Pathways To The Tao #3: Excursus On Meditation

Greater Happiness

If one who enjoys a lesser happiness beholds a greater one, let him leave aside the lesser to gain the greater.

--Buddha, Dhammapada

We should take the Buddha’s principle here very seriously. Even if we have the smallest glimpse of our true nature, we should “leave aside” pursuits of pleasure, status, more experiences (“peak experiences,” most notably), sexual gratification, and more. None of these can truly satisfy our spirit, and all of them, after at best providing us with some form of temporary relief, end up issuing forth in more suffering.

The heart of meditation is remembrance. Remembering, we slip out of ignorance (avidya) and begin to make our way Home. For most of us, continuing to come Home is a lengthy process. But as I’d found in my own experience, I had nowhere else to go, nowhere else to turn. The path of awakening is the last stop for those who have tried, tried out, and ruled out everything else—all of which the Buddha calls “the ignoble search.” The Buddha’s principle was, for me, easily confirmable, and thus I’ve not looked back since. “Happily, very contentedly,” I should add.

Chan master Sheng Yen calls this pivot from the lesser to the greater happiness renunciation: we renounce our idolization of worldly pursuits (while still performing them as needed) so that we can begin, in earnest, the “Noble Search.”

Let us, without delay, do so.

Four Highly Relevant Types of Meditation

1.) One-pointed concentration meditations:

  • Anapana and Zen counting are but two examples of one-pointed concentration meditations. The point is to go from scattered, dispersed, wandering, seeking mind to a somewhat muscular, sustained focus on a single object (e.g., physical sensations in the nostrils, the rise and fall of the breath in the solar plexus, the count to 10). I say “muscular” because, at this stage, a bit of “elbow grease” is still required. (Remember “right effort” as part of the Eightfold Path.)

  • According to Patanjali, one-pointed meditation (dharana in his words)--more effortful and therefore requiring more diligence in training the mind--is a good preparatory exercise to undertake before embarking on a more direct path.

  • Therefore, in my view it’s a good idea to acclimatize oneself to one-pointedness before diving deep into the direct pointings below.

2.) Directing Pointing:

  • Direct pointing meditations can more easily be engaged in once it’s easier for the meditator to enter into one-pointed concentration. After all, if I can’t seem to keep my mind from wandering, then how can I seriously inquire into who I am? The latter inquiry benefits from the stability, or stabilization even, provided by skillful one-pointedness. Examples of direct pointing meditations are huatou (Chan), koan (Zen), and Self-inquiry (Atma vichara in Ramana Maharshi).

  • As the name implies, direct pointing goes directly to our essential nature. When Bodhidharma states that Zen is a “wordless teaching outside tradition / See original nature: be Buddha!,” he’s telling us to go straight to our original nature without any detours along the way.

  • There can be a progression in spiritual practice, in other words, from one-pointedness to direct pointing. 

3.) Heart Opening:

  • My critique of Zen is that its emphasis on quieting the mind and going into no-mind may mean that compassion, lovingkindness, and love are underemphasized. To ensure that the “darkness of Zen” (direct pointing) doesn’t accidentally bypass the heart, I think it’s important to also engage in heart opening meditations. Some of these that come to mind are tonglen, metta, and “I am loving awareness” (Ram Dass). 

  • Notice how direct pointing takes us “deep within.” We correct this tendency to only go deep within by expanding outward in heart-opening love. In Rupert Spira’s words, “In union, I am nothing [no-thing]. / In love, I am everything.” What should be said, then, is that we need both: both no-thing-ness (sunyata) and caritas (charitable love). We need to dive deep within ourselves while also reaching out to beings.

  • Consequently, I think it’s a good thing to end all meditations of types 1 and 2 with metta, tonglen, “The Four Immeasurables,” etc.

4.) Samskaric Investigations:

  • A sensible view of waking up would be “sudden awakening/gradual cultivation.” Set aside sudden awakening here and focus only on gradual cultivation. 

  • Investigation of our samskaras, or ego tendencies, is a way of “cleaning up” (Ken Wilber) or “polishing the mirror” (Zen) over the course of this lifetime. That is to say, in my opinion and based on my experience, we also need to inquire into our unwholesomenesses--into where and how we, as relative or ego selves, hurt. 

  • Doing so is part of a broader ethical practice. For our unwholesome forms of suffering very clearly “spill over” onto others in the modes of speech, action, comportment, and energy. Not wanting, in the very least, to harm others, we should “see to our shit” by becoming more aware of it and by slowly allowing it to fade out. 

May all of you be inner peace and outflowing love. With palms pressed,

Andrew