Starting a Meditation Session on Mahamudra

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Review of the Preparatory Practices

We have been looking at this text by the Fourth Panchen Lama called A Root Text for the Precious Gelug-Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra, and we saw that after his salutation verses, and his presentation of what the subject matter of this text is going to be, and the lineage in which it comes from, the Panchen Lama starts his discussion. And in the traditional manner he divides his presentation with the preparatory practices, the actual methods, and the concluding procedures.

The preparatory practices are what we discussed yesterday, and we saw as preparation we need to have a very strong taking of safe direction, of refuge, and a very sincere bodhichitta aim. We want to be able to benefit everybody and bring everybody to liberation and enlightenment. In order to do that we focus on our not-yet-happening enlightenment, which nevertheless can happen on the basis of our Buddha-natures and a great deal of hard work; and we aim to achieve that – to make that not-yet-happening enlightenment into a presently-happening enlightenment – with the intention to help others as much as possible along the way, but to really fully help everybody as much as is actually possible once we actually have achieved that goal.

In order to bring about the attainment of a presently-happening enlightenment on our mental continuums we need to – also as a preparation – try to build up as much as possible the two networks of positive force and deep awareness, and purify ourselves – as much as possible at this stage – of our mental obstacles and obscurations. And what’s very important is to do these two processes – of building up the networks and purifying the obstacles – with that safe direction and bodhichitta motivation. That means having a very clear intention, setting the motivation beforehand, before doing anything positive, and dedicating the positive force of it afterwards.

This is because, if we think of our minds like a computer, then the default setting for anything that we do is samsara. So if we do something positive, like helping others, or even meditating, but we don’t have a clear intention and dedication toward either liberation or enlightenment, then all that it does is build up good karma, positive karma for improving samsara. That means that we will experience as a result happier, nicer situations in samsara, but with all the problems and shortcomings that come from that – the samsaric happiness never lasts and it never is satisfying, we never can have enough.

Likewise, if we study and learn about voidness, and even meditate on it, without the proper intention and dedication toward liberation or enlightenment, then likewise it will just contribute to improving samsara. We will be able to speak cleverly about voidness, and it might help us in a psychotherapeutic sense to minimize a little bit of some of the emotional problems that we face; but nevertheless, it’s not going to get rid of them. We still are going to be stuck in samsara.

It’s very important to keep in mind that Buddhism is not about improving samsara; Buddhism is not a form of psychotherapy. Buddhism is all about gaining liberation or enlightenment. That’s very clear from Buddha’s teachings on the four noble truths – it couldn’t be more clear in terms of true stoppings and true paths. That’s why Buddhism is actually quite difficult to follow sincerely. Because in order to really follow it sincerely, we have to be very convinced that liberation and enlightenment exist, they’re possible, and that we can actually attain that.

That’s not so easy to understand. In fact, it’s not easy at all to even understand what liberation or enlightenment mean. After all, only a Buddha can really understand what it means to be a Buddha, so what hope do we have? But we can get some sort of idea of what it might be like and – on the basis of that – aim toward achieving it. But the more accurate an idea we have of liberation and enlightenment, the more realistic our following of the path toward those will be, and this depends very much on understanding and actually being able to recognize – in our own experience – the nature of the mind.

If we speak about samsara, if we speak about liberation, if we speak about enlightenment, all three situations are things that are experiences. We experience them; they’re experiences in terms of mind. They’re situations of the mind and derivative from that will be situations of the body and speech. Therefore, in order to really – even from the early stages on – aim for liberation and enlightenment, we need to recognize at least and acknowledge the importance of understanding the nature of the mind and being able to recognize it and work with it.

And then, when we work on building up these networks of positive force and deep awareness of voidness, we need to do that with the intention that the positive force from that and the understanding from that act as a cause for our achievement of liberation – and if it’s only for that, if we only dedicate it for that, that’s all that it will contribute to. Or we have the intention and dedicate it for enlightenment with bodhichitta, and then it will contribute to that.

Therefore – if again we can use the analogy of a computer – it’s as though there are three folders on our hard drive in the mind. There’s the “samsara” folder; there’s the “nirvana” folder; and there’s the “enlightenment” folder. And when we are going to do some sort of positive thing or meditation, the intention is opening up one of those folders, and then the dedication is saving it in one of those folders. And if we are not sure to open up the enlightenment folder and save it in the enlightenment folder, the default setting is it’s going to go into the samsara folder, and we don’t want that to happen.

If it does happen, it’s not the most disastrous thing in the world, but all that it’s going to do is improve our samsara. Most of us are not even aware that there’s anything other than the samsara folder. This is why we need to really start to investigate and learn about the nature of the mind, because only when we do that are we going to discover that actually there is a liberation and an enlightenment folder. They might be pretty much empty now, but at least those folders are there. But we’re only going to know that they are there if we start to investigate and learn about the nature of the mind.

