Tibet to Tullamarine - an extraordinary life
The Venerable Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden is the founder and spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhist Society. Born in a remote part of eastern Tibet, he has been a monk since the age of seven. He is among the last of his generation to have been educated in the great traditional monastic universities of central Tibet.
After China invaded Tibet in 1959, along with more than 100,000 of his fellow Tibetans, including His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, he escaped over the Himalayas to India. In India he received the highest qualifications in Tibetan Buddhist study, including his Geshe degree. Geshe Loden was invited to Australia in 1976 to teach meditation and has lived here since then.
He lives at the Tibetan Buddhist Society's meditation centre on the edge of Melbourne, near Tullamarine airport. Geshe Loden was recently named 2011 Citizen of the Year by Hume City Council in recognition of the community and charitable work he has arranged through the Tibetan Buddhist Society.
Since I came to Australia as a refugee in 1976, the level of interest in meditation has developed continuously. Originally, in Western countries the only people who wanted to learn to meditate were a few hippies! In 2011, many people from all walks of life have read about meditation or done meditation courses. Its benefits are widely recognised by health professionals and even by governments, who understand how useful it is for general public health and wellbeing.
The Better Health website sponsored by the Victorian Department of Health says the following:
Scientific studies show that the regular practice of meditation can be a powerful healing tool. In fact, there is now clear evidence from studies of long-term meditators that meditation produces profound changes in the brain, and that recovery from some physical and emotional illnesses is assisted by the practice of meditation.(1)
The same website lists among the broader benefits of meditation: improved physical, emotional and mental health, focused and clear thinking, better emotional balance, greater relaxation and ease, and increased satisfaction in life.
For Tibetans, who have been practising meditation for over 1000 years, this is not news! But while regular meditation can improve the quality of our daily life, its benefits go much deeper. Through meditation we can change, at the most fundamental level, the way we see things, the way we respond to things, and even our most deeply ingrained habits, fears and inclinations.
Changing who we are
We all have some positive personality attributes, and some shortcomings - things we would like to change about ourselves. Try to imagine the sort of person we would ideally like to be. For example, we might like to always stay calm whatever the situation, always judge clearly the best thing to do when faced with choices in life, or when we meet other people with problems, know exactly how to help them.
Whatever sort of person we would like to be, and whatever qualities we wish for, there is no question that we can achieve those things through meditation. Because, through meditation we can completely shape our future experience. There is no limit to the happiness we can achieve if we practise meditation properly.
Happiness and the mind
Why is meditation so powerful? It is not because it uses some magical force or mysterious energy! Meditation can change our experience profoundly because it works directly on the mind. Whether we are a calm or anxious person depends on our mind; whether we are clear or confused about our life depends on our mind; fundamentally, whether we are generally happy or not depends on our mind.
Developing this recognition is very useful. Why? Because if we reflect, we can easily see that every living being has a common wish - to experience more happiness and reduce any experience of difficulty or suffering. There is no person in the universe who wants more difficulty, more problems - sickness, hunger, poverty, conflict and so on. Furthermore, this wish to experience more and more happiness is with us every moment of our waking lives. We always try to get closer to people or things we think will bring us more enjoyment and to distance ourselves from situations we find unpleasant - even minor ones, like being stuck in a traffic jam.
According to Buddhist psychology, this basic impulse is a characteristic feature of our mind. Until we have become a truly extraordinary meditator, we will see everything we experience through this framework.
Where does happiness come from?
If we are all always looking for happiness it is very important to understand where happiness really comes from. That way, we can move in the direction of happiness. For example, if we travel to the north looking for the cause of happiness and the cause of happiness is actually in the south, then we will be wasting our time!
There are two main possibilities for the source of happiness. The first is that happiness comes from external things such as pleasant people, wealth, beautiful places or objects. The second possibility is that happiness comes from an internal source, namely the mind.
If we check up it is easy to see that the mind is the main cause of our happiness. There are many cases of people who have great material wealth, but whose lives are not happy. Princess Diana's tragic life is an example. On their wedding day people often regard their new husband or wife as almost perfect, the best person in the world; they imagine spending the rest of their lives happily with that person. But in Western countries about 40 per cent of marriages end in divorce. Most Western people never have to worry about finding a place to sleep each night, or wonder whether they will have a meal today.
Compared to most human beings they have great comfort and wealth. But still we know that problems like depression, anxiety and mental illness are common in the West. If external conditions were the main cause of happiness, then people in Western countries should be very happy most of the time.
On the other hand, we all know of people who have great hardship in their lives, but remain happy, strong and positive about their situation. Examples are Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for many years, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet who, with thousands of other refugees, had to leave his home, his country and his possessions after China invaded Tibet in 1959.
In one family we can have one child who is naturally very happy and gentle, and another who is generally dissatisfied and insensitive to others. Their family conditions may be very similar, but the difference in the way they respond to the world, and their relationships with others, comes from their mind.
It is useful to reflect on examples like this and notice similar cases within our own family, workplace and community - and in the events of our own life. If we do this, we become convinced: whether we are happy or not, mainly depends on our mind. Mind is the boss. So if we wish to have more happiness we need to work on our mind. Meditation is the way of training our mind so we can experience greater happiness in our life.
Training the mind in happiness
The more we recognise that happiness depends on our mind, the more we realise the importance of understanding the mind. If we can see clearly through our own experience which mental states and habits lead to feelings of wellbeing, confidence and clarity, and which lead to confusion, tension and anxiety, we can begin to take control of our experience. We become more responsible human beings - more effective at benefiting ourselves and others.
