Meditation lies at the very centre of Buddhism, the term used in the West to describe the teachings of an Indian prince, Guatama Siddhartha, who lived from c.563 BC to 483 BC. Siddhartha’s wealthy father did everything he could to pro teet his son from the evils of the world and it was not until the young man was in his late twenties that he saw a beggar. a sick man, a decrepit old man and a corpse for the first time and realised just how privileged he was. When he asked a wandering monk about sickness and suffering, the mendi cant told him that misery and pain were part and parcel of everyday life. Inspired by the monk’s example. Siddhartha left his wife and family and turned his back on wealth and self-indulgence At first he looked to Hinduism for answers to the problems of suffering but, finding no answers in the faith of his ancestors, he began to conduct his own search for the truth and meaning of life.
Six years later, sitting deep in thought in the shade of a bo tree on the banks of the River Neranjari he achieved enlight enment and, seeing it as his duty to help others along the path he had trodden for so long, he began to preach his message. In Buddhism it is important that, having achieved enlight enment, one then returns with it to the marketplace’, that is teaches it for the benefit of other people. The Buddha taught that insight would be achieved not through self-indulgence (which hinders spiritual growth) nor self-denying fanaticism (which is physically and mentally dangerous), but by fol lowing The Middle Way.
Like other Indian religions, Buddhism subscribes to the idea of karma, which is the belief that we experience the consequences of all our actions and thoughts. Because Bud dhism also subscribes to the concept of reincarnation, these consequences may be felt in the next life, or the one after this. Thus are we trapped in a cycle of birth and death, which can only be transcended and escaped by following The Mid dle Way. This latter demands trust (until they can see for themselves) in the Four Noble Truths, which are:
• All life is suffering
• Suffering is caused by ignorance of what we are, which leads us to desire transitory pleasures that cannot make us happy
Suffering will end when we realise what we are and stop desiring transitory pleasures
It also requires those who seek enlightenment to have the right values, the right speech, conduct themselves in the right manner and have the right means of livelihood. They must endeavour in the right way, have right control of their minds and have the right kind of meditation
One of the major disciplines of the Buddhist meditator is to attain “unification of the mind’ by eliminating all distractions. As the practitioner learns to meditate for long periods, agita tion, scepticism and doubt disappear and are replaced by a feeling of bliss, The meditator becomes absorbed in thought (a process known as jhana) and moves deeper and deeper un til he or she finally acquires an awareness of infinite space.
Many Buddhists regard the pursuit of various jhana levels as secondary to the Path of Mindfulness’, which in the end leads to nirvana. The meditator learns to break out of stereotyped thought and comes to perceive every moment of everyday real ity as if it were a new event. The ego shrinks in importance: the universe is seen to be in a state of total and ever-changing flux. This realisation leads to a sense of detachment from the world of experience, an abandonment of all desires, the abolition of self-interest and, ultimately. the ego itself.
Meditation can take place anywhere, for Buddhism is es sentially a religion for the individual. Meditation is not a communal act. Even within organised Buddhist communi ties, the way one meditates is a matter for the individual and not for the community. There is no prescribed pattern of worship for Buddhists. They may, if they so wish, visit pa godas, temples and shrines and focus on something there while they are meditating. However, it is equally proper for them to meditate in their own homes, sitting in whichever position they choose (usually cross-legged) on the floor.
Some Buddhist families may have a statue of the Buddha in a specially built shrine in their homes; some burn incense and use prayer beads to help them concentrate the mind; some use mantras and mandalas , while others simply adopt their usual meditative posi tion and quickly lose themselves in meditation
It estimated that more than 300 million people around the world practise Buddhism, and it is an interesting ment late twentieth-century life that more and more young people in the West treading the same path and that Bud dhism is one of the fastest-growing religions in the Western world.
According to legend, in 520 the Indian thinker Bodhidharma (the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism) journeyed from India to China, where he presented himself at the court of the Emperor Wu, a devout Buddhist. When the emperor asked Bodhidharma what merit he, the emperor, had gained on the Path to Enlightenment by building temples and siduously copying holy writings, the Indian incurred his wrath by telling him that there was no merit in such deeds as they showed worldly attachment. True merit was only to be found in acts of absolute wisdom, beyond the realm of ra tional thought. he said, emptiness, and holiness for holiness’ sake has nothing to recommend
Wu was so furious with Bodhidharma’s doctrine that the Indian left court and spent several years in a monastery con templating a wall. He later communicated his thoughts and teachings – the Visudd-himagga, or Path to which describes the meditative approach from the Buddhist point of view to Hui-k’o who thus became the second triarch of Zen Buddhism.
