Meditation Workshop with Lama Yeshe Jinpa
February 16, 2013
Six texts brought to teaching:
1. Calm Abiding and Special Insight: Geshe Gedün Lodrö; trans. Jeffrey Hopkins
2. Meditative States in Tibetan Buddhism: Lati Rinpoche; Denma Locho Rinpoche
3. Cultivating a Daily Meditation: XIV Dalai Lama
4. The Practice of Tranquility and Insight: Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche
5. The Precious Garland and the Song of the Four Mindfulnesses: Nagarjuna/VII Dalai Lama; trans. Jeffrey Hopkins
6. Study Practice of Meditation: Tibetan Interpretations of the Concentrations and Formless Absorptions – Leah Zahler
Lama Jinpa: Well here we are, at this new venue at the Marriot. We have three big windows for lots of light, it’s well ventilated and there are some nice tables.
Student: And enough room inside for walking.
Student: And we have the option to go outside. There’s an empty lot across the street.
Lama Jinpa: Maybe we can go outside when it’s a little warmer.
Before we begin our meditation, I want to talk a little bit.
In our tradition, in addition to meditating we’re also scholars; it’s important to study the Dharma. I really do want people to learn Lama Tsong Khapa’s Lam Rim as much as possible because it’s an extremely comprehensive system.
Actually, it’s the easiest system to use. It’s sort of like learning math or a language. People might ask, “What’s the best course for learning math, for learning Excel?” This is honestly the best, the most comprehensive and structured way to learn Dharma.
Lama Tsong Khapa and the successive lineages were very interested in pedagogy; how do people learn? What’s the most efficient way for people to learn? And they came up with this very systematic way to teach the Dharma.
None of us has much time – at least not in this lifetime, maybe in many lifetimes forward – myself included, so I’m always interested in the most efficient, truthful path.
We don’t have to study all the lineages. I’m a little obsessive, and when I was 18 years old, I decided to become omniscient. (laughter) I decided, “I’ll read as much as I can,” and I did. I read Zen, and the different schools, and then over the years I learned therapy and a zillion other things. But with the Lam Rim, what you really need is all in there.
I just want people to learn the Dharma in the most excellent and efficient way.
And of course, we have to learn calm abiding, shamatha, and reading can help there, too.
One of the books I’ve recommended is “Calming the Mind” which is from a recording of a retreat in the Sierra mountains with Gen Lamrimpa. Gen Lamrimpa’s book is good because it has questions from Westerners on a retreat, so the book addresses Western concerns. It also gives a Gelug presentation of shamatha, that’s important.
The books that I’ve brought today look highly technical. There are two reasons for this. First, they’re intended for professionals – monks or nuns. Second, these books aren’t trying to talk you into the benefits of meditation. These books assume you already know this, you don’t need convincing.
When you were sixteen, you didn’t have to read about how wonderful it is to drive a car. You didn’t need to read to be enthused to learn to drive a car. You already knew you wanted to drive a car.
Generally, classical practitioners from Tibet didn’t need convincing about how to bring practice into daily life – they thought, this is your life. It isn’t separate.
Everything is daily life – this is how you do it.
The most charismatic modern teacher from the Gelug school was Lama Yeshe. Even though he was classically trained, he – and also Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche – had the most impact. They had different ethical styles, but they both tried to make dharma accessible. They knew – you can’t slam beginners with heavy, technical books on shamatha.
When you start to want to drive a car, you want something like a nice solid Chevy, reliable. You want to drive safely, so you need it to work properly. You’re ready to go, you don’t need convincing – what you need is a fully functional vehicle to get started in.
For us, we already know the importance of meditation; that’s why we’re here, right? What we need now is technique. For that, we need a teacher.
Teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh of the Theravada tradition give people a sense that all of this is doable. Other people like Sharon Salzburg, Jack Kornfeld and Joseph Goldstein also give people the same message – this can be learned. There are different traditions, different teachers, for different students. It can be done.
Meditation can get too tight. When we ask things like, “How does meditation relate to daily life?” we already know it’s too tight.
At this point, we’re doing highest yoga tantra, and we have to know shamatha. Without the ability to concentrate our whole body and mind, we won’t be able to do generation stage or completion stage practice. We have to have a daily shamatha practice as the basis for everything else.
