The Science & Technology of Liberation Classified

Before a person can decide what kind of meditation is best for her, she must have at least a rough idea of what kinds of meditation there are and how they differ from one another. Such knowledge is not easy to acquire, given the semi-secret nature of many contemplative lineages, the unfamiliar cultural matrix in which teachings on meditation are often imbedded, and the lack of adequate terminology for talking about mental states and processes. On top of that, personal accounts of the varieties of contemplative experience are notoriously idiosyncratic.


How, then, can we get our bearings in this strange land? Let us begin by looking at how one religious tradition, Buddhism, classifies the many contemplative exercises that are gathered under its capacious roof. My personal engagement with Buddhist theory and practice, over a span of forty years, allows me to say with some confidence that I am minimally qualified to talk about the matter. Yet the cultural edifice of Buddhism, built up over more than 2500 years, is so vast that no one can claim to be well acquainted with its every part. That in itself is a reason to exercise caution in the development of a method for discerning and describing the elements common to the various kinds, and the family groups to which they belong. As always in the case of taxonomically challenging fields of knowledge, the art lies in being just abstract and general enough to take the measure the whole, without diminishing any of the parts.


I will briefly describe a few of the ways in which Buddhists have classified the methods of mental development.


It is crucial to be aware from the outset that all types of Buddhist meditation, whatever their immediate result may be, are subordinate to the goal of attaining release from the discomfort of human existence. There are several ways in which the project of setting oneself free can be described, and we will review them in future entries. In whatever terms we choose to delineate the path, it culminates in a special kind of understanding about the nature of the arising of discomfort. The systematic contemplation of bodily sensations, hedonic tone, dispositions, and cognitive patterns is crucial to the arising of liberating wisdom. The exact details of the process will be discussed as we proceed. For now it is enough to note that the prime requisites of wisdom are tranquility and the insight which comes with a fully developed ability to apply mindfulness and comprehensive awareness. Here we meet with the first classification, namely, the division of methods into those that produce (or are primarily orientated to) calming, and those that produce insight.


As we consider the two types of meditation, i. e., calm-producing and insight-producing, bear in mind that while either of the two goals can be pursued separately, tranquility and insight are mutually supportive. Both deep understanding and unshakable calm are worth striving for in themselves. The goal of our practice is to become free from the domination of the three poisons—desire, aversion and delusion—and from attachment to “I, me and mine,” and insight is crucial for the realization of that freedom. However, the attainment of insight is extremely difficult for a person whose mind is chronically agitated.


Within each of these two fundamental categories, tradition recognizes a number of important distinctions and subtypes. The locus classicus for the enumeration of contemplative methods is a work by the fifth-century CE Sinhalese monk, Buddhaghosa. His Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification) is a compendium of practical advice gleaned from what some scholars believe to be the earliest stratum of Buddhist scriptures. It is a work of astonishing brilliance, and it is rightly regarded as the crown jewel of the Theravada commentarial tradition. Composed a thousand years into the Buddha’s dispensation, it is still an excellent source of basic information.


Under the heading of tranquility-producing exercises, the Visuddhimagga lists 40 objects of contemplation. I will briefly list them below, with explanatory remarks where necessary. Note well that although they are given under the rubric of Calming, some of these exercises may also give rise to insight for those who undertake them in earnest and with and open and enquiring mind.


The first group is made up of ten wholes, or complete things (Pali kasina)—what a present-day psychologist might call gestalten. These are simple, concrete objects, clearly distinguishable from the background and used as the basis for visualization. They are (1) Earth, usually a clay-colored disc; (2) water in a small bowl; (3) fire, the flame of a candle or oil lamp; (4) air or wind, the smoke rising from incense or the movement of clouds, banners, leaves, etc. (5) blue or green, (6) yellow, (7) red, (8) white, all colored discs; (9) enclosed space, a container of any kind; (10) bright light, such as full sunlight upon a wall. The task here is to look at the thing for a while, then close the eyes and attempt to create a mental image of that thing. In the course of gradually refining and strengthening the vividness of the eidetic image or imaginative construct, the mind settles down, thoughts gradually become weaker, and the trainee enters the higher reaches of contemplative absorption (jhāna). A good example of the kasina in Japanese esoteric Buddhism is the contemplation of the lunar disc and A-syllable letter, known to students of mikkyo as gachirin-kan and aji-kan.


