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What Meditation Really is

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by Sangharakshita

Tape 121: What Meditation Really Is - Edited Version

In the course of the last few decades quite a number of changes have taken place in different parts of the world, particularly, perhaps, in the Western world. Political changes have taken place, as well as social changes, cultural changes, and also great technological changes. We might even go so far as to say that in the course of the last few decades more changes have taken place in the world, and in the Western world in particular, than during any comparable period in human history.

So far as human affairs, at least, are concerned, in the course of the last decade or more we have seen a constantly accelerating rate of change. More and more changes seem to be taking place, within shorter and ever shorter periods of time. Formerly, when the pace was slower, and you had time to `grow up', several generations might elapse before a change in some particular department of life started becoming noticeable. But this is no longer the case. Now these changes are noticeable in the course of a single lifetime, even in the space of a single decade - or half a decade. And we see this constantly accelerating rate of change in practically all fields of human life and human endeavour, whether political, social, economic, or cultural.

But in this lecture we are concerned with just one of those fields, which I shall call - to use a good, neutral, general term - the cultural field. In this particular field, one of the biggest, one of the greatest, and also potentially one of the most important changes to have taken place in recent years in with regard to the subject of meditation.

Fifteen or twenty years ago, meditation had hardly been heard of in the West. Whatever knowledge or interest there was, so far as meditation was concerned, was for the most part confined to obscure groups and eccentric individuals. But now we may say that the term meditation is almost a household word. Nevertheless, though the word is widely current, this does not mean that what the word represents - what meditation means - is at all well understood.

So many times I have heard people say, `Meditation means making the mind a blank - making the mind empty.' Others seem to think that meditation simply means sitting and doing nothing. Sitting and doing nothing may be a fine thing to do, or not to do, but it is not meditation. Again, sometimes you hear people say, or you even read, that meditation means sitting and gazing at your navel, possibly squinting as you do so, or that it means `going into some kind of trance'. (Unfortunately, one well-known and generally reliable writer on Buddhism has, to some extent, popularized this word `trance' as a synonym for meditation.) Other people think that meditation means just sitting quietly and thinking about things, `turning things over in one's mind'. Others again think that meditation means getting yourself into a sort of self-induced hypnotic state. These are just a few of the more popular and more widespread misunderstandings about meditation.

Why there should be these misunderstandings seems fairly obvious. Meditation is comparatively new in the West: at least it is new in the modern West. There has not been, at least in recent history, anything quite like it within the range of our experience. We do not even have the proper words, the proper specialized terms, to describe meditation states and meditation processes. It is only natural, therefore, that at first there should be some misunderstanding.

Again, we must remember that meditation is essentially something to be practised - that it is something which one does, or which one comes to experience. But most people still know about meditation only from hearsay. They do not know about it from their own personal practice and experience. They therefore rely on second-hand, third-hand, and even fourth-hand information. Some even rely - perhaps have to rely - for their information about meditation on books. Nowadays there are quite a few books on the market dealing, or purporting to deal, with meditation. But unfortunately, these books themselves are only too often based on hearsay, rather than on personal knowledge and experience. In some cases they may be based on pure imagination, not to say speculation. Already in this field there are quite a number of self-appointed experts. When something becomes popular, as meditation is becoming, only too many people are ready to cash in on the boom. I remember, in this connection, my own experience during the Buddha Jayanti year, the year in which the Buddhist world celebrated the 2500th anniversary of the Parinirvana, or passing away, of the Buddha - celebrated 2500 years of Buddhism. The Government of India sponsored the celebrations in India, while the different south-east Asian governments sponsored the celebrations in their own respective countries. A great deal of interest was aroused, and since there was a great demand for literature all sorts of people set to work writing books, pamphlets, and articles on Buddhism, in many cases without the slightest qualification.

There they were, all collecting material from here and there - sometimes from reliable, sometimes from unreliable sources - and by this means all producing another `work' on Buddhism.

In the West today there is a boom in spiritual things in general, and at least a modest boom in meditation. Quite a number of people are dissatisfied with their ordinary, everyday lives, their conventional way of living and doing things. People cannot accept a purely scientific explanation of life, despite the great practical success of science in dealing with the material world, while at the same time they find themselves unable to accept the traditional, mainly Judaeo-Christian, explanation of things either. They therefore begin looking for something which will satisfy them more deeply, more permanently, more creatively, and more constructively. Some people look in the direction of the Eastern spiritual traditions, and especially in the direction of meditation. They want to know about meditation, want to practise meditation - want to go along to meditation classes, attend meditation weekends - and in this way a demand for meditation is created.

Of course, only too many people are ready to fulfil that demand - in some cases for a consideration.

Some of these people may be quite well qualified to meet the demand - quite well qualified to teach meditation - and others may not. In this way, too, all sorts of misunderstandings arise. Quite often meditation is identified with a particular kind of meditation, or with a particular concentration technique. It is not, perhaps, generally understood that there are many kinds of meditation - many methods - and many concentration techniques. Sometimes people who just know about one of these, or who practise just one, tend to identify the whole practice of meditation exclusively with that particular method, that particular technique. They may claim that their method is the best one, or even that it is the only one, and that you are not actually meditating at all unless you meditate in that particular way, using that particular technique. The other techniques, the other practices, the other traditions are, they claim, of no value. This is the sort of claim that is made. It becomes all the more important, therefore, to clear up the confusion, to resolve the misunderstandings. It becomes important to understand What Meditation Really Is. In order to do this we shall have to bear in mind the gap between the ideal and the real, between the Enlightened man, or Buddha, and the unenlightened, ordinary man. We shall have to bear in mind the nature of Buddhism itself.

As we saw in the previous lecture, the Buddha, or Enlightened man, represents a state, an attainment - a mode of being and consciousness - for which we have really no equivalent in Western thought, and for which we have, therefore, no equivalent word or term. `Buddha' does not mean God, the supreme being, the creator of the universe, nor does `Buddha' mean God incarnate. Neither does `Buddha' mean man, in the ordinary sense. Rather, we can best think of the Buddha, the Enlightened One, in evolutionary terms. Buddha, the Enlightened One, is a man. But he is a very special kind of man, a more developed man. In fact he is an infinitely developed man. That is to say, he is a man who has reached, and realized fully, the state of spiritual perfection that we call Enlightenment. This is what `Buddha' means. And Buddhism is whatever helps close the gap between the ideal and the real; whatever helps transform the unenlightened man into the Enlightened man; whatever helps us to grow, to evolve, to develop. When the real man becomes the ideal man - when the unenlightened man is transformed into the Enlightened man - a tremendous change takes place - perhaps the greatest human change and development that can take place. And it is this kind of development that we call the spiritual life, or the process of what is sometimes called the Higher Evolution. But what is it that changes? In what does this development consist? Obviously it is not the physical body that changes, because physically the Enlightened man and the unenlightened man look very much alike. The change that takes place is a purely mental one - using the word mental in its widest sense. It is consciousness that develops, and this is the great difference, we may say, between the Higher Evolution, on the one hand, and the lower evolution on the other.

What we call the lower evolution corresponds to the whole process of development from amoeba up to ordinary man, or unenlightened man. This is a predominantly biological process, a process that becomes psychological only towards the end. The Higher Evolution corresponds to the whole process - the whole course - of development which leads ...

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