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Buddhism and the Purpose of Buddhist Meditation

By Bhikkhu T. Seelananda
( Abbot and Dhamma Advisor, Samatha-Vipassana Meditation Centre, Edmonton, Canada)

Buddhism is not a theistic religion like Hinduism, Catholicism, Christianity,
Judaism or Islam. It is a humanistic or more meaningfully a realistic religion, which is
based on humankind. Buddhism emerged more than 2600 years ago in India towards the
end of the Upanishad period. During that time, there had been many other religious
currents such as polytheism, Monism, Eternalism, and Nihilism. According to the
Brahmajala Sutta of the Digha Nikaya, there were 62 kinds of “isms” or religious
currents at the time of the emergence of Buddhism. In the same source, it is said that
there were six senior contemporaries of the Buddha who subscribed to very different
teachings. All those teachings at that time could be categorized into two major groups,
namely eternalism and nihilism. The Buddha avoided all kinds of ‘isms’ and taught the
Dhamma following the Middle Path, which is popularly known as the “Eight-fold Path”
that leads to the cessation of suffering or dissatisfaction.

Prince Siddhartha, the aspirant Buddha (Bodhisatta), was born on the full moon
day of Vesak (May). It is true that some wonderful and marvelous things happened with
the birth of Siddhartha. However, as he was born like any other human being, he was
neither a creator nor the messenger of a super human power. The main difference of this
aspirant was that he was a contemplative prince. Since he had been practicing
mindfulness from his previous lives, he had the power of being mindful and wise in
daily activities. Though he lived in a palace, he contemplated upon many things and as a
result understood the nature of all things animate and inanimate.

Seeking after skillfulness

Though he had every comfort to lead a luxurious life at the palace, day-by-day, he
became disenchanted from things and eventually renounced the worldly life as an early
morning drop of saliva to be spit out. It was at the prime age of 29 that he became an
ascetic and went from place to place seeking after the meaning of what skill is (kim
kusala savesi). He approached different teachers such as Alara Kalama and Uddaka
Ramaputta. They taught him different ways of developing Jhana (ecstasies). Alara
Kalama taught him how to develop mind up to the state of nothingness, while the latter
taught the way to practice and attain the mental state of neither perception- nor- non-
perception. However, after this practice, he realized that it was not the end of craving or
the end of Samsara, the cycle of births and deaths.

Thus, since he was not completely satisfied with their teachings, he went away. Then he
happened to meet some other practitioners and they advised him to start practicing
severe austerities. For instance, he practiced breathless meditation. He clenched his teeth
and pressed his tongue against the roof of his mouth and strove to crush the mind with
mind. Then sweat began to run from his armpits. On a later occasion, he said that tireless
energy was aroused in him and unremitting mindfulness was established. Sometimes, he

felt as if his belly was cut open with a knife and his head was being split with a sharp
sword wielded by a strong man. During this time, he did not take food or drink for days.
Eventually, he became exhausted, looking like a skeleton. The Buddha said, “Because
of eating so little, my belly skin adhered to my backbone; if I touched my belly skin
I encountered my backbone and if I touched my backbone I encountered my belly
skin”. Sometimes, he fell down becoming unconscious. Seeing him some people and
deities said “Alas! Recluse Gotama is finished”. Finally, he himself recalled his past
and understood how he practiced mindfulness of breathing in his early days while he
was sitting under the cool shade of a rose apple-tree when his father was plowing in the
fields. So having understood the significance of practicing ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ as
the meditation and the ‘Middle Path’ as the path to follow, he had enough food and drink
and regained strength.

Attainment of Enlightenment

One fine day, he went to the bank of river Neranjara at the place called Gaya
where a lady named Sujata offered him some milk-rice. After having taken a bath, the
recluse Siddhartha ate the milk-rice and crossed the river. Seeing a shady tree he
proceeded to the root of the tree and with a firm determination not to arise from the seat
without the attainment of Enlightenment, he sat cross-legged under the tree and started
to practice mindfulness of breathing.

While he was contemplating on in-breath as in breath, and out-breath as out breath, his
mind became pure, bright, and unblemished; rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy,
steady, and attained imperturbability. Then he directed his mind to recollect his past
lives. So it was in this manner, he gained different types of knowledge, perfect insight
and wisdom. Eventually, the recluse Siddhartha became the Buddha, the Self Awakened
One in the world.

