How to Correctly Practice "Christian Cultivation" Including Prayer, Good Works (Offerings) and Christian Meditation:
Christian Hesychast Evagrius Pontus wrote, "[true] prayer means the shedding of thought.
Gregory of Nyssa, one of the great Fathers of the Eastern Christian Church, wrote,
Christian priests or monks who practice "giving every thought over to God" so that they achieve a state of selflessness will succeed on the road of spiritual practice. Just as in the Middle Ages, they must practice emptying themselves of selfishness and egoity so that it is only God who is expressed through their actions and behavior rather than their personal "small ego." That's the meaning of the practice of charity and humility in Christian theology, as well as the meaning of "poverty of spirit," "fasting [of the mind]" and "simplicity of the heart." All these terms have to do with emptiness cultivation.
Charity means to give everything over to God, including your thoughts, so that nothing ego-centered remains. Living in solitude means cultivating a state without thoughts. Cultivating "humility" meant abandoning selfishness, namely letting go of ego-centered thoughts to attain emptiness. It means completely abandoning the self so that the only thing left is a pure cleaving to God alone. Renunciation meant to be with God without any intermediary or any otherness which might create a hindrance to being in God's presence. It meant not depending on any creature or thing but only on God alone, a God without image. As John of the Cross wrote in The Ascent of Mount Carmel, "When one is brought to nothing (nada)-the highest degree of humility-the spiritual union between one's soul and God will be actualized."
To explain it another way, since God is formless and without distinctions, one has to master the state of emptiness (mental formlessness) in order to know God and become one with Him. The term "Father" in Christianity is simply the term Christianity uses for Tao, Buddha mind, Brahman or original nature. True Christian prayer is to abandon clinging to thoughts to cultivate a state of mental purity that is in perfect attunement or alignment with the divine nature whereas attaching to anything else, according to true Judeao-Christian-Islamic doctrine, is idolatry or enslavement by the finite. Everything else is a product of the small ego and a succumbing to the passions.
This is why you must detach from, or give away your thoughts to become wholly selfless to attain the Tao. Even if you have thoughts of God, those thoughts stand in the way of perfect union with God, or the Supreme state the underlying nature. True prayer was the practice of internal silence so as to let one's soul lie in the "presence of God." True spiritual cultivation was to free oneself of his or her passions. Becoming completely purified of all passions and appetites, interiorly one would then reach the apex of the spiritual life and become "faultless and spotless and pure."
Of course, these are just the Christian ways to describe emptiness cultivation, as are the words "put yourself in the presence of God." The German churchman, Nicholas of Cusa, said one should "leave everything behind" when you want to approach God and even "transcend one's intellect" to go beyond sense and reason. Meister Eckhart and other Christian saints said similar things, such as to "practice inner silence." As to the absence of discriminative thought, or emptiness cultivation, Eckhart said,
When you read Christian passages, such as the following cultivation path described by Henry Suso, you must always recognize that they refer to emptiness cultivation although the instructions are clothed in religious garb. Suso, for instance, said that he was forty years old when he started upon an "advanced school" of cultivation practice which was "complete and perfect detachment from oneself, so that a person becomes so utterly nothing that he strives continually to be in a state of going away from his 'self,' and he aims alone at God's praise and honor." John Cassian, one of the three great founders of Western mysticism, also wrote that "(the pure prayer of the faithful) centers on no contemplation of some image or other. It is masked by no attendant sounds or words." Nilus of the Eastern Church wrote that the mind in prayer must reach a state where it "dwells on things ineffable and knows not where it is," is "lifted above utterance," and "drawn unwittingly from all sensible things."
Contrary to mistaken notions, none of these initiates advised cultivating a religious cloak of thick emotions to hang onto but rather the refinement of emptiness meditation. The medieval Christian practice of lectio divina, which was to read a passage of scripture, reflect upon it and then "rest in the presence of God," points to the same process and produces the exact same end results as well. So in Christianity we have charity and humility practice while in Judaism we have the approach to ayin, or nothingness, but it is all emptiness cultivation just the same.
Whether you use rosary recitation to quiet the mind and achieve emptiness, whether you use centering prayer (a discipline designed to withdraw our attention from our ordinary flow of thoughts since we tend to identify ourselves with that flow), whether you use the practice of lectio divina, the entire purpose of the process is exactly the same. The purpose is to cultivate a state of interior silence where we do not become attached to our thoughts as they go by, so that in time discriminative thinking entirely departs while naked awareness remains. As Azriel of Gerona (for Judaism) even said about praying, a true prayer is one where "we have directed the words to the nothingness of the word (efes davar) You should know that one who prays must push aside every hindrance and obstruction and restore each word [of the prayer] to its nothingness [emptiness] (afiasato). This is the meaning of efes."
In the Babad school of Hasidism it is even said, "This is the foundation of the entire Torah: that yesh (the apparent somethingness of the world) be annihilated into ayin [emptiness]," which means that the purpose of Judeo cultivation is to attain the state of emptiness. Cultivation schools all agree on this approach because it is the standard, nondenominational approach to spiritual progress. We may dress this approach up with the Torah, the Buddhist scriptures, Tibetan Tantra and all sorts of other coverings, but the spiritual path is the same.
Now these descriptions of the Christian path basically ask you to remove things from your mind in order to attain a state of emptiness. Those priests who simply hold onto their thoughts and emotions, however, will never taste this state of spiritual grace but will just remain ordinary human beings dressed up in the garments of the holy. What's the Christian method of cultivating samadhi like? Christianity's Epistle of Privy Counsel tells us,
Thus no matter what the religion or spiritual tradition, the method of cultivating emptiness is always the same. If you start down this road of "religious practice," then your jing will transform into chi and you'll be able to experience all sorts of spiritual transformation.
In Christianity you will then ignite the kundalini, which is called incendium amoris and in Islam, "the fire of separation." In time, you will then cultivate samadhi if you continue to cultivate correctly, rather than cling to thoughts. This is where people go wrong or cap their cultivation progress.
