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Keys to Visualization Practice
Liao Fan's Four Lessons
Nuggets for Practice
What do you see from this photo?
|Posted: Fri Dec 19, 2008 4:18 pm Post subject: Keys to Visualization Practice
|Visualization practice is a way to strengthen the vision, and here's a selection from my book Twenty-Five Doors to Meditation that explains these practices:
Visualization methods are just another expedient technique we can use to focus the mind and attain mental quiet. By focusing the mind on a simple or complicated mental image, we can arrive at the single-mindedness of samadhi concentration. From this state, our chi and mai will transform, and then with continued practice we can eventually enter into a deep state of mental calm. The ranks of spiritual attainment common to the cultivation schools of the world all involve this single-mindedness, or one-pointed concentration. When miscellaneous thoughts are abandoned and the mind is calmed through concentration, this is the samadhi of stopping.
One means to attain this type of concentration is to internally visualize an image of some simple auspicious object (such as a Buddha or holy letter) which will not create any subconscious problems. When a practitioner can finally visualize this image so clearly and completely that the mind becomes concentrated to a point, they should then switch their focus from the mental image to contemplate emptiness. In other words, the practitioner so concentrates until whatever they envision becomes "radiantly" sharp, or " crystal clear" (which is the sign of successful concentration), and then they must release this mental fabrication to enjoy the realm of mental quiet we call "emptiness".
Within this emptiness, they must look around to realize that this emptiness is still a construction. In a sense we can say this emptiness "floats" in the formlessness of the mind and when you realize what we're talking about, and recognize the mind rather than the emptiness or thoughts, this is prajna wisdom.
Another alternative to the achievement of concentration is to keep reducing the size of your visualization to such a microscopic point that the furthest point of reduction naturally blends into an empty state of void. This takes an extreme amount of concentration and is similar to the idea of continually splitting a particle of dust in half until you arrive at atoms; keep splitting the atom in halves and you eventually arrive at emptiness. Of course at that point of concentrated visualization, a practitioner must really let go and forget everything, even emptiness itself, and this begins the practice of contemplating mind.
In general, one-pointed visualization practice is a technique for achieving cessation by tightly tying the sixth consciousness to a visualized mental image. After one attain the requisite concentration, they must abandon their visualization and use insight-contemplation to investigate the fundamental nature of the mind.
So as in most all the methods we examined, the point is to reach some stage of cessation or stopping, where the mad rushing mind has stopped, and then to cultivate the wisdom awareness of this void. This emptiness is also a type of thought phenomena, so if you can realize that this is also a thought and abandon this idea of emptiness, then you're really making progress in cultivation. This is really "turning within", because that thought of emptiness is still something without.
An alternative route, as followed in the school of Tibetan Buddhism, is not to visualize a simple object, but to so tax the practitioner's concentration with a complicated object that they finally, under the strain, can let go completely to attain emptiness. Thus the Tibet school asks practitioners to visualize a complicated mandala, with hundreds of layers of detail, while simultaneously reciting mantras, performing mudras, ringing bells, imaging that they're a divine deity, and performing various other complicated instructions.
In this practice, the individual assumes so many burdens upon their concentration that they eventually tire from the effort and relax from the strain by abandoning everything, which results in cessation. This is reaching discriminative emptiness through overloading thoughts, rather than by subtracting thoughts.
A similar example would be the case of imposing so many tasks on a computer that it finally slows to a halt, or loading a bridge with so much weight that it finally breaks. Naturally we're not talking about a mental breakdown, but a pathway for reaching emptiness by demanding that one's normal concentration expands to include limitless detail. Rather than reduce things to the simplicity of a microscopic point of concentration, one expands their mental tasks to include the complexity of the infinite.
Many people pursue complicated visualization practices without realizing this key point--that they must construct from nothing, and then abandon, a highly complicated mental fabrication in order to achieve emptiness. Unfortunately, many people believe that the purpose of visualizations is to actually build up one's "imagination muscles" by holding onto a visualization rather than to attain the state free of any images.
It's true that you want to arrive at the state of one-pointedness in concentration, which leads to cessation and samadhi, but you want to do this in a certain special way. Even when people perform visualization practice somewhat successfully, they usually attain some stage similar to the samadhi of neither thought nor no-thought whereas the actual goal of visualization practice is to attain the samadhi of infinite consciousness. But this level of technical detail is something we can't enter into.
