A Golden Ring

An Introduction to Buddhist Meditation

by Dr. Yutang Lin | 21,073 words

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Chapter 2 - The Position Of Meditation In Buddhism

We need to talk about this topic because without proper understanding of this, sometimes people who are new to Buddhism want to jump into practicing meditation and then encounter many problems that they did not expect. Actually, meditation requires proper preparation. Knowing the position of meditation in Buddhism can help us avoid unnecessary obstacles and guide us along the right path.

1. Learn Buddhism through reading or listening to lectures, think over the meaning of the teachings, understand the essential principles of Buddhism and the methods of practice, then practice diligently in accordance with the teachings. In general, actual practice comes after learning and understanding the general principles and the techniques. Since meditation belongs to practice, it should be undertaken only after one has learned and understood the essentials of Buddhism and the method of practicing meditation. Otherwise, you may spend a lot of effort and get undesirable results, or you may be practicing non Buddhist meditation without being aware of going on the wrong path.

2. One should understand that the essence of Buddhism, when applied in our daily lives, becomes the principle that emphasizes serving others in order to benefit them and even to the extent of forgetting one"s own interests. One needs to uphold this principle as the norm of one"s intentions, speech, conduct and activities so as to achieve the consistency and purification of one"s body, speech and mind. Only then can one make real progress in Buddhist meditation. Without living a Buddhist way of life, meditation becomes just a spiritual powdering—it may have some temporary benefits, but no fundamental improvement will result.

When one practices meditation while living in accordance with the Buddhist teachings and rules of conduct, it is like a plant growing in a favorable environment, in time it will grow to its fullness.

The subtle attachments and illusive concepts that are deeply held in our subconscious can be purified and released only through training in Buddhist meditation. Only when one has become free from those subtle attachments and illusions can one enjoy a natural and open way of life.

When we try to act and say things to benefit others, we will realize that it is a very difficult task, which requires learning from experience. It requires knowing the other"s situation and how he or she would perceive what we say. We also need to learn when to speak and when not to.

The people we try to benefit should not be confined to one"s family, relatives and friends. Otherwise, we will still be limited by selfishness. The Bible teaches, "Love thy neighbors" and I think the neighbors intended are not just those who live nearby, but rather anyone you may encounter.

The main source of our spiritual impurity is our narrow minded selfishness. It limits us and causes us not to trust one another. When we are cautious with people in our daily lives, it becomes a mental barrier that steals away all natural and spontaneous activities. People become cool and polite outwardly, and cold and tense inwardly. If we want to live in a natural and spontaneous way, we need to have faith in the goodness of people. Only then can our inner goodness grow and flow out in our expressions and activities. In this way we can benefit people who come our way, and live happily. If we are constantly on alert, what kind of life is that? The modern world with its highly developed technology has made our lives too complicated, fast paced and tense. It is no wonder that the numbers of cases of hypertension, heart attacks and ulcers are constantly rising. To live a happy and harmonious life, use of technology should be guided by wisdom. Wisdom can grow in one"s mind only after one has dispelled narrow minded selfishness.

One meditates to calm down and watch the subtle activities of the mind in order to reach inner peace. Hence this goal can be achieved only when we are living a simple, honest and caring life. When we are too engrossed in complicated worldly activities, even if we sit down daily for a meditation session, we cannot stop our minds from continuous engagement in those worldly problems and our related emotional reactions. Consequently, such meditation practice can hardly advance one on the right path, and may even magnify worldly sorrows. When our outward activities and the coarser functions of our minds have not been tamed and refined, there is no possibility for us even just to encounter and discern the subtle activities of our minds, not to mention resolving those innermost problems. Do not waste time and attention on enhancing one"s personal appearance and indulging in excessive comforts of life. We need to give up non essential and inconsequential activities like partying and gossiping so that we can use precious time and energy to engage in Buddhist practice and service. Only after long term diligent practice of Buddhist meditation can we come to grips with the subtle attachments in our innermost minds. They are subtle, yet fundamental to our psychological make up.

