On Meditating: The Practice of Peace and Insight

By: Verne Kemerer

We are in a period of people seeking mindfulness, of becoming sensitive to our own and
others’ trauma, and expanding awareness and understanding of the implications of
neuroscience for mental wellness. Maybe because of this zeitgeist, I often hear people say,
“I really should meditate” or “I should meditate to calm down!”
Mindfulness, one attribute we can cultivate during meditation, is certainly a good reason to
meditate! Mindfulness can help us calm down, self-regulate, and become aware of stimuli
and our responses to them. This awareness may buy us a few extra seconds to choose
possibly a more constructive response rather than a reflexive one.
The first step in mindfulness is to concentrate on the breath, mindfully aware of how we
breathe. By doing so, even for just a few minutes a day or each week, we can drop out of the
matrix of space and time and cultivate our concentration and insight. When we train our
minds to concentrate, we can learn to integrate equanimity into our entire being. But
concentration alone will not get us very far. We also need insight.
When we train our minds to have insight, we can begin to recognize that the chatter of our
thoughts is simply the natural activity of an untrained mind, with no more enduring
substance than an ice cube sitting in the middle of the street under an early summer
midday sun.

We train ourselves to concentrate and have insight through meditation. Meditation is a
deceptively simple activity. We sit. We breathe. We do not move. Yet this simplicity is a
profound challenge – sitting stone still for extended periods, feeling frustration with the
boredom of concentrating solely on our breath, pain in the ankles, shins, thighs, or butt,
and watching the myriad array of thoughts, feelings, and sensations arise from deep wells
of joy and sorrow. But that is the point. How does our mind respond when faced with the
inconsequential suƯering of sitting still and paying attention to our mind when they loom so
large?
In the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, we are instructed to train our senses to be obedient and to
hold the reins of our mind as we would the reins of restive horses. Our physical senses
trigger two big feelings – aversion and grasping. We are averse to what feels, tastes, smells,
looks, or sounds bad and grasp after what our senses tell us is good. And these resistive
thoughts disrupt us, disturb our equanimity, and keep us wallowing in the squalor of our
own minds, unaware that we are even doing so.
This is where the Zen Buddhist teaching of “no good, no bad” comes into play in our
meditation practice. If we train our senses, within reason, to accept things simply as they
are and not as we would have them to be, the aversion and grasping that permeates every
other emotion begins to lessen. With the diminishing power of aversion and grasping, fewer
big emotions churn fewer thoughts.
There are two words in Sanskrit that are important as we define meditation – śamatha and
vipaśyanā.
Śamatha is any meditation that concentrates on one object, making the mind very calm
and stable. This is the basis of all meditations. Zen Master Dogen talks about thinking
beyond thinking. To reach beyond the conceptual, his only instruction is to simply
concentrate on our own breath. Śamatha can also help us see our mind as made up of the
skandas – form, sensation, identification, mental activity, and consciousness and helps
purify us of the kleśas – anger, craving, ignorance, pride, doubt, and aƯlicted view.
Recognizing our skandas and taming our kleśas leads us to the discernment of states of
mind in which peaceful śamatha is present and in which it is absent.
Śamatha is a training, a practice, in which the result is being well trained. Khenchen
Thrangu Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher in the Kagyü lineage, defines being well
trained as “…the mind and body are completely workable, and one has the one-pointed
level of mental stability of the desire realm.”
Mental stability in the desire realm? What does this mean? This is referring to a deep sense
of peace. However, this bliss has no more substance than a shadow. A shadow is definitely
real, but once the light shifts, it is gone, leaving no trace that it ever was. That realness is
like the phantom city described in the Threefold Lotus Sutra. Once we have arrived at this

