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History of meditation

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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The practice of meditation is of prehistoric origin, and is found throughout history, especially in religious contexts.

The oldest documented evidence of the practice of meditation are wall arts in the Indian subcontinent from approximately 5,000 to 3,500 BCE, showing people seated in meditative postures with half-closed eyes. Written evidence of any form of meditation was first seen in the Vedas around 1500 BCE. Meditation as a spiritual exercise and religious practice has a long tradition in Hinduism.[3] The Upanishad Hindu texts also discuss meditation as a way to remove ignorance and to acquire knowledge and oneness with the Absolute. In India, the tradition of Guru and Shishya (teacher and disciple) has been around for ages, where students were sent to Gurukuls (schools) mostly in the forests to live and learn under a learned teacher. During this time and for centuries before, all learning and knowledge was passed on by word of mouth. Almost all the Hindu religious books talk of meditation in some form or the other.

Around the 6th to 5th centuries BCE, other forms of meditation developed in Taoist China and Buddhist India. Dhyana in early Buddhism also takes influence on Vedanta by ca. the 4th-century BCE.

The exact origins of Buddhist meditation are subject to debate among scholars. Early written records of the multiple levels and stages of meditation in Buddhism in India are found in the sutras of the Pāli Canon, which dates to 1st century BCE. The Pali Canon records the basic fourfold formula of salvation via the observance of the rules of morality, contemplative concentration, knowledge and liberation, thus placing meditation as a step along the path of salvation. By the time Buddhism was spreading in China, the Vimalakirti Sutra which dates to 100CE included a number of passages on meditation and enlightened wisdom, clearly pointing to Zen.

In the west, by 20 BCE Philo of Alexandria had written on some form of "spiritual exercises" involving attention (prosocial) and concentration[7] and by the 3rd century Plotinus had developed meditative techniques, which however did not attract a following among Christian meditators. Saint Augustine experimented with the methods of Plotinus and failed to achieve ecstasy.

The Silk Road transmission of Buddhism introduced meditation to other oriental countries. Bodhidharma is traditionally considered the transmitter of the concept of Zen to China. However, the first "original school" in East Asia was founded by his contemporary Zhiyi in the 6th century in central China. Zhiyi managed to systematically organize the various teachings that had been imported from India in a way that their relationship with each other made sense.[9] Wonhyo and Uisang promoted Korean Buddhism in the 7th century.

There is evidence that Judaism has inherited meditative practices from its predecessor traditions[citation needed] in Israelite antiquity. For instance, in the Torah, the patriarch Isaac is described as going "lasuach" in the field - a term understood by most commentators as some type of meditative practice (Genesis 24:63).There are indications throughout the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) and ancient rabbinic literature of practices of Jewish meditation.

Middle Ages

With the growth of Japanese Buddhism from the 7th century onwards, meditative practices were brought to and further developed in Japan. The Japanese monk Dosho learned of Zen during his visit to China in 653 and upon his return opened the first meditation hall in Japan, at Nara. Meditative practices continued to arrive in Japan from China and were subjected to modification. When Dōgen returned to Japan from China around 1227, he wrote the instructions for Zazen, or sitting meditation, and conceived of a community of monks primarily focused on Zazen.

Early practices of Jewish meditation grew and changed by the Middle Ages. Jewish meditation practices that developed included meditative approaches to prayer, mitzvot and study. Some forms of meditation involved Kabbalistic practices, and some involved approaches of Jewish philosophy.

Sufi view or Islamic mysticism involves meditative practices. Remembrance of God in Islam, which is known by the concept Dhikr is interpreted in different meditative techniques in Sufism or Islamic mysticism.This became one of the essential elements of Sufism as it was systematized in the 11th and 12th centuries. It is juxtaposed with fikr (thinking) which leads to knowledge. By the 12th century, the practice of Sufism included specific meditative techniques, and its followers practiced breathing controls and the repetition of holy words.

