What’s the Point of Studying Buddhism?

When we talk about meditation in a Buddhist context, we’re talking about something rather specific. Nowadays, we often hear the word “meditation” in all sorts of places, because it has quite a good reputation and many people are using it as an aid to relaxation and so on. However, when it actually comes to practicing meditation, most people often have no idea what to do. There is this idea that we need to sit down and be quiet: but then what? Is there more than just focusing on the breath and having kind thoughts?

The term for meditation in Sanskrit has the connotation of making something actually become reality. The Tibetans translated it with a word that means to build up a certain habit. When we build up a habit, we’re making something a part of ourselves, and this is exactly what we’re trying to do with meditation. We want to bring about a change within ourselves that is beneficial. The question we need to ask first is, why would we want to change? Normally it’s because we’re not quite happy with the way we’re leading our lives, or the way we feel, or the way we relate to other people or our work. The list goes on, but the aim most of us have is to improve our lives.

Dealing with Problems Instead of Escaping from Them

This is an important point: that we want to change and improve. It’s not that we want to escape to some fantasy-land through our meditation; there are plenty of other methods, like drugs and alcohol, we could use to do that. We could listen to music all day long so we don’t have to think about anything. Often, when we’re under the influence of such things, our problems don’t seem as strong or as real. But the problems always come back, because we haven’t actually learned to deal with them. Many people use meditation like a drug, but it’s not going to be of great long-lasting help. We might ring bells and bang drums – a bit like Buddhist Disneyland – but it won’t really spur any change within us: it’s just an escape.

However, if we practice meditation in the way intended in the Buddhist tradition, we are not trying to escape our problems, but rather deal with and overcome them. It’s actually very courageous and requires a lot of effort, because it’s not easy. We also need to be prepared that it’s not necessarily going to be fun. We can compare it to physical training, where it’s tough and our muscles get sore, but we’re willing to endure this difficulty in order to get stronger and healthier.

It’s the same when we do meditation, except we’re working on the mind and not the body. There are some forms of Buddhism where you have a combination of meditation with working on the body, like with martial arts, but not in the Tibetan tradition. There’s nothing wrong with training the body, in fact it’s very useful; however, here the main focus is the mind, not just our intellect but our emotions and heart. Great Buddhist masters emphasized that when starting Buddhist practice, the most fundamental thing is to tame the mind, because the way we act, behave and communicate with others is all ruled by our state of mind.

Looking Honestly at Ourselves

We recognize that we have difficulties in our lives, and we see that the source of this is something unsatisfactory within our own minds. If we really, honestly examine ourselves, we find that we have a lot of disturbing emotions, from anger to greed, selfishness, jealousy, attachment, arrogance, naivety, and the list goes on. If we go even deeper, we see that there’s some insecurity and confusion about what life is all about. It often seems that these disturbing emotions dominate our state of mind and cause us to behave, speak with and relate to others in a way that creates problems for us and for them. Even when we’re alone, our minds are often uncomfortable, racing with all sorts of disturbing thoughts. In simple terms, we aren’t really happy.

Meditation is intended to help bring about change to this situation. It’s not in the sense of just taking some drugs so that we don’t think about anything at all. That’s not a solution, even if some people look at meditation like this. They think that if you just sit down, close your eyes and shut everything out, somehow all of their problems will disappear. This doesn’t work. Rather, we need to actively attack our problems.

Finding the Real Enemy

We often find in Buddhist literature very strong language that describes our disturbing emotions as our real enemy. This isn’t making them into some sort of monster, where we become afraid or paranoid. Instead, we recognize that this is what we have to work on. We have very beautiful Buddhist texts that speak to these troublemakers, saying, “I’ve had enough of you, causing me all these problems and troubles. Now your time is over.” So we roll up our sleeves, and we sit down and try to change our minds. This is what meditation is really all about.

Meditation, simply put, is a method whereby we train ourselves in building up beneficial habits, and changing our bad ones. These are the habits of the way we think, the way we feel, and the way we respond emotionally to things. This requires training, and repetition – it’s a scientific method. Just as when we train ourselves in athletics, or playing a musical instrument, or dancing, in the beginning it feels quite artificial. But after we become familiar with something, it becomes very natural to us. The same thing is true with what we do with our minds and emotions and feelings.

Is Change Possible?

Now, a big question comes up. Can we really change? Actually, to work on changing ourselves, we first need to become convinced that it is indeed possible. We often see people who say, “This is the way I am and that’s it; I can’t do anything to change it so I just have to live with it,” or “I’m an angry person, I have a bad temper and this is the way I am.” If we identify so strongly with something, then naturally it’ll be difficult to change.

