Buddhist Meditation (3)—The Functions and Techniques of Śamatha or Calming Meditation

Speaker: Venerable Hui Cheng

Fo Guang Shan Qishan Temple

I. Introduction

Auspicious greetings to our friends around the world. This is Hui Cheng from Fo Guang Shan Monastery in Taiwan. I hope that this online session of Fo Guang Shan English Dharma Services finds you well.
Last week’s session introduced the importance of a correct mindset for meditation, discussing how our attitudes and goals, as well as worldview affects the outcome of our meditation. Conventional Right View, or the understanding of the Law of Karma, is the overarching framework for practice, the rationale behind the practice of morality, as well as the shaper of our meditative experience. It inspires us to develop right intentions and vows. With the right vow of meditating for the welfare of all beings, and with the right intention of purifying one’s mind in order to do so, we will have developed the mind in a way conducive of right meditation.

II. Functions and Techniques of Śamatha Meditation

This session will begin exploring the functions and techniques of Śamatha meditation, and how it deals with active mental afflictions.

To recap, śamatha or Calming Meditation aims at developing concentration or one-pointedness of mind, while vipaśyanā or Insight Meditation aims at purifying the mind and gaining an insight into the real nature of all phenomena through observing the impermanence, suffering and non-self of the Four Bases of Mindfulness.

There are two main schools of thought, one suggesting that the successful practice of vipaśyanā requires a concentrated mind developed by the practice of Śamatha, while the other suggesting that vipaśyanā can be practiced without the prerequisite of Śamatha.

From the perspective of actual practice, a certain degree of concentration is necessary for one to be able to practice insight without the mind wandering and losing focus. As such, for a beginner to meditation, the establishment of concentration is perhaps most important

Śamatha works to develop one-pointed concentration on an object of focus, and leads to Samādhi, a state of mental tranquility that is unperturbed by either internal or external disturbances. To do so, the body, breath and mind need to be well conditioned. 

There are three main stages for achieving this requisite state of being, namely (1) Relaxation, (2) Breath Counting, and (3) Breath Observation. Relaxation Meditation allows the body to release built-up tension, while Breath Counting employs the mind to carry out a single task to train it to focus on the breath. Breath Observation allows one to further refine and sharpen the mind to focus on the fine occurrences of the breath.

(1) Relaxation Meditation: Release built-up tension in the body
(2) Breath Counting: Train the mind to focus on the breath
(3) Breath Observation: Sharpen the mind to focus on the fine occurrences of the breath.

III. Mindfulness of Body—Finding refuge in the here and now

Let us take a moment to reflect on our present situation. Apart from maintaining a healthy lifestyle to prepare the body for meditation, we also need to release bodily tensions

In our lives, we are frequently living outside of ourselves. We dwell on past experiences, become overly attached to current experiences and worry excessively about the future.

Our minds are constantly elsewhere, running around from place to place like a monkey. The first step of settling the mind is to start with coarse observance or mindfulness. The best object of mindfulness is the body, since it is in the here and now.

By being mindful of our actions such as standing, walking, sitting, lying, eating, drinking, taking a bath, dressing, bending, stretching, urinating, speaking, reading and writing, etc., we slowly train the mind to be present in everything we do. This moment-to-moment mindfulness should aim to become more subtle, so that we become aware of the bodily movements more precisely. As the mind becomes calmer over time, one may notice many bodily sensations otherwise neglected. One may also notice all the tension accumulated in the muscles. This tension needs to be addressed before we can continue.

IV. Relaxation—The Start of Successful Meditation Practice

To effectively release tension, one may engage in (i) Breath Exhalation, (ii) Step-by-step Relaxation Visualization, and (iii) Entire Body Relaxation Visualization

(i) Breath Exhalation

Breath exhalation relaxes the body and regulates the breath.

Before any meditation session, it is important to take slow deep breaths, inhaling deeply through the nose, allowing the breath to push downwards into the diaphragm, and exhaling fully with the mouth. On the inhalation, contemplate breathing in the light of the Dharma permeating throughout the body, and as we exhale, contemplate breathing out all the tension, worries, and filth.

