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Part I – Chapter 5


The underlying philosophy of meditation, in common to the main religious traditions, is often referred to as “theosophy[1]. To formulate such a philosophy is of course not to claim it as necessarily true in all respects; we must admit it to be a speculative philosophy or metaphysic. We can pursue the ends it sets in the way of a personal faith, without having to definitively ‘prove’ it and ‘disprove’ competing doctrines.

If we consider the seven historically most influential current mystical traditions – namely those of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Secularism[2] – without meaning to ignore or discard others (which are here assumed to have much in common with parts of one or the other of the main paradigms[3]), we can highlight some of the similarities and differences between them.

In almost all these traditions, meditation is understood as a “return” to some original high state of consciousness, or “reunion” with the underlying spiritual Source. Man is considered as having at some stage “fallen” from his natural, ideal spiritual condition, and become apparently “detached” from his place in the unity and totality of absolute reality – and thereafter, he struggles to recover it, and merge back into the whole[4].

In the secularist approach, the corresponding argument would rather be developmental and/or evolutionary: i.e. though to all evidence we never before had higher consciousness, it might be something we (as individuals and as a species) can realistically strive for so as to reach our fullest neurological and biological potential. This developmental or evolutionary peak, however, need not be assumed to correspond to some mystical experience of absolute reality.

One major issue of interpretation is that of admission or rejection of Monotheism, the belief that the ultimate reality is a spiritual Person, i.e. God. Four of the seven traditions – namely Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism – opt for monotheism, although to varying degrees. Judaism[5] and Islam[6] insist on exclusive monotheism, whereas Christianity[7] opts for a three-in-one doctrine, and Hinduism[8] accepts a large pantheon of alternative or lesser forms of divinity (avatars and gods).

Buddhism, on the other hand (at least officially), denies that the ultimate reality is an eternal spiritual entity, or Soul (Atman in Sanskrit), with consciousness, volition, values and a personality (i.e. a Self) – in short, denies the existence of God[9] – and instead affirms the ultimate “emptiness” of everything[10].

However, upon closer scrutiny we find that Buddhist doctrine does (perhaps as it has evolved over time) suggest a substantial ultimate reality of sorts – something called “the original ground of mind (or of being)” or “Buddha nature”, which for all intents and purposes could be equated in many ways to the monotheistic idea of God. Moreover, it is evident that the Buddha has de facto become deified in the popular mind, and we find the Buddhist masses identifying him with what we would call God.

Taoism is comparable to Buddhism, in that the Tao (or Way) seems like something impersonal, much like the “empty original ground”. But there are occasional mentions of Heaven in Taoism that suggest a belief in God, or which leave the issue of God relatively open or ambiguous[11]. On the other hand, while Taoism does have Immortals (comparable to Buddhas), it does not seem to treat them quite as gods[12].

Secularist philosophy, like Buddhism, rejects the notion of God. Atheists may nevertheless engage in meditation with rather materialist psychological and ethical motives, arguing that it is healthy for the individual to pursue centering and peace of mind, and good for society in general that people do so. They also point to practical benefits, like improved concentration at work, or better human relations. Thus, they meditate on the basis of a more narrow meliorism and eudemonism, i.e. as a means to self-development and happiness in a materialist worldview framework.[13]

The doctrinal diversity of the main traditions should not blind us to their essential unity. They mostly agree that the ultimate reality, the common source of all appearances, has to be unitary. Diversity always logically calls for explanation: only a Unity seems to have a satisfactory finality. This One is the Absolute – while the multiplicity of appearances, whether they seem real or illusory to us, are in comparison to it all relative. The true philosophy is thus necessarily Monist, which does not mean that we can deny the parallel existence at some level of plurality.

Among the features the traditions have in common, then, is the aetiological idea of the underlying unity of all existents being an inexplicable, uncaused, first cause. In monotheism, this is the status of God, the Creator of the world. Similarly, Buddhists and Taoists speak of the “unborn” and “unconditioned” as the background and origin of all phenomena.[14] Concerning the debate between Theist monism and Atheist monism, more will be said further on.

