This article was published in issue # 29 | Spring-Summer 2012
In the last issue of Buddhism Today there was an article by Hannah Nydahl on meditation, which was a transcription of a talk that she gave in San Francisco in 2002. That talk was followed by a question and answer session, which is presented here. Special thanks to Detlev Göbel for providing us with this text.
You said that it is good to start with calming the mind. Why is shinay not usually emphasized?
Hannah Nydahl: It is. That’s why I told you where it is found in our practices. Even when you do your first Refuge meditation, you are also doing shinay, because you are focusing on the buddhas in front of you. They are the object of your concentration. That is also shinay.
But we don’t emphasize the shinay with concentration on the breath, do we?
At the beginning of every practice, we concentrate on the breath just a few times. But what I was trying to explain is that all the meditation practices that the Buddha gave have these two aspects; they are either shinay or lhaktong, or both, no matter what they are called.
For example, there are shinay methods that you call shinay, but in tantra, the meditations on the buddha aspects are identical with shinay. The building-up phase (Tib. kyerim) where you focus on the forms, and on the mantra—that is also shinay.
In the completion phase of the Guru Yoga meditation on the 16th Karmapa, everything dissolves, unlike in Prostrations and Diamond Mind in the Ngöndro. What’s the difference?
During both the Prostrations and Diamond Mind practices in the Ngondro, you are not working with insight very much yet. The completion phase is more of a blessing here. You don’t go deeper into it at that point; that comes later.
So you don’t meditate on emptiness while doing the Ngöndro?
Naturally, it takes a while before you can do it, so this is not emphasized during Ngondro. That is also the reason for that order of practices: you start with the Prostrations and then you do Diamond Mind because they are very skillful methods to clear your mind so that you can actually experience and understand more about the ultimate nature of emptiness.
It is very individual. The plan is the same for everybody, but then it is individual when and what ripens in your practice. The level at which one has experiences in meditation is also individual. Also how to use the meditations is individual: some people prefer and are very good at focusing on the forms, colors and so on, and other people prefer other aspects of the meditation. Nothing about this is good or bad, they are just different habits of mind.
You don’t meditate on emptiness immediately, but to have some kind of idea of what emptiness means is an important part of Buddhist practice because that is the liberating aspect of our practice. That is what makes Buddhism so special. Even before one has an experience of emptiness, it is part of the practice just to get used to the idea of it.
But it is something very subtle; you should not solidify your idea of emptiness. And it is something you should not experiment with too much on your own. You need some authentic instruction about it, instead of trying to figure it out and making guesses about it. If you have any ideas about it, it is important to check them. Emptiness is not something that one is used to; we don’t learn it in school. It’s subtle and can be tricky.
Once you start to work with meditations on Buddha aspects, you are always told that it is important that you don’t imagine these forms as being real or consisting of flesh and blood. You have to bring this understanding of emptiness into the meditation because if you meditate without any understanding of it and just imagine some “body” out there, then you have missed the point, namely that it is a form of energy and light.
What can you do if you get very drowsy right before you start the meditation?
And if there is a good movie playing next door, then you wake up completely? (Hannah laughs)
That is just how the habits work. It is typical, and I’m sure you are not the only one. You need patience and just go through it. You have to be a little forceful here. In the actual meditation you are not forceful, but with this kind of syndrome you have to just break it like any habit. Every time you manage to break it, the next time it is easier to handle.
Drowsiness during the meditation is something else. When your mind learns to focus it will react by either getting drowsy or over-excited. You can’t avoid that reaction in the beginning. That’s why you have to keep the concentrationphase short, interrupt it often and don’t allow these states to stay too long. If you don’t interrupt it, but instead dwell in a drowsy or agitated state, then it doesn’t bring anything.
I stop meditating every time I get drowsy or my mind starts to spin. It is very rare that it doesn’t happen.
You don’t stop the meditation, but you cut that state. Depending on how long you have been sitting, you just cut through for a moment, don’t think about anything specific, and then you bring your mind back to the meditation. When you get a little more used to the practice and do longer sessions, then you also cut while it still feels okay. That is a trick for working with mind: if you cut before you lose concentration, then afterwards the mind is happy to take it up again.
When doing shinay focusing on breath, do you do it with your eyes half-way closed or totally closed? And what about the rest of the meditation?
