How to Meditate, Interview – June 20, 2010
HTM: What types of meditation do you find most effective?
Carlos: The effectiveness of one form, or technique, of meditation practice over another depends on each practitioner. Every person has a different karma and some techniques are better suited for some people than others. The most traditional practice is sitting meditation. However, some people cannot sit well. Maybe they have too much energy, or their thinking is VERY strong.
Then we suggest they try chanting or bowing. Bowing is one of the most powerful techniques because it involves the active engagement of the whole body. It is also very humbling. I like bowing a great deal and recommend it to people all the time. In most of our centers however we focus on sitting and chanting. Ultimately the point of meditation is to return to this moment, before thinking.
This can be achieved with any technique or form of meditation as long as one tries. Once a person finds a meditation technique that suits him/her it is important to stick with it and continue practicing 100%. Then it is necessary to bring this formal practice and awareness into everyday life. In that manner it is possible to return to the now at any time, when driving, eating, sleeping, etc. After all, Zen mind is ordinary, moment to moment mind.
HTM:Thank you. This is all very good. I would like to return to the look a bit closer at a few of these forms, perhaps with a focus on bowing as meditation. However, first as it is always encouraging to read personal accounts, I would like to hear about how and where you yourself started meditation.
Carlos: You are welcome. The links below are from our group's website. It explains each of the forms and it has links to more information on them. I think this will answer any question you may have on them: Sitting as Practice - South Florida Zen Center, Chanting as Practice - South Florida Zen Center, and Bowing as Practice - South Florida Zen Center.
Personally, I started meditation by doing zen meditation in 1997 at the Providence Zen Center in Rhode Island. This is the head temple of the Kwan Um School of Zen founded by Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn. I decided to begin meditation because it was recommended to me by my golf coach. I was a competitive golfer and he suggested that I worked on the mental aspect of the game through meditation. This was the entry point but the truth is that Zen helped me with my life much more than with my golf game.
At that time I had many questions about life and had a lot of suffering. I didn't understand myself, didn't know what I wanted or why I wanted it. The simple Zen philosophy of putting it all down including all likes, dislikes, desires, opinions, etc was what I needed to learn in order to regain some balance in my life. It is not enough to learn it of course, practice is necessary to attain and digest this understanding.
So I immersed myself in this practice and have been doing it since. It really helped my life and that is why I continue to practice it. Now, as one of many teachers of meditation, I enjoy how it both helps me and helps those around me. I started the South Florida Zen group to be able to offer this practice to everyone here. Ultimately this practice is for the whole world, not just for one person.
HTM: I wonder if you could tell me what you mean by "not knowing yourself" and "putting it all down". In addition, I would like to hear about your first encounter with what won you over about meditation and your reactions both mentally and emotionally.
Carlos: "Not understanding myself" means that I had many questions about my life. I was raised in a catholic home in Venezuela where I was given many teachings on our religion and customs. Then I left my home and started questioning everything. I questioned society, religion, myself, etc it was a very confusing time. I also suffered from falling in love and not getting what I desired.
All of this made life very difficult to live. Then Buddhism appeared to teach me that all I have to do is not desire these things and then the suffering that it brings will instantly vanish. At first this sounded difficult but I realized that my desire was caused by my thinking and that thinking really has no self nature. So the point is not to stop the thought but to not HOLD them. This is what "putting it all down" means.
Let's say a thought comes to our head- then we usually react in some way or another to that thought. It is possible to just let the thought go on its own- (they always do, no thought lasts forever) and return to this moment. Because we have the habit of following our thoughts, we begin a meditation practice to first realize what we do and then change these habits. Again, this requires practice and that is why we have the Dharma and the support groups to do it.
When I first set foot on the Providence Zen Center I was very warmly welcomed and the place definitely looked establish and with clear direction. I knew right away that I had found a place to learn about Zen and to practice with. That is what won me over the Kwan Um Zen style. I also read one of Zen Master Seung Sahn's books and his clear teaching resonated with me strongly. I have been practicing with this school since.
HTM: You mentioned having desires and thoughts. We all have emotional needs. I am drawing a contrast between desires and needs here. Having put down (set aside) thoughts, and consequently desires, would you say that your needs are more readily met? Also, can you describe what you experience in the act of meditating that works for you? What I am asking for is independent of books. I would like you answer this from direct experience. What do you feel in meditation in terms of sensation, emotional life, etc.?
Carlos: Regarding needs and desires there is a very clear distinction. We need air, food, water, etc. Some other things humans call needs are not so necessary really. Some times food, water and air can become desire as well. I think that the best way to differentiate them is by asking why. After all, why do we eat every day? Why are we here in this world?
