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Experiments in Buddhist Meditation
Written by Shanta Ratnayaka

Experiments in Buddhist Meditation
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1. Diversity and History

Throughout history, there have been numerous traditions of meditation and all of them are, in one-way or another, attractive to people of differing dispositions. Yoga, Kundalini, Transcendental Meditation, Sufi, Zen, Samatha, Vipassana, and Satipatthana are some examples. These traditions have continued generation after generation without falling out of practice because they all bring about benefits to people. While they are recognised as meditation, all of them may not produce the same benefits, and they do not claim to do so either. But they yield good results; in doing so, they attract many serious minded people around the world. Of these meditations, Yoga, Kundalini, and Transcendental Meditation have come from Hinduism. Sufi is from Islam, and the rest of them have been introduced by Buddhism.

The other religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Jainism have their variations of meditation as well. Yet, they are not as widely practice d as the one we mentioned above. All these examples show that the practice of meditation is not limited to one or two religions. Rather, it is a common aspect of many religious traditions. Even some philosophies like the Vedanta system emphasise meditation in their systems. The scope of the present study, however, is limited to Buddhist meditation.

The history of meditation reaches beyond the known history of mankind. According to archaeologists, a figure of a yogi found in the Indus Valley Civilisation indicates that yoga practice could have existed in the first Indian civilisation itself. Ever since yoga and other forms of meditation have been essential practices in Hinduism. The Buddha's life story gives detailed accounts on the advanced yogis from whom Siddhartha Gautama learned yoga practices. Some of these pre-Buddhistic teachers had achieved eight dhyaanas as well as the magical skills based on their trance states. Under these teachers, Siddhartha mastered the teachings of meditation within a short period of time. He was even offered teaching positions by these masters, but Siddhartha refused their offers and continued searching for more by experimenting further with the techniques of meditation. Siddhartha's achievement which made him a Buddha was the result of these experiments. Somewhat like the Buddhists, who has the Buddha to lead them in practice, the Sufis of Islam claim that their meditation started right from the beginning of their religion as the Prophet Mohammed himself practised it.

Obviously, the history of each religion is a long one, as well as the history of meditation within each religion. The Buddha taught his disciples and these disciples taught theirs. From master to master there have been individual approaches and interpretations to the original practices. When Buddhism was received by Chinese, Japanese, Tibetans, and Southeast Asians, they added their own methods and interpretations. Japanese Zen and Tibetan Tantra are good examples of such expanded versions of Buddhist meditation. Again the scope of the present study does not allow us to discuss the long history of Buddhist meditation. Here we will be limited to a few experiments and comments which can be more useful to our lives today than its historical events and developments.

We have already noted that before achieving the Buddhahood Siddharta Gautama developed dhyaanas as well as the supranormal skills based on them. This type of meditation is known as samatha because by calming down one's thoughts and by cultivating the power of concentration one's mind reaches the states of dhyaana. Thus, samatha meditation came from the pre-Buddhistic practices. What actually led Siddhartha to the Buddhahood was his own experimentation in meditation. This new meditation is known as Vipassana which means insight or penetration into reality. Vipassana is Pali term and its Sanskrit term is vidarshana . It is through vipassana that one can attain Nirvana, the Absolute or the Goal of Buddhism. Even the one who has mastered samatha does not attain Nirvana; he has to develop Vipassana in order to see Nirvana. An essential step of vipassana is satipatthana (i.e. mindfulness or awareness). Through satipatthana the meditator becomes aware of the present moment of life, each and every movement of his or her physical and mental existence. That kind of awareness is essential to have penetrating insight into the physical and mental phenomena which encompasses the whole world.

2. Experiments


Recently the present writer had done several experiments with Professor James W. Boyd at Colorado State University. At one point I suggested to Dr. Boyd that he should meditate on the feelings. Here what I mean by feelings is necessarily gross feelings like anger or anxiety, but any mental or physical feeling like pleasure or pain. The following was my instruction:

Being aware of your feelings is traditionally know as vedanaanupassana satipatthana. When you eat ice cream you enjoy the taste of it. That is rasa vedana. Rather than letting your thoughts wander about something else or somewhere else, keep your thoughts on the action of eating ice cream and the taste of it. Being aware of the act of eating ice cream belongs to the kaayaanupassana satipatthana,i.e. awareness of bodily movements. Being aware of the taste of ice cream belongs to the vedanaanupassana satipatthana, i.e. awareness of feelings. To reiterate, eating ice cream, it is done with satipa.t.thaana, can bring the highest realisation of reality. While eating ice cream, one can step beyond the every day pattern of existence. By the way, one does not have to sit cross-legged in a lotus position to eat ice cream. Let us try it.

