THE SUPREME ACHIEVEMENT -- BUDDHIST, TAOIST, YOGA, CHRISTIAN AND ISLAMIC
Many people nowadays use meditation for relaxation, stress management, problem solving, psychic development, and joyous tranquility. But the supreme achievement of meditation is spiritual fulfillment. Meditation is practised by all the great religions of the world. The Buddhists, the Taoists and the yogis use meditation as the primary means to achieve enlightenment, immortality or the unity with God; while many Christians and Muslims, especially amongst the advanced advocates like the saints and the sufis, extensively employ meditation in their religious practice.
The following presentation is a summary of the teachings on meditation by some of the greatest teachers of their respective religions. In order that we can read their teachings directly, a lot of quotations are used in this presentation. The presentation is made in good faith, without any bias for or against any religion; the reader, irrespective of his own religious beliefs, should also view the following discussion in a similar objective frame of mind.
The Buddhist Viewpoint
The ultimate aim of Buddhism is the attainment of Nirvana (or Nibanna), which is a state of enlightenment where the mind is released from the cycle of births and rebirths. Many great Buddhist teachers specifically mention that meditation is the only way to Nirvana. The Buddha himself achieved enlightenment through meditation.
The teachings and practice of Buddhism are crystallized in the Noble Eightfold Path, which consists of Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Views, Right Intention, Right Concentration, Right Effort and Right Mindfulness. The first five paths, which deal with moral living, are a preparation for the last three paths, which develop the mind for enlightenment. The last three paths are realized through meditation. In other words, a person may do a lot of good deeds, pray to the Buddha, or even become a monk and enter a monastery, but unless he practises meditation he would not attain the ultimate aim of Buddhism.
K. Sri Dhammanaada, in his book "Meditation: the Only Way", says
the immediate purpose of meditation is to train the mind and use it effectively and efficiently in our daily life. The ultimate aim of meditation is to seek release from the wheel of Samsara -- the cycle of birth and death.
the Buddha in the Satipatthana Sutta clearly points out that meditation is the one and only way for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for destruction of suffering and grief, for entry into the Noble Path, for the realization of Nibbana.
At the outset you should be clear on one thing, that you need to practice both these types of meditation.... The main purpose of Tranquility Meditation is to develop mental concentration powers by focussing the attention or applying mindfulness onto one single object which is selected in advance.... The main purpose of Insight Meditation is to develop Insight which is defined as the ability to see deeply into the real nature of everything, or to see Reality.
Buddhist meditation is based primarily upon the experience of the Buddha Himself and upon the method adopted by Him in the attainment of Enlightenment....
Nirvana is the consciousness itself liberated from all worldly objects and thoughts ...
Nirvana is not a kind of heavenly existence where a transcendental soul resides, but a state attained within oneself. Buddhism holds that Nirvana is attained by a process of mental training, in which the mind is released by stages from the fetters that hinder the development of complete insight...
This is the actual experience of release obtained by the practice of meditation, and it is this release that constitutes the everlasting never-fluctuating Happiness which is the ultimate goal, Nirvana.
The Taoist Viewpoint
The Taoist supreme aim is the attainment of immortality, with the release of the soul uniting with the Cosmos. Apart from some Taoist followers who preached that immortality could be attained through sex or through the consumption of specially prepared elixir -- practices that have been condemned by most Taoist masters as grossly deviated or abused -- meditation is also the only way to spiritual fulfillment in Taoism.
It may surprise some people to find out that the Taoists in ancient times already had very advanced ideas about the Cosmos and the field-theory of reality, as expounded by modern science now. Lao Tze, the founder of Taoism, as early as the 6th century B.C. said
Tao creates One. One creates Two. Two creates Three. Three creates everything in the Universe.
Zhang Tai, a great Chinese philosopher of the Sung period, said
The Cosmos is a body of energy. Energy has two aspects, yin and yang (negative and positive). When energy disperses, it permeates all things; when it unites, it becomes nebulous. When this settles into form, it becomes matter. When it disintegrates, it returns to its original continuous state.
