Muller, a writer and journalist who is an oblate (a layperson who observes monastic tradition while maintaining a secular life) of the Benedictine New Camaldoli Hermitage in California, here records his interviews with eight great teachers of various meditation traditions. They include: from Christianity, Benedictine monk Laurence Freeman, Cistercian monk Edward McCorkell and Wayne Teasdale, a practitioner of Christian sannyasi; from Yoga, Swami Satchidananda and Swami Shankarananda; from Buddhism, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche and Bhante Henepola Gunaratana; and, from Jainism, Shree Chitrabhanu. In each case, Muller starts with the basics--"What is Christian meditation?" "What are the key teachings of Yoga meditation?" "What is the centering prayer?"--and then delves into specifics about practices, techniques and beliefs. He investigates what all meditation traditions have in common and what unique characteristic each tradition possesses. Muller intends his interviews to be helpful either to people of faith who want to increase their understanding of meditation to apply it to their own religious practice, or to those who do not believe in one particular tradition but have an interest in the topic of meditation. The interview format limits how thoroughly and systematically the chapters can impart information, but it does allow a sense of the teachers' diverse personalities. The book makes for a satisfactory, if basic, introduction to these meditation traditions. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
with Laurence Freeman
L.M.: What is Christian meditationor the way of the mantraas initially rediscovered and taught by Father John Main? And now, by you through the World Community of Christian Meditation? As a corollary to that, why should one practice Christian meditation?
L.F.: That's a lot for one question. It's like one of those Chinese boxes, one inside the other. Well, Christian meditation is a tradition of Christian prayera practice of Christian prayer which John Main found, and recognized, and rediscoveredparticularly in the teachings of the early Christian monks, of the desert fathers. I think that the first thing one should say is that meditation itself is a universal tradition. You find it in all the great religions. But I also think that, for the Western mind, and for the church today, we have lost touch with our own Christian tradition of meditation. And, we often assume that meditation is only an oriental tradition or practice.
It was Father John's experience that he first learned to meditate when he was in the East, some years before he became a monk. That experience probably helped him to recognize the practicality of the teachings on prayerthat he later found in the writings of John Cassian. He was one of the great communicators of the wisdom of the desert tradition.
L.M.: In the fourth century?
L.F.: The fourth and fifth centuries. And really, he was one of the greatpillars of the western spiritual, contemplative tradition. Cassian devotes two of his conferences to prayernumbers nine and ten. The ninth is about the theory of prayer; it's a very beautiful and rich description of the nature of prayer. But he doesn't say how to do it. In the tenth conference, he actually gives a method. The method he gives is to take a phrase, which he calls a formula, in Latin, and repeat that formula incessantly, continuously. He describes the repetition of this single phrase over and over in the mind and heartas bringing us to that poverty of spiritwhich is the first of the beatitudes. Now, John Main recognized this, not just as a theory, but as an actual practice. His teaching comes directly out of the wisdom of Cassian. You will find the same tradition in many of the other great teachers, including the author of The Cloud of Unknowing.
L.M.: The anonymous, fourteenth-century English mystic. I understand that when Father John first became a Benedictine, there wasn't any knowledge of the way of the mantra in his monastery in Britain. In fact, he had first learned of the mantra through a Hindu teacher he met in the East.
L.F.: When he first became a monk in the fifties, it was still a long time before meditation would become generally known.
L.M.: It took another decade, the sixties.
L.F.: Exactly, this was before before the great era of TMTranscendental Meditationand the Beatles, and the great influx of Eastern spirituality into the West. Most of the religious orders, including monastic orders, and all the seminaries, had effectively lost touch with that central tradition of Christian contemplative prayer. They had really got themselves restricted to mental prayer, discursive prayer, or meditation. When John Main became a monk, his novice master heard him describe the way of meditation he was following, which had brought him to the monastery. The novice master couldn't understand it, and he told Father John: "This was obviously the Lord's way of bringing you to the monastery. But now that you're here, you should abandon it and return to our Christian prayer."
L.M.: So he ordered Father John not to meditate?
L.F.: Well, he advised it.
L.M.: He advised against meditation.
L.F.: Those were the days when monks were still obedient; so he obeyed. Father John later said that when he came back to the practice of meditation through Cassian, he came back on God's terms, not his own. He saw that as a desert period, but also as a purifying, fruitful experience.
