Main Features of Meditation

Meditation is something that is found in many traditions, not just Buddhism; but while many aspects of meditation are found in all Indian traditions, here we shall limit our discussion to the way that meditation is presented in Buddhism.

What Is Meditation?

The word “meditation” means to habituate ourselves. The Tibetan word for it, gom (sgom),” connotes building up a beneficial habit. The Sanskrit original, “bhavana,” has more of a connotation of making something actually happen. We have a certain type of beneficial state of mind or attitude, and we want to make that happen, in other words, actually make that state of mind operate within our ways of thinking and living. Depending on the tradition in which meditation is used, the instructions will specify what the beneficial habits are, and what the reason and goal are for actualizing them. In all Indian traditions, however, the process is threefold: first, hearing or listening, then thinking, and then actually meditating (See: What is Meditation?).

Listening to the Teachings

Suppose we want to build a beneficial habit of being compassionate. In order to develop compassion, or increase an existing feeling of compassion, first we need to listen to some teachings on the topic. In ancient India, none of the teachings were written down. They were all passed on orally. Because of that, someone learning meditation had to first hear the teachings. This is why the first step is known as “listening.”

Nowadays, of course, we could read about various teachings – we do not need to actually hear someone tell them to us in person – but the principle behind this is quite relevant. In ancient times, everything had to be memorized and the listener needed to be sure that what someone was reciting was accurate. The person reciting the teaching from memory might not have remembered it correctly. Some mistakes might have come in and this would be a real problem.

Discriminating Awareness

When listening to teachings, then, we need to develop what is called the “discriminating awareness that arises from listening.” The Tibetan term “sherab” (shes-rab, Skt. prajna) is often translated as “wisdom,” but using the word “wisdom” is much too vague; it does not have a precise meaning. If a group of people hears the word “wisdom,” each person will have a different idea of what that actually means, and so the term “wisdom” does not help us to really understand the term “sherab” very precisely. That is why I prefer to translate “sherab” as “discriminating awareness.”

Discriminating awareness is based on a prior mental factor, which I translate as “distinguishing.” Most people translate this term as “recognition,” but “recognition” is also not precise. “Recognize” means that you have known the object previously, and then you recognize it again; this is not quite right. “Distinguish” means to specify something as “this” by differentiating it from everything that is “not this.” We are able to distinguish “this” from “not this,” or “this” from “that,” because everything has specific, individual characteristic features or defining marks that we cognize when we are aware of something. A simple example is that infants can distinguish between “hungry” and “not hungry.” Infants do not need words for these two different physical sensations and they don’t really need to understand the concepts of “hungry” and “not hungry” very deeply. Nevertheless, they can distinguish the difference between the two because each of the two has a unique defining characteristic feature, namely a specific type of physical sensation.

Discriminating awareness adds a factor of certainty to that distinguishing: “It is definitely this and not that.” This certainty is what we need when we either listen to teachings or read about them. We need the confidence to know: “This is the actual teaching; it is not false teaching.” It’s actually very difficult to know “this is the actual teaching,” because the scriptures are not easy to understand by themselves. Normally, we need to rely on a book or a teacher who explains them. But, how do you know that a particular teacher is a reliable, authentic teacher? Someone could be teaching about Buddhism, or teaching about love and compassion, and perhaps they are giving out information that conflicts with what Buddhism actually says. We need to be very certain, by using discriminating awareness, that the teaching we hear or read about is exactly as it should be; we need to be certain that it is the authentic teaching.

There are certain factors that need to be present for a teaching to validly be a Buddhist one. The author or the one who imparts it needs to be someone that we can determine, through investigation, is a properly qualified teacher. To determine this, we need to ask other people, for example: “Does this person have his or her own valid teacher and what is the relationship like between the two of them? Does this person’s teacher come from a valid lineage of teachers going back in time?” These are important questions to investigate. We should not just pick up any random book and, just because someone famous wrote it, think that it’s a reliable source. The same principle applies when listening to someone’s lecture.

