Meditation Methods

What Is Meditation?

Okay shall we begin? This evening I was asked to speak about meditation, various types of meditation, and this is obviously an important topic if we want to put the Buddha’s teachings into practice.

Meditation is not something which is particularly Buddhist, but is something that we find in all Indian traditions and outside India as well. If we look at the word for meditation in Sanskrit, the word is bhavana. Bhavana comes from the verb bhu, which means to become, to make something into something. It’s a method with which we take some sort of teaching or some sort of method, and we become that. We make that so.

Because it comes from the root bhu, from the word “to become,” it implies a transformation. So, if we are talking about love, we actually become someone with love. If we look at the way in which the term was translated into Tibetan, it was translated with the word that implies building up a habit. This is the word “gom.” And gom is to habituate ourselves to something which is positive, not to something negative or neutral, but to build up a positive, constructive habit. It is quite similar to what we have; the Tibetan is quite similar in meaning or implication to what the Sanskrit word implies. In order to transform ourselves to become like what it is that we are trying to achieve, we need to build it up as a beneficial habit.

Listening to the Teachings

So even before Buddha, in the Upanishads – the Indian philosophical text that preceded Buddha – this text already spoke about meditation, and spoke about it within the context of the three-step process: listening, thinking and meditating. The Buddha didn’t make that up; that was already current in his time. So if we want to make something a positive habit, transform ourselves, we have to obviously first hear about it; we have to learn it; we have to study it. And in those days, philosophical teachings, Buddhist teachings, were never written down; that came much later. And so the term is that you have to hear it; you have to listen to it.

And perhaps today you could say that you could also include here reading about certain types of practices or states of mind that you would like to develop. One could debate the point, because when we hear a teaching, when we listen to it, there is the whole ambiance of the teacher who is actually there, and present, and brings in the whole issue of gaining inspiration from the teacher which we might not get from a book, even though obviously somebody had to write the book. We find that in our everyday life as well. It is much more energy-involved and much more inspirational when you go to a live concert than when you just listen to a CD at home, isn’t it? It’s a quite different experience.

And when we listen to teachings, there are many instructions about how to do that, but one of the most helpful ones of those is to remove the “three faults that are like a clay vase,” it said.

  • So, we have to avoid the mistake of being like an upside down vase in which nothing will go inside. So if our minds are closed, obviously we won’t be able to learn anything from what we hear.
  • And then we also have to avoid the mistake of being like a vase with a hole in the bottom, in which anything that is poured in just goes right out. So our expression is, “having things go in on one ear and out the other.” We need to avoid that.
  • And then we also need to avoid the mistake of being like a dirty vase, which, when you pour water into it, makes the water dirty. And so this is referring to when we have a lot of preconceptions and so that contaminates, in a sense, our understanding. Rather than just hearing what the person says, we’re always mixing it with our own ideas.

What is always recommended is various types of ways of regarding ourselves and the situation. We regard ourselves as a sick person, the teacher as a doctor, and the teachings as medicine to help us to overcome various sicknesses or problems that we have with disturbing emotions, and so on. Because as you might recall, this Sakya master, Sonam-tsemo, has said that to enter into the Dharma, we have to acknowledge that we have problems, we have suffering; and we have to wish to get out of it; and we have to take interest in the Dharma as a way to get out of it.

Now of course if we don’t know anything about the Dharma, then we have to first gain information which is what would be the basis of taking interest in the Dharma. So when we are absolute newcomers, then we certainly need to have an open mind and try to retain what we learn, but at first we are evaluating. We learn something about the Dharma to see whether or not this might be something that I would need. So these various instructions that we have been speaking about are referring to once we’ve decided that: “Yes, I want to follow the practice of the Dharma.”

There are many further types of instructions as we get more and more advanced in our practice in terms of attitudes that we have toward the teacher, in terms of the teacher as a Buddha, and so on, but these are not really intended for beginners.

Then, once we have heard the teachings, then of course it’s very helpful to write it down or these sorts of things so that we can remember it if we don’t have perfect memories – as most of us don’t. Then we need to do the second step.

