Here is an extract from the first talk in the book The Gentle Way of Buddhist Meditation, which was published by Inward Path in 2007, and has just been republished. The whole series of talks and many other works in both text and audio format can be found on the Godwin Home Page website.
So what is the importance of meditation? Why is it emphasised so much in the Buddha’s teaching? So these are some of the questions that I’m going to explore in my talk.
The word meditation translates the Pali word bhāvanā which means cultivating the mind, developing the mind, mental culture. So the whole emphasis is on the mind. When you read the Buddhist texts you are so amazed at the Buddha’s profound and deep statements about the human mind. It is amazing that he should have made these statements 2,600 years ago. In fact, modern psychologists and psychotherapists are also deeply inspired by the Buddha’s statements on the human mind.
Knowing, Shaping, & Freeing the Mind
The idea of meditation has been expressed by a writer in these terms: knowing the mind, shaping the mind, and freeing the mind. I would like to repeat the words: Meditation is knowing the mind, shaping the mind, and freeing the mind. So knowing the mind is understanding how the mind is working. If we do not know our mind we are really just like machines. Therefore it is extremely important to know and to understand how our minds work.
And when we know the mind, then we can shape the mind. Shaping the mind is developing mastery over the mind. If we do not develop mastery over the mind what happens is that we become a slave to our own mind. So when we become slaves to our mind then thoughts and emotions control us and that results in more and more suffering. Therefore it is very important to learn to shape the mind, and when you learn to shape the mind then you can achieve a mind that is free. So the importance of meditation is learning to achieve a mind that is free, a mind that is happy, a mind that is peaceful, a mind that has loving-kindness.
Achieving a Completely Healthy Mind
It is interesting to see the things we do to keep our body healthy. We feed our body, we keep the body clean, when the body becomes sick we go to the doctor and get medicine to cure the illnesses. We do so many things to keep the body healthy. An interesting question is: what do we do to keep our mind healthy? Have you given thought to this very important question? We have to be clear about what makes our mind sick, what makes our mind unhealthy. What are the symptoms of the human sicknesses of the mind? So meditation is learning about them and achieving a mind that is completely healthy.
We can consider some emotions as contributing to the illnesses of the human mind. I would like to mention some of these emotions, and I’m sure everyone here can relate to them: anxiety, stress, fear, insecurity, and sadness. I can draw up a long list, which I think we can all relate to. Sometimes we don’t realise that they make our mind sick. If we do not know that they can create our sickness we can continue to have that sickness without finding a solution to it. In one of my talks I will be speaking about emotions and I will present to you how meditation helps us to work with emotions. When I speak about emotions I will be interested to hear from you what emotions really bother you in this country. So I will be presenting some practical ways of working with these unpleasant emotions and then finding a way to be free from these emotions.
Taste & Experience Buddhism
Another very important aspect of meditation is that meditation helps us to experience with full awareness things that arise. There are some who know very well what the Buddha taught, so they are very knowledgeable about Buddhism but they have not experienced directly anything from the Buddha’s teaching because they have not meditated. They are like people who know all about meals but they have hardly tasted the food from the meals. So meditation helps us to taste; and when you have tasted it you achieve a kind of appetite for the freedom of the mind. When you taste it, you really see for yourself how we can free ourselves.
Become Completely Self-Reliant
Related to this is another point, that meditation helps us to become completely self-reliant. When you meditate you realise that you have to take responsibility for what is happening in your mind. Sometimes I define meditation in my own words as finding the medicine for the sickness we have created ourselves. So as we create the sickness ourselves we have to find the medicine. When you are sick, if you want to heal yourself you cannot tell others to take the medicine.
The Buddha emphasised this point very much: to be self-reliant, to rely on one’s own efforts. The Buddha said: self-effort is the best effort. And when we develop self-effort, when we become self-reliant, then what happens is we learn to become completely self-confident about ourselves. When we have this self-confidence then when we see for ourselves that the medicine is helping then that gives us more confidence in the medicine and it also helps us to develop faith and confidence in the person who discovered the medicine.
Godwin Teaching in Hong Kong in 1996