Twin Cities KTC AND Hay river KTC Buddhist Meditation Centers

A teaching by Lama Tsultrim Yeshe on July 24, 2022. The talk is based on material found in Kenchen Thrangu Rinpoche’s book, The Practice of Tranquility and Insight.

Always begin meditation, or any Dharma activity, with the pure motivation of Bodhicitta, the wish to benefit all sentient beings. Thinking in this way helps our minds to settle. If we are paying attention it’s easy to see that our mind can be quite wild at the start of a meditation session. However, if we don’t pay attention we don’t even see how fast our thoughts move.

One of the greatest writings on the Mahayana path was written in 700 AD at Nalanda University by a monk named Shantideva. As he wrote in the BodhicaryavataraA Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:

Those who wish to keep a rule of life
Must guard their minds in perfect self-possession. 
Without this guard upon the mind,
No discipline can ever be maintained.

Our mind should be tamed and under control at the start of any activity. Otherwise, we run the risk of harming ourselves or others with actions of our body, speech, and/or mind. Outer and inner circumstances direct our mind if it is not under our control. This is easy to see in others but not as evident when it is yourself.

We discipline our minds because this keeps us from harming ourselves and others. Discipline is not punishment. If you do something non-virtuous, admit it, confess it, purify it and let it go. Don’t keep bringing it up over and over, saying how bad you are, and so forth.

Shantideva also writes:

Wandering where it will, the elephant of mind, 
Will bring us down to pains of deepest hell. 
No worldly beast, however wild,
Could bring upon us such calamities.

He uses the example of an elephant because, while it is a powerful animal, it can be trained, tamed, and controlled so that it becomes useful to us. Just like our mind creates all the pain and suffering we experience in samsara, it can be useful when it is trained and tamed.

The Bodhicaryavatara continues this advice with this quote:

If, with mindfulness' rope,
The elephant of the mind is tethered all around, 
Our fears will come to nothing,
Every virtue drops into our hands.

The rope of mindfulness means controlling our mind by being mindful—paying attention to the details accompanied by awareness—seeing the big picture.

To use a common metaphor: Mindfulness is seeing a tree. Awareness is seeing the entire forest. Awareness tells us when we wander in our thoughts and are no longer paying attention. When we notice this, we bring our mind under our control, back to the present, with the rope of mindfulness. (This is a somewhat flawed example in that our mind is flexible and not tied to a stake like an elephant.)

Humans have a tendency to look at the dark side of things, inflating things all out of proportion. Non-virtue is motivated by fear. Mindfulness loosens the grip of fear so it’s easier to behave virtuously. Fear loses its grip because we lose our grip on it.

If we experience fear, remember that it is in the mind and nowhere else. Fear is a combination of person, circumstances, thoughts, and habitual patterns. As with other faults, it’s easy to see it in other people.

Binding with mindfulness, being present with what is happening, binds all. Fear is the activity of the mind and not due to external circumstances. ~ Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche

Writing about fear, Shantideva said:

Tigers, lions, elephants, and bears,
Snakes and every hostile beast,
Those who guard the prisoners in hell,
All ghosts and ghouls and every evil phantom.
By simple binding of this mind alone, 
All these things are likewise bound. 
By simple taming of this mind alone, 
All these things are likewise tamed.

Besides a fear of animals, demons, and hell realms there are all kinds of fears we succumb to in the 21st century, such as:

  • Eating the wrong food or “food neurosis” as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called it. This could be due to allergy, chemicals, being produced incorrectly—if it comes from the wrong country, contains endangered ingredients, has GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and so forth.
  • Not being in control of our outer circumstances and people. This is shown in a sense of entitlement, not getting your way, or people not behaving the way you want them to.
  • A feeling of paranoia. There are endless conspiracy theories today. An accident is not an accident for whatever reason, or a colleague at work says something that affects you in a negative emotional way. You may think it was done purposefully, but there was no underlying intention to harm you.
  • Fear of making a fool of yourself, of not being perfect, of being vulnerable.
  • Fear of dying and death—your own and the death of others. Many people cannot go to a funeral because it makes their own death too real for their comfort.
  • Fear of suffering for whatever reason, fear of having a painful experience, or just a fear of fear.
  • Fear of economic insecurity, job loss, inflation.

