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Library: Member Essays

On Kamalashila's Bhavanakrama: The Practice of Meditation According To the Yogacara Tradition of Buddhism


In today's world there is a great interest in the practice of meditation. While there seems to be many different systems and styles of meditation being taught by different individuals, it is hard for someone who wants to learn about meditation, to know what method would suit them best. In the Dharma Fellowship we practice according to a well designed system that comes down to us in an unbroken lineage of Wisdom-Masters from the ancient Yogacara Tradition. Each school, each group has its own method of approach. Ours is known as the Yogacara method.

Here, "yoga" means mystical union; "cara" means a spiritual practice. This is the "practice tradition" of Buddhist Yoga.

Why is the Yogacara method significant? When Buddhism was founded, the emphasis of the teaching focused on the personal Enlightenment of the Buddha. In what perhaps is unlike other religious teachings around the world, Siddartha Guatama, the founder of Buddhism, did not state that he was a unique saviour, far above what people can aspire to become themselves. Instead, he claimed to be an ordinary man, who had realized an extraordinary experience—the direct experience of an ultimate reality, an Absolute Intelligence (i.e., buddha). Thus, early Buddhism was concerned in demonstrating how anyone, male or female, could follow a definite path of spiritual exercises and meditation, so as to come to the same realization. In his own lifetime many of Siddartha's followers realized Enlightenment. After his death, the lineage of realization continued, and down through the centuries thousands have likewise won through to the awakened state. Buddhism is therefore a teaching which aims to explain how realization can be acquired.

However, after several hundred years had gone by, less and less practicing Buddhists went into the forest to meditate. Instead, they started to gather in monastic and university institutions, where individuals were prized for their great scholarship and intellectual talent. It was at this time that our Yogacara Tradition arose. The Buddhist Yogacara movement was an effort at reform, a return to the direct practice of mystical (yoga) experience and a revolt against the overly scholastic, non-contemplative monastic Buddhism which then existed.

So, what is significant about Yogacara is its emphasis on spiritual practice. The masters of the Yogacara Tradition, starting with Maitreyanatha, Asanga, and Vasubandhu in the third and fourth century AD., exhaustively researched and recorded everything to do with the subject of meditation. They explained how meditation should be applied, how it works, and what takes place in the human mind when various techniques and spiritual exercises are performed. Thus, over some seventeen hundred years, a vast archive of information about meditation has been gathered. The epitome of that store house of data was translated and transferred to Tibet years ago, and although much was lost during the terrible communist invasion in this century, nevertheless the essential teaching has been preserved. The tradition is communicated today from master to disciple, in a teaching method based on direct experience.

While it is true that to learn the Yogacara method means to practice the stages of meditation step by step, under the oral guidance of a master, there are many treatises and manuscripts which encapsulate the process in written form.

A fundamental text which explains the Yogacara method is a short treatise called The Stages of Spiritual Evolution (Bhavanakrama II) written in the 8th century by the Buddhist monk Kamalashila. A leading disciple of Abbot Santarakshita, Kamalashila founded the first monastic establishment in Tibet. Shantarakshita was largely responsible for introducing Buddhism from Nepal into Tibet. After the death of Abbot Shantarakshita, his disciple Kamalashila came to Tibet so as to continue his Master's work. At that time he composed three short treatises on meditation, to guide the new Tibetan monks who were studying at Samye Academy south of Lhasa. Kamalashila's method of practicing meditation encapsulates the teachings of the Yogacara Tradition.

To outline our way of spiritual practice, we will in the following give you some short translations of various passages from the "Stages of Spiritual Evolution" (Bavanakrama), written by Acarya Kamalashila. Each translated passage will then be explained in the context of outlining our method of practicing meditation and the spiritual Path.

Establishing the Initial State of Mind Suitable for Meditation Practice

Prior to everything else, Kamalashila describes the initial state of mind and motivation, which must be present in someone who has a wish to accomplish the practice of meditation. Acarya Kamalashila says: Motivated by compassion, those aspiring to Enlightenment should make an affirmation to work for the betterment of all sentient beings. There is a very definite reason why we should establish correct motivation and a suitable state of mind before engaging in meditation. By willfully doing so, we turn away from our natural self-centeredness; we begin to focus on love for others. If this is done consistently, it implies a very great change within ourselves. But we have to approach this with determination; we have to really want to love others.

