Some Q&A from correspondence with a friend.
What are the primary methods of practice you use and have found useful?
Basically, my method is exploration.
There is «the core» of the practice: I try to be constantly mindful of what is the proper intention for this moment (and also what is the intention of what I'm doing now).
The other side of this method is being mindful of the causes which define what I'm doing or what is happening.
I notice my reactions, for example, of anger. I try to realize what was the intention of that anger, could it be of good use. So I notice that anger helps to overcome psychological inertia. Anger helps to act, to get up from attachment, from laziness.
Then maybe I explore what is the use of attachment (or the reason for it), and I realize that there were some things which importance I didn't take into account properly. So the attachment was the way to bring something to my attention. Then I can meditatively think about that, and I find better ways of treating those important things.
Or I explore what is the meaning of laziness, and I realize that laziness comes from inner conflict — from oppositions, e.g. between my logical ideas and emotional readiness. Or there can be oppositions between different intentions I have.
As the result of such practices,
(1) I become aware of my intentions and arrange them in one non-conflicting tree (like tasks and sub-tasks).
(2) I see meanings of various particular details in my emotions, ideas, behavior and the like.
Instead of fighting against laziness, attachment, anger etc. — I accept them, and then
(1) I might redirect their energies in more harmonious ways;
(2) or I change the causes which caused those emotions, so that their generation stops.
For example, instead of viewing things in oppositions (like «this is good, that is bad»), which resulted in anger, I start to see the same things as «this is useful for that, under such and such conditions».
Or, «The causes of this behavior are…»
So instead of being jailed between walls of oppositions, with uncontrolled emotions, I see processes and flows of energy, which often can be re-organized.
Thus I can explore almost everything: emotions, behavioral strategies, ideas — and see their use; and see the processes which create and define them.
It helps to realize and tune everything in my life, and also to help others. Understanding intentions behind psychological phenomena gives flexibility for changing them. For example, we can replace some unhealthy pattern with something that manifests the same intention but has less drawbacks.
To summarize, the core of my practice is to observe what is going on (and how to improve it when necessary). Likewise, various practices have their particular «intentions», or purposes — they are useful for something, under some conditions. Being mindful of that shows how and when to use those practices, and how to combine them.
Also I use meditation and bodily practices — which help to have calm, clear mind, free from attachments. I found that flexible and relaxed body is a precondition for deep and clear understanding.
The Three highest trainings of Buddhism — insight, calmness and morality. For morality practice, I like Mahayana principles, such as Six paramitas (giving etc.). The practice of paramitas develop punna («merit», the energy of positive karma), which creates happiness and calm, clear mind.
I hope you can understand my descriptions. If something was not clear, do not hesitate to ask.
It sounds dynamic and changeable.
Indeed, this practice is dynamic and changeable. It's more like scientific process of exploration, where my own observations e.g. of feelings and interactions are not less important than Dharma texts. Almost every day I review things I have learned or noticed — making notes about my experiences, questions, intentions and conclusions.
Do you do much practice with jhana, pamojja-piti-passaddhi-sukha-samadhi or other methods to bring the mind to conditions for seeing clearly and then contemplate and observe as described, or is ardent observation and contemplation sufficient to create those conditions as a by-product?
Regarding samadhi, or developing tranquility:
Over 25 years ago, I started regular meditative practice by a variation of Huatou method.
Huatou (Japanese: wato) in Chinese means «head of speech». It's a kind of koan practice; you concentrate on the key question of koan, like «What is Wu?» or «Who is dragging this corpse around?» or «What was my face before my parents have met?»
Focusing like that, you try to perceive every moment as it is, before any verbal comments.
I.e., you focus on experiences which are «ahead of speech».
There are a bit different approaches to huatou practice; one is to focus on the question so deeply that the environment may gradually come out of focus. Practitioners may lose awareness of what's going on, falling into a kind of samadhi. Then, in «sudden explosion», that concentration falls away, and the practitioner awakes, opening to all the world as it is, «just this».
For example, a monk accidentally poured some hot tea on Xu Yun's hand; the cup fell on the floor and broke with a clear all-pervading sound. All intentional focusing have stopped, and Xu Yun suddenly discovered total clarity and emptiness in everything, right here. There were no burdens or delusions anymore.
