Buddhism More Than Just Meditation?

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  • chicanobudista
    Member
    • Mar 2008
    • 864

    Buddhism More Than Just Meditation?

    From an blog article by Tricycle Magazine writer Dr. Jeff Wilson

    Sep. 27, 2007 Addressing Comments From the Meditation Thread

    At the end of last year I wrote a post detailing the fact that meditation is far from a common or universal practice in Buddhism; indeed, meditating Buddhists are well in the minority. Dogen is a fascinating character, one of my favorites. I've been exploring Dogen's thought longer than any other Buddhist master I admire His was anything but a "meditation only" approach, as some people seem to imply. In the USA, Soto Zen converts (as opposed to Japanese-Americans) do often meditate. But in Japan where Soto Zen is strong, ordinary practitioners rarely meditate—certainly their meditation participation is nowhere near the frequency of prayer among Christians. It isn't that you can't find Soto Zen practitioners that meditate, it's just that it is very uncommon among the laity and hardly frequent among the clergy as well. This is not something that Soto Shu has a gripe about--if you read their Japanese publications for the laity you find that they typically advocate morality and uprightness, rather than significant amounts of meditation practice. Nor is this a secret in Japan--ask any Japanese monk and he'll readily tell you that for most of his peers zazen isn't something they do a lot of every day.
    Here is the original article he mentions. "Dec. 30, 2006 Meditation: a Rare Practice"

    Soto, the school of Suzuki and the largest form of Zen in Japan, is only adamant about zazen in English-language publications put out for the consumption of Westerners who love meditation. In Japan, where virtually all Soto Zen practitioners live, Soto Shu emphasizes moral behavior, respect of elders, charity, and chanting in front of the home altar. Meditation is not a central practice and is generally only performed by a minority of the clergy, who are themselves a very small minority of members.
    In this article he quotes Duncan Ryuken Williams who states:

    When examined from this perspective, the Zen priest's main activities, which typically were praying for rain, healing the sick, or performing exorcistic and funerary rites, illuminate a different side of Zen. . . the vast majority of ordinary Soto Zen monks and laypeople never practiced Zen meditation, never engaged in iconoclastic acts of the Ch'an/Zen masters (as described in hagiographical literature), never solved koans, never raked Zen gardens, never sought mystical meditative states, and never read Dogen's writings.
    I found both articles interesting with a bit of curiosity in so far as it relates to US Zen Buddhism in comparison to Japan. Far for me to question someone who has in depth study of East Asian Religion & teaching Buddhism, but I do find that he may be over simplifying the notion that in the US non-Asian Buddhists over emphasize meditation or zazen in comparison to their Japenese counterparts. I just don't see it that way. I do think that US Buddhists see that Buddhism is just more than just meditation. Am I wrong in this pov of Dr. Wilson?
    paz,
    Erik


    Flor de Nopal Sangha
  • Jundo
    Treeleaf Founder and Priest
    • Apr 2006
    • 39450

    #2
    Re: Buddhism More Than Just Meditation?

    Hi,

    I think the description in the article of Buddhism in Asia in general, and Soto Zen in Japan, is completely accurate. The conclusion of the article, though, is a little unusual.

    In a nutshell, in most places in Asia, people regard Buddha, Kannon and Buddhism just like Christian folks in the West regard God and Jesus, Mary and Christianity ... Namely, they pray to "Buddha in Heaven" to help them out with the worries of life, keeping them healthy, happy and prosperous. In Japan, most people have contact with Buddhism only when they hire a priest to perform ceremonies to make sure their deceased father or grandma has a smooth transition into the after-life. In Japan, as the article says, most folks know nothing about meditation, and most Soto Zen priests and parishioners are more concerned with performing those funeral services for a healthy fee than anything doing with meditation. The Soto Zen church in Japan (for it is a church, much like the Catholic church) has largely become a vast funeral business.

    In fact, the most popular sects of Buddhism throughout Asia, Japan included, tend to be those that emphasize chanting and having faith in Amida Buddha (or the Lotus Sutra). Amida will appear at the deathbed and take the faithful to Buddha-heaven when they die, if folks just believe in him. (sound familiar?) Other sects, like the newer "Soka Gakkai" (popular in the West) promise material rewards, including a healthy bank account, to those who chant the right chants.

