Uposatha Teaching for First Quarter Moon
A number of people have asked if I would write about meditation in this blog. Meditation practice is a very individual thing, opening deep levels of personal exploration, hopefully in communication with an engaged and understanding teacher. The audience for this blog is moreover likely to come from a daunting plethora of perspectives, each with its own vocabulary, conceptual framework and representative teachers. Although I balk at the thought of trying to teach meditation in this venue, the existence of this daunting plethora is itself of some interest and I would like to spend some weeks writing about this.
This daunting plethora has proved itself a source of bewilderment, doubt and contention in Asia but particularly in the West where a large sample of Buddha’s meditation and its variants can often be found within a single community. As a result meditators bandy about many terms, like “mindfulness,” “insight,” and “jhana” with little agreement on what these mean, and with much uncertainty about the relative merits of alternative techniques or doubts about the viability of their own chosen practices. Often knowledgeable meditators talk right past one another with an uneasy feeling that something is out of accord but unable to determine what.
For the most part I contentedly practice shikantaza, just sitting, the predominant form of meditation in the East Asian Soto Zen school in which I long practiced and was once ordained. I find myself now, however, in the Theravada tradition and am therefore frequently asked questions like, “Do Zennies practice vipassana or samatha?”or “What is your object of meditation?” As simple as the questions seem to the Theravada practitioner they do not make much sense in the framework of Zen. Even within the relatively orthodox Theravada tradition there are profound disagreements concerning, for instance, what exactly samadhi or jhanas are, whether samadhi is really necessary in Buddhist practice, and whether insight can arise only after leaving jhana. Then there are things like koans as practiced in Soto’s sister, the Rinzai Zen tradition, as objects of meditation, and all these esoteric Tibetan practices I keep hearing about.
In spite of the modern daunting plethora of methods, the Buddha actually gave some us some very clear instructions about meditation, available to us today in the Pali Suttas and in the Chinese Agamas. I will spend the first few weeks on the Buddha’s meditation. Radically innovative in its day, the Buddha’s meditation forms a coherent and comprehensive system, fully an expression of the remarkable genius of the Buddha. He describes a framework that gathers and focuses the rays of the entirety of Buddhist practice, in its conceptual, ethical and affective dimensions, and turns them ineluctably toward Nirvana.
Not many Buddhist practitioners actually follow the letter of the Buddha’s meditation, fewer than claim to do so. Every major school of Buddhism that I am aware of has introduced significant changes into the Buddha’s description of meditation. However this is not necessarily a bad thing: Many changes seem to have been a pedagogical necessity as Buddhism has been transmitted over time and culture to people with radically different world views and conceptual habits than those of the Buddha’s time and place. Many other changes were probably due to misunderstandings or miscommunications, for instance, as a purely intellectual understanding transmitted in a period of slump without verification through practice. However, some of these misunderstandings seem in subsequent periods of resurgence to have evolved further into new methods that restored the Buddha’s original intention. Other changes involve swapping in elements from the techniques of non-Buddhist traditions. And finally, some changes may be intentional modifications of what had come before because someone had a good idea that may even produce improved results. Just as human languages evolve across time and place yet maintain their function, Buddhism has shown itself capable of similar change.
Next week I will begin this project by outlining my understanding about what the Buddha taught about meditation. I will let the early suttas for the most part speak for themselves. I would like to spend the final few weeks of this series on the variants to Buddha’s meditation, especially shikantaza and some modern “vipassana” techniques. I will consider how they preserve the elements and structure of the Buddha’s meditation and speculate how and why they may have deviated from it.
Since my knowledge of the range of the daunting plethora is limited, I encourage others who have knowledge of techniques beyond my small scope of familiarity to apply the exercise I will exemplify here to them as well. I expect that we will find that almost every technique preserves the Buddha’s original intention.