Mysticism and Theravada Meditation

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  • Mysticism and Theravda Meditation ___________________________________________________________

    Milos Hubina

    This article is an attempt to analyze Theravda Buddhist meditation in the light of the

    constructivist and perennialists methodological approaches. I am not undertaking to decide

    which one is wrong and which is right. Such an attempt would be surely pointless because, as

    Jensine Andresen and Robert K.C. Forman pointed out, both constructivists and perennial

    psychologists made some good points (Andresen, Forman 2002: 8). One of them was the

    constructivists plea for recognition of differences.1 There is never enough caution to be

    paid while creating interpretative models. Yet, this awareness of differences should be

    accompanied by sense for commonalities.

    In the first part of my article I will analyze Robert M. Gimellos interpretation of

    Buddhist vipassan meditation in general context of mystical experience as presented in his

    paper Mysticism and Meditation.2 Gimello's main point here is that Buddhist vipassan

    meditation does not fulfill the common criteria of mystical experience and should be

    considered a non-mystical (probably meta-mystical, as I understand his view, see bellow)

    phenomenon. This issue goes undoubtedly beyond the constructivist-perennialist polemic and

    is of wider importance.

    Afterwards I will show where the perennialists models of explanation vipassan

    experience fall short of precision and become reductionistic.

    Briefly, as it is well known the constructivist (Steven Katz, Robert Gimello, Peter

    Moore, Frederick Streng and others) methodological approach does not admit that a mystic in

    his/her experience could transcend formative cultural concepts which are considered an

    integrative part of the experience itself, while the perennialists (William James, Evelyn

    Underhill, Joseph Marchal, William Johnson, James Pratt, Mircea Eliade, W.T. Stace,

    Rudolf Otto, Aldous Huxley and others) hold that mystics can escape their own conceptual

    backgrounds and, consequently, mystics with different cultural backgrounds can share the

    same experience. While in constructivists view the conceptual background is informative and

    determinative to the experience itself, perennialists find it involved solely in interpretative

    1 KATZ 1978: 25 2 GIMELO, R.M. (1978): Mysticism and Meditation, In KATZ, S., (ed.): Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, Oxford University Press 1978.

  • post-experience works. The experience itself is not necessarily influenced by the cultural

    background.

    It is important to note, however, that perennialists do not claim that all mystical

    experiences are the same. Only that there is a particular state of consciousness (called PCE -

    Pure Consciousness Event) in which higher cognitive activities are stopped and so no pre-set

    interpretative schemes determine the experience. Besides this apophatic experience there is,

    undoubtedly, a vast array of visionary or trophotropic states. These two basic forms of

    alternative experiences have, as Forman understands it, their neuro-physiological basis

    consisting of two opposite scales of hypo- and hyper-arousals trophotropic and ergotrophic

    respectively. The former states are stimulated by excitation of para-sympathetic the later by

    excitation of sympathetic nervous systems.3

    Forman proposes using term mysticism solely for apophatic phenomena.4 He says that

    this restriction has an advantage of avoiding mixing together the states with different

    phenomenology, exegesis, and metabolic excitation and corresponds to original meaning of

    the words mystikos, mysterion etc. which are derived from Greek myo and means to close.

    Thus it concurs also to Pseudo-Dionysios (Areopagite) usage of the term which understands

    it as meaning to close ones senses from the distracting multitudeness. He proposes

    distinguishing these apophatic mystical states from kataphatic (ergotropic) visionary states.5

    Religionists and psychologists have made many attempts to categorize an evasive

    realm of alternative states of consciousness or religious experience during the history of

    religious studies. One of the basic distinctions has been made between the experience of

    numinous and mystical experience. (Cf. R. Otto, N. Smart and others.)

