What is Real
Let us consider two contrasting ways of viewing the world. Humans have a tendency to arrange things in hierarchies of value. Value often then correlates with “realness” We consider most real the things that we deem most important and consequential and vice versa. The question to examine thus becomes that of what it is that people consider most real, most significant, most worthy of consideration and respect.
In one way of viewing the world, what is considered mosty real is whatever is most solid, material or concrete. In this view, physic al things that can be measured and quantified are most real - tables, chairs, rocks, planets, bodies. The things that are most closely associated with such solid things are then next in importance. Thus the physical and measurement sciences - physics, chemistry, astromony, mathematics - are considered high status and concerned with real things, while more subtle, subjective matters that are hard to quantify - sentiment, dreams, abstractions - are considered less real, lower status, less worthy of investigation and less significant in the general scheme of things. This way of viewing the world that prioritises the concrete as being what matters is a widespread attitude characteristic of the modern age.
In a different way of viewing things, this acale of values is more or less reversed. The easiest way to explain this alternative view is via an example. Peter gives Mary a ring. From a material viewpoint, Peter loses something and Mary gains something and the gain and loss are equal, so that in the totality there is overall no change. There is what we can call conservation of matter. However, we all know that what really matters is not the material matter, but the meaning. Mary does not just gain a piece of metal with a stone - that is the least of it. She gains a sense of being loved, a confirmation of things vitally important to her. The gain in spirit is vastly more than the gain in material. Furthermore, Peter may relinquish a costly item, but he gains, by the fact and manner of Mary’s reception of it, confirmation of his own hopes and aspiration. Both gain. Something appears out of, as it were, nothing. The calculus of spirit is quite different from that of material. Where physical science is a zero sum game, in spiritual science things can appear out of nothing. The great Zen writer Dogen refers to this as flowers appearing in the sky, alluding to the experience of the Buddha on his night of enlightenment.
Meditation as a Method of Spiritual Science
We have now referred to the study of these two contrasting domains as physical science and spiritual science. Science refers to investigation and the process of arriving at and understanding the laws that govern a domain. In a non-professional and rough and ready way we are all physical and spiritual scientists. Both domains concern us. However, we also have a tendency to prioritise one domain over the other and this may lead us toward fervour in regard to one and scapticism in regard to the other. This has relevance to the issues that face modern people undertaking meditation. Being “modern”, or even “post-modern”, often implies prioritising the materialist perspective, whereas meditation is, generally speaking, clearly a part of spiritual science. In meditation one is valuing the investigation of the most subtle and the most subjective and deeming those to be the most real, the most worthy things or dharmas. Physical science studies the movement of physical bodies whereas spiritual science studies how the heart is moved. Meditation investigates such movements. The movement of the ring from one place to another is a trivial matter that, from the point of view of spiritual science, only has significance as a epiphenomenon of the love. The love is real, the ring merely a token.
Seeking the Most Subtle
The world view that many meditation systems are built upon is that of spiritual science. Meditation is a search for and investigation of the most subtle. Dreams and visions are more subtle than material objects. The Buddhist term dhyana almost certainly originally referred to the kind of rapture in which such visions may occur. This is why the pinnacle of meditative achievement in Mahayana Buddhism is shunyata, the most subtle of all. What is next best are the things most close to it, such as the clear light of bliss, spoken of in Dzogchen. Next to that, and therefore much more accessible to the actual practitioner are the archetypal visions that in Buddhism we call samghogakaya. Thus practical Mahayana Buddhism revolves aroud the sambhogakaya in one way or another.
The value in pointing this out is that it highlights the difficulty facing many modern, especially Western, practitioners who have been educated and aculturated in an approach that prioritises and values physical science to such an extent that it is often difficult to even talk about spiritual science or think in its terms. Because of this bias, even the spiritual sciences that we do have - psychology, sociology - seem to believe that in order to be respectable they have to make themselves as much like physical science as possible, even though the actual laws of the heart operate on a completely different basis from those of metal and stone. Nonetheless, even the most clinical of physical scientists still does feel moved when he or she receives a love token.
Spiritual science is the science of love and its associated phenomena, both positive and negative. In this domain, as we have already noted, a distinctive calculus applies. However, this is not a calculus amenable to numerical quantification. It is ametric. The best one can do in that regard is to count tokens or indicators, but these are never sufficient to do justioce to the real thing. Peter’s love is not in direct proportion to the quantity of gifts, even though an increase in or falling off of gift giving might be a significant indicator. Yet, it is certainly not the case that because we cannot measure it in the same way that we measure the distance to the moon or the speed of a rocket we know nothing about it. We not only know a lot about it, it is of great importance to us. Spiritual science touches the things most close to our hearts. Physical science tells us about the bahaviour of things in a more distant way.
It has become part of the modern style to try to reduce spiritual science to physical science. An area where this kind of developments is currently a strong current is neuroscience. Neuroscience comes equipped with charts and diagrammes that are based upon measurements of nerve, and especially brain, activity. They seem to show correllations between actions, thought or emotions and activity in the brain. It can thus seem that certain areas of the brain are responsible for certain states and mental activities, or, to put it more globally, the mind is brain activity and what we call mind and all that it includes - love not excepted - are epiphonomena of brain states. This thus gives an appearance of reducing spiritual science to physical science. It seems to promise that if we can understand, predict and control what goes on in the brain then we can gain mastery over the mind and mental states and hence over our lives. Of course, one can note in passing that this begs the question of who or what it would be that was gaining control, since, from that perspective, even the controller would only be an epiphenomenon.
