Each Friday, we share three topical longreads in our Weekend Reader newsletter. This week, Lion’s Roar editor-in-chief Melvin McLeod looks at the reasons many Buddhists meditate. Sign up here to receive the Weekend Reader in your inbox.
Secular mindfulness is great. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s inspiration to present meditation as a nonreligious practice with scientifically proven benefits is getting countless people meditating in simple, effective ways.
Many of the leaders of the mindfulness movement are practicing Buddhists. That’s only natural, since meditation is the Buddhist specialty. But they emphasize that mindfulness is a universal human capacity and is not Buddhism. These days, it is equally important to emphasize that Buddhism is not secular mindfulness.
Perhaps feeling the pressures of competing in the spiritual marketplace, Buddhists often focus on the concrete personal benefits of Buddhism, like less stress and better relationships. Those are good things, but they are just happy by-products of the practice. They are not what Buddhist meditation is really about.
In one of my favorite Zen stories, a Japanese meditator leaves his hut in the middle of the night, perhaps to take a pee. In the dark, he steps right in a bucket of cold water and “his world falls apart.”
Buddhism is about revolution, not reform. It is not about improving our lifestyle or easing our suffering in transient or superficial ways. It is about cutting suffering at its root. That requires radical changes in who we are, the ways we act, and how we see reality. Buddhism turns everything upside down. That’s called enlightenment.
So let’s step in the bucket together. May our world fall apart. That’s why we meditate.
—Melvin McLeod, Editor-in-Chief, Lion’s Roar
Matthieu Ricard answers everyone’s first question.
The temporary and circumstantial quality of mind becomes clear to us when we realize that the primary quality of consciousness is simply knowing. Knowing or awareness is neither good nor bad in itself. If we look behind the turbulent stream of transient thoughts and emotions that pass through our minds day and night, this fundamental aspect of consciousness is always there. Awareness makes it possible for us to perceive phenomena of every kind. Buddhism describes this basic cognitive quality of the mind as luminous because it illuminates both the external world through perceptions and the inner world of sensation, emotion, reasoning, memory, hope, and fear.
Although this cognitive faculty underlies every mental event, it is not itself affected by any of these events. A ray of light may shine on a face disfigured by hatred or on a smiling face; it may shine on a jewel or on a garbage heap; but the light itself is neither mean nor loving, neither dirty nor clean. Understanding that the essential nature of consciousness is neutral shows us that it is possible to change our mental universe. We can transform the content of our thoughts and experiences. The neutral and luminous background of our consciousness provides us with the space we need to observe mental events rather than being at their mercy. We then also have the space we need to create the conditions necessary to transform these mental events.
Gaylon Ferguson says through the practice of both shamatha and vipashyana we bring our mind back to its original state.
It has been said that the greatest single factor determining the success of our meditation is motivation, or right intention. If we approach the practice of meditation as a way to calm down from a stressful week, then that will be the result: a temporary reduction of stress. If we approach practice as a means of freeing ourselves from the confining mental imprisonment traditionally called samsara, then vipashyana meditation will lead to personal liberation from a fixed notion of self. If our practice is inspired by the compassionate intention to be of service and alleviate the suffering of others, the union of shamatha and vipashyana can lead to complete enlightenment and the ensuing buddha-activity benefitting others.
Yes, it’s a strange thing to do — just sit there and do basically nothing. Yet the simple act of stopping, says Pema Chödrön, is the best way to cultivate our good qualities. Here are five ways meditation makes us better people.
We do not meditate in order to be comfortable. In other words, we don’t meditate in order to always, all the time, feel good. I imagine shockwaves are passing through you as you read this, because so many people come to meditation to simply “feel better.” However, the purpose of meditation is not to feel bad, you’ll be glad to know. Rather, meditation gives us the opportunity to have an open, compassionate attentiveness to whatever is going on. The meditative space is like the big sky — spacious, vast enough to accommodate anything that arises.