Notes on Buddhist Mahayana Sitting Meditation

I complied these notes during summer 2007 at Fo Guang Shan monastery in Dachu, Taiwan. The material came from meditation classes with the monastics as well as advice given during a weeklong silent retreat. The notes are of interest to those who would like to read advice spoken by monastic practitioners. I am not an expert and do not presume to give advice, but I have elaborated where necessary. See the links for basic meditation advice. The notes are incomplete.

Contents

1 Fo Guang Shan
2 Theory
The skandhas, dropping the skandhas
3 Techniques before
A list of stretches
4 Good posture
Vairocana posture, covering knees, mindfulness
5 Techniques during
Breath work, diaphragm breathing, where to place the attention,
how to deal with stray thoughts, drowsiness and pain
6 Techniques after
Another list of stretches
7 A note on mindfulness
How to hold the body, how to keep the mind calm
8 A note on routine
9 Links

 

1. Fo Guang Shan

I took these notes at Fo Guang Shan monastery in Dachu, Taiwan, where I stayed at the Woodenfish program during July 2007.

The Fo Guang Shan order is a large, growing, international order of Buddhist monks. It is Mahayana and embraces all eight Chinese schools of Buddhism. It identifies particularly with two: the Ch'an school, for its abbot continues the Linji lineage, and the Pure Land school, since the monastics are devoted to Amidhala Buddha.

Here is the sense I have of their practice. Like all the Mahayana, Fo Guang Shan monastics believe meditation can transform the practitioner's awareness. Their particular discipline focuses on meditation of the breath at all beginner stages as well as the traditional tea meditation. They encourage the lotus posture but, remembering the koan about Mazu and Nanyue, permit any posture and appreciate any act that might be considered "meditative." Intention is more important than technique, but proper technique is often a sign of right intention. They prefer to meditate above the ground, usually on an ornate table and on a stiff square cushion. The Ch'an habit of "sitting with" koans is alive; indeed they are inclined to teach primarily through the koan or parable. They do not seem to emphasize the Indian "vipassanā" practice of alternating between sati meditation (mindfulness) and its compliment samadhi (concentration).

 

2. Theory

Our teachers emphasized benefits to the awareness. Before I relay their more practical advice, here is an overview of the benefits in theory. They never communicated the theory formally, so I am forced to write what I gathered in my own words. Much of it draws from the classical Madhyamaka.

The skandhas

Some practitioners aspire to drop the five "aggregates" or skandhas. They introduced us to the skandha theory via the Heart Sutra.

The skandhas are defined as the mental categories in which we group (or aggregate) the phenomena of experience. Just as a taxonomist groups animals into various species to make them intelligible, so we group experiences into various concepts to make them intelligible. However, the Mahayana believe there is a philosophical and spritual problem with our tendency to aggregate experience in concepts.

First, the skandhas are:

Form

The physical makeup of phenomena; the "objective" reality we mean to idenify by words such as light, supple, old, extended, etc. In their metaphysic it can also stand for the basic physical elements, written as small-d dharmas.

* Buddhist form does not refer at all to the Western philosophic term morphē, the definition of a thing as understood by the mind, though Western morphē suffers from the same problem of conceptualization.

Sensation

The means to acquire experience on form, experienced as pleasure, displeasure and neither (neutral). This sense data is mediated through six sense consciousnesses: eyes, ears, tongue, nose, skin and mind. Note the mind is considered a sense. It senses objects of thought.

Perception (or cognition)

The classification of sensations in groups called concepts. Perception or cognition groups phenomena in categories, e.g. circular or triangular.

Volition

The experience of judgment: approval, disgust, powerful, weak. "These things are good, those things are bad. I am attached to these, averse to those." Volition causes many problems: "Volition, I say, is karma."

Consciousness

Buddhists do not take our consciousness to be a permanent being in an etheral realm connected to this one, i.e. as a soul or atman. For them, consciousness is the result of contact between a sensing organ and its object of sensation, just as cake is the result of flour, sugar, eggs and heat. Consciousness ceases to exist when contact between sense and object ceases. In other words, consciousness is always a "consciousness of."

