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The Basics of Buddhist Meditation
Talks in Chi Lin Nunnery, Hong Kong
Day 1, 7th October 1998
1: Why Meditation is Becoming Popular
Godwin: Firstly, I would like to welcome each one of you. I am very happy to be back and to see some of my old friends here. It's also nice to see some new faces. I will give a short talk and there will be time for questions, and then we can do some meditation together, and we can end with some chanting, both in Chinese and Pali.
When I arrived here this time my friends told me that there is more interest in meditation now in this country and that there have been many teachers, many masters visiting this country. I was very happy to hear this, and it did not surprise me, because I know that everywhere in the world there is more and more interest in meditation now, especially in Western countries. So the question arises: why is there this interest in meditation in the present world? We can think of different reasons but a general reason is, I think, that there is more and more suffering in this world. So human beings, at least some of them, are seeking ways and means of finding some peace, and a way out of the suffering. So I'll be presenting some aspects of meditation which will help us to experience more peace, and to find a way out of suffering.
In this modern world one of the things that is happening because of mechanisation and industrialisation is that human beings are also becoming more and more machine-like, automatic. So in this connection meditation offers two very important solutions.
One point is that as human beings are becoming more and more like machines, they also, like machines, don't seem to have feelings. One aspect of this lack of feelings is that people are becoming more and more violent: more and more violent towards themselves and towards others, and also even becoming violent towards the environment, the surroundings that we are living in. This is why the problem of environment and ecology has also become a very serious problem in the present world. In this connection meditation of loving-kindness is extremely helpful in working with this aspect of having a lack of feelings, a lack of warmth.A phrase that I often like to use is that meditation of loving-kindness helps us to be our best friend.
If you can be your best friend then naturally your behaviour will not be something unskilful, unwholesome to you, and you will create more and more happiness for yourself and for others. So meditation on loving-kindness helps us to open our hearts to ourselves and to others.
Another way meditation of loving-kindness can help us is that, due to different reasons, we may have what I call psychological wounds: wounds created in the past, wounds in relation to what you have done to others, wounds in relation to what others have done to you. And I think there is no human being who has not been wounded in their life. I think a great source of suffering in the modern world is holding onto these wounds, and these wounds can generate lots of suffering for oneself and lots of suffering for others.
Meditation of loving-kindness helps us to heal these wounds by learning to forgive ourselves and learning to forgive others. It's only when we can heal these wounds that we are carrying that we really experience joy and peace in ourselves. And when we experience this joy and peace in ourselves, this can become infectious, it can affect others.
So these are some very important aspects of meditation of loving-kindness which the modern world needs very badly. I would suggest that this is the only way to work with the global violence, the violence that we find in this modern world.
Aspects of Awareness
Another important aspect of meditation which can help us to work with human beings becoming more and more mechanical is the practice of awareness, the practice of being present. It's a practice of being alert and awake. And like meditation of loving-kindness, this aspect of being aware also has many benefits. One is, it helps us to be conscious, it helps us to know what is happening in us, in our mind and body, from moment to moment as far as possible. And this awareness can help us to develop insight, to see what are we doing to ourselves and to others. Again to see how we create suffering in ourselves and how we create suffering in others.
And what awareness helps us to experience is how sometimes - or even most of the time - we create our own suffering. When we see with awareness how we create our own suffering, then it becomes clear that it is only we who can free ourselves of the suffering that we have created. Sometimes I like to define meditation as a way of discovering the medicine for the sickness that we create ourselves.
Another aspect of awareness is that it helps us to experience the present moment. It is interesting that most of the time we live either in the past or in the future. And we hardly know that we are living in the past and living in the future because sometimes it happens habitually, mechanically, unconsciously. So here again awareness helps us to realise how we are using the past and the future in ways which can create problems for ourselves and for others.
Now we do need to use the past and we do need to use the future. And one simple way of using the past and the future creatively is if we can learn from the past, whatever has happened in the past, if we can see the past as a learning experience, as a teacher. So whatever mistakes we have made in the past, rather than hold onto them and then feel guilty and suffer from them, we can ask ourselves: What can I learn from my past mistakes? It can be a very useful way of coming to terms with the past. Otherwise what happens is that we carry the past as a burden. So this type of thinking, this type of practice enables us to let go of the burden that we are carrying most of the time.
