What is the biggest misconception about Buddhism? Let all Buddhists meditate

[This article is part of the 10 Misconceptions about Buddhism series]

The most common misconception about Buddhism is that all Buddhists meditate.

For more than two millennia, Buddhists have made unique contributions to meditative theory and practice. Buddhist literature is replete with discussions of the stages of meditation, the prerequisites for achieving these stages, and how meditation serves to develop a liberating outlook. However, the majority of Buddhists throughout history have not meditated. Traditionally a monastic practice, meditation was already considered a specialty reserved for certain monks. Moreover, it is only since the 20th century that meditation has been considered an appropriate practice to teach to lay people.

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Indian Vinaya literature—the collected regulations for monks—says almost nothing about how the practice of meditation might have been institutionalized within major monasteries. This pervasive silence suggests that meditation was not part of the daily routine of monks in the great Indian monasteries; instead, these communities are depicted as engaged primarily in the recitation of texts.

For the most part, meditation seems to have been left to solitary ascetics (prahanic) who, living in the forest for months on end, sitting in the roots of trees that served as their only shelter from the torrential rains, must have seemed rather frightening to the sophisticated monks of the great urban monasteries of India. The Vinaya describes these ascetic meditators in consistently pejorative terms—such as slovenly, negligent, and rude—and prescribes rules related to their personal hygiene, such as requiring them to wash their feet at least once every three days.

When meditation is discussed in sutra literature, the audience is invariably monks (and sometimes nuns), and very rarely lay people. The implication is that the practice of meditation required such intensity, energy and application that it was not something the Buddha considered appropriate to teach lay people.

This assumption is poignantly illustrated in the deathbed account of the Buddha’s chief financial backer, the businessman Anathapindada. As Anathapindada is dying, the main disciple of the Buddha, Shariputra, and his attendant Ananda go one last time to attend to the main donor. To help Anathapindada endure the dying process, Shariputra teaches him “sensory restraint” (indriyasamvara) so that he remains detached from his intense pain and develops a mindset that clings to nothing.

At the end of Shariputra’s speech, Anathapindada starts crying. Ananda, fearing that this is the end, asks him, “Are you sinking? Anathapindada responds, “I am sinking. But I am more upset because although I have served the Buddha for many years, I have never heard these teachings. Shariputra remarks that such teachings are meant for monks, not lay people, to which Anathapindada laments that there are lay people “with little dust in their eyes” who could use such instructions.

This exchange demonstrates quite movingly that the practice of meditation was not something that lay people were usually taught; instead, charity (Dana) was the religious practice incumbent on the laity, whose normative religious goal was rebirth in one of the heavens, not liberation from samsara.

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Even in Korean Buddhism, where Son (Zen) meditation holds a prominent place, monastic vocations are rigidly distributed among practicing monks (ip’ansung) and administrative monks (sap’ansung). Ip’ansung include monks engaged in full-time meditation practice in meditation halls, as well as monks engaged in intensive textual study in Buddhist monastic seminaries. The sap’ansung includes almost everyone from the abbot (an administrative position in large Korean monasteries separate from the master Son, who is the spiritual leader of the monastery), the prior, the treasurer, and the scribes (for example, the accountants), supervisors, orchards of the various sanctuaries around the monasteries and bosses in the fields.

Sap’ansung are presumed to be too busy with their monastic duties to engage in formal meditation practice and are not even allowed to enter the grounds of the meditation hall, let alone sit with full-time meditators. Thus, even in Korean Zen monasteries that are dedicated to the intensive practice of meditation, only a minority of monks are actually engaged in the practice of meditation. And many of the most popular contemporary traditions of Buddhism, such as Nichiren Shoshu and Jodo Shinshu, do not place meditation at the center of their practice. Indeed, according to some Buddhist schools, during the current “degenerate age”, it is impossible to attain enlightenment through meditation.

According to historical evidence and modern accounts, Buddhist monks followed many vocations, of which meditation is just one (and probably a less common one). And it wasn’t until the 20th century that lay people in the Buddhist traditions of Burma in Japan became regular practitioners of meditation.

[This story was first published in 2014]