Do Nothing

A guided meditation by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche

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Winter Light

I’m going to talk a little about shamatha meditation, and I thought it would be good to try and actually do the meditation as we go along. The actual technique is very simple. All the great meditators of the past advised us to sit up straight when we meditate. When we sit up straight, there is a sense of alertness, a sense of importance—it produces the right atmosphere. In this particular instruction, I’m going to suggest we don’t use an external object, such as a flower, but instead follow the standard Theravada tradition of using our breath as the object. So we concentrate on our breathing: we simply follow our breath in and out. That’s it. Our mind is focused on the breathing, our posture is straight, our eyes are open. That’s the essential technique: basically doing nothing.

Let’s do that for a while.

Short meditation session

We simply sit straight and we watch our breathing. We are not concerned with distractions, with all the thoughts that occupy our mind. We just sit—alone, by ourselves, no reference at all. Us, the breathing, and the concentration. That’s all we have.

Short meditation session

So we sit, we concentrate on the breathing, nothing else. Then some thoughts may come, and any number of distractions: things you talked about yesterday, movies you watched last week, a conversation you just had, things you need to do tomorrow, a sudden panic—did I switch off the gas in the kitchen this morning? All of this will come, and when it does, go back to the breathing. This is the slogan of shamatha instruction: just come back. Every time we notice that we’ve gotten distracted, we remember the instruction and we come back to the breath. Let’s do this for a while.

Short meditation session

If we have ambitions—even if our aim is enlightenment—then there is no meditation, because we are thinking about it, craving it, fantasizing, imagining things. That is not meditation. This is why an important characteristic of shamatha meditation is to let go of any goal and simply sit for the sake of sitting. We breathe in and out, and we just watch that. Nothing else. It doesn’t matter if we get enlightenment or not. It doesn’t matter if our friends get enlightened faster. Who cares? We are just breathing. We just sit straight and watch the breath in and out. Nothing else. We let go of our ambitions. This includes trying to do a perfect shamatha meditation. We should get rid of even that. Just sit.

The beautiful thing about having less obsessions and ambitions—and just sitting straight and watching the breathing—is that nothing will disturb us. Things only disturb us when we have an aim. When we have an aim, we become obsessed. Say our aim is to go somewhere, but somebody parks right in front of our car, blocking us. If something gets in the way of our aim, it becomes a terrible thing. If we don’t have an aim, though, it doesn’t matter.

Meditators often have a strong ambition to achieve something with their meditation. But when meditators get distracted, they go through all kinds of hell: they lose their confidence, they get frustrated, they condemn themselves, they condemn the technique. This is why, at least during the first few moments of meditation, it doesn’t matter whether we are getting enlightened or not, it doesn’t matter whether the hot water is boiling in the kettle, it doesn’t matter whether the telephone is ringing, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s one of our friends. For a few moments, things don’t matter.

Short meditation session

Garden MeditationYou don’t have to meditate for the sake of attaining enlightenment. If you are not interested in enlightenment, you can practice shamatha to be natural—to not be so swayed by circumstances. Most of the time we are not in control of ourselves; our mind is always attracted to, or distracted by, something—our enemies, our lovers, our friends, hope, fear, jealousy, pride, attachment, aggression. In other words, all these objects and these phenomena control our mind. Maybe we can control it for a split second, but when we are in an extreme emotional state, we lose it.

Letting go of ambition is a bit like the renunciation that Buddhists talk about. The Buddha renounced his palace, his queen, his son, and his parents, and went out in search of enlightenment. You can say that the Buddha was trying to diminish his ambition. At least, he was trying to see the futility of it, and he was letting go. Letting go is quite important if you want to become a shamatha practitioner. We do shamatha meditation so we can achieve this power to let go.

Meditation is one of the rare occasions when we’re not doing anything. Otherwise, we’re always doing something, we’re always thinking something, we’re always occupied. We get lost in millions of obsessions or fixations. But by meditating—by not doing anything—all these fixations are revealed. Beginners might find this a little frightening, but slowly they will gain inner confidence, and these fixations will automatically lessen. The classical meditation instruction texts say our obsessions will undo themselves like a snake uncoiling itself.

