The third preparatory practice is to arrange a proper seat, sit in the eightfold posture, and in a positive frame of mind take safe direction, or refuge, and reaffirm our bodhichitta aim.
Arranging a Proper Seat
According to the text, it is best (if you can do it) to have the meditation seat be on a slightly raised wooden platform so that there’s ventilation underneath. If you look at most of the Tibetans in India, they mostly meditate on their bed, so there is ventilation underneath. They don’t have a separate meditation room or anything like that. And although for auspicious reasons one needs to arrange special kusha grass and stuff underneath the platform, for most of us that not would be so convenient.
If we’re sitting cross-legged, for the cushion that we sit on, what is recommended is that the cushion be slightly elevated in the back so that it relieves the pressure in your legs and your legs don’t fall asleep so quickly. I always find it quite incredible that many Tibetans, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, can sit cross-legged flat – you know, without the back raised – and their legs don’t fall asleep. I find that impossible myself.
I had such an embarrassing incident with that. I was called in to translate for His Holiness the Dalai Lama in some audience that he was having with someone. I had to just sit flat on the ground, and both my legs fell totally asleep. And when the audience is finished, you have to get up and get out of the room very quickly. So I tried to get up, and I was falling, and I had to hold on to the wall and inch my way out. His Holiness was just absolutely overwhelmed with laughter. It was amazing that I didn’t fall down and feel absolutely ridiculous.
So we can sit with the back raised a little bit, and it helps for the legs not to fall asleep.
I don’t see it here, but in a lot of Dharma centers they have these Zen zafus, which are very hard and quite thick. Those are not intended for the cross-legged posture that we do. Those are intended for the Japanese posture (with your legs behind you) and this is underneath you so you’re higher. If you try to sit on them cross-legged, your angle is so horrible you almost fall over. So if we are thinking in terms of our own meditation seat, it’s important to choose a cushion that is the right thickness, the right height, the right level of hardness that suits us. The optimal thing is that you want to prevent your legs from falling asleep, and for everybody it will be slightly different.
Then, before sitting down, one does prostration. Actually Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey always used to emphasize that it’s very helpful when you get up in the morning, rather than just dragging yourself half asleep to the coffee pot, that the first thing you do when you get out of bed is three prostrations to some Buddha representation or whatever you have. That is very good also to do as the last thing you do, just before you get into bed. And don’t do it like a zombie, half asleep still. The point is to use this as an opportunity to set the intention for the day, when you do this early in the morning. His Holiness says that he does this as soon as he opens his eyes in the morning: the first thought is setting the intention for the day.
It’s not helpful to wake up with “Oh no, the alarm clock. I have to get out and face the day.” That’s not the point. But rather when you go to sleep: “I can’t wait until I wake up so that I can get on with my practice or whatever it is that I’m doing that is of benefit to others.” And you’re really happy when the night is finished that you can get up. I’m not talking about an insomniac who can’t sleep. But be really happy that “Wow, it’s finished. No more wasting time.” (Actually I’m like that with my website. I love working on it. It’s so beneficial, I really can’t wait to wake up in the morning and get back to it.) So this is a practice of joyful perseverance. It’s very important to enjoy what you’re doing because you see how positive it is, how beneficial it is for others, and so you rejoice in that; you really feel very positive and happy to do it.
So we have a nice seat to sit down on. And before sitting down, we do prostration. That’s before doing any meditation session. It’s a good habit to get into.
There are various ways of doing prostration. The short prostration, it’s called, is we hold our palms together. The thumbs are inside, for so-called method and wisdom. And then you touch four places on your body. Mind you, there are other variants – I mean, with anything in Buddhism, you’re going to find different variants – but this is what you find in the lam-rim texts. You touch four places:
1. The top of the head. This is with the wish to develop the crown protrusion (gtsug-tor, Skt. ushnisha) of a Buddha. One of the physical signs is a sort of a lump or something like that on the top of a Buddha’s head. I remember actually meeting one Tibetan lama who actually had that. It was quite amazing (and I don’t think it was a tumor or anything like that). So we want to develop this quality of a Buddha.
2. Then you touch it to your forehead to develop the treasure curl (mdzod-spu, Skt. urnakesha). There’s a little curl that grows in between your eyebrows, and it’s curled. Supposedly it’s like an infinite long tape measure – you can pull it out, and it will go forever and then snap back.
