Last Updated on February 14, 2021 by David Vause
I prefer to call it sitting or sitting meditation, stripped of cultural nuances. Its root is zazen or zen, sitting meditation in Japanese. But there need not be cultural overtones in what is essentially a supra national mental discipline. Sitting is often referred to as a discipline or training. The historical reasons for this are tangential to what concerns me here. Today we live in a time of unfettered hedonism, justified as consumerism fueled by capitalism. Our sacred cows have devolved to media influencers, who we worship by following their every word and act on the various software platforms. These platforms are continuously developed by capitalism to generate even more wealth for the elites. Our lives are saturated by a steady stream of advertising and subliminal messaging telling us not to think and to indulge every urge, impulse, and half thought that arise in the mental void. These urges and impulses tell us to buy products and services that we mostly do not need and which frequently pollute and poison our minds and bodies.
Contemporary sitting exists in this 21st century as a discipline. It is the discipline to we stop listening to the stream of media induced urges, impulses, and half thoughts. It is the discipline to stop our focus on production so that we may barter for the products and services that pollute and poison us. Instead, we redirect our focus to being mentally quiet. This redirection of focus is what is important, not the actual sitting. The sitting is just the physical context of the focus. It can be a walk, a run, or even the act of drawing the string of a bow. The redirection of the focus to quietude is the important core. This redirection is not a refocus on another influencer to beg for satisfaction of still other desires. It is not prayer. Sitting discipline abandons the concepts that there is another to pray to, there is a supplicant who begs, and there is something for which begging is necessary. It is the discipline to abandon the concepts of other, self, and desire. It abandons concepts, stripping them away to experience the moment in all its rawness. Sitting is pure, thoughtless experience. As such, it it the most primal form of empiricism.
We see that there is nothing cultural about sitting. That it arose in India in the 5th to 4th century BCE and that it found its flowering in China and Japan is not really relevant. Sitting is a tool in the wider context of a tradition who’s most distilled ethical expression occurs in verses 246 and 247 of the Dhammapada:
“He who destroys life, tells lies, takes what is not given him, commits adultery and takes intoxicating drinks, digs up his own roots even in this very life.”https://www.tipitaka.net/tipitaka/dhp/index.php
The Five Precepts of Buddhism embody these verses and have guided behavior for two and a half thousand years. They manifest themselves variously in different cultures and traditions. In perhaps the oldest of these, they are articulated as follows:
“I undertake the training-precept to abstain from onslaught on breathing beings.”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_precepts
“I undertake the training-precept to abstain from taking what is not given.”
“I undertake the training-precept to abstain from misconduct concerning sense-pleasures.”
“I undertake the training-precept to abstain from false speech.”
“I undertake the training-precept to abstain from alcoholic drink or drugs that are an opportunity for heedlessness.”
For practical purposes, I put them more succinctly: refrain from killing the living; refrain from stealing; refrain from being seduced by physical pleasures; refrain from lying; and refrain from mind-altering substances.
Like sitting, the Five Precepts are in themselves a-cultural. We dilute the power, meaning, and effectiveness of mental disciplines when we festoon mental practices and disciplines with the trappings of cultural context. They may seem to appeal more when adopted with exotic embellishments, but these detract from the fundamentals. Matching a mental discipline to a culture invites misuse by holding a particular culture’s implementation as the pure or authentic one. Singular cultures tend to have original texts often viewed as authoritative if not divinely inspired. Yet, the Five Precepts are completely secular. It is inconsistent to argue that secular guidance derives authority from a supernatural or divine origin. When I note that these precepts could just as well be advanced by a Roman Stoic, I make the point that the Precepts rise above the contexts of a particular cultural tradition to the level of rational, secular, humanistic ethics. The Precepts presume a second party audience. The only reason the reader does not see them overtly listed in Marcus Aurelius is that Marcus was writing for an audience of himself. Marcus saw no reason to list first principles to himself, though their sentiment shows itself in his work repeatedly.