When there is a deep appreciation, respect and reverence for meditation, the Doctrine will flourish; but when the appreciation, respect and reverence for meditation decreases, the Doctrine will decline… – The Buddha
In Buddhism, understanding and cherishing what the practice of meditation can accomplish for us is essential. Without it, there will be no interest in its practice, and no study, or engagement in meditation, and without practice, of course, there is no result.
Buddhism at its best is a functioning contemplative tradition, with individual practitioners linked to each other and to a rich heritage of teachers and realized beings, past and present.
The key to every benefit and virtue we might develop is our right practice of meditation.
Without this one essential practice, the mind wanders endlessly, staying on the surface of things. We start projects, and they don’t get finished; we begin a line of thought, and end up somewhere else entirely, and what’s worse, the mind is subject to all of the negative emotions that confuse and veil the mind. Such is the usual untrained mind.
When we are talking about the flourishing of a tradition, we are referring to people understanding what its effective practices consist of, and then taking up those practices diligently and enthusiastically over time, and gaining the result, which is increasing degrees of freedom from suffering, more and more joy and peace, kindness, sensitivity, and availability and resourcefulness to help others.
All this, we can see, relates to each generation and each person taking up the practice of meditation for him or herself. Without this, at best what we get are borrowed ideas, or what’s worse, concepts that are misunderstood.
When the ideas are not based on practice, they may sound fine, especially to other people who aren’t practicing, but they lead nowhere. When the doctrine declines in this way, of course then there is no useful result, and people are completely right to say of such a path that it is of little value.
Now, what is meant by meditation? The word is common but the meaning in this context is both simple and profound.
Ringu Tulku points out that there are two words from the Sanskrit that are being translated as meditation. One is bhavana, or cultivation, as in the cultivation of qualities such as loving kindness, or patience, or gratitude; The other is dhyana, which is developing the continuity and strength of our attention, with ease and clarity. Sometimes this is translated as collectedness, or concentration.
We can say that whenever there is effective bhavana, the quality of dhyana is present in it.
Meditation in this sense simply means the method we use to calm, quiet, sharpen and clarify the mind. This makes it flexible, able to be put to any good use. By having the qualities brought out by specifically this kind of meditation, we can find every other method is made more effective.
In describing this fundamental practice, Ajahn Chah said,
Strengthening the mind is not done by making it move around, as is done to strengthen the body, but by bringing it to a halt, bringing it to rest…
In Straight From the Heart, Ajahn Maha Boowa says:
When we’re resting so as to give rise to stillness, the stillness is the strength of mind that can reinforce discernment and make it agile… Practice these things at separate times…
And Ringu Tulku adds:
Samatha is a way to work on our mind, a very important way to make our mind calm, you can say, to make our mind flexible. I would like to say, flexible.
When you talk about tamed, it’s about being flexible – your mind does what you want it to do. You know? If you want to think, you can make it think. If you want to rest, you can make it rest. If you want to focus, you can make it focus. If we can have that kind of control, or flexibility in our mind, then we have got a tamed mind, a trained mind. So the objective for shamatha meditation, basically, is for that; and,
If you can do this kind of practice, then every other kind of meditation becomes easy.
I have found this to be true.
Meditation can have such power because the mind itself is powerful. If we know how to use it, we can accomplish meaningful goals, and have something of lasting value to share with others.
When I go to centers, listen to modern teachers, or look at the average books on psychology or religion, I find very little on this basic practice of meditation, which leads me to think that in many places the doctrine is in decline. There doesn’t seem to be much understanding or interest in the fundamental practice of being still and quieting and clarifying attention and strengthening the mind over time. The result is then naturally a lack of depth and effectiveness of practice, no matter how noble sounding or exalted the language used.
We may want to do ten thousand things, and indeed the needs around us are extensive, but our own skill and effectiveness depends on just how much of our innate resources we are able to access. This in turn depends on something so simple that it’s easy to overlook.
I turn again to this teaching of the Buddha’s because it is where I find myself these days, in need of being reminded vividly that all the results we seek for ourselves and all our relations depend on that basic practice of quiet attentiveness we call meditation, done devotedly and compassionately, at once with a great aim, and with each particular event, and breath, and posture in mind.
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A note on the word concentration: I’ve noticed that many teachers avoid the term concentration when talking about this kind meditation. Their reasons are that our common connotations for this word feel somewhat tense, and that is not the kind of effort that can be sustained for long.
These days however, I’m thinking that those who know what this practice is referring to will understand and use the word rightly.
The advantage on the other hand, of becoming comfortable with calling this practice, of collectedness, and the gathering of attention concentration, is that we are all already familiar with degrees of concentration in our daily lives, and at times when a special, focussed attention has been needed. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu calls this natural concentration. Our experience is then a resource we can draw from in self cultivation.
If we think of our practice at times as samadhi, and at times as concentration, cultivating of the continuity of attention and the strength of awareness, jhana, shinay, calm abiding, and meditation, the nature of this essential practice will become clear.