“All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts; it is made up of our thoughts.” ─ from Buddhist scripture, Dhammapada Chapter 1:1-2
It can be quite fascinating to explore the origins of some of the cultural and spiritual customs that have influenced our daily lives in North America. Meditation is a good example. A growing number of individuals in the western world are faithful practitioners, quite apart from following the exercise for spiritual reasons. While meditative or contemplative practice has been a component of many religions and spiritual traditions, meditation itself is probably best known to the general public as a central pillar of Buddhism. By taking a closer look at why is meditation important in Buddhism, we can gain a new appreciation for the power of this practice ─ not to mention that it’s extremely interesting to learn a little more about it.
Awareness through meditation
In Buddhism, meditation is employed to become more fully aware by separating the self from one’s thoughts and feelings. The exercise can quiet busy minds and evoke a sense of inner calm and joy. Practicing meditation allows one to suspend judgments by coming more consciously into the present moment. In this respect, the exercise is used by Buddhists in much the same way as it is by any other practitioner.
In Buddhism, meditation is a way to counteract what is referred to as ‘duality’ by working with the body and mind together to achieve a state of peacefulness. This translates into a greater focus and self-awareness of what is going on within the mind and body, supporting one to recognize unhelpful ways of thinking and purposefully change them. In Pali ─ the language used in sacred Buddhist texts ─ mediation is called ‘bhavana’, meaning to develop or make grow.
Buddhism teaches us that it’s important to be mindful about what we’re bringing to our experiences and how we’re interacting with the world around us. By improving concentration through regular meditation Buddhists are better able to understand where their awareness and energy is being directed in the external world. In turn, this can result in a more purposeful redirecting of energy so that experiences can be infused with more kindness and generosity.
An end to suffering
Meditation is employed as a way to move away from what Buddhism refers to as the three mental defilements ─ delusion, greed and hatred ─ that are thought to be the primary causes of all suffering in life. According to Buddhist teachings, when we are motivated by these we suffer with envy, anger and other unpleasant and negative emotions. This causes us distress and often leads us to behave badly. Aside from how our actions effect others, this is critical to be aware of because the Buddhist Law of Karma advises that our poor behavior then creates negative impacts for us in the future. Meditation is seen as a vehicle for purifying the mind to avoid falling into the trap of the mental defilements in the first place. Faithful followers of the practice are, over time, able to reducing craving and attachment to external objects, moving away from destructive emotions and actions and the accumulation of bad karma in their lives.
The Buddha spoke of ‘Four Noble Truths’ to describe suffering: the truth of suffering or ‘dukkha’, the cause of suffering or ‘samudaya’, the end of suffering or ‘nirodha’ and the path that frees us from suffering or ‘magga’. To put an end to suffering, Buddhists are advised to follow the Noble Eightfold Path where meditation plays a central role. In his first sermon, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the Buddha describes the Noble Eightfold Path as being comprised of right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right meditation.
The Buddha attained enlightenment through meditation and this is a goal of many followers of the spiritual tradition. Enlightenment is reached when an individual learns the true meaning of life and reaches Nirvana. At this point they’re no longer reborn into the world, ending suffering or ‘samsara’.
Meditation also features prominently in reaching enlightenment and, according to the Buddha, there are three trainings to achieve spiritual awakening. These are experienced along what is called the ‘threefold path’ where meditation is the second step.
The threefold path
- Ethics ─ The first step or training is ‘sila’ or ethics. This foundational piece could be compared to commandments or laws set out in other religions. Sila is composed of five ethical principals that guide followers of Buddhism in how to live so as not to harm themselves or others.
- Mediation ─ Meditation or ‘samadhi’ is the next step. Once individuals have mastered living ethically, they’re ready to approach this practice with a clear conscience. Meditation is used to clarify the mind and develop increased focus in preparation for the third and final training.
- Wisdom ─ The third training on the threefold path is to develop ‘prajna’ or wisdom. This supports followers of Buddhism to understand the true nature of their experience of life.
In addition the Five precepts guide the path of meditation, and a deeper understanding of the mind. The five precepts are:
- To abstain from killing
- To abstain from theft
- To abstain from sexual misconduct
- To abstain from lying or falsehoods
- To abstain from intoxication
Core to the teaching of the Buddha, is that the mind is prone to either "cravings" (desire), or "aversion" (fear). Between these two extremes of the habitual nature of the human mind is "equanimity". To be in a state of equanimity is to have an "equal", or balanced mind. This is a state of being grounded in the present moment, and prone to neither "craving" or "aversion". Craving and aversion are also qualities of fear, while equanimity in the present moment is related to the ability to Love. Buddha referred to this freedom from craving and aversion as the middle path. The budding practitioner takes vow to observe these five precepts, which may also help to notice and avoid the pitfalls of the unbalanced mind, which arise during practice.
