Get your Facts Straight about Meditation with Montreal's Gen Donsang


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"Your age doesn't matter," said the teacher to Gen Donsang once upon a time, "All you need to do is seriously engage in the Buddhist practices and have a good heart." At only 35 years old, Gen Donsang is a Buddhist monk belonging to the Kadampa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. He is also the resident teacher at the Kadampa Meditation Centre in Montreal (KMC Montreal), located not even 5 minutes away from the Laurier subway station on 835 Laurier East.

Gen Donsang was not always Buddhist. In fact, his parents were non-practicing Roman Catholics who allowed their son to explore different types of spirituality. At one time, he was studying social sciences, where he touched upon psychology and philosophy. At first, Gen Donsang wasn't very interested in spirituality. "My interest in Eastern religion philosophies was more of a philosophical questioning," he said. Just like others in their late teens, Gen Donsang found some philosophies quite appealing and started to read about them. One thing leading to another, he eventually met with a Tibetan teacher. "That's the form of Buddhism I'm practicing nowadays," he said, "however, it's not typically Tibetan Buddhism because it's a Tibetan teacher who adapted Tibetan Buddhism to the modern world." He also insisted that they study everything that is presented at Buddhist universities.

(Photo Property of Visually Tasteful)

Buddhism appealed to Gen Donsang mainly because of its non-theistic and non-dogmatic approach. "Eventually, the ritual itself got kind of untangled and explained in a way that made sense to me," he said. He also mentioned that his family and friends were pleased with his new interest, especially seeing how his life was changing for the better due to meditation.

Gen Donsang generously offered his time to speak about his own experience with meditation and meditation in general. By doing so, he untangled a lot of the misconceptions held in the Western world about this practice. Read up, guys, and get your facts straight!

In what ways did meditation change your life?

Well, my mind used to be a big mess and now it's just a smaller one. Meditating has helped me in cleaning it up, making my mind more peaceful and more open to others. It has also helped in making my mind more positive and uplifted than before. I'm a lot calmer and equipoised--so many benefits. It's just so difficult to describe in one sentence.

Can anyone articulate the meditative state and if you can does it require self-awareness or a consciousness that then implicates a lack of a meditative state?

Generally explained, meditation is a mental action in which we focus our mind on one particular positive or virtuous object that functions to make the mind peaceful. So, we learn to generate and to maintain a positive state of mind. There are many different techniques to do that. There are preliminary meditation practices that mainly use the breath and basic forms of meditation, then moving on to more subtle and complex objects of meditation. The method is basically the same in which we choose one focal point, one object of meditation, and we try to maintain our attention. When our mind wanders or becomes dull and confused, we try to restore mindfulness. We try to be mindful of the object and bring it back to the mind again. What happens is that all of our mental chatter quiets down. It's a little bit like stopping the churning of murky water; the water eventually becomes clear and peaceful. That's the general principle. The aim is to attain a state of equipoise, we call shamata in Sanskrit, which is when the mind is maintained single-pointedly on one object without effort, without mental sinking or excitement. That's the goal: to reach that point where meditation is effortless.

Is that also a kind of nirvana?

It leads to Nirvana. The Buddhist definition of nirvana is the permanent cessation of all mental afflictions and delusions. When your mind is permanently free from anger, jealousy, pride or whatever it is that afflicts and agitates the mind, your mind is permanently equipoised, in peace, which is what we call nirvana. Shamata is merely like a roadblock; it's not the end of the road. You attain shamata and then eventually a special type of insight comes from having the mind perfectly equipoised. It makes you able to continue to observe or understand the object of meditation on deeper levels without disturbing mental peace. This is what we call vipassana or superior seeing. Eventually, the attainment of the union of shamata and vipassana and meditating on the ultimate nature of reality will finally lead to a permanent cessation of all delusions. What I mean by the ultimate nature of reality is the teachings on selflessness. So, it's an understanding. It's almost metaphysical, actually. Buddha explains that it is a philosophical view that is beyond the view of existence or non-existence. We call that the middle way. It's a philosophical view about the nature of all phenomenon. Having obtained this level of equipoise, shamata, and the wisdom of superior, vipassana, the union of the two, allow you to have a very powerful meditation to penetrate, if you will, the nature of reality.

