This is Part II of "The Practice of Meditation", covering three more topics:
  1. The phenomena and objects for observation during meditation
  2. The obstacles to meditation
  3. How to counter obstacles to meditation


Meditation embraces both the functions of "stopping" and "observing". "Stopping" means to dwell the mind on one place to stop it from flitting around, that is to observe just one phenomenon to control the mind. The "Sandhi-Nirmocana Sutra" stated that the twelve divisions of the Buddha's teachings should be used as the objects for observation. The "Heart Sutra" also stated that in the course of the deep practice of prajna-paramita, it was observed that the five skandhas (components of a sentient being) were void. To sum up from the initial practice of meditation to the stage where some success has been achieved, there is nothing outside the following three objects:

  1. External Objects: For beginners, their minds are filled with desire, anger, ignorance, arrogance and waywardness, and they cannot stop their own flow of thoughts. They should engage in self-scrutiny to find out which delusion gravitates most in their minds and then select an object or sphere for observation to counteract the thought. Like the "five meditations" for settling the mind, where desires abound, practice the observation of the vileness of everything; where anger abounds, practice the observation of compassion and pity for all; where ignorance abounds, practice the observation of causality; where arrogance abounds, practice the observation of right discrimination; where waywardness abounds, practice the observation of counting your breath. These are all the preliminary antidotes to counteract the afflictions.

  2. Aspiring Objects: If the mind can settle down like a tamed wild horse, then work your way from the temporal to the supra-mundane level by observing the sixteen mental activities of the Four Noble Truths. First, observe the four aspects of impermanence, suffering, emptiness and non-existence of self under the truth of "suffering". Then, observe the four aspects of cause accumulation, giving rise to and cooperating with conditions under the truth of "accumulation of suffering". Further, observe the four aspects of annihilation, stillness, comfort and freedom under the truth of "extinction of suffering". Lastly, observe the four aspects of the right path, reality, practice and way out under the truth of the "path leading to attainment". The ultimate object of the exercise is to depart from the worldly cycle of causality and to land on the eternal bliss of nirvana.

  3. Internal Object: It is to observe that nothing is outside the sphere of the mind. Afflicitions arise from the mind and should be removed by the mind from the mind. Birth and death are wrought by the karma of the mind and by destroying the desire to do evil, one can be freed from the wheel of transmigration.

Further observe that even objective spheres are images of the mind. The objective spheres that everyone sees are discriminating images created in their own respective consciousness. Although everyone sees the same object which appears identical and considers it to be a real thing, yet in reality, it is not identical but rather look alike, because similar karma gives rise to similar life form and our consciousness gives rise to a resembling image of the same objective sphere. However, due to everyone's different personalities and likes and dislikes, the images that arise in one's mind and one's perception of them are somewhat different. The Buddhist sutras teach people not to be deluded by images aroused within our own consciousness so that they will not give rise to desire, anger and ignorance in our minds, and our speech and behavior will ot attract corresponding retribution.

If we understand that everything is a reflection of the state of our mind, and we know that even our feelings of suffering and happiness are illusions of the mind, then we are fearless and trouble-free even in times of adversity. Our physical frame lives on in this world but our mind goes beyond the worldly realm. Therefore, Bodhisattva find it far more superior to transform sentient beings than enter into nirvana because while living in this world of Five Turbidities, they are not troubled by the Five Turbidities.

Meditation practitioners should therefore select their own objective spheres, just like a shooter aiming at a target before he can shoot his arrow.


The main obstacles to meditation are torpid-mindedness, agitation, forgetfulness, non-discernment, and distraction.

[Torpid-mindedness] - Due to inappropriate amount of sleep, the practitioner cannot hold on to the sphere of observation, becomes wayward and non-alert, and even falls into darkness like a person who cannot see when he enters a dark room. He may be in low spirits, idly passing time without being aware of it. He may even grow tired of the sphere of observation and lose the impetus to attain samadhi. Therefore, torpid-mindedness is an obstacle to proper observation.

