Category Archives: Religion

Your Brain on Buddhism


There’s more and more information coming out about the positive effects of meditation on the human brain. Now, it seems, science is realizing that the early teachings of the Buddha anticipated knowledge only now being uncovered by neurology and neuroscience.

Neuroscience tells us the thing we take as our unified mind is an illusion, that our mind is not unified and can barely be said to “exist” at all. Our feeling of unity and control is a post-hoc confabulation and is easily fractured into separate parts. As revealed by scientific inquiry, what we call a mind (or a self, or a soul) is actually something that changes so much and is so uncertain that our pre-scientific language struggles to find meaning.

Buddhists say pretty much the same thing. They believe in an impermanent and illusory self made of shifting parts. They’ve even come up with language to address the problem between perception and belief. Their word for self is anatta, which is usually translated as ‘non self.’  One might try to refer to the self, but the word cleverly reminds one’s self that there is no such thing.

The Buddha, of course, arrived at this insight by immersing himself in ever-deepening states of meditative absorption, until he went so far “out there” (or “in there”) that the true nature of mind became obvious. What allowed Gautama to be recognized as a Buddha was the fact that he could develop this insight (to which he arrived upon an initial contemplation of suffering) into a complete “Net of Jewels” — the Buddhadhama, a beautifully interconnected set of instructions that, if followed earnestly and patiently, leads to the same Truth that he found under the Bodhi Tree.

In any case, it’s exciting to find that, yet again, modern science ends up parroting an understanding about the nature of reality that’s been commonly expressed by mystics down through the ages.

Reflections on Buddhist and Christian Expressions of “Salvation”

St. John of the Cross

For those who are interested in a Buddhist-Christian dialogue (and I realize that many are definitely NOT), I’ve just posted some musings about the nature of Heaven and Hell with regard to Samsara and Nibbana/Nirvana over at my new blog, Enlightenment or Salvation?

Our Ecstatic Birthright… Despite Orthodoxy

Moreover, the Gnostic emphasis on inner illumination aroused some discomfort in this nascent ecclesiastical establishment. As the scholar Elaine Pagels has pointed out, “Gnostic teaching… was potentially subversive of this order: it claimed to offer every initiate direct access to God of which the priests and bishops themselves might be ignorant.” This was bound to be irritating to the priests and bishops. Consequently, they launched into a vigorous campaign against Gnosticism. Once they achieved secular power, as they did when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, they were in a position to come down on the Gnostics and other heterodox Christian sects with the might of the state.

Richard Smoley, Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition

In another article, I mentioned that the notion of a personal God has not made sense to me, despite (or due to) being a preacher’s kid who spent the first 19 years of my life in church.

Even as a small child, however, I knew that Bible stories, prayer, hymns and rituals pointed to “something” that could be touched by humans in a real and profound way. In fact, I had some unitive experiences as a young boy that remain prominent in my worldview to this day. I would complain to my father that there was no “direct experience of God” in our church. He laughed and tussled my hair, and I learned not to talk about it very much as time moved on.

In my mid-30’s, however, ecstatic phenomena that mirrored those of my early life returned with great power. At the time, I was studying various Eastern traditions, none of which spoke to these ecstatic experiences, other than to discourage them as “diversions” from the Goal. I spent about eight years in the desert, so to speak, unable to deny the bliss, joy and ecstasy that had awakened in my being, while at the same time finding very little support from the books and teachers I came across.

As for Christianity… I had a vague notion that, somewhere deep in the past, there were followers of Christ Jesus’ teachings who perhaps had direct experiences of “God,” but when I surveyed current expressions of the Church, I found nothing but fundamentalism, over-intellectualism, “fluff” and social clubs. The very existence of “Christian Rock” music was more than enough to keep my head and nose turned away.

Having accessed — through contact with kindred spirits who exhibit similar “symptoms” to mine — the Buddhadhamma, and having discovered within it a very specific set of meditation and mindfulness instructions that spoke directly to my ecstatic expriences, I rejoiced. I found that the Buddha overtly taught about the ecstasies (which he called jhana or samadhi), and that he placed paramount importance on them.

It’s been about seven years since I made this discovery, and it’s been less than 50 years since the Buddha’s original teachings have been made widely available in English. So, for about 2,400 years, these teachings have been “hidden” deep within Theravada Buddhism, insulated even from most monks. The Buddhist priesthood, like priesthoods from most other religious traditions, became a guardian of orthodoxy — and this orthodoxy not only avoided the direct experiences that formed the core of the original teaching, but actively repressed it down through the years. In many ways, such repression continues to this day.

* * *

I am aware that this is nothing new. Mystics and ecstatics have been oppressed throughout history, having threatened the priestly hierarchy’s authority, since few if any priests exhibit the ecstatic phenomena described, taught and championed by a given religion’s progenitor.

