On Meditation

by Rev. Phillip Karl Eidmann.  Reverend Eidmann who studied for ten years in Japan, was ordained as a cleric of the Nishi Hongwanji with a M.A. degree in Shin Buddhism from Ryukoku University, Kyoto Japan.  He was the first American to attain the academic rank of Hokyo (Consular in Teaching) through the Hongwanji.  Rev. Eidmann published numerous articles on Buddhist doctrine and history in english, Japanese, Portugese, and German.  He was also an accredited teacher of the Japanese arts of tea ceremony and flower arrangement.  Rev Eidmann died in 1997.

How often we are asked, "Do Shin Buddhists practice Meditation?"  The answer will be yes or no, depending on what we think the inquirer means, for there is, in the three ecclesiastical languages of Buddhism, no word which translates to meditation!

Buddhism has, of course, hundreds of Practices which the West vaguely calls meditation but each has its own name, and each its own goal.  To call these meditation, does not make them so.

The English word meditation is, of course, derived from the Latin, and retains the Latin nuances, for Latin remained for centuries the ecclesiastical tongue of the West.  The Latin meditor means think over, consider; study, prepare oneself for; and exercise one-self, practice.  The Greek cognate meletao in addition to these meanings refers to the practice of an occupation and to the practice of declamation.

In English, however, careless usage often tends to signify some vague introspection or contemplation.  Contemplation, too, is all too often is used as though it meant some supernatural reverie when it means nothing more than an attentive or eager looking at.

Thus, it is impossible to find in Sanskrit, Pali, or Chinese any one word which represents exactly the word meditation.  In Shin, the word Furumai, which appears often in the scriptures, comes perhaps closest to the full meaning of meditation.

If we take the word meditation in the proper sense of its consideration, study, self preparation, exercise, practices, declamation, then Shin Buddhism has five kinds of meditation activity or service.  These do not form an actual practice, though Shin dislikes and even refuses the word.  Moreover, since Shin is a fusion of the principles of the ancient Sanron and Kegon sects reflected against the Buddhism of the Kamakura era, Shin does not define certain activities or services as practice, but insists that every action, even the most insignificant of daily life, may be an essentially religious action within the Way of Buddha.

Moreover, since Shin is chiefly concerned with the attainment of awareness called the awakening of faith, these various forms of meditation may be practiced either as a result of that awakening or as a preparation for it.  In the case of meditation resulting from awareness, the practice may consist merely in introspective envisioning of the joys and bliss of which one confidently expects to inherit on the extinction of becoming.  It may, on the other hand, take the form of some strenuous activity either to share one's joy or to manifest one's loving kindness (remmin, anukampa).

In the case of those who have not yet attained the awakening of faith, the practice of meditation may be undertaken for many purposes.  It may be undertaken to only realize that world-interpretation which is necessary for some intellectual understanding of the mere words and ideas of the scriptures.  It may be practiced to gain mental and emotional poise needed in everyday life.  Or, meditation may be practiced for the purpose of attaining the awakening faith.

The last use of meditation is, in Shin, a particularly dangerous practice, and not a little suspicion is attached to anyone who announces this as the purpose of his meditation.  Meditation, in order to attain the awakening of faith, tends to intensify the ego; this it carries the disciple away from his goal, and may fall into the conceit that his extinction of becoming will result from his meditation.

The goals of all such meditative exercises in Buddhism must be carefully analyzed.  Westerners, and even ill informed Buddhists, too easily fall into the trap of believing that the goal of Buddhist "meditation" is the attainment of enlightenment of Nirvana.  This however, is an erroneous notion.

In the little Chinese book called the Gateless Gate (mumonkan) there is the story of a discussion of a certain Buddha who had sat in Dhyana-meditation for ten kalpas.

Why, it is asked, has he not, at the end of such aeons, attained to Buddhahood?  The answer is given: Because  he sat in Dhyana meditation for these 10 aeons!

It may happen, of course, that, following meditation, the disciple will attain the awakening of faith.  If his awakening is the correct and true awakening of faith, however, he will know that his practice is not the cause of his extinction of becoming.  That cause, is the awakening of faith itself.  Moreover he will be aware that his meditation was not even the cause of his attainment of the awakening of faith.

The correctly aware disciple knows that his meditation was undertaken as a result of past conditioning, and that, however much he thought he was doing it of his own innate volition, he actually was caused to meditate.

The five kinds of meditation which are practiced in Shin are: ritual service, practical service, regular service, social service, and quietist service.

