Why are experiences of stillness and reflection (meditation) important to Buddhism? Meditation is a mental and physical course of action that a person uses to separate themselves from their thoughts and feelings in order to become fully aware. It plays a part in virtually all religions although some don’t use the word ‘meditation’ to describe their particular meditative or reflective practice. Meditation does not always have a religious element. It is a natural part of the human experience and is increasingly used as a therapy for promoting good health and boosting the immune system.
Anyone who has looked at a sunset or a beautiful painting and felt calm and inner joy, while their mind becomes clear and their perception sharpens, has had a taste of the realm of meditation. Successful meditation means simply being – not judging, not thinking, just being aware, at peace and living each moment as it unfolds. In Buddhism the person meditating is not trying to get into a hypnotic state or contact angels or any other supernatural entity. Meditation involves the body and the mind.
For Buddhists this is particularly important as they want to avoid what they call ‘duality’ and so their way of meditating must involve the body and the mind as a single entity. In the most general definition, meditation is a way of taking control of the mind so that it becomes peaceful and focused, and the meditator becomes more aware. The purpose of meditation is to stop the mind rushing about in an aimless (or even a purposeful) stream of thoughts. People often say that the aim of meditation is to still the mind. There are a number of methods of meditating – methods which have been used for a long time and have been shown to work.
People can meditate on their own or in groups. Meditating in a group – perhaps at a retreat called a sesshin or in a meditation room or zendo – has the benefit of reminding a person that they are both part of a larger Buddhist community, and part of the larger community of beings of every species. Meditation in Buddhism is a form of Bhavana, or self-development. The origins of Bhavana go back to ancient Indian spiritual exercises called Yoga. Hindu Yoga consists of 8 stages: 1,2 Making a conscious effort not to harm others and to establish good relations with them. ,4 Sitting postures and control of the breath. 5 Withdrawing the mind from external things and looking inwards. 6 Fixing the mind on a single object or thought. 7,8 Meditation, allowing the mind to rise above ordinary though and be directly aware of reality. These were taken up and developed by the Buddha. What Buddhists do when they meditate or worship may look very similar to the Hindu religion, but Buddhists do it in order to deepen the particular Buddhist view of life. There are two kinds of meditation: Samatha and Vipassana meditation.
Samatha meditation is translated as ‘calm meditation’ or ‘tranquility meditation’ etc. Samatha meditation helps to control the mind and to become calm, so that the mind is focused upon a simple object or idea. For example, if we have tendencies towards greed and selfishness we might take death as the idea to focus upon for meditation. We then begin to see that everyone must die whatever they may be or do in their life. We will realise that greed is futile in the face of death and knowing this will produce feelings of calm and dispassion in us.
Samatha meditation is practised to attain deep concentration of the mind only. The purpose of Samatha meditation is to concentrate the mind on this touching sensation or respiration. Whenever the mind goes out, the meditator brings it back on to the object of meditation, that is, the respiration or the touching sensation, because he wants to deeply concentrate the mind on a single object of meditation. When the mind goes out in Samatha meditation it must be brought back to the primary object, focusing the mind on the respiration. The Samatha meditator must not observe the wandering thought or thinking mind.
He need not realise any mentality or physicality. What he needs to do is attain deep concentration of mind on a single object, focusing the mind attentively, noting the in- and out-breathing. When the Samatha meditator attains to access concentration or to absorption concentration, when his mind is totally absorbed into the object of meditation, there is no mental defilement in that concentrated mind. At that time the concentrated mind is purified from hindrances. This is called purification of mind because there is no greed, hatred, ignorance, conceit, jealousy and so on.
So the meditator feels peaceful and happy. That is the benefit of Samatha meditation but when the mind is disengaged from the object of meditation, the concentration is also broken and the mind goes to many different objects. Therefore many thoughts come into the mind. When the mind is defiled with greed, anger or ignorance the meditator does not feel happy or peaceful. He has suffering. The Samatha meditator enjoys peacefulness of mind while his mind is deeply concentrated on a single object of meditation. As long as the mind is absorbed in the object, he feels peaceful calm, tranquil and serene.
One type of Samatha meditation that is suitable for everyone is where the subject of concentration is our own breath. The concentration of our own breathing includes feeling the air gently filling your lungs and then flowing out through the nostrils. As you concentrate on breathing you come to realise the value of it because we depend on it for life. Breathing becomes more delicate, and it may even happen that our breaths appear to stop; our thoughts become less and less, and peace and happiness arise within us. Therefore it will bring calmness and a greater awareness of yourself and your physical body.
