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Buddhism East and West - Meditation

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  • Buddhism East and West - Meditation

    Hello Venerable,

    I hope you had a great rains retreat. My inquiry is regarding the practice of Buddhism in the East as compared to the West particularly in relation to the emphasis on meditation practice. In brief, one of the main thing that attracts Westerners to Buddhism and Buddhist spirituality is meditation and spiritual practice which brings us relief from daily stress, tensions, emotional pains, struggles, life difficulties, etc. This phenomena seems understandable since dukkha is a hallmark of human (and sentient) existence since beginningless time. So it makes sense that what attracts people to Buddhism is its promise of alleviating human suffering and unsatisfactoriness in all its forms through meditation and spiritual practice. Fair enough.

    However, what I wonder is then how come more ethnic Buddhists in the East, especially historically, have not been attracted to meditation and contemplative practice for the most part to alleviate their dukkha, stress, etc? Generally speaking, in the East ethnic Buddhists are more into other aspects of Buddhism such as merit-making, devotional practices, getting blessings, etc. Of course, these have their place in Buddhism, but I wonder why historically Buddhists in the East didn’t care much for meditation. Since dukkha, stress, struggle, unsatisfactoriness, etc is universal to human existence, one would think that historically Buddhists would’ve eagerly sought to benefit from Buddhist meditation and contemplative practice to achieve relaxation and inner peace. Or perhaps when lay Buddhists in olden times came to monastics to discuss their problems in the Eastern Buddhist world, wouldn’t it have been natural for the monastics to have mentioned meditation and contemplative/spiritual practice to the layman or laywoman as a way to alleviate their stress? This is certainly the case with Buddhism in the West today, so I’m wondering why this isn’t the case in Eastern Buddhism since stress, dukkha, etc and their antidotes are the same whether East or West?

    I’ve studied Buddhist doctrine and the historical development of Buddhism in university, but I can’t recall finding the answer to my current query, so I’m wondering if you can provide some insight into this. Feel free to suggest articles, books, etc on the topic.

    I’m aware that during the Buddha’s time there were advanced lay meditation practitioners such as Citta who achieved not only deep states of mediation, but deep knowledge of the Dhamma as well. However, by and large after the Buddha’s time meditation became relegated to monastics (if even that), whereas the laity were expected to engage in merit-making, dana, devotion, etc. Even local beliefs and practices of all sorts (e.g. animistic beliefs in some areas) became incorporated into lay Buddhist practice in the Buddhist world, but meditation never became a popular practice amongst the laity. So any insight into why this is the case would be appreciated.

    Thank you for your time Venerable.

    Best wishes.

  • #2
    Dear Haca Ce,

    Thank you, I had a wonderful Rains Retreat, and its taken a while to get out of holiday mode - thus the long time to get back on the forum!

    Good question – I can answer from my own personal knowledge as a Buddhist born in Sri Lanka.

    Buddhism, as anything over 2,500 years, has been through many waves of growth and decline. The glory days of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka were from the time of Emperor Ashoka until the great famine about a 1000 years ago. And then, it had a rocky trip downhill, that is, until about 50 -70 years ago.

    I remember when I was young (44 years ago!), the monastery was a place that provided a great social service - an orphanage or poor-house for young children, an opportunity to make merit by offering dana for villagers, and a place where young boys could receive a free education.

    In a village monastery, the monks would have typically ordained there as children because they were poor, or had a bad star-sign, or it was meritorious for the family - not out of faith in the Dhamma. Their teachers too would have ordained for similar reasons - so basically nobody really knew anything about meditation! They provided some relief for the suffering of the lay folk by conducting pujas, accepting dana, and there was always talk of dana and sila.

    That said, in Sri Lanka, keeping the Tripitaka alive was always a priority, and we can thank the monks for maintaining such an accurate record of the Buddha's word for over 2000 years.

    It was really only about 50 years ago that from Burma and Thailand the practice of meditation was re-introduced in Sri Lanka and even become accessible to the lay world. Sri Lankan Buddhism as we know it today, where monastics meditate and teach not from book knowledge, but from their own experience - is a new phenomenon!

    So the old culture still remains among traditional Buddhists - though it has changed and is changing rapidly - over the past 20 years especially. There are monasteries practising and teaching meditation. I have met several inspiring Sri Lankan monastics - many of them young and educated. It is more and more the case that the average suffering lay person who turnS to the Dhamma would have heard about meditation, given it a try, and even attended a retreat somewhere. It certainly is out there - if not on the Buddhist Channel which runs 24/7.

    So that's my own experience as a Sri Lankan Buddhist - I am not so knowledgeable about what happened in Burma and Thailand.

    Hope this solves your quandry!

    With metta as always,
    Ven Upekkha


    • #3
      Thank you very much for sharing your personal experience and insights Venerable. It has definitely shed light onto my query. Indeed what a gift for Sri Lanka to have preserved the Buddha's words for over 2,000 years. One can learn about and appreciate this especially after learning about the history of the Dhamma through courses such as Bhante Sujato and Ajahn Brahmali's workshops on Early Buddhism.

      I actually have another quick query I hope you can help me with

      I want to know can an Eight Precepts Keeper layman (being flexible with the precept of not eating afternoon) attain jhanas (realistically speaking) if he practices meditation for 1-4 hours daily? Or would annual (or more often) retreats of 10-days or longer (e.g. 1 month, 2 months, 3 months, etc) help or be necessary?

      I know that it might be different for different people and that we're not supposed to try to attain anything in meditation (practicing contentment with whatever is happening). That's well understood, but I still wanted to have some realistic idea of what kind of practice we should have to attain jhanas. I.e. about how many hours of daily meditation, length of retreats and with how many hours of meditation daily on intensive retreats, etc? All with the attitude of not trying to achieve anything of course

      Thank you for taking the time to reply to our questions Venerable. I hope to hear from you soon.

      With metta.


      • #4
        Dear Haca Ce,

        Alas, your question is impossible to answer! It is not so much quantity, but quality of one's practice that matters. You could spend YEARS sitting in perfect conditions, and yet have negativity going around your head, steeped in delusion. And as you said, 'wanting to acheive something' is also a big hindrance. The more we let go, the more we experience peace and calm. Just like the mother hen who sits on her eggs hour after hour, expecting nothing, so too, we meditate with expectation.

        Of course the more hours we put into our practice, the more we get out of it, but how much is hard to say.

        Also, it is not only the hours on our cushion, it is our whole day's activities. Practising kindness and compassion during the day has a great impact on the quality of your sitting practice.

        May you grow in peace!

        With metta,
        Ven Upekkha


        • #5
          Thank you for your insights Venerable! Best wishes.

          With metta.



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