.Meditation Posture and Breath Purification
When meditating, it is always important to keep your body, speech, and mind balanced. The body has three principal components: the channels, the wind, and the essence element. If these three components are well-balanced, you will feel healthy and comfortable.
First, the channels need to be properly aligned by maintaining good posture. The main points of good posture are known as the seven-point posture of Buddha Vairochana. If you use these postures when you meditate, your meditation will be stable and smooth.
The first point is to sit with your legs crossed in the lotus, or vajra, posture. Second, your back should be kept very straight, not bent forward or back, but straight like an arrow pointing up to the sky. Third is the hand position, or mudra. There are two popular ways to hold the hands. The equanimity mudra
is done by placing the right hand on top of the left hand, with the palms up and both hands resting in your lap, close to the navel. Or you can rest your hands on your knees with the palms down, in what is called the relaxing mudra.
Fourth, you should keep your elbows rounded, not touching them to your sides. The angle of your elbows is sometimes compared to the way a vulture holds its wings when landing. Fifth, your neck should be held straight, keeping the crown chakra straight up. To keep your head aligned properly you can bend your
head forward a little so that your chest is a bit down. Sixth, keep your eyes looking forward and down toward the tip of your nose, without blinking a lot or moving your eyes in different directions. And last, hold your tongue so that it touches the upper roof of your mouth. The lips may be slightly parted.
Vimalamitra, early dzogchen master
Once you know how to balance the channels with good posture, the next aspect to balance is the breath. While you are meditating, continue to breathe normally, without changing the way you usually breathe. When you begin your morning practice session, after doing at least three prostrations and sitting on your cushion with correct posture, it is good to do a breath purification exercise. There is a particular dzogchen technique
for breath purification that releases the inner air of the negative emotions. The three main emotions, often called the three poisons, are attachment, anger, and ignorance. By releasing the air connected with the three poisons you can clarify your wind energy. To begin this exercise, form your hands into the gesture, or mudra, called “the vajra fist.” The word vajra means “indestructible,” so the vajra fist is a gesture of indestructibility.
Press your thumb at the base of your ring finger and curl your hand into a first. The ring finger is especially important because it has particular channels related to the emotions. When you press your thumb on your ring finger, you are blocking the emotion channels.
Having formed the vajra fist with both hands, place your hands, with the fingers facing up, at your hips. The hips also have many channels, including emotion channels; pressing the vajra fist on the hips blocks these emotion channels and helps the mind to relax further. After pressing down on your hips, rub the back side of your fists along your thighs to your knees. Then turn your fists over, bring your fists back along your thighs,
and gradually pull your fists up your body until they reach the chest level, and then thrust your hands out in front of you and extend your fingers. You should extend your arms and fingers very straight, shooting them out like arrows.
Then, drop both hands to your knees. Leaving your right hand on your right knee, raise your left hand and rotate it in the lotus-turning mudra, and then press the thumb over the base of the ring finger and extend the index finger. Press your left nostril with your left index finger, and release air through your right nostril. The channel located on the right of the central channel is filled with the body’s white element and the wind
connected with anger, so you release the anger air through the right nostril. While exhaling, visualize that all the anger air passing out of the right nostril is colored dark yellow, the color that represents anger. All of it goes out, so that no anger wind is left inside.
After that, you press down again at your hips with both hands in the vajra fist and repeat the sequence of drawing your fists to your knees, back up to your chest, shooting out your arms, and dropping your hands to your knees. But this time leave your left hand on your left knee and do the lotus-turning mudra with your right hand. Place your right thumb over the base of your right ring finger, press your right index finger to your
right nostril, and exhale through the left nostril. The left side of the body is dominated by attachment and desire. The left channel is red in color, being filled with the red element of the body. By exhaling through the left nostril you release the attachment air which is visualized as dark red in color.
Then, do the same sequence of pressing down and bringing both arms up and shooting them out. The third time you leave both hands on your knees and release air from both nostrils as well as from your mouth. This time the air of ignorance is expelled. The energy of ignorance is not located particularly on the right or the left side because ignorance pervades everywhere. Since ignorance is the ground of both attachment and
anger, it is released from both nostrils as well as the mouth. The ignorance air is visualized as dark blue in color. Doing this exercise will help to clear the air of the emotions. When the emotion air is dispelled, at that moment wisdom air will appear more clearly.
