans tribes of horse-riding warriors, using the chariot as a weapon of war, calling themselves "ârya", or "cultivated", "hospitable", "elevated", "expansive". Breaching the passes through the Himalayas to the North-West of present-day India, the Âryans began a sweep eastwards across the entire subcontinent. This was a gradual process over several hundred years, involving various tribes.

The Âryans brought with them a new pantheon in many ways parallel to the Greek, and organized their society in three strata : priests, warriors & cultivators, the predecessors of the later class division in "brâhmana", "ksatriya" and "vaisya". The earliest datable evidence of their religion is a peace treaty between the Hurrian kingdom of the Mitanni and the Hittites (ca. 1360 - 1380 BCE), which has five male deities as witnesses with names in Vedic Sanskrit (Mitra, Varuna, Indra and the twin horsemen or Nâsatyas). As the available iconographic evidence is inconclusive and archeological data (still) scarce, one cannot know for sure whether Yoga and Tantra are pre-Âryan.

To enduce ecstatic trances, the Âryan "seers" used "soma", of unknown nature, likely an extract of Ephedra or Nymphaea. It inspired them to compose the many hymns and poems of what is now called the Vedas : Rig Veda, Ayur Veda, Sâma Veda and (somewhat later) Atharva Veda. Core elements of "yoga" and "tantra" are present, like "breath" and the "mystic fire", but both are not differentiated, emphasis being on fire rituals, offerings and the magic of recitation & naming.

The earliest hymns from the Rig Veda evokes a time before 1900 BCE, while the oldest surviving manuscripts of any of the Brahmanical corpus date from around the eighth century CE. The Vedas, series of "revealed" compilations accompanying (fire) rituals, were followed by intense mystical speculations on the nature of the universe and its control through "naming". The priests conjectured the existence of "the One" from whom everything arose. This later body of literature is known as the Brâhmanas and the Âranyakas (with no reference to Yoga). Before the time of the Buddha, the earliest prose Upaniśads were compiled. These secret teachings, passed from master to pupil ("upa-ni-sad" or "to sit near"), represent the final stage in the evolution of the "Veda" and were therefore known as "Vedânta", or the "end of the Veda". Reincarnation and the search to find the "One" were their two main secret preoccupations.

To complete this very simplified picture, let us mention two significant social changes. The rise of Iron Age technology (ca. 800 BCE), facilitating the clearing of vast tracts of virgin forest, aided the colonization of the entire Ganges basin by ca. 600 BCE. The iron plough caused a surplus of produce, enabling the rise of larger governmental & religious institutions. Moreover, rival kings established larger kingdoms, absorbing earlier Vedic family- and tribe-oriented structures. Just as the Vedic "brâhmana" religion had kept pace with the gradual movement of the Âryans across the North of the subcontinent, so too the religion of the Vedas and Brâhmanas (Brahmanism) became associated with social orthodoxy and its centralization.

At the fringes of orthodoxy a new class of practitioners, called "parivrâjakas" or "wanderers", rejected parts of the tradition of the Brahmin priests and left their home & role in society in order to wander about and be forest-dwellers. These ascetics adopted three approaches : (a) transcendence (meditation upon a single object), (b) immanence (magical powers acquired through insight into nature), and (c) ascetism (purity of body & mind). These wanderers initiated the Śramana Movement, those making an effort, being fatigued by the world ... The earliest yogic practices, defined as techniques for operating with body & mind, developed in the ascetic circles of this early Śramana Movement (ca. sixth & fifth century BCE) !

  • they denied an omnipotent Creator-God ;
  • rejected the Vedas as revealed texts ;
  • believed in "karma", "samsâra" and rebirth of the soul ;
  • believed in purification of the soul to attain enlightenment ;
  • sought liberation by non-violence, renunciation & austerities ;
  • denied the efficacy of sacrifices and rituals of purification ;
  • rejected the caste system.

At 29, so legend goes, Siddhârtha Gautama adheres to this movement of homeless wanderers. After years of practice, he reckons the yoga of the Śramanas to be fundamentally flawed. Transcendence cannot be reached that way, for the highest absorption is transient. Immanence is pointless without truth ; one first needs to seek enlightenment, then operate change. Ascetism is extremist ; one must in all cases maintain the Middle Way. When these insights dawn, Siddhârtha's companions immediately left him behind. A as non-Vedic renouncer, his goal was to realize liberation from rebirth itself. Wanting to move beyond "samsâra" as a whole, he was therefore not inclined to maintain a ritual fire to the Deities (considered worldly).