Buddhahood is an ideal, which is hard to reach, but not beyond human efforts. Even if we cannot reach it within our lifetime, so long as we walk on the path toward Enlightenment, our lives will benefit from our endeavors. This is the reason why Buddhists devote their lives to practice, try to propagate the teachings, and preserve the teachings for generations to come. It is not like some political idealism, which says that it is for the people, and then once its adherents are in power the people suffer. Rather, it is very realistic in that the results we experience are determined by the effort and sincerity we put into the practice. This statement is not only based on my own experience as a Buddhist practitioner but also born out by the biographies of Buddhist practitioners through the ages.

As we progress on the path of Buddhist practice, our illusions and clinging fade away; consequently our natural ability to see things as they are brings forth the fundamental truth: Each one of us is only a speck in the universe, hence there is no ground for self glorification and self centeredness. All of us are sentient beings who are essentially the same—having feelings, emotions, intelligence and subject to suffering. We are capable of maturing into a being full of limitless compassion and wisdom, but if we are limited by wrong views and selfish habits, then we will hurt ourselves as well as others. Life is impermanent and may end at any moment, hence we should use every moment for the improvement of the world and help everyone to become free from illusions, clinging, desires and inconsiderate activities.

3. The sequential steps mentioned in number one above may be referred to as: learning, assimilation and practice, while those in number two: behavior, meditation and maturity. In the course of one"s practice this sequence should be followed as a general guideline, but not adhered to in a rigid linear way. Usually, after one has learned from teaching and practiced them, questions arise about the theory, the practice or how to apply it in real life situations. Consequently one needs to learn more, study more, assimilate more and then practice more. Also one goes through continuous refinement and improvement of one"s behavior and meditation in the process of maturing on the Buddhist path. Earlier stages of maturity serve as the foundation for refinement in behavior and meditation. Thus, in the course of practicing Buddhism, we are repeating the process of learning, assimilation and practice as well as that of behavior, meditation and maturity. It is like climbing a spiral staircase—one repeats the same act of climbing while reaching higher and higher levels.

Not only does behavior help meditation and the two together help maturity, but also meditation can help behavior and maturity can help meditation and behavior. The Buddhist rules of conduct and meditations are tools to help one approach the enlightened state of mind. As one advances on this path the reasons for these tools and how they are put coherently together to help one advance, become more and more apparent. When one sees intuitively that we are fundamentally all the same, then one naturally behaves accordingly and meditation becomes natural and harmonious. In short, a practitioner"s behavior, meditation and maturity are intimately connected.

4. According to one of the basic teachings of Buddhism, the Eightfold Noble Path, Right Meditation is the final step. This shows that in order to achieve the right results of meditation, one needs to go through the preparatory steps as follows:

4.1 Right View—Learning the teachings of Buddha, especially the essential principles and philosophy of Buddhism.

4.2 Right Thinking—Assimilating the essential principles of Buddhism so that they become the central guidelines of one"s intentions and that one"s thinking becomes consistent with the teachings.

4.3 Right Speech—One engages only in proper and beneficial conversations, and avoids lying, gossiping, slandering, cursing, idle talk and flirting.

4.4 Right Activities—One engages only in constructive and beneficial activities, and avoids killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, gambling, intoxication, drug addiction and harming sentient beings.

4.5 Right Livelihood—One"s livelihood should be maintained by lawful and moral means, and should not involve activities that intend to harm sentient beings, nor engage in improper activities such as geomancy, astrology and witchcraft.

4.6 Right Diligence—One should make constant effort and take appropriate measures in freeing oneself from improper activities and their sources and advancing on the righteous path to Enlightenment.

4.7 Right Mindfulness—One should be constantly aware of one"s feelings, emotions, thoughts and environment, and upon seeing their transient nature, free oneself from attachment and suffering in entanglement.

After the above preparation, one may then work for:

4.8 Right Meditation—Through cultivation of Buddhist meditation one gradually achieves the various states of meditation which are, in general, characterized by concentration, tranquility, feeling of light and ease, and spiritual insight.

