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Common Ground: The Contemplative Conversation (Part 13 of a 13-Part Series)

I have now written more than twenty thousand words on why Christian-Buddhism is a bad idea.  More to the point, I’ve rebutted—quite successfully, I think—any notion that you can derive the Buddha’s teaching from the Bible.  Notice, however, that I’ve limited my argument all along to the Bible—that is, I’ve stuck to the Old and New Testaments and made no attempt to draw in the Christian contemplative tradition.  There is a good reason for that. 

As noted, Christian-Buddhists are invariably mystical in orientation, even if they’ve never practiced meditation for even fifteen minutes.  This is inevitable because the mystical experience transcends orthodoxy; all contemplative schools share certain characteristics and practices—e.g., their focus on solitude, silence, ethical purity, development of concentration and the like.  The human brain, being what it is, responds to like stimuli in like ways, and so you would expect that practices pursued in, say, a convent in France, would give similar results when tried in a cave in the Himalayas.  And indeed, it is so.  

I would like now to offer some suggestions for the exploration of common traits between Christian and Buddhist contemplative traditions.  These suggestions are offered especially to those who come from a Christian background, and so may not feel inclined to dispense with Christianity even though genuinely interested in Buddhism—in other words, to self-described Christian Buddhists. 

First, if you’re going to study Buddhism, take it for what it is, not for what you want it to be.  In other words, start with as few assumptions as possible and never assume you understand.  You probably don’t. 

Second: don’t mix the various Buddhist schools.  They are very different, have different aims, methods, and views.  This is not to say they are necessarily at odds with each other all the time, but you need to know their differences and why those differences exist. 

Third: a good understanding of Buddhist history is important.  Try to understand origins, and how things developed.  For example, the only texts that can possibly lay claim to representing the historical Buddha’s teachings are the Pali Suttas and Vinaya, though every school claims legitimacy as a matter of course.  In this day, with education and scholarship what they are, nobody has any business pretending the Lotus Sutra represents the historical Buddha’s teaching.  It doesn’t. 

Fourth: practice meditation.  If you’ve not done at least several retreats you are ill placed to make any kind of a judgment about anything.  The Buddha’s teaching is not a belief system, it is an applied psychology.  So do your best to apply it. 

Finally, if you want to understand how all this relates to Christianity, and discover whether there really is any overlap between your tradition and the Buddha’s, don’t bother with the Bible or even Jesus.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the Bible is not useful as a guide to contemplative practice, and Jesus, whatever he was, has not left much behind that is contemplative either.  This may not be his fault; perhaps the early Church worked it this way through the suppression of more revealing texts (e.g. the Gospel of Thomas).  I don’t know.  That’s for Christians to ponder.  

Christianity though, to repeat myself yet again, has an extremely rich contemplative tradition, and it seems to me a study of the methods and attainments of its practitioners would be a very worthwhile endeavor.  Interestingly, the Eastern Orthodox tradition is actually more open to the mystical elements of the religious life than is the Catholic or Protestant, though the names of its saints will not be as familiar to most readers.  Explorers of this terrain would do well to become familiar with notable texts of the various saints and mystics—not so much with their theology, but with their methods and results, specifically their meditation practices and the states obtained thereby.  In other words, an empirical and phenomenological bias is called for if a comparison with other traditions—in this case Buddhism—is going to be made. 

What I’m suggesting here is hardly novel or original.  There are many classic texts comparing traditions, for example Mysticism East and West by Rudolph Otto, who compared Meister Eckhart with the Hindu sage Shankara.  Also, D.T. Suzuki, the famous Zen proponent, wrote Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist.  Of course, Ken Wilber has created a veritable cottage industry out of comparing mystical traditions, though his approach is extremely ideological—he clearly subscribes to the Hindu Advaita Vedanta tradition (Atman=Brahman) over everything else, and completely misconstrues Theravadan Buddhism.  Still, his remarks on Christian contemplatives may help illuminate the path for some.  

A far better approach is that taken by Jeffery Martin of Harvard whose research is in the area of spiritual transformation.  He directs the Center for the Study of Non-Symbolic Consciousness, which has interviewed hundreds of people who claim to have undergone significant changes in their everyday experience of consciousness and its relationship to thought and self.  This is an exciting line of research, one I’m following closely.  See here and here for his interview on Buddhist Geeks.  Finally, I would also recommend Dharma Overground, where people from all traditions share their meditative experiences and discuss practices for spiritual development.  The approach taken on the site is via empirical reportage, and is strictly non-ideological.  

So if one is going to pursue this comparison of traditions, Christian and Buddhist, it is important to recognize where the “gold” is—in the first hand accounts of contemplatives, not in the writings of the Biblical Prophets and Apostles—and then to dig deeply.  Get to know that material very well, then do the same for the Buddhist tradition.  I’d say you have at least five to ten years of reading ahead of you, depending on how fast you are.  Happy trails!


P.S. If you’d like an edited pdf of this series of posts, it is now available here.


A Letter To Christian-Buddhists (table of contents for a 13-part series)

  Table of Contents

  1. If God Is Eternal: Why the Bible Is A Bad Place to Start Your Dharma Practice
  2. Looking For the Buddha In the Bible: How Not To Make Spinach Soufflé
  3. Dukkha: Why the First Noble Truth Is No Laughing Matter
  4. Beyond Mammon and Mistresses: Why the Second Noble Truth Is So Much More Than Desire
  5. Dependent Arising: Why This Whole Ball of Shit Keeps Rolling
  6. Reprise: Is the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism Inside Christianity?
  7. Nirodha: It’s the End of Your World As You Know It
  8. Parallel Lines: Mundane and Noble Eightfold Paths
  9. Right View: That First Step Is A Doozey!
  10. Be Not Like the Blind Men: The Ending of Faith Is the Beginning of Wisdom
  11. So Why Are We Having This Conversation Anyway? Christian-Buddhists As Religious Chimeras
  12. Doublethink As the Door to Christian-Buddhism
  13. Common Ground: The Contemplative Conversation

The Meditative Mind: The Varieties of Meditative Experience by Daniel Goleman

The Meditative Mind: The Varieties of Meditative Experience by Daniel Goleman.  G. P. Putnam’s Sons 1988.  214 pages.

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


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