A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

18. Chapter Eighteen


1.    The Goals of Meditation


Meditation is a means to enhanced consciousness. The ultimate goal of meditation is, accordingly, to attain the highest level of consciousness possible to one. This summum bonum (highest good) is generally understood as threefold, although the three aspects are ultimately one and the same event, which may be called ‘realization’.

The first aspect is ‘enlightenment’, which may be defined as the overcoming of all personal ignorance, illusion or delusion, in the broadest sense. It is a maximal, all-inclusive consciousness; the widest and deepest potential for knowledge (including information and understanding).

The second aspect is ‘liberation’, which may be defined as the overcoming of all personal weaknesses, difficulties or obstructions, in the broadest sense. Thus, enlightenment relates to cognition, while liberation concerns volition. Granting they are possible achievements, they necessarily come together and not apart, with liberation as a necessary adjunct of enlightenment. Knowledge is freedom.

Note that the term ‘enlightenment’ (or ‘illumination’) is often construed as referring to some inner experience of light. But that mental analogy to physically ‘seeing a light’, though occasionally valuable, is not the essence intended by the term. One should rather have an image of a man walking tentatively in the dark, feeling his way slowly – when suddenly a bright light is turned on. Now, he can at last see everything around him and where he is going, and he can walk about freely, and find any object he seeks without knocking into things. This analogy is preferable, because it illustrates the conjunction of light and liberty. A man in the dark is like a man in chains, hardly able to move, uncertain and afraid, unable to travel directly to any destination and having to expend much too much effort to go any distance. When the light goes on, he is instantly freed from his invisible chains, and he can hop, skip and jump at will, and dance with joy.

The third presumed consequence of achieving the apex of consciousness is greatly enhanced ethical understanding – or ‘wisdom[1]. This relates to the third function of the soul, which is valuation. It suggests a maximum of sagacity in one’s value judgments and pursuits. It would not suffice to have knowledge and freedom, if one were ignorant of values and thus incapable of virtue.

Just as valuation in general involves the operation of both the functions of cognition and volition – so wisdom is the natural and necessary outcome of enlightenment and liberation. At every level of human experience, sagacious valuing is indicative of a harmonious intersection between knowing and willing. Wisdom, or extreme sagacity, occurs when these functions reach their peak of perfection.

It should be stressed that wisdom does not only signify knowing right from wrong in any given situation, but also implies naturally doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong in that situation. It is not a mere theoretical understanding of values, but additionally involves a practice of virtue that testifies to having fully internalized such understanding. The cognitive and volitional faculties of the sage are concordant.

While full enlightenment, liberation and wisdom may be identified as the ultimate goal(s) of meditation – we may of course still consider increased but less than complete degrees of knowledge, freedom and discernment (between good and bad, right and wrong) as valuable intermediate goals. The situation is not “either-or” – i.e. either total blindness, impotence and stupidity, or utter perfection. We may have to gradually work our way towards the ideal, going through partial improvements until we attain the desired result.

Our experiences are likely to be proportionate to our progress along that Path or Way. We may have momentary so-called mystical experiences of lesser intensity than the ultimate experience of enlightenment, but find such reward encouraging and stimulating. If we practice meditation correctly and regularly over an extended period of time, our sense of freedom may increase noticeably. Things seem clearer and easier, and we exhibit more and more wisdom in our choices.

Traditions thus speak of a via perfectionis or dhammapada (way of perfection), implying a long spiritual road to be traveled, until the final step radically changes everything for us and we attain full realization.[2]

It should be noted that the term ‘realization’ has a double meaning, one relative and one absolute:

  • It signifies, firstly, the actualization of one’s personal full potential as a human being, i.e. the full maturing of our faculties of cognition, volition and valuation.
  • Additionally, it suggests that this self-perfection coincides with the extreme achievement of cognition of absolute reality, maximum freedom and wisdom of choice.

Logically, these two attainments are not necessarily identical: it could be argued that a given person’s relative best is still not good enough in absolute terms. However, some spiritual philosophies overcome this possible objection by considering the possibility of stretching the pursuit of ultimate perfection over more than one lifetime.

Furthermore, there are two ways to view the meditative enterprise; these ways are referred to in Zen as pursuit of gradual vs. sudden realization.

