A Transcript of teaching given by Lama Zangmo during a Meditation Retreat at Purelands Retreat Centre in October 2013 shortly after Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche's sudden and tragic death.
Day 1: Introduction and explanation of prayers for Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
This morning I would like to give you some meditation instructions. For those of you who are new this will be practice instructions, for those of you have meditated already it will be a reminder, a refresher. And we always need reminders so just go with that and try to focus your mind on this time. Try to really keep a focused mind. Make the most of the time that you have because it will be gone before you know it. Just like that. Seven or eight days are over and you are on the train back home and you think where did it go? Where does the time fly?
So I would recommend that you really try and appreciate and inspire yourself. Feel that you are very fortunate to be here at this particular time, this historic time with Rinpoche. This is a very special time. It’s a blessing. His presence is here so much at this centre. Everybody is gathering around chanting and doing all the different practices that are normally done when somebody has passed away. So this is not really for Rinpoche that we are doing this because he doesn’t need our prayers, he is someone who is really totally ok in himself. He will know how to deal with death.
We are not praying for Rinpoche, we are praying for ourselves. We are praying to appreciate all the things that we have received from him. And for people who are new here, you may feel that this does not directly relate to you but of course this centre would not be here without Rinpoche. So just by you being able to come to retreat like this, this is due to Rinpoche. And everything that you see around you is due to Rinpoche, and his brother Lama Yeshe also. So the prayers are about appreciation, gratitude and recognising what a unique opportunity we have to be here.
The prayers are also a form of purification. We say sometimes, that there is a strong connection between a teacher and student. So if we have had any negativities or any run-ins, which you sometimes have with a teacher then you try to purify that through the prayers. Like saying sorry, I didn’t mean it. Like when you have a friend and you have an argument, afterwards you make up. It’s the same thing. With your teacher it’s the same thing. It’s even more powerful because it’s a very powerful relationship.
So prayers or chanting or pujas are really about if there were any what we would call breakages, then we heal those breakages. In any relationship we have things to heal: in our family relationships or with friends we are constantly acting in unskilful ways. We are constantly having negative thoughts, saying negative things, acting in an angry or negative way. That is not conducive to good relationships. So we try to make up for them, we try to change, we try to show the other person that we do care, we are concerned for you, we are your friend, you are mine, I do love you as my mother, as my father, as my child or as my friend, whatever that relationship is.
With a spiritual friend it’s even more important because it affects our spiritual path. If we don’t have good relations with the teacher, it blocks the natural flow. It says that if we don’t have a good relationship with a teacher we are like somebody who has blocked a water tap or faucet with clay and we are standing with our head under the tap trying to drink and complaining saying, why is there no water? Why can’t I get anything? Why is there nothing coming my way? Why is everybody else getting why am something and I am not?
When we have a negative mind it blocks the flow, blocks the ability to receive. So it is very important to have good relations with our teachers, a pure relationship and pure perception. But of course we are human beings and teachers are human beings. And so from time to time especially if you are around them, there are bound to be negative perceptions or disagreements and so the prayers are also about healing that.
The prayers are also about the accumulation of merit through making offerings - a tsok puja. In the afternoon during the tsok puja a little bit of food is passed around to everybody, sweets, biscuits whatever. They have been blessed in the puja and when you eat it and you think of it as a blessing like amrita that flows through your body, through your pores and all the finer channels in your body and purifies everything. You think that by eating this you are receiving a blessing that purifies body speech and mind.
The prayers are also about expressing your own devotion and appreciation. If you are by yourself when you hear of something like this happening it’s quite hard to deal with the grief, hard to come to terms with losing somebody, so coming together with everyone and doing these prayers is a way of expressing your feelings whatever they may be. Or you simply wish to meditate. I think that you have all come at a very special time, a very highly charged time, a very powerful time at Samye Ling. And I think you are very fortunate to be here now at this time. It’s a good connection that you are making through that.
The importance of retreat
Remember that when you are on retreat you always have good days and bad days, good sessions and bad sessions. It’s normal. If sometimes you feel that your mind was very distracted or that you have a lot of aches and pains, in the next session you might be perfectly fine. So just take things as they come and don’t feel worried, don’t feel that it’s a big deal. You don’t need to make a big deal out of anything you experience. Just learn to see it as coming and going and relax with whatever arises. That’s the best approach.
