First published in 1977 under the title The Varieties of Meditative Experience, Goleman’s book is a clear and straightforward presentation of various meditative disciplines organized around the map of consciousness explicated in Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga. Part I details this map, describing the paths of serenity (samadhi) and insight (vipassana). The various jhanas (meditative absorptions) are described, as are the insight knowledges. The tone throughout is professional, understanding and clear, though lacking the feel of a first-hand account. Two notable mistakes are made in this section, one being the consistent misspelling ofpañña as puñña (I get a little worried when an author misspells key terms), the second being the placement of nirodha-samapatti (“cessation of feeling and perception”) as above, or superior to, nibbana. There is no justification for this given the evidence of the Pali Suttas, where n-s is described rather as a kind of “super jhana” attainable only by anagamis and arhats. It is not, in itself, liberative.
Part II is a survey of meditation paths—Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and many things in between. Even Gurdjieff and Krishnamurti show up here. While at times illuminating—it’s certainly a good, quick cross-section of the many traditions available—the underlying assumption of the discussion is in line with the old saying that “all paths lead to the mountain top,” something this reader, at least, is not convinced of. (This position is explicitly affirmed in part III, entitled “Meditation Paths: Their Essential Unity.”)
Why I am not convinced of this can perhaps be illustrated by a passage from the section on Jewish mysticism. “The end of the Kabbalist’s path,” Goleman writes, “is devekut, in which the seeker’s soul cleaves to God” (p. 52). And in the paragraph below that, in a passage quoted from Gershom Scholem, devekut is defined as a state of mind wherein “You constantly remember God and his love, nor do you remove your thought from Him…to the point when such a person speaks with someone else, his heart is not with them at all but is still before God.” Now this is fine as far as it goes, but it in no way approximates the view of things that result from the attainment of nibbana as described by the Buddha and his disciples in the Pali Suttas, and which the Visuddhimagga seeks to elaborate. Consider this from Samyutta Nikaya 22.58(6): “A bhikkhu liberated by wisdom, liberated by nonclinging through revulsion towards form [feeling, perception, volitional formations, consciousness], through its fading away and cessation, is called one liberated by wisdom” (from The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi, pp. 900-1). In other words, enlightenment consists not of being attached to something (to a god or gods real or imagined), but rather through the cessation of all attachments.
In other words, there is no reason to believe the Jewish holy man—the zaddik—or the Christian saint or the Muslim sufi attains what the Buddha attained. In fact, the experiences of the Kabbalistic meditators are examples not of nibbana (nirvana) but of the higher jhanas—equivalent, according to Golem, to the Sufi fana—and Goleman seems to admit this much when on page 62 he says that Sufi practice “culminates in baqa, abiding in some degree of fana [jhana] consciousness while in the middle of ordinary activity.” This is precisely what the Hindus call sahaj samadhi, “open eyed samadhi,” and though a high attainment, it is not the equivalent of the Buddhist nibbana. In fact, as the suttas make clear time and again, contemplatives before the Buddha were prone to believing in their own enlightenment specifically as a result of their attainment of those sorts of states. Goleman’s book, however, does nothing to illuminate this problem; it merely perpetuates the popular and fatuous notion that all religions are, at their heart, one and the same.
If I seem overly critical in the above passages, I don’t want to give the impression that the book is in any way a failure. Its positives far outweigh its negatives, and even considering my critique of Part III, Goleman is right in asserting correspondences between meditative traditions. They are certainly there, and they need to be understood and appreciated; there is much that contemplatives from different cultures can share with and learn from one another.
For many people, Part IV will prove the most interesting, where Goleman looks at the psychology of meditation. Here he is in his element (he is, after all, a psychologist), and he offers a good introductory survey of the Western attempt to come to grips with issues of mind and consciousness. A number of scientific studies of meditation are discussed, though one is left with the overwhelming feeling that so much more can—and should—be done. However, if one remembers that the book is almost a quarter century old, one can rest assured that since its publication much has indeed been done.
My Amazon rating: 4 stars