You might find these things funny, but there are teachings about the various signs, the physical features of a Buddha, and each of them is indicative of a cause. From always showing respect to your spiritual teacher, always imagining him on the top of your head, you have this little platform that the guru sits on. And the thing between the eyebrows is like the wisdom eye, the third eye – not this sort of Lobsang Rampa nonsense, but it’s the upper end of the central channel, where in Kalachakra you first make the devoid form.
3. Then we touch the hands to the throat to develop the qualities of speech of a Buddha.
4. And then to the heart for the qualities of mind.
Then you go down and you need to touch the ground in seven places – the two hands, two knees, the two feet, and your forehead. So it’s saying to be sure to touch your forehead to the ground.
Then it’s very important, they say, to get up very quickly from there. You don’t want to build up the habit of being down on the ground, that sort of lower rebirths type of image. So get up quickly.
And stand up straight. I can hear my mother saying, “Stand up straight. You’re going to be a hunchback.” So you don’t want to be a hunchback; stand up straight. Again, this is more respectful, in a sense. You want to get up straight and attain liberation, enlightenment – not stooped over.
At the end of the third time, you touch these places again.
The Seven Places and the Seven Arya Gems
You want to touch seven places to the floor or the ground, and this represents… Well, there are many sets of seven that it could represent. Often we hear about the seven arya gems. These are precious things that the aryas – those who have had non-conceptual cognition of the four noble truths – this is what they see as so valuable. This adorns them like a gem. This is actually a very interesting list in terms of thinking what would be the most precious thing that we can have:
1. Belief in fact – sometimes this is translated as faith, but if you really look at the definition, it is viewing something that is a fact, that is true, and then believing that it’s true. Think about that. We’re not believing in something that is a fantasy. We’re not talking about Father Christmas or the Easter Bunny. We’re not believing that the stock market will go up or that maybe it will rain tomorrow. We’re talking about accepting reality. “This is reality, this is a fact, and I accept it. I believe with great confidence that reality is correct.” Now, mind you, we could have a weird idea of what’s reality, but this is talking about what really is true.
That’s not easy actually when you think about what are the topics that we need to have this belief in fact about. For instance, cause and effect, behavioral cause and effect: you act in a destructive way; it causes you to be unhappy. That’s not easy to really – not just to accept because “My gurus say so, and the books say so” but to have really confident belief that this is true. The aryas have had, non-conceptually – not just thinking in terms of the general category of the four noble truths and then something that represents it (that’s conceptual thought) – non-conceptually they have seen that this is true, cause and effect. That’s the whole structure of the four noble truths.
2. Ethical discipline – if you have this absolute confidence and belief that it’s a fact, cause and effect in terms of behavior, then naturally you’ll have ethical self-discipline. You will refrain from acting negatively, destructively, under the influence of disturbing emotions or naivety.
3. Generosity – sharing with others what we’ve learned, what we have, etc.
4. Listening – referring to really studying and having a very broad education so that we really understand the teachings
5. Care for how our actions reflect on others – in other words, if I act in an outrageous negative way, this reflects badly on my teachers, it reflects badly on Buddhism, and it reflects badly on any larger group that I would be associated with – my family and so on. This and the next gem are the bases for ethical behavior.
Although one might say this is a very Asian type of consideration – “I bring shame on my family by acting in this way” – I think that it is relevant to us as well. We give a very bad reputation to Buddhism if we go around and get drunk and act really rowdy in bars, and so on, and people know that we’re Buddhist.
6. A sense of moral self-dignity – “I have so much respect for myself that I’m not going to act in destructive ways.” In Berlin, I challenged my class when we were talking about why we don’t act destructively: Why don’t you cheat? Why don’t you lie and steal and stuff like that? And many people say, “Well, it just doesn’t feel right.” So it just doesn’t feel right. We’re not talking here about “Well, there’s this law, and I don’t want to break the law,” whether it’s a scriptural law or a civil law. But rather it’s this mental factor of sense of self-dignity, that “I respect myself so much that I wouldn’t act in this way. It just doesn’t feel right.” So we’re not talking about refraining from acting because of fear or something – “I would feel guilty” – or “I don’t want to be bad. I want to be good,” this type of attitude. This is a very healthy attitude of self-respect, self-dignity we would say in English.
I think this character, one of self-dignity, is one of the main features that characterizes the Buddhist approach. It starts from the whole discussion of Buddha-nature. It isn’t that “I am a sinner, and I’m bad” as the main self-image that we cultivate, but rather it’s this one of respect for ourselves, for our abilities to develop and so on, this sense of self-dignity. And in terms of our shortcomings, we have compassion for that, and we want to overcome them because they’re based on confusion. It’s not based on being bad, disobedient of the laws.
