When we are trying to practice meditation, we don’t just sit down and start to do some meditative practice if our minds are really agitated and running all over the place and we are not calm. Because then if we don’t try to calm down a little bit before we start to meditate, the whole meditation session is usually spent in mental wandering about whatever it is that is either worrying us or occupying us, or things that we have to do: “So let’s get through this session quickly, because I have an appointment or I have to get the kids to school, or whatever it might be. They’re going to wake up any minute” – this type of tension that might be there. So we need to quiet down first and he usual method used is focusing on the breath. And then the actual process of meditating is going to depend on having done some work beforehand.
There are many, many different types of meditation. What meditation means is to habituate our mind or accustom our minds to something: to a certain way of thinking, a certain way of feeling, a certain understanding, something like that. So if we are going to work with a certain type of realization, then first we need to hear it; we need to listen to it; we need to learn it, taking in the information, as it were. And so we gain what is called the discriminating awareness that arises from hearing. We are able to discriminate this particular point from other points, this fact from what is not that fact. Let us take something very basic from the Buddhist teachings, the lam-rim – the graded stages of the path – something about the precious human life.
Well, we have a precious human life, so we need to learn the definition. So what is the definition of a precious human life? A precious human life is one which is filled with, what I call, respites of really difficult situations that we could be in, but we are not in it – we have a respite; it’s a temporary respite, temporary, sort of, recess from that. It’s not that we are free of it forever, we have a temporary recess from this really difficult situation and we have lots of opportunities. That is what a precious human life is. So we learn what are… There is a whole list of eighteen of these things that either we have respite from or we have an opportunity of, that enrich our lives.
To take one of them would be that we have a respite from being in some terrible type of situation in which we would have no leisure time for study and practice. So these are described by various realms of being. Whether we take them literally or not is another issue, but we can imagine, for instance, being in Baghdad and how fortunate it is, how fortunate we are that that is not our hometown, that is not where we are. I live in Berlin, I have some older students who remember – who were kids during the war and, particularly, after the war – and what it was like to be a kid down in the bomb shelters under the house, sleeping on a wet damp cellar with twenty, thirty other people. Not really sleeping, being absolutely terrified and then hearing these bombs and airplanes, all these stuff going overhead. And also what it was like after the war. You know you see pictures of these cities and they look like Hiroshima after the war: I mean, completely burned out and bombed out. And this one student of mine, this woman was telling me how for years as a little girl they had to live in one of these displaced person’s camps in a crowded room with about twenty people. People stealing food from each other, the toilet doesn’t work: there’s twenty people, the water is cut off, well, how do you flush the toilet of twenty people? We’re all sharing one toilet and there is no water. Practicalities of this are really horrible.
And so people in Baghdad experiencing something like that; people in Bosnia experienced something like that; people in Rwanda, whatever. It happens periodically, unfortunately, in our world and in some point it is going to be our turn. And so how wonderful it is that we have a respite from that. We experienced may be a little bit of that – 9/11, but that is nothing compared to WWII. We didn’t experience that in our hometown – being bombed out and burned out. That’s a respite that we have. That is great that we have that. And we have opportunities to be able to pursue whatever it is that we want to pursue with freedom.
So the defining characteristic of a precious human life – we hear that and have to listen to that. And we might just hear the words and we don’t really know what they mean. Say we heard the word “precious human life” and we don’t really know the definition. So we don’t know what it really means, so here we get ways of knowing. So we only get an idea of it that is an idea of the words without any deep meaning associated with it. And we might presume – there is presumption here – presume that it is true, but we don’t really understand it. I presume it’s true, because my teacher said so. I have respect for my teacher so – OK, a little bit open. That’s the first step – you have to listen, get the information – precious human life, what’s the definition.
The second step is that we have to think about it. We have to ponder it: ponder the meaning. And this means think in a logical way. What is the definition of precious human life and the line of reasoning why it is precious? Like, for instance, I am born as a human being and I am living in a peaceful environment – relatively peaceful environment – not in a war zone. And this is something precious for practicing and realizing the Dharma. So being free of being in a war zone – this is the line of reasoning, this is the logic: being free of being in a war zone and terrified out of our wits in a bomb shelter or in some sort of refugee camp, where everybody is stealing from each other and it is filthy – being free of that is precious for being able to practice, study, and learn. And we need to become convinced that, why is it precious? Because I am free of this difficulty. And you have to really become convinced that that line of reasoning proves our thesis in terms of logic. Being free of horrible situations proves that I have a precious human life and lots of opportunities that I can use.
