Shamata Meditation

Samye Buddhist Association International

Khenpo Sangpo Rinpoche

Shamatha Meditation


Our compassionate teacher, the fully and perfectly enlightened Buddha, has revealed an infinite number of teachings so that we can overcome the limitations and afflictions of our minds. Two such essential teachings are tranquility meditation (in Tibetan: shine, in Sanskrit: shamatha) and deep insight meditation (in Sanskrit: vipashyana). Today I would like to give a talk on tranquility, or shamatha, meditation.

All sentient beings naturally long for happiness and peace of mind. To be able to experience genuine peace of mind one should involve oneself with genuine tranquility meditation. This has been proved over the centuries by many spiritual seekers and meditators. We need to prevent our minds from being distracted by the past or wandering to the future, and instead set them single pointedly on the object of meditation – the moment of here and now.

To be able to give rise to a genuine experience of tranquility meditation we have to acquire many favorable causes and conditions. We do this by performing the three preliminaries. The first preliminary is to find a suitable environment. A beginner meditator should choose a place with an atmosphere that will not be stressful and prevent him or her from accomplishing the practice of tranquility meditation. The external atmosphere makes a lot of difference for the beginner meditator. For instance, I now live in a very busy city in Taiwan, but some time ago I went to Tibet to visit, and because of the quiet atmosphere of Tibet I could at once experience the feeling of shamatha meditation. Calmness of the external atmosphere causes calmness of the inner mind. The second preliminary is to cultivate a sense of contentment, a sense of satisfaction, which is followed by less involvement in complex activities. Cultivating simplicity in one’s life causes calmness and simplicity in one’s mind as well. The third preliminary is to cultivate moral ethics. Pure behavior creates a pure mind.

In order to prepare for meditation, one should try to distance oneself from mental, as well as external, busyness. Mental busyness is the inner noises and distractions that hinder us from cultivating meditation. Such distractions give rise to a lot of emotional complexities that disturb the mind. If one expects to be able to give rise to the genuine experience of meditation without having gone through the initial preparations, then one is expecting too much.

When one has fulfilled the requirements of the preliminaries, one should proceed with the actual meditation. The famous meditation teacher Kamalashila suggested that one should adopt an eight-point posture. This posture corresponds very much to the seven-point posture of Buddha Vairochana. First, one should straighten one’s back. Second, assume a fully cross-legged position, or if this is not possible, assume the half-crossed posture. Third, calm the consciousness by gazing at the space in front along the angle of the nose. Fourth, place the shoulders evenly. Fifth, relax the jaw with only a small gap between the teeth. Sixth, let the tip of the tongue touch the pallet. This last point will prevent excessive production of saliva, and also quiet the consciousness that is connected with the tongue. Seventh, breathe as natural as possible. And last, eighth, direct the gaze at the object of meditation, for example a Buddha statue or a small stone.

One then proceeds to visualize all enlightened beings, including one’s masters, in front of oneself and offer a supplication prayer to experience favorable causes and conditions and become free of difficulties by performing the tranquility meditation. The supplication to the invoked energies of the buddhas and bodhisattvas is called the seven-branch prayer.

One then tries to simplify one’s body and consciousness as much as possible and looks directly into the non-fabricated state of one’s mind. One then discovers complex emotional states such as anger, attachment, desire, dullness, jealousy, pride and so on. The predominance of these emotional afflictions will vary according to the individual. One person can be afflicted by anger, another by jealousy, some are more attached and so on. This is due to the infinite number of past lives that have conditioned our minds in various ways. When one looks directly at the mind and discovers one of these predominant complexities, one should seize that complexity with meditative awareness. It is essential to directly recognize the significant “trouble maker” that hinders one from mediation.

If one looks into the state of one’s mind and discovers that one’s predominant emotional complexity is desire, the Buddha has described three methods that can be used to deal with this emotional complexity. The first method consists of contemplating on impurity, the second method is contemplating on ugliness, and the third method consists of contemplating on the skeleton.

Reflection on impurity is done by reflecting on one’s body. By contemplating, one will discover many essentially impure substances within one’s body, for example bones, puss and so on. Buddha said that there exists 36 of such substances altogether. By going through all of these, one contemplates on the physical substances that are connected with our physical existence. This will lessen the attachment of desire that was identified as the predominant complexity.

Contemplation on ugliness is done by contemplating on a corpse. This can be done by approaching an actual physical corpse, or it can be done by visualizing a corpse within one’s mind. The point is to develop some kind of renunciation. Altogether, the Buddha has prescribed nine different ways of contemplating on ugliness, as for example the meditation on a rotten corpse, but we do not need to go into detail about these meditations here.

