Meditation Q and A for Beginners

A Teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal

Question: Can you describe the "resting place" we should reach in meditation?

Answer: You don’t see forms or shapes, but there is no blackness. There is what we call vacuity. It’s not a specific blackness that you could identify. This place will seem clear or transparent, rather than an identifiable color. You would find this resting place when you are doing mediation in which you follow your breath.

When your meditation includes an object of meditation, your mind remains fixated on the image without conceptualizing it. You have pure awareness of the image without anything happening. There is no active process of thinking or judging. You just experience pure awareness of the image invoked. Then, you remain with an awareness of that image. The image is as vivid as if you were actually seeing it with your eyes. You may feel some sort of personal communication is about to take place.

Once you reach this point, you should not be struggling to keep your thoughts out. Training is necessary. It’s not only how you get there; it’s how you stay there. In a 15-minute process, much of the meditation is spent getting there. Shamata meditation, you could say, is a narrowing of the mind and directing it to one-pointedness. Vipassana mediation is more like being aware of everything, like a 360-degree awareness.

Question: When do monks and nuns start meditation training?

Answer: A rinpoche (a reincarnated being) starts young, somewhere between 3 years old and 7 years old. Average people start around 14 to 16 years old. You can learn to meditate when you’re young, but you still need training. If you have had previous lives, you have your own personal teacher 24 hours a day. Sometimes, you have two or three teachers, one for ritual, one for reading and writing, and one for philosophy and meditation.

Question: What is the best way to learn to meditate?

Answer: The best technique is to visualize an object and focus on that. That is better than the breathing meditation. Use the breathing meditation to calm down. Once you are calm and quiet, consistently visualize an object with a specific shape and color. That way you can tell if the quality of your meditation is improving or not.

Can you maintain the size, color, shape, and physical location? In the beginning, these things will constantly change. That shows your mental stability is very weak, very poor. When you can maintain size, shape, color, and physical location, your mind is stronger.

If you continue to use the breathing meditation, you won’t have a means to tell if your mental stability is becoming stronger. But you can use your breath to bring your mind to rest and peace. Actual meditation starts when you can remain with your awareness of the object of meditation.

Vipassana mediation doesn’t start until you can do analysis with the visual object of meditation undisturbed. When you know you can do this without the tendency to say, "Wow!" without reacting, you are doing vipassana. When you react, the process of knowing is polluted. No one can go beyond intellectual understanding of Buddhism without experiencing shamata and vipassana meditation. And without the experience of shamata, you can’t do vipassana.

Usually, our analysis of an object contains a strong element of our own assumptions. Shamata helps us let go of our assumptions. Then, our analysis is free of our assumptions, and we can undertake subtle analysis in the form of a search for reality.

Shamata meditation is a technique to draw in our mental focus or attention. Ordinarily, our mind is chasing, following our senses’ experiences. In shamata, we draw our mental focus or attention inward until we feel we are uniting body and mind, or if we believe in soul, reaching our soul. Then, we make an effort to fill our essence with light. In shamata, you do not let your mind fall into a state of indifference; you don’t blank out or become numb or dull. You keep your mind awake and alert. You should not leave your mind scattered, without an object to hold onto. That single-pointed focus needs a resting place. You find that and stay there, staying with the single-pointed focus. Your mind is neither distracted, numb nor dull, but at the same time your mind is not engaged in detecting.

In vipassana mediation, there is always a focus. The thought process takes place without disturbing the single-pointed awareness. If you’re reading books on meditation, you may read about meditating on awareness or compassion or bodhicitta or death. All these meditations come under either shamata or vipassana. Meditation on death is more a vipassana meditation. In this meditation, one goes through all the stages of death, all of dissolution. You will arrive at a certain point where you will have a strong awareness of the possibility of death coming at this very moment. You will no longer separate life from death. You will hold that awareness without doing further analysis.

Question: What happens next?

Answer: Your fear of death will disappear. Possibly, you will have a sense of delight in the process of death. The reason to meditate on death is so that when death comes, you will not fear death. We experience four fears associated with death. First, we fear being separated from our loved one. Second, we fear leaving everything behind us. Without spiritual training, we will fear these two very strongly. Third, we fear not being able to remain part of the world. Fourth, we fear losing our self or "I." If you fear losing your self, ask what that self or I is, where will it be reborn, what will its rebirth conditions be, what circumstances will its rebirth be? Meditations on death diminish these four fears. Your tendency to let these fears arise lessens. Eventually, you are rid of them.

Question: What about things in life you might regret? You get to a certain point in your studies where you think, "If I accept these things, my rebirth will not be great."

Answer: No problem. If you find negative things that you have done that would determine conditions in your life would be negative, that very awareness allows you to make your purification process stronger and more effective. Your spiritual practice becomes more effective, it becomes pure if you are motivated by that kind of fear.

Question: That means I have a lot of work to do.

Answer: A lot of work, definitely, yes.

Question: How do you do this?

Answer: There are eight stages of dissolution. You meditate on each one, imagine each one.

Question: Isn’t that dangerous?

Answer: No. When combined with the Tantric practice of phowa, you learn to transmit your consciousness. You open up the skull and eject your consciousness. Eventually, you can see a small hole at the crown of your skull. It can be dangerous if done improperly. But, if done properly, the practice of phowa makes real death, when it comes, very easy. You almost have control over your death. At the last moment of your death, you can gain high, high spiritual realization.

The dissolution practice has to do with making the five elements and then your chakra energies disappear. To train in this process is very, very helpful not only for yourself but for others. Then, you know what stages another dying person is going through, what kind of experiences and how that person will act.

After going mentally through the eight stages of dissolution, you can experience or integrate or assimilate death as a real experience. You spend a brief moment at each stage, staying there, then going on to the next stage until you understand there is not really a time when you can separate life from death.

Question: Do you have the physical sensations of death?

Answer: You might have sensations, but they aren’t physically happening. It’s only your imagination. You might, though, experience panic.

Question: You sweat?

Answer: Turn on the air conditioner.

It is vital to understand impermanence. If we don’t, we don’t understand the importance of death. Ordinarily, we don’t think about it; we don’t analyze it much. Many of us are uncomfortable even hearing about death, nonetheless experiencing what death is like. Most often we talk about the impermanence of the physical world. But that understanding is superficial. We think only of change, and that’s not a full understanding of the physical world.

We must truly understand that there is not enough time between things and objects coming into being and going out of existence. Once we realize there isn’t much time between coming into and going out of existence, we may reach a more complete understanding of impermanence. This process is actually so fast that we don’t really understand change. That because there isn’t really enough time for us to see all the changes. Things don’t come into existence and stay the same for years and years, then one day just disappear. Change is not like that. Actually, change is an almost simultaneous process of appearing and disappearing. This understanding can help us understand that there really isn’t enough time to separate life and death. Once we understand that, we are more fully capable of enjoying what’s around us. We will develop a deep appreciation of the freshness of every object.

Question: Is this gratitude?

Answer: Yes, gratitude is needed.

Question: What about near-death experiences?

Answer: Yes, people who have a near-death experience are more contained, more able to appreciate what is around them. This happens because they understand external conditions let them experience death yet continue to live. This is different from meditations on death, which we consciously go through under our own volition. But meditation, too, can help us appreciate and enjoy what is available around us.

Question: If you understand death, are you less worried about the past and future?

Answer: Yes, you don’t care that much about the future, and you’re not worried much about the past.

Notes from a teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal in Columbia, South Carolina, August 18, 2001.