The Reason we practice meditation
By The Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche

In the spread of Buddhism in America, the Kagyu lineage was in the forefront of the sending of lamas to America. Of these lamas, the three great progenitors of the dharma in America were His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa, His Eminence Kalu Rinpoche, and the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. It was very unfortunate that in the 1980s we lost all of these great beings, but in the aftermath, there were a number of remarkable lamas in the lineage who stepped forward to fill their places and to bring great benefit to sentient beings. Amongst these, in the forefront of them, was The Very Venerable Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, abbot by appointment of His Holiness Karmapa of Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim. He is also abbot of his own monasteries in Nepal and Tibet, and by appointment of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, of Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia. In addition he has been very generous and kind to Western students, teaching the dharma extensively in retreats and seminars throughout the world. Rinpoche taught in Seattle for the first time in May 1996. This transcript is from his teachings the evening of May 24.
I'd like to begin by welcoming all of you here tonight. I recognize that you've come here out of your sincere interest in, and wish to practice, genuine dharma, and out of your respect for my teaching. And this is all delightful to me, and I thank you for it. I consider myself fortunate to have such an opportunity to form such a connection with you. To begin, I would like to recite a traditional supplication to the teachers of my lineage, and while doing so, I invite you to join me in an attitude of confidence and devotion. (Chants)
The essence of the buddhadharma, the teachings of the Buddha, is practice. And when we say practice, we mean the practice of meditation, which can consist of either the meditation known as tranquillity or that known as insight. But in either case, it must be implemented in actual practice. The reason we practice meditation is to attain happiness. And this means states of happiness in both the short term and the long term. With regard to short-term happiness, when we speak of happiness, we usually mean either or both of two things, one of which is physical pleasure and the other of which is mental pleasure. But if you look at either of these pleasant experiences, the root of either one has to be a mind that is at peace, a mind that is free of suffering. Because as long as your mind is unhappy and without any kind of tranquillity or peace, then no matter how much physical pleasure you experience, it will not take the form of happiness per se. On the other hand, even if you lack the utmost ideal physical circumstances of wealth and so on, if your mind is at peace, you will be happy anyway.
We practice meditation, therefore, in part in order to obtain the short-term benefit of a state of mental happiness and peace. Now, the reason why meditation helps with this is that, normally, we have a great deal of thought, or many different kinds of thoughts running through our minds. And some of these thoughts are pleasant, even delightful. Some of them however, are unpleasant, agitating, and worrisome. Now, if you examine the thoughts that are present in your mind from time to time, you will see that the pleasant thoughts are comparatively few, and the unpleasant thoughts are many - which means that as long as your mind is ruled or controlled by the thoughts that pass through it, you will be quite unhappy. In order to gain control over this process, therefore, we begin with the meditation practice of tranquillity, which produces a basic state of contentment and peace within the mind of the practitioner.
An example of this is the great Tibetan yogi Jetsun Milarepa, who lived in conditions of the utmost austerity. He lived it utter solitude, in caves and isolated mountains. His clothes were very poor; he had no nice clothes. His food was neither rich nor tasty. In fact, [for a number of years] he lived on nettle soup alone, as a result of which he became physically very thin, almost emaciated. Now, if you consider his external circumstances alone, the isolation and poverty in which he lived, you would think he must have been miserable. And yet, as we can tell from the many songs he composed, because his mind was fundamentally at peace, his experience was one of constant unfolding delight. His songs are songs that express the utmost state of delight or rapture. He saw every place he went to, no matter how isolated and austere an environment it was, as beautiful, and he experienced his life of utmost austerity as extremely pleasant.
