Developing calm abiding
Developing calm abiding
Part of a series of teachings on His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s book titled How to See Yourself as You Really Are at Sravasti Abbey in 2014.
- Two prominent mental factors in the practice of ethical conduct and concentration
- Meditative postures
- Objects of meditation
- Questions and answers
Let’s begin by recalling the disadvantages of cyclic existence and the futility of trying to find lasting happiness in a world conditioned by ignorance, afflictions and karma—polluted karma. And instead, let’s turn our attention to the possibilities that exist in our mind, to the potential of our mind to know reality, to have unbiased love and compassion for all beings, to be free of defilements and endowed with all good qualities. And let’s make attaining that by following that path our aspiration. And may we do that, not merely for our own benefit, but seeing that we and others are exactly the same—wanting happiness, not wanting suffering—then let’s work for the benefit of all beings, knowing that as we improve ourselves—purifying our mind, gaining good qualities ourselves—then the way we influence people will very naturally improve, and we can be of greater and greater benefit. Let’s set our highest aspirations on attaining full awakening for the benefit of all beings, and see sharing the dharma together today as one more step on that path.
Cultivating calm abiding
In chapter 8, His Holiness is talking about how to cultivate calm abiding or serenity which is a mind state that is very flexible, very pliant, so that we can place our attention on whatever virtuous object we want. And understanding how important that is for developing realizations, not only of the nature of reality—emptiness—but also for developing all the other aspects of the path. This is because when we can’t keep our mind on the meditation object, there’s no way to really familiarize our mind with it—to get that understanding to really sink in and become part of us—because we’re so easily distracted.
We stopped on page 92, didn’t we? His Holiness is saying we have to give up busyness and stop being around things that provoke our lust and our anger. I find that the media is especially good at that. I was thinking about this. The difference between the media and regular life is that you know when you sit down to watch a movie that your emotions are going to get provoked. You know that because otherwise you would get bored. Why watch a movie of other people’s lives if their lives were just kind of like our life, doing this, doing that. Why sit down and watch it? There has to be something more exciting that’s going to perk our interest. And what’s more exciting than sex and violence? The movies really provoke that. And, they let you know it’s coming. In regular, life we don’t have background music that lets you know that there’s going to be a crisis coming. But in a movie, there has to be really emotion grabbing things every few minutes, otherwise people are going to turn it off. But there’s the music getting you aroused and prepared for whatever this emotional scene is going to be. It becomes very difficult to have a calm, peaceful mind when you’re watching a movie. Or even when you’re watching the news, if the news just talked about “Mrs. Jones went the grocery store and bought bananas,” nobody would watch it. We have to hear the stuff again that’s really going to provoke emotion to grab our attention. And it sure does provoke emotion, but it makes our mind not very calm. Then when we sit down to meditate, we’re reviewing all those things that we watched or heard about.
Plus, there is social pressure nowadays to have an opinion about everything; you have to keep up with the latest thing in modern culture, otherwise you’re really out of it. And who wants to be out of it? So, you have to watch movies, you have to watch TV shows, you have to check out certain websites, you have to buy certain things, or research certain things so that you can at least have a five-minute conversation about it with somebody. You don’t have to really know much about it, but you have to know enough so that you can spout an opinion. Whether the opinion is valid or not doesn’t matter, but you can’t just sit there and say, “What are you guys talking about? I never heard of that before.” That just won’t work at a social engagement. You have to know something about what everybody’s talking about. And, of course, what they talk about is changing all the time. You get your half-formed opinions about every event and then you never hear any follow up because the national consciousness changes to something else very quickly.
When you’re trying to develop a steady mind focused on one object, that’s the total opposite of what society is encouraging us to do, and what we feel obliged to do. Aside from the TV shows, the national news and that stuff, even within our families or our own social groups, we have to know what everybody else is doing. “Did you hear…blah blah blah blah blah? Did you know that da da da da da?” And to be able to talk about it. Again, that just keeps the mind filled with a lot of information that is not really so important, but that we feel obliged to know and want to research, especially if you heard some juicy piece of something. Then we think, “I want to know more about that. Can you imagine? Oh!”
To a mind that’s filled with that stuff, that’s interested in that stuff, of course, sitting and focusing on the breath, sitting and focusing on the image of the Buddha, is boring! “I want some excitement. I want some drama.” I think we actually have to, in some way, get used to being bored and appreciate the time and mental space that being bored gives us. I’m not saying to remain bored, because if you remain bored then you quickly lose all your energy, but to stop taking so much interest in things that really are not so important.
I talked to one guy some time ago who told me it was so hard for him to go to retreats because he really missed watching the news while on retreat. He felt like he had to know what was going on in the world—as if what the news reports is true. It may have some resemblance, but who knows?
In this top paragraph on page 92, His Holiness is also emphasizing the need for ethical conduct because that reduces distractions. This is because when we don’t act ethically, then all sorts of doubts arise, going around in our mind like,” Why did I do that? I don’t feel so comfortable about having done that. That wasn’t so cool. Oh, I regret that; but I don’t know. I can’t really apologize because it’s partly their fault, too. And I can’t really forgive because they really are to blame.” Our minds get really caught up in a lot of stuff like this. Whereas if we really take time and think about what we’re doing, what we’re saying, what we’re thinking, then in the end there’s not this kind of regret like, “Gee! I did something that I don’t feel so comfortable about doing.”
