Buddhadharma: I’d begin by asking each of you to speak about your understanding of formless meditation from the point of view of your tradition. In Zen, for example, formless meditation often goes by the name of shikantaza, or “just sitting.” Reverend Bennage, could you say more about that?
Dai-En Bennage: Yes, we say “just sitting,” but the “just” in “just sitting” doesn’t mean “just” in the usual way. It means thoroughgoing, total sitting. It’s like the feeling you would have if you were riding a horse at an incredible speed and you fell out of the saddle and found yourself between the saddle and the ground. What kind of state of mind would you have there?
Shikantaza is thoroughgoing, total attention to everything, a tremendously powerful practice. It’s like a huge gymnasium opens up in front of you in which there are no lines of demarcation, no markers to go by. You don’t know whether the space is for volleyball, basketball, or what have you. You don’t know what to do with that immense space, but you can learn to have deep trust. The abbot I trained with in Japan talked about allowing ourselves to be babysat by the universe. Since the universe is good, it takes no effort to be babysat by it. We simply allow ourselves to be present. In Zen, we have a recitation: “Abandon myself to breathing out and letting breathing in naturally still me. All that is left is an empty cushion under the vast sky, the weight of a flame.” Abandoning ourselves to breathing out means no effort. It means allowing the causes and conditions of where we are in the universe—with our amount of sleep, food and so on—to do the breathing for us. All that’s left is the great emptiness and the vivacity of who we are.
Tenzin Wangyal: In the Dzogchen tradition, the very reason people are introduced to form practice is to introduce formless practice, the nature of mind. The master introduces you to yourself. In formless meditation, we abide without any judgment, without observer and observed, abiding in the boundless view. Spontaneous meditation and flexible action is what formless meditation really is. In the process of doing it, we experience emptiness, clarity and bliss. However, if we grasp for these, they do not work. You have to be aware but not grasp, which we call “self-liberation.” For example, if you leave a hundred-dollar bill in the street and you go back an hour later, you won’t find it. It is self-liberated. Why? Because no one was grasping it, it went away.
Formless meditation is ultimately about self-liberating the observer. No one is grasping, because there is no observer to grasp. – Tenzin Wangyal
Formless meditation is ultimately about self-liberating the observer. No one is grasping, because there is no observer to grasp. Everything is effortlessly self-liberated into space. This is the experience of emptiness, which in turn leads to fearlessness. With nothing there, there is nothing to fear. Yet there is also unceasing clarity: the flow of life never stops, experiences never stop. Everything is lively and fully there, without anybody doing anything. This kind of clarity offers a deep experience of hopelessness—not in a bad sense, but in a positive sense of having no need to go anywhere or get anything. When the emptiness and clarity, the fearlessness and hopelessness, are inseparable, it produces the experience of bliss––happiness with no reason to be happy.
Gaylon Ferguson: Formless meditation might appear more mysterious than it is. There’s a sense in which the attitude of formless meditation—which is not to manipulate whatever arises in our experience—is there whether we’re doing practice with form or without form. There’s a continuity between the two. Appreciating them both is a matter of understanding the view of the teachers of the lineage; namely, that one could practice without any gaining idea, without pushing anything away, but nakedly and directly experiencing the vividness of whatever arises in one’s experience, whether that’s emotional experience or perceptions of the world. Nowness is really the essence of formless practice as well as practice with form.
Ironically, formless practice is the simplest of all, but we could complicate it by talking about it. Although it is fundamentally uncomplicated, within formless practice, there is still progression. The Mahamudra tradition of formless practice speaks of four stages: one-pointedness, stabilizing the mind in its own essence; simplicity, where there are no further complications to deal with; one taste, the seamlessness of non-duality; and finally non-meditation, not manipulating the sacred world in any way. These are simply further levels of spaciousness and vividness.
