“Meditate” is a word used in Scripture several times. For example, “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night” (Joshua 1:8). Is this the same sort of meditation that Buddhists speak of? How do Buddhists and Christians define “meditation” differently?
Definition of Meditation
The Western understanding of meditation is derived from the Latin “meditationem” and the French “meditacion,” which led to “meditacioun” around AD 1200. This means “contemplation; devout preoccupation; private devotions, prayer,” as well as “thought, reflection, study,” or “a thinking over.” The root med- leads to “take appropriate measures.”
The Eastern definition of “meditation” relates to Hindu and Buddhist practices. Within Buddhism, there are several branches and numerous ways to meditate leading to different results. At the simplest level, Buddhist meditation stills the body while unifying body and mind.
Methods of Meditation
Buddhists identify several ways of meditating. One might find a quiet place such as one’s home or a peaceful outdoor setting. Meditation takes place in groups such as the “zendo” or “meditation room” of a retreat. Buddhists sometimes use mantras (repeated phrases) perhaps from sacred Buddhist writings, and also walk to meditate which is the “popular Zen way.”
There is a form called “Tantric” meditation where one visualizes “complex images of Buddha forms and recite[s] sacred sounds or mantras.” Another popular method is to follow the breathing towards stillness, which is why yoga and meditation work well together.
Christians meditate on God’s Word by finding places of stillness and quiet or by joining groups, which offer directed study. Like Buddhists, they meditate on sacred texts, but unlike Buddhists, Scripture is always key.
For the Christian, like the Buddhist, there is no rule as to how one meditates, whether alone or in a group, sitting, standing, or walking. Christians do not repeat mantras because “we have a responsibility to know the meaning of what we are saying.” If we utter mantras we don’t understand, “those words are ‘idle.’”
Jesus stated, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36). We pray in Jesus’ name only. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). For the Christian, repeating God’s word, such as the Lord’s prayer, is a matter of love and devotion; it is meaningful and heartfelt, not a matter of mere rote.
Purposes of Meditation
1. Learning Self-Discipline
“Meditation teaches self-discipline because it’s boring, and because the body gets uncomfortable.” Buddhists focus the mind in order to facilitate body-mind unity and even elevation of the body-mind to a place of spiritual enlightenment without God.
God does not ask us to experience gratuitous discomfort in order to get closer to Him. Christians do not develop self-control by being bored or by hurting themselves. Meditating on Scripture is not boring to the heart which delights in God (Psalm 37:4). One can meditate on God’s Word anywhere, in any posture.
Learning self-discipline is a by-product of maturity in Christ, not an end in itself. Scripture nourishes: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation” (1 Peter 2:2).
The Word edifies: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:24). One cannot retain the wisdom of Scripture without first stilling one’s mind to read and absorb it. While there is wisdom in learning to focus, the Christian does so in order to tune out the world and hear what the Father says about Himself and His Son.
2. The Inner Experience
Buddhists train their thoughts towards “the inner experience of thoughts, feelings and perceptions.” The belief is that “mental states we experience are the key to everything in our lives” so meditation unlocks a door to the inner self. During meditation practices, one might be invited to let go of anger and “develop an attitude of loving-kindness using memory, imagination and awareness of bodily sensations.”
A Buddhist belief is that one can develop kindness towards the self and manifest that kindness with a phrase such as “may I be well and happy, may I progress.” The ultimate goal of Buddhist meditation is to live at peace with the world, with one’s self, and to develop “self-knowledge.”
Scripture teaches how to respond to suffering because “in this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). We are not promised happiness or a life free from suffering. We can experience joy amid suffering, even because of it (James 1:2-4).
We do not live for ourselves but for others, serving them in order to serve Christ our Savior. “One of the most prevalent idols people face today is the idol of the self.” David Powlinson said, “We are always listening to a voice and that voice can be one we self-generate.” Psalmist invites God to examine his heart. (Psalm 139:23)
The one who follows Christ, when looking inward, will see sin and repent of it. Self-examination according to God’s standards is positive. “Progress” is measured as maturity in Him; Fruit of the Spirit. If Christians believe that the “key to everything in our lives” comes from within, we forget the cross; we forget what it cost the Father for us to be reunited with Him.
We become our own solution to sin, but how can sinful flesh fulfill the law? It cannot. “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do” (Romans 8:3). He sent His Son to model love and to die for our anger and selfishness; sins done by us and against us.
Christians concentrate on unity with God through the Spirit given by the Son. Instead of inward, passive meditation, believers are motivated and inspired to “take appropriate measures” as per that earlier definition of meditation, and as defined by God in His Word.
3. Taking the World’s Suffering
Tibetans practice “breathing in the suffering of others and breathing out a purifying white light” in order to “cultivat[e] compassion.” Buddhism offers “guidelines for beginning a life free from unnecessary suffering.”
Jesus died on the cross to take the punishment for everyone’s sin. God sees believers through the blood of Christ, and we are freed to be a light to others and to show compassion, as a reflection of the true light: Christ.
Our purpose, as believers, is to employ the Fruit of the Spirit to meet people in the middle of their pain and neediness and thereby point them to the hope of eternal relief from suffering in eternity with Jesus.
Buddhists concentrate on every feeling or thought without rejecting or denying it, then put them all aside so “the mind is not carried away by worries, anxieties, and endless hopes and fears.” One is freed from “the defilements of the mind, the suffering of the mind, leaving the truth of this vast, unidentifiable moment plain to see.”
Buddhists try to separate “thoughts and feelings in order to become fully aware. Practitioners aim for unity of spirit and mind in order to take “control of the mind so that it becomes peaceful and focused.”
Seeking truth is essential to the Christian walk, but whose truth? Inner truth? Paul wrote, “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). We are warned that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9).
God encourages rational faith and teaches discernment. Israel was instructed to keep God’s commandments, “for that will be your wisdom and your understanding” (Deuteronomy 4:6). As for living in the moment, when we mature in our walk with the Father, we develop patience to live in the moment with Him.
Christians are invited to meditate so they can learn and grow; so, they can claim the Lord’s comforting and trustworthy promises. Scripture provides guidance and answers many questions. The result is greater peace, calm, and rest but also, eventually, action. Christian meditation leads beyond the “self” whereas “Buddhist meditation involves an unhealthy degree of self-focus.” Emptying the mind leaves one “exposed to demonic influences” and “encourages escape from reality.”
It’s okay to take a break from the worries of life, but Buddhist meditation elevates the deepest inner self to the place of refuge whereas Christians seek refuge in God. He is our “Rock” and “Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14), our “hiding place and […] shield” (Psalm 119:14). Christians are not perfected, elevated, or saved by their meditation; grace has saved believers; therefore, Jesus Christ deserves our undivided attention.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.
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