* Importantly, the existence of consciousness depends on the distinction between object and mind. This is why the sanskrit root for this skandha is vijnana or distinguishing-knowing. Consciousness, even self-consciousness, is always understood as a relation.

From what I have heard, the Buddhists disagree about whether we should "drop" the skandhas. For example, the Theravada schools regard the skandha theory as a scientifically adequate description of the world, just with the proviso that the skandhas should be experienced without clinging.

To the contrary, the Mahayana seem to understand the skandhas to be symptoms of a disease. The skandhas constitute an awareness that presupposes a distinction between self and world, for to experience something as just that something means to take it to be separate from other things and also the self. The Mahayana regard the distinction of self and world to be an illusion. For them, the skandhas are a sort of diagnosis of what it is like to be as-yet unenlightened. The most immediate symptom of our darkness is the belief that one has a self, an ego, for the ego is the epitome of the skandhas.

What dropping a skandha might look like

One monk told us a practitioner might progress by seeing through one skandha at a time. He hoped to progress down the table, form to consciousness. He said this was not the only way.

I paraphrase: "A strong focus on the object of concentration often causes weaker awareness of the physical body. Rather than sensing 'I am sitting here' or the like, you may only be aware of the object of concentration or a feeling of calm joy. The 'sitting here' was the skandha of form; the focus on the object is the skandha of sensation. At this point, you may still feel 'I exist' (so to speak) but the 'I' no longer requires a physical body. Rather, the 'I' view shifts away from the skandha of form to the object of concentration. This represents some progress." In other words, you can let go of the skandhas by focusing on certain of them to the exclusion of others.

At another time, he said experienced meditators learn to sense the character of thoughts a bit before they arise. The consciousness is much like a "muddy lake," he said, and its churning makes it difficult to discern how any of the individual waves on its surface arose. During meditation the consciousness calms; the dirt in the lake settles. Now it is transparent. If a wave forms it can be tracked or even spotted before it arises. I imagine this is something like being able to feel the heat of an object before it makes contact with the skin. The monk said this calm may carry into daily life as well, aided by the practice of mindfulness. In my life I often experience this by detecting thoughts of an unwholesome nature before they arise.

Goals

The immediate goal, I gathered, is to stop forming "volitive judgments" altogether, existing instead in a state of equanimous acceptance. That is merely the immediate goal.

 

3. Techniques before

Here ends theory and begins the various techniques we were taught.

Most of the practitioners we met emphasized control of the body as a path to control of the mind. The body's posture and movement affect its emotional state. For example, people praying often kneel; devotees prostrate on a pilgrimage.

Controlling the body for long periods can wear it out, so we were told various ways to prepare it:

Stretching

We were taught a series of stretches that emphasize the back and thighs; we were also taught some elementary yoga. I have collected them into two different series, pictured and explained below. I am stiff; for me sits longer than 30 minutes or multiple sessions totalling longer than 30 minutes require some sort of stretching exercise beforehand.

Stretches usually performed by FGS monks

We did these before most meditation sessions. They are easy to remember if you make it a point to do them at least three sessions in a row. (I should describe these.)

1. Squatting - to prepare the thighs and butt
2. Touching the toes both with feet together and feet apart - to prepare the hips and legs
3. Making a figure eight with the knees - this helps with the hips and knees
4. Ball - helps the back and hips
5. The butterfly stretch - helps the groin
6. Sitting with the right foot touching the left hip and vice versa - stretches the hipps and butt
7. Reverse leg - stretches the thighs and hips

Yogic stretches (asanas) often seen in the Ch'an Tang

During the meditation retreat, many found they required something more potent. They brought in a monk from Brasil who had us do half an hour of yoga. He went through some of the above in a more rigorous manner and also introduced the stretches below. They derive mostly from the Yogic "standing asanas," which are said to benefit the back, shoulders and legs—all good for people who sit long periods. (I should describe these.)

