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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Introduction to Buddhism > Main Points Concerning Meditation > Session Two: Preliminaries to Meditating

Main Points Concerning Meditation

Alexander Berzin
Kiev, Ukraine, September 2011

Session Two: Preliminaries to Meditating

Unedited Transcript
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Let’s continue our discussion of meditation.

Conducive Meditation Environment

To actually engage in meditation, we need the conducive circumstances. And there are all sorts of lists of what will be conducive for meditation, and of course these are usually discussed or presented within the context of doing a meditation retreat, whereas most of us are meditating at home.

So even at home, then, what is going to be helpful is to not have distraction. So it should be as quiet as possible. Now, many of us, myself included, live on noisy streets with traffic and so meditating early in the morning or late at night, when the traffic is less heavy, is of course going to be better, and of course without music and without hearing television in the next room. These sort of things are obviously quite important. If it is not possible to really have a quiet environment, then try earplugs. I’m a great fan of earplugs. They don’t necessarily block out all of the noise, but they certainly make it less intense. But even if it’s totally silent, there’s all the noise in our head; that’s much more difficult to stop.

What is quite important is to have the room be clean and neat. If the environment around us is clean and neat, that influences our mind to be clean and neat. If it’s sloppy, messy, dirty, the mind tends to be the same way. Because of that, one of the preliminaries that is always listed for what we need to do before meditation is to clean the meditation room and make some sort of offering, even if it’s just a cup of water. In other words, we want to show respect for what we’re doing, and if we’re thinking in terms of inviting the Buddhas and bodhisattvas and all of that, then of course you would want to invite them to a clean room, not to a messy, dirty one. But even on just a regular normal psychological level, it’s important to have respect for what we’re doing and to treat it as something special. Special doesn’t mean making a big deal out of it, like it has to be a Hollywood set with all the incense and the candles and “I can’t meditate unless I have the right atmosphere” – that’s going to an extreme – but simple, plain, neat, clean, respectful. This is helpful.


As for the meditation posture: if you look at the different Asian cultures, the way that people meditate is different in the Indian-Tibetan tradition, in Chinese and Japanese tradition, in Thai tradition. They all sit in different ways, so you can’t say that one is definitely necessary. The Indians and Tibetans sit cross-legged. Especially the Japanese, and some of the Chinese, put their legs behind. And the Thais sit with their legs to the side. But for tantra practice, in which we are actually working with the energies of the body, then full lotus (rdo-rje skyil-krung) is necessary, but most of us are not at that stage of practice. But if you aspire to be able to do that type of practice, it’s strongly recommended that you start at a very early age to try to sit in the full lotus, because to try doing it later in life is very difficult. So for Western people, if you can sit in any of these traditional Asian postures, very nice – if not, sitting in a chair OK. The important point is that the back be straight.

Directing the Gaze

And I don’t need to go through all the different aspects of what the Indian and Tibetan tradition considers the standard position, but as far as the eyes are concerned – again, depending on the meditation, some meditations are done with the eyes closed, some with the eyes open, some with the eyes just looking down, some with the eyes looking up – it depends on the meditation, but in general the Tibetans discourage meditation with the eyes closed. And aside from the fact that it’s much easier to fall asleep when your eyes are closed, an obvious reason, also it tends to build up the obstacle that “In order to meditate, I have to close my eyes,” and so then it becomes more difficult to integrate what we’re developing in the meditation into real life. If I’m with somebody and in order to generate a feeling of love I have to close my eyes, that’s pretty weird, isn’t it? So generally in the Tibetan tradition, for most meditations, we’re just looking down toward the floor.

The Cushion

If we’re sitting cross-legged then it’s important to choose the proper cushion to sit on. There are some people that can sit just flat and their legs don’t fall asleep. I find quite extraordinary that some people can sit like that. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for instance, sits like that when he teaches. But for most of us, if we sit completely flat, our legs fall asleep much more quickly. So you need to sit on a cushion in which our backside is higher than the knees. And you have to choose what type of cushion – the thickness, the hardness, and so on – will work the best for you individually. Everybody is different. The point is to minimize having our legs fall asleep, because that can be really very unpleasant.

And I should point out – because this happens in a lot of Buddhist centers – that these Zen zafus are intended for sitting in the Japanese posture, with your legs behind you. Those aren’t the cushions that you sit cross-legged on; they’re too high. So some people maybe can sit on these cross-legged and it works. But I know for myself, I find it unbelievably impossible – much too high and much too hard. So if the center that you go to provides only zafus and you’re sitting cross-legged, bring your own cushion.