When people refer to the fact that kundalini "burns," they're actually referring to the preliminary friction encountered when the body's chi channels first try to open up. Properly speaking, this isn't kundalini at all. Rather, it's really just a manifestation of friction as the chi moves through obstructed chi channels, and the process can be compared to an internal infection. For instance, this is what the Japanese scientist, Hiroshi Motoyama, experienced after several months of pranayama practice that served to "ignite" the kundalini, or "ascending" chi:
Because this is a nondenominational phenomenon, quite a few Christian mystics have described their experiences with this preliminary stage of chi mai purification. Richard Rolle, the fourteenth century English "Hermit of Hampole," is the Christian contemplative most often associated with the kundalini phenomenon, which he personally termed the "fire of love" and associated with excess religious coloring.
This fixation on a religious interpretation along with excessive emotions is the problem which has plagued Christian cultivation just as an over-emphasis on cultivating the physical form has plagued the form-based cultivation schools of yoga, Taoism and Tibetan Buddhism. Nevertheless, Rolle correctly noted that kundalini cultivation was involved with cultivating mental emptiness, for he wrote "I have found that to love Christ above all else will involve three things: warmth and song and sweetness. And these three, as I know from personal experience, cannot exist for long without there being great quiet."
Rolle reported of his own kundalini experiences saying,
The Polish Catholic nun, Sister Maria Faustina also wrote of her own kundalini experiences, saying, "I was all afire, but without burning up I felt some kind of fire in my heart I was so enveloped in the great interior fire of God's love I feel I am all aflame. Today, a living flame of divine love entered my soul." These, too, she also associated with the wordlessness of silence, which is how one cultivates the Stage of Warming practice.
Naturally, Rolle and Faustina were not the only Christian contemplatives who wrote of the kundalini phenomena associated with the Warming stage of the path, which is the first tier of transformation in the Stage of Intensified Preparatory Practices. Fire, warmth and heat - often interpreted as mystical love, divine warmth, or incendium amoris - was also reported by Macarius, Symeon the New Theologian, Theophan the Recluse, Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard of Bingen, John Tauler, Angela of Foligno, Catherine of Genoa, Francisco de Osuna, Margery Kempe, Marie of the Incarnation, Madame Guyon, George Fox, William Law, and even Blaise Pascal. It's such a rudimentary stage of the path that its common occurrence often goes without mention.
When the real kundalini arises, a cultivator should try to keep away from food and any thoughts that might transform into sexual desire. They shouldn't try to match any thoughts with their body when sexual desires arise, but should strive to remain pure like a newborn baby. If they eat overly nutritious foods or nutritional supplements at this time, they're likely to overly stimulate themselves leading to sexual excess and all sorts of other problems. In Chinese history, various Tao school practitioners, as well as kings and high officials, made this same mistake in the past, and shortened their life spans as a result. As the Taoist Classic, The Secrets of Cultivating Essential Nature and Eternal Life (Hsin Ming Fa Chueh Ming Chih), explained regarding sexual desires
Sexual desire is something to stay away from at this stage of cultivation because of the retrogressing and damage it can cause. So any stimulating foods that might arouse sexual desire should be avoided such as onions, garlic and leeks. Rather than eat too much food, a person at this stage should also just drink water and perhaps their first morning urine. After they've gone without food for many days and cleaned their entire body and intestines, then they can switch to a different sort of Taoist practice if they like.
As to the earth element of our body, the earth element corresponds to the densest parts of our physical structure such as our bones, hair, nails and teeth. Finally, the space element refers to all the intracellular spaces in the body, as well as the much larger empty spaces that separate our joints and internal organs. Together these five elements are said to compose everything there is concerning our physical structure.
During the process of spiritual cultivation, you already know that the physical body will undergo tremendous transformations. These various transformations represent physical purifications that correspond to the progress you make in spiritual development. If you achieve these transformations you're making progress, and if you don't achieve these transformations then you haven't yet reached that particular stage of spiritual attainment. Read that again: if you achieve these physical transformations then you've reached that stage of spiritual progress, and if you haven't experienced or achieved these transformations, then you haven't reached that corresponding degree of spiritual advancement.
No matter what cultivation school or religion you may practice, the physical body will definitely undergo these transformations as you scale the ranks of spiritual progress and if you don't experience these transformations, then it's actually because your practice is deficient. There is no other explanation, and there is no denying this fact. That's why it's important to publicly reveal these phenomena as one of the many independent measuring schemes of your spiritual progress.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika talks about the arising of kundalini (real chi) in saying, "When exhalation and inhalation both cease (and the movement of prana ceases), the enjoyment of the senses is annihilated, and when there is no effort, then a changeless state (of mind) occurs and the yogi attains samadhi." It also tells us that the method which brings about the arousal of the kundalini is the mentality of non-clinging (emptiness) we find in meditation, for "The yogi who has raised the kundalini and has freed himself from all clinging karma will reach samadhi naturally." This explains why various Christian contemplatives would exhibit spiritual insight, healing powers, or the "gifts" of prophecy and clairvoyance after passing through this preliminary stage of cultivation. Such things are well documented in Christian records, especially in the Eastern Orthodox monastic tradition. When we find that the New Catholic Encyclopedia lists a great variety of extraordinary phenomena that can appear on the path of spiritual cultivation, we can therefore take this list as representative of Christianity as a whole.
This list of Christian spiritual phenomena from ardent religious practitioners includes visions, the reading of another's thoughts, incendium amoris [kundalini heat], stigmata, bilocation [yang shen emanations], levitation, compenetration of bodies, bodily incombustibility, inedia [the body becomes full of chi], bodily incorruptibility [the mai have been transformed], locutions, and so on. So here we have a typical Western spiritual tradition, yet its listing of possible cultivation gong-fu acknowledges the very same phenomena experienced by practitioners of Eastern spiritual schools.
Because progress markers on the spiritual path are nondenominational. Over and over again I must tell people that their religion is not ultimate or unique in terms of the stages of gong-fu achieved through spiritual practice. To think otherwise is simply ignorance or arrogance, and most usually prejudice.
