For the higher we soar in contemplation the more limited become our expressions of that which is purely intelligible; even as now, when plunging into the Darkness that is above the intellect, we pass not merely into brevity of speech, but even into absolute silence of thoughts and of words. —“The Pseudo-Dionysius,” from The Mystical Theology
Here is an extremely brief history of Buddhism: A man called Gotama Buddha led his followers to the edge of a precipice. After he jumped off, acrophobia and vertigo eventually got the better of the Buddhists and they started backing away from the cliff’s edge, while giving plausible justifications for this action, or reaction (that is, for backing away, not for jumping off). A few hundred years later a monk named Nagarjuna, along with the anonymous authors/forgers of the Prajnaparamita Sutras, came along and led Buddhists back to the precipice. Shortly after this, in the same sort of reaction as before, acrophobic Buddhists started backing away again, overflowing with brilliant, sophisticated philosophical excuses. Occasionally, every few-to-several centuries, some group of Buddhists or another marches boldly back to the cliff’s edge, with each of these acts of fearlessness representing a resurgence of Dharma in this world. All those audacious, stick-wielding Zen masters of medieval China would serve as a good example of such a case. But such resurgences generally do not last very long, since standing at the edge of a cliff, overlooking an immense void (let alone jumping off), can be profoundly scary, even life-threatening. Most Buddhists, along with most of everyone else, keep a safe distance from that precipice, with most of those who approach it being eccentrics and radicals. It is not for the weak of heart. Then again, most are oblivious to its very existence.
The cliff’s edge, naturally, is what Buddhists call Emptiness or Voidness, or, in Pali, suññatā. It is also sometimes called Nibbāna or Nirvana. Using more standard English, it could be called What Is Totally Off the Scale, or Something That Is Completely, Absolutely Outside the Box. It can also be called Ultimate Reality.
Assuming that there is a reality which lies beyond the symbols of human perception—which is an assumption made by both religion and science, and by almost everyone—then as I, and many others before me, have tried to explain many times, human perception cannot really know this reality. An easy way to explain it is that we think in symbols, and a symbol is not the same as the thing it is trying to represent. “T-R-E-E” is radically different from a real tree. The best we can do intellectually (or emotionally for that matter) is to come up with a system of symbols which somehow corresponds to some aspect of reality. This can of course be very useful, even spectacularly brilliant, but still it is not direct knowledge of reality, but only a symbolic representation about reality, or rather about some particular aspect of it. Also, as I have attempted to explain before, this reality which lies beyond the symbols in our mind would be a kind of formless infinity, since forms and distinctions are artifacts of perception relying for their existence upon relations which exist not in an external world, but in the psychology of the human mind. Same as, different from, more than, less than, bigger than, smaller than, and so on and so on do not exist as elements in a non-mental universe, but are artificial gimmicks the mind generates in order to make sense of things. And without them, you have Void.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that the human mind can never know anything as it really is, but only as it seems, as an intellectually conditioned phenomenon. But Kant (although he allegedly was able to see spirits) apparently was not a mystic. There is one reality, one “thing in itself,” to which we always have direct access, of which we always have an awareness, if only subliminal; and that is the reality of our own consciousness, the mind which underlies and gives rise to the symbolic perceptions. This non-symbolic awareness of “our own” consciousness (the notion of “our own” being part of the artificial symbolism) is, it seems to me, the essence of mysticism, the essence of our sense of the infinite, and thus the innermost heart of religious experience.
The trouble is, though, that almost everybody, especially in the West, is vehemently stuck in the world of perceptual symbols, to the point of ignoring or even denying the existence of a higher reality. It is assumed that reality, that is, Ultimate Reality, can be known through perceptual thought—which is a modern superstition comparable to the ancient and medieval idea that the astronomical universe revolves around the earth. We’ve outgrown that one, but still naively believe that the universe revolves around human psychology—symbols, relations, and all. This anthropocentrism is more difficult to deal with than the earlier geocentrism, for the simple reason that most people, including most of the most intelligent people, and including most scientists, who are the high priests of the modern world religion and Western “Right View,” are thoroughly stuck in perception, in mental symbols. Western science and critical objectivity are based upon symbolic thought. Anything that cannot be described in accordance with these symbols is denied. “Mysticism” has acquired negative connotations of sloppy thinking, vague, groundless speculation, superstition, and New Age nuttiness.