Choosing a Time to Meditate

For most people they always recommend meditating either as the first thing in the morning or the last thing at night so that you have less distraction in terms of what’s going on during the day. Some of us are more awake in the morning; some of us are more awake at night – so called morning people and night people. You know yourself better than anybody else. But what really is not very helpful is meditating when you’re really, really sleepy. So if at night you’re really sleepy, but you insist on trying to meditate before you go to bed, and you’re nodding off in the middle of it, nodding off, nodding off, this is not helpful at all. And likewise early in the morning: if you’re still half asleep, your meditation is not going to be very effective either. So gauge yourself what works the best. And there’s no shame in having coffee or tea or something like that before you meditate early in the morning, although the Tibetans aren’t necessarily like that.

I’m thinking of my teacher, the old Serkong Rinpoche, who was one of the teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He would tell me about what it was like in the tantric college monasteries in Tibet where he trained. And there all the monks sat in the meditation hall, the temple, and they would sleep like that, sitting in their places, sort of leaning over with their head in each other’s lap, like that (Tibetans have no problem with physical contact). And the bell would ring for them to wake up very, very early in the morning, and they were expected to just sit up and start their meditation, their recitations and so on. Just like that, you begin. So for most of us – unless we are a doctor used to being called in the middle of the night and instantly getting up and performing heart surgery or something like that – for us that would be quite difficult. Doctors are quite amazing, that they can do that, especially surgeons.

How Long to Meditate

Also it’s important that our meditations be short in the beginning, short but frequent. To try to sit, as a beginner – and in some places they do do this, but in general the Tibetans would discourage it – just sitting and trying to meditate for hour after hour after hour, it becomes an ordeal. And if the meditation is an ordeal, you don’t want to do it, and you don’t want to do it again. You’re just waiting: “When is it going to be over?” So in the beginning, just five minutes or so. That’s enough. Or in Theravada monasteries, for example, they will alternate sitting meditation with walking meditation so you’re not just doing the same thing for a really long time.

The analogy that the Tibetans use is that if a friend is visiting you and the friend stays for too long – you can’t wait until they leave – then you’re not very anxious to see that friend again. But if the friend leaves when you still would like to continue spending more time with the friend, then you’ll be very happy to see that friend again very quickly. So our meditation, meditation seat and so on, should be like that. And for many of us, we don’t have the privilege of being able to have a separate meditation room. So OK, you use whatever you have available. Meditate on your bed then there’s no problem. Most Tibetans meditate on their bed, in any case, in India.

Setting the Intention

Now, before meditating it’s important to set the intention. In fact, that’s something which is recommended to do as soon as you open your eyes in the morning – your intention for the day. “Today I’m going to try to not get angry,” “I’m going to try to be more tolerant,” “I’m going to try to develop more positive feelings toward others,” whatever it is. “I’m going to try to make this day a meaningful day, not waste it.”

There’s a wonderful Zen koan, my favorite one: “Death can come at any time: relax.” If you think about that, that’s very, very profound. If we’re very… again this word uptight – if you’re very nervous and very upset that death can come at any time, you won’t be able to accomplish anything. “I’m not doing enough. I’m not good enough,” etc., all these sort of thoughts. But if we know death can come at any time, so if we are relaxed about that, then we will just do what we can do in a meaningful, realistic way without being anxious and nervous and uptight. So try to remember that death can come at any time: relax.

So we set the intention before meditating, that “I’m going to try to meditate for (whatever period of time that we set) and concentrate. If I find myself starting to fall asleep, I’m going to wake myself up. If my attention wanders, I’m going to try to bring it back.” And mean it – don’t just say it – really try to do that. That’s very difficult, I must say. And once you get into the bad habit of, during your meditation session, you use it as a time to think about other things, even if they are other Dharma things, this is a very difficult habit to break. I speak from experience. It’s a difficult habit to break, so try to set that intention.


Then the motivation. You have to understand what motivation means in a Buddhist context, Tibetan Buddhist context. Motivation is made up of two parts. The first is the aim. What are we aiming to accomplish? Well, you have the standard aims in what’s called the graded stages of the path (lam-rim). And so aim for (a) improving future lives, (b) gaining liberation completely from rebirth, (c) reaching enlightenment so you can help everybody else gain liberation from rebirth.

