The basis of meditation

Today I want to look at the basics of meditation. We’re embarking on a Sŏn-style retreat in which we pose the question, ‘What is this?’ I would like to start with this observation: in Buddhist traditions, meditation practice is based on two fundamental elements – anchoring and experiential inquiry. 

The various Buddhist traditions approach these elements in different ways. For example, in the vipassanā tradition, the anchor can be the breath or the body. In the Tibetan tradition, you might use a mantra, a visualisation, or a theme. If you look at Japanese Rinzai Zen and Soto Zen, bear in mind that they come from the Chan tradition in China, where two currents predominated: the Lin-Chi/Rinzai current, which uses koans or questions as focuses; and the Tsao-Tung current – later known as Soto in Japan. Soto Zen taught ‘just sitting’, a meditation practice also called ‘silent illumination’. In the Korean Sŏn tradition, the anchor is a question like: ‘What is this?’. 

There are different ways to anchor. We can focus on something in the moment, as in the vipassanā tradition, or settle on a question as in the Korean Sŏn tradition. We can also cultivate experiential enquiry in different ways. Vipassanā practitioners, for example, do it by being aware of change. In the Korean Sŏn tradition, we focus on questioning and experiential inquiry. In any tradition, anchoring and inquiry are developed together to become creative awareness or creative mindfulness. We might practise them in different ways, but these two aspects remain the essential components of the practice. So when we’re sitting in meditation, we’re basically cultivating these two elements together. 

Rather than use the term ‘concentration’, I’d prefer to use the word ‘anchoring’, because we have an unhelpful relationship to ‘concentration’. If somebody tells us, ‘Concentrate!’, generally we tense up and try to narrow our focus. Anchoring is a better image, because it brings to mind anchoring a boat. We have the anchor, we have the boat, and thanks to the anchor the boat is not going to drift away. The boat isn’t stationary – it shifts a little according to the current and wind – but it’s not going very far. 

So we see that the anchor – the breath, the body, sound, or a question – actually helps us to be with our experience. As Stephen said, the aim is to be with our life in this moment, in an open and stable way. In the Sŏn tradition, we come back to the question, ‘What is this?’. The crucial aspect of anchoring – whether we’re coming back to the breath, or coming back to the question ‘What is this?’ – is that we come back to the whole experience of this moment. 

When we’re sitting here with nothing to do but cultivate meditation – anchoring and questioning – we might notice that a lot of the time we’re somewhere else. Just as we can’t stop ourselves hearing, we can’t stop ourselves thinking. Rather, we’re creating space so we’re not too lost in thoughts. What we might notice as we sit is that, yes, we’re going to have thoughts, and a lot of the time the thoughts are going to be fairly repetitive. Maybe from time to time, we’ll have a new thought, and sometimes we might think creative thoughts, but most of the time it’s repetitive. It’s the same with sounds. As we go through the day sounds repeat: the sounds of birds, the sounds of cars, the sounds outside. It’s the same with sensations in the body: some will come again and again. 

Repetition is part of life, but we don’t want to become stuck in it. From time to time, we have thoughts we’ve never had before, just as from time to time we hear sounds we’ve never heard before. As we anchor, the point is not to stop the functioning of the organism. We think, we see, we hear, we taste, we smell, we experience sensations, we have thoughts. This is just the organism functioning. Anchoring helps us to open up some space, so it’s not so relentless – not so repetitive and automatic. Thus we can experience some freedom, some creativity and spaciousness. We can exercise choice. Do I want to continue to think these thoughts? Do I want to continue to be with these sensations? 

When we focus on inquiry, our anchoring consists in returning again and again to the question, and to notice that when we’re lost in thoughts, we’re not totally here with this multi- perspectival experience. Rather, we’re caught in just one aspect of it, which often references the past or the future. In returning to the question we train ourselves to be here, bringing creative awareness – creative engagement – to this moment. And we can only do this by accessing our experience in each moment. 

It is very important to see that when we anchor – when we focus – we don’t hold onto the breath for dear life. Nor do we hold onto the question tensely. Instead, we use them as an anchor in our experience. We come back to them again and again, and cultivate choice: do I continue with this, or do I return to the question? That’s the choice we have: we can continue with a certain thought, or come back to our whole experience via the anchor.

When we come back to the question or to the breath, four things are going to happen. Firstly, we’re not going to feed the repetition. Secondly, we weaken the power of the repetition. Thirdly, we bring our attention back to the whole moment. And finally, we bring ourself back to our creative functioning, which to me is an important part of the practice. This can help us become calmer, more spacious and stable. 

The other aspect of the practice, which is just as important, is experiential inquiry. We can be aware of change – sounds, breath, changing sensations – or we can just ask the question: ‘What is this?’. In this way we question our tendency to fixate, to identify: ‘I am like this’, or ‘This is like that’. And by cultivating questioning – asking ‘What is this?’ – we generate more openness. We learn to be with uncertainty, which sensitises us to change. Thus we can experience change through questioning, or we can experience change through looking directly at change. 

We can cultivate mindfulness either directly or indirectly, just as we can cultivate awareness of change directly or indirectly. I realised this as a nun in Korea where, for ten years, I just practised asking the question ‘What is this?’ in meditation, and nothing else. Through doing this I quickly became more aware, more compassionate, and more conscious of change. In this way I became more alert to conditions. 

What works best for you is the important thing. Does it make more sense to cultivate mindfulness and awareness of change directly? Or do you use a method such as returning to the question ‘What is this?’? You will still be cultivating awareness of change, but in another way. For someone who is used to Sŏn practice this will be obvious, while others may want to see how they can bring these two approaches together. 

Personally, I undertook the Sŏn questioning first, then explored awareness practice, and I find they complement each other very well. This is an issue we can explore together during this week. 


This is an excerpt from What is this? Ancient questions for modern minds, published May 2019 by Tuwhiri, a secular Buddhist publishing project in Wellington, New Zealand & Sydney, Australia • www.tuwhiri.nz/what-is-this


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