Most people understand that there is a relationship between cause and effect as it applies to the body. We recognise the things we can do to support our physical health - proper exercise, regular sleeping habits, a balanced diet and so on. The same principle applies to our mind. We cannot experience more happiness, peace and clarity unless we have created the causes for these experiences. If our mind is always full of agitation, dissatisfaction, anxiety and resentment, those are the habits we reinforce moment by moment. We are effectively training our mind in unhappiness. We don't want that! It is a much better use of our time to train our mind in habits that will make our lives happier and easier.
Through meditation we train our mind to be stronger, clearer, more stable and happier.
How does meditation work?
There are many different meditation methods. However, there are two main types - single pointed meditation and analytical meditation.
Single pointed meditation is probably the type of meditation that is more commonly understood. Through this method we still the mind, bringing it to rest on a single object of concentration. It is useful for making the mind more calm, stable and focused, and for developing deeper insight. A common type of single pointed meditation practice is breathing meditation, where the meditation object is our own breathing.
With analytical meditation, we can reflect on a series of meaningful objects.
One use of analytical meditation is to develop a better understanding of something. For example, suppose we wish to investigate the mind of anger, and understand if it is useful or not. Using analytical meditation we can reflect on cases where we have been very angry in our own life, or where others have been angry. We reflect on how anger felt in our own experience - was it comfortable or not? How does it affect our relationships with others? If we know others who are habitually angry - people in our workplace perhaps - how do we and others see them? Do we enjoy being with them when they are angry, or not? Through this type of meditation we gain a clearer understanding of what anger is and what its consequences are. If anger arises in our mind in future, we are less inclined to follow it without thinking. We can stand back and exercise more choice in responding to the situation.
Another use of analytical meditation is to help generate positive states of mind. Suppose we wish to develop our qualities of compassion for example. Buddhism defines compassion as the mind wishing to remove the suffering of others. We can develop compassion using analytical meditation by reflecting on a person we are close to who has experienced, or is experiencing, difficulties. Reflecting on the person's situation, how dear they are to us, and their past kindness to us, it is easy to develop a strong wish to remove their suffering.
Using analytical meditation, over time we can extend our compassion to wider and wider groups of people and other living beings. By practising like this, step by step, we can develop the extraordinary mind of great compassion - the wish that every living being, without exception, whether our dearest friend, worst enemy, or complete stranger, be free of suffering. If we can imagine what our day-to-day experience would be like if we genuinely felt this way about everybody we met - fellow commuters on the freeway, work colleagues, our neighbours and family members - we start to understand how meditation can transform our experience completely.
How do I actually meditate?
Normally our mind is very agitated and busy - some meditators have likened it to a crazy monkey, leaping from tree to tree. Our normal uncontrolled mind is always leaping from one thought to the next - memories of pleasant or unpleasant things that have happened in the past, plans or imaginings about the future. Many beginners say that until they tried to meditate, they never realised how busy the mind normally is.
So first we need to settle our mind down. There are both physical and mental preparations that can help.
Firstly we should find a quiet, clean place to meditate. Cleaning the place before we begin helps us feel more settled.
Next we adopt a physical posture that will help our meditation. We can either sit cross-legged on a cushion on the ground, or in a chair. It is especially important to keep our back as straight as we can, while keeping our body comfortable. Otherwise our meditation will turn into sleep! Traditional meditation texts also recommend that we keep our eyes half closed if possible and that our head should be slightly tilted forward. There are other recommendations as well, but these are the main points.
To meditate effectively it is important to set a clear mental direction and motivation at the outset. Why? Because, as explained earlier, everything we do is affected by the attitude we bring to it. It is the same with meditation. We can meditate with the thought that it will help us to calm down right now, or adopt a broader perspective - thinking that our meditation is a step towards developing our mind more generally - more calmness, more clarity, more good heart and so on. The most powerful motivation is the thought that, through our meditation, we aim to perfect all of our good qualities completely, so we can bring the experience of lasting, pure happiness to both ourselves and all others. It may be difficult to generate a heartfelt motivation like this at first, but thinking this way whenever we meditate creates a very positive habit that becomes stronger over time.
With our motivation established, we can turn to the actual meditation. Taking single pointed meditation on the breath as an example, we gently withdraw our focus from the various types of sense object - sights, sounds etc - and allow our attention to settle naturally on our breath. We breathe normally, with the mind merely observing the process. Especially at the beginning, our crazy monkey mind will wander quite quickly to other thoughts. We should watch out for the crazy monkey, and when we find our attention has wandered, put the monkey on the leash and place our attention again on the breath. It is important not to be discouraged or to push too hard. We should gently restore our attention to the breath, however many times it takes. Just making some effort to do this, even if our mind seems distracted most of the time, is extremely useful. As we become more experienced we get better at identifying the obstacles to stable concentration, such as agitation or mental dullness, and more skilled at dealing with them as they come up in our meditation session.
It is important to be relaxed, patient and persistent. We should not try to meditate for too long as beginners, but if we decide to meditate for say 20 minutes, then we should see the meditation session through to the end, even if we feel very agitated or sleepy. To see the real benefits of meditation we need to do it regularly - ideally each day - for a period of time. If possible, it helps to meditate at the same time and place each day.
At the end of the session we should again reflect on our motivation - the reason we are meditating - and dedicate the time and effort we have put into the session to a positive purpose, such as being able in future to benefit ourselves and others perfectly.
Developing our mind
If we practise meditation sincerely and persistently we will definitely begin to notice changes in our experience - more calmness, more clarity, more mental space.
As we look to our future and ask ourselves, 'How do I come closer to being the person I would really like to be in this life?', the answer is to train our mind in greater calmness, clarity and open-heartedness, by using meditation.