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History of Meditation

Throughout history, there have been numerous traditions of meditation and all of them are, in one-way or another, attractive to people of differing dispositions. Yoga, Kundalini, Transcendental Meditation, Sufi, Zen, Samatha, Vipassana, and Satipatthana are some examples. These traditions have continued generation after generation without ever going out of fashion because they all bring about benefits to people. While all might go under the common name of 'meditation', the benefits they produce might be different and hence attract different interest groups. Of these meditations, Yoga, Kundalini, and Transcendental Meditation have come from Hinduism. Sufi is from Islam, and the rest of them have been introduced by Buddhism.

Forms of meditation are also present in Judaism, Christianity and Jainism too, yet they are not so widely practiced as in the traditions mentioned above. All these examples show that the practice of meditation is not limited to one or two religions. Rather, it is a common aspect of many religious traditions. Even some philosophies like the Vedanta system emphasise meditation in their systems. The scope of this meditation homepage, however, is limited to the Buddhist meditation found in Thailand.

The history of meditation reaches beyond the known history of mankind. According to archaeologists, a figure of a yogi found in the Indus Valley Civilisation indicates that yoga practice could have existed in the first Indian civilisation itself. Ever since yoga and other forms of meditation have been essential practices in Hinduism. The Buddha's life story gives detailed accounts on the advanced yogis from whom Prince Siddhartha Gotama learned yoga practices. Some of these pre-Buddhistic teachers had achieved eight jhaanas as well as the magical skills based on their trance states. Under these teachers, Siddhartha mastered the teachings of meditation within a short period of time. He was even offered teaching positions by these masters, but Siddhartha refused their offers and continued searching for more by experimenting further with the techniques of meditation. Siddhartha's achievement which eventually brought him to enlightenment as the Buddha was the result of these experiments. Somewhat like the Buddhists, who have the Buddha to lead them in practice, the Sufis of Islam claim that their meditation started right from the beginning of their religion as the Prophet Mohammed himself practised it.

Obviously, the history of each religion is a long one, as well as the history of meditation within each religion. The Buddha taught his disciples and these disciples taught theirs. From master to master there have been individual approaches and interpretations to the original practices. When Buddhism was received by Chinese, Japanese, Tibetans, and Southeast Asians, they added their own methods and interpretations. Japanese Zen and Tibetan Tantra are good examples of such expanded versions of Buddhist meditation. Again the scope of this homepage does not allow us to discuss the long history of Buddhist meditation. Here we will be limited to a few experiments and comments which can be more useful to our lives today than its historical events and developments.
We have already noted that before achieving the Buddhahood Siddhartha Gotama developed jhaanas as well as the supranormal skills based on them. This type of meditation is known as samatha because by calming down one's thoughts and by cultivating the power of concentration one's mind reaches the state of jhaana. Thus, samatha meditation came from the pre-Buddhistic practices. What actually led Siddhartha to the Buddhahood was his own experimentation in meditation. This new meditation is known as vipassanaa which means insight or penetration into reality. 'Vipassanaa' is Pali term meaning the ability to 'see' the nature of life and the world through one's meditation. It is through vipassanaa that one can attain Nirvana, the Absolute or the Goal of Buddhism. Even the one who has mastered samatha does not attain Nirvana; he has to develop vipassanaa in order to see Nirvana. An essential step of vipassanaa is satipa.t.thaana (i.e. the foundations of mindfulness). Through satipa.t.thaana the meditator becomes is able to see the body in the body (inner bodies), the feelings within the feelings (the feelings of happiness, suffering or indifference within each inner body), the mind in the mind (the mind of each inner body) and the mental phenomena within the mental phenomena (the contents of the mind of each inner body). Thus, although there are many different kinds of meditation, ultimately, they all lead to vipassanaa according to the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
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