I have been drawn to the practice of shamatha from the time I was first introduced to it, in Dharamsala, India, in the early 1970s. I was immediately intrigued by the possibility of using the methods of shamatha (the word literally means “quiescence”) to explore the nature of the mind firsthand. Such practices lead to advanced stages of samadhi, or meditative concentration, where one is able to focus unwavering attention on a single object. This object may be as small as a single point or as vast as space, so it does not necessarily entail a narrowing of focus, only a coherence of focused attention. This is what Tibetan Buddhists refer to when speaking of “achieving shamatha” and “settling the mind in its natural state.”
After studying and practicing Buddhism for ten years, I devoted myself for another four years to exploring solitary retreats in Asia and the United States, training first under the guidance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and later under the Sri Lankan monk and scholar Balangoda Ananda Maitreya. Both of these great teachers indicated to me that the actual achievement of shamatha in today’s world is very rare. After another decade, I made my first journey to Tibet to find out whether there were still contemplatives there who had achieved shamatha, and discovered that such people did exist, but they were few and far between.
The purpose of shamatha is to achieve states of samadhi known as dhyana, or meditative stabilization. There are four dhyanas corresponding to increasingly subtle states of samadhi, and the Buddha strongly emphasized the importance of achieving at least the first dhyana in order to achieve personal liberation. This idea is well illustrated by a crucial turning point in the Buddha’s pursuit of enlightenment. After six years of practicing austerities, and having recognized the ineffectiveness of his efforts, Prince Gautama remembered a time in his youth when he had spontaneously entered the first dhyana. Recalling this experience, the question came to him: “Might that be the way to enlightenment?” Gautama struggled to regain this heightened state of awareness, and after doing so he swiftly achieved enlightenment.
In the process of achieving the first dhyana, one’s ordinary mind and sense of personal identity dissolve into an underlying, subtle continuum of mental consciousness that is usually experienced only during dreamless sleep and at death. When this continuum is accessed by way of shamatha, it is found to have three distinctive qualities: bliss, luminosity, and nonconceptuality. This stable, vivid awareness—like a telescope launched into orbit beyond the distortions of the earth’s atmosphere—provides a platform for exploring the deep space of the mind.
According to Buddhaghosa, the most authoritative commentator of Theravada Buddhism, with the achievement of the first dhyana, flawless samadhi, free of even the subtlest laxity and excitation, can be sustained for a whole night and a whole day. While one is resting in this state, the five physical senses are completely withdrawn into mental awareness, so that one becomes oblivious to the physical world, and the mind enters into a state of calm, luminous silence. A great advantage of achieving the first dhyana is that the five hindrances temporarily become dormant. These are (1) sensual craving, (2) malice, (3) drowsiness and lethargy, (4) excitation and remorse, and (5) doubt—all of which obscure the essential nature of the mind, namely, the subtle, luminous continuum of mental consciousness from which all ordinary states of waking and dream consciousness emerge. The Buddha emphasized the importance of overcoming these five hindrances, declaring, “So long as these five hindrances are not abandoned, one considers himself as indebted, sick, in bonds, enslaved and lost in a desert track.”
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