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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Objects of Focus for Developing Shamatha and Vipashyana

Objects of Focus
for Developing Shamatha and Vipashyana

Alexander Berzin
July 2003, revised July 2006

The Four Categories of Objects of Focus

In A Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path (Lam-rim chen-mo), Tsongkhapa (rJe Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang grags-pa) explained that in the sutras Buddha taught, in general, four categories of objects of focus for yogis to employ in meditation. He also cites the explanation that Asanga gave in Shravaka (Listener) Stages of Mind (Nyan-sa, Skt. Shravakabhumi) concerning the persons for whom each variety of the last three categories of objects of focus is intended.

The four categories are:

  • pervasive objects of focus (khyab-pa’i dmigs-pa),
  • objects of focus for cleansing one’s behavior (spyad-pa rnam-par sbyong-ba’i dmigs-pa),
  • objects of focus with knowledge (mkhas-pa’i dmigs-pa),
  • objects of focus for cleansing oneself of disturbing emotions and attitudes (nyon-mongs-pa rnam-par sbyong-ba’i dmigs-pa).

None of the objects for focus are objective entities (rang-mtshan, individually characterized phenomena). Rather, they are the mental derivatives (gzugs-brnyan, mental reflections) of them that are the appearing objects (snang-yul) to the mental consciousness focusing on them conceptually with valid mental cognition. The mental derivatives are static (permanent) meaning/object categories (don-spyi, meaning categories). Through their partial veil, the conceptual cognition cognizes a static conceptual representation (snang-ba) of the involved object (‘jug-yul) of the cognition. In other words, meditation begins as a conceptual process and trains mental consciousness, not sensory consciousness. Nonconceptual meditation with mental consciousness is only possible once one has achieved a seeing pathway mind (path of seeing) and become a highly realized being, an arya.

The Karma Kagyu and Sakya traditions teach focusing on a visual object, such as a Buddha statue, as a method for gaining concentration. This instruction does not contradict the above explanation. This is because these traditions mean focusing on the Buddha statue as a commonsense object (‘ jig-rten-la grags-pa). According to their assertions, the objects of visual cognition are merely moments of colored shapes. Commonsense objects, such as a Buddha statue, are cognized only by conceptual mental cognition. This is because commonsense objects that extend over time and that extend over the sensibilia cognized by other senses are mentally labeled here on the basis of a sequence of visually cognized moments of colored shapes. Unlike in the Gelug tradition, however, the mental derivatives that are the appearing objects of conceptual cognition are the static conceptual representations of the commonsense objects. They are partially veiled, however, by the static catgories that the conceptual representations represent.

[See: Fine Analysis of Objects of Cognition: Gelug and Non-Gelug Presentations in Alternating Order.]

Pervasive Objects of Focus

Pervasive objects of focus are so named because they pervade or include all objects of focus in the other three categories. In other words, they may be any of the five types of objects of focus for cleansing one’s behavior, any of the five types of objects of focus with knowledge, or any of the two types of objects of focus for cleansing oneself of disturbing emotions and attitudes.

They are of four types of pervasive objects of focus:

  • pervasive objects that are mental derivatives together with discursive thought (rnam-par rtog-pa-dang bcas-pa’i gzugs-brnyan),
  • pervasive objects that are mental derivatives without discursive thought (rnam-par rtog-pa med-pa’i gzugs-brnyan),
  • pervasive objects that are the extent of existent phenomena (dngos-po’i mtha’),
  • pervasive objects with the needed goals thoroughly established (dgos-pa yongs-su-grub-pa).

All four types refer to the same set of objects of focus. The first two differentiate the objects according to the persons meditating upon them, while the third according to the objects themselves. The fourth type differentiates them according to the transformed states of mind achieved through having removed individual adverse states from one’s mind.

Pervasive Objects that are Mental Derivatives Together with Discursive Thought

Pervasive objects that are mental derivatives together with discursive thought refer to objects when focused on by persons seeking to achieve an exceptionally perceptive state of mind (lhag-mthong, Skt. vipashyana, special insight). In such cases, conceptual analysis by discursive thought accompanies the focus, for example analysis of the nonstaticness (impermanence) or the voidness of the object.

