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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

edited transcript

Conducive Meditation Environment

To actually engage in meditation, we need conducive circumstances. There are many lists of factors that will be conducive for meditation, but these are usually discussed or presented within the context of doing a meditation retreat, whereas most of us are meditating at home.

Even at home what will be most helpful is to not have distractions. The environment needs to be as quiet as possible. Many of us live on noisy streets with traffic, and so meditating early in the morning or late at night, when the traffic is less heavy, is better. In addition, the environment should have no music and no television in the next room. These sorts of things are quite important. If it is not possible have a quiet environment, then try earplugs. They do not necessarily block out all of the noise, but they certainly make it less intense.

Many of us do not have the privilege of being able to have a separate meditation room. You can use whatever space you have available. Meditate on your bed if you need to, that is not a problem. Most Tibetans living in India meditate on their beds.

Another factor that is quite important is to have a clean, neat room. If the environment is clean and neat, that influences the mind to be clean and neat. If the room is sloppy, messy, or dirty, the mind tends to be the same way. Because of that, one of the preliminaries that is always listed as a requirement before meditation is to clean the meditation room, and make some sort of offering, even if it is just a single cup of water. We want to show respect for what we are doing, and if we are thinking in terms of inviting the Buddhas and bodhisattvas to be present, then we would want to invite them to a clean room, not to a messy, dirty one. Even on just a normal psychological level, it is important to have respect for what we are doing, and to treat it as something special. “Special” does not mean creating an elaborate environment, like a Hollywood movie set with incense and candles, but simple, plain, neat, clean, and respectful.


Across the different Asian cultures, the posture that people use for meditation varies. The meditation postures of India/Tibet, China/Japan, and Thailand are all different. They all sit in different postures, so we cannot say that one specific posture is the only correct posture. The Indians and Tibetans sit cross-legged. Often, Japanese, and some of the Chinese, put their legs folded under them. The Thais sit with their legs to the side. For tantra practice, in which we are working with the energies of the body, then full lotus (rdo-rje skyil-krung) is required, but most of us are not at that stage of practice. If you aspire to be able to do that type of practice, it is strongly recommended that you start at a very early age to sit in the full lotus position, because it is very difficult to begin using the full lotus position later in life. For Western people, if you can sit in any of these traditional Asian postures, that will work nicely; if not, sitting in a chair is fine. The most important point is that the back is straight.

Directing the Gaze

As far as the eyes are concerned, some meditations are done with the eyes closed, some with the eyes open, some with the eyes looking down, some with the eyes looking up; it depends on the meditation. In general the Tibetans discourage meditation with the eyes closed. Aside from the fact that it is much easier to fall asleep when the eyes are closed, it also tends to build up a mental obstacle where you feel that in order to meditate, you need to close your eyes. If you feel that you must have your eyes closed in order to meditate, it becomes more difficult to integrate what you are developing in the meditation into real life. For example, if I’m talking with someone, and in order to generate a feeling of love I need to close my eyes, that would be strange. So, in the Tibetan tradition, for most meditations, we keep the eyes half-open, loosely focused, looking down toward the floor.

The Cushion

If you are sitting cross-legged it is important to choose the proper cushion to sit on. There are some people who can sit comfortably flat on the floor, and their legs do not fall asleep. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for instance, sits like that when he teaches. But for most of us, if we sit without a cushion, our legs fall asleep much more quickly. So you can try sitting with a cushion under your behind, so that your hips are higher than your knees. You need to choose what type of cushion will work best: thick or thin, hard or soft, and so on. Each person is different. The most important point is that you are comfortable, and that your cushion prevents your legs from falling asleep, because that can be very unpleasant.

Many Buddhist centers have thick, round or square zafus, but those Zen zafus are intended for sitting in the Japanese posture, with the legs underneath. Thick zafus are not the right cushion for sitting cross-legged – they are too high. Maybe some people can sit on these cross-legged comfortably. But for most people they are too high and too hard. If your center provides only thick zafus, and you are sitting cross-legged, you may want to bring your own cushion.

Choosing a Time to Meditate

For most people the best time to meditate is either first thing in the morning or last thing at night, so that there are fewer distractions in terms of daily activities. Some people are more awake in the morning, and others are more awake at night – so-called “morning people” and “night owls.” You know yourself and your lifestyle better than anyone else, so you can make the determination as to which time of day is best. What is never recommended is meditating when sleepy. If you are sleepy at night, but you try to meditate before bedtime, you may start falling asleep in the middle of your meditation, which is not helpful at all. And likewise early in the morning: if you are still half asleep, your meditation will not be very effective. So judge for yourself what works best. There is no problem with having coffee or tea before you meditate early in the morning, although the Tibetans themselves do not have that habit.

My teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, was one of the teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He would describe how they meditated in the tantric college monasteries in Tibet where he trained. All the monks sat in the meditation hall, and they would sleep there, sitting in their places, sort of leaning over with their head in their neighbor’s lap. (Tibetans have no problem with physical contact.) 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. But unless you are a doctor accustomed to being woken in the middle of the night and instantly getting up and performing surgery, or something like that, it would be quite difficult to begin meditation immediately upon waking.

How Long to Meditate

When you are just starting a meditation practice, it is also important that your meditation sessions be brief, but frequent. As a beginner, trying to sit and meditate for hours becomes an ordeal. In some places they do do this, but in general the Tibetans would discourage it, because if meditation is an ordeal, you will not want to do it! You will be waiting for the session to end. So in the beginning, meditate for just five minutes or so – that is enough. In Theravada monasteries, they will alternate sitting meditation with walking meditation, so they are not doing the same activity for a long time.

The analogy that the Tibetans use is that if a friend is visiting, and the friend stays too long, you become impatient for him to leave. And after he leaves, you are not very anxious to see him again. But if the friend leaves when you would like to continue spending more time together, then you will be very happy to see that friend again soon. Likewise, our meditation posture, the meditation seat, and the length of the meditation session should all be comfortable, so that we are enthusiastic about our practice.

Setting the Intention

Before meditating, it is important to set your intention. In fact, setting your intention is something that is recommended as soon as you open your eyes, first thing in the morning. As soon as you wake up, while still in bed, you can set your intention for the day. You can think: “Today I will try to not get angry. I will try to be more tolerant. I will try to develop more positive feelings toward others. I will try to make this day a meaningful day, and not waste it.”

There is a wonderful Zen koan, my favorite one: “Death can come at any time: Relax.” If you think about it, that is very profound thought. If you are very uptight, if you are very nervous and very upset that death can come at any time, you will not be able to accomplish anything. You may have thoughts such as: “I’m not doing enough. I’m not good enough.” But if you know that death can come at any time, and you are relaxed about that, then you will do whatever you can, in a meaningful, realistic way, without being anxious, nervous, or uptight. So try to remember that death can come at any time, and relax!

Before meditating, we set the intention that “I will try to meditate for ‘x’ number of minutes. I will try to concentrate. If I find myself starting to fall asleep, I will wake myself up. If my attention wanders, I will try to bring it back.” Take this seriously, don’t just say the words – really try to keep your intention in mind, and follow through. Keeping true to your intention can be very difficult. If you get into the bad habit of using your meditation sessions to think about other issues, even if they are other Dharma concepts, that is a very difficult habit to break. I speak from experience: it is a difficult habit to break, so try to set, and follow, a correct intention before your meditation session.


Next is the motivation. In a Tibetan Buddhist context, motivation is made up of two parts. The first part is the goal: What are we attempting to accomplish? The standard goals are described in the “graded stages of the path” (lam-rim). As described in the lam-rim, the aims are: (a) improving future lives, (b) gaining complete liberation from rebirth, and (c) reaching enlightenment so that you can help everyone else gain liberation from rebirth.

In thinking about your motivation, it is important to be honest with yourself. Do you truly believe in rebirth? Most of us do not, so to say “I am doing this in order to ensure that I get another precious human rebirth in my next life,” or “I am doing this in order to get liberation from rebirth completely,” or “I am doing this to become enlightened so I can help everyone else gain liberation from rebirth” – those are just empty words if we do not believe in rebirth. If we are practicing meditation as a part of what I call “Dharma-lite,” that is perfectly fine, but be honest with yourself. You do not have tell anyone else, but you can be honest with yourself about your motivation: “I am doing this to improve my situation in this lifetime.” That is fine; that it is a legitimate motivation, as long as you are honest about it. On the other hand, it is important to have respect for what the authentic long-term goals are in Buddhism, and not to think that the practice of Buddhism is only for improving things in this lifetime.

The first part of the motivation is: What are we aiming for? The second part is the emotion behind it that is driving us in that direction. For example: “I’m aiming for a precious human rebirth in future lives (the goal) because I’m afraid of how horrible it will be to be reborn as a fly, or a cockroach, or any other lower rebirth (the emotion). I really want to avoid lower rebirths, and I’m confident that there is a way to avoid lower rebirths.” This is not a paralyzing type of fear, such as “The situation is hopeless. I’m helpless,” but rather it is a healthy sense of “I really do not want that, and I see that there is a way to avoid it.” Similar to my fear of having an accident when I am driving – I will be careful, but I am not so paralyzed by fear that I will never drive at all.

