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Spiritual Tools Available to Us
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Spiritual Tools Available to Us (35 min.) MP3
Transcript of a talk delivered by Brother ChiSing
April 6, 2014 - Dallas, Texas

The topic I would like to share with you tonight is what are the differences between different kinds of meditations, and what is the difference between mindfulness and Zen and Vipassana and visualization and affirmation, prayer. There are very, very many different spiritual tools that we have available for us, you know? It is not just one thing, although depending on each individual, there may be one or two practices that seem to be the most helpful. The Buddha never ever actually taught one-size-fits-all as far as practices. Only several centuries later in certain countries, to simplify things, they would offer one kind of practice for everyone, but the Buddha offered so many different dozens of methods to people.

So even though what I teach may be primarily grounded in mindfulness and Zen with a little Pure Land flavor, the honest truth is that there are many, many wonderful methods that could be helpful. It just depends on you. You know, my advice is try different things and give each one a good chance, because sometimes you might not resonate with the practice the first or second time, you know? It is kind of like the first time you go to the gym, it does not feel good. In fact, I remember the first time I did that, I threw up. My personal trainer was really tough. So to give something a good chance, you need to practice it several times in different contexts.

So, for example, you might be thinking, I am always sleepy every time I meditate. Well, why don't you try doing it in the morning rather than at night? And maybe not after you are so tired after a long day. So sometimes you might be blaming the meditation for how you are feeling, but actually it all depends on the context in which you practice it. A certain time of the day might be better for you. Especially it is usually harder to meditate right after eating a big meal, so anyway, you just have to experiment.

So, as I was reflecting the last few months on different health practices, I started to realize that there are so many different kinds of wonderful practices that are helpful. I don't have time to go over all of them, but I've categorized them into about 12 main kinds of practices, and all those 12, I also have categorized into three primary kinds of modalities. Basically, heaven, modality of the spiritual, modalities of health and wellness, and also the physical modalities, the earth element, which is herbs, nutrition, exercise, diet, things like that. And then also the human elements of wisdom, so, you know, you can gain wisdom from your own inner wisdom, your own intuition, and also get the help of others who are trained in the health professions. They can also be helpful. So to be holistic, you want to be able to practice health practices that have all three of these, you know?

But, as far as the heaven modalities, you know, as I was thinking about it, I realized, wow. There are so many different kinds. So we have what we call meditation, right? But of course that's a big word. That is like the word diet. That could mean anything, right? But meditation is what we call our practice. But meditation has different kinds of meditation. In Buddhism, we focus primarily on Samatha and Vipassana forms of meditation—and of course Samatha and Vipassana are different kinds of practice qualities in our practice that can actually be utilized in any kind of Buddhist meditation. In fact, these are ingredients of what is called the Vipassana meditation—obviously, because Vipasyana is the same thing as Vipassana. These ingredients are also in Zen. These ingredients are also in Tibetan-style practices. And these two ingredients are also in Pure Land or Amitabha practices as well. These are the two fundamental ingredients in meditation.

And so what they mean is Samatha is basically concentration and calm and centeredness. So it is the ingredient of meditation that focuses on getting to a place of calm and centeredness and concentration. However, the Buddha, in Buddha's day, there were many, many teachers at that time in India who practiced Samatha forms of calming meditations, and there were many, many forms. Anything that helps you become more calm, concentrated, centered, that is a Samatha form of meditation as well. But the Buddha's unique contribution 2,600 years ago—and now it has spread across the planet in many different traditions that also now practice this, but in his day it was kind of unique.

He added the importance of Vipassana, which basically, it means to look deeply, to understand, to gain wisdom and insight. So another way of calling Vipassana is insight meditation, and what this means is that not only should your meditation help you to be less stressed, more calm, more centered, more peaceful, more concentrated, but it should lead you to then awakening to reality as it really is, to awaken from delusion, to have insight into the nature of reality, and to gain transcendent wisdom, which then leads to liberation. So the Buddha frowned on the meditation techniques that were only focusing on Samatha because according to the Buddha, just trying to become peaceful is not really the full goal of meditation practice. Being peaceful is an important part of it, because it is hard to awaken and to have deep insight if you have chaos in your mind. So, Samatha is an important foundational aspect of our practice, which then hopefully starts to awaken us to wisdom and insight and understanding. And that understanding is what is going to actually help break us from our delusions and our suffering and liberate us. Without the wisdom and understanding, you are just a blissed out ninny.