(ii) Step-by-step relaxation visualization

Step-by-step relaxation visualization entails visualizing each part of the body relaxing while breathing in and out through the nostrils, spending about 20 seconds on each body part. Standing upright, we wear a gentle smile to lighten the mood, we start with the top of our heads, forehead, brain, eyes, nose, tongue, gums, facial muscles, lower jaw, ears and so on, and work our way down the entire body, quietly repeating the word “relax”, three times in co-ordination with the breath for each body part. The more specific our visualization, the more we can relax. We finish off by visualizing all remaining tension releasing into the ground through our feet. At this point, we may feel the heaviness of the body, and this is a tell-tale sign that the body has relaxed and that the mind is aware.

(iii) Entire body relaxation visualization

Entire body relaxation visualization is the next step, and entails placing one’s mind evenly over the entire body, while gently and slowly breathing, visualize all the organs and central nervous system breathing in and out deeply. After the mind relaxes further, continue by visualizing all the cells of the body breathing in and out deeply.

VI. Mindfulness of Breath—The power of the breath

With the body relaxed, one’s mind becomes more refined, and is ready to take on the next challenge, that is, to become mindful of the breath through the methods of (i) Breath Counting and (ii) Breath Observation

Ānāpānasmṛti, or mindfulness of breath, is precisely the method of one-pointed concentration used by Buddha himself to enter samādhi. So, what is so good about focusing on the breath? It is a natural and automatic process that does not require thought or effort and is very portable. This object of meditation follows you everywhere you go. It has been with you since birth and will be with you until your very last breath for this lifetime. 

The breath also plays a big role in one’s health. Mindfulness on the breath develops a deep, smooth and healthy breath, and this in turn keeps the energy channels of the body in good shape. More importantly, the breath and mind are intricately linked. The integrity and length of the breath are good indicators of one’s state of mind. A course, uneven and erratic breath cycle indicates a scattered mind, while a deep, slow and fine breath indicates a calm mind.

(i) Breath Counting

As we prepare to engage in Ānāpānasmṛti, we invite you to sit in the Seven Point Meditation Posture and prepare for seated meditation by finding a quiet, dark place with a small firm meditation cushion on the floor to sit on. For those who cannot physically sit on the floor, find a chair. The most important point is to keep the spine straight, as posture is paramount to regulating energy into the mind.

Point 1: Folded Legs

If sitting on the ground, assume either the full lotus, half lotus, quarter lotus, Burmese, Seiza, or cross-legged posture, making sure that the sitting bone is in contact with the meditation cushion. In full lotus both feet rest on top of the opposite thighs while in half lotus one foot rests on top of the opposite thigh and the other foot is tucked underneath its opposite thigh. Whether sitting in full, half or quarter lotus, one feels stable and comfortable. Sitting in the Burmese posture requires one calf to be in front of the other, both shins resting on the ground.

Sitting cross-legged involves having both ankles below the opposite knee. For the above five postures, it is important to alternate the foot that goes on top or in front of the other to prevent developing a crooked spine.

For the Seiza posture, kneel with the buttocks resting on the small meditation cushion lengthways with calves rested by the sides of the cushion and the big toes extended. If sitting on a chair, be sure not to lean against the backrest, and have both feet placed on the ground, shoulder-width apart, and knees bent at 90 degrees. To begin, choose the sitting posture that best reflects your level of flexibility, keeping in mind that the sitting posture most conducive of meditative states is the full lotus.

Point 2: Erect Spine

Straighten the spine gently, finding a balance between being too relaxed and too tense. A straight spine means that the nervous and vascular systems are also straight and that energy flows freely throughout the body.

Point 3: Hands in the Meditation Seal

The arms are naturally relaxed and hanging down, right hand atop the left with palms facing up. The tips of the thumbs lightly touch, forming an ellipse. Gently rest the hands on the lap with the elbows a little away from the body. Because the hands are joined, the energy can flow freely, making for a stable posture and peaceful mind.

Point 4: Straight Shoulders and Chest

When the body is upright, let the muscles in your shoulder and back relax. Your shoulders can be pushed slightly back. This establishes a strong back while opening up the front body.

Point 5: Upright Head, Tucked in Chin

Straighten the neck and gently tuck in the chin to aid in developing a deep, long breath. It will also help the energy to flow easily.

Point 6: Tongue Resting on the Palate

Relax the jaw so that the teeth are not clenched together, gently close the lips and place the tip of the tongue against the upper palate behind the top teeth to regulated saliva production. Gently swallow excess saliva as needed.

