BBC – Religions – Buddhism: Meditation

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 contemplative 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.

What is Buddhist meditation?

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 and Christianity

David Midgley is founding director of the Jamyang Buddhist Centre Leeds. Dr Susan Blackmore is Lecturer in Psychology at the University of the West of England and Bristol. They discuss meditation practices with Liz Watson, director of the London Christian Meditation Centre.

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Working with the mind

These lines from the ancient Buddhist scripture the Dhammapada suggest that the mental states we experience are the key to everything in our lives.

If we are consumed by craving or aversion, we will experience the world very differently from the way we will experience it if we are overflowing with generosity and kindness.

Buddhist meditation is an invitation to turn one’s awareness away from the world of activity that usually preoccupies us to the inner experience of thoughts, feelings and perceptions.

For Buddhists, the realm of meditation comprises mental states such as calm, concentration and one-pointedness (which comprises the six forces: hearing, pondering, mindfulness, awareness, effort and intimacy).

The practice of meditation is consciously employing particular techniques that encourage these states to arise.

Methods of meditation

Some classical meditation methods use the meditator’s own breathing. They may just sit and concentrate on their breathing… not doing anything to alter the way they breathe, not worrying about whether they’re doing it right or wrong, not even thinking about breathing; just ‘following’ the breathing and ‘becoming one’ with the breathing.

It is important not to think: “I am breathing”. When a person does that they separate themselves from the breathing and start thinking of themselves as separate from what they are doing – the aim is just to be aware of breathing.

A meditation candle

This is more difficult than it sounds. Some meditators prefer to count breaths, trying to count up to ten without any distraction at all, and then starting again at one. If they get distracted they notice the distraction and go back to counting.

But there are many methods of meditation – some involve chanting mantras, some involve concentrating on a particular thing (such as a candle flame or a flower).

Nor does meditation have to involve keeping still; walking meditation is a popular Zen way of doing it, and repetitive movements using beads or prayer wheels are used in other faiths.

The ‘three trainings’

In the West, for many of those who want to explore a spiritual path, meditation is the first thing they encounter.

In Buddhist tradition, meditation is the second part of the ‘threefold path’.

There are many formulations of the Buddhist path to spiritual awakening but the threefold path is generally seen as the most basic one.

The first training, and the indispensable basis for spiritual development, according to the Buddha, is ethics (shila).

Buddhism does not have laws or commandments but its five ethical precepts are guidelines for how to live in a way that avoids harming others or oneself.

Meditation (samadhi) is the second training. Acting ethically gives rise to a simpler life and a clear conscience, which are a sound basis for meditation practice.

Meditation clarifies and concentrates the mind in preparation for the third training: developing wisdom (prajna). The real aim of all Buddhist practice is to understand the true nature of our lives and experience.

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Types of Meditation

The four types of meditation

A useful way of understanding the diversity of meditation practices is to think of the different types of meditation.

These practices are known as:

  • Concentrative
  • Generative
  • Receptive
  • Reflective

This isn’t a traditional list – it comes from modern meditation teachers who draw on more than one Asian Buddhist tradition. Neither are there hard and fast distinctions.

A particular meditation practice usually includes elements of all four approaches but with the emphasis on one particular aspect.

Connected with meditation, but not quite the same as it, is the practice of mindfulness. This, too, is an essential part of Buddhist practice and means becoming more fully aware of what one is experiencing in all aspects of one’s life.

Mindfulness always plays a part in meditation, but meditation, in the sense of setting out to become more and more concentrated, is not necessarily a part of mindfulness.

Concentrative

If you focus your attention on an object it gradually becomes calmer and more concentrated.

In principle, any object will do – a sound, a visual image such as a candle flame, or a physical sensation.

In the tantric Buddhism of Tibet and elsewhere, meditators visualise complex images of Buddha forms and recite sacred sounds or mantras (in fact these images and sounds have significance beyond simply being objects of concentration).

But the most common and basic object of concentrative meditation is to focus on the naturally calming physical process of the breath.

In the ‘mindfulness of breathing’, one settles the mind through attending to the sensations of breathing.