Thinking about What We’ve Heard

The second step is to think about what we have heard. So thinking about the teachings is basically a step that we do in order to understand them. The end point of thinking about something, in this context, means that we understand what it means. And not only do we understand the teachings at the end of this point, but we also need to become convinced at the end of this stage that the teachings are valid, they are correct, and that they are something that I need, that it is something that will help me. And we need to be convinced that it’s possible for me to actually achieve whatever it is that the teachings are talking about. If we think that it’s impossible, that I am never going to be able to overcome my anger, then what’s the point of following a practice that is intended to overcome our anger? And we have to be convinced that the practice is going to work to achieve the goal that it states it will be able to achieve.

So when we think about a teaching, we think about it from many points of view. We have to know, for instance, the various steps that we need to take in order to develop, for instance love, if we are talking about meditation to develop love. What does love, for instance, depend on? It depends on seeing everybody as equal, seeing that everybody has been kind to us, and so on. So you have to know what it depends on and what are the things that we need to develop in order for love to stand, in a sense, in our minds.

We have to know what are the opposite factors of love that love is going to oppose; and we need to be convinced that the opposing factors would be anger and hatred; and we need to be convinced that love can actually oppose that, can get rid of that; we have to understand how it would get rid of that. And we have to understand what is the purpose of developing love and what are we going to do with it, which usually involves knowing the benefits of developing love. When you look at many of the texts that give instructions on developing bodhichitta or whatever, they usually start with describing the benefits of it, so that we are convinced that this is something that I would like to do. And we also need to be convinced of the logic of the teachings – they need to be logical, they need to be reasonable and make sense in terms of the stages of it and the actual details of the teachings.

So there are many things that we need to think about. To just jump into a meditation practice without having understood what do I have to develop first and how is it going to get rid of this thing or that thing, and what are the opposing factors I have to watch out for, and so on... that the analogy for that is that: “Listening is putting the food in your mouth, and thinking about it is chewing it. And if we try to swallow without chewing, we are going to choke.” So if we try to meditate without thinking about the teachings, we are going to have difficulties. What do we do then in thinking? It can be either some free form of thinking about these various points that I have mentioned, or once we have done that, it would be a more formal process.

Formal Thinking Process

So the formal process that it could be would be to go through a line of reasoning. When we want to develop a certain state of mind, then we need to build it up. We need to build up to that state of mind by going through stages or steps, and often those steps are lines of reasoning. So it could be a line of reasoning that builds up to an understanding of impermanence; it could be a line of reasoning that builds up to an understanding of voidness. All these things are ways of becoming convinced that impermanence is correct, that things are affected by causes and conditions change, and that voidness is correct; nothing exists in impossible ways. So going through that line of reasoning, at the end we become convinced that impermanence is correct or voidness is correct. Remember that’s part of the thinking process.

Or we could build up to a certain state of mind, not necessarily through a line of reasoning, but through stages, like for instance, if we want to develop bodhichitta we would go through stages such as developing equanimity, and then seeing everybody as having been our mothers in some previous lifetime, remembering the kindness of motherly love, developing appreciation of that, and so on. So we work through the stages so that you become convinced that going through these stages we can reach that goal of developing bodhichitta. So, this is still part of the thinking process.

Also we have to understand very well, in this thinking process, what actually is this state of mind that we are trying to cultivate. Some meditations are intended to help us to focus on a certain object, like for instance voidness. So we have to understand, obviously, this is the type of meditation that I’m doing, and I’m doing it to develop my mind to understand the certain object. Whereas there are other meditations which are intended to develop a state of mind itself, like for instance love. Love isn’t an object that we are focusing on. Love is a type of mental attitude that we develop. So we need to understand which one we are working with here. What are we trying to accomplish?

And in both cases, Tsongkhapa emphasized very strongly that we need to know two things. First is what is the object that the mind is focusing on? Whether we are talking about love or we are talking about an understanding of voidness, what object is it focusing on? What appears to the mind when we’ve achieved this state? That’s the first thing. And the second thing we have to know is how does the mind take or cognize that object? What is it doing with that object? If we don’t have these two things, these two points very clear in our mind, how can we possibly generate the state of mind that we wish to have?

