Thera's Heart of Buddhist Meditation

With References to Merton, Gopi Krishna, St. Thérèse, Castaneda, and St. Teresa


Alan Gullette


University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Winter 1979 (3/13/79)

Religious Studies 3011: Phenomenology of Religion

Dr. Jay Kim


The goal of Buddhism is the liberation, during one's lifetime, from Suffering, which is otherwise prolonged by Rebirth into the cycle of birth and death (samsara).  According to Thera, the achievement of this goal requires "sustained meditative effort, applied to a few selected objects o Mindfulness" (8).  (Strictly speaking, this is directed meditation, aimed at one or another of the four objects of Mindfulness, and interrupted at the end of each exercise or period of practice by a return to ordinary daily consciousness; but this continued practice leads to undirected meditation, which moves uninterruptedly from subject to subject, always within the proper domain of meditation – i.e., covering everything in conscious life experience (154, 51).)  The extinction of Suffering involves the negation of the three "roots of evil:" greed or desire, hatred or aversion (both offsprings of Delusion) , and Delusion (belief in a self, soul, or permanent substance ).  But the whole possibility of a "spiritual regeneration" depends on one's store of vital strength and on inner readiness.  We must be ready for the opportunity, which is ever-present, and seize the chance, while we can, to change, for we are mortal and might exhaust our needed energies (20).  This reminds us of don Juan's "cubic centimeter of chance" that one must be ready to seize, as well as of his general emphasis on mortality, the importance of personal power (which is all we've got), each act being potentially our "last battle on earth," etc.

The most striking difference between the Buddhist doctrine and the Christian beliefs we encounter in Thomas Merton, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and St. Teresa of Avila, is pointed out by Thera himself concerning what we might call the conception of time and the orientation of action: Christianity aim s for an (imaginary) Beyond after life, virtually denying or overlooking death, whereas Buddhism leads "straight home" into the present moment and the actuality of the human heart and mind (21).  If one believes in reincarnation, also, there is the tendency to put off one's spiritual work until tomorrow or until "next lifetime," and the work, like the Christians, seems to be feared toward a reward in heaven:  the eventual passing into nirvana from a life or trail and suffering.  When the emphasis ins on "being here now," however, one must accept responsibility of what one is – one's state of mind, however undisciplined or disorderly – and for what one does, simply because "this is all there is, so one must make the most of it."  The Christian view of time involves the notion of a linear eternity, as it were, deemphasizing the present; the Buddhist concept, or factual perception, rather, involves an experience of the eternal moment, Here and Now.

The focus of the Buddhist method is the mind:  its understanding, shaping or development, and liberation.  The Buddha-Message is a Doctrine of Mind, since mind is closest to us and since all we know of the co-called physical or external world, including the body, comes through the mind (21, 23).  Mindful ness is the essence of Buddhism.  Its cultivation is the bringing-to-the-present of awareness, so as to be here and to see the actual facts of existence – to experience existence.  This involves seeing the facts of Impermanence, Suffering and Impersonality; and this seeing is necessary for the extinction of Suffering, the letting-go of that to which we cling.  This extinction of Suffering, and of its cause, Delusion or Ignorance, and thus the achievement of true being, is "the only true and worthy purpose of man's life" (49).  Don Juan says the same thing almost word for word when ht speaks of the warrior's perfection of spirit.

Mindfulness is separated into four categories by its objects or "foundations": body, feeling, state of mind, and mental contents – in sum, the whole field of human experience (51).  It is also divided into two aspects: Bare Attention, which is passive or purely perceptive; and Clear Comprehension, which involves action. 

In Bare Attention, one isolates sense data from concepts, associations, feelings, reaction, etc., in order to let the object of awareness "speak for itself."  This is seen as a very important foundational exercise if one is to get out of the mesh of one's thoughts, memories, habits, automatic reactions and get a clear picture of fact, actuality, or being.  This disinterested investigation of objects is akin to don Juan's not-doing, as distinct from the normal "handling" and judging of things "from the viewpoint of self-interest" (32), or doing.  By not relating the object to oneself or to ones' accumulated experience of life objects, one begins to experience it as it is, outside of the paradigm or world of labels in which one ordinarily exclusively lives and perceives (32).  By slowing down mental processes in this way, separating perception from cognition, one begins to understand the workings of the mind (35).  This understanding must form the basis of science – we must be aware of how much our own cognitive processes affect our perception and knowledge of tings.  One comes to realize the fact of change, Impermanence, not only of things but also of the mind itself, which kicks off a deep and necessary inquiry into the true nature of one's own being, culminating in the discovery of Impersonality, or the absence of self, soul, or ego.  With insight into this fact comes the end of Delusion, or belief in ego, and thus of Desire and Aversion, and thus of clinging and Suffering.  All of this understanding is the fruition of Bare Attention, the foundation of meditation and Mindfulness.