From the spiritual science perspective this promise seems empty. Firstly, it is unrealisable and secondly it does not make sense. Firstly, one must consider the sheer complexity of the matter. The fact that some areas of the brain light up when one is listening to music tells us nothing about why we like this tune rather than that one. The number of nerves, synapses and electrical impulses is so vast that we are nowhere near being able to trace them. Even if we could, what would we know? Knowing where something is located does not tell one much about it. That music appreciation often takes place in concert halls does not make the building into the writer of symphonies. Music can and does also go on elsewhere and the hall can be used, if necessary for housing refugees, or storing old furniture. Getting a map of the brain will not reveal anything directly about the things that go on in it. That spirit uses the brain does not make the brain into the creator of spirit.
Distortion of Meditation
The importation of meditation into modern Western society and culture thus poses significant challenges and these are being met in a variety of ways. One of these is the attempt to redefine and remodel the methods of spiritual science such as meditation so that they can be fitted into the value hierarchy of a physical science oriented society. This is the basis upon which mindfulness has become popular recently. Mindfulness has been taken out of its original Buddhist context and redefined in such a way that it seems to correspond with the impersonal standards of physical science. To observe what is immediately present in a non-judgemental way is close to being a physical science ideal. The original Buddhist mindfulness was something different. It was a matter of cultivating and retaining wholesome subtle attitudes that could underpin a noble life.
Again, the way in which meditation is taught in the modern West generally seeks to clearly distinguish it from trance or any kind of what can be called unconscious process. Meditation is presented as being about awareness, and this is commonly taken to mean awareness of physical things. This is probably far removed from the original meaning of the texts being used where awareness tends to be secondary rather than primary factor - an aid rather than a goal - and in any case may often refer to awareness of dimensions that a physicalist perspective will not even allow into the discourse - other lives, other worlds, celestial appearances, the things we might classify as dreams and visions. In many contemporary schools of meditation, if such things occur, one is told to regard them as mere distractions to be dismissed. However, in the texts, Buddha communes with deities with great frequency and his dhyana is described as so profound that he does not even notice when his body is drenched in a sudden thunder storm. Clearly, something has changed in the transmission from then to now and from East to West.
This all suggests that to be able to get a real sense of what meditation was once all about the modern practitioner may need to make a radical shift of perspective. Whether and how this could be possible for contemporary people is a challenging question. Modern people take on a meditation practice for distinctively modern motives and reasons. These include stress reduction, alleviation of depression, enrichment of sensual experience, and achievement of balance and calm. Achievement of balance and calm is common ground with the original traditions, but it is by no means the whole of that story. It is certasinly arguable, for instance, that the Buddha’s repetetive emphasis upon impermanance was intended to inject a sense of urgency - might one even say stress - into the practitioner who was expected to make a vigourous and self-challenging attempt to investigate and seek to approach the most subtle. Where the modern person takes on meditation as an aid to engagement with the material world, most traditional disciples were aimed at detachment from it. The material was considered the least real and the least worthy of engagement with. The key to eternal life was to be found in accessing the most subtle layer of being. Such was nirvana.
Here again arises another pitfall for the modern student. The most subtle part of being now often gets translated by some such term as “pure consciousness”. This is not totally wrong, but it can be misleading in a post-Freudian culture such as our own in which “consciousness” stands in contradistinction to the unconscious mind. It is, however, what we might call the unconscious mind that is the most subtle. Meditation was probably not a matter of attempting to have continuous consciousness. In any case, were one to achieve such uninterupted awakeness one would probably quickly become mentally ill. It is a recipe for insanity rather than enlightenment. If one takes the term consciousness in its modern sense, then the aim of meditation is not more and more of it. The aim is more a matter of penetrating to its deeper levels, levels that we might often refer to as unconscious.
As psychoanalysis has shown, the unconscious is not empty, except, perhaps, at its deepest point. Thus, although meditation may aim toward emptiness, along the way it is going to encounter many things. In the modern way of seeing things, these encounters are “inner” and constitute an exploration of the “inside“ of the subjective mind. It rather seems that people of two millennia ago thought differently. The things one encountered in meditative exploration were not one’s own complexes, but were more in the nature of visitations or simply a case of one lifting the veil to see what is actually going on all around one all the time. Thus, for them, the spiritual world must have seemed to be the more real. Buddha was famous for being “lokavid”, which means that he could see what the ordinary person does not see, namely the spirit world. Nonw of this implies that spirits were thought to have the same kind of reality as tables and chairs - they were more real and tables and chairs less so. From that perspective, tables and chairs are the incidentals of life, spirit the true reality.
It is an open question whether we moderns will ever be able to understand and perform what the ancient texts prescribe or whether we shall be successful in rendering their message into a form that the modern person can understand and use. Simply redefining key terms and changing the whole system into something that will neatly fit into the modernist paradigm will not do the trick. Nonetheless, notwithstanding the great prestige of physical science in the contemporary world, everybody does, in practice, accord supreme importance to considerations of a spiritual nature. We all cherish love, respect, compassion and kindness. When it comes to it, material gain is not what moves us most profoundly. The current project of trying to reduce spiritual science to physical science does not accord with our deepest instincts and so I have some optimism that we shall eventually find a way.
The Dalai Lama points out such a direction when he says, “My religion is kindness.” We need both kinds of science, but we should not think that there is only one way of operationalising them. Not all physical science is done in a laboratory and not all spiritual science is done in a church or meditation hall, though all such places do have their value. We need a broader concept of what may be possible and a greater respect for things of the spirit and their fundamental importance to our lives. There is no more reason to try to reduce spiritual science to material than the other way about. Everything in its proper place. We do, however, have to take into account the difficulty that modern people face. When they take on a spiritual path a complete reprogramming of the mind may be necessary even to take part in the discussion or to take seriously what is needed.