I HAVE WONDERED for some time why tens of thousands of Americans have been turning to Eastern religions - what voids, what hopes and hungers are being filled by Orientally derived spiritual disciplines.

Indeed, at least one spiritual discipline of a neo-Oriental movement - the meditational practice taught by the Tibetan Buddhists at the Naropa Institue in Boulder, Colo. - has even met a deep, if previously unrecognized, need in my own life. Although I have not personally accepted all the theological trappings the Buddhists have attached to meditation, the shamatha practice itself has become integral to my days.

Why? Why has Eastern meditation become a larger and larger part of Christian practice? Why have Roman Catholic contemplative orders from Maine to New Mexico begun to integrate one or another form of "sitting" into their daily liturgical schedule? Why did the Benedictine monks I visited in Vermont last winter begin the day with a sit at 4:30 in the morning, using cushions and postures similiar to the ones I had learned at Naropa?

I have come to believe that the answer, ironically, lies not in the Eastern religions but in Christianity and Judaism - that meditiation is filling the needs once filled by the Sabbath, that it represents, indeeds, a portable Sabbath for a complex and hurried age.

This occured to me shortly before I was scheduled to leave Naropa in the summer of 1975. A rabbi who lives in a small town near Boulder invited me to join him and his tiny congregation in celebrating the weekly Sabbath - not just the religious service that took place in his backyard, but a genuine, old fashioned Shabbat, a whole day of doing very little, enjoying the creation as it is, appreciating the world rather than fixing it up. I accepted the invitation and joined in the relaxed Sabbath, which lasted, as tradition dictates, from Friday sundown until sundown on Saturday.

During those luminous hours, as we talked quietly, slept, ate, repeated the ancient Hebrew prayers and savored just being, rather than doing, struck me that meditation is in essence of kind of miniature Sabbath. For 20th Century Christians, and for many Jews as well, it provides a modern equivalent of what the observance of Sabbath once did, but does not no more.

If seen in this light, meditation need not be viewed as an exotic import, but as something with roots in our own tradition. Christian Contemplation

CHRISTIANITY HAS its own contemplative tradition, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] much of whi is highly reminiscent of such Oriental [WORD ILLEGIBLE] as sitting, breath concentration, and mantra [WORD ILLEGIBLE] according to the New Testament, Jesus himself, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] life, often took out times to withdraw [WORD ILLEGIBLE] the early desert fathers developed a wide [WORD ILLEGIBLE] techniques. In the Eastern Christian Church, for example, a practice knows as [WORD ILLEGIBLE] - the attempt to achieve "divine quietness" - emerged. One of its early proponents, St. John Climacus, taught his followers to concentrate on each breath they took, using the name of Jesus as a kind of mantra to accompany this breathing.

Christian contemplative practices in the West developed in a somewhat more intellectual and moralistic direction. St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, prescribed a rigorous of spiritual discipline suitable for a soldier in Christ's army. Yet even the Ignatian "Spiritual Exercise" stresses methods of introspection and patterned imagining that would seem familiar to practitioners of Oriental forms. Among Protestants, the practice of daily prayer and Bible reading was once held to be indispensable for Christian life. But the failure of most churches actually to teach people how to pray and the difficulties involved in learning the difference between reading, studying, and meditation on a text have produced a generation of Protestants who live with practically no spiritual discipline at all.

Probably the closest thing to meditation in our traditions, however, is the Sabbath.

Though its origins remain obscure, the Sabbath undoubtedly had antecedents in the religious milieu of the ancient Near East. It is not impossible that the core insight from which Sabbath developed is identical with the one that, under different historical circumstances, eventually produced the practice of meditation. Both prescribe a regular time when human beings do nothing.

This connection become even more evident when we realize that the word for Sabbath in Hebrew comes from a root meaning "no desist." Sabbath originally means a time that was designated for ceasing all activity and simply acknowledging the goodness of creation. It was not, at first, a day for cultic acts or long worship services. It was a time set aside for affirming what is.

But meditation and Sabbath do differ, at least when we compare Sabbath with the theories of meditation as they are now frequently taught by neo-Oriental masters. Meditation, though it begins as something one does at a particular time, also often interpreted as the key to a total way of life. Sabbath, on the other hand, is one day out of seven. It never becomes a complete way of life. It represents the Israelites' recognition that although human begins can catch a glimpse of the pure realm of unity and innocence, they also live in the fractured world of division, greed, and sorrow. Sabbath is Israel's ingenious attempt to live both in history and beyond it, both in time . . . in time and eternity.