And in the same way we can use the future, again as a friend. As we know, when we think of the future sometimes what happens is that we feel anxious, we feel insecure. But if we can make friends with the future and learn to be open to the future, we will be learning to relate to the future in a much more creative way. So with awareness we can learn to experience the present moment when we breathe consciously. And then in relation to the past and the future, if we can see the past as a teacher and if we can see the future as a friend, this will be a really beautiful, creative, happy and peaceful way of living.
Another way we can use awareness is to use awareness to learn, to discover, to explore, to investigate what is happening in our mind and body. A real challenge we have in everyday life is how to relate to unpleasant emotions. One problem modern man is confronted with is the problem of stress. It's a problem everywhere. So now people are finding ways and means of working with stress. It is interesting that there are now workshops, courses, which are called stress management courses. They're not trying to get rid of stress, they want to manage it, control it. So awareness helps us to find out under what circumstances we feel stressed, what really happens to us, mentally and physically, when we experience stress. In this way, we can explore, learn, investigate, any unpleasant emotion that we experience.
I think everyone here is familiar with other unpleasant emotions like anxiety, fear, sadness, guilt - all these are quite familiar to us. And what normally happens is that when we experience them, we have no way, we have no tools to work with them. So human beings have become helpless victims of these unpleasant emotions which really control us, overwhelm us and affect us. In meditation, there are techniques and ways to work with these unpleasant emotions. In fact there has been a very interesting book that has come out recently, "Emotional Intelligence". Has anyone heard of this book? So the author, who is a Buddhist, says that human beings are trying to develop more and more high I.Q., but what is more important is to develop an intelligent way of working with emotions. This book has become a best-seller, and there have been lots of workshops on this problem, because in this modern world unpleasant emotions are a real challenge.
So here again, meditation, especially the aspect of awareness, helps us to work with these emotions. One method is not to repress them, not to control them, nor to express them but just to be aware of the emotions when they are there. In fact in meditation there are other tools, techniques, for working with these emotions. We cannot prevent these emotions from arising but what we can learn is how to work with them when they arise rather than continue to suffer as a result of them.
Maybe another aspect of meditation is that it helps us to learn to be our own teacher, to be self-reliant, to have complete confidence in ourselves. This is a hard teaching but it's a very important teaching: to develop your own resources, to develop your own self-reliance, to develop your own tools, how to work with suffering when it arises. So what is the result of that? We learn to take responsibility for what is happening in us, without blaming others, without blaming the surroundings that we find ourselves in. When such a change takes place in our minds, then we'll be able to handle whatever arises in a particular environment, in whatever surroundings we find ourselves.
I would like to conclude by presenting a Buddhist simile which shows how we can live in any environment and learn how not to be affected by that environment. And the simile is a lotus flower. As you know, a lotus flower grows in muddy waters. But though it is surrounded by muddy, dirty water the lotus is not affected by what is around it.
So in this modern world, there can be lots of challenges, lots of difficult situations, lots of problems that might arise, but with the practice of meditation we'll be able to see them as challenges and learn, like a lotus, not to be affected by the surroundings that we find ourselves in.
So now if there are any questions you can please ask them. It is very important to ask questions.
Questions and Answers
Retreatant: When joy and bliss arise during meditation and when the body starts to tremble, is that O.K?
Godwin: I'm happy that you are experiencing joy and bliss. It's a very important aspect of the practice to experience joy and bliss in meditation. So when joy and bliss arise, when the body trembles, just know that the body is trembling, just try to find out what exactly is the sensation you are experiencing and just be with the sensation. What is important when we have these positive emotions is not to hold onto them.
Any other questions please?
Retreatant: How to use our future in a proper way? For example, in the office when I deal with my boss, at first I may find that my boss has got some incorrect or improper views and then I have this anxiety that the situation may turn bad in the future and I find emotion arises. Then I try to alter my boss's attitude, and then I think that the situation may be O.K. But afterwards I find that I have not handled the situation properly. I could have done better. So my question is: How can I ensure that what I'm doing at the present moment is the correct way to handle the matter, rather than having done it first and then look back and regret what I have done?
Godwin: So just a few practical suggestions on how to work with such bosses. One thing you said is that you would like to change the attitude of the boss, which may not succeed. Rather you should learn to change your attitude towards the boss. If you can, use the boss as your spiritual friend because the boss is teaching you something, to look at your own mind. So this is the importance of awareness. The emphasis is not on what the boss is saying or what the boss is doing. The emphasis is on looking at your own mind, how you are relating to what the boss is saying or what the boss is doing.
