Karmapa Teaches on “The Middling Stages of Meditation”
April 22-23, 2011. India Habitat Centre, New Delhi
The event was hosted by The Foundation for Universal Responsibility of His Holiness The Dalai Lama, a not for profit, non-sectarian, non-denominational organization established with the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to His Holiness in 1989. Gyalwang Karmapa taught for three sessions exploring themes from Acharya Kamalashila’s text “The Middling Stages of Meditation”, and answering general questions from the audience.
There are certain fundamental themes in Buddhism, stated Gyalwang Karmapa, in his general introduction. These include the view of cause and effect and dependent origination, which form the basis of the Buddhist teachings; samsara, the cycle of existence, which is the cause of suffering, and the path of cessation by which one can achieve the causes for liberation or nirvana. Common to all sentient beings is the desire for happiness and the wish to avoid suffering, but in order to fulfill these, they need to understand and subsequently abandon the causes of suffering. Human beings are particularly fortunate because they possess human intellect which should be used first to investigate the causes of happiness and then to establish happiness.
Gyalwang Karmapa suggested that it is failure to apply human intelligence coupled with lack of compassion which has led to many of the problems the world is experiencing today. Often actions were fuelled by the opposite of compassion−malicious intent−reflecting not only a basic lack of moral ethics, but also a failure to understand the true sources of happiness. We do not perceive our essential interconnectedness. Even ethical behaviour is often prompted by self-interest, or else narrow-minded in scope, limited to friends or family, not encompassing all sentient beings. It is as if we are trapped in an iron cage, a prison of our own making; this is essentially the cage of grasping at a truly existent self. First we are attached to the “I“ and then to “my” − my possessions, my family, my friends, and so forth. We shut the door on those outside, and we are trapped inside. A prisoner only has access to a very few people, and, in the same way, trapped inside this iron cage, we do not know how to connect to others, and we dismiss their importance. It’s our responsibility to destroy this prison, this iron cage of self-grasping, yet, unfortunatley, we are content in the present, and fail to comprehend how this cage is limiting our freedom. The method to liberate ourselves from this cage requires the combination of wisdom with love and compassion.
Focusing specifically on the text, Gyalwang Karmapa then talked about meditation on the Four Immeasureable Thoughts:
May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes.
May they be free from suffering and its causes.
May they never be parted from the sublime bliss free from suffering.
May they dwell in great equanimity, free from attachment and aversion to those near and far.
The desire to benefit others is rooted in our sense of loving kindness, and the Four Immeasurable Thoughts begin with the wish for the happiness of all beings, which is the expression of loving kindness. The text suggests that we should use our mother as the example, because, usually, this view is first developed towards people close to us, and she has shown us great kindness. We should, however, also reflect on how all sentient beings have been like mothers to us −without them we would have neither food nor clothing, underlining the essential interdependence and interconnectedness which is fundamental to life! This is an essential contemplation for Dharma practitioners, because it is the basis from which we can understand the intrinsic value and importance of all sentient beings. In addition, we need to recognise the commonality of all sentient beings in wanting to attain happiness and avoid suffering.
The second immeasurable thought is the wish that all beings be free from suffering, which is the view of compassion. Referring to his own experience, Gyalwang Karmapa illustrated how this freedom from suffering is an actual benefit in our power to give others. “When I was a child,” he said, “ I used to eat meat, but a few years ago I saw a documentary about the suffering of animals when they are slaughtered, and after that I had no choice but to become a vegetarian.” How long would it take to realise the suffering of other sentient beings? Did people have to wait until the Pacific Ocean turned red with blood or animals could speak in their own defence? Nor was developing a sense of compassion contingent on disasters; there was no need to wait for 2012, and the world to be destroyed, quipped His Holiness. Compassion has to be voluntary and developed in a natural, almost instinctive way.
The next two immeasurable thoughts are the wishes for all beings to possess immeasurable happiness and immeasurable equanimity. The first of these is the antidote to envy and jealousy. It was very important for practitioners to develop the capacity to take delight in others’ happiness, to rejoice in their qualities and achievements and not feel antagonism in the face of others’ success.
First, though, he recommended, we should meditate on immeasurable equanimity, the fourth immeasurable. Most people do not have actual enemies but there are people who might be termed “false enemies”, those who have harmed us in some way, real or imagined, towards whom we feel anger or resentment. This is the point at which we need to develop loving kindness towards them.
