“You should reach your goal with no more effort than the wind needs to scatter a handful of dust into the air.” – Buddha
Meditation is not supposed to require a tremendous amount of effort. What takes effort is getting orientated—mustering up the diligence to practice for oneself and all beings, and finding the meditation and teaching that suits you. This can take a lot of effort. But when you find the method and teachings that are right for you, you’ll know. But you won’t know unless you study and experiment.
It’s unwise, I think, to just settle with something from the get-go. This happens a lot in Zen because a lot of teachers are trained to be like broken records. They have this practice, these teachings, and that’s it, and if you can’t get on board, then you’re asked to leave.
This isn’t their fault, though. If someone only sticks with one method and one view, then they’re going to learn all the subtleties involved. You know that they know what they’re talking about because it’s the only thing they know, they’re able to dedicate all of their energy to it. But, it doesn’t do much to help fulfill the first Bodhisattva Vow: “To save all beings though beings are numberless.” Different people require different paths and methods.
I’ve met a lot of people who really struggle with shikantaza, but they do it because that’s what their teacher does, that’s what that Sangha practices. I’ve met people who concentrate on the breath but who just can’t seem to keep their attention on it for long, even after practicing for months or years.
The Surangama Sutra gives us 25 different methods to try, and the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment offers three different paths to follow. When the method and the path are in tune, then practice is swift, smooth, and a lot of fun. I kinda whittled down the methods to 17, combining a few that are related and omitting ones that are too esoteric for me to help anyone with.
The methods are awareness of:
Solids, Liquids, Energy, Motion, Space, Consciousness
Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, Touching, Cognition
The Inexhaustible Lamp
The three paths are:
Tranquility (Samatha), Wisdom (Samapatti/Vipassana), & the Middle Way (Dhyana)
The paths aren’t mutually exclusive. You can practice one, two, or all three. They can be practiced in any sequence or all of them at once.
Samatha involves concentrating on your meditation object until your mind is free of all movement, until the world seems to drift away into perfect, silent clarity. Vipassana means investigating your meditation object and understanding that when we experience it as an isolated, stagnant thing that exists apart from the mind then we’re experiencing an illusion. Dhyana is a state of mind beyond both tranquility and insight. There’s no perception of there being a mind to calm, no illusion to investigate and see through, no ignorance to abandon and no enlightenment to attain.
Samatha goes well with the early teachings like the Four Noble Truths with an emphasis on impermanence. Vipassana molds perfectly with the imagination-only/ mind-only teachings. The Buddha-nature and emptiness teachings are at home in Dhyana.
Samatha can be practiced with just our own benefit in mind; Vipassana and Dhyana need to be practiced with the well-being and Awakening of all beings in mind. Vipassana can also be practiced anywhere. It’s always possible to be mindful of the fact that we’re hallucinating and confused.
Samatha fills us with satisfaction. Since we feel satisfied for no apparent reason, we’re less like to go out looking for a reason—less likely to grasp onto things in an effort to squeeze all the pleasantness out of them. Vipassana loosens grasping because the things we’re grasping don’t really exist as they appear, and neither does the satisfaction they bring. Dhyana makes us go, “What grasping?” turning over the mind so that emptiness and Buddha-nature can rub its belly.
Zen emphasizes Dhyana, but all three paths are involved (or at least have been at some point in Zen’s history). Most Zen meditations take space, cognition, or emptiness as their object, but all of these focal objects have been used before by some teacher or another.
I recommend trying out all of the methods and paths available until you find the right fit. If you’re dedicated to the practice—and if the path and method suit you—then most of the obstacles we tend to encounter in practice will disappear in an instant.
Hope this post is informative, I’ll write more on the meditation objects later.