We need to look at ourselves honestly. Why do we identify with certain things? If we really were an angry person, then shouldn’t we be angry all the time? We might also come to blame others: I’m angry because my mother and father did this or that. This isn’t really helpful. If we look deeper, we can try to find where the emotions actually come from. Even if we say to ourselves every day, “Don’t be angry, don’t be greedy, don’t be selfish,” it’s very hard to actually stop, isn’t it? So we have to look for a method that allows us to change the way we feel emotionally.

Our Attitude Affects Everything

Buddhism says that what underlies our emotional state is what we can call our “attitude.” This means the way we view things. Let’s imagine we lose our job. We can look at this as being a disaster, and then we feel angry and depressed. Why? Because at the time we think it’s the worst thing that could happen in the world.

We’ve lost our job – that’s a fact. We can’t change that. What we can change is the way we regard the loss of that job, and this is what is meant by attitude. So we could try to see it differently – we now can spend more time with our kids, or think about changing occupations. Ok, it might not help us economically, but at least we don’t feel as bad about it. So this is what we can focus on in meditation – on how we regard things, because this is what influences the way we feel.

My closest friend died last week. It’s sad. I do feel sad about it – that’s healthy; there’s nothing wrong with that. Of course, I’m not happy that he died! But how can I work with my state of mind here? A week before he died, I had a feeling that I should call him, but I never got round to doing it. He was perfectly fine, went to take a shower, had a heart attack and just dropped dead in the shower. It was completely unexpected, and very sudden. Of course, I could feel tremendous regret that I didn’t speak to him when I thought about it a week earlier, or I could get quite angry with myself, thinking of all the things I would have wanted to say to him if I knew he was going to die. Thinking like that would have resulted in my feeling much, much worse.

Instead, I remembered all the happy times that we had together, and how many fantastic things we shared – we had been friends for 35 years – and how privileged I was to have known very closely such a wonderful person. He was probably the most sincere and authentic Dharma practitioner of any Westerner that I’ve known. I regard him as a great inspiration for me to carry on even more strongly with my own practice. Just as he looked after his wife, I knew that he would feel very comforted if he knew that I was doing that now, and so I have been.

This is the result of meditation. You don’t gain supernatural powers or anything exotic. What you get is that when you face a difficult situation, and you find yourself getting into a negative, unhappy state of mind, first of all you have enough understanding to know that if you carry on like that, it’s just going to make things worse. We come to understand better ways of understanding these difficult situations, and with enough training, we’re able to totally change the way we look at things. We still might feel sadness, like I did when I lost my friend, but we’re able to incorporate ideas that add a certain happiness, to soften that sadness.

Becoming Convinced of Our Own Potential

So we ask, are we capable of changing the way we view things? And the answer is yes. If you look at what we found so interesting and wonderful as children, they now seem rather silly, stupid and boring. Our attitudes have changed a lot as we’ve grown older. Once we become convinced that it’s also possible to change further, then we have to actually learn some methods to do so. This has three steps:

  • Gaining correct information – we need to learn about what would be a more beneficial habit, which comes from hearing, reading or learning about it. This step doesn’t mean we necessarily understand it, but that we can discriminate that it is a Buddhist method.
  • Contemplating its meaning – we need to consider the information we’ve gained, think about and analyze it from different angles, so that we can understand it. We have to come to a realization that what we’re looking at is true, not just some garbage. We also need to become convinced that it’s of benefit to us, and that we’ll be able to incorporate it into our lives.
  • Meditating – now we’re ready to meditate in order to build up what we’ve learned and understood into a more beneficial habit.

Correct Information and Contemplation

Getting correct information is not as easy as we think. There are so many people who claim to teach authentic Buddhist methods; but just because someone writes a book and gets it published, doesn’t mean that the content of the book is correct. And just because a teacher may be very popular or charismatic, doesn’t mean that what they teach is correct. Hitler was very charismatic and very popular, but what he taught was obviously not correct.

Thus, in Buddhism it’s emphasized that we use our intelligence. What differentiates us from animals? An animal can be trained to do many things, but what we have over them is intellect. We’re able to discriminate between what’s helpful and what’s not. Even if we don’t understand something at first, we can use our intelligence to work things out, which is exactly what we need to do when we listen to or read teachings.

Everything the Buddha taught has the intention of benefiting others. But we can still check for ourselves, whether the things he taught are beneficial or not. For this, we also need to look at the long-term effects, because the short-term ones might not be so pleasant. It’s like some medical treatments, which aren’t pleasant at all to go through, but the long-term benefit is there, like chemotherapy for cancer.

If we haven’t done the above, of examining the teaching and relating it to our lives and our own experience, then how can we really meditate on it? It’s like buying something without thinking of whether we need or want something, and if it’s actually any good.

Formal Meditation

Of course, the process of thinking about the teachings is very beneficial, and some people might already call this a form of meditation. But what we can more formally call “meditation” is a process by which we integrate this more beneficial state of mind into our way of being, our ordinary lives. This itself entails two steps:

  • Discerning meditation – this first phase is often called “analytical meditation” and it’s where we focus on something with an improved attitude, discerning all the details and supporting factors in detail.
  • Stabilizing meditation – the second phase is where we no longer actively discern all the details, but just focus in a more compressed manner on our object with just the main conclusion of our analysis as our attitude toward it.

