Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Christian Mantra Meditation

"If you like, you can have this reaching out wrapped up and enfolded in a single word. So as to have a better grasp of it, take just a little word, one syllable rather than of two, for the shorter it is, the better it is in agreement with this exercise of the spirit. Such a one is the word "God" or the word "love." Choose which one you prefer or any other according to your liking--the word of one syllable that you like the best. Fasten this word to your heart, so that whatever happens, it will never go away. This word is to be your shield and your spear, whether you are riding in peace or in war. With this word you are to beat upon this cloud and this darkness above you. With this word you are to strike down every kind of thought under the cloud of forgetting, so that if any thought should press upon you and ask you what you would have, answer it with no other word but this one. If the thought should offer you, out of its great learning, to analyze that word for you and to tell you its meanings, say to the thought that you want to keep it whole and not taken apart of unfastened. If you will hold fast to this purpose, you may be sure that the thought will not stay for very long. And why? Because you will not allow it to feed itself on the sort of sweet meditations that we mentioned before." (The Cloud of Unknowing, ch. 5.)

The Cloud of Unknowing's recommendation to use a suitable word of a single syllable as a tool of contemplation bears a striking resemblance to the use of short mantras in Hindu and Buddhist meditation. The author of the Cloud permits personal discretion in the choice of a word for contemplation, unlike in some Hindu and Buddhist meditation traditions, which prescribe particular words (either for everyone, or to particular individuals).

The purpose of repeating and focusing on a single, spiritually appropriate word seems similar in all of these traditions: to enable the mind to loosen its attachment to particular objects of sensation, thoughts, and feelings, and to increase the focus and power of the contemplation or concentration exercise, which can eventually result in the transcendence of the ego and the experience of sacred reality--variously conceived as God, Atman, or Nirvana.

This resemblance should not, of course, blind us to the very real theoretical and practical differences between these religious traditions. But the resemblance is striking, and may come as a surprise to many; even the Cloud's description of how contemplation of a single word can serve to "strike down every kind of thought" is strongly reminiscent of Zen texts which advocate abandoning "dualistic" thought through the practice of repeating "mu", or through other koan work or zazen techniques. Indeed, the central theme of The Cloud of Unknowing is that of the thought-transcending mystery which surrounds the sacred or the divine (hence the work's eponymous image, which is based on the cloud surrounding Moses during his period of revelation on Mount Sinai), a theme also present in Hindu and Buddhist mystic texts.

Why did all of these traditions insist upon the inability of thought or reason to penetrate the sacred or the divine? This, despite the fact that they all have intricate theologies or metaphysical theories which attempt to reduce the sacred to a comprehensible form. And, granted that the sacred is in some sense a mystery, when a person uses mantra meditation or some other technique to climb the mountain and experience the sacred, what does he find there? There is no way to know except to climb the mountain, to follow in the path of those who have gone before. What will you see?  
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