A minority of his contemporaries embraced alternative philosophies : the "âjîvakas" or "determinists", occupied with the present only, claimed perfection comes about regardless of one's own efforts, the "lokâyatas" or "materialists", who denied causality and said one could hedonistically act as one pleases, and the "amarâvikkhepikas" or "sceptics", who embraced nor denied any particular doctrine or belief ... The Pâli account of the views of some of Buddha's contemporaries can be found in the Dîrghâgama (Dîgha-nikâya).

 The Hindu Yoga Tradition

"Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness.  Then the seer stands in his own form. At other times there is conformity with this flux."
Patañjali : Yoga-sûtras, 1.2 - 1.4.

As a system, traditional Indian Yoga took form in the ascetic circles of the early Śramana Movement (ca. 6th to 5th century BCE), a period in which the Upaniśads were composed. Around the time of Siddhârtha Gautama's birth (ca. 563 - 483 BCE), the Śramana Movement consisted of austere ascetics, aiming at rebirth in heaven. They were of the Sâmkhya and Yoga type. The Early Upaniśads (like Chândogya, Brhadâranyaka or Taittirîya) are texts probably written by and for various of these ascetic groups. They were forest dwellers, imitating the sages & "seers" who wrote the Rig Veda ... Siddhârtha Gautama "tested their gold" and rejected their austerities. On his own, with his own meditation devices, he discovered and realized Buddhahood.

The yogis of the Śramana Movement concerned themselves with direct spiritual experience and developed various ways to address the different circumstances, dispositions and personality types in quest for "samâdhi", union. They used sophisticated techniques for disciplining (yoking) both body & mind, making them supple & pliant. Finally, an orthopraxis was put up to attain altered states of consciousness and transform the mind.

After having been their best student, Buddha introduced his own approach devoid of extreme austerities, building a community or "Sangha" based on the harmony between its community and the world at large. Buddha's take on meditation and ritual being uncommon, conflicts with Brahmanism & the wanderers were ample. In this way, Buddhism stimulated the Vedic & non-Vedic traditions (forming Hinduism). They were forced to seek common ground to withstand this powerful new religious philosophy, devoid of ritual offerings to the Deities and a new social theory, which was anti-caste & anti-corruption. In this way, Buddhism, as a good spice, helped Hindu philosophy & spirituality to flourish and make better dishes.

Hindu Yoga appears as a finished system or school as late as the Yoga-sûtra of Patañjali (ca. second to third century CE ?), the canon of Classical Yoga. But this canon (cf. Râja Yoga), as can be shown, was influenced by Buddhist meditation ... In Vedântic circles, the state of consciousness aimed at by the yogi is called "the fourth" ("turîya"), for it functions next to deep (dreamless) sleep ("susupti"), dream sleep ("svapna") & waking ("jâgrat").

 Buddhist Philosophy of Meditation

Meditation, a general term for a multitude of practices, leads to an altered state of consciousness induced in a controlled manner. The difference between these everyday alterations of consciousness (daydreams, reveries, fantasies, short trance-moments) in which the mind withdraws to experience the interior landscape and meditation per se is the degree of control, the depth and the duration of the experience and the persistent, irreversible changes induced. Indeed, the ability of the yogi to sustain and accumulate the benefits cannot be compared with the everyday mind, meandering in and out of the trance-states punctuating waking life. These offer a casual relaxation, but do not offer a way out of the suffering of nominal, conventional existence. Casual trances are like diffused, powerless light, whereas meditative states are focused and concentrated much like a laser beam cutting through steel. They cause important changes, like strong health, a clear, crisp & quiet mind and a reduction of afflicted emotional states.

A common mark of all forms of meditation is indeed this calming and clarifying of the mind, compared to the suface of a body of water, the bottom of which only can be seen when the surface is still and the water clear. Meditation works with both body & mind, establishing a close energetic connection between them. After a comfortable posture has been realized, a suitable object or "seed" is sought. This can be an outer object in the case of a coarse seed or an inner in the case of a subtle seed. Concentration ("dhâranâ") on this seed leads the mind to be totally engrossed in it, causing contemplation ("dhyâna") and union ("samâdhi"). As a result, the power of concentration is heightened, and the mind becomes increasingly calm, serene, quiet and intensely still.

In a general sense, the Buddha placed the various yogic techniques in a different philosophical context. Both the ascetics and Brahmin priests accepted the Vedic notion of a cosmic ground ("Brahman"), as well as the presence of a real, immortal & permanent Self, soul or "âtman". In virtue of the latter's conjectured identity with "Brahman", the marks of "âtman" or "âtmakara", are identical with those of the state of pure transcendence : eternal, absolute being ("sat"), absolute consciousness ("chit") & absolute bliss ("ânanda").

