What is the purpose of meditation? Have nothing on your mind? Think of something specific? Find a pleasant feeling to hold on to? Be blank and see what comes into your mind? It’s normal to feel lost in all these questions when we’re new to meditation. There is so much information out there that can overwhelm and frustrate us.
I remember asking myself the same questions. I bought a bunch of books on meditation, and each of them had a different perspective and technique. It was so hard to find a common thread of meaning in all of that information overload.
But everything fell into place when I began to study Buddhism. I was able to connect all the dots and understand the goal of meditation and how it fits into its western version.
In this post, I’m going to look at the three aspects of meditation in Buddhism which can help us gain a little bit more clarity about its place, function, and purpose.
The purpose of meditation in the eightfold path
When we think about meditation, we have to go back to the source — Buddhism. When we do that, it becomes clear that the starting point of our investigation is the monk’s training process.
The path of the Buddhist monk is divided into three sections:
– Moral discipline
Each of these sections represents a higher subdivision of the Noble Eightfold Path.
The first one, the training in the higher wisdom, includes right view and right intention.
The second one, the training in the higher moral discipline, includes right speech, right action, and right livelihood.
The third one, the training in the higher mind, includes right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
If we look at the steps, the purpose of meditation in the Noble Eightfold Path becomes clear. It’s to develop steps seven and eight: right mindfulness and right concentration.
The purpose of meditation in the establishment of mindfulness
Step seven (right mindfulness) shows us meditation is inseparable from mindfulness. So how are the two connected? And how exactly can meditation help us establish and maintain mindfulness?
As you know, there are a lot of meditation techniques, so I’ll start with the most popular one — breathing meditation.
The Pali word for breathing meditation is anapanasati. It can be translated as mindfulness (sati) of breathing (anapana)
There is an ancient Buddhist scripture called Satipatthana Sutta — The Discourse on the Establishment (upatthana) of Mindfulness (sati).
This text is generally considered to be one of the most comprehensive instructions on meditation. It’s divided into four major sections, which correspond to the four objective domains:
– contemplation of the body
– contemplation of feelings
– contemplation of mind
– contemplation of dhammas (phenomena)
The first objective domain, contemplation of the body, comprises 14 meditation subjects. Mindfulness of breathing is the first one. It’s aimed at calming the mind and moving the meditator to a subtler level of stillness.
As we can see, the purpose of breathing meditation in establishing mindfulness is mastering the first objective domain — contemplation of the body.
The purpose of meditation on the path to Nibbana
The four objective domains of the Satipatthana Sutta imply a progressive sequence in reaching the final goal.
In mindfulness of breathing, we calm our body. In contemplation of feelings, we move toward non-physical feelings that are neither pleasant nor painful. In contemplation of mind, we move toward liberated and concentrated states.
So the first three domains help us reach concentration (samadhi), which is the aim of serenity meditation (samatha meditation).
The fourth domain, contemplation of phenomena, is the subject of insight meditation (vipassana meditation). It’s aimed at developing wisdom (panna).
Insight meditation starts by observing and overcoming the five hindrances. After overcoming the hindrances, we begin to contemplate five aggregates and the six sense bases. This is followed by the contemplation of the seven factors of enlightenment and culminates in the true knowledge of the Four Noble Truths.
Knowledge of the Four Noble Truths liberates the mind from the defilements and leads to the realization of Nibbana.