A multi-part course based on Open Heart, Clear Mind given at Sravasti Abbey’s monthly Sharing the Dharma Day from April 2007 to December 2008. You can also study the book in depth through the Sravasti Abbey Friends Education (SAFE) online learning program.
- Different kinds of Buddhist meditation
- Setting up a daily practice
- Dealing with difficulties in meditation
Open Heart, Clear Mind 12: Meditation practice (download)
Please note that the slides have been updated to reflect the new terminology used to describe different types of meditation in The Foundation of Buddhist Practice by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Venerable Thubten Chodron.
Let’s cultivate our motivation and have a real sense of joy and delight at having so many good conditions in our life, especially at having an interest in spiritual matters and the opportunity to explore those interests, and the intelligence to really make use of what we learn when we explore. With that, let’s learn today and place what we’re doing within the context of being of great benefit to all living beings. In other words, our spiritual practice is not something just to soothe our own misery. Instead, it’s something that we use to transform ourselves so that we can become of the greatest benefit to all others, and specifically to be able to work for their welfare extensively and to be able one day to lead them to enlightenment. With this long-term view of compassionately working for the welfare of beings, let’s listen and discuss this morning.
The reason I said at the beginning that it sounds kind of funny to say that we’re going to talk about meditation is because meditation is something we do, and we’re not talking when we’re meditating. But on the other hand, we really need to use words and concepts and talking to understand what meditation really is, because there is a lot of misunderstanding about what meditation is. As soon as you find a word [meditation] in Time magazine—something that used not to be an American word and then it’s in Time magazine—then chances are that maybe the public doesn’t have a totally correct understanding of it. Some general understanding: so, meditation you sit there like this. But you know sitting there like this, you can have a clay figurine sitting there like that. That’s not meditation, meditation is what we’re doing with our mind, with our heart, how we’re directing our mind.
The word meditate in Tibetan is “gom.” It’s the same verbal root as to familiarize or to habituate. We’re trying to familiarize or habituate ourselves with realistic perspectives, with constructive ways of looking at things. It’s a process of habituation, and so we say we practice meditation, meaning we do it over and over and over again. I think that’s an important thing to remember because so often we want to just do something once, get the benefits and then go on. Meditation doesn’t work like that, it’s something that we do repeatedly, and we build up energy as we do it.
There are different kinds of meditation, and there are different ways of dividing. In the class of meditation there are different ways of cutting up the pie. If I’m going to talk about Buddhist meditation, we talk about two main meditation methods. One is called stabilizing meditation—sometimes it’s translated as placement meditation—and the other one is analytical meditation or, as my teachers called it, checking meditation.
In stabilizing meditation what we’re trying to do is develop concentration. We’re trying to make the mind stable, because right now our mind isn’t so stable, and I’m not talking about emotional stability and stuff like that. What I’m talking about is our mind. If we want to use it to really focus deeply on something, we find that very difficult because the mind bounces around all the time; you know it can’t stay stably on one object. It’s like if you are trying to balance something on the head of a pin, and it’s wobbling all the time, so our mind wobbles. All you need is a couple of minutes of breathing meditation to see that’s true, don’t you? Does anybody do breathing meditation without having one single distracting thought?
At the beginning, our mind is all over the place. Sometimes when we start out trying to stabilize the mind and to develop a little concentration, we think that actually our mind’s getting worse. It’s like “Wow, I have more thoughts now that I tried to meditate.” Actually, it’s not that we’re having more distracting thoughts. We’ve always had them. We just haven’t noticed them. It’s like if you’re living by the highway all year round you don’t notice the traffic, but if you go away camping and it’s silent then when you come back to your home you notice the traffic.
It’s similar in our regular mind. Our thoughts are bouncing around and so much stuff is going on we don’t even notice it. But when we sit down and try to really focus the mind, let’s say on the breath, or the visualized image of the Buddha, or something like that, all we notice is it’s like a trapeze artist doing all sorts of stunts and it’s like a monkey. Why do I name it taming the monkey mind? Because the mind really is like a monkey, just swinging here and there and everything—we’re in the past, we’re in the future, we’re thinking about this, then we’re thinking about the opposite, and it all happens very quickly. Sometimes we don’t even know what’s going through our mind.