For focusing on the breath, keep your eyes half open. The building-up phase is usually easier with closed eyes. During the completion phase, it is good to get used to having your eyes half open, not closed all the time. When you just sit for a moment without any reference in the mind, sometimes it’s good to have your eyes open.
I am trying in my daily life to imagine the Buddha and stay close to him. Would that be shinay in a post-meditation phase?
No, when I say that all meditations are either shinay or lhaktong—whether they are called that or something else—it concerns the meditation session. When I explain what shinay is, and all the different kinds of shinay—with or without object, and different kinds of mental focuses where you learn to not be distracted—and then lhaktong to realize the ultimate nature, then all of that belongs to the meditation phase.
Afterwards you have the post-meditation phase and there you cannot talk about shinay/lhaktong, because it is not the actual meditation phase. In post-meditation, you are training your awareness and your motivation. What you can do in the post-meditation phase depends completely on where you are in your development. When you have realized some ultimate nature but you are not yet fully enlightened, then you go through the different bodhisattva levels. The thing that makes the difference between these levels is how well you manage the post-meditation phase. The actual meditation at that level is the same, you already realized the nature of things. But the question is, how well can you keep that in the post-meditation? That makes the difference on all these bodhisattva levels—how well is your meditation level integrated into your post-meditation? Full enlightenment is when there is no difference anymore.
How do we train our post-meditation in Vajrayana Buddhism? Keeping the highest view?
Yes, it is the training of the highest view, but in the postmeditation one should be open for all levels. When you can, you identify with the highest level. That’s fine, if you manage. But one cannot always keep the highest level. If you could do that, you would already be there.
You have to see in every situation what works for you. If it works to just be aware of the situation, and through this awareness all problems are gone and there is no disturbing emotion and the highest wisdom is there, of course, that is the best. If that doesn’t work, then you have to try something else. (Hannah laughs)
Sometimes, for instance, it is very helpful to start to repeat a mantra, because then you immediately have a filter so that you are not totally caught. It gives you some kind of space.
Sometimes you might get into something which you just can’t manage, and then at least you have to behave. Maybe you have to walk out so that you don’t hurt somebody or don’t say or do something stupid. All the time you have to see what you can do.
Of course, keeping the highest view is very efficient because once you get that habit, a lot of difficult things are just out. They cannot stay because there is no basis and no reference for them. But you have to work with it.
Consciously developing compassion is a very important thing. It is really important to start the day by remembering that. It doesn’t have to take long, but just for a moment be aware of how many beings there are and really wish that everybody becomes free from suffering. It makes a big difference if you wish that whatever you do will benefit them somehow. Then you can start your day and whatever you do during the day is not completely wasted. Even if you have a bad day, that wish will guide you and give some benefit. Start the day with the right frame of mind and then keep as much awareness as possible. Be aware of the mind and be aware of not getting caught in one’s habits all the time.
Sometimes one has a really difficult time and just can’t manage to make it easier. When one is really down, the meditation on “giving and taking” (Tib. Tonglen) is very helpful. Then you don’t get stuck in your own little world, but get the perspective that you are not the only one who has that problem. There are billions of beings who have that same problem, and even worse than you. Then you wish that whatever you are going through should at least serve the purpose that everybody else gets free of it. Through that you transform it, so that it isn’t your little thing, your suffering anymore.
It’s good to work on many different levels, but the important thing is to do it and not to wait too long. It can easily happen that one waits too long before becoming aware that there is something to do, and then it becomes more difficult to do.
Is there a mantra or any method we can give people against their anxiety?
It depends on them. As Buddhists, it’s a big help when impermanence becomes natural. In our society we are not really taught this and so we have a difficult time dealing with impermanence and with death. This topic is either taboo or something we are afraid of.
The awareness of the impermanence of everything is extremely helpful, especially in a time like now. The impermanence of everything becomes very obvious, everything is changing, also on a big scale with mass catastrophes and so on. Actually this is how things are, in their nature they don’t last. But it’s hard to be in it, as it is not something that one is familiar with. It is a hard lesson, but the earlier one learns it, the better, because then it will not hurt so much. You cannot change it, so it is better to learn to handle it.
One learns that it doesn’t have to be a tragedy; it is just the way things are. Of course, something like a murder is not good, but, in and of itself, the fact that things are impermanent is not something one needs to be afraid of. One should get used to the idea that this is just how it is. Then it isn’t so painful. The impermanence of things is also the reason that good things can happen.
