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 in these categories, I try to respond to the person by phrasing the answer in a way that makes sense to them. If something here makes no sense to you, feel free to ask for more specific clarification.
Seems like Shi-ne and Shamatha are practically the same?
This is a common question. It arises naturally from their apparent similarities. These meditations involve sitting still, calming the mind of chatter, watching the breath…what’s so different?
Shi-ne is the Tibetan translation of shamatha. It means “calm abiding.” In practice shi-ne is taught distinctly according to tradition. Some lineages teach a practice similar to shamatha – deep focused, breath-centered concentration. Others teach shi-ne as an expansive practice.
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 distinct to shamatha. They lead to substantially different experiences.
The practice of shamatha is to focus the attention. Focusing attention is a kind of 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, 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.
The practice of shi-ne is to refrain from manipulation. That is what ‘remaining uninvolved’ with the content of mind implies. 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 involvement. Shi-ne is the practice of finding awareness without focus. It is unnatural, in that it is not habitual for us. It’s not a variation or an intensification of what we normally do. It’s orthogonal to our ordinary practice of being human, that is, of being involved. Shi-ne is useful precisely because of its non-ordinariness. Remaining uninvolved with the content of being, maintaining clear expansive presence at the same time, can be shockingly, humorously, poignantly revealing.