This first kind of meditation, stabilizing, is to help us develop some ability to concentrate so that we can direct the mind to a meditation object and be able to keep it there. Because we might have many wonderful things to meditate on, but if we can’t keep our mind on them, they aren’t going to go well. We develop stabilizing meditation to develop that capacity to keep focused.
When doing the breathing meditation, [we are] watching the breath. There are many ways to do breathing meditation. I was doing it as more of a stabilizing meditation, where you just focus on the breath. If you get distracted, bring yourself back home, to the breath. If you get distracted again, you bring yourself back home, to the breath.
It’s kind of like when you’re a kid doing homework, you start out doing your homework and then you go, “Oh, there’s a program on TV. Oh, I gotta come back to my homework,” and you do a little bit more. “Oh, I could go out and play ball with my friend. Oh, I gotta come back to my homework.” It’s like that. We’ve all been through school, we know what that’s like. It’s just this practice if we keep bringing ourselves back. We have to learn to be very patient with ourselves, not to get exasperated or fed up and say, “I just can’t concentrate at all, so what’s the use?”
Concentrating and staying with something is a talent that we can cultivate. It’s a skill that we can develop. It’s not just something that you’re born with or not born with. It’s something that you develop, so we have to engage in the practice to develop it and be very patient with ourselves as we’re developing it. Don’t be self-judgmental. Sometimes when we can’t do things as well as we would like we get so down on ourselves. “Oh, I can’t do this, everybody else can, look they’re all in single-pointed samadhi, [laughter] it’s only me.” There’s a mind bouncing around. It’s all of us, and so it’s this thing we’re all trying to cultivate, this skill. We just go about cultivating the skill.
[After] stabilizing meditation, then there’s analytic meditation. There is not a word in English that really conveys the meaning of analytic meditation. We hear analytic and we think of intellectual analysis, kind of being stuck up here. Don’t we? You know, I’m analyzing something, crunching numbers or something like that. No, analytical meditation isn’t some kind of intellectual analysis up here. It’s more a way of exploring the meaning of something. Looking closely at the meaning of something. It’s analytical in that sense. That we’re not just stabilizing the mind on something, but we’re really trying to deepen our insight and our understanding about something, and to do that we have to reflect on it. We have to probe that topic.
Combining meditation methods
There are the two basic kinds of meditation: stabilizing and analytic. At the end what we want to do is to be able to combine them. But sometimes at the beginning we cultivate stabilizing meditation and analytic meditation separately, and then further on in the path we begin to combine them. Or sometimes in our daily meditation we can combine them. For example, we’re doing a meditation of seeing the nature of our precious human life and how that gives us so many possibilities to learn the Buddha’s teachings and to develop ourselves spiritually. If we’re doing that meditation then we’re thinking about the topic of precious human life. There’s a whole outline on how to do it: we’re free from certain disadvantages, we have certain advantages, so we go through and we think about each one, and we make examples about it from our life. That is all analytic meditation.
We do that to develop our understanding of the topic and to really make it personal. We’re not just thinking about the teachings being out there, but we’re thinking “No, this relates to me and my life.” As we do this, sometimes we get a very strong feeling of, “Wow, my life really is precious, I am so amazingly fortunate, how in the world did this happen?” When you have that kind of feeling, then you bring in the stabilizing meditation and you just keep your mind single-pointedly on that feeling of fortune. Getting what I’m saying?
Or let’s say we’re doing meditation on love, or compassion, or both of them. Love is the wish for beings to have happiness and its causes; compassion is the wish for them to be free of suffering in its causes. Let’s say we’re doing the meditation on love: we want sentient beings to have happiness and its causes. First we have to reflect a little bit on what happiness is. Trying to understand what happiness is, and then how living beings lack happiness, that’s using analytic meditation. Isn’t it? Because we have to think about sentient beings, and what in the world is happiness? They’re telling me if I get new tires on my Saab I’m going to be happy. Is that happiness? [laughter] They’re telling me if I eat a chocolate mousse it’s going to be happiness. Is it? No. When I say that I’m wishing others to have happiness, what exactly am I wishing for them? Chocolate flavored Saab tires? What am I wishing for? What is happiness? We have to think about it—this is really an important discussion and maybe this afternoon we can explore it some more. What is happiness? There are many different kinds of happiness. Which kind of happiness is long-lasting happiness? Which kind of happiness goes away very quickly? Which kind of happiness brings more problems with it? Which kind of happiness doesn’t bring more problems? What are the causes for one kind of happiness? What are the causes for other kinds of happiness? We think about this, and then we also think about how sentient beings lack happiness. In all this kind of reflection that we’re doing is we’re using thought.
