On January 2, 2015 I kicked off the New Year in quite an unforgettable way: by flying to Southeast Asia. As seminarian at Andover Newton Theological School, I had the unique opportunity to take a two-week class in Myanmar, studying Christian and Buddhist relations and principles of nonviolence. Until recently, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) had one of the most repressive governments in the world, but the country is now in the process of reaping some of the fruits of a long history of nonviolent resistance.
As part of this intense, cross-cultural endeavor, our group of 11 students and 2 professors spent 3 days at Chanmyay Yeiktha Meditation Center in Yangon, quietly immersing ourselves in the practice of Vipassana mediation. According to a small booklet of guidelines we were each given at the center:
“Vipassana or insight meditation is, above all, an experiential practice, based on the systematic and balanced development of a precise and focused awareness. By observing one’s moment-to-moment mind/body processes from a place of investigative attention, insight arises into the true nature of life and experiences. Through the wisdom acquired by using insight meditation one is able to live more freely and relate to the world around with less clinging, fear, and confusion. Thus one’s life becomes increasingly directed by consideration, compassion, and clarity.”
The way to develop this clarity, mindfulness, or awareness is to pay attention to your breath. Specifically, this could mean noticing your abdomen rising and falling with each in breath and out breath, or noticing the air going in and out through your nostrils. The breath is perhaps one of the most important concepts in meditation, and from what I understand, many people who use this practice would say that’s because the breath is the one thing that you always have throughout your life. Breath is, in fact, life. (Actually, this concept is deeply embedded in Christian theology as well. In the creation account of Genesis 2, God breathes life into the nostrils of first human being. Our breath is the life and breath of our Creator.) So to boil your attention down to just your breath, the source of life, is a simple yet profound act. There is so much more to say about the practice of Vipassana mediation, and so I recommend Larry Rosenberg’s Three Steps to Awakening: A Practice for Bringing Mindfulness to Life.
So at this point you may be wondering something important. What does it mean for seminarians or for Christians in general to practice a Buddhist meditation? A few thoughts here:
This course, officially called “Walking the Path of Nonviolence in Myanmar: Buddhist and Christian Approaches,” by its very nature was an interfaith experience. This course was designated as a Border Crossing Immersion. At Andover Newton, all Master of Divinity candidates are required to complete 3 credit hours of a Border Crossing immersion that engages students with communities and persons of different social, cultural, ethnic, racial, economic, national and/or faith identities other than their own. So in this particular class, not only were we crossing an international and cultural border, we were also intentionally crossing a religious border.
Furthermore, Buddhism is not just the majority religion in Myanmar, it is also the state religion. It would be impossible to begin to understand the culture, society, and politics of this country without learning about Buddhism and Buddhist practices. And as students we could learn and read all we wanted about Theravada Buddhism and Vipassana meditation in a book or online, but we wouldn’t really understand it until we had practiced it ourselves. This concept of personal experience is also deeply embedded in Theravada Buddhism. The monks say, “You can only learn from your teacher up to a point. You cannot benefit from another’s practice. It must be your own practice that transforms you.”
I know that there is always a risk of mis-appropriation when it comes to adopting the spiritual practices of a faith community that is not one’s own. This was a concern to some in our group, and as a seminarian preparing for Christian ministry, I was one of them. Some of these concerns were laid to rest when our Vipassana teacher, the assistant abbot of Chanmyay Yeiktha Meditation Center who met with us at least once a day on our retreat, spoke with us about non-Buddhists practicing Vipassana mediation. This practice has benefits to all, he told us. Anyone can practice because the focus and the resulting benefits are the same regardless of your worldview or your cosmology.
From my perspective, the practice of Vipassana meditation is not antithetical to my identity as a Christian. I am a follower of Jesus, who modeled a Kingdom of God-oriented life of nonviolence and compassion. Vipassana meditation is a practice that, alongside regular prayer, worship, and service to others, can only serve to increase a Christian’s compassion toward themselves and others. Furthermore, meditation in and of itself does have its own place in Christian history. Also described as contemplative prayer, this ancient spiritual practice has been reclaimed in recent decades by Benedictine monks such as Thomas Keating and Thomas Merton. In her book, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Cynthia Bourgeault describes how these monks have reintroduced meditation as a Christian practice and how the gospel of Jesus aligns with the goals of meditation, inner awakening, insight, or mindfulness. “Wake up!” John the Baptist proclaimed. “The Kingdom of God is near!” Might meditation help Christians awaken to the ways in which the Kingdom has arrived, and the ways in which it has not yet arrived? Might meditation help us live a little more attentively to the ways in which we might usher in the always new, inbreaking Kingdom of God?
Return to your breath. This is a common instruction and reminder in insight meditation. As a Christian, this is also a reminder to me: return to one who gave you breath. In my mind I hear the old haunting hymn:
“Breathe on me, Breath of God
Fill me with life anew
That I may love what Thou dost love
And do what Thou wouldst do.”
As I meditate, may this also be my prayer. With each in breath and out breath, may I be reminded of my Creator and Sustainer who gave me life and continues to give me life each day. With each thought that crosses my mind and takes my attention away, may that be one more opportunity to return to my breath and return to my breath giver.
Photo courtesy of author.