Somebody who’s trying to bring shamatha practice into science is Alan Wallace with the Shamatha project. I do like Alan, his project is interesting. He combines classic shamatha with Theravada.
This is okay, but ice cream and ketchup don’t really mix. Some meditations are built into both views, but I think combining like this can be a little misleading to do. I’m skeptical of the effectiveness of doing these meditations without commitments, i.e. generating bodhicitta. So Alan and I respectfully disagree.
It’s like cooking – which I know nothing about!
I do know about eating a good meal, however – like a nice Italian or Indian dinner – the way the dinner flows so the whole thing fits beginning to end. When you’re eating dinner, you want the whole thing to hang together. When the chef knows what they’re doing, the whole thing just flows. When they don’t know what they’re doing, it’s obvious right away that it doesn’t click.
And although many things can become too sectarian, too rigid, if I’m eating an Italian meal, I just want Italian. It’s a holistic experience. Or for example, if you’re cooking Indian food, you want to end the meal with Indian food. You don’t want to serve cappuccino at the end- you want to serve chai.
Question: Are you saying that if we study from the Lam Rim of Tsong Khapa, it’s not good to pull from the Kagyu lineage?
Lama Jinpa: We’re getting technical here. Actually, the Kagyu and Gelug schools are not so different, really…
Question: So sectarian, but not that way?
Lama Jinpa: The real point is, how do things fit in? How do they fit together?
Generally people don’t get anywhere when they read a little Aikido, a little Kung Fu, a little Tai Chi and try to come up with a martial arts practice. It just doesn’t work. There’s no flow, and it isn’t consistent.
When someone is dressed properly, with thought and effort, it looks good. The whole color scheme works, they look pulled together. And it looks good because the pieces work together as a whole, things match – they aren’t wearing plaid on plaid.
But if someone doesn’t know how to pull things together, they might end up wearing a baseball cap, a rubber band for a belt, nails painted green, bright red lipstick, everything is just off. They might think they look great, but it doesn’t work as a whole.
That’s what we’re looking for – for the whole thing to hang together. It could be from a different school, as long as it fits. An old master painting could fit when we’re studying modern art, with the right context.
Question: In the west, we’re concerned about including everyone. Is it okay to have one flavor with another flavor?
Lama Jinpa: Padmasambhava and Lama Tsong Khapa carefully developed systems to teach the Dharma. They were trying to save us time.
Question: So we don’t have to sort of go to the flea market and hunt around.
Lama Jinpa: When people are trying to begin a Buddhist practice, they often visit many different centers and go to lots of different empowerments, they’re sort of all over the place. Eventually you need to settle in.
If the whole practice is too eclectic and you put it into a big bag, it just rattles around. It needs to fit together.
Question: So, don’t be afraid to exclude other things? You’re saying the West wants a kaleidoscope, but we need focus?
Lama Jinpa: Why is everyone afraid to be catholic? At some point, we want to do it fully, really embrace it.
Generally, you have to dig a well really deep to get any water. Digging one foot down won’t do it, even if you dig in a bunch of places. You have to go deep.
Question: Could you explain shamatha? What distinguishes it?
Lama Jinpa: Are you asking what shamatha is?
Question: What makes it different in Tibet?
Lama Jinpa: Shamatha is the attainment of a mind that’s both pliant and stable, effortlessly. It’s balanced, neither depressed nor agitated.
In the Tibetan tradition, shiné is a very balanced state of mind that includes both mindfulness and introspection. There are nine preliminary stages with the 10th stage being the attainment of shamatha.
Most people in the West are very discursive, with too many thoughts. Traditionally, in Asia, people have problems with anger and pride. Regular training in shamatha stabilizes the mind and emotions.
We have this physical body – arms, legs, intestines. The rest is considered mind.
Feeling, perception, consciousness… those are all mental, they’re very distracting. Shamatha is a way to develop attention. If you have strong afflictive emotions, pride, jealousy, and desire you cannot effectively do shamatha because they are connected to the mind and are unstable. But daily shamatha training can change things.
Briefly, this is why we have to establish the 3 ethical trainings:
1. stop harming
2. maintain precepts
When people are active addicts they say, “I‘ll stop using when this or that thing happens.” but it doesn’t work that way. You have to stop now because your life is unmanageable.
