What You Gain from Meditation Depends on Why You Do It, Karmapa Tells Tergar

(May 5, 2015 – Madison, Wisconsin) At the invitation of Tergar Meditation Community, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa taught on meditation and devotion this morning in Madison. In his teachings, he reflected on the rising popular interest in meditation, encouraged practitioners not to undervalue its true potential and offered practical advice to ensure that the full benefits of meditation are achieved. The Karmapa additionally gave heart advice for Westerners struggling with the concept and cultivation of devotion.
The event was opened with a mandala offering procession by the renowned neuroscientist Richard Davidson and leading members of the Tergar community, followed by a welcome address by Tergar instructor Myoshin Kelley. The scheduled topic for the teaching was a commentary on the short supplication to the Dagpo Kagyu lineage of Mahamudra. His Holiness observed that the text was primarily concerned with meditation, a suitable topic for that audience, and so he would focus his remarks on meditation, rather than give a textual commentary.
The Karmapa reflected that during his recent visits to the international headquarters of Google and Facebook, he had had the opportunity to observe the support such corporations are giving to the practice of meditation in the workplace. These are signs of what he called a “fresh interest” and growing recognition by society at large of the tremendous value of meditation.
Buddhist traditions provide ways to train in meditation that bring results that go far beyond mere stress reduction or emotional relief. Ultimately, he said, “Meditation is a method of training our mind, learning about ourselves and radically transforming our very character and way of thinking. Meditation is a tool that allows us to transform our intentions and our conduct.”
In order to tap the full potential of what meditation can offer, the Karmapa stated, “Beyond just getting the body into a certain posture and relaxing the mind, there are some additional factors that we need to bring together, which the traditional teachings on meditation can provide us.”
His Holiness then quoted the first part of a Tibetan saying that indicates: “The owner of meditation is revulsion,” which he explained as effectively meaning that the owner of meditation is our motivation. “The experiences and effects that meditation produces for us are entirely dependent on the motivation we bring to it when we meditate,” he said.
“Instant gratification and short-term benefits are the order of the day, and, of course, we all want to be more relaxed and less stressed out,” the Karmapa observed. “Sometimes the main motivation we bring to meditation is looking for a spiritual massage or some type of spiritual comfort therapy.”
He explained further: “What we think of as the goal of meditation determines what we get out of meditation. “For example, we might approach meditation with an interest in alleviating the immediate difficulties of our day-to-day activities. We might be feeling stress due to our jobs or experiencing emotional hardships due to our immediate circumstances, and we might want to engage in meditation to alleviate the stress or distress caused by such conditions. If we meditate with that motivation, meditation might take care of those goals, but it will not bring us any result that goes beyond that.”
In this way, His Holiness the Karmapa encouraged practitioners of meditation to broaden their aims. He invited them to look within to ensure that their motivation was sufficiently far-reaching to allow them to enjoy the fullest fruits that meditation can offer. “If we give rise to a motivation that goes beyond immediate and limited goals, we can attain powerful results that are far more vast.”
Once one has established a sound and far-reaching motivation for one’s meditation, the Karmapa said, what enhances that meditation and causes it to flourish is devotion.
He thus gave a detailed exposition of the nature and function of devotion. As he did, he acknowledged that devotion is a topic that poses a challenge for some Western practitioners, and went on to offer pith instructions that would allow those struggling with devotion to break through their obstacles.
Clarifying the relationship between faith and devotion, His Holiness remarked that devotion tends to appear with greater frequency in pith or personal instruction texts, whereas faith is used as a technical term in scriptural texts and is divided into three principal types. Among the three types of faith—the faith that admires and reveres its object of faith, the faith that longs and aspires to becomes like the object of faith and clear faith—devotion corresponds most closely to the second: the faith of longing or wishing to be liberated from suffering ourselves, he explained.
