The Desert Fathers were the first Christian monks and they lived in the period of the third to the sixth centuries A.D. They practiced a form of prayer which could be described as meditation. In Buddhist terms, this ancient Christian meditation practice included both mantra meditation and non conceptual meditation. They would take a word, sentence or phrase from the Bible and repeat it over and over again. St. John Cassian, the Roman was based at a monastery in Bethlehem. He made a great contribution to world literature by producing two sets or collections of writings. These were the Institutes which recounted the practices of the monks of Egypt and adapted them for use in the colder, Western regions. Then later, Conferences given by various great Fathers of the Desert.
Father John Cassian’s conferences with Abba Isaac in the 4th century represent the first written expression in the West of that tradition of prayer of which Centering Prayer is a contemporary presentation. Here, Abba Isaac teaches John Cassian and his companion Herman the mantra formula of meditation practice. Abba Isaac gave St. John a word from the Psalms: “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me.” Abba Isaac says “the prayer wherein, like a spark leaping up from a fire, the mind is rapt upward, and, destitute of the aid of the senses or of anything visible or material, pours out its prayer to God.”
This describes the process in Buddhism where the mind becomes concentrated from what is called neighbourhood concentration to the first samadhi absorption. The Buddha described the first samadhi, which is continually confirmed by the direct experience of meditators, as being “momentary and discursive thought, accompanied by joy and rapture.” This is an absorption state where all five senses are blacked out in a natural phenomenon of one pointed concentration. The meditator experiences a visual blackout, hearing shuts down, he can no longer feel his body and taste and smell are also absent. He is still conscious and in a state of rapture. His concentration upon his meditation technique is so deep and one pointed that he has entered into what is called a state of samadhi.
The Centering Prayer can be very closely compared to Buddhist Concentration or Insight meditation practice. Thomas Keating, a contemporary teacher of this ancient practice, and a Roman Catholic Priest based in Snowmass, Colorado, teaches that “we should not try to stop our thoughts during practice. Develop a detached attitude. In the ancient Christian desert tradition anything that can hook us: thoughts, feelings, visions, sensations, are to be let go.” This is precisely the technique of Buddhist Insight meditation.
Thomas Keating uses an excellent analogy of comparing thoughts to ships passing by. Like ships passing, let them go by, don’t board them, don’t try to stop them. In Insight meditation it is your duty not to follow your thoughts, no matter how seductive, just label them as “thinking” and let them go. The use of labelling the thought with the mental word “thinking” is to acknowledge it, let it go and then come back to your technique.
In the Centering Prayer, there is intention prayer and attention prayer. Intention prayer is similar to labelling “thinking” and coming back to the technique. Intention prayer means to rest the mind. When thoughts arise and distract the mind, the intention prayer formula or chant is repeated until the thoughts no longer distract the mind. Then, the practitioner returns to resting the mind in silence. Attention prayer is similar to mantra meditation. In attention prayer the prayer formula, or chant, is repeated continuously, without interruption.
Thomas Keating’s ‘Circle of Awareness’ states that “spiritual awareness is known as a ‘restless longing’, something within us that is ‘honed on God’—as breath and heartbeat give us life. At the very core is Divine Indwelling, which is scary for many. To be ‘born again’ is to break through Ordinary Awareness. Ordinary Awareness is centred on self. Spiritual Awareness knows we are God’s latent identity/function.” Switching to the Buddhist idiom, Keating’s ‘Divine Indwelling’ is prajna, insight, the decisive liberating factor of mind. The meditation process clears away our inner obscurations or ignorance so that we can be touched by the joy of truth.
The various practice reminders in the Centering Prayer, like not attaching to pious or spiritual thoughts, are also found in Buddhist insight meditation. Keating’s reference to spiritual non-possessiveness and spiritual narcissism is what Buddhists call spiritual materialism. This is the tendency to solidify the barriers within yourself with spiritual practices. Like, believing that you’re spiritually superior because you’ve learned all kinds of spiritual practices, even though your heart has not opened up to others. Spiritual materialism can also be defined as arrogance disguised as spiritual attainment. Keating warns that “words can become idolatrous, we can pile up fetishes around prayer practises.”
One of the most articulate of the Desert Fathers was the theologian Evagrius Ponticus. He died in the Egyptian desert about 400 A.D. His deep psychological insight reveals a very deep parallel to the Buddhist samadhi experience. Evagrius championed pure prayer, seeing it as the “laying aside of all thoughts.” Below are quotes from his Chapters on Prayer, along with a Buddhist parallel to his experiences.
