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The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

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Listening to, Thinking about, and Meditating on the Dharma

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, May 2009

Session One: Introduction

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:36 hours)

This evening I’ve been asked to give a general talk about meditation for an audience that might not necessarily already be doing meditation or might not necessarily be familiar with Buddhism, and since I don’t know everybody here and I don’t know your backgrounds then I will assume that that’s the audience that I’m speaking to. So, if I say things that you’re already quite familiar with, please be patient.

When we speak about mediation in a Buddhist context, we’re talking about something quite specific. In general, in the world nowadays we hear a lot of this word “meditation,” and many people look to it to help them with various things in life because the word “meditation” has gotten a good reputation. But when it actually comes to doing it, people very often have no idea what to do. Most of us have the idea that at least we need to sit down and try to be quiet, but then the big question is: then what? So this is what I’d like to speak about this evening.

The word “meditation” is translating a specific Sanskrit word which is translated into Tibetan, and the Sanskrit word has the connotation of making something actually happen or actually be the case. And the Tibetans translated it with a word which means to build up a certain habit. By building up a habit, then we make something a part of ourselves. So, what we’re trying to do with meditation is basically bring about a change in ourselves in such a way that it actually happens. And that change would be something beneficial. And so the question is why would we want to change? And we want to change because the way that we are and the way that we’re leading our lives and so on is unsatisfactory. We’re not happy with the way that we are, with the way that we feel, with the way that we’re relating to other people, to work, to family, and we want to improve it.

Now, that’s very important that we want to improve it, we want to change. It’s not that we want to escape it by going off into some fantasy land with meditation. There are many other methods that we could use if we just wanted an escape. We could take alcohol, we could take drugs, we could do so many things – listen to music all day long, always have an iPod in our ears so that we don’t have to think about anything. And, while we’re under the influence of these things, perhaps our problems don’t seem so strong or so real. But those problems come back. We haven’t learned to deal with them in any better way. So if we look at meditation as just another type of drug, then it’s not going to be of great long lasting help. And unfortunately many people do use meditation like a drug, especially when the meditation is not really what you would call meditation, but it’s just doing some sort of ritual – especially if it involves ringing bells and banging drums and doing all sorts of things like that – then what we’re doing is what I like to call making a visit to Buddhist Disneyland. It doesn’t make very much of a change in ourselves; it’s really an escape.

Whereas if we’re doing meditation in the way that it is intended in the Buddhist tradition, then we are not trying to escape our problems, but rather we are trying to deal with them and overcome them. So, it’s a very courageous effort, not a cowardly effort to run away. And, when doing something which requires a great deal of courage and bravery, then of course it’s not going to be so easy; we have to be prepared that it’s not going to be necessarily fun. I think the model that is perhaps helpful here is the model of physical training. When we undergo a process of physical training, then of course our muscles might hurt after a session, but we’re willing to endure that difficulty in order to get stronger.

So, the same thing happens when we’re doing meditation, but in the Buddhist tradition of Tibet we’re not necessarily working on the body. You have in some other forms of Buddhism a combination of working on the body with martial arts but that’s not in the Tibetan tradition. That doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with training the body, in fact it’s very helpful. However, the main focus is on training the mind. And when we say training the mind, we’re working not simply on the intellect, but we’re working on the emotions, the heart. The great Indian Buddhist masters emphasized this when they said if you want to start a Buddhist practice, what you really need to start with, what’s most fundamental is tame your mind. Because the way that we act, the way that we behave, the way that we communicate is all ruled really by our state of mind. So if we’re following a Buddhist tradition that also trains the body, that always needs to be done together with training the mind. It’s not just athletic training.

So, in the Tibetan tradition, as I say, the emphasis is working with the state of mind, and what we need to recognize is the reason I’m having difficulties in my life with various things is because of something that’s unsatisfactory with my state of mind. If we examine ourselves honestly, we find that we have a lot of disturbing emotions. We have anger, greed, selfishness, jealousy, attachment, arrogance, naivety. There’s a whole long, long list of these disturbing emotions and, if we go even deeper, there’s insecurity, confusion about what life is all about, etc, etc. And, we seem to be out of control because these disturbing emotions dominate our state of mind and cause us to behave, to communicate, to speak with others, to relate to others under the influence of these disturbing emotions, which then just creates a lot of problems for ourselves and of course problems for others as well. And, even when we’re by ourselves, we find that our minds are uncomfortable, racing with all sorts of disturbing thoughts and we have difficulty. We’re not happy.

