Overview of Buddhist Meditation Part 1 by Bonni Ross

We do this work to expand awareness, deepen wisdom and increase compassion for the benefit of all beings.

What is meditation? It may interest you to know that in the ancient language of the culture where these practices were first developed, there wasn’t a word which exactly translates as “meditation”. This English word is our Western construct; the being who taught the system we are going to study over the next few months, Sakyamuni Buddha, used two words to describe the process: one which means “concentration” and another which means “mental development”. So here is a new idea for you. Meditation exercises involve training the “individual” mind to concentrate on particular objects in very specific ways, in order to strengthen and purify consciousness to the point where it is possible to awaken to, or perceive its union with, transcendent or “universal” consciousness.

To begin at one possible beginning, let’s examine the standard equipment that every human being has. Carl Jung, a Swiss psychoanalyst of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, spoke of the human being as possessing four primary functions: sensing (the body), feeling (evaluation), thinking (intellect) and intuitive (spiritual). These four operate together, in dynamic equilibrium, and provide the human organism with a wide range of data which is assessed and utilized for survival. The sensing function lets data in through the doorways of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. The feeling function makes very simple judgments about this data: yes, it’s acceptable, no, it’s not. The intellect provides us with a way to classify and analyze the data and create concepts about it and the intuitive knits the whole together and also acts as doorway for more information, on a more subtle level, to be received.

All of these functions are conditioned — their abilities enhanced or limited — by the experiences we encounter from the moment of conception in the womb, through our birth, and then by the quality of the environment we find ourselves in as children, adolescents and adults. This conditioning process continually creates our sense of “I” or ego, a unique, separate individual with particular talents and wholesome qualities, weaknesses, lacks and unwholesome qualities. Even though we know our bodies, feelings and thoughts were hugely different at earlier stages in our lives than they are now, we persist in thinking of ourselves as somehow possessing a fixed state of consciousness or being.

Meditation arises from the context, in most cultures, that this limited and conditioned ego consciousness is not the whole story. Here language becomes very slippery, and people’s concepts vary enormously as they attempt to describe another type of consciousness which is much vaster than the ego. Words such as God, enlightened, transcendent, universal are used. Meditation systems (and every exoteric religious expression has had its corresponding esoteric, spiritual work) all have the purpose of providing a bridge or connection between the ego mind and the depth mind. Meditation addresses the questions that arise when neither intellectual understanding nor religious faith is sufficient to explain the nature of universe and the place of the individual in it.

One of the observations that gives rise to such questions, a fact of life that every mature person will have taken in, consciously or unconsciously, is that everything changes. There is nothing that remains static indefinitely anywhere in the universe of observable phenomenon. In some cultures more than in others, great value is placed by the ego mind on establishing a sense of permanence and stability, which is equated with safety. Our culture has developed this priority to such a degree that many people live their whole lives without ever confronting the personal meaning of the fact that they are someday, some unknown day (perhaps tomorrow) going to die. It does not require a huge leap in understanding to see clearly that the tension between the universal quality of change and the cultural value of permanence creates an anxiety, a built-in tension or existential sense of anxiety in people.

Beginning at this point, that all existence shares this fundamentally unsatisfactory state, the Buddha progressed through deep realizations of the causal factor of this state, the cessation factor, and then composed an eight-point process or path which would lead those inclined to the realization of their essential union with transcendent consciousness, with the result that the cause of struggle would be eliminated. All the meditations that he adapted and crafted were for the purpose of bringing people to their own direct experience of these truths.

Now, meditation techniques, regardless of what culture or religious system creates them, can be divided into seven basic categories. There are practices based on breathing, on colour and/or form, on sound, on movement, on points within the body where energy pathways conjoin. There are practices that are devotional in nature, and finally, there is direct experience of the essence of mind, sometimes referred to as insight. The first six of these categories, and all the variety that their combining in different ways can produce, is for the purpose of the establishment and deepening of calm, or tranquillity, in consciousness. The seventh, insight, is a category which stands alone because it depends on the prior development of calm in order to arise.

Formal, disciplined meditation practice is important for individual unfoldment because it helps to stabilize and purify the mind. It also opens doorways to inner sensory experience and helps to remove blocks in the energy of the organism that inhibit clear functioning. But formal practice is most effective for liberation if it takes places within an environment where continual awareness of all the functions of the human being is maintained to the best of one’s ability. Awareness is everything! Some teachers will declare that meditation exercises are merely clever ways of making it interesting for students to pay attention!

The context, or way of life, in which meditation is practiced will determine its effectiveness. Sincere motivation for liberation from suffering, or union with the divine, is of paramount importance. The whole evolutionary push of universe is moving toward awakening, but there are many ways we can collude to slow this process down. The Buddha taught an eight-fold process which provides guidance for those wanting to experience for themselves the great liberation which he experienced. Three of these principles have to do with the quality of our actions, words and how we earn our living; two involve cultivating a complete, truthful knowledge of reality based on direct experience and the purity of intention or motivation to awaken. The final three relate to the training and development of the mind through meditation.

In his lifetime, the Buddha taught 40 different methods of meditation, some suitable for all people in all circumstances, some as specific tools to strengthen a particular quality of consciousness or to antidote some habitual unwholesome tendency. In the 2,500 years since his lifetime, these practices have been used effectively and reliably by many millions of people. Developing with the experience of these practitioners and adapting to different cultural and temporal contexts as the Teaching spread, the number of practices that are called “Buddhist” today number in the thousands — but they all stem from the basic plant which we will begin to study in detail next week.

May the benefit of this work be shared for the speedy liberation of all beings!