Sunday, February 26, 2012

Buddhist Meditation / Edward Conze -- N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1969

Meditation plays a central role in Buddhism. Discussions of the techniques and benefits of meditation appear throughout the canonical literature. Its most important appearance occurs in the Satipatthanasutta (the Sutra on the Applications of Mindfulness), but according to Edward Conze, its best exposition comes in the a post-canonical work by the eminent Theravada philosopher Buddhaghosa, entitled the Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purity). So it should come as no surprise that Conze's selection of passages on meditation which make up his 1956 book Buddhist Meditation would come mostly from the Visuddhimagga. Selections from other texts are included, though; namely, from the Bodhicaryavatara, the Papancasudani, the Buddhacarita, the Sadhanamala, the Abhidharmakosha, and the Dhammasangani.

Conze understands Buddhist meditation to be built on three concepts: mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. Mindfulness serves as the basis for meditation. One must first cultivate a keen of one's internal states and the external world. From this one begins to develop and ability to calm one's emotional and mental states and develop insights in to the processes that compose the world. Emotional and mental calm then develops into an ecstatic trance and an objectless inwardness. This is achieved by heightening ones powers of concentration on fewer and fewer objects of thought until one becomes single-minded. Without the contrast of different ideas, single-mindedness becomes objectless. In parallel to the internal exercise of concentration, mindfulness of the external world reveals that all objects (dharmas) have a fleeting, ephemeral existence and that they are ever-changing arrangements of properties (events or processes and not stable material objects). Ultimately, a true understanding of the dharmas leads one to the understanding that the world is an insubstantial emptiness.

When one is able to follow this path during meditation sessions, one strengthens one's disposition of non-attachment. One is also better able to promote this disposition during times when one is not meditating and thereby, become more free of the concerns and tribulations that routinely afflict us.

Conze's Buddhist Meditation is a most valuable compilation of the best expositions of meditation to be found in classical Buddhist literature. His translation is clear and informative. He also provides a valuable introductory essay to the work.

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