So, meditation is intended to help us to change this situation. But not change it in the sense of just taking some narcotic or anesthesia in our minds so that we don’t think anything. That’s not the solution. But, unfortunately some people look at meditation like that, that if you just sit down and just shut everything out and somehow that will make the problems go away. But rather what we need to do is actively attack these problems.

Often we find in the Buddhist literature this very strong marshal type of language that these disturbing emotions are really our enemy. Now, to call them our enemy doesn’t necessarily mean that we make them into some sort of monster, and we’re afraid of them, and you get all paranoid. That’s certainly not the way to get rid of them. But rather we recognize that this is what we have to work on. We have very beautiful Buddhist texts that say, “I’ve had enough already of you causing me all these problems and troubles. Now your time is over.” So we roll up our sleeves and now we’re going to sit down and try to change our states of mind. And this is what meditation is all about.

Meditation is a method to train ourselves to build up more beneficial habits; to change our habits. And we’re talking here about the habits of the way that we think, the way that we feel, the way that we respond emotionally to things. And, we do that by training, by repetition. It’s a very scientific type of method. We train ourselves. And, like when we train ourselves in athletics, or playing a musical instrument, or in dancing, in the beginning it seems quite artificial. But after we become familiar, it becomes very natural to us. So, the same thing is true with what we do with our minds and emotions and feelings.

Now, a big question comes up. Can we really change? In order to work on changing ourselves, we have to become convinced that it’s possible. If we say, “This is the way I am and that’s it. I can’t do anything to change it, so I have to just shut up and live with it.” “I’m an angry person, I have a bad temper and this is the way I am.” If we identify so strongly with that then of course it will be difficult to change. So, we have to analyze and look at ourselves honestly. “Why do I identify with this? If this is really who I am, I’m an angry person, then I should be angry all the time.” And to blame others, well, “I’m angry because my mother and my father did this or that, and the economy is like this or that.” That doesn’t really help, does it? “I understand that I’m angry because of this or that,” we might come to that conclusion. “But can I really change?” That’s another question, isn’t it? So, we have to look deeper, and try to analyze, well, “Where do these emotions come from, these disturbing emotions that I’m identifying with?” Because even if I say to myself very strongly, “Don’t be angry, don’t be greedy, don’t be selfish,” it’s very hard to stop, isn’t it? So how do we change the way that we feel, emotionally?

Buddhism says that what is underlying our emotional state is what we call our “attitude.” And so we need to look a little bit more closely at what we mean here. What we’re talking about here is how we view things, how we regard things. For example, let’s say we have work and then we lose our job. So, we can look at this as the most horrible thing that could happen and then how do we feel? We could feel angry, we could feel depressed. Why do we feel angry and depressed? Well, it is because we think it’s the worst thing that could happen in the world.

We lost our job, that’s a fact. We can’t change a fact. But what we can change is the way that we regard the loss of that job and that’s what we mean by this word “attitude.” We can look at this, losing our job, in a different way, for instance this gives us more time to spend with our children. This gives me a chance to change my occupation, to do something different. This might not help us economically, but at least we don’t feel as bad about it. And so, this is what we can focus on in meditation – on how we regard things. Because as I say, the way that we regard it influences the way that we feel.

My closest friend died last week. This is true. And, it’s sad. Certainly I feel sad about it. I think that’s healthy, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m certainly not happy that he died. But how can I work with my state of mind here? I had a feeling, an intuition that I should call my friend that week just before he died, but I never got around to doing it. And he died very suddenly. He was perfectly fine and he was taking a shower, had a heart attack and just dropped dead in the shower, just like that, instantly. So it’s completely unexpected. So I could, of course, feel tremendous regret that I didn’t speak to him when I thought I should speak to him, and be very angry with myself, and then think of all the things that I would have wanted to say to him if I knew he was going to die but I didn’t have the chance. And thinking like that would have resulted in my feeling much worse.

But, instead, I changed the way that I looked at his death and instead I remembered all the happy times that we had together, and how many wonderful things we shared – we had been friends for thirty-five years – and how privileged I was to have known very closely such a wonderful person. He was a very fine person. He was probably the most sincere and intense really authentic Dharma practitioner of any Westerner that I’ve known. And so, I regard him with great inspiration and now I need to carry on even more strongly with my practice. And, just as he looked after his wife, her emotional state and so on, I knew he would feel very very comforted if he knew that I was emotionally supporting his wife, and so I have been.

