Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sitting as surrender

Just because the story of Siddhartha Guatama says he realized enlightenment while sitting under a pipal tree, does that mean that we must also literally sit if we want to do the same? As far as I can tell, his teachings do not suggest this. Yes, seated meditation is one form of practice in which many Buddhist engage, but what else is there to it?

First, I want to revisit something that made a bit of stir at Jeff Wilson's blog on Tricycle. In a post on copying sutras, Jeff remarked:

Japan and America are often held up as countries with very different cultures. And because of these cultural differences, the Buddhisms of these two countries are often contrasted. Even when they share traditions, such as Zen and Jodo Shinshu, the way in which these traditions are practiced are often widely divergent. For instance, Americans think of Zen as a meditation tradition, but meditation is quite uncommon in Japanese Zen.

Based on a reply to that post asking about the admonition to practice meditation in Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, a very popular book among Western Buddhists on the topic of Zen Buddhism, Jeff followed up with a post about meditation being a rare practice for Zen Buddhists in Japan, commenting:

In America, many people are interested in meditation and that is one reason that Zen teachers discuss it. Also, some of the first generation teachers were unusually interested in meditation and felt uncomfortable in Japan where Zen does not generally perform it, so they looked elsewhere. Another reason many of the early Zen teachers emphasized it is that their English language skills weren't perfect, and it was easier to teach people to sit quietly than to try to discuss the already difficult concepts of Zen Buddhism.

Asian teachers who like to have Western students talk a lot about zazen to them. When they teach in Japanese, most do not emphasize zazen unless it is in a monastic situation. If you read Japanese, you will quickly see the reality of this. The same goes for Tibetans, I am told, but I don't read Tibetan so I'm relying on the reports of colleagues who focus on Tibetan Buddhism. When speaking in Tibetan, teachers emphasize receiving empowerments and blessings from the lamas, and chanting mantras. If they teach in English, they spice it up with lots of talk about meditation because they know that is what Westerners like.

Westerners only hear from a tiny minority of Asian teachers and even then the parts of their overall works that are selected for translation are often only those that fit the Western convert meditation-oriented worldview, so they really get a very skewed idea of Buddhism. That doesn't mean that Westerners who like meditation are wrong, so long as it works out for them. It only means that people who think meditation is a necessary practice of Buddhism are in the extreme minority. Again, that doesn't make them bad, just statistically-speaking very unusual...

In fact, Buddhist laypeople do not do regular meditation practice in any Asian country. They have never done regular mediation practice in any historical tradition in any part of Asia at any point in time, and they have always been the overwhelming majority of Buddhists. For that matter, the average Buddhist in America is not a meditator either. 75% of American Buddhists are Asian-Americans, and just as in Asia, they are not typically involved in meditation. Many converts do not meditate regularly either, for that matter.

Likewise, within the Buddhist monastic sangha, meditation has often not been a strongly encouraged practice--adherence to long lists of rules and chanting sutras have always been the main activities, with the most respect often going to great scholar monks who know and understand the traditional sources and commentaries...

The topic generated so much interest, Jeff wrote a new post just to reply to several major comments visitors had left. Here is an example:
Dogen is a fascinating character, one of my favorites. I've been exploring Dogen's thought longer than any other Buddhist master I admire (other than the Buddha himself, that is). Because he's had a significant impact on Japanese history, it is important that we look at him historically, i.e. that we consider how his thinking and teaching evolved over the years. In his earlier years he did indeed recommend zazen to all people, and taught some laypeople as well as monks. But as his experience deepened and his understanding matured, he revised his opinions about the laity. By his later years he believed that laypeople could not achieve enlightenment, and advocated full monastic ordination as the only viable path of practice. He also contextualized shikantaza with a wide range of other practices that he considered non-optional, such as adherence to precepts. His was anything but a "meditation only" approach, as some people seem to imply.

I think we misunderstand the situation when we proclaim things like "saying Soto Zen practitioners don't meditate is like saying Christians don't pray," since we all know that Christians do indeed pray, at least some of the time. In the USA, Soto Zen converts (as opposed to Japanese-Americans) do often meditate. But in Japan where Soto Zen is strong, ordinary practitioners rarely meditate—certainly their meditation participation is nowhere near the frequency of prayer among Christians. It isn't that you can't find Soto Zen practitioners that meditate, it's just that it is very uncommon among the laity and hardly frequent among the clergy as well. This is not something that Soto Shu has a gripe about--if you read their Japanese publications for the laity you find that they typically advocate morality and uprightness, rather than significant amounts of meditation practice. Nor is this a secret in Japan--ask any Japanese monk and he'll readily tell you that for most of his peers zazen isn't something they do a lot of every day.