After doing this exercise to purify the breath, your mind will be clearer and calmer, and it will be easier to maintain your mind in the meditative state. Even though this purification exercise is very simple, it is very beneficial. After doing the breath purification, you are ready to begin your practice.
Just as you clean and decorate your house before a guest arrives, similarly, before beginning to meditate you should make the proper preparations for the principal guest, your inner wisdom. The many channels in your body are filled with different emotions and airs, so it is important to purify the stale air and bring fresh wisdom air into the body.
Meditating on the True Nature of the Mind
Once the body, channels, and wind are balanced, the next step is to keep your mind in the natural state through meditation. By simply maintaining the mind as it is, without adding or subtracting anything, one will reach the inner nature, which is unchanging and indestructible.
The instructions for this type of meditation are very simple. One begins by sitting with good posture on a cushion, because it is important to stay straight. Then, one simply maintains the natural clarity of the mind, without analyzing one’s experiences or being disturbed by thoughts. In the dzogchen style of meditation, there is actually nothing to do except relax in the mind’s nature of clarity and emptiness. Inner awareness is
different than external awareness; it is called clear-light emptiness. It is helpful to use the sky as an analogy for the true nature of the mind — when you let your mind mingle with the open space of the sky, you do not need any particular focus. Simply maintain the mind naturally, without discrimination or judgments, and experience its nature as being spacious as the sky.
Meditating on the nature of the mind is something you can do anytime. You do not have to go somewhere special to acquire the nature of the mind; you do not need to buy it from a store or dig it up from the earth; it is always available. During meditation you do not need to think any particular thoughts or make any effort to change what you are. Just simply maintain where you are and what you are, without trying to do anything
unusual. If you meditate by simply maintaining the natural state, then everything unnatural will be removed. You do not have to do anything except remain on your cushion. In one sense this is something of a joke, but in another sense it is true. You simply relax on your cushion, and that’s it!
Although meditation does not demand any physical activity, you do have to maintain the meditative state, and this takes some effort. Effort is not actually part of the basic ground nature, but since our obscurations and ignorance are so strong it requires effort to make meditation natural. When meditating in this way, it is not necessary to fight with the obscurations. As your practice develops power, it will spontaneously remove
the obscurations since they are not part of the primordial nature. This practice will reveal more and more of the basic ground of primordial wisdom. The rising sun does not fight with the darkness; just as its presence
makes darkness disappear, in the same way, when we meditate, the presence of the primordial nature overcomes ignorance. It is like the heat of the sun in springtime penetrating the cold ground so that green plants naturally begin to grow. When meditation practice causes primordial wisdom to shine, the enlightened qualities manifest according to one’s level of meditative stabilization.
The natural mind is inexpressible and inconceivable. It cannot be expressed verbally, but it can be experienced through your own awareness. When you meditate you should not follow your monkey like thoughts; instead try to remain in a state of mindful awareness all the time. Of course, at some point you
will begin thinking, but try not to analyze or follow your thoughts; simply watch with the mind. This is called mindfulness. Mindfulness means that the mind is watching how the meditation is going.
Do your meditation with a relaxed mind; do not worry or force yourself to meditate. Do not be in a rush, but be concerned enough that you do not postpone it until tomorrow. If you put it off, there is always another tomorrow, and you can extend that for endless tomorrows without developing your practice.
Once in a while it is good to watch your meditation and see how it is going, but do not do this all the time because that is spying too much. On the other hand, you should not be so relaxed that you are careless, since that will not bring good results either. There has to be a balance.