The Eightfold Noble Path was arranged in a logical and natural order. The first two steps have to do with learning the teachings and internalizing them. Then one begins to adjust one"s speech and activities in accordance with the Dharma, and even reflect on one"s livelihood to make sure that one is thoroughly consistent with the teaching of Buddha. In addition, one needs to adopt appropriate practices and work on spiritual improvement diligently and constantly. If one is not working devotedly for Enlightenment, true spiritual transcendence will not have a chance to mature into reality. Only after one has become a devout Buddhist working diligently for Enlightenment, can one become constantly mindful of one"s inner feelings, thoughts and outward environment and see them as they are, free from the bias of attachments, illusions and prejudices. Only then is one ready to engage in proper meditation and, in time, to harvest the fine results of Buddhist meditation—liberation from worldly sorrows and enjoyment of an open and compassionate life. In short, achievement in Buddhist meditation is the result of thorough understanding of Buddhist philosophy, consistency of one"s whole being, plus diligent practice.

5. My late teacher Yogi Chen used the analogy of gardening to point out the main stages of approaching Enlightenment. From this sequence of eight stages we can see the interdependency of the main steps that a serious practitioner should take, and appreciate the proper position of meditation in Buddhism from the perspective of a lifelong endeavor.

The Eight Stages on the Path toward Buddhahood as taught by the Buddhist Yogi C. M. Chen:

Use the money of Impermanence,
Purchase a land of Renunciation,
Build a fence of Silas (rules of conduct),
Plant the seed of Bodhicitta,
Irrigate with the water of Compassion,
Fertilize with the manure of Meditation,
Bloom will the blossom of Wisdom,
Ripen will the fruit of Buddhahood!

In this sequence of practical training for a Buddhist practitioner, meditation comes sixth, indicating that meditation should be preceded by the preparatory steps of being aware of impermanence, renouncing worldly activities, behaving in accordance with Buddhist rules of conduct, developing the Bodhicitta and practicing compassionate services. It also shows that Wisdom and Buddhahood are based on achievement in meditation.

Below I will explain the eight stages in more detail.

5.1 Use the Money of Impermanence

To enter the path of devoted practice of Buddhism, one should be fully aware of the facts of impermanence: life is impermanent; there is no guarantee of how long it will last; one does not know when it will end; and one does not know how it will end. Nevertheless, we all know that death will certainly come. Only when one is fully aware of these facts of impermanence will one realize the importance of immediately engaging in Buddhist practice and service. If we put off Buddhist practice, Buddhist teachings will remain just words, and we cannot benefit from it. Life is short and we may never have the opportunity to practice Buddhism if we keep procrastinating.

To use the money of impermanence means to treasure one"s own time, to find time for Buddhist practice, and to give up non essential and inconsequential activities.

Many Buddhists think that they will devote themselves to practice at their leisure during retirement years—right now is too early to quit. In the event of sickness or accidents, they will have to quit their worldly commitments anyway. Some of them, alas, die before their retirement, so they will never have had a chance to devote themselves to the practice. Even if they live to retirement age, their worldly commitments are many and their energy and concentration is weak, consequently they cannot practice diligently. They can hardly advance on the path to Enlightenment themselves, not to mention becoming able to guide others onto the path. Reflecting on this, should not we as Buddhists make a wise choice and a steadfast decision early in life?

5.2 Purchase a Land of Renunciation

In order to use our time on Buddhist study and practice, we need to renounce worldly activities; otherwise we will always be preoccupied by entanglements. A practitioner without renunciation of worldly activities is like a farmer without land; how could he proceed to plant anything? Ideally, one should renounce the world to the extent that his entire mind and all of his time are absorbed by Buddhist study and practice. One should, at least, start with cutting down on non essential activities. Lay Buddhists who maintain worldly life styles should observe renunciation of mind, i.e., their minds should be free from worldly desires, entanglements and anticipations. We can achieve this kind of renunciation by realizing that all worldly things have to be given up in the end. They should allow time each day for practice, and during these periods of practice, they should renounce the rest of the world completely, and be totally absorbed in their devoted practice. They should also try to utilize holidays and vacations for additional practice, using that time for short retreats in solitude. In brief, renunciation is not just avoiding worldly entanglements, but it is also active striving for Buddhist study and practice. It is clear that this kind of renunciation is not escaping from the reality of life. If one"s renunciation of worldly activities is not thorough, then one does not have solid ground to build the edifice of Buddhahood—whenever the residue of worldly involvements goes up and down, it will produce an earthquake to one"s practice.

