An article on Brad Warner’s blog caught my attention recently about how people perceive meditation. Buddhist meditation seems to divide people into the category of those who romanticize it unnecessarily, and those who demonize it. This article is a brief effort to try to help explain what Buddhist meditation is, how it fits into the larger religion, and how it can help benefit a person. Here, I am drawing from other sources as much as possible, as I don’t like to pontificate too much. (There’s plenty of that on the Internet as it is)
Buddhism at its heart begins and ends with the classic Four Noble Truths, something frequently misunderstood and mistranslated in generations past, and these mistakes still persist even today. The link above contains a much better, more modern explanation and is worth a visit. Anyhow, the Four Noble Truths, like a doctor’s diagnosis, explains the world at large. It’s sobering to some, but a bitter pill is still good medicine in my opinion.
Then the Buddha teaches the Eightfold Path, also linked here. If the Four Noble Truths are the diagnosis, the Eightfold Path is seen as the prescription remedy. As Ven. Walpola Rahula explains in his book, What the Buddha Taught the Eightfold Path can be group into three categories:
- Right View
- Right Intention
- Ethical Conduct:
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Mental Concentration:
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Concentration
Ultimately, the Buddhist path is a careful balance of the Eightfold Path, and thus a careful balance of Wisdom, Conduct and Mental Concentration. When people go to learn Buddhist meditation solely to help themselves relax, it’s like eating bread all the time and no vegetables. Don’t let any teacher tell you different. This is backed up by Buddhist texts across many traditions, and if a teacher isn’t providing a balanced “meal” of these three aspects of the Buddhist Path, start looking elsewhere. Also, make sure the teacher actually follows what they teach (re: ethical conduct). I believe that if there’s smoke there’s fire, and if a teacher has a bad reputation, or does something that makes you uneasy, no matter how they or the disciples try to justify it, it’s probably a big warning sign. On the other hand, a teacher who genuinely embodies the Buddhist teachings doesn’t need a fancy title, robes or expensive retreats or seminars; a genuine teacher is pretty self-evident when you encounter one.
Anyway, to really get the most out of Buddhism, one practices ‘mental concentration’ as part of a balanced approach. The term ‘mental concentration’ refers to any number of practices including the classic seated meditation people know from the Zen tradition or the Theravada one. This is a practice of mindfulness. In other words, developing a better awareness of what you are thinking and doing right now. This is not, not, NOT a practice of emptying your mind, as some would contend. Instead, it’s breaking the endless train of thoughts that dance in our heads and instead simply being more aware. What we often don’t realize is how often we’re playing the same cycles of thoughts in our head over and over, by virtue of a lifetime of accumulated habit-energy, environmental factors and family upbringing. Many of these thoughts are neurotic, selfish or just plain silly, and rarely accord with life as it is.
But like a fish in water, we don’t know we’re doing it because we’re constantly immersed in this mode of half-alert living. It’s not until we sit quietly and settle our minds down while developing deeper awareness of ourselves that we begin to see these thoughts, like a fish that is out of the water for a time. Only then can you begin to understand what water is like.
But again, and I can’t stress this enough, the solution is not to get rid of such thoughts. You can’t. Too much habit energy, simple biology, and everything else will keep that from happening, but you don’t have to be a slave to them either. This is where Buddhism becomes very powerful.
When one practices meditation and mental concentration as a whole, it settles the mind, like a mountain that isn’t toppled over even by a strong windstorm. The mountain just doesn’t move no matter what season. In Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh’s classic, The Miracle of Mindfulness, he uses the analogy of a pebble being tossed into a river. It sinks and sinks until it settles onto the riverbed and settles down. When one meditates and practices mental concentration, whether that be a particular Buddhist chant or walking meditation or whatever, the mind settles in the same way, no longer easily perturbed by Life’s ups and downs. One does NOT become an unfeeling robot, quite the opposite. Instead, because one also has wisdom and ethical conduct, they develop a greater sense of compassion and goodwill toward others. If someone gets mad at you, you are not so easily bothered by it, and can return the act with kindness instead of a knee-jerk reaction by yelling back. You create less grief for yourself and others in the long-run.
Meditation and practices toward mental concentration also bring about another benefit: giving the mind a rest. Because we are constantly bombarded with external and internal experiences, things we like and want, things we’re repulsed by, it exhausts the mind, so meditation is a way to draw inward for a time and let the mind settle. Imagine a nest of hornets. If you kick and prod the nest of hornets, it gets very agitated and riled up, and that’s what happens day after day with the experiences of life, both good and bad. Of course, things that are “bad” upset us and make us restless, but so do the things we like. They get us excited and we obsess over them, especially when we want more and exhaust ourselves in the process. So meditation is simply a way to take a break from they day, and just pull the mind back to here and now and let it settle like the metaphorical pebble dropped in the river.
But again, I want to re-emphasize that meditation works best when you balance it with wisdom and ethical conduct. All three aspects bolster one another. Meditation doesn’t work if you have nagging guilt, or agitation from something you did you know was wrong, and one cannot practice good ethical living if their minds are shaky and easily pulled along by the things they love and hate. Meditation helps train us to avoid bad habits that we reflexively do without often realizing it.
As far as how and where to get started, I suggest checking out a reputable Buddhist temple in your area if you can. Online communities or going it alone can work to some degree, but I would argue that as humans, we need physical interaction with people most, and it’s more wholesome this way. If you can’t visit a community often, visit at least enough to get the hang of it, then practice at home, checking in periodically to stay in touch at least.
So that’s a brief look at meditation in Buddhism.
Namo tassa bhagavato, arahato,