1. Waist rotation
2. Cobra
3. The four triangle postures
4. Salute to the sun (incl. equestrian)

 

4. Good posture

Vairocana posture

In certain Far Eastern or "esoteric" schools, the Vairocana Buddha is the worldly embodiment of the dharmakaya or the universal, unconditioned Buddha-nature. (Westerners might call this dharmakaya the "Logos.")

They taught us to emulate his posture in seven points. You can remember it if you start from the legs and hands, go up through the back to the shoulders and end with the head. This is also useful for progressive relaxation.

1. Legs

In sitting meditation the body is to be held in a triangle posture, the head balanced above the the body, the body in turn held erect, with the legs used as a wide base. This is the most comfortable position for long meditation sessions because it is balanced and symmetric.

Full lotus or vajra posture

The full lotus is depicted in most sacred art of the Buddhas. The feet rest on the upper thighs with the soles pointed upward.

The full lotus balances the body well, if both knees touch the ground. However, it is the most demanding posture in terms of flexibility. To get into the lotus, do stretching exercises every night.

Half lotus or bodhisattva's posture

A half lotus is sometimes depicted in paintings of the Bodhisattvas. One leg rests on the upper thigh of the other with sole pointed upward. The other is tucked beneath the thigh.

The half lotus balances the body imperfectly because only one knee touches the ground. It is easier to hold than the full lotus and can be used as a "training" posture on the way to full lotus. If you use the half lotus, remember to alternate your feet each session. The spine is tipped slightly to to one side, and repeated meditation will slowly disturb it permanently.

Burmese posture

One leg rests on the ground in front of the other.

This posture is asymmetric but comfortable, and it balances the body well. It is popular in Indian Buddhism, which more relaxed in its approach to symmetry and auspicious position than the Chinese.


Kneeling posture

The body is elevated on one tall cushion (or a zafu) or several small, stiff cushions, and the feet are tucked under the legs symmetrically.

It is comfortable and within the range of stiffer practitioners, and satisfies symmetry. It requires some setup and a strong cushion.

"Scattered" posture

A posture for beginners that does not balance the body and is asymmetric in general.

Please cover the knees

For all sessions, even shorter ones, they made us take special care of our joints. In particular they had us place a towel over our lap (and around the knees) when sitting in order to keep the knees warm. The knees are the first joints to cool off in long sitting sessions. If you have ever sat uncovered more than an hour you probably know how raw they feel afterward. You will want your knees to work later in life, so keep them warm.

Drape the towel over your lap in a symmetric fashion and tuck the edges under your posture. It should not be taut, so you can rest your hands on it without disturbing your posture.

Qi

One of our meditation teachers emphasized mystical reasons for holding the body in the triangle posture. The erect, triangle posture aligns the body's energy centers and correctly situates the lines of energy flow for circulation. She said if possible the soles of the feet should be aimed upward in the lotus posture, so as to open the energy points at the soles. The Chinese believe energy or qi is real and can be experienced like physical phenomena, though qi is more subtle. You can read more at a Daoist or qi gong web site. As usual in Chinese religion there is much interpenetration between Chinese Buddhism and Daoism.

2. Back

The back should held be straight as if the body were "hanging from a thread running through the top of the head." It should be erect but not stressed, because the spine must support the body. All the organs directly or indirectly "hang on the spine." It takes some practice to find the right rigidity. I have heard some say they keep note of what still hurts after about 20 minutes of no movement. Often the body has aches and pains unassociated with its position; therefore give it some time to adjust to your sitting position before making judgments. If it still hurts afterward they count it as poor position.

We were urged to be "reasonable" with the back. We should be able to tell which positions cause "stress" and which exhibit poor posture. Above all we are shooting for the position that can be held for a long period of time. There is a section on pain below if you have back pain.

3. Hands

Some eastern spiritual traditions emphasize the position of the hands during meditation. They prefer positions drawn from the dhyana or meditation mudra, which is thought to have various properties metaphorical, calming and energetic. It also prevents the shoulders from falling forward. Here are some popular versions of the dhyana mudra:

Amitabha's mudra

No pic yet.