Meditation has always been a keystone of Buddhism. Zen teaches that it is everything. Through meditation a Zen Bud dhist will realise his or her true self, that is, find the Buddha that lives within us all. To achieve this, all inner conflicts
must be resolved. This stilling of the mind reaps psycho logical, physical and spiritual dividends. Apart from being generally more serene than others, Zen Buddhists also tend to have very positive approach to their health, listening to their bodies without waiting for the spur of physical crisis. Its followers do not believe in rituals or reading the Bud dha’s sermons (sutras). In Zen, meditation is more total and more intense than in any other Buddhist sect. The Buddhist who follows the Zen path must strive to avoid all conscious thought except the point on which he or she is meditating . There is famous story of a man who went to a Zen mas ter and asked to be taught Zen. The master said nothing but poured the seeker cup of tea, using a cup that was already full, and kept pouring until the pot was empty. Then he spoke.
*You are like this cup,’ he said. are full. How can I pour Zen into you? Empty yourself and come back. Zen has two schools: Rinzai and Soto. Rinzai uses or unanswerable questions – such as What is the sound of one hand or was your face before you were – to help the mind break free from the confines of logical thought. Soto Zen perfects the art of sitting and doing nothing, in order to focus the mind on the present moment. Both have the same goal: to see reality as it is. rather than as we are conditioned to see it. Satori is the name given to the experience of truly seeing
Modern Christianity stresses the importance of doing good deeds, loving one’s neighbour and avoiding the mysti cal side of the religion has largely been swept aside. But Christianity is essentially a mystical religion, for the true Christian seeks to be united with God through following the way of Christ, who said, I am the way, the truth and the light. No one comes to the Father except through me. Meditation should play an important part in Christian
worship, and it is interesting to note in this respect the volume of music that has been composed down the cen turies to encourage meditation. The Gregorian chants and plainsong of the early centuries were intended to focus the worshippers’ thoughts on God. This mesmerising music is still very popular today, and taped versions of it are used as a soothing background for such therapies as acupressure and aromatherapy. and as an aid to medita tion. The solemn, silent atmosphere of a church is also conducive to meditative thought. For instance, visitors to the basilica of the Sacre Coeur at Montmartre in Paris, no matter how noisy they were at the portals, are invariably reduced to respectful silence once they enter the very awe inspiring and sacred atmosphere. Many find that their thoughts turn to more spiritual matters than the next tour ist attraction, and line up to light candles and close their
eyes in a short prayer. Traditional Christian teaching advocates meditation as a means of getting closer to God. St Teresa of Avila, for exam ple, recommended the via positiva – concentrating the mind on God’s love and absolute goodness in order to acquire some sense of His magnitude. St Teresa began the tradition of si lent meditation and contemplative prayer that is the main stay of the Carmelite orders. Carmelite nuns receive count less daily requests for prayers, and their raison d’etre is to answer these requests, as well as pray for those who cannot
or have not asked them, such as those of another faith or nationality, or those in too much trouble. It is through such contemplation that the Christian medita sor strives to overcome the limitations of conscious thought and achieve a state of ecstasy in the perfect union with God in love and adoration.
St Teresa of Avila’s message was that if you surrender to God’s work, and give up all your preconceived ideas of who and what He is, you will be able to commune with Him prop erly. This is akin to the non-religious idea of surrendering old ideas and thoughts in order to properly commune with the self, and therefore the world. This surrendering of the will is also prescribed for times of deep psychological dis tress, such as is felt when one fears the loss of faith or that prayer has ceased to have any meaning.
Meditation is still widely practised in monasteries, con vents and other religious communities, and more and more Christians are spending time in retreat’, sometimes for a day or two, sometimes for longer, in quiet contemplation. Christian meditation usually concentrates on the life of Jesus, Mary and the saints, and the most common aid to meditation is probably the Crucifix, although some Chris tíans find that their concentration is heightened if they re peat the name of Jesus or Mary, or recite short prayers while
they meditate . St Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, used a type of internal visualisation of the life of Christ for a course of meditation. His Spiritual Exercises were initially used in the training of Jesuits, but have been used over the centuries by many Christians who wish to meditate and develop their spiritual life.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, icons are still used as a focus for meditation. These religious icons are prepared with utmost care and ceremony. The wood and paint are blessed and the painter of the icon adheres to strict religious observe. ances and executes the icon in a meditative state. It is impor tant to remember that the icon itself is not the object of wor. ship but the focus, in much the same way as a Tibetan mandala .
