Meditation in Buddhism is not about experiencing the ‘present moment’ as some people claim but rather it is the gateway to enlightenment and other mystical experiences. This can be demonstrated by looking the descriptions given by the Buddha and his disciples of meditative states including mindfulness and the claims of the masters regarding the power of meditation and its mystical fruits.
Contrary to the secular idea that mediation is solely about being ‘present in the moment’ we find in the scriptures meditation is an otherworldly experience (cf, A.IV.430) constituting another world in both the psychological and cosmological sense (cf, D.III.215 and S.V.56). It is a ‘superbly extraordinary state’ (cf, M.I.159; M.I.147)beyond reflection and conceptual though.
It might be objected that the jhana’s are about concentration whereas in mindfulness mediation we are aware of the ‘present moment’ but Buddha warned us not to reify the present saying “let go of the past, and future” but also “let go of the present” (see appendix one). We must further recognize that the present moment is an illusion since all phenomenal appearances are not ultimate but rather dreamlike illusions and persistent projections of one’s own mind. Furthermore, the Buddha did not declare any sharp distinctions between mindfulness [sati] and concentration (Thanissaro, 2010).
which is the faculty of sati [mindfulness]? There is the case where a
disciple of the noble ones has sati, is endowed with excellent
proficiency in sati, remembering and recollecting what was done and
said a long time ago. He remains focused on the body in and of
itself—ardent, alert, and having sati— subduing greed and
distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings
in and of themselves… the mind in and of itself… mental qualities
in and of themselves—ardent, alert, and having sati—subduing
greed and distress with reference to the world. This is called the
faculty of sati.”
Furthermore, it is possible to be mindful of things that will occur in the future such as death. From the Pali-cannon (AN 6.19):
Blessed One said, “Mindfulness of death, when developed and
pursued, is of great fruit and great benefit. It gains a footing in
the deathless, has the deathless as its final end. Therefore you
should develop mindfulness of death.”
The reason one can be mindful of future events is because sati is best described as remembering and thus bringing to mind in remembrance inevitable future events is a legitimate mindfulness [sati] practice. In the Satipațțhāna-sutta the term sati means to remember the dharmas, whereby the true nature of phenomena can be seen (Sharf, 2014, p 942) and is what causes the practitioner to “remember” that any feeling she experiences exists in relation to a whole variety of feelings that may be skillful or unskillful, with faults or faultlessness, inferior or refined, dark or pure (Sharf, 2014, p 942) (Gethin, 1992). In other words mindfulness (Sati) has almost nothing to do with ‘bare awareness’ or ‘living in the moment’ and many have bemoaned the dangers of conflating of ‘bare attention’ with sati (Thanissaro, 2010) (Garfield, n.d.).
It can not even be argued that living in the present is a distinctly Zen teaching since the masters also teach that we should reject the phenomena before us. In the words of Changhwa kunsunim (Changhwa, 2003, p187) :
is] truly deplorable that [we] only see the external appearance of
things, only [see] the phenomena, not the ultimate reality or
essence” (Changhwa, 2003, p186) and that “Meditation practice is
the realization of the truth that mind itself is the Buddha, the
Buddha, the mind.”
In fact it’s not unusual for Zen masters to sound quite mystical about awakening such as Changhwa kunsunim insisting that “the true-thusness, the Vairocana Buddha is itself the universe” (Changhwa, 2003, p191) and that the universe is literally the mind of the Buddha and that rocks and clouds are literally alive with the mysterious Buddha-mind. Dogen likewise argued for the universality of Buddha-nature and claimed that “fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles“ are also “mind” (心,shin). Dogen also argued that “insentient beings expound the teachings” and that the words of the eternal Buddha “are engraved on trees and on rocks . . . in fields and in villages” (Parks , 2009) (Parks , 2009) (Parks , 2009) ( Heisig, 2010) (OUP, 2013) (OUP, 2005)
And it might be tempting to write this mysticism off as a metaphor but other contemporary masters talk in ways that leave no doubt that the meaning is mystical (DaeHaeng, 2007, p26):
speed of light is considered to be the fastest thing in the universe,
but it is not faster than mind. The ability of mind is such that if
you awaken there is nothing you cannot know, and there is no place
you cannot reach. The Buddha knew that displaying this ability tends
to confuse people, without helping them, so he was careful about
doing so. If you sincerely believe in the power of mind and awaken,
then, while continuing to practice, you will be able to clearly see
all the things that are invisible to ordinary people. The ability of
our fundamental mind is the most profound and mysterious thing in the
It is extremely hard to take this kind of talk as a metaphor and the Zen master continues on talking about life on other planets and it’s clear she is talking about spiritual beings rather than beings made with carbon atoms. Many of the seemingly impossible promises that are found in Buddhism such as saving all beings seem literally possible from the enlightened perspective. As DaeHaeng kunsunim put it (DaeHaeng, 2007, p64):
the mysterious and profound truth that is the Buddha-Dharma, you can
hear the needs of all unenlightened beings and you can save all
unenlightened beings. You can do all this with hands that are not
hands and feet that are not feet. All of this is possible because
through the power of the Buddha-Dharma anything can be done, even in
the material world. The great meaning of the Buddha-Dharma is so
vast and complete that it is almost beyond comprehension.”
