Turning the Wheel of the Dharma

Gen Rinpoche Teaches Concentration: Preliminaries

From a series of teachings given by the Most Venerable Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey at the Dhargyey Buddhist Centre, Dunedin, in early 1989. It has been edited by Ven. Ani Sönam Chökyi from the oral translation by Losang Dawa.
(c) Copyright Dhargyey Buddhist Centre.

First Teaching

12 February 1989

In the following Sunday meditation classes I would like to teach the means for developing calm abiding--single-pointed concentration. I will teach as well as I can and I would like you to try to learn these points so that when you actually come to develop single-pointed concentration on your own, you can do it, and when you come to teach other people concentration you are not handicapped by a lack of knowledge.

Practitioners need to develop single-pointed concentration because they need to have stability of mind, control over mind. At the moment our minds are like flags that flap in the breeze. They are completely at the whim of the winds of thought. Sometimes we feel that we would like to pursue our practice of Dharma and at other times we think, "What's the use of Dharma?" and so on. Thus we need to develop a very strong and stable mind that remains fixed on our chosen values and on objects of concentration.

Development of single-pointed concentration is taught under the following six headings:

  1. Explanation of the prerequisites for concentration. The prerequisites are what we need before we can sit down and try to develop single-pointed concentration.
  2. Actual method
  3. How to develop the nine stages of placement of the mind on the chosen object
  4. How those mental placements are developed by means of six factors called the six powers
  5. How those mental placements are characterized by four types of attention
  6. How fully-characterized mental quiescence culminates from this process

These six headings cover the entire teachings on the method of developing single-pointed concentration. These teachings were initially taught by the Buddha in The Thought Unravelling Sutra and were included by Maitreyanath in his Ornament for the Mahayana Sutras (Mahayanasutralamkara). They were simplified by the great Indian master Asanga, then elaborated again by Kamalashila, and once again simplified for the Tibetan people by the great Indian master Atisha. It would be quite difficult to go through all these works to find the method of developing single-pointed concentration, therefore Jamgön Lama Tsongkhapa explained this method in an integrated form in The Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path (Lamrim Chenmo).

Prerequisites for Concentration

There are six prerequisites:

  1. To be in a conducive place. Maitreyanath says in Mahayanasutralamkara that a serious practitioner who wants to develop concentration needs to find a place conducive to the quick development of concentration.
  2. To have few wants.
  3. To be content. To have a sense of 'enoughness' regarding what one has so that one feels, "What I have is more than enough," and doesn't waste time looking for more.
  4. To avoid hustle and bustle. To avoid going to where there are large crowds of people. In other words, one should seek solitude.
  5. To have pure ethics. Ethics are not confined to the ordained. Lay people also should live a pure and ethical life and if they do they too can develop single-pointed concentration.
  6. To avoid longing for sensual objects

These are the prerequisites that a truly serious seeker of calm abiding must have. According to Atisha, without them even if a practitioner were to try to develop concentration for thousands of years, he or she simply would not be able to do it. However if a person truly fulfils these prerequisites and then applies him or herself to developing concentration, that person can develop calm abiding in a matter of six months. Thus these prerequisites are very important.

This morning we will try to meditate on the Buddha. According to Jamgön Lama Tsongkhapa we can choose any object as our object of concentration. People have frequently chosen their minds, or their breath, or the Buddha as their object. However once one has begun to practice concentration it is very important not to change one's object--one should choose an object of concentration and stick to it until single-pointed concentration is achieved. Therefore Jamgön Lama Tsongkhapa says that it is most virtuous to choose the Buddha as one's object of focus. By choosing the Buddha not only will we have one object of concentration throughout our training, but by focusing our mind on the Buddha in our concentration our minds will become very familiar with the Buddha so that we will be able effortlessly to call the Buddha before our mind's eye whenever we want to. The advantage of being able to do this is that we will be able to recall the Buddha before our mind's eye when we actually die. As the scriptures say, someone who can recall and reflect on the Buddha when they die will not fall to the three lower realms.

