‘Buddhist’ Approaches to Meditation

Buddhism refers to a vast and complex religious and philosophical tradition that originated approximately 2500 years ago, and is oriented around the teachings of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (c.480 – c.400 B.C.E.) who is believed to have lived and taught mainly in the eastern part of ancient India.[1]  Buddhism emerged out of Upanishadic traditions (what is often referred to now as ‘Hinduism’) as a breakaway sect, and may be viewed as a form of ‘unorthodox Hinduism.’ Living Buddhism is divided into three broad traditions (yanas, paths/vehicles): the Theravada tradition of Southeast Asia, the Mahayana schools and the Vajrayana tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.[2] These traditions all have various schools and sub-traditions and each approaches meditation differently. However, despite superficial differences, the schools of Buddhism all share a common goal: to lead the individual to a state of enlightenment (nirvana, or cessation of suffering).  In Buddhism, this involves following a path that incorporates ethics (sila), the cultivation of wisdom (prajna) and the practice of meditation. Buddhism also contains rituals and belief in mythical cosmologies that include magic, other realms, and unseen supernatural beings who respond to prayers, invocations and offerings.[3]

The meditation component of the Buddhist path consists of both concentration practices, and insight practices, which are sometimes referred to as right concentration and right mindfulness.[4] Concentration (or calm abiding) practices (Pali: samatha) are generally regarded as preliminary meditations that calm and stabilise the mind. However, unlike in Western contemporary applications, calmness is not cultivated as an end in itself, but rather as preparation for insight meditation practice (Pali: vipassana). When the mind has achieved a requisite degree of stable concentration, the individual is able to pay close enough attention to moment-to-moment mental occurrences to see into their true nature, which is the basis of vipassana, or ‘penetrating insight’ practice.[5] According to Buddhist philosophy, human suffering results from a distorted perception of reality that leads the individual to live in a constant state of illusion and reproduce a never-ending cycle of rebirth (samsara). The path to enlightenment involves correcting these perceptual distortions and seeing reality as it really is: impermanent (anicca), productive of suffering (dukkha) and devoid of self (anatta).[6] However, while Buddhist philosophy explains in detail the cause of suffering and its cure, enlightenment cannot be realised from discursive intellectual thought alone; it must arise through direct experience of the truth of the Buddha’s teachings. This requires the individual to look deeply into their own experience of reality, something that is not possible for those who have unfocused and uncultivated minds. It is only through the practice of meditation that direct insight becomes achievable. In a discussion of the integration of concentration and insight meditation, Richard Thurman and David Gray write:

the mind, which is initially highly resistant to concentration meditative exercises, can initially be focused only via tremendous effort, which gradually gives rise to intermittent and finally unbroken focus of the mind on a single object. Mastery is achieved when this focus can be maintained ‘naturally,’ i.e., without any conscious effort … From the basis of this mastery of the mind gradually achieved through quiescence exercises, one’s Insight analysis is no longer purely intellectual, but is experiential, involving one’s entire psychophysical complex.[7]

Like Hinduism, Buddhism teaches that enlightenment involves freedom from human suffering and rebirth (samsara) as well as the recognition of an ultimate reality. However, in Buddhism, the experience of ultimate reality is the insight that all phenomena arise and pass away as a chain of conditions that ultimately can be reduced to nonexistence or emptiness (sunyata). Although this definition seems quite different to the Hindu concept of a pure consciousness state, as the term ‘enlightenment’ is ineffable, scholars argue that it is possible that both traditions are speaking of the same experience; that is, that the experience of pure consciousness may be the same as that of pure emptiness.[8] Even within the various schools of Buddhism there are disagreements regarding what enlightenment means, and what experiential states refer to true realisations of nirvana.[9] For example, Tibetan Buddhism speaks of a ‘primordial wisdom’ (a basic state of knowing that is beyond the conceptual mind), while Zen Buddhism refers to ‘original mind’ and ‘no mind.’[10] However there is one commonality that exists among all the traditions. As Eleanor Rosch writes: “All agree that ‘this’ is our original, natural, fundamental state, what we are right now, not any particular or special experience.”[11]

In summary, Buddhism views meditation as a practice that has short term (state) and long term (trait) transformational goals.[12] However, unlike in Western secular applications, the short term state changes (calming of the mind) produced by Buddhist meditation are cultivated as part of a much larger transformational aim; the realisation of enlightenment, or a fully transformed consciousness. Buddhism considers the everyday state of consciousness and the conventional sense of a ‘self’ to be inaccurate, limited, and the cause of human suffering. This suffering can be overcome by following a prescribed religious path that includes many components (including ethics, ritual and renunciation), and of which meditation is a key ingredient.

[1] For a discussion of these dates see C.S. Prebish, “Cooking the Buddhist Books: The Implications of the New Dating of the Buddha for the History of Early Indian Buddhism,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 15 (2008): 1-21. Also, L. Cousins, “The Dating of the Historical Buddha: A Review Article,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Series 3, 6.1 (1996): 57-63. Accessed 10 April 2018: http://indology.info/papers/cousins/node5.shtml.

[2] For an overview of the three major traditions, see Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism, 1-6.

[3] D.L. McMahan, “Buddhist Modernism” in Buddhism in the Modern World, ed. D.L. McMahan (New York: Routledge, 2012), 160.

[4] Sedlmeier, “The Psychological Effects,” 1143.

[5] For example, in Bhavanakrama I: “One cannot know things as they really are with an unequipoised mind, for the Bhagavat [the Buddha] has proclaimed, ‘The man whose mind is equipoised knows things as they really are.’” Cited in J.B. Hollenback, Mysticism: Experience, Response, and Empowerment (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), 598.

[6] For example, S. Ledi, The Manual of Dhamma (Igatpuri: VRI, 1999), 273.

[7] R.A.F. Thurman and D.B. Gray, “Tsongkhapa on the Integration of Quiescence and Insight Meditation,” in The Experience of Meditation: Experts Introduce the Major Traditions, ed. J. Shear (St Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2006), 163-164.

[8] Sedlmeier et al. argue that while on the surface the Buddhist approach to meditation may seem quite different to the Hindu approach, the effects an individual can expect from both practices are similar. Sedlmeier et al., “The Psychological Effects,” 1143.

[9] For example, Burmese meditation master Mahasi Sayadaw of the Theravada Buddhist tradition maintains that nirvana “can be seen inwardly as the cessation of all phenomena.” Alternatively, some schools of Tibetan Buddhism view enlightenment as the ability to see “all phenomena as truly beyond suffering, as an inseparable emptiness-luminosity-bliss state.” J.H. Davis and D.R. Vago, “Can Enlightenment be Traced to Specific Neural Correlates, Cognition, or Behavior? No, and (a qualified) Yes,” Frontiers in Psychology 4 (2013): 870. Even within Theravada Buddhism there is disagreement regarding what experiential states refer to realisations of nirvana and which are merely deep states of concentration (jhana).

[10] E. Rosch, “How to Catch James’ Mystic Germ: Religious Experience, Buddhist Meditation, and Psychology,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 9, no. 9-10 (2002): 38.

[11] Rosch, “How to Catch,” 32.

[12] It should be noted that ‘state’ and ‘trait’ are psychological concepts deriving from scientific psychology, especially psychometric research on personality and intelligence. However more recently modern meditation teachers who are influenced by Western neuroscience and psychology have adopted these terms in order to differentiate between short-term and long-term changes that result from meditation. For example, Y. Tang, B.K. Hölzel and M.I. Posner, “Traits and States in Mindfulness Meditation.” Nature Reviews. Neuroscience 17, no. 1 (2016): 59.

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