And yet, mystics and ecstatics arise in every generation. Whereas the dominant culture has always pathologized expressions of the ecstatic (which are, at core, feminine in nature — the subject for another article, no doubt), we rarely burn ecstatics at the stake these days.

No, we label ecstatics as “problem children” with ADD/ADHD, and we pump them full of Ritalin. We prescribe exotic cocktails of SSRI drugs, so that children and adults may return to “full productivity” on the treadmill of modern existence.

The fact that so much of modern-day society is either dependent on psychosomatic prescription medication, or has adopted damaging self-medication regimens, suggests to me that human nature is ecstatic at core.

A technological society as removed from the Sacred as ours puts a lot of pressure on individuals to suppress naturally-occurring ecstasy. Many succumb, taking the Pill. Others resist… but without competent teachers of the charismatic, they often turn to mind-altering substances, seeking in various drug or alcohol experiences that which already exists within us — free of charge, free of negative side-effects.

I am a survivor of the second category, and am thankful that I never fell into the trap of the first.

* * *

Now that the Buddha’s original Middle Path (in the form of Suttas or Discourses which purport to preserve Gautama’s teachings first in oral transmission, then written on Papyrus leaves some 2,200 years ago) is widely available in English, it is interesting to note that the Buddha did not hide the “good stuff” from anyone.

Yes, the Suttas are directed to his monks (who were legion at the time), but there was no effort to reserve these teachings for just his most accomplished followers. Gautama went out of his way to state that the Buddhadhamma was of a single cloth — nothing hidden, this is what you get, take it or leave it. It was his gift to a humanity that, like ours, had strayed far from its True Nature.

The Four Noble Truths, the fourth of which is the Noble Eightfold Path, culminating in Right Absorption (Samma-Samadhi)… followed by a life spent saturated in meditative absorption, dissolving the dastardly “fetters” that keep humans on the Wheel of Samsarathis is what Gautama taught, forwards and backwards, saturated always in jhana/samadhi.

Unfortunately, the Theravada priestly hierarchy, within just a couple generations of the Buddha’s passing, turned Buddhism into something completely different than what was originally propounded. The Abhidhamma, for instance, proposed to “add” to what had already been fully given — an entire “secret” psychological system that did not appear in the original discourses, but was added to the Pali Canon nevertheless. A few hundred years later, a series of commentaries was added to the official orthodoxy, the Visuddhimagga being the primary example. These efforts served to entrench the authority of the priesthood, and to obfuscate the ecstatic teachings of Gautama Buddha. For hundreds of years, orthodox teachings of Theravada Buddhism have filtered through these (and other similar) books, relegating the Buddha’s actual teachings to the proverbial dusty monastery basement.

* * *

So, forty-seven years after my birth, I’m “getting it” that this world does not support the ecstatic.

There is no un-broken transmission of Jesus’ ecstatic teachings (which are now coming to light in Gnostic texts being unearthed in the Middle East)… and there is for sure no formal schooling for such teachings within the mainstream Christianity of my upbringing. On the contrary, church as I experienced it was a hollow shell, filled with desperate souls who desired union with God, but who eventually settled for peak experiences (church camp rallies, etc.) and the solace of community.

Something similar has happened to Theravada Buddhism, though the advent of the Sutta Pitaka in English has given rise to a (mostly-misguided) discussion of ecstatic states.

I cannot speak experientially about Islamic Sufism, but my sense is that there is a pure transmission of ecstatic practices that retains Islam’s original ecstatic inspiration. It’s hard to know for certain, since these esoteric teachings are reserved for initiates only. Mainstream Islam, with its five-times-daily prayer and other ritual obligations, is perhaps more conducive to ecstatic experience than most other religious expressions… but, again, there is a long history there of repression of the ecstatic unitive experience, with dire consequences to many devout Sufis.

I am equally devoid of significant experience regarding Tibetan Buddhism and every other esoteric/initiatic tradition that I know of, most of which filter through a living teacher. Judging by the vast number of Eastern Teachings books available these days, there is at least the promise of ecstatic experience available through these systems, hidden as they are. [There is yet another article begging to be written about living teachers offering exclusive curriculums… but we’ll leave it for another time.]

My solution has been to (finally, after much searching) connect with a community of ecstatic contemplatives, to adopt a rigorous and skillful daily contemplative practice, to study ecstatic writings from all traditions, and to wear my ecstatic birthright as a primary element of this particular human identity. In doing so, I find that I am not alone, and that the message of ecstasy resonates deeply in those who have moved beyond unconscious repression/expression of this profound human trait.

