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.)