Meditation Questions and Answers
What Meditation Is
- a way of making the mind more awake, clear and wise
- a way of discerning truth from illusion
- a way of facing up to oneself: overcoming the problems and developing the good things
- a means for replacing self-centred illusions with natural compassion
- a limitless possibility, for which the Buddha taught hundreds of techniques
- sometimes difficult, but always aimed at bringing lasting benefits as a reward
- a lifetime's [or many lifetimes'] work
What Meditation Is Not
- a sort of trance.
- a means for increasing one's illusions
- an escape
- a simplistic solution limited to one or two techniques
- necessarily easy
- a quick fix
Of course, it is possible and easy to learn a simple concentration technique that can be practised for say 15 minutes a day, with a view to de-stressing a bit; relaxing and becoming more peaceful. But this is not really Buddhist meditation - more the mental equivalent of taking an aspirin for a headache - a great and useful relief, but only a short-term measure.
Buddhist meditation is a training, enabling one to take gradually tame one's mind, rather than being at the mercy of its moods. In fact, the root sense of the Tibetan word for meditation [sgom] means to become accustomed to. Meditation systematically uproots old habits of passion, anger, pride, jealousy, self-pity, dullness etc. and gets one accustomed to a state of awareness, compassion and peaceful wisdom.
This mastery of one's mind - as opposed to being a puppet of its conditioning - is an all-encompassing process than reaches far beyond the meditation cushion to eventually bring awareness into the whole of one's life. Sgom also has a meaning of training. The fine work that one does with the mind, when training the mind in formal meditation sessions, will automatically create new reflexes which will transform the way in which one experiences everyday life. In the process, one discovers the true potential of the human mind.
What different types of meditation are there?As the overall purpose of meditation is to understand and transform one's own mind, and the human mind is a very complex thing, many different types of technique are needed to work with it efficiently and compassionately.
However, all the techniques fall into 2 main categories;
- samatta .. those that work with one's conditioned habits of feeling, emotion, thought, perception and consciousness, gradually eliminating the unwanted and painful areas of oneself and bringing an experience of peace, calm and stability.These sometimes involve specific reflections, contemplations, visualisations, breathing techniques, concentration on an object etc. The main point is to learn how to keep the mind where one wants it to be - in a place which is bringing much benefit to oneself and others. This is why samatta is defined as keeping the mind one-pointedly in virtue
- vipasyana .. techniques which use the peaceful stability of samatta as a basis for developing deep insight into the true nature of reality.
What do I need to learn?Buddhist practice, and meditation in particular, is often compared to a medicine. The patient is one's mind. Its ailments are all the unwanted pains of existence and limitations of mind. Health is the fully-awakened, linitless mind of enlightenment. A good teacher is like a good doctor. Just as a good doctor diagnoses each patient's case and prescribes a treatment just right for that person, so does a good Buddhist meditation master come to understand the unique mixture of elements that each one of us is composed of, and prescribe a series of meditations best suited to each individual's development.
Thus the main thing to learn is a technique suited to one's aspirations, possibilities, strengths and weaknesses. This touches on the beauty of there being many ways within Buddhism, each responding to different needs. However, one can say that, in general, all Buddhist meditation involves working with body, speech and mind. Training in some degree of physical mastery will harmonise the prime elements of the body, improve its health, make its movements smooth and mindful and, above all, reduce the harm it may do to oneself or others. Training the "speech" involves understanding and improving communicative power of a human existence, making it (as the body) non-harmful, mindful and a source of well-being. This can be very effectively accomplished through prayer and mantra. Training the mind, which is the real master of body and speech, involves the work described in the samatta and vipasyana sections above.
Who can teach me?Our mind is our most fragile and precious possession. From a Buddhist point of view, believing in reincarnation, lives come and go and this human life, although so precious, is but one of a long series of existences. Our mind, however, although changing all the time, is ourself. One cannot get away from it even for one second. If it improves in this life, one will be happier in the next - and so on and so forth. Therefore it is absolutely vital to meditate - i.e. change one's mind - under the guidance of someone highly competent. In the Kagyu tradition, it is considered better to turn to really experienced and highly-realised teachers for meditation guidance, even if that involves some difficulty, rather than taking lots of advice from many different good people, whose intentions and own lives may be very pure but whose own penetration into the deeper truths of existence is still clouded by ignorance.
This having been said, it is possible, and often the most practical course, to learn the most simple and elementary techniques of meditation from fairly-experienced meditators who have been authorised by authentic lineage- masters to pass on certain things. These beginners' techniques will bring certain experiences and questions and it is the development of one's meditation practice, from then on, that needs to be done in dialogue with an excellent teacher.
These days, there are many people offering meditation tuition. Quite what dangers or benefits exist in what they have to offer is anybody's guess. In the ROKPA centres - called Samye Dzongs and Samye Lings - we make special efforts to bring teachings that are truly traditional, coming to us today from the Buddha through an unbroken lineage of enlightened teachers.