Meditation in the time of the Buddha

- through Francois Leclercq

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Meditation, in very varied forms and modalities, occupied a place of choice in Indian religious circles at the time of the Buddha.

Some very ancient sources report, without much detail, that the future Buddha had his first experience of meditation as an adult, shortly before leaving his father's palace, on the fundamental themes of old age, illness and death. These sources ignore the Four Encounters, so we can assume that this meditation is the factor that launches the prince in his quest.

However, the vast majority of the texts place the very first experience of meditation in the childhood of Prince Siddhartha, sometimes providing minor variations on the circumstances in which it takes place and the external events that punctuate it. The anecdote is often set in the very formal context of Royal Labour, a rite during which the sovereign symbolically opens the agricultural season by tracing the first furrow in a specifically designated field. This ceremony is still celebrated today in the Buddhist monarchies of Southeast Asia.

The five ascetics amazed by the meditator

At the time, King Çuddhodana did not shirk his obligations. His son and heir accompanies him to prepare for his future duties. But he is bored. Escaping his entourage, he goes to a tree under which he sits. And he observes. The fatigue of peasants and animals bent under a burning sun; the suffering of the earth opened up by ploughshare; the implacable law of the animal world in which the big devour the little ones without mercy, the frog caught by the snake, which is then crushed by the foot of the man... This show opens the mind of the young boy who then engages in his very first meditation. Some texts report that five ascetics traveling through the air thanks to their magical powers see their race stopped dead by the power of the event that is taking place, and can only resume their journey after having paid homage to the young meditator.

Protected by the shade of the tree, the future Buddha, who is still only a child, apprehends the impermanence of the world in which he then lives.

After a few hours, anxiety seizes the king's entourage. Where did the young prince disappear? Men are sent to find him. And those who finally discover it can only marvel at the miracle that has happened: the shadow of the tree, far from continuing its movement following the path of the sun, has stopped to shelter the child. Whatever the versions, it is the background that is essential: a first opportunity for the future Buddha, who is still only a child, to apprehend the impermanence of the world in which he then lives.

When the ascetic Gautama became a Buddha

But it is later that the decisive meditation intervenes, that which makes the ascetic Çâkyamuni a fully awakened being. He then renounced the excesses of asceticism and opted for the “middle way”. Under the pipe (1), he must first confront Mâra, his demonic troops and the charms of his daughters who try, in vain, to divert him from the goal he has set himself: to understand how sentient beings are retained in the cycle inferno of samsara (2) and how to free oneself from it. Mâra, presented in the texts as the all-powerful master of samsara, anxious to preserve his hold on the world of conditioned phenomena, personifies the delusions that stand in the way of the progress of the future Buddha. But the Bodhisattva triumphs. He then embarks on the final stage of his progress, traversing the four jhana, those refined states of consciousness likely to be experienced through the practice of so-called meditation samatha, or mental calm. He then embraces all of his own previous existences before analyzing the mechanism of births and deaths. At the first light of day, the ascetic Gautama became a Buddha.

The personal experience of the Buddha therefore shows the key role played by meditation, in two forms offered by Buddhism, in the march towards enlightenment. mental calm, Samatha bhavana, aims to appease the continuous flow of thoughts and emotions that agitate the mind, and constitutes, without however being essential, a good preliminary to Vipassanâ bhavdonkey, or insight, which alone leads to the perfect understanding of the Four Noble Truths and to deliverance.

For several decades, in the West as in Asia, lay people have been rediscovering the practice of meditation, which they had long considered the prerogative of religious alone. It is not without difficulty, I experience it, like many: to impose the discipline of a regular daily practice, not to judge oneself on the supposed "quality" of the practice, not to stop at the immediate or near benefits of a certain serenity in everyday life, a better ability to concentrate... To remember that the long-term objective is different

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Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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