Another example of motivation is “I’m totally disgusted, bored, and fed up with all the suffering that is involved with rebirth (the emotion) and I want out (the goal).” The essence of the emotion behind renunciation is “It is unbelievably boring to be a baby again, to learn everything all over again, to have to get an education and figure out how to make a living. It’s tedious dealing with getting sick and growing old over and over. It is like seeing a bad movie over and over and over and over again. I mean, how boring. I’ve had enough!” The motivation for bodhichitta, for becoming enlightened, is that I am moved by compassion: “I just cannot take it that everyone is suffering so much. I’ve got to be able to reach a state where I can help everyone overcome suffering.”

So motivation includes a goal, and an emotional reason why we want to achieve that goal. Motivation also encompasses what we will do once we achieve that goal: “With my precious human rebirth, I will work to achieve enlightenment.” When we are practicing in a Mahayana tradition, each of the three levels of motivation is in the context of working ultimately toward enlightenment. The first level of motivation is “I want to gain another precious human rebirth in order to continue on the path toward enlightenment, because it will take many lifetimes to accomplish my goal.” The second level of motivation is “I want to gain liberation from karma and disturbing emotions, because I can’t help others if I am getting angry with them, if I become attached to them, or if I have compulsive behavior. I can’t really help others if feel proud and arrogant about it. So I need to gain individual liberation.” And finally, the highest motivation is “I want to gain enlightenment so that I have complete knowledge of the best way to help each person individually.”

Motivation is very important. Tsongkhapa emphasizes that motivation is something that we need to have throughout the whole day, not just at the beginning of the meditation session. And the motivation should not be just nice words; we should actually mean it. And mean it means what? It means that we have internalized the motivation so thoroughly, through the practice of meditation, that the motivation is an authentic, natural emotion, and it becomes an integral part of how we live our everyday life.

Quieting Down Before Meditating

Once we have created the right physical environment and set our motivation, we need to quiet down. Often that is done with some sort of breathing meditation, such as counting the breath. In addition to counting the breath, there are various exercises we can do with the breath that are more complicated.

The Seven-Limb Practice

It is often recommended that we build up some positive energy at the start of the session, and for that we utilize what is known as the “seven-limb prayer,” or “seven-limb practice." In this context, “limb” means “step.”

(1) Prostration, with Refuge and Bodhichitta

The first limb is prostration, which means showing respect to those who have reached enlightenment; showing respect to our own future enlightenment, which we are aiming to achieve with bodhichitta; and showing respect to our own Buddha-nature, which will enable us to reach that goal.

(2) Offering

The second step is making offerings, which is also showing respect.

(3) Admitting Shortcomings

Next comes openly admitting our mistakes and shortcomings. That does not mean feeling guilty about our mistakes; guilt is not appropriate. Guilt is holding onto something that we did and labeling our actions as bad; holding onto ourselves and labeling ourselves as bad for having done the action, and never letting go. It is like not throwing the garbage out but instead keeping it in your house and thinking: “This garbage is truly horrible. It smells so bad.” Rather than the emotion of guilt, the third limb is regret for our mistakes: “I regret my actions, and I will try my best to not repeat them. I will try my best to overcome my shortcomings.”

(4) Rejoicing

The fourth step is rejoicing in the positive things that we and others 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 am open and receptive.”

(6) Beseeching the Teachers Not To Pass Away

The next limb is: “Do not go away. Do not pass away. I am very serious about learning, and I beg you to stay with me.”

(7) Dedication

Finally comes the dedication. Dedication is, in a sense, directing the energy in a certain way. We think: “Whatever positive force, whatever understanding has been built up, may it contribute toward accomplishing my intention.” The analogy that I like to use is saving our work in a computer. If we do not save it in a special folder, the folder for “Liberation” or “Enlightenment,” then the default setting is that our work will automatically be saved in the “Improve Samsara” folder. Saving our work in the “Improve Samsara” folder is fine, but if that is not our aim, if we want our work to count toward gaining liberation or gaining enlightenment, then we purposely save it in the “Enlightenment” folder. That is the dedication. And we really mean it; we do not just say the words. We dedicate the positive energy with some emotion behind it, with compassion, etc.

After the seven-limb prayer comes the actual meditation, and at the conclusion of the meditation, we do another dedication.


You can see that meditation is a very sophisticated process, and the instructions for how to do it are quite precise. Here I have just given the general instructions; each specific meditation will have specific instructions. It is very, very important to know what are we doing, how do we do it, and why are we doing it.

There are some Buddhist traditions, such as the Zen tradition, that just say, “Sit, meditate, and you will figure it out as you go along.” Although this might work for some people, it could be quite difficult for others. Many people find that approach very difficult, so what I have presented is the Indo-Tibetan tradition.

Questions and Answers

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. My 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 first. 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 is stilled of all mental wandering and dullness, and it is settled, focused on either an object or a certain way of perceiving things. So it is 100% like that, fully concentrated. Plus it has a sense of fitness, which is an 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 is like if you are physically trained very, very well, then you have this sense of physical fitness that you can do almost anything. It is a very exhilarating state.

