VTC: 37 Practices of Bodhisattvas

Having gained this rare ship of freedom and fortune
Hear, think and meditate unwaveringly night and day
In order to free yourself and others from the ocean of cyclic existence
This is the practice of Bodhisattvas

Having covered the topic of Precious Human Life (line 1), Ven. Chodron went on to give this teaching on Hearing, Thinking and Meditating (line 2). She began by saying that this teaching is so important because it describes the method to use to help us put into practice the rest of the text.

Hearing

Hearing can also mean reading or studying — any way you first receive the teachings. When we first hear the teachings, some understanding comes, “the wisdom that comes from hearing.” You generate this initial wisdom, but it is not a full wisdom as you are just coming into contact with the teachings. We need to hear the teachings more than one time because hearing the teachings is not just about getting information. We are not studying the Dharma the way we study things in school. It is not just getting information and remembering things. You can have a lot of information, you can know all the outlines, but your mind does not change. However, when you hear the teachings repeatedly, they go in at a deeper level. The first time we hear the teachings we are usually struggling with the words and the concepts. It takes a few hearings of the teachings just to grasp that. After a while we know the words and have a general concept, then as we hear the teachings we can really get into the feeling aspect. What are the teachings actually trying to generate in our mind, what transformation are the teachings trying to make?

Each time we hear the teachings they sound different. They can be exactly the same, but because your mind has changed, they sound totally different. The great masters show us repeatedly the importance of hearing the teachings many times. Every year at His Holiness’ spring teachings you find all the Geshes, Lamas, and Rinpoches who themselves have taught the very same text that His Holiness is teaching. They have this text memorized, know the commentary, and teach the text to their own students. However, when His Holiness teaches they all come and sit at his feet and they listen to him talk about precious human life. They hear him talk about how to set up an altar although they have been setting up an altar for fifty years. The point is every time you hear the teachings you understand them at a different level and they touch your heart in a different way. You never hear them exactly the same, because the teacher never teaches exactly the same.

Thinking

After hearing comes the process of thinking about the teachings, “the wisdom of contemplation”. Here you are thinking about the teachings; you are contemplating them; you are debating them; you are discussing them. This is an important step. Sometimes we hear the teachings and we think we understand them. However, when we begin to discuss them with someone else we realize that something is missing, or we misunderstood, or we did not hear it properly. This discussion process is incredible. Some of my own teachers have said that we learn 25 percent from our teacher and 75 percent from our Dharma friends in the process of discussion. You can ask each other questions back and forth, first just starting with the information, but then getting into the interpretation and the meaning. Often this process creates more questions. You should not think when you discuss and have more questions that your discussion went wrong, it has actually gone right! When you have questions it means you are thinking about the teachings.

This point of discussing, debating, thinking, and contemplating happens when we first take the information that we received from hearing and we begin to go over it. When you come to class, you are beginning the first step of hearing. It is important when you go home that you do the second step of thinking and contemplating. If you just leave it at hearing, you understand it for the time you are here. Then the other six days and 23 hours the mind is on something else. When you come back to class, you do not remember what verse or text we are on! Your understanding has not really developed in the week that has gone by. It is important after hearing teachings for you to go home and think about them, logically with reasoning. Buddhism is a very staunch advocate of using reasoning and logic. We try to see if the teachings hold water and we apply them to our life in several ways. One way is to use the teachings to see if they explain what happens in our life, if the teachings explain what we see around us. We also apply the teachings to our life by taking them and using them to work with our own mind. If we have a disturbing attitude arising in our mind, by thinking about the teachings are we able to transform that attitude into something more positive?

The teacher can tell you the purpose of the meditation and you can write it down in your notebook but when you sit down to do the meditation you think, “Well why did the Buddha teach this anyway? I don’t get it.” It is quite amazing how the mind works and we begin to see it is not just sufficient to hear the teachings. We need to go and think about them, ruminate on them, go over them many, many times, look at them from different angles, and apply them to our life. We have to do this many times to get some type of experience. It is not just about getting the information and writing it down in our books, you have to put some time and effort into this.