Whether for the East or West, the various stages of spiritual attainment are the same. Since we are all human beings, how could they be different? A perfect example is the heat phenomenon involved with the purification of the chi channels, related to the "kundalini" of yoga, "clumsy fire" of Taoism, and "tumo heat" of Tibetan Buddhism. Everyone experiences some degree of this purifying (frictional) heat when their chi channels undergo a particular stage in the purifying process. That's why the Catholic saint Philip Neri often felt the heat throughout his entire body:
The Christian nun, Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, also reported her experience when her own chi channels started to become purified through the arising of kundalini. Naturally she clothed her understanding of the phenomenon in Christian religious terms, but it was chi channel purification nonetheless:
The same physical phenomena appear across different schools because spiritual cultivation is actually human being science, and thus these experiences are a nondenominational affair. If you cultivate then you'll experience these phenomena no matter what your spiritual school or religion. However, if you don't cultivate then you'll never experience these things at all, and neither will you genuinely climb the ranks of true spirituality. If the phenomena don't appear, it's not that they don't exist. Rather, it's because your cultivation is wrong or just isn't good enough, or hasn't reached that stage of transformation.
The principle to recognize is that these effects are nondenominational, and so they're due to the process of cultivation rather than to one's membership in any particular sect or religion. Practice and then accomplishment in spiritual cultivation is the important factor, not the fact that you belong to some specific religious group. How would that accord with the stated claim that "we're all God's creatures"?
If the body cleans out the chi channels and becomes transformed through this process, that's where the phenomena of Christian incorruption comes in...
If we want to talk about transforming the earth element of the body, we must recognize that this is an even more advanced stage of practice as well as a more time consuming process than cultivating the fire element of kundalini. This is so because it involves transformations of the densest portions of the body, namely the hair, nails, teeth and bones. When some high stage cultivators die, they sometimes ignite their bodies into flame or dissolve their body into light, leaving bits of their hair and nails behind as relics for their students. In other cases, some masters leave the empty shells of their bodies behind, but the bodies remain uncorrupted and don't decompose due to all the cultivation work they've done in purifying it. When this happens we can recognize that these practitioners had definitely transformed their chi channels, and in evidence of this fact their bodies will usually produce pebble-like sariras if they are cremated.
Christianity calls this phenomenon "incorruption." When a spiritual practitioner really purifies their chi channels, then after they die the body can resist decay for ages. Since this only occurs when the physical body and its chi channels have truly been transformed, this is one type of physical proof for the actual effectiveness of spiritual cultivation. The bodies of the great Tibetan master Tsong Khapa, the contemporary Hindu Swami Paramhansa Yogananda, the Chinese master Han Shan, and various Christian saints such as St. Francis have all exhibited this phenomenon of incorruption.
In Catholicism particularly, this phenomenon of "bodily incorruptibility" is a well-known saintly quality characterized by the fact that the human cadaver doesn't even exhibit rigor mortis, and after many days the body still hasn't decayed. So we know from this that it is common to many spiritual traditions, and the reason is because it's a nondenominational stage of definite spiritual cultivation.
So much for various stages of transformation! There is nothing unique about them. Every school of practice leads to the same sequence of spiritual stages, but how far you go is a different matter.
How about samadhi?
To be really accurate, you must recognize that most of the spiritual accounts you read mentioning spiritual ecstasy and bliss refer to individuals who only somewhat approached the first dhyana attainment rather than to those who actually attained it. They referred to ecstatic mental states and four pre-first dhyana samadhi. In many cases these states weren't even the result of cultivation efforts, but just an expressional outlet of excessive emotional fervor. As to a real description of the transitory stages of joy and physical bliss experienced before a steady achievement of the first dhyana, we can turn to this Christian account from Saint Isaac of Nineveh:
Patanjali's Yoga Sutras calls the first dhyana the "vitarka-samadhi" because this mental state still has the vestiges of coarse mental clinging called "vitarka" in Sanskrit. Vitarka refers to a deliberately applied form of coarse mental searching or consideration. It's a mental factor that directs the mind onto an object. When your thoughts are examining the details of an object, that's the mental factor of vitarka, and this type of initial application of thought inhibits sloth and torpor in meditation. Patanjali defines vitarka-samadhi as a mental state of concentration which not only contains this mental factor of vitarka, but which also encompasses other mind-body factors such as vicara, bliss and beingness.
Buddhism offers a more complete characterization of the first dhyana, noting that it is characterized by physical bliss, mental joy, and one-pointedness in mental concentration. In the Buddhist description, the first dhyana still contains vitarka mental clinging, and vicara mental activities as well. The vicara mental activities constitute a more refined form of mental investigation than vitarka, yet in terms of the samadhi attainments these two mental activities are still considered coarse functions of the mind.
We'll see these two factors of vitarka and vicara mentation mentioned over and over again in cultivation texts. To be clear, we should understand them in some detail. Vitarka corresponds to a type of coarse mental investigation whereas vicara corresponds to a more refined type of mental analysis. Vitarka directs the mind toward an object of examination, so it can be compared to a bee that starts heading for a flower. Vicara is the continued exercise of the mind on the object, so it can be compared to the bee buzzing about the flower to inspect it. The factor of vicara thus refers to a more subtle form of sustained (rather than initial) attention that registers things with a more refined form of deliberate consideration. In other words,
These two mental activities are still existent in the first dhyana and since they properly belong to the realm of the sixth consciousness of mental discrimination, we can know that the first dhyana attainment is a stage where you've not yet purified the conception skandha, meaning you still haven't yet seen the Tao. Sometimes Buddhism refers to the various dhyana with names, and the orthodox school of Buddhism refers to the first dhyana as "The Joyous Ground of Separating from [Thought] Production."
Taoism describes the first dhyana through a different means than both Hinduism and Buddhism. Taoism identifies it by emphasizing its phenomenal characteristics-it's a state where "thoughts seem to stop" because of the initial mastery of one-pointed concentration. In other words, it's a preliminary stage of mental cessation that you can reach through any type of cessation-contemplation (shamatha-vipashyana) practice. Coarse thoughts are absent in this samadhi, but of course there are still the mental factors of vicara and vitarka. Other cultivation schools promote alternative descriptions of this first samadhi, but those descriptions are basically included amongst the aspects mentioned by these three schools.