Using Discrimination to Determine the Context of the Teachings

Furthermore, there is a context for each of the Buddhist teachings, a philosophical school from which the teachings derive. It’s important to know what the context for a particular teaching is. The reason is that the various Buddhist systems have different explanations for the same technical term, for instance “karma.” Moreover, these teachings on karma in a specific system fit together with the explanations that system gives about many other related topics in the Dharma, for instance cognition theory. We need to be certain what system the teachings come from, so that we can fit them together with other teachings we have heard.

Knowing the context in which words are used is important even in casual conversation. For instance, you hear the word “bon.” This is the name of the pre-Buddhist tradition in Tibet. But in French, “bon” means “good.” So if you were not aware of the language context, you might be confused if you heard the word “bon.” Is the person talking about bon in French or is the context Tibetan? To rely only on the sound of the word, without knowing what language it’s in, could cause you to be misled.

Knowing the context is even more crucial when dealing with Buddhist technical terms. For instance, you may be learning about voidness (emptiness), which is explained one way in one Indian Buddhist school and a different way in another school. Even within one Indian Buddhist school of philosophy, voidness is interpreted in very different ways by each of the various Tibetan schools of Buddhism.

The fact that there are so many different explanations of the same topic is one of the most confusing aspects for Westerners studying Buddhism. It’s confusing enough that in the modern era, especially with the Internet, we have access to all the different Asian traditions of Buddhism. But even within the Buddhist tradition of one country – for example, Tibet – there are many variations and different interpretations.

Let me illustrate that point. Suppose we’re studying a detailed explanation about karma with a certain teacher. In order not to be confused about what we are learning, we need to isolate the explanation from those found in all other systems except the one that the teacher is explaining from. For example, we would need to know that we are learning about the Buddhist interpretation, not the Hindu one. From among the Buddhist explanations, we are studying one from the Indian Sanskrit traditions, not one from the Pali Theravada tradition. From among the Indian Sanskrit traditions, we are studying the Vaibhashika point of view, not the Chittamatra viewpoint. Further, we are learning about the Gelug explanation of the Vaibhashika presentation and not the Kagyu explanation. We need to know the precise context, because the different explanations of karma are quite varied depending on the philosophical context. If we try to fit the Gelug explanation of a Dharma topic into a Kagyu system, we will get very confused. And if we try to mix all explanations together into a big soup, we will get even more confused.

One of my teachers, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, pointed out something very insightful about Westerners. He said: “You Western people are always trying to compare two things, neither of which you understand very well. In the end, you are just left with more confusion.” The lesson we need to learn from this is that it’s all right to compare different systems, but only on the basis of knowing one system very well. Once you know that one system very well, then you could look at other systems and appreciate what the differences are, but not before.

So if we want to meditate about karma, or voidness, or about any other topic in Buddhism, we need to develop discriminating awareness from hearing. This means knowing accurately and with certainty:

  • These are the words that were spoken, not any other words.
  • The person who spoke them was an accurate source of information regarding the topic, and not someone unreliable.
  • This is the philosophical system from which the explanation came, and not any other.

Once we have the discriminating awareness that arises from hearing, we are ready to move on to the next step.

Thinking about What We Have Heard

The next step is gaining the discriminating awareness that arises from thinking. What does “thinking” mean? Thinking, here, means to try to understand the meaning of something. But then, what does it mean to “understand” something? The definition of the Tibetan term usually translated as “understand” or “apprehend” is: “an accurate and decisive knowing of something.”

Incidentally, many of the Sanskrit and Tibetan words that are used to describe mental activity and the mind have quite different meanings in the original language, compared to the words that we use in our Western languages. This is why it’s very helpful to have studied the original Asian languages and to have studied the meanings of the words within the Asian language context. This means not just to read the dictionary translation, but also to actually work with the language, to learn the definitions, and so on. If you do that, then you get a very powerful analytical tool for understanding the Buddhist teachings.