So what sincerely is our motivation? And for most of us – you have to be honest with yourself – do you really, really believe in rebirth? For most of us, we don’t. So to say that “I’m doing this in order to ensure that I get another precious human rebirth in my next life,” or that “I’m doing this in order to get liberation from rebirth completely,” or “I’m doing this to become enlightened so I can help everybody else gain liberation from rebirth,” is just empty words if we don’t believe in rebirth. So if we are practicing meditation as a part of what I call “Dharma-lite,” that’s perfectly fine, but be honest about it, honest with yourself – you don’t have to say it to anybody else, but honest with yourself – “I’m doing this to improve things in this lifetime.” Fine; it’s legitimate, as long as we’re honest about it. But at least have respect for what the authentic goals are in Buddhism and don’t just minimize Buddhism into being just for improving things in this lifetime.

So the first part of the motivation is: What are we aiming for? And then the second part is the emotion behind it that is driving us in that direction. So “I’m aiming for a precious human rebirth in future lives because I’m really afraid of how horrible it will be to be reborn as a fly or a cockroach or any of these worse states. I really want to avoid that, and I understand and I’m confident that there’s a way to avoid it.” It’s not this type of fear which is paralyzing – “It’s hopeless. I’m helpless,” and so on – not that kind of fear, but a healthy sense of “I really don’t want that, and I see that there’s a way to avoid it.” Like “I’m afraid of having an accident when I drive, so I’m going to be careful,” not that we are paralyzed by fear and we never drive.

Or “I’m totally disgusted, bored, and fed up with all the suffering that’s involved with rebirth and I want out.” That really is the essence of this emotion behind renunciation. “It is unbelievably boring to have to be a baby again and to learn everything all over again, to have to get an education, have to figure out how to support myself, and dealing with getting sick and growing old. I mean, how boring. I’ve had enough. It’s like seeing a bad movie over and over and over and over again. Enough already.” Or for bodhichitta – for becoming enlightened – I’m moved by compassion: “I just can’t take it that everybody is suffering so much. I’ve got to be able to reach a state where I can significantly help everybody.”

So that’s the motivation. There’s an aim, and an emotion (a reason why we want to achieve that aim), and what we’re going to do once we achieve that aim: “With precious human rebirth, I’m going to continue working toward enlightenment.” And actually, when we are practicing in a Mahayana type of way, each of these levels of motivation are in the context of working ultimately toward enlightenment:

· “I want to gain precious human rebirth in order to be able to continue on the path toward enlightenment, because it’s going to take a very long time.”

· “I want to gain liberation from karma and disturbing emotions and so on, because how can I really help others if I get angry with them, if I become attached to them, if I just act compulsively in some crazy type of way, and so on, making it an ego trip trying to help others and so on – how can I really help them? So I have to gain liberation.”

· “And I want to gain enlightenment so that I know fully what is the best way to help everybody.”

So motivation – very important. And that’s something that Tsongkhapa emphasizes that we need to have the whole day through, not just at the beginning of the meditation session. And they shouldn’t be just nice words, but actually mean it. And mean it means what? It means that we have internalized it so much through meditation on these motivations that it really is authentically the way that we are experiencing our lives.

Quieting Down Before Meditating

Then once we’ve done all of that, we need to quiet down. Often that’s done with some sort of breathing meditation (either counting the breath, or there are various more-complicated exercises with the breath we can do).

The Seven-Limb Practice

And then often it’s recommended that at the start of the session we need to build up some positive force, so there’s what’s known as the seven-limb prayer, seven-limb practice.

(1) Prostration, with Refuge and Bodhichitta

So there’s prostration, which means showing respect to those who have reached enlightenment, to our own future enlightenments that we’re aiming to achieve with bodhichitta, and to our own Buddha-natures that will enable us to reach that goal.

(2) Offering

And making some offerings (so again that’s showing respect).

(3) Admitting Shortcomings

And then openly admitting to our mistakes and shortcomings. Not feeling guilty about it; that’s certainly not appropriate. Guilt is holding onto what we did that’s “so bad” and holding onto ourselves as being “so bad” for having done it and never letting go. It’s like not throwing the garbage out but always keeping it in your house and holding on: “How horrible this garbage is. It smells so bad.” So we regret our mistakes. We’re going to try our best to not repeat them. We’re going to try our best to overcome our shortcomings.