Short meditation session

Thoughts are coming and I’m telling you to go back to the breathing. You automatically interpret this as “We should stop the thoughts.” This is not what I mean. I’m not saying you should stop thinking. All I’m saying is, concentrate on the breathing. When thoughts come, don’t stop them, don’t increase them, don’t encourage them, don’t discourage them. Your job is to concentrate on the breathing. That’s it. Stopping the thoughts is not your job. It’s important to understand the difference: thoughts are going to come; all you do is just concentrate on the breathing. That’s it.

Short meditation session

Lord Maitreya has some really good advice for shamatha practice: When we are doing shamatha and the mind gets distracted, it is important that we remember the antidote. The antidote here is very simply to go back to the breath. We call this “Applying the antidote.” But sometimes we apply the antidote too much, which can cause both dullness and agitation. You got that? If you keep applying the antidote—antidote, antidote, antidote—it’s like applying the antidote when there’s no poison. That becomes a problem.

Short meditation session

Always do short but frequent shamatha sessions. I’m talking especially to beginners. If you’re going to meditate for fifteen minutes, start fresh at least thirty times. Over time we can start doing longer sessions—in a fifteenminute session, we can do it fifteen times with a break in between. And when you take a break, take a real break—walk, stand up, do something else. Don’t just linger there half meditating, half not meditating. After a while, you can practice seven times within fifteen minutes.

Keeping it short is important because if you do too much at the beginning, you’ll get fed up with the technique. We are human beings—we don’t like to get bored. We like to change what we eat, we like changing our clothes. We like change.

Likewise, the spiritual path is a long process, and we need a lot of patience. We need to like the path, so keep the meditation short and precise and frequent. That way we develop strong habits. Later on, it becomes part of us. It’s like drinking alcohol: when we first start drinking, we drink a little; we don’t drink two or three bottles at one time. If we did, we’d get so sick we’d never touch it again. So practice shamatha for a short time but many times. That way you’ll get habituated. This is necessary. Shamatha should become part of your life.

And during the off sessions, also, if it’s possible, remember you are breathing. We always forget that we are breathing.

Also, you should not limit your meditation to only in the morning or only in the evening: you should do it any time, all the time. Practice time is always now—it’s never in the future. Don’t ever leave your shamatha thinking, “I’m going to do it next weekend, next month, or next year.” Do it now. Anyway, you’re only doing it for about forty-five seconds, if you’re a beginner. It’s easy. You can do it anywhere. It only requires this: to sit straight.

Short meditation session

As we meditate, we simply sit straight and watch the breath. So what does that do? It creates space. In fact, the technique itself is just a trick. The main point is to recognize all these thoughts and distractions that are constantly bombarding us. We still get angry, but we know that we are angry—this kind of anger has so much humor. We can actually drive it in certain directions—we have more control.

The frustrating thing about our life is that there is no control over these emotions. That’s why there’s no fun. The whole purpose of Buddhism is to have fun, isn’t it? And in order to have fun you have to have control. If someone else has control over you, that’s it: there’s no fun.

Short meditation session

Shamatha involves a lot of discipline. Lamas often advise us to do meditation in a group, because when we are doing meditation in a group, we want to be the best, the fastest; we have so much pride and ego, and we’re so competitive—why not use this competitiveness as a tool on the path? It’s like working out—if you buy the machines and bring them home, you do three or four days and the machines end up in the garage. But if you go to a gym, you see the other people who are diligently doing it, and all the other beautiful bodies, and it gives you inspiration. What a wrong motivation! But at least it will lead you somewhere.

Keep it simple, don’t make it complicated. Concentrate on the breathing, sit straight—that’s all. Every day, do a few minutes, and, on top of that, do it spontaneously in different places—not just in front of the shrine, but everywhere. There’s so much merit in just sitting there.

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche was born in Bhutan in 1961 and is recognized as the main incarnation of Dzongsar Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö (18941959). From early childhood, he has studied with some of the greatest contemporary masters, including His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. He has established dharma centers in Asia, North America, Australia, and Europe.

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This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.'s picture

I often feel I am not being mindful but it is from having a lazy mind. I often let the phone ring without answering it. I sleep through job interviews, I spend money on tickets and then don't attend. I am a vegetarian but I still eat food with a lot of artificial flavorings and preservatives. For me just setting my alarm means there is a chance I might get up out of bed, so often I feel there is something wrong with me, and when I try to mask over my predicament people catch on right away. The truth is I have ambition but I am my own worst enemy in sabotaging my plans, often times I try to sit for a full session and get up after fifteen or twenty minutes. Is there something wrong with me or am I too negligent to carry out responsibilities anymore, these are the things I ask myself when I feel like staying in the house and never leaving.

