Like a stream, the living tradition of meditation flows from the Source and can be followed back to the Source. Depending on the terrain, it runs swift and straight or meanders, slowing so much in spots that it appears almost stagnant. In times of drought it may disappear altogether somewhere along its course, reemerging first as a trickle, then as a cascade, when the rains return.

Early in the first millennium, the stream of mantra meditation divided and flowed into two seemingly distinct channels: the Eastern branch, running clear and strong in the bed carved out by the Vedic tradition, its course easily traceable down to the present, and the Western branch, flowing through markedly different terrain, its course harder to follow and lost to view for centuries at a time. 

Most people raised as Christians in the West today have never encountered the practice of mantra meditation in their own tradition. In the latter half of the 20th century, however, a Benedictine monk, Father John Main, came to realize that in addition to being an Eastern practice, mantra meditation is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition as well. 

The story of how this came about is the story of the resilience of a living tradition—how it flows unceasingly, bubbling up through the culture of the times, speaking through whatever means are available, crossing the boundaries of time and place to inspire and nourish those who have ears to hear and eyes to see. This story is also an invitation to ponder the mystery of mantra and the immutability of the Word. 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So begins the Gospel according to John, echoing what both the Vedic tradition and the Judeo-Christian tradition recognize as a fundamental truth: there is an aspect of language—the Word—that is the manifestation of absolute truth, or God, and further, that the Word is the fundamental force behind the manifestation of the universe. We see this in Genesis, when God speaks formless darkness into manifest form (“Let there be light”), as well as in the mystic tradition of the Kabbalah as the Word unfolds and condenses in the form of the 22 phonemes of the Hebrew language. We catch a glimpse of it again in the New Testament when Christ says, “Now you are clean through the Word, which I have spoken unto you” (John 15:3).

An awakened Word, received from an awakened master, is the only way to awaken the dormant Word in the heart of the sleeping disciple.

According to the Vedic tradition, the world manifests from the Word, exists in the Word, and dissolves again into the Word. The world is a source of misery to those who are ignorant of the Word and a source of joy to those who have penetrated its mystery. In giving final instructions to his successor, Guru Gorakshanatha said, “The Word is the lock and the Word is the key. An awakened Word, received from an awakened master, is the only way to awaken the dormant Word in the heart of the sleeping disciple. Upon introducing the Word, the gross articulate word merges into the eternal Word” (Gorakhbani 21). Here we come upon one of the central tenets of the mantra tradition—the awakened Word is sown in the heart of a qualified student by an awakened master. 

This understanding is echoed in the New Testament when Jesus recounts the parable of the sower: When the farmer goes out to sow his seed, some falls beside the road and is eaten by birds; some falls on rocky ground and sprouts, only to wither as soon as the sun comes out because it is not rooted; still other seeds fall among thorns and are choked as they grow and so yield nothing. Only seeds that fall on fertile ground take root, grow, increase, and yield a crop, “producing thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:3–8).

Jesus tells this story to the multitudes, but as soon as he is alone with his disciples, he explains that he teaches in parables to the public, but speaks more directly to the chosen few: The Word is the seed, and students are the soil, he says. When the Word falls on those who are beside the road, Satan comes and takes it away; when it falls on the rocky soil of those who “have no firm root in themselves but are only temporary,” they receive it with joy yet fall away at the first sign of affliction, Jesus explains. Those caught up with the “worries of the world” receive the Word only to allow it to be choked by “the deceitfulness of riches and the desire for other things.” Only those who have made of themselves fertile ground “hear the Word and accept it, and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:14–20). Thus, if it is to yield its fruit, the Word must be received, retained, and nourished.

The sages of the Vedic tradition set forth a precise method for doing this—the sustained and systemic practice of mantra meditation. What is more, they outlined a process by which a student is prepared to receive and retain the Word (mantra) through the disciplines of purification of mind and body, one-pointedness (concentration), and surrender to God. In the Vedic tradition, these practices have been passed down from master to student in an unbroken chain for millennia and are documented in countless Sanskrit scriptures. In the Christian tradition, the practice was passed on from master to disciple early in the first millennium, and in the teachings and writings of the Desert Fathers in succeeding centuries, but eventually mantra meditation vanished from Christianity as it was practiced in the West. The practice lived on in the Eastern Church, however, and was preserved and transmitted through the writings of various adepts, most notably the early Desert Fathers. 

The Desert Fathers

This chapter of our story begins in the Egyptian desert some three centuries after Christ. Just as many young people in the 1960s and ’70s went to India in search of a spiritual teacher, ardent seekers in the 4th century went to the Egyptian desert, for it was here that the most famous and accomplished spiritual teachers of the time were to be found. Drawn by a tremendous love for God, these early Christians roamed the deserts of Egypt—baking in the shimmering heat by day and shivering through the frigid nights—finding their way to solitary hermits and to little colonies of monks, hoping to benefit from the experience of their elders.