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

So whether it is dzogchen meditation or regular tantra meditation or whatever, it will have these components.

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 have not developed shamatha strongly enough. And secondly: Why do teachers teach that at all, if there is no strong basis of shamatha in the students?

Alex: First of all, it is very difficult to attain shamatha (although in the texts it says that if you work very hard, you can attain it within three months). To attend any teaching, it is necessary to concentrate. If you go there and you just sleep through the whole lecture, or you are mentally wandering or distracted throughout the lecture, it is pointless. So we need to have at least some level of concentration to attend any lecture and to have it be worthwhile. It does not necessarily have to be complete shamatha. In fact, if we wait until we have achieved complete shamatha, we may never go to any lectures!

Tibetans are absolutely firm believers in future lives. When teachers teach these advanced topics, very often they say that they are doing this in order to plant seeds for your future lives; they do not expect that you will understand or practice advanced skills in this lifetime. And that is 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, the teachers are thinking in a completely different way as to why they teach these things, as compared to how we, as Westerners, would think.

And then you need to consider the organizers at the Dharma centers. If the Dharma center organizers offer a course in tantra or dzogchen or some esoteric topic, that topic will attract more people than if they offered a course on refuge, or some other topic that seems more mundane. The Dharma center organizers have the pressure of paying the rent of the Dharma center, and paying for the teacher to come, and so on. So there are samsaric, economic reasons as well. And also there is a little bit of that from the Tibetan side, though not as strong, because while they do not insist on what they teach (well, some do), still they have a tremendous pressure to bring back money in order to feed the monks in their monastery. That is really a very real pressure that they have, and so it is to their benefit to have a large audience. We do not live in an ideal world, unfortunately.

So when these teachers come, and they teach very advanced topics, if the choice is going or not going, then in many ways it is best to go. But we should not be pretentious and think that: “I am so advanced that I can actually practice all of this right now, in this lifetime.” And the reverse is also true: we should not be discouraged, thinking, “Oh, this is too advanced, it’s impossible for me to ever be able to practice this.” The longer that one practices (we are talking about decades and decades), then the more you realize that you need to go back to the beginning, and work on these very, very crucial initial steps. Without the initial steps, everything beyond that does not make any sense, does not have any substance to it, and is just empty words. We should strive to think: “What am I doing to prepare for being able to continue on the path in my future lives? How seriously am I taking that issue? And what concrete steps am I taking in that direction?” To reach that level, to be sincere, that is extraordinary.

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. How can a human consciousness be reborn as an animal or an insect or something like that? Perhaps Buddhism is just a religion for a wider audience, for the masses, and the teachers really do not believe in rebirth?

Alex: Well, first of all, I can tell you that the teachers do firmly believe in rebirth. They are not pretending to believe it – they absolutely believe it. What we are talking about here is mental activity, and what are the general factors that characterize our mental activity. 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, for instance anger, greed, attachment, distraction, and compulsive behaviors that are brought on by these mental factors. In some people, these factors dominate their mental activity so that they are not using their human intelligence but instead are operating mostly on the basis of greed, or anger, and so on. For instance, there are people who have tremendous sexual desire and cruise around in bars, meeting others, and having sex with almost any one that they meet – that person is acting like a dog, don’t you think? A dog will mount any other dog that it meets, at any time; it will exercise no self control whatsoever. If a human behaves that way, they build up the habit of an animal mentality. So therefore it is not surprising, if we think in terms of rebirth, that that person’s desire mentality will be the dominant mode of mental activity that they will have in a future life, and they will reincarnate into a body that will be an appropriate basis for that mental activity, that is, an animal rebirth.

So it is very helpful to examine our behavior: “Am I acting like this or that type of an animal?”/ / Think in terms of a fly. A fly mentality is total mental wandering. A fly cannot stay in one spot for more than a few moments; it is constantly moving and constantly distracted. Is that the way that our mind is, like a fly’s mind? If so, what do we expect in the next lifetime? Do we expect that we will be intelligent and have good concentration?

These are some of the thoughts that help us to understand that we can be reborn into many different types of life forms. There is much, much more that can be said on that topic, and unfortunately we do not have enough time today. But it is important to understand that there is nothing intrinsic in mental activity that makes it human mental activity. There is nothing that makes mental activity specifically human, or that makes it male or female or anything like that. It is simply mental activity. And so the type of rebirth that we have is dependent on karma, on the various habits that we build up by our compulsive behavior, and in future lifetimes we will have a body that will function as an appropriate basis for acting out those habits.

So let’s end here. Since this was a Buddhist lecture, we can end with a dedication. We can think: “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 everyone, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all.”

Thank you.