Now, over the centuries, different Buddhist monks and nuns and lay practitioners have developed various ways of practicing with these two ingredients, creating many different forms of practice. Everyone has a different way, and even in the same tradition, different masters may offer a different type of technique to their students or even different techniques to different students, you know, depending on how the teacher sees that particular student may have different needs than others. Or they may just offer the same practice to everybody and hope that everyone can get something out of it.

There are different ways, but that is why there are so many different kinds of practices that have developed, because there are many, many combinations of ways that you can do Samatha and Vipassana practices. For example, some teachers, they teach through Samatha, Samatha, Samatha for several months or even years, and then maybe Vipassana will arise in some way. Some techniques try to give you a little taste of Vipassana insight right away and then the rest of your practice is to center and ground it into your life, integrating it. And then other teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh, he likes to teach both simultaneously. So while you are practicing Samatha also practice little bit of Vipassana. It is a slow process, but it does tend to make more kind students, I have noticed.

Now, certain techniques may lead you quicker to some sort of glimpse of enlightenment or quicker into some sort of experience of your true nature. Those are good techniques if that is helpful to you. However, I've noticed sometimes, because they got so quick to that, they tend to create students that are little bit more cold, distant, or arrogant, you know? It takes them a few more years to get the kind heart. But with Thich Nhat Hanh' s way, it takes longer to have these profound experiences, but it is steady as she goes, and to learn how to be kind to yourself and gentle with yourself and others as you are slowly progressing. So, who is to say which is better? Some people may need a little bit of a crack on the head to wake them up, and other people, it might be better for them to just go very gentle, steady and gentle.

And, you know, one other example of the way you can combine this differently is the Vipassana movement that Goenka is a teacher of. He called it Vipassana, but actually it is a very specific form of Vipassana. It is not the only kind, but he is the one who popularized the word in the rest of the world, so most people associate Vipassana with his form of Vipassana. But what he has done is create a 10-day experience where you can have a taste of both in a deep way. Now unfortunately, I have observed that even though this may be very profound for a certain percentage of people that actually get it, for the majority, most of them never go back to it because it is so hard. They don't ever try, and they don't know how to integrate doing this kind of practice at home by themselves. It is very hard. For a small percentage, this is a very, very effective method.

But I think from my observation, it is very difficult for the majority. And to me, what good is a practice if you only do it one time and then quit? I always say, don't do the toughest exercise form. Start with something that is fun and enjoyable that you will stick with, because what good is an exercise regime that may be really, really good, but you'll never do it? What good is that? It does not help you. So I always say, try something easier. Start with what is gentlest and doable first. So that is just me. That is my style. There are some Zen masters out there who are very, very tough, and I think some people need that.

So anyway, the way Goenka does it is he does the first few days just focusing on the breath at the nostrils, feeling the breath. This is a very deep kind of Samatha practice of concentration, and then once you get into that deep peace and present moment concentration and centeredness, then the rest of the time, he focuses—helps you to focus on just being with the sensations. And his kind of mindfulness is to gain insights through the sensation. Now, are sensations the only way of gaining insight? No. But that is the particular way he prefers in his technique. And then on the last day, he does more of a specific metta lovingkindness practice.

Traditionally, metta or maitri, which means lovingkindness, is considered a Samatha practice, but metta is such an important aspect that I kind of like to think of it as a third category of our practice, because it is so important to remember that lovingkindness, compassion is really a fundamental aspect of our practice. Not just peace and not just insight, but also love. So he does offer the metta on the last day. But see, people like Thich Nhat Hanh, he offers metta as part of the whole package from day one. So as you are practicing Samatha, you are also practicing Vipassana, and you are also practicing metta. It is like this grandfatherly, grandmotherly kind of approach to the practice. That is the thing about different kinds of teachers. Many times the practice, the teachings are in the atmosphere of practice, and it may not be something the teacher specifically says, but because of the collective energy force field being created by everyone practicing together, it creates the effect of Samatha Vipassana metta.

Audience Member: Dharma rain.