Thus we will choose the Buddha as our object of concentration. Keeping the physical postures, in particular a balanced, upright back, we visualize the Buddha in the space before us at the level of our forehead, then meditate on--meaning familiarize ourselves with--the Buddha we have visualized.

Second Teaching

19 February 1989

As I have told you before, throughout the infinite past our minds have been governed by our way of thinking, and most of the time our attitude is deeply influenced by negative thoughts. When we are influenced by negative thoughts we are influenced to do, or say, or think things which are negative. In this way we have been influenced by our negative thoughts to engage in negative karmas--negative actions of body, speech and mind. Once actions are performed an important cause is created and this cause in turn brings an effect. The causes we have created so far have been negative causes, the causes of suffering. As a result, just as we have been creating negative karma throughout beginningless time, so have we been experiencing the fruits of those actions throughout beginningless time--so much so that there is no kind of suffering, mental or physical, that we have not undergone. This trend will repeat itself in the future unless we are able to cut through the vicious circle. The only way to sever it is to abandon negative attitudes, negative thoughts. For as long as we are unable to abandon our delusions the ongoing trend will continue--it will only cease once a person has cut through the vicious circle. Only when a person has been able to do that will he or she begin to experience the untainted peace and happiness which is called 'everlasting peace'. Delusions or negative attitudes are very powerful. They provide a very forceful impetus for us to behave negatively.

We have a variety of negative thoughts that are responsible for different negative actions. Let us take the example of attachment or desire. Desire and lust are very powerful--once we have been overcome by them we lose our sense of judgement, our sense of embarrassment and sense of shame, and go out to get what we want without any thought for the consequences.

What we need is a strong mind which does not fall under the influence of negative thoughts. One of the ways to develop a strong, unshakeable mind is to develop calm abiding.

Before a person begins to practise concentration in order to develop calm abiding, he or she needs to fulfil the prerequisites.

A Conducive Place

The first prerequisite is to find a place conducive to practise. Maitreyanath spells out the features of the kind of place where a conscientious, intelligent person can develop concentration more easily than in other places.

The first characteristic is that it is a place where necessities for survival and practice are easily available. If we don't have easy access to basic necessities we will have to spend most of our time trying to find them and thus will have little time or energy for practice.

The second characteristic of a conducive place is that it is "a good place". A place is a good place if it has already been lived in or at least visited by a realized master. The presence of realized masters has a tremendous influence on a place and a place blessed by their presence has a tremendous influence on practitioners of future generations. Bodhgaya, for instance, isn't inherently a powerful place: it has become powerful because the Buddha and other powerful beings have lived there or visited there. Through the Buddha's own spiritual power the place was blessed--so much so that the place has retained his blessings and the blessings of great masters who went there after him. Thus even today when people go to Bodhgaya they are overwhelmed by its peace.

In the same way this place in Dunedin is a blessed place in the sense that a lot of Dharma activities have taken place here and there are many scriptures and objects that represent the enlightened body, speech and mind. As a result, when we come here we feel much better than we do at home. Therefore this place has a beneficial influence on the people who come here.

As well as the powerful presence of realized beings, good activities influence a place and this influence is felt by all who go to that place. Conversely, cruel activities influence a place negatively. If you go to a slaughterhouse, for instance, the moment you get there there is something about the place that puts you off.

Another feature of a good place is that there is no threat to one's life--from robbers or wild animals for instance. A good place is also not haunted by spirits or ghosts. When we have not developed the power of mind that is impervious to negative forces we can fall victim to external fears. Therefore at the beginning of our practice it is important not to choose a place that is haunted.

The third characteristic of a conducive place is that it is an environment where one's health is not at risk. It should be a clean, attractive, open place, with good water. If you drink certain water it upsets your stomach, so the water at your place of practice must be congenial to your system.

