The Basics of Buddhist Meditation
Dr. C. George Boeree
Buddhism began by encouraging its practitioners to engage in smrti (sati) or mindfulness, that is, developing a full consciousness of all about you and within you — whether seated in a special posture, or simply going about one’s life. This is the kind of meditation that Buddha himself engaged in under the bodhi tree, and is referred to in the seventh step of the eightfold path.
Soon, Buddhist monks expanded and formalized their understanding of meditation. The bases for all meditation, as it was understood even in the earliest years of Buddhism, are shamatha and vipashyana.
Shamatha is often translated as calm abiding or peacefulness. It is the development of tranquility that is a prerequisite to any further development. Vipashyana is clear seeing or special insight, and involves intuitive cognition of suffering, impermanence, and egolessness.
Only after these forms were perfected does one go on to the more heavy-duty kinds of meditation. Samadhi is concentration or one-pointed meditation. It involves intense focusing of consciousness.
Samadhi brings about the four dhyanas, meaning absorptions. Buddha refers to samadhi and the dhyanas in the eighth step of the eightfold path, and again at his death. Dhyana is rendered as Jhana in Pali, Ch’an in Chinese, Son in Korean, and Zen in Japanese, and has, in those cultures, become synonymous with meditation as a whole.
The most basic form of meditation involves attending to one’s breath.
Begin by sitting in a simple chair, keeping your back erect if you can. The more traditional postures are the lotus position, sitting on a pillow with each foot upon the opposite thigh, and variations such as the half lotus (one foot on the opposite thigh, the other out in front of the opposite knee). This is difficult for many people. Some people kneel, sitting back on their legs or on a pillow between their legs. Many use a meditation bench: kneel, then place a little bench beneath your behind. But meditation is also done while standing, slowly walking, lying on the floor, or even in a recliner!
Traditionally, the hands are placed loosely, palms up, one on top of the other, and with the thumbs lightly touching. This is called the cosmic mudra, one of a large number of symbolic hand positions. You may prefer to lay them flat on your thighs, or any other way that you find comfortable.
Your head should be upright, but not rigid. The eyes may be closed, or focussed on a spot on the ground a couple of feet ahead of you, or looking down at your hands. If you find yourself getting sleepy, keep your eyes open!
Beginning meditators are often asked to count their breath, on the exhale, up to ten. Then you begin back at one. If you loose track, simply go back to one. Your breath should be slow and regular, but not forced or artificially controlled. Just breathe naturally and count.
A few weeks later, you may forego the counting and try to simply follow your breath. Concentrate on it entering you and exiting you. Best is to be aware as fully as possible of the entire process of breathing, but most people focus on one aspect or another: the sensation of coolness followed by warmth at the nostrils, or the rise and fall of the diaphragm. Many meditators suggest imagining the air entering and exiting a small hole an inch or two below your navel. Keeping your mind lower on the body tends to lead to deeper meditation. If you are sleepy, then focus higher, such as at the nostrils.
You will inevitably find yourself distracted by sounds around you and thoughts within. The way to handle them is to acknowledge them, but do not attach yourself to them. Do not get involved with them. Just let them be, let them go, and focus again on the breath. At first, it might be wise to scratch when you itch and wiggle when you get uncomfortable. Later, you will find that the same scant attention that you use for thoughts and sounds will work with physical feelings as well.
A more advanced form of meditation is shikantaza, or emptiness meditation. Here, you don’t follow anything at all. There is no concentration — only quiet mindfulness. You hold your mind as if you were ready for things to happen, but don’t allow your mind to become attached to anything. Things — sounds, smells, aches, thoughts, images — just drift in and out, like clouds in a light breeze. This is my own favorite.
Many people have a hard time with their thoughts. We are so used to our hyperactive minds, that we barely notice the fact that they are usually roaring with activity. So, when we first sit and meditate, we are caught off guard by all the activity. So some people find it helpful to use a little imagination to help them meditate. For example, instead of counting or following your breath, you might prefer to imagine a peaceful scene, perhaps floating in a warm lagoon, until the noise of your mind quiets down.
Meditate for fifteen minutes a day, perhaps early in the morning before the rest of the house wakes up, or late at night when everything has quieted down. If that’s too much, do it once a week if you like. If you want, do more. Don’t get frustrated. And don’t get competitive, either. Don’t start looking forward to some grand explosion of enlightenment. If you have great thoughts, fine. Write them down, if you like. Then go back to breathing. If you feel powerful emotions, wonderful. Then go back to breathing. The breathing is enlightenment.
The Ananda Sutta
Ananda, Buddha’s cousin, friend, and devoted disciple, once asked him if there was one particular quality one should cultivate that would best bring one to full awakening. Buddha answered: Being mindful of breathing.
“There is the case where a monk, having gone to the wilderness, to the shade of a tree, or to an empty building, sits down folding his legs crosswise, holding his body erect, and setting mindfulness to the fore. Always mindful, he breathes in; mindful he breathes out.
“Breathing in long, he discerns that he is breathing in long; or breathing out long, he discerns that he is breathing out long. Or breathing in short, he discerns that he is breathing in short; or breathing out short, he discerns that he is breathing out short. He trains himself to breathe in sensitive to the entire body, and to breathe out sensitive to the entire body. He trains himself to breathe in calming the bodily processes, and to breathe out calming the bodily processes.
“He trains himself to breathe in sensitive to rapture, and to breathe out sensitive to rapture. He trains himself to breathe in sensitive to pleasure, and to breathe out sensitive to pleasure. He trains himself to breathe in sensitive to mental processes, and to breathe out sensitive to mental processes. He trains himself to breathe in calming mental processes, and to breathe out calming mental processes.
“He trains himself to breathe in sensitive to the mind, and to breathe out sensitive to the mind. He trains himself to breathe in satisfying the mind, and to breathe out satisfying the mind. He trains himself to breathe in steadying the mind, and to breathe out steadying the mind. He trains himself to breathe in releasing the mind, and to breathe out releasing the mind.
“He trains himself to breathe in focusing on inconstancy, and to breathe out focusing on inconstancy. He trains himself to breathe in focusing on dispassion, and to breathe out focusing on dispassion. He trains himself to breathe in focusing on cessation, and to breathe out focusing on cessation. He trains himself to breathe in focusing on relinquishment, and to breathe out focusing on relinquishment.”
(adapted from The Samyutta Nikaya 54.13,)
The Five Hindrances (Nivarana) are the major obstacles to concentration.
1. Sensual desire (abhidya)
2. Ill will, hatred, or anger (pradosha)
3. Laziness and sluggishness (styana and middha)
4. Restlessness and worry (anuddhatya and kaukritya)
5. Doubt (vichikitsa) — doubt, skepticism, indecisiveness, or vacillation, without the wish to cure it, more like the common idea of cynicism or pessimism than open-mindedness or desire for evidence.
For more original sutras on Buddhist meditation, see the following:
Snelling, John (1991). The Buddhist Handbook. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.
Rahula, Walpola (1959). What the Buddha Taught. NY: Grove Press.
Gard, Richard (1962). Buddhism. NY: George Braziller.
The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion (1994). Boston: Shambhala.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica CD (1998). Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica.
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