7. Discriminating awareness – as His Holiness always says, use this marvelous human intelligence to discriminate between what’s helpful, what’s harmful, what’s reality, what is fantasy. We really need to cultivate this. It’s not that we are little children and need somebody else to tell us what is helpful and what’s harmful. We need to develop that ability and further that ability in ourselves because we do have that intelligence to discriminate.
Then there is outstretched prostration. You do exactly the same thing, but once you’re down on the ground, touching the ground with these seven places, you stretch out with your arms straight in front of you, slightly separated, the palms down on the ground. These are the type of prostration that we usually do when we are doing a whole series, like 100,000. Some people once they are in that position, they put their hands together and the thumbs in, and they touch the top of their head and then put their hands back down. The texts and His Holiness always say this is completely unnecessary; it’s better to just get up quickly. Although there are many people who do that, it’s unnecessary.
Some sutras say that the amount of atoms or particles on the ground that your body covers when you do prostration, if you multiply them to some incredible number, this equals amount merit or positive force that you build up. So it would seem that if you are a very tall, big person you build up a lot more positive force than a little person, but I don’t think that that is the point which is being made here.
In terms of the unimaginably large amount of positive force that we build up, very often you have the metaphor of you building up more positive force than the number of grains of sand in the banks of the Ganges River. So there is that image for just representing a large number. However, the texts always give a specific number, which is not very easy to relate to, I must say. You do prostration to this Buddha and then you have this number that it’s multiplied by, and that Buddha’s a different number, and that Buddha’s yet another different number. That’s really quite difficult, I must say, to comprehend.
But chasing after more points in the score of so-called merit – that’s why I don’t like the word merit, because it gives the idea that you’re collecting points – then you would say, “Well, I don’t want to do prostration to this Buddha in the 35 confession Buddhas because it’s not a good bargain – you get less. So I’ll choose the one that gives the most for my money. I’ll prostrate to this one so I don’t have to do as many prostrations in order to get more points.” So you’re looking for a bargain. I certainly don’t think that’s the intention. I don’t think that’s the point.
I think it’s very helpful to analyze such things. Don’t just unquestioningly accept what you find in the texts. Buddha said to question everything. And the Buddhist method is you come up with a hypothesis and then you try to see are there any objections to it. This is what you find in all the texts. “Some people say…” and then they give a hypothesis, and then “But if you think that, then this and this and that absurd conclusion follows.” So that’s the method to analyze. That’s what’s done in the debates. Somebody makes the hypothesis, and then the other person challenges them to try to find is there an inconsistency in their thinking, an objection to it.
For instance, many Mahayana sutras say that there’s a Buddha in every pore of the Buddha’s body. Or there are infinite world systems, and in the pores of the Buddhas in those world systems, there’s more, and so on. So you have this incredible image which expands our mind tremendously if you’re going to expand it in a Mahayana sense. Actually this is not so weird if you think about it. Have you ever seriously thought about the size of the universe and each of those tiny little distant dots that you can’t even see by the eye but you need the most powerful telescope? There’s a whole galaxy of trillions of stars and even more planets that are there. If you think of the scope of the entire universe, it’s incredible. And you have that same image in terms of these ancient Buddhist texts – in every pore of the Buddha, there’s a whole universe. This is a very powerful image that we find in Buddhism. I don’t know, however, how relevant that is to the number of grains of dust under your body when you make prostration.
My thoughts about this point concerning dirt, when thinking in a very practical way, is that one of the obstacles in doing prostration – especially if you are, for instance, in a place like Bodhgaya and there’s this huge ceremony and the ground is filthy underneath you or muddy or whatever – is “Ooh, I don’t really want to prostrate. I’m going to get dirty.” If you have this idea that touching the ground is actually something very positive, that you build up so much positive force and so on by the amount of dirt that your body actually touches, it helps you to overcome that reticence that “I don’t want to get my clothes dirty. I don’t want to get my hands dirty by putting them on the ground” and then afterwards you really clean your hands off and so on, brush off your clothes. Although my way of relating to it might be very trivial, I understand it in a very practical way – no sort of hocus-pocus magic.
You think of these pilgrims in Tibet that will go thousands of kilometers prostrating each step of the way and how filthy they get. Obviously if they’re afraid of the dirt, there’s no way that they’re going to do that. So if you look at it as “Wow, I’m building up as much positive force as all this dirt,” that changes your whole attitude about what you’re doing, doesn’t it? Anyway that’s my way of thinking.