Thus, by a turning around of one's self-centre (narcissistic) nature, one engages with interest and persistence in the very difficult "spiritual practice" (sadhana) of acquiring holiness (punya) and realization (jnana).

In other words, the initial step in meditation is to develop love. This is a whole practice, an ongoing lifetime sadhana. Gradually through such a sadhana, or daily spiritual practice, the seeker of truth will develop "holiness" and "realization".

Kamalashila actually describes realization by a special word, Gnosis (Skt: jnana). What is the meaning of this special term here? Basically realization is an unique kind of knowing. Ordinary knowing involves a knower, the act of knowing, and that which is known. The knower is not what is known. But in deep meditation, these three separate things—mind, perception, and the object of perception—collapse into an indescribable Unity. Knower, knowing and known become one. This unique and nondual (adwaita) state of pristine awareness is called Gnosis. Here, you see, we have to use a special word, because any ordinary word would still refer to something belonging to ordinary mind. When considering the idea of "realization", it is good to have in mind that this refers to the emergence of a non-dual or unified awareness— an absolute Gnosis—unlike anything in the ordinary world.

The Stages of Spiritual Evolution says:

In teaching the method of meditation, the development of compassion comes first of all. This requires that one start by meditating on impartiality towards all, letting go of any preferment or aversion towards one being or another. Therefore those setting out on a course of meditation should from the very beginning utterly immerse themselves in the thought of bettering the world around them, and in doing so, they should look on every being as equal. This may sound easy, but it is a very hard thing to do. We naturally prefer our friends, or those who have no ill will towards us, and cannot help but feel averse to people involved in doing harm. The yogin cannot take sides. He or she must learn to embrace all beings, regardless. This means that an impartial or even-minded state of mind has to be developed. It means that someone seeking the Truth has to first become an all-rounded individual.

After the Yogin has developed even-mindedness (madhyastha-bhava) towards all, he can then begin to develop real love for sentient beings. When the seed of compassion (karuna) is watered with affection (maitri), then the mental continuum will become a fertile ground where the seed that one has planted will actually germinate, grow and finally blossom.

This is not all. Besides working to experience an even-minded or impartial love and compassion towards all beings, the Yogi is warned that he must clean his heart of any neurotic defilements that may lie buried therein. This means the one has to develop moral ethics. If someone is all tied up with little obsessions, hates, ego-issues, sexual problems, or deviant desires, it is hard to imagine how they can go far on the spiritual Path. So, along with developing a mind of love, the yogini and yogi is cautioned to work on his or her moral foundation too.

Kamalashila, quoting from the Arya-ratnakuta-sutra, reminds us that:

The achievement of meditative trance (samadhi) rests on a basis of moral ethics (shila). Wisdom (prajna) rests on the attainment of meditative trance (samadhi). Un-obscured Gnosis (jnana) derives from the acquisition of wisdom. Thus, starting with a foundation of confirmed moral ethics, one arrives at un-obscured Gnosis.

This describes the initial state of mind which the Bodhisattva should develop prior to actually starting out in the spiritual life. So as to guide students in a truly well-rounded way, the Dharma Fellowship, like other Buddhist groups all over the world, requires that "beginners" start with a series of preliminary exercises that are intended to assist in establishing the right frame of mind that Kamalashila speaks of here

Requisites for Meditation Practice

In the "Stages of Spiritual Evolution" Kamalashila also outlines a number of requisites that are essential if successful meditation practice is to occur. We shall very briefly review what these are.

At the beginning, the yogini and yogi must seek to put in place the requisites that will assist him to efficiently actualize Calm-abiding (shamatha) and Applied Insight (vipasyana) meditation.

The yogin then first lists the requisites for Calm-abiding meditation practice, after which he or she names those requisites necessary for successful Applied Insight meditation.