My solution is also to recognize that exoteric religion contains Mystery symbols that carry primordial meaning for those whose practice is labeled esoteric and ecstatic — and that, despite the abandonment of ecstasy by mainstream religion, we may connect with mystic saints who’ve left surprisingly similar records within every religion.

Having been raised a Christian, I find that my early-life connection with the Person of Christ is impossible to abandon. Perhaps Jesus IS my guru, and he is speaking to me through Gnostic, Essene and other non-canonical writings represented in findings at Qumran and Nag Hammadi. I pull these ancient writings forward as the Sacred essence of Christianity’s original inspiration… and I allow them to invade my direct experience of that very same Sacred, beyond time and space, straight back to the Source of everything.

* * *

Ultimately, anyone who has given rise to the ecstatic knows that one cannot ask for more in life, no matter what our orthodox institutions say.

The upwelling of charismatic phenomena is, after all, what all the practice is about. Having come into it, our internal navigation system activates, such that it is only a matter of time before we are led all the way Home.

What About Divine Revelation?

Suppose that a contemplative has adopted a rigorous and skillful practice, such that she sits each and every meditation session as though it will be the last one in her life.

She brings applied and sustained attention to the object of meditation — say, the breath — until there arises the first hint of absorption, otherwise known as a jhana nimitta.  This may happen a few minutes into her meditation session, or it may happen after 50 minutes… who knows?  It may happen a week after starting her rigorous routine, or it may happen several months later.  She is patient, she trusts in the Buddha’s guidance as preserved in the Phala Nikaya, and she continues to practice until one or more of the characteristics of absorption arises.

When this happens, the contemplative shifts her attention from the breath to the nimitta (i.e., to a manifestation of bliss, joy and ecstasy, no matter what form it happens to take)… and the nimitta leads her into the various absorption states during this and subsequent meditation sessions.

The contemplative continues to practice, practice, practice, at least three hour-long sessions a day, moving into absorption on a regular basis.  She becomes absorbed so frequently, in fact, that she begins to notice that the effects never fully fade; she has become saturated in meditative absorption, such that she is able to amplify the jhana nimittas even when she is not formally meditating.

When she becomes saturated 24/7/365, she has arrived at a new category of participation in this “reality” called “waking life.”  Bliss, joy and ecstasy bathe her inwardly and outwardly in a constant throbbing or vibration — a type of giddiness — as though the fingers of God are gently tickling every fiber of her being.  All of life now filters through saturation in meditative absorption, informing her emotions, her decisions, her self-perception — everything about her existence is now perceived through bliss, joy and ecstasy, and there is no going back; she is enlivened in a way that can only be experienced and can never adequately be described.

* * *

Now that she is saturated in meditative absorption, our ecstatic contemplative begins to experience many things in life as though for the very first time.  She adopts “beginner’s mind,” in some ways.  Things that she’s done through force of habit for years and years are now encountered through “baby eyes.”

As she stands curbside waiting for  a bus, she notices that passing cars leave a “trail” of light in her peripheral vision.  When did that start happening?  She notices a sound in the center of her head — nothing unpleasant, but persistent… the Universal Sound, perhaps; the “celestial chorus.”  While working at her desk in a cubicle, performing her functionary tasks to the point of boredom, she listens to the inner sound and is soothed beyond words; the deep absorption she’d experienced during morning meditation blossoms within her again, right there at her desk with the phone ringing and the boss demanding a report.

It has been years since she’s attended a Christian church service, having long realized that a direct experience of God was beyond the priesthood’s capacity for delivering to the individual parishioner.  There had to be more to religion than Bible verse memorization, pancake breakfasts and Campus Crusade meetings… so she moved on.

She has gone through a phase of dedicated satsang attendance along the “guru circuit” of so-called “non-dual” teachers.  During this phase, she felt a sense of gratitude during satsang, as though she’d finally been led to a tradition that would bring true enlightenment to those who were ready — and she was ready, wasn’t she?  The trouble was, she was told on three occasions by three different teachers to “ignore” the characteristics of absorption that were coming alive in her, as she was “already enlightened, so why get diverted into something as trivial as another experience?”  As if she could ignore what was happening in her….

She has recently attended the local Buddhist Sangha, believing that fellow Buddhists would surely understand the ecstatic phenomena that she’d encountered in meditation, considering that it was the Buddha who was so thorough and skilled in teaching about such things.  She quit the Sangha, however, when the dhamma teacher delivered a lecture warning the Sangha not to “become attached” to the jhanas.  He’d told a story about a student of his who meditated every chance he got, five, six, seven hours a day, until he started “wandering around like a zombie.”  The Sangha laughed knowingly.  Our contemplative met privately with the teacher soon after, intending to present him with a handful of the Buddha’s discourses that not only taught meditative absorption, but insisted that a practice leading to absorption is the only practice that successfully navigates the Noble Eightfold Path.  The teacher laughed gently, patted our contemplative on the arm, and said something about “true Buddhism” transcending all attachments — especially attachments to the idea of individual attainment.