Analytic Meditation

The second step of thinking or reflecting on the teachings also includes analytic or checking meditation. Although we call it checking meditation, and it is meditation, it actually falls into this second step of thinking or reflecting on the meaning of the teachings. Analytic meditation does not mean just an intellectual process; we are really trying to take what we have learned through hearing and make it our own. We have to bring our curiosity. When doing analytic meditation we are thinking about the meaning of the teachings. It is not like breathing meditation where we are keeping our attention on one object. When we are doing analytic meditation there are many thoughts and there is a process we follow. To do it in the most beneficial way, it is very good to have an understanding of the topic we are meditating on and to have an outline of the major points. If you do not have this, it is easy for the mind to go all over the place. If you have a good understanding of the points, how one point leads to the other and what the conclusions of thinking about each point are, then you can move right along. It is an extremely powerful meditation if you do it in this way. The mind is transformed through one’s own understanding. Hearing teachings and learning how to examine them through this process is important. Thinking about something deeply can generate a very strong experience in our heart.

Another reason for doing checking meditation is to make our understanding stable. The Buddha always insisted that people check out his teachings that they not just believe on blind faith. The Buddha said you should check out the teachings, as you would buy gold. In the Buddha’s time when buying gold you would rub it, cut it, and then burn it. If you did these things and it turned out well then you knew it was pure gold. Our modern example would be buying a car. You do not go to a car lot, buy a car, pay thousands of dollars, and drive it away. What do you do? You learn about a car and it’s qualities. You test it out and drive it. It is the same kind of thing that we have to do with the Dharma. If we do that, we are able to integrate it into our own experience, our practice becomes very stable, and the mind actually transforms.

You might be thinking, “Analytic meditation, how do I do that?” Actually, we do analytic or checking meditation all the time, but we are usually doing it on objects of attachment and aversion. For instance, with our objects of attachment, first we have our reasons, “This person is fantastic-they are so talented and good looking.” After we go over all our reasons, attachment arises. Sometimes we meditate on quotations to develop attachment, “My friends say this person is very good looking.” We apply the experience to our own life and we think, “I remember when I was with him he made me feel so happy. Yes, this is definitely love.” We know how to do checking mediation, we are just doing it on the wrong object! It is the same way with anger. We recite all of the reasons we are mad at somebody, we use quotations from others who agree with us, and our anger arises. Our conclusion does not waver and we focus on it single-pointedly! It is the same process in the Dharma, we are just switching the object.

Meditating

After hearing the teachings we go home and think about them-we try to gain some sort of understanding of them-then we do this third step of meditation. Meditation here, is the process of integrating the teachings; we are focusing our mind one-pointedly on the conclusion we reach through contemplating the teachings. The wisdom that comes through meditation is when we apply our concentration to focus on the point we came up with in our analytic meditation.

We do this three-fold process of hearing, thinking, and meditating on all the Lam Rim topics. We have to use analytic meditation from the Lam Rim topic of forming a good working relationship with a teacher all the way to the end of the Lam Rim (except for when we are meditating on calm abiding). We do this to really understand the points and when we do, that is when our mind begins to change.

Correct belief

Sometimes we have the experience of listening to teachings, but our mind does not change very much. We are still getting angry, we are still attached. So the question becomes, why does that happen? We are learning the Dharma, why doesn’t our mind change? The basic reason is that we have not reflected or meditated on the meaning of the teachings. We have only done the first step of the three processes of hearing, thinking, and meditating. The reason the mind does not change very much is that we have not deepened our understanding.

Sometimes we have strong feelings about a particular Dharma topic. We might come to a teaching and an incredible understanding or feeling for what the teacher is talking about comes up in our mind. Or sometimes we go home, do a little meditation and get a strong feeling for the topic, but then a half an hour later, the feeling is gone. Why does this happen? Why is it our experiences do not last long? It is because they are what we call correct belief.

From Wrong Conception to a Direct Perception

In the process of going from a wrong conception to a true direct realization of the Dharma we go through many steps. We start out with a wrong conception, like the concept of inherent existence-everything exists as it appears to me.

The next step occurs when we begin to cultivate a bit of doubt in our wrong conception. We begin to think perhaps things do not exist the way they appear, maybe they are not concrete and independent. That doubt is better than the wrong conception. The next step occurs when we develop what is called a correct belief. Here we get the correct conclusion, but our understanding of that conclusion is not strong.

If we continue, we get what is called an inference. An inference is a valid mind. With an inference, we completely understand the reasons. Our mind comes to the correct conclusion, but with a deep understanding of the reasons. Inference does not waver. Once we have inferred something correctly, our understanding is very stable. From there, we go on to nonconceptual direct perception.