This form of faith can be considered the most important in terms of progressing on the Buddhist path, His Holiness said, because “we are not merely seeking to be granted protection by a source of refuge, but are seeking to become sources of refuge ourselves.” For this reason, he explained, “the fullest expression of faith is not just asking for protection from another source, but longing to become fearless beings ourselves, able to offer protection and refuge to others.”
However, devotion goes beyond this form of longing faith, and carries an added emphasis, as indicated in the Tibetan term for devotion, mö-gü. While the first syllable, mö, evokes the aspect of longing faith, the second syllable, gü, means respect. As opposed to longing, which is a mental state, respect involves body and speech, the Karmapa explained.
“Devotion is distinguished from faith,” he said, “in that it entails complete engagement and strong commitment, expressed through body and speech, as well as mind. In sum, the practice of devotion involves harnessing our entire body, speech and mind toward the purpose of gaining liberation.”
His Holiness the Karmapa reflected that those students who come to him expressing their difficulties in generating devotion have overlooked this additional, more active, element of devotion.
“It seems many of them appear to view devotion as a way of believing in something or thinking about something,” he remarked. “For example, if they’re in a teacher-disciple relationship, they think having devotion means feeling reverence towards the enlightened qualities of the master’s body, speech and mind. They seem to be missing the quality of continuous commitment and engagement, and the prioritization of achieving liberation.”
In order to cultivate that additional aspect of devotion, His Holiness advised careful introspection to gain clarity as to the purpose of one’s cultivation of devotion. “What is crucial,” he said, “is to be very clear about what your goal is: ‘Why am I developing that trust and confidence? What is the purpose? What goal am I trying to achieve?’ If we just have dry belief alone and are trying to convince ourselves to believe in something, without knowing the purpose or reasons, we may be able to generate some feeling of belief or confidence, but it will not be sufficient.”
Taking the example of Milarepa, the Karmapa emphasized the absolute clarity about his priorities and about his aims that Milarepa had gained as through his regret for his actions earlier in life. It was that clarity, His Holiness said, that allowed Milarepa to harness his entire being toward the aim of liberation and experience an unswerving and intense devotion toward the master guiding him toward that aim.
“If we are very clear about our goal,” he said, “I think the degree to which we gain clarity about what we are striving for will match the degree to which our genuine devotion increases.”
As our devotion increases, the Karmapa said, so too will our meditation practice. Citing the following line of the Tibetan saying he had quoted earlier: “The enhancer of meditation is devotion.”
Acknowledging the presence in the audience of Richard Davidson and other members of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s team investigating the neurological impact of meditation, His Holiness related that he had had conversations about the effects of devotion with some meditators who had been monitored in neurological studies.
“They told me that when they meditate on loving-kindness and compassion there were observable results,” the Karmapa said, “but the results were even clearer when they engaged in the practice of devotion to the guru. I think this harmonizes with the principle that devotion is really the strongest method to make an impact on our meditation.”
Underscoring his comments on the power of devotion, to those wishing to nourish and deepen their meditation practice, the Karmapa said: “Devotion is the most profound method we could rely on for this purpose.”
In concluding, His Holiness spoke from the heart about Mingyur Rinpoche, the spiritual director of the Tergar international community, who embarked on an extended retreat as a wandering yogi, practicing in unknown isolated places for four years.
“A lot of people have been worried,” the Karmapa said. “I have simply been observing it all with great interest, and I think one of the things Mingyur Rinpoche has accomplished in going into this retreat is to provide you with an opportunity to grow in strength so that you can handle a situation like this. So it now occurs to me that if I were to do something similar, it might also be quite fine!”
“Several people came to me and said, ‘I don’t think I will be able to handle it if he is gone much longer.’ But you have handled it, and I would like to thank you on behalf of Mingyur Rinpoche and thank you myself for your wonderful activities in sustaining and continuing his teachings, and for working together with pure intention.”
After a concluding speech by Tergar instructor Edwin Kelley, His Holiness descended the throne and departed the hall, a faint smile playing across his features.

Photography by Lama Sam. Watch the video of this teaching here.


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