NancyLanceAlot's picture

Thank you, Rinpoche, for thoughtful and accessible instructions and reminders. Reading your book Why You Are Not a Buddhist with my elderly friend--we were both astonished to read that the Tibetan word for "happiness" can be translated as "having control" and that "unhappiness" is "being under the control of others" (or something similar to this). This makes good sense! And therefore the more we can surrender our illusions of being "in control/not in control," the more happiness we can experience.'s picture

I definitely sometimes feel a strong sense of wanting enlightenment, or at least ambitiously moving in that "direction" when I'm meditating, and yes, I've noticed it is quite an obstacle! I know that there are people who shun anything that comes from Tibet, or whatever...they say its magical, innovative, has nothing to do with what the Buddha taught. I don't want to criticize that approach too much, I can see the obvious value in trying to preserve something you see as absolute truth, or the most important thing, but it disturbs me, in the same way that Christian fundamentalism scared me away from the church about a decade ago. And I think its more than a little disingenuous to imply that every Mahayana devotee or practitioner doesn't have an understanding of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. I want to understand and practice the dharma as best I can: I don't want suffering, and I don't want others to suffer. But I also want religious harmony! When I look out and I see that every major religion on the planet has fundamentalists who say they understand the true way of the religion (whereas others do not) and that their religion is the only religion with any truth, any ultimate value...and likely doing anything else will result in hellfire and damnation, continual rebirth in the lower realms, etc etc...What a horrible environment for a human being to be born into during an age of globalization! With that approach in mind, it seems like a crap shoot...which religion do I choose? I hope I don't make the wrong choice!!!! or conversely, I reject all of them! They are all superstitious camps full of arrogant, deluded people.

But then, I also see compassionate, gentle, wise approaches that surface in every religion as well. Maybe I just like gentleness, compassion, joy and clarity....maybe I am just attached to those things? In the end I am very confused...and perhaps "just sitting" might be beneficial afterall

In the end, what I have found is this: the comment section on any website, including this one, really tends to agitate my mind. I hope others can be free of this my current torment!

johnmarder's picture

It is true that there are quite a lot of Buddhists who think their tradition is right and all the others are wrong, I think that it is only natural and noble to question that. I believe if you carry on seeking gentleness, compassion, joy and clarity you will cease to be tormented.

John Haspel's picture

The Buddha consistently taught Shamatha-Vipassana meditation throughout the 45 years that he presented his Dhamma. He taught that effective meditation must include both shamatha, the development of a tranquil mind through mindfulness of the breath, and vipassana, insight into impermanence, the ego-self, and the on-going distraction of stress. In order for Shamatha-Vipassana meditation to be effective in developing a calm and tranquil mind, allowing for useful insight to arise, he taught an Eightfold Path.

Shamatha-Vipassana meditation is one factor of the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is the Fourth Noble Truth, the truth of the path developing the cessation of clinging, confusion, delusion and stress. Diminishing or dismissing the Four Noble Truths and the included path to lasting peace and happiness negates the original teachings of the Buddha resulting in a “practice” of “doing nothing.”

The Buddha did not spend 45 years teaching that there was merit to be gained by “just sitting.” The Buddha awakened to Dependent Origination - that through 12 observable causative links confusion, delusion and aimless suffering arise. (There is nothing that implies “interdependence” in the Buddha’s teachings on Dependent Origination.)

He taught The Four Noble Truths to present a context for developing understanding and wisdom and he taught The Eightfold Path to develop understanding and wisdom to bring an end to ignorance.

There is nothing difficult or inaccessible about the Buddha’s path to awakening. Anyone can engage with the original teachings and develop a life of lasting peace and happiness.

Awakening as the Buddha describes awakening does require a framework for meditation and an understanding of the context of the Dhamma. It does require more than just sitting.