    Where I disagree with the article is its conclusion, namely "[In presenting a Zen centered on Zazen, Suzuki Roshi] presented a new Zen that was in many ways utterly unlike normal Zen." [emphasis added]. That's not right. The Buddha was about meditation, Dogen was about meditation, Zen throughout the centuries has been largely about meditation over any other practice (this is changed, though, as it has become mixed with "chanting to Amida" Buddhism in China and Vietnam). In Japan, it is only over time, since Dogen, that the Soto Sect discovered that it could expand, and make money, by providing funerals and "pie in the sky" Buddhism. As the wonderful book, quoted in the article states ...

    [By the 16th and 17th century,] the Zen priest's main activities ... typically were praying for rain, healing the sick, or performing exorcistic and funerary rites . . . the vast majority of ordinary Soto Zen monks and laypeople never practiced Zen meditation, never engaged in iconoclastic acts of the Ch'an/Zen masters (as described in hagiographical literature), never solved koans, never raked Zen gardens, never sought mystical meditative states, and never read Dogen's writings.
    Now, the Japanese Masters who came to Europe and America tended to be, almost without exception, "back to our Zazen roots" reformists. It was true for Maezumi Roshi, Suzuki Roshi [I think the description in the article is wrong, especially for Suzuki in his later years], Katagiri Roshi, Deshimaru Roshi ... it is certainly wrong about my teacher, "Mr. Zazen" Nishijima Roshi.

    So, yes, "Zen in the West" is getting back to the Zazen roots that have been largely forgotten in Asia, Japan included. This is a major impetus behind my dream, to establish Treeleaf as a Western style "Zen Center" in the heart of Japan ... and return there some of what we have rediscovered.

    Did that answer the question?

    Gassho, Jundo
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

    Comment

    • chicanobudista
      Member
      • Mar 2008
      • 864

      #3
      Re: Buddhism More Than Just Meditation?

      Originally posted by Jundo

      So, yes, "Zen in the West" is getting back to the Zazen roots that have been largely forgotten in Asia, Japan included. This is a major impetus behind my dream, to establish Treeleaf as a Western style "Zen Center" in the heart of Japan ... and return there some of what we have rediscovered.

      Did that answer the question?

      Yes. It does.
      paz,
      Erik


      Flor de Nopal Sangha

      Comment

      • Yugen

        #4
        Re: Buddhism More Than Just Meditation?

        This is indeed an incredible thread. Thank you all... what a way to start a snowy Saturday morning... something to reflect on as I chop wood and carry water today....

        Last night I was doing some reading on Ch'an and Zen Buddhist traditions, and the links between Chinese and Japanese Buddhism (of course Dogen figure prominently here). Demographically, Soto is the largest Zen Buddhist community in Japan of the five houses... it was difficult to imagine large numbers of people engaged in "just sitting!" We have been discussing the close relationship between Unitarian Universalism and Zen Buddhism in a separate thread - there are several of us who are UUs or follow Unitarian Universalism and are practicing Zen Buddhists. I mention this because my father-in-law, a retired UU minister, and my wife, preparing for ministry, have both shared that a large number of people have contact with UUs or the UU church through funerals.... many UU ministers are approached to perform memorial services/funerals for families who are estranged from their "religions of origin"...

        Gassho,
        Alex

        Comment

        • Kelly M.
          Member
          • Sep 2007
          • 225

          #5
          Re: Buddhism More Than Just Meditation?

          Originally posted by HezB
          Very good thread. Thank-you both.

          Regards,

          Harry.

          I second, very interesting.

          I have heard it stated before (though I cannot recall off-hand where) that Western Zen could ultimately be doing Eastern Zen a great service by reviving and reforming the tradition; bringing it a new spark of life.
          Live in joy and love, even among those who hate
          Live in joy and health, even among the afflicted
          Live in joy and peace, even among the troubled
          Look within and be still; free from fear and grasping
          Know the sweet joy of living in the way.

          Comment

          • TracyF
            Member
            • Nov 2007
            • 188

            #6
            Re: Buddhism More Than Just Meditation?

            Very interesting discussion.

            I have one nitpick with the author. It seems the author is narrowly defining meditation as zazen or some sort of vipassana. Isn't chanting a sort of samatha? Instead of focusing on the breath, they concentrate on the chant. They'll probably never move to higher jhanas (if I'm using that term correctly) but it is a form of meditation, right? If Buddhists chant at an alter regularly, they're probably a little different than most Christians. I think my Mom is unique in that she says the rosary regularly (which would be similar to a chant) to reach a sort of blissful state.

            Comment

            • Yugen

              #7
              Re: Buddhism More Than Just Meditation?

              This is a really cool discussion.....

