A common misunderstanding among those raised within a Christian background is thinking that meditation means the same thing in Buddhism as it does in Christianity. This, however, is a mistake. As John Michael Talbot explains, “The word ‘meditation’ means somewhat different things to different traditions” (4).

In Christianity, meditation is “The act of calling to mind some supposition, pondering upon it, and correlating it to one’s own life” (Holman Bible Dictionary). It is an act of thinking deeply about something. The Bible suggests meditating or pondering on the “book of the law” (Joshua 1:8), on God (Psalm 63:6), on God’s “mighty deeds” (Psalm 77:12), or on his “precepts” (Psalm 119:15).

In Buddhism, meditation (samādhi) is “unifying the mind and placing its awareness upon a particular object.” A Concise Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen explains that it is “collectedness of the mind on a single object through (gradual) calming of mental activity.” It is a one-pointed concentration or focus. It is not thinking or pondering about something.

John Michael Talbot, a Catholic monk, is right when he says, “By ‘meditation,’ they mean what we would really call ‘contemplation’” (5). As Thomas Merton explains, “Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of the Source” (1). Notice that this definition of ‘contemplation’ is very close to the Buddhist idea of meditation.

So what Christians call ‘contemplation’ we Buddhists would call ‘meditation.’ So in a sense, Christians just need to swap their meanings of meditation and contemplation in order to better understand us Buddhists. And it is important for those coming to Buddhism from a Christian background that mean something different by the word meditation.

References

  • A Concise Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. Ingrid Fischer-Schreiber, Franz-Karl Ehrhard, and Michael S. Diener. Translated by Michael H. Kohn. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2010.
  • Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions Books, 2007.
  • Olendzki, Andrew. “What’s in a Word? Samādhi?” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Summer 2021.
  • Talbot, John Michael. Come to the Quiet: The Principles of Christian Meditation. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnan, 2002.