There is a story that illustrates this from the lifetime of the Buddha. There was a monk who thought he should meditate forcefully, and his mind got twisted and tight. He did not feel he was progressing in his practice, so he told one of his fellow monks about his concerns. His friend advised him not to meditate so tightly, but to be more relaxed. Then the monk meditated in a very relaxed way, but he still did not get good results. Since
he was very interested in meditation he got upset about his lack of progress, and finally he went to the Buddha and explained his trouble. The Buddha asked him, “Before you were a monk, what was your expertise?” The monk replied, “I was an expert on the mandolin.” The Buddha asked him, “When the mandolin is strung very tight, will it make a beautiful sound?” And the monk answered, “Not if you use too much tension.” Then the
Buddha asked, “If the strings are loose, will it make a good sound?” The monk replied, “No, of course not. You have to keep the proper tension on the strings.” The Buddha told him, “Meditation is the same way: you have to keep the proper balance — not too tight and not too loose.”
When you meditate with the proper balance you can reach enlightenment and discover the primordial nature. As a beginner, it is best to practice for many short periods and gradually extend the sessions to longer and longer periods oftime. Meditate for as long as you have time, and when you finish, dedicate
the merit for the benefit of all sentient beings. Buddhist meditation is always based on love for all beings, so you should conclude your practice with thoughts of compassion and loving-kindness. When you dedicate the merit to others, it does not mean that you lose that merit, actually it multiplies your merit. So it is good to always complete your meditation session by spending a few minutes dedicating the merit for the benefit of all sentient beings.
The Five Supports of Meditation
All beings have the potential for buddhahood. In order to actualize this potential we need to meditate. The best supports for meditation practice are joyful effort, mindfulness, devotion, concentration, and wisdom. The Buddha taught that we can actualize enlightenment with these five supports. When you meditate, first you need to apply joyful and continuous effort. In any activity you need a certain amount of motivation to finish
what you start. If you experience joy in what you are doing, then you will want to continue. Joyful effort is not accomplished by rushing around and staying busy; the best type of effort is steady and smooth, like a river. When you look at a wide river, its movement is very subtle; even though you may
not be able to tell whether it is moving or not, its movement is very powerful. When you develop joyful interest and ongoing effort, your practice will bring good results.
It is also important not to expect immediate results. Practicing strenuously for a short time and then dropping it altogether will not bring lasting results. It is like a fire made with hay — it blazes up very fast, but the heat does not last. When you first begin to practice, you should meditate frequently for short periods of time. Do not start with a huge amount of time and then decrease it; start with a small amount of time and gradually
increase it. Guru Padmasambhava taught this shordy before he departed from Tibet. The Queen of Tibet, Ngang-zang Palgyi Gyalmo, asked Guru Padmasambhava to tell her how to meditate. He told her to begin by meditating often for very short periods. He used the example of a leaky roof in an old house, where the rain does not pour in, but leaks in drop by drop. This is how you should begin to meditate, and then gradually extend the time.
No matter how long you meditate, try to meditate with mindfulness. Otherwise, if you are just sitting on your cushion and thinking, then your mind will travel all over. This is called the monkey mind. People say that monkeys are always active; they never really rest, even when they sit still. For whatever amount of time you meditate, even for five or ten minutes, try to maintain your mind single-pointedly, without being distracted by thoughts.
Of course, it naturally happens when you meditate that thoughts suddenly arise and lead you in different directions. When you see that happening, rather than following the thoughts, immediately bring the mind back through mindfulness. The reason you need to meditate is because concepts have covered up the
natural state. If thoughts did not cause confusion, you would not need to meditate. However, you should not be upset or sad when thoughts arise. It is quite normal for thoughts to arise during meditation. The main point is to not follow the thoughts.
It is also important in meditation to have the right motivation, which is based on devotion and bodhichitta. Devotion to the highly realized beings such as Buddha Shakyamuni, Guru Padmasambhava, or Tara means that you feel close to them and wish to attain the same ability they have to help all sentient beings. Devotion is feeling great interest in their realization and longing to have the same realization as soon as you can.
Devotion combines interest and clarity of mind. It develops in two ways. Some people develop devotion with the assistance of spiritual friends who encourage them to study the teachings and follow the examples of the great masters in order to reach enlightenment. In other cases, devotion develops spontaneously in an individual.