The first dhyana is a state you can only reach after you've already opened up your chi mai and chakras, so you can only access this state after you've successfully cultivated your jing, chi and shen. When jing transforms into chi and chi transforms into shen, that's a point where you are first beginning to open the body's central sushumna channel so that you can experience the various samadhi, in this case the first dhyana. This transformation of chi into shen has a rough correspondence to cultivating the fire element of the body, and so the process of chi transforming into shen is akin to the Taoist stage of "hsi," which is the yogic stage of kundalini initiation. At the same time, these chi transformations will cause you to experience mental joy and physical bliss.
In general, all the elements of the body tend to work together in bringing about the samadhi and dhyana because the body's five elements must all become harmonized, and so you cannot attribute the dhyana to any one single physical factor alone. In actual fact, since you must ignore the body-forget it or detach from it in cultivating samadhi-the dhyana and samadhi are actually mind attainments rather than physical attainments even though they involve a physical aspect. Any way you look at it, to say they're achieved by the body is a gross distortion of the facts.
As we know from our previous descriptions of the Tao school, when the shen masses and concentrates en masse, then you can achieve the clear and open mental calmness and clarity of samadhi. But from within samadhi, which has its own various degrees of coarseness, you must still use your prajna wisdom to investigate the Tao. You must try to see who's having all these experiences. You must use your spiritual insight to investigate the true foundation of your mind.
The stage where you finally awaken to the formless nature of original essence, and not the stillness of samadhi that appear in its boundless horizons, is when shen transforms into emptiness in conjunction with emptiness being cognized by prajna insight. This is the stage where you can finally smash the concept of ego and self, of body and mind, and awaken to the Tao. What is this experience like? Zen master San Feng's autobiography described it for us:
This is the actual stage of Awakening to the Path, or Seeing the Tao. The preparatory stages of samadhi attainments, on the other hand, belong to the Path of Preparatory Yoga and to the gradual progression of cultivating through and freeing oneself from the form and sensation skandhas. If you weren't purifying the form and sensation skandhas, then you couldn't detach from the body, sexual desire, and any other sensations that stand in the way of your accessing the various dhyana!
Thus you can see how all these different descriptive scenarios all perfectly inter-link with one another. This is to be expected because cultivation science is one coherent whole.
You have to have already opened your chakras, by previously cultivating your chi and mai, to be able to attain any of the various realms of samadhi. This actually means that your body has already become more purified or healthy, and because of this purification it's become much easier to cultivate emptiness and mental concentration. Thus when you do finally attain the first dhyana, we can say that your whole body has been transformed a great deal, and is still in the midst of ongoing change or transformation since there are other samadhi yet to accomplish. That's an important attribute of this dhyana from the standpoint of cultivation biophysics.
The more important point about the first dhyana is that your personality is changing as well when you reach this stage, such as the fact that you can now eliminate minor mental afflictions and free yourself from the strong pulls of sexual desire. In the first dhyana you will experience a physical bliss in all the cells of your body, and this bliss is actually a hundred times greater than anything you can experience through sexual activities. Not only is it more intense, deeper and more long lasting than sexual bliss, but it will involve every cell of the body, and your mind will remain in an extremely joyous state during its duration. How can ordinary sexual relations possibly compare to this state?
In terms of the Three Realms of existence, attaining the first dhyana means you can finally jump out of the Realm of Desire and ascend to the Form Realm heavens, so when you attain this dhyana it means that you've overcome the pulls of sexual desire. You've freed yourself from sexual desire, at least to a major extent, but there will still be some subtle lingering seeds of habit. However, these seeds will definitely be reduced otherwise you couldn't jump out of the Desire Realm in the first place.
Some masters claim they've been able to attain the first and even higher dhyana states, but if they have any sexual desires left they can't really make this claim at all. In actual fact, most people who attain what look like the various samadhi and dhyana have only attained semblance dharma attainments. The problem is that they don't even realize it, for that's how easy it is to mislead oneself and how difficult it can be to get to the first dhyana. It is truly a great accomplishment to become able to reach this stage of cultivation. There are great generals and kings and all sorts of people that we honor for their deeds in the world, but when you can attain the first dhyana, we can honestly say you're truly a great hero. How much moreso for an individual who attains the Tao.
You will definitely develop a variety of superpowers when you attain the first dhyana, and such abilities will become possible because you will have transformed your chi and mai and have been able to control your mind to attain some degree of single-minded concentration (one-pointedness). With concentration and prajna wisdom it's said that all things are possible, and so the ability to exhibit extraordinary mental functions in this state should come as no surprise.
In terms of various paranormal abilities, you have to remember that chi and consciousness are interlinked, and this is the basic principle behind many of these special abilities at the lowest stages of cultivation attainment. The fact that consciousness is coupled with prana (chi) is the special mind-body connection that researchers always search for when they're trying to explain things, but can't seem to identify. Chi is of the body and of course consciousness is of the mind. Since two are interconnected (at least for the unenlightened), an individual can lead their chi with their thoughts and produce all sorts of special manifestations.
This interconnection between our vital force and mental state is how the functions of the mind interact with the laws of biology-it's all dependent upon the interconnection between thoughts and chi. That's why you can feel the energy rush up your back when you get scared, or why your face will turn red when you become embarrassed; it's all because of a mind-body connection. Since there are various types of chi in the body as identified by Indian ayurvedic medicine, by Chinese medicine, and the esoteric cultivation schools, there are all sorts of special physical gong-fu you can attain as you cultivate the mind and learn how to gain control over your chi. In fact, many people in the martial arts train with the hopes to do just this. Thus there are all sorts of external powers you can develop when you learn how to master the chi-mind connection, but these abilities should fall out of samadhi achievements rather than be the actual aim of cultivation practice.
At much higher stages of cultivation attainment, one cultivation school even talks of the mind "bearing five colored radiance," meaning the mind has a fundamental connection with the primordial five elements of the universe (which are higher than chi or light or anything else we can imagine). Of course from the standpoint of the Absolute, all these explanations are incorrect because the absolute nature is mind-only and has nothing to do with phenomena. Phenomena are simply a form of solidified false thoughts lacking any self-so existence independent of the self-nature's natural enlightenment.
