Introduction to Buddhism
An explanation of the Buddhist Way of Life
What is Meditation?
The heart of Dharma practice is meditation. The purpose of meditation is to make our mind calm and peaceful. If our mind is peaceful we shall be free from worries and mental discomfort, and so we shall experience true happiness; but if our mind is not peaceful we shall find it very difficult to be happy, even if we are living in the very best conditions. If we train in meditation our mind will gradually become more and more peaceful, and we shall experience a purer and purer form of happiness. Eventually we shall be able to stay happy all the time, even in the most difficult circumstances.
Usually we find it difficult to control our mind. It seems as if our mind is like a balloon in the wind blown here and there by external circumstances. If things go well our mind is happy, but if they go badly it immediately becomes unhappy. For example, if we get what we want, such as a new possession or a new partner, we become excited and cling to them tightly; but since we cannot have everything we want, and since we shall inevitably be separated from the friends and possessions we currently enjoy, this mental stickiness, or attachment, serves only to cause us pain. On the other hand, if we do not get what we want, or if we lose something that we like, we become despondent or irritated. For example, if we are forced to work with a colleague whom we dislike we shall probably become irritated and feel aggrieved, with the result that we shall be unable to work with them efficiently and our time at work will become stressful and unrewarding.
Such fluctuations of mood arise because we are too closely involved in the external situation. We are like a child making a sand castle who is excited when it is first made, but who becomes upset when it is destroyed by the incoming tide. By training in meditation we create an inner space and clarity that enables us to control our mind regardless of the externalncircumstances. Gradually we develop mental equilibrium, a balanced mind that is happy all the time, rather than an unbalanced mind that oscillates between the extremes of excitement and despondency. If we train in meditation systematically, eventually we shall be able to eradicate from our mind the delusions that are the causes of all our problems and suffering. In this way we shall come to experience a permanent inner peace, known as `liberation' or `nirvana'. Then, day and night in life after life we shall experience only peace and happiness.
Meditation is a method for acquainting our mind with virtue. It is a mind that analyzes or concentrates on a virtuous object. A virtuous object is one that causes us to develop a peaceful mind when we analyze it or concentrate on it. If we contemplate an object and it causes us to develop an unpeaceful mind such as anger or attachment, this indicates that that object is non-virtuous. There are also many objects that are neither virtuous nor non-virtuous, but neutral.
There are two types of meditation: analytical meditation and placement meditation. Analytical meditation involves contemplating the meaning of a Dharma instruction that we have heard or read. By contemplating such instructions deeply,eventually we reach a definite conclusion, or cause a specific virtuous state of mind to arise. This is the object of placement meditation. We then concentrate single-pointedly on this conclusion or virtuous state of mind for as long as possible to become deeply acquainted with it. This single-pointed concentration is placement meditation. Often, analytical meditation is called simply `contemplation' and placement meditation simply `meditation'. Placement meditation depends upon analytical meditation, and analytical meditation depends upon listening to or reading Dharma instructions.
The first stage of meditation is to stop distractions and make our mind clearer and more lucid. This can be accomplished by practising a simple breathing meditation. We choose a quiet place to meditate and sit in a comfortable position. We can sit in the traditional cross-legged posture or in any other position that is comfortable. If we wish, we can sit in a chair. The most important thing is to keep our back straight to prevent our mind from becoming sluggish or sleepy.
We sit with our eyes partially closed and turn our attention to our breathing. We breathe naturally, preferably through the nostrils, without attempting to control our breath, and we try to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. This sensation is our object of meditation. We should try to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.
At first our mind will be very busy, and we might even feel that the meditation is making our mind busier; but in reality we are just becoming more aware of how busy our mind actually is. There will be a great temptation to follow the different thoughts as they arise, but we should resist this and remain focused single-pointedly on the sensation of the breath. If we discover that our mind has wandered and is following our thoughts we should immediately return it to the breath. We should repeat this as many times as necessary until the mind settles on the breath.
If we practise patiently in this way, gradually our distracting thoughts shall subside and we shall experience a sense of inner peace and relaxation. Our mind will feel lucid and spacious and we shall feel refreshed. When the sea is rough, sediment is churned up and the water becomes murky, but when the wind dies down the mud gradually settles and the water becomes clear. In a similar way, when the otherwise incessant flow of our distracting thoughts is calmed through concentrating on the breath, our mind becomes unusually lucid and clear. We should stay with this state of mental calm for a while.
Even though breathing meditation is only a preliminary stage of meditation, it can be quite powerful. We can see from this practice that it is possible to experience inner peace and contentment just by controlling the mind, without having to depend at all upon external conditions. When the turbulence of distracting thoughts subsides and our mind becomes still, a deep happiness and contentment naturally arises from within. This feeling of contentment and well-being helps us to cope with the busyness and difficulties of daily life. So much of the stress and tension we normally experience comes from our mind, and many of the problems we experience, including ill health, are caused or aggravated by this stress. Just by doing breathing meditation for ten or fifteen minutes each day, we shall be able to reduce this stress. We shall experience a calm, spacious feeling in the mind, and many of our usual problems will fall away. Difficult situations will become easier to deal with, we shall naturally feel warm and well-disposed towards other people, and our relationships with others will gradually improve.
We should train in this preliminary meditation until we gain some experience of it; but if we want to attain permanent, unchanging inner peace, and if we want to become completely free from problems and suffering, we need to advance beyond simple breathing meditation to more practical forms of meditation, such as the cycle of twenty-one Lamrim meditations explained in The Meditation Handbook. When we do these meditations we begin by calming the mind with breathing meditation, and then we proceed to the stages of analytical and placement meditation according to the specific instructions for each meditation. Some of these meditations will now be introduced in this book.