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:: Sunday, August 10, 2003 ::

Buddhism and Mysticism

One of the objections to Buddhism is that it is “mystical”. According to Nathaniel Branden, “Mysticism is the claim that there are aspects of existence that can be known by means of a unique cognitive faculty whose judgment are above the authority of sensory observations or reason.” ( The Art of Living Consciously). Mystical belief involves obtaining knowledge without the use of reason or sensory perception—and claiming that one’s observations are as valid or more valid than those that can be backed up by sense perception or reason.

However, when applied to Buddhism, this charge should be deemed false. In my opinion the prime understanding that one obtains through meditation is psychological. That is to say while meditating one does not necessarily obtain a metaphysical understanding of the outside world as much as a psychological understanding of one’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Through meditation one does not primarily learn of objective reality but skillful use of one’s thoughts and feelings.

Considering the above characterization of mysticism, one may even wonder if this “third method of knowledge” theory even applies to reality. As it is put by David Brazier in The Feeling Buddha , “The enlightened were beyond faith: they did not just believe what the Buddha said, they knew it was true from their own experience… In enlightenment, faith and personal knowledge merge, yielding an experience that radiates confidence.” The process of enlightenment is not about learning things through some new means of knowledge. The Buddha teaches things that can be confirmed by experience. This means that the knowledge that is gained is at some fundamental level similar to what is learned from experience at any other time i.e. that information that is gained through the senses is integrated through reason.

If there is any way that the process of learning through meditation is different from any other process of gaining knowledge, it is that issues and emotions become more conscious. Through the process of meditation one attempts to more clearly and more dispassionately understand one’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences. This is not to say that it is not without interest—because one can definitely be self interested in the results of meditation. However, through meditation emotions can take a lessened grip on the mind, and therefore things become clearer as well as better understood.

The point to meditation is not to gain knowledge in some super-sense related/rational means. Instead it is to break down emotional barriers to conscious integration. I have often been told that if I keep meditating I will find it harder and harder to eat meat. That is not because I will gain any additional knowledge of animal suffering, or pain, or anything like that. It simply means that when one takes that bite of veal one will be more conscious of the pain and suffering that went along with the production of my dinner and be unable to finish it.

Finally, it is important to remember that the Buddha specifically asked his followers not to take his teachings on faith. One should only believe what he says if they find that his teachings are matched by reality.

:: Mike 10:28 PM [+] ::
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