Strictly speaking, Meditation on the Civ IV tech chart is considerably out of place. It’s development comes thousands of years after the conception of polytheism (approximately 9th millennium BCE) and centuries after monotheism (approximately 2300 BCE). While on the chart it precedes ‘Priesthood’, it technically follows the development of priests by at least 2,000 years. This has always bothered me – but as I am using the chart as a template for the order of these articles, I am stuck with it now.
I haven’t very much to say about meditation. It is, in essence, the effort to surpass the material world, and the reflexive nature of thought as it is affected by the senses, in order to achieve a heightened state of consciousness or comprehension. It supposes that beyond the immediate material existence of the world there is something that can be understood.
I don’t wish to get into a debate on the truth of this belief – because this is my blog, my opinion is that this has been a dead end for more than 2,000 years. I do not believe that any person living today has gained any greater insight into Nirvana or any other state of awareness than Buddha did from the first. I recognize that millions believe in such a thing; I recognize that many, reading this, will feel compelled to rush to the defence of meditation.
As a technological progression, I propose that meditation was a brilliant strategy for the control of mass populations, a problem that was arising following the increase in food production and strategic defensive technologies developed before the 4th millennium BCE. What better than to encourage a substantial portion of the population that there does exist a nether-world, and that sitting and being passive for the resting portion of the day is a positive, purposeful activity? Also, how better to justify the behavior of certain holy persons, whose lack of activity must be supported by the community, and whose insight is depended upon for the ordering and direction of that community?
In D&D terms, meditation proves to be the gateway, technologically, to the existence of planes beyond the prime material. Gautama, in all his wisdom, is sitting beneath his tree, contemplating the purpose of life, and beyond all expectation turns his mind this way and that – only to find himself transcended to the astral plane, upon which he sits, full of curiosity. Does he rise, and begin to move along the silver strand upon which he finds it quite simple to balance, or does the startled discovery bring him back to this plane, eyes open and wondering?
As we ourselves are gadgetry oriented as dwellers of this earth, it is always an eye-opening experience to free ourselves from tools in order to view the world differently. This is the primary reason for the popularity of meditation in the West (the East has their own reasons), particularly the rise of that popularity in the 1960s and 70s when technological progress frightened many people into seeking alternative answers. The tool orientation we possess causes us to think always in terms of gateways and portals into the other planes, doorways with physical keys which players must seek, creating reasons for quests and a fairly provincial perception of planar interlinking.
Neither Zarathustra nor Gautama Buddha needed any such methodologies. To think was enough – but a difficult means by which to limit your players’ random forays into spontaneous etherealness. Still, the achievement of Nirvana (a higher plane) was not something done in a mere afternoon; it is certainly not something which a young, newly ordained holy person might manage fresh from the academy, monastery or lamasery. The highest level priests might be unable to manage it themselves – and having managed it once before, may not now have the necessary focus or karma to manage it precisely at the moment they need to avoid the charge of a rhino.
Meditation is the rise of the monk, who possesses some rather mundane magic feats as given by the Player’s Handbook, a weak collection than what might be possible for a thoughtful, eastern-minded player. No doubt the monk character needs overhauling, a thought that occurs to me as I write this post, but when would I have the time? I tend to run it as the book – more hit points, armor class two higher than the book suggests – but by the book. At some point, having achieved a bit of enlightenment in considering and writing about meditation, I realize I need to add certain features. A breaking of the prime material rules to start, and from there, wherever my mind takes me.
The single consideration I would not employ would be ‘spells’ for the monk character. Nor a series of automatic abilities to be gained at each level. These are both the standard answer, and I think for the monk both fail to capture the essence of the class. But I shall think on that.
While I have a moment to discuss the planes of existence, I think every DM has at some time or other has jumped the players into another existence to provide fodder for the campaign. I once compelled my players to run in the small world of Minaria from the game Divine Right, simply because I was pounding together several aspects of trade and world design (that would have been two decades ago). If I felt it added to a campaign, I wouldn’t hesitate to throw my characters into anything from Paranoia to the Traveller Universe, or even random jumps onto the game maps of Ogre, The Creature That Ate Sheboygan or Awful Green Things from Outer Space ... the parameters of those games redefined by standard D&D rules, of course – I’m a purist.
Too much of that sort of thing spoils a campaign, of course. It also works best in campaigns that have gone on for years, Saturday after Saturday, so that the characters themselves get a feel for the culture shock of roaming the hallways on board a Ferengi trader or going toe-to-toe with a troop of British Grenadiers on the deck of John Paul Jones’s ship.
I have a book to recommend, if one is looking for a template for outer planes of existence that far surpasses the rather juvenile design from the Player’s Handbook: Number of the Beast by Robert A. Heinlein. Not a favorite book of mine by some who is certainly a favorite author, but the math is first rate and its a good read one time at least.
I have only a last note, which I’m not going to expand upon: if pottery is the beginning of magic incorporating transmutation, then meditation is the beginning of all magics defined as ‘divination’.
P.S. For those of you who might be interested in Minaria, some deeply possessed DM has done great work here.