L.M.: Did your own reading of some of John Mains writings lead you to become a monk?
L.F.: Yes, I was led to be a monk directly through meditation; and through having Father John as a teacher. I had actually met him a long time ago, before I was even thinking of becoming a monk when I was a boy in school. He was teaching school when I was about thirteen or fourteen. He wasn't teaching meditation at that point. That was my first encounter with him. And then we met again, in the late sixties, when he had started meditating again. He was at that time headmaster of a Benedictine school in Washington, D.C., Saint Anselm's. I was visiting there at Easter. And he introduced me to meditation.
I never doubted the rightness of the path, it just made sense to me. It was clear, it was simple, it was authentic. It was also a disciplineone that was quite challenging to me. I was then attending university, with many distractions and worries. So I practiced it very intermittently. Then, Father John came back to England, and he started a lay community centered on meditation at his monastery in London. The idea was that you would join the community for six months to receive instruction and training in meditationand spiritual preparation for life. I joined that lay community. But because I am a very undisciplined and slow learner, I had to become a monk to learn it.
L.M.: It wasn't long thereafter that you made the commitment to monastic life.
L.F.: Yes, after the initial six months. I struggled with that. I had not intended to become a monk. It seemed to me to be the path to follow. For me anyway, the monastic life was the best way I could follow that path of meditation.
L.M.: One hopes that Christian meditation will have a real benefit for the majority of people in the church, for lay people living their lives out in the world. Are many parishes here in America encouraging Christian meditation practice?
L.F.: Well, there are now many parishes and religious communities and retreat houses where there are weekly group meetings. Also you'll find groups at places of work. There is one meeting here in New York, at the United Nations, that meets every week.
L.M.: They do the way of the mantra, or maranatha?
L.F.: Yes, they are following the tradition that John Main passed on. There are many other groups. There are contemplative groups in other traditions as well, such as Centering Prayer. So I think that there is a growth and awakening. It is mostly among lay people; the clergy, on the whole, are a little slow to tune into this. Though there certainly are wonderful priests and religious around the country who are deeply contemplative men and women. They teach and encourage lay people to teach meditation.
We recently had a school for teachers of meditation at our monastery in Pecos, New Mexico. Twenty-five people came from around the country. It was our first school for teachers in the U.S. There was perhaps one priest and two sisters, the rest were lay people. I was very excited and impressed by their depth and clarity; and, by their grasp of the teaching.
L.M.: Was Cassian's method then the practice of maranatha?
L.F.: No, Cassian suggested the repetition of a particular phrase from the Psalms, "Oh God, come to my assistance." That is the one which Saint Benedict took over for the opening verse of the Divine Office. John Main recognized Cassian's phrase to be like the mantra he had learned in the East. The basic teaching is that you choose a short word or phrase as your mantra, and that you repeat it continually. There are various phrases, words, or mantras that you could choose. The Cloud author suggests the word God, for example.
John Main felt that the word maranatha was a beautiful mantra for Christians, because it is the oldest Christian prayer. And it is in the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke. It is a scriptural word and prayer too, that Saint Paul ends the First Letter to Corinthians with. So it's a very suitable word. Also, the length and sound of the word are helpful in calming the mind. Another very ancient Christian mantra is the name of Jesuswhich you find in the Jesus prayer tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
L.M.: It's also found in The Way of the Pilgrim.
L.F.: The hesychast tradition developed rather later in the Christian church. But the same understanding of the praying of one word is very clear.
L.M.: How does one go about Christian meditation, including the basic posture and breathing?
L.F.: We don'tJohn Main and those of us who follow in his traditionwe don't so much emphasize the technique aspect of it. It is more a simple disciplinenot easy, but simple. We emphasize very much the simplicity of the practice. We would say, sit down: sit still with your back straight. So that you are in an alert, faithful, and comfortable posture. That also helps you to breathe properly. Close your eyes lightlyrelaxand then, silently, interiorly, begin to say your word, say your mantra. When thoughts come into the mindas they will in great numberjust ignore them. Don't fight with them, don't waste any energy getting into conflict with them.
|Book:||Wisdom Roads - Conversations With Remarkable Meditation Masters|
|Number of Pages:||185|
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