Mudra Types of Prostration
Then there are hand mudra types of prostration:
- With the two hands, with the thumbs in, you touch your heart
- Or your right hand up, with the thumb in and all the fingers outstretched by the level of your nose, you bow your head
- Or the third variant is with one finger outstretched and like that, but that’s not normally done.
So when we are in situations in which it would be really weird looking if we were to do any of these fuller types of prostrations down on the floor – for instance, when you’re in an overnight train going to someplace, or the airplane, or something like that – then you do the hand gesture. Or if you’re really ill and you can’t really do the fuller forms of prostration, even if you’re lying in bed you can do that. So there are always ways. There’s always variants. They’re very, very helpful.
It’s important to be flexible and to use whichever variant fits the situation. This I think I can’t underline enough, the importance of not being inflexible and rigid with your practice, but be very, very flexible, very relaxed. You see the Tibetans – they’re completely relaxed about how they do their practice. They do it properly, but they are flexible to adapt it to the situation.
Let me give a wonderful example. Again my model is always Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche. I spent nine years with him, so I really had a tremendous amount of daily contact with him. When you receive an empowerment of Vajrayogini, and sometimes with Chakrasamvara as well, you have a commitment to offer tsog (tshogs), a type of offering ritual, a ceremony, twice a month – on the 10th and the 25th of the Tibetan month. Someone asked him, some Westerner, “What happens if we don’t have access to a Tibetan calendar and we don’t know when the 10th and 25th of the lunar month is?” And Rinpoche answered, “Don’t your Western months have a 10th and a 25th?” So clearly one can be flexible. It’s not “If you don’t do it on this exact day, you go to hell.” It’s not like that. So he was very, very flexible – as I said, using a milk bottle to give the initiations, in substitute for an elaborate jeweled vase. I think that’s why everybody loved him so much, because he was so down to earth. His face was the model for Yoda in Star Wars, to give you some impression of what he looked like.
Physical, Verbal, and Mental Prostration
So anyway when we do prostration, we need to do physical prostration, verbal prostration, and mental prostration.
The physical prostration is not only what I was explaining, but also a way of showing respect to the Three Gems is to touch a Dharma book or a statue to the top of your head. You’ll find Tibetans do that all the time. And if they don’t do it themselves, they like to have a teacher sometimes touch the top of their head with a text.
I’m thinking of an example. I was present back in 1971 when His Holiness gave the transmission of the combined commentaries to Guhyasamaja. Everybody was totally amazed at how incredibly deep that was, considering how young His Holiness was at the time. There must have been, I don’t know, let’s say five thousand or eight thousand monks who were present. I don’t know the exact number. But anyway at the end of this teaching, His Holiness is sitting on the throne (so that’s fairly high) cross-legged, and he bends over – in an unbelievably uncomfortable position, bent all the way over – holding the texts, which are not light, and he held that without moving, without taking a break, while everybody in that group filed past to have this touched to their head. This was unbelievable. So when you think of the qualities of His Holiness of the Dalai Lama, it’s not just his verbal qualities and his mental qualities; his physical qualities are really unbelievable.
Serkong Rinpoche used to say that when he traveled with His Holiness in India by car – they would go to a different settlement or something like that – and he was saying it would be like maybe a twelve- or thirteen-hour car ride, winding through these really difficult Himalayan mountain roads. And at the end of it, he would say, His Holiness would get out and he’d be completely fresh and filled with energy, and so on, and Serkong Rinpoche could hardly walk, he was so sick from the ride.
So anyway the physical prostration – showing respect, touching the books and statues – again don’t be ostentatious about that. If you are with your family or your parents or something like that and they would think that really, really weird, don’t do it in front of them. I mean, this is the whole point of this aspect of ethics – care for how your actions reflect. You don’t want to give a weird impression of Buddhism – that this is some cult, this is some weird thing that my children are into – especially with your parents. So cool it, as they would say.
When we talk about the tantra teachings, often we hear the word secret associated with it. I think a much better word for that in many contexts is private. It’s something to be done in private, not showing off so that everybody can see it. If they are not into it, not part of a society that’s into it, they would get really strange ideas. That’s why it’s not recommended to have displayed in rooms where your guests come or children or your guests’ children, and so on, paintings or photos of these naked deities, male or female naked deities, standing there with everything exposed or in embrace or whatever, because people will think “Wow, this is really weird pornography.” Or devil worship – Yamantaka with the horns and the buffalo head and the flames, and so on – “This is devil worship.” So you don’t leave that out on your walls so that people who walk into the house get this really strange idea.