The world of samsara is therefore equivalent to nirvana and the state of nirvana is quiescent, lacking any such actual elaborations. Therefore objects are essentially quiescent in their fundamental nature. They only arise like a dream in that they depend upon other things for defining them. These others are just as illusory as themselves, and in this giant illusory system nothing is substantial or permanent that you can rely upon. Everything is empty, which is why it can conventionally exist in the first place.
But all this veers away from the discussion on samadhi...
In the past, some of the Christian "mystics" who properly cultivated could make it to the first or even second dhyana. This is why they could correctly identify the characteristics of joy and bliss which characterize these lower samadhi realms. In fact, it is precisely these two characteristics of the lower dhyana which have given birth to such theological terms as "ecstasy," "rapture," "bliss," "divine grace," "divine love" and so forth which readily appear in Christian literature.
The preponderance of the lower dhyana attainments (or partial attainments) by the Christian mystics are the reason these terms feature so much in this particular tradition. However, we must also say that as compared to the East, in general the Western traditions--for lack of proper instruction and guidance--have produced very few individuals who've made it as far as these realms. And since they didn't make it to these lower realms, most Christian spiritual practitioners never made it to the higher realms past them.
The big problem was not the lack of desire to spiritually cultivate, but the lack of proper detailed instructions for reaching the highest realms of cultivation, and lack of a well designed structure on the cultivation path in general. Plotinus knew of the cultivation path of sense withdrawal, for he wrote "What is meant by purification of the soul is simply to allow it to be alone. (It is pure) when it keeps no company, entertains no alien thoughts; when it no longer sees images, much less elaborates them into veritable affections." You see, everyone is teaching how to attain samadhi! If you go back to Socrates you'll also find many valid descriptions of the cultivation path and means of practice, but since Socrates had no students who could match his state, the track record of spiritual greats who've come after him has remained relatively sparse in the West.
Nevertheless, since the lower dhyana attainments are the easiest samadhi to reach and since the dhyana represent the "common techniques" or shared (nondenominational) stages of the cultivation path, we can easily cite a number of Westerners who did attain some definite samadhi experiences. The descriptions of these attainments perfectly match with the traditional outlines set forth from the Eastern traditions, and so it's easy to see how the experiences from different schools perfectly match with one another. For instance, Christianity's Saint Teresa called one of her stages of mystical experience ("union mystica") the "orison of union," and at a glance we can see that its description indicates a definite dhyana attainment:
Switching over to Islam, we can also find a poetic description of a genuine samadhi experience in the writings of Abu Yazid, who was the grandson of a Zoroastrian. He was the founder of the ecstatic ("drunken") school of Sufism of which we can make comparisons to Hasidism, devotional bhakti Hinduism, and ecstatic Christian cultivation. Abu Yazid poetically described a journey to Heaven, in imitation of the Prophet Mohammed's ascension, which captured the imagination of later writers but which incorporates some characteristics of an advanced samadhi experience. Once again you'll note it's samadhi but glorified in so much poetry that people lose the central message, and then other poets who love the fluidity of the text spin their own poems without any cultivation content. That's how culture is built --:
Another example of the nondenominationality of the samadhi experience are the spiritual attainments of Saint John of the Cross. He called the dhyana attainments a "union of love" attained through a method of "dark contemplation" wherein you wrest your personal thoughts and feelings from the soul, separating yourself from them so that you've banished mental discrimination. Sound familiar? In Saint John of the Cross's teachings, you therefore become "dark" in the sense that you had to give up clinging to your normal discrimination thinking and realize emptiness.
You can also became "dark" because you had to give up your typical egotistical attachments. At times, of course, the metaphors of darkness, clouds or fog can be used to suggest the elimination of discursive thinking as well as the obscurity of intellectual knowledge in blocking direct knowing of the divine (original nature). When a spiritual school does not have a clear set of cultivation stages and terminology worked out, as is the case with Christianity and most other western religions, or when cultivation descriptions are infused with too much religious coloring, at times the exact meaning of the teachings remains unclear.
The Cloud of Unknowing, which is another early Christian work, explained it another way:
The Cloud of Unknowing also talks of various methods for entering samadhi that are framed, as to be expected, in traditional Christian attire. "Think of nothing but God himself so that nothing will work in your mind or in your will but only God himself. You must then do whatever will help you to forget all the beings [external forms] whom God has created, and all their works":
This, too, is our standard form of emptiness meditation practice although the description is phrased in the appropriate Christian religious attire. In the Cloud of Unknowing you are also told to "surrender yourself to God, so that you do not admit even a single selfish thought which is your own," whereas Dionysius the Areopagite instructed us on the way to cultivate samadhi as follows:
It was therefore through such means of cultivation practice, and through other Christian methods such as continuous "vocal prayer" (equivalent to Hindu mantra or japa practice), the visualization practices recommended by Saint Ignatius (similar to Tibetan visualization methods), or the "prayer of quiet" and "sleep of the faculties" methods recommended by Teresa of Avila, that most Christian saints learned how to enter samadhi. Certainly when we examine the Christian tradition of the Desert Fathers, and the spiritual exercises practiced by many of the monastics, we find the same conclusions. In his work, Fihi ma fihi, Rumi wrote of prayer as a spiritual practice, saying,
So here we even have Islam telling you to abandon thought and cultivate emptiness so there isn't even room for the Angel Gabriel!
These are the standard techniques of spiritual cultivation regardless of the religious tradition one follows. From these examples it's also easy to prove that the basic methods of spiritual cultivation are commonly shared across all the world's various traditions because they all follow the same common principles of practice. For instance, in following these techniques of spiritual practice, Saint John of the Cross was able to describe his own spiritual experiences as follows:
Don't immediately make the mistake of concluding that such descriptions are indeed the first or second dhyana, as these samadhi realms are not the easiest thing to reach. In fact, most "masters" you may meet haven't really achieved even the true first dhyana attainment. Rather, most have simply cultivated concentration achievements and can therefore enter states that reach toward the first or second dhyana in resemblance, but their cultivation practice is "off " in the sense that you can't say they've really accessed the genuine degree of these levels of attainment. For instance, in the real first dhyana attainment you'll be free of sexual desire, but most masters will still feel the vestiges of sexual desire.
