Dhyana and Element Meditation

After discussing in the insert above various Brahmin meditative practices, we will now take a brief look at the practice of dhyana. It is often translated as meditation and, like the yoga sign, pops up in the Upanishads.

In the later Upanishads, dhyana is listed as a one of several yoga technologies, so here we have a meditation style explicitly linked to the yoga sign. However, dhyana is already mentioned in some of the early Upanishads preceding yoga, indicating that there was dhyana before there was yoga. Dhyai – its root form – means to think of. In the early pre- Buddhist and pre-yoga Upanishads it is not clear what dhyana is about. In the Kausitaki Upanishad it seems to be about thoughts in relation to consciousness, according to Crangle. But what does that imply? Is dhyana already the meditation it would become later on, or is it rather about concentrated thinking?

It is first in the post-Buddhist Mundaka Upanishad that dhyana is translated as and used in the meaning of meditation. Buddhism was from day one strongly associated with meditation so the Mundaka Upanishad could have picked up dhyana meditation from here. This implies that we admit the possibility that dhyana meaning meditation comes from a practice outside the Brahmin tradition – from Sramana groups like the Buddhists and the Jains. This is confirmed by the fact that within the Buddhist discourse, the sign dhyana had a central role from the very beginning and was about meditative absorption. It was called jhana ‘ and seen to consist of a hierarchy of stages of increasing absorption. The Jains also used dhyana meditation as a part of their asceticism. So when dhyana finally signified still-mind meditation’ in the Upanishads it could at that point of time easily be an import.

This leaves the question still open: was there dhyana meditation before Buddhism, Jainism and early-yoga? By looking at Buddhist sources we might have an answer. They use the term jhana’ instead of the Sanskrit dhyana’. In some sources we hear that Buddha remembered how as a child he had practised jhana meditation, which he described as tranquil and blissful. Based on jhana, Buddha developed his own style of meditation. So according to some Buddhist discourse there seems to have been a pre-Buddhist and maybe pre-yoga practice of dhyana meditation. It seems to be a gentle style far away from the strenuous and disciplined way in which meditation often is described, according to Bronkhorst (1986).

However, there are other Buddhist sources telling an entirely different story. They claim that two Brahmin teachers actually taught Buddha meditation. This issue has been investigated intensively by A. Wynne in The Origin of Buddhist Meditation (2007). Wynne concludes that these sources provide a historically correct account. There is textual evidence, according to Wynne, showing that the Brahmins, prior to Buddha, had developed a style of meditation similar to the way in which dhyana meditation is described in Buddhist sources. Some scholars then counter argue that the Brahmins actually learned this meditation from the Jains, as it has all the hallmarks of their mortified mind’ meditation. Against that Wynne argues that this Brahmin meditation was genuinely theirs, because this meditation style was a kind of element meditation’ closely related to Brahmin cosmology. Element meditation’ follows a process of mentally reversing the evolution of cosmos, as described by the Brahmin cosmology. In this way the meditator, layer after layer – element after element – moves back to the element of origin, brahman.

Element meditation is a style of meditation where the meditator in his imagination focusses on the fundamental elements of Brahmin cosmos like earth, wind, water, fire and space. By following these, the meditator returns to brahman to the sphere of nothingness’ or the ‘sphere of neither perception nor non-perception’. Most modern readers would probably recognise this as meditation’. Wynne here supports the view that dhyana meditation could logically have developed naturally out of Brahmin institutions and cosmology.

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