Integral Buddhism: The Essence of Meditation

This talk was presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Saturday, May 3 and June 14, 2014.



The Essence of Meditation


It is not correct to speak of “meditation” in the Pali Canon. Rather, one should refer to “meditations’ in the plural. The Buddha did not merely teach one method of meditation. Rather, he taught numerous methods, each suited to the personal needs of the individual with whom he was speaking.

These are included in the 84,000 dhammakhanda (lit. “dhamma collection”). The number 84 is not arbitrary. It is an ancient sacred Vedic number that also appears in Sumerian culture. 84 is 7 times 12, the number of anciently known planets multiplied by the number of signs of the zodiac. It is also 8 (2 x 4) and 4, the symbol of Infinity (the Buddhist “endless knot”) and the Four Elements. It also adds up to 12 (3 x 4). It is also the duration of the luni-solar calendrical cycle, being the product of 3, 4, and 7. This cycle was also used by the Celtic Christians to calculate Easter. Interestingly, it is also the period of Uranus. It is also a positive feng sui number. 84 x 1,000 is, therefore, a number of completeness and spirituality. Thus, when we speak of the 84,000 teachings of the Buddha we refer, in addition to being a large number, to their qualities of completeness and totality, especially in relation to higher consciousness.

The Pali Canon includes references to many different types of meditation. Sarah Shaw collects many of these texts in her book, Buddhist Meditation: An Anthology of Texts from the Pali Canon (London: Routledge, 2006). One of the best-known of these is the metta meditation, in which one projects feelings of love and compassion to the six directions, consisting of the four horizontal directions (north, south, east, west) plus above and below (the zenith and the nadir). This meditation is frequently mentioned in the Pali Canon. However, in this talk, I would like to take an integral approach to the topic of Buddhist meditation, for, if there are 84,000 iterations of something, then there must be an underlying unity of which there are 84,000 iterations. That unity is mindfulness, the essence of meditation. In taking this approach to Buddhist meditation I am influenced by Sri Aurobindo and Ken Wilber, and I will be largely using Shaw’s translations, aided by the comprehensive understanding of the Pali Canon that I am building up as a consequence of my vow to read the Pali Canon through five times over the next five years. In order to achieve this integral view I will be keeping this discussion as universal as possible.

As I have discussed in my talk, “The Status of Women in Ancient India and the Pali Tradition,” the Buddha clearly taught that women are capable of emancipation, despite the highly patriarchal and indeed misogynistic views of the arhants of the First Buddhist Council.

One of the consistent themes relating to meditation in the Pali Canon is where it is conducted. Originally, the Buddhasangha did not occupy monasteries and did not meditate enclosed in temples. Rather, they meditated in the forest, outdoors, either in secluded places or in huts. Later on, they meditated in parks, donated by wealthy patrons such as the courtesan Ambapali. Of course, one reason for meditating out-of-doors in the forest was seclusion, which is the precondition of the first jhana and frequently mentioned in the texts. This seclusion is not merely or even, perhaps, primarily external. The Buddha makes it clear that external rites and practices are of little value. Rather, real seclusion consists in withdrawing the mind from attachment to stimuli, including sensory stimuli and the stimuli of the mind itself. In Buddhism, the mind is simply seen as a “sixth sense.” However, the texts themselves frequently allude to the quality of natural beauty as another significant factor, in addition to subsequent Buddhist practice. Historically, Buddhist monasteries are not merely located in remote places. They are also located in places of great natural beauty, so-called “power points.” This is somewhat paradoxical, but Shaw herself notes that emancipation seems to enhance one’s appreciation of the natural, even though the explicit goal of emancipation is transcendence of the natural. This paradox may represent a survival of the deep shamanic roots of Buddhist theory and practice, as we do elsewhere. The practice of solitude is, therefore, not merely negative. It results in the “stirring of energy” that itself furthers the attainment of the meditative state.

Another significant factor that arises in the practice of meditation that leads to the experience of emancipation is what Shaw refers to as “the moment,” a surprise event or shock that results in an instantaneous change of state in the context of meditative practice. The influential European mystic George Gurdjieff also refers to it in his doctrine of “the shock.” Shaw mentions schools that regard this as a necessary preliminary to enlightenment, referring probably to Zen, but it is certainly also found in the Pali Canon. I have referred to this in a previous talk. Ananda refers to this as the fourth cause of enlightenment, along with serenity and insight. This is discussed in Chapter 8 of my book, Fundamental View: Ten Talks on the Pali Canon. Sometimes this attainment results in the spontaneous utterance of ecstatic poetry.

Meditation, while necessary, is not sufficient to attain emancipation, however. The Buddha says that meditation without wisdom is ineffective, and that wisdom without meditation is ineffective, but it is clear from the texts that the cultivation of wisdom is the first and essential salvific principle, corresponding to the attainment of Right View and the stage of a “stream enterer” or a “stream winner.” Converts are typically shown hearing a dhamma discourse by the Buddha, by which they are then known as “hearers’ (savakas), and then going into solitude for a short period of meditation, followed by the attainment of arhantship. Contrary to what one often reads in popular expositions of Buddhism, meditation does not need to be pursued for years, decades, or lifetimes in order to achieve emancipation. The Buddha says that as short a time as one week will do, depending, of course, on one’s karmic “readiness.” This is probably an approximation, since Kondanna and several others attained enlightenment after five days of continuous meditation.