Understanding the Words That Were Spoken

This word “understand” can also be used in connection with listening to teachings. In that context, it would appear in such sentences as: “I understand that you said those words.” If the emphasis in that sentence is on the word “you,” then it implies that we have no doubts that you actually said those words. We don’t think that you didn’t say them or that someone else spoke them. We heard you say them and we are fully confident that there is nothing wrong with our hearing.

If the emphasis is on “those words,” then “I understand that you said those words” could have a different meaning: “I understood the individual words that you uttered. I might not fully grasp the underlying meaning of the words and phrases – that’s another process; but I understood correctly that you said this word and this phrase and this sentence.” We need to be sure that we accurately heard the words that were said. We can check with other people to be sure that others heard the same words that we did. If there is a recording, we can listen to it. If the speaker’s voice and recording were clear, we have confidence that we heard the words correctly. If they were not so clear, we can check with others to get some help, find out what others heard, and compare that to what we heard. This is actually very important when we’re relying on recordings of teachings. So, using the discriminating awareness that comes from hearing, we determine that we have understood what the words were, correctly and decisively.

Understanding the Meaning of the Words

Now, thinking – the second step in the three-part process of gaining understanding – means to understand the meaning of the words, which is, of course, absolutely necessary. If we’re going to build up something as a beneficial habit, we need to know not just the words, but also the meaning of the words. For example, some people recite verses in Tibetan and have no idea what they actually mean. How can you build up something as a beneficial habit if you don’t even know what the words mean?

You’ll find that many Tibetan Buddhist teachers recommend reciting prayers and various practices in Tibetan. Of course there are benefits of participating in a centuries-old ritual: you feel that you belong to a tradition, and it is comforting to know that people from different countries and language backgrounds are chanting and reciting the same thing. But reciting in Tibetan doesn’t help us to build up a beneficial habit of what the words are saying, unless we understand the meaning of the Tibetan. So we need to understand the meaning, and the meaning needs to be accurate and decisive. That means using discriminating awareness to isolate what something means from what it does not mean. We do this through a process of analysis and logical reasoning, in order to arrive at a decisive understanding of what the words actually mean.

Becoming Convinced of What the Words of a Teaching Mean

That point about gaining a decisive understanding brings up a very difficult topic: how do we really become convinced of something? To become convinced of something that is not obvious and cannot be known through the senses, we need to rely on logic. But there are some people who, when presented with a logical argument, still don’t believe what the line of reasoning proves. In some cases they don’t want to believe the conclusion, even if it’s the logical one. If we’re like that, this can cause a lot of obstacles in our study of the Dharma.

But, let’s assume that we do accept the conclusions of logic. Let’s then use impermanence as an example of the process of analysis and reasoning. What we want to prove and thereby understand is that anything that is created or produced depending on causes and conditions will eventually end. Whether we’re talking about a computer, a car, our body, or a personal relationship, it was produced depending on causes and conditions. And because those causes and conditions are not renewed every single moment, the product that was produced by them and depends on them will eventually fall apart.

You can think of examples of something that you bought and that eventually broke or failed; for instance, the new car you bought that eventually broke down, the flower or fruit that grew and eventually decayed. There are no exceptions to the rule. There are no examples of something that was produced or manufactured that never broke and that lasted forever. If it was created – meaning that it did not exist before – then it will break down. Why? Something that comes about newly can only do so by arising dependently on causes and conditions. But immediately after something arises, the causes and conditions that supported its initial arising have changed. They’ve changed because they too arose dependently on other causal factors. Because of that, they are no longer present to support that item’s continuing to arise in each subsequent moment. In other words, when the causes and conditions for something to arise are no longer present, then whatever came about by depending on those supporting factors will fall apart. It will fall apart because it lacks the factors to support its continuing existence in the same state as when it initially arose. Its state will change because it will be affected by other causes and conditions.

