What Meditation Does
Meditation is a method for transforming and improving our lives. How? Well, our lives are affected by our personality and moods, which are affected by our living and economic situation, the people we spend our time with and so on. If we have any experience of life, we know that despite changes in external things like work, wealth and friends, if our attitudes and state of mind stay the same, we always have the same problems. No matter how many friends we have, we can still feel insecure. It doesn’t matter if we’re really rich, we can still get angry and frustrated. These kinds of things don’t change just by changing our external circumstances.
Meditation helps here, because to bring about a real change in the quality of our lives, we need to work on our minds. This doesn’t just refer to intellectual qualities or developing concentration and overcoming laziness. These are important things to work on, but we need to go deeper in terms of our emotional situation: our basic insecurity and confusion about life itself.
Meditation in a Buddhist Context
Now, we find meditation not only in Buddhism, but also throughout many different systems. In the Buddhist context, meditation has the meaning of actualizing a positive state of mind through a method of repetition. It’s just like athletic training or learning a musical instrument where we have to repeat things over and over again; but in meditation we are familiarizing ourselves with a positive state of mind by generating it. In the beginning it will feel forced and artificial, but over time we become familiar enough with the state of mind that it actually becomes a natural part of ourselves.
Just because something is generated in this way doesn’t mean that there’s anything inappropriate with it. If we’re trying to develop a new state of mind, we shouldn’t think that it’s not natural. A lot of people think that it’s best to stay as we naturally are, without trying to change ourselves at all. But if we remained in a natural state, we’d still be going to the toilet in our pants. But we trained in various methods in order to improve our lives. We can and should do the same with our minds.
We can’t use the argument that we should just be natural because then everything will be fine. That’s because being natural doesn’t always end up with the best result. It’s like if a baby is crying and I lose my temper and it would feel natural to hit the baby to make it shut up; well, that’s hardly great, is it? We know that it’s not an appropriate way to act, even though hitting the baby might naturally be the first thought that comes up when it starts screaming in the middle of the night.
So we have meditation, which plays an incredibly important role in the study and practice of Buddhism. People often make the mistake of thinking that study and meditation are two separate things, but this is not at all so in the Buddhist teachings.
Developing Beneficial Habits
In order to develop beneficial habits, we need to study what they are, but this learning is not an end in and of itself. We have to integrate and make it a part of ourselves, which is what meditation does. Just like we can’t digest something if we don’t put it into our mouths, and chew on it first, if we don’t put the teachings into our minds and think about them, there’s no way to be able to digest them through meditation. And as with food, there’s no point in just chewing and then spitting out. We have to swallow and digest the food in order to benefit from it.
How can we start to meditate? As we saw, meditation is step three of a three-part process. This kind of structure is found in all Indian systems, like in the Upanishads in the Hindu tradition. Many people don’t seem to appreciate that most of the methods we use in Buddhism are shared in common with various other traditional Indian systems. But while the methods might be common, what is unique to Buddhism is the context: what our aim is, what our understanding of reality is, and what our motivation is.
The three parts are listening, thinking or contemplating, and then meditating. If we’re practicing meditation in a Buddhist context, then we use it to digest the Buddhist teachings.
Listening to the Teachings
Why do we call the first part “listening?” Firstly, at the time of the Buddha, none of the teachings were written down, so the only way you could possibly learn them was to listen to somebody reciting them from memory and explaining them. Nowadays, we can read all of the teachings, so is there any benefit in listening to them? Well, the benefit is that it gives us direct contact with a living teacher, who has a wish for the students to understand. They can explain things in a variety of ways and, if you have questions, you’re able to ask, unlike with a book.
The disadvantage with listening is that if you lose attention, you can’t just skip back a page or rewind. It’s embarrassing to ask, if you’re in a large group, for the teacher to go back and repeat just because you weren’t listening. You might be sitting in the back and not able to hear so well. The room might be really hot and you get sleepy. So there are disadvantages. But it means you need to put in more effort, which is a quality that needs to be cultivated in the Buddhist teachings. Learning and practicing Buddhism is not at all a passive method.
The instructions for a teacher are actually that you shouldn’t make it too easy for the student, that you shouldn’t explain things very clearly the first time. For some people, like me, that’s hard because I like to be very clear. If I followed the instructions of my teacher Serkong Rinpoche, who consciously taught me how to teach when I was his translator, he said, “Don’t explain clearly in the beginning, because what you want is to separate out those who are really interested from those who are there for some other reason. Those who are interested will ask more, and it’s important that the students develop their own strong wish to learn more.”
If, as a student, you complain that a teacher wasn’t clear so you don’t want to go back, you need to examine what the quality of the teacher is. Is the teacher actually unqualified and doesn’t know how to explain clearly? There are many like this. Or is the teacher purposefully not giving you all the details, in order to encourage you to develop perseverance and patience? The whole purpose of listening is for the second step, which is to think about the teachings. It’s much more helpful if the teacher doesn’t give the answer instantly because it makes you think about it first, which will develop the quality of examining the teachings yourself.
Examining the Teachings
It’s so important to examine the teachings and see if they make sense to you. See what you think about it, and then get feedback on your thoughts. This is difficult in a large group and particularly difficult if you only see your teacher once a year. Here I’m talking about what would be ideal. In many Buddhist centers where the teacher is not always there, you need to rely on reading and audio materials, from which we can learn a great deal. We do this not by treating them as a novel or something you’d read on the toilet; you read them in a respectful state of mind. We go through them slowly and think about the points. If you’re in a center without a teacher, you can still read and discuss points together. Some people might have more understanding and provide insight to others. If we are so-called “homeless practitioners,” those of us who do not go to any Buddhist center or who don't feel at home in the ones near us, it can be helpful to join an online Buddhist discussion group if we find one that suits us.
