Checklist for Sitting Meditation
Gilbert Gutierrez is a Dharma Heir of Chan Master Sheng Yen with over thirty-nine years of experience in meditation, various martial arts, and Chi Gong. He lectures regularly at DDMBA centers throughout the United States and gives weekly classes at his own group in Riverside, California. His Riverside Chan website (www.riversidechan.org) includes a lively “meet up” site and a weekly Dharma Talk podcast. Access to written transcripts of the weekly lectures is also available. This article is taken from Dharma talks given during the Footsteps of Ancient Masters retreat, October 2018. Transcription and editing by Buffe Maggie Laffey.
In this retreat I have reviewed what the ancient masters thought was the essence of Chan, and of how to practice. I have been bringing up to you various practice points, some of which you are used to hearing about, others you are not. For some of them we were able to come up with deeper descriptions or explanations. I want to go over all that with you so you are clear about it. The reason I want to recap now, is because you can use it for the rest of the retreat.
We can essentially list out the elements that are needed in a proper practice:
You will notice that faith 1 and right view 2 are not on this list. The reason is, these list items all pertain to the method, and to sitting meditation. I have isolated the component parts you need to use when you are meditating. Obviously right view has to be there, faith has to be there, but those are pre-supposed within this list, overlaid over all of this.
This list is also about knowing what you are doing when you are on a retreat. All of these are prerequisites to the practice of Chan. The ancient masters held the bar very high. If you want to practice Chan, this is what you have to do.
The present moment is a very big key, because right from the very beginning, you have to put your attention there. What is the present moment? You are here in this room; you know exactly where you are and you know exactly what is in this room. So if thoughts come up, which inevitably they will do, then you compare it to the present moment. If it doesn’t fit, you have to let it go and keep your mind in the present moment.
You rest in the present moment. You are just relaxed, and it brings up a sublimeness in you. You are just content. You don’t need this moment to go away. You don’t need for another moment to come. Just letting go and resting in the present moment enables you to appreciate this moment.
There was a movie called Click, where the person had a remote control that could fast forward through life, so he could speed past the undesirable moments. You can kind of guess what would happen: he’s at work and, zip! he’s going home from work, zip! After a short while, his life was over, because he had just sped through all the parts he didn’t like. But that took him right past the good parts as well. You don’t want to be that way.
Relax the body and mind. Don’t think that you have reached the highest level of relaxation. There’s relaxation beyond what you think is there. As you begin to let go of the illusory consciousness, the body will become extremely relaxed and the mind will lose its tension, will become literally brighter. So just keep relaxing and relaxing. There’s going to be a time when your upper body will feel buoyant, like a balloon, tethered to the cushion. Then the mind will feel the same way. This is the freedom and ease of body and mind.
Your awareness extends beyond what your consciousness is capable of receiving information on. When you are sitting in meditation, your consciousness can’t extend too far beyond the windows in this room. But just let awareness go out, unlimited; give your mind a very broad pasture to roam in. Now, we’re not talking about consciousness; it’s important to understand the difference. In the present moment we know what is here; our awareness goes out and illuminates the mind ground.
Awareness is different from consciousness; there’s no thinking here. It’s tied with contemplation, more to mind than thinking. Because you’ve been practicing for a while now, the right view has been imprinting into mind. So now you are realizing it experientially. You can’t really call it thought. Right view is just something that is there, but it’s tacked into the awareness. Your present awareness is what enables you to see things clearly, to realize how contemplation works.
In order to meditate properly, whichever method you are working with, you have to know very well what the method is. If you are not familiar, or comfortable, then ask a well-knowing advisor about the method. Read books. For instance, if you are doing silent illumination, pick up Master Sheng Yen’s books The Method of No Method, or Illuminating Silence. If you are doing huatou, read Shattering the Great Doubt. Be very well acquainted with how your method works.
To me, I am not a person who likes to list out stages of practice, because then you think you have to go through each stage. Sometimes the stages can go from a basic all the way up to a “top stage.” It is different with different people; sometimes you might have an experience on a lower stage and you need to get to the next one, and the next, like a ladder or a staircase going up. Other times if you get it just right, you go right there. Then you read about the method and you say, “well, I didn’t go through these stages.” Actually, you went right past them. The thing is, you should know about your method. Be very knowledgeable about it, so that when you come to the retreat, you know what you are doing. That is very important.
What is the difference between contemplating the method and using the method? Contemplation is not thinking. Contemplation is looking directly at the method. You are looking at it very clearly, and so your awareness is broad. Your contemplation is right on the method.
A lot of time when people are using a method, they are thinking about the method. They think, “all right, the method is to ask, ‘What is wu?’” and they start wanting an answer from the question. But when we are contemplating, we are looking directly with no thought; there’s nothing there. If you’re using it in the right way, you’re just asking the question. When you are using silent illumination, you are just contemplating the mind ground. You are not adding anything to it, like “Oh, it looks so wonderful.” You are just there contemplating it.
You don’t think of the method; rather you bring up the method for the mind to contemplate. If you can do that, then you’re using the method properly.
