Tilopa’s advice on non-acquisitive meditation

Tilopa, a 10-11th century Indian meditation teacher, is the author of some famous words of advice, his ‘six nails’. This is a very concise translation:

No thought, no reflection, no analysis,

no cultivation, no intention;

let it settle itself.

We might interpret this as a non-acquisitive approach to mindful meditation.

So, what is Tilopa suggesting we do – or not do?

Although he says, ‘don’t think’ – in my view, he doesn’t mean ‘stop thinking’, which would be to deny one of the gifts of being human, rather he means don’t over-think – don’t react to thoughts (or emotions, moods, sensations) with more thoughts. Don’t add a burden of thought, opinion, commentary and judgment, to thoughts that arise naturally in the course of meditation. Just let them alone. Don’t dwell on them. Let them be.

As to, ‘no reflection’ and ‘no analysis’, Tilopa is emphasising the point that we should let go of what has passed – not subjecting passing thoughts, sensations and emotions to endless internal debate and conjecture. Rather than going over and over, or ruminating on, thoughts that come and go, just attend to them as they arise and release them into the past. Reflection and analysis are forms of attachment – holding on to what is already departing – dwelling on the past. It brings to mind the image of someone arriving late at a railway station and grabbing the door-handle of a passing carriage in a desperate attempt to stop the train and to get on board. The train is on its way. Let go, or you’ll be dragged along with it. Better to sit quietly, ready for the next train – if it comes.

‘No cultivation’ and ‘no intention’ are concerned with our relationship with the future. Tilopa is asking us to let go of our usual tendency to want to control what is going to happen next, even though we haven’t observed clearly what is happening now. Sitting in meditation in order to become a different person, or sitting in order to become enlightened, or to be happy, or at peace – these are misguided approaches to being mindful. To be mindful is to sit with full attention on the whole field of consciousness as it is now – not as we might wish it to be or hope for it to be. Dwelling in a speculative future is as much a hindrance to clear presence as is dwelling in the past. Tilopa is asking us to gently relax our hold on our projections, expectations, hopes and imaginings – in order to be in the here and now – in order to have a clearer view of who we are, and how we are, in this present moment.

Tilopa is not saying, ‘don’t ever reflect, analyse, cultivate, or have intentions, or plans’. He is simply reminding us that in order to do any of these things in a wise and informed manner, we first need to attend to what is happening now, to be clear about who we are and how the world is. In other words, in order to make wise decisions, or act in a beneficial way, it is important to be clear about what is going on now, and to have a sense of how our decisions and actions will effect what is happening. Beneficial decisions and actions are more likely to arise if they are grounded in a clear, open and balanced view of the present situation.

When Tilopa says, finally, ‘let it settle itself’, he is advising us to relax into each moment. Not to be grasping at past or future, or to dwell unduly on thoughts, emotions and sensations – but to open our minds, hearts and bodies to what is happening now. To pay attention to the whole field of experience as it flows and changes and arises, freshly-minted, at each breath. Let go of the fitful, scurrying, clinging and grasping mind, in favour of letting things settle – instead of stirring the pool, making it cloudy and hard to see into, sit quietly and watch the silt settle and see clearly from top to bottom. In this way we are enlightened – in that our worries, thoughts and moods become less of a burden, and in the sense that we can see our way more clearly – enabling us to do things more effectively.

In Japanese Zen, Tilopa’s advice is echoed in the term, ‘mushotoku’, often translated as, ‘no profit, no gain’. We sit just to sit – not to achieve enlightenment or peace of mind. There is nothing to be gained, nothing to be attached to. Rather, we sit in order to let go – to set down our baggage, burdens, opinions, hopes and longings – in order to find what is here all the time, our true selves or Buddha nature – the fluid relational self that is who we are.

All we need to do, is to let go and be present. To sit, mind open and calm, awake to whatever comes and goes. Not stirring up thoughts, but also not repressing thoughts – just letting be. Mind and body at one – unitary embodied mind.

Buddha mind is everyday mind, everyday mind is Buddha mind – so long as we are mindful, awake, present.

Practice is enlightenment. Enlightenment is practice.