Buddhist practice in Tendai
Buddhism is practiced in many ways and has many approaches, but meditation is the cornerstone of the entire Buddhist system. Everyone has heard about meditation, and most have an idea of what it means to meditate. These ideas sometimes cause confusion or disagreement as they are rarely consistent. Even when we talk about Buddhist meditation, there is not one limited and well-defined activity we call meditation. When you read the ancient Buddhist texts, called the Suttas, the Buddha doesn’t speak about meditation. He talks about different kinds of training of the mind, but does not put what we would today call meditation into one single category.
Meditation is the practice of the mind. This training can take different forms and have different objectives; therefore it is difficult to make a reasonable description of meditation as such that goes beyond the aforementioned. One can instead describe various forms of meditation (or forms of exercise if you will).
In Tendai Buddhism, Shikan is the meditation form we mainly work with; a meditation that combines concentration and insight meditation.
During Shikan meditation we work through karmic traces, learn to think, speak and act appropriately and with integrity, and come to recognize true nature. Buddhist meditation helps to develop skills that make life easier and happier; when you strengthen your presence and deepen your awareness, life becomes an art form. Shikan meditation is an exercise developed by Chih-i from the T’ien-t’ai school, and is one of the pillars of Tendai training. It is a form of meditation that combines the two classic forms of meditation: Samatha and Vipashyana. Generally Shikan is described as either “stop and see” or “concentration and insight,” and refers to a method where you first calm and focus your mind, and then utilizes this calm and focus to examine true nature. How Shikan meditation is typically taught is a period of samatha to calm the mind which allows the mind to calm down, followed by a period of insight meditation, which can take many different forms, but all benefit from and build on the calm and concentrated mind. Later, we can use the two methods more dynamicly, combining them into one cohesive meditation period.
During long periods of meditation, it can be pleasant to introduce walking meditation as a change to the sitting position. Walking meditation is also an integrated practice itself, for example in the form of kaihogyo (long outdoor walking meditations) or kinhin (walking meditation in the meditation hall).
Esoteric rituals serve several purposes in Buddhist practice. It is a way of expressing the qualities and experiences that would otherwise lie outside the conceptual perception limits – rituals let us reach deeper for an experiential realization of the non-contingent and our Buddha Nature. It also gives us a concrete way to express, and thus work with the emotions that often escapes us. When the esoteric rituals are performed in a group, they help to strengthen the group’s sense of unity and mutual trust because they endow the group with a collective understanding based on shared values and expressions – a common pursuit. Finally, the esoteric rituals combine body, speech and mind, and are thus a useful counterbalance to the very intellectually based practice often seen in western practitioners.
Devotional Practice is not something we are too familiar with in Western culture. Practice Forms like prostrations, chanting and liturgical songs are often regarded as ‘cultural baggage’ and by extension as redundant in the modern cultivation of the Buddhist path. In fact, these practices have been an integral part of Buddhism since it’s very beginning, and with good reason. Devotional Practice helps develop faith, gratitude, concentrated peace, and other positive emotions. They help to set ego aside, harmonizing a community and expressing joy in one’s immediate circumstances – even when they, objectively, are not ideal. Devotional Practice trains the practitioner’s serenity and balance, so you will be able to appreciate your whole life.
Common forms of devotional practices are for example the ritualized social conventions associated with temple life. One thing often comes to mind. Buddhists bow. They bow to the meditation hall, the teacher, the Buddha statues, each other and even their meditation cushions. When you bow it’s partly to show honor and respect, but also to nourish your own mind. One’s unruly ego is tamed a bit every time it is forced to realize that it is not necessarily the center of the world, and you slowly open to accept, to learn. Bowing is also a sign of gratitude, and gratitude is one of the really healthy emotions. When you feel genuine gratitude it is impossible to be angry or upset at the same time. Gratitude begets happiness.
Buddhist work practices
Work practices are one form of very practical devotional practices, which comes from the Chinese Ch’an (Japanese: Zen) schools where they parted with the traditional idea that monks and nuns should not work. When Buddhism first came to China via the Silk Road, the Chinese did not see kindly upon the new religion as it required the ordained to leave their family and home and support themselves solely by begging. The Chinese monk Tao Hsing therefore introduced samu or work meditation as part of the daily training in the Buddhist temples. In today’s Japanese schools this social practice plays an important role and follows the principle of “one day without work is a day without food.”
To sweep the floors, clean the bathrooms, arrange and care for flower beds are all part of the ongoing training of the mind, which takes place during retreats and other forms of long-term training. The work is carried out with a focused and fully present mind. As soon as you realize that your mind reaches for thoughts and feelings, you discredit it gently but firmly and get back to the task. Diligence in relation to a given task – and towards the way it affects the world – is an exercise in being present in the present moment, and an exercise in surrendering; to accept what is, without escaping into constant questions.
The study of Buddhist texts
Of course the Buddha Dharma should be realized directly – an intellectual understanding does not bring freedom from suffering! But to realize the Dharma, it is necessary to have some knowledge of Buddhist ethics, philosophy and methodology, and for this there is a wealth of writings; the Buddha’s actual lectures and speeches, that disciples later further developed, and the deepening of the doctrines, and comments, even up to our time’s many “Buddhologists”. We are the lucky heirs of this 2500-year old rich tradition, where past masters have tried to pass on their knowledge and experience to us, and we can be pleased that an increasingly larger part is made available in Western languages.