How important is shamatha, and practices before shamatha

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Boomerang
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How important is shamatha, and practices before shamatha

Post by Boomerang » Fri Sep 11, 2015 4:12 pm

My understanding is that traditionally, you need to master shamatha before you do most practices, such as secret mantras and tonglen, with ngondro being the only exception. But if a part of ngondro is Vajrasattva, how can you effectively do that if you haven't already mastered shamatha?

Have most people who do yidam practice and highest yoga tantra completed long shamatha retreats? It's supposed to take 6 months in retreat to master shamatha, isn't it?

Is there a definitive list of practices that are considered A-okay before one has done a shamatha retreat? Is it effective to do non-ngondro prostrations, like the 3 heaps sutra, before mastering shamatha?

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Paul
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Re: How important is shamatha, and practices before shamatha

Post by Paul » Fri Sep 11, 2015 4:19 pm

Boomerang wrote:My understanding is that traditionally, you need to master shamatha before you do most practices, such as secret mantras and tonglen, with ngondro being the only exception.
I'm not sure that's true. Plus creation stage is shamatha.

Not that shamatha is not 100% helpful.
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Re: How important is shamatha, and practices before shamatha

Post by Malcolm » Fri Sep 11, 2015 4:22 pm

Boomerang wrote:My understanding is that traditionally, you need to master shamatha before you do most practices, such as secret mantras and tonglen, with ngondro being the only exception. But if a part of ngondro is Vajrasattva, how can you effectively do that if you haven't already mastered shamatha?

Have most people who do yidam practice and highest yoga tantra completed long shamatha retreats? It's supposed to take 6 months in retreat to master shamatha, isn't it?

Is there a definitive list of practices that are considered A-okay before one has done a shamatha retreat? Is it effective to do non-ngondro prostrations, like the 3 heaps sutra, before mastering shamatha?
This is only one approach, very much based on the Lam Rim approach. It is not the only approach.

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Re: How important is shamatha, and practices before shamatha

Post by Boomerang » Fri Sep 11, 2015 4:28 pm

What are other approaches?

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Re: How important is shamatha, and practices before shamatha

Post by Malcolm » Fri Sep 11, 2015 4:33 pm

Boomerang wrote:What are other approaches?
As mentioned, mantra practice is considered to be one of the best methods of training in Shamatha.

It very much depends on your proclivities.

My advice is that you be like a bee and seek out a few different teachers and approaches before settling on one.

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Re: How important is shamatha, and practices before shamatha

Post by smcj » Fri Sep 11, 2015 4:35 pm

The last few sentences of Kongtrul's "Torch of Certainty" ends with the admonition to not rush headlong into shamatha. I think the idea there is that shamatha requires a virtuous mind in order to most effectively accomplish it. The NgonDro will should give you enough positive energy (merit) to do so.

Making a resolve to cease the worst of your own negative actions helps shamatha also, hence the Vinaya. Plus focusing you mind on Vajrasattva doesn't hurt your concentration at all... :bow:
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Re: How important is shamatha, and practices before shamatha

Post by passel » Fri Sep 11, 2015 6:00 pm

Boomerang-

I've spent a fair amount of time obsessing over this topic over the years, so I have some opinions on the matter. My hunch is that you are following Alan Wallace's advice on shamatha. He has a very particular read on the topic which is worth checking out, but also worth comparing to other presentations.

The six month figure I think he gets from the LamRim Chenmo, Bk3, but it's pretty arbitrary- as far as I know, very very few people are doing the long shamatha retreats he advises in the way he advises them, and I've also heard from another student of his that he says privately that for a busy western mind it would take 4 years in strict retreat (that's just hearsay, though). I do know of at least one student of his who spent several years in retreat; I'm not sure if she was only doing shamatha and I haven't asked her if she "attained shamatha" as he describes it. He insists on the importance of attaining shamatha but won't say if he's done it. So the message is go into strict retreat, for years if necessary, to do this practice that you should accomplish before any others, which you don't even know if is possible in the way he describes it. Meanwhile, he travels around teaching a variety of things. It's a bit of a mixed message.

He gets his read by pinning lines from commentaries together in a way that makes sense to him, but that both makes "the attainment of shamatha" a very distant goal and a completely necessary one before doing anything else. Particularly tying together the LamRim Chenmo and the Vissudhimagga. Other respectable teachers simply don't teach that way. Viva la diferance. I did a long shamatha retreat with him- 100 days, and it was really valuable, but I have found other approaches to shamatha, and to dharma practice as a whole to be better suited to me. I tend to think of shamatha as like a meta-skill that can enrich any other practice. Sometimes it's useful to practice on its own, other times it can be combined with other practices you do.