The fourth characteristic is a place where there are good friends. A good friend is a friend who is extremely virtuous and for whose sake you dare not do something bad, for fear of displeasing or upsetting him or her. Your good friend should also be well informed about the practice so that at times when you are uncertain you can consult him or her and find out how to proceed. It is important not to have a friend who takes more interest in worldly entertainment than in spiritual endeavour. If you live with a friend who takes snuff, for instance, you also will get the habit of taking snuff; if you live with a friend who smokes you will very possibly begin to smoke. Such habits caught from unfortunate friends will have a tremendously negative influence on your practice.

A conducive place is one where you find all the requirements of comfort in meditation. Although material comfort is implied here, according to Lama Dorje Chang (referring to the late Junior Tutor of H. H. the Dalai Lama) "requirements of comfort" refers more importantly to the comfort of instructions, so that when the person settles down to practise in that place he or she has no anxieties or worries about how to proceed--nothing is left unclear, everything about the practice to be undertaken has been absolutely clarified. Thus full preparation in terms of instruction is said to be one of the characteristics of the place.

The "comfort" of a place is also said to refer to its quietness. Because sound is one of the biggest hindrances to developing concentration, the place should be very quiet: a place where there are no noises of humans during the day, no noise of running water etc during the night.

To Have Few Wants

If you are a person with strong desires for a lot of food or for tasty food, for a lot of clothes or for good clothes, and for luxurious surroundings, it is most unconducive for concentration in that your entire time will be spent in pursuing your desires. "Few wants" means few desires in terms of quantity as well as quality of food, clothing and shelter.

To Have A Sense of Contentment

A person who is quite content with his or her present material situation will feel that nothing more is needed and thus will not waste time looking for things. This sense of contentment is one of the greatest sources of happiness. Real happiness will come when we have real contentment, a real sense of enoughness. It was because of this that the great Nagarjuna, in his letter to his friend and benefactor King Gautamiputra said:

The Teacher of Gods and Men declared that being satisfied Was the greatest of all riches. Remain Satisfied always. One knowing satisfaction is Truly wealthy, even without material possessions.

Complete Abandonment of Hustle and Bustle

If you live in the company of busy people where there is a lot of noise and activity, you will be carried away by distraction. Busyness is something a serious practitioner of concentration must avoid. According to Lama Dorje Chang, the meaning of "hustle and bustle" is not limited to the hustle and bustle of the world but also includes mental distraction. For instance if you have gone to a place to develop concentration and, while you are there, you develop an interest in practising medicine, or you engage in drawing astrological charts for people, or you go to the town to perform rituals at people's request, such things are a kind of "hustle and bustle" in a quiet place.

To Have Pure Ethics

We need to have pure ethics--meaning pure lifestyle, pure action--because this is the basis of all higher spiritual realizations--all higher qualities of mind. In the process of developing calm abiding we are trying to eliminate the fine, subtle distractions. But how can we abandon subtle distractions when we are filled with gross distractions? Therefore we need to abandon gross distractions and the sources of gross distraction. Gross distraction is most effectively abandoned when we live a pure ethical life, when we are bound by certain vows not to indulge in negative activities. When we are bound under vow not to do certain things we remain ever-aware of those things. As a result, by simply observing those vows and living a pure ethical life, we have in the first place removed a gross distraction. When that is done we can effectively deal with the subtle distraction that we experience in the process of developing single-pointed concentration. Thus a pure lifestyle without much worldly involvement is of utmost importance.

I will deal with the last prerequisite for developing concentration next week.

Later I will go through all the points of meditation posture. For now, sit cross-legged and try to maintain a straight back, then visualize the Buddha. The Buddha can be visualized in any of three different places: on the crown of your head, in the space before you at the level of your forehead, and at your heart. Choose whichever of these three is most comfortable for you and try to fix you mind onto the Buddha there. Those of you who have received a tantric initiation can concentrate on the deity of the initiation, for instance Vajra Bhairava, if you prefer, although of course you can also choose to concentrate on the Buddha.

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