The requisites for actualizing Calm-abiding: it is necessary to reside in a conducive environment, to limit one's needs to the bare minimum, to practice contentment, to have few activities, to maintain wholesome conduct, and to be free of attachments or obsessive thinking.

Now, what is a conducive environment? Basically this means easy access to food and shelter, free of people who would disturb one's practice, an isolated place, not troubled by visitors or social interactions. In the Dharma Fellowship we have been taught that meditation outdoors, in the forest or amongst nature, is particularly conducive to good meditation. Also, unlike some other Buddhist organization, we do not encourage "group meditation."

Many Dharma centers in the West tend to get people involved in group sitting. Everyone gathers together in a meditation hall, and sits in silence, while trying to meditate together. This might be very helpful for beginners. But for the more advanced yogin, we follow the oriental tradition and tell students to go out into the forest alone. Sit privately. Meditate alone in the midst of nature!

Kamalashila also says, that during the period when the yogin is doing a meditation retreat, he should abstain from meat and fish, and also take only limited quantities of food. He should try to eat such food as is most conducive to health. In the Dharma Fellowship, when someone chooses to stay in a meditation retreat for a week or more at a time, we ask them to adopt the old Buddhist tradition of not eating solid food after noon. This means that the digestive work of the body is dealt with early on, and energy can be better spent devoted to meditation, rather than with a concern for food preparation and eating.

Limiting one's needs? This means that when one takes up a course of meditation it is important not to be attached to external objects. Let go of the world around one. If there are sounds or noises, ignore them. Let go of fussing about such things as clothes, religious robes, shrines, books, or spiritual status. Likewise, forget all about one's worldly responsibilities. Involve oneself wholeheartedly with the job at hand, namely, the meditation practice. Consider everything else a distraction.

Contentment means, according to Kamalashila, accepting conditions as they are, once that one has got a realization-conducive situation set in place. Just sit in meditation. Do not fuss about whether it is too cold or too hot. Just make do the best that one can.

Few Activities, of course, means [to] free oneself from all other forms of activity, other than meditation practice itself. Put aside all work, business activities, housework, social engagements, etc. When one goes into a retreat situation, for the purpose of committing oneself to meditation practice, she or he should take no books or writing material with them. They should avoid all distractions which might involve them in activities other than the job at hand.

Finally, put aside all thoughts of personal incompetence, failure, regret or guilt over past actions.

The requisites for Applied Insight meditation are: relying on holy persons, a prior philosophical study (bahusruta) of Buddhist Wisdom, and extensive time spent pondering (yonisa manasikara) the meaning.

Kamalashila explains what he means by a holy person. A holy person, he says, is someone who is well versed in the Teachings, who expresses himself well, who is compassionate in nature (and interested in one's improvement), and who himself is able of undergoing the same discipline that he imposes on the student.

Prior philosophical study of wisdom implies spending time intellectually searching into both the surface and deeper meaning of experience. It means studying the Teachings, the Wisdom of Buddhism, so as to prepare the mind to gain actual experience of Reality. It is just as valid also to study all the other religions of mankind, or the thought of the world's great philosophers and scientists. Through such a study as this, the mind will be made reception to contemplative insight, when the time is right.

To ponder the meaning of what one has studied means to arrive at some definite understanding of what the Buddhist teachings say.

How to begin and Sit during Meditation Practice

Kamalashila advises the yogin to begin each meditation session with some preliminary prayers or spiritual practices. Pay homage to the Buddha, he says, and to all the saints throughout the world.

"Let the yogin set up an image of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, such as a painting, in front of himself. He should make then make as many offerings and praises as he can to all the Enlightened-ones, all the saints and sages of the world. He should confess his misdeeds and rejoice in the goodness of others."

To perform meditation, it is best to sit in either what is known as the full "lotus posture" (paryanka-asana) like the Buddha, or in a semi-lotus posture. This assures steadiness and composure. One should, however, ensure that one is comfortable.

The eyes should, according to Kamalashila, not be too open nor too closed. The gaze should incline downward, at an angle parallel with the nose.