In fact, the short-term benefits of meditation are more than merely peace of mind, because our physical health as well depends, to a great extent, upon our state of mind. And therefore, if you cultivate this state of mental contentment and peace, then you will tend not to become ill, and you will as well tend to heal easily if and when you do become ill. The reason for this is that one of the primary conditions which brings about states of illness is mental agitation, which produces a corresponding agitation or disturbance of the channels and the energies within your body. These generate new sicknesses, ones you have not yet experienced, and also prevent the healing of old sicknesses. This agitation of the channels and winds or energies also obstructs the benefit which could be derived from medical treatment. If you practice meditation, then as your mind settles down, the channels and energies moving through the channels return to their rightful functioning, as a result of which you tend not to become ill and you are able to heal any illnesses you already have. And we can see an illustration of this also in the life of Jetsun Milarepa, who engaged in the utmost austerities with regard to where he lived, the clothes he wore, the food he ate, and so on, throughout the early part of his life. And yet this did not harm his health, because he managed to have a very long life, was extremely vigorous and youthful to the end of his life, which indicates the fact that through the proper practice of meditation, the mental peace and contentment that is generated calms down or corrects the functioning of the channels and energies, allowing for the healing of sickness and the prevention of sickness.
The ultimate or long-term benefit of the practice of meditation is becoming free of all suffering, which means no longer having to experience the sufferings of birth, aging, sickness and death. Now, this attainment of freedom is called, in the common language of all the Buddhist traditions, buddhahood, and in the particular terminology of the vajrayana, the supreme attainment, or supreme siddhi. In any case, the root or basic cause of this attainment is the practice of meditation. The reason for this is, again, that generally we have a lot of thoughts running through our minds, some of which are beneficial - thoughts of love, compassion, rejoicing in the happiness of others, and so on - and many of which are negative - thoughts of attachment, aversion, jealousy, competitiveness, and so on. Now, there are comparatively few of the former type of thought and comparatively many of the latter type of thought, because we have such strong habits that have been accumulating within us over a period of time without beginning. And it's only by removing these habits of negativity that we can free ourselves from suffering.
You cannot simply remove these mental afflictions, or kleshas, by saying to yourself, "I will not generate any more mental affliction," because you do not have the necessary freedom of mind or control over the kleshas to do so. In order to relinquish these, you need to actually attain this freedom, which begins, according to the common path, with the cultivation of tranquillity. Now, when you begin to meditate, [when] you begin to practice the basic meditation of tranquillity meditation, you may find that your mind won't stay still for a moment. But this is not permanent. This will change as you practice, and you will eventually be able to place your mind at rest at will, at which point you have successfully alleviated the manifest disturbance of these mental afflictions or kleshas. On the basis of that, then you can apply the second technique, which is called insight, which consists of learning to recognize and directly experience the nature of your own mind. This nature is referred to as emptiness. When you recognize this nature and rest in it, then all of the kleshas, all of the mental afflictions that arise, dissolve into this emptiness, and are no longer afflictions. Therefore, the freedom, or result, which is called buddhahood, depends upon the eradication of these mental afflictions, and that depends upon the practice of meditation.
The practice of tranquillity and insight is the general path which is common to both the paths of sutra and tantra. In the specific context which is particular to the vajrayana, the main techniques are called the generation stage and the completion stage. These two techniques are extremely powerful and effective. Generation stage refers to the visualization of, for example, the form of a lineage guru, the form of a deity or yidam, or the form of a dharma protector. Now, initially, when first encountering this technique, it's not uncommon for beginners to think, what is the point of this? Well, the point of this is that we support and confirm our ignorance and suffering and our kleshas through the constant generation of impure projections or impure appearances which make up our experience of samsara. And in order to transcend this process, we need to transcend these impure projections, together with the suffering that they bring about. A very effective way to do this is to replace these gradually, replace these projections of impurity with pure projections based on the iconography of the yidam, the dharmapala, and so on. By starting to experience the world as the mandala of the deity and all beings as the presence of that deity, then you gradually train yourself to let go of mental afflictions, let go of impure projections, and you create the environment for the natural manifestation of your own innate wisdom.