Mindfulness and introspective awareness
His Holiness says:
When I became a monk, my vows required limiting my external activities, which placed more emphasis on spiritual development. Restraint made me mindful of my behavior and drew me into considering what was happening in my mind in order to make sure I was not straying from my vows. This meant that even when I was not purposely making effort at meditation, I kept my mind from being scattered and thus was constantly drawn in the direction of one-pointed, internal meditation.
In the practice of both ethical conduct and concentration we find two mental factors that are prominent. One is mindfulness, the other is introspective awareness. The way people speak of mindfulness now in pop culture does not exactly correspond with the way the Buddha taught it in the sutras. You know as soon as Newsweek starts talking about something that it’s not going to be exactly the Buddha’s word.
Mindfulness in the context of ethical conduct remembers our precepts, remembers our values. Like His Holiness said here: “…made me mindful of my behavior and drew me into considering what was happening in my mind to make sure I was not straying from my vows.” So, remembering one’s precepts, remembering one’s values—that’s the role of mindfulness in ethical conduct. And then, the role of introspective awareness is to check up and see what am I doing and is what I’m doing within the bounds of what I decided before was the behavior that I would and wouldn’t do. It’s like a little corner of our mind that’s checking up and saying “Okay, I said I wasn’t going to get involved in a lot of gossip. What’s happening now? Am I doing that?” It really helps us to maintain our precepts and our ethical conduct.
Developing mindfulness and introspective awareness when practicing ethical conduct strengthens these two mental factors so that when we practice concentration, these mental factors already have some power to them. In concentration, mindfulness is what remembers the object of meditation. It knows what the object of meditation is; it’s familiar with it and keeps the mind focused on that object without letting the mind forget it. Introspective awareness is a little corner of our mind that checks up and asks, “Am I still on the object or am I getting very dull minded? Am I getting distracted? Am I on the object but my mind is still kind of lax? Am I on the object but my mind is restless?” It’s that corner of the mind that’s checking up.
Keeping precepts: Self restraint
His Holiness is saying how keeping his precepts really helped him in his meditation practice. And it really helps in regular life too, because when we observe precepts then we don’t get involved in so many things. Let’s put it that way—we don’t make so many messes. When we keep precepts, we don’t make messes. We don’t have people looking at us asking, “What in the world are you doing? And why did you do that? And you hurt my feelings. And you took my stuff.” We don’t have any of that. And we become much more reliable so that when people see us they can feel safe around us. They know a little bit better what they can expect from our behavior, that we’re not going to be going into their drawers and taking their stuff, we’re not going to be lying to them, and we’re not going to be sleeping around or doing who knows what. It really gives a greater sense of ease and trust in relationships. And it prevents us from having a lot of guilt and remorse.
I’ve always found this interesting. I’m not a therapist, but when I read psychological articles, I don’t hear a lot of emphasis on ethical conduct, and yet I’ll bet that a lot of people’s emotional problems could be helped a great deal if they kept good ethical conduct.
Audience: Speaking for my profession, it’s an interesting point because we’re taught that we have a code of ethics that we have to follow as therapists. It’s very clear. But what we are taught is that it’s not our place to impose our world view on somebody else. The task is to help somebody discover their own ethics, rather than say, “This is what I think is ethical, and you should do this.”
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Yes. Helping somebody discover their own ethics is definitely beneficial. On the other hand, there are certain ethical things that go across the board in all cultures at all times.
Audience: It makes me think of what you said on Saturday which is that sometimes people behave and then they’re surprised at the outcome.
VTC: That’s exactly it. For example, “I just had an extra-marital affair. Why is my spouse upset?” But what’s going on here? Or, “I just lied to somebody at work. Why are they saying I’m not trustworthy? I’m very trustworthy!”
Consequences of our actions
People sometimes look on vows of morality as confinement or punishment….
That’s especially true in our culture, isn’t it? We want to be free and we think freedom means being able to follow whatever impulse comes into our mind. Is that freedom? You know, my generation’s motto was, “I want to be free. Whatever impulse comes into the mind, let’s do it.” And we did. And my generation taught their kids to do that, too. “Whatever comes into your mind, be free. Stop being inhibited. Don’t censor yourself, just do it. If it feels good, do it.” Right?
So, then we see precepts and think, “Oh god, this is being imposed on me from outside. Somebody else—without consulting me—told me I shouldn’t do this, and this, and this, and this. And if I do it, I’m going to have bad consequences and get punished. But they’re interfering with my freedom. I want the freedom to go buy anything I want at any time of day or night, whether or not I have the money.” The credit card companies cooperate with that; they give us the freedom to run up incredible credit card debt. “Land of the free, home of the brave.” We’re free to run up the debt, but we’re not very brave about paying it off.
Audience: Brave about how much we can assume.
VTC: I would really like to redefine “Land of the free, home of the brave.”
Audience: Land of the debt free.
VTC: Yes, “Land of the debt free.” There’s no way! But really, we think, “As soon as I have to restrain myself, I’m impinging on my freedom, my liberty.” Whereas without any self-restraint, if we just follow whatever impulse enters our mind, that’s when we get into so many messes, because we don’t stop and think, “Okay, here’s the impulse to do this. What effect is doing that going to have on the people around me? What effect is it going to have on me? What effect is it going to have on the environment? In the short term? What about the long term? What kind of karmic result is going to come from doing this action?”
I work with people who are in prison, and one of the guys wrote a beautiful article—it’s something about consequences, maybe causes and consequences—it’s up on the web. He said his big thing from going to prison was realizing that his choices had consequences. He started thinking back to the time when he was really little, looking at some of the choices he made, also how he continued certain patterns of choices, and how he ended up with a twenty-year prison sentence as a result.
