Please find below some guidelines on how to set up a regular meditation program at your study group.
The word “meditation”, “gom” in Tibetan, means “to familiarize”. With what do we need to become familiar? We need to become familiar with positive ways of thinking and with Buddha’s explanation of reality. We need to take the time to consider deeply what the Buddha taught and determine for ourselves whether it accords with our experience or not. Meditation is used to increase the positive potentials on our mind and reduce the negative imprints.
There are two basic types of meditation: analytical meditation and placement meditation. “Analytical” meditation uses the mind’s capacity for analysis, actively pursuing a line of reasoning or establishing a visualized image in the mind. “Placement” meditation is solely a concentration practice. It enhances the mind’s ability to remain placed on a single object, allowing for increased clarity, intensity, and accuracy of perception.
Providing the opportunity for people to come together with the purpose of developing a meditation practice is a great service.
WHEN TO SCHEDULE REGULAR MEDITATION?
It is best to have a fixed time and place where the group comes together to meditate. This creates stability in the group. Most centres have found that a weekly meditation group works best on mid-week evenings, say from 7-8:30pm or on Saturday or Sunday mornings, say from 10-11:30am. Some city centres have successfully scheduled an early morning meditation period prior to the workday, if someone is committed enough to lead it!
Whatever time is set, it is extremely important to start ON TIME. If the session starts late on a regular basis, people will begin to show up late, and then later, and later. If they learn it will start with punctuality, everything runs more smoothly. It is nice to follow the meditation with tea and cookies for those who might like to stay around and socialize; however, it is not necessary.
CREATING THE SPACE:
It is important that the meditation place is clean and that preparations have been made ahead of time so that when people arrive, their mind automatically begins to relax. An altar should be set up with offerings, candles, and incense. Making offerings creates positive energy in the mind and facilitates a successful practice. It is an easy job to alternate and helps to get people involved with a sense of personal responsibility for the group. It is a good idea to refrain from idle speech in the meditation space and to keep the place quiet and peaceful.
WHO SHOULD LEAD THE SESSION?
Other than silent forms of meditation, it is best if an experienced student of meditation leads the sessions. However, if that is not possible, one option is to take a book such as How to Meditate, by Kathleen McDonald, and take turns reading out a selected guided meditation to the group. Another possibility is to use meditation tapes from courses at other centres.
If everyone is at the same level, it is very helpful to rotate leadership as when one has to lead, the mind is forced to stay focused and often the leader has the best meditation of all! This also builds skills to help others in the future. It is good to know that only rarely is it possible to satisfy everyone in terms of leadership style for guiding meditation, talking too much, not enough, etc.
WHAT TO MEDITATE ON?
There are a few different options for meditation and what you choose to do will depend on who is coming to the meditation practice and what your intention is for the group. Is it aimed at beginners only? Do you want to develop a group that progresses to more and more complex practices? Do you want to keep a simple universal session that anyone can drop into at any time? Regardless of which option you choose, it is always helpful to start with breathing meditation as this allows people to arrive mentally, helps to calm the mind and bring it to focus, and is a universal meditation that everyone can do. Start with short sessions of 5-10 minutes with breaks in between. As concentration develops, gradually lengthen your sessions as appropriate.
Some meditation practices to choose from:
Watching the breath. This is primarily a concentration practice. There are different methods of watching the breath that are used to focus the mind such as: observing the coming and going of the breath from the nostrils, or the rising and falling of the abdomen; counting to 21 inhalations of the breath (start over again when finished, or if you lose count); or using the nine-round breathing exercise.
Visualization and mantra chanting. Basic practices to begin with for a beginner’s meditation can be found in How to Meditate, by Kathleen McDonald pp.118-133. One can use the steps outlined in this text to do beginning meditations with Shakyamuni Buddha, Tara, Chenrezig, or Medicine Buddha.
Start with Shakyamuni Buddha because of its universal appeal. After a few sessions using Shakyamuni Buddha, you can alternate sessions using the other deities mentioned here.
Once people are familiar with a basic practice, you can gradually introduce them to Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s, A Daily Meditation Practice on Shakyamuni Buddha. This requires more detailed instruction since it includes: taking refuge, the four immeasurables, a seven-limbed prayer, and a mandala offering. Most people find it difficult to do all this from the beginning. You can introduce this by adding one prayer a week with explanation until you are ready to do the whole practice. A Short Daily Meditation Practice, based on the above, is a simpler version of Rinpoche’s practice text that you may use to introduce these prayers and meditations in a more basic way.