So we have to try to chew on it and we think. Well, this is the whole process of pondering, contemplating. What would it be like if I was in one of these war zones? What would it be like if I knew that some enemy force was going to bomb my city sometime in the next days and probably the water is going to be cut off, and I live in the desert, and it is really hot, and who knows when there will be any more water? So we start to fill the bathtub – forget about washing from now on – fill the bathtub. You fill all your pots and pans as much as you can because there may not be any more water. And forget about going out and buying bottled water. You might get shot. So you try to imagine what that would be like. How many candles would you go out and buy? Because for sure the electricity is going to be off. And now the candles are twenty times the price that they were before, maybe a hundred times the price. There is only a limited amount. And imagine the lines and the fighting in the lines to try to … Some rich person comes in and wants to buy all the candles. How you feel, how you would feel in that situation? You take it really for real.
I found it very moving, because you know I have a lot of material on my website about the Buddhist-Islamic dialogue that I have been engaged in. And I got an email from somebody who said that he had come from a Muslim country and he had become a Buddhist, and he was probably the only Buddhist in his country. And that was very dangerous, because conversion is really not accepted in his society. But he found this material really very inspiring, very wonderful: particularly things about how would you explain Buddhism from an Islamic point of view, these types of articles that I have there. And he offered to help translate website articles into Arabic. So I said, “Wonderful, great!” And I asked him “Where are you from, where are you living?” And he wrote back, “Baghdad.” Which I found just so, so moving.
This was about maybe two or three weeks before the Iraqi war began. And so then I was in an email contact with the guy and we exchanged emails, and the guy wrote to me like two hours before the bombs stared to fall, before the war was declared just saying, “Well, don’t worry, we are used to this type of thing.” And I mean this was in the middle of the night; the guy must have been up all night, everybody being absolutely terrorized: “When are the bombs going to start to fall?” Can you imagine trying to fall asleep knowing that at any minute the sirens are going to go off and you probably even do not have a bomb shelter in your house? So what are you going to do, hide under the bed? I mean what are you going to do? Is the bathtub really full, maybe there is another pot that I can fill up with water? Horrible! For me it made it much more real, because now I knew somebody who is there, who is actually going through this horrible experience. He was just a poor innocent guy, just a student, actually. Is he going to take his exams, finish his degree, and get on with life and so on? And that – completely forget about it now at least for a while.
So we do this in our meditation, in our contemplation. So that it becomes a bit real to us. And how fortunate I am to be free of that, to have a respite from that and don’t have it now. Who knows what might happen in the future but I don’t have it now – thank goodness! That’s sort of a – whew!, like a burden off our backs that we are free of this thing. And then we think: “I mean if I were in that situation, what type of opportunities would I have for being able to study, being able to practice?” Sure, if we were a super advanced practitioner maybe we would be able to practice, but not as a beginner. And not with twenty people crowded in a room and everybody terrified and so on. No opportunities.
So we rely on this line of reasoning: since I am free of that, therefore I have a precious human life. And we gain through this an inferential understanding, inference – based on a line of reasoning. It is not just I have a precious human life, but I have a precious human life because I am free of this and that horrible type of situation. That’s based on reason; there is a reason for it. It’s a valid statement, not just a statement itself. So we have an idea of it which is a meaningful idea.
There is a difference between an idea which is just empty words and an idea which is a meaningful idea. So we can focus on this precious human life with this meaningful idea of what it is with some – not only understanding – but decisiveness about it. This makes it a valid way of knowing and there is some decisiveness: I’ve thought it through. There is some reason for knowing this, not just thinking and believing this: it’s true! This decisiveness: it’s true; I do have a precious human life. I am not wavering about that. Of course, we can go out on the debate ground and especially when we are feeling sorry for ourselves: Poor me! – for whatever reason. And then we see: well, how much worse it could be! And just because our television broke or whatever it is – it’s not so bad, not so bad.
