Buddha and Meditation
By Dr. Evan Finkelstein
A puzzled man asked the Buddha: “I have heard that some monks meditate with expectations, others meditate with no expectations, and yet others are indifferent to the result. What is the best?
The Buddha answered: “Whether they meditate with or without expectations, if they have the wrong ideas and the wrong methods, they will not get any fruit from their meditation. Think about it. Suppose a man wants to have some oil and he puts sand into a bowl and then sprinkles it with salt. However much he presses it, he will not get oil, for that is not the method. Another man is in need of milk. He starts pulling the horns of a young cow. Whether he has any expectations or not, he will not get any milk out of the horn, for that’s not the method. Or if a man fills a jar with water and churns it in order to get butter, he will be left only with water.
It’s like filling a bowl with oil seeds and pressing them or milking a cow by pulling the udder or filling a jar with cream and churning it. It’s the right method.” Majjhima Nikaya
What kind of meditation did the Buddha teach? Truthfully speaking, no one clearly knows; however, we have a few good hints about the nature of the practice he might have taught from some of the Buddhist scriptures. From the above scripture, it is clear Buddha felt that unless one was using a correct method, one could not expect to gain Nirvana—the fully awakened state of absolute freedom and enlightenment.
Buddha also spoke of two qualities that he thought were fundamental to the fully-awakened state: Tranquility and Insight.
Two things will lead you to supreme understanding. What are those two? Tranquility and Insight.
If you develop tranquility, what benefit can you expect? Your mind will develop. The benefit of a developed mind is that you are no longer a slave to your impulses.
If you develop insight, what benefit will it bring? You will find wisdom. And the point of developing wisdom is that it brings you freedom from the blindness of ignorance.
A mind held bound by unconsidered impulse and ignorance can never develop true understanding. But by way of tranquility and insight the mind will find freedom. Anguttara Nikaya
It is interesting that the two most popular forms of Buddhist meditation that are taught today are called Samatha and Vipassana. Samatha meditation is based on the intention and persistent effort on the part of the meditator to concentrate the mind on some specific object of meditation: the goal being to develop the ability of the mind to concentrate because when the mind is in a highly concentrated state, it is known to be tranquil and such a mind, it is thought, would make deep insight possible.
Since Buddha explained that only the right method would bring the “fruit,” it would be valuable to explore whether Samatha meditation, as it’s understood and practiced today, is the right method to bring tranquility to the mind. The term “Samatha” actually means calmness or tranquility: an integrated state where the mind is not in any way excited or active. It is directly related to the term “Samadhi,” the state in which the mind is completely settled and unwavering and is effortlessly held in a fully concentrated state.
What creates this tranquil state of mind? In its fully developed state, tranquility is produced by the unbounded peace, freedom and wakefulness that are experienced in the unconditioned, infinite state of Nirvana. It is the total freedom and absolute happiness of Nirvana that automatically and spontaneously absorbs and concentrates the mind. “Meditate, and in your wisdom realize Nirvana, the highest happiness.” Dhammapada
The misunderstanding regarding Samatha meditation, as it is understood and practiced today, is simply that the mind does not need to be trained to gain the ability to concentrate through the application of strenuous concentration practices. The mind will automatically and spontaneously achieve this highly tranquil and concentrated state simply by the meditator knowing the technique of how to allow the mind to be effortlessly drawn in to the Bliss of Nirvana. It is a common experience that the mind will naturally stay concentrated on anything that provides it with peace and contentment; this is an inherent capacity of the mind, so no training or practices of concentration are required.
It is the fulfillment naturally produced by of the state of Nirvana that concentrates the mind and this happens without any effort on the part of the meditator if he or she is using a right method of meditation. Through the regular and effortless practice of a right method, the vital quality of tranquility will become stabilized in the life of the meditator and, as Buddha said, one will then no longer be a “slave” to one’s “impulses.”
In addition, because it is the natural tendency of the mind to move on to a field of stable peace and contentment in a spontaneous manner, the individual’s effort to try to control the mind to remain only on one limited object of attention, as is done with Samatha meditation today, actually obstructs the mind from rushing on to the ever-constant infinity and happiness it so much needs and desires.
However, it is not Samatha meditation that is the most popular type of Buddhist meditation; the most widely used form today is Vipassana or Mindfulness meditation. Vipassana is also referred to as Insight meditation, because through its practice one is supposed to develop penetrating insight into the true nature of reality. Buddha explained that through Vipassana, which literally means “through insight,” one should gain the wisdom “that brings you freedom from the blindness of ignorance.”