It’s the same with shamatha – your mind is unmanageable, things aren’t workable. So you start to follow the precepts, practice renunciation.
This is another reason our school is not as popular in the West – it means you have to change your life.
I’m going to be referring to several texts, for example this one is called Calm Abiding and Special Insight. Those are meditative states that some of us have met.
These are books that help explain some core texts. Another good book by Leah Zahler is the Study and Practice of Meditation.
Why mention these books? They lead us back to core meditation texts by great Masters like Nagarjuna and Atisha. So these are modern scholars, modern teachers going back and tying in with core texts. This is important – we need to be exposed to a wide breadth of how people have meditated and debated.
This is what’s interesting; our school has always encouraged and cultivated ongoing investigation; it sounds very academic – but it isn’t purely an academic exercise. People investigate their own experience, then see how it relates. It fleshes the whole thing out, broadens the experience.
Say you went to school to study literature and the only book you read was “Catcher in the Rye.” That’s it – no Shakespeare, no other books from other countries or other languages, i.e. “I read this one teaching, that’s all I need.” So it came out of nowhere, is related to nothing else, and it has no context. There’s nowhere to go with it, so it stays narrow.
This is the value of going back and reading the sutras, of reading the meditation manuals, of reading the lineage. We see how our own experience relates; we hear different ways to think about our experience.
Student: That’s what Tsong Khapa is saying.
Lama Jinpa: Yes, it’s so someone gets breadth. It’s arguing points, but to a community of meditators.
There’s a history of meditation. People ask, “Why do we do it this way?”
Lama Jinpa: We have to learn the best way, the most effective way, but also we need to learn to recognize and know our mistakes. We need to know how we could do it differently, what can be refined. We cannot master anything, much less meditation, if we don’t know how to recognize and correct our mistakes.
If you only know the “right way”, you cannot teach anyone. We’re not talking about how many angels are on the head of a pin. We need to investigate – why do we meditate this way? What is the best way? What makes sense?
Question: I’ve only read a few books, ones you’ve recommended, and I’m not sure I’m really reading to understand, because there are so many things to remember, lists and references to other texts. How do you prioritize? Should you?
Lama Jinpa: When you read meditation manuals, read for just 15 minutes so you’re always actually reading. Yes, you’re going slow, but in tandem with your meditation – never read more than you meditate. I’m not talking about multitasking though – I’m talking about being like a glacier.
Some people want to be like rabbits – but it’s much more effective to go slow and steady than to go fast. Turtles win the race.
Student: That’s helpful.
Lama Jinpa: That’s the correct way.
Sometimes it looks like rabbits are far ahead and you’ll never catch up, but that isn’t so. You’ll pull ahead if you’re systematic.
I’ve used this metaphor before: If you lose a contact lens, you don’t shut off the lights and start feeling around for it – you’ll never find it and probably make things worse. Instead, you turn all the lights on and you make a grid across the floor with tape. That way, when you look you can be systematic, and you never need go back to where you searched before.
It looks slower, I know. This is Lama Tsong Khapa style. This style is comprehensive, unstoppable. It doesn’t look like anything is happening, and then eventually you’ve covered the whole territory. You’re integrating all the moves, all the pieces together, i.e. a good Indian meal, or a good Italian meal. It all goes together.
Once you begin moving, you have incredible confidence. There’s a sense of consistency. It all goes together.
I enjoy reading Roman history. I’m personally not interested in guns and war, but it is interesting – why did they win? How did they do it? Well, there would be a line of people, all cooperating, and immovable, all doing the same thing. The tribal peoples couldn’t handle it. For this long period from the time of Alexander to the fall of Rome, they were just unstoppable.
Student: That’s what Lam Rim feels like to me, a glacial feel.
Lama Jinpa: It’s slow, methodical; you take your time, you’re getting to investigate. Often these meditation manuals start with an incorrect position or question, and work through to the correct view.
This is possible because you’re moving slowly, and when you’re moving slowly, you notice more – you’re investigating. You see textures and details. You notice things. If you’re moving too fast, you won’t be able to make sense of anything.
Student: At the same time, a glacier needs pressure from snow melt to move.
Lama Jinpa: The snow melt is bodhichitta.
It’s important to read these texts.