The Taoists believe that everyone has an immortal soul, and this immortal soul is locked in the mortal physical body. One can attain sainthood or immortality in this lifetime if the soul is released. And the one and only way is through meditation. Liu Hua Yang, a Taoist master of the Ming Dynasty, said that there is no secret to immortality except the function of mind and energy. What he meant is this: The only way to achieve immortality is to meditate on our life energy. Liu Hua Yang continued to explain
The aim of immortality training is to develop the essence of energy to form a shining pearl. When this energy has been circulated and returned to the vital point, it is released as the immortal soul. Everybody wants to become a saint, but the method is a heavenly secret, hence very few attain immortality.
The aim and method of training to become a Taoist immortal is as follow. First develop a pearl of elixir. This is done through meditation and breath control, whereby cosmic energy is tapped and made into a shining pearl. Then this pearl is circulated round the body many, many times, and is eventually brought back to the central vital point at the abdomen. The pearl is meditated upon, whereby the soul is merged with and nourished by cosmic energy.
After prolonged practice of meditation, the pearl of elixir has become an amalgamation of mind and energy. The pearl of elixir is directed upwards to the head, where the immortal soul is released from the body through a vital point known as the Heaven's Gate. In this way immortality is attained. This method is kept as a heavenly secret. That is why although everybody wants to become an immortal, only very few people attain immortality.
The Yoga Viewpoint
Yoga means unity, and the ultimate aim of yoga is the unity with God. Although it is extensively used by Hindus in their spiritual growth, yoga is actually non-religious, and people of different religions can practise and benefit from it.
There are many types of yoga, such as hatha yoga, bhakti yoga, mantra yoga, yantra yoga and raja yoga. Many people, especially in the west, mistakenly think that yoga is primarily hatha yoga. Hatha yoga is the yoga of health and vitality, mainly through the practice of asanas, which are static postures. Bhakti yoga is the way of devotion, where the yogis surrenders himself completely to God. Mantra yoga approaches unity with God through sound, and the most holy and potent of all sounds is OM, which is the intrinsic sound of the universe. Yantra yoga makes extensive use of geometric forms which have mystic meanings, and when these forms combine in some patterns. usually in circles surrounded by squares, they are called a mandala, which is used to guide meditation. Raja yoga is regarded as the highest yoga, the yoga taught in the greatest Indian books of wisdom -- the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Raja yoga approaches the unity with God through meditation.
Patanjali, the father of yoga, prescribed eight phrases of yoga, known as the eight limbs of yoga:
- yama -- abstinence from evil doing.
- niyama -- observance of purity, serenity, discipline, study, and devotion to God.
- asana -- static posture.
- pranayama -- breath control.
- pratyahara -- withdrawal of the senses.
- dharana -- concentration.
- dhyana -- meditation.
- samadhi -- enlightenment.
Concentration leads to meditation, and meditation leads to enlightenment. Swami Prabhavananada, in his commentary on Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, says
- In order to concentrate, you must first fix your mind upon the Inner Light within one of these lotuses (the seven chakras or psychic centres in the body), as your teacher directs. Or you may concentrate upon the form of your Chosen Ideal, trying to visualize that form either within a lotus or outside your own body altogether....
- Meditation is prolonged concentration... Patanjali defines thought as a wave (vritti) in the mind. Ordinarily a thought wave arises, remains in the mind for a moment, and then subsides, to be succeeded by another wave. In the practice of meditation, a succession of identical waves are raised in the mind; and this is dome so quickly that no one wave is allowed to subside before another rises to take its place. The effect is therefore one of perfect continuity....
- When, in meditation, the true nature of the object shines forth, not distorted by the mind of the perceiver, that is samadhi...
It is only in the supersensuous perception of samadhi that we see an object in the truth of its own nature, absolutely free from the distortions of our imagination. Samadhi is, in fact, much more than perception; it is direct knowledge.
The Christian Viewpoint
Although meditation is not specifically mentioned as an important means of spiritual fulfillment in Christianity, it is nevertheless widely used by many Christians, especially those who have advanced deeply in religious practice, in their effort to reach God. The following quotations from prominent Christian saints will make this clear. They are taken from "Mystic Experiences of Medieval Saints", quoted from Julian Johnson's remarkable book "The Path of the Masters".