Sakyamuni's mudra

No pic yet.

Another mudra I have seen

No pic yet.

Mahayanists do not meditate with the hands on the knees, as meditators are sometimes depicted in media. As far as I can tell this is an unfounded stereotype. To protect the knees they prefer a warm cover such as a towel (more on this).

4. Shoulders

The shoulders cause pain if they are not held naturally. To find a natural position, place both your lower arms on a table in front of your seat and then straighten your back. Take note of where your shoulders are; this is probably where you want them. In general, the shoulders should be held level and not too far forward. Placing the hands in a mudra helps support the arms.

5. Tongue

The tongue should be placed against the roof of the mouth, with the tip almost touching the upper teeth. This prevents sensations in the mouth as well as excessive salivation. In my experience this is how the tongue naturally draws itself while jogging and breathing through the nose.

6. Head

In the Vairocana position the skull must be held right because the body's center of gravity is most affected by the organs held furthest from its base. This effect can be observed when you swing on a swingset. The skull leads the rest of the body, going forward to swing forward, directing the body physically as well as mentally.

To keep the skull from rocking the body either forward or back, the mouth should be closed and the jaw should be shut. This will balance the skull on its center of gravity. The skull should be tipped just a bit back so as to rest on the spine. It is interesting to know that the skull is held by the spine not unlike the way a Lego head is placed on the socket of the Lego body. If its center of gravity is too far forward, it will drag the back into a curved position forward. If it is tipped too far back, the body will fall over.

7. Eyes

Many meditators prefer to close the eyes; this is considered OK. Our teachers were of the opinion that just as that full sight distracts the eye, the darkness of sensory deprivation stimulates daydreams. According to skandha theory, the mind is a sense just like the eye, and depriving the eye of stimulus provides ideal conditions for the mind to wander.

The solution takes some practice. Note the way the Buddhas hold their eyelids in sacred art. They are about 70% closed and the eyes are pointed downward. This restricts sight, especially in a dim and still room, yet it prevents the mind from projecting its own personal movie screen into the darkness.

 

5. Techniques during

Here is an assortment of advice they gave us on how to meditate.

Progressive relaxation

Some monastics begin meditation with a routine exercise of relaxation.

It seemed to take a minute or two. You focus your attention on each of the following parts, in order, and relax them one at a time. The relaxation offered by our Ch'an monastics usually started with the scalp, then eyebrows and ears, then eyes and nose, then mouth, jaw, neck and shoulders, then the chest, then the upper back, then the stomach or "tien-tai," then the lower back, then the hips, thighs, butt and legs, then the knees and calfs, then ankles and feet and toes.

Breath work

1. Counting the breath

Most Buddhists are told to begin meditation by counting exhalations of breath.

Our disciplinarian once mentioned to us during walking meditation: "Your breath is always with you." When we're born, we begin to breath. To live is to breath; "we breath until we die." Hence breathing is the first and last sign of life, yet "we never pay attention to it."

The flow of the breath indicates many things about our emotive state, of which we may not even be aware. It is therefore a practical object of meditation, since it is the only one that is present wherever we are, tells us something about our inner state, and can be used even in loud and obnoxious places. It provides more or less the same feeling always, so it will not disturb meditation with rapid innovation.

The first thing we did was to note the way it feels on inhalation and focus on that. "Everyone feels the breath differently," they said. Some feel it enter on the tip of the nose, some deep within or even near the throat. Most feel it enter on the inside of the nostrils. Try to breath naturally for a while and note where you feel it. The breath does not provide an intense feeling, so do not breath hard to create it, and moreover do not adjust your breath or breath unnaturally because you would like to feel it in one place or another. It is of no importance where you feel the breath enter, but it is of great importance that the feeling be natural and therefore sustainable during hours of meditation.

Gently draw the attention to this inhalation. Anything can be interesting if you get sufficiently close to it to see it. "No two blades of grass are the same." It is a calm feeling to observe. Many people, once they are aquainted with it, draw from it a feeling of joy.