Now, all of this occurs gradually through this practice of the generation stage. The actual deities who are used can vary in appearance. Some of them are peaceful and some of them are wrathful. In general, the iconography of the wrathful deities points out the innate power of wisdom, and that of the peaceful deities the qualities of loving-kindness and compassion. Also, there are male deities and female deities. The male deities embody the method or compassion, and the female deities embody intelligence or wisdom.
For these reasons, it's appropriate to perform these practices of meditation upon deities. And because these practices are so prevalent in our tradition, if you go into a vajrayana practice place or temple, you will probably see lots of images of deities - peaceful deities, wrathful deities, and extraordinarily wrathful deities. And you'll see lots of shrines with some very eccentric offerings on them. Initially, if you're not used to all this, you might think, "What is all this?" And you might feel, "Well, the basic practices of tranquility and insight make a lot of sense, and are very interesting; and all these deities, all these rituals, and all these eccentric musical instruments are really not very interesting at all." However, each and every aspect of the iconography, and each and every implement you find in a shrine room, is there for a very specific reason. The reason in general is that we need to train ourselves to replace our projection of impurity or negativity with a projection or experience of purity. And you can't simply fake this, you can't simply talk yourself into this, because you're trying to replace something that is deeper than a concept. It's more like a feeling. So, therefore, in the technique by which you replace it, a great deal of feeling or experience of the energy of purity has to be actually generated, and in order to generate that, we use physical representations of offerings, we use musical instruments in order to inspire the feeling of purity, and so on. In short, all of these implements are useful in actually generating the experience of purity.
That is the first of the two techniques of vajrayana practice, the generation stage. The second technique is called the completion stage, and it consists of a variety of related techniques, of which perhaps the most important and the best known are mahamudra and dzogchen or "The Great Perfection." Now, sometimes, it seems to be presented that dzogchen is more important, and at other times it seems to be presented that mahamudra is more important, and as a result people become a little bit confused about this and are unsure which tradition or which practice they should pursue. Ultimately, the practices in essence and in their result are the same. In fact, each of them has a variety of techniques within it. For example, within mahamudra practice alone, there are many methods which can be used, such as candali (see footnote) and so forth, and within the practice of dzogchen alone there are as well many methods, such as the cultivation of primordial purity, spontaneous presence, and so on. But ultimately, mahamudra practice is always presented as guidance on or an introduction to your mind, and dzogchen practice is always presented as guidance or introduction to your mind. Which means that the root of these is no different, and the practice of either mahamudra or dzogchen will generate a great benefit. Further, we find in The Aspiration of Mahamudra by the third Gyalwa Karmapa, Lord Rangjung Dorje, the following stanza:
It does not exist, and has not been seen, even by the Victors.
It is not non-existent, it is the basis of all Samsara and Nirvana.
This is not contradictory, but is the great Middle Way.
May I come to see the nature which is beyond elaboration.
And that is from the mahamudra tradition. Then, in The Aspiration for the Realization of the Nature of the Great Perfection by the omniscient Jigme Lingpa, an aspiration liturgy from the dzogchen tradition, we find the following stanza:
It does not exist, it has not been seen, even by the Victors.
It is not non-existent, it is the basis of all Samsara and Nirvana.
It is not contradictory, it is the great Middle Way.
May I come to recognize dzogpa chenpo, the nature of the ground.
In other words, these two traditions are concerned entirely with the recognition of the same nature.
So both short-term and ultimate happiness depend on the cultivation of meditation, which from the common point of view of the sutras (the point of view held in common by all tradition of Buddhism) is tranquillity and insight, and from the uncommon point of view of the vajrayana is the generation and completion stages.
Meditation, however, depends in part upon the generation of loving-kindness and compassion. And this is true of any meditation, but it is especially most true of vajrayana meditation. The reason is that the specific vajrayana practices - the visualization of deities or meditation upon mahamudra and so on - depend upon the presence of a pure motivation on the part of the practitioner from the very start. If this pure motivation or genuine motivation is not present - and, since we're ordinary people, its quite possible that it might not be present - not much benefit will really occur. For that reason, vajrayana practitioners always try to train their motivation, and try to develop the motivation that's known as the awakened mind, or bodhicitta.