When I’m pondering what to do, I sometimes wonder what my root guru, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, would say or do in a situation. There were many times when KKR was in dire straits but he maintained his calm, peaceful mind without letting fear get the best of him.

When I was in three-year retreat, he told the retreatants about a time when Thrangu Monastery was being shelled by the Chinese—without warning—from higher in the mountains. As the shells rained down on the monastery, monks fled for their lives. As they ran, the monks grabbed pechas, statues, and other precious items. KKR took the hand of a monk who couldn’t walk fast and led him out of danger.

In another instance, he told us about how 150 refugees heading from Tibet to safety in India were found by the Chinese who started shooting them. As people fell dead around him, KKR had the presence of mind to fall down and pretend he was dead.

With mindfulness, we develop inner wisdom, are happier, free of fear, calmer, and have greater peace—everyone benefits!

One might think that shamatha is a state of no thoughts, perhaps like that of a stone. This is incorrect because in shamatha meditation the mind is very calm and stable, and also very clear so that it can distinguish and discriminate between all phenomena and see everything as very distinct.

Kenchen Thrangu Rinpoche

A calm mind focuses one-pointedly without distraction, seeing differences, but not blocking out what’s happening—distinctly seeing both the tree and the forest. That is the goal. An example often given to illustrate stability and clarity is that of a jar full of muddy water. If the jar is left alone to settle, the mud falls to the bottom and the water becomes clear.

A meditator is not moved by a thought, instead lets it go as “no big deal” at all. When a thought arises during meditation, our mind recognizes and lets go of it due to seeing clearly that it is insubstantial.

Meditation is not sitting like a stone or with a blank expression. It is not a state where you are totally spaced out or blissed out with no discrimination. A blissed-out state, while feeling good, doesn’t accomplish anything or move you closer to realization.

Prerequisites for practicing are:

  • Favorable place-quiet, free of distractions, healthy with a moderate temperature.
  • Free of lots of desires-thinking “I need this or that to meditate.”
  • Being content-what you have now is fine.

Give up worldly activities while meditating. It’s easy to be distracted by social media, texting, or thinking about the latest news story. Reduce your activity in daily life. Compulsive busyness is a wonderful way to avoid things. Don’t think about what you will do when you are finished meditating. Do not sit with a paper and pen next to you to capture that great thought. If the thought is worthwhile, it will be there when you end your meditation.

Maintain good conduct in your daily activities. Avoid distractions and desires that appear, as well as ideas and concepts. Non-virtuous activity keeps your mind agitated and disturbed. Even if you have a torrent of thoughts every time you sit, remember that this is the first step in taming your mind.

It’s easy to think you are not able to meditate. You feel it is hopeless because your mind has so many thoughts all the time. Actually, that’s a good thing. You noticed your thoughts! This is a sign that you are aware of how busy the mind actually is. This is the first step in reducing desires—letting go of your thought as soon as it arises (or you notice you are thinking).

Even if you have a torrent of thoughts every time you sit, recall that this is the first step in taming your mind. The most important thing is not the number of thoughts but being aware of thoughts. Avoid feeling frustrated when thoughts arise. Don’t think you are a bad meditator and beat yourself up, simply return to the technique gently but firmly.

Think about learning to play an instrument. Initially, you hope no one is listening to the awful sounds you produce. However, with practice, your ability to hit the correct note becomes easier and easier.

How to Begin Shamatha Meditation

Begin meditating by taking a deep breath and following it all the way into your abdomen. Then focus on an ordinary external object, for example, a stone or piece of wood. The purpose is to develop concentration so look carefully at it. See that it is mostly featureless. This lack of distinction makes concentration on it easy and reduces distractions. Every time you find your thoughts moving off the meditation object, bring it back to the ordinary object.

After achieving success focusing on a mundane, ordinary object, change your focus to a dharma object, for example, a sacred statue or deity photo. The statue, or photo, has many more features and therefore is more difficult to hold in the mind. Remember, this is about meditation and not developing devotion or anything else. You are just using the pure object for meditative concentration.

I often use a singing bowl as an example of a pure object. Focus on the bowl, noting the color, size, and any other things that set the singing bowl apart from another bowl. You can also listen to the bowl’s sound, either by striking it or making it “sing” and then use the sound as your focus. Focusing on a single sound works, but using a meditation soundtrack is not advised because it can lead to feeling blissed out and/or tuning out awareness.