Many people, when starting meditation, learn to focus on the breath. We quiet down our minds, and focus upon the breath going in and out. It sounds simplistic but is actually incredibly difficult to do. What are we trying to do when we focus upon the breath? First of all, we’re trying to quiet the voice in our heads that plays all sorts of disturbing emotions and feelings to us. This is like getting rid of the static in the background. But at the same time, we could focus on the breath with some understanding of it that we’ve heard about, contemplated and understood. Here’s where discerning and stabilizing meditation comes in. For instance, we could regard the breath as an illustration of impermanence: it’s changing all the time. Or we could look at the fact that there’s no separate “me” from the breath – after all, who is breathing? But such analysis could make it a bit too complicated for beginners.

A better place to start would be to, again, look at ourselves. We’re always under such a great deal of pressure, from our work, families, society in general – and thus our minds are always racing with worries and troublesome thoughts. It’s difficult to relax! So for us, it would be very beneficial to simply be able to be more relaxed and feel more grounded. Although this doesn’t ultimately solve our problems, it’s a constructive first step. By focusing on our breath, we can come into contact with the reality of our bodies – “I am alive!” Breath is a good indication of that, because it goes on and on until we die. No matter how difficult life may be, the breath is always there. If we can become more aware of that, it helps us to understand that life is continuing; that no matter what, life goes on. Even this is helpful, like when my friend died, because I understand that, well, life goes on.

So we have this information, we’ve thought about it and understand it, and become convinced that it makes sense. Would it be beneficial to be able to see that life goes on, and to be more connected with my body and not totally lost in my frightened and depressed thoughts? Yes, it would be beneficial. Am I capable of being focused and aware of my breath? Yes, even if we just pause our other activity for one or two seconds, we can notice our breath: it’s always there. Thus, we don’t even need to have a very deep or sophisticated level of understanding. Of course, the deeper it is, the better, but it’s enough for the start.

The Meditation Process

We come to an understanding of focusing on the breath when we have two mental factors, which are mental states that accompany our focus:

  • Gross detection – noting something on a rough level
  • Subtle discernment – understanding something on a very detailed level.

The traditional example used to describe the difference between these two mental states is looking at a painting. With gross detection, we would notice that it’s a painting, perhaps of some people. In knowing this, the mind doesn’t even seem to be saying this, it just knows by looking. This is what we would call “understanding” in very general language. With subtle discernment, we would look at the painting in more detail and understand that it’s a picture of this or that person with certain features.

This is what we do while focusing on the breath. We detect and understand that the breath is something that goes on all the time, and we discern the detail that it goes in and out of the nose. No matter what happens, it will continue as long as I’m alive, so in that sense it is steady, secure and dependable. This is why we call it “discerning meditation” because it’s something we actively notice. We’re not analyzing it, but just viewing and understanding it from a certain viewpoint in a certain way.

The second step, stabilizing meditation, is where we don’t have to actively discern in this way, we just know it. This is quite a different state of mind between actively understanding something and just knowing it. We meditate, and the result of it is that we are much more grounded and feel much more stable and secure. This comes about if we practice – over and over again, and preferably every day.

Applying Our Practice in Daily Life

Especially, we try to remember this practice when we’re feeling particularly upset. Of course it’s difficult, and we’ve used the analogy of physical training before, but eventually the understanding becomes so deeply engrained in us that we know it all the time. We always know that life goes on, and on a very deep level, whatever happens, there’s no problem. We know this so deeply that it becomes a habit that changes the way we view life. This is the result of meditation. If we forget it, we can always focus on our breath again and remind and refresh ourselves. What we do is to bring about a real change in our states of mind, in terms of how we deal with everyday life. It is not an escape from our problems by going to some fantasy realm, but is rather an active process that we follow in order to be able to improve our mental and emotional states, and ultimately, the situations we find ourselves in.

What we’ve just looked at can also be seen as a very sophisticated method of psychology. It’s fine to see it like this, but we should be careful not to think that this is all that Buddhism is – just another form of psychology. Buddhism is much, much more than this. In Buddhism we aim much further than this – enlightenment, helping everybody – but we do need to go through this very important first step.


It’s so easy to simply try and escape our problems, from listening to music all day or keeping ourselves constantly busy, to getting drunk or taking alcohol to forget everything. These temporary measures never help that much, and the problem itself always reappears. By really contemplating and then meditating on the Dharma, we’re able to totally transform the way we view ourselves, others, and the experiences we go through. While this will never make all of our problems instantly disappear, it enables us to face them head-on with the knowledge that we’re strong enough to deal with them.