meditation and spiritual growth

We were fourteen days out from the New Zealand harbor, traveling the ocean toward Antarctica.  Our ship the “Nimrod” had been retrofitted for this cold weather back in Liverpool two years earlier.   Although making only 6 knots running to windward just off a beam reach, we had made good progress across the beautiful placid blue waters.

Our expedition leader, Sir Ernest Shackleton, was born an adventurer at heart.  Raised by a Quaker family, his vision of life included a curious mind, a strong personal drive, and a quest for knowledge – to expand his awareness of the world.

It was January 14, 1908, officer John Davies sighted the first iceberg.  From that day forward the floating mountains of ice grew more numerous in the waters.  The quarterdeck, normally the exclusive domain of the ship’s captain Lieutenant Rupert England, a first officer and helmsmen, were open to Sir Ernest and surgeon/cartographer Dr. Eric Marshall. 

The lookouts kept a sharp eye.  By the 16th we entered the Ross Sea.  Concerned about being trapped by the ice we headed for the safety of McMurdo Sound where we landed on January 28th.  The shore party unloaded the equipment and provisions from the Nimrod, and setup base camp.  Sir Ernest prepared to lead a smaller contingent to the South Pole.

Sir Ernest Shackleton

The Shore Party: Bernard Day, electrician and motor expert Ernest Joyce, in charge of general stores, dogs, sledges and zoological collections Dr. A. F. Mackay, surgeon. Dr. Eric Marshall, surgeon, cartographer G E. Marston, artist James Murray, biologist Raymond Priestley, geologist William Roberts, cook

Frank Wild, in charge of provisions

An iceberg is frozen water, which is an alternate form of H2O.   Whether we find water as a solid, liquid or gas, it’s still the same substance.  Like that, the world of form that we encounter in our day-to-day lives is just an alternate view of the one single absolute reality, transposed onto time and space. 

Form is an expression and manifestation.  With the birth of mind/time/space/causation and guided by the agents of nature (Sattva, Rajas and Tamas guna) the field of form becomes progressively more diverse.  Human identification with form bolsters the ego and hides our eternal Self (by the veil of Maya).  The eternal imperishable consciousness is perceived to be finite while in the state of ignorance (not knowing).

The great sage Sankaracharya has said; “Maya is neither absolutely existent nor non-existent, nor does it partake of both characters.  She is most wonderful, and her nature cannot be defined. She can be destroyed by the realization of pure Brahman, the one without a second, just as the false perception of a snake for a rope is removed by the discrimination of the rope.”

Human views of the universe and the understanding of our relationship to it – changes as we change.  As we gain more knowledge and become more spiritually evolved the same questions often yield different answers.  Based on our newfound growth and expanded understanding, we have new insights and discover even yet deeper meaning.

Civilization today classifies the human relationship with the Universe in three ways; dualism, qualified-dualism and monism.

Dualism: We are separate and distinct from the Universe.  There is me and everything else.  Two parts exist; the relative and the absolute, yin and yang, bad and good, matter and spirit, self and Self.  God has a personal form and is the extra-cosmic personality living in heaven (or somewhere).

The Universe functions like a machine, directed by the will of God.

Qualified – Dualism: We are separate but a part of the whole. God is both personal/impersonal and immanent in Nature. The universe passes through gross and subtle states in a cyclic order (involution and evolution).  We are the ego which gives rise to desires, pride, attachments, and anger; but we are also the Universal Cosmic Self. 

The ultimate reality is neither physical nor mental. Instead, it can be called Spirit, God, Emptiness, the One, the Self, the Dao, or the Absolute. 

Monism: There is only the Whole, and we are That. The Divine is impersonal and transcendent, and appears as the universe through the power of Maya.  Through creative ignorance is appears with its limitations of time, space and causation.  Its forms, as it were, are the matrix of matter and mind. The universe is only one thing, despite its many appearances.

This manifestation is taken to be real as long as the soul is in ignorance, but it is realized to be unreal with the dawn of true knowledge.

These are three distinct and different views. As knowledge is structured in consciousness each is true depending upon where (your level of consciousness) you are standing.

The human personality is composed of the non-Self.  The three gunas (Sattva, Rajas and Tamas) are the forces of nature that transform into ego, mind, senses, the body and the external world of objects. 

All activity is the domain of the gunas.  The ego is deluded into thinking that he/she is the doer of action.  But in reality, the gunas are the agents of action.  

Human personality is usually dominated by one of the three gunas, even though you are a combination of all three. 

Sattva guna– purity, knowledge and happiness Rajas  guna– attachment, activity and pain

Tamas guna – impurity and ignorance

Freedom is a necessary prerequisite for personal growth, so that you can choose and act to enliven Sattva guna.  Meditation is a very purifying experience. 


As we continue our exploration of different meditation practices, I would like to take this time to briefly review some of the Buddhist techniques.  There are far too many to cover in detail, but here is a short summary that will help you navigate the waters and better decide which practice you may wish to try.

There are two main branches of Buddhist philosophy and meditation.  They are Mahayana with sub-branch Vajrayana, and Theravada.

Meditation if often practiced in a Buddhist community called a Sangha.  

Mahayana Buddhism, “The Great Vehicle.”

Mahayana is found throughout East Asia and includes the traditions of Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Shingon, Tendai and Shinnyo-en.

Native Mahayana Buddhism is practiced today in China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, parts of Russia and most of Vietnam.  This is commonly referred to as “Eastern Buddhism.”

In some classifications Vajrayana, a subcategory of Mahayana practiced in Tibet, the Himalayan regions and Mongolia, is recognized as a third branch.  This is commonly referred to as “Northern Buddhism.”

In Japan they form separate denominations with the five major ones being: Nichiren, peculiar to Japan; Pure Land; Shingon, a form of Vajrayana; Tendai; and Chan/Zen.

