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Taming, Training, and Karma

July 17, 2012

This blog is meant to be a guide to shamatha/vipashyana meditation. Shamatha (Pali samatha, Tibetan shine) can be translated as “peaceful abiding” and vipashyana (Pali vipassanā, Tibetan lhaktong) can be translated as “insight.”  So we could say that shamatha/vipashyana meditation helps us learn to sit calmly and peacefully in any situation, and it also helps us develop the wisdom through which we may come to understand our situation and skillfully work to transform it. The Bad Lama teaches that shamatha/vipashyana meditation includes two aspects: taming the mind and training the mind. Roughly speaking, we can say that the meditation techniques of shamatha lead to a tamed mind and the meditation techniques of vipashyana lead to a trained mind.

Taming calms the mind down, soothes its irritation and helps it become less wild. Especially when we first learn to sit, we may be unsettled by the wild antics of our monkey mind. But over time, we can learn to sit comfortably as the monkey mind displays its antics and then calms down (and then displays its antics again!) Taming the mind doesn’t mean ‘checking out’ or being indifferent to our experience.  When we train our mind, we help it recover its natural state of wakefulness and relaxation. A mind that’s well tamed is alert and interested, not sleepy and bored.

A mind that is tamed is also willing to be trained. Training the mind helps it develop (or uncover) wisdom and compassion.  When we train in some way – whether it’s lifting weights or memorizing vocabulary, we generally assume that it will lead to some desired outcome.  Training relies on cause and effect. In the Buddhist tradition, the working of cause and effect is explored in the teachings on karma.

Many of us have misconceptions about what the term karma means. We often use the term to mean something like “fate.” Our karma seems completely out of our control. But karma literally means action.  The Buddhist teachings on karma describe the way in which actions lead to results. The situation in which we find ourselves today is the result of past actions —  past karma – not only our own actions, but also actions of others.  This past karma is an inheritance of many different kinds of actions:  biological actions of our predecessors that gave us our genetic inheritance; cultural and historical actions that created the society in which we find ourselves; actions of our parents and relatives that created our family; and our own actions. All of these past actions – all this past karma — culminate in our experience of the current moment.

The Buddhist teachings on karma insist that we did not come to be who we are at this moment randomly; past actions and events brought us here. It is true that we have no control over these past actions – they are, after all, done and gone. It’s also true that these past actions have influence over what we experience next. But karma does not mean “fate.” We also have some degree of choice over how we respond to our experience. The action we choose to take in this moment becomes a new cause that has influence over future effects. Our experience of this moment is the fruition of past karma.  What we choose to do in this moment – the karma that we undertake right now — plants the seeds for our future experience.

The teachings on karma go together with teachings on change or impermanence. As individuals we are always changing, and that change follows the laws of cause and effect. Karma really asserts a very commonsense proposition: what we do with our mind and body and environment changes our mind and body and environment.

This can feel daunting.  Karma is like rust: it never sleeps. We’re always undertaking some action or other, so we’re always generating new karma.  Maybe we’ll be generating bad karma! Maybe we’ll be making our future worse! As the Bad Lama says, “Don’t worry about making a mistake.  Don’t make mistakes, but don’t worry about making them.” Worrying is an action (an action of mind) that has negative effects on our mind as well as our body. As with other actions, we have some degree of choice: we can put more time and effort into worrying or less time and effort into worrying.  The more time and effort we put into worrying, the better we get at it. If we practice worrying diligently, we could develop the ability to worry about things that others never dreamed of!

Don’t worry, be happy. The teachings on karma and impermanence can also be seen in a hopeful light. No situation is permanent; every situation is changing (even if that change is very gradual.) Therefore, in any situation, we can always make a change for the better.  Every little bit helps.  So even if you have neglected your meditation practice, you can still do just a little bit, right now, and that little bit counts.  It will have some beneficial effect.

Taming is, in a way, the reverse of training – it’s untraining! In order to sit peacefully and let our monkey mind rest we have to let go of the habitual patterns of thought and action that keep us stirred up. When we finally let those patterns dissipate, we may get a glimpse of our own natural wisdom.  In other words, the practice of shamatha may lead us to the experience of vipashyana. (Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche makes this point in his book Journey without Goal).  When we develop our wisdom through the practice of vipashyana, we begin to see more clearly the nature of our current situation. When we clear up our misperceptions about our situation, the fear that accompanies those misperceptions also clears up, and our mind becomes calmer. The practice of vipashyana may lead us to the experience of shamatha! (The Heart Sutra, describing very adept practitioners says: “Since there is no obscuration of mind [i.e. since their minds see completely clearly] there is no fear.”)

Rather than understanding shamatha and vipashyana as two completely separate types of meditation techniques, we can see them as two aspects of an awakened mind: shamatha cultivates the mind’s natural ability to rest peacefully and the vipashyana cultivates the mind’s natural ability to see clearly. When we reach a fully matured practice of shamatha/vipashyana we rest peacefully in the experience of that which we see clearly.

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