Don’t have the idea that all meditation is non-conceptual. Here we’re using concept and thought, but we’re using it in a very creative and useful way in order to deepen our understanding of something. Sometimes we’ll just reflect deeply on what happiness is, and then start looking at other people, and other living beings. Do they have happiness or don’t they have happiness? We reflect on how they lack all the happiness that they want, and then when the feeling of wanting them to have happiness comes, then at that point, we stop the analytical part of the meditation and we switch to stabilizing meditation, where we just focus on that internal feeling of, I want beings to have happiness and the causes of happiness. You just stay on that feeling of how wonderful it would be if everybody had happiness and the causes of happiness. Even if you can’t have that feeling towards everybody, start out with a couple of people, then gradually expand it. You see, in that way we do some of the analytic meditation, using probing to check the topic, using thought in a useful way, and then when we get some kind of feeling we stop and we just hold that feeling, using the stabilizing meditation. Are you clear on what those two ways are?
Other kinds of meditation
Then another way to cut the pie of meditation, to divide meditation, are meditations where we are trying to understand a particular object. These are more object-oriented meditations, or content-oriented meditations. You’re talking about the content or the object you’re trying to develop an understanding of. Another kind of meditation is aspect-oriented meditation, where you’re trying to cultivate your subjective mind into a certain feeling, or a certain mood.
Saying object-oriented or aspect-oriented is more a translation from the Tibetan. It doesn’t really give us the idea of what’s going on, but the first one is where you’re trying to understand or realize an object that you haven’t understood or realized before. The second one is where you are trying to transform your mind into a certain subjective feeling or a subjective emotion. Let me give you examples of both of these.
Meditation on an object
With the object-oriented meditation, in which we’re trying to understand something, we may be meditating on impermanence, for example, or precious human life, or emptiness, or the disadvantages of cyclic existence, or the causes of misery. In those, what we’re trying to do is understand the topic at hand, like subtle impermanence. We really don’t know what impermanence is, even gross impermanence is kind of befuddling to us. People die and we’re so surprised, how did that happen? That wasn’t supposed to happen, but it’s quite a natural occurrence. Isn’t it? We spill spaghetti sauce all over our white clothes, that’s not supposed to happen either, but things are impermanent, and our white clothes, if they don’t get spaghetti sauce they’re going to get mud, or they’re gonna get something else.
We’re always so surprised when things change. Relationships change, don’t they? But we’re always surprised. This whole idea of change, whether it’s gross or subtle impermanence, we need to actually reflect on it and try and understand what impermanence means. What it means, what its causes are, what its nature is, what the ramifications of impermanence mean. If everything is impermanent what does that mean for my life? What does it mean for how I make decisions and how I place priorities? [With] that kind of reflection we’re trying to understand the object, which is impermanence. Or if we’re trying to understand the ultimate nature, the emptiness of inherent existence, then there too, we’re probing to try and understand that as an object. It’s our very nature but we don’t understand what it is. Those are examples of object-oriented meditation.
Transforming subjective experience
Subject-oriented meditation, or aspect-oriented, is meditation where we’re trying to transform the mind into a certain subjective aspect. That is, for example, when we’re meditating to develop faith or confidence in the Buddhist teachings. Or when we’re meditating to develop love and compassion. We’re trying to transform the nature of our mind into a certain experience.
For example, if we’re meditating to develop faith or confidence in the Buddha, Dharma, and the Sangha as valid objects of refuge, then we’re going to think about the qualities of the Buddha, of the Dharma, of the Sangha. We’re going to think about those qualities and then our confidence in their ability to guide us on the path will increase, and our mind gets transformed into that aspect or into that feeling of confidence or faith. Are you getting what I mean?