Now, as an indication of this, if you look at the liturgies used in vajrayana practice, you'll see that the long and extensive forms of vajrayana liturgies always begin with a clarification of, or meditation upon, bodhicitta, and that even the short and shortest liturgies always begin with a meditation upon bodhicitta, loving-kindness and compassion, the point of this being that this type of motivation is necessary for all meditation, but especially for vajrayana practice.
The only real meaning that we can give to our being born on this planet - and in particular being born as human beings on this planet - and the only really meaningful result that we can show for our lives is to have helped the world: to have helped our friends, to have helped all the beings on this planet as much as we can. And if we devote our lives or any significant part of our lives to destroying others and harming others, then to the extent that we actually do so, our lives have been meaningless. So if you understand that the only real point of a human life is to help others, to benefit others, to improve the world, then you must understand that the basis of not harming others but benefiting others is having the intention not to harm others and the intention to benefit others.
Now, the main cause of having such a stable intention or stable motivation is the actual cultivation of love and compassion for others. Which means, when you find yourself full of spite and viciousness - and it is not abnormal to be so - then you have to recognize it, and be aware of it as what it is, and let go of it. And then, even though you may be free of spite or viciousness, and you may have the wish to improve things, you may be thinking only of yourself; you may be thinking only of helping or benefiting yourself. When that's the case, then you have to recollect that the root of that type of mentality, which is quite petty and limited and tight, is desiring victory for yourself even at the expense of the suffering and loss experienced by others. And, in that case, you have to gradually expand your sympathy for others, and therefore this cultivation of bodhicitta or altruism in general as a motivation is an essential way of making your life meaningful.
The importance of love and compassion is not an idea that is particular to Buddhism. Everyone throughout the world talks about the importance of love and compassion. There's no one who says love and compassion are bad and we should try and get rid of them. However, there is an uncommon element in the method or approach which is taken to these by Buddhism. In general, when we think of compassion, we think of a natural or spontaneous sympathy or empathy which we experience when we perceive the suffering of someone else. And we generally think of compassion as being a state of pain, of sadness, because you see the suffering of someone else and you see what's causing that suffering and you know you can't do anything to remove the cause of that suffering and therefore the suffering itself. So, whereas before you generated compassion, one person was miserable, and after you generate compassion, two people are miserable. And this actually happens.
However, the approach (that the Buddhist tradition takes) to compassion is a little bit different, because it's founded on the recognition that, whether or not you can benefit that being or that person in their immediate situation and circumstances, you can generate the basis for their ultimate benefit. And the confidence in that removes the frustration or the misery which otherwise somehow afflicts ordinary compassion. So, when compassion is cultivated in that way, it is experienced as delightful rather than miserable.
The way that we cultivate compassion is called immeasurable compassion. And, in fact, to be precise, there are four aspects of what we would, in general, call compassion, that are called, therefore, the four immeasurables. Now, normally, when we think of something that's called immeasurable, we mean immeasurably vast. Here, the primary connotation of the term is not vastness but impartiality. And the point of saying immeasurable compassion is compassion that is not going to help one person at the expense of hurting another. It is a compassion that is felt equally for all beings. The basis of the generation of such an impartial compassion is the recognition of the fact that all beings without exception really want and don't want the same things. All beings, without exception, want to be happy and want to avoid suffering. There is no being anywhere who really wants to suffer. And if you understand that, and to the extent that you understand that, you will have the intense wish that all beings be free from suffering. And there is no being anywhere who does not want to be happy; and if you understand that, and to the extent that you understand that, you will have the intense wish that all beings actually achieve the happiness that they wish to achieve. Now, because the experience of happiness and freedom from suffering depend upon the generation of the causes of these, then the actual form your aspiration takes is that all beings possess not only happiness but the causes of happiness, that they not only be free of suffering but of the causes of suffering.
