His Eminence the Third Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche,
Karma Lodrö Chökyi Senge

A Brief Teaching on Calm Abiding Meditation

This transcript is humbly dedicated to
His Holiness the XVIIth Gyalwa Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje,
His Eminence the IVth Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, Lodrö Chökyi Nyima,
to all our Spiritual Masters, and to the preservation & propagation of the Buddhadharma,
especially of the Karma Kagyü Lineage.


The topic for this seminar is calm abiding meditation practice. The Buddha presented innumerable teachings and said that they principally deal with how to train and tame the mind. One does this by giving up negative conduct and by engaging in beneficial physical and verbal activities. The main purpose of the Buddhadharma is training and disciplining one's own mind. How does this apply to us?

We have received the instructions on how confusion arises and know that the three realms of conditioned existence are determined by confusion, which inevitably brings with it problems of all kinds. We know it is possible to attain freedom from suffering, nirvana, which is characterized by peace and joy. Samsara and nirvana are diametric states of suffering and bliss and are discussed to clarify the situation. Their actual difference, though, depends upon whether a practitioner has tamed his or her own mind or not. It is evident that distinguishing both aspects of being - samsara and nirvana - is carried out in order to motivate and encourage students to engage in the practices of mind training so that they tame their mind and consequently experience ultimate and non-differentiate bliss. 'Non-differentiate' refers to the fact that neither samsara nor nirvana are other than one's own mind.

Buddha Shakyamuni turned the Wheel of Dharma three times. At the first turning of the Dharmachakra, he taught the Four Noble Truths; at the second turning he showed the truth of no characteristics, and at the third turning he perfectly delineated the way all things are and appear. During the third turning, he taught that all sentient beings are endowed with the Buddha nature.

One is only confused and experiences suffering of conditioned existence, samsara, because one doesn't realize one's inherent, true nature. How can this be? One has failed to realize the true nature of reality, which is lack of inherent existence, and thus ideates the apprehending subject and calls it "self." Furthermore, having failed to realize the lucid nature of all apprehended objects, one ideates appearances one experiences as separate from the self and calls them "other." One divides subject and objects - the self from other - and remains bound by ignorance as to the true nature of all things. This ignorance gives rise to the dualistic concepts that one has relating to attraction and attachment for things that one thinks are pleasant and aversion and rejection of things that one thinks are unpleasant, which engender all other disturbing emotions that govern one's life. The disturbing emotions cause one to engage in wholesome or unwholesome activities that become mental patterns stored in one's ground consciousness and thus obscure one's true nature. Due to the mental obstructions that conceal one's true nature, one incessantly wanders in samsara and experiences pain and suffering; this is one's present state. One's activities do not only determine one's future experiences due to the infallible law of cause and effect, karma, but they also cause one's experiences to become habitual patterns that estrange one from one's true nature and lead one to perpetuate further confusion.

The true nature of reality is described as the two truths - the relative and ultimate truths, which are inseparable, i.e., samsara and nirvana are indivisible. One experiences relative reality but doesn't recognize that all appearances are in truth devoid or empty of inherent existence. One apprehends relative reality and clings to characteristics of appearances that one apprehends as true. One doesn't realize that ultimately all things are devoid of inherent existence and falls into extreme views, either believing that things exist as independent and permanent entities or believing ultimately nothing exists at all. Due to clinging from a subjective vantage point, one seeks happiness and does everything to avoid pain, which doesn't accord with the true nature of phenomena and experiences. One doesn't realize that all things are inseparable with one's mind and thinks the world is responsible for any suffering or happiness one goes through. Having failed to realize that it is only one's mind that experiences suffering and joy and thus turning one's attention outward to live up to one's never-ending expectations, one repeats and intensifies one's suffering and woe. By incessantly seeking pleasure and struggling against suffering and pain, one remains controlled by conditionality, which is samsara, the state of misery.

One is subject to experience conditioned existence due to one's disturbing emotions brought on by the three main root afflictions, which are ignorance, attachment, and aversion. The Buddha taught the Three Dharmachakras so that disciples overcome the root afflictions. The first cycle of teachings is the initial description of relative experiences, formulated in the Four Noble Truths, which are the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, and the truth of the path leading to cessation of suffering. The second cycle of teachings is an explanation of ultimate reality and elucidates that all things are empty of inherent existence. In the third cycle of teachings, the Buddha spoke of the fact that all living beings without exception are endowed with Buddha nature. As said, all teachings that the Buddha presented are to help practitioners unravel their confusion about the true nature of phenomena so that they can overcome the ensuing afflictive emotions that become habitual patterns obstructing realization of mind's true nature, thus determining how one leads and experiences one's life.

