What is Meditation?

It can be helpful to remember why we came to meditation in the first place.  For many of us, anxiety and stress are big issues.  Family, work, even meditation can make us stress out.  The thought of carving out more time to do something else can be daunting.  It’s easier to simply check out and watch a film.

I’m not at all against watching movies or doing things that allow us to feel pleasure.  Meditation, however, can open our bodies and minds to new ways of seeing that we never new existed.  Then, instead of trying to get rid of stress, we see that stress may be an ally for awakening.

Consider these lines from the Avatamsaka Sutra;

The state of knowledge, hard to enter,
They [Bodhisattvas] can abide in by subtle wisdom.
Their minds ultimately imperturbale;
Those firm in practice travel this path.[1]

How do we abide in subtle wisdom? 

Wisdom = Meditation

In other words, wisdom is not something gained through knowledge or experience or learning.  It’s manifested by sitting still and upright with eyes lowered in a cross-legged posture.  That is the embodiment of wisdom.  This wisdom is depicted by the Bodhisattva named Manjushri.  Manjushri is often shown carrying the sword of wisdom that cuts through delusion.

Manjushri the Bodhisattva of Wisdom

I remember training with one teacher who said, “If you want wisdom, do zazen. Manjushri, that figure on the altar, is wisdom.”  Zazen is wisdom.  It’s the practice of noticing that thoughts give rise to whole worlds, and then having the courage to see through those clouds of thoughts, returning to the nakedness of the moment with zero artifice.  Until I met with a Zen teacher, I had thought of wisdom as something older people have, as equivalent to sages or people with PhD’s, as those with worldly experience, or as something gained through learning facts.  It’s not that those things are not important and that those folks don’t have something to offer, however, our ordinary way of thinking about wisdom is deeply problematic.

For one, it assumes that wisdom can be transmitted from one person to another.  In other words, someone who is wise can impart to you their knowledge.  Consider how so many of us are looking for guidance outside of our self: from teachers, religious leaders, politicians, or parents.  We are expecting someone else to carry the burden of helping us figure out what to do, and then following them.

We can follow; however, we must be careful about following anyone if we are out of touch with our own innate wisdom.

The above verse says, “Their minds ultimately imperturbable.”  In other words, we know wisdom is manifesting in our self when we are unshaken by what other people say or do, or by what is happening in the external world.  This does not mean that we have no feelings or are indifferent.  However, there is always some part deep within us that is imperturbable, like the bottom of a deep lake during a storm

It’s not that we have to become imperturbable.  Imperturbability is always there.  We practice in order to have access to that which is within us.  This way we are not fooled by what people say or do.  Becoming firmly resolved to meditate regularly, we may sense a shift in the energy of our body.  We may notice a sensation just around or below our naval as we make the resolve to practice.  This feeling helps ground us and may lead to the arising of confidence.

The other point is that we mistakenly assume meditation is a method to get us from where we are to where we want to be.  Admittedly, that’s what many forms of meditation are aimed at, including Buddhist forms.  But Soto Zen is a break from that kind of thinking.  Meditation is not a means to an end, but an end in and of itself.  We don’t sit to attain anything.  We sit because we are totally and completely content (even if we don’t feel that way).

So, it’s important to resist the temptation to use meditation as a means to get somewhere.  If anything, meditation is a ritual that reenacts the enlightenment of the Buddha.[2]  We step into the Buddha’s mind.

Once we are grounded, we can move on to the next verse:

Able to enter all realms of being in the cosmos
And find the ultimate wherever they enter,
Their spiritual powers free and all embracing;
Those illumined by truth travel this path.[3]

Once grounded, we can start to see things through the other’s eyes, feel things through the shoes of another.  This is the arising of compassion.  We are no longer stuck in a separate self that is an isolated being.  We enter this path through relationships and getting to know how others feel.

It’s not enough to talk with people that affirm our prejudices.  We need to really listen to the pain in the hearts of others so that we can have some degree of understanding.  Compassion is the undoing of anxiety, not only for our self, but for those we have compassion for in the moment.  This is not an imaginary activity, but something that takes place in conversation, in close proximity with those we are around, or even over real time internet discussions.  We do our best to feel what the other is feeling and put ourselves in their shoes.  At the same time, we might listen to the wisdom of our own body to help us confirm what we are sensing.  Calm abiding is there not so much as a result of us being able to control or regulate our nervous system, but accompanies the deep desire for and confidence in complete and total Enlightenment.

[1] See Avatamsaka Sutra, p. 475, translated by Thomas Cleary.

[2] See Taigen Leighton’s article, “Zazen as Enactment Ritual,” in Zen Ritual, edited by Dale Wright.

[3]  See Avatamsaka Sutra, p. 475, translated by Thomas Cleary.

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