Vision of St. Francis Xavier
After this prayer I once found myself inundated with a vivid light; it seemed to me that a veil was lifted up from before my eyes of the spirit, and all the truths of human science, even those that I had not studied, became manifest to me by an infused knowledge. This state of intuition lasted for about twenty hours, and then, as if the veil had fallen again, I found myself as ignorant as before. At the same time, an interior voice said to me: "Such is human knowledge; of what use is it? It is I, it is My love, that must be studied.
Vision of St. Ignatius
As he was going to pay his devotions at the church of St. Paul, about a mile out of the town of Manrea, and was sitting on the banks of the Gardenera, his mind was suddenly filled with a new and strange illumination, so that in one moment, and without any sensible image or appearance, certain things pertaining to the mysteries of the faith, together with other truths of natural science, were revealed to him, and this so abundantly and so clearly, that he himself said that if all the spiritual light which his spirit had received from God up to the time when he was more than sixty years old could be collected into one, it seemed to him that all of this knowledge could not equal what was at that moment conveyed to his soul.
Marina de Escobar says
When in deep ecstasy, God unites the soul suddenly to his essence, and when he fills her with his light, he shows her in a moment of time the sublimest mysteries. And the soul sees a certain immensity and an infinite majesty -- the soul is then plunged, as it were, into a vast ocean which is God and again God. It can neither find a foothold nor touch the bottom. The divine attributes appear as summed up in one whole, so that no one of them can be distinguished separately.
Dr. Johnson, who was a devout theologian and Christian minister but later studied under a living saint, points out that
all religions in all ages have had their own methods of silent meditation and of going inside and developing inner experiences... Devotees of every religion in the world have, to some extent, tapped the fountains of the inner life. This is true in Christian history as well as in all other religions.
In Judaism, the hidden teachings are called Kabbalah. These teachings, it is said, originated with the angels, who were instructed by God... The instructions for meditation form part of the secret teachings of Kabbalists and, apart from general rules, are not made public... Meditative concentration allows the Kabbalist to delve to the depths of a particular subject... The end of the Kabbalist's path is "devekut", in which the seeker's soul cleaves to God. When the Kabbalist stabilizes his consciousness at this level, he is no longer an ordinary man but a supernatural man, a "Zaddik", or saint, who has escaped the chains of his personal ego. The qualities of one who has attained this station include equanimity, indifference to praise or blame, a sense of being alone with God, and prophecy.
The first Christian monks also practised meditation extensively.
The Desert Fathers, like present-day Indian yogis in the high Himalayas, sought out the isolation of the harshest desert to commune with God free of worldly distractions. The meditation practices and rules for living of these earliest Christian monks bear strong similarity to those of their Hindu and Buddhist renunciate brethen several kingdoms to the east. While Jesus and his teachings were their inspiration, the meditative techniques they adopted for finding their God suggest either a borrowing from the East or a spontaneous rediscovery. The ways of the Desert Fathers influence Christian monasticism to this day; their selfless love remains a guiding example.
St. Augustine in his "Confessions" described the techniques and philosophy of Christian meditation. It clearly shows the similarity between the Christian and the Eastern mystics in their entry into altered awareness and union with the Supreme Being.
Augustine advocated a long process of self-denial, self-conquest, and the practice of virtue as preparation for "the ascent to the contemplation of God." Only such ascetic self-discipline can bring about the readjustment of character prerequisite for entry into the higher stages of a spiritual life. Augustine is insistent that not until the monk has so become "cleansed and healed" can he begin the proper practice of what he calls "contemplation." Contemplation itself entails "recollection" and "introversion." Recollection is concentrating the mind, banishing all images, thoughts, and sense perceptions. Having emptied the mind of all distractions. introversion can begin. Introversion concentrates the mind on its own deepest part in what is seen as the final step before the soul finds God.
