Reprinted with permission from "Zen Master Class" published by Quest Books.

Tranquility Meditation

Bodhidharma also taught an entry to the path through meditation. Contrary to the impression given by later Zen accounts of Bodhidharma, the meditation that he taught was not especially revolutionary. Rather, his approach was innovative in that he taught meditation in China at a time when less demanding forms of spiritual practice, such as giving alms, chanting texts, or copying sutras, were in vogue.

Bodhidharma did teach a special meditation technique called wall gazing, intended to free the mind from concepts. While this technique could work well for a meditator with some previous experience and practicing under guidance of a teacher, it is not a method suitable for beginners. If someone new to meditation came to Bodhidharma, we can assume that he might have initially taught one of the more basic methods to Buddhist meditation, such as tranquility meditation.

Tranquility meditation is designed to calm the mind and the body through focusing single-pointedly upon some appropriate object. You might focus on an image, such as a mental picture of the Buddha or, more commonly, you can focus on the breath. A few preliminaries can help ensure a fruitful meditation session.

First, choose a good place to meditate. Though it is possible to meditate anywhere, beginners should find a place where they are unlikely to be disturbed by noise from outside or from other parts of the house. The light should be dim, neither too bright nor too dark. If the space is too bright, the clarity of the rooms contents can be distracting; while a dark room is more conducive to sleep than to concentration. On a low table, you might place an image of the Buddha or some other holy person, along with flowers and a receptacle for burning incense. As well as creating a pleasant fragrance, incense is calming to the senses and creates an atmosphere conducive to meditation.

Various times of the day are traditionally prescribed as most suitable for meditation, such as dawn, dusk, and midnight, though people with busy working lives may not be able to adopt these times for practice. The most important thing is to fix a time that is best for you and stick to that. Changing your time for meditation every day is not conducive to regular practice, since you soon begin to find reasons why your schedule makes it impossible to do any meditation that day! It is also advisable to limit yourself to sessions of no more than thirty minutes.

The question of the best meditation posture for Westerners is open to argument. Some forms of Buddhism are quite relaxed about posture, but the Zen tradition, especially Japanese Zen, lays great stress on a formal, traditional posture. They prescribe that meditators sit with the legs locked in the full lotus pose, in which the soles are upturned and placed on top of the opposite thighs. Many meditators cannot adopt this position without pain, which would seem to defeat the whole object of meditating to calm the mind! A compromise is to sit in a more relaxed tailor posture, with the legs bent and folded in front. Sitting on a small thick cushion or a meditation stool that elevates the back will help you fold your legs more easily. It is also possible to meditate sitting upright in a chair, with your feet placed flat on the ground. Your hands should be placed palms upwards, one on top of the other, with the tips of the thumbs raised and touching to form a circle. Your shoulders should be relaxed, but your back should be held straight and upright without strain, and your head very slightly inclined forward. Your eyes should be half-closed, with your gaze directed downwards to a point about four feet in front of you. When you first sit down to meditate, spend a few minutes getting comfortable so that you feel balanced and relaxed. Breathe in and out deeply several times.

The object of tranquility meditation is focusing the mind without distraction. The easiest object of focus is the breathing process itself. It is not necessary to alter your breathing as one might in some forms of yoga. Rather, when you are sufficiently relaxed, turn your attention to the flow of your breath, focusing on the point about your upper lip where the breath enters and leaves your nostrils. Some instructions suggest that you count each cycle of inhalation and exhalation, beginning with one and counting up to ten cycles. Counting is a means of strengthening the minds focus on the breathing.

When your mind wanders away from the breathing cycle, as it surely will, gently bring it back to focus on the breathing as soon as you notice it has drifted off target. Do not become annoyed with yourself, for it is quite natural for beginners to lose their focus. Instead, just resume counting the inward and outward flow of your breath. As you make progress with this form of meditation, you may notice that your breathing becomes slower and increasingly subtle. By the time you have reached this stage, you will be able to focus on the breathing without any further need for counting.