It is necessary to take physical and verbal conduct into consideration when training and taming one's mind. Generating Bodhicitta, 'the mind of awakening,' is the best means to train and tame one's mind. Vajrayana teaches meditation on deities so that practitioners transform impure apperceptions into a pure vision of themselves and the world. As a result, disturbing emotions lose their control over one. Lord Buddha's teachings help practitioners relinquish their confusion that brings on suffering and show how to train one's mind. Confusion cannot be understood other than through the Buddha's instructions that have been handed down to us by the masters without interruption. Lord Buddha taught innumerable methods and means to train one's mind. A disciple needs a basis in order to practice the path of mental refinement, which is calm abiding meditation, shamata in Sanskrit, shi-gnäs in Tibetan. As it is, one's mind can only abide in concentration for a fraction of a second due to the many distractions. The disturbing emotions arising from the many distractions impede calm abiding. Shamata is the basis for maturing spiritually and is therefore of utter significance. Wisdom of perfect insight can only evolve from a calm mind and it is only wisdom gained from special insight that irrevocably eliminates the last traces of disturbing emotions. An intellectual appreciation and acknowledgement that it is possible to transform one's impure vision into a pure vision will not do. Tranquillity is non-discursive and engenders awareness. Without awareness, distracting thoughts cause one to lead one's life in an unsatisfactory way. Lacking control over one's mind, one blindly reacts to the habitual patterns of thoughts that keep one bound in samsara.

A Brief Teaching on Calm Abiding Meditation

Why does one practice calm abiding meditation? To develop awareness. As it is, one thinks one is concentrated, but in truth one's mind is bewildered on account of the many distractions and as a result one has no control and loses oneself to these distractions. So it is necessary to learn to control one's mind. Abiding in mental calm is carried out in order to attain concentrative awareness, which I will explain briefly.

When one isn't aware and is overwhelmed by distracting thoughts, they cause one to lead one's life in an unsatisfactory way. Usually, one has a sensation. As a result, thoughts arise about them and one follows after these thoughts. Living one's life by following after thoughts is lack of awareness. Unconsciously leading one's life based on thoughts that arise due to feelings that one has is a process one isn't aware of. Thoughts arise from habitual patterns one has accumulated and that are stored in one's ground consciousness as positive or negative imprints. When causes and conditions come together, one experiences one's habitual patterns and reacts based on them. Blindly reacting in reliance on one's habits keeps one in bondage, which is what having no control over one's mind means. A practitioner engages in calm abiding meditation again and again in order to become accustomed to having control by focusing his or her attention on a specific object.

The first of the phases of awareness one can gain by practicing calm abiding meditation is focusing one's attention on a specific object. The second phase is holding one's mind on that object without giving in to distractions. If thoughts arise and one loses the referential object, one is aware that one is distracted and returns to the object one initially focused one's attention on. These are the two kinds of awareness that one develops by practicing calm abiding. Staying mindful of one's thoughts and returning to one's practice enhances one's concentrative awareness in daily life too. A successful practitioner becomes mindful in all activities and notices his or her own attitude and behaviour. Maintaining awareness in all situations is important because one is then able to act more fairly and openly. This is the reason why calm abiding meditation is said to be the basis or root for all other practices.

There are different ways of developing calm abiding - there are coarse and subtle practices, there is tranquillity practice with a support or referential object and without a support.

Focusing one's attention on an outer object is the initial stage of calm abiding practice. It can be a pure object such as a Buddha statue or seed syllable. One focuses one's attention on the chosen object and rests one's mind on it without giving in to disturbing thoughts that occur.

It is important to avoid two errors while practicing. They are fostering expectations and giving in to fear. Expectations are hoping to attain a reward. For example, many people think that they are doing something exceptional when they first start meditating and become very anxious, which causes tension. Fear means being frustrated that one's expectations aren't fulfilled and happens when one pushes oneself too hard, thus feeling uptight. A beginning practitioner needs to be free of both faults that arise and, instead, should be calm and relaxed while meditating.

Another referential object one can focus one's attention on is one's breath. One inhales and exhales thousands of times every day but isn't aware of ones breathing due to excitement. Focusing one's attention on one's ingoing and outgoing breath while practicing calm abiding is another method to calm one's mind. In the practice, one easefully rests one's mind on one's inhalation and exhalation without giving in to distractions.

If one tries to meditate and doesn't know how, then various thoughts arise and one reacts to them delusively. When thoughts arise, it's important not to stop and not to follow after them but to apply the two kinds of awareness, which are being aware of thoughts that arise and returning to the referential object of one's practice. In short, calm abiding meditation practice is placing one's mind on an object, noticing thoughts that arise, and returning to the referential object one chose for one's practice without suppressing or chasing after thoughts. As one progresses, less and less thoughts will arise. Eventually, an advanced practitioner can naturally focus his or her attention on any object without difficulties. The concentrative awareness one develops through this practice becomes a part of one's life and then one is able to be attentive at all times. As it is, one is very distracted, but by developing and cultivating both kinds of awareness through engaging in calm abiding practice again and again and regularly, one is more conscientious during all activities. The result of practice is called "mental subtleness" or "control."