These days, Vipassana/Mindfulness meditation is practiced by the practitioner having the intention to be an “impartial observer” of some natural process occurring within his or her body, mind or emotions. For example, one is asked to just observe or be mindful of the rising and falling of the abdomen during the process of breathing, or to just impartially observe the incoming and outgoing of the breath itself.
Another, popular form of this meditation is to mindfully observe the body in the natural act of walking or during the process of standing up or sitting down. The key element is to try to be continuously aware of whatever process is taking place without in any way interfering with or reacting to, either positively or negatively, the process that is occurring in the moment. The idea is to try to be fully aware of the “raw experience” that is always happening and transforming by noting and letting go of each arising and subsiding sensation. This practice is supposed to bring one deep insight, perfect wisdom, into the ultimate reality of the true nature of existence in both its conditioned and unconditioned states.
Unfortunately, this attempt to develop and obtain Insight through the practice of trying to be an “impartial observer” is not a right method. The reason for this is that the “impartial observer,” which alone is capable of “right mindfulness” and genuine Insight, is the fully-awakened state of Nirvana Itself. The true “impartial observer” is never the attention or mind that is attempting to watch a process. The reason for this is that this very attempt is a part of the process itself; it is not outside the process. In stark contrast to this, the genuine “impartial observer” is completely outside any and every process of the rising and falling of any conditioned state of existence; it is completely beyond the mind and any human intention or effort to observe anything.
Buddha asked the question “What is right mindfulness?” And, he answered in the following way:
When going, the monk knows “I am going,” or, when standing, he knows “I am standing,” or, when lying down, he knows “I am lying down.” Or in whatever position his body is placed, he is aware of it….Whether he goes, stands or sits, sleeps or is awake, speaks or is silent, he is acting with full attention. Digha Nikaya
In this above quote, it is vital to note that Mindfulness should be present even when one is sleeping. In other words, the process of sleep should be able to be witnessed or observed as it is naturally occurring. At first glance, the impartial observation of sleep would seem to be impossible because if one is asleep how could one observe anything? The key to understanding this is that it is not the mind that is observing; in the state of sleep, the mind is sleeping and is not aware of the sleeping process or anything else.
However, it is possible for the Absolute state of consciousness, the state of Nirvana, to impartially witness the sleeping process. It is the unconditioned, transcendental, Absolute state of consciousness that is the true impartial observer of all the ever-changing values of the conditioned aspects of life, including the mind and its intentions. It is this supreme value of life alone that is capable of being impartial because only It is without any lack and nothing can be subtracted or added to Its eternal status. Consequently, it is only the Absolute existence of the fully-awakened state that is capable of totally penetrating into the true nature of life and gaining the supreme Insight lived, embodied and expressed by a Buddha.
How then can one develop true Insight, Perfect Wisdom, into the ultimate reality of life? If the human attempt to be an impartial observer of natural processes is not the appropriate method, what would be the right method? It is clear that the right method would need to result in the cultivation and integration of the transcendental state of Absolute Wakefulness, the state of Nirvana. The Buddhist Shurangama Sutra offers the following deep insight:
Through which sense organ should I cultivate? You ask. Don’t be nervous. It is the very organ of the ear which Gwan Yin Bodhisattva used that is best for you.
Gwan Yin Bodhisattva perfected his cultivation through the organ of the ear, and Ananda will follow him in cultivating the same method. The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of former times have left us such a wonderful Dharma-door that we should also follow the method of cultivating the organ of the ear to perfect penetration. This is the easiest method.
The method suggested in the Shurangama Sutra is referred to as the “easiest method” because it involves the simple and effortless act of allowing one’s attention to be with a sound in order to achieve “perfect penetration.” Perfect penetration means that one has been able to penetrate beyond all the temporal, ever-changing values of all the conditioned states of existence and become at one with the Absolute, unconditioned, eternal, “never born and never dying” peace and fulfillment, which is the infinite all-knowing state of Nirvana, the end of all suffering.
But, how should one be with a sound? What is the right method? The Shurangama Sutra offers further explanation in the following verses:
Ananda, and everyone in the great assembly,
Turn around your mechanism for hearing.
Return the hearing to hear your own nature
The nature will become the supreme Way.
That is what perfect penetration really means.