The causes of suffering are fundamentally the presence in our minds of mental afflictions - ignorance, attachment, aversion, jealousy, arrogance, and so on - and it is through the existence of these that we come to suffer. Now, through recognizing that there is a way to transcend these causes of suffering - fundamentally, through the eradication of these causes through practicing meditation, which may or may not happen immediately but is a definite and workable process - through this confidence, then this love - wishing beings to be happy - and the compassion of wishing beings to be free from suffering, is not hopeless or frustrated at all. And, therefore, the boundless love and boundless compassion generate a boundless joy that is based on the confidence that you can actually help beings free themselves.
So boundless love is the aspiration that beings possess happiness and the causes of happiness. Boundless compassion or immeasurable compassion is the aspiration that beings be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. And the actual confidence and the delight you take in the confidence that you can actually bring these about is boundless joy. Now, because all of these are boundless or immeasurable or impartial, then they all have a quality, which is equanimity. Which is to say that if these are cultivated properly, you don't have compassion for one being but none for another , and so on. Now, normally, when we experience these qualities, of course, they are partial; they are anything but impartial. In order to eradicate the fixation that causes us to experience compassion only for some and not for others, then you can actually train yourself in cultivating equanimity for beings through recognizing that they all wish for the same thing and wish to avoid the same thing, and through doing so you can greatly increase or enhance your loving-kindness and compassion.
This has been a brief introduction to the practice of meditation, and how to train in and generate compassion. If you have any questions, please ask them.
Question: Rinpoche, can you speak a little bit about the difference between pure projection and impure projection, and in particular, where do pure projections actually come from?
Rinpoche: First of all, impure projections are how we experience because of the presence in our minds of kleshas or mental afflictions. Because we have kleshas, then we experience friend and enemy - that to which we are attached and that towards which we have aversion - we experience delight and disgust and so on. And all of these ways we experience the world - all these ways we experience are fundamentally tinged with, at least tinged with unpleasantness.
Now, what is called pure appearance or pure projection is based on the experience of the true nature or essential purity of what, in confusion, we experience to be five types of mental affliction, or the five kleshas. The true nature of these five kleshas is what are called the five wisdoms. For example, when you let go of fixation or obsession on a self, or with yourself, then the fundamental nature of the way you experience is a sameness, a lack of preference or partiality, which is called the wisdom of sameness. And, when you recognize the nature of all things, then that recognition which pervades or fills all of your experience is called the wisdom of the dharmadhatu. And so on.
Now, when you experience the five wisdoms rather than the five kleshas or five mental afflictions, then instead of projecting all of the impurity which you project on the basis of experiencing the kleshas, you project purity, or you experience purity, which is the actual manifestation of these five wisdoms as realms, as forms of buddhas, and these are what are called the pure appearances which are experienced by bodhisattvas and so forth. Now, in order to approach this, in order to cultivate the experience of these wisdoms and the external experiences which go along with the experience of these wisdoms, we meditate upon the bodies of these buddhas, the realms, palaces and so on. By generating clarity of these visualized appearances and stabilizing that, then gradually we transform how we experience the world.
Question: In practicing compassion, there's the practice of tonglen, which is the sending and receiving, taking the suffering from all sentient beings and giving them the happiness and merit that we have. And, in this practice, I've practiced it before, and it seems to go well for a while, but then there's a subtle sense of "I" that creeps in that says, "I don't really want to take the suffering," or its, "I can't deal with too many people having cancer, I just can't take it all on myself," and so one kind of loses a little courage in the practice. So, could you illuminate us on this practice, and how to overcome these obstacles and really develop heroic mind?