Gyalwang Karmapa emphasised that Dharma practice is neither a therapy session nor a kind of spiritual massage, but should rather be compared to an extensive training programmme, such as soldiers undergo, which has to be practised in all aspects of our lives, not just when we are sitting on the meditation seat in the shrine room. There is a danger of inconsistencies arising when we develop loving kindness and compassion; for example, some might develop love and compassion towards others, but not towards close family members. It was also just as important to meditate on love and compassion towards neutral people, those for whom we had no particularly strong feelings, neither negative nor positive. Ultimately, our loving kindess and compassion should embrace all sentient beings. If we wanted to lead meaningful lives, we had to break out of the iron cage, transcend ourselves, and live as part of everything.
In the second session, His Holiness considered the importance of bodhicitta and mindfulness.
He began by acknowledging how most ancient Asian spriritual traditions have profound instructions. But having the teachings is not enough, he commented, they have to be practised, and the way of practising depends on the capacity of the practitioner.
Comparing the other Buddhist vehicles and the Great Vehicle [Mahayana], His Holiness explained that, rather than seeking personal liberation from samsara, the unique contribution of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition is its commitment to transporting all sentient beings to liberation. All great beings shared this wish.
Beings could be divided into three capacities or levels, and different practices existed for each of these levels of attainment. It was foolish to try to attempt to practise beyond our appropriate level; one should train in the basics first as it is impossible to bring benefit to all sentient beings until we have tamed our own minds. For the Mahayana practitioner, however, the root of the path is bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment - the fundamental cause and condition of the Mahayana vehicle. Thus it is crucial that we understand the reasons for developing bodhicitta. An example, often given in this context, is that of a family asleep when their house catches fire. A member of the family makes his escape to safety, but on the threshold, with one foot in the house and one foot outside, he remembers the rest of the family, and goes back inside to save them. Hence bodhicitta has two aspects: liberating others and liberating one’s self. To think only of the benefit of others would be to fall into the extremes.
Bodhicitta strives for complete enlightenment. Why? If we compare a fully-enlightened person, a Buddha, and someone who is still training on the path, there is a difference in capacity. The Buddha has perfected his capacity. As you cannot benefit every being by a single method, the Buddha needs to be omniscient in terms of knowing all phenomena. This omniscience does not mean knowing how many different insects there are, rather it means knowing all the methods which can lead to the liberation of sentient beings. This all-knowing mind, knowing all phenomena, starts by placing attention on each phenomenon.
There are many different paths and methods for bringing sentient beings to happiness and freeing them from suffering. Some originate in spiritual traditions and others do not. Yet, it is important that we respect and understand them all, because each of them reveals a path for a person of a certain outlook or disposition.
However, there is often confusion over the nature of happiness. The things we view as happiness− the happiness of everyday experience−is contaminated happiness, affected by the suffering of change, and similar to the relief we feel when we put down a heavy load. Only nirvana or Buddhahood is true happiness. Some people look for happiness in external things but this is not lasting happiness. For example we buy a new car and experience a sense of happiness and pleasure for a few days, and then the feeling fades. Thus, we confuse a temporary feeling of pleasure with ultimate happiness. Or we throw a party or go fishing or hiking. Again, the sense of happiness is temporary because it is dependent on external conditions. We should, instead, use our intelligence to analyse what leads to true happiness, and then we will realise that in order to be happy, in order to develop natural, effortless happiness, we need to look inside ourselves. For example, when we meditate we feel peaceful, because it’s like coming home; our mind is relaxed, not worrying about the past or the future, but focussed on the present moment. This state is not dependent on external conditions. However, because it is not possible to spend the day in meditative concentration − we are busy people − we need a method which we can use in our daily lives. In essence, we need to remain mindful, whatever we are doing, and use the analytical part of our mind to observe whatever arises, and then, at the end of each day, we should ask ourselves, “What have I done today?”.
Even if we can only develop mindfulness for some part of each day or some activities, it will make our lives meaningful.
In the final session, Gyalwang Karmapa discussed the two forms of meditation − insight meditation and calm-abiding− and the meaning of emptiness.
Short-temperedness, he commented, seems to be on the rise in the 21st century – there are so many situations in which we begin to feel irritated and even lose our tempers, for example when queueing in the hospital or the post office. Meditation is a way to overcome this tendency.
