Chapter1 - Introduction
The New Meditation Handbook is a practical guide to meditation. It teaches us how to make both ourself and others happy. Although we wish to be happy all the time, we do not know how to be, and because of this we usually destroy the happiness we have by developing anger and other delusions. As the Buddhist Master Shantideva says:
… although they wish for happiness,We believe that by simply improving external conditions, we can be truly happy. Motivated by this belief, most countries have made remarkable material progress. However, as we can see, this does not really make us happier or reduce our problems but instead creates more problems, suffering, and danger. Because we have polluted our environment, water, and air, physically we are becoming more unhealthy, and different diseases are spreading throughout the world. Our lives are now more complicated, and mentally we are becoming more unhappy and worried. There are now more problems and greater dangers than ever before. This shows that we cannot make ourself happy by simply improving external conditions. Of course we need basic human conditions because we are human beings, but external conditions can only make us happy if our mind is peaceful. If our mind is not peaceful, we shall never be happy, even if our external conditions are perfect. For example, when we are enjoying ourself with our friends at a party, if we become angry for some particular reason, the moment we get angry our happiness disappears. This is because anger has destroyed our inner peace, or mental peace.
Out of ignorance they destroy it like a foe.
Without inner peace, there is no real happiness at all. The more we control our mind, the more our inner peace increases and the happier we become. Therefore, the real method to make ourself happy is to control our own mind. By controlling our mind – in particular, our anger, our attachment, and especially our self-grasping – all of our problems will disappear. We shall experience deep inner peace and be happy all the time. Problems, suffering, and unhappiness do not exist outside the mind; they are feelings and thus part of our mind. Therefore, it is only by controlling our mind that we can permanently stop our problems and make ourself and others truly happy.
The meditation practices presented in this book are actual methods to control our mind. Because everyone has different wishes and capacities, many different levels of meditation practice are given. In the beginning we should choose the level we feel most comfortable with, and gradually, through improving our understanding and familiarity, advance progressively to the higher levels. By continuously engaging in these meditations with joy and patience, we shall accomplish the ultimate goal of human life.
What is the ultimate goal of human life? What is it that we feel is most important for our happiness? Is it having a more attractive body, or lots of money and a good reputation, or fame and power, or excitement and adventure? We may feel that if we could only find the right place to live, the right possessions, the right work, the right friends, the right partner – the right everything – we would be truly happy. Consequently, we put most of our time and energy into trying to rearrange our world so as to achieve these aims. Sometimes this works, but only up to a point, and only for a short while. No matter how successful we are in creating seemingly perfect external conditions, there are invariably drawbacks; they can never give us the perfect lasting happiness that all of us long for. If we have made seeking happiness from external conditions the principal meaning of our life, eventually we shall be deceived, as none of them can help us at the time of our death. As an end in themselves, worldly attainments are hollow – they are not the real essence of human life.
In the past when human beings had more abundant merit, it is said that there were wish-granting jewels that had the power to grant wishes. But even these most precious worldly possessions could only fulfil wishes for contaminated happiness – they could never bestow the pure happiness that comes from a pure mind. Moreover, these wish-granting jewels only had the power to grant wishes in one life and could not protect their owners in future lives, so ultimately even they were deceptive.
Only the attainment of full enlightenment will never deceive us. What is enlightenment? It is omniscient wisdom free from all mistaken appearances. A person who possesses this wisdom is an enlightened being, a 'Buddha'. All beings other than Buddhas experience mistaken appearances all the time, day and night, even during sleep.
Whatever appears to us, we perceive as existing from its own side. This is mistaken appearance. We perceive 'I' and 'mine' as existing from their own side, and our mind grasps strongly at this appearance, believing it to be true – this is the mind of self-grasping ignorance. Due to this, we perform many inappropriate actions that lead us to experience suffering. This is the fundamental reason why we suffer. Enlightened beings are completely free from mistaken appearances and the sufferings they produce.