There are many variations on how this is done. Here is a common version of the practice:

  • In the first stage of the practice you follow the breath as it enters and leaves the body and count after the out-breath.
  • After the first breath you count ‘two’, and so on up to ten and then start again from one.
  • In the second stage the count comes before the in-breath.
  • In the third stage you stop counting and attend to the sensations of the breath entering and leaving the body.
  • In the fourth stage you focus your attention on the tip of your nose where the breath first comes into contact with the skin.
  • Concentrative meditation practices can lead you into deeper and deeper states of absorption known as dhyana in Buddhism.

Generative

An example of a ‘generative’ practice is the ‘development of loving kindness’ meditation (metta bhavana). This helps the person meditating to develop an attitude of loving kindness using memory, imagination and awareness of bodily sensations.

In the first stage you feel metta for yourself with the help of an image like golden light or phrases such as ‘may I be well and happy, may I progress.’

In the second stage you think of a good friend and, using an image, a phrase, or simply the feeling of love, you develop metta towards them.

In the third stage metta is directed towards someone you do not particularly like or dislike.

In the fourth stage it is directed towards someone you actually dislike.

In the last stage, you feel metta for all four people at once – yourself, the friend, the neutral person and the enemy.

Then you extend the feeling of love from your heart to everyone in the world, to all beings everywhere.

Scripture on this practice says: ‘As a mother would risk her life to protect her child, her only child, even so should one cultivate a limitless heart with regard to all beings. With goodwill for the entire cosmos cultivate a limitless heart.’ (Metta Sutta)

Other generative practices in Buddhism include tonglen – the Tibetan practice of breathing in the suffering of others and breathing out a purifying white light. This practice is aimed at cultivating compassion.

Receptive

In the mindfulness of breathing or the metta bhavana meditation practice, a balance needs to be struck between consciously guiding attention and being receptive to whatever experience is arising.

This attitude of open receptive attention is the emphasis of the receptive type of meditation practice.

Sometimes such practices are simply concerned with being mindful. In zazen or ‘just sitting’ practice from the Japanese Zen tradition, one sits calmly, aware of what is happening in one’s experience without judging, fantasising or trying to change things.

A similar practice in Tibetan tradition is dzogchen. In both cases, the meditator sits with their eyes open. (Usually people close their eyes to meditate).

Zazen and dzogchen practices gain depth from the underlying belief in the significance of being in the present moment.

Reflective

Reflective meditation involves repeatedly turning your attention to a theme but being open to whatever arises from the experience.

Reflective practices in Buddhism include meditations on impermanence and interconnectedness as well as faith enhancing practices such as meditation on the qualities of the Buddha.

Preparation and posture

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.

If you can’t manage that it is still good to sit on the floor either kneeling or cross-legged with enough support to have both knees on the ground and the back erect without having to strain.

Woman in lotus positionthe ‘lotus position’©

But it is possible to meditate in any stable posture that keeps the spine straight. Sitting quietly in a chair is perfectly acceptable.

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.

It is useful to take time before and after you meditate to settle into and emerge from the practice. It is always a good idea to have some space to let thoughts die down and tune into your feelings and bodily sensations.

Learning to meditate

Over the last half century meditation has gradually become a more familiar practice in the West.

Just as many people practice hatha yoga (which is Hindu in origin) or T’ai Chi (which is Taoist) for their health benefits, so many people practice Buddhist meditation without being a Buddhist.

It is a valuable tool for developing self-knowledge, learning to concentrate and dealing with stress.

In recent years there has been growing interest in using meditation and mindfulness in palliative care, particularly learning to cope with chronic pain and preventing relapse into depression.

Within its Buddhist context, meditation is a vital component of its path to spiritual awakening.

In the UK, as in many other western countries, there are many Buddhist centres and independent teachers offering meditation classes and courses.

There are also many books, tapes and websites devoted to the subject.

But the general advice from Buddhists is that it helps to meditate with others and to have teachers who can help you with issues that arise along the way.

It also helps to go on retreat with other meditators, when you can focus on meditation more fully.

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Zen Meditation

Mindfulness

Zen is about living in the present with complete awareness.

Practitioners turn off the automatic pilot that most of us operate from throughout the day — we don’t really notice all the things that are going on around us or within our own minds.

They try 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.

