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Shamatha Meditation: Training the Mind

"The process of undoing bewilderment is based on stabilizing and strengthening our mind," says SAKYONG MIPHAM RINPOCHE. "Shamatha meditation is how we do that.”

We sometimes forget how the Buddhist teachings came into being. We forget why the Buddha left his father's palace. Dissatisfied with maintaining an illusion, he wanted to understand his life—and life itself.

Just like the Buddha, most of us would like to discover some basic truth about our life. But are we really capable of knowing what's going on? This is a question that relates to the most profound truth of the Buddhist teachings. The Buddha's answer is, "Yes, ultimately we are. But we need to go on a journey of meditation to find out, because essentially we are in a state of bewilderment.” Why are we bewildered? Because we don't understand how our mind works.

The process of undoing bewilderment is based on cultivating the ability to become familiar with, stabilize, and strengthen our mind. Being aware and observant of what’s happening in our mind gives us an opportunity to see a more profound level of truth all the time. In the practice of meditation, we learn to zoom back and get a bigger perspective, rather than always thinking so small.

The Buddha understood that if we want to go on any kind of journey—not just a spiritual one but also a secular one, such as studying or doing business—we need a mind that is workable. We need a mind that we can rely on. That's the notion of training the mind, of making the mind workable so it can do whatever it needs to do.

Shamatha, or mindfulness, meditation is how we make this mind more stable, more useful. From this point of view, shamatha is not purely a Buddhist practice; it's a practice that anyone can do. It doesn't tie in with a particular spiritual tradition. If we want to undo bewilderment, we're going to have to be responsible for learning what our own mind is and how it works, no matter what beliefs we hold.

The word shamatha in Sanskrit (Tib.: shi-ne) means "peacefully abiding." Peacefully abiding describes the mind as it naturally is. The word “peace” tells the whole story. The human mind is by nature joyous, calm and very clear. In shamatha meditation we aren't creating a peaceful state—we're letting our mind be as it is to begin with. This doesn't mean that we're peacefully ignoring things. It means that the mind is able to be with itself without constantly leaving.

In meditation we learn how to calmly abide: we learn how to let ourselves just be here peacefully. If we can remember what the word “shamatha” means, we can always use it as a reference point in our practice. We can say, "What is this meditation that I'm doing? It is shamatha—calmly, peacefully abiding."

At the same time we begin to see that our mind isn't always abiding calmly or peacefully. Perhaps it's abiding irritatingly, angrily, jealously. Seeing all of this is how we begin to untangle our bewilderment.


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