It may be that nine-tenths of the human race interpret reality in accordance with the mythology of their culture, which in the modern West is largely Scientism. Of the remaining tenth, nine-tenths of those are able to be more philosophical, and to work out their own interpretation of reality to some degree. In the West many of such people are the scientists who are developing science and not just believing what they are told, but there are also others with very different philosophical views. Of the remaining tenth (we’re down to 1% now), nine-tenths of those are able to understand reality in large part through some kind of mystical intuition, which, however, is unrefined and relatively crude, yet still closer to reality than mythology or philosophy can ever get, since it is approaching the realm of direct experience, not merely symbolic beliefs about reality. The last tiny fragment represents those who are able to know reality with some degree of clarity—but of course they are unable to communicate this in words, since words are symbols, and symbols are not it, and cannot contain it. And only a tenth of those, or less than a tenth, obtain full realization of the reality that we are all soaking in, generally without realizing it, like fish oblivious to their own wetness. But to a person who is not mystically inclined, regardless of intelligence—I.Q. appears to have no relevance at all in this regard, and some of these people are intellectually brilliant—any talk of mystical intuition and direct realization sounds like nonsense, because, as was already mentioned, they are thoroughly stuck in perceptual symbolism. They just don’t “get it.” Maybe they can’t get it. I call such a state being “hypersamsaric.”
But we are all aware of it to some degree, if only subliminally. A person totally oblivious to it would be virtually unconscious, a kind of organic robot. Maybe a complete psychopath, devoid of love, compassion, or conscience, could be someone like that. This essence of pure consciousness to which we have access is more conscious than “we” are, because it is consciousness itself. “We,” as samsaric entities, are just sets of constructed symbols. Anything “we” can talk about is also a constructed symbol, including “reality,” “Nirvana,” “God,” “pure formless consciousness,” etc. The symbol is radically different from what it tries to represent, like “TREE” on a piece of paper. Any attempt to explain it must fail. The safest course is to speak in terms of negations: It isn’t this, and it isn’t that. It isn’t anything, really: from a samsaric point of view, it is Nothing. Darkness, silence, void, the Cloud of Unknowing. Perception cannot touch it.
Anyway, for many years, when reading certain non-Buddhist texts like the Upanishads or the Tao Te Ching, it has seemed fairly obvious to me, or at least pretty likely, that the Brahman, Tao, etc. mentioned in these texts are essentially the same kind of futile attempt to describe the indescribable as what Theravada Buddhist texts call Nibbāna. There is no possible connection between a human-made philosophy or theoretical system and what is completely Off the Scale; the best it can do is lead the disciple to the cliff’s edge. So there isn’t just one True Way, or one true philosophy. There are, potentially at least, an infinite number of ways of reaching the precipice, of arriving at the limitation of thought, the gateless gate (to use some Zen jargon), and they inevitably will reflect the culture in which they arose. And thus for years I have considered it quite possible that there may have been, maybe, more fully enlightened Hindus who have reached the cliff’s edge, and jumped off it, than enlightened Theravada Buddhists…let alone all the Mahayanists. I think beings like Neem Karoli Baba and Ramana Maharshi may have been fully enlightened, regardless of their un-Theravadin “wrong view” about God and “self,” and regardless of any dirt that cynics can dig up against them personally. For that matter, I’ve considered it possible that even a few outstanding Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart and Saint John of the Cross may have been Arahants. What they had to say along mystical lines is very advanced and profound, and it turns out that the three systems—Theravada Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christian monasticism—have had very similar yogic techniques, including mindfulness practice, regardless of different symbolic interpretations serving as theory. I have considered some systems to be more conducive to enlightenment than others, but a sufficiently advanced being may find a way to the cliff’s edge in just about any system, even if he or she has to be a persecuted heretic in order to manage it.
