“Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience”

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First-person accounts of Buddhist mystic experiences are, in fact, not as common as one might expect in a tradition supposedly intent on producing them. While personal accounts may be lacking, there is no shortage of prescriptive manuals delineating stages on the Buddhist path, texts that were highly esteemed in the monastic tradition. But the Buddhist tradition itself is hesitant to claim that these narrative texts were composed on the basis of personal experience.

Historical and ethnographic evidence suggests that the privileging of experience may well be traced to certain twentieth-century Asian reform movements, notable those that urge a ‘return’ to zazen or vipassana meditation. These reforms were profoundly influenced by religious developments in the West. Those contemporary Buddhist movements that emphasize meditative experience often turn out to be movements that were themselves influenced by their encounter with the Occident.

In etic terms, Buddhist meditation might best be seen as the ritualization of experience: it does not engender a specific experiential state so much as it enacts it. The legitimacy and orthodoxy of a particular meditative experience is guaranteed not only by strict adherence to prescribed technique, but also by ceremonial acts intended to ‘authorize’ or ‘certify’ one’s spiritual accomplishment to the community at large.


Reference: Sharf, Robert H.: ‘Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience’,1995.

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