5.3 Build a Fence of Silas (Rules of Conduct)

How do we secure possession of land and protect it from intruders? We build a fence around it. Similarly, in order to secure our renunciation of worldly activities and insulate our practice from corruptive influences we need to follow the rules of conduct set out by Buddha.

The rules of conduct of Buddhism may be classified into two main types: One type is to help one stay away from evil or worldly troubles; the other type is to guide one toward active participation in practice and service. Staying away from evil is not the best way to purify oneself; rather, it is active involvement in services. When one participates in service his view gradually broadens, consequently he will understand the misery of being self centered and the happiness of an open attitude toward people and life. Also, through service to people one experiences the happiness of helping others; this will enable him to give up self centeredness, which produces suffering. A self centered person lives an anxious life of calculating—what is my share, what is in it for me, ... and loses all spontaneity and joy of life. In order to free ourselves from such an anxious way of life, we should be concerned about what we have to offer and how best to help others.

Earnest gratitude from others can be earned only by sincere caring and thoughtfulness. When kindness is imparted, both parties are warmed by a feeling of oneness; and peace on earth begins right there. It is not very easy to appreciate teachings on why we should be kind to one another, but it is intuitively felt when we practice service and kindness.

The analogy of silas as a wall emphasizes the protective aspect of silas. It should not be mistaken for a limiting prison because the silas also emphasize and encourage caring for and serving all sentient beings.

5.4 Plant the Seed of Bodhicitta

To plant the seed of Bodhicitta means to cultivate through practice the will to help all sentient beings attain Full Enlightenment. Learning about Buddhism and becoming appreciative of the great wish to help all sentient beings attain Enlightenment is just an abstract ideal for neophytes. It has some appeal to us but is not assimilated by us. Nevertheless, all Buddhist practices begin with Developing the Bodhicitta, i.e., wishing that all sentient beings be well, free from suffering and attain ultimate liberation; and conclude with dedication of merits, i.e., sharing the merits of practice with all sentient beings. In this way we are reminded from beginning to end to work for the Enlightenment of all sentient beings. Consequently, through years of practice the abstract ideal gradually becomes internalized until it becomes our dominant will.

It is not easy to let go of personal problems that are usually present and yet view the whole spectrum of all sentient beings" suffering through life and death with compassion. Nevertheless, in order to liberate oneself completely, such a fundamental change of mind is necessary.

In order to develop one"s own Bodhicitta, one should learn the great vows of Bodhisattvas and Buddhas as recorded in the Sutras, memorize them, and repeat them daily. One may also formulate one"s own great vows of Bodhicitta which deal with the special problems of our times and are in accordance with Buddhist principles.

Our names are just words and sounds; after years of usage they have become so important to our lives and emotions. Similarly, the recitation of Buddha"s great vows or our own vows of Bodhicitta may seem, in the beginning, to be just vain hopes. Nevertheless, through years of regular practice these vows may become central to our thinking and shape the course of our lives.

At the beginning of practice one should visualize all Buddhas and holy beings in the sky blessing us, and all sentient beings surrounding oneself practicing simultaneously. This visualization includes the whole universe and may help enlarge our minds and free us from egocentrism.

5.5 Irrigate with the Water of Compassion

It is one thing to have good intentions to help others; and it is another thing to actually get involved; and it is still another thing to have the ability to help others. In the course of helping others, the recipients" reactions render complications to the situation.

Great compassion cannot be mere words; it requires deeds in the form of service. Therefore, after one has adopted the Bodhicitta as the root of one"s intentions and actions, one needs to learn how to help others on the Buddhist path through compassionate service.