69. “Stand guard over your spirit, keeping it free of concepts at the time of prayer so that it may remain in its own deep calm. Thus he who has compassion on the ignorant will come to visit even such an insignificant person as yourself. That is when you will receive the most glorious gift of prayer.”
114. “Do not by any means strive to fashion some image or visualize some form at the time of prayer.”
Buddhist insight meditation is non theistic, not meditating upon a god, but being open to whatever arises out of space, emptiness. It is free of any concept. This is what Evagrius and the desert fathers were doing. They were not holding to the concept of Jesus or a god in this form of prayer. Other references to god in this prayer form refer to the god that is in you, which in the Buddhist idiom is the same as saying the emptiness that is in you. The direct experience is the same. This is the pearl of great price. This is the cause for celebration for those who want to determine what is the deepest most important common ground that unites Christians and Buddhists together. This is it. Deeper than morality, is non conceptual meditation.
120. “Happy is the spirit that attains to complete unconsciousness of all sensible experience at the time of prayer.”
The Buddha describes the second samadhi as “After the subsiding of thought—conception and discursive thinking, and by gaining inner tranquillity and oneness of mind, he enters into a state free from thought—conception and discursive thinking, the second absorption, which is born of concentration and filled with rapture and joy.”
153. “When you give yourself to prayer, rise above every other joy—then you will find true prayer.”
Rising above joy itself is the state of equanimity. This is described by the Buddha “After having given up pleasure and pain, and through the disappearance of previous joy and grief, he enters into a state beyond pleasure and pain, into the 4th absorption, which is purified by equanimity and mindfulness.”
117. “Let me repeat this saying of mine which I have expressed on other occasions: Happy is the spirit that attains to perfect formlessness at the time of prayer.”
The Buddha described four lower samadhi meditation absorptions as corresponding to a state of mind that is at the level of the fine material sphere. Our normal everyday state of mind is of the sensuous sphere of existence in Buddhist cosmology. There are four higher absorptions built upon the fourth samadhi which puts the meditator’s consciousness at the level of the formless sphere. This is as high as an absorption meditation can go, which is not full and complete enlightenment, from the Buddhist view. Evagrius refers to attaining to formlessness at the time of prayer.
119. “Happy is the spirit that becomes free of all matter and is stripped of all at the time of prayer.”
This corresponds to the four higher absorptions of the non material, formless sphere. The Buddha describes this 5th absorption as “Through the total overcoming of the perceptions of matter, however, and through the vanishing of sense-reactions and the non-attention to the perceptions of variety, with the idea, ‘Boundless is space’, he reaches the sphere of boundless space and abides therein.” The 6th absorption is boundless consciousness. The 7th, is the sphere of nothingness. The 8th is the sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception.
It is startling to see the similarities between Buddhism and the Chapters of Prayer by Evagrius Ponticus. Buddhism can be condensed into three inseparable stages: morality, concentration and insight. The basis of your meditation practice is proper moral conduct because if you are seriously violating the principles of morality which are common to all religions, then you will not have the peace of mind to develop concentration in your practice. The very purpose of morality, in Buddhism, is simply to foster an environment so that you can concentrate your mind. There is a future to morality. Concentration is what you build during your meditation practice, like water rising in a dam. Not only meditation but chants and prayers and post meditation mindfulness—these all increase concentration. Insight is the natural fruit of concentration, like the power that comes from a dam.
Thomas Keating says “An intimation will come out in consciousness, dreams. It will come after a period of centering prayer.” Insight is what Keating is describing as ‘an intimation’.
The Centering Prayer could be viewed as one of many forms of Buddhist meditation. What is important to appreciate here is that these two separate religions confirm the high level of meditative attainment described by each other. It is because human beings are human beings, with or without a religious label, that people who meditate without conception will attain to realization and even complete enlightenment. This reality of direct experience validates the history of both Christian prayer meditation and Buddhist meditation. What matters is the direct experience. They both provide a path to the ultimate goal of human life. This Centering Prayer handed down by the Desert Fathers is probably the most important practice in the entire history of the Christian religion.
One of the differences here is the language used regarding theism. Theism means the belief in a personal god. Buddhism uses non theistic terms to describe meditation, such as non self, emptiness, awakened mind. The Christian religion is supposed to wear the label of theism, but the Christian Centering Prayer does not refer to god as being separate or ‘out in the sky’. It refers to Jesus and god as being deep within us and it is the practice which gives us our deepest and most valid experience of reality.
It is true to say that Buddhism and Christianity meet 100% at the Centering Prayer. This is the deepest and oldest place in our 2000 year shared history, where Christians and Buddhists are one.
* Excerpts taken from CENTERING PRAYER Renewing an Ancient Christian Prayer Form by M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O., 1980.