Actually, we need all of that. For example, with regards to Kalachakra, some of you have had positive outcomes with generation stage practice, and there’s a reason for that.
Without the ability to focus, without strength, without confidence, you will not be able to do generation stage, let alone completion stage, practice.
I’m trying to inspire you all to be meditation geeks!
To help with that, let’s review some basics. Overall, it is good to do shamatha in six, twelve, eighteen, or twenty-four minute increments. And of course, posture in meditation is important. You should be upright but not stiff, with an open torso so that lung can move freely.
I was trained this way (indicates hands in lap, in mudra position). Interestingly, in the Zen monastery, it was the same. The posture and basic instructions were the same, even though they’re different traditions. For some people, placing their hands on their thighs is easier.
This is the seven point posture of Vairochana, yes? Everyone here should know this!
Over there, you’re not sitting up straight. And you, your hands should rest like this.
So, mudra at your waist, thumbs at your navel. Your arms should be slightly away from your torso, as if you’re holding an egg under your arm.
Your sternum should be up and stable, but not moving – we’re doing diaphragmatic, vase breathing. Chin slightly tucked, up and in – not down.
Why do we do it this way? Why are we so specific?
It has to do with the winds moving freely through the channels. Shamatha isn’t intended for stress reduction. It’s meant to be somewhat of a workout – a physical workout combined with a mental component, the mind and body working together.
Question: Does placing your hands on your thighs, instead of in a mudra in your lap, disrupt the winds?
Lama Jinpa: Either position can be used. Placing your hands on your legs is more open, like a more advanced Dzogchen style.
Student: Sitting on a cushion is hard.
Lama Jinpa: Yes, it is, especially at first. You have to learn to concentrate more, and correct posture helps with that.
I used to go around and adjust people’s posture. Are you willing for me to do this?
(Everyone said yes.)
Lama Jinpa: All right, so of course, we’re all getting older, but we still need to pay attention to our bodies. We have to build up muscle, even just to sit.
We just talked about how posture is important, and it’s a different posture than our normal one, it’s intentional. Sometimes it feels odd to have our arms out, but we need to have them there, it helps us to sit upright. Don’t let your hands slip too far forward, because your shoulders will slope and cut off your breath.
Let your chest be relaxed and open, and your head and neck should be able to move easily. (Demonstrates head moving in a relaxed circle)
Lama Jinpa: Mindfulness is simply not forgetting what you’re doing. You maintain your attention on an object. If you’re using your breath, stay with your breath. If you’re using a Buddha image, don’t forget you’re using a Buddha image.
We can literally forget what we’re meditating on! Most people start off with their breath, counting breaths, and then they lose count. That’s caused by a loss of mindfulness; to increase mindfulness, you add energy to your meditation.
If you find you don’t have energy, maybe you need to check your visualization, to make sure object is the right size and shape, not messy or vague. If your object is the breath and you’re not doing diaphragmatic breathing, you’re screwed.
Sometimes our breath is subtle and soft; we’re not going to hear it coming out of our nose. That’s generally what we want – we don’t want to sound like a horse with audible breath.
However, if we’re very discursive, we may actually want to exaggerate a fuller breath so we get more grounded. We need the right balance of O2 and CO2.
One of the big problems with using breath as an object is that after a while, we’re not breathing as much and so it becomes a difficult object. And honestly, lots of people space out.
What happens in some traditions, Theravedan traditions, is people pay attention to body sensations i.e. how they’re sitting or maybe to a pain, or to scanning the body.
But from a Vajrayana point of view, you cannot develop deep concentration by focusing on a changing object.
You might possibly get in touch with impermanence, which will help cut down on clinging. But by itself, that sort of meditation won’t allow you to attain shamatha. I’ve done that style of meditation before – they insisted that the body not move, but the question becomes, is what happens true shamatha or is it simply the biological result of the body not moving?
That would be a Tibetan style debate. This is how we think in Vajrayana style.
Student: If I sit in the seven point style, it changes the way that I perceive.
Lama Jinpa: Well, it does – it should!
It’s important and best for shamatha training to sit as long as you can and remain still. Pick a posture you can maintain for at least six minutes. It’s better to sit still for a short session than sit for a long session and have to move.
Question: Is the goal one pointed concentration?
