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Ways of Contemplation - a Review - Moti Lal Pandit

The book, "Ways of Contemplation: East and West" by Yves Raguin (Taipei, 1977), is the outcome of a series of lectures which the author gave at the Institute of East Asian Spirituality. The book serves the timely purpose in clarifying the essential points concerning the essence of contemplation as such, and thereby making it clear, at the very outset, that each school or tradition of contemplation differs from the other on account of having a definite philosophic and cultural context. What it means is this: it is the background, whether historical or cultural, which determines the specific orientation as well as the goal of a particular school of meditation. It is, therefore, questionable to say that the goal of each contemplative school is identical, and whatever differences one may discover among different schools of meditation are not of much significance. Such a relativistic attitude has given rise to confusion - and this confusion must be cleared of the fog that has accumulated due to careless scholarship.

The author of this book has successfully removed this fog of confusion by pointing out how different Christian meditation is in its orientation and goal from the ones which have had their origin in China.

While making a comparison between Christian and non-Christian ways of meditation, the author has this to say:

"...a Zenist sitting in meditation does not aim at the same thing as a Christian does.  The Zen Buddhists will probably say they are not aiming at anything, that they are "just sitting," revealing immediately a considerable difference between the Buddhist and Christian attitudes as the Christian will normally be aiming at God. Such an attitude reveals the importance of the notion of transcendence in Christianity. The Zen experience claims not to go beyond the field of human experience while the Christian, relying on human experience, aims at a "beyond" they call God." (p.5).

While being conscious of factors that differentiate one tradition of meditation from the author, he thereby does not neglect the area that are common to all the schools of meditation, which is inwardness.

The aim of non-Christian schools of meditation, by and large, is to attain to the state of complete introversion by withdrawing from that which is external to consciousness.  It is through withdrawal and abandonment that a yogi, for example, desires to sink into the still waters of consciousness.

The Christian meditator, too, withdraws into himself. He, however, does not withdraw from the world so that he remains unaware of that which is external to consciousness. While going inwards, a Christian wants to replace the so-called self-awareness with the awareness of God, which means of allowing the presence of God, through the method of prayer to penetrate the heart of being.  Keeping this aspect of Christian meditation in view, it is legitimate for a Christian to adopt such non-Christian methods of meditation which may be culturally suitable to him. It is, therefore, "necessary to know what can be adapted from other religions, what can be imitated and what can inspire creativity in Christian spirituality" (p.5).  It is only upon knowing the content and methods of different forms of meditation, both Christian and non-Christian, that an attempt can be made towards a synthetic view of spirituality.

This synthetic view of spirituality will be of great help to those Christians who, by and large, are living in societies that are culturally and religiously non-Christian, which means that Christians in such societies will be enabled to relate their spiritualities to cultural backgrounds which are non-Christian in origin.

While having dealt, in a broad framework, with the fundamental questions of contemplative spirituality, the author thereby has made it easier for Christians to have the intellectual grasp of traditions that are different from theirs.

The book, thus, serves a timely purpose in clearing the romantic fog that has given rise to the loose understanding of what meditation is. The reading of this book is a must for those who are deeply interested in contemplative spirituality.  It is upon knowing the content and goal of different traditions of meditation that one can have a synthetic view of that spirituality which is contemplative, and thereby find out, within the Christian context, what can be adapted and imitated creatively and what cannot.

The author has admirably achieved the goal which he has set out for himself in the book, which is to find out what is contemplative spirituality per se, what it signifies within Christian, Buddhist and Taoist traditions, and how each tradition has made use of it for realizing their respective goals. The book is a must for those who are deeply interested to know what contemplative spirituality is, and how it can be adopted in the context of modern life which is given more to engagement than to reflection.