What is meditation?
“Meditation is a conscious effort to change how the mind works. The Pali word for meditation is ‘bhavana’ which means ‘to make grow’ or ‘to develop’.”
Well that was an easy and painless post… not quite. What really is it? How do you do it? What different types are there? I get so many questions about this subject when it comes up that I am a practicing Zen Buddhist. Let’s hope what follows will make it a little more clear as we briefly cover these questions while discussing five different types of meditation. I practice Zazen, so it is the one I know the most about but I have experimented with the other forms and am pretty familiar with all of them to a degree.
First, how do you meditate? All of them in general have the same basic form:
1. Sit comfortably in one of the following positions (The uppermost being the most ideal, but whatever is comfortable):
a. Full Lotus (legs crossed with each foot resting on the opposite thigh)
b. Half Lotus (legs crossed with one foot resting on the opposite thigh; the other foot on the floor)
c. Burmese (thighs spread so that the knees are resting on the floor and both feet are close to body)
d. Kneeling with a cushion or bench
e. Sitting in a chair (feet flat on floor and the back away from back of the chair)
2. Spine straight.
3. Head up.
4. Hands in proper mudra.
5. Eyes slightly open and unfocused.
This is the form of meditation I personally practice and is practiced by Zen Buddhists and means “just-sitting”. The goal is to free the mind of ANY kind of thinking. Beginners are often suggested to follow their breath or count their breaths. This helps in allowing you to clear the mind.
The Soto school of Zen practices what is known as shikantaza, which means “nothing but sitting.” While the Rinzai school practices Zazen and Koan study. “Koans are a paradoxical teaching question or story designed to confound linear, rational thought, and therefore to help condition the mind for enlightenment” (Essential Buddhism by Jack Maguire) The koans serve as a meditation catalyst and not purely the focus of the meditation.
For a more detailed explanation watch the following video by the late great John Daido Loori of Zen Mountain Monastery describe Zazen:
I will briefly discuss the other forms of meditation:
Translated as calm abiding meditation practiced by Theravada school. You focus the mind on something in particular: observe the breath at the tip of your nose, sound of the rain, sound of traffic, etc. Additionally some focus on a virtue such as compassion or loving-kindness.
This is what is known in this country as insight meditation and is practiced by the Theravada school. Your primary focus is on your own thoughts and feelings.
Use of a power laden syllable or series of syllables, such as Om. You use a constant still repetition such as the more complex myoho-renge-kyo (glory to the lotus sutra).
This form of meditation is practiced by the pure land school. You mentally envision an image, often a Buddha or a particular bodhisattva.
In an upcoming post I will cover ways to be mindful besides meditation in your everyday life and your spiritual practice.