Making the mind behave

The Dalai Lama, The Buddhist Channel, October 23, 2008

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- What do we understand by meditation? From the Buddhist point of view, meditation is a spiritual discipline, and one that allows you to have some degree of control over your thoughts and emotions.

Buddhism explains that our normal state of mind is such that our thoughts and emotions are wild and unruly, and since we lack the mental discipline needed to tame them, we are powerless to control them. As a result, they control us. And thoughts and emotions, in their turn, tend to be controlled by our negative impulses rather than our positive ones. We need to reverse this cycle, so that our thoughts and emotions are freed from their subservience to negative impulses.

The idea of bringing about such a fundamental change in ourselves may at first seem impossible, yet it is actually possible to do this through a process of discipline such as meditation. We choose a particular object, and then we train our minds by developing our ability to remain focused on the object. Normally, if we just take a moment to reflect, we will see that our mind is not focused at all. Our thoughts are constantly chasing after this and that because we don’t have the discipline of having a focus. So, through meditation, we can achieve the ability to focus our attention at will on any object.

Now of course, we could choose to focus on a negative object in our meditation. But this is not what meditation is for. From a Buddhist point of view, meditation has to be practiced in relation to a positive object, by which we mean an object that will enhance your ability to focus. Through that familiarity you become closer to the object. In classical Buddhist literature this meditation is described as shamatha, single-pointed meditation.

Shamatha alone is not sufficient. In Buddhism, we combine single-pointed meditation with the practice of analytic meditation, which is known as vipasyana, penetrative insight. In this practice we apply reasoning. By recognising the strengths and weaknesses of different types of emotions and thoughts, we are able to enhance our positive states of mind which contribute towards a sense of serenity, tranquillity, and contentment. Reasoning thus plays a helpful part in this process.

I should point out that the two types of meditative approach I have outlined are not distinguished on the grounds that they each rely on a different type of object. The difference between them lies in the way each is applied. In ancient India, the practice of single-pointed meditation and the application of analytic meditation were common to all the major religious traditions, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist.