Meditation: A Review of the Steps

A Teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal

First, sit and relax. Check your sitting position. Are you comfortable? Do you feel any tension? If so, correct it. Don't focus on the physical. Try to emphasize the mind. Check: Is your mind engaged on the "outside," on physical activity, on plans or problems of friends or relationships or past experiences? This alone will take a couple of minutes.

Acknowledge these obstacles to your meditation. Take the time to bring your mind around to a comfortable state. (You can also use these steps to prepare yourself for sleep. Examine your thoughts and bring yourself to a comfortable state where you can be at peace all night. You will see a big effect when you wake up in the morning.)

From this point on, you should be able to bring your whole mental energy to focusing your attention. Normal conceptual thoughts are no longer there. What is left in your mind is pure awareness. You are not responding to past events or activities.

Your mind is ready to detect; your mind is alert, ready to respond, but not responding. This takes about five minutes.

You should now have a sense of unusual quietness. This would be reminiscent of having a lot of people in your home and noticing the quiet after they are all gone. Now your thoughts that were driving you crazy are gone. Your mind is, like your house, quiet, and you will feel a sense of joy. But this alone is not meditation.

Now bring your focus to your nostril area. Be aware of incoming air and outgoing air. You will feel a tactile sensation at the point where your nostrils and upper lip meet. Don't focus on that sensation, but on your breath.

If you find that your mind is still wandering, again count your breaths. Focus on the counting, as well as your breaths. Count up to 21, then back down to one. When you reach 21 or one, don't stop and think, "Oh, I just finished counting!" Just keep counting forward and backward. If you can do this without miscounting, your mind is calm enough.

Simply rest. You are still aware of the air coming in and out. But your awareness is not very strong. You have a stronger awareness of a state of nothingness or vacuity. Shift your focus from your breath to the vacuity. You won't notice that you are in your body; you will lose a sense of who you are. This may make you afraid, but just rest there, without witnessing the vacuity. If you witness, you will lose it. Simply be there.

As your meditation ends, let your concentration move from deep to shallow. Be aware of your breath; allow your concentration to become weaker and weaker. Allow your mind to return to the thinking process. Begin to again receive information from your senses.

Question: What are the seed syllables to be used for meditation?

Answer: Om, Ah, and Hung. Do only one during a meditation. You do not say the sound, but picture the shape. You picture the Om, Ah, or Hung as white and glowing. In higher practice you also work with the "location" of each. Om represents the crown, Ah the throat, and Hung the heart (this is not the physical heart). Om represents the physical body, Ah represents speech, and Hung represents the mind (which does not have a physical location). Use a seed syllable for single-pointed focus in the shamata meditation. Visualize the seed syllable about four inches away from the eyes.

Question: How do you count breaths in meditation?

Answer: You count an in breath and an out breath as one; another in breath and out breath as two, and so on. Breathing meditation is good practice for asserting discipline over the mind. Counting breaths is not a complete meditation, but it is a good place to start.

Question: If a memory arises that is painful, can we do forgiveness meditation so it won't come back and harm us?

Answer: Meditation can strengthen the force of our forgiveness so we won't experience the return of unpleasant memories. Meditation can help, but you have to have reached a certain stage. Just accepting an apology won't work. Understanding emptiness helps us understand that events happen due to our own perceptions. An event happened to us not from the side of the external object, but from our side; that makes it seem real. This realization is difficult and depends on our bringing awareness of emptiness into our daily perception.

Question: Can we dissolve anger in meditation?

Answer: When you come out of meditation, your anger will arise again. That shows you have not yet understood emptiness through personal experience. The anger was temporarily dissolved with the help of the concept of emptiness, but the mind is still entertaining itself with solid objects and concepts.

Question: What is the practice of emptiness?

Answer: An understanding of emptiness conceptually will help you survive logical analysis of emptiness. This is the first stage. In the second stage, your understanding of emptiness becomes stronger, more stable. Your understanding moves to inferential understanding. You draw the conclusion that you are fully convinced by your understanding. We project qualities onto objects. In a sense, through our projections, we create objects. After a time, we discover that our projections don't exist from the side of the object. We may be get angry about this. We may be repulsed by our own creations; often we get attracted, then we get repulsed.

When we let go of the clinging and attachment, the aversion and indifference, we can get closer to the nature of true reality. Then we can enjoy without attachment, anger or indifference, understanding those feelings have nothing to do with life. We will have let go of duality, which is two things in conflict in our mind.