The spine should be straight. The body should not be bent forward or backward, but perfectly upright and relaxed. This means that the shoulders should be likewise relaxed—let them "drop"—and the head held straight. The attention is turned inwards.

The meditator should allow the jaw and lips to rest in a natural manner, with the teeth slightly parted but the mouth closed. The tongue should lightly touch the upper palate.

Inhalation and exhalation should be neither too strong nor too weak. Let the breathing occur naturally, calmly and somewhat slowly.

At the end of each sitting, the yogin should always conclude meditation practice by dedicating the "good" (punyam) obtained from the practice to others. He should make a solemn prayer that the good accumulated through the practice of his meditation go immediately to enlighten others who are wandering for a time in this world of impermanence and suffering. That is always how he should end each meditation session

How to practice Calm-Abiding Meditation

Calm-abiding meditation must be achieved first, before one can successfully proceed to Applied-insight meditation. All the ancient treatises and meditation manuals emphasize this point. In the Bhavanakrama, Kamalashila likewise insists on this. However, many modern "instructors" in meditation are either ignorant of this fact, or they ignore it, not understanding that this is the only way to proceed if one wants definite, authentic results. Do not begin with Vipasyana meditation. Instead, put all one's energy into developing Calm-abiding first, and only when one has attained a level of actual Samadhi through that means, turn to the practice of Applied-insight.

The old Sanskrit name for Calm-abiding meditation is Samatha. In Tibetan we say "Shi-ney" — "shi" means peace, and "ney" means to "abide in" that state of peace or tranquility. Calm-abiding is arrived at by stilling the activity of the mind, transcending the activity of thinking, and resting in quietude. Kamalashila says that Calm-abiding consists of that mind which, having overcome distractions to external objects, spontaneously and continuously stays on the object-of-meditation (alambana) with ecstatic feeling (priti) and serenity (prasrabdhi).

The old Sanskrit name for Applied-insight meditation is Vipasyana. In Tibetan we say "lhag-tong." Applied-insight consists of applying a mind that has first attained Calm-abiding in such a way as to seek the meaning of reality. The Arya Ratna-megha-sutra declares: "Calm-abiding is a single-pointed consciousness; Applied-insight is seeing into the nature of things."

"The yogi who wishes to develop Calm-abiding," says the Master Kamalashila, "may fix his mind on one or other of mental and physical complex, as an object that investigates phenomena. He may fix his mind on a Buddha-image.... Or he may choose the inhalation-exhalation of the breath as an object. Or let him fix his mind on whatever object he might choose. Once having fixed his mind on the meditation-object (alambana) of his choice, he should observe to see whether the attention remains focused on the object or not."

The yogin should also catch the mind the instant it becomes distracted by some external sense-stimuli. She or he must check for mental dullness. If the mind is perceived to be slipping into dullness or mental torpor, or if the yogin fears that such a state is approaching, then the mind can be energized by thinking about something which is a source of religious Inspiration (e.g., the Buddha), or turn the attention to a visualization of Light.

Likewise, Kamalashila says, if the mind seems to get restless and begins to seek distractions in thought, or the mind starts to gets excited, or seeks stimulation from the outer sensory domain, then the yogin should reflect on the frightful condition of suffering which exists in the world. Considering that pain, disease and death might come at any time, the need to win through to Liberation will cause him to persevere with discipline in his meditation practice.

Having taken control of the ups and downs [of meditation practice], the elephant-like mind needs be tethered to the chosen "object" with the rope of remembrance (smrti) and introspection (samprajnaya)," says the Master. "When [the twin poles of] depression (lena) and excitation (audhitya) are finally balanced and the mind is at last calmly abiding on its object, then relax the effort and abide with detachment for as long as one can.

Calm-abiding is a state of extraordinary quiescence. The body usually experiences such a state only during deep sleep. However if this state can be attained while maintaining consciousness, the meditator gains a sense of oceanic tranquility and bliss, in which no thoughts, feelings or bodily sensations intrude upon the awakening mind. It is initially takes determined effort to concentrate the mind and separate it from distraction. But to arrive at perfect quiescence, the effort has to be relaxed and the meditator has to abide with complete detachment. When, however, this extraordinary state of quiescence is reached, we say that the yogi has accessed Upacara Samadhi, the beginning level of the profound Samadhi experience.

