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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Introduction to Buddhism > Main Points Concerning Meditation > Session One: Main Features of Meditation

Main Points Concerning Meditation

Alexander Berzin
Kiev, Ukraine, September 2011

Session One: Main Features of Meditation

Unedited Transcript
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This afternoon I’m going to speak about some main points concerning meditation. And meditation is something which is found in many traditions, not just Buddhism, but I’d like to speak about it the way that it’s presented in Buddhism (but many of the aspects of it are found certainly in all Indian traditions).

What Is Meditation?

The word meditation (sgom, Skt. bhavana) means “to habituate ourselves,” so that implies building up a beneficial habit, and that’s really what the Tibetan word connotes. The Sanskrit word has more the connotation of “making something actually happen.” So we have a certain type of beneficial state of mind or attitude, and we want to make that happen (in other words, actually make that occur within our way of thinking and living). And depending on the different traditions in which meditation is used, they will specify what the beneficial habits are and what the aim is for actualizing them. The process, however, is something which is threefold, which are known as hearing or listening, then thinking and then actually meditating.

Listening to the Teachings

So let’s say that we want to build up, as a beneficial habit, compassion. Now, in order to develop compassion, or more compassion, first we need to listen to some teachings on it. Now, in ancient India none of these teachings were actually written down. They were all passed on orally. So you had to hear it, to listen, and this is why this step is known as listening. Nowadays of course we could read about various teachings – we don’t have to actually hear somebody speak about them – but the principle behind this is quite relevant, I think. You see, in ancient times everything had to be memorized, and how do you know that what somebody recites is accurate, is correct? They might not have remembered correctly. Some mistakes might have come in. This is a real problem.

And so what we want to develop here, as a result of proper listening, is what is called the discriminating awareness that arises from listening (thos-pa-las byung-ba’i shes-rab). Discriminating awareness (shes-rab): this is the term that often people translate as wisdom, but using the word wisdom – it’s much too vague; it doesn’t really have a precise meaning. So if we just hear the word wisdom, everybody’s going to have a different idea of what that actually means, and so it doesn’t help us to really understand anything very precisely.

So what is this discriminating awareness? It is based on a prior mental factor, and that mental factor – I translate it as distinguishing (’du-shes). Most people translate this as recognition, but recognition also is not precise here. Recognize means that you have to have known it beforehand, doesn’t it, and then you recognize it again, so this isn’t quite what we’re talking about here. Distinguish means to distinguish this from that – there are certain characteristic features, defining marks, that we can distinguish with something that it’s this and it’s not that. Like the most simple example is that an infant can distinguish between light and dark or hungry and not hungry. They don’t have to have words for it, do they? And they don’t really even have to understand very much what it is, but they can distinguish the difference between these two.

Now, discriminating awareness adds a factor of certainty to that distinguishing: “It’s definitely this and not that.” So this is what we need when we either listen to teachings or we read about them. “This is the actual teaching. It’s not what would be not the teaching.” Now, that’s very difficult, actually, to know, because although of course we could talk about actual scriptures, these are not so easy to understand by themselves. So normally we have to rely on a book or a teacher that explains them. They have to explain what is compassion. So how do you know that that teacher is a reliable teacher, authentic? Somebody could be teaching about Buddhism, or teaching about love and compassion, and that’s not at all really what Buddhism says. So we need to be very certain – this discriminating awareness – that “This is exactly correct. This is the teaching.”

Now, within the teachings, of course, there are certain things that need to be consistent if it’s going to be a Buddhist teaching. The author or the teacher needs to be somebody that we can check up and investigate is this a proper teacher or not. And we need to ask other people, for example: “Does this teacher have his own teacher? What is the relation between that person and their teacher? Do they have a lineage?” and so on. These are important questions to investigate, not to just pick up any book and, just because it’s by somebody with a big name, think that this is reliable.

Now, there also is a context for each of these teachings, and so there could be the same words, but in different Buddhist systems they have different explanations. And so again we need to be certain what system are we talking about. You can use the example just with simple words: You hear the word Bon. Well, it’s pronounced “pön” in Tibetan, but Western people pronounce it “bon,” and this is the name of the pre-Buddhist tradition in Tibet. But in French, bon means “good.” And so we have to know what language are you talking about. Are you talking about bon in French or are you talking about it in Tibetan? Just to go by the words, without knowing what language it’s in, you can get very confused.