Have you personally experienced that?

No. [laughs] One who has would not even say it... What is essential to know is how to attain it, not who has. Eventually, your mind is equipoised and wise enough to really understand the nature of phenomena and that's basically the gateway to nirvana. What opens the door to nirvana is this experience of emptiness.

Being the resident teacher of Montreal's Kadampa Meditation Centre, what is the type or types of meditation you teach? What is your approach?

Well, there is an introduction to meditation where we first approach basic posture, breathing meditation and understanding of the different mental factors or parts of the mind that are used during the process of meditation. Sometimes, we elaborate a little bit on the different levels of concentration that are eventually attained in the direction of tranquil abiding shamata in a very general and accessible way so that everyone can begin with meditation. So that's one thing. Then, there's the introduction to Buddhist philosophy where we take basic philosophical views of Buddhism and explore at an introductory level. We then end up finding an object of meditation that comes from the teachings, placing the mind on that object of meditation and trying to apply this understanding to our daily life. So, that's the introduction to Buddhist philosophy. We also offer more advanced classes where we study classic Buddhist texts in a really dedicated and rigorous way where people have exams. It is basically what is taught in Tibetan monastic universities. Eventually, there is another program: the teacher-training program. This is a program where we actually create teachers, qualified Kadampa teachers, who studied all the classic curriculum and also engaged in the meditative practices and meditation retreats that are required to become a qualified teacher.

It's truly amazing that you offer different types of courses for different purposes!

Yeah, for all levels!

What are the benefits of meditation--for the individual and the community?

Well, basically, happiness and suffering are states of mind. If your mind is peaceful, you're happy no matter how bad outer conditions may be. If your mind is miserable, you're suffering no matter how good outer conditions may be. Those are plain and simple. Essentially, everyone wants to be happy. Happiness is impossible if your mind is not peaceful and meditation's the cause for happiness.

And in the Western world, everybody is so wrapped up with materialism.

Yes, with money, with jobs--

The anxiety of it all!

Yes, we just think that all of these things are going to bring us happiness. For people in the West, the drama is that a lot of us are actually able to access or to have quite a bit of success from a worldly perspective and end up being completely empty and more miserable than before. Practicing meditation doesn't mean that you throw everything out of a window; it just means that you understand that these things such as material success are not going to bring you any happiness at all. Of course, you still try to feed your family, get a proper home and things like that, but if you understand that these things are not going to bring happiness in and of themselves, then you're a step closer to understanding the purpose of meditation and also your actual need for meditation. I think everyone needs to meditate. Everyone wants to be happy and happiness is impossible without a peaceful mind, and meditation being the cause for a peaceful mind... You know, peaceful people are not looking for trouble. When your mind is peaceful and happy, why would you bug anyone? Why would you look for trouble?

There's just no purpose...

Those who harm others are doing so because their minds are uncontrolled and because they're unhappy. Happy people? No problem for society. So, yeah, I think for the individual and for our community, meditation is very essential. It doesn't have to be specifically Buddhist. Buddhists do not own peace of mind. [laughs] It's not labeled Buddhist.

That's true. Meditation does carry that label.

You can try to reach deeper states of inner peace using whatever method or calling it whatever you want. This is why we offer the introductory stage of meditation classes where people are completely free. There is no conversion to Buddhism. People just explore these things and try to integrate them in their lives and take what is helpful for them and leave out what isn't or what they don't want.

Right. And if they're more interested, they can take the secondary course--the one involving the introduction to Buddhist philosophy.

Exactly. Personally, if it weren't for all this untangling and deep explanation of the actual philosophical ideas, I wouldn't have been here today. At first glance, everything looks like any other religion--dogmatic and all. The way things are explained and understood in Buddhism is basically the reason why I am still here. With a normal theistic and dogmatic approach, I wouldn't have been here today because it wouldn't have resonated with me. For other people, it might've worked but not for me.

