The practice of meditation is central to the Buddhist path. There are many methods and forms of practice, yet they’re all associated with bhāvanā, a Sanskrit term that can be translated as “mental development,” “cultivation,” “nurturing,” “making become” or “calling into existence.”
Bhāvanā often appears in a compound phrase, signifying the development of a specific mental state or quality: Maitrī- bhāvanā for instance, which is a meditation practice focused on loving-kindness, one of the Four Infinite Minds. On its own, bhāvanā refers to “contemplation” and “spiritual cultivation” in general.
Another Sanskrit term connected to meditation in Buddhism is dhyāna, which relates to “mind training” and involves efforts to lessen sensuality, unwholesome qualities and discursive thought; while developing concentration, absorption, tranquility, equanimity, mindfulness and alertness. Progressively, as mental defilements decrease and insight and awareness grow, sublime states of meditative consciousness can be attained.
Samadhi (Sanskrit), which is single-pointed concentration to the point of complete absorption, is also connected to the practice of meditation. It is one of the Six Perfections that one strives to cultivate, and the mental discipline it demands comprises Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, which are part of the Noble Eightfold Path towards enlightenment and ultimate liberation from suffering.
In the short-term, meditation brings tranquility through the calming of our naturally turbulent minds, which in turn brings mental happiness and peace. Practice that focuses on pacifying the mind is called “calm-abiding” (Sanskrit: śamatha) meditation. As the mind becomes tranquil, it also becomes more lucid, and “insight” (Sanskrit: vipaśyanā) meditation focuses on that. In the long-term, meditation brings full awakening.
While the majority of practices pertain to seated meditation, the goal is to extend “formal practice” into our daily life, so that each moment “post-meditation” is also a part of our spiritual cultivation. And, in fact, Master Cheng Yen views “meditation in everyday life” as the best form of cultivation.
In cultivation, we need to understand what it means to keep our mind in meditation. This doesn’t only mean sitting meditation. Actually, when we sit down and quiet our minds to do meditation, that’s often when the most afflictions and baseless thoughts and feelings come up in the mind. That’s because at that time, we’re disconnected from outer reality. [On the other hand], when we’re working, we’re in direct contact with the environment and we can have genuine encounters with the world around us. But, when meditating, we’re cut off from it, and our mind will conjure up many, many things.
When the afflictions, fantasies, illusions, and delusions keep coming up and fill our mind more and more, how are we to discipline the mind and overcome these afflictions? That can be a very dangerous position to be in. Sometimes, in the effort to tame our mind, the more anxious we are for control, the more we lose a handle on it. Some people have lost their mind this way. You really have to watch out for this. That’s why I encourage you to practice meditation in the midst of everyday life instead. Meditation in everyday life is about training the mind in the midst of normal, daily life activities – in the course of real life and living.
You can achieve this while doing anything. But some people will think, “Is this spiritual practice? This is just doing normal, everyday things.” The truth is: what kind of spiritual practice is there apart from living? Spiritual practice is right here in these normal daily life activities – these are the opportunities for cultivation. Some people don’t realize this, so instead of seeing everything from the perspective of cultivation and developing wisdom-life, their minds are caught up in their disagreements with others and other “people issues.”
Thus, we should recognize that we can meditate in every moment of our lives, and that challenges are but opportunities for mind training and inner purification. Master Cheng Yen presents the work of weeding a vegetable garden as an analogy for spiritual practice and cultivation in everyday life, in that the goal is to remove our inner weeds without destroying the wholesome seeds.
If you don’t know the right method for doing it, you may pull out the grassy part but not all of the roots. Sometimes you accidentally damage the crop you’re supposed to be protecting. Cultivation is like this. We need to continually nurture our good thoughts and nourish our wisdom-life so it can grow. Our afflictions and wrong thoughts are like those weeds, and we need to be diligent in pulling them out. When do we do this? When we’re around other people or working together, that’s our chance to do our weeding.
Every encounter with people or matters is our opportunity to nurture goodness, develop our wholesome thoughts, and eliminate our inner weeds. It’s in the midst of this involvement with people and matters that we nourish our wisdom-life and enable it to grow. And, just as with the vegetable garden, we need to take care of our wholesome thoughts and protect them – they’re the basis of our wisdom-life.
The section in italics consists of material written by the Jing Si Abode English Editorial Team, based on Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s conversations with visitors in Chinese