Objects of Meditation

A Teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal

Whenever we are meditating, at home or in a special meditation room in Tibet that we call a shrine room, the place we choose for meditation must be conducive to meditation. It must be clean, the temperature moderate, a room where we can find spiritual satisfaction. This should be a room where the distractions of daily life are not experienced.

This doesn’t need to be an elaborately decorated place; you don’t need a lot of thangkas. You just need one statue or religious or sacred object that gives you spiritual satisfaction. A picture of your guru would do, if you have devotion, faith, spiritual strength. This you can do in your home. Keep in mind, though, that there shouldn’t be too many objects of daily use in the room that would remind you of daily activities.

When you are sitting in meditation, you are sitting in a motionless body. There is a physical discipline. You are also sitting with a motionless mind. You follow no thoughts. Your mind is calm, clear, still. Think of the ocean being so clear and still you can see to the bottom. No thoughts are moving in your mind. Your mind isn’t creating anything. When your mind creates, you fantasize or entertain yourself. You are attracted or repulsed by what you create. When you’re sitting in your motionless mind, you maintain seven postures conducive to bringing your mind inward. Your mind is not engaging in any external activities; your mind is turned inward.

Meditation Posture

Of the seven postures, keeping your spine straight is the most important. If possible, sit in the full lotus position. Or sit cross-legged. A cushion three to four inches thick, with the back one inch thicker, is helpful for support.

1. The lotus position: According to Tantric teachings, the vajra position has great significance because the purpose is to use bodily energy, the chakras, as a tool for spiritual development.

2. Perfect posture: For that reason, your posture is important because it opens up the three psychic channels. The right side is considered feminine, the left masculine. From birth until death, you use the right and left channels, but not the center because it’s blocked. The center opens up at the last moment of death, from crown to coccyx, naturally.

Sitting in the lotus position gives direction to the meditating mind. Energy is directed to move through the right and left. In Tantra, no matter how difficult, you must sit in the full lotus. In Sutrayana, it’s not so important. But in both cases it’s equally important to keep the spine straight.

3. Your two shoulders should be even: Your shoulders should be like the wings of an eagle flying in the air. Your arms should not touch your sides; the average egg can fit between your arm and torso without making an omelet.

4. Eyes half-open: Your eyes, if possible should be slightly open or slightly closed. You should be looking slightly down, at a spot three to four feet in front of you.

5. Your left hand is under your right hand, and your thumbs touch: The slightly diamond-like shape formed by your hands represents the dharmakaya. The right hand represents wisdom realizing the ultimate reality of emptiness. The left hand represents the method or skillful means of representing the conventional reality of appearances. The two hands together become one, representing the nondual nature of the two truths, thus making the dharmakaya or truth body.

Your hands should rest three to four inches below your naval chakra, but you should not be leaning your arms on your upper thighs.

6. Your lips should rest in a natural state, with a slight smile.

7. Your tongue touches the upper palate: This assists in two ways. When your tongue touches your upper palate, you do not get thirsty as quickly, and you won’t drool. Of course, that’s not important now, when you’re meditating for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. But if you’re meditating for hours, there’s the same risk as if you were in a deep sleep. And if you drool, there’s the risk others will think, "I will never meditate with him!"

If you maintain all seven postures, you will find you have less intrusive thoughts. The mind and energy winds are closely interrelated.

When the energy winds, or prana, are disturbed, so is the mind. For example, when you get angry, automatically you feel chest pain, a headache starts. Your mind disturbs the prana. Therefore, keeping your spine straight helps the prana move more smoothly through the channels, having a positive effect on your mind. So, keeping a straight spine is not just important, it’s mandatory.

Question: What about using your breath?

Answer: Maintaining your awareness is more important than what type of breathing you use.

Purpose of mediation is to improve the quality of mind

In Buddhism, the very purpose of mediation in the first place is to improve the quality of mind or quality of awareness. Through improvement, you make the mind capable of being exposed to reality, rather than imposed on by reality. This creates the potential for joy, instead of pain, whatever the existing phenomenon is.

