September 2015 Presentations

Topic: Meditation, prayer and related spiritual practices

Sōtō Zen Buddhism Perpective By Neil Chase

Meditation of some kind is central in the practice of most forms of Buddhism. Formal seated meditation was most commonly reserved for monastics for much of the religion’s history, but today, particularly among Buddhists in the West, many lay people–as well as monks, priests and nuns– practice meditation regularly.

Numerous types of meditation can be found within the various Buddhist traditions/schools. There are methods that involve calming the mind, developing awareness or mindfulness toward thoughts and sensations, complex visualizations or recitations of mantras. The specific kind of meditation practiced in the Sōtō school of Buddhism which I follow is called shikantaza (“just sitting”). It is a form of seated meditation that is done together with group of people or by oneself. The meditator sits on a cushion and faces a wall with eyes open; the gaze of the eyes is slightly downward; the hands are folded into a particular shape called a mudra; breathing is slow and even through the nose. Unlike many forms of Buddhist meditation while practicing shikantaza there is no particular goal or aim other than simply holding the posture and letting go of thoughts as they arise. There is an attitude of complete surrender or simply letting go. In a sense, it’s not a true form of mediation since there is no object being meditated on. Shikantaza can create a feeling of great openness that resonates in the mind-body long after a period of sitting is done. It is a very subtle practice and thinking about it too much, especially while sitting, hinders what shikantaza is meant to be.

The Sōtō school is a sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism that was founded by a monk named Dōgen in the 1200s AD. The form of meditation he developed ,shikantaza, is thought to have been derived from a Chinese Zen (Chan) form of meditation called “silent illumination.” Dōgen’s shikantaza differs slightly from ‘silent illumination’, however. Although Dōgen was considered a Zen monk, his thought was also greatly influenced by the philosophies of the Tendai and Kegon schools of Buddhism and their understanding of a core Mahayana Buddhist concept known as ‘buddha nature’: the idea that each individual possesses the potential to become a buddha (or fully awakened being). Dōgen’s philosophical influences informed his understanding of meditation and, in turn, that understanding continues to define the understanding of meditation in Sōtō Zen Buddhism today. From the perspective of Sōtō Zen meditative activities can include shikantaza, but also mundane activities such as cooking and cleaning. All of these activities, if performed with the right attitude are considered ways to work at awakening oneself and are, simultaneously, ways of expressing a latent awakened nature.

As a lay Sōtō Buddhist, I often practiced meditation intensively before I had children (for three and a half years I even practiced daily at an American Sōtō temple; I sat for at least 50 minutes each morning and participated in extended meditation retreats), but today I consider taking care of my family a kind of meditative practice. Currently, I maintain a small home altar and chant briefly every morning and occasionally, in the evenings, I do still sit in meditation.

Bahá’í Perpective By Frank Lucatelli

The following statements about prayer and meditation are quoted from the Baha’i Writings:

“When a person becomes a Bahá’í, actually what takes place is that the seed of the spirit starts to grow in the human soul. This seed must be watered by the outpourings of the Holy Spirit. These gifts of the spirit are received through prayer, meditation, study of the Holy Utterances and service to the Cause of God.”
(Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 70)

“Fasting and obligatory prayer constitute the two pillars that sustain the revealed Law of God. Bahá’u’lláh in one of His Tablets affirms that He has revealed the laws of obligatory prayer and fasting so that through them the believers may draw nigh unto God. Shoghi Effendi indicates that the fasting period, which involves complete abstention from food and drink from sunrise till sunset, is

…essentially a period of meditation and prayer, of spiritual recuperation, during which the believer must strive to make the necessary readjustments in his inner life, and to refresh and reinvigorate the spiritual forces latent in his soul. Its significance and purpose are, therefore, fundamentally spiritual in character. Fasting is symbolic, and a reminder of abstinence from selfish and carnal desires.”
(Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 176)

“Someone present asked how it was that in prayer and meditation the heart often turns with instinctive appeal to some friend who has passed into the next life.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá answered: “It is a law of God’s creation that the weak should lean upon the strong. Those to whom you turn may be the mediators of God’s power to you, even as when on earth. But it is the One Holy Spirit that strengthens all men.” Hereupon another friend referred to the communing of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration with Moses and Elijah; and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said: “The faithful are ever sustained by the presence of the Supreme Concourse. In the Supreme Concourse are Jesus, and Moses, and Elijah, and Bahá’u’lláh, and other supreme Souls: there, also, are the martyrs.”
(Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 96)

The following comment about meditation is my personal observation:

It has been my experience that thinking in its purest form is the reception of ideas from the universe at large. When I consider thoughts that I have had that turn out to be useful to myself and others, I am at a loss as to how that thought formed in my mind. It is as if a gift were given to me.

