Sunday, November 21, 2010

What is MEDITATION? (Part 1)

I'm very new to this whole "blogging" phenomenon.  I woke up this morning and started reading a few other Buddhist-related blogs and saw some references to my own.  Definitely exciting, to be sure, but I'm getting the feeling like there are quite a few people out there who think that I'm too "negative" in my posts.  I can totally see where they're coming from.  This "voice" that I'm using IS definitely hell-bent on negative ranting.  There is a method to my madness however... I'm really not an "angry" person.  I don't hold any grudges against Buddhism.  (That would be impossible.  How do you hold a grudge against an inanimate concept?  If you have any ideas, please let me know.)

I just feel that much of the Buddhist dialogue out there on the vast internet world is primarily academically-oriented and quite frankly presented in a way very similar to some conservative Christian philosophies.

It's like the anti-Buddhism.

Innocent people ask questions or make comments and then the Dharma Police swoop down and start quoting scripture and telling them how "wrong" their view is.  I can see why.  I mean, most of us weren't born Buddhist, right?  We were born Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.  We ran screaming from these religions because we thought them to be too overbearing or authoritarian.  We couldn't identify with some of the dogma associated with their message.  So what do we do?  We go out and "join" another religion and cram its message into the same damn package that we ran screaming from in the first place.  If I hear another person say, "Read your Dogen" again, I'm gonna scream.  (I have read it!)

Academic Buddhism is all well and good.  There are plenty of teachers that you can pay to sit at their feet and listen to them "tell" you what to believe.  You can attend classes at a bunch of different universities that claim to offer lectures of Buddhism, or you can attend another talk on "the secret of happiness" led by one of a million Lamas.  I definitely think there's some merit there.  Everyone should try it.  But there comes a point where you need to start thinking for yourself.  Yes, read the Bodhisattvacharyavatara, study some commentary... but then, THEN, figure out what it means to YOU.

I think that having a primary emphasis on academic/orthodox Buddhism leaves a large group of people without a voice or a forum to explore for themselves.  Who said that you have to be totally up on your Dogen in order to understand Buddhism or accomplish realization?  No one, that's who!  You don't.  For some people, who are academically-minded (myself included, believe it or not), Candrakirti might be appealing reading for the morning commute, but for others, who just want a dose of easily-accessible Buddhism, it's a bit out of reach and it'll put you to sleep.

Of course, there is a danger of straying too far from orthodoxy, right?

Once you start thinking for yourself, dangerous things start happening left and right.  Think of the whole gay marriage debate!  I mean shit, all people want to do is get MARRIED and look at all the trouble that's getting stirred up.  Heteros from all corners of the country are up in arms, throwing themselves into fits of rage just because people want something a little different from the "norm."  Actually, it's not all that different... we're just searching for happiness, right?  I guess we do need to hear a couple more of those talks!

There are other dangers.  If you really let your mind go, you might turn into a "hippie."  Oh shit, can you imagine?  Remember all the trouble they caused?  What would you even do you do with yourself then?  Start campaigning for the legalization of marijuana, I guess.

Here's the worst case scenario:  you could start preaching your own take on things and get yourself labeled as a "radical.  Then, you're really up the creek without a paddle.  Before you know it, you're hanging from a cross on Golgotha, wearing a very uncomfortable crown of thorns.  It looks cool in the pictures, but what a pain in the ass!   You end up dying a miserable death, whereupon all your friends and neighbors get together and decide to start a world religion based on some shit you said right before you died... (you know, when you were hallucinating because all the blood had already drained out of your body and you were starving to death...)

Now we've got another Crusades on our hands, folks!  With the current economic downturn, that's the last thing we need.  I mean come on, the troops are almost out of Iraq, they're leaving Afghanistan soon... do you really want to send them back out there on a freakin' Crusade?

I don't think so.

Eh, maybe it's better to just keep your opinions to yourself... unless you want a bunch of blood on your hands.

For this series on meditation, I plan to be a bit more positive.  Just a bit though, so don't get your hopes up.

The whole reason why I was initially drawn to Buddhism as a "religion" was because I had heard somewhere that Buddhists "meditate."  I think this is a common draw for a lot of us.  Meditation carries a certain mystique with it.  It's kinda magical.  The idea of sitting all alone in a cave somewhere seems so romantic.

I remember sitting in a philosophy class in my Long Island high school, daydreaming about the supernatural powers that I was sure to acquire once I started meditating.  Very immature, I know... but also very common, I think.

A mental picture of a wise, grizzled old monk sitting on a mountaintop developed in my mind.

     "How cool," I thought.  "Say goodbye to depression!  No more teen-angst!
     "Girls would totally dig me if I did shit like that!"

Sure, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration... but not by much.  I think many of us get caught up in the images that are conjured up in our minds whenever we think about any mystical practice.

It wasn't until years later, when I was studying Buddhism academically, that I realized the following:

meditation is hard
meditation is confusing
not many Buddhists actually DO it

During the course of my search to discover what meditation actually was, I ended up getting lost in the library stacks of U.Va.  I found books that talked about meditation in a very scientific, dry way.  I found some that used debate to conjure up the finer points of what was "supposed" or "not-supposed" to happen during meditation.  I even found some that devoted hundreds of pages to what several long-dead people thought about meditation.  But I found few, if any, about how to ACTUALLY DO the meditation.

I mean, how did Tsongkhapa even find the time to meditate when he was writing the Lam-Rim-Chen-Mo?  Even the scholars translating the thing into English don't have the time.  (I know, cause I asked some of them!)