My approach was more between huatou and another Chan method, Mozhao. (Mozhao — «silent illumination». There is similar Japanese method Shikantaza — «just sitting»).
In Mozhao, we practice the awareness of what is present, without focusing. As Master Sheng Yen describes it, we start with relaxation of the body. Then we do some breathing contemplation, in order to further calm down the body-&-mind energies, to deepen relaxation.
However, we keep the balance between relaxation and awareness; not going to dull relaxation (sleepy states); so we avoid practicing too much breathing contemplation or other techniques which could develop calmness at the price of awareness. We try to keep the awareness calm, but sharp.
We develop the awareness of the whole body, not focusing on particular parts. As the body gets very relaxed, sensations become quiet and subtle, and the awareness naturally expands into surrounding space. In our perception, the body unifies with the surroundings; the whole world is being perceived as our body. Then, as it becomes relaxed, quiet and subtle, we find «Mahayana samadhi». It's a kind of samadhi where we aren't consumed by any particular perception; we don't lose awareness of surroundings, as it might happen in other kinds of samadhi; we live and work in that Mahayana samadhi, remaining relaxed and without oppositions. Having reached samadhi, we let go of the samadhi. When there is no clinging to samadhi, it falls away just like everything else. Nothing specific remains. Just natural awareness, awakened perception, «just this». Non-abiding, flexibility of impermanence. No reliance on dualities and identifications.
Thus, Mozhao (Silent Illumination) comes to the same result as Huatou. Huatou is like explosion, Mozhao is like settling everything down to the bottom; both result in clarity, «non-existing» mind.
«Drop the mind, and there would be no deluded states of mind».
So, what was my method, at the beginning of my practice?
It was focusing like Huatou, but not on a particular question; rather it was focusing on my own inner passionate questioning: What is the deepest wish in my heart? How to go out from the world of delusions?, and the like.
Also, unlike classical Huatou, my method was about watching everything, awaiting for the answer. E.g. contemplating my body with a hint of curiosity, what answer will I get from this; contemplating my interactions with people, my reactions, their reactions etc. What answers I get, and how would that move me closer to the main answer.
So my variation of Huatou method was not to become focused inwardly on the question, going to focused samadhi; it was rather keeping awareness neither inside nor outside, but perceiving everything what appeared, with inquisitive attitude.
In classical Huatou, we develop «a mass of doubt sensation», which eventually explodes, cleaning-blowing everything away. In my method, I was not focusing so much on «the doubt sensation», but rather was developing some kind of non-verbal understanding. «What results in what. What is the meaning of what». And it felt more like grains of sand, one after another, were gathering into a whole picture, a mosaic, flying there and falling each at its place. And one day I saw the whole picture. I realized that the programs of self (which I was exploring) were futile. Happiness and liberation were impossible in those cooking pots of self. I realized that as very clearly proven.
It was not a theoretical knowledge, you know. Rather, seeing the field of experience as the whole picture, like you see that a square peg doesn't fit in a smaller round hole. The falsehood of working for «self» became evident. And «self» was thrown away.
Now I consider that method perhaps different from both Huatou and Mozhao, so I call it Zhidao (path of awareness, or «knowing» in Chinese). Usually they say there are two main meditation methods in Zen:
(1) Huatou or koans, and
(2) Mozhao or shikantaza.
I would say there is the third method, in between, Zhidao (Path of Awareness). Like Huatou, it's focusing on inquisitive attitude, and on perception before speech. And like Mozhao, it focuses on what is going on, rather than on holding some particular question.
It works by accumulation insight, rather than by mere concentration. Even though that insight is not necessarily accumulated as theoretical, verbal knowledge; rather, it's an ongoing experience of observation of phenomena. Causes and effects, intentions and sub-intentions. They become revealed, noted and gathered together into a mass of mainly non-verbal knowledge.
After liberation from the small self, the focus of my Zhidao shifted. Before, it was more like searching for my true self, like: «What do I really want, in the very depth of my heart?»… After, it became more like: «What is the intention of the universe this moment?»
(I.e., what I should do now, acting from the point of view of the universe?)