These elders—the first seekers—went into the arid wilderness without fanfare, forsaking civilization to better hear the voice of God, and it is likely that they escaped notice for a time. We don’t know if they brought the practice of mantra with them or if it came to them spontaneously while they were in the desert, and if so, by what means. What we do know is that sometime around 270 a young Christian named Anthony renounced the world and went into the wilderness, where he stayed for 80 years or more. His fame and the fame of his fellow ascetics spread, and seekers were drawn into the desert to learn from their example. Many stayed—some found solitude in caves or in small huts, while others wandered from place to place and teacher to teacher. By the time Saint Anthony died in 356, colonies of monks had sprung up throughout the desert, and by the beginning of the 5th century, as many as 700 monasteries dotted the landscape between Jerusalem and the southern border of the Byzantine Empire. 

Thus, by 383, when Evagrius Ponticus left his monastery on the Mount of Olives and walked into the Egyptian wilderness, this movement was drawing followers from as far away as what is now France and Britain. Evagrius became a disciple of one of the leading Desert Fathers, Marcarius the Great, but after a few years with his teacher, he moved deeper into the wilderness to a place called Chellia (Cells), about 50 miles south of Alexandria, where he spent the last 15 years of his life in a community.

Unlike many of the other desert monks, Evagrius was well educated and thus able to express in writing what thousands of anonymous ascetics were experiencing and passing on through the master-disciple relationship. Father Laurence Freeman, a contemporary Benedictine monk, whose lecture series All and Nothing is a rich source of material on mantra meditation in Western Christianity, explains what Evagrius meant by pure prayer:

Prayer itself is the absence of all thoughts—even pure thoughts, even good thoughts, holy thoughts—even what Evagrius calls simple thoughts, which are deep insights into the nature of things. Pure prayer itself, he says, is like Moses who takes off his shoes when he approaches the burning bush. So we must leave thoughts behind, take our thoughts off, if we are to see the One who is beyond every thought and every perception.

Above all, his teaching on prayer is purity of attention—to give our pure and undivided attention. And sin is really our distractedness, our wandering mind. Prayer is “continually returning to the work of attention.”

“the liberation of the mind from all disturbing and distracting thoughts and desires”

In Evagrius we find the theory, but not the practice. Nowhere does he address the key question: What is the method of reining in the wandering mind? The first glimpse of the technique does not come until a generation later when we encounter John Cassian, who was heavily influenced by Evagrius.

This passage will resonate with anyone familiar with the practice of meditation. Some Buddhist teachers describe this state as emptiness, others call it mindfulness. Patanjali defines the goal of meditation as “the cessation of the modifications of the mind.” Or, as the Himalayan master Swami Rama put it, meditation is “the liberation of the mind from all disturbing and distracting thoughts and desires.” In the practice of yoga, meditating on a mantra is the means of bringing the mind to stillness.

Cassian and his friend Germanus began their search for a living spiritual practice in a monastery in Bethlehem. But, as Cassian writes, they “suffered grievous loss from the mediocrity of the manner of life there,” and so set off into the desert. For the next 10–15 years (with one brief interruption), the pair sought out various Desert Fathers, living with them for a while, sharing in their life, asking questions, and learning from their example in the same way that students in the yoga and Buddhist traditions live with their teachers today.

Twenty years after leaving the desert, Cassian summarized these teachings in a series of 24 spiritual “conferences” between himself, Germanus, and various Desert Fathers. Cassian’s Conferences are in the form of questions and answers reminiscent of Sanskrit texts such as the Yoga Vasishtha, in which Rama questions his teacher and is instructed by his replies.

It is clear from the Conferences, as well as from his earlier work, the Institutes of the Communities, that for Cassian the goal of monastic life is the attainment of a state of uninterrupted prayer; in fact, he sees this state as the underlying reason for every discipline a monk undertakes. The earlier Conferences concern themselves with how to live, emphasizing purity, honesty, continence, and other virtues very much in the manner of the yamas (observances) and the niyamas (restraints), which in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra are a preliminary and necessary step to the practice of meditation. Indeed, Cassian states explicitly that “right living” is the means of cultivating the serenity needed to come to a state of single-minded, unceasing prayer.

But for our purposes, the most compelling of these discourses are Conferences IX and X, for it is here that Germanus questions one of the elders, Abba Isaac, about prayer—what it is and how to do it. Conference IX begins with Abba Isaac’s explanation of how our attitudes and conduct either support or defeat the effort to pray wholeheartedly. He then enumerates the various kinds of prayer, finally arriving at the highest form, “the prayer of first, sparklike and ineffable, which transcends the senses—where there is no vocal expression either silent or aloud.”

These teachings awaken in Cassian and Germanus a burning desire to experience this unceasing prayer for themselves. As John Main writes in The Gethsemani Talks

With this fervent spirit awakened in them they take their leave of Abba Isaac and are returning to their own cell when they stop in their tracks. They say to each other what many have said since: “We know that prayer is the only thing! We know that we want to pray. We know that the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells within us and will give new life to our mortal bodies…. But what the holy abbot did not tell us is ‘How are we going to do it? How are we going to achieve this continual recollection and prayer?’”