From memory, some other teachers on the subject:

Kalu R.- shamatha then ngondro, or vice versa, it's up to you
Trungpa R.- start with shamatha/vipashyana, then move into ngondro. It the ngondro gets overwhelming, do shamatha again for a while
Thrangu R.- start w/ shamatha, then do sessions of it periodically to keep your other practices sharp
Tsoknyi R.- start w/ shamatha, then pointing out; rigpa practice will then naturally vacillate between shamatha without support and rigpa, as rigpa gradually gains more strength
Ponlop R.- cultivate shamatha sometimes on the cushion, but also whenever you get the chance, situationally, on a variety of objects, like visual images while you are waiting. He also seems to describe the 9 stages of shamatha not as a progression but as a cluster of 9 approaches to its cultivation(!)
Traleg R.- shamatha will always be mixed w/ vipashyana. Not necessary to do two kinds of practices. Hints that shamatha alone is Gelug hairsplitting.
Dan Brown- the 9 stages can be accomplished on retreat in 3 or 4 days with close guidance
Tenzin Palmo- dzogchen can take shamatha as a basis or vajrayana as a basis, depending on one's resources and proclivities. both are legit.

Also worth noting that there is a lot of variation on what exactly shamatha even is, or how to practice it. Wallace for example, in teaching shamatha without a sign, says ignore all thought, feelings, body sense and just focus on the awareness of awareness. Tsoknyi R, in teaching the same practice (he calls it shamatha without support- they are both mikpa mepe shine) gives a much more relaxed approach, where all the senses are open and you are not particularly ignoring anything, just not getting involved with it.

There are also plenty of teachers who just don't emphasis formal shamatha at all. Personally, I like shamatha, do it all the time and feel like it gives me so much, but I try to see it as just one tool among many, and try to stay away from getting too invested in one single overarching view of how the path must unfold.
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Re: How important is shamatha, and practices before shamatha

Post by Boomerang » Fri Sep 11, 2015 6:47 pm

passel wrote:Boomerang-

I've spent a fair amount of time obsessing over this topic over the years, so I have some opinions on the matter. My hunch is that you are following Alan Wallace's advice on shamatha. He has a very particular read on the topic which is worth checking out, but also worth comparing to other presentations.

The six month figure I think he gets from the LamRim Chenmo, Bk3, but it's pretty arbitrary- as far as I know, very very few people are doing the long shamatha retreats he advises in the way he advises them, and I've also heard from another student of his that he says privately that for a busy western mind it would take 4 years in strict retreat (that's just hearsay, though). I do know of at least one student of his who spent several years in retreat; I'm not sure if she was only doing shamatha and I haven't asked her if she "attained shamatha" as he describes it. He insists on the importance of attaining shamatha but won't say if he's done it. So the message is go into strict retreat, for years if necessary, to do this practice that you should accomplish before any others, which you don't even know if is possible in the way he describes it. Meanwhile, he travels around teaching a variety of things. It's a bit of a mixed message.

He gets his read by pinning lines from commentaries together in a way that makes sense to him, but that both makes "the attainment of shamatha" a very distant goal and a completely necessary one before doing anything else. Particularly tying together the LamRim Chenmo and the Vissudhimagga. Other respectable teachers simply don't teach that way. Viva la diferance. I did a long shamatha retreat with him- 100 days, and it was really valuable, but I have found other approaches to shamatha, and to dharma practice as a whole to be better suited to me. I tend to think of shamatha as like a meta-skill that can enrich any other practice. Sometimes it's useful to practice on its own, other times it can be combined with other practices you do.

From memory, some other teachers on the subject:

Kalu R.- shamatha then ngondro, or vice versa, it's up to you
Trungpa R.- start with shamatha/vipashyana, then move into ngondro. It the ngondro gets overwhelming, do shamatha again for a while
Thrangu R.- start w/ shamatha, then do sessions of it periodically to keep your other practices sharp
Tsoknyi R.- start w/ shamatha, then pointing out; rigpa practice will then naturally vacillate between shamatha without support and rigpa, as rigpa gradually gains more strength
Ponlop R.- cultivate shamatha sometimes on the cushion, but also whenever you get the chance, situationally, on a variety of objects, like visual images while you are waiting. He also seems to describe the 9 stages of shamatha not as a progression but as a cluster of 9 approaches to its cultivation(!)
Traleg R.- shamatha will always be mixed w/ vipashyana. Not necessary to do two kinds of practices. Hints that shamatha alone is Gelug hairsplitting.
Dan Brown- the 9 stages can be accomplished on retreat in 3 or 4 days with close guidance
Tenzin Palmo- dzogchen can take shamatha as a basis or vajrayana as a basis, depending on one's resources and proclivities. both are legit.