ChiSing: Dharma rain. Kind of. Yeah. You just let it—I just soak in the dharma rain, and it just creates this force field that creates peace, wisdom, and love. But I will say, you know, some of you may know some of the experiences I've had in the past. I've had many, many wonderful experiences in this practice, where through just coming to a place of peace, I suddenly awakened to deep, deep insight into the nature of who I really am and the nature of reality as well as my heart opening—burst open to just pure love. So I already know this from my own experience that this works. So no one has to try to convince me. Hopefully you don't need to be convinced. I hope you already know that it is something real, but if you don't, then you can take my word for it, I guess. Or anyone else here. But all you have to do is just look at someone who really fully embodies this, like Thich Nhat Hanh or other spiritual practitioners. All you have to do is just see their lives and know that this is real.

Okay. So now, I also want to talk about that there are other kinds of practices similar to meditation. They maybe even call it meditation, but I would like to kind of spell out different ones. For example, I'm just going to write down a few different ones. So affirmation, visualization, prayer, contemplation, gratitude, positive memory practice. I like that. Healing memories practice, receiving guidance—you know, like channeling. Chanting practice, reciting sutras or reading practice, I guess. I will call it recitation practice. Reading or recitation. Movement meditation practices, like tai chi, qi gong, yoga, etc. Walking practice, and then ritual practices and prostration practices and incense offering. So ritual and prostration.

So these are just some possible other forms of meditation practices, not just the traditional meditation, but these are all forms of meditation as well that can be supportive of your main meditation practice of Samatha and Vipassana. So affirmation would be kind of like, "I am happy, healthy, whole in body, mind, and soul." And you can say that 108 times, because when you say that enough times, it really starts to sink in. And then of course visualization practice—some people are not visually oriented, so if you are not very good at visualizing, don't worry about it. Just do something else. But some people really do get a lot out of visualization. It seems to have a more powerful effect for their consciousness for some reason. So you know, you might visualize light shining in the center of your body. You might want to visualize the pure blue light with the lotus flower and Buddha of light sitting in the lotus flower. Those are sort of visualizations. But it is best just to keep it as simple as possible so that you don't get lost in the daydreaming, right?

So prayer is also a form of meditation. Most people misunderstand prayer. They think because of the way they may have grown up with prayer that prayer is just talking to God or just begging God or pleading with God, but actually prayer is—I like to call prayer communion because it is really just a process of connecting to your deepest true self. You might call that God. You might call it Buddha nature. You might call it infinite spirit, Universal Presence, just reality as it really is. You know, it is a way of deeply communing and connecting to that center of who you really are and the source of who you really are, and you can do that in many ways. There are many forms of prayer. You can use words. You can use silence. You can just breathe. I mean, really, meditation is a form of prayer, and prayer is a form of meditation. And the way I like to explain it to people who come from maybe a Christian background is I like to talk about it—this is simplified, but prayer and meditation relate like this.

The whole process is really called communion. You might call it communion with God. But, the communion is what you are really going to practice. Prayer and meditation help you with that communion. And prayer is sort of like you might call it prayer as a more external form of meditation, and meditation as a more internal form of prayer, if you want to think of it that way. Another simplified way of saying it might be prayer is talking to God and meditation is listening to God, you know? But unfortunately, most people in the world are always constantly talking to God and never listening. That's why we're in a mess. But anyway, I think we are missing the meditation part. We are missing the listening part, you know?

So, anyway, most people think of prayer using words, and that is fine, but as you practice prayer, as it goes deeper, prayer becomes subtle and inward and just being, and you might call it meditation. And of course, meditation, you usually associate with silence, but actually, there are very many forms of meditation that are not silent where you use words and things like that. So honestly, there is no difference between prayer and meditation, but to help people kind of distinguish, it is sometimes helpful to say it this way.

So contemplation is to reflect on a topic, so one form in Christianity was to take this scripture and to just say it to yourself silently in your mind over and over again until insight arises or a message from the spirit comes to you based on that. So that is the contemplation practice. Another form of contemplation practice in Buddhism, for example, would be—it would be a form of Vipassana because you would then bring your mindfulness to reflect on impermanence or nonself or suffering or nirvana or some major topic, and you allow your deeper mind to rest in it until insight flowers. That kind of contemplation is not so much from your analytical left brain kind of surface mind. It is a deeper feeling mind, where it is more intuitive, so it is not like, okay, I have to think about enlightenment. I have to know how I am supposed to get enlightened. It is not like that.