Ajahn Sumedho: In the Vipassana tradition, you begin by examining the impermanence of conditions. After your practice deepens, the sense of personal identity lessens and attention is awakened. Once you realize the state of awakened attention—what we call the unconditioned, stillness, or the still point of awareness—you gain perspective on thoughts or emotions, the conditions of the present. You witness rather than grasp and identify. With this recognition of inner light, insight into the truth of cessation, you have direct insight into shunyata, emptiness, or pure awareness, and anatman, non-self.
At that point, we can cultivate and develop that reality. In our daily life, we no longer seek identity and attachment to worldly conditions—the sense of ourselves as a personality and the illusory world that most people need for identification. This reality doesn’t need an object for its existence. It’s a natural state of being that isn’t created or dependent on conditions.
Once there is realization of awareness and non-attachment, then there’s no need to use form anymore, because the path of awareness is very clear. Awareness does not require an object. Its natural state is not a created state. Most people are always looking for something they conceive of or that they imagine. Awareness—what we call the gate to the deathless—is learning to realize this natural state of being. Then, we don’t need a form any more. We can just be present with the existing forms as they rise and cease. We can use form, but we don’t need it anymore, because our insight embraces form rather than depends on form.
Buddhadharma: Would you describe this as a practice or as an attainment?
Ajahn Sumedho: Attainment is a word I don’t use, because it’s misleading. When you’re talking about attainment and meditation, it sounds like you’ve got to get something you don’t have. The Buddha was pointing to something quite obvious, suffering, which is a very banal human experience. In investigating that truth, we let go of the causes rather than attain anything. It’s a matter of relinquishing, letting go—of non-attainment really—not trying to get anything but to awaken fully to life, to see things through wisdom rather than delusion. Wisdom isn’t an attainment; it’s a natural state we begin to recognize and access through our attention to life, through awareness to existence as it manifests.
Buddhadharma: Presumably this is a condition that could exist whether you were in a formal practice situation or walking about in the market?
Ajahn Sumedho: Yes, it integrates into the flow of life because you’re not binding it to formal situations—even though you certainly use formal meditation sessions as a means to cultivate this attention through the four postures of sitting, standing, walking and lying down. Some students get to this quickly; others take much longer. In either case, I don’t let people delude themselves, thinking they have to do something in order to become something. But obviously, to realize the natural state of awareness that needs no object they need meditation retreats and formal practice.
Buddhadharma: How do meditation with form and formless meditation work together?
Dai-En Bennage: My training was entirely in Japan. I started with a Rinzai master, Omori Sogen Roshi, who told me straight off that my Japanese was not good enough for me to do koan practice. Therefore, I should practice shikantaza for three years before koan study would be considered. He did teach me susokukan, the counting of exhalations. The spaciousness of formless meditation can be hard to sustain, so I found the counting practice extremely helpful in dealing with that huge space with no landmarks that would open up in front of me. There are variations on this type of meditation with form, but I found counting the most helpful. It’s a concentration practice that cuts down outer distractions and helps you to get quickly and deeply to the breath.
After three and a half years my teacher became too ill for us to continue, and I found a teacher in the Soto tradition. I practiced shikantaza, but they did not speak about using any form such as the susokukan method as a support. I found, though, that I reverted to susokukan in times of mental turmoil. I also found that when I felt more concentrated I could let go of counting and be fine with the larger space provided by shikantaza. I still teach that way. I don’t know if including the possibility of counting exhalations is considered strict Soto Zen shikantaza, but I feel it’s a tool people can use when they need it. To this day, there are occasions when I revert to susokukan if, for example, there is news from the war that might upset me. In so doing, I also remember that, as our abbot said in Japan, no one graduates from this practice. When I feel the need for and the benefit from going back to counting, however briefly—perhaps not even as much as ten breaths—I too am a student along with my students.