Differentiating between them
Understanding impermanence is different than having faith in your heart, isn’t it? When you’re [trying to] understand impermanence, then permanence is the object, [and] you’re trying to understand it. [With] faith, you’re trying to generate, to become that. [With understanding], you’re not trying to become impermanence, because you already are; you’re trying to understand it.
Similarly, with love and compassion, we’re trying to transform the mind into the experience of love, into the experience of compassion. At that time, love and compassion are not the objects of our meditation. Like before when I was explaining how we develop love, we might start the meditation out thinking about sentient beings, or thinking about happiness, so happiness might be at the beginning, the object we’re meditating on, and then how living beings lack happiness is the thing we’re trying to understand. That’s more object-oriented.
But then, the whole purpose of meditating on love is to generate the experience of love within ourselves. We’re not trying to understand what love is, we’re trying to feel it. Same with compassion, we’re not just sitting there, thinking, okay compassion is this definition and it has these aspects and you hear the cause, you know you’re not intellectually understanding compassion, but you’re really trying to, by looking at sentient beings lack, or sentient beings multitudes of unsatisfactory conditions, we’re trying to transform our mind into a mind of compassion. Where our heart is really open to other living beings, and really wants them to be free of all their different kinds of misery. You’re not thinking about compassion trying to understand it like it’s an object, but you’re trying to bring it up in your own experience. Getting what I’m saying?
That’s another way to think about meditation, trying to understand the object versus generating a certain feeling inside. There’s different ways to cut the pie of meditation.
When you’re doing, for example, meditation to understand the object, you might employ both stabilizing and analytic meditation to do that. Similarly when you’re trying to generate an experience of faith and confidence in love and compassion, you might do both stabilizing and some analytic meditation in that session—you’re trying to transform your mind into the nature of compassion, or love, or faith.
It’s very helpful to have a regular daily meditation practice. Sometimes people say, “Oh, I’ve been meditating for a long time but I don’t seem to make any progress.” Then if you say, “Well, when do you meditate? Tell me about your practice.” “Well, I meditate about 10 minutes every day. Well, actually it’s not every day, you know. It’s kind of like, well, maybe three times a week I meditate for 10 minutes and maybe on Saturday I do an hour or two or something like that.” What happens, you see, is that there’s not a stable thing happening daily. Even though somebody may go on a retreat once a year, if they don’t have a stable daily meditation practice it becomes difficult to maintain the depth that you go to when you were on retreat and to actually develop your understanding. I think stability and a regular meditation practice is really important.
At the beginning, they always advise starting with short sessions. If you start with something very long or even if one day a week you do a really long session and you push yourself: “Okay! Today I’m gonna meditate for two hours!” By the end of your two hours you don’t want to go back to your meditation cushion, because it’s too much for you. You know what it’s like? It’s like when I wrecked my back one time, I decided that I was just going to somehow be as flexible as I was when I was seven and eight years old. I mean, no reason why I shouldn’t be able to. One day I just pushed a lot and the next day I felt it.
What we want to do is build things up in a gradual way, because when we leave our meditation cushion we want to have a feeling of, “Oh, that was something pleasant, so I want to come back to it.” Whereas if we push ourselves then we tend not to want to come back to something. Now somebody’s going to hear that and go, “Oh well, she said not to push herself so the alarm clock rang and I’m not gonna push myself or to get up to meditate because I’ll just develop resentment if I do, so I’ll just sleep in and I’ll meditate tomorrow.” No, that’s not what I’m saying.
I think there’s a certain way in which we do need to push ourselves, but I would say maybe nudge ourselves rather than push, or maybe even discipline ourselves.
It’s like every day, I’m going to do some practice. Start off, figure out an amount of time that’s reasonable for you. It might be 10 minutes and gradually you make it longer. It might be a half an hour. Everybody’s going to be different, and you can gradually extend it, but you do it regularly. Regularly means every day, and the best way to do it every day is to do it at the same time every day. If you can make that same time every day the first thing in the morning, then it’s going to be really really good. Some people leave it for the end of the day. Some people are day people, or morning people, and some people are evening people. Some people leave their practice for the end of the day and they manage to do it in the evening. I’m not like that, after a certain time in the evening I can not focus enough to meditate. I can read, I can study, but if I sit still it doesn’t work so well. I can prostrate, I could do mandala offerings, I can do lots of things that are some kind of Dharma practice that involves some action, physical action, but to sit still doesn’t work for me. [inaudible]
Actually it’s best to do morning and evening meditation, but I think starting your day with some meditation is really really good because it’s a way of starting your whole day. It’s a way of just waking up in the morning and coming home to yourself, and you’re learning to be peaceful. Instead of getting up, getting out of bed, going to check the message machine, checking your email, turning on the radio, reading the newspaper, grabbing a sandwich, and going out the door to get to work because you’re late. Who wants to start the day in that kind of way? I think it’s much more productive to start with a little bit of silent time, our meditation time, where we reflect on our motivation for the day. [We] think of how we want to be in the world and develop our understanding of the different topics the Buddha spoke about.
