I recently read an article that argued that (a) there is no necessary relationship between meditation and mysticism and that (b) the purpose of meditation is purely the cultivation of positive moral traits. Given in support of this was the observation that there have been "mystical gurus" whose morals have been lamentable and also the logical reasoning that there are people who meditate who do not get mystical experience and people who have mystical experiences who do not meditate. The article said that meditation is a deliberately undertaken activity whereas mystical experience is always "accidental", though it did admit that in this sense meditation might make one "accident prone".

I wish to suggest that these contentions are open to complete reversal - that an opposite view is perfectly possible and preferable. People have probably been motivated to meditate by the prospect of mystical experience just as much, perhaps more, than by that of moral development. I am sure that one of the big spurs to the sudden popularity of meditation in the mid-twentieth century was the publication of Philip Kapleau's book Three Pillars of Zen whose main feature was reports of mystical experiences apparently brought about by meditation. There have been plenty of reports of "moral leaders" who went off the rails. There are people who meditate whose moral traits remain (or even become) weak and moral people who do not meditate. The whole argument, therefore, can be turned against itself.

Of course, a great deal turns upon definitions. Is meditation always a deliberately undertaken activity? Surely not. In fact, is it not the case that when a person is having a mystical experience, they are in a state of rapt attention to a "transcendental object" and, therefore, meditating? And is not the meditation that spontaneously occurs at such a time actually the epitome of meditation and the actual model and inspiration for all the deliberately undertaken spiritual exercises that people follow? When Mary sees the angel who says "Blessed art thou among women," she is surely in a state of religious rapture. Similarly Queen Vaidehi in the Contemplation Sutra when she sees the vision of all the Pure Lands of all the Buddhas. Such rapture is real meditation. Deliberately sitting still for long periods facing a wall or whatever may be an attempt to approximate such a condition, but it is in most cases only a preparation or an imitation. This is made particularly clear in the Contemplation Sutra where, after Ananda has witnessed the transformation in Vaidehi, the Buddha gives him a "do-it-by-numbers" account of how to have an experience that roughly approximates what Vaidehi experienced. Meditation is thus presented as an imitation of true mystical experience.

We can say, therefore, that mystical experience is the root of all meditation. In our modern technical world we are in danger of losing connection with such roots. Nowadays it is possible to think that meditation is purely a mental keep-fit or a moral development exercise disconnected from its sacred purpose, root and origin. This is how we are cutting ourselves off from the spiritual source of our being and turning ourselves into robots that can be programmed.

For sure, real meditation, which is mystical experience, does lead to moral development, since one who sees the Unimpeded Light is filled with joy and walks lightly upon the earth, but there is no guarantee that sitting for long periods counting one's breaths will have similar effect. A million hours sitting like a sack of rice is just so much wasted time. Mindfulness of the "here and now" is only transformative if the here and now comes alive and, at least in some tiny degree, begins to dance with divine light.

Many people nowadays undertake meditation or mindfulness motivated by a search for a kind of secular "moral development" defined as a greater ability to "cope with stress". This is how people who want to distance themselves from anything that could be thought of as an association with religion have re-clothed the issue. The real antidote, however, is inspiration. If people are inspired by enthusiasm for such a practice or by those who teach it, there will be some benefit. These welcome benefits are, however, small compared with the original from which these ideas ultimately derive.

Meditation exercises have developed in Buddhism and other religions as people have seen the effects of mystical transformation and then thought upon such things. Meditation begins with such thinking. In Buddhism, the first dhyana is such applied and sustained thought. Sometimes, a person thinking upon holy things might be carried into some degree of rapture. In such contemplation, thinking falls away for a while and experiences of joy arise. These are the second or third dhyanas. In some cases this might lead to a state of vast and deep tranquility, the fourth dhyana. Persons who have had such experiences repeatedly, like Siddhartha Gotama, might even be able to enter such states at will. Certainly they will be unforgettable to them and will provide a basis for the real "mindfulness" (sati/smriti) that is spoken of in Buddhist texts, which is not the de-stressing exercise of modern usage, but reflection upon remembered experience of transcendent truth. It is notable that most modern "meditation methods" omit the first dhyana and try to plunge the person into a state of non-thought, which is like trying to have fruit without first growing the plant, an attitude unfortunately typical of the modern attitude.

So, there is a necessary relationship between mysticism and meditation, the latter being reflection upon or direct effect of the former, either at first hand or, as in the case of Ananda, vicariously. Meditation is not just an activity deliberately undertaken according to a protocol. It is primarily a natural occurrence and only secondarily a contrived exercise. It is natural for people to reflect upon what inspires and such contemplation occurs in all cultures. Mysticism takes us beyond our humdrum ordinary existence - it makes life deeper. Meditating upon such deepening has some relationship to moral development, but moral development is better seen as a symptom than a primary motive. Moral development ultimately means living within a more inspiring morale, and this is a natural effect of encounter with the Measureless. When one is "seized by Amida, never to be forsaken" one's life does begin a long process of inner transformation and this provides much food for thought and reflection, although mostly it goes on secretly and silently in the hidden life that we sometimes call soul.

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  • Thank you for your wonderful clear writing.
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