So for example, compassion: what is it aimed at? What is the appearing object? It is sentient beings, various beings with suffering, and focusing on them and their suffering. And how does the mind take that object? It takes it with the strong intentional wish for them to be removed from their suffering, from their suffering to be removed from them, and with the intention that we are going to try to do something about it. So in that way we specify very clearly what’s the state of mind that we want to generate. Or if we think about bodhichitta, we have to be very clear. Most people confuse bodhichitta with compassion. It’s not compassion. Love, compassion, is taking responsibility to bring others to enlightenment, not just to help them to overcome some sickness, but to bring them to enlightenment. These are the things that bodhichitta rests on, depends on. We need to have that first.

But what we are focusing on with bodhichitta when we actually are sitting there with bodhichitta, we are focusing on our own individual enlightenments, right, our own individual enlightenments which have not yet happened, but which can happen on the basis of Buddha-nature and on the basis of all the various other factors and hard work that we have to do in order to achieve it. So we are not focusing on the enlightenment of Buddha Sakyamuni. We are not focusing on just a general abstract enlightenment in general, but on our own future enlightenments, the not-yet-happened, future – better to leave that word out, it confuses Western concepts of time with Buddhist concepts of time – the not-yet-happened enlightenment.

So, how do we focus on our not-yet-happened enlightenment? That’s not very easy. First of all we have to understand what in the world that means, what kind of phenomenon is that – the “not-yet-happened” anything. Does the “not-yet-happened” sprout already exist in the seed? Is it nothing? Is it totally nonexistent and so on? So obviously, the understanding of voidness is necessary here to really get a clear picture of what in the world are we focusing on when we are focusing on our not-yet-happened enlightenment. But our not-yet-happened enlightenment is not sitting out there somewhere like the finished line of a race and we are heading toward it. It’s not sitting somewhere. It is not a findable object like that, but rather it’s something which can be validly imputed on our mental continuums on the basis of Buddha-nature.

And, in order to focus on that not-yet-happened enlightenment, we have to focus on it through some sort of representation, a mental representation of it. So it could be just the word, the meaning category of “enlightenment,” I was thinking of enlightenment; or we could visualise it as a Buddha. Very often people visualize a Buddha as representing the future enlightenment that I’m aiming for. Or in tantra, one could visualize oneself in the form of a Buddha-figure. This is representing my not-yet-happened enlightenment that I am aiming to achieve – that I know that it is not yet happened. Not yet happened is not happening now. So this is what we are focusing on, this is how we understand what we are focusing on.

And then, in terms of how do we focus on it, how does the mind take that object, aside from conviction that it’s possible to achieve it? It is taking it with two intentions. The first intention is that “I’m going to achieve this.” Now to have that intention that “I am going to achieve this” depends on some of the things that we’ve thought about. In other words, knowing realistically what I have to do in order to achieve it. It can’t just be, “Oh, I’m going to achieve this.” But we have to know how we are going to achieve it, and be convinced that we can achieve it. Then you can have a valid intention to achieve it; otherwise, it is just a nice dream. And of course, we have to understand correctly “what is enlightenment,” which is also not terribly easy to understand.

And the second intention is that we are going to, with that enlightenment, benefit others as much as is possible. And that, of course, is based on having had the steps beforehand of what bodhichitta depends on, namely love and compassion. We are taking responsibility to bring them, to help others to enlightenment. So this thinking step is actually quite a long step and requires a great deal of work. But at the end of this thinking step, we know precisely what is the state of mind that I am trying to achieve, precisely how to do it, and everything is, you know, with full conviction.

And although that process of thinking may look like meditation, and Western people not using the terminology very precisely might call it meditation, it’s not meditation according to the definition of meditation. So this is a very worthwhile thing that we can do, and to think about the teachings is something that we can do any time. In fact, it’s a very good activity to do in between things in our daily lives, because during our daily life we can think about how would this state of mind, let’s say love, apply in the situation? And how would it be relevant? What would be its benefits? And so on – these are things that we check out during our day.