In addition to devotion to the Buddha, dharma, and sangha, in the vajrayana there is also devotion to what is called the three roots — the lama, the deities, and the dakinis. The three roots are the three principal objects of refuge in Buddhist tantra. Devotion is like a channel that brings down the
blessings of realized beings. Even at the level of dzogchen, devotion is very important. Devotion is like the key which opens the door of enlightenment. In the Prajnaparamita Sutra, Buddha Shakyamuni taught that devotion is like a light that makes enlightenment visible.
Devotion is important because if you have devotion, then you can receive blessings. There is a story that long ago in Tibet a student approached a famous Kadampa master and asked, “Great master, could you give me some blessings?” And the master replied, “Well, noble student, could you give me some devotion?”
Another example of devotion that you may know is the life story of Milarepa. His teacher Marpa did many things to test his confidence and devotion, but Milarepa’s devotion was very strong, and as a result he achieved great realization.
Joyful effort is a natural extension of devotion. As your interest and sense of purpose grow, you feel good about working harder. A person who thinks clearly about the dharma and desires to understand it will take concrete steps to know the dharma at deeper and deeper levels. With joyful effort, you can overcome physical and mental obstacles quite happily in order to accomplish your spiritual goal.
Even if people have devotion and joyful effort, without proper mindfulness they will not be able to accomplish their objective. Mindfulness means paying attention to the main focus of the meditation as well as to the supports of devotion, effort, concentration, and so forth. Mindfulness means not forgetting what you are doing, but being clear and focused. It fulfills devotion and joyful effort by giving the practice a sharper focus and direction.
Concentration means continually maintaining an unmoving focus. To accomplish concentration in meditation you need devotion, joyful effort, and mindfulness; without these, concentration is impossible. For example, devotion is the initial interest people feel toward spiritual practice. Joyful effort naturally follows when they plan to meditate, set a schedule, and actually sit down and practice. But not all sitting is good meditation;
sometimes people fall asleep or their minds wander. Good meditation needs mindfulness to keep the attention focused and on track. When devotion, joyful effort, and mindfulness are practiced, then concentration is present and the mind is smooth and stable. Generally, our minds are darting about and unstable. Concentration naturally brings calmness and peace of mind.
The fifth power, wisdom, naturally emerges from practicing the first four powers. One way to understand wisdom is to divide it into its two aspects, relative and absolute. Together these make up true wisdom, but it is important to understand the characteristics of each aspect through direct perception and inference.
Relatively, we directly perceive objects through seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. We apply inference when we think about them. These are aspects of relative wisdom. When we examine phenomena closely, we see that they exist in an illusory way, like a mirage, a dream, or the reflection of the moon in water. Recognition of the illusory nature of phenomena is absolute wisdom. We can use logical inference to
understand the relative nature of phenomena, but reasoning cannot encompass the absolute nature. Inference about emptiness can lead closer to the absolute truth, but direct perception is necessary to realize it since the true nature transcends dualistic thinking. Wisdom is understanding the absolute and relative truths, and recognizing their differences as well as how they are united.
To get a better understanding of the five powers, it is helpful to look at their opposites. The opposite of devotion is the absence of interest and clear thinking about spiritual practice. People who lack devotion see only the ordinary objects right in front of them; their vision of the deeper levels of
reality is obscured. Buddha Shakyamuni taught that devotion opens the door to pure vision. The future buddha, the bodhisattva Maitreya, said that people without devotion are like a burned seed. Just as a burned seed cannot grow or produce any fruit, in the
same way a person without devotion cannot progress on the spiritual path. The opposite of joyful effort is laziness, or feeling dull and heavy. There are different forms of laziness. One form is when you have an interest in practicing, but feel you do not have the time now and will do it later. This is just postponing your accomplishment. Another form of laziness is being hard on yourself and ignoring your good qualities, thinking that
you are not good enough to practice. A third type of laziness is just following old habits and refusing to make the effort to change, like preferring to be comfortable by staying in bed. Refusing to think new thoughts or act differently is also laziness.