Question: What do we do during meditation when we come to a place of vacuity?

Answer: Count down, three, two, one, then rest there in the time, the moment, the state, without counting. At that time, the incoming and outgoing breaths remain your focus.

Question: What if my mind wants to visualize total blackness or total whiteness?

Answer: You have to start over again, and you'll never get lunch!

Question: What should you do if you get there, and your mind wants to visualize? Your mind jumps at nothing?

Answer: Train yourself how to rest there. Acknowledge what your mind is doing. All depends on training. There is no technique to help you visually resist seeing anything.

Question: What about sounds?

Answer: If you hear a sound and respond, you start to think, "Why are they coming today? We're here meditating. We should make an announcement of the time," you're thinking, not meditating. You should be aware of sound as sound, movement as movement without responding. One of the ways you'll know you're at that point: your breathing will be slower.

Question: When do you begin visualization?

Answer: After you are in the resting place, bring the flower or other object you will visualize to mind, but without thinking. The focus will become so strong, you will not feel any difference between the flower in your mind and a real flower. If you imagined healing power, then that could become real to your perception. That energy must be real to your perception to work for your own use or to send out for others. Until you reach that point, it is difficult to heal through meditation. This requires very intense practice.

Question: Can we do this in the West?

Answer: Culture makes no difference. But in the West you say, "Time is money." In Tibet, we say, "Time is dharma." That is one issue. Otherwise, culture makes no difference, only how much time we can reserve for practice. Are you capable? No doubt. Language, culture, food, environment make no difference.

Question: I get to a certain point, and I back off. I get to a point that's like falling off a cliff or separating from your self.

Answer: Don't pull back. Don't judge. Don't observe where you are going. Just remain focused. Don't pull back or watch. Ignore this feeling without making an effort to ignore it. It would be an obstacle to meditation to make a conscious effort at that moment. If you even think, "This will happen to me again," you're already thinking, and your meditation is interrupted.

Question: What did Buddha Shakyamuni think about the four schools?

Answer: Buddha didn't create the four schools. Buddha did think the Cittamatra school was moving in the right direction. But intellectually they were unable to go beyond the fine line drawn between perception and reality. All the schools were moving in the right direction, and all understood according to their level of understanding. We're not saying the Vaibhasika or Sauvatantika schools are totally wrong; we're only saying their understanding of emptiness is not complete. Buddha was trying to fill our cup; there is no need to throw away the water already in the cup.

Question: What if the water is moldy or dirty?

Answer: Then it's not a Buddhist school.

Question: What are the purposes of Buddhist art?

Answer: In Buddhist practice, images are not for worshipping, but for spiritual inspiration. Other art, such as Tantric art in which deities are male and female in union, signify the very essence of Tantric practice, the union of emptiness and bliss. Some think it's all about sex, but that is a wrong understanding. You shouldn't get stuck on a mere word or mere image; there is something behind.

Question: What about the chant Tina Turner did, "Nam myo ho renge kyo?"

Answer: That is a wish-fulfilling chant. It brings positive merit; many Japanese use it. They believe it has many purposes, creating merit, eliminating bad karma and obstacles, bringing good luck, helping to bring what you are wishing for. They believe if you say the chant the positive will grow, the negative will go away, and you will bring a state of purity. It comes from a sutra, and helps create positive energy, but a chant alone is not enough to eliminate our delusions.

Question: Why would we do recitations?

Answer: Recitations are done before giving or receiving a teaching. If you know the meaning, it is best to reflect on the meaning. There are three parts: First, paying homage to fully enlightened beings because the teaching came from Buddha. Second, not only paying homage, but also seeing fully enlightened beings have accomplished high realization yet choose to be born with us. Thus, we are capable of reaching that state. The last purpose is to transform one's mind or thoughts from thinking about mundane activities to reaching the essence. We must reflect on the impermanent nature of reality and the imperfect state of our lives. We reflect on our delusions and undesirable things, such as aging and sickness and death. Then when we sit to receive a teaching, we realize there actually is a cure.

In the Lam Rim we learn we can stop the processes of aging, sickness and death. We can stop them by gaining control of the functions of the five elements: earth, air, fire, water, and space. Death comes out of our control, and we learn we can stop that, that it's up to us to bring it under our control. This we will talk about in the Lam Rim.

Notes from a teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal in Columbia, South Carolina, July 22, 2001.