One young man who was just beginning was struck by how much knee pain he had, but when thoughts of fishing came to his mind, his knee pain disappeared. It showed him how much of the pain is in the mind. – Dai-En Bennage
Even though there is a branch of Soto that uses koan practice, the main stem of Soto Zen is the shikantaza practice of seamless sitting. In order to have formless practice, though, the forms around it are essential as a support. Therefore, we put extreme emphasis on the quality of the seated posture. We are not invited to allow ourselves to be more comfortable. We are asked to deal with what comes up sitting in that position and to see how often the pain is not physical. It comes from the mind. One young man who was just beginning was struck by how much knee pain he had, but when thoughts of fishing came to his mind, his knee pain disappeared. It showed him how much of the pain is in the mind. One needs to understand this or formless experience will not be possible.
All of the myriad forms support the formless experience, especially in the monastery, where I lived a cloistered life for twelve years. We didn’t have interviews often, only if we really felt we had something to discuss with a teacher. But our teachers never took their eyes off us—where we were, the sound we made with our slippers, the way we reached for something, the way we passed something to someone else, the tone of our voice, our body language in standing at a distance or near to other people. What we did on the cushion should be manifest when we stood up and, as the Venerable Ajahn Sumedho said, it should be visible in sitting, standing, lying down and walking.
Buddhadharma: How do you instruct someone in shikantaza, other than the close observation you were just talking about?
Dai-En Bennage: That comes through the practice of deep trust, which is not easy in our culture. When students feel they need a safety net, like the trapeze artist in the circus, they may consider using the susokukan method. When they feel they don’t need that, they can let it go and go back into the arena of the trust. They have a choice. And the point is to see how little of the susokukan seems necessary.
Tenzin Wangyal: In Dzogchen, we refer to form and formless meditation as meditation with attributes and meditation without attributes. It’s very traditional to do meditation with attributes before going into meditation without attributes. The usual style of meditation with attributes is shiné, calm abiding. We use external objects, such as seed syllables. One might, for example, begin by meditating on a white, luminous AH surrounded by a rainbow. Internally, we might focus on a particular part of the body, such as the third eye area. We also use the breath, of course. Sounds are good for people who need less discipline. People who need more discipline need to focus on an external object.
One begins with effortful calm abiding, which develops into natural calm abiding and finally into ultimate calm abiding, which is essentially the beginning stages of formless meditation. At the effortful stage, one is dealing with all the external problems that dominate us—sounds, discomfort, movement of the thoughts, and so forth. One might also have internal obstacles, such as falling asleep or becoming extremely creative, having many ideas and projects. We regard these two as different kinds of movement of the prana [wind, life force]. When it moves downward, we have dullness. When it moves upward, we have agitation. Working with all of these requires effort. We usually need to practice calm abiding for a long time and follow strict rules, but it all comes down to being alert in the moment and focusing on an object.
Gradually you begin to develop stability. You find the calmness more inside you than in the object. Eventually you feel the same kind of calm, even if the object of meditation is removed. The form is less necessary; form is fine, but without it you can still experience stability. That is natural calm-abiding. The mind is clear, sharp and stable, and those characteristics are still there when the objects are removed. It’s like learning to drive. When you first learn to drive, you cannot turn on music or do anything else at all. Gradually, people reach the point where they can drink coffee, put on makeup, brush their hair and so on. That’s natural driving or ultimate driving—so long as you’re not getting into accidents. Once you achieve the ultimate calm abiding, you are abiding in the nature of mind; there’s no sense of observer or observed. You abide in ultimate stillness. When you are finally able to rest there, that’s formless practice.
This is a beginning level of formless practice, because you usually cannot stay there long. There will always be obstacles, which at this stage are largely internal obstacles. When I was a teenager I went into a dark retreat—fifty days in a totally dark room. In the dark, you have lots of visions. The distractions are obviously not outside, so you see just how many obstacles you have inside. Since I was practicing this as a teenager, which is rather common in Tibet, I had so much energy! It was not an easy thing. It was an especially powerful way to reveal how much internal movement arose as an obstacle to calm abiding.