If we do that in the morning then the understanding or the feeling that we generated will carry through with us, through the rest of the day. Whereas if we just get up and then start reading the newspaper, or start working on whatever projects we happen to do, that’s what we’re filling our mind with first thing in the morning, when the mind is more subtle and clearer. I think that time in the morning of doing the meditation is very good, and also if you don’t like to talk to people in the morning it’s a great reason why you don’t have to talk to them. I talk to people because I travel a lot—I just stay in people’s homes. I say I don’t talk until after I do my morning practice. I don’t like to talk to somebody else first thing in the morning. It’s like too much energy. If I’m able to be still and just come back in my own heart and do my different practices, then that sets a much better foundation for the rest of the day.
I think making your meditation time the same time each day is very helpful. If you have a hard time doing that, write it in your calendar. Six-thirty every morning I have an appointment with the Buddha, and then you keep your appointment. You don’t stand the Buddha up, do you? Buddha’s waiting for you to come. Buddha’s sitting here, not the statue, but the real Buddha’s sitting in the meditation hall this morning. So-and-so’s having a nice nap right now. But sometimes we’re sick and we don’t feel well.
We have got to take care of our health, but I think it is good to really try and be regular, and to nourish our own heart in the same way that we nourish our body. My philosophy is if you skip morning meditation you should skip breakfast. Why do we think breakfast is more important than morning meditation? We don’t skip breakfast do we? We always manage something. Why? Because we need the energy for the rest of the day. We need to nourish our body, but you know the energy we get from food, and you know it’s going to nourish our body for a few hours. But if we do our meditation practice that energy, that nourishment of our heart, is going to have very long-term consequences, very long-term. We need to respect ourselves and want to nourish ourselves spiritually, and so really make it a daily practice.
I think spiritual practice and eating are both ways that we take care of ourselves. We shouldn’t just think eating and sleeping are ways to take care of ourselves. Doing our practice is how we care for ourselves too. There’s a big difference if you do your practice and if you don’t do your practice. I read a story once where one woman was practicing meditation regularly. She had young kids, and then at one point she kind of stopped, and then her four-year-old or five-year-old said, “Mom, you should start meditating again—you were nicer.” [laughter] If a four-year-old can see the difference in their parents, you know that something’s happening. We take care of ourselves in that way. It’s really a way of respecting ourselves and caring for ourselves.
If you’re sick, and you sleep longer than when you usually get up, do you practice then. I’ve had times when I’ve been very sick. I can’t get out of bed at all. I just lie in bed and do my practice. You don’t have to sit up in the perfect meditation position. You’re lying there, and you still do your practice, because your meditation practice is what’s done with your mind, with your heart. Sitting in a meditation position is much better because you don’t fall asleep so much. It takes me much longer to do my practice if I’m sick and lying down than it does if I’m sitting up. Because when I lie down, I’m in and out more than when I sit up. That’s why it’s recommended that we sit up when we meditate.
Some people ask: “How can I practice lying-down meditation?” Well, there is a story in the scriptures that there was one monk who really did much better when he practiced meditation lying down, and the Buddha with his clairvoyant powers saw that because that was in a previous life he had been a bullock, a buffalo, and had been lying down a lot. Because of familiarity with lying down on this life as a human being.