Finally, when Great Universal Self was dropped too, there was no more «me» and «universe», no question. Rather, various phenomena come to focus from the background, and they manifest some natural momentum; that's how this moment develops, morphing into something new.
There is no «Universal intention», there is no «my intention», but forces manifest and move.
Their focal point can be still in my heart; or it can be somewhere else, depending on the particular moment.
Some forces come out of the background, some remain in the background; but the general view tends to be more and more open, less and less constrained.
Now, coming back to your question about developing tranquility.
No, I didn't use much of early Buddhist methods like stages of jhana etc. Though I practised Mozhao, which can be described as a kind of shamatha-vipashyana.
I tried Tiantai version of shamatha-vipashyana (zhi-guan), and I liked it very much, as calming and contemplation there join so well helping each other.
I tried the method of following bodily sensations and relaxing them, and it's a very interesting travel — powerful in learning our conditions and improving them. I think, it can be alike to practices from Four stations of mindfulness.
What do I practise for tranquility now, basically?
Occasionally, I try to dive in deep meditative states; but mostly I practice by just observing phenomena in everyday life.
(1) I try to keep my mind free from circular processes of repeating thoughts-&-emotions — our usual samsaric whirlpool.
(2) I try to keep the mind free from jammed emotional states.
(3) I try to keep the body free from tensions.
For example, when emotional & bodily tension come,
(1) I tend to recognize its meaning, what is its message. Sometimes it's there to make me understand something.
You know, if you contemplate one single question, you can get more and more answers, deeper and deeper understanding. So I explore: what is this emotion telling me? What should I understand, what should I do?
(2) And sometimes the message of jammed emotion can be, like: «Just get out of this cooking pot».
So I just have to switch from swimming in old habitual states to a state of openness, freshness and freedom. From feelings of being constrained, having accepted some stupid game rules — to dropping constraints and rules. Like opening the eyes and looking around, and maybe realizing how wonderful and brilliant everything really is, free from habitual limits of delusion.
(3) Sometimes the emotions (coming in to overwhelm me) say: «Is the body relaxed?»
And I relax tensions — are they in shoulders, chest, stomach etc., and then it appears that emotional attachment does not grow anymore; I remain at ease.
So, with this kind of practice, I train:
(1) to stay relaxed, preventing jammed emotional states from accumulation;
(2) to come out of constrained «cooking pots» states;
(3) to understand «messages» from emotions, like to pay attention to something I should understand and should do.
Training like that, naturally I have less and less disturbances. Even though not hiding from emotions, from challenges, not trying to keep samadhi shielded from disturbances.
Quite the opposite, sometimes I dive into problems and emotions, to learn more. For example, sometimes I watch movies or read fiction books. Identifying with other people and their experiences, I relive those experiences in my own heart. Sometimes it enriches my scope of experiences, helping to understand and to improve something.
So I do not hide from disturbances, from emotional experiences and problems of people. Rather, I face them and absorb them. And still, due to the practice, disturbances decrease; and when they appear, their energies tend to being put to good use.
For example, when I thought about losing a person very dear to me, a very beautiful relationship, I started to feel grief. I meditated on that feeling and made useful conclusions, like: «I should keep that beauty and love in my life; only not associated with a person, but as a constant quality related to all beings, all universe. Those care and interest I felt from that loving person I should spread to everyone. Thus I wouldn't lose that beauty and love; I would live with them constantly». With this decision, the grief dissolved.
Then, when sometimes that grief returned, I either made some further conclusions, or I noticed that I was just plunging in limited states of mind; so the message of that emotion was: «Come out of that habitual meaningless losing of your time, come back to limitless, free, awakened life».
Finally, rising of that grief might be telling me to remain mindful of tensions in the body; keeping it relaxed kept emotions at ease.
As disturbances decrease, calmness and clarity improve. Awareness become subtle. The attitude of care and interest moves relationships and interactions with people to deeper levels.
That's how there are insight, calmness, morality, joy etc. in my practice.
Nirvana is being purified and manifested more and more throughout all everyday actions.
The practice doesn't become separated from the other parts of life.
It's not some special exercises anymore, it's the way of living life.