Thus we must recognize that it is truly rare to find individuals who've truly achieved these states, and because of all the different descriptive schemes people use to describe their spiritual experiences, we can't just assume that an experience which sounds like the first or second dhyana is truly the first or second dhyana. As I've often stated, many times it's just a much lower, fractional stage of attainment, or simply a semblance dharma phenomenon.
When you read the Hindu Upanishads or delve into Advaita Vedanta, you'll find a very strong and persistent emphasis on the importance of samadhi attainments, as you'll find in Taoism and even Confucianism. The schools of yoga and Tantra are particularly inundated with technological instructions on various samadhi states of concentration, for they are not blind to its ultimate importance on the spiritual path. As even the great yoga expositor Vyasa said, "Yoga is samadhi." The Bhagavad Gita (2.48) also states: "Yoga is said to be equanimity."
If you read the Buddhist sutras, you'll also find discussion upon discussion centering on the various methods for attaining these realms of concentration, as well as detailed descriptions of these realms. And when you look closely at the scriptures of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, you'll also find a samadhi emphasis although most people don't recognize it. The prophets in the Bible only became prophets because they attained varying stages of samadhi, and the saints in these various religions became saints for the same reason as well.
If through prayer or other cultivation practices you can silence your mind, then you can attain this state of spiritual grace. But if you don't cultivate, then it'll always remain out of reach. And if you do cultivate-whether through a life of quieting prayer, meditation, or other forms of spiritual transformation-then it's possible to achieve the siddhis or superpowers mentioned in Hinduism and Buddhism, the miracles of the Christian saints and Biblical prophets, the shamanic powers of shamans, or the "adornments" of Sufi Islam. They are only possible because of spiritual cultivation, and achieving some definite level of samadhi attainment. As the Shiva-Samhita of Hinduism states,
Sufism has a variety of meditative practices for attaining samadhi, Judaism has Kabbalah practice for attaining samadhi, and Christianity has also historically used a variety of techniques including vocal prayer (equivalent to mantra recitation), silent prayer (equivalent to emptiness meditation), Jesuit visualizations (similar to mandala visualization practice), and Augustinian methods of contemplation (equivalent to shamatha-vipashyana) to enable its adherents to enter into this state. On this line of inquiry, rather than turn to an Eastern tradition let's look at how Saint Augustine might explain the shamatha-vipashyana cessation-contemplation meditative technique found in a variety of the world's traditions:
The terms "recollection" and "introversion" used by Christian mystics are the means for identifying shamatha-vipashyana practice which entails gathering thoughts by concentration so as to shut off the busyness of the mind. The result is a state of internal quiet we call mental solitude, or samadhi, and then a practitioner must look into or contemplate this quiet to develop their prajna wisdom. To cultivate samadhi and wisdom we must remember what the Yoga Darshana says, "To maintain the mind fixed on one spot is called concentration. To keep the mind solely on one object is contemplation."
This is the actual essence of shamatha-vipashyana, or cessation-contemplation practice. It's a method of stopping the mind to reach cessation of thoughts, or mental quiet. If we keeping shining awareness while in this state, and thereby cultivate wordless understand rather than incoherence, that is contemplation. But don't think that this is the only practice method to reach samadhi in Christianity, for the practice of reciting the rosary is akin to the mantra practice of the East, and Saint Augustine's method of contemplating God as "the Light unchangeable" is no different than equivalent spiritual practices found in Buddhism and Hinduism. All that's been changed are the words used to transmit these techniques.
The Cloud of Unknowing, a medieval Christian cultivation text, elucidates a number of cultivation exercises by which spiritual practitioners can learn to mentally empty themselves, and this is described in Christian parlance as "putting other thoughts away." The Cloud of Unknowing calls these "special ways, tricks, private techniques, and spiritual devices" whereas they are our basic, standard cultivation methods common to all genuine spiritual schools.
In other words, they are nondenominational spiritual techniques, and they are used by all these schools because they work they enable you to achieve samadhi and ultimately realize the Tao. For instance, in its description of mantra practice, the author of the Christian work, the Cloud of Unknowing, advises the aspirant to concentrate on a single syllable such as "God" or "One" just as we would find a Hindu concentrating on "Ohm" or "Brahman" in the East. He goes on to say,
Another example taken from Islam shows a clear description of this same technique of mantra repetition, which is called "dhikr" in the Sufi tradition:
In the Greek tradition of Byzantine spirituality, we can find rudimentary instructions on anapana (the cultivation practice of following the breath) combined with mantra repetition, which are practiced in order to reach the samadhi realms. For instance, the Philokalia contains instructions for reciting the Prayer of the Heart as follows:
John Climacus, in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, also instructs the following cultivation practice: "Let your calling to mind of Jesus be continually combined with your breathing and you will know the meaning of silence."
All right, so what have we found?
We've found that Christianity is no different than other spiritual schools. It is not unique. It has samadhi cultivation methods and attainments as well. In fact ALL the genuine cultivation schools do. NONE are unique. It's the same path, decsribed differently, a non-denominational afair.
Make no mistake-such exercises for attaining samadhi are commonly found in all the world's religions because they are the very heart of the path to true spiritual development. Furthermore, most of these exercises are based on the same cultivation techniques, which is why the path to God should be considered nondenominational. Religions simply tend to wrap various skillful or unskillful dogmas and cultural pertinents around the path in order to preserve it, but which also tend to obscure it. Nonetheless, all the genuine religions and genuine cultivation schools recognize both the existence and importance of samadhi spiritual attainments, and so most all major religions teach various spiritual practices for attaining the samadhi realms of meditative absorption.
Even Judaism recognizes the importance of the "annihilation of thought" in spiritual practice to attain emptiness, although the goal is framed in terms of dissolving the ego in ayin or "nothingness," which is the Jewish term for emptiness:
With that behind us, we now come to the part about prejudice and each school thinking they are Supreme.
Sometimes these serious points can be made through a bit of humor, so let me a relate a joke attributed to Emo Phillips that doesn't really poke fun at Christianity per se but at all religions which have split into splinter sects based on dogmatic opinions rather than any reference to true cultivation principles and science. Without reference to actual cultivation teachings and gong-fu rather than dogma and opinion, the following joke is typical of the prejudice and hate we can actually find in the world when one religious group looks at another, even though they might be brothers:
"I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, just about to jump off. Immediately I ran over to him and said, 'Stop! Don't do it!'