Another example is personal relationships. A relationship with someone arises dependently on many causes and condition. For instance, I was at a certain age, the other person was a certain age, this was happening in my life, that was happening in the other person’s life, this is what was happening in society. All these factors supported the two of us meeting and developing a relationship. But those conditions didn’t last; they constantly changed. We grew older, different things were happening in our lives. Even if we stayed together for a very long time, one of us would die before the other. Because of its dependence on causes and conditions, the relationship between us will always be changing and cannot last forever. Despite this being the conclusion we reach by logic, we don’t want to accept this fact.

In another example, we buy a computer, and we expect that it should last forever and never crash, but it does. Why did it crash? It crashed because it was built. Whatever actually occurred at the time that it crashed or it broke – that was just the condition for its ending. The real cause for its breaking is that it was built. That’s like saying: “What’s the reason for this person’s death? The reason for their death was their birth.” There’s a joke that goes: “Do you know the definition of life? It’s a sexually transmitted disease with a 100% mortality rate.” Unfortunately that’s true! Even though we use logic when we’re thinking about a topic, such as trying to understand impermanence, there is often a great deal of resistance. Sometimes we do not want to believe the information being presented. We do not want to accept that impermanence is a fact of life. That’s why we need to go over the logic again and again, to really work with the topic deeply.

Through the thinking process, then, we reach an “understanding” – what’s called the “discriminating awareness that comes from thinking.” We understand correctly the meaning of the words, and we’re decisive about that. In other words, we’ve gone through the logic and have excluded what it does not mean. “Impermanence does not mean that maybe my computer will break. It means it definitely will break at some point.” So, whether or not we are firmly convinced of the truth that “everything created will break,” at least we understand correctly what impermanence means.

Becoming Convinced That the Teaching We Have Heard Is True and Helpful

Next, we need to be convinced, not only of what the words we have heard mean, but we also need to be convinced that what they mean is true. In our example of impermanence: we might understand the meaning of the term, but do we believe that it’s really true or not? Are we really convinced? If we persist in thinking about impermanence, and we definitely cannot find any exception to the rule, then we come to truly believe that impermanence is a fundamental law. The thought process might go something like this: “I will definitely die. Everyone who was born has died. There is no example of someone who was born who did not die. Therefore, is there any reason to believe that I am not going to die? No, there is not.”

If we are convinced that at some point we will die, then we will try to make this life as meaningful as possible. Often it’s the case that, when someone has a near-death experience, they realize, “Hey, I’m still alive, and I want to make the rest of my time as meaningful as possible.” But we don’t need to wait for a near-death experience in order to become convinced of our mortality and form the conviction to make use of our remaining time.

So, through thinking, first we understand the meaning correctly and accurately. Next, we’re convinced that it’s true. And thirdly, we need to be convinced that it would be beneficial for me to really absorb this and make it part of the way that I function in life.

All of that – understanding the meaning, being convinced that it’s true, and being sure that it’s helpful – is part of developing the discriminating awareness that comes from thinking. It’s a very important process and takes quite a lot of time. We need to sit quietly and think very deeply about whatever teachings we’ve heard or read. Without doing that, if we try to meditate on impermanence, for example, we’re likely to just sit there and not have any idea of what to do. We then fall into a daze – what we call being “spaced out” – and consider that to be meditation. That’s not meditation at all. So, what is meditation?

Three Types of Meditation

Just as through listening to the teachings and thinking about them we develop the types of discriminating awareness associated with these two, meditation brings us the so-called “discriminating awareness that arises from meditation.” With this awareness we’re able to generate, with complete concentration, the beneficial state of mind that we’re aiming to develop and we can discriminate it decisively and accurately from all other states of mind. To gain this discriminating awareness, we accustom ourselves to this desired state of mind through repeatedly generating it. There are many different types of meditation with which we do this, but let’s consider only the three most common types.

Focusing on an Object

The first type of meditation entails focusing on an object. We could focus on any sort of object and what we would be trying to develop is concentration on that object. Whether it’s focusing on the sensation of the breath going in and out, or focusing on a visualized Buddha, or focusing on the nature of the mind, it’s still focusing on an object. Those three, by the way, are the most commonly used objects for developing concentration in Tibetan Buddhism.