That is the gateway entered by Buddhas as many as dust motes.
That is the one path leading to Nirvana.
Tathagatas of the past perfected this method.
Bodhisattvas now merge with this total brightness.
People of the future who study and practice
Will also rely on this Dharma. Shurangama Sutra
One is instructed to “turn around your mechanism for hearing.” What does this mean? Usually, one hears a sound when one is speaking or hearing someone else speak, or hears a sound produced by something in the environment—a bird, thunder, the rushing of a river, anything. Our mind is usually outwardly directed into the environment. However, with a right method of meditation, one can learn how to effortlessly use a sound to follow it in the inward direction to its ultimate source.
The right method here is in knowing how to spontaneously appreciate a sound in the inward direction within the mind. It seems that this was a technique of meditation taught by the Buddha when he would give specific mantras or sounds (a mantra is a specific sound used during meditation) to his disciples. The following sutra illustrates this point:
“There’s no need for you to give up,” said the Buddha. “You should not abandon your search for liberation just because you seem to yourself to be thick witted. You can drop all philosophy you’ve been given and repeat a mantra instead—one that I will now give you.” Majjhima Nikaya
The sound of the mantra is innocently and effortlessly experienced in its increasingly subtle values until the sound fades away completely and the meditator is left in the completely calm yet full awakened state of Samadhi. This natural process is what is referred to in the above verses quoted from the Shurangama Sutra:
“Return the hearing to hear your own nature; the nature will become the supreme Way. That is what perfect penetration really means.”
It is clear from these verses that the process that resulted in supreme insight or “perfect penetration” was a process that was conducted by nature itself: “nature will become the supreme Way.” It was not a process conducted by individual control or efforts to concentrate, or to try to be an impartial observer. By “returning the hearing,” by effortlessly following back the sound to its ultimate origin, one would be able to “hear your own nature.” One’s “own nature” is, in fact, the Buddha Nature, the state of full awakening, the infinite and eternal fully-awake existence that is the non-changing and ultimate truth of life. “The Buddha said:
“O good man! Self means tathagatagarbha [emerging Buddha-Nature]. Every being has the Buddha Nature. This is Self.” Mahaparinirvana Sutra
In our time, this natural process of turning around the “mechanism for hearing” is known as the technique of Transcendental Meditation (TM). It is a completely effortless practice that does not require belief in any doctrine or the following of any particular way of life. People of all religions practice it, as do people of no religion. Its practical benefits have been scientifically researched and documented for 40 years and it has been taught world- wide to over 6 million people of every race and culture.
In addition, this technique does not involve any form of concentration, contemplation, or any controlled effort on the part of the mind, intellect or emotions to distance oneself from one’s experiences by trying to remain unmoved, detached and impartial. This is a vital point because the Tranquility and Insight that Buddha spoke of were never meant to be practices. One cannot practice Tranquility or Insight, but one can easily gain and develop them by regularly transcending to the state of Nirvana and becoming at one with It. It is the state of Nirvana that is perfectly tranquil and the state of perfect Insight, Perfect Wisdom.
The right method of meditation would be one that is capable of bringing us beyond all the impermanent, ever-changing, conditioned states of existence to the state of Nirvana. It would be a method that is capable of completely transcending its own process and leaving us at one with the Absolute, freed from the illusion of a limited and separate self- existence. Then, through its regular effortless practice, this method would allow us to fully integrate and stabilize this unwavering, Absolute state of Nirvana into all activities and experiences of daily life allowing us to achieve the goal of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas—a world without suffering.
To conclude, the main point of this essay on Buddha and Meditation is that to gain the Tranquility and Insight that are the qualities of full enlightenment, to realize the Perfect Wisdom that blossoms into infinite compassion, one has to learn and use the right method of turning within.
“It’s like filling a bowl with oil seeds and pressing them or milking a cow by pulling the udder or filling a jar with cream and churning it. It’s the right method.” Majjhima Nikaya
Dr. Finkelstein is professor of Comparative Religion and Maharishi Vedic Science at Maharishi University of Management. He has written articles that identify the common ground inherent in many of the ancient wisdom traditions. He has taught numerous courses on the universal principles that can be located in Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
This article has now been published, July 1, 2011, in the Elephant Journal: The Buddha’s Meditation. ~ Dr. Evan Finkelstein.
Also see God? ~ Dr. Evan Finkelstein published in elephantjournal.com on Nov 30, 2011.