The Tibetan thangkas usually have a curtain in front, so you put that down if you have that on your walls and you’re not actually privately doing your practice. If you’re going to have thangkas, put thangkas of Buddha, of nice, peaceful figures like Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Tara, etc. And also you don’t put thangkas in your bathroom – you know, by the toilet – that’s considered quite disrespectful.
Then verbal prostration. The texts describe this: you visualize that you have many, many heads on your body, and each face has many, many mouths, and all of them are offering praise to the Three Gems.
I must say that I’ve always found a little bit strange this idea of praise. “Oh Buddha, you’re so great. You’re fantastic” and like that. You find this in other religions as well, filled with all these praises. “Oh, you’re far out, Buddha.” It’s not like that. I think that one needs to appreciate what is involved here. If you look at the eight worldly dharmas, these eight transitory things, there’s praise or blame. Total equanimity toward that, same-same type of attitude. So Buddha doesn’t need our praise, and he’s not going to be “Oh, I’m so happy that you praised me. How great I am.” We’re doing the praise for our own benefit, not for Buddha’s benefit. The point is to remember the good qualities and to really develop tremendous respect and appreciation and admiration that this is what we would like to develop in ourselves. That’s the point of the praise.
Then in terms of the mind, what we do then is to think in terms of the good qualities of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Imagining all these mouths and the faces, and so on – all of these things just help us to magnify this sense of appreciation of the good qualities and to remember them. They’re also saying the praises. In a sense, it’s like rejoicing also in these wonderful qualities. Okay.
The Sitting Posture: The Eightfold Posture of Vairochana
Then the posture. So then you sit down. And we have the eightfold posture of Vairochana. It is outlined by Kamalashila in his Middle and Later Stages of Meditation.
1. Legs – crossed in the vajra position. In Hindu yoga, it’s called the lotus position. In the Buddhist tradition, it’s called the vajra position. Your legs are resting on and turned up like this on your thighs. It forms like a vajra.
That’s not so easy to do for most of us, and it will be helpful to train the younger that we are to get more and more flexible. The only time when it really is necessary is when you’re doing the various complete-stage practices with the energies in the body. Then you need to be able to sit in that. Otherwise it’s optional. So you can sit in the so-called half lotus, with just one foot on top of the thigh.
It’s very funny when you look at these lamas who have spent a great deal of time sitting cross-legged like that. If you can’t put one leg up, then you sit regular cross-legged. But if they have spent most of their life sitting like that, you notice that their feet are, in a sense, deformed – that when they put their feet down, their feet are aimed outside, are going outwards. Japanese sit with their feet underneath them and turned in. You can always tell a Japanese person from the way that their feet are deformed, turning in when they are standing.
This makes a little bit of a problem in terms of your posture, I must say, and the way that you walk. I mean, my feet go out like that, and it’s very difficult and very uncomfortable to put my feet straight. That can produce problems, actually, later in life. Later in life, many people experience difficulties in their knees. Tibetans will sit like that anyway. I mean, His Holiness does, and he does have problems with his knees. But Western older, experienced meditators and teachers, and so on, who have sat that way for a lot in their life find that when they get older they can’t sit cross-legged for very long. That becomes very difficult for attending teachings in India, for example. I experience that. So although the Tibetans don’t emphasize this at all, I think it’s very important to balance it with physical exercise if we’re doing a lot of meditation and a lot of sitting.
And you find of course that although there is this posture and it’s sitting cross-legged, the Japanese don’t do that – they sit with their legs behind them – and the Thais sit with their legs to the side. So there are many different postures.
2. Hands – in your lap, with the left palm down and the right palm on top, the thumbs touching –there are some people who hold their hands up from their laps. That causes really tight muscles in your shoulders and is going to hurt after a while. Better to rest your hands in your lap.
3. Spine – your spine should be straight. If you’re sitting in the full lotus, actually your spine naturally is going to be straight. I find if you’re sitting flat, it’s much more difficult to keep the spine straight.
4. Teeth, lips, and tongue – you don’t want your teeth clenched like you’ve just drunk four espressos. Your lips should also not be clenched, but rather relaxed. Your tongue should be touching the upper palate behind the teeth where it makes a curve. The purpose of that is to minimize salivation. Otherwise you’re sitting there and you’re drooling, and it’s not very nice. You have to swallow all the time – that is the distraction – because your mouth is producing more and more saliva. This will minimize the amount of saliva that we produce, so it minimizes how much you have to swallow.