(4) Rejoicing

And then we rejoice in the positive things that others and ourselves have done, so we have a more positive attitude toward ourselves and toward others.

(5) Requesting Teachings

Then we request the teachers and the Buddhas to teach. “Please always teach. I’m open. I’m receptive.”

(6) Beseeching the Teachers Not To Pass Away

And “Don’t go away” is the next one. “Don’t pass away. I’m really serious.”

(7) Dedication

And then the dedication (which we can do there but also at the end of the meditation). And the dedication is, in a sense, directing the energy in a certain way. So whatever positive force, whatever understanding has been built up, may it contribute toward whatever we had the intention for in the beginning. The analogy that I like to use is saving our work in a computer. If we don’t save it in a special folder, the folder of “liberation” or “enlightenment,” then the default setting is that automatically it’s going to be saved in the “improve samsara” folder. And so, fine, but that’s not our aim, to improve samsara – you know, you build up so-called good karma and it will make things go a little bit better in life – we want it to work toward gaining liberation or gaining enlightenment. So you have to purposely press the button and save it in that folder. So that’s the dedication. And really mean it, not just say the words. So that means some emotion behind it still, with compassion, etc.


So that is basically what’s involved with meditation. You can see that it is a very sophisticated process and the instructions of how to do it and so on are really quite precise. And I’ve just given the general instructions, then for a specific meditation it’s going to have specific instructions. But it’s very, very important to know what are we doing, and how do you do it, and why are we doing it.

Now of course there are some Buddhist traditions – in the Zen tradition – that just say, “Sit, and you’ll sort of figure it out as you go along.” But although this might work for some people, it could be quite difficult for others. This is a very difficult way of practicing. So what I’ve presented is the Indo-Tibetan tradition.

Questions and Answers

So thank you. What kind of questions do you have?

Question: When you explained the types of meditation, there were three types. One of them was the concentration. And all of them, more or less, involved some mental activity. And the question is: Is it possible to attain some level of going to some high meditations – like to go from shamatha to vipashyana to tantra and dzogchen – without having developed the concentration with shamatha?

Alex: I don’t think so. I think that all the various meditation instructions and manuals that I have read or heard require that we certainly need to develop concentration. Now, whether or not you need to develop the full definitional level of shamatha is something else. In tantra, for example, there are special methods for being able to develop shamatha and vipashyana simultaneously. So in each system there can be different ways in which you achieve shamatha and vipashyana.

Shamatha is a stilled and settled state of mind, so it’s stilled of all mental wandering and dullness, and it’s settled focused on either an object or a certain way of perceiving things. So it’s 100% like that, fully concentrated. Plus it has a sense of fitness, which is this exhilarating sense (but not in a disturbing way) of physically and mentally being able to just stay focused on anything as long as you want. So it’s like if you are physically trained very, very well, then you have this sense of physical fitness that you can just do anything. It’s a very exhilarating sense.

And then vipashyana – definitional – is, on top of shamatha, an exceptionally perceptive state of mind that’s able to perceive anything, and has an additional sense of fitness.

So whether it is dzogchen meditation or regular tantra meditation or whatever, it’s going to have these components that are there.

Question: In recent times, very often there are teachers coming to Ukraine and Russia who give teachings on profound topics like tantra or like atiyoga, and also, for example, the ten-day course of vipashyana is also widely available. So my question is, first, whether it makes sense to attend those teachings if I haven’t developed shamatha strongly enough. The other part is: Why do teachers teach that at all if there is no strong basis of shamatha?

Alex: First of all, it is very difficult to attain shamatha (although in the texts it says that if you really work hard on it, you can attain it within three months). To attend any teaching, it’s necessary to concentrate. If you go there and you just sleep through the whole lecture, or you are mentally wandering or text messaging or stuff like that through the lecture, it’s pointless. So we need to have at least some level of concentration to attend any lecture and to have it worthwhile. It doesn’t necessarily have to be complete shamatha (if we wait until then, we’re not going to go to any lectures).

Tibetans are absolute firm believers in future lives. And when teachers teach these advanced topics, very often they say they are doing this in order to plant seeds for your future lives and they don’t expect that you’re going to understand or practice it in this lifetime. And that’s the way that many lay Tibetans, and even monks and nuns, go to teachings – to plant seeds for future lives. So from the Tibetan side, they’re thinking in a completely different way – these teachers – of why they teach these things than we, as Westerners, would think.