  • We can view ourselves as standing somewhere on a mountain, eager to climb up to its peak, by diligently “working on ourselves”. We have to find the best way to do that, either feeling our way alone or using maps handed down to us by predecessors, or traveling with other seekers. Sometimes we may fall back, and have to climb again just to reach our previous position. Sometimes the mountaintop seems nearby; then, as we approach it, we discover the mountain is much bigger than it seemed from lower down. This mountain climb may take a lifetime of hard labor; some say many lifetimes.
  • Another way to view the challenge is as a puzzle to be solved. If we could only find the key, it would open for us the door to realization. No need for one to climb or move mountains. One needs only constantly be alert for some clue, attentive for some hint – which may fleetingly come from anywhere[3]. If we spot it somehow, a veil will be lifted and all will become clear right where we stand. The mountain will instantly disappear, and we will suddenly find ourselves at its central axis (just like someone at the top). There is no climbing to do; the job requires detective work.

Of course, both perspectives are true and worth keeping in mind. The long-term climb seems to be our common lot; but it is our common hope to somehow immediately pierce through the mystery of existence. The latter is not so much a shortcut on the way up, as a cutting through and dissolving of the underlying illusions. Moreover, the theater of our search for insight is not so much “out there” as “in here”.

Another distinction to note is that between temporary/partial and permanent/full realization. On the way to complete realization, one may momentarily experience glimpses of it. Such fortunate foretastes of heaven do not however count as realization in a strict sense. One is only truly realized when one is irreversibly installed in such experience.

With regard to terminology, note that the terms realization, enlightenment, liberation, and (the attainment of) wisdom, are in practice mostly used interchangeably, because one cannot attain any one aspect of this event without the others. Sometimes, realization (etc.) is written with a capital letter (Realization), to distinguish complete and definitive from partial or temporary realization. Usually, the context makes clear which variant is intended.

Another term commonly used for realization is ‘awakening’. This term suggests that our existence as ordinarily experienced is like a dream – a dream of problems that cannot be solved from within the dream, but only by getting completely out of the state of sleep. I have experienced such dreams occasionally: I was somehow cornered in a very difficult situation and could imagine no way out of it, no winning scenario; so (realizing I must be dreaming), I simply willed myself out of sleep[4], solving the problem in a radical manner.

To the person who has just awoken, the world within the dream, with all its seemingly inescapable difficulties, permanently loses all importance, instantly becoming nothing worth getting concerned with anymore. This metaphor illustrates how spiritual awakening is more than a set of ad hoc solutions to the problems of ordinary existence: it is a general solution that cuts through the illusions and takes us straight to the underlying reality. This image makes realization easier to conceive.


2.         The Individual Self in Monism


Granting the Monist thesis briefly described (in the preceding chapters of Meditations), we can understand that our respective apparent individual selves, whether they are viewed as souls (entities with a spiritual substance distinct from mind and matter) or as something altogether non-substantial (as Buddhism suggests), have a relative mode of existence in comparison to the Soul of God (in Monotheistic religions), or to the underlying Original Ground of such being or the Tao (in competing doctrines).

If our selves are relative to some absolute Self (or a “Non-self”, in Buddhism), they are illusory. In what sense, illusory? We might say that the illusion consists in artificially differentiating the particular out of the Universal – i.e. it consists in a para-cognitive somewhat arbitrary act of individuation. Apparently, then, tiny fractions of the original Totality have given themselves the false impression of being cut off from their common Source. They (that is, we all) have lost touch with their true Identity, and become confused by their limited viewpoint into believing themselves to have a separate identity.[5]

To illustrate the illusoriness of individuation, we can point to waves in a body of water. A wave is evidently one with the body of water, yet we artificially mentally outline it and conventionally distinguish it, then we give it a name “the wave” and treat it as something else than the water. There is indeed a bump in the water; but in reality, the boundaries we assign it are arbitrary. Similarly, goes the argument, with all things material, mental or spiritual.

The Buddhist thesis on this topic is generally claimed to differ somewhat, considering that all empirical appearances of selfhood are phenomenal, and nothing but phenomenal. And since phenomena are impermanent like wisps of smoke – arising (we know not whence – thus, from nowhere), abiding only temporarily, all the while changing in many ways, and finally disappearing (we know not wither – thus, to nowhere) – we may not assume any constancy behind or beneath them. Our particular self is thus empty of any substance; and similarly, there is no universal Soul.