It is only by attaining enlightenment that we can fulfil our deepest wish for pure and lasting happiness, for nothing in this impure world has the power to fulfil this wish. Only when we become a fully enlightened Buddha shall we experience the profound and lasting peace that comes from a permanent cessation of all delusions and their imprints. We shall be free from all faults and mental obscurations, and possess the qualities needed to help all living beings directly. We shall then be an object of refuge for all living beings.
Through this understanding, we can clearly see that the attainment of enlightenment is the ultimate goal and real meaning of our precious human life. Since our main wish is to be happy all the time and to be completely free from all faults and suffering, we must develop the strong intention to attain enlightenment. We should think, 'I need to attain enlightenment because in this impure world there is no real happiness anywhere.'
WHAT IS MEDITATION?
Meditation is a mind that concentrates on a virtuous object, and which is the main cause of mental peace. The practice of meditation is a method for acquainting our mind with virtue. The more familiar our mind is with virtue, the calmer and more peaceful it becomes. When our mind is peaceful, we are free from worries and mental discomfort, and we experience true happiness. If we train our mind to become peaceful we shall be happy all the time, even in the most adverse conditions; but if our mind is not peaceful, then even if we have the most pleasant external conditions we shall not be happy. Therefore, it is important to train our mind through meditation.
Whenever we meditate, we are performing an action that causes us to experience inner peace in the future. Day and night, throughout our life, we usually experience delusions, which are the opposite to mental peace. However, sometimes we naturally experience inner peace. This is because in our previous lives we concentrated on virtuous objects. A virtuous object is one that causes us to develop a peaceful mind when we concentrate on it. If we concentrate on an object that causes us to develop an unpeaceful mind, such as anger or attachment, this indicates that for us the object is non-virtuous. There are also many neutral objects that are neither virtuous nor non-virtuous.
There are two types of meditation: analytical meditation and placement meditation. Analytical meditation involves contemplating the meaning of a spiritual instruction that we have heard or read. By contemplating such instructions deeply, eventually we reach a definite conclusion or cause a specific virtuous state of mind to arise. This is the object of placement meditation. We then concentrate single-pointedly on this conclusion or virtuous state of mind for as long as possible to become deeply acquainted with it. This single-pointed concentration is placement meditation. Often, analytical meditation is called 'contemplation' and placement meditation is called 'meditation'. Placement meditation depends upon analytical meditation, and analytical meditation depends upon listening to or reading spiritual instructions.
THE BENEFITS OF MEDITATION
The purpose of meditation is to make our mind calm and peaceful. As mentioned earlier, if our mind is peaceful we shall be free from worries and mental discomfort, and so we shall experience true happiness; but if our mind is not peaceful, we shall find it very difficult to be happy, even if we are living in the very best conditions. If we train in meditation, our mind will gradually become more and more peaceful, and we shall experience a purer and purer form of happiness. Eventually we shall be able to stay happy all the time, even in the most difficult circumstances.
Usually we find it difficult to control our mind. It seems as if our mind is like a balloon in the wind – blown here and there by external circumstances. If things go well, our mind is happy, but if they go badly, it immediately becomes unhappy. For example, if we get what we want, such as a new possession, a new position, or a new partner, we become excited and cling to it tightly. However, since we cannot have everything we want, and since we shall inevitably be separated from the friends, position, and possessions we currently enjoy, this mental stickiness, or attachment, serves only to cause us pain. On the other hand, if we do not get what we want, or if we lose something that we like, we become despondent or irritated. For example, if we are forced to work with a colleague whom we dislike, we shall probably become irritated and feel aggrieved, with the result that we shall be unable to work with him or her efficiently and our time at work will become stressful and unrewarding.
Such fluctuations of mood arise because we are too closely involved in the external situation. We are like a child making a sandcastle who is excited when it is first made, but who becomes upset when it is destroyed by the incoming tide. By training in meditation, we create an inner space and clarity that enables us to control our mind regardless of the external circumstances. Gradually we develop mental equilibrium, a balanced mind that is happy all the time, rather than an unbalanced mind that oscillates between the extremes of excitement and despondency.
