Before a person can decide what kind of meditation is best for her, she must have at least a rough idea of what kinds of meditation there are and how they differ from one another. Such knowledge is not easy to acquire, given the semi-secret nature of many contemplative lineages, the unfamiliar cultural matrix in which teachings on meditation are often imbedded, and the lack of adequate terminology for talking about mental states and processes. On top of that, personal accounts of the varieties of contemplative experience are notoriously idiosyncratic.
How, then, can we get our bearings in this strange land? Let us begin by looking at how one religious tradition, Buddhism, classifies the many contemplative exercises that are gathered under its capacious roof. My personal engagement with Buddhist theory and practice, over a span of forty years, allows me to say with some confidence that I am minimally qualified to talk about the matter. Yet the cultural edifice of Buddhism, built up over more than 2500 years, is so vast that no one can claim to be well acquainted with its every part. That in itself is a reason to exercise caution in the development of a method for discerning and describing the elements common to the various kinds, and the family groups to which they belong. As always in the case of taxonomically challenging fields of knowledge, the art lies in being just abstract and general enough to take the measure the whole, without diminishing any of the parts.
I will briefly describe a few of the ways in which Buddhists have classified the methods of mental development.
It is crucial to be aware from the outset that all types of Buddhist meditation, whatever their immediate result may be, are subordinate to the goal of attaining release from the discomfort of human existence. There are several ways in which the project of setting oneself free can be described, and we will review them in future entries. In whatever terms we choose to delineate the path, it culminates in a special kind of understanding about the nature of the arising of discomfort. The systematic contemplation of bodily sensations, hedonic tone, dispositions, and cognitive patterns is crucial to the arising of liberating wisdom. The exact details of the process will be discussed as we proceed. For now it is enough to note that the prime requisites of wisdom are tranquility and the insight which comes with a fully developed ability to apply mindfulness and comprehensive awareness. Here we meet with the first classification, namely, the division of methods into those that produce (or are primarily orientated to) calming, and those that produce insight.
As we consider the two types of meditation, i. e., calm-producing and insight-producing, bear in mind that while either of the two goals can be pursued separately, tranquility and insight are mutually supportive. Both deep understanding and unshakable calm are worth striving for in themselves. The goal of our practice is to become free from the domination of the three poisons—desire, aversion and delusion—and from attachment to “I, me and mine,” and insight is crucial for the realization of that freedom. However, the attainment of insight is extremely difficult for a person whose mind is chronically agitated.
Within each of these two fundamental categories, tradition recognizes a number of important distinctions and subtypes. The locus classicus for the enumeration of contemplative methods is a work by the fifth-century CE Sinhalese monk, Buddhaghosa. His Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification) is a compendium of practical advice gleaned from what some scholars believe to be the earliest stratum of Buddhist scriptures. It is a work of astonishing brilliance, and it is rightly regarded as the crown jewel of the Theravada commentarial tradition. Composed a thousand years into the Buddha’s dispensation, it is still an excellent source of basic information.
Under the heading of tranquility-producing exercises, the Visuddhimagga lists 40 objects of contemplation. I will briefly list them below, with explanatory remarks where necessary. Note well that although they are given under the rubric of Calming, some of these exercises may also give rise to insight for those who undertake them in earnest and with and open and enquiring mind.
The first group is made up of ten wholes, or complete things (Pali kasina)—what a present-day psychologist might call gestalten. These are simple, concrete objects, clearly distinguishable from the background and used as the basis for visualization. They are (1) Earth, usually a clay-colored disc; (2) water in a small bowl; (3) fire, the flame of a candle or oil lamp; (4) air or wind, the smoke rising from incense or the movement of clouds, banners, leaves, etc. (5) blue or green, (6) yellow, (7) red, (8) white, all colored discs; (9) enclosed space, a container of any kind; (10) bright light, such as full sunlight upon a wall. The task here is to look at the thing for a while, then close the eyes and attempt to create a mental image of that thing. In the course of gradually refining and strengthening the vividness of the eidetic image or imaginative construct, the mind settles down, thoughts gradually become weaker, and the trainee enters the higher reaches of contemplative absorption (jhāna). A good example of the kasina in Japanese esoteric Buddhism is the contemplation of the lunar disc and A-syllable letter, known to students of mikkyo as gachirin-kan and aji-kan.
Ten repulsive objects are listed as follows: (1) a bloated corpse; (2) a discolored corpse; (3) a festering or oozing corpse; (4) a corpse with cracked flesh; (5) a corpse that has been gnawed by animals; (6) a corpse that had been dismembered; (7) a corpse that has been hacked to pieces and its parts scattered about; (8) a bleeding corpse; (9) a corpse that is full of maggots; (10) a skeleton.
The ten recollections are divided into three groups. The first is recollection of the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The second group comprises recalling the virtues of moral self-restraint and generosity, and contemplating rebirth in the realm of the gods as an incentive to practice in this life. The third group is mindful recollection of the body, of death, of breathing in and out, and of ultimate peace.
Cultivation of the four so-called Abodes of Brahman, i. e., the positive social emotions, constitutes the next group. The Illimitables, as they are also called, are friendliness or loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.
The four formless states—infinite space, infinite consciousness, infinite nothingness, and neither-perception-nor-non-perception—are not so much objects of contemplation as altered states that occur when the trainee’s concentration or absorption intensifies so much that the nominal object dissolves and is forgotten, leaving only a residuum of mental/neural activity.
The perception of food as disgusting is achieved by a method that is a variant of Setting up Mindfullness (or recollection), the Buddha’s core teaching on meditation, which we will examine in the next section. It entails closely attending to the process of eating—lifting and lowering the hand, opening and closing the mouth, moving the tongue, chewing, swallowing—without interruption for the whole of the meal, every meal of every day until your teacher tells you to stop. I was given this exercise as part of my basic training in the forest tradition and I can promise you that if you practice it diligently for a month you will come to feel that eating is more trouble than it’s worth. Still later you will pass beyond that feeling to a state of neutrality with regard to nourishment.
The last of the forty topics is the analysis of the human organism as it exemplifies the first four of the Great Elements, earth, water, fire and wind. This exercise not only increases calm through concentration but also promotes detachment with respect to one’s own body and the bodies of others by drawing attention to the body’s compound and therefore impermanent nature, as well as its repulsive aspects.
So much for the 40 objects of contemplation. The list is handy for reference but tells us almost nothing about how the various objects are used, beyond the belief that the systematic contemplation of any one of them is more likely to yield tranquility than insight.
There is another traditional way to view the field of personal training as a whole. The path of practice has long been divided into three parts, that is, moral development, mental-emotional development and intellectual development, also known as the Three Modes of Training in Conduct, Samādhi and Wisdom. The first is concerned with the discipline of bodily activity, the second with discipline of the will and moods, and the third with discipline of viewpoint and understanding.