Point 7: Withdrawn Gaze

If you feel restless, gently close your eyes. If you feel drowsy, keep the eyes 1/3 open and rest your gaze 3 feet ahead of you on a spot on the ground in an unfocused manner.

Before each sitting meditation session, sincerely take refuge in the Triple Gem, the Buddha. Dharma and Sangha. Having faith in the method of cultivation is important. It counteracts doubt and allows our mind to be conditioned for successful practice. The Buddha refers to the perfected human being who has taught us the wonderful Dharma and had taught the way of true joy. It also refers to our Buddha nature, the potential for all of us to develop insight that leads to liberation and joy.

The Dharma refers to the teachings on the truth of the universe. It also refers to the teachings on meditation practice itself..

The Sangha refers to the monastic community who practice the Dharma to preserve it. With faith, we will develop confidence in our own practice.

To help with the process of taking refuge, the following verse may be recited silently:

“I take refuge in the Buddha, wishing that all sentient beings understand the Dharma and make the supreme vow.”
“I take refuge in the Dharma, wishing that all sentient beings study the sutras diligently and obtain an ocean of wisdom.”
“I take refuge in the Sangha, wishing that all sentient beings lead the masses in harmony, without obstruction.”

In addition, make a vow to eliminate afflictions so that we may use our mental clarity for the betterment of all beings. Vows are important and powerful: they can stimulate a dull spirit and rouse sympathy for all living beings. It is from the power of vows that one perseveres and succeeds in one’s spiritual cultivation.

With all the preparations for meditation completed, gently bring your focus to your state of mind. Meditation should be done with a relaxed body and mind. Observe for a moment your emotions.

Sensual desire, anger, doubt, sloth and torpor and worry are states of mind inhibitive of concentration. If these states are mild, it is fine to proceed with breath meditation. If these states are overwhelming, meditation should be put off until these emotions are addressed.

Sensual desires may be counteracted with contemplation of impermanence or impurity of body. Ill-will may be addressed by developing loving kindness. Sloth and torpor may be dealt with using perception of light meditation or walking meditation. Worry and restlessness may be settled with mindfulness of breathing. Skeptical doubt may be overcome with the study of the Dharma, devotional practices, and strong resolution. More on the hindrances will be discussed in a later session.

It is paramount that one is in the right mental space for meditation. Generally, a positive, light, and relaxed, yet unexcited state of mind works best. One may achieve this with breath exhalation, light contemplation, and the simple act of wearing a gentle smile.

Counting to 5 or 10 with each inhalation or exhalation

Breath Counting entails mentally counting either the inhalation or exhalation to focus the mind. Whether you choose to count the inhalation or exhalation is purely a matter of preference. Choose the method most natural and comfortable for you. Breathing should be natural and relaxed, and never forced. We are just passively observing the breath as it is. Presuming that we count the inhalations, from the moment we begin breathing in, start counting: 1, 2, 3, 4, up to between 5 and 10 until the lungs are full. Then slowly breathe out, focusing on the sensation at the nostrils, closely observing the exhalation. Do not count when exhaling. At the beginning of the next inhalation start counting from 1 again. This non-stop counting on the inhalation is called Inhalation Counting. Counting when exhaling is Exhalation Counting. If you choose to count the exhalations, focus on the sensation at the nostrils as you inhale and count as you exhale. Importantly, the focus should be primarily on the breath itself, with the counting acting as an aid to prevent the mind from wandering.

Counting each inhalation or exhalation in sets of 10

When the monkey mind calms down, and the counting seems superfluous to focusing the mind, we may switch to counting once per breath, at the end of either the inhalation or exhalation. After counting to 10 with ten breaths, restart at 1, and repeat cycles of ten breaths for the duration of the meditation session.

If you lose count, start back at one. If the mind wanders or becomes scattered, don’t worry, don’t over discern, but gently bring the mind back to the task at hand. This act of resetting the mind on the object of meditation creates habitual grooves within the consciousness that allow us to remain focused despite our circumstances. This mental quality can later be generalized to all aspects of life.

If the mind becomes dull and loses clarity after focusing on one method for too long, it is time to change the meditation object. One may try the Backward Counting method, from 10 to 1, using the same method of counting one number per breath.