This cosmic ground called "Brahman" should not be confused with "Brahmâ", the Creator God or Lord of Creatures ("Prajâpati"). "Brahman" is not a personal God, but is made more concrete & accessible to the thinking mind in the form of "Îśvara", of which "Brahmâ" is the creative aspect. The expression "kham Brahm" ("all is Brahman") implies only "Brahman" exists (in a sense, this idea is also found in Spinoza's definition of God as the only and unique substance).

Although the Buddha never put forward a definitive position, so as not to cause concepts irrelevant and obstructive for spiritual evolution to rise, the development of Buddhist thought formulated an unequivocal denial of the existence of the "âtman" and the cosmic ground (or "anâtman"). Both are seen as reifications of respectively the subject and object of experience. They are both wrongly given the ontological status of real, independent, substantial entities existing from their own side, i.e. self-powered while this cannot be found.

The fundamental ontological shift introduced by the Buddha is summarized by the Three Marks of Existence ("trilakśana") : impermanence ("anitya"), unsatisfactoriness or suffering ("duhkha") and selflessness ("anâtman"). If transitoriness is the fundamental property of all things, then everything arises, abides & ceases. This impermanence is the insight leading to "stream entry" ("shrota-âpanna") and so a precondition for attaining liberation. In the Buddhadharma, the Truth of Suffering, shared by most schools of Indian thought, is explicitly linked with the absence of independent existence, for if conventional reality is experienced devoid of substantial, independent existence, then ignorance ceases (the ultimate is known) and suffering ends (the true peace of "nirvâna" is entered).

This is the revolutionary insight attained by the Buddha : suffering cannot cease as long as object and/or subject are deemed independent substances. Ignorance is not the superimposition of something illusionary on the absolute substance (as Śankara would have it), but the irreversible annihilation or rooting out of any sense of underlying substantiality or essentialism. It is not an entry into another ontological realm, but a turn of mind, a radical change of epistemic perspective.

In a general sense, the originality of Buddhist meditation lies not in its departure from specific yogic techniques causing samsaric "bliss", in particular the austerities, but in its integration of the wisdom-mind knowing emptiness. In the context of Indian thought, this means a firm, uncompromizing rejection of all absolutely unchanging, permanent & fixed substances. Nihilism is not implied here, for conventional phenomena or "mere existences" abide logically & functionally as dependent arisings. As such, they always conceal or veil their true, ultimate nature but do function conventionally (i.e. produce effects). Though always dependent on others, or other-powered, they are conventionally experienced as if independent, or self-powered. They appear as static, but are ultimately dynamic. They seem substance-like, but are truly process-like. So these nominalistic, functional entities are not the target of Buddha's criticism. He aims his arrows at this absolute, unchanging, ultimate existence, be it realistic (like "Brahman" or God) or idealistic (like "âtman" or soul).

 The Eight Jhânas

"There is no Jhâna for one with no wisdom ; no wisdom for one with no Jhâna. But one with both Jhâna & wisdom, he's on the verge of Nirvâna."
Dhammapada, verse 372.

We may assume the renouncers & Vedic practitioners of pre-Buddhist India practiced eight levels of meditative absorption ("dhyâna"), integrating both form and formless.

The Pali word "jhâna" ("ch'an" in Chinese and "zen" in Japanese) refers to any absorbed state of mind brought about through concentration. In that sense, it refers to Patañjali's "dhyâna" (contemplation), preceded by "dhâranâ" (concentration). At times, it is also designated by the word "concentration", or identified with "samâdhi". For Patañjali, the latter has two divisions resembling the two types of absorptions : (a) union with coarse or subtle seed (form) and (b) union without seed (formless). In fact, in Râja Yoga, concentration, contemplation & union constitute the "inner members" of Yoga, treated by Patañjali as a whole called "constraint" ("samyama"). A perfect concentration is a contemplation and a perfect contemplation is union. Hence, the term "jhâna" is best translated as "constraint" or the more neutral "absorption" or "cessation". At times, the formless states are called "absorptions" & the form states "concentrations".

Before entering the "First Jhâna" one needs to clear the Five Hinderances or Obstructions ("nîvarana"), namely (a) craving for objects of desire ("abhidyâ"), (b) harmfulness ("vyâpâda"), lethargy & sleep ("styâna" & "middha"), (4) restlessness and contrition ("anuddhataya" & "kaukrîtya") and (5) doubt ("vichikitsâ"). The latter is without wish or cure, indecisive and taking various sides.