Lama Jinpa: Yes. It’s very classical. You maybe do twenty-one breaths, then begin to visualize.
The idea is you have to cut off discursive thought – then you’re ready to go.
Question: If my object is the Buddha, I concentrate on the mudra and all the details but I have yet to get the face, I can’t see it. I can get an ear, the mouth…
Lama Jinpa: The problem there is with thinking of the Buddha in a flat, two dimensional way, like you’re looking at a painting. You have to see the Buddha looking back at you. It isn’t like looking at a photo or a painting. You’re seeing the Buddha and the Buddha is seeing you.
Also, what kind of earrings are you wearing? If I visualize you, I recognize you – but not your earrings.
Maybe the problem is Buddha is dead, that thought is there, so there’s no aliveness.
The Buddha needs to look at you.
Question: Like communion?
Lama Jinpa: We’re not doing things with it. We’re having some relationship with an object of meditation.
Question: We’re not trying to mentally draw it?
Lama Jinpa: The details of the object aren’t so important. Our mindfulness, our attention, our stability are what’s critical. We want to be engaged and interested without clinging so that things can become very clear. The image has to be very stable so we notice when we’re off.
Student: In Christian art, they use the image of Jesus and Mary looking at you.
Lama Jinpa: It’s not like “Uncle Sam wants you.” (Stares and points)
It might help to just visualize the face in order to have a stable image. For now, all you want is that very stable image – details will emerge and fill in as you grow. First get it right, and then refine. You don’t need to try and start with a refined image. Most importantly, it needs to be a virtuous object.
Mindfulness is noticing when our attention is leaving the object. Mindfulness is a positive state of attention.
Another thing in shamatha is we have to be able to notice if we’re becoming agitated or depressed. If we’re agitated, we have scattering. If we’re depressed, we have dullness. How we notice either of those things? We use the object.
Generally, if we have dullness, the object looks dull, not vivid. The object appears lifeless, and has a sort of a film over it. Conversely, if we feel agitated, the object may have sparks like firecrackers around it, or it may be blinking intermittently.
Student: So gross scattering is kind of like a neon light flickering.
Lama Jinpa: Your mind might move from topic to topic in either case. In gross depression, gross dullness, the narrative will be things like, “I’m tired; I want to lie down.” “I wish I was dead.”
Subtle dullness is much trickier – it can actually seem like, “Oh, I’m there. I’m so serene in my cocoon. Nothing is happening.” This is not bliss – this is dullness.
Likewise, with agitation, because of these processes the object is not stable. It can be very subtle.
This is why we need a defined object. If the object is defined with depth, with height, you’ll notice when you’re going off – the object will shrink or expand.
If we’re using a Buddha as an object we should start off simple i.e. two arms, two legs, one face. Kalachakra has a lot going on, other Buddhas not as much. Does that make sense?
Actually, right now there is more going on in this room, more detail, more energy, than in any complicated meditation, even Kalachakra. Most of the time people are just totally freaked out or depressed. Kalachakra is simple by comparison!
We don’t want to harm – that’s in the precepts – not others, not ourselves.
We need to be in good shape to do the advanced practices. We can’t stay up too late because we need to rest. We need strong muscles so we stretch and work them.
We’re all doing a full range of practices – the benefit of doing that is a flow develops between them. And we have to do our practices with intensity so we get the benefit, so we can weave all these different threads together into one beautiful brocade. That weaving together is tantra.
Question: Do we do it all in one sitting?
Lama Jinpa: Yes! We do it all – shamatha, Tong len, sadhanas – so they all weave together. Each thread is strong and true, and when they’re woven together there isn’t the whole weight of the practice on any one thread.
Like this scarf, for example. (Holds up blue scarf) One thread of this scarf isn’t strong alone, it can’t hold much, and it can’t protect much or provide any warmth. But together with many other threads, it’s different. It’s strong, it’s warm, but it’s flexible in every direction. It has some give. ‘Steel bar’ would be one practice – but this is very different. This is the value of tantra – it’s strong but flexible and woven from many threads.
Question: Where does Ngöndro practice fit into this?
Question: What is Ngöndro?
Lama Jinpa: That’s another thing entirely.