And then you have to look on the side of the organizers at the Dharma centers. If you offer a course in tantra or dzogchen or some exotic topic, you will attract more people than if you offer a course on refuge or something that nobody would come to. And they have the pressure of paying the rent of the Dharma center and paying for the teacher to come and so on. And so there are these samsaric, economic reasons as well. And also there’s a little bit of that from the Tibetan side as well, not as strong, because they don’t insist on what they teach (well, some do), but they have a tremendous pressure to bring back money in order to feed the monks in their monastery, and that is really a very real pressure that they have, and so it is to their benefit to have a large audience. We don’t live in an ideal world, unfortunately.

So when given these options of these teachers coming and they’re teaching all these very advanced things, if the choice is going or not going, then in many ways it’s best to go. But to not be pretentious enough that we think that “I am so high that I can actually practice all of this,” on the one hand, and then also, on the other hand, not to be discouraged that “Oh, this is impossible.” But the longer that one practices – we’re talking about decades and decades – then the more you realize that you have to go back to the beginning and really work on these very, very crucial initial steps. Without them, everything beyond that doesn’t make any sense, doesn’t have any substance to it – it’s just empty words, you know? “Seriously, what am I doing to prepare for being able to continue on the path in my future lives? How seriously am I taking that? And what concrete steps am I taking in that direction?” To reach that level, it’s extraordinary – to be sincere.

Question: I have a question about rebirths. I find it strange, the idea that a human can be reborn as an animal, because the human consciousness is so much better developed – so how can it be reborn as an animal or an insect or something? Perhaps this is just a religion for a wider audience, for the masses, and the teachers really don’t think so.

Alex: Well, first of all, I can tell you that the teachers do think so. They’re not pretending to believe this. They absolutely believe this. And what we’re talking about here is mental activity and what are the general factors that characterize our mental activity. And what characterizes the human mental activity is intelligence, and that intelligence, as we know, can be on a whole scale from not very intelligent to very intelligent. But there are other factors that are part of the mental activity, like for instance anger and greed and attachment and distraction, and so on, and compulsive behavior that’s brought on by this. And if these types of factors dominate our mental activity as a human so that we’re not using our intelligence so much but we are operating mostly on the basis of greed or anger or so on… Like for instance somebody who has a tremendous sexual desire and is cruising around in bars and having sex with just anybody that they meet, then they’re acting like a dog, aren’t they, that a dog or an animal will jump on the back of any other animal that it meets, at any time that it feels like – it will exercise no self-control whatsoever. And so this builds up a habit for basically an animal mentality. And therefore it’s not surprising, if we think in terms of rebirth, that that is going to be the dominant mode of mental activity that we’ll have in a future life and there will be a body that will be an appropriate basis for that (so an animal rebirth).

So it’s very helpful, I find, to examine our behavior: “Am I acting like this or that type of an animal?” I mean, you think in terms of a fly. A fly mentality is total mental wandering. A fly can’t stay in one spot for more than a few moments and it’s constantly moving and constantly distracted by something else. Is that the way that our mind is, a mind like a fly’s? So what do we expect in the next lifetime, that we’re going to be so intelligent and concentrated?

So these are some of the thoughts that help us to understand that rebirth can be into many different types of life forms. There’s a lot, lot more that can be said, but we don’t really have so much time. But there is nothing intrinsic in mental activity that makes it human mental activity – always that that’s what it is, is human, no matter what future life – or that makes it male or female or anything like that. It’s just mental activity. And so the type of rebirth that we have is dependent on karma, by the various habits that we build up by our compulsive behavior, and we will have a body that will function as an appropriate basis for acting out those habits.

OK. Maybe time for one last question if there are any.

Question: You said that you visit Ukraine after a long break and these today are just like an introduction, a descriptive talk. Do you have any plans, or is there any possibility, that you would continue and give some more detailed teaching in the near future?

Alex: If I’m invited and it fits into my schedule, sure I’d come back. Why not? Be my pleasure.

Good. So let’s end, then. Well, this was a Buddhist lecture, so we can end with a dedication. I think that’s OK. Whatever understanding, whatever positive force or energy has been built up, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for us to be able to continue on a spiritual path and for all of us, and for everybody, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all.

Thank you.