A CONTEMPLATIVE RESEARCH OBSERVATORY
A blueprint for developing optimal contemplative technology, written over 600 years ago in Tibet by Je Tsongkhapa Lobsang Drakpa. These pages describe the moment at which one attains a serviceable telescope with one’s own mind—a state of perfectly refined and balanced attention known as “shamatha.”
Just as astronomers need observatories and neuroscientists need laboratories to conduct their research, so do contemplatives need supportive environments, companions, and mentors to optimally develop the contemplative technology of shamatha and the contemplative science of vipashyana.
— B. Alan Wallace
Epilogue to Fathoming the Mind:
Inquiry and Insight in Düdjom Lingpa’s Vajra Essence
We create the facilities for advanced mind training
Star athletes, neurosurgeons, and world-class performing artists all train intensively for years and often decades to become the best in their field. Training the mind is no different. It not only takes practice, determination, and a skillful application of refined methods; it also takes dedicated facilities with expert coaches, a conducive environment, and the opportunity to dedicate oneself for years to push beyond what few think is possible. We know this is true for anyone who wishes become a seasoned professional in their field.
We rely on ancient traditions
Olympic athletes of mind training have existed for millennia in many different parts of the world, and have been particularly prominent within the cultures of India, China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, and Southeast Asia. But Eurocentric scientific culture has largely ignored them—perhaps because their ideas are so advanced. As Arthur C. Clarke said of any sufficiently advanced technology, it is (to us) indistinguishable from magic.
What will it take for us to understand an ancient technology so well from the inside, that we can recreate it ourselves, and know for sure that it is replicable and scientific in its rigor?
Inner and outer prerequisites
Each Center for Contemplative Research is designed to provide an optimal environment for individuals who are committed to undergoing the necessary years of training to become true professionals in contemplative science. These practitioners are willing to do what it takes to turn their own minds into suitable instruments of technology: to go from being star-gazers to astronomers, with their own minds as the highly-refined telescopes.
While it requires significant personal preparation and study to be ready to embark on such a path of rigorous contemplative training, one must also finally have the opportunity to practice in a conducive, supportive environment. According to traditional Buddhist descriptions, such an optimal place for practice is one in which:
- Basic necessities like food and clothing are easily obtained, without having to travel outside the Hermitage.
- One feels safe and protected from intrusions or danger.
- The retreat setting is beautiful and good for one’s health.
- One shares in companionship with other ethical, like-minded practitioners, focused on essentially the same goals.
- The environment is quiet and set apart from busy places, so that one is not distracted by regular visitors or excessive noise.
The all-important inner prerequisites that a dedicated contemplative must cultivate to succeed in developing a sublimely balanced state of mind are as follows:
- Having few desires for things one doesn’t have.
- Being content with what one does have.
- Having few concerns and activities that may distract from single-pointed focus on practice.
- Maintaining pure ethical discipline.
- Utterly dispensing with rumination involving desire and so on, not only while in formal meditation but also between sessions.
Beyond these, one’s practice of generosity, ethics, patience, and enthusiasm are necessary preconditions for achieving firm meditative stability, or shamatha. This in turn is understood as the final preparation for cultivating deep insight into the nature of reality through the practice of disciplined inquiry known as vipashyana.
It is this process of penetrating investigation that is true contemplative science, since it can lead to discoveries about the nature of reality. But without the highly refined tool of unwavering meditative attention, one would not be able to make reliable discoveries about the nature of the mind and its role in Nature, any more than a star-gazer makes scientific discoveries about the stars and planets without a telescope.
It is said in Buddhist contemplative tradition that if one has fulfilled all the outer and inner prerequisites for achieving shamatha, it may be achieved, irreversibly and with stability, within one year of full-time practice in a suitable environment. But if such prerequisites have not been met, shamatha may never be achieved, no matter how long or how hard one may try. So the right environment is essential.
Finally, since many inner and outer challenges, or “upheavals,” are bound to arise in the course of intensive shamatha practice, it is imperative to have guidance from skilled teachers who have been through such intensive training before, and are knowledgeable about the immense body of instructions passed on by accomplished contemplatives of the past.
Thus, a Contemplative Research Observatory requires three essential components:
- A quiet, beautiful environment, set apart from towns, cities, or major roads, with individual retreat cabins in which a meditator can practice in solitude for weeks or months on end, voluntarily withdrawn into the isolated laboratory of their own minds and bodies, and supported by a sensitive caretaker
- An ethical, loving community of practitioners following similar schedules and practices, with similar goals and a sense of deep mutual respect
- Qualified, compassionate, experienced teachers who are well-versed in ancient methods and contemporary applications
A data pool for novel scientific research
Thus, a central meaning of “contemplative research” in this context is the first-person research that meditators do themselves upon themselves: first, during the challenging process of developing the suitable mental technology of shamatha itself, and then, by using that technology to investigate the phenomenological, essential, and ultimate natures of the mind.
At the same time, CCR professional contemplatives are open to and deeply interested in collaboration with scientists who wish to develop novel studies that will tap into the rich data pool created by a community of such well-trained, committed contemplative practitioners. See Conducting Scientific Research for more details on the unique scientific value of designing studies that will work closely with CCR contemplatives.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. — Arthur C. Clark
To definitively distinguish advanced contemplative technology from “magic” and “superstition,” let’s look again …
Then we may understand—from the inside—ancient technologies for fathoming the mind that have been tested and replicated for over 2,500 years.