So they return to Abba Isaac with this question.

Just as in the yoga tradition, in which the inner teaching is imparted only when the student has asked the right question, this question persuades Abba Isaac to teach the two young men. Cassian reports in Conference X that Abba Isaac replies, “He is next door to understanding who carefully recognizes what he ought to ask about, nor is he far from knowledge who begins to understand how ignorant he is.” Then Abba Isaac instructs his two students to take a single verse from Psalms and turn it over and over again in their hearts. And after giving them some specific examples of how he himself uses this verse, Abba Isaac says:

We must then ceaselessly and continuously pour forth the prayer of this verse, in adversity that we may be delivered, in prosperity that we may be preserved and not puffed up. Whatever work you are doing, or office you are holding, or journey you are making, do not cease to chant this. When you are going to bed or eating or in the last necessities of nature, think on this. Let sleep come upon you still considering this verse, till having been molded by the constant use of it, you grow accustomed to repeat it even in your sleep. When you wake, let it be the first thing to come into your mind. When you rise from your bed, let it send you down on your knees and then forth to all your work and business. Let it flow about you all day long.

This is what Cassian calls “pure prayer” and what the Vedic tradition calls ajapa japa—the constant, unbroken awareness of a mantra. By any name it is the fruit of a sustained, disciplined practice over a long period of time; it leads to a direct perception of the ineffable.

And sure enough, as Germanus and Cassian practiced this pure prayer, they found it began to open them to the deepest kind of knowledge. By persevering in the practice, they eventually came to understand what Evagrius meant when he wrote that, as a result of practicing this prayer, “Angels will walk with you and enlighten you about the meaning of created things.” Yet, as Father Laurence points out, in the interim the two discovered how challenging this kind of prayer can be: “Germanus says, ‘We were delighted to have this way of practicing ceaseless prayer and coming to purity of heart, but we found it was much more difficult than the more discursive, rambling type of prayer we had been doing before.’” As any meditator learns, this simple practice of cultivating one-pointed awareness of the mantra is both challenging and infinitely rewarding.

Cassian left the desert in 400 and eventually made his way to Marseilles, where he founded two monasteries. His writings were preserved and widely read. They had a significant influence on St. Benedict more than a century later when he wrote the Rule, which governs the Benedictine order to this day. However, by then the Church was firmly in the grip of orthodoxy, and the mantric form of prayer disappeared from view, at least in the Western branch of Christianity. It was not lost completely, however. We catch a glimpse of it in the anonymous 14th-century English work, The Cloud of Unknowing, which teaches the practice of focusing on “one little word,” but warns that this is a restricted teaching. 

A Link to the Modern World

After Henry VIII dissolved the English monasteries in the 16th century, an Englishman named Augustine Baker joined the Benedictine order. Having found no living teacher who could show him how to satisfy his thirst for God, he resorted to books, and in reading Cassian and other Desert Fathers he was inspired to teach himself to meditate. He too was a writer, and what we know of his discoveries comes to us in his treatise Holy Wisdom, which is required reading for Benedictine monks even to this day. In this dense and difficult volume he discusses three stages of prayer—the first two of which are almost meaningless to the modern-day mind. But in writing about the third stage, Baker discusses a form of contemplative prayer that he calls “aspirations,” and he relates these aspirations directly to Cassian’s Tenth Conference. As Father Laurence explains in his talk on Augustine Baker: 

The aspiration is a phrase that is repeated continually in the heart and in which all images are transcended. [Baker] says that the prayer of aspiration is continuous. Because you’re not thinking about the mantra as you’re saying it, your understanding is not actively being employed. That means the mantra can be said continuously while you are working or reading. The mind can be quite actively employed—not only in gardening or weaving mats—but even in intellectual work. No image or thought need be entertained. “There remains in the soul and mind a nothing and mere emptiness. This nothing is the rich inheritance of perfect souls.” 

[Baker] goes on to describe how the aspiration deepens and becomes rooted and how the aspiration becomes more subtle and pure. He says there is an infinite progress of purity and subtlety in this state. This is the highest state— beyond this there is no spirituality, but there is an infinite scope for deepening and perfecting. (“All and Nothing: Augustine Baker” [Tape 5]) 

The state Baker is describing here is what the yoga tradition calls samadhi (spiritual absorption). More precisely, it is comparable to what Patanjali calls dharma-megha samadhi (samadhi of the cloud of virtues), a deep state of spiritual absorption, which nevertheless has infinite potential to deepen further and become more subtle. It eventually culminates in nirbija samadhi (seedless samadhi), a state of pure, undifferentiated consciousness. 

Whether Augustine Baker was able to find anyone to whom he could teach this “aspiration meditation” is unknown. But as we’ll see in the next part of this post, his Holy Wisdom sparked a revival of mantra meditation in the 20th century.

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