This is the result of meditation. Meditation doesn’t mean that you gain supernatural powers or anything exotic. The result of meditation is that when you’re faced with a difficult situation in life and you find yourself starting to get into a very negative and unhappy state of mind and emotional state, then first of all you have enough understanding to know that if I go down the road of this negative way of thinking and feeling, it’s just going to make things worse and worse and worse and I do not want that. And I know what would be a better way of regarding this death, this terrible situation, and I have enough training, through meditation, to be able to change the way that I look at it, and look at it in a more positive way like I described, and this changes the way that I feel emotionally. So, I’m still sad at losing my friend, but in addition I’m very happy that I knew him and how more enriched my life is that I can incorporate his values and his way of life into my own. So there’s a certain happiness that softens that sadness.

So, then we have to ask ourselves, “Am I capable of changing the way that I view things?” and we would have to conclude, yes. Things that we found so interesting, so wonderful when we were babies and when we were little children, now seem very silly and stupid, boring. Our attitude, our way of viewing a baby rattle has changed very much as we grew older, didn’t it? Okay, well, that changed over time, but it does indicate that the way that we view things changes. So, once we become convinced, at least to a certain level, that it is possible for me to change, then we have to actually learn what are the methods for that. And meditation is actually the third step of three steps. These three steps are, first of all we have to learn about what would be a more beneficial habit – either hearing about it, listening to it, or reading it, or in some way we have to learn it. Now, this first step doesn’t mean that we understand it, but we are just able to discriminate correctly that yes, this is the Buddhist method, this is what it is. We have the correct information. So this first step is getting the correct information.

Now, that might not be so easy, since there are many people who claim to be teaching Buddhist methods and so on who are not representing the authentic tradition. And just because somebody writes a book and it gets published doesn’t mean that the content of that book is correct. And just because some teacher who teaches a method is very popular or very charismatic doesn’t mean either that what they teach is correct. Hitler was very charismatic and very popular and what he taught obviously was not correct.

So, in Buddhism, one of the things that is emphasized so much is using our intelligence. What differentiates us from animals? An animal can be trained to do anything, but what we have over animals is we have an intellect. We’re able to discriminate between what’s helpful and what’s not helpful. Even if we don’t understand at first, nevertheless we can use our intelligence to figure something out, to try it, to test it. And this is something that we need to use when we listen to teachings or read teachings. Does this make sense? You have to look. Is it consistent with the other standing teachings on Buddhism? We investigate who is this author? Who is this teacher? What are their qualifications? And if we can’t find this out, then we listen a little bit and think and let’s see, well, how has it affected other people. There are many ways in which we can determine whether something is the real thing or not.

Then, once we have correct information, then the next step after listening, receiving this information, or reading it, is to think about it. What is the purpose of thinking about it? The purpose of thinking, pondering it, looking at it from different angles and so on, is to first of all understand it. The first thing that we want to gain is a correct understanding of this information. The first step was just that this is the correct information; we don’t necessarily understand it. Now we have to understand what that information means. And [the] second step is that we have to be convinced that this is true, what it says, what the Buddhist teachings are saying. We could understand something and decide that this is garbage, this is not true. So, we have to be convinced that it’s true, and then we have to be convinced that it’s beneficial. Everything the Buddha taught is for the intention of benefiting others. Buddha said that and so, is this beneficial or not? And we look to long-term benefit; short term might not be so pleasant. It’s like some medical treatments aren’t very pleasant to go through, but the long term benefit is much better, like for instance chemotherapy for cancer.

Then, the last thing we have to be convinced of is that not only is it correct – I mean, not only do I understand it, not only is it true, not only is it beneficial – but I am capable of incorporating this into my life. If we haven’t done all of these things, and we haven’t come to all of these conclusions by really examining the teaching and thinking about it, relating it to our lives and to our experience, then what are we doing with meditation? It’s like buying something without having examined do I need this, is it going to help me, etc. Is it any good?

