What is “radical meditation”? – (1) The Song of Ashtavakra
What I am calling “radical meditation” rests on the basis there is no self – that the “I” that we think we are, just does not exist. There is no-one doing our lives. But we think to ourselves “Of course ‘I’ exist.” And we dismiss it all as too remote and too niche; as esoteric and religious; as “contrary to science”; as a mad, bad idea dangerous to mental health. So what I ought to do is to give a careful, helpful explanation of what no-self and no-doer means, and make the incomprehensible comprehensible. Instead, in this post I’m going to do the very opposite.
I’m going to present to you (for now, other things later) one of the most hard to understand, terse, compressed descriptions of no-self and radical meditation, The Song of Ashtavakra.
Because: You cannot understand something unless you have reference points for in your own lived physical experience. Too many meditation teachers attempt to explain things that their audience simply do not possess physical, lived reference points for. It cannot work. The teachers spew out words and words and words and nobody understands and the teachers get tangled up in their own verbiage and everyone gets no-where.
In the famous phrase of Gautam Buddha (pre-dating the Monty Python parrot sketch by millennia) what results is “a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a vacillation of views, a fetter of views. It is beset by suffering, by vexation, by despair, and by fever, and it does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to higher knowledge, to enlightentment, to Nibbāna.” Though today that, sadly, describes an awful lot that you find on the internet about Buddhism: a thicket, a wilderness, a contortion of philosophy.
I want to present radical meditation in a new and different way that is practical and 100% avoids philosophy. I loathe philosophy. Addiction to philosophy is a mental illness.
So if you are a newcomer to meditation, then all I want to offer here is the notion that:
- Yes, there really is something to radical meditation that you really don’t understand yet, and
- It is really is something that is not presented in Westernised neo-mindfulness, and
- It’s totally OK that you don’t understand it (I certainly didn’t understand it when I started meditation), but keep an open mind
- If you explore radical meditation, then you will by and by find your own understanding via your own lived experiences, not via verbal explanations.
- Maybe, just maybe, that missing something you don’t yet understand is of very great value indeed.
In other words, you can’t understand something new until you have physical life experience to relate it to. And you don’t search out those life experiences experiences until you know there is something new and different to explore. And you can search out those experiences – which I will fully describe soon in this series of posts – without initially a full understanding. That will come later.
- AND in later posts I’m going to show that you quite likely have already had physical, lived experiences of no-self. It’s possible you can already say “Aha! That’s what Gautam Buddha means by no-self,” but you just don’t realise it. Buddha is talking about natural, human experiences of change and transformation familiar in many contexts. The thicket of philosophy around his work obscures this.
Also, I’ll cite a book that’s a really good, deep modern commentary on Ashtavakra and easy to understand for Westerners.
A completely different reason for this post is, I just love the little gem of a book I am going to present. Called the Ashtavakra Gita, the Song of Ashtavakra, it’s short, nine pages. Yet when I hold it, I feel I am holding a special jewel. When I read the words I want to weep with joy. Perhaps it is a past-life connection; perhaps long ago I met Ashtavakra; who can say. In any case, this short work is the most radical introduction to radical meditation. To avoid doubt, I do not have the experiences that Ashtavakra is talking about, and without lived experience, verbal comprehension is mere philosophy and void and vacuuous. But I’ve enough stepping-stone experiences to trust that the path and the destination really exist.
Ashtavakra lived at the time of the Mahabarata. Depending on who you ask, this was any time from a few hundred years before Gautam Buddha [who himself lived around 500 BCE] to several thousand years before. Ancient sources describe him as born with eight deformities, conjecturally from childhood polio. “Ashta” is cognate with “octa” meaning “eight”, and his name means “eight bends.”
My other reason to present the Ashtavakra Gita is that times change, and in the world of meditation we can learn from the past without being bound by the past. Buddhism was a development, an expansion, a reform, a quantum step beyond, the worldviews of the Ashtavakra Gita and many other varied ancient Indian thinkers. We should not be afraid of the idea that after two and a half thousand years, the modern world can in turn improve on Buddhism.
Another lovely thing is, the Song of Ashtavakra is blessedly short! With Buddha’s teachings one is swamped in 40 years of Buddha’s own words and the verbiage of millennia of commentaries. One Buddhist says this, another says the opposite. and even if you want to disagree, you can’t get a clear target to disagree with. With Ashatavakra, you possibly can’t understand a single word he says. But at least the words he is saying can be plainly seen.
So that is my introduction, and that’s all I have to say. The next step is that I invite you to read at least a little of the original. You can find the full text of the Song of Ashtavakra (the Ashtavakra Gita) here at John Richards labour-of-love translation (and here’s a different link to an earlier PDF edition of the same thing). For a modern explanation aimed at Western readers, I suggest Discourses on the Great Mystic Ashtavakra: Enlightenment The Only Revolution by Osho. This is the helpful commentary I mentioned earlier – it’s a purchase item, but I recommend it.