History of Meditation

Dec. 3, 2016

The history of meditation stretches back to some of the earliest written records, yet many people today forget that it is an ancient practice. The first earliest written record dating around 1500BC.  These records of meditation (Dhyana), come from the Hindu traditions of Vedantism. The Vedas discuss the meditative traditions of Ancient India. Most scholars agree that meditation started at least 5000 years ago but nobody knows the exact date.

Meditation that developed in Taoist China and Buddhist India began around the 5th/6th centuries BCE, yet Dhyana in early Buddhism takes influence on Vedanta in the 4th century BCE. Buddhist meditation is a subject of debate among scholars even today. The multi-levels and states of meditation in Buddhism are found in the sutras of the Pali Canon, which dates the 1st century BCE. The Pali Canon records show us the four fold formula of Salvation (morality, contemplative concentration, knowledge and liberation). Buddhism spread into China around 100 CE which is noted in the Vimalakirti Sutra which clearly is indicative of Zen.

20 BCE Philo of Alexandria had written about spiritual exercises, and by the 3rd century Plotinus had developed techniques of meditation in which Christian meditators were inclined to ignore. Saint Augustine experimented with them and failed to find or achieve ecstasy.

Bodhidharma is traditionally consider to have developed the concept of Zen to China,although the first original school was developed by his contemporary Zhiyi in East Asia in the 6th Centuary. Zhiyi organized various teachings that came from India in a way that their relationships made sense. Wonhyo and Uisang promoted Korean Buddhism in the 7th Century.

In the Torah, the patriarch Issac is described as going Lasuach in the field – a term most understood as a type of meditative practice (Genesis 24:63) This indicates that Judaism also had its own meditative practice. There are indicators throughout the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) that Judahism always contained a central meditative practice.

Japanese Buddhism grew from the 8th Century onward with opening of a meditation Hall at Nara in Japan by Dosho. Dosho had learnt Zen during his visit to China in 653. The sitting Meditation or Zazen was developed by Dogen upon his return from China around 1227. He conceived a community of Monks primarily focused on Zazen.

In the middle ages we find Jewish Mediation changing to include prayer or miszvot. Some involved Kabbalistic practices and some Jewish philosophy. Sufism/Islamic mysticism involves finding truth of divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God which is also known as Dhikr which is interpreted in different meditative techniques. These were systemized through the 11th – 12 Centuries. By the 12th Century the methods included breathing controls and the repetitious use of Holy Words.

Eastern Christian meditation can be traced back to the Byzantine period. Between the 10th and 14th centuries, heysychasm was developed. This was on Mount Athos in Greece which is still practiced today. It involves the repetition of the Jesus Prayer.

In contrast to Eastern Meditation Western Meditation involves no repetition and no posture per say. It was construed as Bible Reading. In the 6th century the Bendictine Monks changed it to Lectio Divina or Divine Reading.  Guigo II defined the four formal steps as Lectio, meditation, oratio and contemplatio (read, ponder, pray and contemplate).  Western Christian Meditation was further developed by Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila.

The 18th Century found the study of Buddhism in the west discussed by philosophers such as Schopenhauser and even Voltaire asked for toleration towards Buddhists. The first English translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead was published in 1927.

What is now simply called Yoga started with the revival in the 1890s. Schools were opened by Vivekananda and later other gurus. Some schools were made as secular variants of the yoga tradition and used by non-Hindu denominations, such as the school of transcendental meditation which was popular in 1960.

Yoga today focuses on secular meditation and emphasizes stress reduction, relaxation and self-improvement. Spiritual and Secular forms of meditation have been subjects of scientific analyses. However, after 60 years of scientific study, the exact mechanism at work in meditation remains unclear.