This thesis is of course sufficiently empirical with regard to the fact of impermanence of phenomena; but (in my view) there is a conceptual loophole in it. We can point out that it rejects any idea of underlying constancy without sufficient justification (i.e. by way of a non-sequitur); and we can advocate instead an underlying substance (material, mental or spiritual), with equally insufficient justification, or maybe more justification (namely, that this helps explain more things).[6]

Furthermore, we may, and I think logically must, admit that we are aware of our selves, not only through perception of outer and inner phenomena, but also through another direct kind of cognition, which we may call ‘intuition’, of non-phenomenal aspects. There is no reason to suppose offhand only phenomenal aspects exist and are directly cognizable. Indeed, we must admit intuition, to explain how we know what we have perceived, willed or valued in particular cases. Conceptual means cannot entirely explain such particulars; they can only yield generalities.

Thus, while understanding and respecting the Buddhist non-self doctrine, I personally prefer to believe in the spirituality of the individual self and in God. I may additionally propose the following arguments. To start with, these ideas (of soul and God) do not logically exclude, but include the notion of “emptiness”; i.e. it remains true that particular souls and the universal Soul cannot be reduced to phenomenal experiences.

Moreover, Monotheism is logically more convincing, because the Buddhist thesis takes for granted without further ado something that the God thesis makes an effort to explain. The manifest facts of consciousness, volition and valuation in us, i.e. in seemingly finite individuals, remain unexplained in Buddhism, whereas in the Monotheistic thesis the personal powers of individuals are thought to stem from the like powers of God. That is, since finite souls are (ultimately illusory) fractions of God, their powers of cognition, freewill, and valuing (though proportionately finite) derive from the same powers (on an infinitely grander scale) in the overall Soul, i.e. God.

In truth, Buddhists could retort that though this argument reduces the three human powers to the corresponding (greater) powers of God, it leaves unexplained the existence of these same powers in Him. They are derivatives in humans, all right, but still primaries in God.

Yes, but a distinction remains. Monotheism views the ultimate Source as having a personality, whereas for Buddhism, the Original Ground is impersonal. For the former, there is a “Who”, while for the latter, only a “What” if anything at all. It seems improbable (to me, at least) that a person would derive from a non-person. Rather, the particular soul has to have this sense of personal identity in the way of a reflection of the universal soul’s personality.

But in truth, we can still intellectually reconcile the two doctrines, if we admit that such arguments are finally just verbal differentiations and that we should rather stress their convergences and complementarities.[7]

In any case, the apparent meditative success of Buddhists does not logically exclude the logical possibility that their doctrine denying soul and God may well be an error of interpretation – since other religions also report meditative successes although they resorted to other interpretations. If we generously accept all or most such human claims at their face value, we logically have to conclude that correct interpretation is not necessary for meditative success.

This suggests that meditation is ultimately independent of doctrinal quarrels. Competing, even conflicting, doctrines may be equally helpful – depending on cultural or personal context. Therefore, meditation is ultimately a pragmatic issue; it does not need particular dogmas to yield its results. Whatever your religious preference, or lack of it, just add one ingredient – meditation; this single measure will over time naturally perform wonders anyway.

The modern Secularist denial of spiritual substance (a soul in humans and God) can be depicted as follows. We are in this case dealing with a materialist philosophy, which grants solid reality only to the phenomenal (and conceptual inferences from it). The material phenomenon is regarded as exclusive of any other, although if pressed secularists will acknowledge some sort of additional, mental substance, imagined as a sort of cloud of “consciousness” hovering in the heads of certain material entities (i.e. at least humans and possibly higher animals).

This substance is conceived as a sort of epiphenomenon of specific combinations of matter (namely, those making up a live human body, and in particular its neurological system). They effectively consider mind as a rarified sort of matter. The proponents of this thesis make no clear distinction between the stuff of memories, dreams and imaginings, on the one hand, and the one experiencing these inner phenomena and indeed (via the senses) outer phenomena, on the other. And therefore, they reject all notion of an additional spiritual substance or soul as the essence of self.