In the earliest recorded expression of the idea of Sabbath, in the Fourth Commandment of Moses, one day in every seven is set aside:

"Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work; but the seventh is the Sabbath of Yahweh: in it thou shalt no do any work, thou, not thy son, not thy daughter, thy manservant nor thy maidservant, not thy cattle, not thy stranger that is within thy gates; for in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day; wherefore Yahweh blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it."

At first reading, the suggestion that God "rested" after the toil of creation - the image is of a craftsman sitting down and wiping his brow - sounds quaintly anthropomorphic. The word "rest" literally means "to catch one's breath." God, like us, gets tired and has to restore himself. The passage may indeed depict a less exalted view of God than later emerges in Jewish faith. On further reflection, however, and with the anthropomorphic symbol somehow decoded, a deeper truth appears, and also a possible link with the tradition of sitting meditation emerges. Doing and Being

THE FIRST THING to notice about God's activity on the Sabbath is that it focuses on breathing. We all stop to draw breath after we have been exerting ourselves, and the passage may mean no more than this. But to depict God himself as one who ceases work and does nothing but breathe could suggest a deeper and older stratum of spiritual consciousness that lies behind the passage itself. Breath is a source of renewal, and God, like human beings, return periodically to the source.

The second facet of this ancient passage is even more telling. Sabbath is the Jewish answer to the profound question all religions face about the relationship between doing and being, between what Indian mystics call sat (perfect being) and prana (spirit and energy). All religions must cope with the apparent contradiction between a vision of reality as entrophic (motionless) and one that contains contrast, opposition, and change. In the Bible the key terms are not "being" and "energy" but "creation" and "rest."

Viewed in this light, the idea of Sabbath is not naive or primitive at all. It is a highly sophisticated philosophical notion. It postulates an ultimate force in the universe that is not just passive and changeless but that acts and is acted upon. Yet it affirms what most religions also say about the ultimate: It is eternal and perfect. Sabbath links God and world and human beings in a dialectic of action and rest, of purposeful doing and "just sitting." The seventh day is to Yahweh, and one keeps it holy not by doing things for God or even for one's fellow human beings. One keeps it holy by doing nothing.

i think Hui-neng, the legendary sixth Zen patriach, whose teaching constantly returned to learning how to do nothing would understand Sabbath. I can see him magically transported into a 19th Century hasidic shtetl or into an ancient Jewish village on the seventh day, smiling appreciatively: These barbarians certainly had an inkling of the truth one day of the week at least.

But what would disturb Hui-neng is that after sundown on the Sabbath, the Jews do begin again to live as though work and effort and time are real, as though action does make a difference and salvation has not yet come in its fullness. Maybe Hui-neng would swat a few behinds with his fans, or pull a few beards. But his effort would be useless, because his reality and the relity of Moses are not the same. The difference is that Hui-neng views the world as either total transcience or total stillness, and for him there is no real difference between the two. The Hebrew vision see both acting and being, doing and nondoing, as equally real and equally important. By observing the rhythmic return of Sabbath, human beings reflects the divine reality itself.

Sabbath differs from meditation in another way. For Zen disciples, "just sitting" has no ethical significance whatever, at least not from a Western perspective in which distighuishing good, less good, and evil possibilities is important. In the Sabbath practice, on the other hand, the loftiest of all realities, God himself, is linked to the human needs of the lowest bonded servant.

The link is a rare Hebrew ("to rest") found only twice in the entire Bible. It means, as we have seen, "to draw one's breath." Both Yahweh and the exhausted slave nned to stop and catch their breath, to look upon the task at hand.

Few Jewish practices are more understood by Christians than the Sabbath. One reason for this misunderstanding is that several of the stories of Jeses in the Gospels depict him as deliberately breaking Sabbath rules, expecially by healing people. Because of the way these stories are often interpretend in sermons and church-school lessons, many Christians grow up with an image of the Jewish Sabbath as a compulsive legalistic straijacket or an empty attempt as a compulsively legalistic straitjacket or an empty attempt to observe meaningless ritual rules. No doubt there were abuses of the spirit of the Sabbath in Jesus time. But most Christian educational material fails utterly to point out why the Sabbath was instituted or to describe its ingenious blending of contemplative and ethical purposes.

Its importance has been further obscured where Jews have changed it from an ethical-universal discipline tinto a badge of ethical and religious identity, and where zealous. Christian Sabbatarians have tried to enforce blue laws against Sunday sports andf entertainment and for closing hours, conveying the impression that a Sabbath (now a Sunday) is preversely designed to prevent anyone from enjoying anything.

