Many meditation practices involve visualization. “Visualization,” however, might be a bit of a misleading translation, because we’re not using our eyes. We’re working with our imagination, so it’s not just visual, but we have to imagine sounds, smells, tastes and physical sensations too. When we make mental offerings of various substances, we imagine the sensory pleasure derived from enjoying them. Also, we’re not visualizing two-dimensional pictures; we need to visualize live, three-dimensional figures made of light and not just a picture, a statue or a cartoon figure
Focus on the Buddha
When doing concentration practice in the Mahayana tradition, many teachers advise focusing on the breath, simply because this is the easiest way to do it. The most common practice, however, in this tradition is to gain concentration through visualizing a small Buddha. We could also stare at an apple and gain concentration, but really, what’s the benefit of staring at an apple? If we focus on a Buddha, then in addition to gaining concentration, we are also remaining aware of a Buddha’s qualities and can add putting the safe direction in our lives (refuge) that is indicated by Buddha, aiming to become Buddhas ourselves with bodhichitta, and so forth.
Further, the ancient Indian master Asanga pointed out that the achievement of perfect concentration comes through mental consciousness, not with any of the sense consciousnesses. This is because we’re going to apply that concentration to generating love, compassion, understanding voidness and so on with our minds. In order to gain concentration in the state of mind we’re trying to generate, visualizing a Buddha image is a tool, then, to train our mental consciousness. Thus, especially in the Tibetan Gelug tradition, we always find the emphasis on visualizing the Buddha for gaining perfect concentration.
What about the Sakya, Nyingma and Kagyu traditions of Tibet where we frequently find advice to focus on the breath, or to focus with the eyes looking at a painting or a statue of a Buddha? Does this contradict Asanga’s advice? No, not when we look at their explanation of how the mind cognizes objects, where these three schools say that the eye consciousness is only aware of colored shapes, and only one moment at a time. Likewise the ear consciousness is only aware of sounds, one moment at a time. Conceptual cognition then puts it all together into what we could call a “common-sense object.”
For instance, an apple is not just a red spherical shape. It’s also not just a taste or a smell. It’s not just the physical sensation in your hand, or the sound when you bite it. It doesn’t just exist for one moment and then, the next, it’s a completely different object; there is continuity over time. The apple will eventually rot and fall apart, but there is a conventional apple that lasts over a few days. When you see the apple, you’re actually seeing a mental construct.
According to this explanation of cognition, when we focus on an apple or the breath, it’s a conceptual object, and conceptual objects are focused on with the mental consciousness. Conceptually, we put the colored shapes and smells and consecutive moments together into an object, that we might, with common sense, call an “apple,” or whatever. So, these schools are also honoring Asanga’s assertion that we need to develop concentration through mental consciousness.
The Actual Practice
If we work with a Buddha-figure for gaining concentration, then that Buddha needs to be about the size of our thumb, and be at the distance of about one arm’s length in front of us. Our eyes look downward, not actually at the object, as it’s not generated by your eyes. We look down and the Buddha is slightly above, at the level of our forehead.
It’s not so difficult at all. Look down toward the floor, and then hold your thumb in front of you at the level of the forehead. You have the feeling that your thumb is there, and without looking at it you can concentrate on your thumb, right? If you then put your arm down, you can still focus on that point where your thumb was. Easy!
In many Theravada Buddhist practices, it’s recommended to keep the eyes closed, but in the Mahayana texts it’s advised to keep the eyes open. There are some specific meditation practices where the eyes are kept wide open or closed, but in general Mahayana, the eyes are open, not shut. You don’t want the eyes completely open because then it’s easy to become distracted. So we look downward, towards the tip of the nose. This doesn’t mean we become cross-eyed but we look toward the floor at the level of the tip of the nose, loosely focused, not too intense: we’re not looking for our contact lens that’s dropped on the floor.
There are also disadvantages of meditating with the eyes closed. If we get into the habit of keeping our eyes completely closed in order to calm down and develop love and compassion, it can make it hard to do in every day life. When you’re interacting with people you can’t really all of a sudden shut your eyes and try to generate a state of mind – that might seem a bit weird. In Mahayana, we keep our eyes open slightly because what we’re doing is directed toward helping all other beings; we don’t want to shut them out. A subtler problem of meditating with the eyes closed, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama points out, is that the eyelids tend to flutter a bit and you also often see those dancing red spots, which is a distraction.
The Two Aspects of Visualization
When we visualize, there are two important aspects to take care about. One is making an appearance, which is often translated as “clarity,” but that’s not a great word because it implies something being in focus. At this point it’s not about this, it’s about making something appear with our imagination. The second factor is literally “pride,” where we have the pride of feeling whatever we’re visualizing is actually there.
Tsongkhapa explains that this pride, this feeling, is very important at the beginning. We don’t have to worry too much about our visualization being in focus, but if we can really feel that there is a Buddha there in front of us, it’s very good. All we need is some appearance, even just a yellow light, and think, “Yes, there’s an actual Buddha there.” The details will come automatically as our concentration improves.
Don’t Push Too Hard
One of the biggest mistakes we make as practitioners is getting hung up on the details of what something we’re trying to visualize is supposed to look like, what kind of jewellery and clothing there is, what color the eyes are and so on. This can make us so uptight that we can’t practice at all. It becomes much worse when we try to visualize an array of many figures. The texts don’t help either, because they provide all of the minute details, which give the impression that we’re supposed to be able to visualize them all from the very start. To be able to visualize all the details of a complex arrangement of many figures is unbelievably advanced. Eventually when we’re incredibly skilled, we’ll be able to visualize it all, but right now we can forget it. If we push too hard trying to get all the details, then we really will get what in Tibetan is called “lung,” where our energy gets disturbed and we feel frustrated.
Building Up Visualizations
Tsongkhapa provides very practical advice about complex visualizations, mentioning two traditions. One is to work on fine details one at a time, adding them until we get the whole picture. This method is appropriate for a few special individuals, he says. The majority of us will have to start with a vague image or feeling of the whole thing first, and then, within that framework, fill in the details over time.
It’s important that this process of adding details is accumulative, where you can have one detail in sharp focus, and then add one more without losing the first one. Then you have two in sharp focus, and can add a third without losing the first two. It’s crucial not to lose focus on what we’ve already maintained when you add something further.
If we’re visualizing a Buddha, Tsongkhapa advises us to start with the eyes. He then says that if the general form of the body is clear, we should hold that. If the general form is unclear but certain parts are clear, then we hold our attention onto whatever aspects are clear. If these few parts also fade, then we need to generate the entire general rough form once more.
Visualization as a Tool to Expand Awareness
What’s the point of all these complex visualization? It’s not just to develop mental athletic skills, where we end up winning the Olympic gold medal in visualization. All the details help to expand our mind’s awareness and understanding of many different things at once. The point is not what everything looks like, but rather what each detail represents.
Consider the case of the various causal practices that lead to becoming a Buddha: there are 32 major ones. It’s very difficult to keep our mind simultaneously on these 32 different practices, especially if we’re doing it in a totally abstract way. If we represent the 32 graphically in the form of the 32 excellent signs of a Buddha’s body, like the hair curling clockwise, it’s easier to put them all together, which is what we’re aiming for. If we haven’t been able to generate each of the individual realizations one at a time, how could we possibly network them all together? We’re aiming to benefit all beings, which means being aware of everyone at the same time. For this we need to expand our minds to slowly grow our awareness. These complicated visualizations help us to do this.