This philosophy can thus be doubted on two grounds. Firstly, it fails to clearly and honestly analyze mental experience and draw the necessary conclusions from such analysis. Notably missing is the distinction between the intuited “cognizing, willing and valuing self” and his (or her) “perceived mental (and sensory) experiences”, i.e. the distinction between soul and mind within the psyche. Secondly, while secularism does tend to monism in respect of matter, it refuses a similar monist extrapolation with respect to souls, and so denies God.

Today’s Secularists of course pose as “scientists”[8], and by this means give their doctrine prestige among non-philosophers and superficial philosophers. But this stance is not scientific, in the strict sense of the term. Physical science has to date not produced a single mathematical formula showing the reducibility of life, mind, consciousness, or spirit/soul to matter. Materialists just presume that such a universal reductive formula will “someday” be shown possible. Maybe so; but until that day, they cannot logically rely on their presumption as if it were established fact.

They think their materialism is “sure” to be eventually proved all-inclusive – but this expectation and hope of theirs has for the moment, to repeat, no scientific justification whatsoever! It is just a figment of their imagination, an act of faith, a mere hypothetical postulate. Secularism is thus just another religion, not an exclusive inference from Science.

“Science” is entirely defined by rigor in cognitive method, without prejudice. It demands all available data be taken into consideration by our theories, and duly explained by these theories. Genuine philosophers are not intimidated by the intellectual thuggery of those who pretend that science is exclusively materialist.

In the case of the Materialist theory, the evident data of life, mind, consciousness and spirit or soul has hardly even been acknowledged by its advocates, let alone taken into consideration. It has simply been ignored, swept under the carpet, by them. That is not science – it is sophistry. What is speculative must be admitted to be such. And two speculations that equally fit available data are on the same footing as regards the judgment of science.


Drawn from Meditations (2006), Chapters 3 & 8.



[1]           Some would contend that the attainment of enlightenment/liberation places one “beyond good and evil”. But the sense of that phrase should not be misconstrued as implying that one then becomes independent of morality. Quite the contrary, it means that one becomes so wise that one cannot imagine any trace of value whatsoever in immoral or amoral practices. The proof of that is that realized teachers always preach morality to their followers. Not because the teacher needs to remind himself of such strictures, but so as to preempt the followers from losing their way on the way to realization.

[2]           I should add that I cannot, so far in my life, personally vouch for the feasibility of utter enlightenment, liberation and wisdom. I assume it to be possible, because many human traditions claim this to have been attained by some individuals: this is hearsay evidence in favor of the thesis. Moreover, it seems conceivable and reasonable to me that such heights of achievement should be possible. However, to be quite frank about it, I have not myself reached them. But even if I too were a live witness, the reader would still have to consider the information as second-hand, until if ever he or she in turn personally attained realization.

[3]           This is the proactive spirit of koan meditation, advocated by the Rinzai Zen school, as opposed to the more “passive” looking zazen meditation, advocated by Soto school. The latter, which would be classified in the preceding paradigm of mountain climbing, is of course in fact not as passive as it would seem to the onlooker.

[4]           The experience may be compared to being at some depth underwater, and deliberately swimming up to the surface.

[5]           Rather than suggest like Bishop Berkeley that we are ideas in the mind of God, the viewpoint here advocated is that we are, as it were, ideas in our own minds. God invented us, yes, and allowed for our seeming individuation; but He has no illusions about our separateness. It is we, in our limited and therefore warped perspective, who misperceive ourselves as individuals.

[6]           We shall further debate the issue of impermanence later on in Meditations.

[7]           Needless to say, I do not intend this statement as a blanket approval, condoning all beliefs and practices included in practice under the heading of Buddhism. I have in past works for instance voiced my reserves regarding the worship directed at statues (idolatry). Even from a Buddhist point of view, this is a weird and spiritually obstructive practice (since it involves mental projection of “selfhood” into purely physical bodies). Moreover, I do not see how this can be an improvement on the worship of God. If devotion is a good thing, surely the latter is its best expression.

[8]           Some are indeed scientists – in their specific field, such as Physics. But this does not entitle them to a free ride in the general field of Philosophy. I am thinking here of Hubert Reeves, who appears on TV claiming atheism as incontrovertible fact, as if any other view is simply unthinkable. Laypersons should not confuse his prestige and media-presence with logical confirmation of his view. The underlying fallacy is ad hominem argument.

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