Dr Boyd agreed. After doing satipatthana meditation on eating ice cream he sat at his computer and recorded his experience. His computer gives this report:

I purposely selected one of my favourite flavours of ice cream, double dip, I was quickly aware of my tongue, the taste of cold ice cream on it. I tried to be observant of my response to the taste, and eventually saw that just as I swallowed there was a desire for more. As I tried to continue that awareness of attachment to the taste, on about three occasions I became aware that as I paid attention to the desire, it was neutralised somewhat. I asked myself at those moments if I craved another bite; there was no sense of craving. Habitual inattention brought me in and out of this awareness, however, even with something so appealing as ice cream.

Dr Boyd, by using his favourite ice cream, is practising satipaltlthana meditation. I talked to him about Buddhist philosophy using the same practical experience. One philosophical point was brought into our conversation in analysing Dr Boyd's remark, I tried to be observant. In satipatthana meditation, the meditator realises that there is no dichotomy between I and the observant . The observant and I are one. When the meditation goes deeper and deeper, the meditator sees that there is no dichotomy between the feeling and the observant. Feeling itself assumes to be me or the observant . When the process of feeling is seen clearly with satipatthana, the feeler disappears. In absence of the feeler, observant, or ego, the meditator becomes in touch with the flux of life or the stream of existence. Religiously speaking this is not a simple achievement. If one has gone this far in meditation, that person will always have the right attitude towards life and world altogether.

In the above-mentioned computer report Dr Boyd has said, I asked myself at those moments if I craved another bite; there was no sense of craving . That was the second philosophical point he learned from this particular meditation. Using satipatthana while eating ice cream, he himself observed how his craving for ice cream faded away. He overcame his craving, at least his craving for ice cream. On the other hand, he does not hate ice cream, so he maintains the right view on eating ice cream.

After he had this meditational experience, Dr Boyd claim that his teaching ability improved considerably. Before the meditation he taught Buddhism only from books, but now after meditation he teaches Buddhism from his own experience. Before he was able to discuss Buddhist philosophy from his book knowledge but now he teaches it with personal understanding. When satipatthana is applied to other fields of teaching besides Buddhism, he finds it to be very effective.

Another experiment I have done with Dr Boyd is walking meditation. I asked him to be aware of his feet when he walked. Slowly I directed him to be attentive to the raising of the feet from the ground, the moving of the feet over the ground, and to placing them on the ground. In this exercise he had to pay continuous attention to walking; the movement of his feet. After this practice Dr Boyd has recorded his experience in the computer thus:

I quickly realised that I had to slow down and, at first, I became aware of the bottom of my feet as I placed them on the asphalt. Then I eventually became aware of the roll of my feet in an arching movement. As I became aware of my walking, the sense of sequence was there, and also a sense of the press of my feet against the floor and the lightness in lifting them. Later there was a strong awareness of motion, and heaviness.

Normally one does not notice any of these details in walking although everyone walks daily. Only when one becomes mindful one sees the minute details of one's walking. Similarly in being fully attentive, one can take note of all the movements taking place in daily living.

A step beyond the physical movements is thought. The meditator begins to see his or her thoughts. Just like he or she recognised the movements of the feet, he or she begins to recognise the rising, continuing, and the fall of each thought. Thus, characteristics like impermanence of the physical and mental entities become revealed to the meditator. Seeing these characteristics is vipassana. This way satipatthana leads to vipasana. The progress of vipassana meditation depends on satipatthana meditation. And one's progress towards enlightenment depends on vipassana meditation.

Although satipatthana, vipassana, or Zen can be done in walking or any other position, people usually think that a sitting posture is the best position for a meditator. Anyone's mental picture of a meditator is that of the lotus posture. Several reasons account for the popularity of the lotus posture. The cultural and historical background in India is a major one. It is a habit of Indians to sit in lotus posture. The Satipatthana Sutta [1] itself makes special reference to it as a way of getting ready to do certain meditations like the meditation on breath (anapana sati). Obviously, the meditator's lungs remain fully expanded and spinal cord stays straight when one sits in lotus posture. This helps lungs and brain to function freely. Besides, it is a stable and settled position for the meditator. It is not unusual for a person to fall asleep when the mind becomes calmer and calmer. If it happens the meditator will not get injured, because he or she is steady in his or her sitting position itself. We can imagine what could happen if one falls asleep during the walking meditation. Therefore sitting posture, especially the lotus posture, is a firm and balanced physical position for the meditator.

3. Psychology

We have been referring to the ancient scriptural teachings and traditional practices. Therefore, at this point of our study we must find out what modern researchers have done in the field of meditation. First of all modern researchers have recognised that the meditator's brain functions are distinct from that of the non-meditator. In addition it has been discovered that the meditator's brain is not subjected to habituation process whereas all the others live as victims of habituation of their brains. See the following two experiments.

Electroencephalographic Analysis of Meditation

In 1963 a fascinating and unique report on Zen meditation was presented by Dr Akira Kasamatsu and Dr Tomio Hirai of the Department of Neuro-Psychiatry, Tokyo University. It contained the results of a ten-year study of the brain wave or electroencephalographic (EEG) tracing of Zen masters.