city of bliss, we quickly realize there is not much more to it and see it for what it was –
something unreal, a temporary experience without substance.
But there is no need for disappointment or nihilism when we realize the bliss we were
pursuing was never actually there. Instead, we can recognize this phantom city for having
motivated us to this point of being well trained. And once well trained, we can experience
the phantom city in terms of the excitement of departure, the inspiration that arises when
we recognize our lives as a creative endeavor.
And this is where Vipaśyanā begins. Vipaśyanā, the other side of the meditation coin,
means contemplating and nurturing the insight that all phenomena are relative and the
capacity to clearly discern between the relative and Suchness.
Suchness, what a word! It is everywhere in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Master Kūkai, the founder
of Shingon (Japanese Esoteric Buddhism), describes Suchness as the all-inclusive reality,
the unconditional absolute. This definition resonates for me with the idea of Brahman or
Wahe Guru, that from which all phenomena emanate and to which all will ultimately return,
that which is within all things, outside of all things, and not one thing and still not two things
– the essence of non-duality.
A strong meditation practice is based on the union of śamatha and vipaśyanā, not actually
two things and still not one. They are unique to each other but not distinct from each other.
As śamatha develops to the point of cessation, during which all mental activity ceases,
vipaśyanā comes to the fore. Our mind is never not thinking. It is like a hyper-active and
playful monkey whose favorite toy is thoughts. Śamatha helps us settle the mud in the jar
of water to the bottom so that we can see clear water, but the mud is still there. But this
clarity is about seeing these thoughts, this mud, as nothing other than a manifestation of
the mind, something that is empty and without substance, like a shadow, or the phantom
city. This seeing, this observing is the essence of vipaśyanā practice.
Meditation is an opportunity to concentrate on our breath, allowing us to both observe and

contemplate, in a very non-conceptual manner, what arises and what dissipates in real-
time. Our breath is the vehicle for both concentration and contemplation. There is no

prescription. There is only awareness of moment to moment, the rise and fall of the breath,
and maybe the gentle tick of a clock in the hall we only notice during our meditation
practice. And we learn to carry on with our practice, whether we perceive the experience of
each individual meditation session as good or bad, building equanimity and insight that
enables us to move through the world with love and compassion.

Practice:
Sit comfortably, preferably on the floor in easy pose. Set your timer for 3, 6, 9, or 11
minutes. Less is more at the beginning. Rest your palms on your knees. Or, if you would like
to try the more formal posture, form the hokaijo-in mudra: Back of left hand resting on your
lap, back of right hand resting in palm of your left hand, then bring the thumbs to touch in
the center. The thumbs should be roughly parallel to the floor, neither pointing up, nor
drooping downward. Keep your eyes open enough so that there is light, but you cannot
really make out any image. Focus your gaze, your dṛiṣṭi, on the floor about 3 feet in front of
you.
Let your breath settle. When you have relaxed enough that the breath ebbs and flows with
your inhale and exhale naturally, begin counting your exhales: 1, 2, 3, 4…all the way to 10.
Thoughts will arise. But retain the focus on the counting and the quality of motion of the
breath beneath the count. If your mind does wander and you have lost your concentration,
gently return to 1. And most importantly, try not to move, shift, scratch, or fidget in any way.
The form is the practice.
References:
Aitken, Robert (1982). Taking the path of Zen. San Francisco (USA): North Point Press. ISBN:
0-86547-080-4.
Hakeda, Yoshito (ed.) (1972). Kūkai: Major works. New York (USA): Columbia University
Press. ISBN: 0-231-05933-7.
Katō, Bunnō, Tamura, Yoshirō, and Miyasaka, Kōjirō (trans.) (1978), The Threefold lotus
sutra: Innumerable meanings, the lotus flower of the wonderful law, and meditation on the
Bodhisattva Universal Virtue. New York (USA): Weatherhill and Tokyo (Japan): Kosei. ISBN:
0-8348-0106-x.
Niwano, Nikkyo (1998). A guide to the Threefold Lotus Sutra. Tokyo (Japan): Kosei
Publishing Company. ISBN: 4-333-01025-x.
Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli and Moore, Charles (1957). Śvetāśvatara upaniṣad in A
sourcebook in Indian philosophy. Princeton (USA): Princeton University Press. ISBN: 978-0-
691-01958-1.
Tanahashi, Kazuaki (ed.) (2004). Beyond thinking: A guide to Zen meditation. Boston (USA)
& London (UK): Shambala. ISBN: 1-59030-024-6.
Thrangu Rinpoche, Khenchen (1993). The practice of tranquility and insight: A guide to
Tibetan Buddhist meditation. Boulder (USA): Snow Lion. ISBN: 978-1-55939-106-1.