CHOOSING THE ENVIRONMENT
When our practice reaches a certain level, the external environment will not have much of an effect on us; at that point, there is no difference where we practice. However, to a beginner, the environment is very important.
Firstly, if the surroundings are too noisy, it will be difficult to practice. The sutras say the biggest impediment to meditative concentration is noise.
In general, this is a problem in the cities, but some homes can be very quiet if they have sound-proof installations, and the windows and doors are shut tight.
Secondly, in places where many practitioners in the past have aggregated, blessings are plentiful; this kind of place is particularly conducive to practice.
Whatever the circumstances, the environment is a very important factor. At the least, one should look for a quiet place to practice.
DEALING WITH CHORES
Before meditation, we should first get ready, that is, shut the door, go to the bathroom, turn off the cell phone, etc. We should deal with these chores ahead of time so as not to disrupt the actual meditation practice. Thereafter, go to a shrine room if there is one, and prepare a cushion. This cushion is called a meditation cushion; it should be higher in back than in front to allow the body to sit comfortably. As you sit on the meditation cushion, make the following vow: during this sitting, I will remain in meditation no matter what.
MAINTAINING THE THREE ESSENTIALS
There are strict requirements the practitioner must meet during meditation. Among them are the three essentials: the first is body; the second is speech; the third is mind.
1. Essential Points of the Body
What are the requirements for the body? During meditation, we must adhere to the sevenfold meditation posture of Vairochana; we cannot lie on a bed or assume any other type of posture. The seven points are:
1. The legs in a crossed-legged position, like the posture assumed by the buddhas and bodhisattvas in the thangkas. We can cross one leg or both during sitting meditation. Usually, one leg is crossed; if this is difficult or painful at the start, any position which is comfortable can also be adopted. However, to meet the first requirement in the Vairochana posture, both legs should be crossed.
2. The body straight.
3. The hands in the gesture of meditation (dhyana mudra) – palms facing up, the right hand placed on top of the left, thumbs touching each other, hands resting four fingers below the navel.
4. The upper arms away from the body.
5. The head bent slightly forward.
6. The eyes slightly closed with the gaze directed toward the tip of the nose.
7. The tip of the tongue touching the palate.
These seven points are called the Vairochana posture. Every part of our body should be relaxed, not tense. We cannot maintain calmness if we are tense. Whether we are training in the preliminaries or the main practice, we should always assume this posture. If we lie on a bed or sit incorrectly on a sofa, it will be difficult to stay calm during practice. Why is that? The mind’s tranquility is connected with time and the body’s posture. Thus it is said in Vajrayana: when the body is straight, the channels (for circulation of the subtle winds) are straight; when the channels are straight, the mind is straight, that is, free of mental elaboration.
2. Essential Points of Speech
Ordinarily, what we say is called speech, but here we are not looking to say anything but to expel the impure chi (life- energy) in our body. To remain calm during meditation, we must breathe correctly since the mind and breath are intimately linked. Moderating the breath is therefore the essential point of speech.
How is this accomplished? In moderating the breath, we should visualize the impure chi in our body has been expelled; this will purify the body and allow the mind to rest. How do we expel the chi? It is expelled from the nostrils: first from the left nostril, next from the right nostril, then from both nostrils at the same time. The chi can be expelled three times in succession from the left nostril, right nostril, and both nostrils successively, for a total of nine times; or it can be expelled once from the left nostril, once from the right nostril, and once from both nostrils.
How can impure chi be purged from the nostrils? When training in the preliminaries, you are only told to expel the impure chi; when training in the main practice, there are concrete techniques pertaining to the use of wind (breath), channel and drops of the subtle body.
The actual technique for moderating the breath is as follows: firstly, to expel chi from the left nostril, make a vajra fist with the left hand. To form a vajra fist, press your thumb against the base of the fourth finger and place all four fingers on the thumb. Then, with the fist, press down on the artery in the left upper thigh next to the groin. Similarly, with the right hand, press your thumb against the base of the fourth finger; except for the forefinger, place all three fingers on the thumb; make a circle with the forefinger pointing up; then press the forefinger against the right nostril and expel chi from the left nostril. When doing so, visualize the following: let all the negative karma we have created since beginningless time change into a black gaseous substance, and let it be expelled from the left nostril.