In Buddhist meditation, the "jhânas" relate to the last two of the three worlds ("triloka"), namely the Form Realm & the Formless Realm, and so they all belong to the world of the gods ("devas").

In sensu stricto, the four stages of cessation of the Form Realm are called the "Four Jhânas" or "concentrations" :

  • the First Jhâna : accompanied by discursive thought ("vichâra") & conceptualization ("vitarka"), with joyful rapture ("priti") & happiness ("sukha") born of seclusion ;

  • the Second Jhâna : with internal confidence & unification of mind, without thought & examination, with inner calm, rapture and happiness born of one-pointedness of mind or concentration ;

  • the Third Jhâna : equanimous, without joy, mindful, alert, aware and pervaded by happiness ;

  • the Fourth Jhâna : neither-pain-nor-pleasure, purity of mindfulness due to equanimity & wakefulness. At this stage psychic powers are attained (clairvoyance, clairaudience, retrocognition, telepathy & psychokinesis).

The mind trained in these Four Jhânas is concentrated, purified, wieldy, steady, bright, unblemished, rid of defilements and imperturbable. To enter the First Jhâna, the yogi has to have attained complete concentration or meditative equipose, the fruit of Calm Abiding ("śamatha").

In sensu stricto, the four formless ("ârûpya") absorptions of the Formless Realm are called "samâpattis" or "attainments", "stabilizations".

  • the Fifth Jhâna (Infinite Space) : discrimination of forms completely disappears and there is no longer any perception of obstruction & variety. In this state, space pervades everywhere ;

  • the Sixth Jhâna (Infinite Consciousness) : consciousness is experienced as limitless and peaceful ;

  • the Seventh Jhâna (Nothingness) : there is nothing formed or formless to be apprehended ;

  • the Eight Jhâna (Peak of Samsâra) : by letting go the sense of existence of nothingness, subtle discrimination is left. There is neither perception nor non-perception.

 Buddhist Meditation

When Buddha practiced these powerful series of eight absorptions, he found they could not help him attain his goal : the end of suffering, i.e. rebirth. He always "returned" to his ordinary suffering state, albeit with a mind stronger and more skillful than ever. Then he turned to austerities, wrongly thinking they could lead to the cessation he was seeking. In vain he starved himself, but at some point realized the truth of the "Middle Way". Too little effort and too much effort never generate enlightenment. Extremes are no good and to be avoided. "Nirvâna" is the outcome of peace & calmness, not of any kind of harm. Only when the mind is not stressed, fully aware of the strong body and its environment and very very calm, can it start to investigate & perceive the nature of phenomena. Then it can attain the wisdom realizing emptiness. In all other cases, it identifies with its fluctuations, with afflictive & delusional states of mind and their contaminated, painful manifestations.

Absorptions & austerities never lead to this inner stillness & serenity. The former make one grasp at the subtle layers of cyclic existence (causing rebirth in the realm of the gods), while the latter make one to disregard the needs of the body, disabling it to function with compassion in this world, eliminating the very purpose of its presence ! Natural physical health & spontaneous calmness of mind must be necessary conditions. So after that, Siddhârtha Gautama stopped doing his austerities, sat down and with the combined methods of Calm Abiding ("śamatha") & Insight Meditation ("vipaśyanâ") swiftly attained enlightenment.

In Buddhist meditation, three registers are at work :

  1. Renunciation & Compassion - analytical meditation : the contemplation of the meaning of Dharma teachings heard or read. By intently analyzing the Dharma, we reach  inferential conclusions and cause virtuous states of mind to arise. These are taken as the objects of the next level, placement meditation ;

  2. Bliss - Calm Abiding : single-pointed concentration or placement meditation is the realization of deeper levels of calmness while concentrating on an object firmly placed in the mind. Having found our virtuous object through analytical meditation, we concentrate on it single-pointedly for as long as possible. In this way, it becomes very acquainted and familiar. Eventually we spontaneously mentally circumambulating it, contemplating its interdependent possibilities with little or no effort. We reach complete equipoise on the object of placement. This increased inner stillness then acts as the ground for crucial insights into reality, leading up to "vidyâ", wisdom & enlightenment ;

  3. Wisdom - Insight Meditation : is a special analytical meditation on emptiness intended to clearly understand the nature of the subject of experience (mental objects) and the object of experience (sensate objects), gaining first-hand understanding of the way things truly are, namely process-like instead of substance-like. Such conceptual understanding leads to a direct, nondual, non-conceptual "seeing" of emptiness. It works in two stages, first attending the personal self, next all other phenomena.