When your mind is very stable, try dropping the object of meditation altogether. For example, visualizing a deity or following your breath as it moves from the outside through the nostrils, down the throat, and into and out of the lungs. Using breath as an object of meditation is a time-honored method. You may find that your breath almost disappears when you are concentrating.

A more advanced way to meditate is resting in the essential nature. This “open awareness” as Mingyur Rinpoche calls it, is when the mind is not focused on anything. It is resting in a completely stable and unwavering state.

We are in samsara so our meditative concentration, although stable and mostly unwavering, is still temporary at this point. When gross thoughts come up, they can be strong and easily distract us. Gross thoughts eventually lose their power but we can still be distracted and lose concentration. When this happens, as it does to almost every meditator, return to the technique.

Remember that it is all workable. Thoughts are not the problem; it is our attachment to them.

Lama Tsultrim Yeshe

As we gain experience and meditative concentration becomes easy, subtle thoughts can still arise. These don’t distract us at first and so are difficult to remove. Subtle thoughts “come from below.” They are difficult to remove because of this subtlety. Left alone they often leave by themselves. However, they can quickly become gross thoughts and cause us to lose focus. Stable meditation is the antidote.

There are four kinds of thoughts that are obstacles to meditation and need to be abandoned before they become problematic.

1. Malicious thoughts—wishing harm to others.
2. Jealous thoughts—comparing yourself to other people and how you imagine they are meditating better than you. It’s like when you go to a restaurant and order what you want. When the entrees come to the table, you look at what other people ordered and wish you had their plate instead of yours.
3. Doubts and uncertainty—if this comes up it is time to discuss your meditation with the lama because this can be an obstacle in any activity, whether it is mundane or spiritual.
4. Attachment and craving—wanting this or that dharma object, a better car, new clothes, and so on.

We need to recognize these four and realize they are harmful to meditation. Without attachment or involvement, they are easy to eliminate. However, if there is any grasping they are difficult to be rid of and can become a big problem.

What we are looking for is a sense of being well composed and together, both physically and with mental concentration, but also a sense of openness and of being at ease. ~ Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche

There are two common experiences in meditation.

  1. The mind quickly settles, you become physically comfortable and meditation is pleasant with few distractions. However, as you continue sitting the mind speeds up, and bodily discomfort increases. This often happens because of overexertion or keeping your body (legs, hips, back, shoulders, etc.) tightly controlled. The remedy is to slightly relax your position.
  2. Or the opposite experience occurs. You start out being uncomfortable and are comfortable by the end of the meditation. This is good and there is no need to change anything.

With something as old as Buddhism, you’d think there would be examples of how to gauge your progress in meditation. Of course, there are such examples. It starts with a river.

Imagine how a river falls over a cliff high in the mountains. The waterfall chaotically splashes onto the rocks below, churns up foam, and appears out of control—but you notice the lack of control. As the river leaves the gorge and waterfall, it rushes over rapids caused by rocks that otherwise are hidden from view. It’s still chaotic, but you can see that it’s no longer a waterfall with no control. As it continues on its path, the river becomes wider and wider, meandering through a valley without chaos—much like a mind tamed by frequent shamatha meditation. Finally, the river meets and joins with an immense, waveless ocean. There’s a feeling of calm and vastness now that the river is no longer separate. This is like a mind tamed through progressive stages of meditation.

Q. Should the eyes be open or closed?
A. They should be open and have a soft focus. You have the option of lowering your gaze to two-three feet in front of you. This decreases the visual field and shuts out possible distractions. If you find you are still distracted, slouch a bit and if that doesn’t work get in a position like you are asleep. This will help the mind calm down so you can resume your meditation posture. If you are sleepy, raise your gaze for a short time—even as high as looking at the ceiling. When you have visual experiences, or any experiences while meditating just let them go. It’s not a big deal. If a Very Important Thought occurs—do not stop meditating to write it down. If the insight was valuable it will come back to you later. Remember the instruction to let thoughts float out of your mind as if they were clouds in a clear sky.

Q. Is it ever okay to “rest” the eyes by closing them?
A. It’s fine for a few minutes, especially if your eyes are dry, but limit this to the shortest possible time. Alertness is decreased when your eyes are closed. You get more bang for your buck if you keep your eyes open.

This is the first of a series of teachings on shamatha, or calm abiding, meditation.

Transcribed and annotated by Ellie Strand. All mistakes are mine.