Switching hands now, make a vajra fist with the right hand and press down on the artery in the right upper thigh next to the groin; make a circle with the left forefinger pointing up; then press the forefinger against the left nostril, and expel chi from the right nostril. Exhale fully and, like before, visualize the following: let all the negative karma we have created since beginningless time change into a black gaseous substance, and let it be expelled from the right nostril, either three times or once.
Following this, make a vajra fist with the left and right hand at the same time; press down together on the artery in the left and right upper thigh next to the groin; and expel chi from both nostrils, either three times or once. As for the frequency that is chosen, we should be consistent by following the same pattern throughout. This is the essential point of speech.
Why do we train in this technique? This is a method of purification. Just as the dishes have to be washed before we eat, the mind has to be trained in this way before it can abide in tranquility. Special techniques are needed to tame the mind; without these special techniques, the mind cannot be tamed. To control the mind, we must have a way, otherwise the more we try to control it, the less likely we are to succeed; just like the more you try to put something out of your mind, the harder it is to forget. As with all things in general, if we have methods, we can deal with problems easily; if we do not have methods, we will not succeed even with effort. This is also the case with practice.
Where did these special methods come from? From the buddhas and bodhisattvas and the great masters who gained supreme realization on the bodhisattva path. By way of these methods, they attained spontaneity of mind, and therefore transmitted their experience to us. We cannot go wrong if we follow their advice. Although we cannot see the connection between these motions and the mind, training in these methods will be helpful to us.
After completing the essential points of the body and speech, we need to practice each of the four preliminaries once, i.e., precious human birth, impermanence, etc.
Why should we train in the four preliminaries? If we are diligent in practicing each of the preliminaries once, we will develop greater interest and desire in the practice.
3. Essential Points of the Mind
After completing the four preliminaries, visualize a lotus seat an elbow length in front and also above our head; Sakyamuni Buddha is seated on the lotus; the Mahayana bodhisattvas and Theravada sangha revolve around in the four directions; the Buddha and all the bodhisattvas and sangha are facing us.
Then, in front of Sakyamuni Buddha, offer the seven-branch prayer of The Aspiration of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra ①. Visualize as you recite the verses, which is the proper way to conduct all practices that contain recitation. This is to remind us to reflect on the meaning of the verses. If we recite the verses without connecting with their meaning, it is not very helpful to our practice, just a virtuous deed.
Following this, generate strong faith in the Buddha and bodhisattvas, and supplicate to them with genuine devotion: please grant me blessings to complete the practice of the Four Dharma Seals in this sitting.
Next is the cultivation of bodhicitta, a topic we have discussed many times before. If you have been training in bodhicitta, what stage are you at? Have you already developed bodhicitta or are you still in the process? I cannot claim to have bodhicitta but I am doing the practice. Have you started? If you have started but do not see results yet, you need not worry since you can be sure of results at some point. On the other hand, if you don’t practice, you will never see any results!
Let us consider for a moment where we are exactly in our practice. After an investigation like this, some people may delight in discovering they have perfect bodhicitta; some may regret they have not started to practice bodhicitta; some may know with certainty they are in the process of cultivating bodhicitta. Regardless, we should all work towards this goal. Those of you who are not practicing should start right away; those who, like me, have not yet aroused bodhicitta should exert greater effort; those who already have bodhicitta can start the practice of emptiness.
In the next section, the actual practice shall be introduced.
① The Aspiration of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra – Seven-branch Prayer
1. Pay homage to all Buddhas; 2. Make extensive offerings; 3. Repent all evil deeds; 4. Rejoice in other people’s merits; 5. Request teachings from the Buddhas; 6. Implore the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to remain in the world for a long time; 7. Dedicate every merit one has accumulated to all sentient beings.