I don’t know, maybe in our two kitties’ next life they’re going to come back to the Abbey as human beings, and they’ll want to meditate curled up in a ball. They’ll go to their little kitty baskets and curl up and: “Oh, I feel so comfortable meditating like this.” [laughter] But actually if you look at them, as you guys do very often, when we’re in the hall here they are sitting in front of the Buddha image in the main room, and sometimes it’s so cute Manjushri is sitting there. Manjushri is the cat with three legs, and he’s sitting with me there with both of his hands with paws out like this facing the Buddha, like that’s the most he could do to prostrate, paws straight out in front of him. It’s really cute, but they kind of tune in there.
Anyways, enough of that distraction. Really developing the habit of meditating at the same time every day is very helpful.
If you are sleepy when you start your meditation session then do prostrations. It’s very helpful if you do a lot of bowing to the Buddha, it energizes your body and it also helps you to purify negative karma. It helps you to remember the Buddha’s qualities, and when you remember the magnificent qualities of the Buddha, then your mind gets happy. When we think of the Buddha’s love and compassion and wisdom, our own mind gets very happy. You’re thinking about that while you’re bowing. That really is a good way to start a meditation session if you have problems with sleepiness.
Another solution to sleepiness is to put cold water on your face, or what Lama Yeshe used to do, is he had the monks have these little bowls that were water bowls, not the big ones like this, but small water bowls, and you had to put a water bowl on top of your head in the meditation hall. It was very embarrassing when you started to nod off. [laughter] It really helped people stay awake. Something like that is very helpful.
Make your meditation session the right amount. Do it at the same time every day. Like I said, if you can do it in the morning and the evening it’s very helpful. It’s kind of like bookmarks for the day. They say if you can focus on meditating on compassion and the altruistic intention to attain buddhahood for the benefit of beings, then that’s very good in the morning, because then in the day, when you’re encountering all these sentient beings, you have that imprint of: I’m working for their benefit.
Actually I find that very helpful, especially when I’m in a bad mood. Because when we’re in a bad mood it’s like, get away from me, I don’t want to be around anybody. Are you like that when you’re in a bad mood? Get away, everybody, I want to get away. I find it very helpful when I see any sentient being, whether it’s an animal or an insect or a human being, whether I like them or don’t like them, to have to consciously generate the thought of, “I’m practicing the Dharma for the benefit of this person.” To have bad thoughts, or to train myself to have the thought of “this living being has been kind to me.” Because the bad mood just says, “Oh, you’re full of rubbish, get away!” But it’s a thought isn’t it? There’s a thought going on there, so if we can replace one thought with another thought, then it can really help to change the mood.
I’m consciously trying to think, “that person’s been kind to me, and that person’s been kind to me, and that one’s been kind to me,” and think of ways in which they’ve been kind, if not this life then in previous lives. When you’re thinking about the kindness of somebody, then your mind is going to be occupied with that, and it’s not going to have space to think like, “Ah, get them away!” You’re getting what I’m saying?
I do this in airports a lot. I don’t like being in airports very much. I need good practice because it’s so noisy, and it’s so crowded, and the air is stale, and I can complain about airports all you want me to. But what I practice is, it’s like looking at the different people and thinking, “I’m practicing Dharma for their benefit”, and so then it changes how I look at them. It’s like, “Oh, I have some relationship with them,” and I’m not just practicing Dharma just because it’s something to do. It’s for a reason and a purpose, and it’s to be able to ultimately be able to benefit these living beings more. I remind myself of that in the airports. Especially when you’re on a plane with a crying child. “I’m practicing for their benefit and they’ve been kind to me.” These kinds of thoughts are taking control of our mind instead of just giving in to the bad moods. It’s difficult, like taking control of a wild horse, but it’s possible. It’s not an impossibility. It is possible and so if we try then slowly we’ll develop that habit and we’ll have some success in doing it. Let me leave a little bit of time for some questions, comments. There’s much more to talk about in terms of meditation but this is something.
Questions and Answers
Question: Walking meditation?
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): About walking meditation. The Buddha encouraged us to be mindful. In other words, to know what our precepts are, to be aware of what we’re doing, to hold on to our values and ways of being in all four bodily positions. When we’re lying down, when we’re standing, when we’re sitting, and when we’re moving. We’re trying to develop mindfulness and also this other mental factor that I don’t have a good translation for, some people call it introspection and some people call it clear comprehension. But it’s a mind that is aware of what we’re doing and then mindfulness steers us towards doing it in a constructive way.