The ultimate aim of Christian meditation, as of Christianity itself, is to reach God, to return to His Kingdom for eternal life. Where is God's Kingdom? "The Kingdom of God is within you," Christ has said that many times in the Bible.
Meditation is the way of entering the inner Kingdom... Man is, in his true nature, an individualization of God. In scientific terms, man is a manifestation or offspring of the Universal Creative Energy... All there is is God ... the one presence and power of the universe ... all loving, all wise, all knowing, all powerful. Every visible thing is an expression of God ... all is God in different degrees of manifestation.
The Islamic Viewpoint
Partly because Islam is new compared to the other world's great religions, and partly because most of the great works in Islam are written in the Arabic and Persian languages, many English educated people have a mistaken, and often unfair, concept of Islam. Maurice Baucaille, who did a detailed study of the Bible and the Qur'an, mentions
so many false judgments based on inaccurate ideas have indeed been made about it, that today it is very difficult to form an exact notion of the reality of Islam. ... One extremely important view of this kind is the attitude which leads people to repeatedly use the term "Allah" to mean the God of the Muslims, as it the Muslims believed in a God who was different from the God of the Christians.
Bucaille says that scientific statements "which are very specific to the Qur'an, greatly surprised me at first. Up until then, I had not thought it possible for one to find so many statements in a text compiled more than thirteen centuries ago referring to extremely diverse subjects and all of them totally in keeping with modern scientific knowledge."
Muslims believe that we are alive because of the breath of God, and the ultimate aim of Islam is for us to return to God our Creator, Lord of the Worlds, the Beneficent and the Merciful.
And remember when thy Lord said unto the angels:
Lo! I am creating a mortal out of potter's clay of black mud altered. So, when I have made him and have breathed into him My spirit ...
-- Qur'an 15:28-29
- The Qur'anic verse above reveals in a very condensed form the entire mystic relationship between God and His human creation. He says that He made the human being out of the elements and then breathed life into the body. The Qur'anic words used here are significant.
- Allah uses the word nafas for His own breath, and He uses the word ruh for his own soul. These same words are used to mean the human breath and the human soul -- confirming the fact that we are originally from Allah, of Allah, for Allah, and in the end will return to Allah.
The realm of the mental world is called fikr in Arabic. In essence, fikr means meditation or deep-thought process... The ruh (soul) is that part which exists after death, which marks the end of both physical and mental life... The soul that has been entirely purified is called nafsi kull, meaning "universal soul," which unites with Allah in the final stage of Sufism.
- The whole of creation is divided into two parts: the known world of our human creation (insan) and the unseen (ghayb) and generally unknown world of the heavens....
- Above this created world of human existence lies the realm of the heavens, which are eleven in number. Each of these heavens is occupied by angelic forms and ultimately is populated with souls that depart from human bodies and earthly existence....
- The eleventh heaven is called the Empyrean, or the Heaven of Heavens. It is wholly luminous, nothing but pure, complete, overwhelming light.
- Every scripture and every prophet from the first have said the same thing: that we are created by a wise and loving Creator, and that the special purpose of our existence is to endeavor to work our way back to Him. Our objective in life is to regain union with God.
- As we progress towards union with God, breath control and meditation are important. The main source of breathing practices is the Holy Qur'an itself, where various breath starts and stops are marked in the text. The most important thought for meditation, or dhikr, is La ilaha illa Llahu, which means "There is no god but God." This sacred formula of meditation purifies the heart, and is called the Key to Paradise, as the Prophet himself mentions that the gates of heaven would open for those who recite this in true sincerity.
Meditation is the primary means of the Sufi, or the Muslim mystic, in preparing for his union with God. "Meditation for one hour", said an early Sufi master, "is better than ritual worship for a whole year."
Sufism or Islamic mysticism is recognised by all as a process of spiritual culture that inevitably leads to spiritual tranquillity. Its earliest manifestation is understood to be a way of living, in the presence of God, according to the thought and conduct of the Prophet. Its primary aim was to transform every spiritual experience of the individual into an urge for the spiritual perfection of the human society at large.