So we really must stop to think about the results [of our actions.] We can never know for sure, but we can get some kind of approximate idea that if we take something that hasn’t been given to us, when somebody finds out about it, they’re going to be unhappy. Again, it’s not rocket science—although it seems like it—to figure out that if we lie to people they’re not going to trust us. But still, we just lie, and they’re still supposed to trust us because our lies are compassionate, for their benefit. There are some things that if we just thought about a little bit, we’d see, “Gee! This isn’t going to bring the kind of result—in this life or in future lives—that I really want. I need to restrain myself.”
Initially, that self-discipline is a little bit uncomfortable; but once you get used to it and you see the benefits of not doing stupid things, then you really appreciate the benefits from restraining yourself from doing those actions. This is because the benefits of restraint last much longer than the pleasure of doing the action. But it’s hard. When you’re trying to lose weight and there’s chocolate cake, and you think, “Ahhh! I really shouldn’t eat that. I’m going to feel so much better if I don’t eat it. If I lose weight I’m going to feel better, my health is going to be better. I’m going to feel better about myself.” You see those benefits, but then think, “But the chocolate cake is there,” and it takes about thirty seconds to eat the piece of chocolate cake. How much longer do we have of the discomfort of being in a body with all the health difficulties that come because of being overweight? This is us, isn’t it? So, we must really think about the benefits of restraint. Actually, that’s his next sentence. He said:
Just as we take up a diet to improve our health, and not to punish ourselves, so the rules that Buddha laid down are aimed at controlling counterproductive behavior and overcoming afflictive emotions because these are ruinous. For our own sakes, we restrain motivations and deeds that would produce suffering. For example, due to a serious stomach infection I had a few years ago, nowadays I avoid sour foods and cold drinks that otherwise I would enjoy. Such a regimen provides me protection, not punishment.
When we take precepts—whether you take the five lay precepts, the eight anagarika precepts, the ten monastic precepts of a novice, or the full ordination—all those precepts are protection that keep us from doing things that we don’t really want to do, that we know will lead to difficulties. And so, keeping those precepts is really a way of protecting ourselves. The Buddha did not say, “Thou shalt not do this or else.” Buddha was able to see that when people had happiness it came from these kind of actions, and when they had suffering it came from other kinds of actions. So, he said, “If you want happiness, don’t do that and do this.” It’s offered to us as advice, and if we think about it, we see that it works.
Buddha set forth styles of behavior in order to improve our welfare, not to give us a hard time. The rules themselves make the mind conducive to spiritual progress.
And they really do. They help a lot.
Meditative posture is important, because if you strengthen your body, the energy channels within the body will also straighten, allowing the energy flowing in these channels to balance, which in turn will assist in balancing your mind and putting it at your service.
His Holiness is talking about how we have a whole system of energy channels in our body that [support] our mind. The state of our mind and our energy channels, or the energy in the channels, affect each other. You can notice. If you’re bent over like this, can you make yourself feel happy? When you’re [sitting] like this, do you feel happy? It’s difficult to feel happy when you’re even sitting like this. When you sit up straight you feel much better about yourself, don’t you? The idea is to really watch our posture. Again, not because we’re trying to punish ourselves, but because when our posture is correct, the energy winds flow better and our mind has less disturbances.
You can tell right away looking at somebody. We have one of these sticks, and we really should use it. Not to use it hard, but just to help people. Because you see people in meditation and they’re sitting like this [slouching]. Somebody who’s sitting like this, what’s going on in their meditation? Their mind is drowsy, isn’t it? Or if somebody is sitting like this, or chanting prayers like this. What’s going on in their mind?
VTC: Distraction. So you can see that how our body is sitting reflects what’s going on inside. And at the same time, it’s influencing what’s going on inside.
Audience: There was a fascinating study done that really reinforces the posture. They had people stand in a confident posture for 90 seconds before they did job interviews, and they had people who sat like hunched over without any correction. And there were people not in the interviews who were just looking at people and making judgments based on posture. The people who sat for 90 seconds in confident postures were the ones selected for the job every time. And they found that actually you can feel confident by sitting like this. You can actually release the chemicals in your mind that make you feel confident by sitting in a confident posture. There’s huge physiological relationship between one and the other, like just sitting in the right way.
VTC: Yes. They also say that if you make yourself smile you will feel happier.
Audience: Just like he was saying, it goes in the other direction—smiling can make you happier. They’ve done a lot of studies on people who receive Botox injections in their face. When you smile a genuine smile, you smile with your eyes, right? But when you’ve had Botox around your eyes, you can’t activate those muscles so your brain doesn’t register the smile, and that’s correlated with more depression in people who use Botox.
VTC: Ah! Interesting. His Holiness continues:
Although meditation could even be done lying down, a cross legged sitting posture with the following seven features is helpful.
I don’t recommend meditating lying down because you know what happens. In the scriptures, there’s one story of a monk who kept telling the Buddha that he couldn’t concentrate sitting up, but he could concentrate lying down. The Buddha was able to see that, because in a previous life he had been an ox—they lay down a lot—because of that habit, it was easier in this life. But I would not encourage making that a habit. If you’re sick and you can’t sit up, then of course you can meditate lying down. But if you’re well and you can sit up, then sit up.
The seven features
Sit with your legs crossed, with a separate cushion under your rear.