Ajahn Sumedho: Naturally, you start people out from the point where they are, which for most people is attachment to objects and to ideas. You direct attention to very obvious existing conditions, such as the inhalation, the exhalation, the physical body, the experience of sitting, standing, walking and lying down. We point students to impermanence; we get them to reflect on the changing of thoughts, of history and so forth. Starting with the first noble truth, the point is to use the awareness to notice the existing conditions one is experiencing, such as thinking or emotional feeling. You can notice any conditioned phenomenon—its arising, its presence and its absence. When you begin to recognize the sensation of thought or emotional experience through this development of awareness and you recognize how things arise and cease, your relationship to them is no longer one of personal identity, which is the second noble truth.
Allowing things to cease in your mind, you have insight into the third noble truth of cessation, the end of suffering or the end of an arising condition. – Ajahn Sumedho
Now one sees the nature of conditioned development in terms of dhammas [discrete building blocks of experience]. Samskaras [mental formations] are seen as impermanent, and that which is aware of the impermanence takes refuge in transcending the conditioned realm. You are now at the gate to the deathless realm, the unconditioned. Allowing things to cease in your mind, you have insight into the third noble truth of cessation, the end of suffering or the end of an arising condition. With this perspective on human existence, we have insight into the fourth noble truth, the path of non-attachment, or non-identity with conditioned phenomenon. At this point, there’s no need to use form anymore because the path of awareness is very clear.
Gaylon Ferguson: The beginning of practice in our tradition, which is derived from both the Kagyü and Nyingma lineages of Tibet, is closely related to what the others have discussed. Specifically, we begin with shamatha and vipashyana, calm abiding and insight. The student begins with mindfulness of body and mindfulness of the breathing as objects, and then moves to some insight into the nature of reality and on to an experience of spaciousness or egolessness. At that point, one begins to work with compassion practices to awaken the heart, the bodhicitta practices associated with Atisha. Those lojong, or mind-training, practices often involve resting the mind in its basic nature, in its fundamental goodness, as the basis for compassion practice.
The full development of the formless aspect of this meditation path is called Mahamudra in the Kagyü lineage and Maha Ati or Dzogchen in the Nyingma lineage. In those advanced meditation practices, the essence of mind is itself taken as the formless object of meditation. Alongside those techniques, Vajrayana, or tantra, uses visualizations and mantras as part of what’s called the development stage of a sadhana, a ritual practice liturgy. The development stage is always accompanied by a completion stage, in which you dissolve the visualization. You no longer rest your mind on visualizing something or saying a mantra; you rest rather in the essence of what you’ve been connecting with through the mantra recitation and visualization. The completion stage of a sadhana practice, then, is another instance of formless practice.
Buddhadharma: Where does the stability of calm abiding fit into the visualization and mantra practice?
Gaylon Ferguson: The stability or the shamatha aspect of visualizing and reciting is that your mind stays with what you’re visualizing and reciting rather than wandering off to a laundry list of other things. One can definitely develop shamatha further during visualization; that’s part of its importance. It’s a way of developing a deeper kind of stability, stability in some of the qualities of mind that are represented by, let’s say, Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, or Manjushri, the bodhisattva of insight. One is resting one’s mind in those very qualities by visualizing them in particular forms.
Buddhadharma: You have all talked about intensive training as a prerequisite to formless meditation. Sometimes one hears people saying they’re practicing formless meditation, Dzogchen, for example, and after practicing for about a year, they claim to have experiences of bliss and self-liberation. How do you know if that’s genuine?
Tenzin Wangyal: In the end, it’s very difficult to know. You can never judge other people’s experience. You see, 99.9% of people might not be having that kind of experience, but there might be 0.01% who could have that experience. How can we judge? We are trying to define what’s happening in the moment and by so doing, we spoil it.
Buddhadharma: So if you practice with Ajahn Sumedho, do you get a different kind of formless meditation experience than if you practice with Reverend Bennage, or in the Kagyü or Nyingma traditions? Are there different kinds of formless meditation experience?
