Meditation is a very important part of my religious life. It is the path through which I was able to move from religious belief to experiential religious knowledge. This is what drew me to Buddhism. I was deeply religious, but needed a practical path in which to test my religious beliefs. Buddhism, in the form of Zen, offered me that path – the Christian church of my upbringing did not.
Having said that, I find the term meditation itself to be totally inadequate. By and large the term meditation, when uttered in the West, is usually associated with samatha or calm abiding. Zen, having good name recognition, is probably what many think of when they hear the word meditation. And, of course, now there is a lot of talk and excitement about mindfulness as a form of meditation. In the yoga class I attend with my wife, meditation, when it is mentioned, is either synonyms with relaxation or single pointed concentration.
However, in Buddhism there are a vast and varied number of contemplative, yogic and tantric practices and techniques. In all cases, these techniques, are just that – techniques. They are not ends in themselves. Some cultivate beneficial mind states or help settle the mind. Others can help us deconstruct our understanding of our “self.” Still others awaken – liberate - subtle energies in the mind/body complex. Many are preliminary practices that can be used by an experienced teacher to help a student mature in their spiritual life. All of them are intended to be practiced as part of the larger Buddhist path that includes: Ethics, a firm understanding of the Buddha’s teachings, and proper intention or motivation.
Without the larger Buddhist context for the practice of meditation we may find ourselves like the yogis in the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, who have obtained great powers (siddhis) through the practice of austerities and meditation. Often these yogis use their powers to serve their own selfish ends and are, to a great extent, amoral. Which feels, at least to me, a lot like the way meditation and mindfulness are being marketed today. The practice of meditation becomes a tool to make one a better “stock broker” or “sales person” or achieve whatever worldly success we seek. (Financial success being the siddhi of the modern world.)
Obviously, the historical Buddha was aware of these epic stories and likely studied with yogis who had the cultivation of Siddhis as their goal. Gotama, the Buddha, recognized the danger, or perhaps the futility, of such practice and laid out a curriculum that was broader than just the cultivation of elevated spiritual states or spiritual powers. He offered a complete way of life.
The questions I am toying with here is: Can Buddhist meditation that is divorced from the larger Buddhist context, still be considered Buddhist? And how do we clarify and minimize confusion when we use of the term meditation, since the term can refer to such a wide range of practices in Buddhism?
Namo Amida Bu!