The Role of Religion in Meditation
All human beings experience life on three distinct levels: physical, intellectual, and spiritual. But, our experiences on a spiritual level encompass the first two levels – it is where we find our true meaning. We achieve this understanding, or awareness, through spiritual practices. Meditation is a spiritual practice, regardless of your religious beliefs. The followers of each of the major religions have shaped and defined meditation throughout the centuries.
As we explored in the history of meditation, the practice of meditation as we know it has its origins in Vedic Hinduism, which traces its beginnings to the Rig Veda. The Rig Veda is an ancient collection of Sanskrit hymns dedicated to the gods. It is one of four sacred texts of Hinduism. These four texts are collectively referred to as the Vedas.
According to Hindu beliefs, the Vedas are not of human origin, or of human agency. They are referred to as "sruti," or "what is heard." That is, they have been directly revealed to us by God. The four Vedic texts are as follows:
- The Rig Veda, containing hymns that are sung by a priest.
- The Yajur Veda, containing formulas that are spoken by a priest.
- The Sama Veda, containing formulas that are sung by a priest.
- The Atharva Veda, a collection of stories, predictions, and hymns used by priests.
Whereas orthodox schools of Indian philosophy regard the Vedas as divine and accept them as the authority of their faith, other religions such as Buddhism and Jainism regard the texts as creations of very wise men who gained a level of higher spiritual knowledge.
The Rig Veda's hymns are songs for devas, or deities, especially for Agni, the deva of fire, and Indra, the deva of the atmosphere and the king of devas. By the 4th century BCE, Vedic Hinduism had been widely accepted throughout India and had incorporated local customs and beliefs. This blend is what is commonly referred to as Vedic Hinduism.
Yoga is one of the six disciplines of Hindu philosophy. Yoga is regarded as a means of achieving spiritual mastery, or understanding. There are many types of yoga, including Raja Yoga, Vedanta, Bhakti Yoga, Japa Yoga, and Hatha Yoga. Many westerners who practice yoga know Hatha Yoga, which is a series of postures and meditations aimed at raising energy through our chakras.
The ultimate goal of meditation according to Patanjali is the destruction of ignorance and the realization of the true nature of the self.
Meditation is a central component of Buddhism. The religion's founder, the Supreme Buddha, is believed to have achieved enlightenment through meditation.
Buddhism is perhaps one of the least understood religions, at least in the West. Many Westerners are accustomed to regarding religions as a means of redemption, revelation, and salvation. The concepts of punishment, penance, and forgiveness are central themes in Christianity and throughout Western cultures. So many people initially view Buddhism through this narrow context of preconceived notions.
While the basis of many religions is a god, or deity, it can be said that the major focus of Buddhism is the mind, or consciousness. The state of consciousness is of primary concern – all other matters, such as reincarnation or the nature of God, are secondary.
This is not to say that Buddhism denies the reality of the physical world. Indeed, as in the practice of meditation, Buddhists firmly believe in the interconnectedness of the mind and physical body.
The most fundamental Buddhist teachings are found in these Four Noble Truths:
- Dukkha, the Nature of Suffering – Human nature is not perfect and neither is the world we inhabit. Therefore, to live is to suffer. We must endure physical pain, aging, sickness, and ultimately death.
- Samudaya, the Origin of Suffering – The origins of our suffering is our attachment to, or craving of, transient things.
- Nirodha, the Cessation of Suffering – The unmaking of sensual craving and attachment can lead to the cessation of suffering. Dispassion is when we are no longer attached to these cravings. This dispassion is achieved through Nirvana.
- Marga, Leading to the Cessation of Suffering – There is a path to the end of suffering – the Eightfold Path. It is the "middle way" between the two extremes of hedonism and asceticism.
Christianity has many traditions that may be regarded as practices of meditation. While some Christians warn against contemplative meditation, citing its similarities to mysticism and New Age beliefs, most Christians embrace the practice of meditation. Meditation is not an alternative to salvation – which is only achieved through Christ – but it is a means of spiritual worship.
Some examples of meditation practices in Christianity:
- Centering Prayer – quiet time before the formal beginning of worship.
- Lectio Divina – formal Christian meditation whereby priests read scripture slowly and carefully to effectively discern its true meaning.
- St. Ignatius of Loyola – The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola contains many references to spiritual meditation.
- The Rosary - A string of beads of 5 or 15 decades on which prayers are counted & used to focus prayer/devotions.
- Taize Worship - style of worship music that reflects the meditative nature of the community.
The Buddha used meditation in his quest for Enlightenment, and in this chapter we shall explore the Middle Way as he discerned it.
