If observed through the prism of meditation and stillness practices, you may find Eastern Orthodoxy closer to Hindu-Buddhist Meditation than the Western Church. Strange as it may seem, these different practices have a lot more in common than what we might ordinarily expect. One can say that in terms of stillness practices, if Buddhism and Western Church are the two ends of a spectrum, then Eastern Orthodoxy might be the missing link between them.
Hindu-Buddhist Meditation Practices
The Hindu-Buddhist Meditation have their origins in the ancient Indian practice of Yoga, which literally means ‘union’ – referring generally to the union of the mortal materials of this world and the eternal and indestructible soul. The original reference to Yoga is found in the philosophy of Bhagwad Geeta, a part of the ancient Indian epic of Mahabharata, wherein Krishna speaks about Yoga as a way of seeking reunion with the almighty God. Meditation was a central and basic instrument of self-actualization in ancient India. All religious thoughts and philosophies that arose in ancient India, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism place considerable emphasis on meditationalpractices. In both Hinduism and Buddhism, meditation is emphasized as a means of purification and peace.
The ancient philosophers of India, who never used to be bracketed as Hindu or Buddhist in those days, as such sects were not mutually exclusive at that time, commonly adhered to meditation as one of the means for focussinginside one’s own self to find the truthwithin. Lord Buddha followed the same, during his quest for ultimate knowledge, and later too, making Buddhist meditation popular since its very inception. It involves chanting of mantras, a practice that has continued till date, in all forms of Buddhism across the world. The primary aim of meditation is to focus on divine reality and its relationship withone’s own position in the cosmic universe, in order to develop the wisdom that would enable a person to appreciate the limitations of material possession and worldly matters in the context of one’s pursuit of Nirvana, which means final salvation and escape from the repeated cycle of life and death, by an irreversible reunion with the ultimate power of the universe.
Yoga as well as the Buddhist meditation helps one by preventing the straying of idle mind, and thereby helps the monk to focus on his philosophies and stay on course with his objective of mental purification. It is a practice, which is supposed to bring immense peace. Another aspect of Hindu-Buddhist meditation is its focus on controlled breathing, the most proficient form of which is ‘pranayam’ wherein the practitioner is even able to exercise great control on one’s breathing. Certain suitable postures of the body are prescribed for the practice of Hindu-Buddhist meditation for long hours, called ‘Asana’, which represent the physical aspect of Yoga, and have gained wide popularity throughout the world. The use of a bead string is less common in Buddhism but is present.
Hesychasm or Hesychastic Practices : Stillness in Eastern Orthodoxy
Eastern Orthodoxy school follows Hesychasm or Hesychastic practices, which also involve certain postures as well as certain breathing patterns that are very similar to Yoga and Buddhist meditation, though the significance of breathing patterns is somewhat undermined. Commonly, the practitioners use the JESUS PRAYER, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”, repeating it continuously.
In Eastern Orthodoxy, the Hesychasm or Hesychastic practices of stillness have been observed since 4thcentury AD, and documented subsequently from time to time. Along with Jesus prayer, the practicing of stillness is one of the more important activities of life, for a Hesychastic practitioner, and it often takes precedence over external activities and contact. In other words, the Hesychastic practitioners indulge in practicing stillness to block unnecessary thoughts and distractions that can keep him away from devoting fully to the father- the God. For a practitioner of stillness, these distracting thoughts are like temptations that prevent him from focusing on the God and achieving his objective.
Eastern orthodox practice also believes in especial experience of god through the Hesychasm (stillness), experienced in the form of lights during the stillness. One Western trained Calabrian monk Barlaam, who visited Mt. Athos, challenged this doctrine of the Eastern Orthodoxy in 14thcentury. However, the Eastern theologists, in particular Gregory Palamas, strongly defended their philosophy and finally prevailed over the objections.
Similarities between Hindu-Buddhist Meditation & Eastern Orthodox Hesychasm (Stillness)
In spite of the many differences between the two religions, there are substantial similarities between the Hindu-Buddhist meditation and Eastern practice of Hesychasm. Bothof them are primarily aimed at reverence to God and some kind of a divine experience, the final goal being a reunion with him. Practitioners of both meditation and Hesychasm claim experiential knowledge of God, though the manner in which they do so, may not exactly be the same. Both Hindu-Buddhist meditation and Eastern Hesychasm use means of a prayer and chanting to focus and concentrate on God. Both use it to keep the distracting thoughts away from the mind. Both use repetitions of the prayer for this purpose.
Dissimilarities between Hindu-Buddhist Meditation & Eastern Orthodox Hesychasm (Stillness)
A primary difference between the two practices lies in the way Jesus prayer is used compared to chanting used in Hindu-Buddhist meditation. In Eastern Orthodoxy, a lot of emphasis is placed upon the Jesus prayer, which must be spoken right from the heart, with full emotion and sincerity. It is not meant to be just a verbal repetition. On the other hand, in Hindu-Buddhist tradition, the chanting of mantras places a far greater emphasis on the exact pronunciation of the words, since the sound generated by chanting is considered an important form of cosmic energy that unravels the mysteries of the universe. Compared to the Eastern Orthodoxy, Hindu-Buddhist meditation attaches lesser significance to the generation of feelings and emotions during the prayer.
Another difference is that in case of Eastern Orthodoxy, Hesychasm is generally indulged in by those who are totally devoted to the cause of the divine and fully abstain from all worldly affairs. In contrast, in Hindu-Buddhist meditation, it is also a regular ingredient of the life of an ordinary Hindu or Buddhist in addition to being a part and parcel of the monk’s life.
Modern Religious Interactions
In 1984, a book titled “Yoga and the Jesus Prayer Tradition”, written by Thomas Matus, an American author, yogi and Christian monk, was published. It details personal experiences of Matus and provides interesting insights of what similarities he observed in these two different forms of meditation practices. This book, published by the Paulist Press, a Christian publisher of books and audio and video tapes was out of print in 2010, and this lead to a second edition of the book in 2010, in which Matus further adds to his experiences. It also includes details on Matus’ 30 years as a Christian monk living at the Monastery of Camaldoli in Italy.
By whatever name it may be called, and in spite of finer points with which they may be distinguishable, meditation or stillness is a practice which has significant similarities between Eastern Orthodoxy and the Buddhist tradition. There are differences too, but in spite of them, the similarities are strong enough to indicate the possibility that these two major streams of religion might have influenced each other during the course of our history. It also shows that different religions can have a lot of common territory, tapping which may end up making everyone wiser.