In today’s stressed and frantic world, meditation is often practiced to release the mind from its never-ending dialogue and its tendencies towards negative and narrow views. This kind of meditation is often silent, sometimes guided with visualizations, and may focus on no particular religious object. It has a secular form, used to promote a serene mind amidst the adversity of Samsara. But what is the origin of meditation? Here is a brief history to show that most religious/mystical traditions have developed techniques to subdue the noise of the intellectual mind, and to connect with the mystical. It is useful also to look at the approach to life of indigenous peoples, as they use many mental techniques for understanding the invisible world and connecting with the Universe.
In antiquity, traditions of meditation called Dhyana (mind calming) existed in 1500 B.C.E. in ancient India. The Hindu Rishi, or seers, learned to hold themselves in a state of constant readiness to receive inspired words, which appeared in visions or from other dimensions. Thus, they had found a way of reaching into their vast unconscious minds via concentration, cutting themselves off from usual distractions of the mind in everyday life. They were connected strongly to their personal divinity, the divinity we all have which in turn connects us with the universe. In modern life, we are mostly distracted, so few of us can reach easily into the unconscious mind and access the clairvoyant skills of seeing beyond the conceptions of time and space. Techniques of deep concentration existed in ancient China, but to date, the Buddha was perhaps the first ‘seer’ to mention meditative techniques in detail. (see Pali Canon-1st century BCE).
In these pre-historic times, a need to be liberated from suffering, to be lifted away from the mundane, arose even when the gods walked among men and karmic debts were few. There were four stages involved to reach liberation: moral discipline; contemplative concentration; knowledge; and finally liberation. The Vimalakirti Sutra is perhaps the best-known Buddhist scripture devoted to the subject of meditation.
Ancient India was not the only centre of this practice which seemed to meet a deep need in people. In Greece, ‘spiritual exercises’ were championed by Plotinus on Mount Athos; in ancient Israel, meditation and reflection were central to studying the Hebrew Bible, the Tanach; and along the Silk Roads, as Buddhism was transmitted, meditation was adopted enthusiastically in China to later become the basis of the Zen tradition.
In the Middle Ages, in the 8th century, Dosho brought Buddhism from China to Japan, and created the first Meditation Hall in Nara. Then Dogen established the Zazen style of meditation in 1227. In Eurasia, Jewish traditions utilized Kabbalistic prayers and insight techniques, while the Sufis (Islāmic mystics) began breathing control and the repetition of Holy Words in 11th century. Orthodox Eastern Christian traditions perfected sitting postures for meditation, but in general, Christianity did not wholly adopt meditative techniques. They favoured reflection on Holy Texts. The Lectio Divina consisted of 4 stages: lection, meditation, oratio, contemplatio. In 16th century however, Ignatitius Loyala and St Teresa of Avila did reach states of ecstasy as a result of meditation or single-pointed concentration. From 18th century onwards, Buddhism became a subject of philosophical interest and Yoga traditions, and Transcendental Meditation became highly acclaimed.
From the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, Milarepa (1040-1123) is inspiring on the subject of meditation. He was born into a rich family, but his greedy aunts and uncles schemed and took everything away from his parents. As a result of their poverty, his mother begged Milarepa to learn black magic and put a curse on them, bringing about the death of several people. Milarepa, understanding well the laws of karma, was terrified of the consequences of his evil deeds, so searched frantically for a spiritual teacher to help him. He found Marpa, who instructed him to live in a cave and practice solitary meditation, and as a result, he attained full enlightenment in his lifetime, which was a rarity in Tibet at the time. Here is an excerpt from his view on meditation.
Look up at the sun and moon, and practise meditation free from bright and dim.
Look over the mountains, and practise meditation free from departing and changing.
Look down at the lake, and practise meditation free from waves.
Look here at your mind, and practice meditation free from discursive thought.’
(Religious Biography of the Master Milarepa, pp 49)
When looking at the history of this type of life practice, we can see that humans desired to be close to the beings of higher consciousness, perhaps regretting their departing from the suffering world. These beings embodied the singular truth of existence, beyond duality and the petty concerns of the self. They had risen above the consequences and concept-bound games of acting as a human being in the world, to become the formless embodiment of Truth, the Great Truth of the universe. So-called mortals, those trapped in samsara, wished to emulate them and so be liberated from the steady encroachment of the ordinary mind.
One day 2600 years ago, the Buddha in the human form of the young Prince Siddhartha, accompanied his father King Shuddhodana to an agricultural festival to celebrate an Earth deity. It was Spring and a golden plough turned the earth ready for planting seeds. It was at this time that he noticed a small bird pecking at a worm turned up by the plough, and he felt pain in his heart that most living creatures kill each other to feed. On feeling this sadness, he promptly left public view to hide in a secluded grove. It was here that he entered into a deep meditative state, and attained the fourth dhyana, which allowed him to see everything objectively with equanimity. It is said that during this time, although the shadows were shifting as the sun sank in the sky, the tree he sheltered under continued to shade him to keep him cool. His father praised him saying that his countenance was like a flaming torch on a mountain summit in a dark night.