In Korea, nearly all Buddhists belong to the Chogye School, which is officially Son (Zen), but with substantial elements from other traditions.


Chinese Buddhism Meditation Practices

Chan Buddhism practices were used to develop an unfettered and detached mind that would not cling to anything.  Emphasis is on finding the Buddha mind.  

Korean Buddhism Meditation Practices

Recitation of Buddha’s name for the purpose of awakening to the Buddha, inherent in all of us.

Zen Buddhist Meditation Practices

Zazen: Sitting, just “opening the hand of thought”.  This is done either through Koans, Rinzai’s primary method, whole-hearted sitting (Shikantaza), or the Soto method.

– Concentration; Focus on the breath, counting, repetition of mantras with the breath until some experience of initial Samadhi is achieved.  After that, one moves onto Koan introspection and Shikantaza.

From the Soto school of Zen Buddhism, sitting/resting in a state of highly brightly alert attention that is free of thoughts, directed to no object, and attached to no particular content.  The highest or purest form of zazen.


Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhism Meditation Practices

Vajrayana techniques; while on the path to full enlightenment, these techniques allow one to identify with the three vajras; i.e., the enlightened body, speech and mind of a Buddha.   This enlivens the four purities of a Buddha (environment, body, enjoyments and deeds).

Ngondro: These are preliminary and preparatory practices (sadhana) for disciplines common to all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. – Consisting of contemplations, reflections or meditations on: 1. The freedoms and advantages of precious human rebirth 2. The truth of impermanence and change 3. The workings of karma 4. The suffering of living beings within Samsara

– And other practices for, Opening the Heart, Meditation on Impermanence, Admitting Misdeeds, Bodhicitta, Refuge, Mandala Offering, Purification Through Mantra, Offering the Body and Guru Yoga.

Tonglen: The Tibetan practice of giving and receiving.  It involves all of the Six Perfections; giving, ethics, patience, joyous effort, concentration and wisdom, through the practice of: – reduce selfish attachment – increase sense of renunciation – create positive karma by giving and helping – develop and expand loving-kindness and Bodhicitta

These are the practices of a Bodhisattva.

Involving the transference of consciousness at the time of death.   This method can be applied at the moment of death, to transfer one’s consciousness through the top of the head directly into the Buddha field destination of one’s choice; Sukhavati, Abhirati, Ghanavyuha, Atakavati, Mount Potala, the Copper-Colored Mountain, etc.  

Overcoming fear by confronting it.  Based on the Prajnaparamita sutra. It combines philosophy with meditation and tantric rituals.

Mahamudra: The appearance of the phenomenal world (mudra) and its source (maha) which lies beyond it concept, imagination or projection.  The goal is to enter the all-pervading state of non-duality. The Mahamudra Vipassana “insight practices” are unique in Tibetan Buddhism.  They involve looking at or pointing out the nature of the mind. The five practices for “looking at” the nature of the mind are as follows: – Looking at the settled mind.  – Looking at the moving or thinking mind. – Looking at the mind reflecting appearances. – Looking at the mind in relation to the body.

– Looking at the settled and moving minds together.

According to this system, the ultimate nature of all sentient beings is said to be pure, all-encompassing, primordial awareness or naturally occurring timeless awareness. 

Their meditative practices are similar to those of Mahamudra.  Central to the teaching is contemplation.  When stabilized and mature it remains unbroken and the non-dual nature of realty is experienced. 

The Four Immeasurables & Metta:
Also known as the sublime attitudes, this meditation cultures those qualities; loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.  

Theravada Buddhism, “The School of the Elders”

Theravada—the oldest surviving branch—has a widespread following in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia,

Theravada is primarily practiced today in Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia as well as small portions of China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Bangladesh. It has a growing presence in Europe and America.


Theravada Meditation Practices

Mindfulness of breathing.

Meditation on compassion, loving-kindness, friendliness, benevolence, sympathy and love.

Kammatthana: The place within the mind where one goes in order to work on spiritual development.  It refers to the forty canonical objects of meditation: – The ten objects of perception; earth, water, fire, air, wind, blue, green, yellow, red, white, enclosed space, and bright light. – The ten items of repulsion. – The three Jewels; Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. – The three virtues; morality, liberality and attributes of Devas. – The recollections of; the body, death, breath and peace. – The four are stations of Brahma; unconditional kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy over another’s success and even mindedness. – The four formless states; infinite space, infinite consciousness, infinite nothingness and neither perception nor non-perception. – The perception of disgust of food.

– Analysis of the four elements; earth, water, fire and air. 

A calm abiding concentration practice that develops sustained attention.

Insight into the nature of reality.  It is a practice of self-transformation through self-observation and introspection.

Also known as Dynamic Meditation, it was developed by Thai Buddhist reformist Luangpor Teean Jittasubho. Mahasati Meditation uses movement of the body to generate self-awareness.


Shackleton at the South Pole

A strong wind and weary team caused Sir Ernest Shackleton and his men to head back to base camp after coming within 97 miles of the South Pole.  They planted the Union Jack, a brass cylinder containing stamps, camera, glasses, compass and documents to mark their farthest venture south. 

The ocean materializes icebergs, and then reclaims it back again.  The rich heritage of Buddhist meditation practices offer the means for a walk in the absolute realm of bliss consciousness.  

Each day that passes the Earth spins on its axes, and affords us the opportunity for growth.  Look forward to life, joy and true contentment as the Self blossoms.  Beauty is truth, and can forever be found on the wings of a butterfly, in the silent whisper of the wind, in the dew upon the grass, in the waters so blue, in the sunshine upon your face, and in the handiwork of creation. 

Practice your meditation every day to rise to the highest level of human freedom and spiritual potential.