When you come on retreat you leave all your busyness behind for a period of time so that you can dedicate yourself fully to practice. The reason it is so important to go on retreat is that it doesn’t stir up your mind as much. When you are out there you are constantly bombarded with TV, news, conversations with people, telephone calls, and all of this stirs up the mind, stirs up the kleshas and the emotions. Emotions arise from thoughts, which are either negative or positive. First there are thoughts and then the emotions come: anger, attachment, and jealousy.
More often than not it’s the negative thoughts that arise. And so it’s the negative emotions that arise. This is our habit. If we look at how much of our time is spent in positive thinking, in positive feelings, in positive remembrances, and in a happy frame of mind, and if we look at how much time is spent on judging, projecting, being angry or slightly irritable, full of attachment, fear of losing what we have, confusion, anxiety and stress, then I think we will see that most of our time is on the negative side rather than the positive side, unfortunately.
That’s why we are all here, because this is something we can change. Our mind can change. We can change our habits. When you are on retreat you have an environment that is conducive to change. The environment is so important. We are influenced by everything around us: other people, traffic, colours, smells, sounds, everything that comes through our five senses influences us and then thoughts and emotions arise.
According to the The Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra by Maitreya, there are five things that will help to create the right environment for mediation. First of all we should not put a lot of effort into food, clothes and our other daily necessities. You might think that you don’t anyway, but if you think of it actually in a day how much of our time goes into shopping and cooking, cleaning and looking nice for the world? A lot of time is spent on that and here we don’t have to bother. Don’t bother at all trying to look beautiful, just be natural and take it easy. Be simple.
The second thing is to be in an appropriate place. This is certainly an appropriate place. It has been used for retreat for years and years and many great teachers have taught here including Situ Rinpoche, Kalu Rinpoche, Thrangu Rinpoche. The Dalai Lama came to visit us in the first retreat in 1985. All these great masters have visited, not just ordinary teachers but great masters have been here. They say that if a place has been blessed by all these great masters, then it is a good place for retreat. This is also a safe place: no thieves are going to come and rob you here. Purelands is a good place for retreat: secluded, quiet, in the countryside, and we are being looked after by a caretaker and a cook. All of these things make it the right environment, an appropriate place.
The third thing that is conducive to retreat is that your body needs to be free from sickness. The text actually says you need a place free from sickness. So the place is a pure place and you are all relatively free from sickness. We may not be in perfect 100% tip-top form but we are able to sit and keep a clear mind.
The fourth thing is that you need to have good companions. You have to be with people who have a similar positive motivation. None of you are here to party or to sleep. You might feel sleepy, but you didn’t come here because you want to sleep for a week, you came here because you want to practice. This is very positive: you all have a positive motivation and good view and we are all trying our very best to act with our body speech and mind and to be kind to each other. If you have arguments and fighting when you are on retreat then this is not good. It is very negative and disturbing because you tend to take into your session whatever has happened between sessions.
The last thing conducive to retreat is that we should have all the necessities needed for retreat. What this means is that we should try and stay simple, have a simple mind that is not filled with desires. If we keep things simple and if we are content then we have less desire. If we have less desire we have less disturbance in our practice. Our mind will be more peaceful and at ease. So those 5 things are recommended when you go on retreat. They will help you to settle, to be content and to be at ease in your retreat.
We have looked at creating an environment conducive to meditation, but of course meditation is internal, it’s our minds. We tend to look at externals a lot and to blame others for whatever we experience. We always think it is somebody else’s fault. Meditation is about looking inside and realising that if we want to be happy we need to tame our own mind. We can’t really change the world. Sometimes when we complain about others and have a sense of resentment we may have a point. But the thing is, we cannot change others. We can only change ourselves. And if we can work on our mind that means we can be happy no matter what happens. Or we can be wise in our choices. We can make choices where we extricate ourselves from a situation and place ourselves in another situation. Or we can be wise in how we deal with a situation so that it causes less internal disturbance both for ourselves and for others.
In meditation we try to develop a calm mind and to understand that when our mind is not calm that is when we are unhappy. Generally, a calm mind means a happy mind. All of the meditation instructions are about developing this calm mind. A calm mind is where we have perspective, where our mind is drawn to the positive rather than to the negative. So in meditation you are training yourself to move away from the negative and toward the positive. This is what will make you happy. This is what will calm your mind. This is what will give you ease and freedom.