We go through this process starting with wrong conception, then doubt, then correct belief, then inference, and then direct perception. When we have these feelings of experience and understanding and they do not last very long, these experiences are of the third type, correct belief. We have the correct conclusion, but because we do not totally understand everything that is leading us to that conclusion, it fades away afterwards. What we need to do is to move it from the correct belief to the inference. We do that by the process of analytic or checking meditation. We are thinking about the teachings, examining them logically, thinking about the quotations, thinking about the stories and analogies, applying the teaching to our own life and to what we see around us. All of these are included in analytic meditation.

Becoming Immune to the Dharma

If we have heard many Dharma teachings, but we have not thought or meditated on them, we can become immune to the Dharma. We know a lot of Dharma, but our mind actually becomes worse. We develop a certain kind of arrogance and pride; we become bored in teachings. We are not sitting with our heart open wanting to take in the meaning of the teachings. Instead, we are judging how the teacher teaches. Do they have a good teaching style? We criticize the loudness or softness of their voice. We are doing this because we feel, “I have heard all these teachings before.” With this attitude, our mind is not taking the teachings in. If that happens, it is quite difficult to cure. It is not an attitude that is conducive to understanding the meaning of the teachings. If we come into the teachings with an open heart and our mind clear-we are interested, we are curious, we want to apply the teachings to our life-then we have proper motivations which will set the stage for understanding to come. We have to check our motivation frequently.

Misconceptions

There are many misconceptions about meditation. One misconception is that meditation means you do not think. Now, it is true that what we are aiming for in developing the realizations of the path is beyond concept. However, to get beyond concept we have to understand the teachings. How do we understand the teachings? By first understanding them using our conceptual mind. When we are talking about precious human life we are thinking about it, are we not? There is no other way for you to understand precious human life besides using words and concepts. We learn about the path through using words and concepts and then developing proper constructive ways to think.

What we do want is to stop all the useless thinking we do. It is very helpful, especially at our level of the path, to really learn how to think properly and clearly. It is only by generating a correct conceptual understanding of the path that we are able to go beyond the concept. For example, we talk about the ultimate nature of reality being emptiness. Now, some people think this just means I empty my mind, I just stop thinking and sit there. That is not the meaning of emptiness. Cows do not think a lot. Are they realized holy beings?

Thinking Correctly

It is not just making our mind blank. It is not just freeing our mind from any kind of concept. Actually, for us this process of learning how to think correctly is very important. We need to learn to monitor our thoughts and discriminate what is a beneficial thought and what is an unbeneficial thought. Using our conceptual mind for opinion making, planning, gossiping, and worrying is not beneficial. We want to let go of this because it just does not serve us.

However, when we meditate on the eight freedoms and the ten fortunes, the three ways our lives are meaningful, and the three ways it is difficult to get this opportunity, then that is a very useful way to think. It develops our wisdom and understanding and helps us appreciate our life. When we meditate on bodhicitta, going through all the points of thinking of the kindness of sentient beings, that also is a very useful way to think. We have to learn how to think in useful ways, discriminating useful from non-useful thoughts. Eventually we will be able to go beyond thinking at all, but we must begin by thinking in useful ways.

We might think all we need is one meditation technique. “I will just do Vipassana meditation and that is all I need.” That is not exactly it. Our mind is very complex; we have many different aspects of our mind we need to deal with and clean up. We have different potentials and qualities in our minds, which we can access and develop. One kind of meditation or mediation on one subject alone cannot do all of these things. It cannot touch all the various potentials we have, which is why the Buddha taught many different kinds of meditations. We need to do many different things to purify and develop ourselves. Just doing one meditation is not going to be able to lead us to Buddhahood, therefore when we develop a practice we build it up slowly.

As we are going through all these different meditations on the gradual path to enlightenment, we go through them slowly, cycling back and around many times, thinking about them in many ways. If we only meditated on precious human life for our entire life, we would not get very far. If we just do Vipassana or Shamata meditation, we develop one part of our mind, but the rest of our mind is undeveloped.

This can be disappointing to people hoping for just one method. Where is that thought coming from? From wanting to be enlightened by next Tuesday. One part of our mind thinks like that, but we need a long-term view. We can think, “There are all these different meditations because I have so many good qualities to develop. My mind is not something simple. My mind is something rich and beautiful. I need to slowly become familiar with all these different methods because there is so much inside to grow and develop.” Instead of making ourselves discouraged we encourage ourselves, we really appreciate our opportunity, our life, and our mind with all this potential.

