The Buddha’s understanding of how things unfold in this world was keen, comprehensive, and most persuasive, and his explication of that understanding throughout the discourses has a coherence and logical consistency that’s unique among the world’s spiritual traditions. But the Buddha was not a philosopher or a psychologist. The term that’s very frequently used in the canonical texts to define his role is “healer” or “physician”. The Buddha’s doctrine is not simply an explanation of how things are but a diagnosis of how events emerge in the world, an analysis of what creates the anxiety, dissatisfaction, suffering that we experience in dealing with those events, and a prescription for a path of practice that will ameliorate or even end that experience of suffering.
To be a Buddhist is not to “believe in” Buddhist doctrine, but to practice the Buddhadhamma, the Path that the Buddha defined, the end of which is the end of suffering.
Throughout the discourses, the Buddha gave quite detailed instructions regarding that path, and how to follow it. The most comprehensive teaching regarding the meditative practice that he prescribed is the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. In that discourse, the Buddha covers one type of meditative practice, the practice of “mindfulness”, sati in Pali; he describes a series of steps whereby a bhikkhu (or, presumably, anyone who undertakes the recommended discipline) attains to a state of steady mindfulness, so that nothing is done carelessly—no action is performed, no words uttered, no opinion formed, no feeling or perception experienced, no ideas conceived, without paying due regard to what is emerging and the ethical implications of every intentional action. Establishing such steady mindfulness of one’s situation, the diligent meditator can end the attachments that trap him in that situation minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, birth after birth. Even today, the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is the foundational text that guides the meditation of practitioners in nearly all Buddhist traditions.
The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is a long discourse, and I’ve prepared a prècis of that discourse for our discussion on Thursday. That text contains a number of references to alternative translations of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, on the web and in printed books.
Concerning meditation more generally, there are a number of audio talks by Stephen Batchelor accessible through the Dharma Seed website; in one of those, the first of eight fine lectures on the life and times of the Buddha that he delivered in the course of a 2004 meditation retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, he discusses the many different meanings of the term “meditation”. What the Buddha’s followers practiced, when they practiced one of the several disciplines that we subsume under that one term, was not what we think of when we think of meditation as a complete stilling of the mind, a state of indiscriminate bliss. Batchelor makes the case that the kind of practice recommended by the Buddha was a more energetic process, with a strong intellectual component, resulting in the attainment of a state of unforced, instinctive wisdom. His talk is very much worth listening to.