The purpose of Buddhist meditation practice is to end samsara. Samsara is the state of being governed by the causes of suffering and varies from extreme levels of suffering to temporary experiences of happiness. In fact, while caught in samsara we can move through extreme pain or mental anguish with brief occasions of perceived happiness. At other times we may fluctuate between slightly unpleasant experieces to moderately pleasant.
While temporary experiences of happiness can be pleasant, they are only a respite from moderate or more extreme forms of suffering. Samsara is to cycle through states of suffering and happiness while governed by the causes of suffering. How are our experiences of happiness governed by the causes of suffering? Because the happiness is temporary. Accordingly, that temporary relief from suffering brings more anguish when the respite ends.
What causes the cycle of suffering existence?
At its root, the cause of samsara, and thus suffering, is ignorance. This term describes ignoring reality. We ignore and deny what is true and hold the false to be true. Thus with ignorance we come to think the non-existent exists and the existent does not exist. For example, ignorance imagines that the object of our attachment will bring us happiness. In similar fashion ignorance imagines that you must defeat the object of your anger. Altogether, ignorance creates this sad and non-existent fantasy-land of samsara.
Because ignorance distorts our view of everything, it gives rise to non-virtues such as attachment, anger, jealousy, fear, anxiety and doubt. These give rise to negative actions, or negative karma. As we discussed in this article, karma propels the wheel of suffering, or samsara.
This wheel of samsara turns in endless change. Accordingly we can be up one minute and down the next. We smile and dance for a year and then go into the foetal position for ten. Over lifetimes we may have a god-like existence some lives, but complete misery in others. In any event we are never free and always propelled by karma.
How Buddhist meditation ends samsara
To stop karma, we must subdue non-virtue and become free of anger and attachment. In order to do this, we must overcome ignorance. Ignorance is the hub around which the whole of samsara turns.
Ignorance is very difficult to overcome. In order to overcome it, we must come to realise ultimate and conventional truths. In fact, few even know these two truths. So first we need to study them and gain an intellectual understanding. From there we can gain an experiential understanding. We do this through Buddhist meditation practice.
But to even approach these understandings one must at least have overcome ignorance of causality. In other words, we need to understand the cause and effect of karma. To understand karma requires a coherent theory of consciousness. Although consciousness remains the “difficult question” in science it is important that we common folk learn about it. This is because without understanding consciousness we are in no position to realise its continuity as we explained in this article. We thus have no way of recognising that life beyond death exists. That level of ignorance is disastrous for the way we live our life.
Life or lifetimes
Why is this type of ignorance such a disaster? Because not knowing about karma means we do not recognise the full consequences of our actions. After all, our karma creates our future and with the continuity of consciousness it creates our future lifetimes. Likewise, this present life and our circumstances now, good or bad, are a result of our karma from previous lives.
Without that continuity and causality there is no way of making sense of life and we will make disastrous mistakes the like of supporting euthanasia as discussed here.
Professor Robert Thurman in his wonderful book, Infinite Life, gave an example to illustrate the problem. It shows what lacking an understanding of the continuity of consciousness entails. This atheist, materialist view is that only this life exists because it is all we can see. There is nothing more from their point of view. Professor Thurman illustrates this view as follows.
Imagine waking up to find yourself in a railway carriage going nowhere. You do not know how you got there. As far as you know this is all there is.
You find people around with whom you interact. There are things to do. Now and then new people appear. But over time you notice yourself getting older. Then you notice the ancient people around you disappear leaving a body collapsed on the floor. As a result others drop these bodies under the train carriage out of sight.
So you dream up a theory that your life is lived here in this one stationary train carriage. At the end of life you will disappear into a never-ending nothingness and your old body dropped under the carriage.
Death comes. Next thing you awake in a stationary carriage with no idea how you got there. There are people around you…….Rinse and repeat ad infinitum.
More than one life
Professor Thurman then goes on to contrast this with the way your train experience would be in light of the Buddhist view of karma and reincarnation.
You step off the railway platform into a train which then moves in the direction you wish to go. In this case you had a choice of trains and pick the one going to a destination you like. In due time you arrive at your destination, you get off the train and do what you aimed to do. Perhaps you take other train journeys or do something different.
The two scenarios are poles apart. In the first you don’t know how you got to be where you are. In this example you are not going anywhere. At the end of your time there is nothing. Again and again!
In the second scenario you know how you got there. Further, you know where you want to go. By understanding how to get there and what to expect you know it is well worth the going.
So one is life without purpose while without a clue. Due to understanding, the other is life with purpose.
Thus, the myopic view is of a carriage that never moves. It seems to begin from nothing and end in nothing, all the while going nowhere, and leaving you nothing more purposeful to do than try to amuse yourself.
By contrast a more panoramic view is to know where you came from, where you want to go, and how you will get there. Accordingly, for you there is somewhere worth the going.
Today people appear satisfied with the first view. It is the classic materialist, nihilist view, a perspective entrenched in the realm of ignorance. Even more, it is a complete fabrication – ignorance-based samsara on endless repeat while maintaining the ‘nothing thereafter’ delusion.
How Buddhist meditation gets you somewhere
Buddhist meditation starts with the second view. In this case the goal of life is to end suffering by ending the cause of suffering. This is the train you want to ride. The aim is to become free from samsara forever. Consequently you take your journey confident you will get there. It is this understanding which powers Buddhist meditation.
So here are the alternatives. Engage in meditation from the point of view of ignorance. Thus you will have your meditation practice perpetuate samsara. Conversely, engage in Buddhist meditation practice and end samsara forever.
With the first option the best you can hope for is occasional temporary respite from extreme suffering. An example is a sense of relaxation you might gain from a meditation session. Once again in the bustle of a busy work environment stress comes back. Although you are better for the meditation session, it only lasts for a while.
The benefits touted by the new age mindfulness movement are there. You can lower your blood pressure, relax more, sleep better and focus. But these are just minor fluctuations in your level of suffering. They are tiny blips in samsara.
But so long as we have an innate conditioning by ignorance the real problem, samsara, continues. As a result we remain victims of karma. If we have a philosophy entrenched in ignorance, the same occurs. But, by ending ignorance we end samsara once and forever. We become free, free from karma, non-virtue and ignorance. That freedom is bliss constant and unending. It is an ineffable peace. You achieve the aim of Buddhist meditation. (You will also have fixed your blood pressure, by the way, without even needing to give it a thought!)
Study and meditation
I am sometimes asked how meditation can help education in our schools and colleges. But I find it more interesting to examine how education can help meditation.
Learning meditation and mindfulness may help you gain an education that reinforces ignorance and so perpetuates samsara. Another education leads to understanding ignorance and the means to overcome it. You learn how to realise ultimate and conventional truths so that your meditation ends samsara forever. Study is essential for Buddhist meditation.
Tibetans describe the person who meditates without study as like an armless rock climber or a traveller without eyes. But with a wisdom that arises from well directed study you have all the tools to achieve your end.
Ultimate and conventional truth
This article is lacking in two very important points. What is ultimate truth? What is conventional truth? These are deep subjects and need extensive study.
To understand them requires a course in Buddhist meditation and philosophy. That is a commitment to be sure. But ending samsara forever is a wonderful attainment not amenable to just adding water and microwaving.
If you understand the benefits, a comprehensive Buddhist meditation course is nothing. Otherwise, explaining the two truths is pointless. To merely give a quick summary is like learning one simple mindfulness method. To then imagine you understand mindfulness and meditation is just another form of delusion. It is like thinking you can understand the nature of being, the nature of consciousness and form, ultimate and conventional truth, without a strong course of study and guided practice.