Summary of Buddha’s Meditation and Template for its Variants
Last Quarter Moon Uposatha Day , January 16, 2012 index to series
In the last weeks we looked at what the Buddha taught and described in the Suttas concerning meditation. This week we will summarize the main points in a way that also give us a means to catalog the variants of Buddha’s meditation, the daunting plethora of meditation practices within the broad Buddhist tradition that will differ in one or more of these points.
Prerequisites of Buddha’s Medititation.
The Buddha placed meditation clearly within the greater context of practice and understanding. Accordingly it presupposes or benefits from certain developments.
Wisdom and Virtue. The wisdom factors and the virtue factors of the Noble Eightfold Path precede those of meditation, so that you will begun to befriend the Dhamma, have learned about suffering and the ending of suffering, about the contingent nature of reality, and have begun reflecting on these things on the basis of your own experience, also so that you will have resolved to develop kindness and non-harming and a willingness to let go of personal advantage, so that you will also have begun to cultivate virtue in your deeds and words and established a lifestyle inclined to nonharming. In this way before meditation the mind is already inclined toward wisdom and virtue, so that meditation can meld wisdom and virtue along with serenity into a very refined kind of mind that leads to final liberation.
Delight and pleasure. These are factors (piti and sukha) developed in the Buddha’s method as critical to the entry into meditation and count as jhana factors. What counts here is spiritual joy, the explorer’s delight in possibilities and pleasure in experience. I mention them here because these may also be cultivated by other means to the benefit of meditation practice. Faith, or refuge in the Triple Gem, for instance, give these a boost.
Everyday Mindfulness. This is the mindfulness you carry with you through your daily tasks, not just on the cushion and with the intention of entering samadhi. This is covered in the Buddha’s method, rather seamlessly, but again I mention it here because this kind of mindfulness may also be cultivated by other means. Much of our daily mindfulness, for instance, is determined by the culture we live in; Western culture is often weak in this respect where multitasking and push-button “convenience” are pervasive. How we care for and order our surroundings, how well our mind stays with the doorknob as we open a door in front of us then close it behind us, are indicators of everyday mindfulness.
Effort but not striving. I did not include this in my description of the last few weeks, but it occurs to me that it can be an important factor in distinguishing certain variants from Buddha’s meditation. The most thrilling way to build a tall building is to build the top story first. It will indeed give an immediate sense of accomplishment, but is not very practical. Yet we are often tempted to do this in our meditation. Americans who begin a Tibetan practice, for instance, often want to jump right into the esoteric tantric practices before they’ve even gotten a chance to warm their cushions. This was not the Buddha’s way.
First, the Buddha advocated a gradual path.
Just as the ocean has a gradual shelf, a gradual slope, a gradual inclination, with a sudden drop-off only after a long stretch, in the same way this Doctrine and Discipline (dhamma-vinaya) has a gradual training, a gradual performance, a gradual progression, with a penetration to gnosis only after a long stretch. – Ud 5.5
Furthermore, the Buddha emphasized in manny contexts that in establishing an appropriate foundation the next story seems to build itself. For instance, he famously stated that kalyanamitta, good spiritual friendship, is the entire path. This does not mean there is no goal or effort necessary once you meet the right inspiration, but that you will be inspired to set that goal and exert that effort; success on the path will follow (almost) inevitably in this way.
Just as, monks, when rain descends heavily upon some mountaintop, the water flows down along with the slope, and fills the clefts, gullies, and creeks; these being filled fill up the pools; these being filled fill up the ponds; these being filled fill up the streams; these being filled fill up the rivers; and the rivers being filled fill up the great ocean — in the same way, monks, … [I’ve omitted the first half of the sequence; the second relates to practice] suffering is the supporting condition for faith, faith is the supporting condition for joy, joy is the supporting condition for rapture, rapture is the supporting condition for tranquility, tranquility is the supporting condition for happiness, happiness is the supporting condition for concentration, concentration is the supporting condition for the knowledge and vision of things as they really are, the knowledge and vision of things as they really are is the supporting condition for disenchantment, disenchantment is the supporting condition for dispassion, dispassion is the supporting condition for emancipation, and emancipation is the supporting condition for the knowledge of the destruction (of the cankers). – Upanisa Sutta, SN 12.23
Methods of Buddha’s Meditation.
Removal of the hindrances. Lust, Ill-will. Sloth and torpor, Restlessness and remorse, and doubt are kept at bey.
Undistracted reflection on theme conducive to insight. This is never fixing the mind on one thing, but narrows the range of thought enough to induce samadhi.
The themes the buddha recommends tend to be centered in awareness of the body, but also include feeling, mind and dhammas. They are variously conducive to insight of:
Impermanence. These include the themes of breath, deportment, decaying corpses, feeling, consiousness, dhammas.
Suffering. For instance, feeling, five Hindrances, aggregates, the Four Noble Truths.
Insubstantiality. Including composition of the body, elements, decaying corpses, the aggregates, the sense-bases
Unattractiveness. For instance, decaying corpses, composition of the body, elements.
Mental factors. Focus on feeling, mind and dhammas also includes the wholesome and unwholesome, the factors of meditation itself, including concentration, mindfulness, investigation, discursiveness, and so on, as well as the arising of distractions.
Encouragement of active factors. These include spiritual delight, ardency and clear comprehension. These encourage investigation and discourage sluggishness and bedazement.
Adjusting and Balancing. These techniques provide way to respond to intruding distrations, to balance active factors like vipassana or investigation with still factors like samatha or serenity, to let go of factors or move into more intensive states of samadhi, and so on.
The Experience of Buddha’s Meditation.
Samadhi is the primary experience of meditation. I only consider two distinguishing aspects here:
Concentration is centered, not fixed. In fixed concentration the mind attaches unmovingly to a single meditation object into which the mind is absorbed. In centered concentration the mind itself seems to be unmoving, but experience comes and goes. Ther mind is pliant, open to everything that arises remains a while and falls, but what arises does not move the mind off center..
Investigation continues in samadhi. Mindfulness practice and investigation assume a subtler level in a stiller, more refined mind. Vipassana, seeing things as they really are, occurs in samadhi. This level of investigation is permitted because concentration is centered, not fixed.
Template for Considering Variants of Buddha’s Meditation.
What I hope to do in the coming weeks is to consider some variants of Buddha’s meditation in turn to see where they might differ from Buddha’s meditation and where they differ in what way they might actually be doing something equivalent by other means. Accordingly I propose the following template of points of possible variation. I am hoping this will provide a useful tool for asking critical questions about each of these variants (I don’t know yet, because I am doing this on the fly, but let’s see).
Prerequisites of a Variant of Buddha’s Medititation.
Wisdom and Virtue. How are these practiced?
Delight and pleasure. How might these be encouraged independently of mindfulness itself?
Everyday Mindfulness. Is there an independent basis for this?
Effort but not striving. Is this observed?
Methods of a Variant of Buddha’s Meditation.
Removal of the hindrances. What are the recommendations for this?
Undistracted reflection on themes conducive to insight. What are the opportunities for investigating impermanence, suffering, insubstantiality, unattractiveness and mental factors?
Encouragement of active factors. Are investigation and delight encouraged and how?
Adjusting and Balancing. What balances and movements are implemented during meditation?
The Experience of a Variant of Buddha’s Meditation.
Concentration is centered, not fixed. Is this the case always, sometimes or never?
Investigation continues in samadhi. How does investigation with a still mind occur?
Next week I will begin trying to discuss Zen meditation in these terms.