During the Buddha Shyakamuni’s ministry, meditation was an essential element taught to his disciples. He warned that it was totally ineffectual if practiced in a self-serving way. In other words, it must be a state of total mindfulness, of pure faith, fully concerned with the well-being of others, of protecting the Dharma, and being able to perceive one’s own Buddha Nature and that of others (see article 2 ‘Buddha Nature’ at http://wp.me/p3O6mn-bx). He also indicated that if we are truly practicing for the sake of others, then meditation is not a self-conscious state but completely without form. We are not aware of either what it is to be meditating, or what the outcome of the meditation may be. Another way of looking at this is that the greatest form of meditation will only come about if we pursue it with no notion of acquiring anything; and this is what separates it away from prayer in which we supplicate or beg or earnestly request something. True meditation is completely empty (see article 3 ‘Emptiness’ at: http://wp.me/p3O6mn-ck).
Detailed instructions on correct meditation were given by the Buddha to his half-brother, Nanda. This is the final metaphor he uses:
‘When one washes dirt from gold, one first gets rid of the largest pieces of dirt, and then the smaller ones, and having cleaned it one is left with pieces of pure gold. In the same way, in order to attain liberation, one should discipline the mind, first washing away the coarser faults, and then the smaller ones, until one is left with pure pieces of dharma.’ (Saundarananda chs. 14, 15)
When he was a weak old man, as he delivered his final instructions from his deathbed, which later took the written form of the mighty Mahaparinirvana Sutra, he proclaimed that it was impossible to understand correctly what happens in everyday life without entering into a meditative state. Without meditation, it was probable that we would become deluded, uttering the wrong words, going down the wrong path of faith, and would be unlikely to receive enough merit and blessings to reach enlightenment.
‘First there is meditation; and then there is wisdom.’
In the tradition of Shinnyo Buddhism, my Master, Shinjo Ito, interpreted the final teachings on meditation given from the Sala Grove in a unique way once they became the central scripture of the teachings. The Buddha gives many allusions to the power of meditation to take us to enlightenment, and as mentioned earlier, it should not be self-conscious if it truly is a meditative state. Thus, our sangha has been taught to meditate without ceasing, not only in serene sitting posture; this is the interpretation of mindfulness. Here are the eight comparisons Buddha makes:
First, the eradication of invasive weeds, is most effective if the gardener works methodically, removing all the roots of the weeds. So, with mindfulness at every moment of our lives out in worldly life, we can develop wisdom, and when every weed, every shortcoming or delusion is removed, we will become enlightened.
Taking a deep-rooted tree out of the ground is more easily accomplished if the ground around the roots is first shaken loose. We must undermine our doubts and delusions through meditation; and then pull out the tree with our wisdom.
When washing a dirty cloth, we should first wash it in detergent (ash water at the Buddha’s time), then rinse it with clear water to thoroughly cleanse it. Meditation is the cleaning agent, and pure water the wisdom.
When trying to understand a text, first we must read it and recite it so that its meaning can be understood. Meditation is the reading several times and the reading aloud; wisdom is the understanding and overall meaning the words convey.
If a warrior wishes to defeat his enemy, first he must fit himself out with armour and then defend himself with weapons. Meditation is the fitting of armour; wisdom is engaging with the enemy. Thus meditation is a protection.
A skilled metal worker first makes his metal molten in a pot on the fire, then he uses tongs to stir and shape the object he is making. Meditation is the melting or reduction of everything; wisdom the reshaping.
Next, the Buddha says,
‘O good disciples! An untarnished mirror clearly reflects one’s face and body. The same applies to meditation and wisdom of Bodhisattvas. (see previous article ‘Bodhisattvas’:http://wp.me/p3O6mn-6r).’ Meditation is looking into the mirror; wisdom is being able to see the blemishes and change them.
Finally, farmers plough the ground and then plant the seeds, as students first learn from their teacher and then study more deeply the meaning of what they have been taught. Meditation is receiving the teachings; the wisdom is the meaning.
So, meditation is not only the stillness and silence of sitting. We can meditate in every moment of our life using the tools of mindfulness and reflection, and such application in normal daily life, is a speedy way to reach Nirvana, the state of true emptiness. In the Shinnyo tradition we are greatly helped in cleansing our Buddha Nature through the power of sesshin, which means in Japanese ‘to touch upon the essence.’ We practice two types of sesshin (meditation): structured or formal sesshin, and unstructured or informal sesshin.
In structured sesshin, a spiritual guide (reinosha) gives personal spiritual words which are then reflected on and put into practice. This is made possible through the Shinnyo spiritual faculty and the essence of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra. Unstructured sesshin is the application of this holy guidance in daily life, combined with the aspiration for enlightenment and awakening to insights or messages which surround us, thanks to the Dharma Protectors and the ever-presence of Buddha and our gurus from the spiritual world.
These are the final instructions the Buddha gave on holy meditation. Practising in this way in every moment of life is a pursuit of great joy. We can take a complete rebirth of the heart and realize how flexible our minds are, and how thinking is just one small part of the mental continuum. Indigenous peoples often live in this state not limited by concepts, and as a result, they are not separate in anyway from the Universe. In my experience, they remain close to their divine origins. They are above all ‘spirit made human,’ and aspiring constantly to live in harmony with nature, as the gods of antiquity did.