One of the underlying issues here is that As those with a little depth in Buddhism know, different practices are often considered forms of meditation. Meditation can refer to many things, from a form of concentration to a state of mind to a particular activity intended to produce or reveal either or both of these. Then there is the potentially contentious issue that many words frequently used in Buddhism are open to (mis)translation, as Robin Beck recently discussed on a blog of the same name.

I tend to see meditation as remembering and thereby realizing our true (M)ind. It simultaneously involves acting and not acting - which makes more sense and sounds less mysterious when we consider the over-used phrased "letting go", in which we choose (under "self-power") to surrender (into "Other-power"). I am intentionally mixing the terminology and imagery of different schools here to keep attention on what is being said rather than what we tend to "hear" when we come across terms we find familiar. In this usage meditation involves becomes becoming aware and also resting in that awareness. I do not intend to imply physical or mundane mental passivity, for what is "resting" there is neither of those. I tried to capture this recently when I wrote that "{e}ven when you are experiencing or considering other things, just remember that these thoughts and experiences are transitory, and they cannot 'take away' this profound sublime affirmation of your existence (and indeed all of existence as experienced by all beings)..."

So does clarity, focus, and insight come from realizing enlightenment or are they necessary in order to realize enlightenment? Well, your guess is as good as mine, unless you are Fully Awake, in which case you would probably just smile at the question. My response would be - "Yes and both." Which then brings us back to whether one set of guidelines or practices for awakening are universally more effective, or if their usefulness is context dependent. Which brings us back to the discussion about whether meditation, which in our culture is associated primarily with silent, seated meditation, is or should be a primary or foundational Buddhist practice (or even whether it is or should be a primary or foundational Zen practice). I am not going to attempt to answer that question. I can give my opinion, but I am neither interested or qualified to speak to the question on anyone else's behalf.

However, all of this did get me thinking about the image of the sitting Buddha and the context of his sitting in the mytho-historical depiction of his life. He experiences on extreme of lavish material and sensual wealth, and then the other extreme of severe material and sensual deprivation, and then he finds a cool comfortable spot under a tree and sits down. What is often emphasized here is the avoidance of extremes and the importance of the Middle Way. I am not writing against that, but as far as the imagery goes, I see something else. He tried to find happiness and fulfilment by his own efforts and false expectations going in one direction, and then he did the same thing in the opposite direction, and then he finally just let go. He submitted. He surrendered. I am not suggesting he wimped out or just gave up in exasperation, but after all of his searching, he simply came to experience something very profound and yet very simple. Would he have figured it out had he not tried so hard? I don't know - possibly not. It may have been a case of realization by negation and deduction (it ISN'T this, ISN'T this, and ISN'T that, so it must be...AHA!). Or maybe it was simply when he stopped trying and started simply being that he finally "got it." I don't claim to know - who can?

But image-wise, that is how I tend to see seated meditation. It isn't about who can be the best statue or focus the longest on a particular spot or bodily function. Nor is it a complete practice unto itself. It is creating what some theologians refer to as thin places, or circumstances under which the reality and presence of the Divine are more readily apparent even to the less attuned. Sit, stand, chant, or pick your nose - am I still struggling? Not physically, not mentally - beyond that. Relax. Let go. Surrender.

1 comment:

  1. Your imagery of meditation as surrender and use of the term "other power" made me look up a few chapters from a book by James Finley "Christian Meditation". I just love some of the imagery he uses when talking about meditation practice, though I know that it may not resonate well with many people seeking zen as refuge from their christian heritage.

    I'll put it on my "to do" list and let you know if i get round to posting something on it.

    I just love articles by Jeff Wilson and Clark Strand! Whether one agrees with them or not, they certainly get people talking


Hello! Thanks for leaving a comment.

Everything but spam and abusive comments are welcome. Logging in isn't necessary but if you don't then please "sign" at the end of your comment. You can choose to receive email notifications of new replies to this post for your convenience, and if you find it interesting don't forget to share it. Thanks!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...