If we train in meditation systematically, eventually we shall be able to eradicate from our mind the delusions that are the causes of all our problems and suffering. In this way, we shall come to experience permanent inner peace. Then, day and night in life after life, we shall experience only peace and happiness.
At the beginning, even if our meditation does not seem to be going well, we should remember that simply by applying effort to training in meditation, we are creating the mental karma to experience inner peace in the future. The happiness of this life and of our future lives depends upon the experience of inner peace, which in turn depends upon the mental action of meditation. Since inner peace is the source of all happiness, we can see how important meditation is.
HOW TO BEGIN MEDITATION
The first stage of meditation is to stop distractions and make our mind clearer and more lucid. This can be accomplished by practising a simple breathing meditation. We choose a quiet place to meditate and sit in a comfortable position. We can sit in the traditional cross-legged posture or in any other position that is comfortable. If we wish, we can sit in a chair. The most important thing is to keep our back straight to prevent our mind from becoming sluggish or sleepy.
We sit with our eyes partially closed and turn our attention to our breathing. We breathe naturally, preferably through the nostrils, without attempting to control our breath, and we try to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. This sensation is our object of meditation. We should try to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.
At first our mind will be very busy, and we might even feel that the meditation is making our mind busier; but in reality we are just becoming more aware of how busy our mind actually is. There will be a great temptation to follow the different thoughts as they arise, but we should resist this and remain focused single-pointedly on the sensation of the breath. If we discover that our mind has wandered and is following our thoughts, we should immediately return it to the breath. We should repeat this as many times as necessary until the mind settles on the breath.
If we practise patiently in this way, gradually our distracting thoughts will subside and we shall experience a sense of inner peace and relaxation. Our mind will feel lucid and spacious and we shall feel refreshed. When the sea is rough, sediment is churned up and the water becomes murky, but when the wind dies down the mud gradually settles and the water becomes clear. In a similar way, when the otherwise incessant flow of our distracting thoughts is calmed through concentrating on the breath, our mind becomes unusually lucid and clear. We should stay with this state of mental calm for a while.
Even though breathing meditation is only a preliminary stage of meditation, it can be quite powerful. We can see from this practice that it is possible to experience inner peace and contentment just by controlling the mind, without having to depend at all upon external conditions. When the turbulence of distracting thoughts subsides and our mind becomes still, a deep happiness and contentment naturally arises from within. This feeling of contentment and well-being helps us to cope with the busyness and difficulties of daily life. So much of the stress and tension we normally experience comes from our mind, and many of the problems we experience, including ill health, are caused or aggravated by this stress. Just by doing breathing meditation for ten or fifteen minutes each day, we shall be able to reduce this stress. We shall experience a calm, spacious feeling in the mind, and many of our usual problems will fall away. Difficult situations will become easier to deal with, we shall naturally feel warm and well disposed towards other people, and our relationships with others will gradually improve.
We should train in this preliminary meditation until we reduce our gross distractions, and then train in the twenty-one meditations explained in The New Meditation Handbook. When we do these meditations, we begin by calming the mind with breathing meditation as just explained, and then we proceed to the stages of analytical and placement meditation according to the specific instructions for each meditation.
BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE REQUIRED FOR MEDITATION
Since the meditations presented in this book assume a belief in rebirth, or reincarnation, and in karma, or actions, a brief description of the process of death and rebirth, and the places in which we can be reborn, may be helpful.
The mind is neither physical, nor a by-product of physical processes, but is a formless continuum that is a separate entity from the body. When the body disintegrates at death, the mind does not cease. Although our superficial conscious mind ceases, it does so by dissolving into a deeper level of consciousness, the very subtle mind; and the continuum of the very subtle mind has no beginning and no end. It is this mind that, when thoroughly purified, transforms into the omniscient mind of a Buddha.
