This page is a work in progress. There are certain questions that arise naturally in getting to understand how Vajrayana differs from mainstream Buddhism. Those questions tend to crop up regularly and this page is an attempt to answer them generically. I’ll hopefully expand each question into a page of its own with a link from here.
Generic answers can only go so far. What these FAQ lack is knowledge of who you are and why you might want to know. When individuals ask me questions about meditation and practice, I try to respond to the person by answering in a way that makes sense according to their experience. If something here doesn’t make sense to you, ask for clarification.
Seems like Shi-ne and Shamatha are practically the same?
This question arises naturally from the apparent similarities between different versions of shi-ne and shamatha. These meditations involve sitting still, calming the mind of chatter, watching the breath. However, there are many versions. Despite superficial similarities, methods and outcomes may be quite different.
Shi-ne is the Tibetan translation of shamatha. It means “calm abiding.” Shi-ne/shamatha may have distinct characteristics according to tradition and teacher. When it’s called shamatha, the meditation tends towards deep focused, breath-centered concentration. When it’s called shi-ne, it’s more usually taught as an expansive practice. But there are exceptions, the two words are interchangeable. Some teachers suggest finding a continuum between focused concentration and expansive awareness. I don’t: I think concentration and expansive awareness result in distinct and qualitatively different capacities and that it’s interestingly useful not to attempt to merge the outcomes.
When I write about shi-ne on this site, I am referring to the first meditation practice in the Four Naljors of Dzogchen Sem-dé, as taught in this online meditation course. In practice this style of shi-ne, both its methodology and contextual framework, is not the same as concentration practice. It leads to an experience of effortless, clear awareness.
Concentrative shamatha focuses the attention. Focused concentration is a kind of skilled, mental manipulation. That’s natural. There’s a tendency in silent sitting practice to want to manipulate, because that’s what we do all the time. Our mental activity is habitually manipulative – it’s similar to how molding a piece of clay in our hands is manipulative. We manipulate thought, automatically, even without thinking about our thinking. Also we develop the capacity to go one or more levels meta to that automatic process and consciously manipulate our thoughts. We’re highly skilled manipulators. As an aspiring mathematician I’m enjoying pushing my cognitive capacity beyond its current limits in manipulating structures. Many meditations, including shamatha concentration practice, make good use of this manipulative skill, putting it in service of a conscious intent. Focusing on an object for extended periods of time has fairly definable results: improved capacity for concentration, fully involved absorption, more awareness of the minute detail and variation of the object of attention.
Shi-ne practice without an object, or “focus-free,” refrains from mental manipulation. The principle of this kind of shi-ne practice is to “remain uninvolved” with the content of mind. The method is to find awareness without manipulation of mental, sensory or emotional content. Focused concentration is a particular kind of involvement – it is consciously directed, exclusive. Expansive shi-ne is the practice of finding awareness without specific, exclusive focus. It is unnatural, in that it is not habitual for us. It’s not a variation or an intensification of what we do normally. It’s orthogonal to our ordinary practice of being human, that is, of being involved. This kind of shi-ne is useful because of its non-ordinary nature. Remaining uninvolved with the content of being, maintaining clear expansive presence at the same time, can be shockingly, humorously, poignantly revealing.
I wrote more about shi-ne here.