Lam-rim meditation: This is done using topics from the Lam-rim outline. Take a topic, such as “precious human rebirth”. Use analytical meditation to go through each of the points using reasoning, quotations, and instructions from your teacher, together with your personal experience. Check up on the teachings and see if your experience and reasoning contradicts or supports what has been taught. Be effortful in finding answers to your doubts.
Contemplate in this way until there arises a strong feeling of conviction in the truth of what is being taught. When this occurs, cease your active reasoning and place the mind single-pointedly on the experience that has arisen. When the force of your conviction begins to fade, return to thinking about the topic from various angles as before. To do this meditation correctly, one should make every effort to place oneself experientially into the topic rather than keeping one’s analysis theoretical. For example, place yourself in the lower realms and see if it is suffering or not!
Developing calm-abiding through placement meditation: This practice is designed to develop your power of single-pointed concentration. It is best to get instructions on how to do this practice properly. Calming the Mind, by Gen Lamrimpa, is a great start.
Walking meditation: This technique is very good to cultivate the awareness that meditation does not end when sitting ends. It is also helpful to give people’s knees a break while preserving the energy of the meditation session. You can choose a 6m (20ft.) strip of space and paces back and forth, developing mindfulness of the actions of your body and mind. Alternatively, you can choose a Lam-rim topic and during the walking period contemplate your topic of choice.
Whatever practice you choose to do, the most important thing to remember is: at the beginning -motivate well; during the meditation – keep your attention focused; and at the end – dedicate mindfully. A number of dedication prayers are listed in A Daily Meditation Practice, by Lama Zopa Rinpoche.
HELPFUL BOOKS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM:
How to Meditate, by Kathleen McDonald (FPMT Foundation Store, Wisdom Publications WP) – explains all of the above, with instruction on how to do different types of meditation. Provides guided meditations in written form.
Calming the Mind, by Gen Lamrimpa (FPMT, SL) – discusses how to develop calm-abiding (single- pointed concentration).
A Daily Meditation on Shakyamuni Buddha, by Lama Zopa Rinpoche (FPMT) – meditation practice with refuge, bodhichitta, seven-limb prayer, mandala offering, and Shakyamuni Buddha yoga meditation practice followed by a short Lam-rim prayer.
A Short Daily Meditation Practice, based on the above text with the same basic prayers presented in a more simplified format. (FPMT)
Make Your Mind an Ocean – Lama Yeshe (LYWA)
Becoming Your Own Therapist – Lama Yeshe (LYWA)
Wisdom Energy – Lama Yeshe & Lama Zopa Rinpoche (FPMT, WP) The Life Story of Milarepa – Lobsang P Lhalungpa
Reincarnation, the Boy Lama – Vicki McKenzie
Healing Anger – His Holiness the Dalai Lama (FPMT, SL)
The Awakened One: The Life of the Buddha – Sherab Choden Kohn Buddhism for Beginners – Thubten Chodron (SL)
Open Heart, Clear Mind – Thubten Chodron (FPMT, SL)
Tibetan Buddhism from the Ground Up – Alan Wallace
The Essence of Tibetan Buddhism – Lama Yeshe (LYWA)
Ego, Attachment, and Liberation – Lama Yeshe (LYWA)
The Peaceful Stillness of the Silent Mind – Lama Yeshe (LYWA)
The Wisdom of Forgiveness – The Dalai Lama
The Art of Happiness – The Dalai Lama, with Howard Cutler (SL) How to Practice – The Dalai Lama, with Jeffrey Hopkins (SL)
How to Expand Love – The Dalai Lama, with Jeffrey Hopkins (SL)
The Joy of Compassion – Lama Zopa Rinpoche (LYWA)
Making Life Meaningful – Lama Zopa Rinpoche (LYWA) Mindfulness in Plain English – Henepola Gunaratana (FPMT, WP) What is Meditation? – Rob Nairn
LAM-RIM MEDITATION GUIDES:
Wish-fulfilling Golden Sun, by Lama Zopa Rinpoche (Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archives, see http://www.LamaYeshe.com)
The Tibetan Tradition of Mental Development, by Geshe Ngawang Dphargyey (LTWA, available through Snow Lion Publications)
Lam Rim Outlines, by Ven. Karin Valham (Kopan, available through the Foundation Store)
Lam Rim Meditations, Ven. Karin Valham (Kopan, available through the Foundation Store) How to Meditate, Ven Sangye Khadro (DVD, available through the Foundation Store) Discovering Buddhism at Home; 14 modules, each with guided meditations
Meditations on Gutu Devotion, Ven Sarah Thresher (available through the Foundation Store)