Every action we perform leaves an imprint on our very subtle mind, and each imprint eventually gives rise to its own effect. Our mind is like a field, and performing actions is like sowing seeds in that field. Virtuous actions sow seeds of future happiness and non-virtuous actions sow seeds of future suffering. The seeds we have sown in the past remain dormant until the conditions necessary for their germination come together. In some cases, this can be many lifetimes after the original action was performed.
The seeds that ripen when we die are very important because they determine what kind of rebirth we shall take. Which particular seed ripens at death depends upon the state of mind in which we die. If we die with a peaceful mind, this will stimulate a virtuous seed and we shall take a fortunate rebirth; but if we die with an unpeaceful mind, in a state of anger, say, this will stimulate a non-virtuous seed and we shall take an unfortunate rebirth. This is similar to the way in which nightmares are triggered off by our being in an agitated state of mind just before falling asleep.
The analogy of falling asleep is not accidental, for the process of sleeping, dreaming, and waking closely resembles the process of death, intermediate state, and rebirth. When we fall asleep, our gross inner winds gather and dissolve inwards, and our mind becomes progressively more and more subtle until it transforms into the very subtle mind of the clear light of sleep. While the clear light of sleep is manifest, we experience deep sleep, and to others we resemble a dead person. When it ends, our mind becomes gradually more and more gross and we pass through the various levels of the dream state. Finally, our normal powers of memory and mental control are restored and we wake up. When this happens, our dream world disappears and we perceive the world of the waking state.
A very similar process occurs when we die. As we die, our winds dissolve inwards and our mind becomes progressively more and more subtle until the very subtle mind of the clear light of death becomes manifest. The experience of the clear light of death is very similar to the experience of deep sleep. After the clear light of death has ceased, we experience the stages of the intermediate state, or 'bardo' in Tibetan, which is a dream-like state that occurs between death and rebirth. After a few days or weeks, the intermediate state ends and we take rebirth. Just as, when we wake from sleep, the dream world disappears and we perceive the world of the waking state, so, when we take rebirth, the appearances of the intermediate state cease and we perceive the world of our next life.
The only significant difference between the process of sleeping, dreaming, and waking and the process of death, intermediate state, and rebirth is that after the clear light of sleep has ceased, the relationship between our mind and our present body remains intact, whereas after the clear light of death, this relationship is broken.
While we are in the intermediate state, we experience different visions that arise from the karmic seeds that were activated immediately before death. If negative seeds were activated, these visions will be nightmarish, but if positive seeds were activated, they will be predominantly pleasant. In either case, once the karmic seeds have matured sufficiently, they impel us to take rebirth in one or other of the six realms of samsara.
The six realms are actual places in which we can be reborn. They are brought into existence through the power of our actions, or karma. There are three types of action: bodily actions, verbal actions, and mental actions. Since our bodily and verbal actions are initiated by our mental actions, ultimately the six realms are created by our mind. For example, a hell realm is a place that arises as a result of the worst actions, such as murder or extreme mental or physical cruelty, which depend upon the most deluded states of mind.
To form a mental image of the six realms, we can compare them to the floors of a large, old house. In this analogy, the house represents samsara, the cycle of contaminated rebirth that ordinary beings undergo without choice or control. The house has three storeys above ground and three below. Deluded sentient beings are like the inhabitants of this house. They are continually moving up and down the house, sometimes living above ground, sometimes below.
The ground floor corresponds to the human realm. Above this, on the first floor, is the realm of the demi-gods – non-human beings who are continually at war with the gods. In terms of power and prosperity, they are superior to human beings, but they are so obsessed with jealousy and violence that their lives have little spiritual value.
On the top floor live the gods. The lower classes of gods, the desire realm gods, live a life of ease and luxury, devoting their time to enjoyment and the satisfaction of their desires. Though their world is a paradise and their lifespan is very long, they are not immortal and they eventually fall to lower states. Since their lives are filled with distractions, it is difficult for them to find the motivation to practise Dharma, Buddha’s teachings. From a spiritual point of view, a human life is much more meaningful than a god’s life.
