Place of Practice: Advice from the Masters

The Grass Mat, Shakyamuni Buddha's Diamond Throne

Now, very late that afternoon, just as the rays of the westering sun gilded the trees with a prodigal burst of glowing color, Gautama rose up like a lion bestirring himself and set out on the way back to his forest hermitage. And there, on the road which the wind had paved with fragrant flowers, the Bodhisattva met a grasscutter by the name of Svastika, And when Svastika saw the Great Being, he gave him eight handfuls of the sweet-scented grass he was carrying.

The Bodhisattva took the grass, intending to make with it a seat for sitting in deep meditation.

In Gautama’s forest grove hermitage near Gaya there was a spreading pipal tree; and on coming to it the Bodhisattva regarded it with an eye of supernormal intuition and perceived that the pipal was a “Bodhi tree”—a tree under which a Bodhisattva might sit to attain the transcendental Wisdom of Buddhahood.

He took his bundle of grass and shook it out under the tree to form a seat on the eastern side of the tree trunk. And he seated himself cross-legged upon the mat of grass which had assumed a shape so perfect that not even the most skillful painter or carver could have designed it. This was indeed the Diamond Throne of Enlightenment!

From The Buddha: His Life Retold, by Robert Allen Mitchell. Reprinted with permission from Paragon House.


Milarepa at his Cave

One day, Milarepa’s patrons from Dro Tang came to visit him. They asked him what benefits Junpan Nanka Tsang had to offer. In reply, Milarepa sang:

I pray to my Guru, the Holy One.

Listen, my patrons, and I will tell you

the merits of this place.

In the goodly quiet of this Sky Castle of Junpan

High above, dark clouds gather;

Deep blue and far below flows the River Tsang.

At my back the Red Rock of Heaven rises;

At my feet, wild flowers bloom, vibrant and profuse;

At my cave’s edge [wild] beasts roam, roar, and grunt;

In the sky vultures and eagles circle freely,

While from heaven drifts the drizzling rain.

Bees hum and buzz with their chanting;

Mares and foals gambol and gallop wildly;

The brook chatters past pebbles and rocks;

Through the trees monkeys leap and swing;

And larks carol in sweet song.

The timely sounds I hear are all my fellows.

The merits of this place are inconceivable—

I now relate them to you in this song.

From The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, translated and annotated
by Garma C. C. Chang. Reprinted with permission from Carol Publishing
Group. Milarepa at Junpan Nanka Tsang


Where to Sit?

Find yourself a quiet place, a secluded place, a place where you will be alone. It doesn’t have to be some ideal spot in the middle of a forest. That’s nearly impossible for most of us, but it should be a place where you feel comfortable, and where you won’t be disturbed. It should also be a place where you won’t feel on display. You want all of your attention free for meditation, not wasted on worries about how you look to others. Try to pick a spot that is as quiet as possible. It doesn’t have to be a soundproof room, but there are certain noises that are highly distracting, and they should be avoided. Music and talking are about the worst. The mind tends to be sucked in by these sounds in an uncontrollable manner, and there goes your concentration.

There are certain traditional aids that you can employ to set the proper mood. A darkened room with a candle is nice. Incense is nice. A little bell to start and end your sessions is nice. These are paraphernalia, though. They provide encouragement to some people, but they are by no means essential to the practice.

You will probably find it helpful to sit in the same place each time. A special spot reserved for meditation and nothing else is an aid for many people. You soon come to associate that spot with the tranquility of deep concentration, and that association helps you to reach deep states more quickly. The main thing is to sit in a place that you feel is conducive to your own practice. That requires a bit of experimentation. Try several spots until you find one where you feel comfortable. You only need to find a place where you don’t feel self-conscious, and where you can meditate without undue distraction.

From Mindfulness in Plain English, by Henepola Gunaratana. Reprinted with permission from Wisdom Publications.


Where to Retreat?

Where should a properly qualified person retreat? Will any place do? No—it should be a place that gives you a feeling of reality, not one that is a big hallucination, a polluted projection of the deluded mind.

Sometimes we are not so wise; we try to meditate in a place that’s like a furnace and complain when we can’t take it any longer. If you stick your finger into a fire, it’ll get burnt. You can’t then get upset, “My finger’s burning!” A fire’s nature is to burn. It’s up to you to choose the appropriate mandala for the way in which you want to develop...just like you choose shoes that fit your feet!

Of course, if you have great mind control, you can go anywhere; your controlled vibration will even affect others. But if you are weak, the uncontrolled vibration of those around you affects you; even your small candlelight of wisdom will be blown out, and you will end up in a samsaric supermarket situation. In retreat, we are, in fact, trying to gain control over our minds—but we are babies with a long way to go, when it comes to that. Baby minds need ideal conditions.

In the lama’s experience, the ideal place is a beautiful, natural environment where the atmosphere is quiet, peaceful, and relaxed, where you can see snowy mountains and there are wild flowers, medicinal plants, pleasing, natural smells, and fresh, clean water. You should avoid places that are dirty, close to roads, traffic, and people, or dangerous, or where poisonous plants grow. You should not retreat in a place where you automatically feel insecure and nervous.

Places where holy beings live are excellent: they have a good vibration that I am sure Westerners, who are very sensitive, can feel. Such ideal places are usually very isolated. In Tibet, we used to study in the monasteries and qualify for retreats as explained above, and then go to an isolated place to meditate. These places were extremely simple, not like the Western luxury “retreats” to which rich people escape when they do not want to meet anybody. Westerners really know how to enjoy themselves, even in isolation! However, it is all done out of self-cherishing. Ascetics’ retreats are exactly the opposite.

You can also retreat in a monastery or at a dharma center. In the East, many meditators used to retreat near cemeteries. Such places are usually quiet. You build your hut some distance away from the part of the cemetery that people come to and, with deep understanding of impermanence and death, retreat. The place where you retreat is very important.

A proper place is not necessarily important for everybody, but it is for us. Our minds are like those of babies: easily influenced by external conditions. Actually, our minds are worse than those of babies. Babies grasp at whatever they see, but not only do we grasp at things we see, we intellectualize as well. Also, our wisdom is limited. Therefore, we must put ourselves into the right environment. If our minds were free from confusion, we would have no need to worry about the environment; we wouldn’t even need to retreat on Vajrasattva.

From The Tantric Path of Purification, by Lama Thubten Yeshe. Reprinted with permission from Wisdom Publications.


It is very important to think carefully about the place in which you are putting yourself—not only where you are going to retreat, but also where you are going to live. Decide what you want to learn, and live near where you can be taught. In Western cities you can choose your environment quite easily. If you want to spend your time at the movies, you can live near a cinema. You have the freedom to do that. In other words, you have some control over your karma, the way your life develops. You cannot say that you are powerless to choose anything because it all depends upon your karma. You can create your karma. Your environment depends upon your karma, and you have the ability to direct it. For example, if you want to retreat, you arrange the circumstances so that you can do so. That is creating karma. The result is that you get the chance to retreat and develop your wisdom.

The conclusion is that you have to choose your retreat place very carefully. The best place is one in which you feel secure in the knowledge that from beginning to end there will be no distractions. Of course, there is no real security in our insecure samsaric lives, but somehow you should feel that the place you have chosen is as good as it is possible to find, and that you will be able to retreat there effectively.

From The Zen Monastic Experience: Buddhist Practice in Contemporary Korea, by Robert E. Buswell, Jr. Reprinted with permission from Princeton University Press.

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