This kind of interaction with others is very helpful, otherwise learning the teachings can just be very intellectual, not referring to real life. We do have to be serious about this. That doesn’t mean we sit there stiffly and never smile, but it means we really get into depth talking about the Dharma. And we can laugh when someone says something funny or makes a mistake.
For some Western people this is quite difficult to do, to be both relaxed and quite serious at the same time. It’s an indication of how you integrate the teachings into your life. After all, one of the basic purposes of it is to make you happier. If we’re still formal like we’re in the army, that’s not a happy state of mind. We’re afraid we won’t be perfect and we’ll make a mistake and get punished or something. That’s not Buddhism!
Upside Down Vase, Dirty Vase, Cracked Vase
So, let's get back to listening. We get advice on how to listen to the teachings, based on avoiding being like a vase. Firstly, we mustn’t be like an upside down vase, because then nothing will go in; we need to have an open mind. We shouldn’t be like a vase with a crack, where everything goes in and then leaks straight out. Finally, we shouldn’t be like a dirty vase, where we have so many preconceptions beforehand that the teachings get completely muddled.
When you listen to the Buddhist teachings, you really have to avoid comparing them with other systems. You might think, “Well in Hinduism it says this, and in Daoism it says that.” One of my teachers used to say, “If you try to compare two things, neither of which you really understand, it will make no sense. You’ll just be left with confusion.” If you have a thorough understanding of two systems, then you can make a worthwhile comparison. If, however, you don’t understand the Buddhist teachings, then first off you should put aside thoughts of “Is it like this or is it like that” and actually just listen to the teachings by themselves. Otherwise you’ll mix in your preconceptions, which not only might be wrong, but also irrelevant.
When the advice says not to be like a vase with a crack, that refers to not remembering what we’ve learned. Many people find it helpful to take notes, but then it’s good to look at these notes afterwards if you take them. In any case, unless we have a really good memory, it’s a good idea to note down the essential points.
It’s interesting to look at the psychology in the West, where unless we’re going to have an exam, we usually don’t make an effort to learn something. We learn in order to pass the exam and if we can cheat, then why not? Well, that doesn’t work here. There’s no exam or good grade or approval of the teacher. The whole point is that we’re trying to improve ourselves, and anything that Buddha taught – if we really have confidence in him – was for the benefit of others. There’s no competition with others, we only need to think of the teachings in terms of ourselves. We don’t think, “That person has anger, I don’t.” The mirror of the Dharma should face yourself, not outside.
The Analogy with Medicine
Another instruction about how to listen to teachings is to regard ourselves as a sick person, Buddha and the teachers as doctors, and the Buddha’s teachings as the medicine. We can also see highly realized people as being like nurses who aid us. In even simpler words, we enter into the practice of Buddhism with a recognition of “I have problems.” We have a sickness, which might be my selfishness or anger, or whatever it might be, and we want to get cured of it. Buddha is the supreme doctor and I’m going to get this amazing medicine and not just forget about it, but I will take it according to the instructions. I’ll try not to miss a day, and I’ll most definitely not take the whole bottle at once. Practicing Buddhism is a bit like taking antibiotics! You have to take it at a certain time, to a certain amount. It won’t help much if you stop halfway through or if you skip days. This is one instruction on viewing Buddhism like a medical situation.
Another instruction is that when we receive teachings, we can imagine that we’re in a pure land and the teacher is a Buddha and we’re receiving pure teachings. This doesn’t mean we necessarily have to think that the teacher really is a Buddha, but rather that we have a sense of respect for them and ourselves and the teachings. We’re doing something serious, which doesn’t mean we have to sit there with a sad face, but we can ignore the hot stuffy room and just focus on what we’re being taught with an open mind.
Keeping an Open Mind
Buddha said very strongly that we should examine the teachings as if we were buying gold. We shouldn’t just believe anything because we have faith in him. To do this means we need an open mind, as well as a presumption that the Buddha wouldn’t simply teach something stupid for the fun of it. With such a mind, then we can examine the teachings to see what they mean. Then we can adopt what we find true and beneficial. I’ll give an example of presumption, with past and future lives.
I was raised in a typical Western fashion and certainly had no belief in past and future lives when I first started studying Buddhism. It’s alien to most people’s way of thinking in the West; if they think of an afterlife, it’s most likely in the Christian heaven or hell style place. But then thinking of everyone as having been my mother in a previous life is all in the teachings, so you can’t just throw it out the window.
The way I approached this at the beginning was to think, “Well, I’ll assume this idea of rebirth is correct, even if I don’t understand it now. I’m not going to make excuses about it or slide it under the carpet, but take my time to try and understand it.” Over time, I came to see that everything built on the basis of rebirth is actually beneficial and is correct, and so maybe the idea of rebirth itself might be true.
You actually realize, later on, that when you don’t even know what the Buddha’s teachings are concerning what it is that is reborn, then you can’t understand rebirth. You need to get to that deeper level, and from there, the hell and ghost realms and so on start to make sense. And if we don’t understand the nature of the mind, then none of it will make any sense. So it’s important not to reject part of the teachings immediately because we don’t understand or it seems just too strange. This is what it means to have an open mind and to have this discriminating awareness that: “Yes, this is what Buddha taught. Buddha taught about rebirth. Sorry, I may not like it, but there it is, and I’m going to have to deal with it if I want to go deeper in Buddhism.”