The EEG tracing revealed that about 90 seconds after an accomplished Zen practitioner begins meditation, a rhythmic slowing in the brain wave pattern occurs known as alpha waves. This slowing occurs with eyes open and progresses with meditation, and after 30 minutes one finds rhythmic alpha waves of seven or eight per second. This effect persists for some minutes after meditation. What is most significant is that this EEG pattern is notably different from those of sleep, normal walking consciousness, and hypnotic trance and is unusual in persons who have not made considerable progress in meditation. In other words, it suggests an unusual mental state; though from the subjective reports of the practitioners, it does not appear to be a unique or highly unusual conscious experience. It was also found that a Zen master's evaluation of the amount of progress another practitioner had made correlated directly with the latter's EEG changes.

Another finding of the same study concerned what are called alpha blocking and habituation. To understand these phenomena let us imagine that a person who is reading quietly is suddenly interrupted by a loud noise. If the same sound is then repeated with a few seconds later his attention will again be diverted, only not as strongly nor for as long a time. If the sound is then repeated at regular intervals, the person will continue reading and become oblivious to the sound. A normal subject with closed eyes produces alpha waves on an EEG tracing. An auditory stimulation, such as a loud noise normally obliterates alpha waves for seven seconds or more; this is termed alpha blocking. In a Zen master the alpha blocking produced by the first noise lasts only two seconds. If the noise is repeated at 15 second intervals, we find that in the normal subject there is virtually no alpha blocking remaining by the fifth successive noise. This diminution of alpha blocking is termed habituation and persists in normal subjects for as long as the noise continues at regular and frequent intervals. In the Zen master, however, no habituation is seen. His alpha blocking lasts two seconds with the first sound, two seconds with the fifth sound, and two seconds with the twentieth sound. This implies that the Zen master has a greater awareness of his environment as the paradoxical result of meditative concentration. One master described such a state of mind as that of noticing every person he sees on the street but of not looking back with emotional lingering. [2]

EEG tracing is only one example found in modern research. Psychology plays a large role in the modern world and meditation is essentially a psychological affair. Therefore, it is worthwhile for us to compare and contrast briefly the modern psychology with the Buddhist psychology. The Buddha teaches that the world is operated by mind (cittena neeyati l“k“), [3] pleasure and pain, happiness and sorrow, progression and regression, in brief the whole human civilisation is a product of thought. An individual's future and the future of all mankind depends on our power of thinking. The role of consciousness is nicely stated thus in Buddhist Meditation and Depth Psychology:

If the basis of Christianity is God, the basis of Buddhism is mind. From the Buddhist viewpoint, mind or consciousness is the core of our existence. Pleasure and pain, good and evil, time and space, life and death have no meaning to us apart from our awareness of them or thoughts about them. Whether God exists or does not exist, whether existence is primarily spiritual or primarily material, whether we live for a few decades or live forever - all these matters are, in the Buddhist view, secondary to the one empirical fact of which we do have certainty; that is the existence of conscious experience as it proceeds through the course of daily living. Therefore, Buddhism focuses on the mind; for happiness and sorrow, pleasure and pain are psychological experiences. [5]

In this comparative remark we represent Western psychologists. While Buddhist psychology, including meditational application of it, downgrades methodology, Western psychology gives the highest possible place to it. For instance, John Marasca, a professor at Ohio State University reports at the American Psychological Association Convention [6] that a telephone survey of 1,282 women and 749 men was the chosen method for obtaining data regarding men and women. In the field of meditation such a method is not considered valid or reliable enough to reach conclusions regarding human consciousness. Relying on the telephone conversations with that many men and women, psychologists have decided that women suffer more distress than men. Accordingly, women experience symptoms of distress such as sadness, anger, anxiety, malaise, and physical aches 30% more often than men. The comparison of men and women further shows that women experience sadness and anger 29% more often than men, anxiety 30% more, malaise 38% more and physical aches 36% more than men.

These numbers are very valid statistically. For instance, at working places precautions can be taken according to the number of men and women employed so that the negative outcomes of distress can be avoided. Pharmaceutical companies can focus more on female clients to sell their drugs prescribed for distress. The results of such research can be used for various practical purposes like these. From this we can learn the methods of Western psychological research as well as the applications of them. The pattern here has been questioning a certain number of people, analysing their answers, arriving at conclusions, and working according to those conclusions. In this method of research and its application some essential human questions have been put aside. Although the conclusions are made on numbers lie 30% and 38% (No doubt these numbers are attractive to the readers) the fact remains that feeling of sadness or anger really takes place in individuals. The cure of them also can be achieved by individuals but not by large number of men or women collectively. Although more than enough such psychological research is being done, such research is not helping enough individuals to eliminate sadness, anger, anxiety or malaise.

Besides, modern psychologists recognise mental qualities like anger and anxiety as normal human qualities. When these mental dispositions grow into a state of insanity the patient will be treated and cared for, otherwise, they are accepted as normal human conditions. Because of this influence very responsible people and social leaders argue for justifiable anger and even just wars . On the other hand meditation is applied on an individual basis and it regulates mental dispositions.

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