Seven points on meditation

Published in Buddhism Today Volume 1 & 2, 1996

The purpose of meditation is to realize the true nature of mind, the achievement of Buddhahood. Mind is the basis for both our present experiences of conditioned existence and of enlightenment. Enlightenment is realizing mind’s true nature, whereas ordinary life is unaware of this nature.

How should we understand everything to be an appearance of mind? Presently we experience confused states of mind which result in disturbing emotions such as anger, attachment, stupidity, jealousy and pride. The true nature of mind is unaffected by disturbing emotions. When we experience disturbing emotions, we tend to act them out. These actions create imprints in our mind, like habits or tendencies to experience the world in a particular way. When such a tendency later is activated, it creates the appearance of an illusory world.

Even a tiny imprint in the mind can create a lifetime of illusion. The world we experience now is based on such created by former actions. This is how mind perpetuates illusion. There is no limit to how many imprints can be stored in our mind, each of which will continue to create illusion. Conditioned existence, or the world as we experience it now, is therefore without beginning or end. In this way, everything we experience is a product of our mind.

The point of meditation is to provide skillful means for removing this illusion. When we can eliminate ignorance in one moment, then naturally all of the endless imprints of karma will fall away by themselves.

Different Buddhist lineages emphasize different kinds of meditation. In the Kagyu tradition, it is Mahamudra. In the Nyingmapa tradition the main practice is Maha Ati (Tibetan: Dzogchen). In the Gelugpa and Sakyapa traditions, the practice of yidam (deity) visualization involves a completion phase of dissolving the wisdom aspect of the yidam into oneself. This is a style of insight meditation, similar to Mahamudra. In the Theravada tradition, the first practice is to rest the mind on the breathing or on a statue of the Buddha, after which is the main practice of contemplation on egolessness.

All of these different kinds of meditation can be summarized into two general categories. The first is resting meditation. In Sanskrit this is called shamatha (Tibetan: shi’nay). The second is insight meditation, or in Sanskrit, Vipashyana (Tibetan: Ihagthong). So all Buddhist meditation practices can be grouped into resting and insight, or shamatha and vipashyana. What follows is the general presentation of shamatha and vipashyana, which are explained in seven points.

One : The Conditions for Practicing Meditation

The first point is the outer condition – the basis for practicing shamatha and vipashyana. This is to have a proper place to meditate, a place without obstacles. For example, in some places people are prejudiced against meditators, which can create problems. The best place for meditation is one that is blessed by great meditators of the past. We also need certain inner conditions to meditate properly. The first quality is to not be too attached to outer sense objects and not so concerned about getting what we want. We simply should have few desires.

The second quality is to be satisfied or content with the situation we have. How to encourage these two qualities can be illustrated by how parents talk to their children about meditation. If the parents are good practitioners, they will encourage their children by saying, “Try not to be too ambitious. Don’t strive too much for outer things. Be content and be satisfied with what you have. In this way you will be able to practice meditation. Otherwise you’ll be wasting your time.” Parents who do not practice meditation give the opposite advice: “You should strive very hard and be very ambitious. You should try to become very rich and get ahead. Acquire property and hold on to it. Otherwise you’ll be wasting your time.” So we can see here how to encourage these qualities properly.

The third quality is not to be involved in too many activities or responsibilities. If we are too busy, then we will not be able to practice meditation.

The fourth quality is to have good conduct. This means that we avoid negative actions which bring harm to others. All Buddhist vows are concerned with avoiding actions that produce negative karma. There are different kinds of vows, those of a layperson, a novice monk, a fully ordained monk, and a Bodhisattva. When lay people practice meditation, it is good to have taken the five-layperson vows, which in Sanskrit are called the upasaka vows. These are to avoid killing, stealing, lying, harming others sexually, and drinking alcohol and taking drugs.

Since our main practice is the Bodhisattva path, it is important to take the Bodhisattva Vow, which can be practiced as a layperson. Monks and nuns also take the Bodhisattva Vow. Both lay and monastic practitioners can combine the practice of a Bodhisattva with the upasaka vows. For example, Marpa the translator was a lay Bodhisattva, whereas the Indian master Nagarjuna was a monk Bodhisattva. Both were enlightened.

Now we will discuss the requirements for practicing vipashyana. It is essential to follow and rely on a proper teacher, someone who can explain the teachings correctly. In the Theravada tradition a teacher must be able to explain meditation on selflessness from his own experience. In the Mahayana tradition a teacher must have an understanding of emptiness–the Madhyamaka or Middle Way teachings-and be able to explain it clearly.

The second quality for practicing vipashyana is to properly analyze the teachings we have received. If we have received Mahayana teachings on emptiness, then we should study different commentaries and receive instructions from our teacher on how to understand them. We then need to analyze and contemplate these teachings and instructions, which will greatly benefit our vipashyana practice.