Quakers gather for silent worship, meditating together on a particular theme, often that of other people or nations in crisis, Many experience a sense of being connected with the other worshippers, and feel that their meditations are the stronger for this connectedness.
There is no formal creed in Hinduism, rather a number of religious concepts have developed and have been elaborated since it was founded, probably about 3000 years ago. These ideas were centred on the aim of every Hindu, which is to attain ultimate freedom, or moksha, to be free of the endless cycle of rebirths and to be at one with Brahman – the one ultimate reality. Humans learn through yoga (the word de rives from the Sanskrit yuj, meaning to bind together”) to achieve this union
It is probably with yoga that most Westerners associate meditation. A few years ago the mention of the word would conjure up images of scraggy men, dressed in loincloths, sitting in a meditative trance, Indeed, stories were circulated of yogis who had been in such a state for so long that birds had nested on their heads. Westerners who did yoga’ were regarded at best as cranks, but today, with more and more people in the West taking it up and with a new interest in oriental religion generally, if someone confesses to trying yoga, the reaction is generally one of interest and an ex pressed desire to know more.
The rise of interest in yoga meditation probably came in the 1960s with the huge publicity given to the pop groups who travelled to India and returned extolling the virtues of transcendental meditation. Unfortunately, and perhaps the reason why transcendental meditation is still often regarded with suspicion, it tended, in the public consciousness, to be identified with other, so called, hippy pursuits, such as reck less drug-taking and promiscuity.
But what was new to the West has been practised for thou sands of years in the subcontinent. Yoga, the means of gain ing liberation from the senses, is one of the four main con cepts that underpin Hindu spiritual philosophy. The others are karma, the law of causality that links mankind to the universe, maya, the illusion of the manifest world, and nir vana, the absolute reality that lies beyond illusion. The con cept of yoga in Hinduism and in other religions is discussed later in this chapter
“When a man strips away the material aspect which envel ops him, he will depict in his mind only the divine energy, so that its light will be of infinite greatness. The words of Rabbi Dov Baer underline the importance of meditation in Jewish mysticism, which has its roots in the Kaballa, the ancient tradition that combines a complex system of phi losophy with specific techniques for increasing spiritual awareness,
Kaballistic teaching holds that everything in the universe is derived from one source and that the purpose of our exist ence is to recognise our identity with God and all of creation through meditation and other spiritual practises,
Hassidic Jews took the teachings of the Kaballa and spread them to the people (rather than leaving them to the mystic few), just as the Buddha did when he achieved enlighten ment. Meditative prayers are considered to be at their most effective when made for the sake of God, not the person praying. If a worshipper can forget his needs and lose him self in his praise it may then happen that his request will be granted because it resulted in his turning to God in prayer. according to Rabbi Judah Leib Alter, a Hasidic master. A nonbeliever might suggest that the worshipper got what
he wanted because he was in touch with his own being and therefore would only have asked for something he truly wanted, that is, not transitory or worldly riches. Kaballistic Jews most often practise visual meditation, focusing their thoughts on the Tree of Life or the characters of the Jewish alphabet, each of which is said to
contain an aspect of the creative energy. They believe that by focusing the mind on various combinations of divine names and characters a divine energy is released which not only spiritually enriches them, but also the world itself. Jews who follow the meditative path claim that they are open to a state of awareness that transcends their normal level of consciousness. They hold that their physical health also benefits. This is in line with the teaching of early Jewish mystics, who recognised the relationship between a person’s state of mind and his or her physical wellbeing.
Some say that Sufism (the word comes from and originally applied to someone who wore or undyed developed from Islam. Others believe that developed reaction against it. Whatever its origins, most Sufis are although the latter is not prerequisite of the former. and non-Islamic Sufi groups are found in many parts of the world.
Sufis base their beliefs on certain passages of the and some early Christian ideas. Their aim is to transcend everyday thought processes and to achieve mystical union of the physical, the spiritual and the mental. The of life involves storytelling, dancing and meditation
There are many different types of meditation and many daily activities are ascribed particular significance in effect, makes them meditations. Perhaps the most sual is one practised by particular group of Sufists the Mevlevi, or whirling dervishes achieve state of tative ecstasy by spinning round and round at an ever-in creasing rate, hoping to empty the mind of everything apart from communicating with God. highly complex form of meditation in which all the dancers are in unity while. simultaneously, each uniquely experiences the ecstasy of divine communion. Most forms of meditation can be per formed easily in the home, whirling, however, should not.
