When my brother Terry was twelve years old, he began an apprenticeship with my dad, an apprenticeship in plastering. When Terry was in his fifties, I asked him to do some plastering in my house. He obliged. At this stage, he’d been plastering for forty years.
Watching him plaster the wall was like watching someone do T’ai Chi, and I asked myself: Is this his meditation practice? I’d been meditating for about seven years, and knew the look: the soft shine in his eyes, the half-smile on his lips, his face glowing – the look of simple joy. Terry, wall, the flow of hands, tools, and plaster, all formed a totality, a time of pure being. So, was this his meditation practice or was meditation something else?
Prior to this, I had been meditating with the Western Buddhist Order. My teacher’s teacher Sangharakshita had described T’ai Chi, yoga, dance, and painting as indirect methods of meditation, as indirectly working on the mind, whereas meditation proper was directly working on the mind. I was sure that Terry, and practitioners of other arts, achieved meditative states, but if I’d have asked Terry whether he was meditating, I’m sure he would have said no, just plastering a wall.
In direct methods of meditation, you set about to deliberately change, transform, improve, and refine the functioning of the mind. However, meditation is not simply just mechanical technique: like Terry’s plastering, it becomes an art.
On one hand, Terry was not meditating; on the other, he was.
One way around this puzzle is to reflect on the state achieved: a state of absorption. When we are meditating, we become absorbed in the object of concentration. This absorption arises naturally from following a meditation technique, but it may also follow from any of the indirect methods, such as dance or painting or plastering.
One Buddhist meditation technique for cultivating absorption is the Anna Panna Satti—or awareness (Satti) of ingoing breath (Anna) and outgoing breath (Panna), usually translated as the Mindfulness of Breathing. Bringing our awareness or attention to an object, observing how we are distracted from it, and figuring out how to sabotage the distracting tendency.
Another absorption technique in Buddhism is the Metta Bhavana—or cultivation/development (Bhavana) of loving kindness (Metta). Bhavana also means becoming, so becoming loving kindness. This technique also has an object of concentration, our emotional response, and the aim is to strengthen our warm, positive emotional responsiveness.
For over twenty years I’ve been practicing Zen meditation. I was drawn to it because of its sublime simplicity: one practice covers everything. The essence of this style of meditation is simply the art of being present. Somehow we know that to be present is enough, so we give ourselves fully to the practice of being present.
Perhaps Zen meditation best falls into the category of indirect methods, but there is something direct about it too—the effort to be present. This can lead to absorption and to insight. But in Soto Zen (the Zen school in which I teach), even insight is not the point. When you are fully you, fully present, everything has been set right, you have found your place, you have entered the universe, the universe has entered you. There is nowhere else.
It is wonderful to come to this awareness…and with it, I’d say yes: Terry was meditating.
Ingen is a Soto Zen priest and teacher in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, having received ordination and dharma transmission (2000 and 2009) from Zoketsu Norman Fischer. He was Shuso at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in 2002 with then Abbess Zenkei Blanche Hartman. Ingen has been practicing Buddhism for over 25 years and lived in community for about 14 years. He has led sesshin and retreats in England, Sweden, Italy, Ireland and California, and is a member of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association of America. He now lives in his home temple, ‘Ingen-ji‘, in Co. Clare, Ireland.