Ten repulsive objects are listed as follows: (1) a bloated corpse; (2) a discolored corpse; (3) a festering or oozing corpse; (4) a corpse with cracked flesh; (5) a corpse that has been gnawed by animals; (6) a corpse that had been dismembered; (7) a corpse that has been hacked to pieces and its parts scattered about; (8) a bleeding corpse; (9) a corpse that is full of maggots; (10) a skeleton.


The ten recollections are divided into three groups. The first is recollection of the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The second group comprises recalling the virtues of moral self-restraint and generosity, and contemplating rebirth in the realm of the gods as an incentive to practice in this life. The third group is mindful recollection of the body, of death, of breathing in and out, and of ultimate peace.


Cultivation of the four so-called Abodes of Brahman, i. e., the positive social emotions, constitutes the next group. The Illimitables, as they are also called, are friendliness or loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.


The four formless states—infinite space, infinite consciousness, infinite nothingness, and neither-perception-nor-non-perception—are not so much objects of contemplation as altered states that occur when the trainee’s concentration or absorption intensifies so much that the nominal object dissolves and is forgotten, leaving only a residuum of mental/neural activity.


The perception of food as disgusting is achieved by a method that is a variant of Setting up Mindfullness (or recollection), the Buddha’s core teaching on meditation, which we will examine in the next section. It entails closely attending to the process of eating—lifting and lowering the hand, opening and closing the mouth, moving the tongue, chewing, swallowing—without interruption for the whole of the meal, every meal of every day until your teacher tells you to stop. I was given this exercise as part of my basic training in the forest tradition and I can promise you that if you practice it diligently for a month you will come to feel that eating is more trouble than it’s worth. Still later you will pass beyond that feeling to a state of neutrality with regard to nourishment.


The last of the forty topics is the analysis of the human organism as it exemplifies the first four of the Great Elements, earth, water, fire and wind. This exercise not only increases calm through concentration but also promotes detachment with respect to one’s own body and the bodies of others by drawing attention to the body’s compound and therefore impermanent nature, as well as its repulsive aspects.


So much for the 40 objects of contemplation. The list is handy for reference but tells us almost nothing about how the various objects are used, beyond the belief that the systematic contemplation of any one of them is more likely to yield tranquility than insight.


There is another traditional way to view the field of personal training as a whole. The path of practice has long been divided into three parts, that is, moral development, mental-emotional development and intellectual development, also known as the Three Modes of Training in Conduct, Samādhi and Wisdom. The first is concerned with the discipline of bodily activity, the second with discipline of the will and moods, and the third with discipline of viewpoint and understanding.

Three Cheers for Consciousness, Whatever It Is!

In any discussion of the contemplative arts, there is no term more problematical and no topic of conversation more likely to turn rancid than that of “consciousness.” In the following paragraphs I will list a few of the reasons why and ask some of the questions that arose for me in the course of pondering it.