These are really big questions which are usually answered in a selfish way. Humans want things for pleasure or to satisfy those desires, this could even include a job, choice of partner etc. However, when our direction is selfless, "not-for-me" but for all beings then these same things can be used freely. I will try to explain myself further. Our actions usually have a reason behind them. Most of the time that reason is selfish.
Through practice and the uncovering of our innate compassion, we begin acting more for all beings (notice how all beings includes us too) and not just for what we want, like, desire. When our direction is clear, our life is clear. Sometimes finding this direction is not so easy, that is why we practice. When living clearly, all needs are met easily, no problem.
My meditation experience vary depending on the situation. Sometimes a lot of thinking is going on, so it is more about letting go of that and returning to the now. This now could include the feeling of my breath, and the color of the floor and the sounds of cars driving by or the smells of the room, etc. I am just using words to describe these experiences but the experience itself is independent of words and thoughts.
I don't have to say, the floor is brown to just see the color and its texture. I also try to bring my awareness and energy to my energy center or the point just below my navel. When that happens then there is a lot of calm and not too many emotions or thoughts appear. That being said, another day it could be completely different and maybe my mind or emotions are very strong. This is not good, not bad- this is just what is appearing that moment. I don't try to get away from that or change it, I just try to put it down and return to this moment. That is all, very simple.
HTM: Thank you for going into the distinction between needs and desires, and giving an account of your experiences and understanding of meditation. I have one more question to do with this, and then I would like to move on to a more detailed account of bowing meditation and perhaps chanting, as well. My question has to do with something you just said, and that was that- "Our actions usually have a reason behind them. Most of the time that reason is selfish. Through practice and the uncovering of our innate compassion, we begin acting more for all beings." If I am doing my math here, then the "reasons" you speak of are our motives- and the motiveless alternative would mean encountering each moment with nothing in mind. Are you saying that this would necessarily yield all that is needed?
Carlos: Yes, our reasons are our motives, same thing. Motiveless action means selfless action in other words, not-for-me motives. If you act only to help this world then whatever ensues after that is no problem. I don't know if it would yield all that is needed, I also don't know if you will like the outcome, but there will be an outcome and this outcome will be perfect as it is. Sometimes we just try to help but our actions cause others to be upset or it may even seem it made the situation worse. We mustn't be concerned about the outcome, only the willingness to try is necessary. The rest is just karma playing itself out and really not a problem at all.
HTM: Is it fair to ask you for a brief explanation of karma? I have my own way of understanding karma and my ideas about it, but I would like to hear about it from you, as you refer to it here. I am not sure I believe it exists on an individual basis.
Carlos: Oh sure, Karma is very simple. We say that a person's karma is his/her's mind habits. My mind, my thoughts, likes, dislikes, opinions, history, etc is different from yours and from everyone's in this world. This is just the energy that our mind has accumulated and keeps on going on and on as we keep on having life experiences. Karma is not good and bad, we all have our mental make-up or karma. The problem is when this karma controls us.
Also karma can change as it is created moment to moment by our actions. So for example, if one day you have an alcoholic drink, then next day two, then three and so on you, those actions will have a consequence, maybe you become an alcoholic and then your mind just thinks of that constantly. That is just an example of how an action can turn into some mind habit. There could be a million examples like this one.
Also if you stop drinking and moment to moment keep a clear mind then new karma is created, another consequence to your actions. Again, it is very simple. Karma is not something you have to believe in or not, it just happens to everyone. It is not some esoteric concept but part of our lives as human beings. Only the word is sorta weird. Regarding my use of karma in my previous message, it means that actions will have consequences- some of these consequences may not be evident or right at that moment.
For example, you smoke very day, eventually you may get lung cancer but not right away. So this consequence took a while to come but still it did. This is karma playing itself out. Some say that some of these consequences may even come from previous lives. That I can't really prove or disprove but it would explain many things. How do we end up being born where we are, and from the parents we have, some rich, some poor, some sick, some healthy, etc etc.
Again, I am not a proponent of rebirth or past lives but I don't object to it either. I just don't know. That not-knowing is our true nature. Even more important, we we are truly in don't know mind 100%, then no thoughts appear, then no karma appears, that is enlightenment- that is Zen. That is why in meditation we practice don't know. That's really all there is too it.
Don't know does not mean blankness, it means keeping a great question while not holding on to anything, especially the thoughts that are bound to come and go. Even if for a split second, all thinking stops, then at that time it is possible to perceive clearly. With practice we return to this point more and more and learn what it has to offer. This is why practice is so important in Zen.
HTM: That is absolutely the clearest explanation of karma I have heard. Thank you so much for that. It is so often depicted as being something we can do nothing about. If it is only a matter of tendency and likelihood due to habit, then this can be addressed through paying attention, meditation, and mindfulness practice. Karma is often used as an excuse or scapegoat for one's behavior. Please tell me if I am clear here. I want to move on to bowing meditation. I know you offered a link, and we can definitely include that, yet I would like to hear it from you directly.