In a general way, placement meditation is a constant & thorough familiarization of our mind with a virtuous object. But to find our object of placement, we first engage in a purposeful process of investigation, analyzing the different aspects of the Dharma, examining them from various points of view. This analytical meditation uses reasoning & imagination.

When, as a result of this, the object is clearly conceptualized, we focus on it. Concentrating single-pointedly, we are without excitement (distraction) or mental sinking (laxity) and realize balanced equipose on the object of placement. Next, in Insight Meditation, a special type of analytical meditation, we analyze emptiness and realize a conceptual understanding of it. Then we continue to alternate between these two kinds of meditations. At some point, Insight Meditation spontaneously brings about Calm Abiding on emptiness, engendering special insight. Then, deep serenity, tranquility, clarity, luminosity & insight fuse together. Insight promotes calmness and calmness sharpens analysis. This union of bliss and emptiness leads to "seeing" emptiness non-conceptually. When this is further deepend through meditation, we eventually realize Buddhahood.

Serenity (the fruit of Calm Abiding) and clarity (the fruit of Insight Meditation) and are the two wings of the bird of meditation.

Compared with the common practices of the Hindu Yoga tradition, Buddhist Mâhayâna meditation has two original, outstanding philosophical features :

  1. Bodhicitta : the process of spiritual evolution does not end with a personal "nirvâna" based on equanimity, but in a universal aspiration & engagement to benefit all sentient beings. Superior & Mahasattvic Bodhisattvas become Buddhas or fully enlightened (awakened) to benefit suffering sentient beings, not to achieve liberation for themselves alone ;

  2. Śûnyatâ : the various yogas can not be divorced from the wisdom realizing the nature of all phenomena : emptiness. Contrary to all other spiritual systems of evolution, Buddhism offers a criticism of our cognitive apparatus, and underlines the absence of objective and/or subjective substances. All is interdependent and of the same "taste". On the most fundamental level of existence, a Buddha and my armchair, although different dependent arisings, are not different substances, for there is nothing in existence which, by its own power, stands alone. In fact, they share the same ultimate nature, emptiness or lack of inherent existence. Solipsism is therefore considered a major example of wrong thinking.

 Meditation in the Hînayâna

When a firm footing on the ground of morality has been attained, the Hînayâna practitioner embarks upon the higher practice of meditation, the control and culture of the mind. The subjects of meditation are adapted to the various temperaments and types, and over forty subjects are listed (Ten Devices, Ten Impurities, Ten Reflections, Four Immeasurables, Four Elements, Four Formless Absorptions and One Perception). Developing the form and formless absorptions, the mind is controlled and ready for insight-training. This focuses on the sense of "I" and results in the direct realization there is no independent "I" or selflessness (identitylessness of persons). This meditation allows the aspirant to experience how mind and matter are in a state of constant flux. Transiency, sorrow & selflessness go hand in hand with complete equanimity towards conditioned existence, having neither attachment nor aversion for any worldly object. Intently cultivating insight brings the realization of "nirvâna" into the path.

The end result of Hînayâna practice is individual liberation. The Arhat, or worthy one, no longer accumulates fresh "karma", for the seed of their reproduction (the Three Poisons of ignorance, craving & hatred) have been destroyed (hence the Arhat's other appellation "Foe Destroyer"). Because s/he has not yet cast off the physical body, s/he is not wholly free from physical suffering. Experiencing the ineffable bliss of a personal "nirvâna", s/he no longer needs to undergo training. In an Arhat in ecstacy, vitality persists, although stilled and quiescent. The Arhat can experience the bliss of "nirvâna" even in this life ("nirodha-samâpatti"), and this, according to the Lesser, Individual Vehicle, is the highest form of bliss possible in this life. The Arhat does not become a Buddha in this life, but only after physical death. Hence, the last 2500 years or so, there has only been one Buddha in this world, namely
Buddha Śâkyamuni. The Arhat or "saint" is released from the five aggregates, and so deep & immeasurable as the ocean. To say s/he exists or does not exist, or any other logical possibility, does not fit the case, for neither is there anything (like a fire gone), nor was anything destroyed (for there is nothing to annihilate).

 Meditation in the Great Perfection Vehicle

The notion of the Bodhisattva is present in the Hînayâna, but -in view of personal liberation only- focused on equanimity. In the Mahâyana, it becomes an ideal and the root of its core practice : compassion & wisdom. Compassion is the most excellent method to accumulate merit, while wisdom is the realization of the true nature of phenomena, i.e. emptiness.

