Meditation in Tibetan Buddhism
It was 1972 and I was traipsing
along South-East Asia’s hippie trail having too much fun when, in
Thailand, I stumbled into Buddhism. I was an Australian physician who for
various reasons had taken a four-year break from medicine to travel the
world looking for I’m not sure what, but it certainly wasn’t anything
spiritual. Nevertheless, in Thailand I encountered some of the external
manifestations of Buddhism, such as temples and monks begging daily for
alms, so as a dutiful tourist, I decided to read up on the
The book I happened to pick up
was a Penguin paperback called, simply, Buddhism, written by an English
high court justice named Christmas Humphries. This was by no means a
profound tome and I wouldn’t even recommend it to anyone today, but some
of the things I read stirred my heart in the strangest way and I knew I
had to look into Buddhism more deeply. One thing that the author stressed
was the importance of meditation, and I made a mental note to find out
more about this later.
Traveling on through Laos,
Burma and India, a couple of months later I found myself in Kathmandu,
Nepal, where a Brazilian acquaintance from the trail told me about a
one-month meditation course given by a couple of Tibetan lamas that was
about to begin at nearby Kopan Monastery. I signed up. Thus began the rest
of my life.
The main teacher was a young
monk in his twenties, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, the incarnation of a famous yogi
who had meditated for many years in the high Himalayas of Nepal, not far
from Mount Everest and Tibet. His guru, Lama Yeshe, a great master who has
played a major role in the transmission of Buddhism to the West, also
taught. Here’s a bit of what I learned.
The main thing studied in
Buddhism is the mind, but not the mind in general so much as one’s own
mind. Actually, I found the learning process extremely scientific and not
particularly at odds with my medical training. The teacher would lay out
the principles of Buddhist philosophy and psychology and we would then
think about them, subject them to critical analysis, and meditate on them,
using these teachings as a mirror for our own mind. Day in and day out for
thirty days we got up early, meditated, listened to teachings, meditated,
discussed, listened to more teachings, meditated and went to bed. By the
end, while still not accepting everything I’d heard, I knew I had to stay
to find out more.
I found out that the mind and
the body are interrelated but completely different in nature. The body is
physical, made of atoms; it has shape and color. The mind is formless,
clear light in nature, and has the ability to perceive objects; there’s no
way it can come from the brain. The body starts at conception; the mind is
beginningless. At conception, the consciousness, which comes from the
previous life, enters the fertilized egg. Each individual’s previous lives
are infinite in number and it is one’s own discrete stream of
consciousness that passes through them all. Thus, our present mind is the
result of everything we have ever been and done, and our future mind and
lives depend upon what we do today. This is the same for all of
The good news is that all
sentient beings have the potential to reach enlightenment, the highest
possible state of mind, everlasting, blissful happiness, because we all
have clear light nature of mind. Enlightenment is what the Buddha himself
attained way back in India more than 2,500 years ago, what he shared with
his disciples, and what has been taught by a succession of Indian, Tibetan
and other masters in an unbroken lineage going back to the historical
A sentient being is a being
whose mind is ignorant; a buddha is a being who was once a sentient being
but became enlightened by totally purifying his or her mind of ignorance
and fully imbuing it with the qualities of compassion and wisdom. Buddhist
meditation teaches us to cleanse our own minds of ignorance and the other
delusions that spring from it, such as attachment, jealousy, pride and
- which obscure our mind’s clear light nature and are the actual
cause of all the suffering we experience
- and to develop desirable attributes such as love, compassion,
tranquility, concentration and divine intelligence, which are the cause of
Generally speaking, Buddhist
meditation is of two types
- analytical and concentrative. In analytical meditation, we use
our powers of logical reasoning to examine the teachings to determine for
ourselves whether or not they are true, to eradicate doubt, and to come to
a clear and unshakable conclusion about the way in which things exist. In
concentrative meditation we learn to focus our mind single-pointedly on a
mental object until our mind can rest effortlessly on that object for
hours or even days at a time. Although they are quite different in nature,
these two types of meditation assist and support each other. The better we
can analyze, the greater our conviction for practicing concentration and
trying to overcome the obstacles to success; the better our concentration,
the stronger our powers of logical deduction and the clearer the
conclusions we reach.
So, what’s the point of all
this? Why make all this effort? Well, we all want to be happy and none of
us wants to suffer or experience any kind of problem, but obviously, our
wishes alone are not enough to bring all this about. We rarely find the
happiness we desire and when we do, it doesn’t last and usually isn’t as
good as we’d hoped it would be. Furthermore, we’re constantly experiencing
one problem after another
- running into undesirable situations, not finding what we want or
losing what we have, not to mention getting sick, aging and, at the end of
it all, dying. To understand Buddhism’s explanation of why our lives are
like this and what we can do to improve them, we need to understand the
Buddhist world view.
As I mentioned before, there
are two kinds of being with mind
- sentient beings, whose minds are ignorant, and enlightened
beings, from whose minds every last trace of ignorance has been
eradicated. Sentient beings are also of two types, those in cyclic
existence (Skt. samsara) and
those free of it. Within cyclic existence, there are six realms, three
- the animal, hungry ghost and hell realms
- and three upper
- the human, demigod and god realms. Most sentient beings have been
in cyclic existence, dying in one realm and being reborn in another, since
beginningless time. Beyond this wheel of life, there are two states of
- individual liberation and the full enlightenment of buddhahood.