Higher than the desire realm gods are the gods of the form and formless realms. Having passed beyond sensual desire, the form realm gods experience the refined bliss of meditative absorption and possess bodies made of light. Transcending even these subtle forms, the gods of the formless realm abide without form in a subtle consciousness that resembles infinite space. Though their minds are the purest and most exalted within samsara, they have not overcome the ignorance of self-grasping, which is the root of samsara, and so, after experiencing bliss for many aeons, eventually their lives end and they are once again reborn in the lower states of samsara. Like the other gods, they consume the merit, or good fortune, they have created in the past and make little or no spiritual progress.
The three storeys above ground are called the 'fortunate realms' because the beings who inhabit them have relatively pleasant experiences, which are caused by the practice of virtue. Below ground are the three lower realms, which are the result of negative bodily, verbal, and mental actions. The least painful of these is the animal realm, which, in the analogy, is the first floor beneath the ground. Included in this realm are all mammals apart from human beings, as well as birds, fish, insects, worms – the whole animal kingdom. Their minds are characterized by extreme stupidity, without any spiritual awareness, and their lives by fear and brutality.
On the next floor down live the hungry ghosts, or hungry spirits. The principal causes of rebirth here are greed and negative actions motivated by miserliness. The consequence of these actions is extreme poverty. Hungry spirits suffer hunger and thirst over a long period of time, which they find extremely difficult to bear. Their world is a vast desert. If by chance they come across a drop of water or a scrap of food, it disappears like a mirage or transforms into something repulsive, such as pus or urine. These appearances are due to their negative karma and lack of merit.
The lowest floor is hell. The beings here experience unrelenting torment. Some hells are a mass of fire, others are desolate regions of ice and darkness. Monsters conjured up by the minds of the hell beings inflict terrible tortures on them. The suffering continues unremittingly for what seems an eternity, but eventually the karma that caused the beings to be born in hell is exhausted and the hell beings die and are reborn elsewhere in samsara.
This is a general picture of samsara. We have been trapped in samsara since beginningless time, wandering meaninglessly, without any freedom or control, from the highest heaven to the deepest hell. Sometimes we dwell on the upper storeys as gods, and sometimes we find ourself on the ground floor with a human rebirth, but most of the time we are trapped on the underground floors, experiencing terrible physical and mental suffering.
Although samsara resembles a prison, there is however one door through which we can escape. That door is emptiness, the ultimate nature of phenomena. By training in the spiritual paths described in this book, we shall eventually find our way to this door and, stepping through, discover that the house was simply an illusion, the creation of our impure mind. Samsara is not an external prison; it is a prison made by our own mind. It will never end by itself but, by diligently practising the true spiritual path and thereby eliminating our self-grasping and other delusions, we can bring our samsara to an end. Once we attain liberation ourself, we shall then be in a position to show others how to destroy their mental prison by eradicating their delusions.
If we practise the twenty-one meditations presented in this book, we shall gradually overcome the deluded states of mind that keep us imprisoned in samsara and develop all the qualities needed to attain full enlightenment. The first six meditations function principally to help us to develop renunciation, the determination to escape from samsara. The next twelve meditations help us to cultivate heartfelt love and compassion for all living beings, and lead us to the realization that we can liberate others from samsara only by attaining enlightenment first. The principal obstacle that prevents us from attaining liberation and enlightenment is self-grasping, a deeply ingrained misconception of the way things exist. The main function of the next two meditations is to counter, and eventually to eradicate, this misconception. The final meditation is the method to gain deeper experience of the previous twenty meditations.
HOW TO MEDITATE
Each of the twenty-one meditation practices has five parts: preparation, contemplation, meditation, dedication, and subsequent practice. The instructions that explain these twenty-one meditation practices are called the 'stages of the path', or 'Lamrim'. The realizations of these meditations are the actual spiritual paths that lead us to the great liberation of full enlightenment.