So, similarly, if we talk about, for instance, the teachings on voidness, that’s explained in one Indian Buddhist school one way and another Indian Buddhist school another way. And even one particular Indian Buddhist school of philosophy will be understood in very different ways by each of the different Tibetan schools of Buddhism. I think this is one of the most confusing aspects for us Westerners studying Buddhism. It’s confusing enough that now, especially with the internet, we have access to all the different Asian traditions of Buddhism. That’s confusing enough. But even within one country, let’s say Tibet, there are so many variations and different interpretations. So you have to understand: “OK, if we’re talking about karma, it’s not the Theravada explanation of karma. I’m learning about the Indian Buddhist one.” That’s even more confusing. Within Indian Buddhism, the Vaibhashika point of view or the Chittamatra point of view? (These are different Buddhist schools.) You have to know which one, because their explanations of karma – the same word – are completely different.

One of my teachers pointed out something very, very insightful about Western people. He said that “You Western people are always trying to compare two things, neither of which you understand very well, and in the end you’re just left with more confusion.” It’s all right to compare different systems, but only on the basis of knowing one system very well. Then once you know that system very well, then you could look at other systems and appreciate what the differences are.

So if we want to meditate about karma, if we want to meditate about voidness, or any of these sort of things, we need to develop this discriminating awareness from hearing – that this teaching that I’m receiving on it is this particular explanation of it, and I’m not mixing it together with other explanations of it – otherwise we’re just completely confused. In other words, we need to isolate this particular version from all the other versions.

OK, so we have the discriminating awareness that arises from hearing: “These are the actual teachings. These are the words of one system. This is the way it is. OK, now I’m going to work with it.”

Thinking about What We’ve Heard

Then the next thing comes from thinking (bsam-pa-las byung-ba’i shes-rab, discriminating awareness that arises from thinking). So what does thinking (bsam-pa) mean? Thinking means to try to understand the meaning of something. When we work with understanding something – actually, when you think about it, how do you define the word understand (rtogs-pa, apprehend)? What do you mean by understanding something? It’s a very interesting question, isn’t it? “I understand something.” What do you understand? What does it mean that you understand? So here we have a very nice definition: it’s an accurate and decisive knowing of something.

Now, hearing also could have this word understand going with it but just, I think, a little bit different from the way that we would use the word understand. But the word is applied to hearing something as well.

I find this really very, very interesting, how so many of these words that are used to describe what’s going on with mental activity, with the mind, have quite different meanings from the words that we use in our Western languages. And this is why it’s very helpful to have studied the Asian languages, and to have studied the meanings of the words within the Asian languages, not just what it says in the dictionary, but actually work with a language, learn the definitions and so on, because then you get a very powerful analytical tool for understanding, for instance here, the Buddhist teachings.

So “I understood the words that you said.” In Tibetan you would use that, you would say that. So “I understood the words you said. I might not know what they mean (that’s another process), but I understood correctly that you said this and this and this and this.” So that needs to be accurate – “Maybe I heard something different. Did you really say that?” So we have to check up. Did other people hear the same thing? And we have to be sure that you said that – “Oh, maybe they said that, maybe they didn’t say that. Do I remember correctly?” So you check up. There’s a recording, so you play it again. “Oh yeah, that was what they said.” But maybe the recording wasn’t so clear, so maybe somebody else could hear what the words were. “I couldn’t really make it out.” Now, that’s actually very important when often we’re relying on recordings of teachings. The recording might not be so clear, and so did I really hear it correctly? Let alone the whole process of remembering what we heard, because most of us don’t memorize, do we? OK, so with this discriminating awareness from hearing, then, we have understood what the words were correctly and decisively.

