The Difference between Discerning (Analytical) Meditation and Stabilizing Meditation on Compassion
Paris, France, September 2012
I must share with you, because His Holiness was so incredibly profound and helpful in explaining, the difference between analytical meditation (so a vipashyana type of thing) and shamatha (formal stabilizing meditation). What’s the difference between doing a shamatha meditation on compassion and a vipashyana meditation on compassion, between doing the analytical one and the stabilizing one? And the difference is in terms of the energy, the direction of the energy.
It’s very important to try to quiet down enough so that you are sensitive enough to your energy. You don’t have to do profound tantra meditation; we’re talking about just being quiet enough to be sensitive to your energy and how it’s flowing.
When we are doing so-called analytical meditation (I prefer to call it discerning meditation), it’s not that we’re analyzing something. We’re trying to perceive something in a certain way that we have analyzed before. Right? So in the thinking process – for example, for compassion – we’ve gone through all the reasons and so on why you would develop compassion and all the steps of how you would develop compassion (everybody’s been your mother, etc.). And now we want to do this discerning meditation to discern others with compassion.
So on a beginning level, we might have to go through all the steps in order to generate that compassion (“Everybody’s been my mother,” blah, blah, blah). And now we want to perceive everybody with this discernment of compassion, and so the energy is going out toward others with compassion (“May you be free of suffering and the causes of suffering”).
Then how do you do the stabilizing meditation after that on compassion? And now, His Holiness explains, the energy is coming in. The direction of the energy is going in rather than going out. So there’s still that feeling of compassion, but it’s not that the energy is going out to the objects of compassion. You are aware of the objects of compassion – it’s not that you lose awareness of them – but the energy is coming in and getting more subtle. If it becomes too weak, you have to alternate it by again having the energy go out with the discerning. That’s the process.
I’d never heard any explanation in my fifty years of studying the Dharma of what really was the difference between these two aspects of compassion meditation. His Holiness explained it very clearly.
So this sensitivity to our energy and how it is going is something that we can develop on sutra level as well. And obviously in Kalachakra practice, this becomes very significant, to have that sensitivity. As I said, it really just requires quieting down and paying attention.
Participant: I didn’t exactly understand what the Dalai Lama explained to you about this energy coming in and coming out. Can you please say a few more words on that?
Alex: Okay, can I explain a little bit more about what His Holiness explained in a general discourse to thousands of people – not to me privately – about the difference of the energy in terms of discerning meditation and stabilizing meditation? You have to be careful not to just identify it with vipashyana and shamatha, because in tantra, anuttarayoga tantra, it works slightly differently. Therefore it’s easier to describe it in terms of discerning meditation and stabilizing meditation.
I think the clearest example is with compassion. How do you meditate on compassion?
So as I said, to meditate on compassion, we have to build up to the emotion of compassion, to generate it. So it has to be, first of all, a Mahayana practice. So we’re thinking in terms of everybody, not just a few people. So it’s a huge scope. And there are many different forms of compassion and many different ways of developing it.
But just the most basic is that we think in terms of equanimity – not attracted to some, not repelled from others, not ignoring others.
And then on the basis of that, we can develop further in terms of everybody having been our mother in a previous life or equalizing our attitude about self and others. There are many ways to reach that emotion of compassion toward everybody, Mahayana compassion.
“Everybody’s been my mother in some life and shown me tremendous kindness.” At the minimum level, she didn’t have an abortion with me. No matter how horrible she was, she didn’t have an abortion.
And here’s one that often is often slightly misunderstood. It’s usually translated as “I want to repay the kindness of my mother.” It sounds as though you have a debt and you feel obligated: “It’s my duty to repay it; otherwise I’m a bad daughter or a bad son.” That way of translating it suggests that we should feel guilty if we don’t repay that kindness, and so you are kind to others out of a sense of guilt. That’s totally not what we are looking for here. Words are very strong with their connotations and can unconsciously suggest something to us that in our Buddhist practice leads us into not the proper way, a very neurotic way, of practicing. So what is the emotion that is generated when we think of how kind others have been to us? It’s an emotion of gratitude. We are so grateful for what they did.
What follows from that is called heartwarming love – we’re so grateful that just seeing them, our heart warms up and opens because we are so grateful for how kind they have been. Automatically, it says, this emotion arises of this heartwarming love. It makes sense. If the step before heartwarming love is feeling guilty if I didn’t help them, then why would you be so delighted and just light up with a warm feeling when you see them? You would feel, “Oh god, I have to help this person? Well, I’d better do it, because they were so kind to me.”
If we are so grateful for what they have done, then of course we are very happy to see the person, we light up, we’re completely open, and then love and compassion naturally arise. We see that they’re suffering, and this is horrible, and: “May you be free of suffering and the causes of suffering,” so compassion. Actually the sequence is that when we have this heartwarming love, this: “Oh, I really have such a warm feeling towards you,” then the first thing is love: “I really would love for you to be happy and have the causes for happiness.” But then we see: “But you’re suffering. So may you be free of suffering.” That’s the sequence, the most standard sequence.