But regardless of this heretical wrong view of mine, while slowly, gradually grinding through Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, a history of Western monotheism, I have been mildly amazed at what I have read. It turns out that all three of the main spiritual systems west of India—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—have gone through intellectual, philosophical stages in which God is assumed to be, and asserted to be, knowable to the intellect, with his existence demonstrable via logical proof; but that all three, before modern culture threw a wrench into the works, eventually settled upon what is called apophatic mysticism, that is, the belief that God is utterly unknowable to the intellect, so that the best approach to understanding him/it is through negation, or better yet, through silence, mental and verbal. There have been Western monotheistic cultures in which apophatic mysticism has not only been accepted as orthodox, but has been incorporated into the mainstream and even adopted, or at least allowed, by the majority. This mystical approach to the highest principle has been prevalent throughout the world, with the exception of one society, which will be discussed a little later on. So all major spiritual systems, East and West, have eventually agreed that the highest truth is Completely Off the Scale, an unthinkable Void, with any positive assertions made about it being ultimately invalid. The assertions made in revealed scriptures like the Bible and Quran are considered to be poetical metaphors, skillful means to help ignorant humans cope with the absolute, infinite inscrutability of God.
In the words of Karen Armstrong,
All three of the monotheistic religions developed a mystical tradition, which made their God transcend the personal category and become more similar to the impersonal realities of nirvana and Brahman-Atman. Only a few people are capable of true mysticism, but in all three faiths (with the exception of Western Christianity) it was the God experienced by the mystics which eventually became normative among the faithful, until relatively recently.
There are a few points to be considered here. First, the fact that so many systems have arrived at the same general idea, or non-idea, does not necessarily indicate that all of these systems are conducive to the highest, clearest mystical realization. One could arrive at the idea that Ultimate Reality is formless and totally beyond human conception via intellectual, philosophical means, as I very briefly tried to do at the beginning of this discussion. But second, on the other hand, it would be ridiculous to argue that one formless, infinite, utterly unthinkable Void is any different from “another” formless, infinite, utterly unthinkable Void. Off the scale is off the scale, and that’s that. Descriptions and philosophical distinctions are useless in backing up deep mystical states, for reasons already considered. So genuine mysticism and a kind of intellectual, theological skepticism may appear very similar to an outsider, since both systems agree that the thinking mind cannot know absolute Reality. The mystics, however, would assert that Reality can still be known directly, without having to think about it. And it may not always be easy to determine whether a spiritual teacher is a mystic, or just humble.
The big question, therefore, is whether or not a system really leads a disciple to the cliff’s edge. Philosophy is largely irrelevant; reaching the limit is more a matter of practice than of theory. Regardless of whether one follows a system asserting the existence of God or Abhidhamma or anything else, virtue and clarity of mind are conducive to wisdom, to heightened awareness. Regardless of one’s Weltanschauung, the cessation of craving and attachment amounts to the cessation of suffering. And I suspect that, throughout the world, there have always been wise individuals who have managed to practice the requisite virtue and concentration to have sufficiently heightened awareness to experience Reality as it is, especially considering that almost all advanced traditions remind the disciple that thinking, feeling, and dogmatizing are not the point anyway. And Reality is always right here, right now. This particular heresy of mine (and of others) sometimes goes by the name of the perennial philosophy.
Aldous Huxley, who wrote a book on the subject, had this to say:
…the thing is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of the perennial philosophy may be found among the traditional lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions.
I have to admit, though, that some forms of mysticism call to me more than others. Jewish mysticism, for example, is overladen with way too much poetical imagery and myth for my taste, with its upside down tree of sephiroth, broken vessels kept broken by the sin of Adam, etc. Maybe the Hassidim of northern and central Europe came up with something more my style than Kabbalah.
