Even if our meditation practise doesn’t incorporate a religious dimension it is often interesting to look at where these contemplative methods originated. Buddhism in particular is rich in descriptions of meditative states and practical advice for meditators. Some of its literature questions our deepest reasons for following a spiritual path. Why should we practice as we do and to what ends? If you use mindfulness, vipassana or zazen you may find the following of interest…
In the Lalitavistara sutra of the mahayana buddhist canon, the Buddha is described as seated on the morning of his enlightenment beneath the bodhi tree. Mara, the buddhist incarnation of the devil, visits him to try again to distract the Buddha from attaining full awakening. He has already launched an army of demons, erotic devas and various other temptations, including the promise of enlightenment, but the Buddha is unswerving in his mindfulness. Mara claims that he himself should sit where the Buddha sits and calls witness on various gods and deities to back up his claim. The Buddha, however, remains seated in equanimity. The sutra continues…
‘Who then shall be your witness?!’ Mara finally roars at the Buddha.
Then Siddhartha reached out his right hand to touch the earth, and the earth itself roared, “I bear you witness!” Mara disappeared. And as the morning star rose in the sky, Siddhartha Gautama realized enlightenment and became a Buddha.’
This description of Siddartha Gautama’s enlightenment tells us a lot about the nature of his achievement. In most religions, the sky is seen as the place which is looked to in great spiritual quests. A place above earth, beyond ourselves that is called upon for salvation – heaven, paradise, God. The Buddha reverses this, he calls upon the earth in a final bid for liberation. He points us to the ‘real’, the ‘actual’ – he grounds himself before Mara’s temptations. This was the root of his awakening. The Buddha did not need to transcend the world to gain freedom. In this action of touching the ground he placed himself firmly within it. For the Buddha, calling upon the earth allowed him to stay rooted in reality – to see things as they really were. If we bring in a more contemporary perspective we could say that the Buddha was connecting with gravity, that invisible force that keeps us balanced and stable. Gravity as we now understand it is more than just a force, it is both space and time combined. To be in connection with this force is to truly centre ourselves within the world, to be grounded and to be aware.
Often we are tempted in our spiritual practise by the promise of altered states of consciousness, great transcendence from the mundane world or a glimpse of heaven. More often than not these are the empty temptations of Mara and as Chögyam Trungpa called it – spiritual materialism. These states can of course be achieved but more often than not they take us away from what is most important, to see clearly the world as it really is, to be mindful, and to engage with those around us.