I have recently read an essay about Theravada meditation. Of its type it is an excellent essay. It decribes samatha (calm meditation) and vipassana (insight meditation) and the relations between them, showing how in some schools samatha provides a foundation and basis from which viapassana develops, either naturally or as a result of additional exercises, whereas in other schools, vipassana is the basis but cannot be complete or final without some samatha dimensions and methods. It also shows how it was the traditional way for most adepts to base their practice in samatha, but how, over the past two hundred years viapassana schools have assumed some dominance and finally how now the whole movement is having to come to terms with the recent growth of interest in mindfulness.

I say, “of its type”, that type being Western academic studies of Buddhism, and my reservation lies in the fact that these studies take it as a foundation that Buddhism is fundamentally all about meditation, even though the vast majority of faithful Theravada Buddhists probably meditate rarely, if ever.

What do they do? They worship the Buddha with prayers, offerings, and prostrations and they attempt to live their lives in a Buddhist spirit such as will give rise to merit here and hereafter. They support and feed the monks and in return receive teaching, inspiration and blessings from them. They chant and recite creedal formulas and sometimes longer texts and listen as the monks do so for them. These and other similar practices are the substance of what it is to be a Theravada Buddhist, or, more or less, any kind of Buddhist. In particular, Buddhists take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. This is their fundamental act of faith, rather similar to the way that Christians might say “I believe in God the father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost.” However, in these studies all of these things are classified as ancillaries to meditation. They are either preparations for it, protections of it or adjuncts to it.

It would be less of a mistake to present Christianity as essentially a practice of prayer, involving a certain kneeling yoga and designed for the purpose of stress reduction in which certain traditional but non-essential preliminaries like affirming belief in God can be take on as extras by those who want to do it in the old fashioned way. After all, most Christians do pray and it does reduce stress.

The core and centre of gravity of Buddhism is taking refuge. This is then expressed in devotion of various kinds. Next to that in importance is understanding and applying the Buddha’s teachings which are about living a spiritual life ethically and psychologically, personally and socially. Meditation is mostly an extra for specialists who want to attain certain special states. It is practised regularly and systematically only by a minority of mostly renunciant ascetics who wish to extinguish all worldliness, as well as by Westerners of all kinds who mostly want worldly benefits. The latter see meditation as a pathway to exotic states of mind - a kind of cheap drug - and often have little interest in the religious basis from which it comes.

The real purpose of meditation is to deepen one’s refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. These three are called mindfulnesses because they are what the devotee should keep constantly in heart and mind. Samatha is the peace that comes when one is deeply devoted to this refuge and receives its blessing in all aspects of life. Vipassana is the understanding that one attains to when one sees this refuge in every situation, experiencing the influence of Buddha and Dharma everywhere one looks, in every direction, in every breath, in every movement, in every impulse. When one is so devoted then one understands the Dharma deeply.

With such an outlook, one readily understands the significance of the great teachings - the hindrances, the skandhas, the six internal and external bases of sensory life, the seven factors of enlightenment, the four truths for noble ones, the eightfold path, and so on. As in any religion, the purpose of contemplation is to deepen one’s familiarity with the things that that religion deems holy. What is special about the Buddhist way of doing this is that it shows how these holy things are validated by examination of the minutiae of life as we actually encounter it. If, with mindfulness of refuge already established as foundation, one examines bodily activity or emotional or mental process, one finds that it is all subject to the same unreliability, that there is no basis in self for refuge, and so that already established refuge beyond self is thus reaffirmed and one’s understanding of it is deepened and made more urgent.

If, however, one does the physical and mental exercises with no prior established refuge, then one may go off in any direction and reaffirm whatever prejudice one started with. One will see in it what one wants to see, but what the worldly westerner wants to see is generally a long way away from what the truly Buddhist devotee is seeking and devoted to.

The Satiaptthana Sutta, now so favoured, actually starts by saying, that the first thing to do is to set one’s mindfulness before one and it goes on to say that all the exercises described in the sutra are to be done with that mindfulness present. Westerners take mindfulness to mean some kind of neutral awareness. It is not. Mindfulness is keeping Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in mind. The Satipatthana is not telling us how to cultivate such neutral awareness, it is telling us what happens when we investigate life on the basis of refuge, with that mindfulness already established as our foundation.

The influence of Western faith in science with its creed of neutrality and doubt and praxis of technology as the solution to all problems has led to a reformulation of Buddhism that started about two hundred years ago under colonialism. We now tend to see Buddhism as a technology concerned with establishing skeptical, secular mental neutrality. This, however, is substantially a Western import. It is the appropriation of Buddhist procedures in the service of a popular Western non-Buddhist creed.

Meditation is certainly a significant part of Buddhism. It provides a bridge between conduct and understanding. It is useful. It is not the be all and end all. True liberation does not come as an outcome of technique. It comes through having the heart-mind take refuge. Only thus does one transcend this life of dependence upon ephemeral conditions and enter the Deathless. All else is elaboration and expression.

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Replies to This Discussion

Thankyou for this recapitulation. Your perspective here makes real sense to me. It resolved much confusion for me when I first encountered it in your writing, years ago now, and has served as a touchstone since then for the various formulations of the spiritual path I fund myself passing among. Name Amida Bu.
Typo, or Freudian slip? :-)

fund? Could be a contraction of an imagined verb from the word fun, perhaps.

Mat Osmond said:

Typo, or Freudian slip? :-)

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