Note on the Modes


The Four Modes of Meditation that I’ve developed (see Four Modes of Meditation post) can be collapsed into the two principles described in The Awakening of Faith: Calming (cessation, stopping, samadhi, etc.) and Clear Observation (prajna insight, vipassana, etc.). While it would be best not to get caught up too much in the terminology, it is certainly useful to see that there is a more passive aspect and a more active aspect of meditation, and that these two need to work together. Without letting go of addictive patterns of thinking and feeling (the passive aspect), we can’t appreciate and really engage in our life as the life of the Buddha (the active aspect). Without giving up the self, we can’t see the needs of others and help out. Without calming the waves, we can’t see the pearls and then freely give them away.

Each of these two aspects again seems to have an active and a passive side. We could compare Calming with quitting an addiction, which is easy and difficult at the same time. One could just give up and stop—which would be the easiest because it is essentially a passive approach. But many of us just don’t seem to manage and may need an active device to get to the point where we really let go. Turning our own light inward is for most people an active and at first difficult task but it can lead to a great sense of calm. Over time this procedure can become more natural, and therefore easier. Yet the active aspect may continue to be necessary at times, just because we’re human and easily disturbed.

In the same vein, we can identify a passive and an active aspect of Clear Observation. Once we’ve let go of some of our preconceived ideas, the world opens up to us and we start seeing things in a very different light. Yet, however wonderful that may be, we might still not get to the hidden corners of our mind and discover what’s blocking us from living this life to its full potential. That’s where koans come in, along with working with a teacher and fellow students. They challenge us to see what would otherwise remain hidden. We can, of course, also actively challenge ourselves—for example by asking: What is it that I might be ignoring right now at this very moment? And this can, over time, become a more natural part of our life—an effort towards effortlessness.

Considering the passive and active side of Calming as well as Clear Observation makes me realize again that our world, even in its smallest departments, seems to be made up of binary aspects that keep everything moving. Ignoring one of these aspects can freeze us into a lifeless system. The sixth-century Chinese master Zhiyi repeatedly refers to this in his Essentials of Buddhist Meditation. Throughout his very detailed manual he warns against getting stuck in any particular state or definition and tells us to keep our meditation open and alive by alternatively calming or activating the mind.

Four Modes of Meditation (Shorthand)

1) Harmonizing body and mind through identification with the breath; allowing the whole body to breathe. Absolutely essential first step (first gear). Our life cannot effectively be navigated by the mind (as we know it), the heart (as our emotional center) or by our natural bodily functions only; we desperately need to have all faculties involved and work together. Only then can we rebel against the dictatorship of our own self-centered mind and activate the master. A well balanced posture that is relaxed and yet alert at the same time, with the center of gravity located in the lower abdomen, serves as an indispensable support. First let the body sit, then let the mind sit.

2) Samadhi; allowing our innate energy to flow by stopping to identify with the continuous stream of thoughts, memories, feelings and other sensations. Cutting through addictive patterns of the mind. Passive aspect: just letting go (being fed up helps); active aspect: turning away from these patterns by looking in, by turning one’s own light inward. After an initial insight into our true nature, koans can be useful to deepen this insight by discovering deep layers of delusion (fueled by greed anger and ignorance) and finding proof for their inherent emptiness. Various degrees of realization of the absolute.

3) Clear Observation, active use of prajna insight. Testing the depth of our samadhi by letting our inner light shine upon ‘objects’, whether physical or mental. Active aspect: welcoming things into the light; receptive aspect: allowing things to emerge naturally. Either way: seeing through conditioned patterns and discovering the innate buddha nature in everyone and everything. Koans can again be helpful to break through tenacious addictions of the self-centered mind, to undo emotional knots and behavioral patterns that block the natural expression of our true nature as love and compassion towards all life. Various degrees of realization of the relative.

4) Meditation in Action, bodhisattva activity. Following through on one’s clear observation, and navigating life’s circumstances coming from our innate wisdom rather than from the conditioned self. Various degrees of success in this aspect, therefore:

Endless practice; returning to harmonizing body and mind (1), developing samadhi (2) that is strong enough to shed clear light (3) on life situations, so we learn how to respond as a bodhisattva (4).