With regard to the Muslims it is mainly the Sufis who are associated with mysticism, although that has not always been the case. Islam has acquired a very negative stereotype of violent fanaticism in the far West and probably elsewhere, so it is heartening to see in Armstrong’s book that many great Islamic philosophers have been very open-minded. The much respected and influential Muid ad-Din Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240), who had a life-changing mystical experience while circumambulating the Ka’abah in Mecca, actually taught things like this:
Do not attach yourself to any particular creed exclusively, so that you may disbelieve all the rest; otherwise you will lose much good, nay, you will fail to recognize the real truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and omnipotent, is not limited by any one creed, for, he says, “Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of al-Lah” (Quran 2:109). Everyone praises what he believes; his god is his own creature, and in praising it he praises himself. Consequently he blames the beliefs of others, which he would not do if he were just, but his dislike is based on ignorance.
Karen Armstrong adds this by way of commentary:
We never see any god but the personal Name that has been revealed and given concrete existence in each one of us; inevitably our understanding of our personal Lord is colored by the religious tradition into which we were born. But the mystic (arif) knows that this “God” of ours is simply an “angel” or a particular symbol of the divine, which must never be confused with the Hidden Reality itself. Consequently he sees all the different religions as valid theophanies. Where the God of the more dogmatic religions divides humanity into warring camps, the God of the mystics is a unifying force.
As hinted above in a quote by Armstrong, most Christian mysticism has derived from the Eastern churches, especially from Greek Orthodox monasticism. There are some who have asserted that mysticism as an integrated system was introduced into Christianity by the so-called Pseudo-Dionysius, who is rumored to have been a Neoplatonist philosopher who, after a Byzantine emperor outlawed Neoplatonism, followed the idea “If you can’t beat them, join them,” and became a Christian, inoculating his newly adopted religion with Neoplatonist ideas. The part about him being a former Neoplatonist is probably true, methinks, and there is no doubt that his writings have been very influential; although mysticism caught on fairly early in Christianity as the new religion developed. Saint Gregory of Nyssa, a bishop in what is now Turkey and one of the “Cappadocian Fathers” of the 4th century, clearly had mystical tendencies and gave advice like, “Every concept grasped by the mind becomes an obstacle in the quest to those who search.” There is some indication that even Paul of Tarsus was a mystic, although unfortunately a very different side of him was emphasized in Christianity. Karen Armstrong asserts that relatively early on in the history of Greek Christianity there developed the idea that God cannot be understood intellectually, so the more paradoxical theology is, the better. Even the baffling tenet of the Trinity was favored by the Greek Orthodox Christians because it was so paradoxical that it emphasized our incapacity to understand the mystery of the Divine. For the Greeks it helped to instill a sense of wonder and awe.
In the West, in what used to be the Latin-speaking half of the Roman Empire, things developed very differently. The notion that God is completely incomprehensible was never entirely rejected, with some big guns taking up the cause like Pope Gregory I, alias Saint Gregory the Great (540-604), who declared, among other things, “Then only is there truth in what we know concerning God, when we are made sensible that we cannot fully know anything about him.” But mysticism as a developed yogic tradition happened relatively late in Western Europe, beginning to flower toward the end of the Middle Ages (and that partly as a result of Islamic ideas filtering into Europe through the Islamic Caliphate of Spain and the lands attacked during the Crusades). A few great mystics arose in the north, like Juliana of Norwich in England and Meister Eckhart in Germany, and there were a few contemplative traditions in Roman Catholic monasticism farther south, but it never entered the mainstream and never amounted to much compared with what had prevailed in the East for centuries, with Catholic mystics often being persecuted for heresy by the Catholic Church itself; and just as it was beginning to take root the Protestant Reformation and modern secularism came along and pretty much kicked it in the head. One of the first things the Protestants did was to abolish monasticism with contempt, and systems of contemplative mysticism along with it.