The Dhamma he re-discovered

The Dhamma, the teaching he rediscovered and revealed on that ‘Thrice Sacred
Day of Vesak’, is contained in the ‘37 Factors of Enlightenment’. The Buddha never
taught the Dhamma for Buddhists nor did he ever discover a religion called Buddhism.
His teaching is common to all humans in the world. He discovered a realistic teaching
for all beings. The central concept of his teaching is ‘The Four Noble Truths’. The four
noble truths are based on suffering or un-satisfactoriness of life and the world. They are
interdependent as well as impermanent. So ‘the four noble truths’, ‘the dependent
origination’, and ‘the three characteristics of existence’ are the three main principles
of the teaching of the Buddha. At the same time, it should be mentioned here that
‘mindfulness’ is the key word in the teaching of the Buddha. He who has fully
developed mindfulness, has fully developed wisdom and insight, is in the presence of

Today, there are several branches of Buddhism in the world such as Theravada,
Mahayana, Vajrayana, Tantrayana and Zen, etc. All these are later factions, later

divisions; in other words, the sectarianism in Buddhism. The Buddha never introduced
these ‘so-called sects’ in Buddhism. Even the term ‘Buddhism’ is a coinage of the
West. Buddhism is not an ‘ism’ like Monism, Catholicism or Hinduism. Buddhism is ‘a
way of life’ that can be applied to our daily lives. The application of mindfulness in
daily activities is the application of Buddhism in life. For this purpose we need to
understand and practice meditation. That includes both serenity and insight (Samatha
and Vipassana).

So Buddhism means the teachings of the Buddha. In reference to his teachings, the
Buddha once said, “Monks, the Dhamma which I have discovered and revealed
should be thoroughly learnt by you, practiced and realized by you, for the benefit
and happiness of many, for the welfare of multitudes of gods and men. What are
those Dhamma? ‘The four establishments of mindfulness’, ‘the four right efforts’,
‘the four roads to power’, ‘the five spiritual faculties’, ‘the five mental powers’,
‘the seven factors of Enlightenment’, and ‘the eightfold path’ ”.

Now, this is clear to all of us what the Buddha really taught as his teaching, which is
today known as Buddhism. Therefore, let us now strive to understand these factors,
which are commonly known as ‘the 37 factors of Enlightenment’. Whatever the
teaching is in Buddhist books, all are based on these 37 factors of Enlightenment.
Therefore, those who know these ‘37 factors’ know Buddhism well.

Let us now take the 37 factors for our study. The first thing that the Buddha mentioned
was ‘the four establishments of mindfulness’. This is the most significant factor in
Buddhism because the Buddha himself said, "Monks, this is the path to purification
of beings for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of
pain and grief; for the reaching of the Path and fruition, for the attainment of
Nibbana, namely the four establishments of mindfulness"

1. The four establishment of mindfulness:

i. Contemplation of body as body

ii. Contemplation of feelings as feelings
iii. Contemplation of consciousness as consciousness and
iv. Contemplation of mental objects as mental objects.

2. Four right efforts:

i. One has to make effort to avoid unwholesome thoughts, which have
arisen in mind,
ii. One has to make effort to overcome the unwholesome thoughts, which
are there in one’s mind

iii. One has to develop wholesome thoughts which are already there in the

iv. One has to maintain wholesome thoughts, which are there in one’s


3. Four roads to power:

i. intention
ii. consciousness
iii. energy and
iv. investigation.

4. Five spiritual faculties:

i. confidence,
ii. energy
iii. mindfulness
iv. concentration and
v. wisdom

5. Five mental powers:

i. confidence
ii. energy
iii. mindfulness
iv. concentration and
v. wisdom

6. Seven factors of enlightenment:

i. Mindfulness
ii. Investigation of the Dhamma
iii. Energy
iv. Rapture
v. Tranquility
vi. Concentration
vii. Equanimity

7.Eightfold Path: i. Right understanding

ii. Right intention
iii. Right speech
iv. Right action
v . Right livelihood
vi. Right effort
vii. Right mindfulness and
viii. Right concentration.

All these 37 factors can again be categorized into 3 factors namely: ‘The Four Noble
Truths’, ‘The Dependent Origination’ and ‘the Three Characteristics of Existence’, as a
triangle. That is “The Dhamma Triangle”. The middle of the triangle, the nucleus, is
mindfulness, which is the most significant factor in Buddhism. That is Buddhist

Buddhist Meditation

Buddhist meditation has two stages:

1. Concentration (Samatha)
2. Insight (Vipassana)

The Buddha taught both of these in the Great Discourse of the Foundations of
Mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutta) as well as in many other discourses for reaching the
path and the attainment of Enlightenment.

The purpose of Buddhist meditation is different from most of other meditation systems,
such as those which have been introduced to the Western market today. We can see many
varieties of meditation in the Western spiritual market. All these have been directly or
indirectly imported from the East. The real purpose of Buddhist meditation is not
worldly pleasures or worldly gains but the attainment of enlightenment. However, we
can say that there are two purposes of Buddhist meditation.

1. Leading a contented and peaceful life (Living without attachment

or revulsion).

2. The attainment of Enlightenment here and now in this world.

Buddhism deals with the universal malady of un-satisfactoriness and then it shows the
remedy for it. The Buddhas are born to fulfill these two purposes. Therefore, as humans,
let us all understand the significance of this great teaching of the Buddha, the greatest
man ever born, and the method through which he gained super-human knowledge and
wisdom. This is Buddhist meditation, which completely eradicates the un-
satisfactoriness woven over and over inside and outside of man and all other beings in
the world.

May we all realize real peace, real happiness, Nibbana!