Tibetan Buddhist Meditation

By Alan E. Donant

Tibetan Mahayana meditation is a natural discipline, profound with implications. Anyone interested in an authoritative source on its foundation and practice will find the Lam rim chen mo by Tsong-kha-pa invaluable.* While meditation is the central topic of the third volume — the subject of this review — volumes 1 and 2† provide important preparatory groundwork.

*The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Tsong-kha-pa, 3 volumes, Snow Lion Publications, 2000.
†These volumes were reviewed in Sunrise, Oct/Nov 2001 and Oct/Nov 2005.

Volume 1 tells us that meditation practice does not refer solely to a special moment of the day. Because our daily physical and mental conditions affect the sitting part of meditation, one must hold the object of meditation in mind all day and be conscious of the places visited, thoughts entertained, speech used, etc. In other words, the entire day is our meditation. The reason for this is plain:

From beginningless time you have been under the control of your mind; your mind has not been under your control. Furthermore, your mind tended to be obscured by the afflictions and so forth. Thus, meditation aims to bring this mind, which gives rise to all faults and flaws, under control and then it aims to make it serviceable. Serviceability means that you can direct your mind as you wish toward a virtuous object of meditation. — 1:99

Ultimately it is only through the spirit of enlightenment that reality, or things as they are, begins to emerge from within out. Following all the directions for meditation, and being aware of all its details, is of little use without it. Volume 2 elucidates the spirit of enlightenment in a remarkable unfolding of the paramitas.

Tsongkhapa Tsong-kha-pa (1357–1419)

The third volume of the Lam rim focuses upon two subjects, serenity and insight. These two fundamental aspects of meditation are derived directly from the last two paramitas, dhyana (meditative stabilization) and prajna (wisdom). In the 14th century when Tsong-kha-pa lived, as in our own time, a great misunderstanding existed about meditation, principally about these two aspects, and the roots of the misunderstanding come from two sources: unfamiliarity with the classical literature and lack of a true teacher. So when the Lam rim unfolds the basis of serenity and insight it not only refers to the paramitas but also cites classical Buddhist literature throughout.

Serenity (also called stabilization or mental serviceability) is the consistent, one-pointed focus upon the object of meditation without any implications, judgments, or discernments. By wisdom or insight is meant analysis of the object of meditation. Tsong-kha-pa explains why we need both:

If you light an oil-lamp for the purpose of viewing a picture in the middle of the night, you will see the depictions very clearly if the lamp is both very bright and undisturbed by wind. If the lamp is not bright, or is bright but flickering in the wind, then you will not see the images clearly. Likewise, when looking for the profound meaning, you will clearly see reality if you have both the wisdom that unerringly discerns the meaning of reality and an unmoving attention that stays as you wish on the object of meditation. However, if you do not have wisdom that knows how things are — even if you have a non-discursive concentration in which your mind is stable and does not scatter to other objects — then you lack the eyes which see reality. Hence, it will be impossible to know how things are no matter how much you develop your concentration. And even with a perspective that understands reality — selflessness — if you lack a firm concentration that stays one-pointedly on its object, then it will be impossible to clearly see the meaning of the way things are because you will be disturbed by the winds of uncontrollably fluctuating discursive thought. This is why you need both serenity and insight. . . . So, the mark of meditative serenity is that your attention stays right where it is placed without distraction from the object of meditation. The mark of insight is that you know the reality of selflessness and eliminate bad views such as the view of self; your mind is like a mountain in that it cannot be shaken by opponents.  — 3:19-20

Thus, even if we have discerning wisdom, without serenity we become subject to unclear concepts due to the fluctuations of mind. It reminds me of the first time I examined Magic Eye pictures or hidden image stereograms. At first they appeared to be patterned colors on a page, but once looked at “correctly,” 3D images arose. Upon seeing the 3D image for the first time I got very excited and immediately lost the image in the patterns of color. Trying again, I learned to just stay with the 3D image; eventually I developed the ability of “staying focused,” the ability to explore the entire image from one side to the other without loss of the image. To me, this experience illustrates the necessity of serenity before exploration.

Tsong-kha-pa replies to the question, “Which should be cultivated first, serenity or insight?” by citing Santideva’s Engaging in the Bodhisattva Deeds:

Insight possessed of serenity Destroys the afflictions. Knowing this, Seek serenity at the outset.

Serenity, then, is the key to wisdom or insight. The practitioner gently trains the mind by bringing it back to focus upon the object of meditation without force or judgment, since such habits only lead us away from real serviceability.

Two themes underlying how to train in meditative serenity are “relying on the preconditions for meditative serenity” and “how to cultivate serenity.” The necessary preconditions have to do with where we live, minimizing our desires and thoughts of desire, being content, cutting back on many activities, and practicing a pure ethical discipline. After the preconditions are begun, the actual practice includes the meditative posture and process. The details of the meditative process cover many areas, such as how to develop a flawless concentration. A discussion of the matters that interrupt the new practitioner (excitement or laxity for instance), the means for overcoming them, and the stages of entry into reality is fascinating.

