It may be a surprise to many Americans, and even to American Buddhists, to hear that the vast majority of the world's Buddhists do not meditate. But it is true. Among the 250 million or so Buddhists alive today, only a tiny fraction have a regular meditation practice; this is true not just for Buddhist laypeople but even for many of the Buddhist monks, nuns, and priests in the various Asian countries where Buddhism is the main religion. Were things different in the past? Yes, there were times and places where millions of monks and nuns lived and practiced in monasteries where meditation was the norm, but the West's assumption that Buddhism and meditation are one and the same is a selective understanding. There is much more to Buddhism than meditation. Meditation is only one branch of the eight-fold path taught by the Buddha--a path which includes ethical teachings, intellectual study, and transformation of personality and character through wholesome attitudes and deeds.
When I first came to meditate in the late 1960s, it was at Sokoji temple, a Soto Zen temple in San Francisco originally founded by Japanese-Americans many decades earlier. The abbot there, Shunryu Suzuki, had come a few years earlier to tend to its Japanese-American congregation. At that time in San Francisco the counterculture was in full swing, and the city was awash in young Americans who had been inspired by the Zen books of D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and Philip Kapleau, as well as by mind-altering drugs. When they showed up at Sokoji to learn to meditate, Suzuki welcomed them. His Japanese-American congregants were not so sure. Meditation was not their focus. They attended weekly worship services where they recited Buddhist scriptures and prayers and heard a sermon by Suzuki, but like church groups everywhere, much of their activity was social and cultural. Many of the older congregants had been interned during the war, and the temple was still a place for reviving and maintaining Japanese culture as well as a base to be re-accepted into the postwar mainstream culture.
We meditators did not interact much with the Japanese-Americans. Though we shared the temple space, we attended on different days, so we rarely saw them. A few of the older Japanese-Americans were sympathetic to our interests¸ and Suzuki did his best to explain our presence, but there was still some underlying tension. We meditators did not understand our Japanese-American hosts very well, or they us. Somehow Suzuki, through his sincerity and personality, held it all together.
This state of affairs is to some extent still true today. Even though Buddhist meditation has become widespread throughout the West, there is not much real interchange between the myriad ethnic Asian-American Buddhist congregations--Chinese-American, Vietnamese-American, Cambodian-American, Korean-American, and so on--and the meditation and retreat centers that serve a primarily Caucasian following. One of the main differences, of course, is that ethnic Buddhists were born into their faith, while today's Caucasian meditators are almost all adult converts (though as their own children have come to adulthood, that is changing).
I wonder if the coming together of these two groups is the next phase of Buddhism's modern revival. Ethnic and non-ethnic Buddhists share a great deal. They are both committed to the enlightened ideals of Buddhist wisdom, to an ethical life based on precepts, to the principles of compassion, kindness, and non-injury, and to the Buddha as an exemplar of a wise, mature human being. Statues of Buddha--which are venerated in every Buddhist temple all over the world--are a kind of visible meditation instruction. We sit just as the Buddha sat. So even though the Japanese-American congregation of Sokoji did not practice formal sitting meditation, they bowed to the same Buddha we did. We were all Buddhists together. These days I regret that I did not make more of an effort to befriend these Japanese-American congregants and learn from them. I think I could have benefited from their experience and outlook.
Sitting meditation is based on one simple, universal principle: that sitting still is a source of wisdom. The poet Gary Snyder believes that the origin of sitting still this way can be found in early hunting, in which the hunter had to stand or sit still for long periods, waiting for game to come. There is actually nothing intrinsically Buddhist about sitting still. It is the birthright of every human being. The historical Buddha simply discovered what has always been a timeless truth.
These days, monks in Asia, weighed down by centuries of tradition and custom, have in some cases lost touch with this universal aspect of sitting, and no longer have a clear understanding of why to do it. One Zen monk from Japan who was visiting a Zen retreat center in America observed the enthusiasm and numbers of meditators with astonishment. "How do you get them to meditate without beating them?" he asked. In his training temple in Japan, the young monks disliked meditation, and saw it as an unpleasant burden.
I believe today's world is re-awakening to the realization that sitting still is a source of wisdom, partly because it is deeply true, and partly, I think, because we so desperately need it. Yes, in one sense most Buddhists don't meditate, but in a more universal sense all people, of whatever faith, are as close to meditation as the nearest cushion or chair. In that sense, everyone can meditate.