The Best Guide to Meditation/Twenty-Five Doors to Meditation: A Handbook for Entering Samadhi

The Best Guide to Meditation

 By Victor N. Davich
Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 1998. Paperback, xxi + 350 pages

Twenty-Five Doors to Meditation: A Handbook for Entering Samadhi

By William Bodri and Lee Shu·Mei
York Beach, ME: Weiser, 1998. Paperback, xxii + 252 pages.

I am biased. I believe that one's time is far better spent in meditation than in accumulating more information about meditation. For the seasoned practitioner who already has chosen a meditative path, reading about all the other options often brings confusion. And for the beginner, all that is required is a one-liner- "Sit, follow your breath, and let's talk again in a year."

So I am not certain who the appropriate audience is for these two new additions to the meditative canon. The Best Guide to Meditation is packaged like a travel guide and indeed takes the reader around the world in such a comprehensive account of meditative traditions that one is left exhausted and overwhelmed. Do we really need to confuse beginning meditators with detailed instructions of the Namibian Bone Meditation, which involves the use of six chicken bones, four stones, and two pieces of tree bark as tools for oracular divination? This from the same author Victor Davich-who wisely states repeatedly in the opening chapters that "the only way to really understand meditation is to meditate" and then adequately provides the very basic instructions required to begin.

The back cover of the Guide is designed to attract readers who I suspect aren't reading this issue of Quest. "Who meditates .. aside from Deepak Chopra, the Dalai Lama and The Beatles? Well, Goldie Hawn… and Howard Stern to name a few." I'm not certain who would be grabbed by such an approach, but it represents a marketing mentality that is attempting to "sell" meditation to the masses. In itself, this is not an ignoble goal. But it gives me the uneasy feeling that the already saturated spiritual supermarket in America is about to become a department store. "Want instant gratification?" the cover blurb asks and answers, "Go directly to chapter 2 and you will start meditating immediately!" As if fast-food motivations- getting what you crave, NOW! -can be applied to meditation, which is a process of letting go of all craving.

But to the author's credit, an unsuspecting reader could randomly flip open the Guide almost anywhere and stumble onto a life-changing idea because virtually all of the great teachings of the world's religions are in there, somewhere. Davich succeeds in providing a thorough, albeit oversimplified, overview of human spiritual traditions and practices, anyone of which pursued with single-minded intention would most certainly yield wonderful fruits. But again, the very structure and vast range of the Guide works against the one-pointed, simple approach necessary for the beginner to cultivate a useful meditation practice.

Twenty-Five Doors to Meditation is a more sophisticated work and derives from a Buddhist Sutra in which twenty-five students respond to the Buddha's request to describe the various "dharma doors" they had used to attain samadhi. Each chapter of the book presents a fairly brief introduction to a practice that is presumably derived from this sutra, although the correlation isn't always clear.

The practices described range from the familiar ones of mindfulness meditations, pranayama, bhakti yoga, and prayer, but also include more obscure approaches including the "Zhunti, Vairocana and Amitofo" mantras, and my personal favorite, the "Dazzling White Skeleton Contemplation," in which "you must imagine you are dead and that all your skin and internal organs soften and putrefy. Using an imaginary knife, you cut up your dead body and offer all your organs, skin, flesh and blood to all the demons and ghosts to eat and drink."

As a "Handbook for Entering Samadhi," as the subtitle asserts, everything one needs is included. Someone committing themselves to any one of these twenty-five dharma doors would find themselves on a legitimate and potentially enlightening spiritual path. But for most of us, particularly beginners, it only takes two words, not two books, to provide all the meditation guidance we need: "Just sit."


March/April 1999