My point is, where does a person go who is not formally inducted into monastic practice, when they want to learn how to meditate?

There are a couple of different options:

You could consult an academic treatise written by an authentic "master."  Sure, it may be basically mind-boggling to navigate through WHICH treatise.  First off... where do you start?  What kind of Buddhist meditation do you want to do?  Here are some options:

Theravada, Hinayana, Mahayana, Zen, Tibetan, Ch'an, Mind-Only, Lam-Rim, Goenka, Transcendentalist, Japanese, Vipassana, Samantha, Breathing, Mindfulness, Emptiness, Tonglen, Lojong, Madhyamika, Yogic, Karate, Compassion, Tantra, Highest Yoga Tantra, Guyasamaja, Kama Sutra, Padmasambhava, Nyingma, Dzogchen, Kagyu, Chod, death meditation, rebirth meditation, past-life meditation, sadana meditation, focusing on your navel, on a candle, on your third eye... 

The list goes on and on.  Pick one!

Sounds daunting, doesn't it.

Ok, let's say you don't want to go the traditional "Buddhist" route.  Let's just take it slow and start with something more "mainstream."  E-A-S-E into it.

Here are some of the search results from when you type in the word "meditation" :
     Journey Into Meditation: Guided Meditations For Healing, Insight And Manifestation by Lisa Guyman
     Opening to Meditation: A Gentle, Guided Approach (Book & CD) by Diana Lang
     How To Meditate: A Step-by-Step Guide to the Art and Science of Meditation [ILLUSTRATED] 
     8 Minute Meditation: Quiet Your Mind. Change Your Life. by Victor N. Davich

It's not that I'm trying to knock these guys for putting in the time and effort to write books.  There's definitely some merit in being able to take the time to sit down and write a book.  But, come on!  These books sound more like descriptions on the back of enema packages than titles to meditation books.  

Which one would you choose?  

Do you really need an ILLUSTRATED guide to learn how to meditate?  What, are there a bunch of pictures of guys sitting cross-legged with their eyes closed?  How is that going to help you?

Is meditation really an art AND a science?  Can I really CHANGE my life by meditating?  If so, how long will it take?  Two weeks?  Two months?  Two years?  

Am I a reincarnated lama?  

Give me a break.  Really.  

Ok, forget books.  Let's try the internet.  What if you do a google search for "meditation?"  Here are the three popular results:

1. Wikipedia - Of course.  Actually, the article is very informative.  There are tons of examples from every world religion.  The problem is, I still don't know which one to choose.  Do I want to do Jewish meditation or what?

2. - This site looks cool... but wait, wait, wait.  That's a picture of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso!  Doesn't the Dalai Lama hate him or something?  No way!  I can't go there.

3. youtube video - This video scared the shit out of me.  There's no way I want to meditate now.  The guy's voice is kind of soothing, but I have no idea what the hell he's asking me to do.  Plus, the model looks like a naked alien.  Forget it, I'm not meditating now.

As you can see... pretty confusing.  

Now that I've established how daunting it can be for a beginner to break into this world, I plan to easily and clearly break down what it means to do this activity called Meditation... and WHY you would even want to do it.

There, that sounds more positive, doesn't it?

Till next time...


  1. Haha excellent list... Definitely calls to mind that first time I got the feeling that, even after reading every intro book and decent web page that I could find, that I was still totalllllyyyy lost when it came to this Buddhism stuff.

  2. "My point is, where does a person go who is not formally inducted into monastic practice, when they want to learn how to meditate? There are a couple of different options..."

    It's interesting that you didn't mention "you can go find some people who are meditating and meditate with them" as an option. I mean, am I jumping ahead to part 2 or is this something you really don't consider a valid approach?

  3. i really like the way you combine your knowledge with your humor and grittiness WITHOUT sounding like a patronizing asshole. it's tough to get these messages across and not have some kind of backlash... but it seems you are speaking to many folks who share in your beliefs... i, being one of them.
    thank you for the refreshing outlook. keep it up, there are a lot of us out there who need a voice like yours!

  4. Thanks guys.

    PDA - It's coming. Don't worry.

  5. Cool. Yeah, I'm the guy always guessing who dun it within 15 minutes of the movie starting. Na worries.

  6. Great blog.. These are interesting also.

  7. I really appreciate your fresh voice and "negativity" -- which I thought of as a positive so how twisted am I? he he -- the more chafe from the wheat the better -- folks have had hundreds of years to dress up Buddha and the Dharma he taught until it is hardly sensible or realistic anymore -- we need debunkers!

  8. Perhaps you've overcomplicated buddhism, thought that shaving your head and paying hard earned money to get 'somewhere' would have brought you somewhere. Perhaps you wanted to reach enlightenment, to get somewhere extra special. Perhaps that has been your failure as only your ego 'self' is making such complex desires. I think that completely and fully understanding that our ego is simply an illusion of the brain gives greater insight in what Buddhism truly is; 'beyond our thoughts'. Meditation silences our thoughts, brings us beyond 'self'. And sometimes you just sit and think about some hot chicks ass. That's fine too I guess. Destroy the ego and you will have no expectations. You don't need a temple and a orange suit for that. Perhaps you will never reach enlightenment, so what? Take some dope if you want to feel enlighten. I find this famous small book 'Zen Mind Beginners Mind' from Shunryu Suzuki very refreshing, simple yet complex. Perhaps you didn't need much more than that, perhaps after reading it you can simply throw it in the trashcan and just continue, but this time with no expectations. And have some fun as well.