~Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche
I’m going to talk a little about shamatha meditation, and I thought it would be good to try and actually do the meditation as we go along. The actual technique is very simple. All the great meditators of the past advised us to sit up straight when we meditate. When we sit up straight, there is a sense of alertness, a sense of importance—it produces the right atmosphere. In this particular instruction, I’m going to suggest we don’t use an external object, such as a flower, but instead follow the standard Theravada tradition of using our breath as the object. So we concentrate on our breathing: we simply follow our breath in and out. That’s it. Our mind is focused on the breathing, our posture is straight, our eyes are open. That’s the essential technique: basically doing nothing.
Let’s do that for a while.
We simply sit straight and we watch our breathing. We are not concerned with distractions, with all the thoughts that occupy our mind. We just sit—alone, by ourselves, no reference at all. Us, the breathing, and the concentration. That’s all we have.
So we sit, we concentrate on the breathing, nothing else. Then some thoughts may come, and any number of distractions: things you talked about yesterday, movies you watched last week, a conversation you just had, things you need to do tomorrow, a sudden panic—did I switch off the gas in the kitchen this morning? All of this will come, and when it does, go back to the breathing. This is the slogan of shamatha instruction: just come back. Every time we notice that we’ve gotten distracted, we remember the instruction and we come back to the breath. Let’s do this for a while.
If we have ambitions—even if our aim is enlightenment— then there is no meditation, because we are thinking about it, craving it, fantasizing, imagining things. That is not meditation. This is why an important characteristic of shamatha meditation is to let go of any goal and simply sit for the sake of sitting. We breathe in and out, and we just watch that. Nothing else. It doesn’t matter if we get enlightenment or not. It doesn’t matter if our friends get enlightened faster. Who cares? We are just breathing. We just sit straight and watch the breath in and out. Nothing else. We let go of our ambitions. This includes trying to do a perfect shamatha meditation. We should get rid of even that. Just sit.
The beautiful thing about having less obsessions and ambitions—and just sitting straight and watching the breathing—is that nothing will disturb us. Things only disturb us when we have an aim. When we have an aim, we become obsessed. Say our aim is to go somewhere, but somebody parks right in front of our car, blocking us. If something gets in the way of our aim, it becomes a terrible thing. If we don’t have an aim, though, it doesn’t matter.
Meditators often have a strong ambition to achieve something with their meditation. But when meditators get distracted, they go through all kinds of hell: they lose their confidence, they get frustrated, they condemn themselves, they condemn the technique. This is why, at least during the first few moments of meditation, it doesn’t matter whether we are getting enlightened or not, it doesn’t matter whether the hot water is boiling in the kettle, it doesn’t matter whether the telephone is ringing, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s one of our friends. For a few moments, things don’t matter.
You don’t have to meditate for the sake of attaining enlightenment. If you are not interested in enlightenment, you can practice shamatha to be natural—to not be so swayed by circumstances. Most of the time we are not in control of ourselves; our mind is always attracted to, or distracted by, something—our enemies, our lovers, our friends, hope, fear, jealousy, pride, attachment, aggression. In other words, all these objects and these phenomena control our mind. Maybe we can control it for a split second, but when we are in an extreme emotional state, we lose it.
Letting go of ambition is a bit like the renunciation that Buddhists talk about. The Buddha renounced his palace, his queen, his son, and his parents, and went out in search of enlightenment. You can say that the Buddha was trying to diminish his ambition. At least, he was trying to see the futility of it, and he was letting go. Letting go is quite important if you want to become a shamatha practitioner. We do shamatha meditation so we can achieve this power to let go.
Meditation is one of the rare occasions when we’re not doing anything. Otherwise, we’re always doing something, we’re always thinking something, we’re always occupied. We get lost in millions of obsessions or fixations. But by meditating—by not doing anything—all these fixations are revealed. Beginners might find this a little frightening, but slowly they will gain inner confidence, and these fixations will automatically lessen. The classical meditationinstruction texts say our obsessions will undo themselves like a snake uncoiling itself.
