Meditation is considered an essential part of all forms of Buddhism.  It is not only a regular interval of peaceful relaxation in a hectic existence, but it provides a time in which one can develop self-awareness and self-knowledge.  However, that is not its only purpose. It affords a glimpse into the nature of consciousness, itself.  Its objective is consciousness.

Read Flight of the Garuda by the great Shabkar.

There are two fundamental types of meditation: ‘tranquility' or in Sanskrit, shamata [Tibetan: shinay] and ‘insight meditaton’ that is, vipashyana [Pali: vipassana, Tib. lhatong].  Generally the first is learned before the student is taught the second. 

Progress in meditation is thought of as taming the mind.  There is a traditional depiction of the steps along the way.

It is important to know the correct technique for Buddhist meditation , as it is not necessarily identical to that taught in other contexts.  It is not only relaxation or sitting still, nor does it necessarily focus on the repetition of a certain syllable or phrase.  By the way, the rigorous Zen form of sitting [zazen] is not the only meditation technique that may be used in the pursuit of enlightenment.

Zazen example - a different approach but the goal is the same.

Why Meditate?

The world as we know it, called in the language of philosophy the phenomenal world, depends on our minds to exist.  What would the world be like with no receivers of impressions to process information, and with no minds to interpret those impressions?

There would be no sounds.  Vibration? Maybe.  But also, there would be neither noise, nor music nor language.  Similarly for the other sense impressions.  

Also there would be no concepts by which people, and other beings, organize the jumble of matter/energy radiation into what we perceive - the world.

Once we learn to apprehend or grasp the world with our minds, how to "see" the world, we almost all learn the attitude, which is really not true, that this world causes things to happen to us.  We experience suffering partly because we have these attitudes. 

The world and the situation that inspires aversion or attraction is called samsara.  It is a projection of our confused mind with its habitual tendency to interpret according to culture, past experience and expectations.

So the first step is to calm the mind and make it stable. This will be a gradual process because the confusion itself did not arise all at once.

Link to the Wisdom of Meditation by His Eminence, the 3rd Jamgon Kongtrul

Link to Sakya Mipham Rinpoche's teaching on meditation.

Most teachers, including Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in The Path is the Goal: A Basic Handbook of Buddhist Meditation, have said that the method is not as important as just doing it.  

How to Meditate

The ideal position is called the 7-point posture.

  1. Sit with back erect. The ears, shoulders and hips are in a straight line.
  2. Cross the legs and bend them at the knees. More flexible people can lift their feet and place them on the opposing thighs in the full lotus asana [pose]. When only one ankle is lifted [as in the picture], this is the vajra pose. Sitting tailor-fashion is fine, too.
  3. The hands and fingers are placed in different ways according to the tradition.  Palms cupped on the corresponding knees is fine.  [The graphic shows the palms upwards, but that is not generally recommended in the Buddhist tradition.]

It is also possible to sit upright in a chair with your feet comfortably apart  and planted firmly. ( This is the posture of the Future Buddha Maitreya.)  All these postures afford a stable position for long periods of "sitting".  

You can meditate lying down (the water buffalo position) but this tends to lead to sleep which is not a desirable goal since we want to remain alert.)

Different traditions and objectives will determine the position of the hands.  In the Tibetan Mahayana tradition, the hands, palms gently cupped, are rested on the corresponding knees so that the body forms a stable  pyramid.  
  1. The eyes are downcast and focused about 4 hand-breadths away from the feet. (Again, this is useful in preventing drowsiness, and in keeping the attention.)
  2. The tip of the tongue is lifted to rest behind the upper gums. This encourages proper breathing.
  3. Breathing is quieted until it is through the nose, slow and regular.
  4. The seat muscles are contracted [tightened] and then loosened. This is a technique to relax the body. 

Now, watch your mind. See if you can catch a glimpse of the space between your thoughts.  [For an amusing, effective example, see Lama Tashi's teaching in Dharma Diary, Feb. 2001.]