We say that our mind is like a wild child who has not yet been taught very well by the parents; a child that creates havoc, throws things around, makes a lot of noise. In meditation we are like the parents bringing the child gently to where it should be; telling the child don’t do that, this is what you should be doing.
Children need advice and guidance or they can become wild and uncontrollable. They need to learn what is right and what is wrong, what is positive and what is negative. And that is the situation we are in. Our mind is like this wild child who hasn’t mastered what is positive and what is negative, hasn’t realised that when we are negative we hurt ourselves. We don’t get it, because if we really got it we wouldn’t do it. Meditation is guiding our mind, like a parent guiding a child. It’s very simple advice. Just like a mother would say to her child don’t have bad friends. This person is a good friend, go and see your good friends. Don’t hang out with these bad guys. In the same way with shinay meditation we are saying stay with the positive. Don’t go to the negative, stay with the positive. When you are with the positive there is no room for the negative.
It’s a bit like sunshine. You can’t have sunshine and shadow in the same place at the same time. They exclude each other. They are mutually exclusive. By encouraging positive mind states we are not fighting the negative, instead we are engaging with the positive .We let the sun in. We are opening up the curtains and saying, yes we want sunshine. We don’t want to be sitting in this dark shady place. We want sunshine and the shadow just naturally goes. We don’t have to fight our bad habits. This is something that is never recommended in meditation. You are never recommended to fight your habits or fight your tendencies or fight your thoughts. It is like shadow boxing: you are seeing your own shadow on the wall and you are trying to box. There is nothing there to fight. Simply focus on the positive and the negative will go. This is a peaceful approach in meditation. In shinay meditation all the different techniques have the same goal of pacifying the mind and bringing in the positive.
There are many different techniques in the meditation instructions. Basically we are trying to focus our mind on something. The focus may vary but it always has the same goal of settling the mind into this peaceful state. Shinay is Tibetan, shamatha is Sanskrit but they mean the same thing. In Tibetan shi means peace and nay means to rest, or abide, hold or settle. This is telling us what we are trying to do: settle our mind in this calm peaceful state that is positive and at ease. A state of mind that is not negative, not emotionally fragmented or painful. The support is something to direct your mind onto.
Even though the techniques differ they are essentially the same. You are trying to rest your mind, trying to direct your mind to the support. At the moment we don’t have the freedom to do that. Our mind is not able to rest in one place. Our mind is not able to do what we tell it to do. That is why we need to meditate. That is why we need to train because when we try to settle on one place we may be able to stay for a little while but the mind is restless and goes down the old pathways.
The shi in shinay meditation means peace, pacifying the negative states of mind, the negative emotions. The three main emotions are attachment, aversion and ignorance. Attachment in terms of grasping, aversion in terms of all the different shades of anger and resentment and ignorance not in terms of knowledge or lack of knowledge, but ignorance in terms of lack of clarity, lack of presence. It’s a dull state of mind. It might seem neutral but it’s more like dullness. So when we say shinay we try to be in a state of mind free from thoughts based on these emotions: free from angry thoughts, free from thoughts based on desire and attachment, free from dullness, sleepiness and lack of clarity. That’s the process of shinay: we try to remain with the object but if we cannot, at least we do not remain with negative thoughts.
When you become more familiar with meditation it should become like riding a horse or skiing. The minute you lose your balance something kicks in like an awareness or reflex and you regain your balance. When you become more skilled with meditation you don’t get so easily side tracked. Your awareness and mindfulness is strong enough to bring you back. That’s what you should try to be aware of rather than chasing after thoughts. We know the result of chasing after thought: anxiety, stress, painful emotions. It doesn’t matter what we chase after, it’s the chasing that is a restless feeling. So shinay is about coming to this point where we are able to settle, where we gradually and gently allow the mind to settle on an object.
