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.

When you have finished your meditation session, do not suddenly jump up and rush off into the turmoil of your daily life. Buddhists believe that any wholesome activity, such as meditation, generates a charge of positive energy. This energy can be shared with others for their benefit. Consequently, at the end of your meditation session, you might express your desire that the positive energy you have accumulated through practice might be transferred to others.

The simple instructions given here can help you get started on a meditation practice. Its important to remember, however, that meditation is a powerful tool for change. Because it acts upon the mind, it may bring up complex emotions and long-forgotten or suppressed memories. Thus it is a good idea to seek out a Buddhist group or arrange for access to a qualified meditation teacher who can advise and encourage you appropriately as you venture into the unknown and sometimes disturbing territory that is your own mind.

(Stephen Hodge talks more about tranquility meditation in this interview.)

Reciting Mantras

Apart from the use of similar symbolic imagery, Zen and esoteric Buddhism have more in common than one might think at first glance. Both share a strong belief in the possibility of achieving Enlightenment in the present lifetime. Both stress the importance of a direct personal transmission of Buddhas wisdom from an accomplished master. Certain remarkable similarities can also be seen in the meditation techniques practices by these two schools.

Zen Masters are famous for assigning their students to meditate on a kind of insoluble mind puzzle known as a koan. Though it seems on the surface to be quite different, the recitation of a mantra, a verbal formula associated with some aspect of universal Buddha-mind, a practice common in esoteric Buddhism, serves a similar purpose. The literal meaning of a mantra is less important than the way it acts as a channel opening us to our inherent Buddha-nature. The same is true of a koan, whose meaning or answer is obscure at best. Both techniques serve to shut down the discursive mind with its negative emotions and thoughts so that the radiance of the Illuminating Buddha, Vairocana, can be revealed.

Like other Zen Masters of the Tang Dynasty, Yixing was a free-thinking seeker who borrowed methods and doctrines, ideas, and techniques from other forms of Buddhism as he saw fit. From his contact with his Indian teachers Vajrabodhi and Shubhakarasimha, Yixing would have learned about mantra recitation. Let us look at two mantra practices with which Yixing would have been familiar, both of which have been used by later Zen practitioners down to modern times.

The most basic mantra is the letter sound A (pronounced Ah) which Buddhist masters have taught is a manifestation of the unborn nature of phenomena in other words, Enlightenment itself. The way to use this mantra in meditation practice is quite simple. After settling yourself comfortably in a meditation posture, focus on your breathing for a short time by counting the cycles of inhalation and exhalation as you have learned. Then quietly intone the sound Ah to yourself, excluding all other thoughts from your mind. If you shut your eyes while you are doing this, you can also try to visualize the essence of this sound in the form of a radiant bead of white light within your mind. As you become more familiar with this technique, you can stop reciting the Ah sound aloud and just let its sound reverberate within your mind while maintaining the image of a brilliantly shining white bead of light. Though simple, this technique is very powerful. For this reason, I recommend that you consult a reliable teacher if you want to progress further using this method as it can cause undesirable effects on the unwary.

When we meditate for a long time at a stretch, we tend to get tired, and our minds wander easily. Later Zen Masters devised various ways of dealing with such obstacles, such as alternating periods of sitting with periods of walking meditation. People engaged in the practices of esoteric Buddhism are just as likely to grow tired and careless when they meditate for a long time. Traditionally they refresh and invigorate themselves using a different method, reciting mantras aloud without any accompanying visualization. You might try using a mantra in this way. This mantra I suggested is the one included in the famous Heart Sutra, a text that speaks in koan-like terms about the process of going beyond our normal habits of thinking about the world.

Here is what you do: When you notice that your meditative concentration has begun to wane, open your eyes and relax a little, perhaps unfolding your legs and resting your hands on your knees. Then begin to recite the mantra, saying it aloud. If you have a set of counting beads, you can use these to keep a tally of how many times you have repeated the mantra. I suggest a minimum of 108 times, which is one round on most strings of counting beads. Here is the mantra:


The Sanskrit words are pronounced as follows: The OM is said with the m sound coming through the nose, somewhat like the French sound on. GATE, whether alone or as part of a longer word, is pronounced gah-tay. BODHI is pronounced bo-dee. The last word, SVAHA, is pronounced swah-ha.

Though, as we have said, the meaning of a mantra is less important that its sound and energy, this mantra is thought to be a summation of the process leading to Enlightenment. It begins and ends with the untranslatable syllables OM and SVAHA, which open and close many mantras. In Sanskrit, GATE literally means gone, but it also means realize or understand. BODHI means enlightenment.

Thus the Heart Sutra mantra is popularly translated Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, Enlightenment! In other words, attain illumination by realizing or understanding your own inherent Buddha-mind.

Finding a Good Teacher

Also in Mud and Water, Bassui gave advice about finding a good teacher. He warned his followers to beware of false guides who say they teach the way to liberation, but lead instead to further enmeshment in the cycle of rebirth and its inherent suffering.

When you first set out on any spiritual quest, whether Zen or some other path, Bassui wrote, you are like a trusting infant. You are easily fooled by persuasive words, promises, and veiled threats. You simply do not have the experience or the insight necessary to identify an authentic teacher. As an initial test of a prospective teacher, You should first clearly discern the orthodoxy of his approach. Then you should observe the teachers disciples to see whether they have benefited from the teachers instruction. A truly good teacher, Bassui wrote, does not destroy peoples insight, but he points directly to their minds showing them their true nature. Moreover, Bassui counseled, you should look at a teachers own attainments, for a good teacher is one who combines understanding and practice and has no lingering delusions . . .he has unified body and mind, equally understands meditation and the precepts, is not moved by praise or blame.

If you are lucky enough to find a teacher who displays these attributes, you still must consider whether the teachers personal style fits well with your own. It is your own personal karmic conditioning, Bassui wrote, that attracts you to some forms of teaching and repels you from others. As long as the style of the teacher you choose fits your temperament, many styles can bring results. Nor does it matter how many students your teacher has. Better a genuine teacher with a few disciples than a fake teacher with thousands!

Bassui warned that there are two types of false teachers: those who are arrogantly self-deluded and those who are cynically manipulative of others. The first type includes teachers who have some familiarity with the superficial aspects of the Dharma but have made a little personal spiritual progress. Such teachers may have convinced themselves that they are enlightened and superior to everybody else. Although what such self-deluded masters teach may be authentic Buddhism, their knowledge is imperfect as it is unsubstantiated by direct experience and so can mislead their followers. Though less common, the second type of false teacher includes those who knowingly pretend to be enlightened because they enjoy the power they have over the people they dupe; as Bassui says, They pass through this world, deceiving men and women.

How might you apply Bassuis advice to your own search for a good spiritual teacher? First, carefully check the credentials of anybody who claims to be a spiritual teacher.

Observe carefully for a while, asking yourself: Does the teachers behavior match his/her words? Is the teacher affiliated with a reputable organization or movement? What was his/her training? Has the teacher been accredited by a reputable teacher? Rather than taking the teachers word on any of these credentials, confirm them with others, if you can. Next, avoid committing yourself immediately. Take your time and watch carefully how the teacher behaves and how he/she interacts with students. Finally, and above all, use your common sense. Choosing a spiritual teacher is a bit like choosing a doctor or a dentist; its your spiritual health that is at stake!

Though Bassui does not specifically mention humor as a useful test to detect a genuine teacher, you will find that most good teachers also have a well-developed sense of humor and are not afraid of laughing at themselves on occasion.

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