Born in America in 1966 of his Divine Grace AC Bhatstivedanta Swami Prabhupada, but with its roots in an cient religions, Hare Krishna was embraced by the so-called hippy movement. Unfortunately, this lead to various false public perceptions about the religion which its devotees are today, still struggling to overcome.
Hare Krishna devotees are non-drinking, non-gambling. non-promiscuous vegetarians, who believe themselves, and indeed all of mankind, to be part of the supreme conscious ness that is Krishna. Their well-ordered days begin early with chanting rounds of Japa (the holy names of God). This chant ing. like the Sufist practice of whirling, is deployed because it is often difficult to clear the mind sufficiently to meditate. Their chant, the Maha Mantra, is composed of Sanskrit names for God, and as Krishna is non-different from his name, Hare Krishna devotees believe that they are actually associating with the higher consciousness when they use his name. Through chanting they are also clearing their minds of all conditioning and worldly illusions, and thus discovering their real selves behind the roles that they play in everyday life.
According to the Upanishads (the sacred Sanskrit books outlining the mystic doctrines of ancient Hindu philosophy), “Life comes from the spirit itself. Even as a man casts a shadow, so the spirit itself casts the shadow of life.’ In the same spirit, Hare Krishnas believe that only by embracing one’s spirituality, i.e., the source of life, can one truly expe rience existence. Hare Krishna meditation, being the method by which to embrace one’s spirituality, is the key to appreci ating existence.
In her biography I. Tina, written with Kurt Loder. Tina Turner describes how daily chanting enabled her first of all, to cope with the difficulties of her domestic situation, and then, to find the inner strength to do something about it. Chanting, she discovered, enabled her to shut out the voices of people telling her what to do and how to feel and listen to her own inner voice. It is not therefore only a tool for reli gious devotion, but also a valuable aid to self-discovery. Hare Krishnas are very open to nonbelievers and centres offer free (vegetarian) meals and classes on meditation, as well as the Hare Krishna faith, without any obligation to join them.
Founded in the sixth century by Lao-Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, Taoism concerns itself with the underlying reality that pervades all of existence – the Tao, which cannot be described in words. According to Taoism, everything has a counterpart: dark and light, good and evil, man and woman. Like Yin and Yang (the complementary principles of Chinese philosophy). these things are not opposed, but part of a whole. It is pointless trying to oppose this natural order of things,
including progress, but that does not mean that Taoism is passive. Rather, it is about fitting in with, adapting to the flow, just as a fish adapts itself to the varying currents of a stream. Taoist meditation, or non-doing as it is referred to, is a focusing of the mind and body on the Tao. By doing so, the meditator hopes to realign himself to changes in the flow.and virtue and wellbeing will arise naturally once he is reattuned.
NB: The modern, religious, interpretation of Taoism. con cemed largely with magic and eternal life, is quite different from the philosophy mentioned above. In fact, eternal life is a concept that Lao-Tzu would have abhorred, as death is the necessary counterbalance to life, and so gives the latter its significance.
Yoga and Religion
The Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the most famous text, dating from 300 400 BC, describes yoga as means ing enlightenment the context of the Hindu tradition spiritual discipline. However, Hinduism is by no means in trinsic yoga. All world religions seek to reintegrate the worshipper with the supreme being, and yoga practitioners of all denominations report an increased sense of their own spirituality thanks to the disciplines of yoga. It is all too easy worship by rote, saying the prayers, reading the texts, observing the duties, without experiencing the joy of faith and feeling of union with the creator. Yoga enables many do this.
Of course, yoga does not require religious belief at all. which one of the reasons why it will be around for long time to come. More and more people are turning away from orthodox religion, and instead are seeking to discover personal sense of spirituality – their own bespoke religion. you like, based on personally felt tenets of belief. Yoga is
an excellent means of tapping into this. Even spirituality is not something that interests you, yoga is also beneficial in enhancing your enjoyment of the present To be absorbed in an activity, like a child becomes when playing a game or drawing, is to experience it fully, and thus to wring every last drop of enjoyment from it. Who ever thoroughly felt the exhilaration of a cross-country canter, or the melancholy beauty of a sunset, while their mind was worrying over an overdraft or an future job interview? Yoga teaches you to let go to filter out distractions and just be.
A note for nonbelievers
For atheists and agnostics, silent meditation is generally rec ommended as the better option: nonbelievers tend to feel uncomfortable with chants and prayers, however meaning less. Some would argue that nonbelievers are, in essence, closer to the transcendental state than the believer in that their spiritual consciousness is already clear of preconceived clutter