Labouring under layers of conditioning, especially in modernist society that celebrates hyper-individualism, we instinctively recoil at the idea of dependence on God and rush headily into the boxing ring of self-reliance and self-striving. This is so in both our secular and spiritual pursuits.
When it comes to meditation practice, we gravitate to the promise of self-awakening and self-liberation, often involving years and decades and even lifetimes of strict discipline (including perhaps monastic or monkish celibacy), mind training, and meditative rigor. With anthropocentrism as the overarching meme, it seems so natural to place ourselves at the driver's seat, uncritically assuming that we are in control and humanity is the measure of all things.
In ancient India, so strong was this meme that there were multiple cohorts of wandering ascetics (samana) among whom was the proto-monastic order of Gotama Buddha. I would not call the Buddha and his followers monastics (monks and nuns) in the same way we understand that term these days. In those days, they were more like itinerant ascetics who settled only temporarily at each location in times of retreat during the rainy season or otherwise. Monastics in medieval and modern times dwell permanently in well-built monasteries as their 'homes.'
An ethic of sexual abstinence and worldly renunciation was predominant amongst Gotama and his itinerant followers. This ethic was embedded in a cultural-metaphysical context of multiple lifetimes and a complex cosmology of multiple realms of existence. Fixated on transcendence of all mundane afflictions, sexual abstinence was prized as an essential means of achieving meditative progress and eventually liberation from all suffering and rebirth. Progressively higher rebirths in celestial realms was also on the cards, for a pilgrim on this path towards liberation. In short, I see an ethic and spirituality much akin to Gnostic docetism during the early church period where the material world is seen as impure and evil and to be rejected, while the spiritual world is prized as pure and good and to be attained.
Tangle of Contradictions
In any case, self-reliance and self-effort are the hallmarks of such an ethic and spirituality: "If it's got to be, it's up to me." This sentiment is extremely odd, considering the Buddhist insistence on no-self (anatta) and emptiness (sunyata). Strident self-reliance is antithetical to the absence of self and emptiness of reified identity. Yet, both claims are simultaneously made and loudly so.
Besides that, the notion of continuity of consciousness subjected to multiple rebirths and lifetimes in diverse realms of existence is to all intents and purposes none other than the concept of a soul, which is the self. Whether one conceives of it as 'dynamic' and 'impermanent' and 'impersonal' or as 'static' and 'permanent' and 'personal' makes little (if any) structural, functional, and ontological difference. A soul is a soul whichever way one cuts it.
In short, at the heart of this rhetoric self-reliance, rebirth, and no-self is a confused mess of metaphysical self-contradiction. There may be some refinement of mind and alleviation of felt suffering through meditative endeavour but in the end, true salvation remains elusive. God's common grace may in fact have been showered upon all sincere seekers in their meditative quest. But without special salvific grace in and through Christ's redeeming work on the cross, no salvation is possible.
This brings me back to meditation. A point needs to be made with regards to profound meditative or mystical states achieved through sustained intensive meditation praxis. From concentrative states of form (jhana) to unitive formless states (aruppa), even to cessational insights of non-experience (nirodha) and extinguishing (nibbana), none of these realizations, however seemingly profound, fall outside the created order. None of these come close to touching the kingdom of God or heaven, as is commonly known. The triune God—Father, Son, and Spirit—exists outside creation as the absolute Creator, is ontologically separate from creation, is purposefully sovereign over all creation, pervades all of creation with his omnipresence, omniscience, and omni-goodness, and has effected a redemptive atonement for all humanity in, through, and by the incarnate Son and Logos, Jesus the Christ, whose finished work on the cross secures our salvation.
The primordial and self-irreconcilable divorce between God and humanity finds no healing and restoration save through the atoning sacrifice of the Son of Man, Jesus. God and humanity, though ontologically separate, nevertheless enjoy intimate fellowship and communion before the Fall. But post-Fall, the rupture of fellowship and divorce of communion made it impossible for humanity to reach or attain God from its own side. All the meditative absorptions and insights of the world would not cut it. All the self-realizations of liberation would not restore this broken fellowship and ruptured communion. Pure and simple.
Sin and Grace
This salient but unpalatable truth (to our sinfully rebellious and selfishly resistant souls) confronts us with a choice. Do we continue to rebel and reject, or are we willing to open our hearts to consider the invitation to reconcile with our Father? In the final analysis, all our tall talks about self-reliance and self-striving boil down to this: pride. We are too proud to admit our insufficiency, too proud to surrender control over our lives, too proud to confess our longing for our loving and redeeming God. It is pride rooted in this quintessential sin (hamartia): self-concocting rebellion and resistance against our absolutely self-giving and loving God, our one and only Creator and Redeemer.
And the amazing thing is this: even this free and willing choice to submit to God and follow Him is supernaturally effected. Unless God first calls us and chooses us to Himself before the foundation of the world, we would not be able in our darkness and blindness to respond to God in faith. We are utterly incapable of supernatural faith from our own side, even though we experience ourselves as freely willing self-determining agents—ultimately an optical illusion of consciousness though relatively true. Our faith in God is in effect God's supernatural gift of grace! As to whom, when, where, and how this irresistible grace occurs, we are not in a position to ascertain, given our delimited weak intellects and intuitions. I know this is not soothing massage for the ego but it is as it is: just the plain truth.
Saved by grace through faith, we are "born from above" into a new life in Christ. And this is how heaven—the real one this time—is made possible: being in the eternal sweet majestic Presence of the One True God who is the source, ground, and end of all that we are. How good is the Good News.