Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 19

New Moon Uposatha Day , March 22, 2012
      index to series


With this posting I conclude this longer than originally anticipated weekly series on meditation.

In episode #1 I expressed concern for the bewilderment, doubt and contention resulting from the daunting plethora meditation methods, along with differing reported experiences and lack of uniformity of vocabulary used to talk about meditation. Although I have discussed only a few of the methods I hope to have provided a basis for sorting these out so that potential gaps or special features of any particular method can be recognized and communication can be normalized.

Mostly I hope this is reassuring to the general practitioner that the method they are following is probably A-OK even if it has undergone a long historical evolution from the Buddha’s original teachings on meditation. This is because of the self-corrective nature of meditation techniques when they are applied and transmitted by sincere practicing yogis over many years.

The first several posts Buddha’s meditation, the natural standard for comparing and evaluating meditation techniques. My view, not shared by all, is that we have a very clear basis for understanding what the Buddha’s meditation was.

First, we have the scriptural sources in the Suttas and the Agamas, which though not perfectly are pretty darn reliable.

Second, we can piece together from these sources something that makes functional sense. In fact a coherent and comprehensive system emerges that is fully an expression of the remarkable genius of the Buddha that serves to gather and focus the rays of the entirety of Buddhist practice, in its conceptual, ethical and affective dimensions, and turn them ineluctably toward Nirvana.

Third, we have the direct experience of living breathing yogis to verify the efficacy of the many individual aspects of this system.

The fourth support for our understanding of what the Buddha taught I did not mention at the beginning of this series because it would not have made much sense at that time. This is to use a plausible historical account of the variants to affirm the correctness what we think the original is. For instance, in my exposition I described the Buddha’s method then tracing its historical evolution from that point I could account for the Zen variant as a simple adaptation of the Buddha’s meditation to Chinese cultural influences. And I could at the same time account for modern Vipassana in terms of an historical intrusion of a non-Buddhist technique. The simplicity of such accounts serves to affirm that the original description of Buddha’s method was correct.

I acknowledge that I have not developed any one of these four supports in as rigorous or insightful a way as some scholar-practitioners would be able to do, but I propose that even in my shaky hands the convergence of these supports in a single description of Buddha’s meditation means that we have at hand a very clear understanding indeed of the Buddha’s original system.

A rough outline of Buddha’s system is as follows (details were provided in the course of this series):

  • Buddha’s meditation that arises has Centered Samadhi at its core.
  • This samadhi arises from the combined application of Right Effort and Right Mindfulness, which jointly restrain the mind enough to induce the experience of samadhi.
  • Right Effort also serves to weave the strand of Virtue into meditation.
  • Right Mindfulness also serves to weave the strand of Wisdom.
  • Wisdom and Virtue will have been developed as prerequisites through exposure to the Dhamma and through following Precepts, practicing generosity and so on, primarily at the level of reason and action in accordance with the first five steps in the Noble Eightfold Path.
  • In samadhi virtue and wisdom, initially developed at a coarse level. are developed at a much more subtle level. This is where the qualities of samatha and vipassana come forth, and investigation continues in the furnace in which wisdom and virtue are melded, and the mind is able to attain its greatest purity, defilements are pacified and insight is achieved.

Right Samadhi is a resultant quality of mind, serene and keenly aware, that is, relaxed, calm, open, sensitive to, but unperturbed by, whatever arises. It is not fixed concentration or absorption in the meditation object, which could not sustain all of these functions.

Whatever meditation method you use does not have to look like Buddha’s meditation in its details. I propose that meditation is like language or like living organisms: They can evolve, yet retain their functionality. I hope to have demonstrated this in the cases of Zen meditation and Vipassana. The reason is that direct experience of living breathing yogis tends to correct whatever in the method may have been misunderstood or incorrectly transmitted.

Nonetheless, Buddha’s meditation can usefully serve to assess whatever meditation method you use. Does it have this logical structure? Is something missing? Is something extra? This may entail some investigation, since if something appears to be missing it may be made up for in some other way, and if something seems to be extra, it may still serve a useful purpose. For instance, one method may investigate impermanence, another emptiness. One method may make some use of fixed concentration to prepare the mind for centered concentration. This is OK.

At this critical juncture as Buddhism is being transmitted to the West this assessment is particularly pertinent because there is much opportunity for misinterpretation and mistransmission, often helped along by poorly qualified teachers, or qualified Asian teachers who do not understand the presuppositions of the culture they are transmitting from nor the peculiarities of the culture they are transmitting to. The student who is not cognizant of the role of meditation in the broader Buddhist Path might not have a sufficient basis for detecting errors in her own experience for many years.

Should you decide that whatever meditation method you are using is deficient, don’t despair: you probably have not been wasting your time; whatever training of the mind you have acquired will probably translate into a more efficacious method. For instance, if you have simply been following a fixed meditation regime, with no attention to threading wisdom or virtue into your samadhi, then yes, your method is deficient from a Buddhist perspective, but it will have provided you with a sound basis for developing quickly as a centered concentrator. (In fact this was my history; I spent almost eighteen years in fixed concentration before discovering Buddhist meditation, but have never regretted it.)

Let me conclude with the words of Twelfth Century Zen Master Hong Zhi:

“When silent illumination is fulfilled, the lotus blossoms, the dreamer awakens, A hundred streams flow into the ocean, a thousand ranges face the highest peak.”

One Response to “Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 19”

  1. Hickersonia Says:

    Thank you very much for this great wealth of information on a subject that is still, quite frankly, very enigmatic to me. Plenty to read and consider as I work meditation practice into my life.

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