There are two methods of training in calm-abiding meditation or samatha. One is in formal practice in a quiet place where we adopt the vajra position, and focus our mind. The second way, however, is to develop mindfulness whatever daily activity we are engaged in – being present in that moment− whether we are eating or working, driving, and so forth. We need to practise both methods in order to calm our minds. Sometimes, if we go out into the countryside or into the mountains, places where there are few distractions, we can relax and rest from our daily life, and let our minds be at ease. Similarly, daily meditation practice can become a way to rest our minds.
In our busy lives, we do not always have opportunity to go on retreat, and it is often difficult to find time for a formal daily meditation practice in our daily lives; for this reason we need to consider how we can bring meditation into our daily activities. Of course it is good to have a daily morning and evening formal practice of prayers and meditation − like the soldiers mentioned in the first session who are prepared for battle through extensive training exercises. When we undertake an exercise regime we are advised that the warm-up phase is most important. Daily meditation practise functions as both the warm-up phase and also as the recharging of our batteries. Being mindful throughout the day in all situations ensures that we use our time meaningfully, not wasting it.
What then is meditation? The word in Tibetan means cultivating the habit or becoming accustomed to something. Once we have become used to it, it becomes effortless. There are many approaches to meditation, and Gyalwang Karmapa said he was not familiar with all of them himself, but key to meditation practice is that when a situation jolts or disturbs us emotionally, such as making us angry, being able to be mindful at that point, being able to stand back and observe the play of the mental afflictions, will have the effect of diminishing the degree of disturbance. Rather like our experience of dealing with physical pain; when we focus our awareness on it, the pain diminishes. Thus it is important to nurture this practice of minfulness in our daily lives.
Special insight or analytical meditation, vipassana, focusses on emptiness, the understanding of the fundamental nature of reality which can root out the ignorance which is the basis of cyclic existence, namely the clinging to the mistaken idea of an inherently-existent self. Some people may think that emptiness is the negation of everything, so nothing exists, and selflessness means no self, so how can we accumulate karma and so on. This is the extreme of nihilism and is not the meaning of emptiness or selflessness. To say that something does not exist is not profound, whereas the meaning of emptiness is profound. It is not the same as non-existence. For example, when we analyse a vase, we cannot find the imputed object. What is this not-finding? Is it the not-finding of something that exists or the not-finding of something that does not exist? We are searching for something that does exist and not finding it. What does this mean? We are not saying that the vase does not exist, but rather, that we have misunderstood how it exists. It appears to us as if it exists from its own side, so when we search, we cannot find it. It does exist but not in that way. Similarly, to think that emptiness means non-existence is wrong.
When we watch an actor in a film, he appears to us as if he really exists, but we know that he doesn’t. There is the mere appearance of the actor, which exists in dependence on various causes and conditions such as the reel of film, the film projector, the screen and so on. Therefore, this appearance is a dependent origination, produced by many causes and conditions. The appearance exists but the actor does not exist as he appears. It seems to have a true existence, that is how it appears to the mind, but it is a mere appearance.
In the same way all composite phenomena do not exist in the way in which we impute them to exist. They appear to us as if they are non-dependent. The “I” ,for example, appears to us as independent and autonomous, occupying the centre of our world, not depending on any causes or conditions. In actuality, though the “I” exists, it does not exist in the way it appears to us. It exists in dependence on many causes and conditions.
Essentialy, emptiness means an opportunity or opening. As Nagarjuna said:
For whatever emptiness is possible, for that everything is possible.
Since things are empty, there are limitless opportunities for everything and anything to arise.
We think of ourselves as self-sufficient and independent, but through meditation on emptiness our minds are opened to the understanding that we are part of everything, and intrinsically interconnected. When we view ourselves as independent we have a blinkered, narrow perspective, but through an understanding of emptiness our minds are opened up, becoming vast, extensive and at ease. Whenever we feel under pressure, the feeling is so concrete. Yet, thinking of emptiness, that feeling dissipates completely. The view of emptiness is far more than a topic for research or discussion between university professors; such things can be pointless. Emptiness is an idea that has a practical application to our daily lives, something which brings benefit.
Gyalwang Karmapa joked how once, when he took an examination, he only came second, so his tutor fudged the result to make the number two look like a one [easier to do in Tibetan script]. People often seem to have a negative view of zero. However, without zero, first and second do not exist. Perhaps we should approach emptiness in the same way, as the source of all possibilities.
The teaching session concluded with questions from the audience.
Finally, at the end of the third session, there was a special presentation to all members of the audience of the second edition of the commemorative book written for the yearlong celebration of the 900th anniversary of the birth of the First Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa.
These beautifully produced books were signed on the spot by the Gyalwang Karmapa and presented personally to each individual.