Part I – Chapter 3

The goals of meditation.

Meditation is a means to enhanced consciousness. The ultimate goal of meditation is, accordingly, to attain the highest level of consciousness possible to one. This summum bonum (highest good) is generally understood as threefold, although the three aspects are ultimately one and the same event, which may be called ‘realization’.

The first aspect is ‘enlightenment’, which may be defined as the overcoming of all personal ignorance, illusion or delusion, in the broadest sense. It is a maximal, all-inclusive consciousness; the widest and deepest potential for knowledge (including information and understanding).

The second aspect is ‘liberation’, which may be defined as the overcoming of all personal weaknesses, difficulties or obstructions, in the broadest sense. Thus, enlightenment relates to cognition, while liberation concerns volition. Granting they are possible achievements, they necessarily come together and not apart, with liberation as a necessary adjunct of enlightenment. Knowledge is freedom.

Note that the term ‘enlightenment’ (or ‘illumination’) is often construed as referring to some inner experience of light. But that mental analogy to physically ‘seeing a light’, though occasionally valuable, is not the essence intended by the term. One should rather have an image of a man walking tentatively in the dark, feeling his way slowly – when suddenly a bright light is turned on. Now, he can at last see everything around him and where he is going, and he can walk about freely, and find any object he seeks without knocking into things. This analogy is preferable, because it illustrates the conjunction of light and liberty. A man in the dark is like a man in chains, hardly able to move, uncertain and afraid, unable to travel directly to any destination and having to expend much too much effort to go any distance. When the light goes on, he is instantly freed from his invisible chains, and he can hop, skip and jump at will, and dance with joy.

The third presumed consequence of achieving the apex of consciousness is greatly enhanced ethical understanding – or ‘wisdom[1]. This relates to the third function of the soul, which is valuation. It suggests a maximum of sagacity in one’s value judgments and pursuits. It would not suffice to have knowledge and freedom, if one were ignorant of values and thus incapable of virtue.

Just as valuation in general involves the operation of both the functions of cognition and volition – so wisdom is the natural and necessary outcome of enlightenment and liberation. At every level of human experience, sagacious valuing is indicative of a harmonious intersection between knowing and willing. Wisdom, or extreme sagacity, occurs when these functions reach their peak of perfection.

It should be stressed that wisdom does not only signify knowing right from wrong in any given situation, but also implies naturally doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong in that situation. It is not a mere theoretical understanding of values, but additionally involves a practice of virtue that testifies to having fully internalized such understanding. The cognitive and volitional faculties of the sage are concordant.

While full enlightenment, liberation and wisdom may be identified as the ultimate goal(s) of meditation – we may of course still consider increased but less than complete degrees of knowledge, freedom and discernment (between good and bad, right and wrong) as valuable intermediate goals. The situation is not “either-or” – i.e. either total blindness, impotence and stupidity, or utter perfection. We may have to gradually work our way towards the ideal, going through partial improvements until we attain the desired result.

Our experiences are likely to be proportionate to our progress along that Path or Way. We may have momentary so-called mystical experiences of lesser intensity than the ultimate experience of enlightenment, but find such reward encouraging and stimulating. If we practice meditation correctly and regularly over an extended period of time, our sense of freedom may increase noticeably. Things seem clearer and easier, and we exhibit more and more wisdom in our choices.

Traditions thus speak of a via perfectionis or dhammapada (way of perfection), implying a long spiritual road to be traveled, until the final step radically changes everything for us and we attain full realization.[2]

It should be noted that the term ‘realization’ has a double meaning, one relative and one absolute:

· It signifies, firstly, the actualization of one’s personal full potential as a human being, i.e. the full maturing of our faculties of cognition, volition and valuation.

· Additionally, it suggests that this self-perfection coincides with the extreme achievement of cognition of absolute reality, maximum freedom and wisdom of choice.

Logically, these two attainments are not necessarily identical: it could be argued that a given person’s relative best is still not good enough in absolute terms. However, some spiritual philosophies overcome this possible objection by considering the possibility of stretching the pursuit of ultimate perfection over more than one lifetime.