An important variant of this type of meditation is to focus on an object with concentration and, while concentrating on it, try to discern it in a certain way, for instance as impermanent. By concentrating on this object with this discernment, it really sinks in that it is in fact impermanent. That’s very helpful for overcoming being attached to something as if it will last forever.

Another useful example is as follows: You have a friendship or a relationship with someone, and he doesn’t call you or visit you, and you become very upset. In this example, you need to understand and become totally convinced of the fact that: “I am not the only person in my friend’s life. There are other people in his life besides me. Therefore, it is totally unreasonable for me to expect that he will give his time to me exclusively and will not give his time to anyone else.” Here you’re challenging a fantasized projection of something impossible, which is: “I’m the only person in my friend’s life.” And so, when you’re upset that your friend is not spending enough time with you, you try to focus on him with the discernment: “He has other people and other things going on in his life besides me.”

So, when we’re talking about meditation, we’re not talking about some sort of mystical, magical process; we’re not going off into a fantasy land. Instead, meditation entails very practical methods for dealing with suffering, difficulties and problems in our lives.

The first type of meditation, then, is focusing on an object in a certain way, either with just concentration or with some sort of understanding and discernment, as in our example of focusing on our friend.

Generating a State of Mind

The second type is meditation to generate a certain state of mind, for example to generate love or compassion, and to stay focused on feeling it. The emphasis is not the object that we are aiming this love or compassion toward; rather, the emphasis here is to develop an emotion or feeling.

Generating an Aspiration

The third type of meditation is to focus on an object with an aspiration for reaching a goal related to it; for example, to focus on our own individual enlightenment that has not yet happened, with the aspiration that “I’m going to attain it.” This is called “bodhichitta meditation.” When we’re meditating on bodhichitta, sometimes translated as an “awakening mind,” what we’re focusing on is not enlightenment in general, nor is it on the Buddha’s enlightenment; instead, we’re focusing on our own individual enlightenment. Our enlightenment has not happened yet, but it can happen – we’re convinced that it can happen – on the basis of our Buddha-nature potentials and a lot of hard work. So with this third type of meditation we’re focusing on a future goal with the strong aim to attain it.

The Three Types of Meditation in Daily Life

These three types of meditation, then, are developing beneficial habits that we want to bring into our daily lives. It’s very important that meditation not be some sort of side activity that has no relation to our lives. Meditation is not some sort of escape; it’s not a game; it’s not a hobby. It’s a method to help us to develop qualities that we want to bring to our lives and use every day.

Let’s illustrate how we apply these three methods by using the examples that were just mentioned. When we practice the first type of meditation, in which we focus on an object, we learn to quiet our minds and increase our ability to concentrate. We learn not only to concentrate on our work, but also when we’re having a conversation with someone. We want to concentrate on that person and on what he is saying, and not have our minds thinking about all sorts of other things. We want to listen without any mental comments going on, without judging what he said: “Oh, that’s really stupid,” or “I wish he would shut up.” We want to quiet all of that mental chatter. We could also supplement our concentration on this person and his words with the discernment: “You’re a human being and have feelings, just as I do; you want to be paid attention to when you’re speaking, just as I do when I am talking.” This is what we train to do through concentration meditation.

We may use the second type of meditation, generating a state of mind, to increase the love and compassion that we have in everyday life. We work to generate love – the wish that everyone be happy – no matter where we are or with whom we are. Love, here, really does mean love toward everyone: everyone on the bus, everyone on the subway, everyone in traffic, everyone in the store, all the animals and insects – everyone. So that means developing respect for everyone. Everyone is equal in that everyone wants to be happy and does not want to be unhappy. And everyone has an equal right to happiness, including even the fly!

And finally, we use meditation to develop an aspiration that we carry throughout our life: “I’m working toward a goal. I’m trying to decrease my shortcomings. I’m working toward developing good qualities, and I’m working toward liberation and enlightenment.” That aspiration permeates our whole life, not just the short time that we’re sitting on a cushion.

