Sutra 1.59 or (by meditation) on the chosen form

The word for meditation is dhyana, which is the second step of the three stages of meditation. The first was dharana, ‘supporting’, ‘maintaining’, where the attention has to be repeatedly brought back to the location of the meditation. In the second step, which comes about after repeated practice of the first, there is a flow of related thoughts and feelings towards the same object, like a stream of oil being poured from one pot to another.

The word for ‘chosen’ means literally something which specially appeals. It is not unheard of for a teacher to use unexpected things as subjects for meditation in order to teach a particular thing. A man who was an expert in the game called Mah-jong used to visit a Zen teacher once a week, and complained that he could not stay awake in his meditation. ‘At first the unfamiliar posture kept me awake, but now it has become very comfortable, and just sitting there with nothing happening – one falls asleep. It’s natural, isn’t it?’

One day the teacher said to him, ‘There is a young pupil who may come here later on. He is the son of a man who likes Mahjong, and he is forced sometimes to play in his father’s circle. But he only knows the bare elements, and they get impatient with him. He does not want to spend much time getting better at it by playing, so I want you to think of some bits of advice by which he can play reasonably and lose not too much. I have to go to see the gardener for about an hour, but meantime would you sit here and think what to say to him if he comes.’

When the teacher returned, his pupil said earnestly, ‘I’ve worked out ten rules for him to follow, and if he sticks to them I can promise that he won’t do too badly. You know, there are certain things to look out for, and if you just keep your eye on them, you don’t go far wrong. But it needs a lot of experience before you get to know what they are. It hasn’t been so easy to express them clearly for a beginner, but I think I can do it now.’

‘Thank you very much,’ said the teacher. ‘You’ve been here an hour with nothing happening. No trouble with falling asleep?’

The pupil was struck dumb. Then he bowed, and went home.

But for the regular yoga training, Shankara says that the chosen object of meditation must be something which is specially proper from the point of view of steadying the mind for yoga, not something which is specially appealing from other points of view like pleasure and so on. For there is the prohibition to the yogi: ‘Even if he should obtain objects, he must never dwell on them in his mind.’ The chosen form is therefore a symbol of truth or a form of the Lord, and when he has found one of them which stabilizes his mind, he will be able to concentrate steadily on other traditional practices as well.

The element of sceptical cynicism which is innate in the human mind, and which is represented by Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust, always tries to neutralize this kind of practice by suggesting that it is merely creating illusions, illusions possibly beneficial to those believing in them, but still illusions. Yes, it argues, the form of Christ is a symbol, or a radiant calm ocean, but it might as well be anything else. An apple would be as good to the one who accepted it.

Shankara states clearly that the traditional forms given for meditation correspond to actual existence. The scriptural instruction about the Lord’s possessing certain qualities, which instruction is given for the purpose of meditation, at the same time proves the existence of a Lord possessing those qualities. And he quotes the yoga sutras to the effect that this may be confirmed face to face: ‘from the yogic practices there comes vision of the divine form meditated upon’, and this form helps him. The classical forms of the incarnations still exist in a subtle radiant form, and are accessible by meditation, these things, he emphasizes, are facts which cannot be set aside.

The forms of the Lord are as real, and in a certain sense more real, than the tables and chairs of ordinary experience or the ultimate particles of the physicist, but they are all part of the projection by the divine actor. The forms are not to be fanatically taken as exclusive of each other ; they give different patterns for life. Buddha and Christ showed a pattern of renunciation, without any permanent home. Rama was a king and warrior in lay life. Krishna showed many roles, including musician and dancer, which the Buddha-form and others did not display. The yogi does not in the end ‘choose’ the form arbitrarily; it would perhaps be truer to say that it chooses him.

In the Heart of the Eastern Mystical Teaching, a monk named Gopaldas tells the pupils that the purpose of man’s life is to worship the creator, all else is emptiness. The form of the incarnation as the Absolute is not within the grasp of mind or imagination, but the visible form can be meditated upon even by a child. ‘If you have faith and try to lead a pure sattvic life, you will be blessed with a vision of the incarnation, at first subjective and later on externalized.’ Elsewhere in the book it is explained that devotion to an incarnation is for most people essential to satisfy the emotions.

The great form of the Lord as Time, seen by a disciple in the eleventh chapter of the Gita, was too great to be comprehended by a physical eye, but it was not a subjective hallucination; Shankara points out that it was seen by another man also, who had developed the same ‘divine eye’, and the modern yogi Rama Tirtha refers to the same fact. Madhusudana in his Gita commentary says that the divine eye is manifested in the samadhi of a yogi.

© Trevor Leggett

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