Meditation or self-indoctrination?

Paul HarrisonIn a scholarly paper on Mahayana Buddhism, the famous buddhologist Paul Harrison reflects on the nature of Buddhist meditation. He argues that such meditation is much more scripture-based than often assumed. Bringing his argument one step further, one could ask to what extent meditation is open and inclusive, as is often claimed by modern Buddhists, and to what extent it is merely a suggestive way of inducing an “experience” of preconceived “truths”.

Prescribed impermanence
According to Harrison, the Buddhist meditator (at least in some early versions of the kind) brings his attention to prescribed aspects of reality, such as “form”, “feelings”, “thoughts” and “dharmas”, based on lists found in scholastic texts. In the end the meditator is not only to identify these aspects of reality, but also to evaluate them as, for instance, “impermanent” (in accordance with Buddhist ideology). Harrison also argues that visualisation techniques later introduced in Mahayana Buddhism also build on textual representations, and that these texts read as boring lists until we understand that they are scripts for the inner visualisation of a buddha in his “buddha-field”.

Scriptural self-hypnosis
If we divide forms of meditation into technical and thematic, therefore, it seems that these forms are (or at least were) much more on the thematic side than on the technical. In this they resemble the most common Christian, Judaic and Islamic forms of meditation, which built on recitation or visualisation, ultimately derived from holy scripture. There is nothing wrong in this, except that it gives a very different image of the meditator than that of someone employing a technique to achieve direct and unmediated access to subtler aspects of reality. Crudely speaking, it leaves the impression of meditation being a form of scriptural self-hypnosis, which is the way another scholar, Livia Kohn, has described it.

Open process?
On the basis of my experience with Acem Meditation, I have often wanted to argue against such a narrow view of meditation, believing that a meditative process is basically an open process. Harrison’s article seems to suggest that I have been largely wrong, and that even (many) Eastern forms of meditation tend to be based on what, again quite crudely, might be called scriptural or ideological self-indoctrination. I still hesitate to accept that this is all there is to traditional meditation – whether in the East or in the West – but Harrison’s article suggests that the phenomenon is much more widespread than usually assumed.

(Paul Harrison (2003): “Mediums and Messages: Reflections on the Production of Mahāyāna Sūtras”, The Eastern Buddhist XXXV, 1 & 2, pp. 115-151.)


  1. Kaif

    I find some very interesting points here, especially for practitioners of meditation. I too think that the Buddhist mindfulness meditations are quite thematic, and doubt if the perception of everything as impermanent arises spontaneously (in most cases).

    Some associations..

    From an insider’s perspective, the object of meditation (an image, a mantra, or a theme such as in the cases we are discussing) if properly transmitted, is considered to be representative of a different level of consciousness. The transmission of the object from one qualified person to another seems very important, and often forms a closely guarded lineage. Focusing on the object thus transmitted may bring the practitioner closer to that level of consciousness which the object represents.

    It would be interesting these more ‘directed’ methods to the ‘open’ methods of meditation. One seems like walking to the top of a mountain with the peak in sight and the other seems like walking to the top of the mountain with no peak in sight, but walking uphill nonetheless. Do the ‘open’ methods lead to more detours and phases of ‘getting lost’? Do the ‘directed’ methods leave important aspects of the psyche unexplored and unresolved?

    And then, when we think of recitation and visualisation from ancient scripture as self-hypnosis or indoctrination, we also imply our own preference for and commitment to what one may call an Enlightenment doctrine of rationalism and independence from outer influences. As modern people, I suppose all of us have a preference for these qualities and in some way, even indoctrinated to prefer them. I wonder if one can be totally free from all ‘indoctrination’.

  2. Jens K

    Dividing forms of meditation into technical and thematic is problematic if one acknowledge that there are both technical and thematic elements in all meditation practices.

    As for the thematic part, I would believe it is impossible to do something without attaching some meaning to it. And there’s the contextual part of it. Nowadays people meditate for relaxation, perspective and growth. Earlier people had other virtues and other goals.

    As for the technical part, I would think that the different forms of meditation techniques have different effects independent of or moderated by it’s thematic contents. The techniques “effectiveness” may even be moderated by the way in which its instructed “mindset” is in contrast with cultural or stereotypical ways of thinking.

    So, is meditation “a technique to achieve direct and unmediated access to subtler aspects of reality” or “a form of scriptural self-hypnosis”? Though the first may sound a bit ambitious, I think both descriptions points to important ways of understanding meditation. Even so called “open processes” are on some levels ways of manipulations, though the mechanisms may be out of reach for scrutiny. Can we dig without a shovel?

  3. Kaif

    Interesting comments, Jens. I actually think that the division of meditation techniques into technical and thematic is sound.

    Every meditation technique has a theme, but perhaps some techniques have a theme as the object of attention. The ‘loving kindness’ meditations in Buddhism involve focusing one’s attention on verbal affirmations and images of ‘loving kindness’. For example, one may focus one’s attention on the thought, “May all beings be happy and peaceful, healthy and strong”, and on the images one associates with this.

    On the other hand, some techniques have something other than a theme as the object of their attention, with a theme informing the attitude with which attention is applied to the object. The sound in Acem Meditation is the object, while what we may consider the theme – the free mental attitude – is an attitude towards the object. Similarly, one may have an image or a bodily sensation as an object. In this way, Acem Meditation would be classified as technical, and perhaps only secondarily, thematic.

    I like what you say about it being impossible to do something without attaching some meaning to it 🙂

  4. Why contemplate the absurd? The five skandhas are not “preconceived ‘truths'” but fundamental aspects of human experience. Experiences of “form” “feeling” and “perception” have nothing to do with concepts in the first place and so it’s absurd to consider them as having any pre-conceptual bias. Modern biology and neurology completely support the five skandhas, including breaking down how our brains go about the 4th “formation” process in building a perceived world into which we project ourselves.

    Moreover, “impermanence” is a word we use to describe an intrinsic aspect of relative reality, with no doctrine or dogma involved. As I’ve heard it said, reality was just as impermanent before the Buddha taught as after, and any teaching or contemplation on impermanence does not alter the impermanent nature of everything. Contemplating impermanence on different levels can be a wonder way to bring your perception of reality more close to the true nature of things.


  5. MWT

    “View” or the conceptual perspective one takes of meditation experiences has always been an important aspect of spiritual growth. Only in extreme cases could that be classified as indoctrination.

  6. Thanks for the challenging comments! My use of the word “indoctrination” obviously takes things too far, and I am sure my reference to Paul Harrison would not be well received on his part. He is much more nuanced than it seems from what I have written here.

    Still I do think the contrast between technical and thematic elements in meditation is an important one, though they may be mixed both within one and the same technique and within the framework around the technique.

    I also do think that many forms of Buddhist meditation are more thematically oriented, and more based on suggestive elements, than many people are aware of.

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