I tell you truly, it is only the person who cultivates who can tell truth apart from falsity in all sorts of Christian and other religious dogmas. Many things are just opinions, misinterpretations, half-stories, forgeries, mistakes, assumptions and so forth. What people accept as Christian doctrine today has evolved over time and will continue to evolve into the future, and those having no cultivation background, gong-fu and attainment haven't a clue as to what's true and false in Christianity. For example, just a short review of history shows
The European mystic, Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), argued forcefully for freedom from dogmatic theological definitions and formulas of faith so that people might freely cultivate their spirituality in Christianity. On this topic, he had this to say some five hundred years ago:
John Kennedy, the famous businessman who helped create the field of modern advertising, also summarized this mentality for us in 1905 by writing:
Thus people are always polite to one another at these intercongregational events but afterwards they still go home with closed minds, and cling to their own traditions. They typically go home thinking, "That was very interesting, but thank God I'm still a --," or "That was a very interesting view they had and a nice experience, but ours is still the right way."
Actually, everyone insists, or secretly feels, that only they Have It. I personally don't care what you think or what religion you follow as long as you practice virtue, morality, good deeds, absence of desire AND CULTIVATE. And if you don't want to do that or have not enough wisdom for that, then I know you'll just have to wait until a subsequent life.
The point is one of wisdom and understanding about spiritual paths. If someone is the leader of a particular tradition, it is hardly likely they will penetrate into another tradition in order to confirm it, but in order to try and negate it or simply confirm the superiority of their own. I remember Joseph Campbell writing,
Religions (and their representatives) also evolve all sorts of protective strategies over time so that their tenets can even be insulated against naturalistic inquiry, because that type of criticism is considered especially legitimate by outsiders due to its neutral character. Is it not a very good protective strategy to hear dismissal phrases (such as "It's God's mystery") when you come upon some religious inconsistency (or falsity) and are on the cusp of dismissing it in order to make sense of it?
Thus the religious representatives at these intercongregational meetings are not really after an understanding of the spiritual path, but after a confirmation of their own doctrinal truths. When power and money flows are at stake, no one wants to amend their position, say they are wrong, risk losing a congregation or the money and power this involves. That's human nature. It has nothing to do with "God" or "God's will" but is just human nature. Power politics, greed, ignorance and so on.
Everyone thinks their own path is supreme. Each believes their own way is true and right and that all the rest are false. Each is looking not to evolve to true spiritual truths, but for a stronger commitment to their own way and it's already established "truths," mistaken though they may be. There are vested interests to be protected even in the religious sphere, so don't think that the path of pure cultivation is something that will be easily accepted. Unless, of course, people can absorb the pure path into a pre-existing doctrine, and decorate it with the trappings that declare it to be home grown.
Why am I discussing this? Because if you are going to look for true cultivation guidance from organized religions, you should doubt your course of action. You should first carefully examine if an organized religion is truly set up to provide it and thus you must tap into your wisdom stores to understand if it is disposed to encourage or discourage it. Will you find organized religions explaining the principles of the path as we've discussed if it might weaken preexisting, but incorrect dogma? Will you find organized religion encouraging people to meditate and make individual efforts on the path, efforts which will eventually free people from the need for that organization's guidance?
On the road of spiritual cultivation you have to be wise as well as independent in your thinking, and carefully size up such matters when you're seeking spiritual guidance. Frankly, you will have to build your own support network for your independent efforts designed to get to the truth of the matter. Just as all Americans want their country to run well, but Democrats will not support Republicans with good ideas and visa versa when each party gets into office, you should not expect religions to be so unbiased and free in supporting the efforts of people to become spiritually liberated.
Think carefully: if the voluntary transformation of any organization involved negative changes in power, prestige or money flows for the relevant ruling councils, would it or would it not be naïve to expect lots of support for such changes? The path and practices of spiritual cultivation need the support of organized religions to keep the transmissions alive, but religions don't like their adherents losing the need for their "expert guidance." This is funny when you consider that enlightened teachers like Shakyamuni Buddha or Socrates or Confucius decided to teach others, they never held the idea of establishing a religion in their mind. All they did was decide to talk about the path, and all the damage came from later aspirants.
Nevertheless -- and this is the BIG point -- when totally different religious groups start to compare the resulting gong-fu of their spiritual traditions-rather than the dogma--then the intelligent among them quickly realize that there may be outward differences in spiritual dogma but regardless of tradition, the results of spiritual practice are basically the same. Different religions simply advocate different sets of spiritual exercises or routines for arriving at the same states of attainment. But this is dangerous information, for it makes the entrenched elite quite fearful.
Religious dogma is just the superficial aspect of the spiritual path, and when people realize this by penetrating through to the underlying principles of cultivation practice, only then can a true respect for other religions and a genuine brotherhood of religious acceptance be born. That's when a true change in understanding can occur, for when people see the common results of spiritual practice that arise from across different traditions, they will start to realize that spiritual evolution is a scientific, nondenominational, dogma-free process.
The possibility of genuine spiritual progress is actually shared by all genuine religious paths, but the best and highest results of spiritual practice only occur to those people who practice correctly, guide themselves by the correct principles, and work hard enough to proceed high enough. That's where the arguments will eventually lie after many years, for in future people will naturally come to accept the commonality of the principles of cultivation science, as we're revealing here. However, many groups will still try to cling to the vestiges of claims that their savior completed the whole shebang rather than stopped at one of the partial stages of spiritual attainment along the way.
You have to expect this, for when a country or race loses its greatness, it still clings to the past claims of its greatness in order to comfort its own. So we shouldn't be arguing about these things, or the superiority of one path over another. My only goal is to reveal to you the various stages of spiritual cultivation, the commonality between spiritual sects, the shared gong-fu among various religions, and the practices and principles that will get you to experience these same states yourself. But even I have to be careful -- Jesus was killed for saying "I and the Father are one." The Moslem Al-Hallaj was killed. Socrates was killed. For different reasons, true masters such as Bodhidharma, Milarepa, and others were killed (poisoned) and Shakyamuni Buddha had several assasination attempts on his life! Today is no different -- we have "hate crimes" and the true dharma scares and frightens people so if people want to pin something on you they will, no matter how innocent you are. Or they just excommunicate you, as done in Mormonism or Catholicism. There's always a way of silencing someone. This I have seen over and over.