Carlos: I am glad that I helped you understand the term karma. Not only we can do something about it, we actually create it! if we created it, we can also extinguish it. Your comments on karma are very clear too, I think you already understand. Yeah some people may use karma as a scapegoat but at the same time that karma came about some kind of previous action so it is impossible to deny responsibility.
Regarding bowing meditation. There is a nun in our school who has a great deal of energy and during her intensive training she focused on bowing. She actually did 3000 bows every day (it takes about 6-7 hrs to do this) every day for many years. When I asked her about bowing she said to me in her strong korean accent: "Sitting meditation is like taking a bicycle to enlightenment, bowing is like ROCKET!" hahaha.
Also Zen Master Seung Sahn always did a lot of bows to center his energy. Personally I have done some bowing practice and I agree with these comments. It is really a very powerful practice which involves focusing and paying attention, just like sitting, but with the added physical component. After a lot of bowing the mind reaches one-pointedness as it is helped by all the focused activity. Also if one's thinking or desires are too strong, sometimes sitting will not help as much. In that case, bowing is most effective.
At the same time, bowing is a very humbling act. You are prostrating yourself to the universe, getting back up, and then down again. I really appreciate bowing in my personal life and recommend it to many people. If you really want to attain bowing, then you should do it. At the beginning even doing 108 bows is difficult and the legs tend to be very sore but it all gets much better after some practice.
HTM: I remember reading about bowing in, I believe it was the Flower Sutra- bowing in particular to various Buddhas, and on and on. Can you explain the details of the bowing? What kind of motions are involved? Does this matter, or is it more about the gratitude and focus? All of your answers are really helpful. I think we are close to this interview's natural conclusion. Perhaps one more question after this one. Thanks for your participation, once again.
Carlos: I am not familiar with the flower sutra (is that the avatamsaka sutra?) and what it says with respect to bowing. When we do bowing (prostrations) we start standing with our hands in the praying position (hapchang in korean, gassho in japanese) then we go down on our knees on a mat. Then we put both hands on the mat and bring our foreheads down until it lightly touches the mat. Then we rock our tail bone back and turn the hands palm up. Then we get up to a full standing position and repeat the whole process.
This is the mechanics of bowing but the physical part is not as important as how you keep your mind while you are doing it. Most important is to 100% be involved in the act of bowing. Feeling how gravity pulls you down and how our muscles do work to bring us back up. Sensations of heat, fatigue, heavy breathing, etc all those are part of the experience of bowing. Just like in any other meditation our thinking mind will take us somewhere other than the experience.
Our job is to return to just bowing. In our temples and during retreats we bow 108 times every morning. It is the responsibility of the person to count these bows and that can be done mentally (which also helps to focus the mind) or with beads. Another great technique to help focus our attention while we bow is keep the great question. What am I? or in this case, Who is bowing?
This question ultimately leads to don't know, then all thinking is cut off and you are back to just bowing. I can write a dissertation on bowing but most helpful is for you to try it. Regarding the reason for bowing, it really doesn't matter. For some people it is more about gratitude, for others more about focus. Better is to not make anything special and just do it! If you ask me, why do I bow, I would just say, I do it for you.
HTM: I have really enjoyed this process and learned a great deal from this discussion. I have one last question and that is if you have any meditation advice to share with those who may just be beginning to practice. This, and perhaps you could tell us about the various meditation-related activities there in Florida.
Carlos: In regards to your question about advice to beginners- most important is to make a decision to practice. Many people who are new to Buddhism just become scholars by reading as many books as possible. Buddhism is not an intellectual exercise. The Buddha himself attempted to study all teachings available at the time and realized the futility of it. Buddhism is about waking up to our true nature. This true nature we already possess, we just don't believe it. Only through actual practice can we reconnect with what we already are.
Understanding ourselves is the gate to the cessation of suffering in this world. There are many endeavors in our world, many things we could do; however, some type of introspective practice should be at the top of the list. The Buddha said, a life which is not investigated is not worth living. Soon this body will get old and die, it happens very fast. It is very important to do something about it before it is too late. Zen practice has worked for me but there are other valuable paths, just do it.
In Florida there is a great deal of Dharma practice. Our group is in the South Florida area and we serve Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Our website has our information www.southfloridazen.org Groups affiliated with the Kwan Um School of Zen are also located in Orlando, Gainesville, and Tallahassee. There are other groups in the state and a very comprehensive list can be found on this link: https://www.smiling-buddha.com/fldharma/ I have also enjoyed answering your questions.