Service may be in the form of offering material help, spiritual guidance, moral support or sanctuary. It should be offered with pure intentions, i.e., free from any expectation of gain and gratitude. It should be given to whomever is in need, rather than only to those whom one cares about or is related to. One should not become attached to the merits of service, but maintain a humble and grateful attitude for the opportunity to serve.

In order to grow through compassionate service, one should practice it in daily life and adhere to it as a lifelong way of life. Just as plants need regular irrigation for the duration of their lives, one needs to be patient and tolerant in order to grow through service. The hardships that one endures in service will someday yield sweet fruits of joy. It is precisely through offering and sacrificing one"s well being for others that one grows out of the tiny cell of self and enjoys the fresh open air of great compassion which envisions the Enlightenment of all sentient beings.

When we put others" well being before our own, even sacrifice our own well being for others, we will receive the real benefit—the joy of service. All worldly rewards are very limited in what they have to offer—how much can one eat and wear? How big a house does one need? Luxuries are merely burdens in disguise. Only when we live a simple way of life and devote ourselves to Buddhist practice and service, will we live a happy life.

Service and care need not be in words, but need be in deeds. Those who are benefiting from your care and service will appreciate it, and the warmth felt in their hearts will be the source of true happiness—both for them and for you.

5.6 Fertilize with the Manure of Meditation

Through experiences gained in service one"s mind gradually becomes purer and purer. Only then can one practice mediation and progress without going astray.

Without taking the preparatory steps as mentioned above, those who jump into meditation practice may still learn to concentrate, but only to concentrate on their self interest and egocentricity. Their walls of self becomes a fortress which limits their lives as those in a cold prison. Their fighting and competition with others gain force but only to bring about more destruction of their own innocence and our peaceful environment.

People who have already practiced meditation without understanding the necessity of preparation should begin to make amends; otherwise, not only attachments to worldly objects but also those to supernatural phenomena would lure one astray from the path toward Enlightenment.

The real benefits of a solid approach to meditation will come gradually and become obvious after, not days or months, but years of practice.

Without the concentration, tranquility and clarity of a meditative state one can hardly free oneself from the grip of conceptual dualism, habitual attachments and subtle clinging in one"s subconscious. Also, the innate supernatural abilities will not have a chance to manifest in a mind clouded by desires, worldly considerations, delusions and prejudices. Therefore, just as fertilizer enriches the soil to bring about the blooming of flowers and the yielding of fruits, meditation helps one regain the innate wisdom, which is beyond conceptual and cultural limits, and develop innate supernatural abilities, which transcend physical and natural limits.

5.7 Bloom will the Blossom of Wisdom

The wisdom of Buddha is innate and transcends concepts. We are so engrossed in worldly affairs that our innate wisdom becomes clouded. As we progress on the path toward Enlightenment our innate wisdom will gradually manifest in our ability to remain peaceful amidst the ups and downs of our lives. Also, it will manifest in our ability to help improve the environment toward peace and freedom.

Although Wisdom is a very abstract ideal, nevertheless, the growth of Wisdom in a Buddhist practitioner can be glimpsed from his unpretentious behavior, humble and kind manners, simple and straight expressions and humorous remarks.

5.8 Ripen will the Fruit of Buddhahood

As we progress on the path toward Enlightenment our wisdom and compassion gradually mature and unify into spontaneous acts of salvation.

The analogy above outlines the main steps of the staircase aspiring toward Buddhahood. Instead of providing a cluster of minor rules of conduct this analogy serves as a vivid and easy to remember reminder of the key sequential steps that a devoted practitioner should take. Of course we should pay attention to the rules of conduct, no matter how minor they are, but even more so we should reflect on where we stand with respect to the sequential main steps. Significant progress is made only when we advance on the main steps.

Serious practitioners need to go through the step of renunciation; otherwise, they will not even have a chance to understand what Buddha really taught, not to mention to realize Buddhahood. The true meaning of Buddha"s teachings should be understood intuitively through living a Buddhist way of life; those who have only conceptual grasping of the philosophy are far from understanding the teachings.

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