Pervasive Objects that are Mental Derivatives without Discursive Thought

Pervasive objects that are mental derivatives without discursive thought refer to objects when focused on by persons seeking to achieve a stilled and settled state of mind (zhi-gnas, Skt. shamatha, calm abiding, mental quiescence). In such cases, no discursive thought of analysis accompanies the focus.

Pervasive Objects that are the Extent of Existent Phenomena

Pervasive objects that are the extent of existent phenomena may be either the extent of how many existent phenomena there are (ji-snyed-pa’i dngos-po’i mtha’) or the extent of how existent phenomena exist (ji-lta-ba’i dngos-po’i mtha’).

The first variety gathers objects into broad categories and focuses on them with the thought that there are just this many existent phenomena (dngos-po) in this category and nothing further. The categories may be:

  • The five aggregatesforms of physical phenomena, feelings of a level of happiness, distinguishing, consciousness, and other affecting variables. In this case, the thought is that all affected phenomena (‘dus-byas, conditioned phenomena) are included in the five aggregates.
  • The eighteen cognitive sources (khams bco-brgyad) or the twelve stimulators of cognition (skye-mched bcu-gnyis). The eighteen cognitive sources are the objects (yul), cognitive sensors (dbang-po, cognitive powers) and consciousness (rnam-shes) of each of the cognitive faculties – those of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. The twelve stimulators of cognition are the objects and cognitive sensors of each of the six cognitive faculties. Here, the thought is that all phenomena (chos) are included in the eighteen or the twelve.
  • The four noble truths – true sufferings, true causes, true stoppings (true cessations), and true pathway minds (true paths). The thought is that all validly knowable and thus existent phenomena (shes-bya’i dngos-po) are included in the four noble truths.

The second variety focuses on objects with the thought that the manner in which existent phenomena exist is only like this and nothing else. Such meditation entails focus on existent phenomena in terms of the meaning of their voidness as ascertained through logical reason.

Pervasive Objects with the Needed Goals Thoroughly Established

Pervasive objects with the needed goals thoroughly established focus on the same sets of objects as before, but with the transformed states of mind achieved through having removed individual adverse states. The removal is by the force of having paid attention, having fully devoted oneself, and having become habituated to these objects as objects of focus for shamatha or vipashyana, and having repeated this many times.

Objects of Focus for Cleansing One’s Behavior

There are of five types of objects of focus for cleansing the behavior of those who suffer from a specific disturbing emotion or state of mind:

  • objects of focus as being ugly (mi-sdug-pa),
  • objects of focus for love (byams-pa),
  • objects of focus that dependently arise (rten-‘brel),
  • objects of focus divided into their constituent elements (khams-kyi rab-dbye),

inhalation and exhalation as objects of focus (dbugs-‘byung rngub).

Objects of Focus as Being Ugly

Objects of focus as being ugly are various inner objects of one’s body, such as hair, skin, or snot, and various external objects of others’ bodies, such as the blue color of a corpse. While focusing on them, one mentally takes them as ugly. Such focus cleanses the behavior of those with longing desire or attachment to the objects. Focusing on such objects as ugly is particularly effective for minimizing flightiness of mind (rgod-pa) in shamatha meditation. For this reason, Shantideva recommended them as helpful for attaining far-reaching mental stability (bsam-gtan phar-phyin, perfection of concentration) in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (sPyod-‘jug, Skt. Bodhisattvacharya-avatara).

Objects of Focus for Love

Objects of focus for love are friends, enemies, and those toward whom one is indifferent. While focusing on them, one focuses with love – the wish for them all to be happy and to benefit. Such a wish is based on balanced equanimity toward them all. Focus with love cleanses the behavior of those with anger or hostility toward the objects.

Objects of Focus that Dependently Arise

Objects of focus that dependently arise are any phenomena or situations experienced in the past, present, or future that dependently arise. One focuses on them as having the following significance. Dependent arising functions based on merely phenomena that arise as karmic effects and merely phenomena that they depend on to do so. Aside from merely these, it functions without truly existent agents of karmic actions or truly existent experiencers of karmic results. Focus on objects that dependently arise cleanses the behavior of those with naivety about how phenomena or situations arise dependently from this or that circumstance.

