Many people would take the square one of Buddhism to be meditation, together with mindfulness and awareness which are then taken as being states of immediate attention, but do we really know what Buddha meant by these things? In many ways, we have invented a modern Buddhism that is some distance removed from the original. We can cut through this problem to some extent by asking what meditation is for.
Samadhi is one of the words that gets translated as meditation, though there is no associated verb in the Buddha's language. You can be in samadhi, but you cannot samadhi. Prototypically, in the texts, samadhi is sandwiched between sila and prajna. Sila is restraint and prajna is wisdom. Samadhi is a bridge between them. If we think of modern psychotherapy, we can say that sila is like cognitive behaviourism - it is the regulation of the conscious level of the mind and associated behaviour. Prajna is like analytical psychology - it is insight into the deeper mind. Samadhi, concentration, sits between these two. It is a bridge from one to the other. Long before Freud, Buddha realised that if we do not explore the deeper mind all our efforts to be good and do fine things are likely to come apart when assailed by the waves that rise from the depths, as anybody can know in a simple way just from their experience of trying to keep a New year resolution.
Finding Oneself Out
What meditation is for is to help us confront reality about ourselves. When we start to see ourselves as we actually are and accept one another as we actually are, then we have a working basis. However, for many people today, meditation, mindfulness and awareness have ceased to perform this function. They have, instead, become medications - ways of escaping from what we actually are and abolishing the symptoms that are a natural consequence of what we are doing. To this extent - and it is a considerable one - what pass for meditation, mindfulness and awareness have come to function in quite the opposite manner to that originally intended. They have become a distraction from our everyday symptoms rather than a penetration into them. Were we to penetrate into them we would perceive how crazy our life is and we would want to change it. Contemporary mindfulness, however, is largely intended to enable us to bear it longer.
This is so much the case, that we may well have to devise other ways of bringing people to the real square one without which they do not have much of a working basis at all. This is one of the reasons that I now favour the use of nembutsu. So far, nembutsu has escaped from the clutches of the quasi-medics. Maybe if nembutsu practice starts to become more popular we shall get to the point where people are prescribing so many nembutsu per day as the appropriate cure for social lumbago or whatever. When that happens we shall again have to think of something new.
The Revelations of Foolishness
Whatever the method, the need is for us to start with reality and explore it more and more deeply, especially the reality of our own foolish nature, since this is what is so revealing. We need to become aware of it in an objective way. Beyond non-judgement, we need to arrive at the position of sallekha - of seeing that “this is not me, this is not mine, this is not myself.” Of course, at first, this seems like a contradiction: I am to see how I really am and, in the process, realise that this is not me. That’s right. This reality is just what is going on here.
The first step, if you like, is to see what is going on. The initial assumption is that this is “me”. In a sense it is, but as we investigate, we discover that what one thinks of as oneself-going-on actually has no self in it. It is just-going-on, just as when we say “It is raining” the word “it” has no substantial meaning outside of that sentence. So seeing self and seeing non-self are two sides of one coin.
The Mud is Clay
To see these things is to enter into the great spaciousness that we call dhyana. This is both an inner and an outer spaciousness. We could call the inner spaciousness the infinite unconscious. The infinite unconscious has no edges and is not under our control - which is why we call it the unconscious. Out of this infinity arise finite things - thoughts, images, feelings and so on. This arising is called samudaya. For the ordinary person, samudaya is like mud. It is dirty, sticky, messes things up, makes you slip up and make a fool of yourself, and it is hard to clean up. For the spiritual adept, on the other hand, it is like potter’s clay. It is a malleable, creative medium from which beautiful and useful things can be shaped.
So we start at square one which is really this muddy place where we are already. We have to see what we have got. This is how a teacher works with somebody, too. The teacher sees what is there. Perhaps what is there is a great fear or an intense anger or, again, lethargy or misery. Perhaps the person has a million ideas or perhaps does not think much at all. Perhaps they are endlessly and pointlessly busy or perhaps they are completely blind to what needs doing. Everybody has blind spots and sometimes it would be truer to say that there are only a few spots where they are not blind. The teacher notices these things and finds them wonderful, like finding a box of treasures. This is the energy, the fire, of the person, all bundled up in a particular way. This is the mud. So mud can be a treasure. With the mud we are going to make a jug or a cup or a sculpture or something like that.
We could change the metaphor and say it is like a piece of gnarled wood. the wood has grown through many experiences and is all twisted. With this unique grain we are going to make something beautiful.
Or it is like a herbalist going into a meadow. To the ordinary person it looks like a lot of weeds and he just wants to mow it all down, but to the herbalist there is here the material for a hundred meals and a thousand remedies.
The Working Basis
So the working basis is what is there. It has its special energy and wonderfulness. Whatever it is we can begin by giving it a welcome. Recognising this square one is very important. We shall come back here often. Each time we shall find that something new has grown in the meadow, some new clay has appeared with some new quality. It is not that the practitioner already know everything there is to know - each time it is a new creation - but with increasing faith and experience, life come to seem richer and richer and that richness keeps appearing right here at square one.
So this is the original meaning and use of meditation. To stop and look. Really look. In the Satipatthana Sutta it says that the practitioner may sit down and attend to the breath. when he attends to the breath he notices whether it is long or short, rough or smooth. From this we have derived exercises in endlessly returning the attention to the breath as a means of dismissing from the mind whatever arises in it. I think this is a complete reversal of the the original intention. The reason for attending to the quality of the breath is surely that it is revealing. If we attend to it mindful of the teaching, we can look deeper and deeper. The breath reveals our inner state. It can be a first step in investigation. Buddha recommends investigation. What is one investigating - the activity of the unconscious. It shows in the body, and particularly in the breathing. When we are startled we catch our breath. When we are alarmed we may almost stop breathing altogether. When we weep we gasp for breath. The breath is a doorway to prajna - to seeing below the surface, seeing what is in us. If we then ignore the associations that naturally well up we are wasting exactly the opportunity that Buddha wants us to take advantage of.
Samadhi is concentration in order to investigate Dharma. Dharma is simple fundamental truth. What is fundamentally true in our life is what happens inside, not what we present on the surface. We can also look at feelings and at the activity of the mind. These investigations will lead us to the kind of understandings that Buddha was always teaching. They will take us to the Dharma experientially. Then one knows for oneself.