Usually they say the vajra position is the best one—that is, with your left foot on your right thigh and your right foot on your left thigh. If you can’t do that, then keep your left foot up but bring your right foot down in front. If you can’t do that, have both your legs flat on the floor, kind of like Tara. If you can’t do that, then sit cross legged like we did in kindergarten, or how we do usually. If you have physical difficulties and you can’t sit cross legged, then sit in a chair or on a bench. But if you can sit on the floor, then it’s better to do that.
Calm abiding or serenity is cultivated by focusing the mind not on an external object but on an internal object.
We don’t develop serenity by staring at something. We’re not trying to get our visual consciousness to be serene. We’re trying to get our mental consciousness not to move and to be steady.
Thus, with your eyes neither widely open nor tightly closed but open a little, gaze down towards the tip of your nose, but not intensely; if this is uncomfortable, then gaze towards the floor in front of you. Leave your eyes slightly open. Visual stimuli will not bother your mental consciousness. Later, it is fine if your eyes close of their own accord.
One reason for keeping your eyes a little bit open is that it prevents drowsiness. But you’re not actually looking at something. They say focus here, if that’s uncomfortable, with your eyes or gaze down. We don’t roll our eyes back in our head, but they’re gazing down. Having a little light come in really prevents drowsiness.
Then three and four:
Straighten your backbone, like an arrow or a pile of coins, without arching back or bending forward. Keep your shoulders level and your hands four finger widths below the navel, with the left hand underneath, palm up, and the right hand on top of it, also palm up, your thumbs touching to form a triangle.
Your hands should be like this, in your lap below your navel, not at your navel; otherwise you’re going to look like a chicken. And not way down there, otherwise you’re going to look like a—I don’t know what.
VTC: Funny. But in your lap, below your navel. Then quite naturally there’s some space here [under the arms] for circulation, and again that helps. And yet, your arms aren’t like this, trying to keep them up too high. It’s quite natural. And again, keep your shoulders back, not like this [hunched forward]. In this computer generation, we’re all like this. So, we really have to practice being like this [shoulders back].
Keep your head level and straight, so that your nose is in a straight line with your navel, but arch your neck slightly, like a peacock
I don’t understand the part about arching your neck because he just said in the previous one not to arch your neck. “Without arching your back.” But, okay, your head is level. If you just tuck your chin in a tiny bit, that can just open up the back a little bit, but certainly not like this. And be really careful not to have your chin lifted. People who wear bifocals have the habit of lifting their chin in order to see things. And when they sit down to meditate, their chin’s up there. You want to have your chin level, like this. And your head level. Again, some people are meditating like this. So, you really have to have your head level.
Leave the tip of your tongue touching the roof of your mouth near the front teeth, which later will enable you to stay for long periods in meditation without drooling.
It will also keep you from breathing too strongly, which would dry out your mouth and throat.
I don’t know about your mouth, but I have nowhere else to put my tongue except on the roof of my mouth behind my teeth.
Audience: Behind the lower teeth.
VTC: No, touching the roof of your mouth.
Audience: I mean, that’s where it would go for me otherwise.
Audience: Mine would just sort of fall backwards.
VTC: Okay. I guess it depends on the shape of your mouth. Just to keep it there in front.
Breathe in and out quietly, gently and evenly.
You start your meditation practice just with a little bit of breathing—quietly, gently and evenly. When you first sit down your breath may not be quiet, gentle and even. Especially if you have some emotion going on, your breath may be a little bit rough. It may be uneven. It may be a little bit noisy if you’re tensed up. So, let your breath be as it is when you first sit down, but then let it get quiet and gentle and even because, again, that’s going to affect the state of your mind, isn’t it? When we’re nervous, how do we breathe? [Loud breathing] I’m exaggerating, but basically it’s like that. Or, if we we’re upset, our breath is very coarse and loud. Sometimes we get so upset we forget to breathe at all. Really let the breath even out here because that affects the state of mind. Sometimes if you get really tuned in, if you watch your breath, you can immediately see what your state of mind is, because you know what kind of breathing patterns go with what states of mind. It can be very, very interesting. And also, when you’re talking with other people—you know, they talk about non-verbal cues—you can see somebody’s breathing pattern and you can get some sense of what they’re feeling at that moment.
A special breathing practice
I’ve heard His Holiness teach this in a variety of different ways, so this is one way:
At the start of a session it is helpful to remove counterproductive currents of energy, called “airs” or “winds,” from your body. Like getting rid of rubbish, this series of nine inhalations and exhalations helps to clear away impulses toward lust or hatred that you might have had before the session. First, inhale deeply through the right nostril by pressing the left nostril closed with your left thumb.
And you inhale like that.
Then release the left nostril and press your right nostril closed with your left middle finger, exhaling through the left nostril.
So, in like this and out like that.
Do this three times. Then release your right nostril and press your left nostril closed with your left thumb exhaling through the right nostril.
You start out inhaling deeply through the right nostril like this, exhaling like that. You do that three times.
After that, inhale deeply through the left nostril by continuing to press the right nostril closed with your left middle finger. then release the right nostril and press your left nostril closed with your left thumb, exhaling through the right nostril.
You’re using the left hand the whole time, but what you’re blocking is changing. At first you are inhaling through your right and exhaling through your left. Then you inhale through the left and exhale on the right.
Finally, put your left hand back in your lap, as described in the previous section, and inhale deeply through both nostrils, then exhale through both nostrils.
This is a simple breathing meditation to do.
