Meditation

Film: Meditation and Healing at the Hospital and at Soji Zen Center, produced by C. Pierce Salguero & Lan A. Li

This film highlights two Dharma teachers from Philadelphia, a hospital chaplain and a Zen teacher. Both speakers draw attention to the health benefits of meditation; however, they introduce meditation within a wider range of Buddhist practices, including chanting the Heart Sūtra, as well as within a social and ethical context.

 

Background

One type of healing activity that is common across Philadelphia—as it is across the modern Buddhist world—is contemplative practice or meditation. Silent seated meditation practice is the main focus of almost all meditation centers, which readily connected meditation with wellness, and particularly highlighted its positive effects on mental health. The vast majority of temples, on the other hand, neither teach meditation publicly nor include it in their regularly scheduled weekly services. At the same time, when questioned by our research team, community spokespersons at these institutions were nearly universal in their readiness to mention meditation as an important practice for lowering stress and creating better conditions for harmony between mind and body. Interviewees at Theravāda temples placed particularly heavy emphasis on the mental health benefits of meditation.

The most prominent form of meditation mentioned by respondents—whether representatives of temples or meditation centers—was “mindfulness of the breath.” Although called by different names depending on the tradition or language spoken, this basic Buddhist practice was widely characterized by spokespeople from virtually all ethnic and sectarian groups as being good for one’s wellbeing. Calming stress and settling the mind through meditation was said to lead to increased psychological and physical healing, to mitigate the suffering of illness, and to transform one’s daily habits in health-promoting ways. 

Aside from mindfulness, some respondents specifically related other contemplative techniques to physical healing. These included a meditation taught at the Thai temple, Wat Mongkoltepmunee, in which the meditator visualizes a healing crystal ball within different parts of the body. Several Thai interviewees mentioned the power of the crystal to purify and heal the body from within. A meditation focusing on the center of qi-energy in the body (Ch. dantian 丹田; Kr. danjeon), was mentioned at both the Korean Won Buddhist Temple and the Chinese Ru Lai Si. Respondents at both temples described the regulatory effects of this meditation on the body’s organs and physiological functions. In addition, various forms of movement-based contemplative practice, such as qigong, taijiquan, and yoga are regularly taught at several meditation centers. The Won Buddhist Temple teaches its own brand of “moving meditation,” which is similar in many ways to qigong, and also is explained through the concept of qi. 

Finally, there are a few Vajrayāna centers in Philadelphia that teach healing visualizations. The Kadampa Meditation Center teaches a form of tonglen where the practitioner is taught to visualize breathing out black smoke, releasing illness, negative energy, and suffering from the body. The Chenrezig Tibetan Buddhist Center teaches visualization of the goddess Tārā in the form of the mantric syllable TĀṂ. Visualized above the practitioner’s head, the syllable emits white light, symbolizing the protective and healing energies of the goddess, which descends along the chakras, aligning and purifying the body. 

 

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Further reading:
  • Halvor Eifring, ed. 2016. Asian Traditions of Meditation. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. — Overview of meditation in Asian religions, including significant section on Buddhism.
  • Ronald E. Purser, David Forbes, and Adam Burke (eds.). 2016. Handbook of Mindfulness: Culture, Context, and Social Engagement. Switzerland: Springer. — Essays introducing critical perspectives on the sociocultural ramifications of the practice of mindfulness.
  • C. Pierce Salguero (ed.). 2017. Buddhism and Medicine: An Anthology of Premodern Sources. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 371–430. — Translation and discussion of various texts describing healing meditations from across premodern Asia.
  • Jeff Wilson. 2014. Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press. — A study of the history of Buddhist meditation in the US.