Now, thinking, this second process, means to understand the meaning of the words, and that’s of course absolutely necessary. If we’re going to build up something as a beneficial habit, we have to know not just the words but the meaning of the words. As in the example of reciting something in Tibetan that you have no idea what it actually means – so how can you actually build up something as a beneficial habit if you don’t even know what the words mean? You’ll find that many Tibetan Buddhist teachers recommend reciting things (prayers and various practices) in Tibetan, and although of course there are benefits of participating in a centuries-old ritual, feeling that you belong to a tradition – and people from all different countries and language backgrounds can all be chanting and reciting the same thing if they’re all doing it in Tibetan (so that’s a benefit) – but it doesn’t help us to build up a beneficial habit of what the words are saying.

So we need to understand the meaning, and the meaning – again, for understanding, it needs to be accurate and decisive. So that means isolating (cutting off) what something means from what it doesn’t mean, and we do this through a process usually of analysis, logic, and so on – lines of reasoning – in order to get a decisive understanding: what it actually is, what it means. That gets into a very difficult topic of how do we really become convinced of something. You know, there are some people that even if you present a logical argument to them, they still don’t believe it. That’s very, very difficult, isn’t it, actually, because we don’t want to believe it, very often.

I’ll give an example of impermanence. Anything that is created or produced newly depending on causes and conditions eventually is going to end. Whether we’re talking about a computer or a car or our body or a relationship with somebody, it was produced depending on causes and conditions, and because those causes and conditions aren’t renewed every single moment, then the product that was produced is going to eventually fall apart. And when we think of examples of something that I bought and then eventually it broke – this flower or this fruit decayed and so on – can I think of any exception to the rule, of something that never broke, that lasted forever, that was actually produced or manufactured or came about? Well, no. So if it came about newly – it didn’t exist before – and now it’s produced, then it has to fall apart. Why? Because it’s supported by the causes and conditions that brought it about. You take away those causes and conditions, because they’re going to change, and what was produced from it no longer has that support, so sure it’s going to fall apart.

We met somebody. We developed a relationship. Well, I was at a certain age, the other person was a certain age, this was happening in my life, that was happening in the other person’s life, this is what was happening in society – all these things supported developing that relationship. But those conditions don’t last; they’re constantly changing – we’re getting older, different things are happening in our lives, and even if we stay together for a very long time, one of us is going to die (usually will die before the other one). So it can’t last forever, but we don’t want to accept this fact.

We buy a computer, and it should last forever and never crash. Why did it crash? It crashed because it was built. All right? Whatever actually occurred at the time that it crashed or it broke – that was just the condition. The real cause for breaking is that it was built. That’s like saying, “What is the reason for this person’s death? The reason for their death was their birth.” You know the definition of life? (Here’s a joke, by the way.) It is a sexually transmitted disease with 0% survival rate. Unfortunately that’s true.

So even though we could have the logic of something when we’re thinking about it, like trying to understand impermanence – as I say, there’s often a great deal of resistance, that we don’t want to accept that this is really true: “It can’t be. Come on!” This type of attitude. That’s why we have to go over the logic again and again and really work with it. This gets into meditating.

So with the thinking process, we at least are going to have what I would call an “understanding” – what’s called the “discriminating awareness that comes from thinking” – with which we’re distinguishing what is the correct meaning of the words, and we are decisive about that. In other words, we’ve gone through the logic and we have excluded what it doesn’t mean. “It doesn’t mean that maybe it will break. It means it definitely will break at some point. So don’t be surprised when it breaks. What did I expect?”

And we need to be convinced not only of what it means, but you have to be convinced that it’s true. As I said in terms of impermanence: we might understand the meaning, but is it really true or not? That’s why I was saying, “Are you really convinced?” But the more that we think about it and we can’t find any exception to the rule, then, for example, “I’m going to die.” “Everybody who was born has died. There’s no example that I can think of, of somebody who was born that didn’t die. Therefore, is there any reason why I’m not going to die? No, there isn’t.” I mean, obviously if we are convinced that at some point we are going to die, then we will try to make this life that we have as meaningful as possible. Often people only when they have a near-death experience do they then realize, “Hey, I’m still alive, and I want to make this time meaningful.” But we don’t need to wait for a near-death experience.

So, through thinking, we understand the meaning correctly and accurately. We are convinced that it is true. And the third thing is that we have to be convinced that “This would be beneficial for me to really absorb and make it part of the way that I function in life.”