Then, once we are convinced of something – this is the conclusion of this step of contemplating or this process, I should say, so it can go on for a long time. At the conclusion of this, we understand this point; we are decisive about it and we are able to reach this conclusion – the valid way of knowing which is based on inference, a line of reasoning.
Then we get to the step which is what is actually called meditation. Here, what we want to do is to digest that, familiarize ourselves with it, really make it part of our whole way of living. Integrate it into our lives. And there are two different steps that are involved here. One is usually called analytical meditation – I don’t find that an adequate term. What I prefer is discerning meditation, try to discern something. That’s the analytical part, not every part of it is analytical. And that’s confusing because contemplation you can also think of as analytical. And it’s not the same step – it’s the next step.
So there is discerning meditation and then the second aspect is stabilizing meditation, I call it. Sometimes it’s translated as formal or fixating or… every translator has a different set of terms. That’s most unfortunate, but that’s the way it is. When translators are “user-friendly” and the students are interested enough, then you provide either the Sanskrit or Tibetan term, so that when you read another book and another translator that they provide the Sanskrit or Tibetan term as well, you know that they are talking about the same thing. Otherwise it really is overwhelmingly confusing to read different books by different authors or even different books by the same author – because I am certainly guilty of changing my terminology over all the years that I have been writing.
In any case, now I call it discerning meditation and stabilizing meditation and in the discerning meditation we have a number of steps. The main mental factors, and here again – mental factors, very important – what mental factors are going to be involved here in the process are two major mental factors. One is called gross detection, I call it, and the other is subtle discernment. In some context that means investigating and scrutinizing. One is gross detection – an example would be to proofread the page and just look in a gross type of way and see that: yes, there are mistakes here. You are not looking in fine detail, because that would be investigating. You sort of investigate: does this need to be proofread or not. You investigate: oh, yes, it needs proofreading; and then the subtle discernment would be the scrutinizing to go through, point by point, and correct it. This is what we are going to employ, at least in some aspects of the discerning meditation.
What we need to do is to examine ourselves and investigate and scrutinize, not to try to understand what it means to have a precious human life. We’ve learned the definition already and we’ve understood it, but to scrutinize, investigate: do I really have this precious human life? How do I have it; what are the aspects; does this really apply to me? And we investigate roughly and we detect our freedom from being in a war zone, our freedom from being completely overwhelmed with fear or hunger, or pain, or these sort of really difficult types of situations. And although we may at times experience pain and experience fear and feel terrorized, but where does that stand on the scale of how bad it could get. This type of thing. And in the end of this, we discern ourselves as being free of this terrible type of situation. Having scrutinized and investigated: am I really like that? Yes! Now I can discern myself that I do have this freedom. I’m not in a war zone; I am not constantly in this terrible situation.
Again, that’s the first step. Next step would be to go through the line of reasoning again. Not in order to gain the understanding, but now to be able to generate a valid inferential understanding, valid inference. This is what we want to do. Ok, I have discerned: I do have freedom from being in a war zone. OK, now you go through a line of reasoning: therefore I have a precious human life. If one is free from being in a war zone, one has a precious human life. I am free from being in a war zone – therefore I have a precious human life. You go through the line of reasoning to get to this conclusion based on the line of reasoning with which I validly know, validly focus on the fact that I have a precious human life. That would be this process if we get this inferential understanding, we have to actively go through that process. So that could be a verbal, a mental verbal type of process.
That’s only part of it. The actual thing that we want to do is then non-verbal. What we want to do is to discern, actively discern ourselves as having a precious human life: to discern that, to understand that, to discriminate that – that is the discriminating awareness that arises from meditation. And you focus on that. With that active discerning – that’s discerning meditation. So analytical meditation – that is only covering a little part of the thing, we need to be more precise here.
