Mar 21, 2009

My Way or the Highway

I've been thinking more about a statement I made in a recent post; that in the long history of Buddhist sectarianism there were very few splits on issues related to meditation practice. In fact, the only example I could think of was the Zen split between Soto and Rinzai. In the comments to that post Honsing said;

Hence although there is no dispute over meditation, I believe for many, we quietly do have a favorite form of meditation and would reason that the other forms are less suitable for ourselves. Hence disputes are kept personal and silent. Meditation is a very personal experience, it is hard to conclude that what is not suitable would not be suitable for others.

Well said. It may be that a similar reason underlies the dearth of explicit meditation instruction in the Pali canon. Nevertheless, I'm feeling contrarian today, so I will post a rather large caveat. While it is quite true that there have been very few disputes over meditation that grew serious enough to culminate in schism, there always have been, and probably always will be many disputes among teachers and practitioners about meditation.

I'd like to list a few here. I am going to try not to let my own biases show too much but just present the controversies.

Jhana - If you just go by the Vissudhimagga tradition the topic of jhana seems very cut-and-dried. Four jhanas, five factors in the first jhana, jhana needed before insight and so forth. However, if you explore a little wider and read and listen to different teachers you'll find a very wide range of views about exactly what constitutes jhana, how best to attain it and how much is really necessary before undertaking insight. Just to demonstrate the wide range of positions out there, I heard of one ajahn in Thailand who taught that all four jhanas can be developed together, gradually deepening each one in turn. According to this teacher, the very lowest level of first jhana is the amount of concentration needed to thread a needle. Some teachers caution against developing the jhanas at all, warning about a danger of attachment.

Note that all this variation is just within the Theravada! Going further afield, the Zen school is actually named after jhana. Sanskrit dhyana is Pali jhana is Chinese Chan is Japanese Zen. And yet the Rinzai at least have moved almost completely away from one-pointed practice. And Thich Nhat Hanh is one of those who warns against attachement to jhana.

Discursive Thought - Some teachers seem to regard the quieting of thought as almost the goal of meditation. Others say it is not really an issue, it's just what the mind does and that the problem is only in the identification with thought.

The Importance of Technique - Some meditation methods rely heavily on the following of a fixed technique or even a graded series of techniques. Other teachers regard reliance on technique as a form of rite-and-ritual clinging and advocate a more free-form meditation. This contrast is strongly seem between Burma and Thailand.

Outside the Theravada we also see an interesting range. Zen Shinkaza (just sitting) could be characterized as a technique of no-technique. Vajrayana visualization practices are extremely programmed techniques requiring a great deal of disciplined attention to detail, whereas Dzogchen denies technique so radically that it asserts "the view is the practice."

Posture - While some Zen teachers make a very big issue out of sitting correctly, Theravada is much looser in this regard. But there are still differences of opinion. Some hold it necessary to sit still even when in pain, others say it is alright to shift posture mindfully to escape "galling limitations."

The amount and the style of meditation in the walking posture is also a matter of differences. Theravadins do a lot of it, especially I think in the Thai tradition. Most Zen practitioners do only a short brisk walk between sits mostly to ease the body. The Ajahn Mun tradition in Thailand says that walking must be done with hands folded in front and only in a north-south direction.

Mindfulness of Breathing - There are a wide range of variations on this very basic practice, some of which have been matters of controversy. You might think just breathing in and out would be too basic to foster a large literature of scholarly dispute but you would be wrong! For example, the passage in the sutta which says "noticing the whole breath-body, he breaths in, noticing the whole breath-body, he breaths out" is interpreted by the commentary as meaning the whole duration of the breath. Many later writers and teachers dispute this and hold that it refers to watching the whole body breathe.

There is also a very long-lasting dispute about the nature and role of the nimitta (sign) in breath meditation. The Visuddhimagga, which is generally the standard of Theravada orthodoxy, says that a visual image will arise which becomes the focus of attention. The nearly contemporary Vimuttimagga teaches instead that the proper sign in breath meditation is purely tactile.


I've only scratched the surface of possible controversies here. And we haven't looked at issues related to the peripherals of meditation like diet, exercise, view, life-style and so forth. I hesitate to draw any final conclusions, but will leave you with one thought; it isn't all cut-and-dried by any means!