Only Meditation?

If you go to just about any of the Buddhist centers in my area one of the first things you will be taught are procedures for meditation. There’s so much emphasis on meditation within Buddhist teaching centers in the US, that you’d think that was primarily what the Buddha taught.

I’ve recently been reading several sutras from Majhima Nikaya. I’m struck by how often the Buddha gives advice and teaching other than meditation, or in addition to meditation.

For instance in a sutra called called The Grade of the Tamed (125) a novice bhikkhu is asked by a prince to explain the Dharma. The bhikkhu does–we are not told what he says–but the prince doesn’t understand the teaching, and that is the end of their meeting.

The bhikkhu decides to visit the Buddha and discuss what happened. Then the Buddha proceeds to explain by way of metaphor and teaching how the bhikkhu could have been more effective. The Buddha then summarizes the path of training for the bhikkhu.

Here’s what struck me in this reading, as well as other sutras—the Buddha often speaks to many, many practices in addition to meditation, in training a bhikkhu. In this instance, the Buddha first talks about precepts as initial training: “Come bhikkhu be virtuous, restrained…be perfect in conduct and resort…train by undertaking the training precepts.”

After this rather tall order is accomplished by the bhikkhu, he is ready for the next stage: “Come, bhikkhu, guard the doors of your sense faculties. On seeing a form with the eye, do not grasp at its signs and features….practice the way of restraint.” And as anyone knows who is familiar with Buddhist sutras knows, this identical advice is given for the other 5 sense faculties. The thing is, meditation is not mentioned as the way to accomplish this practice. The bhikkhu is taught to just do it.

After this the bhikkhu is taught to be moderate in eating, and sleeping. As a consequence, when he is now devoted to wakefulness, he next learns mindfulness: “Come bhikkhu, be possessed of mindfulness and full awareness. Act in full awareness when going forward and returning…when looking ahead and looking away….“ Still no mention of meditation: the mindfulness at this point sounds like it is to be practiced within one’s daily activities, not as seated meditation.

It is not until the bhikkhu possesses this mindfulness that the sutra finally provides instructions for meditation, including the four contemplations: body, feelings, mind and mind objects.

The point I am trying to make is that there are many teachings to Buddhism, in addition to meditation, yet we in the West somehow treat meditation as if it included the entire path. It’s clear to me that many other qualities in addition to meditation are involved in being a sincere student of the Buddhist path. We would be wise to learn and practice these broader teachings.