In order for the mind to be full exposed to reality, first you must train the mind in the practice of shamata meditation. In shamata meditation, you cultivate single-pointed awareness in the total absence of conceptual ideas and thoughts.

At the same time, you are not making your mind blank. When you stop the mind from thinking, you take out concepts and ideas. That kind of blankness is not shamata meditation. Shamata meditation arises out of a blank state of mind, but blankness is not meditation.

The objects of meditation

That’s why the object of meditation is important. Then, you won’t rest in a blank state of mind, but with active awareness of the object of meditation.

Your object of meditation can be your breath, the incoming breath and outgoing breath. It can be natural beauty, such as an attractive and fresh rose. Or it can be active awareness of an image of Buddha.

After training the mind in shamata, you reach a stage where you are capable of resting there for longer periods of time, at least a half-hour without the interruption of thoughts or ideas. When you reach that stage, you can say you have the proper experience of shamata meditation.

When you reach that stage, you will remain calm and your mind will project less. You are calm and not judging. The more we judge, the more we impose on reality, and that brings back thoughts and emotions.

This does not mean you will become distant from people and the world. Instead, you become closer. You become closer because you feel compassion.

Once you reach this stage, you will have the ability to engage in vipassana meditation. In vipassana meditation, you sustain a single-pointed focus in total absence of conceptual thoughts, and you are able to do inner subtle analysis that involves some degree of thought. In this process, you are within a "shamata" frame of mind that allows you to employ subtle analysis looking for the ultimate mode of existence.

When you cultivate shamata meditation, and you use a glass as the object of meditation, you are cultivating awareness of aspects of a glass; that’s it. The aspects include physical appearance, the glass’s specific shape, color, size, texture and physical location. You cultivate an awareness of these aspects without thinking about them, no words, no concepts. We call this cultivating pure awareness.

When this awareness becomes strong, it reaches deep. A sense of separation between the focal object and awareness of it is erased. What really makes that object a glass? Does a glass start from a glass or not? Is there anything in the object that determines it is a glass? Finally, you find there is nothing in the object that determines it is a glass. When your awareness of this becomes deep, your sense of duality, your sense of separation between the object itself and your awareness of the object dissolves. After some time, your awareness becomes spontaneous, automatic. There is no risk of conceptual thoughts arising.

With little conscious effort, your subtle awareness makes it possible to determine what makes this object exist as a glass, whether this object started as a glass, is there anything in this object that determines it will be a glass. After analyzing, searching for answers, you will fail to get an answer that finds "glassness" in the glass. You will fail to find anything in the object that determines it will become a glass.

At the end of failing to find "glassness," you will find in yourself an awareness, a state of emptiness, an absence of what you think of as "glass."

Question: Is there another way to explain this, saying a glass is really atoms, not a glass with water in it?

Answer: Atoms come together to give an appearance of "glass," but the atoms are not really a glass. The physical appearance of a glass is the result of atoms coming together to give rise to that appearance – with your help. According to Buddhism, it is the mind, finally, that creates the physical appearance that is itself known as a glass.

Question: Are you saying that if you ask if there is a glass in the room, we look for something that matches the word and concept "glass," and we impose those preconceptions on a glass?

Answer: The phenomenon is not objectively a glass. Are all glasses one "taste"? If the mind limits you to that oneness, you do not have the deepest understanding.

Question: In meditation would we experience a glass before it became a glass? Would we experience it as a formless form?

Answer: The main thing is to break down seeing the object as a glass through our concept of "glass." A glass is not a glass from its own side. A glass does not exist as a glass from a choice made by the glass itself. The mind creates and imposes. In your meditative recognition, you discover there is no separation; you’re no greater than the object, and the object is no greater than you. When we fail to find this separate, defining entity that is "glass," we experience mere absence or emptiness That experience of emptiness should not cause you to think that "glass" means nothing to you. If you get that experience, then you should understand something is wrong.