Then we actually have meditation itself. Meditation is to digest the food, you know once we have chewed it. It’s to make this state of mind a habit, actually become that state of mind. So this is primarily a two-fold process. One step is what I translate as “discerning meditation.” It is usually translated as analytical, but calling it analytical tends to confuse it with the thinking step. So “discerning,” I think, is more accurate translation of the term. “Discern” here means to understand something in a certain way, scrutinizing something really very carefully and understanding it in a certain way. And then the second aspect is fixating meditation in which we actually fix on that state of mind, stay on it. So we can call it stabilizing meditation as well.

So, this discerning meditation, how we do this? What we do is, having gone through the line of reasoning, having gone through the stages, the steps for building up to a certain state of mind during the thinking process, now we do it once again. But we’re doing it again not for the purpose of gaining an understanding, because we already understood it. What we are going through this process for is in order to get a fresh understanding, a fresh state of mind. That would be the definition of the state of mind that we are trying to achieve. Work yourselves up to it: everybody has been my mother, everybody has been kind and so on, so you actually feel the state of mind.

And then once we have worked ourselves up in this step-by-step process to the state of mind that we want to habituate ourselves to, then we actively discern or understand the object in that way. With compassion, now I focus on sentient beings and their suffering and I discern that they are suffering and I have this intention, this wish that they may be free from this suffering and so on. I am actually seeing them; I’m looking at them in my mind in this way, or it could be in real life when we actually see people. Compassion is focused on others and their suffering and the wish for them to be free.

So we stay with that discernment for a while, in an active process, and then stabilizing meditation is basically just letting it sink in, full concentration on this. Obviously you have concentration when you are doing the discerning meditation as well, but it is a – I don’t know if you really want to use the word “passive” – it’s sort of letting it sink in, really feeling it. And we alternate these back and forth and eventually we are able to combine them. But that’s very difficult, there’s a lot of discussion about what stage and which type of processes combine and which have one and which have the other. That’s quite complex and you can read about that a little bit on my website.

Also, when we become very advanced, then we don’t have to do what is called a “contrived labored meditation” in which this discerning meditation process involves going through the stages and building yourself up to this state of mind. You’re just able to do it instantaneously. That’s still discerning meditation.

Types of Meditation

We often hear about two types of meditations. The Sanskrit words for them are shamatha and vipashyana, in Tibetan, shinay and lhagtong. And these are referring to: shamatha is a stilled and settled state of mind. It is stilled or quieted of dullness and flightiness or agitation – a mind which flies off to something – and it is settled on an object. So, the emphases here is on this stabilizing meditation. And we can develop this stilled and settled state of mind through focusing on many, many different things including the breadth, including the visualised Buddha and so on. But there is a long list of possibilities. And even these types of meditation, one needs to hear about the instructions and then think about them, go through the stages. Like for instance if you are visualising a Buddha – how to build up the visualisation step by step, what do you do first, and so on.

And for vipashyana, this word means an exceptionally perceptive state of mind, lhagtong – to be able to see or perceive in a very exceptional way. So this is emphasizing this discerning meditation. So when we talk about vipashyana, it could be achieved in terms of an exceptionally perceptive state of mind that understands impermanence, that understands voidness, but it is not exclusively that. In anuttarayoga tantra, the highest class of tantra, one develops vipashyana, this exceptionally perceptive state of mind, by visualizing a tiny dot or drop at the tip of the nose, for example. And then with maintaining that one dot, and there’s two dots, and in the next row then four and eight and sixteen, thirty-two, and so on, keeping them all perfectly in order, and then dissolving it in stages, and so on. By doing that, you develop an extremely, exceptionally perceptive state of mind. If you really want to develop it, then there are other practices in which in each of those dots or drops, you visualize the whole mandala of the system, the deity system that you’re practicing, with all the deities, in each of them, with all the details. Then you really have an exceptionally perceptive state of mind!

And we have this shamatha and vipashyana in all the Buddhist traditions. We find it in the Theravada traditions, we find it in Zen as well. In Zen, for instance, when we focus on a koan, if we use the one that is used, for instance, in the Korean form of the Zen, “What is it?” and we focus on “What is it?” the point is not that you answer, “This is the table, this is the glass” and so on, but that you develop the mind to be in the state of “What is it?” And then it becomes an exceptionally perceptive state of mind.

