Every morning at the monastery, after morning puja and breakfast, we would have a meditation class with the Khenpo, Khenpo Tashi. He would teach us different meditation techniques and after his explanation had been translated from Tibetan into English by our translator Ellen, we would practice each one for 10-20 minutes.
Our classes were held in the monastery shrine room, a cool tile-floored room with colorful carpets woven with Tibetan patterns. We would sit cross-legged on the carpets facing a huge golden statue of Buddha (around 15 feet tall) that smiled calmly down at us through half-lidded eyes. It was framed by painted carved wood ornaments of clouds, dragons, swirls, and jewels. Incense smoke would curl from a slit in a box sitting in front of the altar and perfume the room. We would begin each class by chanting the supplication to the lamas (spiritual teachers) of the Kagyu lineage (there are four lineages in Tibetan Buddhism), asking for blessings as we strove for detachment, devotion to the lama/guru, and successful meditation in both modes of calm abiding and seeking insight for the purpose of attaining an enlightened mind. Then Khenpo Tashi would explain a technique, Ellen would translate it, we would shift towards the Buddha and adjust our postures accordingly. He would sound a singing bowl with at first with harder strikes and then progressively softer, leading us towards a more still state of mind.
First, we learned the proper posture to meditate in, so that the channels in our body were positioned accordingly so that our winds could flow throughout our body freely. This involved sitting in vajra posture–tops of your feet resting on the opposite upper thigh (or as I thought of it “extreme full lotus”), with a straight spine, chin slightly tucked, shoulders not hunched nor too pushed back, tongue resting on the back of the front teeth, eyes open slightly with the gaze “grazing the tip of the nose”, and the hands folded with the left under the right, fingertips facing the opposite wrist, thumbs touching. These seven aspects of the meditative posture are not to be held too tightly nor too loosely; the khenpo gave the metaphor of tuning a stringed instrument–too tight makes it out of tune, too loose and you can’t play.
There are two types of meditation: calm abiding meditation or stability meditation, and vipasana or insight meditation. In order to contemplate and meditate on Buddhist ideas by using conceptual, analytical thought and merging one’s mind with the object of meditation, and other techniques that are beyond me, one has to be able to sit with one’s self without following or getting attached to conceptual thoughts and develop a one-pointed focus, which you can then turn on more significant objects of meditation.
We started out by counting our breaths up to 21 (In, out, one; in, out, two). Then we did a breathing exercise where we breathed in imagining we were breathing in all the merit and goodness in the world, and exhaling our own pain and suffering. The Khenpo told us that the original exercise is to imagine breathing in the suffering and pain of all beings, and breathe out compassion and goodness into the world. The next session, he taught us about an exercise involving equalizing the self with others by realizing that everyone wants to feel joy and avoid suffering. Difficulty increased as he instructed us to imagine a particular person we disliked and imagine ourselves as that person and that person as ourselves. Then, we tried to exchange our selves by trying to cherish that person and their happiness over our own, like a mother with her child. Their happiness is your happiness, then more than your happiness. This proved most difficult of all yet the most rewarding, and left me with a feeling of love and affection–if only I could cultivate that feel towards anyone, at will. We learned about special breathing exercises to clear the stale air from our bodies and the fogginess from our minds. He instructed us to contemplate what we had learned in our dharma lesson the day before by examining each of the ten nonvirtuous actions and how they created suffering in one’s life for themselves and others. He also invited us to contemplate the faults in our mind, such as anger, greed, jealousy, and pride. This mode of thinking was relatively new to me; being so conscientious about thinking about what you’ve learned and contemplating it and how it applied to your life, staying focused on those thoughts alone, was a pretty new way of relating to knowledge and a method I want to continue to practice with everything else I learn. We also practiced focusing on an object, so we stared at the golden statue of Buddha, concentrating on its general form without getting distracted by details.
The khenpo would then lead us out of meditation by ringing the bowl softly at first, then progressively louder. We’d end the session by chanting the last part of the supplication we chanted in the beginning, with a different tune. Then we’d walk out of the shrine room into the rest of our day, our heads a little more clear and calm, ready to receive more dharma.