To keep the mind focused, count exhalations from one to ten. (Not inhalations; I am not sure why, but we were told many times to count exhalations.) Begin with one, count to ten, then start again at one. It is not a contest or a test or a trial, just a way to keep focused. You start over at ten so that the counting does not itself become unconscious. This is how beginners practice focusing on the breath.

The mind naturally wanders; see below for their advice.

2. Not controlling the breath while counting

Breath naturally. I was not at first able to watch the breath as a detatched observer, but with practice one can learn to attend to our breathing without controlling its beginning or end. It took me exactly one month of daily meditation at the monastery.

You may notice the breath cycle becomes longer the longer you meditate. For young people it is said that "the inhalation is long but the exhalation short," and for the middle aged they are equal, and for old people just the opposite, "the inhalation is short but the exhalation long."

3. After having learned to count the breath

After a month or so of daily meditation, many find they can watch the breath naturally and without counting. They reach a (sort of) second stage of meditation, though even saying there is a "stage" implies that there is somewhere to go and someone to do the doing. Nevertheless, it is generally after this point that the practice begins to win fruit for the practitioner.

This ability comes with practice and vanishes with neglect.

Abdominal breathing

All the monastics I have met are of the opinion that we should breath with the diaphragm rather than by expanding the lungs. The diaphragm is a muscle between the lungs and the abdomen. When we breath it is forced downward causing the abdomen to distend. After some experience breathing abdominally, we can control the muscle directly, inflating and deflating the lungs at will.

Abdominal breathing lets the meditator focus intently on the breath, which is the object assigned to most meditators beginning and advanced. See the next section about whether to control the breath.

To discover how to breath abdominally, put one hand on your lungs and one hand on your tummy. Take a breath. You may notice that your lungs come out farther than your tummy. Your goal is to distend your tummy more than your lungs. We are told to do this both in meditation and, if possible, always.

Some do not like breathing this way because it distends the waist, which is not fashionable. This is something to let go of.

Where to place the attention

At first, the practitioner should focus on the sensation of breath. However, in time there are other places for the attention to rest.

The first is the "tan-tian," located "three fingers below the navel and two finger widths in," near the center of gravity of the body. This point is the seat of energy in the body and resting the attention on it, along with proper breathing, "helps control thoughts and emotions." Focus on the tan-tian is said to create heat in the body, so if you find you are too drowsy during meditation it is not a good focal point.

The second lies a hair or two above the middle of the eyebrows, though its energy is said to run to the middle of the forehead. This is the "third eye," and resting the attention on it, along with proper breathing, "helps awaken a drowsy mind." The spot has a renowned place in most Eastern religions. Some practitioners report that sustained concentration on it results in a feeling of tingling and high alertness. If you find you are too drowsy it is an excellent point, but if you are too distracted it will only increase the speed of thought.

In China the point has its origin in the native Daoist religion, but it is found also in yogic meditative techniques (as the manipura chakra) and is important to the practice of martial arts. Wikipedia reports that the notion even shows up in the great Jewish mystical work, Kabbalah. Some practitioners report that sustained concentration on the tan-tian is conducive to the sensation of the ch'i flow in the body.

What to do with stray thoughts

According to the skandha theory above, "the mind is a sense" and thoughts are its sensations. The mind cannot stop thinking any more than the ear can stop hearing. Our teachers told us not punish ourselves if the mind wanders, but rather bring the awareness back to the object of meditation. The mind is a sense and like the others it can be trained. Getting angry, frustrated, losing patience and giving up are poor ways to train it.

Stray thoughts occur even to experienced practitioners. In general the more often you meditate, the less interesting they will seem to your mind. In general the longer you meditate, the less interesting they will seem to your mind. If you live mindfully, your mind will find them less interesting.

Do not attach "negative emotions" to stray thoughts. This aggravates the problem!

If you lose count while doing counting meditation

Simply begin again at 1.

Do not allow your emotions to become disturbed if you lose count. The counting is merely a device to help you practice meditation; once you can meditate without counting you may drop it.