One of the essentials of meditation that appears throughout the Pali Canon and indeed the whole Indian and Buddhist tradition is the cross-legged posture. This is the paradigmatic physical position in which meditation is undertaken. Seated, the legs are crossed, the pelvis elevated above the knees, and the hands are placed together in the lap, or sometimes on the knees. The spine is straight, the shoulders square, the head tipped slightly forward, and the gaze, neither focused nor unfocused, with eyelids neither completely closed nor completely open, directed towards the middle ground, neither far nor near. This posture is a physical embodiment of the balanced, harmonious state of the middle way. The crossing of the ankles and the hands creates a closed energy loop whereby the subtle energies of the body begin to circulate internally. This posture is very ancient, going back at least to the Indus Valley civilization.

Retiring to a secluded natural spot; seating oneself in the cross-legged posture; centering oneself in the present moment, the “now;” practising awareness of the body; and arousing energy, what one finds most frequently emphasized throughout the Pali texts is the practice of “breathing mindfulness.” The Buddha says that this method of meditation includes everything required to attain emancipation. The Buddha refers to it uniquely as “the Tathagata’s dwelling,” and practised it himself, even after his enlightenment. In the Buddhist system, one does not try to control the breathing, but simply directs one’s attention to the exhalation and the inhalation as they occur. The breath will deepen and become more refined naturally. The mind will become still. Consciousness itself will come to the forefront, while thoughts will become transparent, mirage-like, and secondary, and progressively diminish in intensity and frequency. Thought disappears. The body is suffused with bliss. Shaw cites Buddhaghosa’s comment that mindfulness of the body is a practice unique to the Buddhadhamma. According to the Pali Canon, mindfulness of the body alone is capable of bringing the practitioner to emancipation.

The Buddha also recommends a visualization practice in which the body is imagined as being suffused with light. Shaw notes that some of the visualizations described in the Pali Canon are reminiscent of the practices taught in “Northern” or Tantric Buddhism, once again demonstrating my thesis that one finds the seeds of Tantra in the Pali tradition. This practice culminates in the direct realization of the natural radiance of the empty mind, the quality of self-conscious sentience devoid of content. This is the kinetic mind stream or mental continuum that is the “true self” of the individual, as distinct from the “false self” of the static atta or atman. Which is merely a projection of the ego and an object of attachment. This quality is experienced naturally in the moment between thoughts (although this moment is so infinitesimal that it is normally not noticed), in deep sleep, at death, and at other times as well. Thus, deep sleep is meditation without reflexivity. Meditation is deep sleep with reflexivity. In fact, this is the literal meaning of “mindfulness,” sati, which literally means “self-recollection.” This concept, which occurs in the Pali suttas, is the forerunner of the Mahayana concepts of the “clear light” and the tathagatagarbha, the Buddha-nature (or “Buddha-embyro”) that is the inherent potential of every sentient being. Its full realization is equivalent to enlightenment itself. Any person who attains this state, even for a moment, is declared by the Buddha to be ordained. According to the Pali Canon, this radiance is actually visible and results in a clear, bright complexion that develops in the course of meditation. This is the origin of course of the halo that appears in the portraits of Buddhist saints. Similarly, monks in the Pali Canon are consistently described as healthy, fit, and attractive, to the point where women are constantly seeking them out and tempting them to break their vows.

Other subjects recommended by the Buddha for meditation that leads to emancipation include the Buddha himself and the devas, from whom the Buddha also received teachings. The Buddha recommended the recollection of the devas at the time of death. In addition to mindfulness of the breathing, the Buddha also practised the meditation on the Buddha (in his case, he meditated on Buddhas of the past). These practices, including chanting, purify karma and the mind, thus eliminating impediments and obscurations and progressively revealing the self-radiance that is inherent in sentience itself. Chanting has been found to purify the spinal fluid, for example. The Buddha likens this process to the purification of gold ore.

The practice of meditation leads to the cultivation and progressive refinement of the mind, culminating in the fourth jhana, characterized by equanimity, a state of freedom from pleasure and pain, the indifference of serenity, and mental integration or “one-pointedness.” In this state, one ceases to be aware of one’s breathing (the texts imply that breathing itself stops).  The realization of the fourth jhana leads to the attainment of psychic powers (iddhi), including astral projection (I’m using the common terms here, the term used in the Pali Canon is the “mind-made body”; Tibetans refer to the “body of light” or “rainbow body”), clairaudience, clairvoyance, the recollection of past lives (much emphasized in the Pali Canon), and seeing the karma of others. The “mind-made body,” which, the Buddha states, is created “magically,”[1] is not a metaphor. It is an actual physical experience. The sensation of one’s body literally slipping out of one’s feet is an indescribable and unforgettable experience.


1. The Pali word is abhinimmināti, consisting of abhi + nimminati. Nimminati (nimmita) means “to build, fashion, create, produce, shape.” Abhi clearly derives from iddhi, “power, potency, psychic power, supernatural power, magical power, miraculous faculty, miracle.” Maurice Walshe (Wisdom Publications) translates this compound simply as “produce,” whereas Shaw includes the connotation of spiritual or psychic power or potency. The latter is more literal and etymologically correct. Both PTS Dictionary and Tamilcube have “to create (by magic).” See CSCD Tipikta, Sāmaññaphalasuttaṃ, 236f.


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