Another way of looking at this is to say that a Zen practitioner tries to be completely aware in the activity of any particular moment — to the extent that they are one with what they are doing. So, for example:

  • when they eat they focus totally on the food and on the act of eating;
  • when they meditate they open the mind to the reality of the moment, not allowing thoughts, feelings or sensations to preoccupy them, not even thoughts about enlightenment or Buddhism;
  • when they work, they only work;
  • when they brush their teeth, that’s all they do — they don’t think about other things at the same time.

Zen practice is to realise that thoughts are a natural faculty of mind and should not be stopped, ignored, or rejected.

Instead, thinking, especially discursive thinking, is to be acknowledged but then put to one side so that the mind is not carried away by worries, anxieties, and endless hopes and fears.

This is liberation from the defilements of the mind, the suffering of the mind, leaving the truth of this vast, unidentifiable moment plain to see.

Stilling the 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.

Zazen

The key Zen practice is zazen. This involves sitting in one of several available positions and meditating so that you become fully in touch with the true nature of reality.

Different schools of Zen do zazen in different ways: Soto meditators face a wall, Rinzai meditators sit in a circle facing each other.

Posture

Meditation is possible in any stable posture that keeps the spine fairly straight. Sitting quietly in a chair is perfectly acceptable.

The classic posture for Zen meditation is called 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.

The lotus position is difficult and uncomfortable for beginners, and there are other sitting positions that are a lot easier to achieve, such as the half lotus (in which only one foot is put on top of the opposite thigh) or simply sitting cross-legged or sitting on a cushion with knees bent and lower legs tucked under upper legs.

Methods of meditation

Some classic meditation methods use the meditator’s own breathing. They may just sit and concentrate on their breathing… not doing anything to alter the way they breath, not worrying about whether they’re doing it right or wrong, not even thinking about breathing; just “following” the breathing and “becoming one” with the breathing.

But there are many methods of meditation – some involve chanting mantras, some involve concentrating on a particular thing (such as a candle flame or a flower). Nor does meditation have to involve keeping still; walking meditation is a popular Zen way of doing it, and repetitive movements using beads or prayer wheels are used in other faiths.

Self-discipline

Meditation teaches self-discipline because it’s boring, and because the body gets uncomfortable. The meditator learns to keep going regardless of how bored they are, or how much they want to scratch their nose.

Koan Meditation

Koans are questions or statements, often paradoxes, that provoke spiritual understanding. They are often used by masters as a way of teaching pupils, and also to test enlightenment.

Don’t think that the koan and its solution are themselves wisdom and truth. They may be, but their particular importance here is their use as tools to help you understand the true nature of yourself and of everything, and to increase your awareness of what is.

A well known koan is “In clapping both hands a sound is heard; what is the sound of one hand?”

Koans can’t be solved by study and analytical thought. In order to solve a koan, the pupil must leave behind all thoughts and ideas in order to respond intuitively.

Koans don’t have a right answer. Western pupils often find this very frustrating, since most westerners are used to trying to get the right (and only) answer to a problem. For the same reason, the truths of Zen can’t be learned just by reading a scripture or getting a solution from a a teacher or a text book.

The best way to work with koans is with a teacher. Without a teacher it can be too easy to fool yourself into thinking that you’ve solved a koan.

The first collection of koans was made in the 11th century CE. They are a favourite teaching tool of the Rinzai school of Buddhism.

The sound of one hand

Here’s an example: In the book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones there is the story of the pupil being asked by the master, “You can hear the sound of two hands when they clap together. Now show me the sound of one hand.”

The pupil goes off to meditate on this matter. He hears some geisha music through his window and thinks that this is the answer. So he returns to his teacher, and on being asked the question he plays the geisha music as his answer. No! The teacher sends him away to meditate further.

While contemplating the question again, the pupil hears water dripping from a gutter. Back he goes to the teacher and imitates ‘the sound of one hand’ as dripping water. No! “That’s the sound of dripping water, not the sound of one hand,” says the teacher, and sends him away to practise more.

The pupil keeps trying. ‘The sound of one hand’ is the sighing of the wind. No!

‘The sound of one hand’ is the hooting of an owl. No!

‘The sound of one hand’ is the chirping of locusts. No!

At last, after almost a year, he went to his teacher. “What is the sound of one hand?” asked the teacher. But now the pupil was different; he had transcended all sounds and come to the soundless sound, the sound of one hand, and he demonstrated his realisation to the teacher.

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