So all of that is part of developing this discriminating awareness that comes from thinking. It’s a very, very important process and takes quite a lot of time. So often when we say that we’re meditating, actually what we need to do is to sit there and really think about something very deeply, because to just meditate on impermanence or voidness or compassion – basically you’re doing nothing. You’re just sort of sitting there and “I don’t know really what to do,” this type of thing. That’s not helpful.

Three Types of Meditation

OK. Now meditation comes next, and here we want the discriminating awareness that arises from meditation (sgom-pa-las byung-ba’i shes-rab). Now, what are we doing? How do we develop this? What we are doing is accustoming ourselves to a certain state of mind. There are many different types of meditation. Let me just mention the three most usual types.

Focusing on an Object

The first type is focusing on an object. So we could focus on any sort of object, and what we are trying to develop is concentration on that object. So whether it is focusing on the sensation of the breath going in and out, or focusing on a visualized Buddha, or focusing on the nature of the mind, it’s still focusing on an object. (Those, by the way, are the three most commonly used objects for developing concentration.) Or we could focus on an object and try to discern it in a certain way, like for instance as being impermanent, for it to really sink in that this is impermanent. That’s very, very helpful, by the way.

The examples that I think of that are very useful are, for instance: You’re in a situation in which you have a friendship or a relation with somebody, and they don’t call you or they’re not there and so on, and we’re very upset. So what we need to understand, be convinced of that this is correct, is that “I am not the only person in my friend’s life. There are other people in this person’s life besides me. Therefore it is totally unreasonable for me to expect that this person is going to give me exclusively their time and not going to give their time to anybody else.” We’re working here with a fantasized projection of what’s impossible, that “I’m the only person in this one’s life.” And so what we try to do is focus on this person when we’re so upset that they’re not spending time with us and try to discern them, understand them, in terms of “They have other people and other things going on in their life besides me.”

So when we’re talking about meditation, we’re not talking about some sort of mystical, magic thing – that we’re going off into some fantasy land. These are very practical methods for dealing with suffering, with difficulties, problems that we have in life.

That’s the first type of meditation, focusing on an object in a certain way, either with just concentration or with some sort of understanding.

Generating a State of Mind

The second type is meditation to generate our mind into a certain state, like to generate love or to generate compassion. So the emphasis here is not the object on which we are aiming this love or compassion. The emphasis here is to develop this emotion or feeling.

Generating an Aspiration

And the third type is to generate an aspiration, to focus on something, like our own enlightenment that hasn’t happened yet, with the aspiration that “I’m going to reach it. I’m going to attain it.” You know, when we are meditating on bodhichitta, what we’re focusing on is not enlightenment in general, not the Buddha’s enlightenment; we’re focusing on our own enlightenment. But it hasn’t happened yet, but it can happen – we’re convinced that it can happen – on the basis of Buddha-nature and an awful lot of hard work. So we’re aiming for that. That’s an aspiration. That’s the third type of meditation.

So all of these, these three types of meditation, are developing beneficial habits that then we want to bring into our life. It’s very important that meditation not be some sort of side activity that has no relation to our lives. Meditation is not some sort of escape. It’s not a game. It’s not a hobby. It’s a method to help us to develop qualities that we want to bring to our life, use in our daily life. So using these examples that I mentioned for these three types of meditation:

We want to be able to have concentration in our life – not only concentrate on our work, for example, but when we’re having a conversation with somebody, concentrate on that person and what they’re saying and not have our mind thinking about all sorts of other things. And just take in what they’re saying without any mental comments going on, judging what they said: “Oh boy, that’s stupid,” and “I wish they would shut up already,” and so on. Quiet all of that. This is what we learn through concentration meditation, to be able to do that.

And love and compassion, something that we want to bring into daily life, the wish that everybody be happy, and that means everybody – everybody on the bus, everybody on the metro, everybody in the traffic, everybody in the store, all the insects, everybody. So that means developing respect for everybody. Everybody wants to be happy, doesn’t want to be unhappy. Everybody has an equal right to that, including the fly. And this aspiration we carry throughout our life, that “I’m working toward a goal. I’m working toward overcoming my shortcomings. I’m working toward developing good qualities. I’m working toward liberation and enlightenment.” That is throughout our whole life, not just the short time that we’re sitting on a cushion.

