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Meditation: What do the numbers tell us? March 14, 2007

Posted by jshaheen in Meditation.

Kudos to Jeff Wilson, whose blog post at the end of December continues to inspire lively discussion. It’s a good bit of information to keep in mind that most Buddhists do not meditate; just like many of our Asian counterparts, we are often ignorant of other forms of Buddhist practice.

Tibetans never referred to their dharma as “Tibetan dharma”; nor did Sri Lankans consider their dharma anything but dhamma. It is Western historical scholarship that began the study of comparative religion, and it is in the West where we find most forms of Buddhism thriving side by side. So it’s an excellent point Jeff makes: The forms of Buddhism most common among Western converts make up only a very thin slice of the global Buddhist pie.

But do numbers matter? The Mahasatthipatthana Sutta of the Pali Canon makes it clear that meditation is central to Buddhist practice, at least for Theravada monks: likewise among a good number of Tibetan monks, as well as Zen priests. As one of the responses to Jeff’s post points out, Dogen was a meditator; indeed, the word Zen itself (Ch’an in China) derives from the Sanskrit dhyana (Pali jhana), which is commonly translated as “meditation, absorption.”

Zen finds itself among the “single practice traditions,” “which placed one practice above all others as the most correct and effective means to enlightenment for all people.” In the case of Zen, that practice is meditation, so Shunryu Suzuki was not playing to the crowd when he taught meditation; rather, he was remaining true to his tradition. Other single-practice traditions include the Jodo School of Pure Land Buddhism , Jodo Shinshu, and Nichiren (see above link).

The Japanese who brought Zen to the United States left their homeland in many cases because of their disillusionment with Japan’s Zen establishment. Teaching meditation—contrary to what Jeff suggests—was not something they did because their English was bad. Teachers like Maezumi Roshi taught it to the end, long after they were conversant in English. According to one of his early students, Maezumi’s attitude toward those who wanted to engage in other activities was, “If that’s what interests you, go ahead.” Still, meditation was at the core of his teaching and practice. Meditation was not reserved for a small group of monks, it was democratized and made available to all.

The fact that most people—and indeed, most members of Japanese Zen schools—do not practice meditation is a good thing to know simply because it’s true, but not because non-meditative forms are any more Buddhist than the meditative practices—they’re not. Indeed, much of what developed after Dogen is perhaps something he wouldn’t have practiced. Meditation, as practiced in the American Soto Zen schools, is heavily reliant on Dogen’s work, with particular emphasis on the Shobogenzo, Dogen’s collection of teachings.

It is, in fact, among the non-meditative schools that teaching meditation to Western students is perhaps surprising. Socho Koshin Ogui Sensei, Bishop of the Buddhist Churches of America, refers to this in an interview in Tricycle that contributing editor Clark Strand conducted last spring:

Clark Strand: I was surprised to learn that you have been talking about teaching meditation at Shinshu temples in America. Could you say a little bit about your reasons for doing that?

Bishop Ogui: Well, it arose for the very practical reasons we’ve been talking about. When I was a priest in Cleveland, six out of every ten people phoning the temple were inquiring about learning to meditate. At first I was a little hesitant. I don’t have much experience teaching meditation and, as you pointed out earlier, Jodo Shinshu traditionally doesn’t emphasize such practices. And so I’d say, “Sorry, but you have to learn that someplace else.” Later, I realized, “Wow, Koshin, if you keep going like this, losing six out of ten, you’ll bankrupt your store.” So I thought, “Well, why not?” And so I started responding to peoples’ needs.

Some Pure Land priests may not be happy about this, but others see it as a skillful and effective way to attract Western students to the dharma.

Many in the West imagine that “Western Buddhism” is somehow less authentic than “Asian Buddhism.” It’s not uncommon for, say, the New York Times to refer to Western practitioners with tongue in cheek, something they’d never think of doing when it comes to Asian practitioners—for the latter’s Buddhism is “authentic” and deserves the respect we are taught to accord any religion. Buddhism as practiced by Western converts is more likely to be found in the trendy Sunday Style section of the Times than anywhere else. But the notion of authenticity is itself a bit of a fiction, as Australian scholar Jay Garfield points out in his insightful essay, “Buddhist Studies, Buddhist Practice and the Trope of Authenticity.” (Note: This links to an RTF file download.)