Settling the mind without an object is very difficult. The mind can’t settle on its own because it is so habituated to act in certain ways. We might think that this is who I am, but actually it’s not who we are. We can learn, we can change negative tendencies, we can develop our strengths, we can let go of our weaknesses. Meditation practice is about developing stability. We have that ability. We have a mind we can develop. In this process of positive thoughts and negative thoughts we can see that the thoughts generate corresponding positive and negative emotions. So for our own sakes we must try to develop the positive. When we are very emotional there isn’t that peace, that stability, that positive mind. Meditation will develop that.
Of course what we find is that then when we try to sit, we don’t know how much of that time was actually spent in meditation. Was it meditation? Or was it just sitting and thinking about the past or the future, or thinking about your knees and your back in the present moment? We might find in the beginning that out of an hour, half an hour was completely gone and we weren’t here at all. But maybe in the other half we had some degree of what we could call meditation. For a big part of it we just drift off.
In the beginning meditation is the process of drifting off and the moment you recognise that you are gone, you come back. You are constantly tying up that wild horse. They say tie up the horse with the rope of mindfulness. Tie your mind with the rope of mindfulness to the stake of the object. That fence post that you have placed in a big hole in the ground is the object and the rope is your mindfulness, your presence, your awareness. That’s what holds your mind here. Your mind is that wild horse, or wild elephant or wild anything that is tied up. At first it wants more rope, wants to get out of here and now it’s tied up. In the beginning there is a certain tendency to feel like we want to go back to our old habits. We are actually addicted to our old habits.
Some of you have to go over the same thought again and again and again. We have had this thought so many times, but we still have to go over it again and again. We want to go to the past, we keep pulling on the rope to go the past and eventually the rope breaks and we are off, back 10 years, 20 years, last week, or whatever. We are not here and the rope is broken. The minute you notice that the rope is broken, at that instant you regain your balance. All you have to do is tie up the rope again. Bring your mind back to the object, and make the connection again. You don’t think, you just bring your mind back to the object of support.
Generally it says that the definition of meditation is: don’t hold on to the past, don’t invite the future, and don’t solidify the present. Of course our tendencies are to do exactly those three things because we generally don’t meditate. We are always thinking of the past, always busy with the future, always busy judging the present, always thinking, projecting, conceptualising about the present. The texts say if we always engage with the future we are like a fisherman trying to throw a net into a dry river bed. There is nothing there. We are fishing but there is nothing there. We are planning the future, but the future never turns out the way we imagine. We should think about our future but not during meditation, that’s the thing. Do not do it during your meditation session. It does not mean that you should never think about the future or you should never learn from the past. Of course you have to do that but in meditation you have to train your mind to be present.
Outside meditation we should also train our mind so that eventually we become free of the need for the rope. The horse will want to stay and not wander off. When our mind is well trained we don’t need to be tied up. We will naturally be restful and peaceful in the present moment not grasping for the future or the past which is like a dream. When we try to meditate we spend much of a session just daydreaming. And if we do that in a session it shows that we spend much of our life daydreaming. Trying to be in the present moment, trying not to be distracted, trying to develop more and more positive thoughts is what shinay is about.
So you need to develop what we call mindfulness. Mindfulness has become a very popular buzz word, and many courses are run on mindfulness. Of course in Buddhism, the Buddha always taught about mindfulness. So in Buddhism it’s not something new. It’s new in a secular way because it is taken out of the Buddhist context but in Buddhism you always talk about mindfulness, about focusing your attention. Mindfulness is a support for meditation. We need to develop mindfulness both in the session and outside the session. Outside the session we also need to try and be in the present moment, to place our mind where we want it to be so it doesn’t go down past and painful avenues. We might know that something is bad for us but be unable to control ourselves. Through mindfulness we try and avoid that both in the session and in between sessions.
Mindfulness is what keeps the power of the meditation. In a text called Mahamudra: The Moonlight a great meditation master, Dakpo Tashi Namgyal says that we need to meditate with mindfulness that is very clear and very powerful. We need to try to keep clarity and presence. Proper meditation is not half sleepy meditation, but strength and clarity. If we only have clarity but no power or strength to it, it will fade. Or if we have strength but no clarity it’s also not enough. So both of these two aspects need to be there and if they are not then the subtle thoughts become stronger and stronger. Without that clarity and strength of mindfulness the power of thoughts take over. So that’s something you should remember. When this mindfulness is both clear and strong then it’s able to recognise the finer obstacles.