The contemplation on impurity and ugliness is followed by contemplation on the skeleton, beginning with one’s own. One begins by imagining a bare area of bone between the eyebrows. This area then expands all over the body to reveal the skeleton, which then grows to fill the entire universe, and the whole universe becomes made of bone. The visualized skeleton is then withdrawn and contracts into itself, disappearing at the level of the feet. At this point it erects itself and then become a normal skeleton, which then gradually becomes covered with flesh again, and all returns to normal. This contemplation can be done in the same way as the movement of sun causes the shadows to move.

Meditation upon these three aspects will temporarily prevent attachment to the desire for physical sensations of color, shape and touch. The method will not uproot desire completely, but offer a favorable ground for cultivating the genuine experience of shamatha and insight mediation. The cause of the desire will only be completely uprooted when the meditator is truly able to give rise to the simultaneous meditation experience of shamatha and deep insight meditation.

If, by looking directly at the state of one’s mind, one discovers that the main affliction is the emotional complexity of anger, or aversion, one should try to cultivate love and compassion as an antidote in order to temporarily suppress this anger.

If one discovers that one’s mind is preoccupied by dullness or indifference, the Buddha has suggested meditating on the 12 links of interdependent origination in a forward, as well as backward, manner.

If one’s mind is predominantly occupied by the emotional complexity of pride, the Buddha has suggested meditating on the classifications on the 18 elements of the phenomena, in order to temporarily suppress this.

If one’s mind is predominated by discursive thoughts, the Buddha suggested using meditation techniques that utilize awareness on the breath. The mind is said to be the primary existence compared to other phenomena. Directing one’s mind toward the breath is therefore important because it makes the mind more flexible. One method of breath meditation is to begin with breathing naturally through the nose, counting one in and out breath as one cycle, going up to 10 cycles without forgetting to count and being mindful of the breath. Another method is, as one breathes out, to let one’s consciousness ride on the horse of the out breath and likewise when you breathe in.

A third meditation method connected with the breath is to visualize a thread of light uncoiling from the nostrils while one exhales. The light thread uncoils all the way down to your feet. As one inhales, the light thread goes back up into one’s nose. One should also visualize the entire body being filled with the energy of the breath, all the way from the nose, through the interior part of the body down to the feet. As one exhales from the nose, conceive that the breath comes all the way from the feet up through the body and then out of the nose. When one breathes in and the breath descends within the body, one should conceive that one’s consciousness becomes more grounded as the air energy falls toward the feet. One should develop a sense of steadfastness – feeling completely pacified. Inhaling, one should conceive that one inhales all the pure energies of the air. By involving oneself with these meditations one has a good chance of calming a disturbed mind and making it into a peaceful ocean free from agitated waves.


Q: Can you say some more on the meditation on the corpse?


Rinpoche: I talked about nine of the contemplations as antidotes to temporarily suppress the emotional complexity of attachment to desire. This teaching is from the general vehicle of the Buddha’s teachings. From the perspective of the tantric approach, there is a totally different way of dealing with such complexities. Instead of suppressing the emotional complexities just temporarily, you can from the very beginning liberate them in their own place. You have to bear in mind that this was taught with the perspective of the general vehicle. From the perspective of tantra, you don’t involve yourself with ideas such as the impurity of the body of yourself or others. The tantric teaching of Buddhism suggests that you should regard your body as the mandala of the fully enlightened Buddha and all enlightened beings. So there is no mention of impurities, dirt and so on.


The Buddha taught this specific meditation in order to help common people distance themselves temporarily from attachments. When he taught this for the first time, many of his followers, among many of whom were monks, nuns and serious, intense practitioners who did not have a particularly problem with desire, practiced so much on revulsion on the body that they became suicidal. So the Buddha had to give a new teaching to counteract this mistake.

These specific contemplations, the 36 impure substances of the body and the nine disgusting states of the corpse, is associated with the first turning of the wheel of the Dharma, and more particularly with the first of the four noble truths that the Buddha taught – the truth of suffering. The contemplation that we went through is closely related to this suffering.


Q: Is it a necessary development to start with this form of practice or is it a matter of choice?


Rinpoche: Generally, it is very good and skillful to follow the gradual path, rather than trying to jump directly to shamatha mediation. If we try this without going through the preliminaries, it is not very likely that we will manage to do a proper meditation. Attachment to the emotional complexities acts as a stumbling block for mediation on peace.


Q: The antidotes for pride and arrogance were to meditate on the 18 classifications of the different elements. What are they and how does meditating on them reduce pride?


Rinpoche: In Buddhism, the elements are classified into the six sense organs, the six consciousnesses of these, and the six types of objects that are identified by the consciousnesses – making 18 altogether. With all the subclasses, this is a very complex subject, and trying to grasp the sheer complexity of it all will temporarily suppress your arrogance.


Translated by Lama Changchub at Karma Tashi Ling Buddhist Centre, Norway