In the fall edition of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, Douglas Penick attempts to set the record straight about the purpose of meditation in an article entitled, “What Are You Meditating For?” He writes, “Meditation, if what you read is to be believed, is the path whereby… that grand but elusive goal called enlightenment, the awakened state, may be within our reach.”[1] Although there are various flavors within the Buddhist camp, as it were, Penick’s comment is characteristic of Buddhism writ large. That is, meditation is part of the path towards bodhi or enlightenment; as well as is nirvana – the peace from suffering that is obtained by moksha or liberation. Loss of identity into nirvana or nothingness is the ultimate goal.

Admittedly, I’m painting with a broad brush; but only to give a glimpse. The ultimate purpose of this post is to focus specifically on an admission by Penick in his article:

Tricycle“In books and magazine articles, you may have encountered words like empty, transcendent, nondual, primordial, and the like… You may hear that one can meditate in such a way as to achieve any of the large-sounding words and notions mentioned above. If the words mean what they seem to, this is obviously not possible. Nonetheless, we must admit that we all try… Be that as it may, the use of lofty words in meditation most often leads to what has been called ‘target-shooting meditation.’ Here we form a mental construct of something we believe we should experience. By analysis, we create a construct, a mental shape of that experience, and we aim our mind at having this experience. Because mind moves even while it is shapeless, it will, at least momentarily, believe itself existing on the ground to which we have directed it. We will think we are actually having a real meditation experience when in fact we have simply fabricated it out of words and longing.”[2]

This is a bold admission! Granted, Penick believes in genuine Buddhist experiences (that is, experiences of bodhi) and has written the article to differentiate between those that he considers to be false or fabricated and those that are legitimate. Nevertheless he has presented a genuine problem for meditation practitioners. For, if it is the case that meditation can be a form of wish fulfillment (more like imaginative roleplaying via mental constructs), by what criterion do Buddhists distinguish between genuine experiences and fabricated ones?

Now, I want to be specific about what I mean by genuine and fabricated. That there is something legitimately taking place during meditation is, I think, without question. What is in question is that the something taking place correlates and/or reinforces Buddhist belief; that, at base, there really is no life, no birth, no death, no being, and no non-being, as the Tathagata teaches.

Penick does not explicitly list a criterion to distinguish between genuine and fabricated experiences. As a matter of fact, he defaults back to Buddhist doctrine as an authenticating guide of sorts, writing, “If one meditates simply… one enters the unknown, the uncertain, the purposeless… One enters a great expanse that is unknowable, ordinary, alive, and secret. One enters into the timeless and unbiased continuum of all being.”[3] But this method of reaffirming doctrine is entirely unhelpful in determining whether one’s meditation experiences correlate to what Buddhists believe about meditation and reality.

meditationBy the way, Penick’s description of the fabricated experience is almost exactly like the explanation I offered for meditative experiences in Drawing Conclusions about Meditation back in March. I also touched on the logical problem with believing that the individuated self can become one with all things via meditation in Can We Really Become One with the Universe? And now a Buddhist author has admitted that meditation as merely a mind exercise is not only possible but actually taking place.

I ask again: If there is no clear criterion for distinguishing between a fabricated meditative experience and a legitimate experience, why should we conclude that any of these experiences are best explained by Buddhism? As always, anyone with any thoughts on the subject are welcome to join in the conversation.


[1] Douglas Penick, “What Are You Meditating For?” Tricycle, Fall 2013, 78.

[2] Ibid, 78-79.

[3] Ibid, 112.

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