Buddhism was founded by the Buddha Shakyamuni who lived in India in around the 5th/ 4th centuries before the Common Era (C.E.).
Through a thorough commitment to practice he became fully enlightened at the age of 36 and then spent the next 45 years or so teaching others how to do the same.
It is a spiritual path for leaving behind the repetitive unsatisfactory experiences (in Sanskrit: Samsara) that come about when the mind is dominated by or prone to anger, clinging and ignorance. It is a spiritual path for experiencing life free of those crippling mental tendencies, to awaken (in Sanskrit: Bodhi).
Over its around 2,500 years of existence it has taken on many different cultural forms and aspects. At its core it is a system for developing the social skills of unbounded love, compassion and joy and the wisdom that sees the reality of any given situation free from superstition, prejudice or bias so as to be able to act in the most beneficial way.
The Tibetan form of Buddhism is a Mahayana form of Buddhism and within that a Tantra Mahayana form of Buddhism.
What that means is that idea of the Bodhisattva – some devoted to helping others and willing to work for however long it takes to become fully enlightened so as to be best able to do that in the most appropriate ways – is the inspiring heroic ideal that motivates Mahayana Buddhists.
A practitioner of Tantra Mahayana is someone who, motivated by that ideal, seeks to continuously model the attitude, understanding and behaviour of a fully enlightened being to speed up the process of becoming enlightened. This requires a strong healthy mind and a healthy sense of self in addition to the guidance of a qualified teacher as anything else has fairly clear psychological risks attached.
The Tibetan form of Mahayana Tantra Buddhism has its roots mainly in the Buddhism of late Medieval India (7th – 12th centuries C.E.), though it also has practices that have come through Central Asian, Chinese and Korean Buddhism. In Tibet four main styles of practice developed: the Nyingma, the Sakya, The Kagyu and the Geluk (which came out of the Kadam).
At the more refined end of philosophy and in the more subtle aspects of practice there are a number of differences between them but at the level of the beginner there is far more in common than not.
The Buddhist path emphasises the use of meditation as a key tool to help make the mind stronger, more gentle and more wise. Meditation in Tibetan Buddhism is not about just clearing the mind but about using the space of meditation to break the power of bad habits and develop new more beneficial ones.
The Geluk school, the source for the FPMT and Jamyang, encourages those who can to study broadly and deeply to enhance the richness of their meditation practice.
But it also recognises that such a way of practice is not for everyone and prides itself on carrying a truly vast array of practices suited to different people at different stages in their spiritual development.
– An FPMT documentary.
What is Meditation?
The mind is fundamentally pliable and it is possible to significantly improve one’s self awareness and positive emotions. We are not bound by the opinions we have about ourselves nor are we obliged to behave in predetermined ways. Ultimately we can free our minds from all incorrect views about who and what we are and enhance our positive emotions of loving kindness and compassion.
In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition this is done by a combination of positive engagement with the world based on developing the mind through meditation (in both its placement and analytical aspects) and through study/ learning.
One of the popular etymologies of the Tibetan word ‘gom’ that is usually translated as ‘meditation’ is to link it to the Tibetan verb that means to familiarise (it sounds the same ‘gom’ but is spelt differently). So what do we become familiar with? In the first place we need to become familiar with what is going on in our minds. In order to do this we need to step back from our close involvement with mental activity and just observe. In doing this we will slowly bring stability to our minds. At its simplest level this can be a great way to recharge our mental batteries but we like to take this one step further.
The Sanskrit word ‘Bhavana’ which the Tibetans translated using their word ‘gom’ emphasises more the production of something new, of bringing something about. Both ‘gom’ and ‘bhavana’ neatly show what we are trying to do in meditation.
There are two related practices that lead you in this direction:
Placement meditation, which as a meditative training is known as Shamata or Calm Abiding, and analytical meditation, which as a meditative training is also known as Vipassana or Insight meditation.
We can regard these as a foundation level for our meditation practice.
As we become less caught up in our mental world then we can start to develop our positive emotions by practising a range of meditations in the Tibetan tradition that are aimed at developing a caring and loving emotional base for our activities. The aim here is to develop a deep compassion for other beings based on a strong understanding of the realities of unenlightened existence and its problems.
We want to develop a whole new emotional ground that is called Bodhicitta. In the Tibetan tradition, for those who are ready to move to that stage of practice, we use the mind of Bodhicitta and the wisdom gained through insight meditation to enter the path of Vajrayana – deity yoga.
Here the meditator models the enlightened state by visualising himself or herself, firstly in the presence of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and then by adopting the knowledge emotional well-being appearance and behaviour of an enlightened being.