* * *

Our ecstatic contemplative persists in her rigorous and skillful practice, such that weeks, months and years go by.  Saturation has taken hold.  Tranquility and equanimity have replaced neurotic worrying, complaining and doubt.  She and those around her notice that she does not go into reactivity as she once did; life seems to have become a prolonged moment of mindful Presence.  Absorption has begun to do the slow and thorough work of eroding the hindrances to enlightenment, producing in our contemplative an inner assurance filled with steadiness and calm.

Earlier in life, before the arising of bliss, joy and ecstasy, she had looked into the sacred literature of various religious traditions.  Having been raised in the church, she’d read many passages from the Bible.  In high school she’d found a copy of Pickthall’s translation of the Qur’an in a library, and spent a day or two skimming through it.  In college she went through a Hinduism phase, reading deeply into the Bhagavad Gita, the major Upanishads and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  In her early 30’s she became interested in Tibetan Buddhism and read various Dzogchen texts that had begun to proliferate in English during the 1990’s.  Finally, just when the nimittas had begun to arise, she’d been led to the Sutta Pitaka of the Buddhist Pali Canon, where she eventually found that the Buddha knew all about what was happening to her, and was able to provide a practice strategy for making wise use of it.

Now, feeling alienated from the Buddha Sangha and every other religious tradition she has encountered, she feels the need to go back to the revealed texts of those very same religious traditions.  Having given rise to samadhi, she feels far more qualified to investigate these traditions from a position of direct experience, rather than from the position of the immature seeker she’d been before.  Not only is she feeling childlike curiosity in picking up the old texts — the Bible, Qur’an, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Yoga Sutras, Sutta Pitaka and others — but she is compelled to do so, as if some massive inner magnet is drawing the books into her hands.  She finds multiple translations of them all.  She downloads free versions from the Internet.  She puts Bible software on her computer.  Forgotten are her old resistances to the very idea of religion; she is now emblazoned with the need to locate the initial spark that began those religions — the ecstatic inspiration — the Revelation — and she senses that she must fully immerse herself in the holy Scriptures, so that her jhana-informed intuition will once-and-for-all provide a satisfactory answer as to what true value these texts hold for humanity.

She is not interested in sacred Law, Commandments and ethical systems.

She is not interested in priestly hierarchies.

She is not interested in theological arguments, schools of thought, ecumenical counsels or unbroken lineages.

She is only interested in getting to the original spiritual seed that resulted in Scripture.

* * *

She discovers that there have been mystics from each of these traditions who’ve displayed characteristics of ecstatic attainment, and that these mystics often used their particular sacred texts as sources of expression to record their own ecstatic experiences.

She painstakingly follows scriptural quotations from the mystics, remaining attentive to her own experience of the ecstatic… and sure enough, she realizes that there is always an “inner dimension” to the revealed teachings of the various religions.

She realizes that virtually every statement in a given sacred text may be taken more than one way.  She further discovers that the texts themselves have a story to tell — a story derived from the linguistic, historical and cultural conditions present when the texts first came into existence — and that these stories often lend deeper meaning to the scriptural revelations.

While the texts are sometimes overt about miracles and other fantastic happenings, they can also be subtle and mysterious when it comes to the actual experience of the Sacred.  This used to bother our contemplative, but now that the Sacred has come alive in her, she “gets it” that this world has always made it difficult for individuals to attain to a given religion’s original ecstatic state… and she feels compassion, even as she gives rise to a determination to demystify the obfuscation.  She feels compelled to re-interpret Divine Revelation from the perspective of ecstatic attainment, so that other seekers will know that the ecstatic seed of religion — preserved and expressed through the various sacred texts — will bear fruit in those who engage a skillful and rigorous contemplative practice.

Our ecstatic contemplative may never achieve her desire for simple, child-like faith and devotion toward this or that religious progenitor, icon or idea.  She may never be able to accept a given sacred text as the perfect, unaltered, absolute statement of Truth that it purports to be.  She may always harbor doubts and misgivings about certain aspects of Divine Revelation, knowing that humans had a hand in transmitting the information, and humans are imperfect at best.

She is relieved, however, to be able to confront Divine Revelation from the perspective of one who has tasted of the Spirit that inspired Scripture in the first place.

* * *

First, she immerses herself in meditative absorption.

Then, she immerses herself in Divine Revelation.

Finally… she compares notes between the two, finds that cross-fertilization has happened, and she understands that this will be her daily routine until the body fades away.