Discerning Meditation and Stabilizing Meditation

Now, within these types of meditation, there are again two other types, if we take a different type of variable, another type of division. One is usually called analytical meditation (dpyad-sgom). I prefer to call it “discerning meditation.” And the second is stabilizing meditation (’jog-sgom).

So discerning means that, for instance, we have gone through a process of building up a certain state of mind in the thinking process, the second step, the second stage. Like for those of you who are familiar with the Buddhist teachings, we build ourselves up to actually feeling love and compassion in two general ways. Both of them start with equanimity toward everybody. [And then one of the ways is recognizing everybody at some point] in past lives has been my mother and has shown me a tremendous amount of kindness, even if it was just the kindness not to have an abortion. And then we develop a great sense of appreciation of this kindness. So we’re really grateful, and that naturally gives us a sense that we would like to be of help to them as well. And then this develops into what’s called heartwarming love (yid-’ong byams-pa) – that when we think about them, we develop this very warm affectionate feeling in our hearts. And then comes love: the wish for them to be happy, to have the causes for happiness. And from that, compassion: and may they be free from suffering and the causes for suffering.

OK, so we have these steps, you know, and you have gone through that in the thinking process in order to really understand what does love mean, and to understand that it is an appropriate attitude and feeling to have toward everybody, and “This would be very beneficial for me to develop in terms of how I relate to everybody.” And now, in meditation, we want to integrate this, make this a beneficial habit, really habituate ourselves to this so that it comes naturally. In the beginning you’re going to have to force it – it’s artificial – that’s OK. It’s like learning to play a musical instrument. In the beginning it is forced, it’s not natural, but with enough practice it comes automatically. (Or physical training, same thing.) So this is the same type of process in terms of practicing love and compassion. You practice. You practice the piano in order to be able to play the piano. So you practice love in a meditation session so that you can actually have love all the time.

So with discerning meditation, now what we do is we go through the same sort of... either line of reasoning or stages for developing love and compassion. And then discern means – once we’ve built up to this state of mind – to focus on the object and to discern them, to see them, to understand them in that way, perceive them in that way. So that is what’s normally called “analytical meditation,” but it’s not just the analysis; it is staying with the result of the analysis. And we’re not going through the analysis in order to gain understanding, because that’s what you do in thinking. You go through the analysis in order to be able to build up that state of mind again more easily.

And then stabilizing meditation is that you let it sink in. His Holiness the Dalai Lama explained this very well, the difference between these two. He explained it in terms of the energy of your mental activity. So very, very delicate, very refined. With this discerning meditation, the energy is going out, so the way that we are focusing the energy is going out in terms of discerning something in all its detail. And with stabilizing meditation the energy is coming in, so it’s getting more and more focused. It’s not that it is widespread. It is more focused. So it’s very sophisticated to be able to distinguish the difference between discerning someone with love – the energy, in a sense, going out in all its detail – and stabilizing that love, where the energy now is more concentrated. But this is one of the benefits that comes from quieting the mind. If you are successful, at least to some degree, in quieting all the noise that’s going on in your head, the constant talking, the constant commenting, the constant music – which means not listening to your iPod all the time, but quieting your mind – then you can start to be sensitive to your energy.

[The way] to detect whether or not you’re under the influence of a disturbing emotion – like anger, fear, anxiety, greed, arrogance or trying to show off, and so on – is that your energy is not peaceful. When you’re talking to someone, if you can discern or distinguish that your energy is not very easy (it’s a little bit upset and so on), that is a very good clue that you have some sort of disturbing emotion that’s involved, whether you’re trying to impress the person, you’re trying to sell them something (like yourself: they should like you and so on), there’s some aggression there, all of that is indicated – might not be precisely what is the disturbing thing, but it indicates there’s something disturbing going on if your energy is not calm. And once you are able to distinguish that, that something’s wrong here, then that gives us the opportunity to “reboot” as it were and to change what’s going on in terms of the emotion that is behind it, to get it more pure. Especially in an interchange with somebody, that’s where you really need it.

