January 22, 2005

An explanation of Shamatha Meditation

Posted at January 22, 2005 01:45 AM in Buddhism .

Found on a web page and corrected for certain errors of use with the English language... :-)

This text is illustrated with an adaptation of a traditional Buddhist diagram- an explanatory model of stages in the development of skill in concentration (shamatha or shine). This basic meditation technique is common to a number of meditative traditions and an essential tool in all advanced Buddhist meditation practices. The diagram clearly indicates that the practice of concentration involves development of refinement of innate functions of the mind.

The first panel depicts several mental functions during the first phase of concentration practice, when the meditator repeatedly attempts to focus attention one-pointedly on a single object, either external or internal. The meditator starts out on the path of well learned instructions equipped with shackles and goad which represent short term memory and the monitoring function, to catch and subdue the wild elephant of mind. The elephant's black color represents under-arousal of mind, which hinders clear perception of the object and eventually leads to drowsiness. The monkey represents distraction, and its black color is caused by over-arousal of mind. After each failure to maintain one-pointed attention on the object the meditator must determine whether it was due to over- or under- arousal and take corrective measures for the next trial. The fire, decreasing in size from the first to the seventh stages, and absent thereafter, indicates the degree of effort required at each stage until concentration becomes 'spontaneous'.

The second stage is achieved mainly through development of short-term working memory and involves lengthening the period of unbroken concentration.

From the second stage on, the blackness of monkey and elephant begins to diminish, indicating the decreasing tendency toward over- and under-arousal and resulting in less distractibility and a clearer grasp of the object.

By the third stage the meditator has fastened the shackle (short-term memory) firmly to the elephant of mind but is still pulled along behind. Lacking full control, the meditator must continue to refocus attention after each lapse. However, the period of unbroken concentration is longer and less effort is expending. A hare appears for the first time, symbolizing a subtle aspect of the hindrance of over-arousal due to the effort required to establish concentration.

At the fourth stage, development of the monitoring function (a goad - a sense for the level of activity of the nervous system) and the extension of the period of short-term memory permit finer control during concentration. The factors of over- and under-arousal are greatly reduced both during and in-between the actual state of absorption, as is the effort required to establish the absorption state. At this stage normally positive mental functions will distract the mind from the object and must be suppressed during concentration practice. It is no longer necessary to reset the mind again, since the developed short-term memory and the monitoring function acting together permit correction of over- and under-arousal before losing the object.

By the fifth stage the mind tends to be drawn automatically toward the object, and thus the monitoring function itself, which tends to increase arousal and lead to distraction, must be released. The fire of effort is small and the hare is absent, the mind is said to be pacified.

At the sixth stage, the monkey of distraction has faded out, and the blackness of mental sluggishness has almost disappeared from the elephant of mind. Only the slightest over- or under-arousal disturbs the absorption state and this is easily corrected with slight effort before concentration falls.

At the seventh stage the monkey is completely gone, the elephant is completely white and is untouched by distraction or sluggishness. Gone also are shackle and goad, because short-term memory and the monitoring function are needed only to establish the actual absorption state, which is now 'effortless'. Finally the meditator seated and at rest, has achieved perfect mental equanimity. This is attended by mental and physical ecstasy, the latter felt as a pleasurable lightness symbolized by flying. The resulting perfect control on mental functioning (riding on the elephant) serves as a basis for advanced practices such as 'analytic Insight' (Vipassana). This again requires effort (fire) and analytic thought (sword in the hand of Manjushri, with whom you can identify now) firmly combined with perfect concentration. Substantial development of concentration skill can be achieved in as little as six months with proper condition, instructions and guidance. However, developed concentration alone tends to degenerate unless it is applied to advanced analytic techniques as mentioned above.

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