Explore the modern focus on ‘experience’ as a tool in the description of contemplative achievements and its hermeneutical value for the study of traditional meditation treatises.



The modern focus on ‘experience’ in the study of contemplative practices presents a host of issues. Meditative experiences are said to be ineffable, therefore difficulties arise when attempting to make verifiable judgments on the experiences themselves. Using ‘experience’ to understand traditional meditation treatises is complex: How can one have an unmediated experience of the Absolute that is separate from the culturally determined descriptions within the traditions from which these experiences transpire? Despite the problematic nature of ‘experience’ however, it is still an essential tool to describe meditative achievements and holds great hermeneutical value. One cannot evade discussion of ‘experience’ if exploring a tradition such as Buddhism, which is so deeply grounded in practice. In fact, Elise Bourguignon demonstrates the transcultural significance of altered states of consciousness, illuminating that ninety percent of cultures have them in institutionalized forms. (Bourguignon, 1973, p.11) However despite the problematic nature of ‘experience’, Buddhism presents us with a different perspective that makes possible unmediated experience of the unconditioned. 


The origin of most religions can be traced back to the founder’s embryonic transcendental encounter, enlightenment or salvation. (Sharf, 2000, p.271) A paradigmatic example of this is Buddhism. Richard Gombrich emphasizes that the Buddha’s teachings were a ‘prescription for action’. (Gombrich, 2009, p.161) The Buddha likened his teachings to a  ‘raft, for the purpose of crossing over and not for the purpose of holding on to’. (Gethin trans, 2008, M I 134) Robert Buswell and Robert Gimello elucidate that the truth of a Buddhist proposition consists of its ‘practical utility rather than in its descriptive power’. (Buswell and Gimello, 1992, p.3) Furthermore, disciplined experience such as meditation is regularly chosen over reason or revelation as the ultimate arbiter of religious truth. (Buswell and Gimello, 1992, p.4) Yet, experiential embodiment of Buddhism is a dimension of the practice often ignored in the pursuit of indubitable Buddhist concepts. (Buswell and Gimello, 1992, p.6) Robert Sharf contends that the role of experience in the history of Buddhism has been substantially exaggerated. (Sharf, 1995, p.228) Sharf argues against scholars like Conze who view meditation as ‘the very heartbeat of the religion’, instead concluding, ‘meditation plays a minor if not negligible role in the majority of Theravada monks’. (Sharf, 1995, p.242) Sharf professes that the contemporary accentuation on ‘inner experience’ resulted from the lay-orientated reform movements of the 1950s. (Sharf, 1995, p.228) Sharf further contends that emphasis on ‘experience’ is misplaced by exhibiting the paucity of personal meditative accounts in treaties such as Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga. (Sharf, 1995, p.241) Sharf diagnoses much scholarship with the ‘all-too-common methodological error’ of reading ‘ideological prescription as phenomenological description’. (Sharf, 1995, p.244) However, meditative practitioners were forbidden to boast about contemplative achievements. Moreover, it would be futile to describe states incomprehensible to the unenlightened, through culturally mediated language. It is ironic that Sharf goes on to undermine ‘experience’ as ‘culturally determined’, after protesting the lack of description that would of further conditioned these contemplative experiences. (Sharf, 1995, p.230) The aim of Buddhism is not to describe contemplative states, but to achieve them.



