Lord Buddha taught that there are two ways to meditate: like a dog or like a lion. If you throw a stick at a dog, he will chase after the stick; but if you throw a stick at a lion, the lion will chase after you. You can throw as many sticks as you like at a dog, but at a lion, only one. —Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
There are many kinds of meditation, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist. For example, lately “mindfulness meditation” is a buzzword. From Silicon Valley to inner-city elementary schools, everyone tries to become more mindful. Definitely there is a benefit to being mindful of the present moment, but is it the right meditation for you? Is that what you want?
Before we choose to practice some form of meditation, it is good to ask ourselves three questions: Why? What? and How?
“Why?” is the most important question, a real time saver. Why do I want to meditate? Meditation takes time, so it’s better not to waste time on something that won’t give us the result we are looking for. The results depend entirely on our motivation. Different motivations create different results.
When the “why?” is clear the next step is to match our aspirations with the method. What meditation do I need to practice to achieve that result?
If you want to become more calm and feel better in this lifetime, simple mindfulness meditation will do. However, this is not a Buddhist meditation.
Buddhist meditation is not separated from the Buddhist view. Buddha taught that correct meditation is the most important thing you can do to attain liberation. In Buddhism we have three vehicles, which culminate in three results. We can aspire to become an arhat, a bodhisattva or a buddha. For each aspiration, a different kind of meditation needs to be practiced. If you want to become an arhat, meditation in the Theravada tradition is a good choice because it will enable you to remove the cause of rebirth in samsara. If you want to progress on the bodhisattva path, practicing meditation in the Mahayana tradition will enhance your ability to help beings. You cannot become a bodhisattva if you practice in the Theravada tradition, nor can you become an arhat if you practice in the Mahayana tradition. Both traditions offer gradual progress, through the four stages to become an arhat, and through the ten stages to become a bodhisattva. Those practices take time and, according to scripture, may take many lifetimes. If you don’t have time to go through the stages and instead believe that you can attain your true self, become Buddha and save all beings from suffering, then Zen meditation might be the best choice for you.
When “Why?” and “What?” become clear, the next step is to find out how to do it.
Whenever humans want to learn something, even basic life skills like walking, writing or eating, we need a teacher who will give us some instruction. Meditation is not different. We can’t get results without the help from a qualified teacher. Receiving instruction might be the easiest part, but what if it was the wrong instruction or we misunderstood it? The only way to find out is to try it sincerely for some time. I’ve met many meditators who were complaining that they were not getting results in their practice. Either their motivation was not clear or they received unclear instructions, or instructions were clear but they didn’t understand them, or they haven’t created a habit of meditating regularly.
If you are reading this article the chances are that you are practicing Zen. The word Zen literally means meditation, and in Zen schools we sit meditation a lot. All the Zen schools teach how to have a correct sitting posture and how to breathe correctly. All of this is very important, but Zen is not a “body-sitting” method; it is rather a “mind-sitting” lifestyle.
In our school, Zen sitting means cutting off all attachment to thinking and returning to our before-thinking mind. “When walking, standing, sitting, lying down, speaking, being silent, moving, being still—at all times, in all places, without interruption: ‘What am I? Don’t know.’”
Don’t-know is our unmoving self-nature, and when we return to don’t-know everything becomes clear. Clarity means that our inherent wisdom starts functioning meticulously, “like the tip of a needle.”
As Sixth Patriarch said, “At the very moment when there is wisdom, then meditation exists in wisdom; at the very moment when there is meditation, then wisdom exists in meditation.” They are not two different things.
In the beginning of practice we tend to divide our time into “meditation” and “post-meditation.” It’s easier to keep don’t-know on the cushion than off the cushion, but our goal is to remove this division and practice “mind-sitting” all the time. If we keep don’t-know while walking, that is walking meditation. If we can keep it while eating, that is eating meditation. If we can keep it while washing dishes, that is working meditation. The more we meditate, the more we can keep correct situation, correct relationship and correct function. We are no longer blind dogs but keen-eyed lions, just like Buddha.
One moment of being a keen-eyed lion is better than many lifetimes of being a blind dog.