Objects of Focus Divided into Their Constituent Elements

Objects of focus divided into their constituent elements are objects divided into their individual constituent elements of earth, water, fire, wind, space, and consciousness. Focus on such objects cleanses the behavior of those with pride or arrogance about them.

Inhalation and Exhalation as Objects of Focus

Inhalation and exhalation as objects of focus are the movement of the breath in and out, while either counting or merely observing it. Focus on the breath cleanses the behavior of those with merely a great deal of conceptual thought, but no particularly dominant disturbing emotion.

In Jewel Ornament of Liberation (Thar-pa rin-po-che’i rgyan), Gampopa (sGam-po-pa) explained the same as Asanga did concerning objects of focus for cleansing the behavior of those dominated by longing desire, anger, or naivety, and those with a great deal of conceptual thought. For those whose behavior is dominated by jealousy, he explained focusing on the equality of ourselves and others, in that we all want to be happy and not to suffer. For those whose behavior is dominated by pride or arrogance, he explained focusing on exchanging our viewpoints of self and others. This accords with Shantideva’s presentation of equalizing and exchanging self with others as the object of focus for attaining far-reaching mental stability.

Objects of Focus with Knowledge

Objects of focus with knowledge are objects focused on while knowing something about them. There are five types:

  • the aggregates,
  • the cognitive sources,
  • the cognitive stimulators,
  • dependently arising phenomena,
  • what is appropriate and inappropriate (gnas-dang gnas ma-yin).

The Aggregates

The aggregates as objects of focus with knowledge are the five aggregates when focused on while knowing that a conventionally existent “me” or conventionally exist things that are “mine” do not exist as something totally separate from the five aggregates.

Focus on the aggregates with knowledge is especially for those who are bewildered and confused about the characteristic nature (mtshan-nyid) of affecting phenomena (‘du-byed) (phenomena that affect them). It is also for those bewildered about the self (bdag), a limited being (sems-can, sentient being), a life force (srog), the one who is born (skye-ba-po), the one who nourishes (gso-ba), or a person (gang-zag).

According to Asanga’s Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa kun-las btus-pa, Skt. Abhidharmasamuccaya), a limited being in this context is the one who does not understand how the self exists and a life force is the one with a life force. The one who is born is the one who experiences the sufferings of birth, sickness, old age, and death, and the one who nourishes is the one who nourishes or cultivates positive or negative karma.

The Cognitive Sources

The cognitive sources as objects of focus with knowledge are the eighteen cognitive sources when focused on while knowing the causal conditions (rgyu’i rkyen) by which they arise from their tendencies (sa-bon, seeds, latencies). Focus on the cognitive sources with knowledge is especially for those bewildered about causes (rgyu).

According to Vasubandhu’s Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa’i mdzod, Skt. Abhidharmakosha), the causal conditions refer to five of the six types of causes:

  • Simultaneously arising causes (lhan-cig ‘byung-ba’i rgyu) are contemporaneous with the result and do not impede it, for example the four constituent elements (earth, water, fire, and wind) out of which sights, smells, tastes, and physical sensations are made.
  • Equal state causes (skal-mnyam-gyi rgyu) are causes that produce something in the same category as themselves. Examples include a previous moment of a vase that produces the next moment of its continuity having the same conventional identity, and a constructive cause that produces a constructive result.
  • Congruent causes (mtshungs-ldan-gyi rgyu) are causes that share five congruent features with the result. This pertains only to the subsidiary awarenesses that accompany and thus are simultaneous with a primary consciousness.
  • Driving causes (kun-‘gro’i rgyu) are causes that precede disturbing emotions and attitudes. They refer to previous moments of disturbing emotions and attitudes – although not necessarily the same ones as they cause – that lead to later moments of disturbing emotion or attitude in the same plane of existence (khams, realm).
  • Ripening causes (rnam-smin-gyi rgyu) are causes that ripen into their result. They refer to constructive and destructive actions tainted with unawareness (zag-bcas), which give rise to samsaric happiness and unhappiness (suffering).

[See: Congruent and Noncongruent Affecting Variables.]

According to Asanga’s Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge, causal conditions also include the sixth type of cause:

  • Acting causes (byed-rgyu) are causes that do not impede the production of the result; they include everything other than the result. Thus, the acting cause of the sight of a recently purchased vase is not only the person who made the vase. Additional acting causes include the person who sold it, the person who dug its clay from the earth, and so on, as well as space, light, and the table on which the vase rests.

