So You Think Buddhists Meditate?

As Westerners abandon their inherited religions and get used to the secular life, they’re turning in record numbers towards Buddhism, or something like it. There’s no God, you don’t have to believe in anything and it’s all very scientific. In fact it’s not a religion at all – so the story goes.

West or East, Buddhists are people, When it comes to spiritual traditions, they tend to see just what they’re looking for. Wishful thinking and group thinking are hard-wired into us. The Buddha understood this, and built this understanding into the substance of his teachings. That’s in large part why they’re so successful.

The Western take on Buddhism is really off. Travel to Asia and the first thing you’ll notice is that Buddhism is a religion. People kneel, prostrate and pray. They treat statues, paintings and books as sacred. And you’ll find the surreal politics that are unique to medieval belief-systems. This is especially so of Tibetan Buddhism, in which I spent my twenties. For eight fascinating, bizarre years, I lived the life of a medieval Buddhist monk.

Westerners’ misconceptions about Buddhism aren’t limited to the way they perceive the venerable old institution itself. They misunderstand the most basic of its daily practices. Most mistaken of all is the idea that Buddhists spend their time meditating, and that they’re consequently calm and sublime.

Not so. You’ll find most Buddhist monks doing daily chores, studying, teaching, practicing ritual and whatnot — not so very different from Christian monks. Only a tiny minority dedicate themselves to silent meditation. The Tibetan Gelugpas who taught me spent most of their lives in study and debate, a boisterous and at times undignified occupation that couldn’t be further from any new-age notion of emptying the mind.

And then, you’ll be surprised to learn that the term ‘meditate’ doesn’t exist in any of the classical Buddhist languages. What the Buddha taught was simply bhāvanā, or ‘cultivation’ of the mind. I call the Buddha’s way ‘mindful reflection.’

Although mindful reflection includes the concentrative practices we associate with the cross-legged lotus posture, that’s only one of three areas of practice. The others – ethics and insight – are crucial. Ethics is all about close, discerning attention to the ordinary events of daily life, taking care to do no harm. Just bookending one’s days with few minutes of meditative quiet is in itself going to get you nowhere.

The insight practices sound wonderfully sublime, but in fact they’re pretty hard to swallow. The Buddha makes the point that we mess up our lives by deluding ourselves. Insight is the process of seeing through those delusions and letting them go. It’s accurate to call this a process of disillusionment. He advocates a systematic letting go of consoling beliefs, opinions, attitudes and hopes. It’s not much fun.

But it’s all worth it, because the prize is Enlightenment! Practice assiduously and you’ll transcend ordinary reality to live on an elevated plane of existence!

Well, once again, there’s little evidence to support this fancy. In fact, the Buddha speaks out against transcendence in no uncertain terms. He bluntly insisted that his students stay firmly grounded in the here and now of sensory experience. The term ‘Enlightenment’ simply doesn’t exist in the Buddhist languages (nor do sacred, capitalized words). ‘Enlightenment’ has been used in the West for nigh on a hundred years now to translate the word ‘bodhi,’ which actually means ‘awakening’ – coming to your senses.

What’s really interesting is that what the Buddha actually taught is so compatible with today’s secular outlook on life. On the other hand, Buddhism in the West has a funny way of attracting people in search of escape — you know: those who interpret every bit of good news as the universe looking out for them personally.

But that’s okay. The teachings are practical and robust. If you pursue them with an honest heart and open mind, your practice can disentangle you from your own prejudices, misconceptions and false hopes. Mindful reflection has a way of bringing you decisively down to earth with a jarring but strangely satisfying thud.


Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

12 thoughts on “So You Think Buddhists Meditate?”

  1. Well done Stephen. Love that you are happily trashing the myths of Buddhism too!
    At some point one realizes that they are not taking ‘crazy pills’ like Mugatu in Zoolander and that the obvious is obvious to others too.
    I have just written a series of blogs addressing similar topics of misrepresentation of Buddhism and the idealization of Buddhism that too many westerners are still too happy to indulge in.
    I don’t like the term ‘mindful reflection’ though; any other wordings in reserve?
    I’m starting to develop the habit of defining ‘Buddhism’ as the path of radical change and the process of awakening and have long abandoned the term enlightenment. Fully agree that awakening is much closer to the actual human experience of practice ripening as result.