There are three levels of progress with Breath Counting:

1. The Learning Level of trying out and experimenting, where the counting of the exhalation and inhalation is very unstable and the breath is coarse, short and rapid. The mind is unsettled, dull and scattered. In half an hour’s practice probably only five minutes are concentrated.

2. The Practice Level of being familiar and joyous with the practice, where the exhalation and inhalation are smooth and deep, and the body is warm and comfortable. The mind concentrates continuously on the meditation object and is aware and observant, and not disturbed by dullness and scattering. One begins to enjoy the practice.

3. The Accomplishment Level of maturity and stability in practice, where the mind is fully focused and can remain stable for any length of time. Dullness is slight at this stage and when it arises the mind detects it immediately. The mind is tranquil and bright, relaxed and blissful, and the body is comfortable and relaxed. It may seem that breathing occurs not only through the nostrils, but that the entire body is breathing. At this stage, one may move onto Breath Observation.

(ii) Breath Observation

Breath Observation entails clearly identifying the length of breath, observing the complete breath, and calmly abiding on the fine breath. As for the length of breath, identify whether the inhalation is long or short, and whether the exhalation is long or short. A long breath is the product of deep abdominal breathing while a short breath is the product of breathing from the chest. Changes and transformations in length are also due to emotions and physical activity. In a relaxed manner, closely observe the changes in the length of the breath, not trying to purposely to change it in any way.

When one’s mind becomes increasingly aware through familiarity with the changing length of breath, one may continue to observe the complete breath. To do so, observe the breath by concentrating on the area between the nostrils and upper lip. Without analyzing or thinking discursively, the mind is naturally and gently focused on the breath. Simply “Be clearly aware of the start, middle and end” of the inhalation, and likewise for the exhalation. As we breath in, the start of the breath is at the nostrils, while as we exhale, the start of the breath is at the abdomen. As the breath quietens, so too does the mind, as it gently maintains awareness of the subtleties. Soon, the mind becomes calm to the point it feels as though the pores of the skin are breathing, and the body feels light, relaxed and comfortable.

The next step is to abide on the fine breath continuously and calmly, where one remains settled on the sensation of the breath at the nostrils. From this point the meditator may enter Samādhi. As one slowly turns one’s awareness directly onto the mind itself, images and forms appear before the nose and face. It is important to note that they are caused by karmic seeds in the subconscious mind and are unreal and illusory. They do not exist outside the mind. These images may be of white smoke, cotton balls, clouds, jewels, lotus flowers, the moon, the sun, the Buddha, flashing lights, meteors, spiritual landscapes and many other auspicious and inauspicious signs. When they first manifest, they appear distant, unclear, dull, unstable and change with the fluctuations of the mind. After stabilizing they appear right before the face, clear and very bright. When these images appear, be neither curious, happy nor afraid. Be neither attracted to nor repulsed by them. Do not grasp or discard them, simply remain unmoved, just like a disinterested observer. They are just the projection of our subconscious mind. This is the stage the mind is ready for the successful complete contemplation of all the Four Bases of Mindfulness.

V. Conclusion

To recap, Taking Refuge in the Triple Gem and making vows for meditation fosters the right mental equipoise for sustained correct practice.

Being mindful of the body in our daily lives anchors us to the here and now and is the entry point to meditation. Through addressing body, breath and mind, śamatha works to develop a deep, static state of one-pointed concentration on an object of focus, and leads to Samādhi, a state of mental tranquility that is unperturbed by either internal or external disturbances.

Relaxation, Breath Counting and Breath Observation are the three techniques used to allow the body to release built-up tension, quieten both breath and mind, and eventually turn the focus of the mind onto itself.

The process of resetting the focus on the object of meditation when the mind wanders trains one not to be taken away by emotions and delusive thinking. This important skill developed on the meditation cushion is carried over into one’s daily life.

To be able to train the mind to live in the world without being afflicted by it, and enthusiastically engage in its matters without being attached to them is the crux of Buddhist practice, and meditation for that matter.

Thank you for joining us for session 3 of the mini-series on meditation. Session 4 will continue with the Training of Meditation, discussing the requisite understandings for practicing vipaśyanā or insight meditation.
If you find this Dharma service beneficial to your practice, please subscribe to the FGS English Dharma Services YouTube Channel and share it with your friends. May the merits of this session bless you with the conditions conducive of right meditation and wisdom. See you next week, Omituofo.