An op-ed in yesterday's The New York Times asked Can We End the Meditation Madness? The author opines that all of the so-called benefits of meditation can be achieved by other means. "Every benefit of the practice can be gained through other activities," he notes, and protests the single-minded advocacy of meditation proponents.
You might expect a Zen Buddhist, or a former Zen Buddhist, to take offense at the article. Actually, however, I don't.
He brings up some good points, and for a while now I've been expecting a backlash against the recent commodification and commercialization of meditation practice, particularly mindfulness meditation as practiced by Silicon Valley technocrats. By promoting the benefits of mindfulness, and meditation as the path to that mindfulness, some of the more zealous proponents sound at times like 19th Century snake-oil salesmen or 20th Century advertising executives (Mad Men). Just like the other hucksters, they've identified a new malady, lack of mindfulness, and are selling a cure, meditation, to correct this deficiency. Any time a spiritual practice is promoted for material gain, it's no longer a spiritual practice, as well explained back in 1973 by Chögyam Trungpa in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.
Even Zen Master Dogen, who once wrote that "From the time you begin to practice meditation under a teacher, incense burning, bowing, chanting, as well as the practices of repentance or of reading the scriptures, are unnecessary," also wrote in Shobogenzo Butsudō that "dhyāna (meditation) is never the whole importance of the Buddha-Dharma."
While I agree with the criticisms of materialist meditation practice in the Times editorial, the author made a fundamental distinction early on in his analysis. By focusing right at the start on the benefits of meditation, he unknowingly moved away from the Zen practice of shikantaza, meditation without expectation of a reward, to the modern version of meditation practice as a panacea for whatever ails you. Shikantaza is just you being yourself, right here, right now, and if you're just being yourself, nothing is gained. To want to accumulate some reward or benefit one has not yet realized is to seek something beyond the self, and that is not the practice of shikantaza. While I won't deny that benefits are realized by meditation practice, to seek after those benefits is spiritual materialism, not spiritual practice.
So, I agree with the op-ed that the benefits of materialist meditation practice can be realized by other means as well, but point out that doesn't mean that the benefits of even the materialist practice aren't being realized through meditation as well. But I would take it a step further and even say that materialist meditation practice has its limitations, and that shikantaza, meditation without expectation of a reward, transcends those limitations.
Th criticisms of meditation in the Times op-ed are not aimed at the meditation that I and other Zen adherents practice, and to use the Buddha's example, if you practice shikantaza and are offended by an article that doesn't discuss your form of practice, it's like someone shot an arrow at you and missed, but you pick the arrow up anyway and start stabbing yourself with it.