29 December 2013

Buddhism, Meditation, and the Baha’i Faith: Part 1

So the true goal of meditation is achieved through a dialectical process that alternates between dissolving into flowing nothingness and detecting subtler and subtler instances of solidified somethingness. - Shinzen Young
In my opinion, the Baha’i community is exceptionally well developed in two important ways. 

The first way has to do with thinking about and acting in the world.  It has a comprehensive system of morality - with laws and principles that guide personal conduct and attitude; it has a brilliant evolving mechanism for interacting in the world and trying to make it better - the institute process; it has a universal and unique system of governance; and it is philosophically and theologically rich and modern.

The second is along a mode of spiritual practice: prayer and contemplation. There are countless prayers revealed by Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l Baha, and clear instructions for ideal practice, for example in the long obligatory prayer. The writings are poetic and intriguing and, by both the content and the very structure of the language, evoke positive spiritual feelings, mystical inclinations, and realizations of oneness.  

However, relative to Buddhism, I also feel that it is underdeveloped in a second mode of spiritual practice: meditation and systematic exploration of consciousness and "insight" (I will explain what I mean by "insight" in the next post). This isn’t due to lack of motivation from the founders. Baha’u’llah wrote the Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, which is a guide through higher consciousness and "insight". Abdu’l Baha extolled meditation as:

“the key for opening the doors of mysteries. In that state man abstracts himself: in that state man withdraws himself from all outside objects; in that subjective mood he is immersed in the ocean of spiritual life and can unfold the secrets of things-in-themselves.” 

Yet in the contemporary Baha’i community I have found that these things are rarely discussed and practiced on a pragmatic level. This can change (I will discuss why I think it should in the next post). For example, a Ruhi book or something similar could be developed that taught the different types of meditation and prayer, provided a guide through the states (or Valleys) of consciousness and "insight", and contained a discussion of the modern cognitive science of it. This wouldn't have to be developed from scratch. 

For thousands of years the Hindus and then the Buddhists have developed an advanced technology of meditation that corresponds at each stage with detailed phenomenological maps of shifting consciousness and "insight". In addition, a recent more secularized science of meditation has begun to develop that strips away the cultural context and theological baggage and integrates it with psychology and cognitive science, making it more applicable to people of any background, with any belief. 

An example of this is the work of Shinzen Young, a long time practitioner of many Buddhist traditions (including Zen and Theravada) and a science enthusiast. He has produced an audio series called “The Science of Enlightenment” and a handbook called “The Five Ways to Know Yourself”, both of which are excellent. 

In Part 2 I will discuss how Buddhism categorizes spiritual life into the "Three Trainings", how this maps to the Baha'i community life, and why this categorization is useful in understanding why meditation is important and where it fits into the larger scheme of things. 

In the final post I will discuss one of the Buddhist maps of "insight", called by some as "The Progress of Insight" and relate it to the Seven Valleys referred to by Baha'u'llah. 


  1. The Baha’i community through the years has had good reason to eschew the meditation mat. The mystical writings of the Baha’i Faith hardly lend themselves to any sort of meditation program that could be taught through study circles. And even if they could have been systematized, perhaps under the guidance of ‘Abdu’l-Baha or Shoghi Effendi, there is good reason to see why the Tablets of the Divine Plan and the former’s Will and Testament have set the agenda since then, rather than an extensive commentary and programization of the Seven Valleys. I think this has largely to do with how the central figures of the Baha’i Faith have understood the spiritual path; that the outer path is itself the inner path; that the development of the soul can, and perhaps always should, be pursued in the context of one’s relationship to others, society, and the world in general.

    I think today the spiritual problematic of Baha’u’llah’s mystical writings is largely operative within the framework of Baha’i social practice. For example, the permitting of God to be alive in and through the selfless servant isn’t just a theme explained using Sufi terminology in the Seven Valleys. It’s also reproduced, in my opinion, in a relatively sophisticated manner in the text Breezes of Confirmation, which is written with twelve year olds in mind, where it is then applied to very practical questions of preparing for adulthood. Similarly, collective reflection gatherings cultivate mindfulness and detachment. Though at first participants may only reflect on their service at planned meetings, with time they deepen their spiritual practice by integrating that reflective attitude more fully into everything they do, whether it’s directly related to Baha’i service or not. This too can be thought of as a systematic approach to meditation. That’s two examples. There are others. In general, by becoming active in outward paths of service, the challenge of living out profound mystical themes becomes integrated into the most secular dimensions of existence. Baha’is do lots of meditation. We just don’t always call it meditation.

    1. I agree with you that the outer path can lead to mystical realizations, but if the outer path is indeed the inner path, then Baha'is wouldn't need to pray either. One could say along similar lines, "Baha'is do lots of prayer through service, they just don't always call it prayer." The point I am making is that meditation is a distinct mode of spirituality that is complementary with prayer and with service. According to Abdu'l Baha, it is "the key for opening the doors of mysteries". If this "key" is available, why not use it?

  2. Those forms of worship and meditation are largely left to the discretion of the individual. Study circles examine their theoretical significance, encourage participants to think about how they apply to them personally, and mobilize them to enhance the devotional character of community life. But I think it would be premature to endorse at the level of the community, specific systems of meditation. Though, some study circles might agree through their own process of consultation and insight to embark in that direction.

    In general, I'm trying to understand this at the level of a common framework rather than individual practice. There's a difference in how to talk about each one. The former is subject to a constant process of consultation and learning in action. The latter is not for us to judge.

  3. Yeah, I'm not attached to the idea of there being a meditation themed Ruhi book. But right now, if a Baha'i wants to really get into meditation on an individual level, they have to go outside of the Faith to get it. I think that's unfortunate, especially for a Faith that claims to be universal, encompassing the Eastern as well as the Abrahamic traditions. Wouldn't it be better if the Faith incorporated what was best about the Eastern spiritual technologies and adapted them to a Baha'i context?

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  5. Here's a paper that documents some of the changes that meditation can have on cognitive functioning. https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B9IyLjPYAVCYMzQ3MTUwYjUtZjQyNy00OGIyLTg5NTUtZDkyYWQxN2JmZThh/preview