Three Turnings – Four Modes

As you may know, according to Mahayana teaching, the Buddha has turned the wheel of the dharma three times. The first turning is his proclamation of the four noble truths, which address the samsaric nature of conditioned existence. We are invited to look at our life, to observe directly how suffering comes about, and to apply the suggested remedies. Although these truths are invaluable as expedient means, they are not really considered to present the full scope of the buddhadharma. The second turning of the wheel was facilitated by Nagarjuna in the second century AD and points to the inherent emptiness of all conditioned phenomena. It shows that whatever we observe has no real substance, is in constant flux and can never be grasped; again, an indispensable part of the dharma, but still of a provisional nature. The third turning is seen as the definitive teaching. Now, after having turned away from samsaric existence and having discovered our true nature within, we are encouraged to return to the world and to see things with the eyes of the Buddha. Suddenly the world reveals itself in the ten directions as one bright and precious pearl. In his own words, “How wonderful, how wonderful, all beings have the same virtue and wisdom as the Buddha!” It is a timeless expression of joy and gratitude. This was Buddha’s first utterance after his enlightenment, when he finally saw things as they really are. Therefore it is seen as the ultimate teaching. Of course it is followed by an expression of deep sorrow, “How sad that nobody realizes this.” But this comes only second.

Mahayana includes the truth of suffering, but it doesn’t necessarily start there. We take the enlightenment of the Buddha as our standard. All sentient beings are endowed with innate wisdom. Of course this wisdom is not really part of our direct experience yet, but we trust that one day it will. This takes a lot of daring. We are asked to question our present observations and put our faith in something that we have failed to see up till now. Rather than trusting what we know, we put our faith in what we don’t know. That is why faith is absolutely essential and stressed so much in the scriptures. Master Rinzai famously yells at his monks, “What are you lacking? The only thing you lack is faith!” It also explains the role of devotional practices. Complete enlightenment is our birthright, but in order to own up to it we need all the help we can get and this is where the Bodhisattva’s come in. Whether they are seen as qualities within or energies outside of yourself, unless you surrender to their great vision and compassion, you cannot become who you really are. You actually can do it yourself; it is just not the self you know.

Already in Buddha’s time people found it hard to really have faith in the fact that we all are originally already completely enlightened. Apparently he only taught “How wonderful, how wonderful” for about a month and then gave up because nobody understood. He turned to “How miserable, how miserable,’ because it was closer to everybody’s experience. And that eventually became identified with the first turning of the wheel. Yet if we would like to put the whole teaching in a nutshell, why not use the word “Buddha”, which means awakening, enlightenment, in other words very good news!

Looking at the three turnings of the wheel can help us recognize the various modes of meditation. Even if we have faith in our buddha-nature and hold it as a vision, perhaps because we had some insight we can’t forget, in terms of practice most of us need to first sit down, focus and realize our monkey mind. How miserable, how miserable! No Buddha in sight! At some point you discover that you cannot really find him by just thinking or feeling or using arms and legs. We need all faculties involved; we need to harmonize body and mind to address the real issue. Navigating the ocean currents, the captain of a great sailing vessel needs all hands on deck, and preferably working together! The breath does wonders here. Allowing our breath to breathe naturally, our whole system becomes breath including all of our thoughts, feelings and other sensations.

Now we are ready for the next gear and turn our own light inward, away from whatever we perceive. Rather than looking or hearing or feeling, we research the one who does all the looking and hearing and feeling. To study Buddhism is to study the self. But again, it only works if all parts cooperate; as if you have eyes all over your body and they all look in. Looking at what? That is a good question. If you see anything, you are back in the world of objects and that’s exactly what you wanted to turn away from. Looking at nothing then? Who would do that? The thing is, if you really do, something happens. If you loose yourself in the looking, give yourself totally to it, you discover that this very body and mind have no substance whatsoever. It’s all empty. No eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind, and no objects of perception either. How could one ever be so mistaken! It is a short-cut. If the “I” disappears, everything disappears. Body and mind drop off, and so does everything else; total freedom from form.

But of course we cannot stay there. And we shouldn’t. It is still only the provisional teaching. If you turn around again, and really look, you may see a totally different world. If you allow your buddha nature to do all the perceiving without interference, your whole life is a masterpiece. You may have thought it was a dead-ordinary boring poster; you’ve looked at it so often and never saw the fatal error in your observation. Suddenly this very same poster turns out to be a priceless painting. And it shines in all its true forms and colors defying all expectations. However profound this experience may be though, it is still wise to have it checked by a teacher. That also gives us confidence that something has really shifted. The further I have turned my own light inward, the clearer I can see what is happening right in front of me, and the more I can respond with love, compassion and appropriate action. A good teacher can verify whether you actually see with the eye of the Buddha or with the eye of a deluded sentient being.

I usually add a fourth mode of meditation, because even if you see with the eyes of a Buddha, it doesn’t mean that you can follow through on that in your actions. One may have great insight, but it still needs to be implemented in daily life circumstances. We call that Bodhisattva Activity. It is meditation in action, which enables us more and more to do the right thing at the right time in the right amount, coming from the right position. Needless to say, it is practice and we often stumble and fall. That’s why guidelines are needed; the Paramita’s, the Precepts, Dogen Zenji’s Bodhisatta Shishobo etc. They all help us to stay on track in navigating the Buddha Way. More about this later.