Also, if we can continue the analogy of a computer, although of course it’s not an exact equivalent, but if we can continue that, then for most of us, our samsara folder is so full that there’s hardly any room for putting things into the liberation or enlightenment folders. We have to do some purification, we have to clean out a little bit from the samsara folder – and actually, our samsara folder is mostly filled with spam, complete garbage.

And even if we can manage to delete some of the spam, more and more constantly is going to come in. With every spam-like thought that we have – and we seem to have that all day long, at least most of us – it just keeps on filling our samsara file with more and more junk, junk mail. But at least, if we can clean out some of the spam – with Vajrasattva meditation and so on – there’s a little bit more space on the hard drive to throw some stuff into the enlightenment folder.

This is the analogy that we can use here to understand this process of purification. But it’s really only with the non-conceptual cognition of voidness that we’re going to be able to actually delete the samsara folder. And actually, it’s only when we’re able to stay with this non-conceptual cognition of voidness all the time that we really delete the folder completely, not just throw it into the trash can.

We also saw that – in addition to all of these preparatory practices – we need to make very heartfelt requests to our root guru, the one that gives us the most inspiration, so that we really open up fully; and then we imagine that the root guru dissolves into us. And by doing this we – in addition to the bodhichitta motivation – increase the intensity of the mind, so that it becomes a little bit easier to be able to see the nature of the mind, because we have increased the intensity of the mind, both as the object to observe and as the subject that is observing it.

The Differences between the Sutra and Tantra Traditions of Mahamudra

Then, “as for the actual basic methods,” the Fourth Panchen Lama points out that “There are many ways of asserting mahamudra,” but we can speak of it primarily in terms of two divisions of it, the sutra tradition and the tantra tradition. When we speak about mahamudra in the tantra context, we’re speaking about it in the context of the fourth or highest class of tantra practice, anuttarayoga tantra – and we need to bear in mind that it’s only the Kagyu and Gelug traditions that assert that there are both sutra and tantra types of mahamudra practice; according to the Sakya tradition there’s only tantra practice of mahamudra.

Now, as for the difference between these two divisions of mahamudra practice, it has to do with which level of consciousness or mind we’re going to examine and focus on in terms of its nature. In the anuttarayoga tantra teachings – I’ll just call them tantra teachings for short – there is a presentation of three levels of mind: we can speak about the coarse level, the subtle level, and the subtlest level.

The coarse level of mind, or awareness – however we want to speak about it – is what is involved with sense cognition: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling physical sensations. The subtle level is dealing with our usual level of mental consciousness, both conceptual and non-conceptual. When we speak about the coarse level of sense cognition that’s always non-conceptual.

By the way, just very briefly, when we speak about conceptual cognition, we’re talking about cognition of something through a category; it’s usually a category. A category could be looking at this object in terms of the category “table,” or looking at this figure in front of me in terms of the category of “human being” or a “woman.” These are categories concerning objects. We can also perceive things or cognize things in terms of categories regarding qualities like “good,” “bad,” “red,” “black,” etc.

Conceptual cognition can also be through the medium of what we would call a concept, such as space or voidness – but we won’t go into that in detail, that’s rather complex – but non-conceptual cognition is not through the medium of a category, to say it just briefly. Also there are various levels of conceptual mind – we have personal concepts of things, and we have more general ones. More general ones, like the concept of showing affection, everybody would have, even animals, whereas more personal, specific ones we might have only in terms of a particular human lifetime.

But in any case, the subtlest level of mind is what is known as the clear light level, and this is the level which is more subtle than the course or subtle levels, so it certainly is more subtle than our sense consciousness, our ordinary mental consciousness, more subtle than any conceptual level. The various disturbing emotions that we have can occur with either the coarse consciousness or the subtle consciousness; and the subtlest level is more subtle than that, so it is free, naturally, of disturbing emotions.

When we speak about “appearances of true existence” and “grasping for true existence,” these are things which occur on these grosser levels. The gross level and the subtle level make appearances of true existence, and the subtle level, the conceptual level, grasps for that true existence, in other words, believes it.

To put it in very simple terms, the grosser levels of mind make things appear in an impossible way, like for instance – the analogy that I often use is – ping-pong balls. It makes things appear as though there’s a line around them, and there they are, existing by themselves like a ping-pong ball, just there. That’s the appearance-making of true existence. And then what’s called “grasping for true existence” is – without getting too complicated with it – actually is believing that the way that things appear corresponds to the way that they actually exist. So that’s conceptual when you actually believe that.

Please bear in mind that I’m explaining the Gelug position on this regarding the Prasangika tenet system; there are different interpretations of this in the non-Gelug schools. But in any case, everybody agrees that the clear light mind, the subtlest level, is more subtle than these levels in which the appearance-making and grasping for true existence occur – it doesn’t do that, everybody agrees – and this clear light level underlies every moment of our experience, of our cognition of things, in all our lifetimes, during death time even, even during enlightenment.