Also worth noting that there is a lot of variation on what exactly shamatha even is, or how to practice it. Wallace for example, in teaching shamatha without a sign, says ignore all thought, feelings, body sense and just focus on the awareness of awareness. Tsoknyi R, in teaching the same practice (he calls it shamatha without support- they are both mikpa mepe shine) gives a much more relaxed approach, where all the senses are open and you are not particularly ignoring anything, just not getting involved with it.

There are also plenty of teachers who just don't emphasis formal shamatha at all. Personally, I like shamatha, do it all the time and feel like it gives me so much, but I try to see it as just one tool among many, and try to stay away from getting too invested in one single overarching view of how the path must unfold.
Thank you for all the information. Yes, I did get the idea that shamatha is of the highest importance from Alan Wallace. I'll try to take the advice of everyone in this thread and examine a variety of teaching styles before I commit to one thing.

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Re: How important is shamatha, and practices before shamatha

Post by passel » Fri Sep 11, 2015 7:00 pm

Just commit to your own depth and use whatever tools are available and of interest at any given time. Learn from your mistakes and don't take anything as final or definitive- there is always another side or layer to things. The dharma is a fiesta, enjoy!
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Re: How important is shamatha, and practices before shamatha

Post by Malcolm » Fri Sep 11, 2015 7:02 pm

Boomerang wrote:Wallace for example, in teaching shamatha without a sign, says ignore all thought, feelings, body sense and just focus on the awareness of awareness.
Thus is sūtra style. Very rigid, produces brittle wood, very dry, easy to break.

Tsoknyi R, in teaching the same practice (he calls it shamatha without support- they are both mikpa mepe shine) gives a much more relaxed approach, where all the senses are open and you are not particularly ignoring anything, just not getting involved with it.
This Dzogchen style. Very supple, produces flexible wood, very green, hard to break. In Dzogchen style śamatha you actually engage all six sense objects with your six senses, there is nothing to accept and nothing to reject, nothing to follow, nothing to ignore.

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Re: How important is shamatha, and practices before shamatha

Post by Arnoud » Fri Sep 11, 2015 7:12 pm

Malcolm wrote:
This Dzogchen style. Very supple, produces flexible wood, very green, hard to break. In Dzogchen style śamatha you actually engage all six sense objects with your six senses, there is nothing to accept and nothing to reject, nothing to follow, nothing to ignore.
Sounds very much like regular Trekchod, no?

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Re: How important is shamatha, and practices before shamatha

Post by Malcolm » Fri Sep 11, 2015 7:15 pm

Clarence wrote:
Malcolm wrote:
This Dzogchen style. Very supple, produces flexible wood, very green, hard to break. In Dzogchen style śamatha you actually engage all six sense objects with your six senses, there is nothing to accept and nothing to reject, nothing to follow, nothing to ignore.
Sounds very much like regular Trekchod, no?

A little, but really it has to do with the definition of one pointed. In sūtra style one pointedness, one is focusing one's mind on one point, in a very concentrated way, while ignoring everything else. Also in Dzogchen, sometimes we use this experience as well.

But there is also another meaning of one pointedness, meaning that all sense contact all their objects.

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Re: How important is shamatha, and practices before shamatha

Post by Arnoud » Fri Sep 11, 2015 7:16 pm

Okay. Thanks.

Anything in your book about the difference?

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Re: How important is shamatha, and practices before shamatha

Post by Malcolm » Fri Sep 11, 2015 7:23 pm

Clarence wrote:Okay. Thanks.

Anything in your book about the difference?
There is a brief discussion of śamatha and vipaśyāna in section on the method of practice, chapter eight, specifically in the transcendent state of the sugatas section.

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Re: How important is shamatha, and practices before shamatha

Post by Arnoud » Fri Sep 11, 2015 7:29 pm

Great. Thanks.

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Re: How important is shamatha, and practices before shamatha

Post by passel » Fri Sep 11, 2015 7:37 pm

Malcolm- re: sutra/ dzogchen style contrast.

