In working out how the spiritual technology of the ancients can be integrated with contemporary cultures and ways of living, it is instructive to compare our epoch, the turn of the 21st century, with the period during which the Buddha lived in India. It was an era of great ferment in politics, religion, and social life. Republican forms of government were giving way to feudalism; time-honored barriers between classes and tribes were becoming permeable; new conceptions of the spiritual life were taking shape.
The crucible for many of the most important intellectual developments of the period was the milieu of the śramanā (literally, “seekers”), a dropout subculture on the fringes of Indian society. Within that informal community there was no practice too austere, no idea too extreme that it could not be tested. A common body of psychophysical exercises were taken up by Buddhists, Jains, adherents of the nascent neo-Brahmanic synthesis (“Hinduism”), and a great many ascetics whose names and opinions are no longer known to us. All of the (then) new religions of the subcontinent incorporated one or another form of “meditation” and shared much else besides. It is no accident, for instance, that the Buddha taught an eightfold path that overlaps significantly with the eight limbs of classical yoga.
Indeed, there is very little of Buddhism that is either original or unique. What gives the Buddha’s teachings their special power and longevity is the way in which standard features of the spiritual life have been organized around the central vision of dependent origination (paticca-samuppāda), expounded by means of causal analysis, and orientated to the realization of freedom from discomfort. That accomplishment was, we now know, brilliant and revolutionary.
When we are tempted to engage in controversy over whether the practice of “meditation” can be abstracted from the matrix of elements that comprise the Buddha-Dharma, let us recall that Siddhatha Gotama learned to meditate from his teachers, who were not Buddhists. He was an analyzer, and he was a synthesizer as well, as must we be, who live in a time of great diversity and tumult.