When we speak about this division between sutra and tantra mahamudra, sutra mahamudra is a practice to identify and understand the nature of the two grosser levels of mind, and the tantra practice of mahamudra is to try to recognize and work with the nature of the subtlest, clear light level of mind. Obviously the tantra one is much, much more difficult to do. The Fourth Panchen Lama gives the scriptural sources for these two traditions of mahamudra and then he says that he will explain the sutra method.

Meeting the Face of the Mind

The term which is used here for recognizing the mind, the word “recognize” is an interesting word; it’s sometimes translated as “introduce” as well – “ngotro” (ngo-sprod) in Tibetan – and actually it means to literally “meet the face” of the mind. So, when we read in translation “the guru or the lama introduces us to the nature of our mind,” we have to understand what that means. It’s not saying, “Sasha, here is your mind, mind here is Sasha,” and you exchange calling cards.

Rather, through the interaction with our root guru, and particularly because of our openness and the inspiration that we receive from the root guru, then in an interaction with the teacher, that interaction can provide a circumstance – if we’ve built up a tremendous amount of positive force and deep awareness, those networks and the purifying – that will provide the circumstance for us to then actually “meet the face” of the mind. In others words, we will be able to see it and – we would say in English at least – recognize it.

“Recognize” is a funny word, because that tends to mean that you’ve seen it before, and then you recognize it again, and fit it into the category of what we had before. So that’s not quite precise either. In dzogchen we have a terminology speaking about how the mind doesn’t recognize its own face, and so we need to get to the subtlest level of mind – it’s not quite exactly the same as the subtlest level, but anyway – rigpa, to be able to recognize its own face, to see its own face. Now, in terms of meeting the face of our mind on these grosser levels, again we have to identify what aspect of mind are we trying to see the face of or we’ll use the word “recognize” in a loose sense here.

We can speak about “primary consciousness” and “subsidiary consciousness,” or “mental factors” is another way of translating that. The primary consciousness – if we can use an example of a chandelier here – would be the big light bulb in the middle of the chandelier, and the subsidiary awarenesses are the little light bulbs around it. The little light bulbs only go on when the big light bulb is on; they can’t work by themselves, so that’s why they’re “subsidiary” to the primary one. When we call it “mental factor,” which is much easier to say, we somehow can lose that sense of the fact that they really are subsidiary to the primary thing – they can’t be there by themselves; that’s clear from the Tibetan and Sanskrit term.

What we want to be able to recognize is the nature of primary consciousness; therefore we have to know what is the difference between primary consciousness and subsidiary awareness. Primary consciousness is – in the Prasangika system – of six types. There is eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose, taste/tongue, body consciousness – which is consciousness of physical sensations, not just feeling of a rough or smooth cloth, but also hot and cold, and motion, any sort of physical sensation – and then mental consciousness.

If we look at the Tibetan description of this, the primary consciousness and the subsidiary awarenesses, first of all, all focus on the same object and they work through the same cognitive sensors, like for instance the photosensitive cells of the eyes, and there’s a whole list of things that they share in common. When we talk about sensors, we’re not talking about the gross organ of the eye, we’re talking about the very tiny photosensitive cells within the eye – that’s actually what’s involved with cognition; or the sound-sensitive cells of the ears, we’re talking about tiny little cells. Some people translate them as “sense powers,” but that’s very inaccurate, because “power” is some sort of abstract thing; we’re talking specifically about little cells.

But in any case, the primary consciousness is aware of just the – I translate it as – “essential nature” (ngo-bo) of the object, which means what type of object is it? Is it a sight? Is it a sound? Is it a smell? Is it a taste? Is it a tactile sensation? Or is it a thought? And then the subsidiary awarenesses – it’s a whole cluster of them – they focus on the same object and they assist the primary consciousness. They do various technical functions – like concentration, and interest, these type of things – also add emotional qualities to it – compassion or anger – and all the subsidiary things that go together: distinguishing one object from another object, distinguishing that an object is “this and not that.”

If again we go to the analogy of a computer, the primary consciousness is aware of what kind of data is this? Is it audio data, is it music data, is it video data, is it text data? And then the subsidiary awarenesses read that data. Obviously, the primary consciousness is the main thing, because in a computer the data has to be put into the right program, so that it can read the data correctly. You can’t just read data without putting it into the right program – an audio program, a video program, a text program. So the mind works in a similar fashion.

Because obviously, if we think in terms of the Western description of the mind and brain, all the information is just electrical and chemical impulses, isn’t it? So we need to somehow be able to sort out, are these electrical impulses giving us visual information or audio information, and so on. So this is what we’re trying to recognize, is the primary consciousness, and we want to recognize both its superficial or conventional nature, as well as its deepest, void nature.