After one's mind has become stable through resting one's mind on a referential object, one meditates without a support. For instance, one visualizes and meditates a yidam deity of Vajrayana.

Summary & Conclusion

Due to not knowing how things are and how they appear, one is deluded and consequently is bound by the three root afflictions that drive one to experience the inadequacies of conditioned existence, samsara. Abiding in a state of mental calm and evenness doesn't imply that one has suppressed or washed away one's disturbing emotions. All appearances are a manifestation of one's mind. One accomplishes calm abiding by recognizing and becoming aware of what appears to one's mind. Realizing awareness, a practitioner is no longer controlled by his or her afflictive emotions but is able to control them. Advanced teachings enable one to transform disturbing emotions into perfect wisdom-awareness. In order to realize the pure nature of all apperceptions, one needs to be able to recognize and be aware of thoughts when they arise.

Bodhicitta, 'the mind of awakening,' is cultivated in the Great Vehicle of Mahayana and followers engage in practices such as exchanging self for others. These practices enhance calm abiding, denote being aware of thoughts that occur, and enable one to see that one's afflictive emotions, such as anger, diminish. Love and compassion relinquish one's destructive emotions. When one is able to control one's emotions, then one is able to ascertain their true nature and recognize them as expressions of wisdom. This is why it is taught that calm abiding meditation practice is of utmost importance while engaging in the path of mental refinement and spiritual maturity.

I sincerely request that you meditate according to these instructions, focus your attention on your ingoing and outgoing breath, and are aware of thoughts without being distracted by them. You notice that thoughts arise and cease while holding your attention on your breathing and not suppressing or following after them. If you have any questions, please ask.

Questions & Answers

Question:"How does awareness arise from merely focusing one's attention on an object?"
Rinpoche: On the one side, one concentrates on one's breathing. Awareness becomes stronger by continuously remembering the referential object. Then one needs to notice thoughts as they arise, which is a second kind of awareness.

Next question:"Isn't concentrating on an object also a thought?"
Rinpoche: Yes, but one is aware of it during practice. An advanced practitioner of calm abiding doesn't even notice outer distractions, not even if touched by someone. In the beginning, one hears sounds and it is good not to be distracted by them.

Next question:"Why is posture so important in meditation practice?"
Rinpoche: One's posture is important because the mind abides in the body. Perfect calm abiding is only achieved with a perfect posture. There are seven points to be taken into consideration, the most important being a straight back. The seven points of posture straighten the inner channels in one's body and the winds that flow through them. Mind is pacified and doesn't experience agitation or torpor. A bad posture affects one's mind.

Next question:"What is the difference between focusing one's attention on one's breathing and on an object?"
Rinpoche: One's visual consciousness is united with one's mental consciousness. The visual consciousness responds to the glass on the table, for example, by means of one's visual sense faculty. The visual sense faulty does not apprehend the perceived object as a glass, but the mind does. The breath is not a visual object of perception. Here, too, it is the mental consciousness that focuses on the breathing, so it is the referential object for concentrative awareness. Thank you very much.

jamgonyangsi karmapa

Through this goodness may omniscience be attained

And thereby may every enemy (mental defilement) be overcome.

May beings be liberated from the ocean of samsara

That is troubled by waves of birth, old age, sickness, and death.

By this virtue may I quickly attain the state of Guru Buddha and then

Lead every being without exception to that very state!

May precious and supreme Bodhicitta that has not been generated now be so

And may precious Bodhicitta that has already been never decline, but continuously increase!

Long Life Prayer for His Holiness the XVIIth Gyalwa Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje,
and for His Eminence the IVth Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, Lodrö Chökyi Nyima

May the life of the Glorious Lama remain steadfast and firm.
May peace and happiness fully arise for beings as limitless in number as space is vast in extent.
Having accumulated merit and purified negativities,
May I and all living beings without exception swiftly establish the levels and grounds of Buddhahood.

Photo of His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche the IVth below the mural of Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche the IIIrd taken at Pullahari Monastery in 2004 & photo of His Holiness the XVIIth Gyalwa Karmapa and the IVth Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche taken in 2009 courtesy of Lee from Puli-Nantou. Instructions presented at Karma Chöling, Frankfurt in 1987. Translated into English in reliance on the German rendering of the Tibetan offered by Christoph Klonck in 1988, edited & arranged again for the website of Karma Chang Chub Choephel Ling in Heidelberg and Karma Lekshey Ling Institute in Nepal in 2009 by Gabriele Hollmann, apologizing for any mistakes. Copyright Jamgon Kongtrul Labrang at the Great Monastery of Pullahari in Nepal, 2009. All rights reserved.