Meditative experiences are reported as ineffable, inconceivable and indescribable. (Pagis, 2010, p.310) When addressing Samadhi, the Katha Upanishad states: ‘Not by reasoning is this apprehension attainable’. (Walsh, 1993, p.759) These statements about religious experiences render them private. According to Proudfoot and Sharf, theorists who purport religious truths as pertaining to the inner spiritual world, where scientific method is deemed incongruous, rather than the material, objective world, are attempting to combat the inimical and ever-present reductionist threat that science poses to religion. (Sharf, 2000, p.268) William James saw reason as having the duty of redeeming religion from ‘unwholesome privacy’, yet concluded that, ‘the attempt to demonstrate by purely intellectual processes the truth of the deliverances of direct religious experience is absolutely hopeless’. (James, 1902, p.334) James corroborated Friedrich Schleiermacher’s belief that religion’s essence is ‘intuition and feeling’. (Schleiermacher, 1988, p.22) Proudfoot, untrusting of emotion and intuition, argues that introspective expositions are so unreliable that even an external observer is more authoritative in their judgements than the actual person having the experience. (Barnard, 1992, p.234) As William Barnard states this is ‘not only presumptuous, it is also simply wrong’. (Barnard, 1992, p.236) Sharf sees conspiracy in the emphasis placed on experience however, as Buswell and Gimello illuminate, interpretation focused purely on doctrines is also fraught with perils: All to often does it lead to solely abstract and fragmented understanding of religions, where significance is handed to the ‘élite and disembodied religion of the philosopher or the intellectual’. (Buswell and Gimello, 1992, p.4) To ignore experience in the study of contemplative achievements is to reduce religion to its dogmatics, to state that doctrine comprises its essence. In fact, religions are most fundamentally embodied and complex ways of life. (Buswell and Gimello, 1992, p.4)


Despite attempts to circumscribe the study of experience into the Western framework of scientific materialism and reductionism, other researchers promote more nuanced engagements. Barnard advocates a ‘plurality of approaches’ that includes ethnographic studies, psychological and sociological explorations and philosophical critiques. (Barnard, 1992, p.254) The effectiveness of these approaches relies on the researcher’s capacity to take seriously ‘the possibility of a transcultural, pre-linguistic reality’. (Barnard, 1992, p.254) James declared that religious experiences ‘open out the possibility of other orders of truth’. (Barnard, 1992, p.253) Rojer Walsh moved from unidimensional to multidimensional comparisons in his study of shamanic, pathological, yogic and Buddhist states of consciousness. (Walsh, 1993, p.759) This approach allowed him to appreciate the various experiences resulting from contemplative achievements, and the different levels and depths of meditation available: ‘When we make direct multidimensional comparison we find not identity but major different’. (Walsh, 1993, p.754) Walsh revealed that although phenomenological mapping could differentiate between meditative states, there were some too profound that could be neither distinguished nor mapped. (Walsh, 1993, p.761) Experience as a tool in the description of contemplative achievements holds significant value, if explored through a plurality of methods.


Mystical experiences have a seemingly paradoxical nature, affecting their hermeneutical value in the study of meditation treatises. On one hand, a practitioner has a transpersonal experience of an Absolute Reality that transcends the material universe. On the other hand, there are a myriad of correlations between the supposedly unmediated experience and its biographical and sociocultural context. (Straus, 1981, p.66) Advocates of perennial philosophy argue that a core, transcultural, mystical experience exists however, “constructivists” like Steven Katz and Sharf contend that all experience is constructed and therefore mediated and modified through a multiplicity of personal and cultural filters and experiences. (Walsh, 1993, p.759) Proudfoot argues that mystics are mistaken in believing they are accessing a higher reality, contending that their interpretation purely serves as the best explanation available. (Barnard, 1992, p.247) When it comes to religious experiences, Maloney points out, ‘persons seek them out, expect them to occur, welcome them when they come, and interpret them through categories supplied by their past experiences’. (Straus, 1981, p.58) However, Gifford-May and Thompson found the majority of descriptions on meditative states devoid of textual references in their study of meditation. (Gifford-May and Thompson, 1994, p.135) Furthermore, it was indicated that practices result in failure when meditators have ‘conscious expectations of particular experiences’. (Gifford-May and Thompson, 1994, p.135) Mystical experiences do not just confirm the doctrines to which they supposedly reflect, rather, mystics often radically challenge the premises of their tradition. (Barnard, 1992, p.239) Barnard expands James’s view of religion as a ‘cultural practice of transcendent meaning-making’ to all conscious human activities, demonstrating that this is an intrinsic quality, or in fact an inescapable predicament, of our being. (Brockmeier, 2002, p.80) Richard Palmer in his study of hermeneutics states, ‘from the time you wake up in the morning until you sink into sleep, you are “interpreting”’ (Palmer, 1969, p.8) One could therefore argue that academics such as Sharf, Proudfoot and James are just as guilty in their culturally conditioned interpretations of religious experiences as the actual people having the experiences.