This is not easy, not easy at all. We need to be able to recognize it in our own experience, every moment, because actually this is going on all the time. Therefore – because it is so difficult to actually recognize, even though it’s just right there – it’s like our face is there all the time, but we can’t see our face, can we? Unless we have a mirror or something like that. Actually that’s a very interesting thing, what our face looks like – although our face is there all the time, we really don’t stay aware at all of what our face is looking like, do we? Unless we’re extremely vain and always looking in a mirror and make-up, and so on. But it’s there all the time. Likewise, our mind is functioning all the time.

Nonsectarian Approach

Now, the Panchen Lama mentions that there are various different traditions, which are all intending for the same point – to be able to recognize the conventional and deepest nature of the mind – and he lists a whole group of different traditions that we find in the various Tibetan lineages. But the Panchen Lama concludes with a very strong advocacy of nonsectarianism. He says, “Nevertheless, when scrutinized by a yogi, learned in scripture and logic and experienced (in meditation), their definitive meanings are all seen to come to the same intended point.”

“Definitive meaning” is literally “the meaning that one is led to” with the teachings, the final point that you’re led to. And what Buddha intended and all the great masters intended with these various methods was that it comes to the final point. The final point is everybody recognizes the same nature of the mind, because we all have mind with the same nature and, on the basis of that, we’re able to achieve enlightenment.

Shamatha and Vipashyana on the Nature of the Mind

Then the Panchen Lama also mentions that within the sutra tradition there are two methods of practice. The first is meditating on the mind, it says literally in the text, in other words, trying to get single-minded concentration, or even deeper than that, shamatha – which is a stilled and settled state of mind – focused on the conventional nature of the mind, and then, after that, getting the correct view of the voidness of a mind. And the other method is first getting at least some level of a correct view of voidness, and then getting “zhinay” (zhi-gnas, Skt. shamatha) on the basis of the conventional nature of the mind.

When we talk about either single-minded concentration – or “absorbed concentration” I like to translate it as – that is a state of mind completely free of mental dullness or flightiness of mind, mental agitation. When we speak about shamatha, the stilled and settled state of mind – I’ll just use the Sanskrit word “shamatha,” it’s easier – then in addition to that absorbed concentration we have a mental factor which is called a “sense of fitness.”

It’s an exhilarating feeling of both physical and mental factor that makes you feel fit, that you can concentrate for as long as you want, on anything you want, your body can sit without moving for as long as you want, etc. If that is added to this absorbed concentration, that’s shamatha. Since you know Tibetan, we’re talking about the term “shinjang” (shin-sbyangs), and it’s described as “laysu-rungwa” (las-su rung-ba), suitable to doing work – “shinjang” super-trained, literally.

We should point out that – since very often we have misconceptions about this – that we have many cognitions simultaneously. After all, when we’re with somebody, we can both see them and hear them at the same time, can’t we? So when we have absorbed concentration in meditation on some object, and even when we have shamatha on that object, that doesn’t mean that we don’t also see the wall in front of us. We do see the wall in front of us. Other cognitions are occurring at the same time. It’s just that there’s no mental wandering toward that, you don’t pay attention to it.

Now, “vipashyana” is an extremely perceptive state of mind, literally, and this is only possible on the basis of shamatha. You can’t have vipashyana by itself; if it’s vipashyana, it’s combined shamatha and vipashyana, if you want to speak about it in a technical way. What vipashyana does is it adds on top of shamatha a second sense of fitness, which is not just the sense of fitness that you can concentrate on anything, but the sense of fitness that you can analyze and understand anything.

Well, I should also add that we can gain shamatha and/or vipashyana on a wide, wide variety of objects. Vipashyana is not just gained in terms of the understanding of voidness, but here we’re talking about gaining vipashyana on the basis of a correct view of voidness. So when it says, “First we gain shamatha on the conventional nature of mind and then you gain the correct view of voidness,” first of all, we could gain not only shamatha, but we could gain even vipashyana on the conventional nature of the mind.

We can gain both shamatha and vipashyana on the conventional nature of the mind, and we can gain both shamatha and vipashyana on the voidness of the mind. So we have to not get confused here about what the Panchen Lama is talking about. We’re talking about just trying to understand voidness, and the voidness specifically of the mind, and we’re talking about gaining shamatha on the conventional nature of the mind. Even if we work on trying to gain the understanding of voidness first, and then get shamatha on the nature of the mind, still we wouldn’t get vipashyana on the nature of the mind till after we’ve gotten shamatha.

Even if we do the second method of gaining the understanding of voidness first, and then second, gain shamatha on the nature of the mind – here specifically the conventional nature of the mind – that doesn’t mean that when we gain that initial understanding of voidness, that we’ve gained vipashyana on the deepest nature of the mind. So actually what we’re talking about is a logical debate in terms of: what in the world is he differentiating here in the text? And I think that the main point is: how deeply are we going to try to understand the voidness of the mind, and at which stage are we going to do that in our practice?