There will be many elements to our practice that were not taught by the Buddha, and this is the case in Asia as well. The historical Buddha, for instance, never taught chanting the nembutsu. Shall we say, then, that this fact, along with the fact that millions of Buddhists in the world do not engage in this practice, makes it any less Buddhist?

This is not to say that chanting is bad—I know many people who chant and who benefit greatly from it—just that chanting the nembutsu, as a single practice, is as central to Jodo Shu as meditation is to Soto Zen, or meditation is to the greater number of Western convert Buddhists (the Buddha, of course, taught meditation among many things). The numbers, as I’m sure Jeff agrees, do not determine value and even less so, “authenticity.”

Every tradition is “skewed,” and the traditions practiced here no less so. The idea of “essential” Buddhism is a contradiction in terms. But to deny that meditation is not at the heart of, say, Soto Zen, is to understand Zen as it is practiced by most but not as it was practiced by Dogen, its founder, and those who would follow him today. The Japanese who brought Zen to American shores to teach Westerners were proponents of this latter view, hence, most American Zen converts meditate. This emphasis, though, is not merely a Zen phenomenon. Chogyam Trungpa—who admired and adapted various Zen forms—emphasized meditation among lay students as well, whereas in Tibet, the laity by and large did not practice meditation.

Meditation is popular among Westerners, and we could guess at the reasons, some obvious, some perhaps not; but each time Buddhism has been adapted, those components that were most resonant with its host culture’s needs flourished. Western convert Buddhism—as taught to us by teachers from all Asian Buddhist countries—will reflect the biases of its teachers and the needs of their students. The Buddhism they’ve taught is no more or less Buddhist than any other, although Buddhism without meditation is, indeed, a paradoxical notion in the West. And the latter point is why Jeff’s post is so valuable: it is all too easy here to take Buddhism for meditation and meditation for Buddhism. To dismiss all else is to lose a lot.

– James Shaheen, Editor



1. om - March 17, 2007

thank you for this ~ i had no idea that meditation was not central to all divisions of Buddhism.

2. Gregor - March 18, 2007

Great post.

Buddhism is so much more than one particular practice. Of course, if we study the words of the historical buddha we will learn that meditation is an important element of the dhamma. However, it is also one of the more difficult elements for me personally.

3. gregorywonderwheel - April 15, 2007

“Tibetans never referred to their dharma as “Tibetan dharma”; nor did Sri Lankans consider their dharma anything but dhamma. It is Western historical scholarship that began the study of comparative religion,”

I’m not sure what you intend by this statement but it seems you are saying that Western scholarship somehow is responsible for identifying differences in the Dharma teachings. That would be a strange concept. Tibetans and Sri Lankans referred to their teachings as Dharma for the same reason that the Catholic Church always referred to itself as Christianity and “the” Church, not just “a” church. They had no competition in the market place of religion having driven it out of their geographical areas. Power and lack of any alternative makes any group think its view is THE view. It is one reason that Buddhists from Tibet and Sri Lanka and other “Buddhist” nations need to learn the Enlightenment view of the separation of Church (Temple) and State. That enlightened view is why Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, doesn’t want to be the political head of the Tibetans anymore and is encouraging democracy instead of theocracy for Tibet.

As for meditation, there are three central practices in Buddhism: sila (morality), dhyana (meditation), and prajna (wisdom). If a teaching does not include all three then, in my opinion, it is a limited, perverted, or false Buddhism. Piling up so-called “merit” by moral acts without meditation and wisdom is not Buddhism. Similarly, sitting in meditation without morality and wisdom is quietism, not Buddhism. And wisdom, like Western science, without morality and meditation is a psuedo wisdom and not Buddhism.


4. gregorywonderwheel - April 15, 2007

“Zen finds itself among the “single practice traditions,” “which placed one practice above all others as the most correct and effective means to enlightenment for all people.” In the case of Zen, that practice is meditation, so Shunryu Suzuki was not playing to the crowd when he taught meditation; rather, he was remaining true to his tradition.”

