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 the 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).
In fact the Buddha explained that mindfulness (sati) includes a process of retrospectve observing or both retospection and observation. In the words of the Buddha (SN 48:10):
“And 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):
“The 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) :
“[It 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):
“The 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 entire universe.”
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 its 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):
“Through 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):
“In 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 livilhood' (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 Englightenment 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
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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
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Sharf, Robert (October 2014). "Mindfulness and Mindlessness in Early Chan" (PDF). Philosophy East and West. 64 (4): 943. ISSN 0031-8221.
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APPENDIX ONE (Dhammapada 348)
Munca pure munca pacchato
majjhe munca bhavassa paragu
na punam jatijaram upehisi.
Let go of the past, let go of the future.
Let go of the present. Having gone beyond becoming,
with mind completely freed,
you will never again come to birth and aging.
Let go of the past, let go of the future,
let go of the present, and cross over to the farther shore of existence.
With mind wholly liberated,
you shall come no more to birth and death.