Now, we can work beforehand on the understanding of voidness in general – the voidness of a person, the voidness of the table – we could also work initially on understanding the voidness of the conventional nature of the mind, just based on knowing the definition of the conventional nature of the mind. However, that’s quite different from actually being able to focus on that conventional nature of the mind perfectly, and then applying our understanding of voidness to that object, that conventional nature of the mind.

There’s a difference between – let me just say that again – between applying an understanding of voidness to some concept that we have of the conventional nature of the mind and applying it to the actual conventional nature of the mind that we’re actually focused on perfectly. So, the method that the Panchen Lama is going to explain here is: first recognizing the conventional nature of the mind, gaining shamatha on that, and then on that basis trying to understand and focus on the voidness of that conventional nature of the mind – whether or not you have vipashyana on the conventional nature of the mind or not is irrelevant.

It doesn’t mean that we have absolutely no understanding or even familiarity with voidness before we gain shamatha. I don’t know of anybody who would do that in actual practice, because most of us would have had a broad array of teachings, as least basic lam-rim that covers all the topics in general. However, in writing a text, you can only explain one at a time, and so here it gives the impression that we don’t work at all with voidness until we gain shamatha. But in actual practice hardly anybody would do that, since it’s very difficult to achieve shamatha.

However, to understand the voidness of an object we really need to be able to focus on that object in a very stable way, otherwise it’s difficult to apply that understanding of voidness to that object. That’s why the emphasis here is on gaining at least some sort of mental stability on focusing on the conventional nature of the mind before understanding the voidness of it.

The Proper Seat and Posture for Mahamudra Meditation

The Panchen Lama continues now with his actual description, and he first describes the proper seat to sit on for gaining “mental stability” (bsam-gtan), he calls it here, and then sitting on that seat with the proper posture. The seat – without going into all the details – what is usually important on a meditation seat is that the back be slightly raised from the front, so that if we have something underneath our behind, and our knees are a little bit lower, your legs don’t fall asleep so easily – this is particularly helpful when we are sitting in the full posture, which entails what’s known in the Hindu yoga systems as the “full lotus” position. So if we do have that problem of our legs falling asleep while we’re meditating, then we can try putting a cushion underneath our behind.

And the posture – I imagine that most of you are familiar with – it’s called the seven-fold posture of Vairochana.

(1) Our legs are crossed. In the Buddhist tradition it’s known as the vajra position; as I said, in hatha yoga it’s called the full lotus position. And obviously, for many of us that’s not so easy to do, therefore we need to train ourselves very slowly over quite a period of time for our legs to become flexible enough to be able to sit in that posture. If we’re unable to sit that way, then the half lotus or just our legs crossed will do, and if we can’t sit cross-legged at all, that’s rather unfortunate, but in any case, we could still try to do the meditation just sitting in a chair.

The main point of the posture is to get the energies flowing in the body in as smooth and harmonious a way as possible. The amount of conceptual thought and wild thoughts that we have is proportionate to the “wildness,” let’s say, of the way in which the energy is flowing in the body. When we talk about mind, we’re speaking about an awareness of something, and there’s a certain energy associated with that. So depending on how the energy is flowing in the body, likewise our awareness will be similar. If we’re very nervous, we tend to have very worried thoughts for example, and if the energy of the body is calm, then the mind tends to be calm. So this posture is to optimize – at least from the physical side – the smoothness of the flow of energy in the body.

(2) The hands are on the upturned feet, with the left hand beneath the right, and the thumbs touching, forming a triangle near the navel. Now, the hands should rest on your feet, not hold them up in the air. If you hold them up in the air, the muscles of your arms are tense and so that’s not a very relaxed posture.

(3) Our spine and our back needs to be perfectly straight; that’s the most important aspect of the whole posture. So even if we’re sitting in a chair, sit up straight.

(4) The lips need to be relaxed and the teeth not clenched tight, and the tongue needs to touch, just gently touch, the upper palate – the part of the mouth that’s above where the upper teeth are. That helps to retain saliva, so that the mouth doesn’t become dry, and it also prevents us from drooling. If there’s excessive saliva forming in our mouth, we can swallow, but this position of the tongue should minimize the salivation. Obviously, if we have to swallow all the time, that affects our concentration.

(5) The head should be bent slightly forward and down – not all the way touching our chest, and not up – a little bit down. If it’s too low, we tend to get dizzy; if it’s too high, we tend to get distracted.

(6) The eyes are half-open, focused loosely in the direction of the tip of the nose. That doesn’t mean cross-eyed; it just means basically looking down toward the floor, and just loosely focused.

In the Tibetan tradition, we’re not encouraged to meditate with our eyes closed, although in some other Buddhist traditions people do meditate with the eyes closed. If our eyes are closed when we meditate, there’s the danger of easily falling asleep. His Holiness points out that if your eyes are closed, you tend to see sort of flashing little dots of light, and that can be very distracting. In other words, it’s easier to not pay attention to the floor in front of you if your eyes are half-open, than to these little flashing lights that one tends to see when the eyes are closed.