There are many different possibilities of the ways to sit during meditation. The important thing is to feel comfortable and relaxed, but also to be upright and alert. The classical meditation position is ‘the lotus position’. This involves sitting cross-legged with the left foot on top of the right thigh and the right foot on top of the left thigh. While it helps for the body to be alert, relaxed and stable, meditation is really about the mind and the inner experience. Posture is a support to that but most Buddhist traditions do not regard it as an end in itself.
Brahma Vihara means ‘Sublime State’ and by meditating upon the Brahma Viharas a person develops feelings of love, compassion, joy and peace towards all living things. The four Sublime States are: 1. Metta – This is usually translated as ‘loving – kindness’. In meditating upon metta, a person first of all wishes himself or herself well, and then spreads the positive and friendly thoughts outwards towards all other beings. 2. Karuna – This means active compassion understanding the nature of suffering and sharing the suffering of others. 3.
Mudita – This is sympathetic joy in which the meditator shares the happiness of all other beings. 4. Upekkha – This is a state of peace and serenity, in which, with a well-balanced mind, a person looks on all beings – whether friendly or not – with the same positive attitude of care and well-wishing. Meditating on the Brahma Viharas may take the form of a visualisation. In the case of Metta Bhavana, or Meditation on Love, you would visualise the spreading of love from yourself to friends and family, to the community, and further on to the rest of the world.
For the Brahma Viharas thought is action; meditating on the spreading of love throughout the universe. The effect of meditating off the Brahma Viharas is like ripples on the surface of water – gradually spreading outwards. Vipassana meditation is ‘insight’ meditation, it is realisation, seeing or right understanding. Vipassana meditation refers to a system of mental development that consists of looking inwards, looking at your mind as if you were an outside observer. In this way the meditator can break through the predictable workings of the mind to see things as they really are.
Vipassana meditation is practises to attain some amount of concentration and to realise these three characteristics, therefore removing all thoughts and to experience the ending of suffering. In Vipassana meditation, the purpose is to realise all mental states and physical processes in their true nature. In this concept, their true nature means the three characteristics which every mental state and physical process possesses. Any mental state or physical process may be the object of meditation. So the Vipassana meditator must not take only a single object but take many varieties of objects.
The Vipassana meditation is an important step on the path to enlightenment. In fact, it follows from the seventh step of the Noble Eightfold Path, Right Mindfulness, whereas Samatha relates to the sixth step, Right Effort. The Vipassana meditator follows the mind and observes it by making mental notes of all the movements and senses they observe such as the rising and falling movement of the abdomen and the hearing of a voice or of a distinctive sound. Due to these movements and sense they make notes within their mind, for example, when the abdomen rises the meditatior observes it, making a mental note ‘rising’.
When the abdomen falls, the mediator observes it, making a mental note ‘falling’. The meditator does this for every movement for the abdomen and makes mental notes – such as these – for everything he observes. The meditator observes and follows the mind because the purpose of insight meditation is to realise the characteristics of any mental state or physical process. Therefore to realise the three characteristics of a wandering mind, but the meditator has to observe it as it is, making a mental note as `wandering, wandering’, `thinking, thinking’ and so on until that thought has disappeared.
Only after it has disappeared should he return to the primary object, noting as usual. However, the Vipassana meditator needs to realise impermanence, suffering and the impersonal nature of the wandering, thinking mind. He must observe the wandering thoughts, the thinking mind as it really occurs, noting `wandering, wandering’, `thinking, thinking’, `imagining, imagining’. When you note these thoughts, your noting mind should be more attentive, more energetic and somewhat quick, so that it becomes more and more powerful, more so than the thinking process or the wandering process.
When the noting mind becomes sharper, quicker and more powerful, it overwhelms the thinking mind or the thought process, which then stops in a short time. When the noting mind is weak, then it is overwhelmed by the wandering mind. The noting mind is dragged along by the thinking process the thought process goes on and on and the meditator can`t concentrate well. So to make the noting mind stronger, sharper and more powerful, the meditator notes the wandering, thinking mind more attentively, energetically and quickly. Then the thinking process stops and at that time the meditator notices thought doesn’t last long.