    1. Matthew: Thanks for the vote of support. As for not liking mindful reflection, you don’t get off that easily. Having challenged it, you can’t just leave it to me to come up with alternatives. Think man, think!
      I conjured it up because mindfulness is an indispensable part of the path. But there’s more: the clarification of the discursive mind … right?
      So … want to collaborate on a new term?

  2. It is nice to see this amalgamation of contemporary brain knowledge with ancient wisdom. Love your worldly marriage of psychology and virtuality.
    Mindfulness is not simply an “indispensable part of the path”, it is an indispensable part of our human nature, enabling our best human brain feature (Neocortex) to contain our primitive yet more ingrained brain module (amygdala). It is our primal apparatus in a current environment where our old world instinctive reactions could be detrimental; even ahead of cognition.
    My only contention with secular BUDDHISM is that we have not yet determined a better designation for this new and improved ideology (just a personal opinion), Buddhism, in my mind, appears to denote another “system of belief” in the dogmatic fashion, which I renounce. But then again what do I know.
    Thank You Stephen for your tremendous insights in human nature.

    1. Secular, pragmatic or Buddhism-without-the-ism: all relative terms that tell a story of the non-stop trajectory of human seeking. There may be better designations, but there will never be a final one.

  3. Thank-you for these thought provoking insights regarding the Westerners’ misinterpretations of traditional Buddhism and so called intention to clear the mind, in order to achieve a higher, awakened state of consciousness. It seems like a contradiction in terms, that could lead to ignor(ance), a very introverted conceptualization of life and denial of the very interactive world and responsiveness to the events that we are affected by and tend to engage in, daily. To be able to debate boisterously and confidently without fear of judgement or manipulation can be very inspirational, and educational.

    Therefore, I turn to your focus on the question of ethics, virtue and it’s relavence to the matter of even encouraging and allowing for different opinions to unfold. Respect, is precisely a factor to prevent harm. Therefore, I too arrive to consider the question that Mathew raised as to weather there may be a more poignant phraze, besides ‘mindful reflection’ to describe a plight of higher social and internal awareness, that may not lead to delusion or idealization.

    I would venture to suggest that word could be ‘conscientious’! Since, after all, a person could be very mindful in reflecting negatively on experiences in which they’ve felt undermined or cheated and so decide stoop to a level of mindfully plotting out some sinister vow to even a score, in which their ego deludes them to feel they have won!

    Instead, wouldn’t it make more sense to reflect weather that is the type of person one wants to become, (in all good conscience) let anger go without denying it for one’s own sake, (weather or not said offender has remorse,) learn from it, by being more discerning and rize above to be honourable, and exemplary!? Such tools are necessay for progress. Will pass it on, for International Women’s Day. Regards!

    Here is an interesting link I found this a.m by a psychologist/author’s somewhat contrasting experience with meditation.

  4. Kilby: It took me years to come up with ‘mindful reflection’ and it has proven its worth, but I very much like the way you portray its shortcomings. I’m not sure that ‘conscientiousness’ is encompassing enough, though. My main concern was to bridge the gap between non-conceptual and conceptual consciousness, because of the prevalent misconception that it’s all about emptying the mind.
    Terminology and interpretation: always a work in progress.

  5. Without seeking perfection that post was perfect. That’s what I like about the way you think and put those thoughts in words. It puts together all the mumbleness I can’t express. I spent a decade exploring Buddhism in India, Nepal, Cambodia, Korea. Thanks for putting ten years into a concise expression!

    1. Thanks Peter. It’s great when all my doubts and hesitations come out in a coherent stream of meaning. Oftentimes they’re quite the opposite!

  6. So does non conceptual consciousness still have a place at certain times of meditation or mindful reflection in your estimation? Is it a factor that varies according to what amount of stimuli can be processed or objectives a person can achieve comfortably in a given day, and a way to counterbalance when overwhelmed? In either case conceptual or non, there still may be an underlying intention, progressive, hopefully. As long as the blackboard is not cleared before all the ponits are noted. Mindful works for me, it makes me think of being careful, vigilant. Just thought about your challenge to Mathew, which had me pondering the various natures of intent. Curious about his reasoning. He sounds much more versed on the subject than I, by far!

    1. Non-conceptual consciouness simply is; it’s not going away. Its place in meditation is to provide a landing zone in the present moment, for only concept can take us into the future and the past. It’s is certainly a counterbalancing force, a destressor and at times a pleasant respite. Most important is the muscle we develop in residing in non-concept. We are cultivating the muscle of letting go – a muscle not to be strengthened but to be released from spasm.

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