Dealing with drowsiness or excessive mental activity

Meditators in the early morning or early afternoon can get drowsy; at other times, the mind can distract with daydreams. Both are states of relative sleep and can be fought only with patience and trained awakening. In the meantime, resting the attention on different spots of the body can help.

During a time of drowsiness, focus on the third eye (explained above) or even on the forehead.

During a time of excessive mental activity, bring your focus away from the brain to the tan tian (also above).

Dealing with pain

1. Limbs falling asleep

We were told many times that you cannot get hurt by limbs falling asleep. The "pins and needles" feeling comes from a pinched nerve not restricted bloodflow. You would know pretty quick if your position somehow restricted the blood in your veins. After a few months, we were told the body will simply adjust, and the limbs will cease to fall asleep. "The body is mutable." In the meantime, let it happen. Usually once a limb falls asleep the sensation goes away.

2. Lower back pain

This results from poor posture in life and in meditation. Some advanced practitioners even report lower back pain if they have fallen out of the habit of meditation. Some also have said that it takes them the first few days of a long retreat just to exercise the back into working condition.

Lower back pain must be fought with good posture and, if that is not enough, simply endured until the back develops. This may take a few days of intensive meditation. If you cannot go on a long retreat, try sitting without using the backs of chairs all day. (See more in "Mindfulness"). "The body is mutable:" intense meditative practice improves posture and has been known to cure people of lower back pain in the long run.

3. Shoulders and neck

The shoulders and neck sometimes hurt if the body is not held in the "Vairocana" position they emphasized. In short, remember to hold the hands in a mudra in the lap to support the shoulders. Hold the head slightly back to balance the body and relieve tension on the neck. Also, make sure to always relax the body, perhaps using the "progressive relaxation" technique more than once.

Et cetera

Many people report they feel the body growing as large as the world or as tiny as a geometric point. Some say this is a step toward letting go of your body as the local seat of consciousness. Some say it is nothing good, merely an epiphenomenon of meditation. Either way, pass it by.

Look forward to a "mild euphoria." Meditation isn't painful forever. But do not meditate just for this feeling; it too will pass.

One of the students that summer advised us to "kill the Buddha" if you see him while meditating. As the Christians say, "the kingdom of God is within." The Buddha should not be walking around outside of you because he is within you.

 

6. Techniques after

The monks gave us about two to three minutes for this. Before you break the Variocana posture, first:

Rub hands and apply heat to the body

Place your palms together and then turn the hands against one another, which generates heat quickly. Then put the palms against the eyes to warm them. Rub your palms again and warm the kidneys and lower back. Rub them again and warm the knees -- the knees especially!

Rocking

Place your hands on your knees to steady yourself, and bend as far down to the ground as you can while remaining sitting, trying to touch your nose to the floor. Returning upright, bend to each side as far as you can go, making a parabola with your body. Bend back, and rock around clockwise three times, stretching the lower back and neck. Then do the same, counterclockwise three times.

Massage

If you are in a crosslegged position, slowly uncross the legs, but do not set them upright. Rather, release them slowly into the looser Burmese position. Then, massage the thighs and feet, which may have fallen asleep.

Last

Pick up the legs, but not too quickly (that would stress the ligaments). Stretch freely.

 

7. A note on mindfulness

As much as the monastics emphasized meditation they emphasized mindfulness.

Buddhists try to remain "mindful," to keep some control over the body and mind at all times. Merely to meditate is only so useful because even meditation cannot remedy a scattered lifestyle. The reasons why this is so can be found in the Satipatthana or Matasatipatthana sutras. In summary, the goal is not to become a good meditator per se but to effect a wholesale change of the awareness. I have read that "mindfulness is extroverted meditation, meditation is an interior mindfulness." It is practical to stay mindful all the time; to "pray without ceasing" as the Christians say.

They taught us mindfulness by making us act gracefully. This was difficult for a small horde of young Westerners. Here is a list of what they tried to make us do:

The body

Standing

Stand "as if you are hanging from a thread." Do not stress your back but make sure the rest of your body hangs on it in a relaxed manner. Simply keep the spine painlessly erect.

