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B. Alan Wallace on Meditative Stability and Insight

By B. Alan Wallace //

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 non-conceptuality. 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.”

Later Buddhist contemplatives have drawn a distinction between the actual state of the first dhyana and a slightly lesser degree of samadhi that is just on the threshold of the first dhyana. This threshold point is called “access concentration” (Pali, upacarasamadhi), in which the five hindrances are as dormant as they are in the actual state of the first dhyana, but one’s samadhi is a little less robust. Instead of being able to rest effortlessly in unwavering samadhi for twenty-four hours, one may do so for only four hours—far beyond anything considered possible according to modern psychology.

I have been teaching shamatha for over thirty years, and I can’t count the number of people with training in Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism who have told me that despite years of meditation their minds are still subject to agitation and dullness. While they have been trained in more advanced practices within each of the above traditions, they never established a solid foundation in the more elementary practices of shamatha. I have also heard of many people who say they have achieved shamatha and dhyana, many claiming to have done so within a matter of days, weeks, or just a few months. But despite such reports, few appear to be able to effortlessly maintain flawless samadhi with their senses fully withdrawn for at least four hours.

Perhaps the most crucial discovery of the Buddha as he launched his contemplative revolution in India was the liberating power of first achieving dhyana through the practice of shamatha, and then cultivating vipashyana, or contemplative insight into essential features of reality (such as impermanence, the nature of suffering, and the nonexistence of an independent self, or ego). The transformative power of Buddhist meditation occurs when the stability and vividness of shamatha is unified with the penetrating insights of vipashyana. Shamatha by itself results in a temporary alleviation of the fundamental causes of suffering, and vipashyana by itself provides only fleeting glimpses of reality. Only with the stabilizing power of shamatha can the insights gleaned from vipashyana thoroughly saturate the mind, ultimately liberating it from deeply ingrained ways of misapprehending reality.

Excerpted from “Within You Without You,” which was first published in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Winter 2009.

B. Alan Wallace

About the Author

B. Alan WallaceB. Alan Wallace is a prominent voice in the emerging discussion between contemporary Buddhist thinkers and scientists who question the materialist presumptions of their 20th-century paradigms. He left his college studies in 1971 and moved to Dharamsala, India to study Tibetan Buddhism, medicine and language. He was ordained by H.H. the Dalai Lama, and over fourteen years as a monk he studied with and translated for several of the generation’s greatest lamas. In 1984 he resumed his Western education at Amherst College where he studied physics and the philosophy of science. He then applied that background to his PhD research at Stanford on the interface between Buddhism and Western science and philosophy. Since 1987 he has been a frequent translator and contributor at the “Mind and Life” conferences at which the Dalai Lama and prominent scientists exchange views, and he has written and translated more than 40 books. Along with his scholarly work, Alan is regarded as one of the West’s preeminent meditation teachers and retreat guides. He is the founder and director of the Santa Barbara Institute for Conscious Studies and is the motivating force behind the develop of the Center for Contemplative Research in Tuscany, Italy.

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