Conditions that Lead to a Good Experience

When we have good experiences and understandings in our meditation it is definitely positive. We should rejoice that we have them, but we should not think they are strong realizations as they are not yet stable in our mind. Good experiences arise due to the inspiration and the blessings of our spiritual teachers and the three jewels. They are also due to imprints from past lives-from some previous familiarity with these topics. What we need to do is to examine the conditions under which these understandings arise. In other words, if you are doing a certain meditation and you have a very good experience, think back, and discover what you were doing that led to that experience. Sometimes you will come upon certain external conditions that enabled you to have that experience and sometimes you will come upon certain internal ones.

When you are on retreat it is easier to have good experiences in your meditation, the environment is calmer, you are meditating every day, and you are keeping silence. Even in your daily practice you might notice you have better meditations in the morning when your mind is clear. You might find you have clear understanding when you meditate if you have kept silence rather than having a conversation on the telephone before meditating. Examining the conditions that led to a powerful meditation will help you structure your environment so you can set up good conditions for your meditation practice.

Sometimes you might find certain internal conditions that help. For example, you might find if you spend time developing your motivation your meditation turns out better. On the other hand, you might find your meditation is better if you have calmed your mind first through doing breathing meditation.

However, do not try to recreate experiences you have had in your meditation practices. You can spend years trying to recreate a past experience. Do not get attached to your meditation experiences. If you can notice good external and internal conditions enabling you to have a clearer mind and gain insight, that can be helpful. Try to do each meditation with beginners mind, in other words you do it without any expectations. Just do your practice and do not worry about the result. Things turn out much better that way!

Glance meditation

To do analytic mediation on the Lam Rim, or the Gradual Path to Enlightenment, it is most successful if we know the structure of the entire path to enlightenment. One of the beauties of Tibetan Buddhism, and in particular of Lama Tsong Khapa’s tradition, is that all the different points of the path are laid out in a systematic way. When the Buddha taught he was walking all over India and taught all sorts of different people. Later, Atisha and then Lama Tsong Khapa, systematized all the teachings into a step by step process called the Lam Rim. If we have a good understanding of all these steps, it helps us to know how the different meditation topics fit together.

At the beginning of our practice, it is good to gain this general understanding of the entire path. Before we start to focus on a particular topic, we spend some time gaining a general understanding. Each day we review our general understanding of the path through what is called a glance meditation. In a concise and brief way, a glance meditation goes through all of the different points of the path. In our blue prayer book (Pearl of Wisdom I) there is a prayer called the Foundation of All Good Qualities. This prayer is a glance meditation, and it goes through all the steps of the path. Another glance meditation is the Lam Rim meditation at the end of the guru puju. These are very good to do.

Sometimes you read a glance meditation slowly and spend a couple of minutes on each point and other times you read it quickly. However, each time you read it you are putting an imprint in your mind of all the topics on the path to enlightenment.

You will begin to understand the practice of the initial, middle, and higher level person. You will know how each step of the path builds on what came before, gaining confidence that you can understand and practice these topics. The purpose of the glance meditation is not to gain certainty or a direct inference, but to get a general understanding. As we gain this understanding we can go back and focus more particularly on one topic, because we will know how everything fits together. It is as if you were painting a picture. You do not paint all the detail in the left corner and all else is blank, rather you sketch it in generally, going back and filling in the detail.

So how do you put all this together in a daily practice? There are different ways. One way is to read the entire glance meditation and then go on to your particular meditation topic. Alternatively, you meditate on your topic first and then do the glance meditation. The third way is to do the glance meditation as far as your topic, stop to do checking meditation on your topic, then finish with the glance meditation. You can see which way works best for you.

Consistency

At first, our experiences with mediation are called “experiences requiring effort”. We have to put effort into meditation, knowing the points, thinking about the reasons and quotes, applying them to our life, and checking our own experience. We need effort in order to have some feeling come into our hearts. After you have done it enough, the experience arises by just turning your mind to the topic. At the beginning we put in effort and familiarize our mind, later it becomes effortless. This is a gradual process and it does not happen overnight. This implies repetition; you do not become familiar with something by doing it once. Each time you do it new understandings, insights, and experiences come. If you have the courage to think long term and stay with your practice for a period of time, the mind will definitely transform. The most important thing is that we are continuous. The masters recommend if we are doing checking meditation, we do it every single day. If we cannot do a long meditation, we can do ten or fifteen minutes, we can do something. By doing some meditation every day we keep that continuity, slowly starting to familiarize ourselves with constructive ways of thinking. We look for gradual transformation over a long period of time, because that is much more stable.

