As I’ve traveled around the United States recently, I’ve been so moved by the interest people have shown in finding ways to connect with essence love. This is very exciting because for many years in the West and in many parts of Asia, I’ve seen a tendency to reduce the Buddhist path (as well as other spiritual paths) to the mechanics of methods. This tendency arises from a kind of narrow commercial perspective — common to many cultures throughout history — that sees the fruits of spiritual practice as commodities that can be acquired by practicing the right techniques.
Developing a broader, less-specifically self-centered perspective is in many ways the focus of theparamitas, the positive qualities or dimensions of character that we’ve been exploring over the past few weeks. The fifth of these known in Sanskrit as dhyana, or sometimes as samadhi, and in Tibetan assamten, is often translated as “meditation,” and it’s easy to understand it in terms of developing or cultivating some sort of technique. There are certainly a lot of techniques available within the Buddhist tradition.
Both the Sanskrit and the Tibetan terms, however, can be translated as “concentration,” which is not so much a technique as an approach to living that we can cultivate when we’re formally meditating or — perhaps more importantly — while going about our lives: riding a bus, for example, or cooking a meal, washing dishes, writing an email (or a blog post), having a conversation. Essentially, concentration involves allowing our minds and hearts to rest very simply, alertly, and openly. It means allowing everything into our awareness, without focusing too narrowly or strenuously, and without being distracted by our judgments, our opinions, or the challenges that life continuously offers.
I saw an example of this calm, steady openness in my father, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, about a year or so before he passed away. At that time, even as his body was failing, he had begun a new program to renovate the shrine room at the monastery where he lived. My father had asked to me to help, and one day I noticed a problem in the construction. I went upstairs to inform my father about the problem and ask his advice. He was, of course, in his small room where he both slept and gave teachings. The entrance was not closed off by a door but rather by a heavy curtain. I pulled back the curtain a little bit and saw that he was meditating. Not wishing to disturb him, I let the curtain fall back and waited for a few minutes.
I must’ve done so four or five times, and after about half an hour I started to get a little bit cold standing in the hallway and began thinking, a bit selfishly, that it wasn’t my monastery, and it wasn’t my problem; really, he should be the one to figure out a solution.
At the same time, I was interested to see how he would respond. Would he break from his meditative state and pay attention to “practical” concerns or, as I’d heard of great masters, was his concentration so open and free that without leaving that state he could respond accurately and precisely to any situation around him?
I went in, and addressed him formally. He looked at me calmly, without any change in expression, no sign of dealing with what might be considered an intrusion. I told him about the problem, asked for his advice, and he gave me some instructions. And as I backed out of the room he simply continued sitting calmly. There was no sign that he’d broken his concentration or that he had to reconnect with his practice. There was no in and out. He was the same, whether meditating or giving advice about a construction issue. He was so clear and open, but there was no sense of holding on to that clarity and openness; it was just part of his being, effortless and continuous.
This was a great lesson for me. Addressing my father and listening to his instructions, I realized that concentration is not an effort of focusing on something but an abiding in a spacious, “centerless center” from which to function.
To develop this kind of concentration requires a good deal of kindness toward ourselves, toward others, and ultimately toward all the shifting circumstances of daily life. We can begin by expanding our attention to the thoughts and feelings that accompany just about everything we do, simply acknowledging feelings as feelings and thoughts as thought — a part of experience, but not necessarily my whole experience. Gradually, we can begin to work with them, breathe with them, and welcome them into our “home.” As we do this, our hearts expand, our minds clear, we become steady and relaxed.
We can expand this welcoming attentiveness to other people, allowing them to be part of a larger, more spacious experience. In so doing we may begin to notice things — gestures, facial expressions, certain tones of voice — that offer new and more profound ways of understanding who they are. As we see and hear the people and the world around us more clearly, we will quite naturally and spontaneously feel our hearts expanding. At the same time, we’ll experience an increased ability to remain steady and clear no matter what happens. We will be able to see everything that is happening without having to focus on any particular thing.
And in the process, a childlike wonder begins to open up, an innocent perspective that is one way of experiencing essence love begins to awaken. Can you describe others? That is one challenge for the week.
Here’s another: When you encounter a situation that requires concentration, can you approach it as an opportunity to welcome distractions? Can you allow your mind to become spacious enough to see a bigger picture? Can you allow your heart to become a “home?”