We should also emphasize the soteriological commonalities between the different traditions. The world as a whole strives for its salvation, the return to its primeval unity. Redemption is both an individual and collective need and task. By improving oneself, one helps others improve and repairs the world as a whole; and one improves oneself by making an effort to help others and take care of the world.

In Buddhism (or at least its Mahayana version) it is considered that the highest realization (Buddhahood) is only possible to those who dedicate themselves to the redemption of all others sentient beings (this is called “the way of the bodhisattva”). Those who more selfishly work only for their own salvation (as Hinayana Buddhists are accused of doing[15]) do not, so long as they do so, reach the highest spiritual peak.

In Judaism, and similarly in other monotheistic religions, since we humans, like sparks issuing from a flame, all share in the spiritual substance of God, we may – by working to redeem ourselves and helping other people find salvation[16] – be said (with all due proportionality and respect) to participate in God’s redemption[17]. Reciprocally, He has a direct interest in our salvation and it is equally to His advantage to promote it. All have a common interest, and cannot find true rest in isolation.

This is in Hebrew called tikkun atsmi vehaolam, meaning the ‘repair’ of oneself and the world, implying a loss of wholeness that has to be recovered. It should be stressed, however, that this doctrine is not an invitation to pretentious claims to human divinity. Though we hope to someday be reunified with God, the Divine Source of our soul or spirit – that does not mean we will ever become the whole of God. It only means we will lose our illusory individuality, and discover our real place in the universe as very tiny fractions of God’s wholeness.[18]

[1] Etymologically = God + wisdom. This may also be conceived atheistically (despite its name). It has also been called “the perennial philosophy” (by Aldous Huxley), because of its recurrence in history and across cultural barriers. Many writers throughout the ages have managed to formulate all or parts of this philosophy with considerable success, and I do not here presume to equal or surpass them. My purpose here is only to discuss some aspects of it, on the assumption the reader has already studied (or will eventually study) other texts.

[2] Wherein I would include Confucianism, though it has some conceptual commonalties with Taoism; which one would expect, since they both come from the same culture, China.

[3] All of which, by the way, the author has studied to varying degrees – theoretically through various texts, and in some cases practically.

[4] Judaism speaks of teshuvah (return), devekut (adhering) and yichud (unification). The Sanskrit word ‘yoga’ refers to union, as does the Greek word henosis used by Neo-Platonism.

[5] Judaism rejects any notion of incarnation of God. In the Jewish view, God is spiritual and not material. The Torah statement that God created humans in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:27) must be understood to refer to spiritual, not physical resemblance. God’s infinity cannot be concentrated in a finite being (as many other religions suppose when they deify some historical or legendary figure), and He is not to be confused with the phenomenal universe of matter, space and time (as Spinoza confuses Him).

[6] Although it should be mentioned that there is a doctrine within Islam that grants Mohammed, the Messenger of Allah (God), the Divine status of “human incarnation of the Spirit” (to quote Martin Lings in What is Sufism? Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society, 1993. [P. 33]). In this context, Islam should be compared to Christianity and Hinduism rather than Judaism.

[7] The doctrine of the trinity was a logical outcome of the apotheosis of Jesus, the founder of Christianity. The Church wanted to grant Divine status to this man, yet at the same time emphasize his spirituality and reaffirm the Judaic doctrine of unity. Note that the Christian idea of trinity differs from the apparent radical duality of Zoroastrianism. Whereas Christian philosophy seems to adhere to the unity of God at the highest level, Zoroastrian philosophy seems to regard the two basic formative forces of good and evil it posits as irreducible primaries. Analogous concepts and issues are found in Hinduism, in greater multiples.