Differentiating between acts of experiencing and acts of interpreting is crucial. The issue of interpretation stems from not the experience itself, but from the language we employ. Paul Ricoeur reasons that when it comes to hermeneutical philosophy, religion never appears as a direct experience but invariably as mediated by the language that articulates it. (Ricoeur, 1995, p.46) The later work of Wittgenstein denies the feasibility of ‘private languages’, and therefore private experiences, deducing that each of our experiences are only possible within the context of the public sphere of culture and language. (Barnard, 1992, p.238) Yet, notably, what may be considered as the ‘limit’ of language is also culturally configured. James concludes that religious experiences are cultural constructions after approaching religion as a literary gene, studying poetry, letters, memoirs, etc. (Brockmeier, 2002, p.82) Descriptions are always interpretations, and when meditated through language, they cannot help but become culturally configured. It seems that these cultural constructivists are disputing more the interpretation and expression of experience rather than the experience itself. Proudfoot’s ‘methodological straightjacket’ renders him unwilling to acknowledge the possibility of a non-linguistic component of religious experience. (Barnard, 1992, p.246) However, if we allow the possibility of direct, non-linguistic experience of one’s Buddha Nature, God, or Atman, and acknowledge that the rhetorical language of the traditions evoke such states within the practitioner, then this rhetorical language should not be denigrated, but lauded. (Barnard, 1992, p.246) For example, Zen Buddhist Kōans: pithy and epigrammatic utterances embodying the enlightenment experience. (Heine and Wright, 2000, p.3) The difficulties around ‘experience’ as a tool is not a reflection of its futility but indicates its complexity and nuance.


Buddhism, too, wrestles with the question of how a human mind, described as defiled, conditioned and deluded, can have a pure, omniscient and unconditioned experience. (Klein, 1992, p.269) The tradition distinguishes the ineffable goal and the culturally determined Buddhist doctrine that leads to that goal. (Sharf, 1995, p.244) Anne Klein highlights that the fundamental theses of Buddhism are anathema to Western intellectual tradition. (Klein, 1992, p.270) Buddhism proclaims one can be a knower free from language’s limits (compare Lancan), who acquires unmediated knowledge (compare Kant), and this knowledge can be culturally or historically unconditioned and therefore attainable in the same form, albeit through other means, to all people irrespective cultural particularities (compare Foucault). (Klein, 1992, p.270) Buddhist tradition holds that all experiences are mental constructions or appearances of ones consciousness, and have no connection with things-in-themselves. (Kochumuttom, 1982, p.10) However for Dge-lugs-pa, mental calming and concentration ameliorate the tensions between direct perception and conceptual thought. (Klein, 1992, p.273) It is not that the mind can become unconditioned, rather through deep concentration the sensory and thought experiences are quiescent, allowing one to have a direct experience of the unconditioned. (Klein, 1992, p.299) Buddhists fully accept that although the unconditioned has no causes, the journey to the experience of it does: it emerges through intentional behaviour inspired in a particular cultural milieu. Almost no modern Western thinker would accept that conditioned subjects could experience anything outside their cultural, psycho-social or historical conditioning, but from the Buddhist perspective this outlook is limited and reductionist in its obsession with conditionality. (Klein, 1992, p.298)


Despite the issues entailed in employing ‘experience’ as a tool to describe meditative states, it cannot be avoided. Contemplative and religious experiences constitute the foundations of many ancient traditions and therefore are too fundamental to not explore. However, ‘experience’ must be investigated through a plurality of methods. ‘Experience’ holds great hermeneutical value in the study of traditional meditation treatises. The issue of separating an unmediated experience from its sociocultural and psychological context is not isolated to religious experiences themselves, so rather than undermining ‘experience’ as a hermeneutical tool, it highlights a perpetual dilemma of human existence. The philosophy of Dge-lugs-pa goes some way in ameliorating this: Acknowledging that a conditioned mind is capable of having an unconditioned experience, releases them from the grasp of reductionist and materialist thinking that confines so many Western scholars and renders ‘experience’ as unsuitable.





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