Furthermore, there are two ways to view the meditative enterprise; these ways are referred to in Zen as pursuit of gradual vs. sudden realization.

· We can view ourselves as standing somewhere on a mountain, eager to climb up to its peak, by diligently “working on ourselves”. We have to find the best way to do that, either feeling our way alone or using maps handed down to us by predecessors, or traveling with other seekers. Sometimes we may fall back, and have to climb again just to reach our previous position. Sometimes the mountaintop seems nearby; then, as we approach it, we discover the mountain is much bigger than it seemed from lower down. This mountain climb may take a lifetime of hard labor; some say many lifetimes.

· Another way to view the challenge is as a puzzle to be solved. If we could only find the key, it would open for us the door to realization. No need for one to climb or move mountains. One needs only constantly be alert for some clue, attentive for some hint – which may fleetingly come from anywhere[3]. If we spot it somehow, a veil will be lifted and all will become clear right where we stand. The mountain will instantly disappear, and we will suddenly find ourselves at its central axis (just like someone at the top). There is no climbing to do; the job requires detective work.

Of course, both perspectives are true and worth keeping in mind. The long-term climb seems to be our common lot; but it is our common hope to somehow immediately pierce through the mystery of existence. The latter is not so much a shortcut on the way up, as a cutting through and dissolving of the underlying illusions. Moreover, the theater of our search for insight is not so much “out there” as “in here”.

Another distinction to note is that between temporary/partial and permanent/full realization. On the way to complete realization, one may momentarily experience glimpses of it. Such fortunate foretastes of heaven do not however count as realization in a strict sense. One is only truly realized when one is irreversibly installed in such experience.

With regard to terminology, note that the terms realization, enlightenment, liberation, and (the attainment of) wisdom, are in practice mostly used interchangeably, because one cannot attain any one aspect of this event without the others. Sometimes, realization (etc.) is written with a capital letter (Realization), to distinguish complete and definitive from partial or temporary realization. Usually, the context makes clear which variant is intended.

Another term commonly used for realization is ‘awakening’. This term suggests that our existence as ordinarily experienced is like a dream – a dream of problems that cannot be solved from within the dream, but only by getting completely out of the state of sleep. I have experienced such dreams occasionally: I was somehow cornered in a very difficult situation and could imagine no way out of it, no winning scenario; so (realizing I must be dreaming), I simply willed myself out of sleep[4], solving the problem in a radical manner.

To the person who has just awoken, the world within the dream, with all its seemingly inescapable difficulties, permanently loses all importance, instantly becoming nothing worth getting concerned with anymore. This metaphor illustrates how spiritual awakening is more than a set of ad hoc solutions to the problems of ordinary existence: it is a general solution that cuts through the illusions and takes us straight to the underlying reality. This image makes realization easier to conceive.

[1] Some would contend that the attainment of enlightenment/liberation places one “beyond good and evil”. But the sense of that phrase should not be misconstrued as implying that one then becomes independent of morality. Quite the contrary, it means that one becomes so wise that one cannot imagine any trace of value whatsoever in immoral or amoral practices. The proof of that is that realized teachers always preach morality to their followers. Not because the teacher needs to remind himself of such strictures, but so as to preempt the followers from losing their way on the way to realization.

[2] I should add that I cannot, so far in my life, personally vouch for the feasibility of utter enlightenment, liberation and wisdom. I assume it to be possible, because many human traditions claim this to have been attained by some individuals: this is hearsay evidence in favor of the thesis. Moreover, it seems conceivable and reasonable to me that such heights of achievement should be possible. However, to be quite frank about it, I have not myself reached them. But even if I too were a live witness, the reader would still have to consider the information as second-hand, until if ever he or she in turn personally attained realization.

[3] This is the proactive spirit of koan meditation, advocated by the Rinzai Zen school, as opposed to the more “passive” looking zazen meditation, advocated by Soto school. The latter, which would be classified in the preceding paradigm of mountain climbing, is of course in fact not as passive as it would seem to the onlooker.

[4] The experience may be compared to being at some depth underwater, and deliberately swimming up to the surface.

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