Rinpoche: What you say is very true, especially in the beginning of undertaking this practice. And, in fact, its okay that it be experienced that way. Even though there is a quality of faking it about the degree to which you actually really are ready to take on the suffering of others in the beginning, there's still benefit in doing the practice, because up until you begin this practice, you've probably been entirely selfish. And, to even attempt to fake altruism is a tremendous improvement. But it doesn't remain insincere like that, because eventually the habit starts to deepen and starts to counteract the habit of selfishness.
Now if, when you began practicing tonglen, you already had one hundred per cent concern with the welfare of others and no concern for your own welfare, then you wouldn't need to practice tonglen in the first place. So, it is designed to work for a practitioner who's starting from a place of selfishness and to lead them into this place of concern for others. And, gradually, by using the practice, you will actually cultivate the sincere desire to take suffering away from others and experience it yourself; you will cultivate real love and compassion for others. But on the other hand, you don't really do the practice in order to be able to, at that moment, take on the suffering of others and experience it yourself; you're really doing it in order to train the mind. And by training your mind and developing the motivation and the actual wish to free others from suffering, then the long-term result is that you have the ability to directly dispel the suffering of others.
Question: Rinpoche, you said that we may not be able to - one person may not be able to directly affect or remove short-term unhappiness or suffering of another person, but that we can learn to generate the basis of another's happiness, ultimate happiness. So could you say more, please, about how one person can generate the basis of ultimate happiness for another person?
Rinpoche: Well, the direct basis of establishing another being in a state of freedom or happiness, long-term or ultimate happiness, is being able to show them how to get rid of their mental afflictions and to teach them how to recognize and therefore abandon causes of suffering. And, through doing so in that way, then you can establish them gradually in ultimate happiness. But even in cases where you can't, for whatever reason, do that, by having the intention to benefit that being, then when you yourself become fully free, then you will be able to actually help them and gradually free and protect them as well.
Question: Rinpoche, can you say a little more about the practice of letting go when the mind is agitated, as you described, as used in mahamudra and dzogchen? I experience my mind when I sit as being agitated. And there's the practice of letting go. And I'm wondering if you can just say more about that in a practical way?
Rinpoche: In general, the main approach that is taken in the mahamudra and dzogchen traditions is applied when you are looking at the nature of your mind. Now, kleshas or mental afflictions are thoughts, and thoughts are the natural display of the mind. Thoughts may be pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant, they may be positive or negative, but in any case, whatever type of thought arises, you deal with it in exactly the same way. You simply look directly at it.
Now, looking at the thought, or looking into the thought, or looking at the nature of the thought, is quite different from analyzing it. You don't attempt to analyze the contents of the thought, nor do you attempt to think about the thought. You just simply look directly at it. And when you look directly at a thought, you don't find anything. Now, you may think that you don't find anything because you don't know how to look or you don't know where to look, but in fact, that's not the reason. The reason, according to Buddha, is that thoughts are empty. And this is the basic meaning of all the various teachings on emptiness he gave, such as the sixteen emptinesses and so on.
Now, to use anger as an example of this, if you become angry, and then you look directly at the anger - which doesn't mean analyze the contents of the thoughts of anger, but you look directly at that specific thought of anger - then you won't find anything. And, in that moment of not finding anything, the poisonous quality of the anger will somehow vanish or dissolve. Your mind will relax, and you will, at least to some extent, be free of anger.
Now, you may or may not, at this point, understand this, but in any case, you'll have opportunity to work with this approach tomorrow and the next day, and over the next couple of days you may come to have some experience of this.
So, we're going to conclude now with a brief dedication. But I would also like to thank you for demonstrating your great interest in dharma, and listening and asking questions.

footnote: gtum-mo in Tibetan, meaning fierce or wrathful and referring to a kind of psychic heat generated and experienced through certain meditative practices of the vajrayana. This heat serves to burn up all types of obstacles and confusion. Included in the Six Doctrines of Naropa, the Six Doctrines of Niguma, and the Six Doctrines of Sukhasiddhi.