Do this three times for a total of nine breaths. When inhaling and exhaling concentrate all of your thought on the inhalations and exhalations thinking, ‘inhaling breath’ and ‘exhaling breath,’ or count each pair of inhalations and exhalations from one to ten and then back to one.
I think what he’s saying is, after you’ve done the nine points, then you can continue doing some breathing meditation. At that time, both of your hands are in your lap and you can count the breaths—each cycle of breath—up to ten and then back down to one.
Stay focused on your breath and this in itself will make your mind lighter and vaster, temporarily free from any objects of lust or hatred you might have had, leaving your mind fresh.
One thing that you can add, if you want to, he said when you’re doing these nine rounds just to maintain focus on inhalation, exhalation. One thing you can add is, when you are exhaling through the right—wait a minute! See, I learned it another way. There are different ways to learn it, so I get confused. Here he starts you out inhaling. That’s what confuses me because I learned it that you start out exhaling.
You inhale through your right nostril and exhale through your left nostril. That’s how he has you starting out here. What you can do, if you want to, whenever you’re exhaling through your left nostril think, “Attachment is vanishing, I’m exhaling attachment.” And whenever you’re exhaling through the right nostril think, “Anger is leaving.” And then, when you’re doing it with both nostrils think that ignorance or confusion is leaving. So that’s something you can add to it.
At this point, bring your altruistic motivation, you’re desire to help others, vividly to mind; if you had tried to insert a virtuous attitude earlier, when under the influence of lust or hatred, it would have been difficult, but now it is easier.
When he says lust, he doesn’t mean sexual lust; he means any kind of attachment. I think the word lust is a confusing translation.
This breathing practice is like preparing a dirty piece of cloth for dye; after washing, it will easily take the dye.
Concentrating your whole mind just on your breath, which you always have with you and does not need to be newly imagined, will cause earlier thoughts to melt away, making it easier to collect your mind in the subsequent steps.
We’re all breathing. You focus on your breath. By keeping your mind on one object it helps the other thoughts settle, and that readies your mind for meditation. Then the second step is your altruistic intention, really cultivating a good motivation. After you do the nine rounds, for the rest of your session, then your hands are in your lap with the right on the left, thumbs touching and forming a triangle in your lap.
The object of meditation
Now let us consider what kind of object you can focus on while practicing to attain calm abiding. Since the effects of previous destructive emotions tend to linger in the back of the mind, any attempt to concentrate your mind is easily interrupted by these forces. If you have already strongly ascertained the emptiness of inherent existence, you could take the image of emptiness as your object of concentration, but initially it is difficult to concentrate on such a deep topic.
We’re more likely to space out.
More typically, you need an object of attention that will weaken your own predominate destructive emotion, whether this is lust, hatred, confusion, pride or excessive thoughts. The focal points used—in other words the objects of meditation—used to counter these tendencies are called ‘objects for purifying behavior.’
Each of us may have a tendency towards one affliction rather than another. Just think about your life—what do you tend to have more of? Attachment? Anger? Confusion? What else did he say in here? Pride? Or just chatter, mental chatter, too many thoughts?
Audience: All of the above.
VTC: We all have all of them, that’s true. But which one do we have more of? Who are the angry people? Who are the attachment people? Who are the arrogance people? Who are the confusion people? Who are the rambling thoughts people? Of course, many of us raised our hands more than once, but you can often see that there’s one that is stronger than the other. And so, it can be very helpful for us to work on whichever one is prominent because that’s the one that is going to lead us into breaking our precepts and doing all sorts of counterproductive activities. Now he’s going to talk about how to do this.
If your predominant destructive emotion is lust, [or attachment] you react to even a slightly attractive person or thing with immediate desire. [Oh, I want that!] In this case, you can meditate on the components of your body from the top of your head to the soles of your feet—skin, flesh, blood, bone, marrow, urine, feces and so forth.
Do you want me to go on? Liver, intestines, spleen, muscles, ligaments….
Seen superficially, the body might be considered beautiful, but if you closely consider its parts for the purpose of this exercise, it is not so beautiful. An eyeball alone can be frightful.
Just think about it. Because you’re attached to somebody, you’re looking at their eyes; their eyes are so beautiful. But imagine their eyeball just sitting out there [on the table]. Would you find their eyeball alone so gorgeous? You would?
Audience: That’s my job.
VTC: But those eyeballs are still in peoples’ face.
Audience: They’re supposed to be in the head.
VTC: Yes. If you saw your wife’s eyeball out on the table…
Consider everything from your hairs to your fingernails and toenails.
It’s really true, isn’t it? If we really look at what this body is, it is not so gorgeous. In fact, it’s rather disgusting.
Once when I was visiting Thailand, near the door of a monastery there were pictures of a corpse taken day by day over many days. The stages of decay were obvious; the pictures were really helpful. Your body might seem to be beautiful, with a good tone, solid but soft to the touch; however, when you look closely at its components and the disintegration to which it is susceptible, you see that its nature is different.
Shantideva had this wonderful section in chapter eight of his book where he says that you look at your beloved and they’re so wonderful, but if they were dead and you looked at their corpse, you would run away screaming. It’s true, isn’t it? This body at one time is like, “Ohhh! I just want to touch it!” Then, when it’s dead, it’s like, “Aghh!”
Audience: Somebody take it away, please!
VTC: Yes. Get it away and ASAP! I don’t want to look at it.