Purification

Sometimes in our meditation, it seems as if our mind is dry and hard. This is an indication that we need to go back and emphasize purification practices and the accumulation of positive potential. This is the reason we do the seven limb prayer and the mandala offering at the beginning of each teaching, to purify and create positive potential. It is very helpful, if the mind is feeling dry and stuck, to spend more time doing Vajrasattva purification or prostrations or mandala offerings. Praying is another practice that is helpful when the mind feels stuck. You can do request prayers to your teachers and to the triple gem, especially in a guru yoga practice such as the Lama Tsong Khapa guru yoga practice. Doing this type of practice together with requests is very effective for softening the mind. Or in your prayers you can focus on making the requests to the lineage, visualizing the lineage, sincerely making your request, imagining they respond by sending light and nectar that purifies your obstacles and brings all the understandings of the path into your heart. If your mind feels dry, it is good to switch the emphasis in your practice by doing more prayers, devotional practices, and purification.

How to Use the Lam Rim Meditations

It is usually advised that one go through the Lam Rim topics sequentially, going on to the next topic after you have a deep understanding of the first. However if you are doing retreat or doing checking meditation more than once a day, you can have different tracts on which you are working. For instance, the first session you do a glance meditation slowly, the second you start with relying on a spiritual master, the third you meditate on precious human life, and the fourth you meditate on emptiness.

While it is good to do the Lam Rim Meditations in order, you can skip around. However you do not want, for instance, to avoid the meditation on death and only do the meditations on love and compassion. If you do that, you can get some experience from the meditation on love, but you are not going to get a deep understanding and realization of it. Why? To have deep understanding of precious human life, you need to understand death. How are we going to develop compassion for others if we cannot see their suffering? Part of understanding their suffering comes from understanding impermanence and death. With an understanding of impermanence and death, we will have a firm understanding of their suffering and our understanding will be unshakeable. Therefore, it is helpful to develop familiarity with all the meditations on the path. Your meditations on the higher level are going to proceed much better if you are familiar with the initial and middle levels. Similarly, you are going to value your precious human life (initial level), if you understand a little about bodhichitta (higher level), realizing you can use your precious human life to develop bodhicitta. We try to put all the meditations together in this way to develop a solid understanding of our mind and our lives.

It is very good to have a spiritual teacher near as you do these meditations. Your teacher can ask you questions about your meditation, about the experience that you gain on a topic, and on doubts that might be coming up. It is very helpful to keep in touch with your spiritual teacher about how your meditation is going.

Working with the Mind-Antidotes to Disturbing Attitudes

When you do retreat, it is not as important to have your teacher near as long as you are quite familiar with all the steps on the gradual path. As you train your mind over time, you learn how to work with and become a doctor to your own mind.

At the beginning, we get angry and we forget what meditation we are supposed to do. What is the antidote to anger? Patience. It is hard to remember, but through this process of habituation and familiarization we will begin to recall the antidotes. What do you meditate on when your mind is overwhelmed with attachment? The sufferings of cyclic existence and how attachment causes cyclic existence. What do you meditate on if you are having problems with jealousy? Rejoicing, being happy at other’s virtue and good qualities. If your mind is wrapped up in pride what do you meditate on? The kindness of others because all the qualities and good things we have came through others. You can also meditate on the twelve links or the eighteen elements. If you are wondering what those are, well that is the point! We do not understand those very well and it lessens our pride.

Through hearing teachings, thinking about them and meditating on them, we really learn how to apply them in our life. We learn how to apply the antidotes to our different emotional states. This gives us so much ability! We do not need to go to pieces when things do not go well because we are very familiar with how to think in a more correct, reasonable way.

Doubts

If doubts arise during your meditation, ask your teacher for clarification, discuss your doubts with Dharma friends, do some reading, or think about the Lam Rim topics. Try to resolve your doubts. If you have doubts and hold them in, you are going to explode. Doubts are a very natural part of the path, but when you have them try to get answers. Do not judge yourself thinking you are bad for having them, that way of thinking only runs us into a rut.