Very funny – the Tibetans, most of them don’t and haven’t studied this Zen tradition. They aren’t familiar with it. There was very famous meeting between a Zen master and I believe it was Kalu Rinpoche, in which the Zen master held up an orange and said “What is it?” and Kalu Rinpoche said to his translator, “What is the matter, don’t they have oranges in his country?”

So we have shamatha and vipashyana. Shamatha is not just perfect concentration, which is developed through nine stages and, you know, there’s all sorts of things, different types of attention and so on that we use in that. But what it has in addition to perfect concentration is what’s known as an “exhilarating state of mind.” “A sense of fitness” is the actually technical term. So, what we have in addition to perfect concentration is a sense of fitness, which is an exhilarating physical and mental state. Sense of fitness is like what an athlete has that is perfectly trained.

Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, my teacher, explained it as like having a jumbo jet: if you put it on the ground it will stay, if you send it flying in the air it will go. And so there is this sense that you can concentrate on anything for any amount of time – the body won’t get tired, the mind won’t get tired, you feel totally fit and it’s exhilarating. So it is a very exhilarating, uplifting, joyous type of thing. But not a joyous “ha, ha, ha”, you know, go running down the street singing and dancing. It’s not like that. The mind is totally, you know, like an athlete being very, very well trained.

Vipashyana is in addition to shamatha. Vipashyana, the definition of vipashyana – as soon as you have shamatha already – it adds on top of that a second sense of fitness, which is a fitness that the mind can understand and discern anything.

Then there is also a type of meditation which is known as glance meditation usually. And what this is when we are working on a particular meditation practice, that every now and then we need to review the whole Buddhist path to see where it fits in, so that we don’t over-emphasize one thing and skip or neglect another thing. So it’s reviewing the whole path. It’s a type of review.

Many years ago I came to Russia, Moscow, with Dr. Tenzin Choedrak, who was the personal physician of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in order to work on a project to use Tibetan medicine to help the Chernobyl victims. And we stayed at very nice hotels and so on, and they were very, very official, the ministry of health, and often we were taken out to these famous Russian seven-course meals. Now Dr. Tenzin Choedrak had spent twenty years in a Chinese concentration camp before he was able to come to India. And the first course of the seven-course banquet would be served, and no matter how much we told him beforehand, he would eat as much as possible of this first course and then would be so full that he couldn’t eat anything more. So this is what we want to avoid with this glance meditation. We want to review and keep in mind the whole menu of all seven courses so that we don’t overeat and do too much meditation on one thing, like the first course, and miss out on the rest of the meal.

Now, we were talking about the type of meditation in which you build up to a certain state of mind, but that isn’t the only type of meditation that’s done in Buddhism. We have in certain meditation practices, like in some of the Kagyu meditations on the nature of the mind or in certain Zen practices, an approach which is basically rather than building up to a state of mind, quieting down to a state of mind. But even when we are doing this type of meditation – to quiet down and discover that there are certain inborn qualities of love or clarity of mind, or these sort of things – still we need to have first heard the instructions, and we need to have thought about them, and to know what it’s based on, what we are going to achieve, what we need to do first, and so on. And you have to have understood the instructions; so the structure here is the same.

Conducive Meditation Environment

So, this is perhaps enough of an introduction to what goes on in meditation. And although we have instructions of how to set up a meditation session, a meditation room, and all these sort of things in terms of making prostration, making offerings, sweeping, cleaning the room, which is very important for having a good environment around which is orderly, the mind can be very orderly when we meditate – all these instructions are there and very important.

And although it is important to have the conducive circumstances and environment for meditating, particularly, you know, a proper seat and quiet and cleanliness around oneself; nevertheless, it is not necessary to have a Hollywood scene going on around us. That, you know, we have to spend thousands and thousands of roubles in order to get all the proper gold fixtures, and you have to have the incense, and you have to have the “woo-woo” music in the background and all this sort of thing. Milarepa certainly didn’t have all of that and he was quite successful in meditating. We try to make it as our meditation space as nice as possible, but without going overboard and making things elaborate just for show.