The opposite of mindfulness is forgetfulness. Forgetfulness happens because the mind is moving so fast. The mind is somewhat like a strainer that cannot keep water from flowing out. As soon as one thought passes away another takes its place. As a result we do not spend enough time thinking clearly about
what is important, so we neglect the things we really want to do. We need to firmly imprint on our mind what is truly important. For example, after hearing a dharma talk or meditation instruction we should spend some time reviewing the meaning of what we heard. Then we will not forget it so quickly.
The opposite of concentration is distraction. Buddha Shakyamuni mentioned many types of distractions, but the two most common are external and internal distractions. The external distractions are objects of the five senses, which bring up feelings of attraction and revulsion. Internal distractions are objects of our imagination, which bring up attachment and anger, hope and fear. Everyone has distracting thoughts; they are not
unusual. Having thoughts while meditating is not a problem, but nurturing them and indulging in them is a problem. We must make a firm decision and exert strong effort to overcome distractions during practice. Good concentration eliminates the emotions so that one is not distracted by one’s feelings. Then, the mind can remain perfectly balanced and focused in one direction.
The opposite of wisdom is ignorance. Ignorance is the root of samsara — the process of endless birth and death and rebirth. Ignorance is like the darkness caused by wearing a hat that completely covers our head so that we cannot see anything. Or it is like being in a room with no openings. However, ignorance
is not something solid, but an illusion that can disappear when it is penetrated with awareness. When ignorance is removed, then wisdom shines forth and the emptiness nature is apparent.
Since emptiness is free from all duality, it is the supreme state of equanimity where there is no discrimination or conflict. It is a state of complete openness in which everything is radiating and reflecting. In the Heart Sutra, Buddha Shakyamuni taught, “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.” The forms we perceive with our senses are inseparable from emptiness; this is the essence of the primordial nature.
Each of us has a strong inclination to feel separate. By holding on to the feeling of having an ego we also create the egos of others and develop dualistic thinking. We distinguish in various ways between self and others, between my interests and the interests of others, and we divide others into friends and enemies. This is how we develop a dualistic world. But from the point of view of emptiness, there is no real basis for dualistic
thinking; there is no truly existing self in oneself or others. The idea of a separate self is a temporary creation of our deluded minds, and this ignorant thought produces grasping and attachment. Ignorance means not knowing emptiness, which is the true nature of things.
When ignorance, the root of all human problems, is removed by the wisdom of emptiness, then one experiences great equanimity.Shamatha and Vipashyana Buddha Shakyamuni expounded many different levels of instruction in order to teach us how to maintain the true nature of mind and show compassion for all sentient beings. There are many different meditations for this purpose, such as shamatha and vipashyana, and the
creation stage and the completion stage practices of the vajrayana. All these methods have only one object, which is to reveal the true nature of the mind. These different techniques are related to each other and they work together to help attain enlightenment.
When first learning to meditate, most people find it difficult to rest the mind so that the primordial wisdom can shine through. Thoughts continuously arise, one after another, like waves on the ocean, and the mind is constandy moving. It helps to begin by sitting with good posture and then to remain focused. There are several techniques in the Buddhist tradition for settling the mind and uncovering wisdom. Two of the best known are shamatha and vipashyana.
Understanding the meaning of the Sanskrit terms can help us to understand the way in which we need to meditate. The Sanskrit word shamatha is made of two words, shama and tha . Shama means “peaceful or calm,” and tha means “letting or abiding,” so shamatha means “letting the mind be peaceful.” Shamatha is also known in Sanskrit as samadhi , which is also two words put together. Sama means “motionless” and dhi means
“holding,” so samadhi refers to maintaining one’s mind in a constant, unchanging state. For example, if you fill a bowl with water and do not touch it, the water does not move, it stays still. Similarly, when your mind rests single-pointedly, undisturbed by thoughts, it becomes calm.
In this state the mind is concentrated and focused. This means that the mind does not move or change; it is solid like a mountain. Maintaining the mind in a state of stillness results in the clarity of the natural mind shining forth. However, most of us do not experience stillness; our minds are as active as a hurricane. When the mind is very active, we cannot maintain calmness and, in fact, many of our activities cause sorrow and
strife. Sometimes we get discouraged when we experience difficulty in maintaining calmness. Although it is difficult, all of us have the ability to calm the mind; it can be done with joyful effort and courage. Achieving anything in dharma practice or in the world requires effort and perseverance. It is important to believe that we can accomplish this goal and then to exert effort and continue to the end.