Also, my own idea – I haven’t seen this in any text – is that if we’re practicing as Mahayana practitioners, then if we close our eyes in order to meditate, that builds up a certain tendency of dissociating from everybody around us in order to meditate. And that can make an obstacle in terms of applying our meditation in a Mahayana way to situations in which we’re actually helping others.

In dzogchen meditation – where similarly we’re trying to recognize the nature of the mind – one is recommended to have the eyes be very intensely focused, although not necessarily observing the floor in front of you, as if you’re looking for your contact lens, if you dropped them, but the eyes should be strongly intense. But here in the mahamudra practice that doesn’t seem to be indicated.

(7) The shoulders need to be straight back, and even – at the same level with each other – and the elbows slightly bent, leaving a small space between the body and arms. And if we add the breathing here, then the breathing needs to be quite natural – through the nose, quietly, not forcefully, with the in-breath the same length as the out-breath, neither of them too deep or too shallow, and without holding the breath.

The Nine Tastes of Breath

Then – once we’re sitting in the proper position on the proper seat – the Panchen Lama says that we need to “clear ourselves purely with a round of the nine tastes of breath.” This is a type of breathing practice which helps to, in a sense, clear out a little bit of our disturbing states of mind. Now, there are several ways of practicing these nine rounds. We can do this, by the way, before any type of meditation and it’s helpful, and it can be done with or without visualization of the energy channels in the body.

We can visualize the energy channels whether or not we’ve received an initiation – but only if we’ve received an initiation can we visualize ourselves as a Buddha-figure while doing this, let’s say as Yamantaka, or Chenrezig, one of these, Kalachakra...

So, if we are visualizing the energy channels, then we are basically visualizing three channels. We have the central channel... there are several ways of doing this, but we can have it go from our nose, basically, over the top of our head, and then down by the spine, and it ends a little bit below the navel, four finger-widths below the navel it says. But actually, if we want to be more precise, it ends at the middle of the brow and not actually at the nostrils, and it’s white on the outside and red on the inside.

Now obviously, if we get too caught up in the visualizations here, that could be an obstacle, so this is why they say it can be either with visualization or without visualization. Then the right channel… that central channel is the thickness of a medium-sized bamboo, it says, so that’s maybe a couple of centimeters wide, maybe the size of a small finger of a small person then; the right and the left channels are thinner, and the right one is red, the left one is white, and it’s the thickness, they say, of a stalk of wheat, so it’s pretty thin.

And it’s the right and left channels which go a little bit further down beneath the navel, and they come up and these are the ones that go out the nostrils. I find the red and the white a little bit easy to remember, at least in English or in German, because right and red both start with “r.” I don’t know about in Russian, but it’s helpful to have some sort of mnemonic device, otherwise it’s very easy to get this confused – figure out little tricks for helping to remember these sort of visualizations, that’s helpful.

Now we’re doing nine rounds of breathing divided into three groups of three. The first three are in the right nostril and out the left, and we imagine now that the right energy channel is inserted into the bottom end of the left six finger-widths beneath the navel. The central one ended four, these end six beneath the navel. What we do is: you hold your left nostril closed with the fourth finger of the left hand, and you breathe in slowly through the right nostril, and then with the right hand you hold the right nostril closed with the fourth finger and breathe out through the left nostril. So you do that three times.

Although actually I find it a little bit easier to just use the same hand for closing each of the nostrils rather than switching hands; it’s a little bit distracting having the hands move all the time, so this is a little bit easier. Anyway, the actual instructions is you shut the left nostril with the left hand and you shut the right nostril with the right hand. So, breathe in the right out the left three times; then in the left and out the right three times; and then – with your hands back down in your lap – in both nostrils and out both nostrils three times. We breathe slowly, but without holding the breath.

When we’re doing the visualization, then when we breathe in the right and out the left, we imagine the lower end of the right is stuck into the lower end of the left and what we’re clearing out from the left channel is the energy wind of the disturbing emotion of longing desire; and when we breathe in the left and out the right, then the channels are reversed, the left one is into the right one, and we breathe out the energy that was blocked in the right channel, which is of anger.

So, three times for getting the blocked energy of desire out of the left, and three times for getting the blocked energy of anger out of the right channel. And then you imagine the lower ends of the two channels are both curved up and sticking into the bottom end of the central channel now, and when we breathe in through both nostrils, we imagine that the air comes into the central channel and it expels – as we breathe out – the blocked energy of naivety.

