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
Milarepa, the great 11th century Tibetan sage, was renowned for his cave-dwelling practices

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.

Where to Sit?
Henepola Gunaratana

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?
Lama Thubten Yeshe

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.
The Charnel Ground
Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa

The charnel-ground-dweller’s practice is undertaken with one of the following statements:

'I refuse what is not a charnel ground’ or 'I undertake the charnel-ground-dweller’s practice.’

Now the charnel-ground dweller should not live in some place just because the people who built the village have called it �the charnel ground,’ for it is not a charnel ground unless a dead body has been burnt on it. But as soon as one has been burnt on it, it becomes a charnel ground. And even if it has been neglected for a dozen years, it is so still.

One who dwells there should not be the sort of person who gets walks, pavilions, etc., built, has beds and chairs set out and drinking and washing water kept ready, and preaches Dhamma; for this ascetic practice is a momentous thing. Whoever goes to live there should be diligent. And he should first inform the senior elder of the Order or the king’s local representative in order to prevent trouble. When he walks 

up and down, he should do so looking at the pyre with half an eye. On his way to the charnel ground he should avoid the main roads and take a bypath. He should define all the objects [there] while it is day, so that they will not assume frightening shapes for him at night. Even if non-human beings wander about screeching, he must not hit them with anything. It is not allowed to miss going to the charnel ground even for a single day. The reciters of the Anguttara say that after spending the middle watch in the charnel ground he is allowed to leave in the last watch. He should not take such foods as sesamum flour, pease pudding, fish, meat, milk, oil, sugar, etc., which are liked by non-human beings. He should not enter the homes of families. These are the directions for it.

This has three grades too. Herein, one who is strict should live where there are always burning and corpses and mourning. The medium one is allowed to live where there is one of these three. The mild one is allowed to live in a place that possesses the bare characteristics of a charnel ground already stated.

When any one of these three makes his abode in some place not a charnel ground, his ascetic practice is broken. It is on the day on which he does not go to the charnel ground, the Anguttara reciters say. This is the breach in this case.

The benefits are these. He acquires mindfulness of death; he lives diligently; the sign of foulness is available; greed for sense desires is removed; he constantly sees the body’s true nature; he has a great sense of urgency; he abandons vanity of health, etc.; he vanquishes fear and dread; non-human beings respect and honor him; he lives in conformity with [the principles of] fewness of wishes, and so on.

From The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), by Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa, translated from the Pali by Bhikku Nanamoli. Reprinted with permission from Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka.

Greater Steps on the Path
Je Tsongkapa

The first condition is to do your meditation staying in a place which is conducive for it. The place should have five different qualities:
a) It should be a place with things that are “easy to find,” in the sense that you can find food, clothing, and other necessities without any trouble.
b) It should be a “good place,” in the sense that there are no fearful creatures like wild animals or the like, nor any persons like enemies who would try to harm you.
c) It should have a “good environment,” in the sense that the environment doesn’t cause any kinds of sickness to develop in you.
d) There should be “good friends” there, in the sense that your companions in the place share your sense of morality, and your world view.
e) The place should have “goodness,” in the sense that during the day, there should not be many people around and during the night, there should not be many sounds.

As the Jewel of the Sutra says,
The place where intelligent people practice
Should have things that are good to find.
It should be a good place, with a good environment.
A place where good friends stay,
With all the practitioner needs, with ease.

From the Greater Steps on the Path by Je Tsongkapa (1357-1419), translated by Geshe Michael Roach. Reprinted with permission from Asian Classics Institute.


Image 1: A woman meditating near the bodhi tree under which the Buddha gained enlightenment, Bodh Gaya, India.
Image 2: Milarepa sitting in his cave. A detail of an 18th century Tibetan tangka, courtesy of John Bigelow Taylor.
Image 3: From the inside looking out, the cave of the great sage Padampa Sangye in the foothills of Mount Bahla, Tibet, courtesy of Matthieu Ricard.
Image 4: Image courtesy of Katherine L. O'Brien.
Image 5: An excerpt from the Tibetan text of Greater Steps on the Path.
Image 6: An urban closet converted to a meditation chamber, courtesy of Sally Boon. 

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