It’s easy to see the stronger obstacles, it’s easy to see very strong thoughts or very strong grasping or very strong issues on our mind, but the more subtle ones are not so easy to see. In the beginning we get carried away with the strong thoughts and emotions and we deal with those first, and then after a while we deal with the more subtle ones. That’s how it normally happens.
Breathing as the object
The object in this case is your breathing where you focus your attention on the sensation of your breath, rising and falling. That is the object. There are many different ways of meditating. The most common is the breath. The breath is said to be the most advanced, the most sophisticated because the breath is so subtle, but you can also use an outer object. For example you can look at an object, or you can use sound.
When you use breathing as the object your attention is with the object, your breath. You breathe naturally through your nostrils not through the mouth. You should breathe silently and not make any noise with your breath. Then you should focus on the sensation of the breath. There are different ways of doing that. I will ask you to start by focusing on the sensation of the chest rising and falling with the breath: just the physical sensation which is quite strong. The reason I tell you to start with this is because it’s easier, it’s very obvious. Then after some time we will move to a more subtle point. At first we focus on a big wide point than a small point. So that’s your object, that’s your pole that you are tying your mind to.
The two main difficulties that people experience in meditation are dullness and sleepiness, or a busy mind, where the mind is very agitated and can’t settle at all. Sometimes your mind is dull, sometimes it is very busy. When your mind is dull you need to have great discipline in your posture and put more effort in. It’s as if you are driving at 80 miles an hour on the highway and you are sleepy, then you have to use whatever means you have to wake yourself up because it’s very dangerous. Sit up straight and if get fresh air if you can. Some people on retreat have a cold cloth of water to put on their forehead. Be alert: have a very straight back and keep your eyes open. You should not close your eyes if you get dull. Sometimes it helps to look up: imagine a sphere of bright white light shining and feel that it energises you and wakes your mind up. And then you go back to your breathing.
When you feel agitated it’s the opposite. Try and relax your posture a bit. When we feel agitated there is something deep inside of us, chasing, grasping, moving. You need to try and go right to the centre of that and relax that. It can help to relax your posture a bit, relax your effort, like bringing yourself down. Also look down or close your eyes and imagine a dark sphere that holds you down, brings you down. This is something that you need to become more skilful at just like this rider on the horse. In the beginning we are on a horse, we might get thrown off. But as you become more and more skilful at riding you learn how to deal with those states of mind better.
It helps to be inspired for meditation by thinking of the benefits of a really strong mind. Think of examples of beings who are great meditators. If you know great masters of meditation then develop devotion to them, and appreciation for them. That works like glue for your meditation keeping your mind in the right place.
There is a story about a professor who went to see a Zen master and asked him to explain the meaning of Zen. The master was pouring himself a cup of tea. This professor was very verbose and had a lot of knowledge, but the master just kept pouring and pouring and the tea was overflowing and he still kept pouring and more tea was overflowing. When the professor couldn’t stand it any more, he said Master what are you doing? You keep pouring the tea, what is happening? The Master said to him: Yes, I’m trying to show you that as long as your mind is full of preconceptions and concepts there is no room for the Dharma, there is no room for Zen. You have to let go of all these preconceptions, all this busyness of mind in order to have space for Zen. We need to create space in our mind.
The tea example is used in another way as well. If we think of ourselves as a tea cup then all of the understanding, all of the qualities that we want to gain come from the tea pot, which is like the lineage, the master. The tea cup has to be the right way up, not upside down; it has to be lower than the tea pot, and it has to be very open. Otherwise the tea pot can’t pour anything into that cup. If they are on the same level it can’t; upside down it can’t; if the cup is dirty you don’t want to drink the tea. So the tea cup has to be open and lower: lower means we have appreciation, inspiration, and devotion. Our mind is open and lower. And that’s why we say this aspiration prayer, because when we think like that it places our mind lower and open.
"I pray to you precious guru,
Grant your blessing that my mind may let go of the belief in a self.
Grant your blessing that desirelessness be born in me.
Grant your blessing that non-dharma thoughts may cease,.
Grant your blessing that my mind may be realised as unborn.
Grant your blessing that delusion may subside of itself.
Grant your blessing that phenomenal appearances may be realised to be the dharmakaya."