It is a big topic, and I can completely understand people’s anxiety. If I didn’t have any understanding of karma, impermanence and so on, I would go crazy. If you don’t have any kind of perspective or can’t see what is really going on, it all seems totally confusing and senseless. It must be very scary. I think it is very understandable that people cannot take it.
That is another motive for our practice: compassion. It should inspire you to be able to do more for others.
We often hear about Theravada vipassana courses. What are these courses about? What is done there?
Theravada vipassana is mainly a means of training your awareness—not just focusing, but also the awareness of what you are doing. That is where they go deeper and become aware of your movements, etc. I cannot say too much about it from my own experience, but just from what I know from others and also from what I have learned about what Buddha taught in the Theravada school of Buddhism.
The main Theravada insight is the understanding of the selflessness, that ego does not exist. Once you realize that, you are not in samsara any more. This is the way the Theravadins become liberated: by realizing that there is no real existing person.
They also have an analytical practice for that. But I think that the vipassana courses that you hear about, these ten-day courses, don’t go so much into the philosophy, as far as I know.
The realization of this school is that there is no real person. In the Mahayana and Vajrayana one also needs to realize that. But the additional thing in Mahayana and Vajrayana is that you also focus on the outer world and come to see that it does not have an independent existence either. Everything comes together through a lot of causes and conditions; nothing exists in itself without any other cause, and because of that everything is dynamic. If things had an independent existence in themselves, they would be static. Either nothing would be there, or everything would be there forever, which is obviously not the case. It is this quality—we call it emptiness—that things are not statically and independently existing, that makes it possible for everything to happen.
With unenlightened “normal” perception, one is not aware of that. In our interactions with ourselves and other people and everything that happens, we have a habit of taking everything as being very real. That is why we have problems.
The meditations change that habit in the mind, but we can do it only step by step. When the result comes, then the concepts, this basic delusion or ignorance, are gone. That is what happens in the lhaktong meditation, but it does not happen in the shinay. You can have a very good shinay meditation, but with a wrong view, and there is no conflict. You can even attain miraculous powers through the shinay meditation but still not be enlightened. For this reason, miracles are never emphasized. They can be tricky. Of course, enlightened beings can do anything. But this fact is never emphasized so as not to make people think that being able to perform miracles means you are enlightened.
What’s the importance of an uninterrupted transmission of the Mahamudra?
Mahamudra is the main transmission of the Kagyu lineage. Of course, the result of Mahamudra is realization, and you get the same result in any practice in all the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism. In Nyingma, for instance, it is called Dzogchen. They call things differently in different schools, but the ultimate teachings are the same. The approach is different, what you emphasize to get to the ultimate realization is different, and the transmissions from the teachers are different. But the ultimate nature that is realized is the same, of course.
The important thing is that whichever transmission you are in, it has to be authentic, never interrupted, and you have to get it. In Tibet, they preserved Buddhism for a long time very well. First, they were able to translate everything from Sanskrit, which is a lot. There are even texts in Tibetan that don’t exist in Sanskrit anymore. That transmission was complete. Also, the transmission of the tantras is complete: every tantra you get today has been transmitted, otherwise it would have died out. The Rime-Movement of the first Jamgon Kongtrul with Chokgyur Lingpa and others, four teachers in all, did a very large job. There were some transmissions about to disappear and these teachers managed to save a lot of them. Then the teachings could continue and today we can get them.
Buddhism is quite new in the West, maximum 30 years. There was some Buddhism in Europe before, but not so much. Practice in the modern world has existed for only a very short time. Even in this short time, it has been very difficult to keep things authentic, because things are easily changed completely. You have to be very careful to keep the authenticity even within such a short time period. We are in a process where we are trying to make Buddhism relevant for people, and at the same time it has to be kept authentic. Also, the process of transmitting it to different cultures and still keeping the essence there is not an easy job.
Within this short time frame, we have been confronted with this problem again and again. It is quite something that they actually managed to keep it in Tibet for hundreds of years. It worked there simply because there were enough people who really got the results, who got realizations. They saved the transmissions, and that’s the challenge for us. The transmission is what needs to be saved. Once it is saved, then the benefit is there.
Of course there will never be many who manage that. Also in Tibet they were not many; it will always be very, very few. But it is necessary that there are at least some. When the transmission is there, is still authentic and can be used, then everybody can get the benefit. Right now we all are getting the benefit, because it is still there. We still get the benefit of what all the others did before.