Tenzin Wangyal: Of course, it’s very important to define more precisely what formless meditation means. Does it simply mean meditation without an external object? Does it refer to a feeling in the body? Does it refer to whether you are focusing on the emotions in the mind or not? As far as Dzogchen is concerned, formless practice does not have much to do with emotions or feelings or external objects. Ultimately, it’s about the observer. At some point you have to get beyond that. That’s real formless meditation. Everything else is an approximation of formless meditation, where you might say you are having experiences of bliss, for example. You might indeed experience bliss, but there’s definitely somebody who wants that bliss and does not want to let go of it. You cannot say the experience is not bliss, but it’s not real formless meditation. There’s no “object” per se, but meditation experiences become objects.
Gaylon Ferguson: This comparison of experience and practice across traditions applies not just to formless meditation but to meditation altogether. Is all Buddhist meditation in essence the same? Certainly we hope that it’s all a matter of the wakefulness of the Buddha. There’s an essence of wakefulness that is the nature of mind and it is inseparable from the nature of reality. That understanding is held by all the traditions. At the same time, there’s undoubtedly a different flavor of practicing satipatthana, the Theravada tradition; practicing shikantaza or zazen; or practicing formless meditation within a Vajrayana sadhana. I’m sure the experience of a specific tradition has its particular flavor. Do the others think that’s true?
Dai-En Bennage: I do believe that the fruits of practice come in many flavors, but that there is some commonality that we see manifests itself in students as growing spaciousness and growing acceptance over time. I think of the example of Brother David Steindl-Rast, who was interested in beginning Zen practice with Shimano Eido Roshi. He had to ask his superior for permission, and his superior asked to meet the teacher first. After the meeting, Brother David asked his superior, “What do you think?” He replied, “He spoke like a monk, he moved like a monk, he acted like a monk, and I didn’t understand a single word he said, but you may go and practice with him.”
This commonality covers not only Buddhism but any practice of giving up ego for the greater good of sentient beings. The flavors are also important, but I’d like to hope that there is commonality that runs through numerous traditions.
Buddhadharma: At times, people might want to taste a lot of different flavors. Is it best to remain with the style of meditation practice in one’s own tradition, or at a certain point is it worth exploring and testing another flavor to see where the commonality is?
Ajahn Sumedho: I can’t speak for anyone else, but I would definitely say that as you have insight into formless reality, then of course you could appreciate all the different methods or techniques. It’s not as if you feel that yours is the only way to do it, because emptiness, non-attachment, non-self, is the universal reality. It’s not personal; it doesn’t belong to any group or tradition. It isn’t even Buddhist.
Buddhadharma: If you’re practicing in the Theravada tradition, for example, and you’re introduced to shikantaza, would it be valid to say that you’re practicing the same thing under another name?
Ajahn Sumedho: Well, I’ve not practiced those ways, so I can’t speak from experience, but the reality of emptiness is the point of it. If those ways of practice lead to that, then that’s excellent. Who can argue with that? One has to follow where your interest and your faith lies. If one has a particular affinity with a particular tradition, that’s probably the right one to follow.
Dai-En Bennage: Affinity is really important. It’s not that one teacher is more skilled than another. I dearly loved and venerated the first teacher I had, but in my forties I didn’t have the physical stamina to work with the Rinzai tradition on that level. By happenstance, I found a shikantaza tradition in which I could work broadly and deeply. I tell students in the beginning that if they still have the opportunity to go to other places to please take advantage of it now and find the best working combination for them.
In my own case I trained in one tradition, but I was interested in Thich Nhat Hanh, because I wanted to see how the teaching was done in English, since I had all of my training in Japanese. Our abbot was quiet about this idea, but then she said, “Dai-En, you are so close to full understanding, could you please wait? Once you recognize that, then go to another style.” I followed her advice and I am glad I did, because I did not confuse the two streams. I was clear on my primary training, and then when I took that understanding to a different school there was no confusion.