I do not consider it to be just a coincidence that the modern international secular culture based on science, technology, humanism, individuality, etc. arose in the very same part of the world that was practically the only part of the world that rejected mysticism as a means of understanding Reality. In a previous post (“Guns, Germs, Steel, Gawd, and Mammon,” published 27 June 2015) I mentioned the apparent fact that people of Western Europe and their cultural descendants generally tend to be more extraverted than other races, and thus to look for important answers outwardly instead of inwardly. This same extraversion, accompanied by individualism, causes these people to be, on average, more alienated and more clueless with regard to how to be happy. So it is no surprise to me that another symptom of the Western blessing/curse is a kind of spiritual retardation, a relative inability, or unwillingness, to progress beyond symbolic concepts and feelings in a search for Ultimate Reality or the Divine. And I still do not know whether this is a cultural thing or whether it is actually genetic. Do people of Western European ancestry have a spiritual disability gene which predisposes them to serve Mammon as supreme lord? I don’t know. Maybe it’s a Cro-Magnon mutation thing.
The objective insistence upon a logically coherent belief system in which everything makes sense pretty much doomed spirituality in the Western world; the attitude tended toward the idea that a statement is objectively factual or it is just plain wrong. Since the highest truth that religion tries to approach lies beyond the reach of the intellect, and since a belief system that serves simply as a poetic metaphor is more likely to be ridiculed than believed by Western Europeans, religion didn’t stand much of a chance. Prose has won out over poetry, even with regard to things not inherently rational or prosaic. Early Protestants stubbornly, vehemently insisted upon literal interpretations of scripture as objective historic fact, which, as science and Western historical attitudes continued to develop, simply could not compete with the new competition. Europeans were not so likely to recognize real profundity even if they came across it; and partly because of this the founders of Protestantism were often more intellectually inclined and politically inclined than spiritual. Not many people would accuse Henry VIII, founding father of the Church of England, of being particularly spiritual, and Karen Armstrong has this to say about Martin Luther, a more important father of Protestantism than Henry:
A sense of peace, serenity and loving-kindness are the hallmarks of all true religious insight. Luther, however, was a rabid anti-Semite, a misogynist, was convulsed with a loathing and horror of sexuality and believed that all rebellious peasants should be killed.
Interestingly, she points out as an example of the radical difference of the two approaches the significant difference between traditional Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox religious art: In the West painters strove for objective realism in their paintings, approaching perfection during the Renaissance, whereas Greek painters weren’t even trying to paint pictures that were realistic; rather, they were trying to produce symbolic images that would inspire, in a poetic way, a spiritual mood. They considered awe and reverence to be more conducive to godliness than worldly accuracy and technical precision. Armstrong very nicely summarizes one aspect of the general collapse of religion in the West as follows:
For centuries monotheists in each of the God-religions had insisted that God was not merely another being. He did not exist like the other phenomena we experience. In the West, however, Christian theologians had got into the habit of talking about God as though he really were one of the things that existed. They had seized upon the new science to prove the objective reality of God as though he could be tested and analyzed like anything else. Diderot, Holbach and Laplace had turned this attempt on its head and come to the same conclusion as the more extreme mystics: there was nothing out there. It was not long before other scientists and philosophers triumphantly declared that God was dead.
I mentioned early on that all of the monotheistic religions went through philosophical phases in which thinkers tried to explain the highest principle(s) in purely intellectual terms (often following along with Aristotle), going with the idea that reason can actually discover, know, and prove Ultimate Truth. Also I mentioned even earlier on that shortly after Gotama Buddha left this world the Buddhists began philosophically backing away from the precipice overlooking the Void. Buddhism went through its own intellectual phases, trying to realize Ultimate Truth through cerebral rationality; and Theravada, in the full splendor of its developed, systematized orthodoxy, represents the full flowering of just such a phase of Buddhist intellectualism. Mysticism could not be totally eradicated from the system, but it was overlaid by a mass of brilliant intellectuality. I suspect this is one major reason why Theravada—or rather a very much abridged, attenuated, and sugar-coated version of it—has become so popular in the head-oriented West. It is an approach to spirituality which makes objective “sense” and contains relatively little emphasis on mythology or even poetry. Another reason for its popularity is that the older, more “primitive” layers of the system satisfy the Western insistence upon objective, historical accuracy, since Theravada is the most conservatively ancient Indian form of Buddhism still in existence, presumably coming closest to describing what the founder of the system originally taught. And of course, a few elementary meditation techniques from Theravada are useful as a kind of therapy or medication, helping to reduce stress in Western people living very Western, worldly lives. Some Westerners go so far as to try to eradicate all mysticism and spirituality from the system and to see it as a purely sensible, prosaic psychological technique, completely in accord with science.