There are many Ngöndro practices. The one that’s most well known is prostrations with bodhichitta. We also have water bowls, butter lamps, mandala offerings, guru yoga…
If people are interested they should talk to me about doing these.
If you aren’t doing these on a retreat, these practices are like threads, they weave together – you do a little every day.
I’ve told this story before, I’m sure. I did Ngöndro, and when I was done, I went to my teacher and told him I’d finished the practice. My teacher said, “No, you aren’t finished, you do it the rest of your life!” (laughs)
Tsong Khapa did three million mandala offerings. Unbelievable! Most of us have no time for even one thing. We do so little. We come here, we do prostrations, we do guru yoga. Do a little more! Do a little every day and weave it together.
The Ngöndro is a kind of purification foundation. I was taught that you’re never finished. So we get to do this, and keep doing it. We should always do prostrations, light incense, say Vajrasattva, a constant thing. This doesn’t mean 100,000 a year of something, but a consistent practice.
Certain teachers give homework to pupils. Who here wants to learn Ngöndro?
Generally we’re already working on it right? We’re already doing these things.
Question: Are we sort of putting things together like Legos?
Lama Jinpa: We all have daily responsibilities; I know that this sounds like a lot. But gradually, a little bit at a time, over time, you can do anything. So doing prostrations is good, or mandala offerings, guru yoga, water bowls, lights. Sometimes we have to do a lot for it to kick in – but over time.
It’s part of my daily routine.
We can get a little lazy sometimes, and think, “I want to slip back.” It takes effort.
Most people’s daily Ngöndro is surfing their computer for an hour, or they have a cigarette, or they have half an hour to talk on the phone, and then they think, “I’m tired, I’ll go to bed.” Our Ngöndro is like dharma flowing, all weaving together over time, a little bit at a time.
Question: The reason I brought it up is because currently there’s a debate about the place of Ngöndro in tantra. Some say if you haven’t completed 100,000 of each practice, you can’t practice tantra. They compared it to putting on a play and you have to do these as rehearsal and preparation first.
Lama Jinpa: Like everything in Buddhist tradition, debates are had with good reason.
This is from my teacher: “Ngöndro was made up by we Tibetans – in Nalanda, they did the Eighty-four Mahasiddhas. Shantideva did not do formal Ngöndro.”
The point of Ngöndro is to prepare the ground for empowerments. A concert pianist cannot perform without practice beforehand, yes?
Historically, Tibetan monasteries were huge. Students didn’t necessarily have a personal teacher overseeing everything they do – they had to have a standard, a system. So they thought, well, if someone does 100,000 of one of these, something will be bound to happen, and if you can do 100,000 you aren’t a complete flake. We know you’re here for the duration.
Question: So is dharma a busy workout?
Lama Jinpa: No, not busy, steady. It’s interesting, in some sense, at 100,000, something digs in. Honestly, some people do need to do more.
What does it mean to prepare? It means you’re ready to receive. You can also just go on sitting like a frog. In a way, it’s whatever it takes.
Question: So you can just sit until you get it?
Lama Jinpa: A little bit maybe; it doesn’t always work out because of karma. Hopefully with enough people it sticks.
Question: So, ngondro is like plowing a field and getting it ready for the seeds?
Lama Jinpa: Yes, that’s a good metaphor. We’re creating an energetic, receptive state.
Question: Like a river?
Lama Jinpa: It’s constant.
Really, it gets down to whatever your teacher thinks you should do or not do.
You know you truly have a teacher when they say no, you’re not ready for something. You break samaya if you’re told “No, don’t do that,” then you go ask the same thing of another teacher. You’re basically dharma trash, a slut. It’s completely inappropriate. This is the way they talk in the texts – it’s very serious.
Student: You’re going to the hell realms.
Lama Jinpa: Sometimes the teacher thinks you’re ready and you may not think you are, or the reverse. It’s a tough one. If people do go shop for the answer they want, it’s just like drug seeking, you’re an addict, just like with opioids.
I know it can be discouraging – or it can be uplifting – but the main thing to understand is the teacher is not there to placate you – you’re not a baby. You may think, “I know I’m ready.” But you might not be, and the teacher knows. Usually our teacher is encouraging but sometimes the answer may just be “No.”
This is one reason we do not have tons of people at Lion’s Roar. This is Vajrayana.