The Kagyu Mahamudra tradition [see Dharma Diary's account of Thrangu Rinpoche's Oct. 2000 teaching] teaches that we should not worry about what comes up in our mind nor how fast or slow it seems to be working. 

The mind may appear to behave in a highly erratic fashion.  It has been compared to a drunken monkey or an elephant in the state of masth [mature male elephants behave wildly and aggressively at the time of rut while they secrete special hormones from facial ducts] .  Buddha Shakyamuni's presence  is said to have brought such a dangerously charging beast to its knees.  

Generally, we find that the mind is full of neurotic, even obsessional, thoughts.  This is especially true if we have problems in our daily lives. Your mind and its memories may seem as if it is purposely trying to distract you from your goal. Songs and lyrics may intrude; all sorts of physical sensations tend to demand attention. (It is a good idea to use the toilet before sitting.) 

In the shamata [Tibetan: shinay ] tradition, we deal with very uncomfortable physical sensations by adjusting the body: If you feel very itchy, scratch; if a joint hurts too much, shift your position. If you need to cough, do so. Perhaps you can try gradually to overcome these sensations with patience and  practice over a few sessions.

As thoughts arise, recognize them for what they are - they are not your mind, but only products of it.  The mind, as you probably know already, is quite able to play tricks on us.  It often creates illusions, sometimes of things that have very little foundation.  Think of the cinematic experience, for example, in which a series of still images seem to possess movement - we call this entertainment, "the movies".  Think of a magician's performance.  In the traditional description, a rope becomes a snake.

 Getting Past the Monkey

The most usual way to calm the mind and quiet the monkey or get around it, is to follow the breath.  The breath is considered sacred, in the yogic tradition generally. It is the essence of life, among other things. But it is also can provide a powerful a focus for the mind. When you find that you are paying attention or are absorbed in a thought, direct yourself to your breathing:  Now I am breathing out, now I am breathing in.  Follow the breath. Do not alter your normal, relaxed breathing, though. This may take a little practice.

In some traditions, a chant or mantra is used.  But when done aloud, it increases sensory output among other things and even done silently, it serves to add a sound-memory to the breath, and may unduly complicate the process of simple, relaxed meditation.  

A technique from a tradition in which the eyes are closed during meditation, is to search for "the bright light" in the mind.  But this may create worry in people who have difficulty finding that particular sensation. Therefore, following the breath is a good option.


Thich Nath Han said that learning to meditate is like walking across a field of tall grass.  The first few times, it is difficult ~ there is no path.  After a few times, though, the way is clear and the going is easy.

The Zen tradition has a series of ox-herding pictures to illustrate progress in meditation.

Prayer and Meditation

Some traditions appeal for support or blessings from those who have been successful.

Here is a translation of the Kagyu Lineage Prayer [stanzas 4 and 5] :

As is taught, unwavering attention is the body of meditation;
whatever arises is the fresh nature of thought.
To the meditator who rests there in naturalness,
grant your blessing that meditation be free from intellectualization.

As is taught, the essence of thoughts is dharmakaya;
they are nothing whatsoever and yet they arise.
To the meditator who reflects upon the unobstructed play of the mind,
grant your blessing that the inseparability of samsara and nirvana be realized.



  1. I don't have time. Try five minutes here and there. Some is good, more is nice. An unbroken twenty minutes a day is not an unreasonable goal.
  2. It is too noisy here.  Practice where it is quiet if you can, to gain some control, but try meditating in different situations so that you can do it anywhere, if you desire.  Lock yourself in the bathroom, if you have to.  To keep a sacred spot is nice, but not always possible.
  3. I missed my regularly scheduled meditation time. Ideally, meditation is done morning and evening.  If you have to choose, first thing in the morning (after going to the bathroom, but before consuming anything) is best as you are less likely to be sleepy.
  4. My body is not suitable or ready. I am a smoker or user of other drugs/medication.  I am too stiff or old or fat or .... . Though your ideal may be a "pure" state, the body is very rarely pure.  Even that of great saints and sadhus is full of the most disgusting gasses and fluids.  Do not put the cart before the horse. The practice of meditation will help you attain other personal objectives.
  5. I am too troubled, in too great discomfort. More carts before more horses.  The horse of meditation practice will lead the cart of suffering to its terminus. 
  6. I already tried it; it didn't do anything for me.  That was the response of my aged father when I suggested that his chronic hip and back pain might diminish, and that his obsession with the past also would greatly lessen with the practice of meditation.  