According to Mâhayâna philosophy, the Arhat, although liberated, has a depot of non-afflictive desires and subtle mental obscurations. After death, although liberated, he does not enter the full bliss of "nirvâna" or Buddhahood. As a Solitary Realizer or "Pratyekabuddha", he returns and needs to continue to practice to eliminate these subtle desires and reifications.

To integrate the residual subtle cravings, the exchange of "Self" and others, at work in the Lesser Vehicle, must be made universal. The Four Immeasurables are practiced focusing on the actualization of the happiness of all sentient beings, from mosquitoes up to 10th Ground Bodhisattvas. A wide variety of meditative techniques purify and prepare for vast accumulations of merit.

To negate the reifications, the teachings on emptiness are expanded, to include the object (identitylessness of phenomena) and encompassing all subjective & objective entities. The scope of emptiness meditation is thus enlarged and in the Tibetan tradition, a hierarchy of tenets is proposed to accommodate the conceptual realization of emptiness, deemed irreversible once the Path of Preparation ends.

In the Great Perfection Vehicle, the ascetic renunciation practiced in the Lesser Vehicle, based on the destruction of self-cherishing, is analyzed in terms of self-grasping, the deluded attitude of mind positing the independent existence of subject and/or object of experience, i.e. "grasping at" the illusion of substantial existence, giving in to "innate" and "acquired" ignorance experiencing the world as extra-mental and the self, "I", person or "ego" as intra-mental objects-on-their-own.

In the Great Perfection, sensate objects designated without self-grasping are blissful. Renunciation is less a consequent rejection of pleasurable objects, but rather the elimination of a wrong state of mind.

The Bodhisattva finishes his training in Ten Stages, also known as the "Ten Grounds" ("bhûmi", "land"). To attain Buddhahood, he must go through these. This training takes a formidable time to finish. So although in the Great Perfection trainees may attain Buddhahood, the path is still very very long. So in this Vehicle, it still takes a lot of time before Buddhas emerge and sentient beings can be effectively helped. In a sense, this runs counter the intentions of Bodhicitta.

The reason why Great Perfection Bodhisattvas need so much time is their incapacity to accumulate merit (bliss) and wisdom (emptiness) simultaneously. They fill the basket of merit and then the basket of wisdom. They have no non-sequential technique to do both together. Buddhahood is the unity of the three bodies ("trikâya") : "Dharmakâya" (the Body of Truth), "Sambhogakâya" (the Body of Enjoyment) & "Nirmânakâya" (the Body of Emanation). The first is generated out of wisdom, while the two others, also called "Rûpakâya" or "Form Bodies", are the result of merit. Sequential accumulation lacks the necessary unity of the simultaneity of appearance (compassion) and emptiness (interdependence). Hence, it takes a long time before the mind is so undefiled the two can be brought together, merging object (form, "Rûpakâya") and subject (formless, "Dharmakâya") in the single, one-fold awareness of a Buddha. Because of this, the Buddha turned the wheel of Dharma a fourth time. This to accommodate superior practitioners, namely those who have generated profound Bodhicitta, i.e. endowed with Great Compassion for all sentient beings hand in hand with a direct, non-conceptual "seeing" of emptiness (or Superior Bodhisattvas).

 Meditation in Tantra

For Hinayanists, the itinerary of the Great Perfection is too fantastic to be true, and impossible due to the limited life-span of human beings. In reply, Mahayanists point to the possibility of Buddhahood in this life. Great Perfection Bodhisattvas work for others, but do not have the method to achieve Buddhahood quickly and be of benefit to others quickly enough (especially in a degenerate age like ours) ! Is there a way to counter this and achieve Buddhahood faster, so sentient beings can be helped by more Buddhas ? Can the generation of Buddhahood be enhanced ?

Tantra answers affirmatively. By inviting desire, the core affect of the Realm of Desire in which we exist, is taken into the path. Buddhahood can thus be attained in this life ! As human beings, we are upset by desires & attachments. Instead of denying them, tantrics use them to achieve enlightenment. The allopathic way of the other Vehicles,
producing effects differing from those produced by the disease itself, is replaced by a homeopathic approach : like cures like (or "similia similibus curantur"). This is a method of treating disease with small amounts of remedies that, in large amounts in healthy people, produce symptoms similar to those being treated. Moreover, humans are endowed with subtle vehicles, mobilized to realize the tantric goal with great speed. One should always remembered there is no personal motivation at work here, but only the intention to help more sentient beings more speedily. This is crucial. Buddhist Tantrics do not work for themselves, but for all others (which includes themselves) ...

