Is Mindfulness the Same Thing as Meditation?

Yesterday, Shambhala SunSpace featured Rev. Gibbs of the Oregon Buddhist Temple talking about the nembutsu or “saying the name of the Buddha of Limitless Wisdom-light.”

I am a Jodo Shinshu minister. Mine is the Pure Land school of Mahayana Buddhism, founded in Japan in 1224. (I trained both here and in Japan.) In my school of Buddhist spirituality we often say we don’t meditate.

However, our practice of saying the name of the Buddha of Limitless Wisdom-light and Endless Life may strike some of you as meditative. We, as do hundreds of millions of Buddhists in various streams of tradition, say aloud or hold silently to Amida Buddha’s name. The most common form worldwide is “Namo Amida Butsu” — literally, “I rely on Amida Buddha” or “I rely upon the Awoken source of limitless wisdom light and endless life.”

It’s always good to see Shin Buddhists with the opportunity to write in the high profile Buddhist publications. I always learn something new about a tradition that I am (geographically) very, very close to. Hopefully others will also pick up something new about one of America’s oldest Buddhist traditions.

Images of Our Sitting Selves

Over on the One City Blog, Ethan Nichtern promotes the upcoming 24- hour Meditation Marathon in the window displays of ABC Carpet & Home.It is accompanied by the following picture, which first struck me as odd.

Why is the meditator sitting with her legs crossed like that? The graphic represents a beautiful symbolic ambiguity between either the lotus style or the agura style. This detail is small and for the most part insignificant, but the way we depict ourselves says a lot about our culture. Years ago I made a similar graphic, but with the meditator’s legs represented by a flat bar. I grew up learning to sit flat on the ground—“flat like a chair” as my brother describes it. “Flat” applies to the angle of your legs relative to your hips, regardless of whether you sit with both legs to the side, one leg in front of the other, one leg over the other, or both legs folded into padmasana. In contrast, our chair culture is much more conducive to people sitting in the X-style when they plop on the floor. I cannot understate how much I love the wonderful ambiguity in that design, and yet at the same time it leaves some of us out is something I couldn’t draw myself.

Utilitarian Buddhists

On her blog Wandering Dhamma, Brooke Schedneck writes about how meditation is often presented in terms of its practical benefit.

One idea that was repeated frequently in my reading of the stack of books the librarian continued to pile higher and higher at my desk was the ‘practical benefits’ of meditation. The way that contemporary meditation teachers are discussing these more mundane benefits I would say is a kind of reinterpretation. In the early suttas we don’t see a proliferation of writings about how meditation will help with stress at work or managing emotions during complicated family situations. Obviously this has much to do with changing the tradition so it fits into a modern context, but it is more than just updating—there is a reinterpretation here that focuses more on practical benefits. But the question is why? Why is discussing more practical benefits necessary? Why this persuasion? Can the technique and the tradition of meditation within Buddhism speak for itself?

I certainly fall into this group of people who reinterpret meditation in terms of its usefulness. I suppose that this framing of meditation makes it easier to sell because it aligns with themes understood by a broad audience (anxiety reduction, blood pressure, concentration building, etc.) and also is easy to prove. But it’s another thing altogether were our only understanding of meditation to be in the context of simpler utilitarian terms.