[See: Causes, Conditions, and Results.]

The Cognitive Stimulators

The cognitive stimulators as objects of focus with knowledge are the twelve cognitive stimulators when focused on while knowing that

  • the six inner ones (the cognitive sensors) are the dominating conditions (bdag-rkyen) of the six types of primary consciousness,
  • the six outer ones (the cognitive objects) are their focal conditions (dmigs-rkyen),
  • the primary consciousness of the immediately preceding moment that has just ceased is their immediately preceding condition (de-ma-thag rkyen).

Focus on the cognitive stimulators with knowledge is especially for those bewildered about conditions (conditions).

Dependently Arising Phenomena

Dependently arising phenomena as objects of focus with knowledge are the twelve links of dependent arising – unawareness, affecting variables, and so on – when focused on while knowing that they are nonstatic, suffering, and lacking a truly existent self. Focus on the dependently arising phenomena with knowledge is especially for those who are confused about what is nonstatic, what is suffering, and what lacks a truly existent self.

[See: The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising.]

What is Appropriate and Inappropriate

What is appropriate and inappropriate as objects of focus with knowledge are also the twelve links of dependent arising. Here, however, it is when they are focused on while knowing, for instance, that pleasant contacting awareness is something appropriate to have ripened from a constructive action and inappropriate to have ripened from a destructive action. It entails not simply knowing this in general, but knowing it in terms of specific karmic causes for specific results. Thus, what is appropriate and inappropriate is a subcategory of dependently arising phenomena as objects of focus with knowledge. Focus on them is therefore also for those who are confused about what is nonstatic, what is suffering, and what lacks a truly existent self.

Objects of Focus for Cleansing Oneself of Disturbing Emotions and Attitudes

Objects of focus for cleansing oneself of disturbing emotions and attitudes are for cleansing oneself of all of them together, not just specific ones. There are two types:

  • objects of focus for merely weakening the tendencies (seeds) of the disturbing emotions and attitudes (nyon-mongs-kyi sa-bon nyams-smod-par byed-pa tsam),
  • objects of focus for ridding oneself of the disturbing emotions and attitudes from their roots (nyon-mongs-kyi sa-bon rtsad-nas spong-ba).

Objects of focus for merely weakening the tendencies (seeds) of the disturbing emotions and attitudes are the various planes and rebirth states of samsara when focused on in terms of lower ones being coarse and higher ones being peaceful. This refers to the various rebirth states of the three planes of samsaric existence: the plane of sensory desires (‘dod-khams, desire realm), the plane of ethereal forms (gzugs-khams, form realm), and the plane of formless beings (gzugs-med khams, formless realm). Focus on them is especially for those who wish to be free of the longing desire and attachment of a rebirth state in one of these planes of existence. They wish to gain such freedom by reaching the peacefulness of a higher rebirth state in which that coarser level of desire and attachment is temporarily pacified.

Objects of focus for ridding oneself of the disturbing emotions and attitudes from their roots are the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths – such as true suffering is nonstatic, miserable, and so on. Focus on them is especially for those who wish to become disgusted with all transitory networks of aggregates (‘jig-tshogs) – in other words, the aggregates of all rebirth states – and who wish to gain total liberation from them.

[See: The Sixteen Aspects and Sixteen Distorted Ways of Embraciung the Four Noble Truths.]

Objects of Focus According to Kamalashila

In The Middle Presentation of the Stages of Meditation (sGom-rim bar-pa, Skt. Bhavanakrama), Kamalashila explained three types of objects of focus for meditation:

  • The contents of the twelve categories of scriptural teachings (gsung-rab yan-lag bcu-gnyis), the meanings of which one has understood well. One focuses on all twelve as being summarized in the facts that they lead to voidness, will lead to voidness, and have led to voidness.
  • Classification schemes as including the items in their categories, having gathered the items in stages into each of the categories, one by one (for example, the five aggregates). One focuses on the schemes as including all affected phenomena.
  • Mental derivatives (visualizations) of Buddhas that one has seen, or has heard or read about.