Tantra is not without dangers and only very compassionate Bodhisattvas, those wishing to benefit others as soon as possible, should trod it !

To adapt the tantric teachings to Buddhism, wisdom was called in. Without emptiness, these profound and extremely powerful yogic methods, involving the subtle, energetic vehicles of our anatomy, lead to rebirth in the realm of the gods of desire, but practiced hand in hand with the wisdom-mind realizing emptiness, they define Tantrayâna, and allow the attainment of Buddhahood in this very life. In fact, some Tantric Bodhisattvas are said to achieve this in a few months.

The technology used involves (a) preparing the ground in the so-called "Generation Stage" and (b) manipulating the subtle anatomy of the various invisible entities constituting the "Vajra body" (cf. hylic pluralism), making the "winds" ("prâna") enter, abide and cease in the "central channel" of this "Vajra body", thus allowing the subtle "drops" to melt under the influence of Inner Fire Yoga. These & other procedures make up the "Completion Stage". In this way, defiled body, energy/speech and mind are transformed into enlightened body, enlightened energy/speech, enlightened mind and enlightened activities of a Buddha.

Although Buddhahood is only achieved at the end, Generation Stage Yoga includes the simultaneous gathering of merit and wisdom by way of Deity Yoga. This is done by letting the "form" of a fully enlightened being or Deity ("iśta-deva" or "chosen Deity"), being of the same empty nature as the yogi, to spontaneously rise as a result of interdependent conditions. As this form rises after the inherent existence of the conventional "I" and its world have been cancelled, it is the result of wisdom-mind knowing emptiness.

By visualization, Deity Yoga establishes the reality of the Deity (the Resident Mandala) and its environment (the Residence Mandala), transforming the impure "I" & its world into the subtle reality of the Deity-in-its-Mandala (the Resident in the Residence). However, the Deity making the mind firm is not designated on the basis of "my" physical body and "my" casual mind or conventional "I", but on the basis of (a) a body of light rising out of wisdom like a fish jumps out of water and (b) a wisdom-mind fused with a seed syllable and the mantra of the Deity. The aim of Deity Yoga is a perfect visualization of the generic image of the Deity with a mind in meditative equipoise on its seed or mantra and this while generating the Divine Pride of identifying with these subtle bases of designation (the luminous body and the enlightened mind).

Next, in the Completion Stage Yoga, while assuming the Deity, the subtle winds are made to enter, abide and cease in the central channel of the Vajra-body, allowing the very subtle mind carried by the very subtle wind to manifest as the Body of Truth ("Dharmakâya") & the Form Bodies ("Rûpakâya") of a Buddha, actualizing the embryo or potential of Buddhahood present in every sentient being.

The crucial issue here is the intention to benefit all sentient beings. The Form Bodies ("Nirmânakâya" & "Sambhogakâya") are generated to help others, to actually perform enlightened actions and engage Dharma. They are of no other use. There is no better reason to cease the singular focus on the ineffable bliss of the "Dharmakâya" than the sublime thought generating compassion for those who are still suffering. How can there be true perfect profound peace when fellow beings are contaminated and in pain ? This mind of enlightenment for all sentient beings and their suffering is the great treasure of the Mahâyâna. Dedication of all merit to the benefit of all others projects the vast scope of working for every single sentient being.

Although a Buddha has many, vast & profound supernatural miracle-powers, s/he is not omnipotent (cannot take away ripening "karma", but merely deflects it), is not a creator and does not interfere in the free will of human beings. Those who wish to continue suffering may do so. Final enlightenment bestows omnipresence & omniscience. Sentient beings open to receive the blessings of a Buddha instantaneously do so, benefiting countless others ... Those with closed-up minds cannot receive what is given, but benefit in indirect ways (like the Sun radiates on all alike) ...

 Non-Gradual "Simultaneist" Meditation

The previous "techniques" presuppose a gradual, graded, scaled approach of enlightenment, like peeling an onion to get at its core. View (the scope of method & wisdom), path (the actual movement towards enlightenment) and fruit (the enlightened state) are clearly distinguished, and the practitioners are supposed to move from a state of confusion, chaos & impurity to one of clarity, order & purity. As the path is never without structure, this implies the authority of others, the wisdom of those who travelled on this path before and who compassionately convey the proper way to move on it ...

Hence, the graded approach calls for outer teachers with their schools, interpretations & "techniques". Suppose these gurus are enlightened. Then we think their authority is based on something genuine and we consider the path as valid. But if they fail to achieve results when following their path, and, in this case, remain bound to suffering, we reject their technologies and ways.