Some students will come for a full introduction and then I won’t see them again, and I might get in touch with them and they’ll say, “Well, I have this foundation; now I can do it all on my own.” I respond by asking, “Have you ever wondered why it’s important for teachers to be trained a dozen years, fifteen years or more? What is available in that intensive training?” Some understand that, but not everybody.
Gaylon Ferguson: I think it’s important to stay with one’s tradition and take it to some completion rather than spiritual shopping or giving into spiritual materialism. I like Ajahn Samedho’s use of the word emptiness, because it seems to me with formless meditation we are talking about different ways of realizing emptiness or resting in emptiness. And yet emptiness manifests in myriad ways through the compassion of the Buddhas. They’ve given us these various compassionate skillful means that have the different flavors we’re talking about. One could have affinity with different aspects of the Buddha’s wisdom that show up in different traditions. But it seems a misuse of that skillfulness to hop from tradition to tradition prematurely.
Buddhadharma: If a student asked you to compare shikantaza, silent illumination, Dzogchen and Vipassana, how would approach that kind of question?
Gaylon Ferguson: One would have needed to have practiced in all those traditions.
Dai-En Bennage: Correct. To actually taste each of those—that’s a rare person. How can we open our mouths to make a judgment about a style in which we have no experience, no guided training?
Tenzin Wangyal: There are a few issues we are mixing here. We are talking about formless meditation and we are also talking about the commonality in different traditions. In essence, formless meditation has got to be the same, because formless is formless. What makes the difference is the form, how one is introduced to the form, the development of the form, and how one enters into the formless from there. These are the things that create the differences.
In the buddhadharma, there are many tenet systems, doctrinal systems, and as a result there are differences we have to acknowledge, for example between Madhyamika and Cittamatra. In the monastery, people study these for years and try to understand the fine points of difference. But these differences do not mean one is good and the other is bad. The point is to come to deeper understanding. For example, some aspects of Hinduism and Shaivism seem so similar to Dzogchen. Are they really similar or not? That’s a big question and it could be quite worthwhile to debate it.
When it comes to the formless, every tradition has different ways to do it. I always encourage students to listen to other teachers and to gain more understanding, but it’s always important to have one thing that you follow completely. That’s not a question of one being better than another; it’s more a question of energy and time. If you’re focusing on too many things, you might not have anything in the end.
Formless meditation is supported by all sorts of forms in all sorts of traditions. Not only that, it is supported by everyday human experience. If you carry a big weight and walk for many miles and then you set it down . . . imagine that moment. You say, “Aah,” and in that very moment you can have a great life experience that does not belong to any tradition. It needs no label. A moment of physical or emotional exhaustion can give you great access to stillness. Everybody has that, even if they haven’t heard one word of dharma.
Buddhadharma: Is that a Dzogchen experience?
Tenzin Wangyal: Sure. No doubt.
Buddhadharma: So the Dzogchen tradition exists to bring about more of that kind of experience?
Tenzin Wangyal: Yes, definitely. Dzogchen is unique in that there is a sense of engaging less with the conceptual mind and emotions. We do need to engage them to some degree because they are within our experience, but we engage them minimally in achieving formless experience.
Gaylon Ferguson: Formless meditation is ultimately about non-conceptual wisdom, so I would like to reiterate Reverend Bennage’s point that the fruit of all of these practices, what we would look for, would not be a matter of the technique or the practices themselves. We would look for less fixation on self, more gentleness and more compassion. That would be the proof of the pudding of formless meditation.
Buddhadharma: Once a student engages at the level of formless meditation practice, are there still many obstacles and much work to do on the path? Are there still dangers?
Dai-En Bennage: This reminds me of when my Rinzai master, Omori Sogen Roshi, gave inka to one of his monks. Even though there is a certain sense of graduating at that point, an acknowledgement of a level of understanding, Roshi still insisted that the monk train with him three more years in order that he see with veracity that he had that level of understanding and that he was not trapped by his own understanding. Those three years turned out to be necessary.