    The states and techniques of Buddhist meditative tradition are generally treated as

    instantiations of mystical experience. Ninian Smart, for example, argued that while numinous

    experience pertains predominantly to prophetic religions such as Judaism, Islam and

    Christianity, religious experiences of certain branches of Buddhism (as well as Taoism and

    Hinduism) are mystical6. Elaborating upon Rudolf Ottos typology he understands

    numinous experience as an encounter with a being wholy other then oneself and altogether

    different than anything else. Traditionally, the subjects are not responsible for the occurrence

    3 Demonstrating this concept of mysticism Forman adopts Roland Fischers concept of alternations of the states of consciousness, published in his article A Cartography of the Ecstatic and Meditative States, In: Science, vol. 174, No. 4012, Nov. 4 See FORMAN 1997: 7. 5 The most elucidative account of Formans position can be found in FORMAN 1997: 3- 53. 6 SMART N.: Reasons and Faiths: An Investigation of Religious Discourse, Christian and Non-Christian (London, Rutledge and Kegan Paul, 1958). See also SMART 1978: 13.

  • of the experience, which is in this sense gratuitous. The mystical experience, by contrast, is

    rather an interior attainment of extraordinary state of mind than a gratuitous encounter with

    something completely other.

    Referring to the both abovementioned conceptions R. Gimello separates Buddhist

    meditative experience - more precisely Buddhist vipassan meditation - from the scale of the

    mystical experiences. In his own words: Nevertheless, without wishing to subvert the

    intentions of a distinction like Smarts, indeed in the hope of furthering them, I think it must

    be recognized that there is a modicum of impression in the labeling of the most

    characteristically Buddhist experience and discourse mystical However, not all that is not

    numinous need to be classified as mystical and it will be shown that there are important

    features of Buddhism, especially of its meditation disciplines which seem not to fall neatly

    under the mystical rubric. I would suggest that it is difficult to apply any of the widely

    accepted definitions or descriptions of mysticism to Buddhist praxis without the most serious

    reservations. It will, of course, be anticipated that these disparities are not so much

    between mystical experience and the Buddhist meditative experience as between mystical

    experience and Buddhisms doctrinaire interpretation thereof. But I wish to argue that it is in

    the practice and experience of meditation itself that the distinction between mystical and

    meditative experience is evident, not simply in the post- or extra-experiential interpretations

    which Buddhists place upon their meditation. (Gimello 1978: 173- 174)

    Gimelo's attempt to set Buddhist meditative tradition aside from the rubric of mystical

    I understand as an expression of the general constructivist plea for recognition of differences

    in dealing with religious experience. However I think that Gimelo in pursuing his aim failed

    to see the common patterns and his dealing with vipassan meditation is methodologically

    unsound and factually not always correct.

    Buddhist meditative practice consists basically of two fundamental techniques -

    concentration (P. samdhi,) or calmness (samatha) sometimes referred to as development of

    calmness (samatha-bhvan) and awareness or discernment (vipassan ) called also

    development of discernment or wisdom (vipassan-bhvan, pa-bhvan). It is the later

    of these two techniques which is the crucial soteric instrument while the former has basically

    supportive role and is not exclusively Buddhist meditative practice. Samatha-bhvan

    consists of eight stages called jhnas (absorptions). The first four are absorptions in the sphere

    of form (rpyatana); the later four are absorptions in formless realm (arpyatana).

  • Meditator achieves these sates via concentration on a particular object. The tradition

    distinguishes forty such objects (kammat.t.hna; literally: working objects) with selective

    efficacy. Not every object is fit for achieving all absorptions. Probably the most universal are

    the ten kasinas (specific colored discs) and breathing. These can lead the meditator up to the

    all four sublime-material spheres.

    Intensive concentration on the material object brings about its mental visualization

    (nimitta), which replaces material kasina for the object of contemplation. Arising of this

    visualization together with occurrence of the five specific mental factors are signs of

    achieving the first jhna.7

    The arpa attainments have their own objects of contemplation. These are: the sphere

    of boundless space (ksnacyatana) which the meditator attains when he stops paying

    attention to the nimitta and turns his attention towards the space it had occupied. Similarly,

    turning his attention from the space to the infinite consciousness which comp