So, like that, we also eventually become sensitive enough to be able to distinguish in meditation this discerning meditation of love and the stabilizing meditation on love. It’s quite sophisticated actually. It’s always a sophisticated level that His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains things.

Tsongkhapa’s Advice on Developing a Beneficial State of Mind

OK. Now, for all of these types of meditation, Tsongkhapa, the great Tibetan master, explained very, very well what we really need to know in order to be able to develop a beneficial state of mind in order to meditate.

Know What We Are Focusing On

First we need to know what it is that we’re focusing on. Now, let’s take the example of compassion. What are we focusing on? We’re focusing on the suffering of others. So that’s quite different from bodhichitta, in which we’re focusing on our own individual enlightenment which hasn’t happened yet. Some people when they think they’re meditating on bodhichitta actually are only meditating on compassion. They’re not the same.

Know All the Aspects of It

So we have to know what we’re focusing on (the suffering of others) and all the aspects of that object that we’re focusing on. So, as I explained yesterday, the three different types of suffering – unhappiness, ordinary happiness, compulsiveness of karma (of uncontrollably recurring rebirth, actually) – that’s the suffering that we’re focusing on, not just “Ohhhh, suffering. They don’t have a job,” or whatever. I mean, it’s not just something small, then, if we’re going to develop great compassion and focus on the suffering of everybody and all the aspects of suffering of everybody.

Know How Our Mind Is Relating to It

Then we have to know how our mind is relating to that object. So with compassion, the way the mind is focusing on that suffering is with the wish that they be parted from it, that that suffering be gone. So again, very different from bodhichitta. Bodhichitta – we’re focusing on our not-yet-happened enlightenment, and the way that we’re relating to it, the mental activity, is “I’m going to attain it.” So very different, isn’t it? So compassion isn’t “Ohhhhh, how terrible!” I mean, that’s not what we are specifying here. So we have to know exactly. It’s that wish: “May that be gone, their suffering.”

Know What Will Help to Develop It

And then we have to know what will help us to develop this state of mind. Well, it’s supported by having that same exact intention or feeling toward our own suffering. That’s what’s called “renunciation” usually – focusing on our own suffering and the determination to be free of it and to be free of the causes of it, which means being willing to give up the causes of it, what I’m doing that is causing me to be miserable (like getting angry all the time, for example). If we can really develop the determination for myself to be free from suffering, then that will support being able to direct that attitude, that wish, toward others with the same intensity as we would focus it on ourselves.

Know What Is Detrimental to Developing It

And we also need to know what will hinder the development of this state of mind. And what will hinder it is not taking other people seriously and not taking their suffering seriously. So for that we have to think, “Well, everybody wants to be happy. Nobody wants to be unhappy. Nobody is different in that. And everybody has feelings, just as I have feelings. Everybody’s suffering hurts them just as much as my suffering hurts me. They want to be free of their suffering, just as I want to be free of my suffering.” So we develop sensitivity toward others, respect for others. And if we don’t have that, then that would hinder our development of sincere compassion.

Know the Application of It

And then we need to know – Tsongkhapa’s very thorough here – so then he says we have to know, once we develop this state of mind, what will that help us to do. In other words, what is the application? I develop compassion, and then what? What do I do with it? Well, it is going to help me deal with others, going to help me to work for their benefit, and it will really motivate me, push me, to achieving the best that I can – enlightenment – so that I can really help them, because I understand that what prevents me from really being able to help them are my limitations. I really want to overcome my limitations.

Know What It Will Rid Us Of

So that’s the next thing that we need to know, is what this will rid us of. So what compassion will rid me of is the cold-hearted feeling in which I ignore others. It will help me to get rid of my laziness with which I don’t want to help others, and it will help me to overcome the laziness with which I don’t want to work on myself, so that I can help others more.

So if we know all of these things for developing and meditating on compassion, then we can be really very confident that when we’re doing this meditation we’re doing it properly: we know exactly what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, we have prepared properly for it, and so on. Otherwise it’s like jumping into deep water in the swimming pool and not having any idea how to swim. So to just say, “Well, just sit down and meditate,” and you have no idea what you’re doing, chances are you’re not going to figure it out properly.

OK, maybe we need to take a short break, then I’ll explain a little bit more, and then we can have time for questions.