Meditation and Culture

The Interplay of Practice and Context

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Halvor Eifring
  • Bloomsbury Academic
    , September
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The question of meditative practices across cultures has informed Professor Eifring’s work extensively over the last few years. A scholar of Chan Buddhism, Eifring has edited and contributed to several books on this topic: Hindu, Buddhist and Daoist Meditation: Cultural Histories (Hermes Academic Publishing and Bookshop 2014); Meditation in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: Cultural Histories (Bloomsbury Academic 2013); Asian Traditions of Meditation (University of Hawai’I Press, forthcoming, 2016). Eifring’s interest in meditation is also underscored by his involvement with Acem Meditation International, an Oslo-based organization, of which he is the general secretary; he is also the editor of Acem’s journal Dyade.

In Meditation and Culture, Eifring contributes an introductory and a concluding chapter (Chapters 1 and 13), and a chapter on Chan Buddhist meditation.

In Chapter 1, “Meditative Practice and Cultural Context,” Eifring states the general aim of the edited volume: “There is always a tension between the transcendent aspirations involved in meditative practice and the ways in which it is deeply embedded in custom, tradition and doctrine. . . . The aim  [of this volume] is to get to a more nuanced and realistic view of the tangled interaction between practice and context, and to get closer to an answer—or rather several answers—to the question: what is the relation between meditation and culture?” (3).

Eifring is interested in meaningful cross-cultural comparisons of meditation practices, and he advocates for a more open dialogue with the scientific community. He criticizes “the widespread tendency to emphasize social cultural and linguistic constructivism and [to] marginalize alternative approaches . . . [the] resistance to cross-cultural comparisons, [and] the skepticism towards generic concepts that seek to transcend individual traditions.” In his mind, “this has . . . precluded meaningful dialogue with the natural sciences” (4).

This approach is further emphasized in Eifring’s thirteenth and final chapter “Spontaneous Thought in Meditative Traditions,” in which he compares four traditions: classical yoga, Christian mysticism, early Daoism, and Buddhist Pure Land practices, in order to “explore the parallels and contrasts between the ways different traditions relate to the constant flow of spontaneous thoughts” (201). “Spontaneous thought,” “mind wandering,” and “mindfulness” are among several terms used to define different kinds of meditation practices, and are analyzed extensively throughout the volume. Eifring is looking for the “universality of the phenomena in question,” looking to neuroscience and cognitive psychology for help in uncovering common features in meditation techniques that originate in very disparate cultural contexts. At the same time, he acknowledges their “historical and cultural situatedness” (201).

The articles selected for this book all attempt in different ways to deal with the questions and tensions detailed above. They are divided into four different groups: Traveling Practices, Competing Practices, Competing Cultures, and Cultural Mosaics, but these categories are wide enough that several articles could have belonged to more than one.

Looking at the geographical distribution of the chapters, one realizes that the book has a predominantly Asian focus: out of a total of thirteen, there are five chapters on China, one of which, on Chan Buddhism, is authored by Eifring himself. Two chapters focus on India, and there are one each on Korea, Tibet, and Java. Of the remaining three chapters, two are cross-cultural investigations by Eifring (the first and last chapters discussed above), and one is a scientific description of different modes of meditation and their effects on the brain of the practitioner. Buddhism is at the center of four chapters, but Buddhist approaches to meditation are discussed in other chapters too.

Several authors discuss different meditative practices within one religious tradition. This is the case for Robert H. Sharf (Chapter 5, “Mindfulness and Mindlessness in Early Chan”) and Halvor Eifring (Chapter 7, “Meditative Pluralism in Hanshan Deqing”) also writing on Chan Buddhism. Hanna Havnevik (Chapter 11, “Tibetan Chöd as Practiced by Ani Lochen Rinpoche”) discusses Tibetan Buddhism, and Rur Bin-Yang (Chapter 6, “Reverence and quietude in Neo-Confucianism”) treats Confucian meditation practices. M.D. Muthukumaraswamy (Chapter 12, “Vedic Chanting as a Householder’s Meditation Practice in the Tamil Saiva Siddhanta Tradition”) discusses the Saiva Siddhanta sants yogic tradition in Tamil Nadu, and Daniel Gold (Chapter 8, “The Indic Sants’ two Yogic Paths to the Formless Lord”) describes different yogic paths in northern India. These two chapters on India also address the central question of chanting in meditative traditions.

There is also attention to cross-cultural and cross-religious fertilization. Livia Kohn (Chapter 2, “The Daoist Adaptation of Buddhist Insight Meditation”), discusses the interaction between Buddhist and Daoist meditation practices in China, while Nicolas Standaerdt (Chapter 3, “Ignatian Visual Meditation in Seventeenth-Century China”), recounts the introduction and reception of Christian Ignatian Spiritual Exercises to China. Don Baker (Chapter 10, “Cinnabar-field Meditation in Korea”) documents the introduction and subsequent flourishing of Daoist inner alchemy meditation in Korea, and Paul D. Stange (Chapter 9, “Inner Islamization in Java”) locates religious pluralism in meditative traditions in Java, with animistic, Indic, and Islamic strata.

Chapter 4, “Modern Meditation in the Context of Science,” is written by Oyvind Ellingsen and Are Holen, scientists as well as directors of the Oslo-based Acem International School of Meditation mentioned above. This chapter stands in contrast to all others in that it consciously steers away from culturally and historically specific discussion of meditation practices. Ellingsen and Holen describe meditation “from the outside, in terms of biomedical perspective” (37), and its results: “relaxation, stress reduction, and better health” detected by “objective measurements” (37) such as brain imaging. This chapter attempts to categorize different forms of spontaneous mental activity and “mind wandering” that occur during meditation practice, outside of their culturally and religiously specific backgrounds.

This chapter also underscores Eifring’s own interest in scientific inquiry into meditation techniques, and offers a bridge between the scientific and academic community advocated in the introductory chapter.

While there is still much (well-placed) skepticism on the ability to move beyond individual traditions of meditation towards finding some universal understanding of how meditation practices work and affect the body and the brain, the excellent scholarly work in this volume attests to the possibility of moving in that direction from a solid research standpoint.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Elena Valussi is an Advanced Lecturer in History at Loyola University Chicago where she teaches courses in modern East Asian and Chinese history.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Halvor Eifring is a Professor in the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo.



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