Do you recommend meditating with or without a mantra?

Mantra is a Sanskrit word that actually means protection. Ultimately, mantra is mind. It's not word; it's not speech. Essentially, mantra is mind and so, if you're able to generate a state of mind that is an actual mantra--a mind protection--then you don't need to say anything. We say, from mind, intention manifests as word. For example, one of the main mantras used in Tibetan Buddhism is "OM MANI PEME HUM." This mantra literally means the jewel inside the lotus. It has nothing to do with flowers and jewels. The lotus is a symbol for obtaining enlightenment. It means that we grow in mud just as the lotus does at the bottom of a swamp. When the lotus blooms, it's completely pure and unsoiled by the mud. We say that everyone is living in the state of suffering, but eventually, we attain a state of inner purity that is completely unstained by suffering and the state of previous livings--samsara. The jewel inside the lotus represents the cause for the blossoming of the lotus, which is compassion in this case--the wish for others to be free from suffering. When you recite "OM MANI PEME HUM, OM MANI PEME HUM, OM MANI PEME HUM" it's basically a meditation. So, when you recite that, you're thinking, "may all living beings without exception be free from suffering. May they attain permanent inner peace." And reciting "OM MANI PEME HUM" is kind of like creating a screen around your mind. We say that's it's like a flickering flame that doesn't allow you to read anything, but if you put a screen around it, then everything becomes stable and you are able to see.

I like that it's a compassionate mantra that's not only about oneself but also about others!

It's mainly about others, which means that you're very peaceful. If you don't think about your stuff, you don't have any problems. "OM MANI PEME HUM" keeps your mind on the object, in this case compassion. Also, you can use another mantra to meditate on another object either wisdom or love for example. Mantras are used in that way. When we recite mantras, we're actually placing our mind on a particular object and the mantra then serves as a screen or a protection to stabilize the concentration. It's not like a magical formula; it's really a tool for meditation. Eventually, as I said, the ultimate mantra is mind, so there's no sound. Using the mantra is one step on the path, but eventually your mind becomes that mantra. You don't have to recite anything. Ultimately, your mind becomes "OM MANI PEME HUM." You don't have to say any more. It starts by actual recitation; then, it becomes a more subtle recitation until you reach a point where recitation is no longer needed.

When would you say is the best time of day to meditate and why?

It really depends on each individual. For some people, it takes two or three hours until their eyes are not in their sockets anymore. Maybe those who try to meditate in the morning just end up sitting there with a foggy mind and get no results. Some people prefer to meditate at night, others in the morning. Basically, we just have to be aware of the state of our mind. We need to meditate when our mind is fresh, when it's alert because meditating doesn't mean sitting down and sleeping; that's called sleeping. Sitting with your mind wandering everywhere is not called meditating; it's called daydreaming. Real meditation means being perfectly alert and completely relaxed, so your mind is sharp, alert and clear--yeah, equipoised.

And how long should one meditate for? I assume that it also depends.

Again, it depends. We have to enjoy our meditation. You know, if you twist your rubber arm and you hate what you're doing, you're going to meditate for two weeks and give it up. The trick is to start with whatever works for you. You have to do it with a happy mind. So if you're able to meditate for 5 or 10 minutes with a happy mind, well that's what it is; however, as soon as you start feeling like you're pushing yourself, you should give it up. Even if you meditate for 5 minutes and you stop for 10-15 minutes; you can always sit back down and try again. The more you enjoy, the more you're going to want to engage in it. We have to build on something that we already have; we need to start with a level of inner peace and build on that. I mean, if we start by beating ourselves up, we're going to give it up pretty soon. And, one of the main problems when people start meditating is thinking that they should meditate. For as long as someone thinks, "I should meditate," you're going to give it up and that's a given. In order to transform this idea from "I should meditate" to "I want to meditate," you just have to go through that simple equation that I talked about earlier: Happiness comes from peace of mind and peace of mind comes from meditation. If you want to be happy, sit down. So, it's very simple like that. Talking to ourselves, going through the motions ourselves, not just understanding meditation intellectually, but by really experimenting, we understand that simple equation: When I'm peaceful I'm happy and when I meditate I'm peaceful. Two and two--you want to sit down. If it lasts 5 minutes: great. If it lasts 10 minutes: great.