Since mind is nothing more than its cognizing function, we can train it, through the exercising of Mindfulness, in order to shape or develop it as an instrument of awareness and action. Bare Attention is concerned only with the present.  And so, in successive elimination of thoughts of the past (regrets, etc.) and future (worries, etc.) through its practice, one saves much energy from being wasted.  This conservation applies to action as well, in the Comprehension of Purpose, where self-mastery is attained through, and for, the regulation of activities that makes all actions purposeful, efficient, harmonious with actuality, and in keeping with one's aims and highest understanding (44-5).  Again like don Juan's warrior, one thus trims one's life, "tidying" the mind, increasing the efficacy and power of one's actions (cf. 42).

Let me say here that, although Gopi Krishna is concerning wit the practice of mediation, his Hindu imagery and kundalini yoga physiognomy are not explicitly related to Buddhism.  By Hindu "imagery" I mean the focus of attention on the "third eye" or on the crown of the head with the intent of raising Shakti to those centers.  But this certainly does not discount this particular system of meditation.  Nevertheless, it is not the Buddhist one, starting with a metaphysical belief system rather than with open attention to the objects of perception.

In connection with progress in meditation, Thera notes that natural developments (e.g., the awareness that a pair of processes are involved in Mindfulness of breathing: the abdominal activity and the mental process of know it; or the awareness of a more distinct end-phase of breathing) cannot be "willed" or forced (111-2).  This calls to mind St. Theresa's warning about "lifting up the spirit" when it is not lifted up by God, or trying to get ahead of oneself in one's development.  But for St. Teresa, this defiance of humility brings about spiritual aridity, almost as a punishment or lesson; whereas in Thera, there is only a minor disturbance of attention.

In addition to Clear Comprehension of Purpose, there are three other kinds of Clear Comprehension: Suitability (adaptation of action to the conditions of actuality), Domain of Mediation (the four objects of Mindfulness), and Reality (Non-Delusion, comprehending Impersonality).  This latter application of Mindfulness aims at "the greatest achievement of human thought" (51) – the insight into the non-being of the self.  Of the contemplations on the four objects of Mindfulness, the first, contemplation of the body, involves Mindfulness of Breathing (in which there is only Bare Attention and no imposition of   rhythm), of bodily posture (sitting, lying, standing, walking), clear comprehension of the body's activities, awareness of the organs sand parts of the body, analysis of body into the four impersonal elements (earth, air, fire, water), and contemplation of dead bodies in various stages of decay.  (This latter brings to mind don Juan's suggestion that Castaneda's friend show his delinquent body to a corpse.  In Ixtlan, Castaneda must kill, and eat part of, a rabbit with which he identifies. In Tales of Power, don Juan shows Castaneda how to watch others to see the effect on their bodies of their "tonals" – their selves, including all of their habits.)  The object here is to come to an understanding of the basic impersonality of the body.  This condition is also seen in the mind through awareness of the mind's feelings or reactions to stimuli, its passing states, and its objects or contents.  Again, craving, clinging, repulsion, or aversion, etc., are eventually done away with, so that one becomes increasingly detached from everything and thus able to just watch the flow of existence without being caught up in it or becoming identified with anything.  In this is the cutting-off of the root of Suffering, and thus the mind is liberated. 

The non-self, the central conception of the Dhamma, is akin to the new self-concept that don Juan cultivates: one is not one's past, personal history, desires or interests, etc.; rather, one is everything within the field of experience, is the field, and is the experience.  There is no separate experiencer.  It is almost as if St. Therese and St. Teresa both insist on an opposing view of the experiencer as a separate entity that survives death and goes to heaven (or hell).  Insofar as Merton remains separate from God, he too looks forward to death's unification of self with God; but this is itself akin to the Buddhist concern with "not returning," though they aim not at death in nirvana, but at nirvana in samsara, or at "Highest knowledge," – "knowledge of the final emancipation, or Sainthood" – here and now (131, 135n40).  Presumably, this is also the concern of Gopi Krishna, who talks of real experience as distinct from culturally flavored dreams of heaven.  But both St. Thérèse and St. Teresa seem to be hung up in life as suffering and exile relived only by death and heaven.

Thera, Krishna and don Juan deal with specific methods of meditation.  Krishna does not offer many details; in his case, his practice is replaced by a natural lapsing into higher consciousness and sensitivity.  Don Juan offers various forms of not-doing: shadow-gazing, aimless wandering in the desert, and seemingly purposeless activates; and "correct walking" for stopping the internal dialog, etc.  The Christian authors we reviewed did not detail their practices, but all of the authors emphasized either prayer or meditation or contemplation of some sort as being of great importance in the pursuit of the mystical way.





Castaneda, Carlos. Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.

Krishna, Gopi. Kundalini: the evolutionary energy in man. Boulder: Shambhala. 1971.

Merton, Thomas. The Sign of Jonas. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1953.

St. Teresa of Avila. The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila: The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus. 

St. Thérèse of Lisieux. The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux. Translated with introduction by John Beevers.  New York: Image Books, 1957.

Thera, Nyanaponika.  The Heart of Buddhist Meditation. New York: Samuel Weiser, 1965.



Professor's Comment: Grade A.  O.K. [Dr. Kim.]



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