Special Topics

Buddhist Methods for Training the Mind - The Seven Stages to Regulate the Mind

Buddhist practice is about training our mind. Whether it is counting the breath, prostrating to the Buddha, sitting in meditation, reciting the Buddha's name, reciting dharanis/mantras, or reciting/transcribing the sutras, all these methods can help us cultivate concentration and remain focused and aware, as well as attain states of mental and physical peace and calm. If we develop a habit of doing routine practice, then even when an unexpected situation hits us, we can be more aware of our mental states, thereby reminding ourselves to return to the present moment to calmly deal with it.  

Due to constant exposure to fierce competition and immense pressure, people in modern times tend to experience tension and stress throughout their lives. This in turn leads to  illnesses typical of modern civilization which are chiefly related to our mental states. Normally, our mind changes with the external circumstances and, therefore, we are unable to settle the mind. If we face unexpected situations, our mind will become even more agitated. By training the mind through Chan meditation, our mind will become more stable. This in turn would allow us to contemplate our body and mind, so that we can be clearly aware of every moment and live in the present.   

How do we live in the present moment? We can do so by constantly contemplating our mind being clearly aware of our various mental states, as well as relaxing and letting go of  our body and mind. In his book "Discourses on and Experience in Chan", Master Sheng Yen notes that our minds often fall within two extreme states: a scattered state of mind, and the state of drowsiness and torpor. The former refers to a mind with numerous thoughts, unable to truly settle down; the latter, a mind in a muddled and lethargic state. As an antidote to drowsiness and torpor, the Master pointed out that we can try to take a good rest and have a nice sleep. Most of the methods for regulating the mind are meant for dealing with our scattered mind. Now we will use counting the breath as an example, to illustrate how to regulate our mind in seven stages:

The Seven Stages to Regulate the Mind

1. Before starting to count our breaths, we lack a focal point upon which to concentrate our mind . Our mind is swayed by the external circumstances, whether remembering the past or imagining the future. Our thoughts are continually changing--- arising and perishing incessantly.

2. When we start to count our breaths, our counting may become interrupted by our wandering thoughts arising in a steady stream. Nonetheless, at this point, our mind has a central object of concentration.

3. When counting our breaths, we may be able to do it continuously without losing the number for over 10 minutes. However, we might still have many wandering thoughts, accompanied by the right mindfulness of counting the breath.

4. When counting our breaths, we can maintain the right mindfulness with few wandering thoughts, though they may occasionally appear and disappear, thus interrupting the purity of our right mindfulness.

5. When counting our breaths, we have only one pure thought of counting in mind, and no longer have any wandering thoughts. Still, however, we are clearly aware of the self that is doing the counting, the breath being counted, and the number used for the counting. At this moment, our mind may be completely focused on the counting without being distracted, but there are at least three separate thoughts occurring simultaneously. 

6. When our counting reaches the point where we have forgotten about the number being counted and the act of counting itself, we will no longer feel the inside and outside boundary between our body, our mind, and the world. In addition, we lose any notion of opposition between self and others, thereby divested of any boundaries between subjectivity and objectivity. What emerges  is a unified, harmonious, wonderful, and indescribable state of being as well as a sensation filled with energy and joy. At this point, at least one thought still remains. Only when we reach this point can we be said to be in line with the phenomenon of concentration.

7. When our breath counting reaches the point where we feel our body, mind, and world have all disappeared, the sense of time and space has shattered, and the perception of existence and non-existence has vanished, we enter a state of tranquil emptiness. That is a state transcending all perceptual and conceptual realms: an enlightened state that cannot be described using names, language, words, characteristics, and forms.

In the abovementioned seven stages, the first relates to the scattered mind; stages two to five the process of concentrating our mind; and the sixth and seventh, the state of concentration and enlightenment.

Extended Reading:

Modern People's Mental Issues - Too many wandering thoughts

Modern People's Mental Issues - Materialistic Obsession

Modern People's Mental Issues - Chronic Depression

Modern People's Mental Issues - Intense Anger

Buddhist Methods for Training the Mind - The Seven Stages to Regulate the Mind

The Key to Training the Mind—Chan Practice

The Key to Training the Mind—Single-minded, undisturbed concentration through Buddha-name recitation

The Key to Training the Mind—A focused mind through upholding a dharani/mantra

Resource: Issue 316 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Issue 316 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Translation: Audrey 
Editing: Keith Brown, Chia-cheng Chang (張家誠), Jordan