As long as the yogin continues with the pacification of the mind, dwelling in perfect calm, or in other words, as long as the yogin persists in what is called "effortless" abiding, Upacara Samadhi will eventually break through into an even more profound level called Arapana Samadhi. The first phase is "Entrance Samadhi", and the second we can call "Full Samadhi."

The trigger which seems to take the meditator from the entrance stage of Samadhi to its full blown state, is bliss. In meditation, powerful quiescence will invariably result in overwhelming sensations of rapture (priti) and bliss (sukha), causing an exhilarating up-rush of energy. The yogini and yogi, experiencing this conscious arousal of the depth of theirs being, while concentrating upon his chosen "object," will feel that they are being absorbed into the object itself. Subject (the observer) and object (the observed) merge together into a meaningful unified whole. It is this deeper level of absorption which Buddhists call Arapana Samadhi. The resultant trance-like condition is experienced as an orgasmic, ecstatic state of higher consciousness. Here the consciousness becomes truly oceanic. It is in such an altered state of mind that Applied-insight can be taken up as a means to acquire realization into the nature of the mind itself. To experience the nature of mind directly, is to realize the implicate structure of phenomena and grasp the meaning of Reality.

How to practice Applied-Insight

Therefore, once that Samadhi has been attained, or in other words once that the aim of Calm-abiding meditation has been reached, to a lesser or greater degree, the yogin should begin to implement the tools of authentic Vipasyana practice. This means that, once the yogini and yogi have attained the fruit of Calm-abiding practice, they then possess a "higher consciousness" able to gain direct insight into the Enlightened condition. Through that insight they shall experience the full continuity of mind and integrate the whole of their being as one.

Kamalashila says:

"After realizing Calm-abiding, then the meditation of Applied-insight may be implemented as follows. The vastly perfect teachings of all the Sages, when studied, directly or indirectly reveal profound insights into Reality. Taking those insights and applying them to meditation, the absolute nature of Reality will be intuitively grasped, disposing of all one's [previously held] conceptual views, just as the light of the sun at dawn dispels night's darkness.

"Calm-abiding alone will not lead to the absolute Gnosis, nor can it get rid of the super-impositions which obscure Reality," continues Kamalashila. "It is only by a meditation upon Reality (tattva) through applying wisdom (prajna, i.e., the yogi's higher state of consciousness) that realization may be accomplished. Hence one should think, "Having arrived at Calm-abiding, I must now apply this wisdom so as to penetrate the meaning of Reality. I should not rely on Calm-abiding alone."

Kamalashila remarks that the yogin must study the words of all the Sages. Gather information and understanding. Then, in the depth of meditation, apply these insights toward a direct examination of the mind and the nature of existence. Investigate what the essence of the mind is. This can not be accomplished by discursive thought or reasoning. It can only be done by direct sensation and experience, once that the yogin has acquired a consciousness transformed by Samadhi. Thus, on the one hand, taking all the teachings of the Buddha concerning the nature of the human condition, and on the other hand, applying direct experience of the mind in its own state, the yogi will make a breakthrough into clear understanding. Yogini and yogi will come to know who they are, in the core of their being; they will come to experience the non-local unified field of intelligence in and of itself, and know Reality face to face.

The wise distance themselves from bias and from the stains of human negativity. Their thirst for knowledge is unquenchable like an ocean. They separate truth from fiction, like the supreme swans (paramhamsa) who are said to be able to extract milk from water. Recognizing this, scholars should put aside all divisive attitudes and bigotry against other's faiths or religions, and instead apply themselves strictly to the yogi's path. Good words can be uttered even by the ignorant.


This, in essence, is Kamalashila's teaching—the Bhavanakrama, or way to develop, through meditation, the Stages of Spiritual Evolution. Herein we have only taken a few passages from Kamalashila's elaborate treatise, but enough to give the general gist of what he says. This therefore is a brief but clear description of the method according to the Yogacara tradition.

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