But without mysticism, any attempt at spirituality, or enlightenment, or genuine happiness and peace of mind, is bound to be sorely limited and ultimately futile. Nirvana or the “Beatific Vision” cannot be touched or even seriously approached by intellectual symbolism. Yet most members of modern scientific culture, through constitutional human blindness reinforced by Western spiritual retardation, actually prefer our search for Ultimate Reality to be limited and futile. The 90% who follow unquestioningly the mythos of their culture are oblivious to mysticism, while many of the more philosophical 9% positively deny its validity and value. The scientific cultural icon Stephen Hawking once declared in an interview that mysticism “clouds the issues,” not seeing that really the situation is the other way round: “the issues” cloud mysticism. It would be easy to say that a wise culture, as opposed to a worldly clever one, would promote spirituality and mysticism by inoculating a little of it into the mythos governing the 90%, at least with regard to helping them to respect what they can’t understand, and by gently leading them in a beneficial direction by giving them crude approximations of mysticism via poetic symbolism. But the world is racing in the opposite direction nowadays, and there’s not much that can be done about it.
A world in which the intellectually brilliant spiritual retards of the West are leading the human race away from “God” and toward “Mammon” has one almost plainly obvious disadvantage, even from a worldly point of view: true love is a mystical state. By “love” I don’t mean just the emotion or feeling, which is little more than an animal instinct in the human animal, but love in the more biblical sense of “God is love.” That is, the essence of love is acceptance, and the knocking down of walls around the individual ego. In order really to love another being, at least a small window has to be knocked through Pink Floyd’s wall; and in order to love absolutely everyone the whole alienating wall has to come down—and thus the separate individual ego must die, and that is a mystical state. The “self,” “I,” is the primary symbol of unenlightenment, and the root of all other symbols. True love generates a being called “us,” and is not just a case of “I love that person,” with absolute love transcending even the idea of “us.” So the modern West, which is apparently the least mystical of all great civilizations, is also least capable of genuine love. Going with the nine-tenths/one-tenth model, 90% of the human race knows no more love than is allowed by emotional animal instinct—which does contain an element of true love, just as the ordinary waking state is not totally devoid of an awareness of infinity. Only an absolute sociopath, a spiritually dead being, might be completely without either of these aspects of transcendence. And in the modern West, of course, the mythology of the people does little to uplift love into something sacred; the self-sufficiency of the individual is seen as more important. The more philosophical 9% may work out a more sensible, more stable sort of love, but still it hardly begins to transcend the prison walls of the ego. Only with some appreciation for a mystical approach to reality is one likely to be able to merge with another being into an “us.” That involves intense intimacy to an extent that the average person would find profoundly scary or just totally incomprehensible. So in the modern westernized world God and love are dying simultaneously, since God is love. So to speak.
Since I began reading Karen Armstrong’s A History of God (and at the time of writing this I still haven’t finished it) I can more deeply sympathize with the despair of the notorious anti-modern religious prophet René Guénon, with his conviction that the westernized world is just plain fucked. But acceptance is the essence of love, and of enlightenment; so the best we can do is to accept the present moment and not see it as a “problem” or obstacle in our way, and to keep our hearts and minds open. It's all "God."
May the gods, and we ourselves, have mercy on all of us.