Concentration is connected with the “right effort.” You are using your mind to put these things all together. You are contemplating the method; there is awareness there. You are in the present moment. So you are concentrating all of your practice in the right way, and giving it the right attention. We call this Madhyamika, the middle way. Not overdoing it, and not being too lax. It is not that we crank up the effort, like a powerful stereo that you turn up all the way to ten. You are doing it just enough to hold it; don’t squeeze your practice. On the other hand you don’t just let it just drift away, because then you’ll be taken by thought bubbles and you’ll be gone.
By now, at this stage of this retreat, you should be able to do this. You should be able to regulate your concentration in a proper way; know what needs concentration and what doesn’t.
There’s no thought in what you are doing. You use the method, which is one thought. Shifu (Master Sheng Yen) used to say, it’s like a fat bullfrog sitting on a lily pad, where the lily pad is the thought. You can’t even see the thought any more because it’s just a recurring thought that becomes meaningless. The bullfrog is contented, he doesn’t need to move, just sitting. But as to any other thinking – “oh, I’m getting there now, it won’t be long. I’m tired. I’m hungry. I’m this, I’m that.” – the thing is that you don’t think. You have to get used to that.
Thinking in this practice is not going to get you there; it’s going to pull you down. And the thinking is always coming in. Eventually you will wear it down and it will get so weak that it won’t come in as frequently or as strong. After that thinking just doesn’t come up at all. That’s when the mind can lock in and work in the right way. When that happens, it’s a sublime state. But you don’t get to the sublimeness right away; this will come in due time.
Sublimity is an interesting state of mind. It’s simply a feeling of contentment in the present moment, wanting nothing. You are just there, comfortable with your method. It’s hard to be sublime when your legs are killing you. But now that you are settled into the retreat you will be surprised, when you check into sublimeness – all the last little bit of leg pain will be gone. You are just sitting there. All this stuff is starting to work now.
When you are in this sublime state, you can let go of all the emotional attachments to the moment. If you are eating a strawberry, you can taste the sourness of it, the sweetness, the coolness, you can appreciate its texture and when it’s gone, you just put it down. You don’t say, “I want another strawberry,” you are just off doing something else. But you are content in that moment; you don’t need another strawberry. Whatever you are doing: if you are walking, you are just walking.
What we do is we choose; we can choose whether or not to suffer from our leg pain, or to suffer from the passage of time, or whatever it is. To be sublime, we choose to rest in this moment. After a while what happens is that everything just locks in, and sublimity comes that way. We don’t put down the effort; it’s the right effort. Everything is right: the right awareness, right being in the present moment, right all of these things. Everything is still there. To say that you are sublime doesn’t mean that you are not working. You are just perfectly content in whatever you are doing.
The sublimeness will permeate all through the body as well. But we’re not worried about the body. We’re tuning to the state of mind, awareness. It’s all there, your body, my body, it’s the same thing – it all belongs to mind. Don’t try to equate that to a physical sensation. Equate it to just a form of contentment; it is very very subtle. Some of you have probably already experienced it a little bit in this retreat when the method is working right. You are just there and you feel you are coasting, like going downhill on a sled, it’s just easier to do.
When you get there you don’t have to have a grin like the Joker from Batman. I remember I did that once; now I’m very embarrassed. I was in a very sublime state (mimes body grinning and relaxing in bliss) and Shifu came by and was kicking my back trying to straighten me up. Finally he just said “Bah!” and walked away. I deserved that because I was just indulging in this semi-pseudo-sublimeness of my body. So don’t make that mistake; I’ve already done that one for you.
It All Clicks In
Sublime is a very subtle feeling. It’s not some kind of psychological, body/mind orgasmic type of sensation. It’s just contentment. What happens is, when you dial in the present moment, when you relax, and awareness is there, there comes a place where all these tumblers click in and it’s like opening a safe. You are hitting the right numbers on each of them, click, click, click, and you don’t have to move, don’t have to adjust anything. Everything is perfectly in its place, and that’s a sublimeness. You don’t have to put more effort in, or less effort in, more awareness or less; it’s just there, perfect.
It is a very subtle feeling and I almost hesitate to put it on this list, but all of the other things have to lock in, and then that can come in. So you don’t start with sublime, and mimic it. It will come and you will feel it, and in that moment you know you have this all dialed in the right way. And all you have to do is just stay there. Don’t go “I am in a state of sublimeness,” and the ego says, “Oh no, you’re not, let’s go home.” Don’t do that. Just feel… not necessarily the body because the body at that point begins to fall away, if it hasn’t fallen away already. But the state of mind is there and it’s illuminated, it’s not a dead state. In a dead samadhi one would not have the state of sublimeness. It would just be like you flipped the switch and all of the lights go out and nothing’s there.
How to Use the List
When we practice it is like we are going to prepare a dinner. When we prepare a dinner for somebody we lay out a nice tablecloth, we put the plates and goblets out, the utensils, the flowers, and then we can bring out the food. The Dharma food is the method. You’ve already laid out everything and it’s already in place. You’re going to be aware of all of that, of right view: if I keep doing this, eventually these thoughts will stop.