It is clear from the words and the contexts above that these contemporary Zen masters are not using metaphors and do not think they are exaggerating. And furthermore, on close inspection it is even impossible to take as metaphors the celestial Buddha and Bodhisattva when enlightened contemporary masters write in English their experiences of meeting Cosmic Beings (Jongil,1990):
Daein Cave on the side of Mt. Youngchook, the Vairocana Himself
prophesied that I would be a Buddha in the near future (in this life
or the next). He touched me on the forehead, saying, “Buddhist
Nun, you are a student of mine forever” and “for three months he
taught me how to get Buddhahood.” ”
The simplification of meditation to a secular cult of the ‘present moment’ is rather to miss the point. Meditation requires ‘right aspiration’ (Samma sankappa), ‘right views’ (Samma ditthi), ‘right livelihood’ (Samma Ajiva) and the rest of the path. Buddhism is about mind-training that is deep and difficult and does lead to otherworldly and mystical experiences which illuminate the commonly unseen. Meditation is about the great matter of life and death – a bit more than a walk in the park to listen to the birds! Although, I do love a walk in the park and the birds are very pretty…
DaeHaeng, kunsunim, (2007), Trusting the Enlightenment That’s Always There, Wisdom Publications
Garfield, Jay L., n.d., Mindfulness and Ethics: Attention, Virtue and Perfection, http://info-buddhism.com/Mindfulness-and-Morality-J-Garfield.html, accessed 24/01.2017
Gethin, Rupert M.L. (1992), The Buddhist Path to Awakening: A Study of the Bodhi-Pakkhiȳa Dhammā. BRILL’s Indological Library, 7. Leiden and New York:
Heisig, JW; Raud, R (2010) ‘Body-min’ and Buddha-Nature: Dōgen’s Deeper Ecology’ In: Frontiers of Japanese Philosophy: Classical Japanese Philosophy. Nagoya, Japan: Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture
Jongil, (1990), Vairocana, isbn 978-89-5746-310-9
OUP (2005). Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford: OUP.
OUP. (2013). Dogen Kigen. Available: http://oxfordindex.oup.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095724851. Last accessed 13 Sept 2013.
Parkes , Graham (2009) ‘Dōgen’s `Mountains and Waters as Sūtras” In: William Edelglass and Jay L. Garfield (eds).Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press
Parkes , Graham (2009) ‘The Awareness of Rock: East-Asian Understandings and Implications’ In: David Skrbina (eds).mind that Abides: Panpsychism in the New Millenium. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins
Parks  , Graham (2009). The awareness of rocks. Skrbina David, Ed. mind that Abides.’ Chapter 17, pg 326.
Sharf, Robert (October 2014). “Mindfulness and Mindlessness in Early Chan” (PDF). Philosophy East and West. 64 (4): 943. ISSN 0031-8221.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 2010, Mindfulness Defined, http://www.katinkahesselink.net/tibet/mindfulness-thanissaro.html, accessed 24/01.2017
APPENDIX ONE (Dhammapada 348)
pure munca pacchato
majjhe munca bhavassa paragu
na punam jatijaram upehisi.
Let go of the past, let go of the future.
go of the present. Having gone beyond becoming,
you will never again come to birth and aging.
Let go of the past, let go of the future,
go of the present, and cross over to the farther shore of
With mind wholly liberated,
you shall come no
more to birth and death.