That leaves us at the end of the central channel, which is of the middle of our brow; and when we breathe in, we imagine that we breathe in white light, and when we breathe out the blocked energy, literally it says that we visualize it as black light, which of course... light can’t be black, but at least dark. Now, this is a rather complicated visualization, and it can be quite distracting if we’re not familiar with visualization, and it could make us even more nervous and upset trying to get the visualization correct than it is worthwhile.

The important thing here is not the visualization. So, unless we are already fairly well-trained with visualization and it comes very easy to us, I would recommend forget about the visualization at the beginning and just do the nine rounds without worrying about the color and the size of the channels and this sort of stuff. But obviously, if we are able to do the visualization, then it is a stronger practice.

Guided Practice of the Nine Tastes of Breath

OK? So, why don’t we try this? And I will lead it, since we might not remember how to do it yet. Usually when we sit down to do meditation, I must say that the first instant that you sit down to start doing this might be a bit too much, so it is often helpful to just sit for a few moments until we settle down just focusing on the breath coming in and out, but for not too long, just for a few moments, just so that we settle.

We start with closing the left nostril with our left hand, the fourth finger, and we breathe slowly through the right nostril; and then – switching hands – we breathe out the left nostril; and we’re going to do that three times without holding the breath.

Actually, although it’s not really described very thoroughly, or at least I haven’t seen it described, again, I find it very distracting if you have to lift your hands – up and down, up and down – six times, and so if we’re going to do it with both hands, then it seems to be easier to leave both hands up; if not, just do it with one hand. After all, this is intended to help us to quiet down and relax, so you don’t want to be too busy doing this, it defeats the purpose.

OK, so having done “in the right and out of the left,” then use the right hand to block the right nostril – in the left and out the right three times. And breathe slowly, not quickly, not to fill yourself fully with the breath; and then we put our hands back down in the meditation posture and breathe slowly through both nostrils and then out both nostrils.

Those are the nine rounds of breath – in the right, out of the left – and in the left, out the right – and then in both and out both nostrils; first get rid of the blocked energy of desire, then of anger, then of naivety. Then, once we’ve completed that, those nine rounds – or nine “tastes” of breath, literally – then the instructions say: don’t repeat it, only do it once. If we still have gross mental wandering, then we would follow another method.

We breathe in and out both nostrils silently, not forcefully, with the in-breath the same length as the out-breath, and we count – each round of breath – up to twenty-one. And there are many variations on this, it could go up to eleven, it could be up to seven, it could be up to twenty-one – here Geshe Dhargyey explained it as twenty-one. Because if we have to focus on both the breath and keeping count of the breath, then that leaves not very much room for other thoughts. The point is to quiet down before we start our meditation.

Also, when we are trying to gain shamatha, it’s very important to try to get the conducive place for doing this, and there’s all sorts of instructions about what would be a proper place for doing retreat. It would be very difficult to gain shamatha if we were not in a retreat situation, because we want to be able to focus totally on just the meditation. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t meditate outside of a retreat situation, but to minimize distraction it’s best to meditate either very early in the morning when we first get up, before we’ve actually gotten involved in the activities of the day, or at night, after we’ve finished the activities of the day. But not right in the middle of the day when you’re just taking a break from your activities: there’s too much distraction thinking about what your daily activities are. Some people are more alert in the mornings, some people are more alert at night – we have to judge for ourselves when is the best time for us to meditate. Ideally, we should be able to meditate both times. Also it’s best to meditate not immediately after eating, because right after we eat we tend to be get dull.

Meditation Tips for Taking Safe Direction and Reaffirming Our Bodhichitta Aims

Then, after we have quieted down with these breathing meditations, we do the preparatory practices as has been discussed already, of course starting with safe direction or refuge, and bodhichitta. There are verses that we can recite for this, but it’s very easy to get into the habit of reciting a verse and it’s just “blah, blah, blah,” especially if it’s in a language that we don’t understand. But even if it’s in a language we do understand, it still is very easy for it to just be “blah, blah, blah,” and have no feeling at all. Therefore it is important to really try to generate some sincere feeling of actually putting this direction in our life, of actually aiming with bodhichitta to reach enlightenment for the benefit of everyone.

Now, how to do this? This is not so easy for many of us, particularly when we have a limited time for meditation, because we are busy; we have a busy schedule; we don’t want to be late for work. But it is more worthwhile to actually get that strong sense of refuge or safe direction and bodhichitta than it is to meditate without that at all. In other words, having that strong intention, having that strong direction in mind, having that strong motivation, even a little bit of meditation is very helpful; it works. It’s effective toward enlightenment. Without having any of that and just meditating for a long time, that will just go into the samsara folder.

One of my students uses a method, which I don’t know if he was actually taught by some lama this method or whether he made it up himself, but it seems to be quite helpful. He had gone on pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya and found it very, very inspiring. In Bodh Gaya, you have this huge stupa and the bodhi tree – at least something that grew from the previous bodhi tree under which Buddha became enlightened. So it’s a very inspiring, very moving place, a tremendous energy there. And he imagines being there in Bodh Gaya when he sits down and meditates, and he imagines circumambulating the stupa and sitting before the tree and, in this way, then taking very sincere refuge and developing bodhichitta, because visualizing this type of situation helps to bring on this strong feeling more sincerely.