So, once we’ve done this second step of thinking about the teachings, then we’re ready to actually meditate. Now, of course that process of thinking about a particular teaching in and of itself is very beneficial and some people might even call that meditation. We sit down and quietly examine ourselves, examine the state of mind, examine what would be better, examine how it might be possible to change. All of these things obviously are very helpful. We get insight into ourselves; and most people never take the time out to just sit quietly and look at themselves honestly. What is the state of my mind? What could be better? Is it possible to change? These are wonderful things to examine. So, this is great, but this is only step two of the three steps.

Now, what is formally called “meditation” is now the process by which we integrate this more beneficial state of mind or attitude into our way of being, our ordinary lives. Now, on the weekend we’re going to go into great detail about that, but here I just want to present a very general picture. We have two steps that are involved in our meditation. The first phase, I call it “ discerning meditation.” Most people translate it as “analytical,” but there are many reasons why that’s not the correct term. Because when you call it analytical meditation, just a very simple reason, most people then think its step two and this thinking about things and don’t realize that it’s a step beyond that. So, here what we’re trying to do it to discern things in a certain way. Now, “discern” means to distinguish it in a certain way, to regard things in a certain way, with a certain state of mind or attitude.

So, let us use a very basic example. I think that will make it clearer. Many people, when they start meditation, the first type of meditation they learn is to focus on the breath. Quiet down and just focus on your breath and try to make your mind quiet and not think anything. Well, that would be a very simplistic way of stating the directions and it would be very difficult actually to do. That’s not easy to quiet down and just stay focused on your breath. But the meditation is much more than that.

So, what are we doing when we focus on the breath? Well, there are many, many things that we can discern, in other words that we can understand, when we’re focusing on the breath. You see, there has to be some understanding here, this is what is essential. Now of course it is important to quiet the mind of all its “bla bla bla” talking thoughts. But just to quiet the voice in our heads is not enough, because we could also have silent movies running in our minds as well without any words, and we could have all sorts of disturbing feelings and emotions as well. All of that has to be quieted.

But that’s just one side of what we’re doing: that’s sort of getting rid of the static in the background. But at the same time, we need to have some understanding of the breath. We’re focusing here on the breath. So, we could focus on the impermanence of the breath – it’s changing all the time. We could focus on there’s no separate “me” that is separate from this breath – I mean who’s breathing? There are many deep things that we could understand while focusing on the breath, but that’s not what we would start with. So, what would we start with?

Well, now we go back – correct information. Our situation is that we are under a great deal of pressure, and our work, our families, society, and our minds are always racing with worries and troublesome thoughts. And I can't relax. So what would be more beneficial would be somehow be able to be more relaxed and more grounded in just our bodies, and not just all the time – what we say in the West, in our heads – with all these worries and thoughts. And although that is not going to ultimately solve all our problems, it would be a very constructive first step. And so, by focusing on the breath, we come more in contact with the reality of our bodies. “I am alive” – breath is a very good indication of that. And the breath goes on and on, it doesn’t stop so long as we’re alive. And no matter how difficult life might be, nevertheless that breath is still there, is still continuing. And so if I can become more aware of that, more focused on that, that will make me more aware that my life is continuing. No matter what, life goes on. Even that would be sufficient and very helpful when my friend died, that I see, well, life goes on. If somebody dies, well everybody dies and life goes on. By focusing on my own breath, that would bring me back to that understanding.

So, we’ve gotten the information, and we thought about it, I understand it, convinced that it makes sense. Maybe we have to think about it a little bit more, but it seems to make sense. Would it be beneficial to be able to see that life goes on and be more connected with my body and not totally lost in my frightened and depressed thoughts? Yes, it would be beneficial. And, am I capable of being focused and aware of my breath? Well, yes, if we just stop even for one or two seconds, I could notice my breath; it’s there. So, on a very simple level we have done step number two. It doesn’t have to be on such a deep, sophisticated level. Of course, the deeper it is, the more convinced we are; but this is enough.

And of course we have to get the instruction of how to meditate and understand that as well. So, we need to sit down quietly. We don’t have to necessarily sit in some exotic position if it’s uncomfortable, but certainly no music or anything like that. It needs to be quiet; we don’t want to be distracted. We don’t want something artificial from outside being what is responsible for quieting our minds and putting us in a good mood and we become dependent on that like a drug. And we try to focus on the breath coming in and out. There are many places we can focus on it – at the nose, at the navel, going up and down the body. It doesn’t make any difference. I mean it does make a little bit of difference if we get very specific, but just focusing on the nose as it goes in and out is sufficient.

