Dr. Eric Greene - Lecturer in East Asian Religions, University of Bristol
The concept of “visualization” is often invoked as a description or explanation of various forms of Buddhist meditation practice, prominent among which are certain forms of meditation that became popular in fifth-century China. Nevertheless precisely what we mean by “visualization” is rarely examined when this word is used to discuss Buddhist practices. Uncovering the roots of the concept of “visualization” in 19th-century experimental psychology shows how the eventual application of this word to several different forms of Buddhist contemplative practice was part of a broader shift in the Western understanding of Buddhism and Buddhist meditation that took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When fifth-century Buddhist meditation practices are reconsidered in this light, we will be able to see that the concept of “visualization” imports distinctions (between, for example, visualizing, imagining, and hallucinating) that prove not to be salient in the fifth-century Chinese Buddhist understanding. Other ways of discussing this material, such as in comparison with divination practices, may offer a more accurate conception of how fifth-century Chinese Buddhists understood these practices and the experiences they were thought to produce.