When I meditate, I find that it is not so different from what I consider to be pure thinking, by that I mean that it is a state of being that is most conducive to stimulating pure thought. I find it difficult to distinguish the difference between my state of mind when purposely meditating and when unconsciously rapt in thought.

The conclusion that I have accepted is that the practice of meditation is a technique for quelling one’s promptings to act and quieting one’s emotional desires, in order to attain a state of pure thought.

Buddhism Perspective By Rober Walker

Sometimes, what Buddhists call “meditation” other traditions call “contemplation”, and vice versa.

In the Buddhist tradition, “meditation” refers to a family of practices that are relatively without form, either simply being present and open or using the breath or some other simple reference point to come back to being in nowness. Such approaches may be called mindfulness, mindfulness-awareness, zazen, vipassana, calm abiding. They all have their own nuances, and are part of a path that includes hearing and understanding the buddhadharma, and contemplating the meaning of those teachings in one’s life. Meditation matures the teachings in the mind-stream of the practitioner, and helps bring them to life.

In the mindfulness-awareness approach as presented by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, via the meditation masters of the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, such as Gampopa, the technique includes simple open posture on a chair or cushion, eyes open, a light touch of attention identifying with the breath going out (ordinary breathing, not special breathing) as it mixes with space, and seeing thoughts as thoughts — letting distractions bring one back to the simplicity of the present. The intention is not to manipulate one’s state of mind, or fabricate any special state of mind, but simply to wake up in the midst of whatever mind and world one happens to be in. Emotional upheavals, if they arise, are simply regarded as thought-process; one is present in the midst of them, as simply and directly as possible. Such energy is not suppressed or acted out, but included in the human experience of being awake and present. Experience could be simple and naked. This practice is done formally, on a meditation cushion or chair for periods of time — 15 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour — or for much longer periods, mixed with walking meditation.

Mindfulness-awareness practitioners in this tradition also relate to awareness practice in everyday life, not using the breath or turning inwards, but simply being open to the world, having good posture and looking out. In general, in this approach, any tendency to turn “inwards” and dwell on thoughts is used as an opportunity to open one’s eyes and wake up.

In this lineage and other Buddhist lineages, there are 100s of variations of this basic approach, some more conservative, close to the vest, so to speak, and some more loose and open. This would be considered to be a relatively open approach.

Buddhist traditions also include many contemplative practices, contemplations, where one draws one’s attention to a particular concept or theme — such as compassion,r impermanence, love, the preciousness of the opportunity to be a human who could beneift oneself and others — and explores the depth of it. For instance, for a compassion meditation, one might think of the suffering of beings — oneself, one’s friends, people in war zones, family members, animals — making the intensity of that suffering as vivid to one’s mind as possible. And one then sends the wish that they be free of suffering, offering relief. This would be a support, in everyday life, to the possibility that one might related decently and directly with the pain of the world as it comes to you, or in service work, rather than withdrawing. The practice of tonglen, sending an taking, is a compassion practice that is particulary important in the Kagyu-Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, and has been broadly shared.

Buddhist traditions also include approaches that are similar to prayer — more likely referred to as “aspirations” or “supplications” or “guru yoga”. Although the buddhadharma is a nontheistic tradition, not praying to a higher power or creator, the example of beings who have fully realized wisdom and compassion, enlightened beings, is greatly respected, and their example and wisdom is considered to be a living force that one can turn one’s mine to and connect with. In that process of supplication or guru yoga, it is understood that one’s own nature is no different than that of the buddhas and bodhisattvas, realized beings. It’s not a process of asking a higher being to inject something into you that you don’t have, but a process of requesting that one’s own wisdom-nature be brought out, that obscurations to wisdom and compassion be overcome, following the example, inspiration, and energetic encouragement of those enlightened beings.

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