Now, we have to focus with understanding and of course we try to quiet the mind and, if our mind goes off on other thoughts, we try to bring it back on the breath. That of course we do; it’s very difficult but we try to do that. And of course one of the most important instructions is, don’t try to meditate for too long. In the beginning, just try it for a minute or two. To try to quiet the mind for a half hour – it’s going to be impossible and it will be a torture. And it will be a session in mental wandering, that’s all. So, not very helpful. So very short in the beginning and we take a break and then do it again if you want to repeat it.

And when we talk about having some understanding with focusing on the breath, what we’re speaking of are two mental factors that have to be there. A mental factor is just some other mental state that accompanies our focus. Now, the technical terms for these are “gross detection” – to detect things, to notice things on a gross level, on a rough level; and “subtle discernment” – to discern, understand something on a very subtle level.

The example that’s used to describe the difference of these is looking at a painting, a Tibetan painting, it could be any painting. We have one here. So with gross detection we would just detect or notice that it’s a painting and it’s a painting of some people. Now, you don’t have to be saying anything in your minds to understand that. I mean this is basically what we would call “ understanding” in very general language: You understand that this is a picture of some people. And then subtle discernment would be to look in more detail and to understand that this is a picture of Tsongkhapa. So, again, we don’t have to say anything in our minds in order to understand it and view it with that understanding that this is a painting of a figure and that is Tsongkhapa.

So, this is what we do while focusing on the breath. We understand that this breath is something which is going on all the time and we discern in detail that, yeah, there it is; it goes in and out of the nose. Well, fine detail just means a more specific, subtle understanding of it. And that no matter what happens it will continue as long as I am alive. And so it’s very steady, it’s very secure, it’s very dependable. So long as I’m alive – obviously, it will stop at some point. So, that’s the understanding that we have while focusing on the breath and we notice that. This is why it’s called “discerning meditation.” You actually, actively notice that. You don’t have to say it in your mind, but you notice that. So that’s discerning meditation. So we’re not really analyzing it; we are discerning it, we are viewing it, we are understanding it from a certain point of view in a certain way.

And then, stabilizing meditation, the second step, is when we don’t have to actively discern it in this way; we just know it. That’s quite a different state of mind between actively understanding something and just knowing it. And so we continue focusing on the breath, quieting down, but with knowing that the breath goes on and on, it’s always there, and that as a result, what is the result of this? It will ground us to our bodies and make us feel more stable and secure. If we practice – here’s this word that’s used so loosely in Buddhist circles – if we practice… what that means is we repeat this meditation, this exercise, over and over again and preferably every day.

Especially we try to remember to practice this when we are particularly feeling upset. And of course any training like this is difficult, like we use that analogy of physical training, but eventually this understanding becomes so deeply engrained in us that we know this all the time. I know that life goes on. I know that there’s no problem, in a sense, on a very deep level. When I say “no problem,” I’m not being flippant here. Of course, there may be the problem – a friend died, you lost your job, or you had a sickness, whatever – but on a deeper level, life goes on. And I know this very deeply. It’s become such a habit that it has changed my way of viewing life. This is the result of meditation. And if I forget it, then I focus on the breath again and discern it again, and notice it, and remind myself in this way, refresh it. So, the whole point of the meditation is to bring about a change in our state of mind in terms of how we deal with everyday life. It’s not an escape from our problems by going into some fantasy realm, but rather it is a very active process that we follow in order to be able to change ourselves and improve our situation – our mental and emotional state.

One last point. What I’ve just explained you could also look at as, well, a very sophisticated method of psychology. And if we look at it that way – fine, no problem. But we have to be careful not to think that this is all that Buddhism is – it’s just another form of psychology, it’s an Asian psychology. Buddhism is much more than that. This is just a first step, but it’s an important step. In Buddhism, we’re aiming further than that, but you have to go through this first step first. In Buddhism we talk about future lives and liberation and enlightenment and the ability to help everybody. These are much more difficult goals to achieve, and we might not understand these things, we might not be convinced that any of this is possible and so on, but the minimal that we need is respect for the fact that Buddhism is talking about this and it’s not just a psychology. But it includes these methods, it includes these psychological techniques and anybody can use them and benefit from them. So, that’s all I wanted to speak about this evening, and this weekend we’re go more deeply into actual methods of meditation.

Then, why don’t we just end with just one minute sitting quietly and try to focus on the breath with this understanding that we discussed.