It's definitely a good start. What is your daily meditative practice? What are your rituals?

Well, I'm a monk so when I get up in the morning I have several vows to retake everyday. Following that, sometimes immediately or a little bit later, I do a special ritual involving offerings and then I sit down to meditate anywhere between an hour to sometimes an hour an a half. Other times, I'll go through different things during the day. Sometimes, I come back two, three, four times to meditate; other times, I intertwine meditation with the teachings I'm giving because there's a meditation practice at the beginning and at the end of every class. Also, in the context of the center's schedule, I can sometimes meditate four, five, six and even seven times a day. Then, at night, I'll have another session. Again, it depends on the time of the year. For example, there's a big event coming up this weekend, so I have to meditate a little more to prepare that event--things like that. It really depends, anywhere between an hour and ten hours a day, depending on the time of the year. Sometimes, we do a retreat where there are 5 sessions of 2 hours each. You know, that can happen for two weeks, three weeks or a month. So, I would say at least an hour and a half a day.

What is your opinion about meditating with music? Does it help or prevent concentration?

Again, you want to be able to place your attention single-pointedly on one particular object, which is most of the time a mental object. You want your mind to be single-pointedly focused on one thing. Meditating like this on music will maybe induce some level of relaxation but we as Buddhists, and this is really Buddhist specific, we wouldn't call that meditation. In Buddhism, the word meditation is used when the object induces peace of mind by nature, which means it has to be a virtuous object. Now, virtue is not something dogmatic that comes from the sky. It's not about someone saying this is or isn't virtuous. Buddha decided to call virtuous all states of mind that were inherently causes of inner peace, therefore of happiness for others and ourselves. Non-virtuous states of minds which were agitated therefore causes suffering for ourselves and for others. It's not obscure understanding. When I say anger, it's clear. When I say compassion, it's clear. We understand that already, but meditation means that we are using an object such as a peaceful object or a virtuous object for the purpose of focusing our mind. So, strictly speaking, meditating on the breath is not a meditation. Normally, when we do that, we just begin the meditation by thinking through this process of meditation: "may I find inner peace for the benefit of myself and others." So, by virtue of the intention, the meditation on the breath, which is a neutral object, actually becomes a virtuous meditation. You could meditate on music in the same way, although that would be a bit farfetched.

I know that a lot of people are listening to binaural beats to stabilize their mind. They want to activate the pineal gland in this manner to reach nirvana or other outer-body experiences. What's that all about?

I hear you. I would call that a training in concentration because concentration can go both ways; it can be neutral, virtuous or non-virtuous. Non-virtuous meaning that it can be a concentration in doing something useless or damaging for yourself. So that would be a training in concentration by using a neutral object such as sound. It's a neutral object--it's neither good nor bad.

Would you say that it's okay for beginners to do that?

Oh, yes of course! It's a training in concentration. I'm just strictly speaking in terms of Buddhist meditation and the word meditation as it is used in Buddhism because people have used the word meditation in many different contexts. I'm using this word in the context of Buddhism. For a Buddhist, meditation means focusing the mind single-pointedly on a virtuous object, on an object that by itself induces inner peace. Now, training in concentration using music, why not? It's still very, very helpful. By simply focusing our mind on one thing, all the mental chatter eventually dies down. That's when we can experience a state of clarity, which is already amazing.

Definitely. It's already a step closer.

The thing is that meditating on neutral objects will not make us into individuals who are completely peaceful in daily life. For example, if you need to listen to your binaural beats or to focus your mind on your breath when you're in a traffic jam to be peaceful, it's going to make things a little bit more complicated. So that's why we need other objects of meditation that are possible to carry in daily life, such as meditating on compassion, love, patience or whatever states of mind that are more attuned with Buddhist philosophy. It's a form of daily life meditation.