[8] It is in practice cheerfully polytheist, although at an academic level it acknowledges monotheism as the ultimate truth. Polytheism generally tends to a radical pluralism (of many irreducible primaries), although some forms of it may be considered relatively compatible with monism (or monotheism).

[9] Which was in Buddha’s India advocated by Hinduism.

[10] Note that Jewish mystics (kabbalists) have proposed a similar concept, that of the Ayn (Hebrew for “There Isn’t”, i.e. Non-Being, different from and beyond ordinary being) or Eyn Sof (“There Isn’t an End”, i.e. Infinite, in extension or breadth [Great] and in intension or depth [Unfathomable]).

[11] Anyway, Taoism is essentially a Monist philosophy, in that it conceives the Supreme Ultimate principle as a Unity. However, since Taoism describes this One as giving rise to Two (Yin and Yang), and then to Many, it may be compared to Dualism, and even, at times, to Pluralism (this is not said with any intention to downplay Taoism, but rather to point out its richness).

[12] To my limited knowledge (which is why I have placed this religion closer to Secularism). However, it should be noted (though the books we read about it in the West little mention the fact), Taoism as it has been popularly practiced in China involves many supernatural beliefs (many of which we would class as lowly superstitions) – ghosts, demons, exorcisms and the like.

[13] Note that some secularists nowadays subscribe to meditation with reference to ideas that were in fact diluted from general theosophy, or some fashionable Eastern religion like Buddhism, while unaware of or refusing to admit their spiritual motives and interest.

[14] Note that the idea of causelessness is also found in secularism. In modern physics, we have it in the Heisenberg Principle, which can be taken to suggest spontaneity of some natural processes; or again, in the Big Bang theory, with regard to the existence of the primal seed of matter and the initial explosion thereof. In psychology, some thinkers (though not all) admit the existence of freewill in humans.

[15] I think this is an unfair accusation. The Theravada (called Hinayana by the Mahayana school) ideal is to concentrate on fixing oneself first; and then once has done so, one’s sincere compassion for others will naturally be awakened (this is a possible interpretation of Gautama Buddha’s trajectory). Whereas the Mahayana consider it is necessary to work on oneself and for others at the same time, because each side of this path helps the other succeed. Both approaches are probably equally valid, I would suppose – depending on the character or “karma” of the person involved.

[16] The tsadikim (“just men” in Hebrew), and in particular the Moshiach (“Anointed” one, or Messiah), are actively involved in saving souls. That is their spiritual profession, we might say. But ordinary people also of course participate in this work occasionally, if only as amateurs.

[17] This is implied, notably, in the philosophy of the kabbalist Isaac Luria.

[18] It should be noted that orthodox Jewish doctrine might not include a final reintegration of all souls into God. I base this supposition on oral rather than written teachings. I recently questioned one Rabbi on the subject (namely Rav Mendel Pevzner of Geneva, a Lubavitcher chassid). He taught that we will never merge back into God – but will always remain separated as individual souls, having the function to eternally declare God’s sovereignty and praise Him. Moreover, he confirmed, some evil individuals (at least the likes of Adolf Hitler) will never return to God. I did not inquire on what texts this doctrine is based, and even whether all Jewish authorities agree with it. I was a bit skeptical when I heard the part about the righteous souls remaining separated; but upon reflection, it does not seem logically inconceivable. Certainly, there are people who deserve eternal damnation and can never be purified of their sins whatever hell they go through (in Buddhism, this hell is called Avichi). Granting that, then the possibility that just souls remain forever suspended in paradise sounds reasonable, too. It is worth emphasizing in this context that Judaism teaches love of life on earth more than any other of the main religions: Judaism cannot position itself radically against the world (totally rejecting the body and mind), since it considers that God created this world (including human beings) intentionally and that He views his Creation as “good” and even “very good” (Genesis, chapter 1). Notwithstanding all such issues, let us not forget that God remains One throughout: He always was One, He is still One now, He will always be One. Any separateness people may experience is an illusion of theirs, which their Maker does not share in.