The serenity stage of meditation has several components. Preparatory stages have to do with the afflictions that interfere with medi­tation and the perception of truth. We all have negative mental states, but sometimes they are totally overwhelming. In such cases there are prescribed objects of meditation the mind can use to remain focused. Tsong-kha-pa discusses these by categories: universal objects, objects for purifying behavior, objects for expertise, and objects for purifying afflictions; also who should use which objects. The main concept is that rather than picking meaningless things such as a candle flame, the practitioner might consider picking an object or concept that will have meaning later, especially when entering the wisdom stage of meditation. Consequently a picture of the Buddha or the concept of compassion might be better choices than the end of your nose.

The second and largest part of the book opens with “Why Insight Is Needed”:

As I have explained, meditative serenity has the features of (1) non-discursiveness — i.e., when your attention is intentionally set on a single object of meditation, it stays there; (2) clarity — i.e., it is free from laxity; and (3) benefit — i.e., delight and bliss. However, you should not be satisfied with just this. Rather, developing the wisdom that properly determines the meaning of reality, you must cultivate insight. Otherwise, since mere concentration is something Buddhists have in common even with non-Buddhists, its cultivation — as with non-Buddhists paths — will not get rid of the seeds of the afflictions. — 3:107

These seeds arise from the sense of self; but what is self? Here we approach a central point of Buddhist study, the idea of sun­yata (emptiness, reality). Without perceiving selflessness derived from understanding sunyata, suffering and cyclic existence will continue to arise. The understanding of selflessness arises from analytical meditation or insight, which moves the practitioner from and through the object of meditation to a series of awakenings resulting in an awareness that all phenomena arise dependent upon preceding phenomena, which arose from yet other phenomena, ad infinitum. According to Tsong-kha-pa, a full understanding of this cannot develop solely from within; one must listen to others, preferably a knowledgeable teacher, and analyze the teaching in meditation utilizing the skill of serenity. Hence the importance upon relying on definitive sources:

if you do not rely upon the treatises by authoritative trailblazers commenting on the Buddha’s thought, you are like a blind person headed toward danger without a guide. . . .
What sort of scripture is definitive and what sort is provisional? This is determined by way of the subjects that they discuss. Those that teach the ultimate are considered scriptures of definitive meaning and those that teach conventionalities are considered scriptures of provisional meaning. — 3:112

Buddhist scripture sets forth many arguments on emptiness or reality. To enter reality one goes through several stages. The first is the contemplation of cyclic existence, considering its faults and disadvantages. Next is understanding that this condition cannot be overcome unless we understand its causes by researching its roots. In the process we become certain from the very depths of our heart that believing the temporary to be real is the root of cyclic existence. After reaching an unshakable conception of the root of cyclic existence, we must develop the will to overcome this cause if we wish to continue in meditative practice.

Next, see that overcoming the reifying view of the perishing aggregates depends upon developing the wisdom that knows that self, as thus conceived, does not exist. You will then see that you have to refute that self. Be certain in that refutation, relying upon scriptures and lines of reasoning that contradict its existence and prove its non-existence. This is an indispensable technique for anyone who seeks liberation. After you have thus arrived at the philosophical view that discerns that the self and that which belongs to the self lack even a shred of intrinsic nature, you should accustom yourself to that; this will lead to the attainment of the embodiment of truth. – 3:120

Many chapters discuss this essential idea, examining the process and techniques of insight meditation within the Mahayana school.

All three volumes of the Lam rim chen mo examine the approaches of other schools as well as arguments used against the Gelug school of Tsong-kha-pa. Yet even with all the detail and subtleties expounded, Tsong-kha-pa approaches the conclusion by saying:

The things that I have said here are only a rough explanation. To understand the fine points of what is advantageous and disadvantageous when meditating, you must rely on wise teachers, and you have to use your own meditative experience. — 3:352

Isn’t it always true of great teachers that there is an implicit trust in the wisdom tradition and the potential for direct beholding by the student; that neither the experience of truth nor the full meaning of great teaching can be put down in words? The ultimate source of wisdom and understanding must come from within each seeker.

Lastly, the important implication I find here regarding meditation is that it should not be the object of our efforts. Meditation is a tool that helps us reach the goal. And the goal? To live a life that not only aids others before ourselves, but also to live a life that by its very living is a benefit to all humanity.

(From Sunrise magazine, Summer 2007; copyright © 2007 Theosophical University Press)

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Like the bee, gathering honey from different flowers, the wise man accepts the essence of different Scriptures and sees only the good in all religions. — Srimad-Bhagavatam