Now, we do have similar practices that are taught traditionally, in which we imagine that we are in a pure land and we are sitting in front of the tree of assembled gurus and the Buddha and all this sort of thing – very, very complicated visualization – and in that context we take refuge and develop bodhichitta. So there is this practice. But, again, if we have a very complicated visualization, then we can get very uptight trying to visualize it, and spend all our effort in trying to get the visualization accurate and clear, and very little time on actually developing the motivation.

So, what my student does is instead of trying to visualize a Buddha-field and a pure land and these complicated trees and stuff like that, he uses something that he’s actually experienced, which is Bodh Gaya and the tree there. Mind you, he doesn’t visualize all the beggars and lepers and the pigs and shit and stuff in the fields, but just in an ideal way. I don’t think there are mosquitoes in a Buddha pure land. But, in any case, he uses something which is much more real to him and much more inspiring than some sort of ideal visualization that’s just too difficult to do; and this can be very effective.

And we visualize our spiritual teacher, our root guru. Usually we’re always supposed to be visualizing him or her in the form of either Buddha Shakyamuni or some sort of Buddha-figure, but Serkong Rinpoche advised that in doing, for instance, the Kalachakra guru-yoga practice, if it’s difficult for us to visualize His Holiness the Dalai Lama as Kalachakra – if we’ve received the initiation from His Holiness – then we can just visualize His Holiness in his usual form, but in an ideal form, not having a cold or anything like that.

And we actually find this type of practice in the Shangpa Kagyu tradition, in which – unlike in the Gelug tradition, or in Karma Kagyu, or Nyingma, or Sakya – when it instructs us to visualize the guru for guru-yoga, you visualize in the actual form of the guru, not as a Buddha-figure. So there is this tradition. And it can be much more effective in moving our hearts; the whole point is to move your feeling, get some inspiration.

Imagining that we’re in a pure land, by the way, is helpful, whether we have some – who knows what type of vision we have of what a pure land looks like, but – whether it’s like something painted on a thangka, or whether it’s an ideal vision of Bodh Gaya, the point is that it’s in a situation in which everything is conducive for intense meditation, which means that when we’re meditating, we forget about the traffic noise outside – or the dirty wall, or whatever it might be – and just imagine that everything is conducive. One of the biggest distractions in meditation can be complaining, “I wish I could be in another place, and it wasn’t so noisy, and there wasn’t this smell,” and so on. That’s a big distraction, so we just sort of dismiss that and imagine, “Everything is cool; everything is fine.”

Also what is very helpful and important and emphasized as a preparation – not here, but in other contexts – is that before we meditate, we actually clean our meditation room and make some offerings, at least water bowls. If we sweep the floor and have everything in order around us – not our dirty underwear on the floor, but everything neat and orderly – then that affects the mind as well. The mind will be more neat and orderly. If there’s chaos around us, that affects the mind.

Also by cleaning the room – at least just sweeping the floor and picking up everything – and having some water bowls arranged in front of some either picture or painting or statue of a Buddha, we’re showing respect to what we’re doing, and that also is very important.

And with a visualization of our guru in front of us, we take refuge, have a safe direction, bodhichitta. For building up the two networks and the purification we usually do, the simplest thing would be the seven-part practice; and then requests to the guru, the guru comes to the top of your head and dissolves into you.

Shamatha as a Tool to Use in Mamahudra Meditation

Should we view shamatha as just like a tool, like binoculars, with which we can focus on any kind of object, and specifically as a tool to enable us to then stay with perfect concentration on the nature of the mind?

Yes. That is so. Both shamatha and vipashyana are not necessarily Buddhist practices; both of them are found in non-Buddhist practices, and particularly in India. What makes them a Buddhist practice is if they’re done in the context of safe direction or refuge. And it makes them Mahayana practice if it’s done as a method for helping us reach enlightenment with a motivation of bodhichitta.

So, shamatha is merely a tool – not an end in itself – that we can use then for staying totally focused – with this sense of fitness – on any object that would help us on the way to liberation or enlightenment, here particularly the conventional and deepest nature of the mind. And vipashyana is also just a tool – that we have in addition to the shamatha – that the mind is totally fit to be able to discern and understand everything in all its details, here particularly the nature of the mind, the conventional and deepest nature.

There are many, many things in Buddhism that are not specifically Buddhist, but which we find in common with so many other Indian traditions, and even with non-Indian traditions, like aiming for a better rebirth, that’s certainly not Buddhist. What makes things distinctively Buddhist – and very important always to emphasize, and the Panchen Lama does it here in the text – is refuge and bodhichitta – bodhichitta making it Mahayana.