Getting To The Roots Of Meditation

The sillouete of stature of Buddha against the moonlight at down

Meditation is an Eastern ancient practice that has sparked great interest among Westerners starting in the 60s among hippie youths. 

The way the West sees meditation has changed with time, from being seen as an exotic esoteric oriental practice by most, to becoming revered among the well-educated and wealthy as a sophisticated and scientifically endorsed health tool. 

The market of Western meditation has reached millions of dollars, with more and more scientists from respected institutions looking into and carrying out extensive research projects involving experienced Eastern meditators.

Take mindfulness as an example, a technique imported from Tibetan Buddhism that has attracted the attention of the corporate world and acquired considerable commercial value, reaching the curriculum of famous and prestigious universities in the West.  

Needless to say, the original purpose of meditation is not aimed at becoming more productive at work or creating huge profits, neither it is to have better sleep, for that matter. Originally, meditation had a much bigger and encompassing goal, that of directly discovering the true nature of reality by subduing one’s mind. 

Table of Contents

Why Buddhists Meditate

The Tibetan word for meditation, gom [སྒོམ་], means “to familiarize”. Since meditation is a function of the mind, it is aimed at familiarizing the mind with two objects:

1. Ultimate reality, how things really are without the filter of our conditioning and habitual tendencies.

2. Positive and virtuous qualities, as opposed to the already present anxiety and turmoil most people’s minds are habituated with. 

The negative emotions present in our minds, such as anger, desire, and jealousy, when not controlled, can have disproportionate power over our behavior, to the point that they can override our intended boundaries.

Buddhists believe that incarnation is possible in a myriad of forms, shapes, races, and species. For Buddhists, a human rebirth is immeasurably precious, due to humans possessing the most suitable set of conditions, such as faculties of cognition that allow us to communicate, concentrate, and refine our knowledge through our memory, etc, that are unique to human beings and necessary for attaining liberation from the wheel of suffering in conditioned existence. 

The appreciation for the opportunity to train one’s mind and get rid of afflictions due to having a human body as well as the cooperative conditions of time, a shelter where to practice, food, etc, are all an implicit but important part of the practice itself.

As insight is developed, the recognition of how rare and precious human freedoms and endowments actually are, and how easily they can be lost arise in one’s mind. Spiritual meditation only starts to make sense when that recognition hits home. 

The Truth of Suffering

The default instinct of any form of conscious life is to avoid unpleasant feelings or things and to cling to pleasurable feelings or things. This raw nature is something that gets in the way of freedom because nothing at all can hold a permanent “pleasant” status, and neither retain a permanent “unpleasant” state forever. 

By the power of naturally occurring forces, such as gravity, time, and the action of the elements, i.e. water, fire (heat), wind (movement), earth, and space, nothing ever remains the same but changes constantly, from split-second to split-second. The four milestones that are the main causes of human suffering, birth, aging, getting sick, and dying, are part of the human process. 

That which keeps grasping to permanence is the very object to be refuted, but not only conceptually. In the Buddhist view, the ego, which is commonly referred to as the “‘I”, does not exist even slightly in the way most people are commonly taught to think.

Like a rainbow or a water bubble, the unsubstantial ego appears in one’s mind in dependence on a specific combination of causes and conditions arising in coordination, but it is nothing more than a special effect. As an example, somebody who deeply identifies with their job title, or with a long-term partner feels all his or her ego identity dissolve once that partner or job is no longer there.

Although some things may seem more stable than others, such as one’s name and nationality, nothing that exists is immune to eventually getting lost and ceasing to exist in the way it once did. 

The Importance of a Qualified Teacher

Many Buddhists do not consider themselves religious because the aim of Buddhism is not to worship the buddhas and saints, but to train oneself into buddhahood. The teacher and disciple relationship is of the highest importance in this system. Students only know the Buddha through the texts, but his or her own root guru is a living example of what enlightenment means. For this reason, the guru is even more important than the Buddha. 

In the same way that one would seek a qualified doctor when looking to get rid of a chronic disease, one has to find a qualified teacher who must be perfectly disciplined, learned, and compassionate. In the texts, it is also stated that a suitable student is required to have qualities such as impartiality, intelligence, be hardworking, respectful, and listen well to the instructions. 

