31 December 2013

Buddhism, Meditation, and the Baha'i Faith: Part 2

-Part 1 Here-
And if we turn inward and prove our True Nature, that True Self is no-self, our own self is no-self, we go beyond ego and past clever words. Then the gate to the oneness of cause-and-effect is thrown open. Not two and not three, straight ahead runs the Way. Our form now being no-form, in going and returning we never leave home. Our thought now being no-thought, our dancing and songs are the Voice of the Dharma. How vast is the heaven of boundless Samadhi! How bright and transparent the moonlight of wisdom! What is there outside us? What is there we lack? 
-From the Song of Zazen

The Baha'i Faith is a mystical religion. Baha'u'llah describes the spiritual seeker in the Valley of Knowledge - "the last plane of limitation" - as one who has "passed over the worlds of names, and fled beyond the worlds of attributes as swift as lightning" and has "made their dwelling-place in the shadow of the Essence." 

It is also a practical religion. Baha'u'llah emphasizes the need to be "anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and centre your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements."

Putting these two things together requires being “in the world, but not of the world” so to speak. This requires a delicate balance and careful integration of the two modes; yet they are each distinct. They are mutually reinforcing but they also develop along different axis.

Somewhat along these lines, in Buddhism there are three types of training which reinforce and integrate with each other, yet are distinct: moralityconcentration, and insight

Daniel Ingram, a modern practitioner within the Theravada school and author of Mastering the Core Techniques of the Buddha, an Unusually Hardcore Dharma Bookdescribes morality as the first and last training, one that cannot be mastered in a single lifetime. It encompasses most aspects of what religion - and life itself - is generally thought of to be concerned with: content, belief and action. It maps to the Baha'i concern with being "anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in." In the words of Ingram:

From my point of view, training in morality has as its domain all of the ordinary ways that we live in the world. When we are trying to live the good life in a conventional sense, we are working on training in morality. When we are trying to work on our emotional, psychological and physical health, we are working at the level of training in morality. When we philosophize, we are working on training in morality. When we exercise, we are working on training in morality. When we try to take care of ourselves or others, we are working on training in morality. When we try to defend the environment, reform the government, or make this world a better place, we are working on training in morality. When we try to find a good and helpful job, try to build a healthy marriage or raise healthy children, or shave our heads and move to a remote desert, we are working on training in morality. Whatever we do in the ordinary world that we think will be of some benefit to others or ourselves is an aspect of working on this first training.

Ingram describes concentration both as "the ability to steady the mind on whatever you wish and to attain unusual and profound altered states of consciousness." The ability to attain altered consciousness, often described by Buddhists as a state of absorption or Samadhi, occurs after long periods of intense concentration on a single object or task. 

Most people I'd imagine have had at least one experience in their life where they got so caught up in something that they felt completely "at one" with it, completely "in the zone". This is absorption. Eckhart Tolle describes this as a state of inner stillness or presence. When the mental chatter and self referential narrative of "me and my life" with its past and future, temporarily falls away. For Baha'is, this state can occur spontaneously through prayer or selfless service - a moment when they become the prayer or the act of service itself.

In Buddhism, training in concentration is a formal practice with explicit levels of attainment. For example in the Theravada school there are eight Jhanas, each corresponding to a distinct level of absorption. Practitioners are given detailed instructions in how to attain these states and how to recognize them. Over time, they are said to become second nature to the practitioner, available upon request. They are described as being blissful, expansive, and unitive - yet temporary. 

Precisely because they are temporary, concentration does not by itself lead to nibbana, the Buddhist state of "enlightenment". That requires training in insight.

In the Theravada tradition, training in insight commonly takes the form of mindfulness or Vipassana meditation. Shinzen Young, a Vipassana practitioner, describes it as the cultivation of sensory clarity – or being able to witness at a higher and higher resolution, the sensations and thoughts that make up ones reality moment to moment. Doing this requires that one must disembed from the content of their thoughts, the narrative of who they are with a past and a future, and experience reality on a purely sensate level in the present moment. 

Thoughts, including internal images, dialogue, concepts, etc., are just another one of the senses in Buddhism, one that can be perceived and dissected just like any other. Furthermore, emotions can also be dissected and understood as thoughts which become stored in the body.

The purpose of doing this is to deeply experience what in Buddhism is referred to as The Three Characteristics of Existence: impermanence, suffering, and no-self

When broken down into their component parts, things that once seemed stable and solid are now perceived as fluid and energetic, flickering in and out of existence, vibrating at a high frequency. This is realization of impermanenceOne then recognizes the source of their own dissatisfaction and suffering is attachment to impermanent objects. This is realization of suffering. At some point even the subject, the sense of a person perceiving, starts to feel impermanent - the sense of control dissolves. This is realization of no-self

Shinzen Young elaborates on the illusion of "self", which in modern terminology might be thought of as the ego:

“We think there is a 'thing' inside us called a self, but upon closer investigation we discover that there is an activity called personality that rises and passes as part of the effortless flow of nature. That activity called personality is made up of certain ideas and certain body sensations that moment by moment give us the sense that "I am."
Eventually, a permanent shift in perception occurs and the realization is complete. The effect is the end of fundamental suffering. There is still pain, but it is no longer a problem. This is enlightenment. 

As far as I can tell, there is no equivalent practice in the Baha'i Faith of explicitly disembedding from content and narrative and experiencing reality on a purely sensate and energetic level. My experience of insight meditation is very different than my experience of Baha'i prayer, although they seem to lead to similar insights. 