[Agitation] - This happens when the mind wanders outward and cannot concentrate on the sphere of observation. The practitioner is in an unstable state of mind and cannot settle down. He may be excited by coming into contact with likable sounds and forms; he may be recounting the past and cling onto his intimate and loved ones, thereby arousing intertwined feelings of love and hate, suffering and happiness. These belong to agitation of the mind. When the body is restless and cannot remain in a seated position, this belongs to agitation of the body. No matter whether it be agitation of the mind or of the body, the practitioner cannot carry on with the proper observation of his chosen objective spheres and this will be an obstacle to his "stopping" effort.

[Forgetfulness] - When the practitioner cannot clearly remember the objective spheres that he has selected to observe resulting in discontinuation of the flow of thoughts, then, confusion reigns. This can be an obstacle to right mindfulness.

[Non-discernment] - When the mind becomes torpid or is about to become torpid, or when the mind becomes agitated or is about to become agitated, it cannot raise its level of alertness in time and is unable to lead the mind in uninterrupted observation. In the state of meditation where the mind fails to tame pleasant and obnoxious thoughts, it should discern what is proper and give it encouragement and discern what is improper and put a stop to it. All these can be obstacles to right understanding.

[Distraction] - The constant interchange between agitation, forgetfulness and non-discernment affecting the mind can bring about distraction and hence is an obstacle to right concentration.

The difference between agitation and distraction lies in the fact that for the former, the observing mind is unstable while for the latter, the objective spheres frequently shift about.


Where obstacles exist in meditation, one cannot hope to progress any further and has to employ techniques to remove them:

  1. To counter Torpid-mindedness - When the mind is torpid and spiritless, the practitioner should bring to mind the merits of meditation, thereby arousing the feeling of joy. He may focus his mind on the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha and the Vinaya (Precepts) to spur him on or he may observe the bright rays emanating from the top of Buddha's head, the sun and the moon, or even observe and explore deeper into the meaning of the sutras known to him. These will help him to concentrate. He should not for the time being observe spheres that are disgusting to the mind, like the meditation on the uncleanness of the human body, etc. If torpid-mindedness continues unabated, discontinue meditation and try to wash your face with cold water before resuming meditation.

  2. To counter Agitation - When the mind is unsettled and cannot focus on its object of observation, then at first try to keep your mind fixated on one point or sphere, and double your will power to stick to it and prevent it from flitting about. If the mind is frequently reminiscent of past pleasant memories as in playful pleasure-seeking experiences, then meditate on the inevitability of impermanence. If the mind encounters likable events and becomes overexcited, then it should meditate on the illusory nature of gain and loss. If his fondness of relatives and friends brings to mind their images, then he should meditate on the clustering and disbandment of the causes of affinity. If the mind develops a love for the self and experiences feelings of joy and sorrow, then it should meditate on the egolessness of the self as being the cooperating functions of the organs, the objective spheres, and corresponding consciousness.

  3. To counter Forgetfulness - In practicing meditation, thoughts must follow one after another uninterruptedly on one point or sphere. If there is any degree of relaxation of this stance the mind will wander and you should immediately recall to mind the very first thoughts when you begin your practice and let your mind sustain in these thoughts continuously without fail. Owing to the continuity of your thoughts, you will be able to observe clearly the objective spheres. Even though there may be some interruption, you can still resume the continuity of your thoughts and your progress will thus not be hindered.

  4. To counter Non-discernment - Before you practice meditation, you should hear more and read profusely to gain a proper understanding as a safeguard. If you see an illusion and consider it meritorious, you give rise to a feeling of joy, then you are easy prey to the Maras (the Evil One). You should recognize that the saints teach us to stay away from attachment and to seek stillness and quiet. When the mind is about to become torpid or agitated, heighten your attention and counter them with appropriate measures. When your ego rears its head or when your mind is distracted, think of the demerits of losing your concentration and the possible loss of mental comfort and relaxation. When you are tired of Bodhisattva practices, think of the merits of the Mahayana. When you transition your meditation practice from that of a Hearer to that of the Mahayana, though your mind aspires for higher ground, yet you do not relinquish this effort and instead give it encouragement. Thus it takes right knowledge to decide which should be retained and which should be discarded.

  5. To counter Distraction - When you are able to counter the above mentioned four obstacles, there will be no distraction.

(to be continued...)