In almost all types of contemplative practice that depend upon a simple quietness, whether Centering Prayer, vipassana meditation, zazen according to the Sōtō Zen tradition, or whichever, there is a sense that comes to arise of an open field of attention, not unlike a crystalline expanse within, or coterminous with, the visual field (whether one’s eyes are open or closed). Keeping still, it is apparent that this clear space, the ground of one’s consciousness, is not other than the ground from which things appear – sense perceptions, thoughts, emotions, whatever – and pass. Somehow it cannot be different from the ground of becoming itself.
There is a line from the Heart Sutra, “Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness” that expresses the quality of this perception better than anything else I’ve read. And yet this realisation, if that’s the word, like the practice within which it occurs, is not a religious thing at all. Sam Harris writes,
I have long argued that confusion about the unity of religions is an artifact of language. Religion is a term like sports: Some sports are peaceful but spectacularly dangerous (“free solo” rock climbing); some are safer but synonymous with violence (mixed martial arts); and some entail little more risk of injury than standing in the shower (bowling). To speak of sports as a generic activity makes it impossible to discuss what athletes actually do or the physical attributes required to do it. What do all sports have in common apart from breathing? Not much. The term religion is hardly more useful.
The same could be said of spirituality. The esoteric doctrines found within every religious tradition are not all derived from the same insights. Nor are they equally empirical, logical, parsimonious, or wise. They don’t always point to the same underlying reality—and when they do, they don’t do it equally well. Nor are all these teachings equally suited for export beyond the cultures that first conceived them…
Of course, it is true that specific Jewish, Christian, and Muslim mystics have had experiences similar to those that motivate Buddhism and Advaita, but these contemplative insights are not exemplary of their faith. Rather, they are anomalies that Western mystics have always struggled to understand and to honor, often at considerable personal risk. Given their proper weight, these experiences produce heterodoxies for which Jews, Christians, and Muslims have been regularly exiled or killed.
Harris, Sam. Waking Up (pp. 19-20, 22). Transworld. Kindle Edition.
The pause in religious communities coming together for worship caused by the current pandemic is widely touted as making a permanent difference to church attendance, and to the conduct of public worship in future months and years (Zoom worship, blended online and in-person services, and so forth) but for me at least it has had a far more fundamental effect. I have come to realise, as I wrote recently on The Mercy Blog, that “In this period of quiet settling, separated from the religious atmosphere and bustle of corporate worship, I have begun to sense that the ‘social-cultural system’ of religion is something quite separate from the ‘experimental faith’ (cf. Quaker faith & practice 19.02) of contemplative practice, and crucially, the one does not depend upon the other.”
This blog is intended, at least in part, to chart that exploration.