Last evening we were treated to a talk by the researchers involved in the Shamatha Project, a joint research project taking place here at SMC to study the effects of shamatha meditation. Dr. Beth Adelson from Rice and Dr. Cliff Saron of UC-Davis spoke about the science and the testing they had designed and conducted. More interesting to me, was the talk by B. Allen Wallace.
Allen has spent thirty-seven years studying Buddhism, including fourteen years as a monk in the Tibetan tradition. He is teaching meditation to the thirty people which have been living, isolated and mostly in silence, in the Rigden Lodge for the last three months. He spoke on the three practices of shamatha and Four Immeasurables. I have heard these thing mentioned vaguely in the past, but never received such an in depth explanation of them before.
There are three distinct practices, or stages, or parts to shamatha meditation. The first, found in the very words of the Buddha as recorded in the Theravada tradition, the oldest of the three, is Mindfulness of the Breath. This I have received instruction on, it being the primary practice of Shambhala Training Level I, and enumerated in many books. The other two have been mentioned, but only as things which may occur during meditation, not as separate practices in their own right.
Settling the Mind in Its Natural State is the second of these. This is found only in the Tibetan teachings. It is a way of allowing our thoughts, emotions, memories, etc. to arise and pass away naturally, without judgment, clinging, or aversion. Allen described it as “space accommodating all that arises,” and recited the Tibetan instruction (predating the Beatles) to “let it be, without preference.”
Shamatha Without Object (or Base) is the third practice, and is also unique to Tibetan Buddhism. It is an awareness of awareness, consciousness of consciousness. He described it as the pinnacle.
The important point to note is that these are not stages in a linear progress. One starts with Mindfulness of the Breath, just as I did, but will find settling and awareness occurring naturally. The mind will flow between the three. When one is accomplished with an success, it will naturally gravitate towards another, though it may return time and again to the other two.
He also spoke of the two outcomes of shamatha, stability and vividness. They are both equally important, but we must cultivate stability first, as primary, because it is the base of vividness. Then he spoke of a third thing we must cultivate, which he finds is unique to Westerners and not in the Tibetan practices. We must also cultivate relaxation. “When you achieve shamatha, you’re effortless,” he said. So relaxation first, then stability, then vividness. This will come from shamatha.
He is also teaching his students The Four Immeasurables: loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. Firstly because “no matter what galaxy you’re in, they’re intrinsically good. Loving kindness is always better than the alternative, not matter what samsaric realm you’re in.” But also because these four qualities help you balance whatever comes up. In shamatha, we dredge up every possible aspect of ourselves, all our psychoses and neuroses, anger, pain, ecstasy, jealousy, it all comes up. “Shamatha makes you sane, wonderfully sane.” The Four Immeasurables, when applied to oneself, help keep an even keel.
Finally, when the retreatants go home after these three months and resume their busy lives, their shamatha practice might fray, get a little tattered around the edges, but The Four Immeasurables will remain their best friends. “You have to cultivate friendships,” Allen said, “you can’t just say, ‘Oh yes, we’ve been introduced.’” This is why he teaches the cultivation of The Four Immeasurables.
Allen is interested in what is Tibetan and what is timeless? Many of the practices we are importing were designed by Tibetans for Tibetans, a mostly nomadic people who grew up at thirteen thousand feet, herding yaks, and speaking Om Mani Padme Hum as their first syllables. When it all boils down, he just wants to know what works? What works for us, who are not Tibetan?
One of the things that strikes me about accomplished teachers, the few I have seen video of or heard in person, is they always speak very eloquently (even if we are still confused, it never sounds less than articulate). There are no monosyllables, uh, ah, oh, well, though they do pause from time to time. They seem to know always what they are saying. Also, as Allen did, they tend to speak with a voice which is both very gentle, very soft, and yet somehow urgent, fervent, and always humorous. There is much laughter.
Any religion or philosophy which can values humor as an indispensable part of the practice, works for me.