The Noble Eightfold Path is divided into three sections: Wisdom, Ethical Conduct, and Concentration.
The Right View is the beginning to the path to enlightenment. There are those who will say that it is also the end, or the objective of the path. The Right View simply means the ability to see things as they really are – that it, to fully understand the Four Noble Truths. Discerning the Right View means to understand the imperfection of worldly things, and to understand the law of karma.
The law of karma dictates that all of our experiences – past, present, and future – are determined by our actions. Thus, we are held responsible for our own life. We are directly responsible for the pain or joy we bring to our lives and to the lives of others. Religions that incorporate reincarnation also believe that the law of karma extends to past, present, and future lives.
The Right View is not a matter of intelligence, just as wisdom is not a product of intelligence. Rather, the Right View is attained by first accepting that all beings endure suffering and then by fully understanding the true nature of all things.
Since our actions are a direct result of our thoughts, having the Right View will enable us to perform the right actions.
While the Right View pertains to our wisdom and our cognitive thoughts, the Right Intention may be best described as our commitment to self-improvement and self-awareness. A person on the path to enlightenment should resolve to rid themselves of all thoughts, and to stop all actions, that they know do not constitute the Right View of the world.
Having the Right Intention means shunning all worldly things, and making a commitment to live in harmony and peace will all beings.
The Buddha described three types of right intentions: resisting desire, resisting anger, and an intention of harmlessness – to never act cruelly or violently toward anything, and to exercise compassion.
The Ethical Conduct division of the Eightfold Path begins with the Right Speech. The Buddha thought that the Right Speech is the first of three virtues (or ethical conduct) that is necessary for enlightenment. He thought that it was impossible to attain enlightenment without mastering the Right Speech, and he seemed to give it a priority by naming it first in the Ethical Conduct division of the Eightfold Path.
Buddha believed that words could enact wars and sustain peace. He believed that words can make enemies and words can make friends. He discerned the Right Speech to be free from falsehoods, especially deliberate lies, to be free of slander, especially hurtful words meant to inflict harm, and he believed the Right Speech to be free from harsh words and idle chatter or gossip.
The second principle in the Ethical Conduct division of the Eightfold Path deals with actions. Buddha believed that unwholesome actions lead to a disquieted mind, or an unsound state of consciousness.
First and foremost, he believed one should refrain from the taking of any life, human or otherwise, including suicide, and to refrain from doing any harm to others. The Right Action also precludes us from taking what is not ours – from stealing or engaging in any deceitful action. The Right Action also precludes us from engaging in sexual misconduct. All of our relationships should be harmless to other beings.
Engaging in the Right Livelihood means to earn one's living righteously, and that one should earn money only in a legal and wholesome manner. There are certain professions that are not suited for the Eightfold Path and should be avoided, such as: dealing with weapons and objects that can bring about harm to others, dealing in human beings and other living things (such as slavery or prostitution), breeding animals for slaughter, the manufacturing and selling of alcohol or drugs, and the business of toxic products or poison. Any profession that violates the Right Speech or Right View should be avoided.
It has been posited that this is one of the most important steps on the Middle Way. A lack of effort, or the wrong amount of effort, will prevent one from attaining enlightenment, and a misguided effort will make all other actions in vain. Our thoughts and our energy can either be directed toward good or evil. The same desire that propels us to be selfless can also propel us into selfishness. Buddha ranked the four main objectives of Right Effort in ascending order:
- to prevent the occurrence of unwholesome states,
- to abandon unwholesome states that have already occurred,
- to enact unwholesome states that have not yet occurred,
- to maintain wholesome states that currently exist.
Having the Right Mindfulness is the ability of seeing things as they really are – the removing of all masks and deception. It is about being aware and having clear consciousness. We should be ever mindful of the environment and how it affects our mind and body.
The Buddha described Right Mindfulness as follows:
1. Focus on the body
2. Focus on feelings
3. Focus on the mind
4. Focus on mental qualities
Whereas most people notice their thoughts and their surrounding with a minimal level of attention, having the Right Mindfulness means to be present in the moment – having an alert, open, and receptive mind.
The practice of Samadhi, as we have learned, is putting our attention on an object until one reaches the state of full concentration. We practice this especially though our Mindfulness of Breathing exercises. This is a state where all of our mental capacities are unified, calm, and directed onto one object. Right Concentration emphasizes wholesome concentration – a concentration that reflects all of the Ethical Conduct of the Eightfold Path.
The Buddhists' method of achieving the Right Concentration is through meditation. When we meditate, we focus our attention on an object by diverting our attention from outside distractions. We work to maintain this focus during our meditation, and finally, we intensify this effort until we have achieved a sense of deep, calm concentration.
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