Is it better to meditate alone or in a group? Does that even make a difference?

Well, I think both have specific benefits. When you're meditating alone, of course your mind can be absorbed a little more. For example, for long retreats when you're really trying to reach high levels of concentration, being more isolated would definitely help. In groups, people rub off on each other. To put it in a down-to-earth way, if you're sitting on a cushion and you know that the person sitting beside you is trying to meditate, you'll stop moving because the noise will basically annoy other people. If you sneeze all the time or if you're fidgety, all these things will annoy others. So, you try a little bit harder to be still.

It basically augments your concentration whether you want it or not.

Exactly and when you're alone, I mean, you start scratching your head, moving around, and you don't really care because there's no one--

No one watching you!

Also, no one watching you! [laughs] When you're sitting with a teacher and the teacher watches everyone meditate, you behave. Meditating in a group helps in putting good habits in place, but when those habits are already in place, meditating alone will bring you further. My teacher also says that generating good intentions on your own is like trying to sweep the floor with one string of hay, but everyone together is like a broom sweeping the floor. So, both have benefits.

What would you tell those who say that meditation is impossible for them because of an overly active mind?

I would say that people don't understand what meditation is. Meditation doesn't mean that you're able to maintain the object single-pointedly for as long as you wish. Meditation means you enjoy trying. I mean, maybe I'm sitting there for two hours and people are like, "Wow! This guy can meditate!" but, in reality, my mind is all over the place and no one can tell. Meditating means you enjoy finding the object of meditation, holding it, remaining on--whoops, losing it--and then looking for it again, placing your mind, remaining on--whoops losing it again.

So, it's okay to fail.

Of course! If you enjoy that process of finding, holding, remaining and losing and if you do that for twenty minutes, you meditated for twenty minutes. Meditation doesn't mean you're actually able to stop the mind--that means being a yogi, a great arhat or a Buddha. We're meditators, we're not realized meditators. Interestingly enough, I read that on Facebook a few weeks ago [laughs], this friend of mine posted a thing that says, "a master failed more times than a beginner ever even tried." It's very simple and evocative. Meditating means you enjoy trying. By trying over and over again, you eventually become more familiar with that process, that mental focus, and stabilization. You are then able to be in equipoise. I mean, that cannot happen at first. It is literally impossible.

What advice would you give to those who are interested in starting meditation?

I'm from the Kadampa tradition. Kadampas used to say, "Know you're going up the mountain, but don't look at the mountain. Look at where you put your feet." What this means is that eventually you're going to get to that very peaceful state of mind and that you'll be able to maintain and enjoy it all the time. That's, however, not the point. You know you'll get there, but if you want to get there, you just watch where you put your feet. You need to know how to start, how to progress and to stop worrying about results and attainments. It's just a matter of doing it. Eventually, you'll get to your destination, which is inner peace.

Again, we need to allow ourselves to try and to fail.

Yes, and enjoy trying. This is a very poetic way of saying it but those who look up while climbing a mountain get discouraged. You need to give up all expectations and just look where you put your feet. One step after another, you'll get there. You have to have a broad mind and not squeeze yourself into your practice; otherwise, you're stressed-out, trying to meditate.

It defeats the purpose.

Exactly, it's counter-productive. So, yes, it's about approaching meditation slowly and gradually.

(Photos Property of Visually Tasteful)


Love the picture gallery at the end!! It's fun being able to see other pictures. And it makes your article look really professional.

Very informative about the whole Buddhism thing, albeit quite long. I was unaware about the various states of mind and the blockage people may face when attempting to meditate. I can assure you I am NOT a morning person, so if I were to, I would meditate at night for sure.

Most people claim their understand what Buddhism is but very few really do. This will surely clear up any ambiguity. Very good work and even better presentation, especially the image carousel.

I learned all about Buddhism and Meditation. Really eye opening. Nice image carousel at the end. Makes up for lack of pictures interspersed throughout the article.

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