If your predominant destructive emotion, due to past behavior over many lives is hatred and frustration, meaning you get worked up quickly, and even fly off the handle at others, you can cultivate love through the wish that those who are bereft of happiness be endowed with happiness and the causes of happiness.
When you have attachment, looking at the unattractive nature of the body counteracts that. When you have anger, cultivating a mind of love counteracts that.
If your predominant destructive emotion is confusion and dullness, due, perhaps, to the belief that phenomena occur without causes and conditions, or that the self operates under its own power, you can meditate on the dependent arising of phenomena, their dependence on causes. You can also contemplate the process of rebirth in cyclic existence, beginning with ignorance and ending with aging and death. Either of these will help you undermine the confusion of wrong ideas and ignorance and promote intelligence.
So, you see, with each of these afflictions the counter force is the opposite way of thinking.
If your predominant destructive emotion, carried over from the past, is pride, you can meditate on the categories of phenomena within your body-mind complex. Paying attention to these many factors undermines the sense of a self separate from them.”
Arrogance is based on having a sense of an independent self. I you meditate on all these components of which a person is made, then the idea of an independent self fades away and lessens the pride.
Also, when you consider these in detail, [these different kinds of components] you will realize that there are many things you do not know, thereby deflating your aggrandized sense of self. Nowadays scientists, such as physicists, have their own categories of phenomena, such as the six types of quarks—up, down, charm, strange, top and bottom—and the four forces—electromagnetic, gravitational, strong nuclear and weak nuclear—which, if you think you know everything, will puncture your pride when you consider them. You will end up thinking,“I don’t know anything.”
Well, I truly don’t because I wouldn’t even know enough to meditate on those.
If your predominant afflictive emotion is generation of too many thoughts, so that you are fluttering around thinking about this and that…”
“Oh, I’m worried about this. I’m worried about that, I’m anxious about this. What about this? I have to plan for this, I have to plan for that. How am I going to get all these things done? And, what about this person? What are they doing? What about that person? What are they doing? And this and that and…” It’s exhausting, isn’t it?
…so that you are fluttering around thinking about this and that, you can meditate on the exhalation and inhalation of the breath as described in the previous section. When you tie your mind to the breath, the seemingly ceaseless stream of thoughts roaming here and there will immediately diminish.
If you have no predominant destructive emotion, you can choose any of these objects.
A special object
A helpful object of meditation for all personality types is an image of the Buddha, or some other religious figure…
His Holiness is so open-minded but I would say for Buddhists, we could focus on the Buddha or maybe Chenrezig or Manjushri, if we want.
…since concentration on it imbues your mind with virtuous qualities. If by bringing this image to mind again and again you visualize it clearly, it remains with you during all your daily activities, as if you were in a Buddha’s presence. When you become sick or are in pain, you will be able to evoke this marvelous presence. Even when you are dying, a Buddha will continuously appear to your mind, and your consciousness of this lifetime will end with an attitude of vivid piety. This would be beneficial, wouldn’t it?
He’s saying that we are creatures of habit and what sticks in the mind is what we familiarize our mind with. Usually what sticks in our mind we can know by watching our distractions in meditation. What comes up? That’s showing us what our mind is very familiar with, what our mind goes to. As creatures of habit, when we die, it’s very easy for those same objects to come up in our mind. So, we could die grumbling about something, yes? If you’re grumbler, anybody here a grumbler? A few people. I was going to say, “Oh, you’re all so nice.” But we grumble, don’t we? [Grumbling sounds] That’s when we’re polite. When we’re really into it, it’s like everything is wrong with everything around us, isn’t it? The water’s too hot. The water’s too cold. The bed’s too soft, but the other side of the bed is too hard. I like this food, but I don’t like that food. I like this food, so you make me other food, but I don’t like that one either. You make me other food and I don’t like that one either. I want this food. My shoes are too tight. My shoes are too loose. It’s too hot. It’s too cold. The ticks tickle. Why do you have ticks here anyway? Can’t you get rid of them? [We’re open to suggestions of how to do that. If you have some suggestions, great!] So, we grumble. How did I get onto that?
We’re creatures of habit. If we’re used to grumbling during our life, we’re going to grumble at death. “Why am I dying here? Couldn’t it be somewhere else? This hospital bed isn’t tilted at the right angle. Why is this person here? Get them out of the room!” Again, just constant complaints. Dying is the only way we shut up. That’s pretty sad, isn’t it? If we’re the kind of person who’s always complaining, other people we live with just want us to go to sleep or to die because it’s the only way we’re quiet, otherwise [grumbling noises].
Or if you’re full of attachment and your mind is always going to objects of attachment, then what are you going to die with? “Oh! I have to leave my family, they’re so wonderful. Oh! All these nice things in my house, I don’t want to leave them! Who’s going to have them when I’m not here? Can’t I take them with me? Oh, my beautiful body. I don’t want to leave my body! This bed is so comfortable.”
Audience: You can’t take that with you.
VTC: So again, lots of attachment. I think attachment is going to be, wow! That one is going to be—if you die with attachment—bad news! Because then you really don’t have any freedom. You have no choice but to leave because your body is shutting down, and your mind is rebelling and saying, “But I can’t. I want this body. I want this group of friends. I want to be in this family. I want this whole ego identity. I want all these things. I don’t want to separate from them.” So much attachment. And then getting angry when it becomes clear that we have to let go. Then the mind is really, really turbulent.
