The attempt to fit Buddhism into the secular, technical, reductionist mindset of modernity often has the effect of turning the matter on its head. Thus, we now find Western schools of practice – I hesitate to call them schools of Buddhism – in which meditation is the central matter and all other practices are ancillary to it and dispensable. Bowing, making offerings, chanting and so on are presented as cultural accretions somehow stuck onto and burdening the real matter which is the practice of pure meditation. This is like typifying Christianity as prayer technique to which odd ideas about love of God have got erroneously attached.
Buddhism is a religion. It is not primarily a health cure, nor a means to success in the rat race. It begins and ends with taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. This act of faith can then be expressed in a variety of ways such as bowing, making offerings, chanting the holy name or reciting revered texts and so on, and these practices can all be understood more deeply through contemplation and meditation. However, the act of faith is primary and is the pivot around which everything else revolves. Without a sacred focus, meditation is pointless, or wrongly pointed.
Meditation in Buddhism is broadly classified into two forms, calm and insight. Insight refers to experientially understanding dependent origination in one way or another so that one has some appreciation of the frailty of the being who has faith. Calm refers to the experience of receiving the grace, or transference of merit, bestowed by the Buddhas when one abandons self-power and turns to them for refuge. These contemplations can thus deepen one's appreciation of what taking refuge means. Detached from such faith they become mere mental keep fit exercises or, worse, elements in a self-perfection project that can only lead to trouble later.
Mechanical meditation and so-called mindfulness practices do serve the purpose, in a purely practical way, of bringing large numbers of people into some tangential relationship with Buddhism, but they also misrepresent it and can easily immunise people against the real thing. Buddhism is mindfulness based, not in the modern sense of here-and-now-ism, but in the original sense of keeping refuge in mind throughout all one's life. As such, mindfulness is a protection against getting lost in the here and now - in the merely imminent.
Original mindfulness was to saturate oneself in ancient wisdom, wisdom in which reverence for transcendent truth – the Unborn – was primary. In a religious orientation, the mundane is an expression of the holy, the imminent an expression of the transcendent, not the other way about. When it is up-ended in the modern secular manner the transcendent is soon lost sight of and all one has left is reductionism. The Dharma is not a reduction, it is an expansion into eternal life and limitless light. When one takes such a refuge the light is everywhere and meditation is to let one's heart and mind dwell upon it, revere it and be filled with it. Meditate on that, but do not put the cart before the horse. Refuge is the alpha and omega and in the Pureland school our foremost means of expressing this is nembutsu. Try it and see.
Thank you for the awakening words that remind us what to do in every day life!
To the Buddha himself, meditation wasn't the final completion of his whole practices? Refuge in himself too. To the sentient beings, meditation(including Chan, Seon, Zen) should be a part of refuge in the three Jewels of the Buddhism, I think.
Yes, "meditation as part of refuge" puts them in the right relationship. In the West, commonly, refuge is not understood at all or is seen as an inessential add-on.