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Part I – Chapter 7

Methods and experiences.

Another area of comparison and contrast between traditions is that of methodology. Comparative study of religion shows that there are many means, as well as ends and results, in common among the traditions, although distinctions can surely be made. Some meditation techniques are found in two or more traditions, while others are peculiar to one tradition. The differences are often differences in emphasis, rather than fundamental differences.

Sometimes the descriptive and prescriptive language used varies, but the essential message is the same. For instance, sitting down with a holistic awareness, a Jew might reflect and marvel at the omnipresence of God in the midst and depths of the here and now, whereas a Buddhist might view his parallel experience as a serene contemplation of the Emptiness of all things.

Thirdly, despite the underlying universality of the motive behind meditation, the so-called mystical experiences emerging from meditation, or occasionally apparently spontaneously, may be very different.

There are evidently strong cultural influences on the concrete content of experiences within the different traditions to take into account. Jews have Jewish visions, Christians have Christian visions, Moslems have Islamic visions, Hindus have Hindu visions, Buddhists have Buddhist visions, Taoists have Taoist visions, and so forth[1]. Or they respectively imagine their “visions”, and think and say they saw them[2]; or they are reported by others to have seen them, even though those others cannot conceivably personally guarantee they did[3]. Moreover, there may be individual variants within the same tradition[4].

Such disagreements among and within traditions are significant, since they logically throw doubt on the finality of the mystical experiences of the parties in question. That is, through comparative religion we realize that what within a given tradition appears as universal, turns out upon further scrutiny to be culturally influenced or affected by individual parameters. But we can ignore such variations once we realize they relate to sights and sounds, i.e. to phenomenal experiences.

That is, they very likely involve mental projections. How else are we to explain, from a neutral standpoint, the often-conflicting narratives within competing religions? It is not inconceivable that some of the events told in the holy books actually occurred, and are not mere figments of someone’s imagination; but they could not all have been real, since each religion makes some claims the others strongly doubt. Thus, without outright and blanket skepticism, philosophers are duty bound to remain cautious.

We ought perhaps to make a distinction between two kinds of mystical experience: religious experiences and meditative experiences. Religious experiences may be spontaneous, and are usually (though not always) representational: they involve concrete forms (whether they be judged real or imaginary), and they tell a story or pass a message. Meditative experiences require work to obtain, and are usually (though not always) non-representational: they relate to the quality of current perceptions or insights, rather than to their contents, or they go beyond content.

We must not forget that the absolute we conceive as universal is not phenomenal (i.e. made up of sights, sounds, etc.), but utterly non-phenomenal and formless. Mystical visions are bound to be relative to preceding ordinary experience (which seems to start through the senses, and continues in the mind through memory and imagination, and which suggests all sorts of forms that we propose by mental acts of abstraction), whereas the ultimate mystical experience of the One is necessarily unconditioned by such factors.

Thus, the apparent relativity of visions and ideas from one culture to another need not deter the individual from an optimistic spiritual quest. For one may consider that the Absolute is bound to express itself in some particular relative form, as of the moment an experience is verbally or otherwise described for purposes of communication.

For this reason, it is possible to function entirely within a chosen tradition, and still hope to transcend all relativity. One may also, in my view (as a mere philosopher), be somewhat eclectic, learning aspects of the spiritual path from different traditions, yet not allowing any to be overwhelming[5], and still reach transcendence.

Furthermore, while there are significant phenomenological differences in many of the mystical experiences generated by different traditions, it is surprising (or perhaps not so surprising) to see how many similarities there are between them. This is especially evident when the experiences involve a minimum of representation of phenomenal content or forms. As an example, I would propose the experience described in Exodus XXIV:10 – which would surely appear equally credible to a Jewish or Buddhist meditator.

All those who (claim to) have attained realization of ultimate reality agree that it is an experience that cannot be fully put into words. It is something so different from ordinary belief that it cannot be adequately described; no words can express it; no words can do it justice. We may very roughly verbally approach it, to some extent from various angles, but it is too delicate a balance of dynamic experience to be captured, frozen and passed on.

Alternatively, the choice of words that realized individuals occasionally use to signal their understanding of experience (such as koan formulated by Zen masters), are comprehensible only to other realized persons and quite obscure to ordinary folk like us. That is why such experience or understanding is called “a mystery” or “mystical”. These are not pejorative characterizations, but simple admissions of most people’s limits of comprehension.

In conclusion, meditation is ideologically neutral, although capable of differing interpretations. However we interpret meditation and whatever techniques we adopt for it, we should not forget to view it as a natural activity. To meditate is to be in the most natural place of all, to be what one really is at heart. It should be experienced as something essentially effortless and perfectly comfortable. It is to be at home.

[1] For examples: Saul saw the prophet Samuel, Paul saw Jesus, Mohamed saw the Archangel Gabriel, Arjuna saw Krishna, a Buddhist might see the Bodhisattva Kuan Yin and a Taoist might see Lao Tzu.

[2] We need not of course take all claims for granted offhand; we can and should exercise caution, and remain somewhat critical while also open-minded.

[3] Not having shared in the experience; or never having interviewed the one claimed to have had it.

[4] For example, the vision of the prophet Ezekiel concerning the future Temple does not match Rabbinical expectations in some details.

[5] It is probably easier to function entirely within a given or chosen tradition, for most people. However, those of us who are well trained in logic and philosophy find it more difficult, for we are not always readily convinced by the arguments and doctrines traditions may offer. It is undoubtedly good to have simple faith; but it is also wise to avoid being manipulated and fooled. Most exasperating of all are the doctrinaire apologists and propagandists of religions, who consider that The Truth must necessarily be exactly as formulated by their religion’s founder(s). This last criticism applies equally to those of the Secularist persuasion. A healthy balance should be cultivated.

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