              There are at least two vectors along which we are progressing in this discussion (from my frame of reference at least)... one is the inward/outward focus of meditation / prayer (whether one invokes the memory/identity of an outward higher power... the rosary or the Jesus prayer... and the inward focus of Zen Buddhist meditation (one's true nature or original self). The other relates to the content of that meditation or prayer.... whether one recites a mantra, reflects upon a koan (rinzai practice), engages in insight meditation (Vissipana), or engages in "just sitting - Shikantaza" practice... where thoughts are observed but not pursued. I would recommend highly James Austen's book Zen and the Brain - he discusses changes in brain activity and neurological functions from the perspective of neurology, pharmacology, and meditative tradition (mostly Zen), and more interestingly, identifies the areas of overlap and divergence. He refers to Zen Buddhist as well as Christian monastic traditions / scriptural references.

              Alex

              Comment

              • Lynn
                Member
                • Oct 2007
                • 180

                #8
                Re: Buddhism More Than Just Meditation?

                Yes, this concurs with my understanding and experience as well. Rev. Master Jiyu was actually ordained in Malaysia, on her way to Japan, through a very interesting series of "misunderstandings." (Her understanding was that this ceremony was to be done in Japan.) So, her ordination master was The Very Reverend Seck Kim Seng of Cheng Hoon Temple.

                This connection was maintained and, many years later in 2003, we had a large group of lay practictioners from Cheng Hoon Temple come to the US (many for the first time in their lives) and stay at Shasta. They just could not get enough of meditation. And the day that they all got to meditate in the same hall as the monks, side by side, was so moving as many were in tears for the privilege. Apparently the laity's role in Malaysia, as in many Asian countries, is really a supportive one. They cook, clean and provide dana for the monks and the temples. Sometimes, as during the Rains Retreat in the Theravadan tradition, they actually run the temple completely (save for monastic duties such as any ceremonies etc.) But the practice of meditation just isn't there.

                I think that the above experience was really the first time I "got" how amazing it is to have the evolved practice of Soto Zen that we have here in the West. The practice of meditation really is the jewel within the dragon's claw. Each time we sit the jewel is place within our hands, just for the asking.

                In Gassho~
                Lynn
                When we wish to teach and enlighten all things by ourselves, we are deluded; when all things teach and enlighten us, we are enlightened. ~Dogen "Genjo Koan"

                Comment

                • Yugen

                  #9
                  Re: Buddhism More Than Just Meditation?

                  Lynn,
                  Thank you for sharing that experience... it was really beautiful. This discussion helps me really focus on why I am becoming a Buddhist (as compared to admiring from a distance), and furthermore, helps me address the mind "notions" I had in identifying with Zen Buddhism. Sometimes important traditions are preserved / rejuvenated in lands away from their original homes when political/social/economic turmoil makes the environment hostile to these practices or bodies of knowledge. Many Chinese practices considered "counterrevolutionary" were persecuted and practitioners intimidated, imprisoned or killed as the (claimed) scientific social method of the revolution replaced "antiquated" social structures and regimes (patriarchal, oligarchic, etc.) This has been the case for ch'an buddhists, taoists, martial artists (pre-wushu), political activists, etc. They have gone into exile on Taiwan, the United States, etc.

                  The Western experience presents examples as well. When Byzantium fell to the Ottomans, the works of Aristotle and Plato (in the areas of mathematics and philosophy) were preserved (and further scholarly interpretation performed) by Islamic scholars in Lebanon in the 14th through 16th centuries. The Western church refused to protect Greek philosophical works and indeed destroyed them. Literacy at that time was still a privilege "granted" and taught by the clergy... We owe our knowledge of Aristotle and Plato today to Muslim scholars.... just as the the familiarization of meditative practice among the laity in Soto Zen may rely upon its Western practitioners!

                  I think the topic of the resuscitation of important philosophical, social, and knowledge-based traditions in non-indigenous geographic contexts is a fascinating one where we are only beginning to connect-the-dots...!

                  What a great Saturday morning discussion!

                  Regards,
                  Alex

                  Comment

                  • paige
                    Member
                    • Apr 2007
                    • 234

                    #10
                    Re: Buddhism More Than Just Meditation?

                    I think I've read that article (or a similar one). I can't say I was terribly surprised that few Japanese Buddhists meditate. It seems like a similar phenomenon occurs in most religions - how many Christians can list all ten commandments? How many Orthodox Jews go to shul more than twice a year? etc.

                    Comment

                    • Charles
                      Member
                      • Feb 2008
                      • 95

                      #11
                      Re: Buddhism More Than Just Meditation?

