Category Archives: Scripture

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?

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Commitment to the Holy Life

So then, bhikkhus, the holy life is led not for gain, honor and fame, not for the endowment of virtues, not for the endowment of meditative absorption, not for the endowment of knowledge and vision. Bhikkhus, it is for the unshakeable release of mind that is the essence and end of the holy life .

Gautama Buddha, speaking to his monks in the Mahasaropama Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya, The Major Discourse on Heartwood.

Meditation is one of those activities (or “anti-activities”) that seems so beneficial, so pure and so GOOD, that one simply accepts that one should adopt a meditation practice – although one may assume that her life-circumstances may not provide time or space for such a practice – but, definitely, without a doubt, one embraces the vague notion that meditation is on one’s list of things to do when… well… when the time is right.

* * *

Once in a while, one receives just the right amount of support in just the right way, such that she suddenly understands that the time is right – circumstances have been fulfilled, planets have aligned and the inner lottery has hit the jackpot – such that the most important thing in the world has suddenly become to build a Holy Life around meditation practice, study, moment-to-moment mindfulness and the company of others who have made a similar commitment in their lives.

This is a very delicate moment. Our prospective contemplative may very well have been here before, not once or twice, but maybe three, four or five times. She may have resolved in the past to meditate for 30 minutes every morning, and sure enough, she stuck to her resolution for a whole month. Then her practice fell off, and before she knew it, two years passed before she made a new resolution. This time she went for 45 minute meditations, and she kept this practice for four months. And so forth and so on, in and out of practice every few years, year after year, wishy-washy and full of good intentions… yet always succumbing to that great undertow of externally-imposed promises of fulfillment.

How does one, then, once-and-for all commit to something like a rigorous and skillful meditation practice – one that gives rise to bliss, joy and ecstasy, establishing one in constant saturation in meditative absorption, such that true fulfillment occurs with the confident assurance of breathing?

How does one go beyond a rigorous and skillful practice, adding to meditation things like daily study and immersion in the writings of ecstatic contemplatives from multiple traditions… using the time between formal meditations to bring attention to ever-growing saturation, deepening moment-to-moment mindfulness… and, perhaps as important as all the above, seeking the company of others who are engaged in the Holy Life?

How does one deal with a lifetime’s conditioning? How does one become convinced – beyond the slightest shadow of a doubt – that the life of an ecstatic mystic is not only possible, but that it makes sense in a world filled with jobs, children, relationships, parents, debts, duties and desires?

This world conditions us to seek external gratification — to find meaning in external conditions, so that we project our very identity onto people, places and things that have nothing to do with our essential being.

As the years go by, we become heavily invested in things like money, success, achievement, societal position, homes, cars, appliances, lawn ornaments, wardrobes, furniture, home entertainment systems, food, social circles and professional sports… so that THAT which has true importance gets interred under this ocean of externally-imposed expectations.  It’s not that these things are bad in and of themselves — who doesn’t need money? — but when it comes at the expense of what brings self-arising bliss, joy and ecstasy, it becomes obvious to the devoted ecstatic that chasing after the impermanent is not a viable pursuit.

From the ecstatic contemplative’s perspective, the Holy Life — however it evolves for a particular individual — is the only viable life, in that it does not depend on external gratification.

* * *

As mentioned above, it helps to receive the right type of support — giving honest recognition to the fact that we as human beings must arrive at a moment of absolute conviction on our own; no one else can push us over the line.

A validating comment from a respected teacher, for instance, will go a long ways toward convincing one that she really does have what it takes, and that she may expect to see positive results in due time.

A very beneficial activity is to put oneself through a nine or ten-day meditation retreat – ideally a jhana retreat, one that honors and fosters the ecstatic – so that one experiences absorption at ever-deepening levels, thus informing future practice with the assurance that these states are attainable.  Upon returning from a retreat such as this, it becomes much easier to open to the idea of becoming a yogi, devoted to a daily life built around practice.

Finally, it is a blessing to the ecstatic mystic to either find or create a local community of contemplatives. Meeting for regular mediation sits, doing retreats together, studying ecstatic writings, feeding back to one another each contemplative’s interior experiences, learning from one another – this is a boon.

* * *

The bottom line is, commitment is required.

It takes time, patience and persistence to bring one’s contemplative practice into an ecstatic framework.

It then takes more time, patience and persistence to sustain an ecstatic practice, such that one becomes saturated in the ecstatic 24/7.

It takes internal fortitude to engage with the world from the perspective constant bliss, joy and ecstasy.  The ecstatic contemplative must develop an attitude of love and well-being toward her fellow human being — an attitude of thankful giving — knowing that the blessing of meditative absorption should be shared freely, often and fully. If we don’t develop a need to help others, we lack motivation for leaving the cave, and we cut ourselves off from the support needed to continue on in the Holy Life.

One must arrive at a moment of transformation, no turning back, no second-guessing, no vacillation.

One is now a devoted yogi who recognizes that nothing in this world compares to a spiritual practice that is directly infused with Divine energy, and that this practice is what the yogi and the world both need more than anything.

Knowing that we are only human, that we have a lot of work to do in our ecstatic practices, and that we will fall short from time to time… we jump into the Holy Life nevertheless.  We have come to the realization that we really have no choice.

When and if it is time, I invite you to take the leap.

You won’t be sorry.

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.