by Wayne Ren-Cheng
Many spiritual seekers across the world and across belief systems hold the Indian ideal of meditative practice as one of it’s greatest contributions to world culture. Meditation is spoken of in the Bhagavad-gitta, “Better than information, however, is meditation, and better than meditation is renunciation of the fruits of action, for by such renunciation one can attain peace of mind.” Many religious and philosophical traditions engage in some form of meditative practice whose processes can be traced back to Indian origins. Bhavana, translated as cultivation or development is often used in the West as a synonym for meditation. Pragmatically, cultivation of how you are and development of a positive personal character is what meditation practice is directed toward. No matter the tradition, Buddhist or otherwise that applies meditative practice they do so to bring into existence a more positively developed personal character or clearer view of reality. It is a spiritual exercise that develops mental experiences that differ greatly from any normal perception of how we are.
Meditation is an English word that was chosen to describe the Indian spiritual practices because those practices had many parallels to existing Western meditative techniques. “Meditations” have come from such diverse Western sources as Marcus Aurelius and Descartes and medieval European monasteries. Meditative practice has been offered in a wide variety of guises from the contemplative meditations of Christian sects to contemporary mindfulness meditations that have arisen from Hindi and Buddhist practices to become secular based pursuits. Some of these practices may not seem to have any connection to Hindi or Buddhist meditative practices but that is a matter of cultural perception, or of lack of knowledge of those practices. Even in Western context the main purpose behind meditation was to develop a spiritual practice, one that would alter the practitioner’s perception of the how they interacted with the world. The commitment and concentration necessary in meditation was proven through experience to have a positive effect on a practitioner’s spiritual development.
Generosity, morals, tolerance, energy, and wisdom presented in the Six Refinements as personal virtues make sense; the addition of meditation to that list may not. Meditation is a psycho-physical activity that most see as consisting of sitting and “not thinking”. And that is true, or not . . . dependent on what type of meditation is being practiced. Look again and as the personal virtues of generosity, morals, tolerance, energy and wisdom are presented in the Mahayana tradition they too are physical practices as one must act in these ways for them to have value as virtues. The idea that meditation does not fit as a personal virtue is the result of a misunderstanding of a particular aspect of meditative practice. A regular, committed meditative practice leads to the development of thoughtfulness, imagination, serenity and contemplation that like the other refinements becomes a noticeable component of a persons character. The practitioner approaches the experiences in life with an equanimity and serenity that is noticed by others and thus becomes an example to others.
Meditation, in the list of Refinements, comes after the refinement of energy because it takes vitality and vigor to pursue a redirection and reconfiguration of one’s conscious thinking and subconscious input. Energy and meditation are closely tied as one directly develops the other in a never-ending loop. The Mahayana legacy masters understood that the realizing of raw energy, or “energy of spirit” required the guidance of a meditative and wise mind. In the early encounters between Buddhist meditative practices and the West a fundamental misunderstanding of that practice had scholars announcing that Buddhists were “anti-social and unintelligible,” that they separated themselves from society in order to pursue their religion. That the Buddha required all early disciples to walk the land, coming together during the rainy season to study and practice is proof enough that the Buddha realized the importance of being socially engaged. Contemporary thought and experience is proving that social engagement has long been an extremely important aspect of Buddhism, including meditative practices.
Meditation has been a core practice for Buddhists as evidenced by the earliest Buddhist texts such as the Potthapada Sutta, from the Digha Nikayas. The “three poisons” of greed, aversion and delusion could be negated by the discipline and concentration required of meditative practice. The first goal of meditation was to remove these obstructions to a calm and deliberate pursuit of enlightenment. A practitioner also worked through meditation to come to an awareness of their own mind and dispositions, this being the single most productive knowledge for any human being. This “reflexive awareness” allowed the practitioner the ability to overcome the “five hindrances”, conscious triggers that were known to cause human suffering – sensual desire, ill-will, tiredness/laziness, elation/depression, and doubt. Meditation could give one the mental skills needed to realize and combat these forces working against human flourishing.
Traditional Buddhists did not feel that just anyone, in any situation could make use of meditation as a skill. They felt that one had to have a certain moral platform, and innate or taught mindful character, and a teacher and surrounding group of like-minded individuals to have any chance of reaching a level of understanding that would make meditative practice useful. This thinking spurred the development of monasteries and the building of temples, one where monastics could be trained, the other where the laity could come and worship.
Early in the developing tradition there were two distinct types of meditative practice that develop parallel and then became inexorably linked as one strategy to achieve a strong spiritual practice. These were calming (samatha) and insight (vipassana) meditation. Calming meditation is recognized today as “mindfulness breathing” meditations where focusing on the breath brings the practitioner to a “one-pointedness of mind”, the ability to concentrate moment-to-moment without distraction. Insight meditation cultivates the practitioner’s ability to think specifically about the arising of enlightening wisdom. This practice paralleled the example set by the Buddha as he sat and meditated to realize how human beings and their world actually worked. These meditative techniques were taught separately and then as Buddhism matured there was the realization that calming and insight we co-dependent in that the strength of one technique offered strength to the other. Calming enabled the mind to avoid distraction and to focus intently so that reflection on the dharma would be deeper and more meaningful in the pursuit of enlightenment.
There is also a purely metaphysical aspect in the traditional Buddhist understanding of meditation. Experienced meditators were thought to develop miraculous, some might say magical powers as a result of their devoted practice. Pursuing meditative practice to a certain point they would have access to five powers (abhijna): divine eye with the ability to view worldwide suffering and that of other existences as well — divine ear with the ability to hear the calls for assistance from all places and the teaching of the dharma no matter where it is being spoken – clairvoyance — knowledge of past lives — and magical powers such as teleportation, shape changing. There may, or may not be magical abilities that arise from highly developed meditations . . . there is no doubt that real positive mental and physical transformations do occur.
No matter the tradition that applies meditative practice they do so to bring into existence a more positively developed personal character or clearer view of reality.
Siddhartha chose to sit in meditation at the base of a bodhi tree, so that he might awaken. He could have chosen to speak in front of hundreds of people, to speak one-on-one with a king or brahmin, to continue to travel across India to achieve that goal. He must have recognized that to find the answer he sought would take a calm, balanced bodymind, and an insight into how his own experiences reflected the moment-to-moment experiences of all other peoples. Mediation was a key component of Siddhartha’s awakening.