The main meditation method of the Sufis is recitation, solitary or in groups, on constant remembrance of God. Their mystic experiences are similar to those in other types of meditation. Goleman says
- The goal of zikir (a form of Sufi meditation) as in all meditation systems, is to overcome the mind's natural state of carelessness and inattention. His mind mastered, the Sufi can become one-pointed on God. The Sufi comment on normal consciousness is that humans are "asleep in a nightmare of unfulfilled desires," that with transcendence mental discipline brings, these desires fall away...
- Along his way to desirelessness, the Sufi undergoes states typical of progress in many other kinds of meditation. Qurb is a sense of God' constant nearness induced by concentration on Him. In mahabba, the Sufi loses himself in awareness of his beloved. Among the fruits of mahabba are visions and the "station of unity" where zikir (the remembrance), zakir (the one who remembers), and mazkur (the one remembered) become one.
The fundamental principle of his system is the "unity of being." He says that there is no real difference between the Essence and its attributes, or, in other words, between God and the universe created by Him.... Al-'Arabi believed that the primary function of men is to reveal his divine nature, and those among men who reach perfection are the prophets and saints. Muhammed, the Seal of Prophet, was the most perfect of men. But, Ibn al-Arabi recognised the divine manifestation in other men, and the divine truth in other religions.
If we examine carefully and objectively the highest teachings of the various religions of the world as taught by their greatest masters, we can come to the following conclusion.
Although the rituals and dogmas of the religions are different, the basic cosmology and supreme aim of religious practice are the same. The Universe of the Buddhist is formless; the Cosmos of the Taoist is void; the Supreme Being of the yogi is pure awareness; while the Heaven of the Christian and the Muslim is omnipresent love and light. Apparently they may sound different, yet the fundamental reality, which is manifested as continuous undifferentiated unity, is the same, and is evident in the fact that any terms used to describe the cosmology of the various religions above can be interchanged. For example, it is perfectly correct to describe the Heaven of the Buddhist and the Taoist as pure love and light, and the Cosmos of the yogi as formless and void.
The apparent feeling of differentiation is mainly due to the limitation of our human understanding and language used. The sheer depth and profundity of the cosmic reality is often beyond the comprehension of the ordinary men; and even when sages and mystics obtained wonderful glimpses of this magnificent grandeur in moments of altered consciousness, the words available to us to describe such realities are often inadequate to convey the intended meanings. For example, at a very simple level. when we say that the Cosmos is void, we do not mean that it is nothing; in fact, we mean that it is full, but the fullness is such that there is no discrete entities that can be easily differentiated by our human eyes.
It is remarkable and heartening that the supreme aim of all religions is actually the same, although it is described differently due to different cultural, linguistic and historical backgrounds. The Christian aims to return to the Kingdom of God; the Muslim's soul seeks union with Allah, the yogi endeavours to be united with Atman, the Taoist strives for immortality with the Cosmos, and the Buddhist aims to release his enlightened mind to merge with the Universal Mind. In different words, they point to the same aim, that is, in union with the Ultimate Being.
Another common factor is that while the ordinary masses are deeply embedded in ritualistic worship which takes numerous varied forms, the highest proponents of the various religions, the mystics and the saints, use the same golden path to spiritual fulfillment, that is meditation. And they all go within in their meditation to reach the Cosmos outside. It needs to be pointed out that terms like "inside" and "outside" are just convenient constructs to describe human concepts. To the saints and mystics in their heightened levels of consciousness during meditation, space and time do not exist.
Yogic philosophy teaches that if we concentrate on certain chakras in meditation, we can reach certain planes of existence in the Universe. Similarly, Taoist philosophy teaches that the human body is a miniature replica of the Cosmos. Meditation, therefore, is an exciting inward journey, a journey of spiritual fulfillment. And the inner worlds we experience in our meditation are more wonderful, actually more real, than our physical, outside world. Those who have not attained advanced levels of meditation, or who have not acquired a deep understanding of meditation, will surely find the above statement difficult to be believed; but it is a statement of truth, and its truth has been amply experienced and recorded by some of the greatest masters of all times.