Updated: Aug 3, 2022
Dhyana Paramita - Meditation
Dhyana, the 5th paramita, is a Sanskrit word meaning concentration, or, more accurately, the states of absorption brought about through meditative concentration. Dhyana Paramita is most closely associated with Right Concentration on the Noble Eightfold Path.
Siddhartha Gautama, born into extreme wealth, was at his core, dissatisfied and restless. When he saw the world outside his palace gates he was anguished and searched for five years for the answers to end suffering. He finally sat. Legend says he sat and meditated for 45 days under a tree. He sat for two reasons: to gain answers (enlightenment) and to end suffering (dukkha). He succeeded in his quest. Indeed, when asked, he is rumored to say, “I teach only (about) suffering and the end to suffering.”
Meditation is the foundational practice of most forms of Buddhism, and certainly Zen Buddhism. The word Zen literally means meditation, and Zen is the Japanese form of Ch’an which is itself the Chinese form of Dhyana. There are many forms of meditation: Guided meditation, meditation to music or sound, walking meditation, Vipassana meditation, Mindfulness meditation, Mantra Mentation, and Metta Meditation to name just a few. All are valid forms of meditation, but today I’d like to talk about the form of meditation practiced in the Soto Zen Tradition, Zazen.
Upon returning from China in 1227, The patriarch of Soto Zen Buddhism, Eihei Dogen wrote in his essay Fukan-zazengi (Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen), “Therefore we should cease the intellectual work of studying sayings and chasing words. We should learn the backward step of turning light and reflecting. Body and mind will naturally fall away, and the original features will manifest themselves before us.”
This is the heart of the matter with meditation in the Soto Zen tradition. Zazen (translated as, “seated meditation”), is not about gaining anything, doing anything, being anything. It’s just about sitting with whatever comes up. There is no by-passing the cushion. We can’t read ourselves, study ourselves, or intellectualize ourselves into enlightenment. This is an experiential practice. It takes daily encounters with ourselves on the cushion. It’s a gift of time and compassion we give ourselves, to come to know ourselves intimately on the cushion.
The Tibetan word for Dhyana is Samten which means, “stable awareness.” This is our aim for meditation, for Zazen - to be awake, aware, and to be present with what is. This develops stability, and calmness both on and off the cushion.
Many people come to meditation with the idea that they have to “clear the mind” or not think at all. I was one of these people. I’ll never forget my Zen teacher telling me gently that it’s impossible NOT to think. It’s what our brains do. What meditation is about is taking time to come to a place that’s away from our busy day, quiet our minds, and just be.
Meditation Paramita is sandwiched between Diligence Paramita and Wisdom Paramita. This is not a random fluke. It takes diligence to come to the cushion every day. It takes time and practice. Many of us struggle to take that time. We come up with all kinds of stories about why we just can’t sit down. “My pets won’t let me. They climb over me, whine, and cry until I get up.” “My kids won’t let me. They pester me until I pay attention to them.” “I can’t sit in silence.’ “I work all day and I just don’t have time.”
We can and do come up with myriad excuses to get around being alone with ourselves. It’s not easy at first.
I think part of this is culture. We don’t want to wait. We don’t want to be uncomfortable. Being in silence with ourselves is uncomfortable. Many of us turn the TV or music on or talk on the phone or constantly want people around us as a way to avoid being alone. We want peace of mind though, and we want it now. We just want to read something or listen to something, or watch something, or smoke something or drink something that will give us peace. A quick fix to an age-old problem. Minimal work, minimal time, minimal investment (in the Practice and in ourselves).
It doesn’t work that way.
I know it doesn’t because I spent a lot of time trying all of the above and I was still miserable. Many of my students came to me the same way. Anxious, depressed, angry, and trying all the quick fixes. That said, let me be clear that Zazen practice is a way that worked for me, for my students, and many, many others. And it does take patience (3rd paramita), diligence (4th paramita), and some time.
So, you ask; “Where do I start?”
You can start here, with us. Clicking here will bring you to our Welcome Guide. Start there.
Start slowly. Find a quiet place and try just sitting quietly, eyes open and focused on something just ahead of you on the floor. Try five minutes. If that’s too much, cut it back to two, or one. Build your way up to a practice of 20-30 minutes of sitting a day.
Also, and very important, if you are unable to sit on the floor on a cushion, you can practice seated in a chair, or laying down.
Find a group to sit with. We sit via Zoom three times a week. You can find our weekly schedule on our homepage. For links to Zoom, please email me.
Be gentle with yourself. Starting anything new can sometimes seem daunting. Go one step at a time.
Make an appointment with yourself for meditation time at the same time every day. Light a candle, light some incense. Breath in and out through your nose. Robert Aitken, Zen teacher, and author wrote, “If you lower your eyes and breathe quietly in and out, your distractions disappear and (you will find) your long-lost home is right here.”
As we get more consistent with practice, Zazen becomes part of life. It’s just something we do. We find that this humble, quiet, sometimes raw practice of just being has the propensity to change us, for the better, for the rest of our lives.