The thing is, if we die with anger, attachment or who knows what, it’s not going to be good news. And we do that simply because we’re familiar with different things. Which is why it can be helpful to you, when you’re dying, to have a dharma friend there reminding you to think about the dharma. But we don’t all know when we’re going to die, so we can’t just schedule an appointment with our friend: “I’m going to die at 2:30 pm on Monday. Will you be sure to be here by 2:25 so we’re all set and ready to go?” That’s not going to work. We can’t guarantee somebody else is going to be there, which means we’re going to have to be able to guide ourselves.
His Holiness is saying that if we’ve used the figure of a Buddha or one of the deities as our object of meditation, because our mind is very, very familiar with that, then that image will come up at the time of death by the force of familiarity. And if you die thinking of the Buddha you’re not going to be attached to things, you’re not going to be angry, you’re not going to be grumbling. And so, that enables you to die really peacefully, thinking about the Buddha. That sets the stage for positive karma to ripen. Whereas if we die with anger or attachment, it sets the stage for some destructive karma to ripen. This is one of the reasons why His Holiness really emphasizes imagining the Buddha as an object of meditation.
Some people are not so visually oriented, so the breath may be a better object of meditation for them. But if you can train your mind to meditate on the Buddha or one of the deities, it could be very, very helpful. Some people say to me, “But I don’t visualize. I can’t visualize.” I say, “Think of your mother.” Do you have an image of your mother in your mind? Yes? You know what your mom looks like, don’t you? Even when your eyes are open, even when you’re looking at something else, you know what your mom looks like, don’t you? Or if I say, “Think of the place you live,” do you have an image of the place where you live? There’s an image in our mind, isn’t there? That’s visualization. That’s all visualization is. Visualization doesn’t mean you have to see in 3D technicolor as if it’s happening before you. It’s just you have that image. You know what that thing is like. If I say, “pizza,” do you have an image of pizza in your mind?
Audience: And the smell.
VTC: You even know what kind of pizza it is. Somebody says, “pizza” and we have an image in our mind. “Oh, yes, pizza. I want one.” Somebody even says the name of somebody you don’t like, you have an image of their face. “Oh, I don’t want to be near them.” That’s all visualization is.
We need to get familiar with the image of the Buddha. We’re not so familiar. We’re more used to imagining objects of attachment and hatred. We have to familiarize ourselves with the Buddha.
In your meditation, imagine an actual Buddha, not a painting or solid statue. First you need to come to know the form of the particular Buddha well through hearing it described or looking at a picture or statue, getting used to it so that an image of it can appear to your mind.
Although you’re not visualizing a statue or a painting, you need to look at a statue or a painting so that when you lower your eyes the image can appear to you. That’s why we have pictures of buddhas. But then you make that image alive.
For a beginner, mental consciousness is easily distracted here and there to all sorts of objects, but you know from your own experience that if you gaze at an object such as a flower, this scattering will diminish. In the same way, when you gaze at a Buddha-image with your eyes, scattering will lessen, and then gradually you can cause the image to appear to your mind.
You might start out looking at the Buddha so you remember it, and then closing your eyes and letting the image appear.
Imagine the religious object on the same level as your eyebrows, about five or six feet in front of you; it is one to four inches high.
I find imagining it five or six feet in front of me—because my eyesight is not so good—makes it harder for me to get a clearer image. If I imagine it closer, the image is clearer. And His Holiness often comments that people have told him—I haven’t found this true, but—that if they usually wear glasses, if they keep their glasses on when they meditate their visualization is clearer than if they take their glasses off.
The smaller the object the more it will focus the mind; it should be clear and bright, emitting light but dense.
But then you’re saying, “Emitting light but dense.” You’re supposed to visualize the Buddha not as a dense statue, but here it says dense. I have heard the word ‘heavy’ used instead of ‘dense,’ heavy in the sense of stable. It’s made of light, but it’s stable, it’s firm. Maybe the word “firm” is better. If you visualize it just as light that is very light, then the mind gets distracted because light is going all over. But if you think that the Buddha’s body is made of light, but it’s very steady, very firm…
Audience: It helps with the stabilization, right?
Its brilliance will help keep the mind’s mode of perception from being too loose; its density [or firmness] will help keep the mind from scattering to other objects.
Now the object is fixed with respect to its nature and size for the duration of cultivating calm abiding. You should not switch from these, even though, over time, the image may change in size, color, shape, position, or even number. Put your mind back on the original object.
When you do this, sometimes the Buddha starts out with a golden body then he turns to red, then he grows and he’s seven feet tall, then the shape of his face changes. And so, it’s very easy for the mind to fabricate. His Holiness is saying that you come back to the original object that you started out with.
If you strive too hard to make the object bright and clear, this will interfere; constantly adjusting its brightness will prevent stability from developing.
As you’re meditating, you think, “Oh, I’ve got to make the Buddha brighter. Come on! Bright, bright, bright, bright!” Like you’re pressing the thing on your computer. Bright, bright, bright, bright! Brighter, then it fades. Bright, bright, bright. Oh, too bright! Down, down, down. If you’re doing that, it’s going to interfere with your stability.
Moderation is needed. Once the object appears even vaguely, stick with it. Later, when the object is steady, you can gradually adjust its brightness and clarity without losing the original image.
Then there’s the meditative reflection.
1. Look carefully at an image of Buddha, or some other religious figure or symbol, [even the letters Om Ah Hung] noticing its form, color and details.