So the first level of discerning meditation, when we are still not super familiar with it, is that we have to build up to that emotion. When we’re really, really familiar with it, we don’t have to go through the steps; we’re able to just get it. It’s from complete familiarity, and you’re just able to go there to generate the feeling.
Now, actually focusing on compassion – I’m discerning, so I am imagining or looking at various beings. And as Tsongkhapa explains, basing his explanation on Asanga, an Indian master – this is in the context of generosity, but it applies here as well – that whoever we are focusing on is just a part of the larger picture. In other words, compassion here is Mahayana compassion, so it’s to everybody, and so the scope of our compassion is all beings, everybody. And now this person that I’m focusing my compassion on is just a little piece of the larger picture of everybody, and so we need to be aware of that and not lose sight of the larger picture. It’s very profound what Asanga and Tsongkhapa elaborate on this.
And the suffering that we are focusing on – “May they be free of this suffering and the cause of that suffering” – that is also just a little part of all the suffering, the all-pervasive suffering, everything. And this is just one part of that when we are wishing may you be free of that. So you don’t lose the larger scope and have it just become a very limited, worldly type of compassion.
So if we have generated compassion in the proper Mahayana way, then our energy – if you’re sensitive to your energy – is completely open to the whole universe. And now we’re focusing on this one little part here, like the telescope is open to one little portion of the sky, and this is a representative. There’s nothing special about this one, so no attachment or repulsion or indifference. They’re nothing special. That’s always there. And our energy is going out toward this person. You’re directing your energy – “May you be free of suffering and the causes of suffering” – within this much larger scope. So that’s the discerning style.
Then we want to stabilize that. And with the stabilizing meditation, it’s not so much that the energy goes out toward the person. This is very, very difficult, I must say. Very difficult. I usually describe it as just to have the energy sink in, but that’s much too vague. So His Holiness explained that it’s the energy going in the inner direction – so moving in, not going out.
So what does that mean? That’s a very interesting thing to examine in your own meditation. What could that possibly mean? And so the energy is sort of, in a sense, it’s becoming more subtle. It’s not that we are losing our grand scope. It’s still Mahayana. But the direction of the energy is not so much in terms of the object as it is in terms of just the emotion itself (but without losing sight of the object). So it’s a matter of the movement of the energy – well, obviously this is in your mind – is it moving toward the object, toward the mental hologram, or is it stabilizing, not really moving, so withdrawn from the hologram?
Now, this becomes very tricky, and it’s described in the meditation texts. How is it described? It’s described that when the stabilizing meditation becomes too weak, you have to alternate it with the discerning meditation. So when you are trying to stabilize that compassion, and the energy is, in a sense, going in, trying to stay a little bit more steady, not so actively… The difference is between active and passive. Those terms are also used. I said active and passive, but passive isn’t correct. Passive implies that something is happening to you. So active and not active. So when it’s not active, the energy isn’t moving so much. Then what happens is that the actual strength of that emotion tends to weaken. You don’t actually feel that emotion so strongly, because you’re not really applying it to an object. And so when it starts to reach the point where you’re not really feeling anything, then you have to actively project it out toward the mental hologram.
Well, this is the way that the actual discerning and stabilizing meditation of compassion is done.
Now, of course the compassion can be generated with an understanding of impermanence, an understanding of voidness. There are many different types of compassion described by Chandrakirti and others in the literature. I’m just speaking basic. Chandrakirti speaks of the three types of compassion.
Good. So I’m sorry that it’s my tendency to answer questions with a very extensive explanation, but I think this is very important.
Participant: Can we do this kind of meditation when we do mantra practice?
Alex: Can we do this type of meditation while reciting a mantra? No, not really. You can do the discerning meditation with a mantra, but the energy is moving too much with a mantra to do the stabilizing with a mantra. I mean, I’m not talking about advanced stages, like the isolated-speech (ngag-dben) stage of complete tantra, where you have joined the breath and the movement of the energies with the mantra OM AH HUM. I’m not talking about that level. I’m talking about basic reciting OM MANI PADME HUM while doing tonglen, for example. Isolated speech, where you make the breath and energy and mantra inseparable, that’s a whole other level.
But look at tantra practice. In the generation stage, you’re reciting the mantra together with visualization – lights going out, and all this sort of stuff – so it’s very active. I mean, in generation stage, you get more this development of the sensitivity where you have things being generated and emanated (so energy going out) and things being reabsorbed (so energy coming in). I think perhaps with that practice, you gain that sensitivity of the direction of your energy, not just quieting down. I’d forgotten about that. If you’ve done enough of that type of practice, then you start to become sensitive to how your energy feels.
Okay, so let’s end here with a dedication. We think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for everybody to reach enlightenment for the benefit of us all.
Shantideva indicates (in the tenth chapter of Bodhisattvacharyavatara) that with this prayer, we don’t dedicate just for my enlightenment – “Me, me, me. I want to get enlightened” – but for the enlightenment of everybody.
Thank you very much. Merci beaucoup.
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