When Buddhism came to China in the 1st century CE, there was already a defined older tradition of Daoist meditation. Buddhist meditation, however, based on methods dating from the Buddha’s day 500 years previously, grew in popularity with the rise of the religion in China. When Bodhidharma arrived in the late 5th century, Buddhist meditation had been practiced in China for over 400 years. Ch’an however brought its own methods of meditation to Buddhist practice that evolved through the deeper level of understanding derived from Mahayana study of the Dharma.
Notwithstanding, in the great Ch’an Halls of the monastic system where novice monks were trained in meditation, the method was not as important as the object which was to train the mind and body to consistently achieve a state of samatha (quieting of the mind). This samatha is actually a restoration of the unification of body and mind to its natural state. Once this state was consistently achieved, then Ch’an training and methods of meditation began in earnest.
Initially, however, the method often chosen for the training of novices is to be found in the Buddha’s own sutra, annapannasati or ‘mindfulness of the breath’, a method that today is still the most popular for monastics and lay practitioners alike to begin their training toward a consistent state of samatha.
Meditation is about bringing our attention down to a moment-to-moment level. This has the effect of reducing the discriminating mind, the mind that is continually assessing the present in terms of what has happened in the past and projecting a likely outcome that pre-disposes our approach to people, places and situations.
To focus our attention in meditation on the moment, the object of meditation chosen is most often the breath, an autonomic function of the body that is always with us. It is the continual awareness of the breath in the nostrils that brings a natural immediacy to our focus and a calming effect to our mind.
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