It appeared however, that he was confusing relaxation techniques with meditation.  You know: now my toes are relaxed, my feet, my legs, etc.  These techniques are certainly useful to lessen pain and also to induce sleep; perhaps relaxation of the body may sometimes serve as a preparation for meditation but they are not the equivalent.

Confusing Meditation with Other Practices

People do confuse the term meditation with other techniques. See #6 above for relaxation which may lessen pain and also help bring sleep. 

In 1974, Lawrence LeShan wrote a popular short manual called How To Meditate which was reprinted several times. It served to draw attention to the fact that meditation is practiced in many cultures and religious traditions, but that book mainly concerns the mental activity called contemplation.   

In contemplation, an image or idea is evoked from the short- or long-term memory, or an object is used upon which the gaze rests.  Associated ideas in the form of events in a life or in symbolic associations are used to motivate the person or to draw them close to a being or an ideal.  A flame or a sacred image, prayers said with the beads of a rosary, repetitions of a phrase of the "human potential" type, eg. I am beautiful; I deserve wealth, are examples of this form of  mental activity.  They may be beneficial in various ways, but this is not what is generally meant by "meditation" in the Buddhist sense.  

To "meditate on the Life of Jesus", for example, serves to help a Christian person be conscious of the significance of the sacrifice of self for the sake of others. There is no doubt that to do this is a powerful and up-lifting experience, but perhaps the better expression is "contemplating the Life or Example" even if some people in so-doing may experience an actual identification with Christ.

Overview of Meditation in the Western* World

With the publication of The Autobiography of a Yogi by Swami Vivekananda, the genuine yogic tradition became less a part of the romantic fantasy sometimes known as Orientalism and more an acceptable, though eccentric, option for ordinary people. In the 1950's and '60's, many books and a few television series, especially Lilias, Yoga and You made for PBS, appeared.  

When it became known that The Beatles had travelled to Rishikesh in the foothills of the Himalayas to study with the jolly-looking Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, further attention was drawn to meditation.  Transcendental Meditation or TM made famous by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and to which Swami Shyams is said to have contributed, became the most common system outside Asia, with the Zen form of sitting practice [zazen] possibly next in popularity. 

Now the more relaxed Tibetan form, shinay,  has been slowly gaining in popularity.


Tips submitted to the kagyu.onelist intended for older, less flexible persons:

1. [If you have rheumatism or are arthritic, etc.] remember to take your medication a little before you start.

2. Use a decent cushion. I hate those round things [zafu] you see everywhere. I use a cushion that is "smile shaped" and pitched to be a bit higher in the back than the front. It is manufactured by Cosmic Cushion and is wonderful.

3. Put a little something under your bottom ankle. Or better yet, use a nice cushy zabuton.

4. Do some light stretching after sitting.

5. Put a zen [shawl, outer upper garment] or a light blanket on your legs to keep them warm. Make sure your feet are warm enough.

6. Get up when you start to get uncomfortable. Lengthen the time you sit gradually.

7. Most important of all: Keep your back straight, not arched, not slumped. .. . Your bones should be supporting you, not your muscles. If your muscles are complaining, you are not sitting in balance. I had a friend check out my alignment at first. Sitting out of balance is going to really hurt.


*Western is a term used to mean predominantly Euro-American in culture or life-style.