                      Originally posted by paige
                      How many Orthodox Jews go to shul more than twice a year? etc.
                      In my experience, most Jews who self-identify as Orthodox -- at least in the United States -- go to shul way more than twice a year. In the community I was raised in, many of the men went at least once a day; and many of them went twice a day. Nearly all went at least once a week. A lot of the women also went once a week. Other Orthodox communities I had experience with were similar.

                      I think the once-or-twice-a-year thing is much more common for Jews who self-identify as Reform or Conservative Jews. That isn't to imply that there aren't Reform and Conservative Jews who are very involved and regular attendees; it's just that synagogues in those traditions seem to have a 'core group' vs. 'my family is associated with the synagogue' dynamic going on. When I was very young my family identified as Conservative and we went every week, but most of the attendees on any given week were family of whoever was having a bar-mitzvah ceremony that week, and didn't show up most of the time.

                      --Charles

                      Comment

                      • Jundo
                        Treeleaf Founder and Priest
                        • Apr 2006
                        • 39450

                        #12
                        Re: Buddhism More Than Just Meditation?

                        Originally posted by TracyF
                        Very interesting discussion.

                        I have one nitpick with the author. It seems the author is narrowly defining meditation as zazen or some sort of vipassana. Isn't chanting a sort of samatha? Instead of focusing on the breath, they concentrate on the chant. They'll probably never move to higher jhanas (if I'm using that term correctly) but it is a form of meditation, right? If Buddhists chant at an alter regularly, they're probably a little different than most Christians. I think my Mom is unique in that she says the rosary regularly (which would be similar to a chant) to reach a sort of blissful state.
                        Hi Tracy and all,

                        My own wife, Mina, had never sat Zazen before meeting me (her family is from one of the chanting sects, Nichiren Buddhists ... Nam My?h? Renge Ky?, "Hail to the Sublime Law of the Lotus Sutra"). The average Japanese may encounter Zazen once or twice in their youth, on a compulsory school field trip to a Zen temple or the like. To most Japanese, it has the image of being a very difficult, strenuous and PAINFUL practice. The reaction of most Japanese when I say that I am into Zazen (apart from the suprise at the fact that I am a Westerner into Zazen) is about the same as a Westerner meeting someone who's into marathon racing or serious rock climbing.

                        I agree with Tracy that chanting, rosary twirling, repeated bowing, swaying (in the style of Muslim or Jewish prayer) and the like can bring about states of samatha (which can be defined as tranquillity, concentration, mental one-pointedness, undistractedness, unperturbedness, peaceful and lucid mind). In fact, any hypnotic, repetitive activity can do so, and it does not only have to be a religious activity ... gardening, running, singing, dancing, flute playing and the like can bring like states of mind. I, personally, enjoy chanting (my teacher, Nishijima, says that chanting is not needed ... all that is needed is Zazen).

                        Dogen's objection to chanting (and Nishijima's and mine too) has to do primarily with how this practice fits into the philosophy of "radical non-seeking non-doing". Shikintaza, to be "effective", is meant as a single, absolutely complete, totally sufficient, fully contained, one-pointed activity of perfect stillness (in body and mind) wherefore absolutely nothing is being sought or is to be attained, nothing to be added or taken away. It has to be experienced as the one thing, the one & only, required in the whole universe ... and as the universe itself. The attaining comes primarily from that radical attitude of not attaining, the finding comes precisely from dropping all seeking. For the reason, Dogen distinguished Shikantaza, not just from chanting, but from all other forms of Zazen in which something, some jhana or "enlightenment" or the like, is to be obtained. In his view, enlightenment manifests in the complete dropping of all searching for "enlightenment" ... which you can't taste if you are searching for enlightenment.

                        So, my point is that it is seemingly harder to find that radical stillness and goallessness in any practice involving an action or a goal. Does that make sense? (Personally, I think it is possible to do so, but it is tricky. Imagine a tennis game: It would be a little like learning to play tennis while radically giving up all thought of hitting the ball or scoring a point). However, --if-- someone can pray or chant with the attitude of Shikintaza that I describe above, then maybe the praying or chanting is Shikintaza. Maybe.

                        Another point is that, in our Zazen Practice, we must find all we need within ourselves, and there is no need to call out to a Buddha in the sky to lend a hand. In chanting or praying, there is the feeling that we are reaching out to some outside force for assistance. That also separates chanting from the fully "self-contained" and "self-sufficient" nature of Zazen. (Let me add here, for some Practitioners who practice chanting/prayer combined with Zazen, the distinction between "inside" and "outside" become a moot point. Still, I think it is hard to pursue Shikantaza philosophy in chanting if you think that you are chanting to someone for receipt of something.) But, if you can radically drop all thought of inside and outside, all need for assistance or anything else ... then maybe chanting can be like Shikintaza. Maybe.