Enlightenment is the result of taking the proper medicine after the proper diagnosis by a proper doctor.

However, how to be absolutely sure introducing the path to others does not cause more confusion ? Suffering is due to ignorance, characterized by the reified duality between "I" and "other", between subject & object of experience. Obviously, the "pattern" or "method" of the path is not without duality and so we may ask : are spiritual "systems" not causing more suffering ? Must duality be eradicated by duality ? Is the gradual "technology" not like throwing oil on fire ? Is this process or evolution not reinforcing the person and his or her "spiritual evolution" even more ? If meditation is a state of mind in which the substantial "me" & "mine" are absent, a state without measurement or "mâya", and this very absence spontaneously & effortless brings about clarity & natural order, then clearly any "technology", "pattern", "system" or "practice", implying "me" & "mine", "teacher" & "disciple", may contribute to more confusion & suffering. This is the message of the anti-masters, those who accept direct spiritual discovery, but remain critical of all schools & teachers. They are suddenist, targetting duality itself. According to Tsongkhapa, they aim at the wrong object, for not duality but its reification is the root-cause of ignorance. However, the gradualist remain in time (transitism), whereas enlightenment is found in being present in the eternal moment (presentism).

Let us approach this issue in another way. Suppose "x" is part of the stream of suffering, of "samsâra", like a wave is part of an ocean and so "x" suffers over and over again. Clearly grasping this, "x" concludes : "I suffer over and over again !". If "x" accepts this suffering as a mere "fact of life", as a Divine punishment or an irreversible, predestined,
unalterable fate, and does not wish to fundamentally inquiry why this suffering is happening, then the stream is not left, but on the contrary reinforced. In this case, "x" made a worldly choice, not a spiritual one, and subsequently increases suffering, adding volume to the stream or momentum to the cycle of suffering. But if, at some point, "x" genuinly asks : "Why is this happening ?", another problem rises.

Indeed, insofar as this inquiry is conditioned by any system, theory, pattern, idea or method, it remains part of the stream and cannot deliver "x" from the stream of suffering, for what is part of the stream cannot at the same time be outside it. Insofar as any kind of authority is called in to end the stream, the stream becomes stronger. Only a totally free inquiry will lead to an insight which is immediate & effortless. This free, unconditioned insight, not part of the stream, is a total attention, without divisions, borders or central focus, person or ego, without "me" or "mine", without "You" or "yours". Outside the stream, the mind observes without memory & time, without object & subject. This natural, spontaneous, not acquired insight is a direct discovery of the nature of mind, uncaused and pathless. In this non-gradual, immediate insight, path & fruit are identical, for there is no path. There is no cause actualizing enlightenment, for if so, enlightenment must be attained and in truth it is always already present and only needs to be recognized.

Non-gradual, suddenist meditation is this total, unbounded attention present in the here & now. It is no longer a "technique", for then there would be an "I" using a method or vehicle to get somewhere. There would be a cause and so a duality. It never begins, nor does it stop, for then there would be an "I" beginning and ending the meditation. There is no longer before or after meditation. What is there to meditate about ? Because of this absence of "I", confusion & suffering spontaneously, effortlessly and immediately stop or self-liberate. There is nothing more to do or to realize. This state cannot be put into systems and taught. The only possibility is to introduce or discover the nature of mind directly, trusting self-liberation to happen anyway. This is like pointing to the natural state as one would look into a mirror and identify it without the images appearing in it, seeing the water and not the colour of the glass. Given the deep roots of our confusion, the melody of such introductions are easily lost in the noise of our inner chatter. Only by repeatedly cutting-through this dross can the nugget of gold again and again shine through.

In the Buddhadharma, this introduction is the method-of-no-method of Dzogchen, based on the spontaneous self-liberation of all contents of mind, not on renunciation (Lesser Vehicle), compassion (Great Perfection Vehicle) or transformation (Diamond Vehicle). Here, the view, the path & the fruit coincide ! Zen and Mahâmudrâ are also presentist. It has been said this is the way of the most advanced meditators, and the chances one is such an advanced practitioner are estimated at one in a million, or even much less !


© Wim van den Dungen
philo@sofiatopia.org l Acknowledgments l SiteMap l Bibliography

Mistakes are due to my own ignorance and not to the Buddhadharma.
May all who encounter the Dharma accumulate compassion & wisdom.
May sentient beings recognize their Buddha-nature and find true peace.



initiated : 29 XI 2008 - last update : 10 IV 2012 - version n°1