And we need to be able to meditate anywhere. If we go on a long train journey, you don’t say, “Well, I can’t meditate on the train because I don’t have my water bowls and I can’t light an incense, can’t prostrate,” or something like that.” But we can meditate anywhere once we become a little bit proficient at it – on the train, anywhere, standing in a cube. We can try to discern others with love, with compassion; its meditation isn’t it?

And remember, the whole point of meditation is to integrate the teachings – make them part of us so that we can apply them in life. And so when meditation becomes completely separate from our daily lives, then it is just a hobby. Especially when our meditation involves these tantric visualizations – it’s like a trip into Disneyland, some fantasy land that has nothing to do with our daily lives and then we become very schizophrenic and the meditation has very little effect on our daily lives. Remember, the whole point of the meditation is to apply it in life. And when we meditate we need to, no matter where we are, first set the motivation, affirm the motivation, have the intention to meditate with concentration. If our mind wanders, we try to bring it back. If we get sleepy, we try to wake ourselves up. And at the end, have the dedication of the positive force. If we don’t dedicate it, it just improves our samsaric situation. We want to dedicate it to enlightenment, to the benefit of everyone.

Individual versus Group Meditation

Some people do meditation individually. In fact, the Tibetans mostly do individual meditation; they don’t really do group meditation. But in the West, we do have the custom of group meditation, and the biggest benefit of that for most people is the discipline. If we are by ourselves, we don’t have the discipline to just sit there and we get up long before we had intended to end our session and so on. Whereas if there are other people there, we have the discipline and we tend to fidget much less, because we are embarrassed.

Some people find group meditation absolutely horrible because they are distracted by the other people. And especially when somebody is coughing and so on, they find it terrible for their meditation and they prefer private meditation. Especially if people are reciting something out loud and they are reciting it much more slowly than we normally would and then we get incredibly bored and angry. And the other way around as well, if it is going too fast we also get angry.

So we have to judge ourselves which is better for us. But one thing that I found with group meditation – I mean if just meditating with one or two other people – is that what makes it successful, when it is successful, is when you have a very, very close bond and close connection with the other person or the other people with whom you are meditating, so that you feel very harmonious with that person. And when you do that, it’s as if your energies reinforce each other and it gives you a lot more energy and a lot more clarity. But when the energies of the individual people who are meditating in a group clash with each other, then the effect is just the opposite; it brings annoyance and makes your mind much more dull. So that you have to check who you are meditating with, if you are going to meditate with others.

Importance of Perseverance

And the last piece of advice which is to remember – and I think this is one of the most important pieces of advice – is that the nature of samsara is that it goes up and down. That’s the nature of samsara. And so our meditation naturally is going to go up and down. It is never going to be a linear process that every day gets better and better. Some days our meditation is going to go well, other days it is not going to go well. Some days we want to meditate, other days we don’t feel like meditating at all. This is perfectly normal and natural – it’s the nature of samsara. The point is that no matter what, you just persevere and you go ahead. Doesn’t matter. “I don’t feel like meditating” – so what? Meditate anyway. Maintain the continuity; do it every day, even if it’s only for two or three minutes. That continuity is very important in terms of giving us stability on the path.

And don’t make the meditation sessions too long, especially in the beginning. Three, five minutes is enough. Otherwise you just feel like, “I can’t wait until it’s over,” and then we don’t want to go back to our meditation. If you end the meditation when you would still like to continue, then you are very happy to go back. It’s like if you are with somebody and you part when you still would like to spend more time with the person, you would like to see them again quite quickly. But if they overstay to the point when you really get tired of them, you wish they would go already, then you are not very happy to see them again.

And then gradually extend the amount of time that you meditate. And be flexible; it is very important to be flexible. As I said: Never miss meditation even for a day. You gain stability and reliability and confidence if you do it every day. But be flexible. Sometimes you can do the full meditation that you want to do, other times when you don’t have time, do a shortened version, but at least do something every day. Don’t be a fanatic, don’t push yourself too hard. My favourite Zen koan: “Death can come at any time; relax.” Okay so maybe that’s enough.