It is like you let go, don't worry about all that, and you just rest in the presence of the present moment and allow the wisdom to arise at its right time. Like a flower, sometimes you don't know when it is going to blossom, but all of a sudden, it flowers. Or you know, a fruit tree, all of a sudden, at some point, you don't know the exact day it will happen, but it may produce a fruit, you know? So you don't need to stare at the tree and think, okay. You need to produce right now. That is not how insight arises. Well, some kind of insight might arise from that practice, but I don't think it is enlightened, right? But no. You don't need to strangle wisdom out of yourself. You just allow it to blossom in its own right time.

Now, another form of practice is gratitude, which is very, very powerful because it is a way of contemplating what is good and beautiful and true in our lives. Because a lot of times—see, we are practicing contemplation all the time. But most of the time, we are contemplating what is negative, what is not going right, what is wrong with me and everyone else. So we need to counteract that contemplation with a deliberate, conscious contemplation on gratitude. You know? So at least once a week, take a few minutes and just say it out loud or write it in a journal everything that is going great or at least everything that is not going bad this week to help remind you to counteract the negative thinking.

Now another practice I sometimes like is positive memory practice, and HeartMath sometimes uses this in their meditation. So, let's say you're going to do a meditation but before you do that, if you could do a preliminary practice like this just to remember a positive memory of a place in nature that you felt so happy and so peaceful and you felt so much love and beauty of the universe. Remember that. Be with that for maybe three minutes, and then let go of the memory and go into your meditation practice of the breath and everything. But keep that feeling. And that can add a more positive feeling tone to your meditation and it also helps you with that gentle smile that is part of your practice.

Now, another form of meditation is to feel the memories, and there are different ways you can do this. Thich Nhat Hanh has certain techniques that he does with some of his students on how to heal memories, like contemplating mindfully yourself as a 5-year-old child and giving yourself the love that maybe you didn't always fully receive, and if you have a lot of unforgiveness towards someone in your past, you go into the past and visualize your mother or your father as a 5-year-old child, and you start seeing that all of the suffering that they caused you was because they were caused suffering. You know? I mean, no one wants to just cause people suffering. It doesn't come out of the blue. It is usually because they inherited that. It came down many generations of ancestral suffering, so that can also be very helpful, to heal yourself in the past.

And then of course, there are different kinds of meditation, where you can also just be open to receiving guidance, to receive—you know, if you are contemplating something that you just need to know the answer to and you want to get guidance on it, well, you can practice in such a way that you receive guidance. But I recommend that you do your mindfulness and concentration and that kind of practice first because when your mind is more focused and concentrated and open to insights, then you're much more likely to receive guidance. But if you're trying to receive guidance right away without doing any practices, it is harder to receive real guidance, and even if you do receive it, it is muddled, because you can't tell the difference between ego talking to you or your true self talking to you or whatever other thoughts. Yeah?

Audience Member: ChiSing, can you receive guidance in a gentle way you were talking about before, like just allowing?

ChiSing: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I mean, you can also receive guidance in a more direct way, but allowing is a little bit more of a sure way, I think. Everyone has a different circumstance. Sometimes you need guidance right now, life or death, right? Sometimes you need it right away and you don't have time to like meditate now for 20 minutes. Sometimes you just have to be in that moment and just be receptive to guidance, and I do believe that we always have help and support and guidance available to us.

Audience Member: I have a question about that too. I thought that—for some reason, when I read receiving guidance, I was looking at that as guided meditation.

ChiSing: Oh. Yes. That is a good one. Guided meditation. Okay. Yes. That is not what I meant, but that is good to remember that any of these could be guided. There are so many guided meditations out there. Some are better than others. You just have to kind of decide for yourself which is better. But I will tell you, if the CD that you listen to, the person talks the whole entire time, you might want to try one where they don't talk so much, because what that does is it keeps you in your cerebral kind of left brain. It does not allow you enough space to go to the deeper mind, right? So maybe a better guided meditation would be someone speaks a little bit and then it is silent, speaks and then is silent. More like that might be better. But anyway, there are so many good ones out there by so many Buddhist meditation teachers now. You can even get free ones on YouTube. And one of these days, Cornell and I are going to create a guided meditation CD for you guys. I just don't know when yet. We may have them by next year.