The point of Tibetan Buddhist meditation, the ultimate point of all
Buddhism, in fact, is for all sentient beings to attain enlightenment. But
enlightenment can be attained only through individual effort; we have to
do it for ourselves. God or Buddha cannot do it for us. The way to
enlightenment is to follow the path that leads to it.
The first thing to understand
is that it all begins with motivation. Whether an action becomes positive
karma, the cause of happiness, or negative karma, the cause of suffering,
depends on why it is done. All actions done with attachment to the
happiness in this life alone, actions done simply for the comfort of this
life, are negative. The karmic imprints such actions leave on the
consciousness eventually ripen into an experience of suffering. Actions
done with the motivation of experiencing happiness in a future life,
actions done with detachment from this life, are positive. The imprints
they leave ripen into happiness.
There are three kinds of
positive action, three levels of positive motivation. The first is that
seeking happiness in a future life within cyclic existence
- rebirth in the upper realms or ordinary, temporary samsaric
happiness of one kind or another. The second is seeking complete
liberation from cyclic existence for oneself alone. The third is seeking
enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, understanding that in
the final analysis, all happiness comes from other sentient beings and
that it is one’s individual responsibility to lead them all to the highest
happiness of enlightenment. Actions done with any of these three levels of
motivation plant the seeds of harmonious results.
Tibetan Buddhist meditation
always stresses the importance of the third, or highest, level of
motivation, which is known by its Sanskrit name, bodhicitta. Everything we do
should be motivated by the supreme altruism of wanting to see all sentient
beings enlightened. If it is, we ourselves automatically also experience
good results. This paradox
- if you want to experience the greatest happiness, forget about
yourself and devote yourself solely to the happiness of others
- is what the His Holiness the Dalai Lama calls “wise selfishness.”
Since we’re going to be selfish, we might as well be smart about it.
Thus, the benefit of our
actions is not determined by the action itself but by our motivation for
doing it. If, for example, we meditate for selfish reasons or for some
mundane goal such as tranquility now, even though it might look as though
we’re doing something spiritual, in fact, because of the worldly
motivation behind it, that action will leave a negative imprint on our
mind and is therefore the cause of suffering. Thus, Tibetan Buddhism
teaches us to do everything with compassion, thinking about the suffering
of others and wanting to alleviate it. In this way, too, even everyday
actions such as sleeping, eating and working can be transformed into the
cause of enlightenment.
Analytical meditation is
usually practiced on teachings from the graduated path to enlightenment.
This path structure is another feature of Tibetan Buddhism, wherein all
the teachings of the Buddha have been arranged in a logical, step-wise
order that makes them easy to understand and practice. When I saw the
steps of the path laid out, like a mental road map to spiritual
perfection, I though, “Now I’ve witnessed a miracle.” To think that every
step on the way to developing our minds to their fullest potential has
been so clearly explained and that by generating these realizations in our
minds we can become, essentially, one with God, was mind-blowing. I don’t
have room to outline this path here, but I would encourage those who are
interested in these teachings to look more deeply into them. You will
discover how to make life meaningful and fulfill the purpose of having
been born human this one precious time.
usually starts with learning to focus on the breath. This is an important
technique, akin to stretching before physical exercise. The ideal,
recommended meditation posture has seven features:
1. Sit cross-legged on the floor, preferably in the full- or half-lotus position, with a cushion beneath your buttocks.
2. Keep your back straight, with your vertebrae one above the other like a pile of coins.
3. Keep your shoulders level and parallel with the floor.
4. Hold your arms slightly rounded and away from your body, with your hands in your lap, palm upwards, right on top of the left, tips of the thumbs touching.
5. Bend your neck slightly forward, with your chin tucked in a little.
6. Close your eyes lightly or open them slightly, with your gaze down the line of your nose.
Also close your lips and teeth lightly, with the tip of your tongue
touching the roof of your mouth just behind your top teeth.
Once you are seated
comfortably, generate bodhicitta meditation, thinking, “I am going
meditate on my breath in order to reach enlightenment for the sake of all
sentient beings.” Then bring your attention to your breath, focusing your
mind on the entrance of your nostrils, where you can feel the air entering
and exiting your body. Breathe normally; the difference being that now you
are paying full attention to your breath. Keep your mind on your breath
but don’t think, “I’m breathing” or something like that. Just let go and
let be. However, if it helps you focus, you can count the breaths, seeing
how high you can go before you discover that you have lost concentration
and your mind has gone off on something else. At that point, drop whatever
distracted you like a hot potato and immediately come back to your breath.
This is the way to begin practicing meditation.
This is all we have space for
here, but if you are interested in looking into this subject further,
please read How to Meditate, by
Kathleen McDonald (Wisdom Publications, 1984). The best book detailing the
path to enlightenment is Pabongka Rinpoche’s Liberation in the Palm of Your
Hand (Wisdom, 1991). These two books are available from Wisdom at
(800) 272-4050 or http://www.wisdompubs.org/. Also recommended is Lama Zopa
Rinpoche’s Teachings from the
Vajrasattva Retreat (Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, 2000).
Written for Kung-fu Magazine, October 2000.