Perhaps the most significant contribution of Buddhism to the international stage in recent years has been the promotion and cultural acceptance of meditation. Historically central to many Buddhist traditions and once considered an activity for a dedicated few, meditation has become mainstream. Within Buddhism itself, it has now become more widely acknowledged as a lay as well as a monastic practice. Meditation has been reinstated in religious orthopraxy in many spiritual traditions, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, where its practice had previously fallen into abeyance. Meditation is now also normalized and often recommended in secular and clinical contexts: the modern mindfulness movements and various psychologically related disciplines, by adopting various forms of meditative practice as highly effective therapeutic techniques, have made meditations, often derived from Buddhist practice, internationally acceptable. It would be fair to say that the figure of the Buddha seated in deep calm has become an internationally recognized image for the tranquility and alertness thought possible for the human mind. But what exactly is meditation? The term applies to a range of activities that go beyond, but include, the simple seated activity suggested by images of the Buddha. Walking, sitting, and eating may include exercises regarded as central elements in meditative practice. Buddhist traditions throughout all regions have often been richly varied in their attitude to the praxis and the theory of the eightfold path; all path factors are considered interrelated. The isolation of any one activity from others that may support and enhance it does not present an authentic, or what would be regarded as an effective, picture of what is known as bhāvanā, literally “making to become,” the cultivation of the eightfold path and, specifically, meditation itself. The term bhāvanā is certainly applied to seated meditation. But it also includes exercises in other postures, devotional practices, offerings, prostrations, listening to teaching, debate about the teaching, and chanting. Some of these, in some traditions, assume a central role whereby they become the core meditation practice. Meditations and other activities are often considered interdependent: from early times, the absorption and investigation of theory, sitting meditation, walking practice, chanting, and rituals aimed at stilling and clearing the mind were designed to support and complement one another. Meditation and its associated exercises are often selected and taught with careful consideration of individual needs. Many require continued guidance by more experienced practitioners: mixes of practices are often suggested to individuals according to their temperament and stage of practice. Forms of Buddhism are quite distinct; but practices are usually seen as graduated, requiring patient training before the next stage of teaching is reached, and mutually supportive. Historically, Buddhism has also often tended to adapt in a creative and flexible manner according to local customs, variations, and belief systems. These features can be seen in the great diversity of Buddhist meditative practice.
The “visualization/contemplation sutras” (Ch. guan jing觀經) refers to six scriptures in the modern Sino-Japanese Buddhist canon Taishō shinshū daizōkyō大正新脩大藏經 (“T”). The six scriptures are each devoted to particular buddhas and bodhisattvas, and in some cases, the pure lands or heavens linked to them. They include: (a) Sutra on the Sea of Samādhi Attained through Contemplation of the Buddha (Guan fo sanmei hai jing觀佛三昧海經; T 643); (b) Sutra on the Contemplation of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (Guan Wuliangshoufo jing觀無量壽佛經; T 365); (c) Sutra on the Contemplation of the Two Bodhisattvas Bhaiṣajyarāja and Bhaiṣajyasamudgata (Guan Yaowang Yaoshang erpusa jing觀藥王藥上二菩薩經; T 1161); (d) Sutra on the Contemplation of Maitreya Bodhisattva’s Ascent to Rebirth in Tuṣita Heaven (Guan Mile Pusa shangsheng doushuaitian jing觀彌勒菩薩上生兜率天經; T 452); (e) Sutra on the Contemplation of the Cultivation Methods of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (Guan Puxian Pusa xingfa jing觀普賢菩薩行法經; T 277); and (f) Sutra on the Contemplation of the Bodhisattva Ākāśagarbha (Guan Xukongzang Pusa jing觀虛空藏菩薩經; T 409). All six scriptures use the Chinese term guan觀 (or kuan) in their titles. All also feature instructions on contemplative techniques, which include fantastic visual imagery and other visionary phenomena. Due largely to these visual qualities, in English-language scholarship since the late 1950s, the most common translation for guan in their titles has been “visualization.” There is, however, no scholarly consensus for an Indic-language equivalent to guan in these scriptures, and the “visualization” designation has been increasingly questioned since the 2000s. Thus many scholars prefer the translation “contemplation,” while some opt for “discernment.” Further complicating study of the visualization/contemplation sutras are persistent questions of their provenance. The traditional translator attributions preserved in the Taishō canon all credit Indian or Central Asian monks for the “translations.” However, all six scriptures are extant only in Chinese or in translations based on the Chinese, and those translator attributions have been widely contested. Scholars thus variously posit Indian, Central Asian, or Chinese origins for the individual scriptures. The consensus as of 2020 is that, as Chinese texts, they all date to around the first half of the 5th century ce, and many scholars do accept the influence of Indian or Central Asian meditation masters active in China then. Such influence receives support in the near-contemporary emergence in China of meditation manuals that share distinctive terminology with the visualization/contemplation sutras and are often grouped with them in modern studies. Further research into the sutras should thus enrich the understanding of scriptural translation processes, the emergence of specific deity cults in East Asian Buddhism, and interlinked developments in the devotional, visionary, and contemplative practices associated with those cults.
The word “spirituality” has become increasingly common. What does it mean? It is not limited to spiritual practices, such as meditation, but suggests the pursuit of a life shaped by a sense of meaning, values, and perhaps transcendence. Although the word is used in different religions, and by people with no religious beliefs, its origins were Christian and referred to living life under the influence of God’s spirit. Nowadays, in a consciously plural world, Christian spirituality has a specific content whose origins are the Jewish and Christian scriptures. In particular, Christian spirituality is associated with following the teachings of Jesus Christ or imitating his values. The main New Testament word for this is “discipleship,” which has two main elements. First, there is a call to personal transformation (conversion). Second, Christians are to continue the mission of Jesus to transform the world and to build the kingdom of a God of love. In that fundamental sense, Christian spirituality is inherently concerned with social transformation. In the Gospel of Matthew, this includes sharing in Jesus’ work of forgiveness and healing. In the Gospel of Mark it involves selfless service of others. The history of Christian spirituality is a varied story of ways of approaching discipleship. Needless to say, part of what makes Christian spirituality distinctive is its underlying beliefs—in other words, how it understands the reality of God, the value of the material world, human nature, and identity and how these interconnect. The great variety of spiritual traditions and writings within Christianity originated at different times and places. However, they are continually being adapted in the light of new historical and cultural contexts. Scholars have sometimes found it helpful to identify different types of Christian spirituality. Their choices vary, and the types are interpretative tools rather than straightforward descriptions. “Types” help us to identify distinctive styles of spiritual wisdom. The ascetical type, sometimes associated with monasticism, highlights discipline and detachment from material pleasures as the pathway to spiritual growth. The mystical type focuses on the desire for an immediacy of presence to, and intuitive knowledge of, God, frequently via contemplative practice. The active type promotes everyday life and service to other people as the context for spiritual growth. The aesthetic type covers a range of ways in which the spiritual journey is expressed in and shaped by the arts, music, and literature. Finally the prophetic type of spirituality embraces an explicit commitment to social justice and the transformation of society. Christian spirituality has become a major area of study. It is an interdisciplinary field shaped by scripture, theology, and Christian history, but which may also draw upon psychology, the social sciences, literature, and the sciences. The study of Christian spirituality is also “self-implicating,” in the sense that it is not treated in a purely theoretical way but includes a quest for practical wisdom. Finally, the traditions of Christian spirituality increasingly engage with important issues of social and cultural transformation, for example interreligious dialogue, peace and reconciliation, ecological questions, the future of cities, the world of business, and the meaning of healthcare.