Meditating statue, Jaffna town.
I’m in the Sri Sambuddha Jayanthi Mandira now, waiting for a meeting. I have some time to kill and I’d like to meditate, but I feel embarassed. Which is weird. It is a Buddhist building.
In the same way, Sri Lanka is an ostensibly Buddhist country with little space for meditation. I remember when I worked in an office, there was always a prayer room, a closet really, with a photo of the Kabaa and some prayer mats. I thought about meditating in there sometimes, but it wouldn’t be right. But I do wish Buddhist practice had a place.
At various points I have meditated in stairwells, in airports, in lobbies and in crowded temples. Temples are often the worst. There is a magic and majesty to places like Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy and the sacred bo tree in Anuradhapura, but they’re not conducive to conventional meditation. They’re actually loud. You can lose yourself in the humanity, but it’s hard to be truly mindful there. Not that I don’t love and revere those places, I do. It’s just that sometimes you want a quiet room and the few square inches behind your eyes.
Muslims have that place, and that practice, which I’ve always respected. Many of my Muslim friends pray five times a day, wherever they are, and I think that’s a deep mindfulness as well. Allah is very real to them and the practice, I think, makes them better, kinder, more thoughtful people.
Every religion has some ritual of this sort, some sort of prayer. What I find curious about Asian Buddhism, however, is that – while meditation is absolutely central to the Dhammapada – it’s not central to lay practice. Lay practice is more frequently listening to monks, or tying charms or marching elephants through the streets. Not that I don’t like those things. I just think there should be more space for meditation.
As it is, if I meditate at work or in a lobby or even in temple, I look and feel strange. Yet I don’t think this should be. I think offices and public spaces should have spaces for meditation, like Muslims do. Meditation is of proven neurological benefit to anyone, whatever their religion, and it is the central exhortation of the Buddha’s path. If I was to summarize the Dhamma it would be meditate, meditate, meditate. The Buddha’s teachings offer what he found, but he was very clear that each person has to find and test these experiences for themselves.
I grew up with Buddhism my whole life, but I wouldn’t say that I was a Buddhist until I began meditating in earnest, around age 18. I actually sometimes found it easier to practice in the west than here. While Sri Lanka preserves the clear Theravada path and sustains a great many noble monks (who you don’t see in the news), our cultural practice of lay Buddhism is largely symbolic and ritualistic. Not that meditation doesn’t happen, of course. Though Buddhism is quite likely the fastest growing religion in the west, it still has a great many practitioners here.
I just wish we had a place, a closet really, and a sense that if someone is meditating in a waiting room, that it’s nothing strange or out of place. Though perhaps that’s just in my head. I do think that meditation is central to the practice of Buddhism. It should have a more central place in our Buddhist culture as well.