The spirit of Sabbath is a Biblical equivalent of meditation. It nurtures the same kind of awareness that meditation nurtures, for Sabbath is not just a day for doing nothing. It is particular form of consciousness, a way of thinking and being that strongly resembles what the Buddhists call "mindfulness." In the Hasidic tradition where it reaches its clearest expression , Sabbath not only excludes our ordinary forms of intervening and ordering, it also excludes manipulative ways of thinking about the world. Matter of Consciousness

A BRAHAM HESCHEL repeats a story that exemplifies this point well. A certain rabbi, it seems, who was renowned for his wisdom and piety, and especially for his zeal in keeping Sabbath, once took a leisurely walk in his garden on the Sabbath day. Strolling among the fruit trees, the rabbi noticed that one of the apple trees badly needed pruning. Recognizing that, of cource, such a thing could not be done on the seventh day, the rabbi nonetheless made a mental note to himself that he would see to the pruning early the next week. The Sabbath passed. But when the rabbi went out to the tree a few days later with ladder and clippers, he found it shriveled and lifeless. God had destroyed the apple tree to teach the rabbi that even thinking about work on the Sabbath is a violation of the commandment and of the true spirit of the holy day.

It is a matter of consciousness. When wew plan to prune a tree, we perceive it differently from when we simply aware of it, allowing it - for the moment at least - simply to be as it is. The Buddhist scriptures make this same point in a distinction they frequently draw between two forms of consciousness, which are often confused with each other. The first they call sati, usually translated with the English word "mindfulness." This is the "bare awareness" that is strengthened by the practice of meditation. This sati is then often contrasted in the Buddhist texts with sampajanna, a form consciousness that is somethimes translated as "clear comprehension." It refers to the attitude appropriate to doing something. Meditation is the cultivation of the first, receptive state of awareness, sati. Its purpose thus seems nearly identical with that of Sabbath.

Can we ever regain the glorious vision of Sabbath as a radiant queen, a jeweled sovereign who comes to visit bringing warmth and joy in her train? The poor and often inept Hasdic Jews in the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer may bicker and complain, and they surely suffer, but when the sun goes down and the lamps begin to flicker on Friday evening, a kind of magic touches their world. Special cakes have been baked, and now the sacred candles are lighted.

Sabbath is eternity in time, as Abraham Heschel says, it is a cathedral made not with stones and glass but with hours and minutes. It is sacred symbol that no one can tear down or destroy. It comes every week, inviting human beings not to strive and succeed, not even to pray very much, but to taste and know that God is good, that the earth and the flesh are there to be shared and enjoyed.

To rediscover in our time this superbly human meaning of the Sabbath should make Jewish young people think twice about whether they want to follow in the footsteps of "enlightened" parents who have shied away from Sabbath observance as an embarrassment. And it should cause Christians to wonder how some of the seventh-day spell - so spoiled by misguided Puritan opposition to enjoying its freedom - can be found again. Restoring the Insight

IT IS FOOLISH, however, to imagine that a general observance of Sabbath can be reinstituted in our time. Bringing back an old-fashioned Sabbath would require either a reliously unified culture - which we obviouly do not have - or a tight and self-conscious sunculture, which Jews once had but do not have any longer. We already have empty time, and major industries devoted to filing that time for us. Empty time is neither Sabbath nor meditation.

What we need is a form of Sabbath observance that can be practiced in the modern, pluralistic world, that can function on an individual or a small-group basis, but that restores that lost dialectic of action and repose, of intervention and letting be.

Meditation could become a modern equivalent of Sabbath. Sabbath is the key to a Biblical understanding of gathered congregation, of celebration and breaking bread. But it can restore the Sabbath insight that, despite all the things that must be done in the world - to feed all liberate and heal - even God occasionally pauses to draw breath.

Our problem is that we need Sabbath but we live in a society whose pluralism militates against a particular day shared by all, in which being replaces doing, and affirming takes precedence over accumulating. For the time being we will have to get along on a somewhat more personal version of the Sabbath. The person whose vision of the world is derived form Biblical faith rather than from the wisdom of the Orient can incorporate meditation as a part of a daily dialectic of withdrawl and involvement, of clarification and action. For, inevitably, on this earth and in our history, we cannot live in an eternal Sabbath. We always have to go back again to those six other days, days that though suffused with the memory and anticipation of Sabbath, are stilldays when action makes a difference.