I have found it valuable to think of these different spiritual modes as different forms of technology, as different tools in a toolset. While they can both eventually get the job done on there own, they are more effective in tandem. 

For me, formal concentration meditation is a way to get fully engaged with the practice, a way to silence the chattering mind and become present and aware. Absorption can also be very blissful, and can be channeled into metta meditation which is the cultivation of compassion and loving kindness. 

Insight meditation allows me to "unfold the secrets of things-in-themselves", to investigate the components of physical sensations, mental objects, and emotional states, and to ultimately become detached from them all. It makes feel more vulnerable, more receptive, more fluid. 

Prayer, in my experience, intersects with both types of meditation. The object of concentration is on devotion to and conversation with God; like in metta meditation there is a cultivation of positive spiritual incentives. On a good day it leads me to detachment and surrender to a higher pattern, something equivalent to the experience of no-self.  

But getting to the state where: "with the ear of God he heareth, with the eye of God he beholdeth the mysteries of divine creation" - is often very difficult without first clearing the mind and perceiving reality on a more fundamental level, i.e. engaging in concentration and insight meditation. On the other hand, prayer can consecrate the will to endure the challenge of meditation, to push through when it becomes uncomfortable. The two modes are superadditive. 

This is why I am advocating that Baha'is take a greater interest in meditation. Service and prayer can lead to ultimate insights, but meditation can provide an alternative mode when somebody is feeling stuck spiritually or they need to shake it up. 

This is what happened to me. I started to feel limited by the fact that prayer, at least on the surface, seemed to require an assumption of duality, it required a belief a-priori that I was praying to God out there into order to tap into a deeper internal state. I started to feel like that internal state could be developed on its own terms, independent of belief and narrative. Later, when I tried praying again after getting into meditation, I was better able to appreciate more the activity and intentionality of consecrating oneself in the prayer mode. 

There are many maps which outline the stages that one goes through in this process of fully realizing the Three Characteristics. It is not always easy, feeling that the very sense of oneself is dissolving can be terrifying. In the next post I will draw upon and discuss a map from the the Theravada tradition, often called "The Progress of Insight", as represented by the mid-20th century monk Mahasi Sayadaw and Daniel Ingram. I have found there to be some interesting correlations with the Seven Valleys, which I will also discuss. 


  1. This is extremely insightful and very useful, as a Baha'i of three years, experiencing similar feelings. I am blessed to have been raised in a Hindu tradition where meditation was assumed to be a part of prayer. I never appreciated this as a child - the ability to sit in one place and really let the physical body's pain overwhelm the soul so that there is nothing but the feeling of the soul. Core activities and involvement, require a lot of "refueling". If we as Baha'is are going about community-based activities without a feeling of peacefulness in our hearts, it becomes more and more difficult to convince others that we are making a genuine connection with them. This has been my experience. I found myself making "functional relationships" rather than ones based on true connection. Meditation, allows one to feel the depths of oneself. If we are more connected with ourselves it is much easier to be connected with others.

    One element I do struggle with, regarding meditation, is that sometimes I get so engulfed in the Self - that I find it hard to emotionally handle the darkness of this world. I struggle with this, but I am sure that it is more important to feel emotionally and spiritually sensitive, than to feel nothing at all.

    Thanks for these wonderful insights Jason!

  2. Thanks Ramya, I agree. Concentration meditation, among many other things, can provide a nice centering of oneself in Being. I know that it is very very easy for me to start feeling disjointed, where my mind is separated from my body and spirit.

    Insight meditation on the other hand can be emotionally overwhelming at times. There is a whole set of stages that I will talk about in the next post called "The Dark Night" which are basically when the sensitivity to feelings and sensations becomes overwhelming and terrifying. These experiences, while very difficult, are actually a sign of spiritual progress and will eventually pass on as long as one is diligent in there prayer/meditation

  3. Jason, thanks for the great posts. Here are some thoughts:

    Baha'u'llah also taught to repeat Allah'u'Abha daily 95 times. This, along with daily reading the Writings and daily prayer seem like a pretty good routine to keep people in a meditative state. If it were more involved it would be difficult to make it a universal practice by every Baha'i in the world. It is a minimum that is easy to practice, but also effective and covering three types of activities (prayer, meditation, study), not to mention the annual fasting.

    I recently learned about the ideas of chakras and I thought the whole system of meditating on them was quite useful. Since Baha'is don't have a form of meditation analogous to yoga/tantra, any method of meditation could be used. I also think it's ok that Baha'is don't have advanced meditation practices. For example, the Baha'i Feast tries to incorporate devotions, administration, and social interaction. Balancing all those is important. That said, probably American society is overly-administrative and most people would welcome ways to enhance devotions with music or methods of meditation.

  4. In the tablet Tarazat, Baha'u'llah writes:

    In this Day whatsoever serveth to reduce blindness and to increase vision is worthy of consideration. This vision acteth as the agent and guide for true knowledge. Indeed in the estimation of men of wisdom keenness of understanding is due to keenness of vision. The people of Bahá must under all circumstances observe that which is meet and seemly and exhort the people accordingly.

    I think this passage speaks to the inherent openness of living the Baha'i life. Meditation of this kind is not just complementary or in harmony with Baha'i spirituality. To the extent that it fosters keenness of vision and is an agent and guide to true knowledge, it is precisely what Baha'u'llah calls us towards.