What to Expect at the Dharma Center
By Robert W. Clark, Visiting Professor, Philosophy Department, College of Charleston, 1996
Note: This article was written in reference to our Spiritual Director, Geshe Dakpa Topgyal, who resides in Charleston and teaches in Columbia on occasion.
Among the numbers of distinguished Geshes in the world, Geshe Dakpa Topgyal is uniquely qualified to teach in Charleston and the rest of the Western world. This is because Geshe-la speaks English and has broad experience and understanding of the Western world. He traveled throughout this country as the official interpreter of the Drepung Loseling 1993-94 World Tour.
As native English-speakers, we sometimes take the ability to speak English for granted. It is useful to consider the extreme rarity of English language skills among those who, like Geshe-la, have devoted their entire lives to mastering the vast and profound sciences of Buddhism in their canonical languages. Before the mid-twentieth century, there were no Tibetan Geshes who spoke English, and there are only a handful of English-speaking Geshes in the world today.
Now that one of these rare teachers is among us, how do we best use the opportunity to benefit ourselves and our community? For those who view, or would like to view Geshe-la as a "Lama" (i.e., spiritual teacher) or who wish to learn of the spiritual and philosophical treasures of Buddhism several points may be worth considering.
Among his many wonderful qualities, Geshe-la is very approachable. He is available for classes and a variety of meditations and retreats. When speaking with Geshe-la it is helpful to consider that Tibetans in general and Lamas like Geshe-la in particular tend to be very patient and agreeable. He is likely to give teachings in response to any sincere request but the initiative must come from the disciple. In the Buddhist tradition, a teacher is required to wait for openness and sincerity on the part of the disciple rather than imposing teachings upon unwilling listeners. The individual and community relies upon the Lama to give whatever is most suited and beneficial. Insight into disciples spiritual needs is an essential part of a Lama's particular expertise.
Geshe-la is a great treasury of the vast wisdom of the Buddha and of the lineage of Lamas of India and Tibet. Understanding him as a precious resource and an ideal spiritual friend, we may begin to take advantage of this special opportunity during his visit to Charleston by accustoming ourselves to some of the basic principles of Buddhist tradition. This includes an understanding of the physical and mental postures or orientations necessary for effective engagement in meditation practices.
Physical and Mental Posture For Meditation
When we engage in any type of formal meditation, there are certain standard practices we should consider. It may be valuable to consider these suggestions as a way to approach Buddhist practice, but we should always ask Geshe-la for his guidance in understanding and refining these practices to suit our individual and collective needs.
Effective practice of Buddhist meditation requires proper physical and mental posture. Buddhism accepts no ultimate distinction between physical and mental realities. The mind is closely affected by the attitudes and postures of the body and the body reflects the attitudes and postures of the mind.
When entering the meditation room, cultivate a realization that you are entering a sacred space different from the ordinary world. Remove your shoes before entering. Face the Lama and the altar, try to avoid turning your back toward them. Sit with your legs crossed, if possible. Otherwise sit in a chair. Never extend your legs in the direction of the Lama and the altar, or toward any object of reverence (images, icons, thankas, etc.). If your legs become too uncomfortable to continue sitting it is always better to stand up or extend your legs to the side rather towards the altar.
Consider all texts containing meditation instructions, images of Buddhas or prayers to be sacred objects. Show reverence by never allowing them to touch the ground. Place them on their own table or stand during meditation and store them in a high place such as an upper shelf.
The seven-fold Vairocana position (sapta vairocanadharma) is universally recommended for the practice of meditation. This is the position of the Buddha in meditation:
legs crossed (lotus or half-lotus styles are recommended)
hands in the gesture of equipoise (palms upward, right over left)
spine always held perfectly straight and plumb (like a stack of coins)
chin slightly lowered
shoulders held straight (not forward or back, neither relaxed nor rigid)
focus of the eyes held unwavering toward the tip of the nose
tip of tongue held at the front of the upper palate (at the base of the front teeth).
The mind follows the posture of the body. When you become accustomed to this posture you can sit for an extended period with the mind calm and alert.
Your mental posture or motivation must accord with one of the three levels of Buddhist religious practice. You have become, to some degree, convinced of the ephemeral nature of your life. You have left behind, upon entering the meditation room, your concerns with your welfare and comforts in this world. You are intent upon practicing Buddhist meditation in order to free yourself of bad karma which would lead to a painful rebirth. You cultivate merit in order to attain a happy rebirth.
You realize that even the best rebirth is also temporary and subject to the many pains of birth, sickness, aging, death and so forth. You practice meditation with the aim of attaining the pure state, enlightenment, to bring maximum benefit for all sentient beings.
You wish for freedom from the miseries of birth and death, but even more you have come to realize that all beings, without exception, share these miseries as well as the wish for the peace and happiness of liberation. You are seized by an overwhelming concern for the welfare of others. Forsaking even a thought of your own welfare, you throw yourself into the meditation in order to attain the state of perfect Enlightenment, realizing that only from that exalted position can you accomplish the welfare of limitless suffering beings.
As you recite the words of the meditation, it is essential that you make them come alive through lucid visualization. Skill in visualization can take time and effort to develop. Never recite the words mechanically. Always try to increase the clarity of your visualization of the Buddha or Bodhisattvas or the field of refuge (according to the instructions given by the Lama or in the text).
The implications of the Buddha's teaching (Dharma) are inconceivably profound. The lack of any ultimate distinction between the physical and the mental is the basis of the power of Buddhist meditation. Skilled meditators (yogis) gain the ability to transform their pure visualizations into pure realities. The ordinary world becomes the pure land of the Buddha. The cycle of birth and death (samsara) becomes undifferentiated from liberation (nirvana). The illusions of the world fall away and Buddhahood is attained.