Audience Member: Make one for children.

ChiSing: Oh, and one for children. That is a good idea. All right. Great. I will have to be really creative with that. I will have to receive guidance on that one. Okay. And then chanting practice is a very powerful practice. A lot of times if you would add chanting practices as part of your mindfulness regimen, it actually can make your sitting meditation practice a lot more—I don't know. It may make it—I don't want to say more effective, because I don't think that you should think about your meditation as effective or not effective, but I don't know what else to call it. It can support your meditation practice. It can be a way of getting your mind concentrated, and then when you sit in silence after that—so chanting practice is very powerful, too.

And then a very traditional Buddhist practice in China is recitation practice, which is chanting the teachings of the Buddha or the sutras for a long time, just read it out loud in a chant. Now Chinese chanting is so beautiful, and unfortunately, I don't think there is anything—I don't know how I could do it the way they do it in Chinese, because in Chinese they have the pentatonic scale with five different notes. But the thing about the pentatonic scale is that you can sing all five notes, and it does not create chaos. It creates a very beautiful melodic harmony. So in Chinese chanting, they can just chant and create a melody on their own while other hundreds of people are also creating their own melody based on these five, and it just blends together. So, (sings) da, da, da, da, da. You know? Namo amitabhaya. Amitabhaya. And someone will sing a different melody, and it just blends, and it creates this beautiful sound in the room, and it is just amazing. But I've only found that in Chinese chanting. I hope someday we can figure out a way to do it in English also.

Bobbie: ChiSing, the kirtan that we had last night, even though it was not Chinese or even Buddhist, it still has a way of doing exactly what you said, just getting you in this zone to prepare you for silence.

ChiSing: That is right.

Bobbie: We did it 10 minutes, and we chanted a lot, and then there was 10 minutes of break.

ChiSing: Movement meditation, like qi gong, yoga, walking meditation, some people really need to do more movement practice because they have so much energy in their body. They need to help to just clear things out, and then it will be easier for them to do sitting practice. So don't feel discouraged if sitting is difficult to do. Just do movement practices until your body has let go of a lot and you can really settle down.

And then of course, ritual practices, prostration practices, incense offering—I mean—now, I am not lighting incense anymore primarily because of my nasal passages and everything, and smoke is actually carcinogenic and toxic to a degree, so I always leave a stick of incense always eternally lit. I keep it symbolically. So it is there, you know. And of course the true incense is the influence of our heart. Sincerity is our incense, so—but for those who do not feel that incense is a problem for you, many times when you have a certain smell—it could be incense, or it could be aromatherapy—when you smell that every time you meditate, it associates meditation with that smell, and many times if you just have that smell, it gets you into that mind space right away. So, you know, you might want to try a ritual or incense or smell—you know, doing a certain routine or a ritual helps get you in the mood. That is why I always tell people, "Make an altar at home that you can bow to before you practice." Yes?

Audience Member: I've got a question. A friend of mine is a Buddhist practitioner. He has oranges on his altar that he says is an offering. I mean, is there any—I didn't go any deeper than just asking…

ChiSing: Yeah. Right. Right. This is not in original Buddhism, but it was a later development in Chinese Buddhism, and then it kind of caught on to—you know.

Audience Member: Yeah. He is Vietnamese. So I thought maybe that was something in his culture.

ChiSing: Yeah. Chinese and Vietnamese and Korean and Japanese, they all offer—they like to offer fruits on the altar, but there are certain things that people like to offer symbolically. Incense, flowers, fruit. Well, incense is a symbol of the sincerity of our heart and our prayers going up into the heavens. Flowers is a symbol of the fragrance of our practice permeating all beings, and the fruits—fruit—doesn't have to be oranges. It can be any kind of fruit, but fruit usually is a symbol of the fruits of our practice. So as we practice meditation, may our lives bring forth fruit, the fruit of wisdom and liberation. You know. But it is just an Asian custom. And you can also have holy water on the altar, which symbolizes purity and stillness. And you can have candles on the altar, too, which symbolizes illumination, insight. And then of course most altars have a Buddha statue of some sort, and it symbolizes your true self. It is a reminder that what this guy did 2,600 years ago, you can too.

Ok. Thank you everyone for your practice and for sharing.


Transcribed by Jessica Hitch