When we’re doing walking meditation, we’re trying to be aware of what’s happening in our body and what’s happening in our mind as we’re moving. This can be very helpful for getting us to slow down, and it can also be extremely relaxing. I think too if you tend to have meditation sessions before, or if you tend to sit down for sitting meditation, have a lot of distraction, I found that doing walking meditation in the break times is very helpful.
There are many different ways of doing walking meditation. The Theravadas do it very slowly, the Chinese and Koreans do it very quickly. The Tibetans don’t do it, because in old Tibet you got enough exercise going up and down the mountains.
There are different ways of doing it. In the Theravada way, you pick two points and you walk back and forth between those two points. You are not trying to get anywhere. That doesn’t mean that you can’t practice it when you are trying to get somewhere. We should always practice it, but what you do is you start out walking at normal speed, but maybe a tinge slower, and then you just become aware of right, and left, right, and left as you’re walking. Then when you can keep your focus pretty much on right and left, then you might slow it down a little bit, and break each step into parts. So each step has lifting, pushing, and placing. Then the left foot has lifting, pushing, and placing. Of course if the left foot is placing, then the right foot isn’t starting the lifting. You become more aware of these different phases in each step. Then after that, you might slow it down even more to really feel all the different things that are happening, as you’re lifting, as you’re pushing your foot forward, as you’re placing it down.
One way to do the walking meditation is like that, or if you don’t want to do it to getting so slow that you’re creeping along just do it where you’re walking right and left, and right and left, and if you can do it, you hold your hands here when you’re doing it. That can be very helpful, or you just let them by your side and try and make your breath coincide with how you’re stepping, how you’re walking. Your inhalation might be on the lifting, the exhalations on the placing, depending how fast you’re walking. But you can get your breath and your walking speed to coordinate in some way or another. I’m not saying that each step has to have an in-breath and an out-breath. It might be two steps of an in-breath and an out-breath. But something like that. If you can do that, then your mind gets very relaxed because your breathing is slower, your walking is slower, your mind is aware of your breath, and when you’re walking, everything is in tandem. The mind has some focus and concentration at that time. Especially being aware of what’s happening with your feet.
It’s also good to be aware of impermanence as you’re walking. You don’t have to just be aware of the feelings in your feet but just the impermanence of the steps. [There are] lots of things to meditate on when you’re walking. It can be very helpful, slowing yourself down, getting ready for meditation. Because what we do the rest of the day influences what our meditation sessions are like.
I said the Koreans and the Chinese, and I think Japanese too, do the walking meditation very quickly. They’ll usually have a meditation hall that is circular where everybody sits around the edge, and there’s a Buddha figure in the middle, and then you circumambulate the Buddha during your walking meditation, and you walk very briskly to get energy in your body. You are walking quickly, you’re circumambulating the Buddha, you’re thinking of the Buddha’s qualities, you’re still trying to be aware of how your body’s moving, but the activity in your body is very good. It gets you going so that when you sit down to meditate after that, your body has some energy.
Question: About the aspect and object in terms of different ways of approaching a teaching. The first thing that came to me was when dealing with [inaudible] and say for example Chenrezig, how it can be an object, and then also an action, and so when you brought up the idea of moving between analytical and stabilizing. I guess my question is: What would be the process by which you move between aspects and objects?
VTC: You’re asking in a daily meditation, a deity meditation. [Audience: not anything like a [inaudible]] Well, if you’re doing a deity meditation, let’s say you’re visualizing Chenrezig, and then you’re doing the practice, you’re taking refuge and generating bodhicitta, and doing the meditation, and the four immeasurables, and the seven-limb prayers, and all those, that kind of thing. There’s a time where you can just focus on the image of Chenrezig single-pointedly. Chenrezig is the buddha of compassion, that’s Chenrezig. So in that case, you might do analytic meditation, in the sense of going through all the details of what Chenrezig looks like. The heads and hands, and the body, and everything like that. Then you would do stabilizing meditation, holding your mind firmly on that image. Does that involve the object? You’re not really meditating on Chenrezig as an object when you’re doing that. There might be another time when you’re meditating on Chenrezig, where you’re trying to think about what are the qualities of Chenrezig, and so then you might go to the refuge section of the Lam Rim, and think about the different qualities. Getting to understand the qualities would be the object-oriented meditation, and then having a feeling of trust and confidence in Chenrezig would be the aspect. All right?