This is pretty clear. Wallace has been somewhat hamstrung by the fact that his heart is in dzogchen but he's not exactly authorized to teach it (I think he probably holds strong loyalties to his Gelug training and to commentarial Theravada as well); Tsoknyi can teach what he wants. So Wallace has to toe the sutra line; ironic though that a lot of modern Soto and some Vipassana teachers teach an open practice that at least on paper looks just like Tsoknyi's presentation. They aren't tied to the commentaries and can just teach from their experience and interest. Sometimes I toy with the idea that every great innovation or sudden teaching just has to break out as a way to cut the accumulation of commentarial dross. If it's on the books it has to be maintained for the sake of tradition, but if you want to make it possible to practice, you need to trim the sails...
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Re: How important is shamatha, and practices before shamatha

Post by smcj » Fri Sep 11, 2015 7:58 pm

Wallace has been somewhat hamstrung by the fact that his heart is in dzogchen but he's not exactly authorized to teach it (I think he probably holds strong loyalties to his Gelug training and to commentarial Theravada as well)...
I'm not sure, but I thought he was authorized to teach Dzogchen. Gyaltrul R. is his teacher, and has been for many years. Given Wallace's lifelong project of collecting credentials (a B.S. in physics and a PhD. in Religious Studies) it would be completely out of character for him to be teaching the way he is without having been authorized. I could easily be wrong in regards to his authorization though. Even though Gyaltrul R. is one of my teachers the subject of Wallace's Dzogchen credentials has never come up.

In a very brief conversation I had with him (he doesn't know me and didn't want to talk) he seemed to have moved past his geshe/Gelug past. I was quoting back to him his explanation of the merits of the geshe program I had heard him say decades ago, and he referred me to his buddy's book "The Sound of Two Hands Clapping". He said his buddy, who had completed the program, was ultimately disappointed in it.
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Re: How important is shamatha, and practices before shamatha

Post by passel » Fri Sep 11, 2015 8:43 pm

smjc-

I think you are probably right; maybe more accurately, he was not copping to teaching any dzogchen at all on the retreat I did with him, though it was clearly where his heart lay. He was beginning then to teach Shamatha and Vipashyana from the Vajra Essence (Dudjom Lingpa pure vision text) at designated retreats for that. I think that endeavor has picked up a steam in the last several years, though most of his students seem to be outside the US (lots in Mexico). Youtube has a talk where he pretty much lays out his public presentation of Dzogchen. He has a thoroughly LamRim approach, following his understanding of Dudjom Lingpa. He does not seem to do pointing out (in the ngotro sense), though it seems like a lot of his students go to Tsoknyi for that.

Possibly the reason he was so meticulously sutra-based on the retreat I did was that it was a science project (the Shamatha Project) and he thought that approach would be easier to measure.

But maybe not- he did a lot of work to make terma teachings, from Lerab Ling and Dudjom Lingpa fit his rubric, even when the source material in his translation could be understood very differently, much more along the lines of how Tsoknyi and others teach. I think the bottom line is that he teaches in the way he feels appropriate and according to his understanding. If it works for you, have at it!
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Re: How important is shamatha, and practices before shamatha

Post by smcj » Fri Sep 11, 2015 9:00 pm

He does not seem to do pointing out...
I can't source it, but I remember seeing a video where he says he's been studying Dzogchen for 20 years and has never had the pointing out. I guess Gyaltrul R. is a little more stingy with that compared to ChNN.
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1.The problem isn’t ‘ignorance’. The problem is the mind you have right now. (H.H. Karmapa XVII @NYC 2/4/18)
2. I support Mingyur R and HHDL in their positions against lama abuse.
3. Student: Lama, I thought I might die but then I realized that the 3 Jewels would protect me.
Lama: Even If you had died the 3 Jewels would still have protected you. (DW post by Fortyeightvows)

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Re: How important is shamatha, and practices before shamatha

Post by BrianG » Fri Sep 11, 2015 9:27 pm

Boomerang wrote:My understanding is that traditionally, you need to master shamatha before you do most practices, such as secret mantras and tonglen, with ngondro being the only exception. But if a part of ngondro is Vajrasattva, how can you effectively do that if you haven't already mastered shamatha?
In my opinion, I believe that shamatha should be trained up to level 4 or 5 according Kamalaśīla's Stages of Meditation. Alan Wallace's "Attention Revolution", is the best book I've found on the subject. Following the breath, at level 4, once an acquired sign manifests( as smoke etc... ), that should be taken as the object of meditation instead of breath, and then stabilized.

So I don't believe it has to be "mastered" all the way to achieving shamatha, but I think it's very worthwhile to train it up to a moderate level, before practicing Secret Mantra.
Telepaths - I like to kill them

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