Eastern Christian meditation can involve the repetition of a phrase in a specific physical posture, and can be traced back to the Byzantine period. Between the 10th and 14th centuries, hesychasm was developed, particularly on Mount Athos in Greece, and continues to the present. It involves the repetition of the Jesus prayer. It is possible that there were interactions between Hesychasts and the Indians or the Sufis, but this can not be proven.

Western Christian meditation contrasts with most other approaches in that it does not involve the repetition of any phrase or action and requires no specific posture. Western Christian meditation progressed from the 6th century practice of Bible reading among Benedictine monks called Lectio Divina, i.e. divine reading. Its four formal steps as a "ladder" were defined by the monk Guigo II in the 12th century with the Latin terms lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio (i.e. read, ponder, pray, contemplate). Western Christian meditation was further developed by saints such as Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila in the 16th century.

Modern dissemination in the West

By the 18th century, the study of Buddhism in the West was a topic for intellectuals. The philosopher Schopenhauer discussed it,[26] and Voltaire asked for toleration towards Buddhists. There was also some influence[clarification needed] from the Enlightenment through the Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot (1713–1784), although he states, "I find that a meditation practitioner is often quite useless and that a contemplation practitioner is always insane". Meditation has spread in the West since the late 19th century, accompanying increased travel and communication among cultures worldwide. Most prominent has been the transmission of Asian-derived practices to the West. In addition, interest in some Western-based meditative practices has been revived, and these have been disseminated to a limited extent to Asian countries.

Ideas about Eastern meditation had begun "seeping into American popular culture even before the American Revolution through the various sects of European occult Christianity",:3 and such ideas "came pouring in [to America] during the era of the transcendentalists, especially between the 1840s and the 1880s.":3 The following decades saw further spread of these ideas to America:

The World Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in 1893, was the landmark event that increased Western awareness of meditation. This was the first time that Western audiences on American soil received Asian spiritual teachings from Asians themselves. Thereafter, Swami Vivekananda... [founded] various Vedanta ashrams... Anagarika Dharmapala lectured at Harvard on Theravada Buddhist meditation in 1904; Abdul Baha ... [toured] the US teaching the principles of Bahai, and Soyen Shaku toured in 1907 teaching Zen...4

New schools of yoga developed in Hindu revivalism from the 1890s. Some of these schools were introduced to the West, by Vivekananda and later gurus. The first English translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead was published in 1927.

More recently, in the 1960s, another surge in Western interest in meditative practices began. Observers have suggested many types of explanations for this interest in Eastern meditation and revived Western contemplation. Thomas Keating, a founder of Contemplative Outreach, wrote that "the rush to the East is a symptom of what is lacking in the West. There is a deep spiritual hunger that is not being satisfied in the West.":31 Daniel Goleman, a scholar of meditation, suggested that the shift in interest from "established religions" to meditative practices "is caused by the scarcity of the personal experience of these [meditation-derived] transcendental states – the living spirit at the common core of all religions." :xxiv Another suggested contributing factor is the rise of communist political power in Asia, which "set the stage for an influx of Asian spiritual teachers to the West",:7 oftentimes as refugees.[35]

In addition to spiritual forms of meditation, secular forms of meditation have taken root. These were introduced in India in the 1950s as a modern form of Hindu meditative techniques, arrived in Australia in the late 1950s[36] and the United States and Europe in the 1960s. Rather than focusing on spiritual growth, secular meditation emphasizes stress reduction, relaxation and self-improvement. Other schools of yoga were designed as secularized variants of yoga traditions for use by non-Hindus, e.g. the system of Transcendental Meditation popular in the 1960s, and numerous forms of Hatha Yoga derived from the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga school, which became known simply as "Yoga" in western terminology.[citation needed]

Both spiritual and secular forms of meditation have been subjects of scientific analyses. Research on meditation began in 1931, with scientific research increasing dramatically during the 1970s and 1980s. Since the beginning of the '70s more than a thousand studies of meditation in English have been reported.[39] However, after 60 years of scientific study, the exact mechanism at work in meditation remains unclear.[40]

From the 1950s through the first part of the twenty-first century, the 'Jubu' (Jewish Buddhist) tradition has been a significant influence on meditation thinking in the West.