Without first setting up the practice in this way, when you start doing it you could easily just be taken away, watching a mind movie. You wouldn’t even realize that there was right view any more. But now you’ve got right view in place, everything is perfectly set up, so that when you meditate it’s all ready to go for you. And that’s how these principles help the practice.
There is no confusion here. You are in the present moment. You should be relaxed. You spread your awareness out. You have your method; you contemplate your method. You concentrate. You concentrate with the right effort. With this awareness, you are aware when thoughts are arising, right? So there’s no thinking.
All of these elements tie in very well. They’re all one and the same, really, they all fit together. If one of these things is missing, it’s going to mess the whole thing up. If you’re doing all this but you’re still thinking, it doesn’t work; you’re not going to contemplate, you’re not on your method, because there’s no awareness there. So all of these things are just elements that are there. It’s not necessarily a punch list, where you can go wrong. If you do them right, it’s where you go right with it. All this stuff is starting to work now.
Playing the Game
Some of you are getting frustrated because you’re trying to do this and the thoughts are taking over, which is okay. You don’t have to worry about that. Try to see it a little bit like a game. You have to understand how this game works. The first thing you do is, you set the game out. You have the game clock, which is the present moment. The present moment is always moving but in any present moment, what is it that’s present? This is the point we are setting now: we know what is present in this room. Then you have your awareness; you spread your awareness as far as you can. Your awareness is there, now we put the method in the game. You have contemplation; you’re contemplating the method. All you do have to do is hold the method; that’s what you do. The method is very clear and you see it there.
So we have an awareness that this is all appearing in, this is our playing surface, and this includes our mind. All we have to do is keep this, and we are aware that all of this is happening in the present moment. We are ready to play the game.
So, boop, we play the game. Something is going to come up. All of a sudden, a car comes up, because we are interested in buying a car. We see it coming up in the awareness. Awareness looks at it. Mind is just contemplating the method, just staying there. But this car keeps coming up and it sends ripples through the mind like “look at me.” If the awareness sees it, awareness just naturally shines its illumination on the car. So when this car comes up in the playing field it’s illuminated, and as soon as it’s illuminated, it’s out of the game. You don’t have to put pressure on it and blow it out of the playing field. All you have to do is just know that it came in. Illuminate it, and, whoop, it’s gone. It’s like that game we played when we were young, statues or red-light-green-light; the person who is “it” turns his back to the other players and they try and get closer to him. Then “it” turns around and everyone freezes; if you’re still moving, you’re out of the game.
Something else comes up, maybe money coming to you or going out, and it sends ripples. You spot it and you know that it doesn’t match the playing surface; it’s not the present moment. So you don’t look, because all you are aware of is the present moment.
It can become more subtle, or it can be something very strong. Let’s say it’s somebody that you care for, and right before you came here you had a big fight with them. They could come very quickly because their force is strong. They could come here and take over the playing field. So the method is gone now, and that person is here; they took center stage. You lost the game. So what do you have to do? You reset the game. Once you reset it, this person’s gone, boom.
How do you reset the game? First thing: present moment. What’s in the present moment? Well, you are not in the present moment if you are thinking of something not in the Chan hall. You ask, where is my method? The method is back again, contemplation – you set the playing surface again. And then you wait. Things will come in and you can knock them out by illuminating the arising thoughts. If something comes and takes center stage and you’ve been thinking about this arising thought for five minutes, then you are going to have to re-boot. Start the game over again, and it will work. Just keep resetting the game until the method is stable.
You can try to push the arising thought out but it will keep coming back in and you’ll get frustrated. You just reset it: “Okay, fine, no problem, I see how this works.” So you gently go back to the method. Later on when that arising thought pops up again you go, “No, I know what you are.” The arising thought’s energy is going to be about the same as the car, easy to spot, and it’s gone.
It’s easy to play the game. You can play it with your eyes closed. You are there in the present moment. You know that you are just seeing the back of your eyelids. So if any image comes up you illuminate it out and win the game right away. But the habitual tendencies are always there, and will continue to come up with very sophisticated ways to take you off the method and bombard you with a relationship or an emotion; it will bring up a whole bunch of different thoughts hoping one of them is going to get through.
So this list of elements can be a reset button for your practice. Your method is your method, and these elements should be there in a proper meditation. These elements were topics that the ancient masters were bringing up, every single one of them. If you keep this, then it will keep your practice in a proper way. If you practice these sincerely, you are going to get there. Where is there? There’s no “there;” so you don’t have to worry, you are already there. The only difference is, you will realize that. Right now you are just hearing it, but later mind will be realized. And you already have it so that is the biggest part of the battle. There’s nothing you have to pick up, nothing you have to put down. So if you can practice in this way then your practice will be very fulfilling.
1. Faith in the teacher (including Buddha), in the teaching, and in one’s own ability to carry out the teaching successfully.
2. Right View: a sufficient grasp of Dharma through which to frame the experiences of meditation and no thinking, particularly, the Three (or Four) Marks of Existence or Dharma Seals (anitya, anattman, dukkha, [Nirvana]), the Four Noble Truths, and Dependent Coorigination (Pratityasamutpada).