5. Head – slightly bent downwards – not all the way down, not all the way up. If it’s too far down, you get dizzy.
6. Eyes – it’s always recommended that the eyes be half open, looking in the direction of your nose. Some people think that means cross-eyed, looking at the tip of your nose. It doesn’t mean that. It means looking in that direction, so looking down toward the floor.
There are many reasons for not meditating with your eyes closed. The most general reason of course is that with your eyes closed it’s much easier to get sleepy and fall asleep, although it can help to avoid distraction from external sources.
His Holiness points out that with your eyes closed you have distraction from internal sources. It’s very interesting. If you notice – now, you have to be quite observant – when your eyes are closed, there are some little sparkling flashes of light that are there. He says this is the internal distraction and what you want to avoid by not having your eyelids closed while you’re meditating, particularly when you’re trying to gain concentration.
A more general one that I like to emphasize is that if you have to close your eyes in order to quiet down and generate a positive state of mind, that’s a big block for being able to do that in ordinary life – if you get into the habit that you have to close your eyes in order to calm down or in order to feel compassion for somebody. That just doesn’t work in real life. I must say I’ve never seen that in a text, but it makes quite a lot of sense to me.
7. Shoulders – keep them down, not up at attention. That is really quite important in terms of everyday life. When we are very tense and stressed, our shoulders tend to be up at attention, and there’s all this tension in your neck, and so on. If you can become aware of how you’re holding your shoulders during the day or during a conversation with somebody, put them down.
It’s the same thing with your facial expression. There are some people who are stone-faced, no expression whatsoever, which is very disconcerting when you’re having a conversation with somebody. There are others that – even when you’re not in conversation, you’re sitting there and you have this frown and all this tension in your forehead, your eyes, your mouth, and so on. Try to relax the muscles. The more relaxed your muscles are, the more relaxed your mind will be. Put the shoulders down. If you have a stone face, it doesn’t mean that now you become some sort of mimic in a circus and make all sorts of artificial expressions, but try to be a little bit more human.
Also, I don’t know about you, but if you use a mouse on the computer and your arm is up like this, and especially if your seat is low and the desk is high, that causes unbelievable stress in your shoulder and your neck. The best solution I found for that is to have your chair higher so that your arm is down rather than up using the mouse.
8. Breathing – don’t hyperventilate, but just breathe normally through your nose – not too quickly, not too slowly.
It’s after that that you do a breathing exercise. There are many ones that you can do, either just focusing on the breath:
- By the nose if you’re feeling a bit dull and so you want to focus a little bit higher on the breath.
- Or down by the navel, with the stomach going in and out, which centers you more if you’re feeling a bit stressed.
There are many ways of just focusing on the breath itself. There’s also counting the breath. The point is it’s not an exercise in just counting. But usually one counts just up to eleven or seven or twenty-one (it doesn’t really matter), and then you can repeat.
Then there’s also the nine rounds of breathing, and there’s a very complex visualization that goes with that. When His Holiness teaches this to large groups when he’s giving teachings, he totally leaves out the visualization. What does that indicate? That indicates that if you put too much emphasis on the visualization, you defeat the purpose of the thing, because you’re worrying “Oh, I can’t get the visualization exactly right. Is this channel going there and that channel going there?” and you get really nervous and upset.
We have all these tantric visualizations of visualizing the process of death (we start out with the deity, and all these sort of things), and His Holiness says that unless you are some super, super practitioner, forget about that when you’re dying, because you’re just going to get very nervous and upset that you’re not able to do the visualization properly – “How am I doing the visualization? Does it look like this? And now this step” – and you will die in a very unsettled state of mind. He says it’s much better to focus on bodhichitta when you’re dying: “May I continue to follow the path. May I be able to continue helping others, be with the spiritual teachers,” and so on. Don’t worry. Don’t make such a big deal about the visualizations, because they’re difficult. It doesn’t mean that the visualizations are totally unimportant. It just means that that’s not the main emphasis.
So with these nine rounds, how His Holiness explains it is that you start with your hands moving up your knees, and then you put the fist, slap the fist, into the armpit. Then with the one finger blocking your nostril, breathe in slowly; then breathe out the other nostril. It’s not that you’re switching hands – that’s very distracting – but like that for three times. Then the other one three times, like that. Then with your hands on your lap in a fist, opening and closing, breathe in and out through both nostrils. And that’s enough. You don’t have to do this complicated visualization in order to bring the mind to an unspecified state, a neutral state – which is the whole point here – for then being able to generate a positive state of mind.