2. Work at causing this image to appear internally to your consciousness.
He says, “Work at causing this image”, but to me that sounds like, “I’ve got to work to make it happen.” To me, you just close your eyes and you let it be there, in the same way that you close your eyes and ice cream appears, or whatever it is you’re wanting. It just appears to the mind; you don’t have any problem with it. So just let it be there. It doesn’t appear as easily because we’re not so habituated, so we need to really practice that.
Work at causing this image to appear internally to your consciousness, imagining it on the same level as your eyebrows, about five or six feet in front of you, about one to four inches high (smaller is better), and shining brightly.
3. Consider the image to be real, endowed with magnificent qualities of body, speech, and mind.
Really think that you are sitting in the presence of the Buddha.
Audience: My question was about what he says right at the end there, still I don’t get it. To think of the actual Buddha himself, do I go back 26 centuries to the first one, so it has to be of an image or a statue, doesn’t it?
VTC: Well, you know, you might use the Buddha of 26 centuries ago, but just think that he’s appearing small in front of you. And again, with a body made of light, golden light.
Audience: You said you could either use Buddha Shakyamuni or Chenrezig, but meditation on Chenrezig is so complex.
VTC: Yes, but some people may have a stronger affinity for Chenrezig and like that visualization. Other people may say, “Oh, it’s more complex. It’s better that I stick with the image of the Buddha.” People are different.
Audience: What about analytical meditation? What’s the difference?
VTC: Between analytical and stabilizing? With analytical, you’re really investigating the object. You’re probing the object, trying to really understand it. For example, if we do an analytical meditation on precious human life, we really think about the different components of a precious human life, and we reflect: “Do I have those components? What are the benefits of them?” That helps a joyful feeling to arise in our mind. And then, we use the stabilizing meditation to just let the mind rest on that joyful feeling after we’ve analyzed the topic of precious human life.
Audience: I was thinking about this recently in the dream state and that the object of attachment is very quick. So, I was flying and looking down at five distinct lands, and not liking this land, or this land, or this land, and feeling the pull immediately to the desert. And then, I woke up. I then realized that that moment of attachment, I mean, it really motivated me and has stayed with me, because I was thinking how unfortunate it would’ve been if I had died during that dream and had stuck like in Syria or…Really, it frightened me. I mean, it has motivated me almost more than all, you know. It was very powerful.
Audience: Because I was thinking, wow! If the dream state really correlates where my mind is at, and if my mind is calm then my dream state is calm. If my mind is agitated, it’s reflected in my dream state. And to die in your sleep, they say is good thing, but I don’t know.
VTC: Yes. That’s why they say think of the Buddha before you go to sleep.
Audience: And maybe recall it in the dream state.
Audience: [inaudible] You could have also too many thoughts as a kind of affliction. What kind of afflictions is it if you have too many thoughts in your meditation? Is it a combination of many afflictions?
VTC: Yes. I think it’s probably many of them.
Audience: I have difficulty breathing.
VTC: Yes. Well, he’s suggesting the breathing meditation at the beginning of your session to calm your mind. If you have problems with your nose and you can’t breathe very easily, just leave that.
Audience: But still can you supplement your practice with another method…
VTC: Yes. If you want to concentrate on your navel that’s fine for a minute or two. If that helps you calm your mind, do what helps you.
Audience: This is actually in reference to something you said yesterday. At the beginning of one of the teachings you were talking about regret, and what you regretted like as a sixth grader, writing those lists and stuff like that. I was always under the impression that you should try to live kind of a regret-free life. So, I mean, with regret, is it good maybe to think about it, regret something and then let it go? Or should you hold onto it?
VTC: Very good question. There’s a difference between regret and remorse. Or a difference between regret and guilt. That’s even more stark of a difference. Best is to not do things that we’re going to regret afterwards. That’s the best thing. But if we do things, then having regret helps us to stop the pattern of repeatedly doing that. If I don’t have regret, then I don’t see anything wrong with what I did, and then I’m likely to keep doing it. Regret does not mean feeling guilty about it, because when we feel guilty we beat ourselves up. That’s counterproductive. Regret thinks: “I did this. I put negative karma on my own mind stream, I really regret doing that. I harmed somebody else, I regret doing that. I really don’t want to do it again.” So there, when you have the regret, then you have a determination not to do that again. And then thinking, “I’m going to take refuge, generate bodhicitta to transform my way of relating to this person. And I’m going to do some remedial behavior.” And so you do the four opponent powers. And by doing them it helps you set it down. In case you’re carrying around guilt or shame or whatever it was, it helps you set it down. We do have to purify things repeatedly, and there are some things that it’s good to have regret for repeatedly.
But I can say that I don’t walk around all day regretting making the lists in sixth grade. It’s usually when I’m giving a talk and I bring that up as an example, and then I remember, wow! That was really, that was awful! And I don’t want to be that kind of person.
Audience: Having regret isn’t really a bad thing as long as you’re not “guilting” yourself or focusing on it?
Audience: But at the same time aspiring to live a regret-free life.
VTC: That’s the best thing. Yes. It’s better to not break your leg than to break your leg and get it put in a cast. Similarly, not doing negative things from the start [is best.] But then, regret can be helpful. Regret doesn’t mean we have to have a heavy mind. Regret just means thinking, “Wow! I did that. I regret having done that.” And then, when you keep that in mind, it makes you actually be more careful not to repeat the behavior. If you feel guilty, that’s a whole other ballgame, because with guilt then you’re just putting yourself down, telling yourself you’re stupid and inferior, and this is just more self-centeredness. And when you feel guilty, that doesn’t stop you from doing the behavior again.
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.