Christianity itself, according to Barrett's 2001 World Christian Encyclopedia has 33,830 Christian denominations. That's right, ... 33,830 groups that so disagree amongst themselves over doctrine that they've had to split up into separate Chruches ALL claiming they have the true eye of Christianity. If these denominations so disagree amongst themselves about Christian dogma to the extent that Christianity has had to split into so many different factions, how can we not say that dogma-rather than principles-will always keep separate the understanding of the spiritual path? When something comes along that really strips away all the nonsense, such as what you've read here, boy do ALL these groups get scared and unite to attack!
In brief, spiritual evolution is a process of self-transcendence, and transcending the self means going beyond the limiting idea of being a body, ego, personality, soul, spirit or self in order to attain a state of transcendence which we call spiritual self-realization, or illumination.
Knowing this, the wisest leaders of any one tradition should begin to properly ask, "How can we make our own spiritual practice more efficient and effective for the task of abandoning ego-clinging, and for climbing the ranks of spiritual attainment? In terms of benchmarking, what is best from another school that we can borrow and use to our benefit? Which school seems to achieve results more quickly, and why? Can we borrow any of these practices and make them our own? If so, which ones and how should we proceed? How can we update our transmission to keep it in tune with the needs of the time, or even reveal whichever of these principles are already in our framework but have lost the light of day due to the ravages of time?" When this sort of benchmarking starts to occur, then you'll know that people have really started to get a handle on the cultivation trail. As Ibn al-Arabi advised,
Over the next few hundred years, as cultures and religions collide, this is exactly what will happen but not necessarily due to altruistic motives. In fact, the world's religions will start to adopt the best practices of other spiritual schools due to competitive pressures rather than because they represent the truth. Speaking frankly, they will adopt them because each will still wish to keep its own set of adherents and the power, prestige, influence and money flows this entails. The only way to keep adherents will be to enable them to generate the same sort of gong-fu and spiritual results that other schools will readily demonstrate.
Religions, like any other organizations, always act to protect themselves and their sphere of influence rather than to encourage their adherents on any independent path of salvation. Otherwise, what would be the need of the religion in the first place, and what role would disenfranchised religious leaders play? Religious leaders are truly indispensable, yet they unthinkingly fear they'll lose any and all sorts of roles if they change the way things are presently done. This is why they would rather thwart change than embrace it and find new avenues for their leadership roles.
It's predictable that a great spiritual renaissance or blending will definitely occur to organized religions over the next several centuries, but not necessarily due to the compassion and wisdom of their religious functionaries. Rather, this change will come about due to competitive pressures and power seeking acts necessary for self-preservation. You must therefore come to understand that the borrowing of methods and techniques that I'm expounding upon is a legitimate spiritual activity. In fact, it has always been done! The borrowing or imitation of spiritual practices from competing traditions has occurred in the past as a standard practice, and because it's a sign of progress, it should happen whether or not it's due to pure or impure motivations.
Today the trend is unstoppable in that Westerners are coming in contact with the ancient spiritual teachings of the East, and Easterners are finally wholeheartedly instituting the modern Western discoveries of science. People are also beginning not just to give lip service to the "oneness of the path," but to see the scientific structure and nondenominational results of the path in each and every spiritual tradition. They're beginning to recognize the common principles of spirituality that have actually been instituted in these various traditions, but which have perhaps become unclear due to the long passage of time. Due to the dust of ages and the various coatings assumed by cultures and races, the vast majority of people may have lost insight into these true principles, but search every tradition and you'll find the same "emptiness principles" of spiritual practice over and over again with their common results.
On the surface, it's therefore only the dogma coatings that seem to separate the world's religions, and in truth the spiritual path is indeed only one river with many feeder streams. Another way to say it is that there are many paths up the mountain, but we can see only one moon from its peak; the cows have many different colors, but the milk is the same. With this gradual evolution and eventual borrowing of spiritual practices and teachings, hopefully will come a true respect and understanding of all the world's people and their practices. Hopefully the prejudice of denominationality will then begin to decrease.
To teach the commonality of religious practices and their aims will truly bring people closer together. Hence, if you really wish to promote a worldwide understanding between religions, you absolutely must start by emphasizing the religious commonality of spiritual gong-fu which occurs due to genuine spiritual practice, and must emphasize this genuine practice of no-thought cultivation. Christian priest, Jewish rabbi, Buddhist monk, Hindu yogi, Tibetan master, Sufi adept-they're all capable of attaining similar states of spiritual achievement, and when that happens these individuals are equivalent. Each of these traditions uses methods based upon similar cultivation principles, so each is qualified to produce a hero if each starts to emphasize cultivation practice. This is what each religion or sect should aim for.
What I'm providing with all this material is the fodder for a new study of comparative religion. This material provides the right sort of focus because it concentrates on the common denominators of spiritual experience, which are the easiest things for people to accept. Spiritual gong-fu is also the easiest thing to materialistically see and measure, and the easiest thing to reproduce. Therefore it's the easiest thing for territoriality-minded people to believe in and acknowledge. For instance, it was only after an article by R.K. Wallace appeared in Science magazine in 1970, saying that meditation practice had physiological correlates, that it became legitimate to do research on it. When it got physiologized it became "real" for researchers who could therefore get grants and keep their respectability by studying it. A necessary job today is to provide people with frameworks by which they can make the comparisons necessary between various spiritual paths and by which they can understand the various gong-fu results of spiritual practice.
While this "rending of the veil" may be seen as a threat by some spiritual groups and organized spiritual structures-who will fight it tooth and nail because it abolishes the idea of exclusivity-- it's only in this way that people will finally have some nondenominational understanding of the one spiritual "path to God." Everyone says this one path exists, but territoriality-minded people are afraid to actually acknowledge this when it gets down to the specific details and their own tradition comes up lacking in some manner. People like to believe in what they want to believe in rather than something else that is contrary to their own beliefs, but is proven and works.
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