Samadhi and Shojin

By Will Tuttle, Ph.D.

This piece is adapted by Dr. Will Tuttle himself from his best-selling book, The World Peace Diet. Dr. Tuttle, a member and contributor to Dharma Voices for Animals, is an educator, musician, former Zen monk, and co-founder of the Prayer Circle for Animals.

Meditation is foundational to the Buddhist teachings, and is not seen as an exotic or specific activity, but as a fundamental human potential, and refers to a mind that is present, open, relaxed, and aware. It can be induced and developed by all kinds of things, such as chanting, singing, sitting quietly and attending to our breathing, mindfully walking in nature, dancing, whirling, playing music, running, repeating a prayer, gardening, and so forth. Many activities that we are intuitively drawn to tend naturally to bring our mind more fully into the present moment and thus can be meditative practices.

An example of the connection between meditative practice and compassion toward animals may be seen in the concepts of samadhi and shojin in the Zen tradition. Although this is an example from a specific tradition, the underlying principles are universal and can be applied to all of us, whatever our religious inclinations may be. Samadhi refers to deep meditative stillness, in which the mind transcends its usual conflicted, anxious, busy, and noisy condition, quiets down, and becomes clear, bright, free, relaxed, and serenely poised in the present moment. Shojin is “religious abstention from animal foods” and is based on the core religious teaching of ahimsa, or harmlessness, the practice of refraining from causing harm to other sentient beings. Shojin and samadhi are seen to work together, with shojin purifying the body-mind and allowing, though certainly not guaranteeing, access to the spiritually enriching experience of samadhi.

In some Zen Buddhist traditions it is taught that there are two types of samadhi. “Absolute samadhi” refers to an inner state of one-pointed, relaxed and bright awareness in which the body is still, typically seated. The mind is totally absorbed in the present moment, and the usual inner dialogue has ceased. In “positive samadhi,” which is based on the experience of absolute samadhi, we are functioning in the world, walking, gardening, cooking, cleaning, and so forth, with a mind that is fully present to the experiences arising every moment. This is similar to the practice of mindfulness, and to the Taoist practice of “wu wei,” or “non-action,” in which the illusion of a separate doer dissolves in the immediacy of fulfilling the potential of the present moment. In Christian terms, this may be similar to “practicing the Presence” and to the practice recommended in the admonition to “pray without ceasing,” whereas absolute samadhi may be akin to a state of profound at-one-ment with the divine.

Both absolute and positive samadhi are universal human potentials that transcend the particularities of tradition and labeling. They heal the mind and body at a deep level and reconnect us with our true nature. Because of the fear, shame, and woundedness we have all experienced, however, they seem to be difficult to attain and practice, and to require an enormous ongoing commitment to diligent inner cultivation. Entering the inner stillness of samadhi requires patiently returning our attention to the present moment, and requires that our mind be undisturbed by our outer actions.

This is why the spirit of shojin, which sees animals as subjects and not as commodities to be used or eaten, is so essential on the path of spiritual evolution. The spirit of shojin is compassion for others and allowing them to be free, and the practice of shojin in turn liberates us from the inner mental states that accompany eating animal foods. These mental states—agitation, worry, fear, panic, despair, sadness, grief, nervousness, aggressiveness, anger, disconnectedness, despair, dullness, fogginess, and stupor—are unavoidable if we are omnivores, brought into us as vibrational frequencies with the foods we are eating, and generated within us by our own undeniably violent and harmful food choices and the psychological blocking these actions demand. These negative mental states generally make meditation a negative experience and ensure that it will not truly quiet our mind or help us reach higher levels of spiritual illumination. First we must purify our actions and stop harming vulnerable creatures. This requires mindfulness, the ancient spirit of shojin that is the foundation of veganism.

To be effective, to tame the mind, we are called to actually live this spirit of nonviolence and compassion; otherwise our mind will be too disturbed to enter the inner peace of samadhi. This stillness and serenity of mind lies at the heart of spiritual life, whatever religion or non-religion we may hold to, and it requires the inner purity of a clear conscience. It allows the old inner wall, splitting “me” here from “the world” out there, to dissolve. With this, a deeper understanding of the infinite interconnectedness of all life can blossom.

Shojin and veganism are vital because they foster the inner peace required for spiritual maturity. They are forms of inner and outer training and discipline that lay the foundation for the meditative exploration that opens us to the truth of interbeing. This is why shojin is so essential to samadhi, and why veganism and nonviolence are essential for deep prayer, meditation, and spiritual awakening. Outer compassion and inner stillness feed each other. Shojin and veganism are essential to our spiritual health because they remove a fundamental hindrance on our path.