This is an erroneous view of Zen/Chan tradition. Zen has always emphasized the three practices of sila (morality), dhyana (meditation), and prajna (wisdom). Zen/Chan became known as the Dhayana (Ch’an) school because it said that wisdom and meditation arise together and that wisdom comes from direct experience not from books. In China the Buddhist teachers and their schools were divided into three categories of practice: vinaya schools (rules of moral discipline), teaching or sutra schools (usually emphasizing a certain surta or small group of sutraas), and ch’an or meditation schools. Many monks of great fame in the Ch’an school, such as Linji (J. Rinzai) were first vinaya monks and/or sutra monks, before finding a dhyana teacher, after they had become dissatisfied with their realisation from just frollowing the rules are reading the stutras.

But Zen teachers like the great Huineng always emphasized the unity of meditation and wisdom and quoted the sutras in doing so and upheld the importance of morality as the context for bodhisattva activity in the world, so there is and has been no such thing as a “single practice tradition” in Zen except in the sense that practice in one moment is the single practice whehter one is sitting, lying down, standing or walking. When the three praceices of morality, meditation, and wisdom are unified in one moment then there is a single practice Zen. This is what all the Zen teachers teach, not a single practice of mediation opposed to or different tnan morality and wisdom.


5. gregorywonderwheel - April 15, 2007

Okay, third post in a row because this topic is so vitally important.

“Some Pure Land priests may not be happy about this, but others see it as a skillful and effective way to attract Western students to the dharma.”

It is unfortunate and even sad that the venerabe Bishop Ogui apparently doesn’t understand the meaning of meditation or that his own practice of nembutsu is identical to meditation and is not different from meditation.

Zen master Huineng said, “Learned Audience, what is sitting for meditation? In our School, to sit means to gain absolute freedom and to be mentally unperturbed in all outward circumstances, be they good or otherwise. To meditate means to realize inwardly the imperturbability of the Essence of Mind.
“Learned Audience, what are Dhyana and Samadhi? Dhyana means to be free from attachment to all outer objects, and Samadhi means to attain inner peace. If we are attached to outer objects, our inner mind will be perturbed.”

Thus we can see that when sitting zazen or sitting chanting is done free from attachment, inwardly realizing imperterbability, and attaining inner peace then the essentials of the meditation and chanting practice are the same.

Zen master Hakuin Ekaku of 17th century Japan was well aware of this as the two popular Buddhist congregations other than Zen were Pure Land and Nichiren with their two forms of chanting practices. To Hajuin zazen and chanting could both be done wrongly, but when done correctly both were meditation in action. Hakuin said if you are a zen pratciioner then do zazen, but if you are a Nichiren practitioner then chant namu myohorengekyo with the same mind of meditation that he used when sitting zazen. Hakuin said the ultimate truth of Zen is called the “One Mind” or “the original Dignity of the Person” and is the same as the ultimate truth of Nichiren called “Law of the Lotuse Blossom” and Pure Land or for that matter the ultimate truth of most every religion.

Hakuin wrote, “In regard to the efficacy of the sacred formula (i.e., Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo), there is no difference between one repitition of the phrase and the use of one koan for meditation which we use in the Zen lineage.” What he means is that it is the One Mind of the Tathagata that is practicing and is revealed in the practice, and this is the essence of meditation. What is this practicing? Hakuin says, it is practicing without attachment to things, even the attachment to the merit of the practice. Chanting nembutsu or Renge Kyo or doing zazen with attachment to thoughts of better or worse is not real practice. Hakuin warns not to think of other practices as worse or lower. Why? Because each practice is meditation when it brings the practitioner to direct immediate realization of the Tathagata’s One Mind, whether that One Mind is called the Wonderful Form of Amida Buddha, the Treasure of the Law of the Lotus Blossom, or One’s Original Face.


6. "Meditation: What do the Numbers Tell Us?" « Kalyana Mitta Sangha - April 27, 2007

[…] 27th, 2007 by Tim Little James Shaheen wrote a very interesting post on the Tricycle “Editors’ Blog” a few weeks ago in response to another post by […]

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