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In a recent Buddhist Geeks podcast the presenter Bodhipaksa stated that by the time the Buddhagosa wrote the commentary Visuddhimagga in the 5th Century CE, meditation had been largely abandoned. He goes on to state that there is good evidence that 500 years previously Buddhist monks had given up meditation and felt the best they could do was to pass down the Buddhist texts to further generations.

To what extent is this analysis of Buddhism true? Was meditation really not practiced for a large proportion of Buddhist history? If this is the case then when was meditation 'rediscovered' or at least reinvigorated?

  • I don't have any reference to the state of affairs in such early date, but this blog post contains many references that can be used to sketch the recent (from 16th century) revival of meditation practices in Theravada. – Thiago Jan 4 '15 at 19:12
  • Good question. Not only does the podcaster say that meditation had mostly died out by Buddhagosa's time, he said that Buddhagosa himself did not meditate. That surprised me because I'd previously thought that Visuddhimagga could only have been written by someone with extensive practical experience and not just scholarly knowledge. – tkp Jan 8 '15 at 2:23
  • The best teachers aren't always the best practitioners and vice versa.. Often times it is the opposite because the better you can use your mind (to explain things to people) the less you can easily understand emptiness and attain samadhi (the mind's creativity becomes a trap). The initial story of Asangha and Vasubandhu illustrates this as well as Sariputta being able to memorize the entire Buddha's words but never attain samadhi until after Buddha's passing. – Ahmed Feb 7 '15 at 16:37
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It is quite safe to say that the Buddhist interest in meditation is much higher than a few hundred years ago. David Chapman argues that vipassana was basically reinvented around 1900. His post is certainly controversial, but he provides sources, so it is a good starting point for researching the subject.

It is rather certain that some of the vipassana techniques originated in the 19th century, e.g. the "New Burmese" method was created by The-lon Sayadaw:

According to Strong Roots, cited below, “The-Lon Sayadaw… put this textual guidance [the Visuddhimagga] into practice without a personal teacher to guide [him] in mindfulness practice” (p. 110).

Origins of some techniques are less certain. For instance, Chapman argues that Ledi Sayadaw invented his own technique. However, an answer to a related question provides sources that say that he only learnt a technique that had been practiced in the caves of Sagaing Hills:

Ledi Sayadaw learned the technique of Vipassana which had remained being taught in the caves of the Sagaing Hills, which was honeycombed with meditation caves and dotted with forest monasteries

In any case, even if is the case, the meditation wasn't widespread at that time. In The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw, Erik Braun writes:

This is not to say that no one meditated prior to the colonial period, but [...] such practice was limited, especially among the laity.

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It's very untrue to say that meditation wasn't practiced in Sri Lanka at that time. What actually happened is that the community of monks specialized itself in two divisions. The city monks who lived in monasteries within cities and villages and they specialized in memorizing and studying texts, and the forest monks specialized in meditation. It's not that meditation died out, but rather it wasn't done on large scales in the city and village monasteries that most people went to.

And even then it's a bit of an oversimplification. Some city monks devoted themselves to meditation, and some forest monks also spent a good deal of time studying.

Of course at different times in history meditation has been more common or less common, but I don't think you could ever say it died out.

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There were periods in which the practice declined. E.g. In Sri Lanka the Sangha also declined and was later restored by Weliwita Sri Saranankara Thero. Also Ven. Nanamoli's translation of Path to Purification has in its introduction about the decline in early periods.

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