It is also important for those of us who have trained in a sangha to see everyone as good dharma brothers or dharma sisters. It’s the notion of “fare well.” I was once seen off with a farewell meal by a wonderful Catholic priest, who was genuinely wishing me to fare well. If there is someone whose nose-picking bothers you, you need to work on that kind of thing as soon as possible, because you will focus on external objects again and again. In my experience, our fellow monks and nuns were not only our greatest challenges, they were also wonderful teachers. There were times I wanted to quit and someone’s hands raised in gassho made me feel ashamed and renewed my determination.
People want to change and transform, but by that they almost always mean external situations. They continue to carry the same mind. If you really need to change, you need to change not the appearance, but the view. -Tenzin Wangyal
Gaylon Ferguson: Taking pride in one’s practice or building up one’s ego through practice is a possible obstacle at any point along the path, whether we’re discussing practices with form or the formless practices. One needs continual surrendering and giving in to the genuineness of experience as opposed to building up any kind of conceptual territory.
Tenzin Wangyal: At this stage, one needs to look into the nature of the obstacle itself. Take anger, for example. We think of anger as having an external basis, so that if we let go of the source of the anger, the anger is let go of. Again, we are focusing on the external form. Better to look into the anger itself. It has energetic qualities, pranic qualities. It travels in the channels [nadis] and on the winds [prana]. There are subtler reasons for anger than the appearance of pesky neighbors. One needs to go backward, inward, to the subtlest karmic traces of mind.
People want to change and transform, but by that they almost always mean external situations. They continue to carry the same mind. If you really need to change, you need to change not the appearance, but the view.
Ajahn Sumedho: In the Theravada tradition, we speak of progress on the path in terms of being released from the ten fetters. The first ones have to do with being bound to the self as an individual personality and then to our cultural conditioning. Then we are still stuck with the existing conditions of consciousness in a human form and the anger and fear that are not mere cultural conditioning. As further awareness develops, attachment even to the body and subtle energies falls away. The final relinquishment centers on a lingering sense of self. As we give that up, we are accepted in the universe. For the arhat, there is no more delusion.
Generally speaking, what keeps you going on the path is that as you practice and develop, your sense of faith increases. I had a lot of doubt and skepticism: did this brilliant philosophy have any practical application to anything I was interested in doing? But as I began to practice and live the life of the monk, I began to experience good results. That began to increase my faith in the practice, which helped to carry me through a lot of difficulties. You realize there is nothing else. The vehicle is what you surrender to rather than trying to find the perfect place to live, or the ideal companion to live with or a utopian world. You are always balancing faith, saddha, with wisdom, panna. They work together.
Eventually, I did a lot of meditation on space. The mind is always looking for objects. In a monastery, for example, you get caught up with your relationships with other monks and their personalities. I began to develop an awareness of the spaces between the monks rather than simply getting caught in, “This one I like; this one I don’t like.” I tell students that instead of focusing on this one or that one, look in-between, just using space.
I found the most insight to sensory experience in listening to sounds and recognizing the arising and ceasing of sound and then recognizing the stillness, the still point in background of it all. That gave me a clear sense of being very empty. It gave perspective. It wasn’t a style, but rather a way of getting perspective on conditions as I experience them. You begin working on levels of infinity, the immeasurableness of space, stillness or silence. Then you are fully connected in consciousness to the whole universe. You no longer feel separateness in terms of form or convention. The formless doesn’t mean an absence of form. It just means non-attachment to the form that exists in the present.
Ajahn Sumedho is the senior Western disciple of the late Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah, and abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Centre in Hertfordshire, England.
Reverend Patricia Dai-En Bennage is head teacher at Mt. Equity, a Soto Zen monastery in Pennsylvania. She is translator of Abbess Shundo Aoyama Roshi’s Zen Seeds.
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche is president and resident lama at Ligmincha Institute in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trained in both Bön and Buddhist Dzogchen, he is author of Wonders of the Natural Mind.
Acharya Gaylon Ferguson is teacher-in-residence at Karme Chöling Shambhala Buddhist Meditation Center in Barnet Vermont.