By reciting something like that we place our mind so that we become a proper vessel, a proper recipient for the qualities. We should be appreciative, humble and open, free of all preconceptions, like the example of the professor.
I will briefly go through posture. You will be familiar with the Buddha statue: you don’t have to sit in lotus posture, you can sit in the bodhisattva or half lotus posture. Normally you sit on the edge of the cushion because that’s more comfortable. The height of the cushion can be quite important: you should try and vary the height of the cushion so that you have the right height.
You should have a straight back: this is really important. You can feel if your back is straight. Place your hands right on top of left and keep them just below your belly button. If you are on a chair, put your feet flat on the ground and the rest is the same. Unless you need back support its better not to lean back too much because that will make you sleepy. Straight back, hands on top. Your neck is straight and you pull the chin down a little bit. You are not leaning forward but just pull it in a little bit. Your mouth is relaxed, your tongue touches your palate and you breathe through the nose.
It is good to have your eyes open if you can. Sometimes you may close them, but try also to meditate with them open. They should be in line with your nose focused in front of you. You normally say arms length in front of you, but it is what is comfortable for you. Fix them in one spot and don’t move from that spot because once you move you start looking at things which means that your mind starts to get engaged.
The reason for this posture is that it helps your meditation because it helps all the elements to settle and support your mind. If you don’t have the right posture it will affect your mind. Sometimes it stirs up thoughts sometimes it makes you sleepy. So this posture balances the elements and helps to balance your mind and your thoughts.
Breathe naturally and notice the physical sensation of your chest rising and falling and just stay with that. You can count if you feel that’s helpful. Each in and out breath you can count 1, in and out 2, 3 like that, an extra string to keep you there. If you get distracted come back to the breathing.
Question and answer session
Q: How can you have mindfulness that is strong and relax at the same time?
Lama Zangmo: Let’s say strong and clear. Where there is clarity there is relaxation. Clear mind brings relaxation. I think that relaxation is the opposite of grasping. Relaxation comes when your mind is not grasping or chasing things that are either positive or negative. Your mind might be chasing through attachment or it might be chasing through aggression. When there is clarity there is not that chasing so then there is relaxation. It’s a sense of ease, just being there, not going after something.
Q: When I try to do strong mindfulness I tend to kill the thoughts, it becomes concentration.
Lama Zangmo: You don’t need to fight the thoughts because your attention should be on the object and when your mind is fully with the object then there is no room for thoughts. Just like when you have that example of the sunshine and the shadow. You can’t have them in the same place at the same time. So when your mind is fully with the object, your thoughts are not there because you are fully there. But the minute that you are not with the object you will probably find that the finer thoughts will be there. You may feel that you can manage the gross thoughts, the forceful thoughts, that you have enough presence to stay with that, but the finer thoughts trickle by in the background. It is as if you are hearing a little stream running in the background, hearing the water. That’s ok. You let the thoughts come and go but you don’t get involved in them or side tracked by them, you stay with the object and refine.
Q: I am a very thoughtful person, but when I am told to keep quiet and keep still I don’t have any problem having no thought at all, I have no problem, I have nothing in my head, but I fall asleep. It’s like I don’t exist unless I’m thinking so it seems like I probably could achieve the goal quite easily but the point is all my being tells me that I should be sleeping if I’m thoughtless.
Lama Zangmo: So what you are lacking is clarity. If you say you have no thoughts, that could meant that you could make a very good meditator. All you need is clarity, to keep a clear focus on the object, which in this case is the breathing, to be really aware that you are there. Sometimes it is harder if the mind is all over the place, very busy thinking, thinking, thinking, but for somebody who has a tendency to fall into dullness then basically the quality that is lacking is clarity of mind.
So you need to try to stay with the breathing. Now that’s not easy if you get sleepy so that’s what you are up against. You say that in one way you are very active and alive and energetic and talkative, and then when you stop that is almost the opposite. You need to try and keep that energy alive. Be present. The aim is that you stay in the present moment with clarity. Be awake.
We want to live our lives so that we are awake. We don’t want to sleep walk through our whole life. We don’t want to live our life in the past and we don’t want to just day dream about the future. So far we haven’t lived our life fully because we are always in the past or the future or sleeping away the present and then we waste everything. What we are trying to do is to wake up. The Buddha is called the Awakened One: fully alive, fully awake.