John Haspel

tamara's picture

How do you know that? Plenty of Zen practitioners would differ...

johnmcclaf's picture

I appreciate all advice and guidance that will help us that are not Monastics.
One of the most attractive aspects of Buddha's teaching is lack of dogma.
This article should not be viewed as aligned or misaligned but rather as how useful.
This article is very useful to me.

kammie's picture

What a beautiful piece, one for cutting out and saving, to return to again and again. It brings such a relieving quiet, seeming to still the jangling by just pointing it out.

johnmcclaf's picture

I agree completely. Simple direct and effective. I have copied and printed it for my personal "recipe book" for a better life.

aepeck77's picture

Hello everyone! My first entry on this Forum. I found this article wonderfully refreshing -- very helpful. Alex (from Australia)

safwan's picture

The Buddha did not sit for the sake of sitting nor he taught that Buddhism is about counting breath. Meditation or chanting are not goals in themselves but the proper fule for further action to relieve people from sufferings. To sit for the sake of sitting sounds like to eat for the sake of eating! The Buddha employed his great wisdom to compassionately teach and help people. And the Four Bodhisattva Vows reveal the spirit of altruism and actions without which there is no Buddhism.

chuntstudio's picture

I have noticed that the awareness that comes from sitting has helped me have more patience and wisdom in my relationships. I handle conflict and stress with greater ease because usually I notice what is happening and I notice with greater clarity that my loved ones and the community at large are struggling, just like me. This increases my patience and indeed opens my heart toward them.

kpinch's picture

O save me from these fuelled-up saviors. The Buddha taught the cessation of suffering. Go and read the Anapanasati sutta.

marginal person's picture

Read enough suttas and the Buddha (and Buddhism) can be anyone (or anything) you wish him (or it) to be.
This is Buddha as the " Great Cosmic Mirror" reflecting back all our projections. Eerily similiar to what we do to Jesus.
My Buddha is Buddha the agnostic, the reasonable sage. My Jesus is Jesus the revolutionary, the one who chases the moneylenders from the temple.
Good stories but just stories. What's your story?

Dominic Gomez's picture

You approach a major teaching of Buddhism, MP: "the buddha" is life itself. Your life, my life, the life of the universe. No Great Cosmic Mirror or Almighty Deity up there. Just reason and common sense within.

Dominic Gomez's picture

But "the whole purpose of Buddhism is to have fun, isn’t it?" according to the writer. :-D

jespersr's picture

Really! It's the first time I've ever heard any Buddhist teacher say that. It's especially odd coming from this person, who is one of the most acerbic and dispassionate lamas you'll ever meet. Fun?! But here, he makes other excellent points and I did find them helpful and confirming of intuitions arising in my practice. Thanks, Tricycle, for the broad spectrum of views you present.

Dominic Gomez's picture

More likely the idea is that practicing Buddhism is enjoyable, rather than a painful austerity!

silcarry's picture

Of all the books, and articles and classes . For me, the most helpful "tool" has been an article of yours in "Gentle Voice" (march 2008), which I printed and keep with me, just in case....
As you said somewhere, once one gets the "hang of it" , is possible to meditate anywhere, anytime....sooooo I try to meditate whenever possible, just this morning, (and is 8:37AM) I meditated while eating a banana (slowly sensing every bite, feeling how the little pieces got between the teeth..., the texture, the thinking about it, just feeling) , lets face it, if I didn't do that, all I'd been doing was "eating".
The purpose of the whole thing? ...."just" enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings...One has to start somewhere....this is a looooooooooooong road trip and every step counts (including the multiple steps back)
All that said, while my root guru is wonderful...he is NO assassin... I wish you came to teach in NY.

In the Dharma

masouth's picture

i have been meditating for several years now with the help of Holosync. i always love to get to that blissful state, but reading this, i think i will enjoy meditating without the Holosync since it's such an easy format to follow. thank you and namaste.

Camille Martinez's picture

Although I had studied this article before, today a new perspective jumped out.

I have slowly been understanding... Change.  Life is change.  (Boy is that a concentrated statement).  The article states:  "We are human beings—we don’t like to get bored. We like to change what we eat, we like changing our clothes. We like change."

I am struck! Those statements hit me! I am designed.  I am laughing!  No wonder I am miserable reconstructing the past or trying to orchestrate the future.  I am designed.  I am by design created for change.  I am laughing!


frankalan's picture

You said:

"Meditators often have a strong ambition to achieve something with their meditation."

One of the precepts I practice in my daily life is that of detachment from outcome; doing what I need/have/want to do, but not being emotionally involved in the result.

Funnily enough, I've never really thought about that with my "formal" meditations though. I've gotten pretty stressed at times when I can't seem to quiet my mind for whatever external/internal reasons.

Thanks for the article and for sharing your heart.


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