Thoughts are coming and I’m telling you to go back to the breathing. You automatically interpret this as “We should stop the thoughts.” This is not what I mean. I’m not saying you should stop thinking. All I’m saying is, concentrate on the breathing. When thoughts come, don’t stop them, don’t increase them, don’t encourage them, don’t discourage them. Your job is to concentrate on the breathing. That’s it. Stopping the thoughts is not your job. It’s important to understand the difference: thoughts are going to come; all you do is just concentrate on the breathing. That’s it.
Lord Maitreya has some really good advice for shamatha practice: When we are doing shamatha and the mind gets distracted, it is important that we remember the antidote. The antidote here is very simply to go back to the breath. We call this “Applying the antidote.” But sometimes we apply the antidote too much, which can cause both dullness and agitation. You got that? If you keep applying the antidote—antidote, antidote, antidote—it’s like applying the antidote when there’s no poison. That becomes a problem.
Always do short but frequent shamatha sessions. I’m talking especially to beginners. If you’re going to meditate for fifteen minutes, start fresh at least thirty times. Over time we can start doing longer sessions—in a fifteenminute session, we can do it fifteen times with a break in between. And when you take a break, take a real break— walk, stand up, do something else. Don’t just linger there half meditating, half not meditating. After a while, you can practice seven times within fifteen minutes.
Keeping it short is important because if you do too much at the beginning, you’ll get fed up with the technique. We are human beings—we don’t like to get bored. We like to change what we eat, we like changing our clothes. We like change.
Likewise, the spiritual path is a long process, and we need a lot of patience. We need to like the path, so keep the meditation short and precise and frequent. That way we develop strong habits. Later on, it becomes part of us. It’s like drinking alcohol: when we first start drinking, we drink a little; we don’t drink two or three bottles at one time. If we did, we’d get so sick we’d never touch it again. So practice shamatha for a short time but many times. That way you’ll get habituated. This is necessary. Shamatha should become part of your life.
And during the off sessions, also, if it’s possible, remember you are breathing. We always forget that we are breathing.
Also, you should not limit your meditation to only in the morning or only in the evening: you should do it any time, all the time. Practice time is always now—it’s never in the future. Don’t ever leave your shamatha thinking, “I’m going to do it next weekend, next month, or next year.” Do it now. Anyway, you’re only doing it for about forty-five seconds, if you’re a beginner. It’s easy. You can do it anywhere. It only requires this: to sit straight.
As we meditate, we simply sit straight and watch the breath. So what does that do? It creates space. In fact, the technique itself is just a trick. The main point is to recognize all these thoughts and distractions that are constantly bombarding us. We still get angry, but we know that we are angry—this kind of anger has so much humor. We can actually drive it in certain directions—we have more control.
The frustrating thing about our life is that there is no control over these emotions. That’s why there’s no fun. The whole purpose of Buddhism is to have fun, isn’t it? And in order to have fun you have to have control. If someone else has control over you, that’s it: there’s no fun.
Shamatha involves a lot of discipline. Lamas often advise us to do meditation in a group, because when we are doing meditation in a group, we want to be the best, the fastest; we have so much pride and ego, and we’re so competitive—why not use this competitiveness as a tool on the path? It’s like working out—if you buy the machines and bring them home, you do three or four days and the machines end up in the garage. But if you go to a gym, you see the other people who are diligently doing it, and all the other beautiful bodies, and it gives you inspiration. What a wrong motivation! But at least it will lead you somewhere.
Keep it simple, don’t make it complicated. Concentrate on the breathing, sit straight—that’s all. Every day, do a few minutes, and, on top of that, do it spontaneously in different places—not just in front of the shrine, but everywhere. There’s so much merit in just sitting there.
* Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche was born in Bhutan in 1961 and is recognized as the main incarnation of Dzongsar Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö (18941959). From early childhood, he has studied with some of the greatest contemporary masters, including His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. He has established dharma centers in Asia, North America, Australia, and Europe.