We should ask ourselves, what is meditation, really? Meditation is surely not sitting still and silent while one’s mind wanders all over, even if, from time to time, one achieves some self-consciousness of what is happening. Indeed, one must question whether any kind of self-conscious can really be a Buddhist goal, other than the kind involved in restraint when one desists from a harmful action. Even then, the true mind is the one that desists because one envisages the harmful consequence, not because one has pride in ones ability to rise above temptation.

We can see that the question what is meditation quickly leads us into the question what is a true mind, whether one is sitting on the meditation cushion or not. We can immediately understand that the true mind is the mind of refuge, or, as we can say, the mind of nembutsu. We can call this "nembutsu samadhi". Samadhi means concentration. When our mind is concentrated on refuge, we partake of the true essence of Dharma.

When our refuge faith becomes settled, nembutsu samadhi resides in our unconscious. It is the taken for granted foundation of all our thoughts, words and deeds. It only erupts into consciousness from time to time.

Refuge is not something one can contrive, but it is something one might realise. When we realise our own hopeless state, then we feel that refuge is the only hope. It is a kind of gamble, just as a refugee gets onto an overcrowded boat hoping to cross the Mediterranean and arrive safely in a country where he will not starve, being completely at the end of his resources.

Some people may say that they have other forms of meditation that do not fit this frame, but, in fact, all forms of true meditation come down to the mind of refuge in the end. Attempting to visualise this or that sambhogakaya figure is a way of taking refuge. The Zen adept struggling with a koan is seeking his nature. When he realises that his nature is no nature yet karmic passion is beginningless, he might be told he has experienced satori, but this will only be true if, in deep contrition, he takes refuge. All true Zen masters understand this.

In the West, in Buddhist circles, there is not much talk about contrition, nor about taking refuge. The Western ideal is, in many ways, the opposite of what Buddha teaches. The Westerner wants to know himself and realise his true nature, but his nature is not at all what he imagines. He wants to become a Buddha or bodhisattva and imagines this as some sort of comic book super-hero, but this is very wide of the mark. Or, he has lowered his sights and just wants some relative psychological improvement, such as stress reduction, or help in coping with a worldly life. He never goes near to the despair of self that is the prerequisite for really taking refuge, without which "meditation" is just an empty shell.

Shakyamuni’s “one good night” did not come as a result of following the eightfold path, it did not come as the culmination of an accumulation of virtues, nor as a result of umpteen hours sitting on a cushion or so many million prostrations or recitations, nor as a result of having an ambition to be a wise person and teach others how to live their lives. It came when he realised he was at the end of his resources, down and out, defeated, that everything he had done up to then including all the “spiritual” practice had been based on vanity - self-conscious self-serving. It was all built on wilful ignorance (avidya) - a refusal to see the real situation. He then realised there was another way exemplified in the lives of all the Buddhas of the past. He took refuge in them. They could still help and free him from his own arrogance and conceit. Oh, what joy! Oh, what liberation! Oh, what faith renewed! Only after he had had this basic revelation did the god appear and tell him to go forth and teach this to others.

Meditation - dhyana - is the state of intense gratitude that arises naturally when one has been seized by taking refuge. One has crawled onto the boat, entrusting oneself to the “easy path” promised by the Buddhas to all those who have real faith, even if they only truly experience it for a moment. Dhyana is a rapture. It has very little to do with awareness but much with mindfulness, or, we could equally say, heartfulness. When one’s heart is full of gratitude to the Buddhas for embracing even such creatures as ourselves, burdened by so much selfishness, so many doubts and follies, that is dhyana.

Honen Shonin wrote that there are two minds that are in accord with the Essential Vow and two that are not. The ones that are not relate to two situations. The first situation is when one is committing a sin. At this point the person may become conscious of sinning and entertain doubts about whether a sinner can enter the Pure Land. The second situation is when one awakens bodhicitta. At this point the person might start to think that rebirth in the Pure Land is only possible via such realisations. Neither of these minds is true refuge. The two minds that are in accord with the vow also involve two situations. The first situation is when one is committing a sin. At this point he may realise that a sinful man such as himself is, due to karma, destined for hell, yet, through the grace of the Buddha, even such a sinner can take refuge and be saved. The second situation is when one awakens bodhicitta. At this point a person may realise that even though he now has the true heart aspiring for nirvana, he is still enmeshed in the karmic world and that the only recourse is to recite the nembutsu and take refuge. These two minds are in accord with the vow. This teaching of Honen repays much reflection.

Meditation, therefore, is a rapture, a state of holy passion induced by relief and gratitude. This relief and gratitude arise from finding refuge. Refuge only becomes important when one realises one’s parlous spiritual situation, resulting from innumerable transgressions, doubts and pride. When one feels the full force of this, one naturally takes refuge and this refuge is borne deep into one’s being. It is then like a source of water underground that pours forth here and there as a refreshing spring. Such pouring forth is nembutsu samadhi.

Such real meditation does not need a special building or equipment. It surges forth from the heart in all manner of situations. A person of this kind we call a myokonin because they have a bright light. Such meditation may come over one while looking at the stars, while doing some compassionate act, while washing the floor or wherever. This is how it has been for all the saints of all the great religions. One might have a special time and place for contemplation, and that is good, and may be a time to think about one’s faith and its meaning, but the true nembutsu samadhi cannot be contained in such structures. It has a way of its own and leaps forth of its own accord.

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