In the Prajnaparamita Sutra the Buddha gave an example of courageous effort. There was a bodhisattva who taught that if one could remove a mountain then one could attain enlightenment. Some people thought this was impossible, so they gave up and did not reach enlightenment. Other people heard the same
thing, and with great effort, patience and courage, removed the mountain and attained enlightenment. Although calming the mind may seem as difficult to us as removing a mountain, if we have patience and courage and joyful effort, we will be able to achieve our goal.
There are many stages in mental development, but as soon as we are able to maintain the mind in a calm state, at that very moment there is joy and peace. This is reflected in the body becoming relaxed, and then the mind becomes more relaxed. Since the mind and body influence each other, as the mind calms down, the hidden enlightened qualities emerge more and more.
To do the shamatha technique you begin with good sitting posture. Use the seven-point posture of Buddha Vairochana, with the back straight, the hands on the knees, and so on, and continue to breathe normally. There are two ways to do shamatha practice: with an object of focus and without an object of focus. Shamatha with an object involves concentrating on a physical object like a small piece of crystal, a statue of the
Buddha, or a picture of Guru Padmasambhava, or you can concentrate on a visualized object like a small circle of light or a small syllable made of light. Another technique for doing shamatha with an object is to follow
the breath, consciously recognizing your inhalations and exhalations. No matter which sort of object you use, whenever your mind wanders you bring it back to the object of concentration and maintain it there for as long as you can. Shamatha without an object has no particular focus; it is just meditating on emptiness.
The second type of meditation is called vipashyana. Vipashyana is a Sanskrit word made up of vz, meaning “extraordinary,” and pashyana , meaning “seeing.” Literally, it means “extraordinary seeing,” but it is usually translated into English as “insight” or “supreme seeing.” Vipashyana goes further than maintaining a calm and unmoving mind. In vipashyana practice you examine the mind and its source. By penetrating the surface
level of thoughts and emotions, you see that their insubstantiality is the true nature of the mind. This is the practice of extraordinary seeing, in which you realize that everything arises from great emptiness, and that the
true nature of the mind is unborn, unceasing, and free from concepts. When the mind relaxes in its natural state, all of the usual perceptions of solid existence are experienced as nothing more than a dream. This is the great equanimity free from mental fabrications.
The technique for vipashyana begins the same as with shamatha, with good sitting posture and normal breathing, and then you look into the mind itself. When thoughts and emotions appear, you look for their origin and their destination. Where do they come from and where do they go? When you look into the mind in this way, you reach the true nature of the mind. Then, simply relax effordessly in this state, having confidence in
the true nature, knowing that there is actually nothing to gain and nothing to lose. This is the original state from which we all come, the state where the whole universe originates. If you meditate in this way without effort or fear or discomfort, you will discover that everything exists in one state of equanimity that transcends suffering.
Vipashyana meditation transcends ordinary thinking by seeing the illusory nature of all mental fabrications. It sees beyond the distinctions we make between self and others, enemies and friends, good and bad, and so on. For example, although mountains and trees appear as solidly existing, substantial objects, in reality their existence is more like a reflection of the moon in water. All physical objects can be divided into smaller and
smaller parts until they cannot be found anymore. What we called a mountain is just a mental designation that does not exist separately from the mind. Just as there is no independendy existing mountain, there is also no independently existing mind. Our mind is insubstantial and cannot be grasped, just like a reflection in water. The phenomenal world and the mind are both based on emptiness. All distinctions between subject and
object are ultimately empty of true existence. When we know this clearly through meditation, we are practicing vipashyana. Shamatha and vipashyana are closely connected. By shamatha one maintains the mind in the
natural state, and by vipashyana one sees that all appearances are insubstantial emptiness. Success with one of these practices supports the development of the other, but the result of vipashyana meditation is greater than that of shamatha. The realization resulting from vipashyana is sometimes called “the third eye,” which means that one has visions and experiences that transcend one’s previous, ordinary perceptions.