Buddhism and meditation: a new perspective

Recently while reading Ford’s book on the life of Hossō Buddhist scholar Jōkei he takes to task the standard of meditation that most Westerner Buddhist converts hold. In one chapter, dealing with Jokei’s focus of devotion he quotes another scholar, Alan Sponberg, who writes:

With too narrow a notion of the range of meditative practice with Buddhism, we might take Hsüan-tsang‘s Maitreya visualization to be simply a case of “devotional cult practice,” rather than “meditation” proper—perhaps without even stopping to consider the validity of the dichotomy asserted in such a distinction… We must recognize the sense in which the tradition both Maitreya visualization and zazen to be instances of meditative practice. Any conceptualization of meditation that cannot readily accommodate both of these techniques, no matter how apparent and how important their differences, would be likely to distort, rather than inform, our understanding of religious practices in Buddhism, simply because what relates these two activities in the minds of many Buddhists is still more significant than what distinguishes them. Therefore, I would argue, we must include forms of “devotional cult practice” in our discussion of meditation traditions. (pg. 123)

In his book The Way to Buddhahood,1 the late master Yin-Shun described many forms of meditation and devotional practices within the Mahayana tradition, listing visualization of a Buddha or Bodhisattva right alongside breathing meditation:

In the world of Great Vehicle [Mahayana] Buddhism, however, most people practice mindfulness of a Buddha and mindfulness of breathing… For example if one can follow— single-mindedly and without scatteredness — the easy path of chanting a Buddha’s name, one can achieve the samādhi of mindfulness of a Buddha. Following this method can lead to toward superior world-transcending dhyāna contemplation and thereby further leads to enlightenment. On a more superficial level one, being mindful of a Buddha acts as repentance for one’s karmic obstructions and as a means to gather good roots. (pg 259)

So, in traditional Buddhism the notion of meditation is a more broad subject than what we normally think of in the West, and it’s probably time for us reevaluate our tired, old assumptions about what “real Buddhism” is and isn’t. As our research into traditional Buddhism matures, I believe we’ll continue to discover many more treasures that we’ve missed out on until now. :)

Namu Amida Butsu

1 A hefty tome but still, after all these years, my most favorite book on Buddhism. I have yet to read another book that covers as much ground, and is as broad, as this one and still remain an inspiring read. :)

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5 Comments on “Buddhism and meditation: a new perspective”

  1. johnl says:

    I would say that sutra chanting/recitation and sutra copying are two practices related to meditation that seem to be frequently rejected by the US Zen community. At least that is my impression from this side of the pond!

  2. Tornadoes28 says:

    I too have thought that meditation in Buddhism was more broad than what many understand. To me, the chanting of Amida’s name is a form of mediation.

  3. Doug says:

    Hi guys,

    Johnl: Yup, you put it succinctly what I was alluding to in the post. ;)

    Tornadoes28: I think most blog readers here woudl agree wiht you, but I have noticed a larger Buddhist culture that tends to equate Buddhism with meditation, and meditation with one particular style. All else is written off as “cult Buddhism”, “Cultural accretions” and other unfortunate epithets. I think what the book quote at the top gets at is that the Buddhist community has been resting on too many assumptions for too long, ignoring a much wider tradition. :)

  4. Wow, another Buddhist/Japanophile/BSD user, sweet!

  5. Doug says:

    He heh heh, they were listed as endangered at one point, but their numbers are returning. Welcome!

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