In short, the actual measure of success in visualization practice is whether or not you can attain a state of spiritual samadhi rather than whether or not you can hold a stable image in the mind, which can just as easily correspond to mundane stabilization. One should attain the view of emptiness by abandoning the visualization, and apply introspection (internal watching, or observation turned around inwards) to see what is doing the seeing. Originally our mind is empty, but in visualization practice we mentally construct an object of focus.
The object is not special in itself, just a provisional means for focusing our attention. It's just a transient phenomenal realm with no special importance other than providing a focus point (hopefully auspicious) for our attention. After you focus on this provisional construction in order to get rid of excessive mental chatter, you must abandon your fixation and then apply contemplation, which is the silent mental watching and nondiscriminative awareness which gives rise to prajna wisdom. Visualization practices, like many other cultivation techniques, thus do not depart from the standard principles of cessation and contemplation.
You can reduce a visualized image to such a tiny point that only emptiness is left, or you can widen the task of visualization to such a large extent that the magnitude of the effort virtually overwhelms your mental chatter to produce cessation. This is similar to the method proposed by the Mexican sorcerer don Juan, who suggested that you gorge the field of vision with an entire horizon in order to shut off mental chatter. In either case, you are not seeking to produce a state of emptiness characterized by blockage, which can happen here, but are seeking to give rise to state of empty but clear awareness.
Yet another form of one-pointed visualization practice, which is popular in Esoteric Buddhism, is to focus one's visualization efforts on a particular tantric deity. In this practice, you form your visualization by moving your awareness from the top downward, and then from the feet upwards, flowing through the visualized form so as to cultivate a rough image of the deity and their attributes. If you really practice well, which is usually done in sessions lasting three or more continuous hours, people who pass by your room will often see you in the image of your visualized deity. The Tibetans have many symbolic mandala and visualization ceremonies, but this is the real sort of visualization practice, and it's cultivating your chi and mai.
At the start of this type of practice, the image you're concentrating upon won't appear clearly but will fade every now and then. When that happens and the image becomes unclear, you must simply return to rejuvenate the visualization and continue meditating. Eventually the radiant presence of the visualization will increase, and you will attain the evenness of mental stability. The Tibet school never tells you the secret importance of this practice, but it's main effect is for cultivating your chi and mai; as the image becomes clear and stable, you're actually cultivating the areas of chi in your own body which match to the parts you are visualizing in your image.
In effect, everything we see is a visualization, everything about us is a mandala, everything will appear like a vivid dream state if we can just attain mastery of our chi and mai, and then move onwards from there . There's no difference between a visualized mental image or the real world of images about us, so everything we see can be used as mandala practice if we learn detachment and view the world as if it's a dream. In I-Ching studies, we would say everything is a hexagram just hanging there in space ready for our interpretation, and in esotericism we would say everything is a mandala.
Every state constitutes a vision of "radiant appearance", and so all phenomena should be viewed as if they were being seen in a vivid, lucid dream. After all, just as in a dream, there's nothing you can grab hold of in the regular world as well; even though it seems more compact than the dream state, it's just as unreliable. Thus every situation should become a moment of practice, and this is how visualization practice enters the everyday world.
Visualizations are "adding cultivation practices" which cause you to add on more and more things until you can naturally let go and rest. They're often suited to people who are naturally-busy minded, tending to use their minds too much. "Subtraction methods" let you subtract thoughts until you reach emptiness. Such techniques are suited for those who are naturally empty. On the other hand, those who don't use their thinking processes too much can practice the visualization techniques in order to train their mind and help it become more refined.
Visualization practices are sometimes hard for people to master if they lose sight of these principles of practice. However, you should try it to see if you have a karmic affinity for this type of practice. The point is not whether you like a particular cultivation practice, but whether it is effective for you and produces results. The best cultivation practices for us are typically those we hate to undertake, for this dislike is often indicative of bad karma trying to intercede and prevent us from making spiritual cultivation progress.
Willpower : Being unconquerable lies with yourself. | Focus : Do not see, but watch the seeing. | Visualizations : Stretch as the boundaries of the Universe.