Customs and Rituals
Is meditation important for Buddhists?
Buddhist tradition has refined a number of meditative practices. Two important aspects taught by an ancient Theravada fifth-century authority named Buddhaghosa are called “dwelling in tranquility” (shamatha) and “insight” (vipashyana/vipassana). In order to catch the “fish” of intuitive knowledge, one has first to get to the calm, clear lake. Attaining a measure of tranquility is a process of disciplined concentration in which the meditator gradually withdraws from sensory input through nineteen successive stages of attentiveness and reflection. Insight meditation involves the discipline of observing sensory input with perfect mind-fulness in order to arrive at genuine wisdom. Traditional explanations typically recommend shamatha before vipashyana, but they go together and the process may actually be circular—tranquility leading to insight leading to deeper tranquility. Buddhaghosa suggests forty objects for contemplation to eliminate distraction and lead to contemplative states. Each person is characterized by tendencies to one of the three “qualities” of lust, hatred, and delusion, and must focus on counteracting that major cause of distraction.
To transform lust into faith, first meditate on physical impermanence and then on the virtues of the Buddha. Transform hatred into understanding by meditating first on love, compassion, and joy, and proceed to an awareness of mortality and physical dissolution. Turn delusion to deliberation by focusing on breathing as a means to calming.
As for the achievement of Insight, Buddhaghosa recommends the “Seven Purities.” Here the meditator focuses on the purity of virtue, of mind, of belief, of overcoming doubt, of the knowledge of right and wrong action, of insight into spiritual progress, and of knowledge and insight themselves. Mahayana tradition adapted Buddhaghosa’s classical methods to its teaching about the Bodhisattva’s saving role. Each dedicated seeker progresses spiritually by meditating on the “Ten Stages” of the Bodhisattva career. This is the steepest of paths, beginning with the accumulation of merit and knowledge and proceeding through multiple levels of meditative discipline.