Seated meditation is very prominent in Western Buddhism as a practice and as an iconic image. The prominence of (seated) meditation has been discussed and debated recently on Jeff Wilson’s blog as referenced in my last writing on this topic, which also included the perspective of sitting as surrender. The description of how and why it makes sense to see sitting this way, and what is meant by surrender, was also covered. Why this attitude may be helpful or even interesting, however, was not addressed. Because I spent so much time on the “set up” and background material, I felt more should be said about other views of seated meditation and how seeing seated meditation as surrender is significant.
Part of the mix of cultural and assumptions that go with the popular conception of Buddhism is the notion of contemplative spiritual practice, which is found in every world religion. This practice in the West is associated strongly with the idea of an erudite, gray-haired (or if bald, wrinkly) man with an extremely sharp mind which can pierce mysteries the rest of us are barely conscious of. In our culture, a sharp mind is often associated with analytic skills and laser-beam powers of concentration, much like the type of cognitive capacity measured on IQ tests. In the case of the wizened, aged mystic this intellect has simply been turned toward the esoteric.
Another part of this mix is the idea of the devotion of the religious zealot who mortifies his body and spirit through fasting, physically demanding rituals, and other forms of asceticism. He uses pain and sacrifice as a way to cleanse impurities, whether it is defined as sin or desire or delusion. This dualism encompasses the impure and the pure, the defiled and the undefiled, the sinful and the holy, non-deluded and deluded. It is akin to the expression “no pain no gain”, which suggests that if it isn’t hard to achieve, it probably isn’t worth much.
Applying this cultural lens to something like Zen, I believe it is frequently assumed that sitting is some combination of these two images. When seen this way, sitting becomes an endurance test of will and concentration and discomfort becomes a currency to credit to our development towards a less imperfect state. Koans become tests we must pass to enter in to deeper and more rarified forms of insight. Even though book titles, magazine covers, and blog posts all remind us that such practice is not about achievement, that there is no yardstick for “good” or “bad” sittings, and on and on, the image of seated meditation as an engine to “reach” enlightenment which requires the fuel of our concentrated intellect and the lubrication of our physical discomfort persists.
The preceding take on seated meditation is distinct from the idea of surrender. It focuses on the physical state or the mental state as being in some relation to the right/wrong or pure/impure dichotomy. Are you comfortable or not? Is there mental chatter or not? Are you stressed or not? To repeat from my previous discussion of this topic, surrender as I am referring to it here is not about being physically or mentally subdued. Nor is it about being apathetic towards the physical world or aloof or non-empathetic toward the problems and suffering in your own life or the life of others. It is about knowing that deep down it is OK. Beyond everything else that has, is, or will happen, it’s already OK. So you can surrender to that and still be physically active, or intellectually active, or engaged with your own life and the lives of others.
Hence, from my humble and meager perspective, developing concentration is worthwhile and it helps us to become more aware, which is really an important aspect of practice, but just developing attention alone leaves a lot out – how are we using it? Also, there is an element of sacrifice associated with surrender, but it isn’t about quantity or quality. To take one example, for may this kind of surrender is about sacrificing a kind of neurotic inferiority complex when it comes to our true nature which is compensated for by a superiority complex of the ego. Nor does this apply only to ego-maniacs. Even though we may have low self-esteem, how often is that just a manifestation of a self-centered idea of how great we ought to be versus how crappy we feel or how bad off we believe we are? This kind of deep existential dissatisfaction is the kind of thing being sacrificed or jettisoned.
And I personally feel that it is this type of dissatisfaction that Buddhism, via the example of the Buddha, is supposed to be addressing. I think it is this type of dissatisfaction that, from what I have gleaned from the various accounts of his life, the Buddha himself shed when he finally sat. When he sat and, we might speculate, when he realized something that awoke an infinitely sublime quieting and peace beyond the deepest doubts of his life, a tranquility not apart from any particular thing but which embraces all things. I obviously cannot know this, but I sense that this is what the imagery and teachings of Buddhism point toward. We can debate whether this really reflects the original intent of the Buddha himself, but regardless, such a tranquility amidst suffering, or nirvana within samsara, is worth knowing. At least it is to me.
Clarification: I am not suggesting there is nothing else “to do”. In fact, it would be closer to the other way around. That is, such meditation, whether done while seated, while standing, while walking, while brushing our teeth, etc, doesn’t get us anywhere, it just reminds us where we are. The result to which I am alluding then, the peace in the turmoil, is not “the end” either (a concept which, when related to our practice, we could all do without). Again, that is about remembering what, who, and where we are. Nor is it escapism – it is not a static blissed-out obliviousness to the world around us.
There is still work we can do, but not for the “sake of” attaining such abiding confidence. The work of the Bodhisattva path, as this ego-centric, un-ordained, and overly outspoken lay Buddhist currently understands it, rests on this all-embracing affirmation that is beyond any concepts like attainment. That work rests on it, it abides with it, and the Bodhisattva finds the will and energy to do this work through it: to cultivate ethics, concentration, and wisdom through the Eightfold Path, to embody the six paramitas, to uphold the foundation of the three Pure Precepts.
[edited to correct typos and add clarification]