  • The word, “consciousness” is the satchel used to carry a bundle of ideas that have been thrown together without regard for their coherence. Lately I am inclined to think of it as a joke Christmas present consisting of a large, beautifully-decorated box filled with enormous amounts of tissue paper and nothing else. The understanding of consciousness emerges as we unwrap layer upon layer of language and concepts. Most of our ideas about mind, self, and awareness belong to the realm of everyday discourse, acquired from childhood onward in a process that can only be guessed at, while a relatively small number are the result of reflection and study. These conceptual schemata, memes, and ingrained forms of linguistic usage constitute our views. When it comes time to converse we cannot be sure that even our strongest hunches lie altogether beyond their insalubrious influence.
  • The language of conscious and mind is notoriously multivalent and imprecise. “Consciousness” is the semantic equivalent of the astronomer’s black hole. It sucks into itself any meaning that strays too near. Thus we have a single word, “consciousness,” used to denote a range of phenomena that includes (1) various physiological and “mental” functions, (2) the totality of experience, (3) wakefulness as opposed to sleep or coma, (4) sensory awareness, (5) subjectivity, and (6) [certain kinds of] knowledge. We also use “consciousness” as if it referred to (7) a thing or a stuff—a screen on to which thoughts and images are projected, a container that has contents, a stage upon which sensory events appear, and a medium that supports phenomena during their brief lifespans. It is altogether too easy to slip from one sense of the word to another without realizing that a transition has occurred, in what philosophers call the pitfall of equivocation. There can be no doubt that “consciousness” is a very useful term in a wide variety of situations. Even so, I would like to suggest that it is also consistently misleading to the extent that we suppose it to refer to something that exists in the same way that air and water exist. Its true mode of existence is more likely that of the unicorn and Sasquatch.
  • The heritage of Cartesian dualism still lies oppressively over most discussions of consciousness and related subjects. Utter a few words about mind, and the ghost rises up within the machine. Monism may seem to be a forced move, or at least a step in the right direction. But is it? And what difference would it make if we were to trade Materialism for Mentalism? If not much can be said about matter, there is equally little to be said about mind.
  • The distinction between inner and outer realms of experience (that is, between the external world so-called and one’s private mental life), although a perfectly reasonable and well-supported idea, seems (!) not to have a phenomenal basis. When we consider just what is present, we can find no grounds for separation. Contemplatives who have systematically studied sensory phenomena are unable to locate them. Sensation per se is nowhere—that is, it is neither internal nor external. What does that tell us, if anything, about awareness?

cortical sensory homunculus

  • What we know of mind, consciousness, and experience, we know by a process of inference from [perceived or projected] patterns of sensation. That process is developmental. We learn by stages what it means to be a self, to be conscious, and to have a mind. (The same holds true for the material world.) Sensory awareness may be epistemological bedrock. It may be as “deeply” as we can “see” “into” ourselves. Sensation may be as much consciousness as we require. Why do we suppose that there is something more?
  • Sensation is multi-modal. We have learned to distinguish at least six kinds—visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory, olfactory, ideational—and, with training, we can identify several more “senses.” At any particular moment, do we attend to one mode or several at once? Do we always have the clear sense that we are perceiving this or that kind of stimulus? It is not obvious that we do. When we talk about “consciousness,” which kind(s) are we talking about? Or are we talking about a mysterious something else?
  • The volume of raw data provided by the senses at any given moment of waking life is more than the higher neural functions can render “conscious,” hence the need for massively parallel and cooperative processing to eliminate what would otherwise be overwhelming redundancy with little value in guiding the actions of the organism. There is no evolutionary need for the human being to know more than a small fraction of what might be immediately sensible. One of the primary tasks of the brain is to convert the torrent of potential information into a manageable and useful stream. What does that fact tell us about the limits of our capacity for awareness?
  • As far as we can tell, consciousness is a menu of more or less complex processes that yield a range of more or less detailed reports. At a minimum it involves, besides sensory inputs, the participation of attention, working memory, various mechanisms for recognizing and comparing patterns, and dispositions to action. From an evolutionary viewpoint, consciousness is integral to the activity of the organism, and action the raison d’être of consciousness. If cognitive and neurological scientists are right about that, then whatever the details we may add to our knowledge of consciousness in future, we can safely exclude from our definition the mythical creature so much honored by mystical tradition, to wit, the eternally featureless, passive non-entity Who, despite those deficiencies, witnesses all.