There is a story about a young Hindu man named Ratnadatta who grew up in a city in Northern India. Ratnadatta's father, a wealthy merchant, was a Buddhist devotee. Ratnadatta was ashamed of his father's religion and criticized it on many occasions. His father objected that both Hinduism and Buddhism teach the importance of compassion and controlling the mind, so his son's criticisms were unwarranted. Ratnadatta would not listen. The father eventually told the king of the ongoing argument with his son. The king, who supported the religions of all his subjects, hatched a plan. He informed the son that he had been judged guilty of a crime and would be executed in 1 month. Ratnadatta spent the next 2 months worrying about his impending doom and could neither eat nor sleep. At the end of 2 months, he was brought before the king. The king told him that he would not be executed, and that he had pronounced the sentence so that Ratnadatta would learn fear of death. Ratnadatta thanked him, and then asked about the path leading toward liberation from death. The king gave him a bowl full of oil and told him to walk around the city with it. He ordered a contingent of soldiers to follow Ratnadatta, giving them orders to behead him if any oil spilled. Now, at that time there was a festival in the city, but Ratnadatta was so focused on the oil that he did not notice any of it. The king said, "You should practice religion with the same concentration. A man who withdraws from outward distractions realizes the truth and will never again be caught in the web of actions. Thus, I have taught you the essence of the doctrine of liberation" (Somadeva, 1994: 68-69).
This story serves to illustrate two points. The first concerns the centrality of disciplining the mind for the spiritual quest. The second point is that techniques to discipline the mind are not the sole possession of any one religion, but are important to different degrees within all religious traditions. "Meditation" is nothing other than a set of techniques designed to discipline the mind. While this definition may seem simple, the variety of techniques and goals of meditation found across religious traditions vary widely. The following will shed some light on the major varieties of meditation commonly encountered.
When people commonly refer to meditation, they are usually thinking of a formal, usually seated, meditation in which the meditator attempts to transcend the ordinary world and attain a state that defies any attempt to put into words. The meditation techniques found in religions are actually broader in scope than this common definition would suggest. Meditation techniques fall into roughly two groups: meditations that attempt to transcend language and rational deliberation in order to calm the mind, and those that embrace language and deliberation in order to discern what is true according to the principles of religious teaching. In either case, the meditation techniques taught by a religion will always be a product of the doctrines taught by that religion.
TECHNIQUES TRANSCENDING LANGUAGE AND DELIBERATION
Meditations of the first category can be found in most of the world's religions. In most cases, this is the preferred spiritual practice for those who believe that the ultimate reality (whatever that may be) transcends all language. In many of these traditions, the approach to the ultimate state is broken down into stages. While the ultimate goal may be equally indescribable across traditions, the stages of meditation leading to the ultimate goal reflect the doctrinal specificities of the tradition from which the meditation springs. Certain branches of Hindu yoga hold that the only reality is the Self (atman), which, it turns out, is none other than God. This "Self" is not, however, the self that we are normally familiar with. Rather, it is the unmanifested source of everything that we think and perceive. The self that we are normally aware of is actually an illusion. In these systems of yoga, meditation aims at cutting through the thoughts that lead to the false understanding of the self in order to arrive at the true Self. Since this true Self cannot be captured with words, the closer the mind can come to a wordless state devoid of any representation, the closer it will be to being aware of the true Self. The approach to this self can be taken in stages. An early model for the stages of the path can be found in the "four stages of consciousness" of the Mandukya Upanishad. In that text the path to the Ultimate is likened to four states of consciousness. The first stage is waking consciousness in which subject and object both exist. The next stage is the dream state, in which subject and object appear to exist, but are revealed to be illusions upon awakening. The third stage corresponds to the state of dreamless sleep, in which there are no subjects or objects represented to consciousness. The fourth stage goes beyond the subtlety of the third and is experienced only by practiced yogis. It is a state of consciousness in which no mental representation occurs at all, and is the state in which the Self/God manifests in its true nature.