It arises and passes away. So here the arising and passing away of the thought is vaguely realised as impermanent, though not clearly realised. When concentration becomes deeper and deeper, the meditator comes to realise that these individual thoughts arise and pass away, one after another. A series of thoughts arises and passes away. Unless concentration is deep enough, the meditator is not able to realise it. The purpose is to realise these thoughts and their three characteristics. So, whatever thought arises in sitting or walking, the meditator must note them attentively, energetically and more quickly.
When thoughts are noted they become less and less, and concentration becomes deeper and deeper. If the thoughts are not noted, they increase and sometimes they persist a very long time. Then concentration is weak. In Vipassana meditation, the meditator concentrates the mind to a certain extent on many mental states or physical processes. Then he realises the true nature of mentality and physicality, their impermanent, suffering and impersonal nature. His mind is purified at that moment because he realises these three characteristics of mental states and physical processes.
He realises it, not through theoretical knowledge, not through learning scriptures but through his own personal experience of mental and physical experience, and this experience of the three characteristics is very deep and profound. This experience remains in the mind all the time though this insight knowledge of the three characteristics is also impermanent, suffering and impersonal. It occurs and passes away. The force of this insight knowledge remains in the thought process, in the process of consciousness, which continues for life.
Therefore even though the meditator leaves the meditation centre and goes home or back to work, he may sometimes recollect his meditative experiences of these three characteristics, and they appear in his mind as if he is realising them at that moment. Then the mind is purified and he feels peaceful and tranquil. The benefit of Vipassana meditation is not only in sitting but also in the whole life and the next life. Therefore it helps the mind to be purified at any time. That’s why the Vipassana meditator lives for peace to a certain extent.
If he has attained any stage of enlightenment, the first stage, the second stage, the third stage or the fourth stage of enlightenment, if he has attained in any of these four, his mind is purer because some of the mental corruption have been uprooted by the path knowledge. He has lost some of the mental corruptions which cause suffering and he can live in peace and happiness to a certain extent. However, if he is able to attain all the four kinds of enlightenment, his mind is completely purified all the time and liberated from all kinds of mental corruptions.
He will then live peacefully and happily. Zen is about living in the present with complete awareness. The word Zen is the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese Ch’an, meaning meditation. However, we have seen that many different schools of Buddhism place great emphasis on meditation as a means to enlightenment. All schools believe that all people have the ability to be enlightened, just as all people have the ability to be angry or sad. Zen therefore says that enlightenment exists within all human beings all the time. The aim of Zen practice is to become aware of one’s own enlightenment.
This is called Satori. One important aspect of meditation is that it enables us to sit still and do nothing. It is said that the aim of Zen is not to aim. The meditation practice of Zen is called Za-zen, or sitting Zen. Sitting in the lotus position is very important, for it allows the meditator to breathe easily and slowly. He will put his hands into the dhyana-mudra and keep his eyes open. This makes them become fully in touch with the true nature of reality. Different schools of Zen do Za-zen in different ways: Soto meditators face a wall, Rinzai meditators sit in a circle facing each other.
Zen considers there to be five kinds of meditative practices which go deeper and deeper. 1. Bompu is a very superficial form of meditation. Bompu means ‘ordinary’. 2. Gedo refers especially to meditative practices of other religions. These practices may be useful, but do not lead to enlightenment. The word gedo means ‘outside way’. 3. Shojo refers to Theravada meditation. Mahayana Buddhists often call Theravada ‘Hinayana’ or ‘small vehicle’ because they do not consider it to be capable of leading all people to enlightenment. Shojo is used for the same reason. 4.
Daijo is Japanese for Mahayana, or ‘great vehicle’, and refers to meditation which leads to enlightenment. 5. Saijojo is the purest form of daijo, the highest form of meditation. A Zen practitioner tries to experience each moment directly. They don’t let thoughts, memories, fears or hopes get in the way. They practice being aware of everything they see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. For example: when they eat they focus totally on the food and on the act of eating and prevent any thoughts in their mind. In Zen Buddhism the purpose of meditation is to stop the mind rushing about in an aimless (or even a purposeful) stream of thoughts.
People often say that the aim of meditation is “to still the mind”. Zen Buddhism offers a number of methods of meditation to people – methods which have been used for a long time, and which have been shown to work. Zen Buddhists can meditate on their own or in groups. Meditating in a group – perhaps at a retreat called a sesshin or in a meditation room or zendo – has the benefit of reminding a person that they are both part of a larger Buddhist community, and part of the larger community of beings of every species.