The Buddha said that the cause of suffering is dukkha. The cause of dukkha is attachment. The cause of suffering is attachment, clinging, grasping. It’s not the person. It’s not the loving. It’s not the companionship. That’s fantastic. The Buddha praised companionship all the time. He said, good companionship was the spiritual path. When Ananda said to him, I think that spiritual companionship is half the spiritual path, the Buddha said: No, it’s the whole of the spiritual path.

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

Types of Meditation

Meditation, in its original context, serves the purpose of familiarizing one’s mind with the insights gained from contemplating the teachings that have been previously acquired from extensive study and oral transmission.

Advanced meditation techniques such as śamatha, calm-abiding, and vipaśyanā, highest insight, have become very popular in the West. Nevertheless, the big majority of people teaching these techniques at universities and elsewhere are not actual specialists in the mentioned techniques.

The most widespread import from śamatha is the modality of meditation using a support, which is usually the breath, but it can also be a certain sound, like a mantra, an image, or a given positive quality. These are all techniques pertaining to the stable aspect of meditation. 

Techniques such as scanning through the feelings and sensations in the body, and any technique involving analysis of individual parts of a given object, be it the body or mental concepts, pertain to the dynamic aspect of wisdom.  

Mindfulness, on the other hand, is an aspect of śamatha meditation. Originally, it is one among 6 powers applied along the training in calm-abiding for the purpose of stabilizing the object of meditation. The objective aspect of mindfulness is that it is familiar with its object, and the functional aspect is that it does not let the mind get distracted from its object. 

Vipassana Retreats 

In the Indian tradition, the tantric lineages of Buddhism were discontinued around the first half of the second millennium CE, along with other Buddhist lineages. Satya Narayan Goenka, who is the founder of the largest international Vipassana Meditation institution, was a Burmese holder of one of the last Indian lineages of Vipassana meditation that had long vanished from its birthland. 

The Vipassana lineage practiced at Goenka’s centers is different from the Tibetan lineage in that it belongs to the Theravada scope, while Tibetan Buddhism belongs to the Mahayana and Vajrayana vehicles. While Theravādins follow the Pāli Canon of Buddha’s teachings, Mahayanists stemmed from the Sanskrit manuscripts that later formed the Tibetan Canon with its Kanjur, “Translated Words”, and Tanjur, “Translated Treatises”.

The Mahayana Vehicle

Mahayana Buddhism arose sometime 400 years after Buddha’s death. At around that point, this branch of Buddhism separated from the Theravada school but kept the basic teachings that are the common grounds between the two. 

The splitting point between the Theravada school and the Mahayana is that Theravādins aim at attaining individual liberation for themselves to be free of suffering. Mahayanists, go further than that. For the great vehicle school, every form of life has ingrained in them the potential to become a fully enlightened buddha due to their minds being of the same nature as that of a buddha. 

Mahayanists aspire to attain the supreme omniscient mind of a buddha, since that brings much more benefit to unenlightened beings who are still trapped in the cycle of ignorance and misery than merely attaining the liberation of nirvana for oneself.

The Mahayana model is a bodhisattva, one who is inspired by the awakening mind of bodhicitta, a special mind that does not give up other sentient beings but strives to bring every single one of them to the perfect happiness of awakening by teaching them the path to liberation from conditioned existence.

Meditation for Health

Meditation techniques imported from Buddhism have become very popular worldwide. Many non-Buddhists continue to benefit from those practices and find that they enhance their quality of life. 

A Campbell systematic review from 2017 involving a total of 96 studies has found that mindfulness-based interventions in schools have positive effects on cognitive and socio-emotional processes. [1]

Meditation using the breath, such as Sudarshan Kriya, is known among researchers to help develop self-awareness and support better integration of the brain with other organ systems of the body, leading to enhanced human performance and faster recovery from problems such as anxiety and depression. [2]

The Dalai lama once stated, “If every 8-year-old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation”.  This statement shines forth a green light for the integration of Buddhist practices within a secular approach for the benefit of humanity as a whole. 

References

1. Brandy R. Maynard, Michael R. Solis, Veronica L. Miller, Kristen E. Brendel.10 March 2017. https://doi.org/10.4073/CSR.2017.5

2. Zope SA, Zope RA. Sudarshan kriya yoga: Breathing for health. Int J Yoga. 2013 Jan;6(1):4-10. doi: 10.4103/0973-6131.105935. PMID: 23440614; PMCID: PMC3573542.

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