What happens in deep meditation and contemplation? Different religions have weighed in on this question. And when we compare those answers, we discover something pretty amazing.
In doctrine and dogma, imagery, ritual and practice, religions differ greatly. They try to articulate the “truth.” They have been known to fight, kill, and die for their “beliefs.” (And isn’t it interesting that most people follow the religion they happen to have been born into–and believe that that one just happens to be the really true one. How lucky I was!)
But when we listen to people of different faiths when they talk or write about their inner life of prayer and meditation, especially the writings of great contemplatives and mystics, we find them talking in very similar terms about what they encounter:
An experience of peace, stillness, tranquility, often a feeling of expansiveness, joy or bliss, and of a deep and abiding love growing in their hearts. Out of this time of prayer and meditation, they find in their daily lives a greater sense of calm, fewer occasions for upset, a greater sense of connection to people and to nature, a growing love and compassion for others. And often out of this experience of greater love and connection, comes a desire to serve and care for others.
I have been reading and studying the works of the world’s mystics and contemplatives for most of my life, since I first discovered them in college.
I was struck then by the similarities in descriptions of their inner experience.
Saint John of the Cross’s or Thomas Merton’s descriptions of Union with God (in Dark Night of the Soul and In Seeds of Contemplation) sounded strikingly similar to Paramahansa Yogananda’ description of samadhi in Autobiography of a Yogi, and to Buddhist descriptions of satori or awakening, to Rumi’s descriptions of Fana–annihilation in God.
It was clear that when they tried to explain their experiences, they reverted to the doctrines of their particular faith, Christian mystics talking about “The Presence of Christ or the Holy Spirit.” Yogis talking about “The Union of the Atman (individual soul) with Brahman (God, the Universal Soul). Buddhists describing the experience of “emptiness.” Sufis celebrating “annihilation in Allah.” Yet, if we look carefully at their descriptions of what they felt and experienced, before they try to name and explain it, we encountered something very similar. And, they all say that what they have experienced cannot be described in words.
What is this Reality experienced and described by those of different faiths?
In this and the next two posts, I’ll offer some thoughts about how mystics of the six main world religions–Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam talk about that Reality experienced in prayer and contemplation.
Let’s begin with Taoism, the ancient Chinese philosophical, ethical, and religious system, which dates from the sixth century, BCE.
Taoism first of all emphasizes the ineffability of such experience.
The Tao that can be told of
is not the Eternal Tao
The Name that can be named
is not the Eternal Name
According to tradition, Taoism was started by the enigmatic character Lao Tse. “The Tao” (pronounced “Dao” and often transliterated today as “Dao,” though I like the elegance of the-old fashioned transliteration, “Tao”) is often translated as “The Way.” It refers to the nature of being, the absolute truth behind the changing phenomena of the world. It is aligned with nature. Tao denotes something that is both the source and the driving force behind everything that exists. Like “The Force” — of Star Wars, which is where Lucas got the idea, of course.
It is ultimately ineffable. Essential to understanding the nature of the Tao is this realization that it is beyond words, beyond thought, beyond language, beyond concept. But the good news is that it can be experienced.
Through meditation and living in harmony with nature, one becomes one with the Tao.
The Tao lives inside of us and outside of us. It is our true nature. We go astray when we think of ourselves and separate entities, focused on our own wants and needs, desires and ambitions.
“Ever desiring one sees the manifestations.
Ever desireless, one see the Tao.”
“Embracing Tao, you become embraced.
Supple, breathing gently, you become reborn.
Clearing your vision, you become clear.
Nurturing your beloved, you become impartial.
Opening your heart, you become accepted.
Accepting the World, you embrace Tao.
Bearing and nurturing,
Creating but not owning,
Giving without demanding,
Controlling without authority,
This is love. This is the Tao.”
Buddhism asserts that what exists beyond the changing phenomena of the world and what is encountered in meditation is “Emptiness.” Now, this seems depressing. Just like the first of the Buddha’s “Four Noble Truths”–that suffering is intrinsic, inherent in human existence. A Western wit once remarked that whereas Jesus brought the “Good News” of the Gospels, Buddha brought the “bad news” about suffering. And Emptiness.
But if we go a little deeper into what is meant by “Emptiness,” we find something pretty liberating. In his book on the central scripture of the northern or Mahayana school of Buddhism, the “Heart Sutra,” the Dalai Lama defines emptiness as “the true nature of things and events.” The Buddhist writer Louis Richards has interpreted explains,
“that nothing we see or hear (or are) stands alone; everything is a tentative expression of one seamless, ever-changing landscape. So though no individual person or thing has any permanent, fixed identity, everything taken together is what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing.” This term embraces the positive aspect of emptiness as it is lived and acted by a person of wisdom — with its sense of connection, compassion and love.”
No one and nothing “in itself” has an independent, fixed, permanent existence. It is, we are, empty of a separate existence, because everything is interdependent, connected to everything else and constantly changing. Every seven years all my cells are new. The food I eat becomes part of me. The air I breathe.
This is well-known by science.
When we experience “emptiness” in meditation, it is not a kind of frightening void. Rather, people describe it as spaciousness, infinite freedom, a feeling of a connection to all things, joy, bliss, compassion, love.
Lewis Richmond writes that “my teacher Shunryu Suzuki said of emptiness, “‘I do not mean voidness. There is something, but that something is something which is always prepared for taking some particular form.’ Another time, speaking of the feeling tone of emptiness, he said, ‘Emptiness is like being at your mother’s bosom and she will take care of you.'”
The other reason Buddhists use the term Emptiness is to emphasize that if we give this experience, the Reality behind phenomena a positive name or image or concept, then we have a mental construct that we then try to realize. But Reality cannot be contained in the mind. It is right in front of us, it is who we really are, but the mind cannot grasp or hold it. When we make mental images or concepts about it, what have really done is to create an idol that stands before us and that Reality.
Next Post: How Hinduism and Judaism talk about that Ultimate Reality.
Thanks for reading!