Craving and aversion, also relate in a fundamental way to the functioning of the nervous system. A nervous system caught in the cycle of craving and aversion is prone to "perpetual", or ongoing stress. Physiologically speaking, each person is the producer and experiencer of their own stress. When psychological perspectives trigger physiological stress, the body does not know the difference of whether they are valid or real. It simply experiences stress.
One aspect of "enlightenment" is freedom from the perpetual stress, which is caused by the habitual perspectives and patterns of the untrained mind.
How do Buddhists meditate?
There are many different ways to meditate, as taught by the Buddha. Approaches vary since groups have adopted diverse practices, depending on what part of world they live in and the specific form of Buddhism they follow. Having said that, there are several more common methods as described below.
Concentrative or mindfulness mediation involves focusing on a physical object, sound or bodily sensation. Most often individuals will tune in to their breathing or focus on a candle flame or other object. Practitioners sit in a comfortable position and pay close attention to their breath while noticing thoughts as they arise and gently releasing them without judgement. This is also called samatha meditation and is from the Theravada Buddhist tradition, dating back to early teachings.
Vipassana meditation as taught by S.N. Goenka focuses on three elements of focusing the consciousness. One element is to focus on the breath and the sensations of the breath. This is known and Anapana. Another element, which seems to be more foundational is to focus on the sensations of the body. This skill is taught by encouraging the student to scan the body noticing any sensations within the body. The third element is metta, or loving kindness meditation. During metta the practitioner focuses on feelings of Love for those in the practitioners circle, community and the world. Vipassana retreats are of various lengths, but the most common is the 10 day retreat. A 10 day Vipassana retreat is an intensive time of practice that involves 10 hour days of meditation. Students take a vow of silence, and give up all electronic devices and writing utensils for the 10 days. The goal is to come to a deeper understanding of the mind.
Receptive meditation may be referred to as Zen meditation and is similar to a mindfulness exercise. Zen Buddhists strive to empty the mind of all thought when meditating. The approach is normally extended to each activity throughout the day in that followers attempt to fully focus their attention on what they’re doing and calm the mind by remaining in the present moment.
This practice is about working on a one’s attitude. One example is a lovingkindness meditation. It begins with taking a little time to settle the mind and cultivate a feeling of being receptive. Then, a message of lovingkindness is sent first to oneself, next to a person we have neutral feelings towards, then to someone we have difficulties with, next to a person we strongly dislike and, finally, to all humankind. The exercise is accompanied by a mantra that is repeated, such as: “May I be filled with loving kindness. May I be well. May I be peaceful and at ease. May I be happy.” This is designed to assist one in becoming more accepting of others and letting go of past hurts.
This method is also referred to as vipassana or gaining insight and is one of the common early meditative practices. Using contemplative or receptive meditation encourages reflection on Buddhists teachings or on the fundamental beliefs in Buddhism. This could be as broad as thinking deeply about how all living creatures on the earth are connected. Alternatively, this exercise could be used to look very closely at what Buddhist teachings call The Four Thoughts that Change the Mind. They are:
- Impermanence and mortality ─ how to enjoy life and accept life without fear of death
- Suffering ─ what are the roots of suffering and how we can overcome suffering in our lives
- Karma and its consequences ─ what relationship is there between the quality of our actions and the quality of our lives
- Precious human birth ─ how invaluable our human existence is and the opportunity it provides to learn, grow and contribute
When considering how do Buddhists meditate, there are an incredible number of variations employed by practitioners and taught in Buddhist schools around the globe. In terms of the physical act of meditating, Buddhists may practice alone or in fellowship with others, typically at a Buddhist temple or church. Meditating together, as is the act of coming together for any faith or spiritual community to carry out their traditions, reinforces belief systems and is a reminder of our connection to others.
Finally, in considering why is meditation important in Buddhism, it’s noteworthy that all meditation techniques used by followers of Buddhism stem from the original teachings of the Buddha himself. They’re based on his insightful understanding about the nature of existence, what the root causes of suffering are, how to bring more happiness and acceptance into one’s life and how to live an ethical and constructive life in harmony with others. These are truly invaluable goals that many of us aspire to.
Article by Sandra Bell-Murray and Sonic Yogi