Ritual service includes the liturgical and devotional exercises of the Shin tradition.  There are, in matter of fact, relatively fewer than in Zen, Tendai, or Shingon.  Shin rituals, moreover, lack all forms of petitionary prayer or efforts to influence the material or spiritual world.

Practical service refers to such formal studies as were conducted by the six members of the Hongwanji in former times as well as preaching.  Perhaps the most important meditation practice in Shin is the actual participation in the disputation (Kaidoku) based upon the Topics for the Discussion.

Regular service consists in the observing of the various codes of precepts handed down within Shin in ancient times.  These include the Rules of Honen found in the Seven Articles of the Confession of the arousing of the Witness, the Rule of Koan, a group of precepts given by Shinran to his disciples, and the various precepts Rennyo Shonin laid down for the observance by Shin followers.  Of these last, the sixth letter in the second book of his Epistles and his eleven articles issued in the Bummei era are most important.

Social service refers to the various ways which Shin followers find to express their joy and thanksgiving in society.  It does not mean social welfare specifically, though this may be included.  Primarily it has to do with exercise in the society of the Shin attitude or frame of mind.  Thus social service includes all of the arts and sciences, when they are practiced with a foundation of peace in mind.  It includes the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, calligraphy, Noh, and all the social arts of India, Japan, and China, and their Western equivalents.

The quietist service consist in all those forms of introspective meditation and contemplation which Westerners first think of in connection with the word meditation.  In Shin, the orthodox forms of such meditation are very old and very many; however, since there is no insistence that any one undertake these meditation methods, these methods have always retained a highly individualistic character in Shin.

It might be thought that the methods of the Meditation Sutra one of the three chief canonical works in the Pure Realm tradition, would apply a foundation in methodology.  However, the meditation methods of this Sutra are little used in Japan.

The core technique in the Meditation Sutra is concentration on the setting sun.  This technique seems to have been introduced to Japan at the Temple of the Four Guardian Kings (Shitennoji) at the end of the sixth century, although it never became popular.

In later centuries Honen is said to have practiced this meditation technique.  Kozui-Kyonyo, twenty second patriarch of the Hongwanji, we are told, practiced this meditation during his visit to India.  The well known Shin cleric Chonen, who lived from 1792 to 1849, practiced, according to tradition, a related meditation as the sun sank over Lake Biwa; however, this was not the exact technique to the Meditation Sutra.

It seems likely that the reason for the failure of the sun meditation to gain popularity in Japan is to be found in climactic conditions.  Te meditation requires, as its object, a special kind of sun that is rarely seen in Japan.  It would hardly be possible to practice this meditation more than once or twice a year in Japan.

More popular than these meditations on the sun are the various techniques vaguely calssed as Samadhi of the thought of the Buddha (Nembutsu-zammai).  Various forms can be traced back to Honen's time.

The most popular today is that which stems from Toyo Engetsu.  Special sessions are often held for its practice.  These sessions, not too unlike those of Special Time for the Thought of the Buddha (Betsuji-nembutsu) of the Jodo schools, are often called the Quiet Life.  This use of the term, however, must be differentiated from that of the Summer Retreat at the Hongwangi.

Both in the Quiet Life session and at home, the disciple calls the Buddha's name while beating the fish-shaped semantron.  As the whole person enters fully into this meditation, a kind of samadhi develops.

A third type of meditation falling in the Quietist category is Quiet Sitting (seiza).  This term which has a long history in Chinese and Japanese, is applied to a variety of similar techniques.  The disciple sits, either with or without a subject of thought, and quiets his mind.  Quiet sitting is the most widely practiced technique in Shin today.

We might include at this point, mention of techniques which as far as Shin followers are concerned, are, in their goals, connected with Quiet Sitting.  We refer to the custom of many Shin followers, of sitting meditation with those of other sects.  Though a Shin disciple sits in a Zen or Tendai or Shingon meditation session, his inner mind is on other goals than those who sit next to him.  Thus, though the technique may be Zen or Shingon, or some other, the content is not, and such meditation too must be classed, for the most part with Quiet Sitting.

A final type of meditation in the quietist category are the various techniques of Insight into Sin and Evil (Zai-aku-kan).  These methods have close affinities with the techniques of Jungian psychology.  These methods go back to the very days of Shinran and are the most interesting of the practices of Shin Buddhism.  These techniques, however, have often been open to the danger of abuse, and not a few dissident teachings have arisen in connection with them.

All these forms of meditation are actually alive and used today in Shin.