If you have to stand in the same spot for several moments, "keep your toes 8 in. apart and the heels 2 in." If you have to stand for a while, practice "standing meditation," in which you keep your eyes downcast at a 70 degree angle and count exhalations.

Sitting (and not using the backs of chairs)

Again, they said, "keep the spine erect as if hanging from a thread." The organs should "hang" from the spine in a relaxed manner.

Pulling out chairs without scraping the ground

The point seemed to be to avoid making noise and disturbing others' mindfulness. I found a good technique is to lift them from the ground with both arms. If the self makes no noise, it is effaced slightly.

Walking, esp. going up stairs

We had to place the feet flat on each stair. This could be hard for tall people who take them two at a time. They opposed any racuous bounding up and down the stairs. (This one is difficult for me.)

The environment

Keep the affairs clean

Living in a clean space cultivates an exterior purity. (And disorganization wastes time.)

Avoid frivolous speech

Frivolous speech involves: Expressions of taste preference, declaimations, second and third apologies, character faults of others discussed merely to put them down, private worries about which no useful advice can really be given, many conversations of the "current events" variety, any speech intended to manage others' perception of the self, etc.

The mind

Avert the eyes from anything that might introduce new desires, e.g. advertising. For men, the object of a woman's body is an especially dangerous image, because the desires stimluated by improper and undue sensuality are difficult to detatch from. However, do look at "beautiful" things.

Be aware of what you hear

Certain kinds of music (punk, rock, "emo") do not encourage mindfulness. These kinds of music can shock the emotional faculty with undue highs. Allan Bloom writes (perhaps hypocritically) that rock "artificially induces the exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavors—victory in a just war, consummated love, artistic creation, religious devotion, the discovery of the truth. Without effort, without talent, without virtue, without exercise."

Move the body with intention

Sit in a position you can sustain and try not to fidget from it. Do not sink down into chairs; stay upright. When explaining something, try neither to gesticulate wildly nor to remain still and dead. One place to begin is to avoid cracking knuckles or biting fingernails.

Etc.

Close the bathroom door. Take shoes off when entering a nice place. Do not waste.

 

8. A note on routine

The monastics at Fo Guang Shan told us it's far easier to get something out of a spiritual practice if you do it often, much like exercising a muscle in the body.

Length of session

A friend told me that if he meditates less than 20 minutes he is likely to spend the time thinking about getting up. Meditation requires 30 minutes at a minimum, he said. However, anything helps; in the morning even 20 minutes is good. Intermediate practitioners usually meditate an hour a day; any less and their patience is so well-trained that they say they spend the time counting the minutes.

It takes some time for the scattered modern mind to reap any benefit from meditation. A good place to jump start it is to go to a weeklong retreat.

Common routines

I have observed that intermediate meditators often sit at least 40 minutes and then take a 5 minute break, followed by 10 minutes of walking meditation to circulate the blood, then back for another sit. During our silent retreat we did three-hour sets of 30 minute sits, a short break, 10 minutes of walking, and back.

If several people meet, one person usually keeps time and communicates when to start or stop by a bell or thunk noise, e.g. by a woodenfish instrument. That way they do not have to speak.

Advanced meditators will sometimes sit for three hours in the morning, 8:30 to 11:30.

Some people in Taiwan, especially the old and young, meditate sitting upright. This is influenced by the Daoist practice of meditating in a chair.

Other

It's easier to do things in groups because you have to commit.

 

9. Links

Meditation at Nan Hua: Comprehensive notes translated by our disciplinarian. These notes are good. A mirror of the original document is here. The original version is at e-Sangha here.

Mindfulness in Plain English: A classic by Ven. Henepola Gunaratana.

Fo Guang Shan monastery, which runs the Woodenfish program.

An English translation (of the Chinese translation) of the Heart Sutra
A translation of the Diamond Sutra
A translation of the Lotus Sutra