Question: You talked about meditating on happiness and its causes. Well, I did that last Wednesday night and on Friday started [inaudible] but I could see that it could go on for a long time.
VTC: You bet. That’s why you can stay with one meditation topic for a long, long time. What we try and do in our practice, when we have a series called the stages of the path to enlightenment, and when we do the checking meditations, we are going through them in a cycle. There’s a whole series, and so we’re cycling through those, trying to enrich them more and more. Sometimes you get to one of them, and how you are, what you really need that day, and you understand that for quite a long time. Even if that particular topic isn’t the one that you’re doing for that day, you still remember it sometimes in your practice, because the more you imprint in your mind those different things the more they come alive in you.
Something like developing love and compassion, you can stay on those a long time, and it takes a long time to actually develop them. Because, before you can develop compassion, for example, we have to understand what dukkha or unsatisfactory conditions mean. Because how can we wish sentient beings to be free of unsatisfactory conditions if we don’t know what those conditions are?
Then you do that whole meditation to understand the disadvantages of cyclic existence, and what we actually mean by suffering. That it doesn’t just mean having pain in your body, or emotional pain. It doesn’t mean just that, it means much more.
You might do some checking or analytic meditation on that topic. Then the more you understand that, then when you come to think about how to meditate on compassion and wanting sentient beings to be free of unsatisfactory conditions, then it comes much stronger because you know exactly what it is you want everybody to be free from. So when we look at these different topics, you don’t see each topic as some kind of isolated thing with its own little perimeter around it. But when you do the meditation on the stages of the path you draw what you learn in one topic into your meditation on another topic. That’s how they really begin to enhance each other. Does that answer your question?
Question: Do you say we’ll start for a short period, maybe 10 minutes? [inaudible] clock for the fifth frame? Sometimes when I get into meditating I don’t want to be interrupted. [inaudible]
VTC: I would say leave yourself enough time so that if you really get into a meditation you don’t have to break it right in the middle. Let yourself extend it a little bit, but don’t force yourself to extend it. That’s the thing. Do you know what I’m talking about? But if you have a certain time that you need to be done by, because you need to go to work, then you might set one of those little egg timers, to get to the maximum amount of time that you can meditate.
We are going to have the last question and then we’re going to have to stop.
Question: They usually explain that meditation can be done in a very specific way, and one of the things is that you keep your eyes a little bit open, kind of downcast. I find that I just keep sleepy every time no matter how many times I’ve done it. I find that if [inaudible] with my eyes open. [VTC: Like wide open.] I just really open, just looking, not focusing on anything, just kind of open all the way, and even sometimes when I’m very sleepy. Then to elevate my pupils to level it’s much more, it usually turns out much better. But then that’s going against what they normally do.
VTC: His Holiness says in different kinds of meditations you do different things with your eyes. So usually you try and have your eyes a little bit open, but more downcast, but not looking at anything. They say if your eyes close naturally that’s okay, as long as you aren’t getting drowsy.
What he [the audience member] is having the problem with, [is that] even because they say that keeping them open a little bit is an antidote to drowsiness, he’s saying it’s not enough for him. I think sometimes things need to vary according to the individual. If you find that keeping your eyes wide open works for you best, that’s fine. But you shouldn’t be looking at anything, and you shouldn’t be moving your head around and changing your gaze or anything like that. So you’re doing a visualization practice, and your eyes are open, but still with your mental consciousness you’re able to visualize the deity. If you find personally as an individual that works well for you, I would say that’s fine.
Question: With the visualization, this is also very beneficial. I was talking about specifics, like breathing meditation, but my eyes are closed. But when I’m visualizing the realness of it, it’s so much less and my eyes are open, it actually feels like I’m in the presence of these things. I just can’t see them with my physical eyes, but if I close my eyes it’s just like imagination.
VTC: Everybody’s really different as far as that goes. His Holiness says when he talks to different people, and they find that when they keep their glasses on when they meditate, their visualizations are clear. [Laughter.] But that’s just individuals. Individuals are really different.
VTC: Me, too. I take them off [inaudible] for contemplation. Everybody is really different.
Venerable Thubten Chodron
Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.