Tsongkhapa’s Advice on Developing a Beneficial State of Mind

Tsongkhapa, a great Tibetan master, explained very well what we really need to know for all of these types of meditation; in other words, how to develop a beneficial state of mind as a foundation for meditation.

Know What You’re Focusing On

First we need to know what it is that we are focusing on. Let’s take the example of compassion. In focusing on compassion, we are focusing on the suffering of others. That’s quite different from bodhichitta, in which we’re focusing on our own individual enlightenment that is not yet happening. Some people think they’re meditating on bodhichitta when actually they’re only meditating on compassion; compassion is the foundation for bodhichitta, but compassion and bodhichitta are not the same.

Know All the Aspects of It

After we’ve determined the exact object of focus – in this case, the suffering of others as the focal object of compassion – next we need to know all the aspects of that object. So we explore the various aspects or types of suffering that everyone experiences: unhappiness, our ordinary type of happiness, being under the control of the compulsiveness of karma and the suffering of uncontrollably recurring rebirth. We don’t simply focus on one limited type of suffering of just a few beings, like the unhappiness and difficulties of losing their jobs. In the case of great compassion, we focus on all aspects of suffering experienced universally by everyone, including animals.

Know How Our Mind Is Relating to It

Next we need to know how our mind is relating to that object. With compassion, our mind focuses on all that suffering of others with the wish that it be gone and it never returns. It isn’t the attitude “oh how horrible.” So again, this thought is very different from bodhichitta. With bodhichitta we’re focusing on our not-yet-happened enlightenment, and we relating to it with the intention: “I’m going to attain it and benefit others by means of that attainment.” This is very different from how we relate with compassion to the suffering of others.

Know What Will Help to Develop It

Then we need to know what will help us to develop this state of mind. In our example, compassion is supported by our having the same intention or feeling toward our own suffering. That is called “the determination to be free,” usually translated as “renunciation.” It focuses on our own suffering and is determined to be free of that suffering and free of its causes. Wanting to be free of the causes of suffering means being willing to give up behavior that is causing us to be miserable, like getting angry. If we can really develop the determination for ourselves to be free from suffering, then that will support being able to direct that attitude, that wish, toward others with the same intensity as we would focus it on ourselves.

Know What Is Detrimental to Developing It

We also need to know what will hinder the development of this state of mind. What will hinder the development of compassion is not taking other people seriously, and not taking their suffering seriously. To counter that, we need to think, “Everyone wants to be happy. No one wants to be unhappy. No one is any different in his or her desire to be free from suffering. We are all the same. And everyone has feelings, just as I have feelings. Everyone who is suffering hurts just as much as my suffering hurts me. They want to be free of their suffering, just as I want to be free of my suffering.” In this way, we develop sensitivity toward others and respect for them. If we don’t have that sensitivity and respect, we would be hindered in our development of sincere compassion.

Know the Application of It

Tsongkhapa continues by saying that once we develop this state of mind, we need to know what do we do with it. In other words, what its application is. I develop compassion, and then what? Well, it will help me to deal with others; it will help me to work for their benefit; and it will really motivate me and push me to achieve the ultimate goal of enlightenment, so that I can help others in a substantial way. I understand that what prevents me from being able to help them now are my limitations, and so I very much want to overcome my limitations.”

Know What It Will Eliminate

The next thing that we need to know is: What will this state of mind eliminate or get rid of? Compassion will eliminate the cold-hearted feeling in which I ignore others. It will help me to get rid of the laziness of not wanting to help others, and it will help me to overcome the laziness of not wanting to work on myself. By eliminating this cold-hearted feeling, I can help others more. If we know all of these elements for developing and meditating on compassion, then we can be very confident that we are doing this meditation properly; we know exactly what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. We’ve prepared properly for engaging in this meditation. Otherwise, it’s like jumping into deep water in the swimming pool and not having any idea how to swim. If we simply say, “Well, just sit down and meditate,” and we have no idea what we’re supposed to be doing, chances are very good that we won’t have a fruitful result.