Question: So the experience of emptiness does not create apathy?

Answer: Definitely not. You would not decide that a glass means nothing to you. That would be an incorrect understanding of emptiness; you would be moving to the extreme of nihilism. Instead, the experience of emptiness causes you to have a deeper appreciation. For your needs and necessities, the glass is still there. It exists at the conventional level, but not at the level of objective reality. The glass exists at the level of your needs and necessities, which is conventional reality. Gaining that understanding shuts down our constant mismatch, our inaccurate response to reality. Emptiness opens the door to seeing objects and reality as they really are.

What’s interesting here is that we experience emptiness as a result of the disappearance of our sense of self. We will never experience emptiness while we’re living with a strong sense of self or "I." If we have a strong sense of self or "I" and everything dissolves, we are not experiencing emptiness. Everybody sees this glass as a glass; we agree this is a glass. We must be able to see that what makes the difference is our emotional response. A glass is made out of all kinds of non-glass elements, which are themselves not a glass at all. If this is the case, does this object have any inherent qualities that determine the object exists as a glass? None. This clearly shows this object doesn’t have the objective reality of "glassness." This is the fact from the side of the object. From our side, when we perceive the object as a glass, do we get a sense of "glassness" in general? We do. That causes us to believe this object has the objective reality of "glassness." When this object appears in our mind or to our mind, we get a sense of "glassness," and we believe in objective reality. But we get a sense of "glassness" because we impose the reality.

We have to understand the objective facts of phenomenon, how we perceive from our side. There is a gap or disparity between the way objects appear to our mind and the way objects are. If this is the case, where did the gap come from? How? We can close the gap. We can shut down the source of the mismatch, our emotional response, which is the source of our suffering. Our concept of "glass" limits our uses of the object, its functions, its usefulness.

There is a story I tell from when I was touring in 1994 with the Mystical Arts of Tibet. We would stay in many people’s houses, nice houses with many glasses in nice cabinets. My friends would go to the kitchen and grab any glass to drink water. Sometimes they would get a wine glass, and this would annoy the owner of the house. In that person’s head there was a limit to that glass. Its usefulness had become limited; when that limit was ignored, the owner was annoyed, uncomfortable.

Question: What do you do when you have many thoughts?

Answer: Often, when you have many thoughts you can effectively do one of two things: You can contemplate impermanence; that should slow down your thoughts. Or you can bring your focus back to your breath; that eliminates many thoughts. Once thoughts are not active, return to the object of meditation. It’s possible your thoughts will return again, as aggressively. Then go back to focusing on your breath. You may have to go back and forth, but at some point you will spend more time in the meditative state. Ask for help from your breath. Contemplate the impersonal nature of reality.

A Regular Daily Practice

Fifteen to twenty minutes for meditation is best, if possible two times a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. Stop when you still have the energy to go on. Stop when you want to meditate more. Stop when you can stop, not when you are "forced" to stop. Stop when things are going well and you have the energy to go farther. This makes a huge difference. It leaves a different impact on the mind. Try to have a little time after you come out of the meditation and before you go back to your daily activities. You will see a huge difference in your mind or perceptions. Definitely, you will see that your state of mind is unbiased.

However, as soon as you start your regularly mental activities, your mind become biased and the strong sense of self or "I" returns. Through consistently meditating, the unbiased state of mind becomes habitual, becomes part of yourself. That is how we make progress. Expecting the effects of meditation within a short period of time is unrealistic. You must be determined, persistent, consistent. If you do not meditate regularly, it is difficult to improve. If you meditate regularly and, if possible, at the same time every day, your mind will get in the habit. Your mind will gain discipline or strength. Meditation will be easier and more effective.

Notes from a teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal in Columbia, South Carolina, October 13, 2001.