The first part, the preparatory practices, prepare us for successful meditation by purifying hindrances caused by our previous negative actions, by accumulating merit (or good fortune), and by enabling us to receive the blessings of enlightened beings. The preparatory practices are very important if we wish to gain deep experience of these meditations. For this purpose, we can begin our meditation with Prayers for Meditation, which can be found in Appendix I. A commentary to these practices can be found in Appendix II.
The purpose of the second part, contemplation, or analytical meditation, is to bring to mind the object of placement meditation. We do this by considering various lines of reasoning, contemplating analogies, and reflecting on the meaning of the instructions. It is helpful to memorize the contemplations given in each section so that we can meditate without having to look at the text. The contemplations given here are intended only as guidelines. We should supplement and enrich them with whatever reasons and examples we find helpful.
When, through our contemplations, the object appears clearly, we leave our analytical meditation and concentrate on the object single-pointedly. This single-pointed concentration is the third part, the actual meditation.
When we first start to meditate, our concentration is poor; we are easily distracted and often lose our object of meditation. Therefore, to begin with, we shall probably need to alternate between contemplation and placement meditation many times in each session. For example, if we are meditating on compassion, we begin by contemplating the various sufferings experienced by living beings until a strong feeling of compassion arises in our heart. When this feeling arises, we meditate on it single-pointedly. If the feeling fades, or if our mind wanders to another object, we should return to analytical meditation to bring the feeling back to mind. When the feeling of compassion has been restored, we once again leave our analytical meditation and hold the feeling with single-pointed concentration.
Both contemplation and meditation serve to acquaint our mind with virtuous objects. The more familiar we are with such objects, the more peaceful our mind becomes. By training in meditation, and living in accordance with the insights and resolutions developed during meditation, eventually we shall be able to maintain a peaceful mind continuously, throughout our life. More detailed instructions on the contemplations and on meditation in general can be found in Transform Your Life and Joyful Path of Good Fortune.
At the end of each session, we dedicate the merit produced by our meditation towards the attainment of enlightenment. If merit is not dedicated, it can easily be destroyed by anger. By reciting the dedication prayers sincerely at the end of each meditation session, we ensure that the merit we created by meditating is not wasted but acts as a cause of enlightenment.
The fifth part of each meditation practice is the subsequent practice. This consists of advice on how to integrate the meditation into our daily life. It is important to remember that Dharma practice is not confined to our activities during the meditation session; it should permeate our whole life. We should not allow a gulf to develop between our meditation and our daily life, because the success of our meditation depends upon the purity of our conduct outside the meditation session. We should keep a watch over our mind at all times by applying mindfulness, alertness, and conscientiousness; and we should try to abandon whatever bad habits we may have. Deep experience of Dharma is the result of practical training over a long period of time, both in and out of meditation. Therefore, we should practise steadily and gently, without being in a hurry to see results.
To summarize, our mind is like a field. Engaging in the preparatory practices is like preparing the field by removing obstacles caused by past negative actions, making it fertile with merit, and watering it with the blessings of the holy beings. Contemplation and meditation are like sowing good seeds, and dedication and subsequent practice are the methods for ripening our harvest of Dharma realizations.
Lamrim instructions are not given merely for the sake of intellectual understanding of the path to enlightenment. They are given to help us to gain deep experience, and should therefore be put into practice. If we train our mind in these meditations every day, eventually we shall gain perfect realizations of all the stages of the path. Until we have reached this stage, we should not tire of listening to oral teachings on Lamrim or reading authentic Lamrim commentaries, and then contemplating and meditating on these instructions. We need continually to expand our understanding of these essential topics and to use this new understanding to enhance our regular meditation.
If we genuinely wish to gain experience of the stages of the path, we should try to meditate every day. On the first day we can meditate on our precious human life, on the second day we can meditate on death and impermanence, and so on, until we complete the whole cycle in twenty-one days. Then we can begin again. Between sessions, we should try to remain mindful of the instructions on subsequent practice. Occasionally, when we have the opportunity, we should do a retreat on Lamrim. A suggested retreat schedule is given in Appendix IV. By practising like this, we use our whole life to further our experience of the stages of the path.