So it'll be interesting to start experimenting with your boss. Then rather than feeling angry with him or seeing him as a problem, as I said, you learn to see him as a spiritual friend. So you can find out: when I'm with the boss, what are the emotions that arise in me? How long will these emotions stay with me? You can experiment: Now today, this is what happened with the boss. Now let me see what happens with the boss tomorrow. So you are looking forward to being with the boss because it's a very valuable learning experience for you. You can really feel grateful that you have such a good boss, that the boss is really showing you a mirror to watch your own mind. Instead of giving a minus to the boss, and giving a minus to yourself, you can give plusses to yourself and plusses to the boss.
And these suggestions that I have offered one can use in any situation in relating to people, it need not necessarily be to the boss.
I think there's time for one last question.
Retreatant: Master, normally people practise meditation by sitting down with their legs crossed but what happens if I'm a little bit old and I have kidney problem which makes it difficult to sit too long to practise meditation? Is there no way for me to practise meditation, or alternatively can I do meditation by lying down on my back?
Godwin: There's still hope for you! You can just sit down on a chair with your spine erect. And as you rightly said, you can use the lying down posture. But what is important is that in that posture you have to be very alert and awake because from lying down you might start snoring; but it is still interesting to learn to meditate lying down.
I'm very happy that you have asked some very good, practical questions. So now let us take a short break, about 5 minutes, and during this time please, as I said, see how far you can be aware of whatever you're doing. So when you are standing, when you are walking, whatever you are doing, please try to slow down your movements; and as I was emphasising the importance of awareness, just try to practise it as far as possible. And being silent will be helpful in practising this awareness.
So please come back after 5 minutes if there's a need to go outside.
[ Break ]
Guided Meditation on Awareness
Godwin: The meditation which we are going to do is something very simple. In my talk I emphasised the importance of being aware, being mindful, being awake. So let us develop this very important skill.
During the sitting we can try to be aware, mindful, alert, from moment to moment as far as possible. Just knowing. Just knowing what is happening in our mind and body from moment to moment.
I also emphasised the importance of friendliness, gentleness. So we will try to combine awareness with friendliness and gentleness. Feeling friendly and gentle to whatever is happening in our mind and body as far as possible.
So as I said it is something very simple that we are going to do now.
You can please close your eyes.
If you're having thoughts, just know what thoughts you are having very sharply, very clearly.
If you are experiencing sensations, just know what sensation you are experiencing from moment to moment.
You can experience the present moment, just feeling the peace and the stillness in this room.
Feeling what it is to sit with your body completely still.
If the body is still, the mind may become still, and you can feel the stillness around you.
Feeling friendly and gentle towards our mind and body.
[ Bell ]
Now please don't think that the meditation is over. Please continue to know what is happening in your mind and body from moment to moment. And now will you please open your eyes.
In a way, there is no beginning and ending of meditation. This is the importance of awareness, of knowing.
Thank you. Thank you very much for sitting so peacefully and calmly.
Let us do some chanting now.
So I'll be presenting three chants. The first chant is Buddham Saranam Gacchami, Dhammam Saranam Gacchami, Sangham Saranam Gacchami. The next chant is Sadhu, which means Well Said. In traditional Buddhist countries you will hear this word very often. And then the last Pali chant is Santi which means Peace. Then we'll be ending with some Chinese chanting.
So while chanting let us try to experience the present moment, the here and the now, with the help of the chant.
[ Chanting ]
Thank you very much. Please make an effort to put into practice some of the suggestions that I made. Please learn to be your best friend and also to be a friend of others. Learn to forgive yourself and others and then heal any wounds that you are carrying.
Please make an effort to live consciously, to live with awareness, to live with a mind that is fully awake.
And as I suggested, try to work with unpleasant emotions when they arise.
Please try to find a new direction in your life, a new way of living where you will live in such a meaningful way that you will be not creating any suffering for yourself or any suffering for others.
And may you experience more joy, more peace and friendliness to oneself.
Thank you very much and I hope to see you tomorrow. Tomorrow we'll be speaking about the technique of being aware of our breathing, what advantages we can experience through this technique.