Then we have stabilizing meditation. Stabilizing meditation is: we just focus on having a precious human life without actively discerning it in all its details, without discerning that it’s because of this reason or that reason. It’s sort of like just feeling that I have a precious human life, letting that really sink in, that’s stabilizing. It’s that that we try to get perfect concentration on. I’m totally convinced, I’ve been able to see it, in the sense of discern it, understand it validly and now sit there and you try to really feel it, let it sink in. And of course it’s going to take quite a while this – to sink in, and quite a while for it to be able to make a difference.
And what I always point out to people is that progress is nonlinear: it’s not that it’s going to get better every time. General samsara is characterized as going up and down. So it’s going to continue to go up and down until we achieve liberation from it – to become an arhat or a liberated being, that’s a pretty high attainment. All the way before that, it’s going to go up and down. Sometimes we feel like meditating, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it doesn’t. As the young Serkong Rinpoche would say: “Nothing special.” Nothing special about that – no surprise. And so there is no reason to get upset. Today I don’t feel like meditating – well, then you have what is called armor-like perseverance: you meditate anyway, you just do it. This type of: “I don’t feel like it, so I got to really need some sort of discipline.” Because of course we are not going to feel like it, and it didn’t go so well today – well, see how it goes tomorrow. No recriminations about that, it’s natural: some days it will go better just, of course, what do you expect? This is samsara. So we focus in that way.
Now note that when we are talking here about this discerning and stabilizing meditation, at this stage it’s still conceptual, still through an idea of what a precious human life means. And this is an idea of a precious human life, something that represents it in our thought. Either we represent it with words: “I have a precious human life,” or we represent it with a feeling of it. Conceptual – and this is very important, we will get to that tomorrow – as what does it mean. For something to be a conceptual cognition of something, but it’s knowing something, through an idea of it basically – in the simplest language. Either it’s a verbal idea or it’s a feeling or mental picture or something like that.
And now we ask, “Well, how does this fit in with our Western categories of an intellectual understanding, an intuitive understanding – these sort of things? Actually, it does fit in. What we would call an intellectual understanding would be to focus on it through a verbal idea. And an intuitive understanding would be to focus on this through a feeling or an image that represents it, not a verbal idea of it. But the point is that both of those are conceptual and both of those can be either accurate or inaccurate. Intellectual could be correct or incorrect. The feeling could be an accurate feeling or could be a completely strange weird feeling – something like that.
So what is essential is that for both of these – whether we call it an intellectual focus or an intuitive focus: focusing with a verbal idea or a feeling idea – they need to be accompanied by a correct understanding of what the words mean or a correct understanding of what the feeling or image means. And in addition, to be able to digest that understanding, we need to believe it and focus on it with conviction. If we are able to focus on it with absolute conviction that this is true, then we would call that a visceral understanding, a gut understanding in our Western terminology. Then when that visceral understanding is accompanied by constructive emotions – such as appreciation of this precious human life as a mental factor – then we would say we are emotionally moved by our understanding. And that can bring about transformation.
Then if we want to go from a conceptual understanding to a non-conceptual understanding, we have to know, what in the world, does that mean. Because a lot of people just equate conceptual with intellectual, which is not at all the case. You can have, as I said, a feeling that represents something. Just because it’s not verbal doesn’t mean it is not conceptual. And so the non-conceptual understanding is one which is focusing on something not through the medium of an idea. You don’t have to rely on the line of reasoning – that’s first. We can understand something that you have to actually build it up by the line of reasoning – “I have a precious human life, because I am free of this or that, or this or that horrible situation.” Then you can have a conceptual understanding that’s not based on a line of reasoning. You don’t have to go through the line of reasoning – you’ve got it. And so you are able to just – “I have a precious human life” – and that understanding is there, and the conviction is there. Because you have worked through the line of reasoning before, you don’t have to go through it again. But it’s still through an idea of a precious human life. That’s the sort of concept of it; whether it’s verbal, feeling or whatever. Non-conceptual is without that idea, but just straightforward. And how do you know that it is straightforward? Well, the difference is how vivid it is. How vivid this feeling is, how vivid this discernment of having a precious human life is. And again in order to be able to discern that we have to know, well, what does it mean to be vivid, what does it mean not to be vivid? We need to be able to recognize that in our experience. So the study of mental factors and ways of knowing,is very relevant for our progress on the path and also for understanding our everyday experience of life.