                        I say "maybe" because, gosh darn it, why would anyone need anything more than Zazen??

                        Tough to explain. I hope the point comes across.

                        Gassho, Jundo
                        ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

                        Comment

                        • Dainin
                          Member
                          • Sep 2007
                          • 389

                          #13
                          Re: Buddhism More Than Just Meditation?

                          This is a very interesting conversation. Thanks for starting it, chicanobudista.

                          Originally posted by Jundo
                          I agree with Tracy that chanting, rosary twirling, repeated bowing, swaying (in the style of Muslim or Jewish prayer) and the like can bring about states of samatha (which can be defined as tranquillity, concentration, mental one-pointedness, undistractedness, unperturbedness, peaceful and lucid mind). In fact, any hypnotic, repetitive activity can do so, and it does not only have to be a religious activity ... gardening, running, singing, dancing, flute playing and the like can bring like states of mind.
                          I can attest to this in a few areas of my life: performing on stage, running, and saying the rosary. As an actor, when I was really into a role and really "being in the moment" on stage, I experienced this one-pointed-ness. I've also experienced this when I was running (of course, I was in better shape then!) and, when a practicing Catholic, saying the rosary. While the experience only happened occasionally (I certainly couldn’t rely on it), I found when it did occur, it was an amazingly cathartic, almost transcendent, experience.

                          Originally posted by Jundo
                          So, my point is that it is seemingly harder to find that radical stillness and goallessness in any practice involving an action or a goal. Does that make sense? (Personally, I think it is possible to do so, but it is tricky. Imagine a tennis game: It would be a little like learning to play tennis while radically giving up all thought of hitting the ball or scoring a point). However, --if-- someone can pray or chant with the attitude of Shikintaza that I describe above, then maybe the praying or chanting is Shikintaza. Maybe.
                          Jundo, just curious, could mantra meditation be considered shikantza if a true goallessness is found? When I was practicing Catholicism I learned to meditate via "Christian Meditation" as taught by the late Benedictine monk John Main: (http://www.wccm.org). He just taught a simple matra "Ma-ra-na-tha" (an Aramaic word meaning "Come, Lord"). He taught just to say the mantra, that's it. He said not to think about the meaning of the word, just say it, and eventually it'll drop away naturally. Can something like this (I guess similar ways of meditating are taught within the Vipassana tradition) be considered shikantaza?

                          Originally posted by Jundo
                          I say "maybe" because, gosh darn it, why would anyone need anything more than Zazen??
                          I tend to agree, but it doesn't seem (at least to me) that meditation (at least the shikantza done here) will ever really take the world by storm. This is just a thought; I know we're not into increasing our numbers and getting more converts than other groups, but I mean Soka Gakkai, for example, has become pretty popular in the US, perhaps because of its pretty simple message and practice. And obviously Christianity is growing exponentially in certain parts of the world (for a number of reasons). So, I can see why zazen isn't really practiced in Asia.

                          In the end, though, the universalist in me says, "hey whatever works, do it." If saying the rosary or chanting or whirling like a Dervish brings more peace and equanimity into the world, regardless of the motivation, then perhaps that's good enough.

                          Gassho,
                          Keith

                          Comment

                          • TracyF
                            Member
                            • Nov 2007
                            • 188

                            #14
                            Re: Buddhism More Than Just Meditation?

                            it doesn't seem (at least to me) that meditation (at least the shikantza done here) will ever really take the world by storm. This is just a thought; I know we're not into increasing our numbers and getting more converts than other groups, but I mean Soka Gakkai, for example, has become pretty popular in the US, perhaps because of its pretty simple message and practice.
                            I agree. Shikantaza is hard and I think people need to have a pantheist mindset to be able to do it right. That may be just me projecting myself.

                            In the end, though, the universalist in me says, "hey whatever works, do it." If saying the rosary or chanting or whirling like a Dervish brings more peace and equanimity into the world, regardless of the motivation, then perhaps that's good enough.
                            Exactly! Gotta run, I'm late!

                            Comment

                            • Dainin
                              Member
                              • Sep 2007
                              • 389

                              #15
                              Re: Buddhism More Than Just Meditation?

                              Originally posted by TracyF
                              Shikantaza is hard and I think people need to have a pantheist mindset to be able to do it right. That may be just me projecting myself.
                              Good call, Tracy. I've often thought that the pantheist mindset and shikantaza (and Zen in general) compliment each other very well.

                              Comment

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