The merits of mysticism


A tiny temple on the side of a mountain in Fuzhou. Every hill or mountain we went to seemed to have some kind of temple installed.

For a melancholic the appeal of mysticism is obvious: just a glimmer of transcendence is enough to inspire our idealist inclinations to follow what one old mystic, the Benedictine/Swami Bede Griffiths called ‘the golden string’.

For a melancholic it makes perfect sense to put ‘ultimate reality’ ahead of the mundane one, to sell everything for the sake of the pearl of great price. But from a more worldly perspective it makes no sense to be uselessly sitting quietly, seemingly inert, inactive, and unproductive.

In fact, while mysticism is a struggle in its own right, from the very beginning the path is entirely opposed to most of the things that are supposed to make ordinary life enjoyable and meaningful. The heart of mysticism is, after all, to recollect and redirect your many and varied desires for worldly things back to the one thing that supersedes the world.

We are, from a worldly perspective, supposed to spend our free time playing with our mobile phones, buying apps and viewing ads. From this point of view mysticism is worse than useless. It can’t be shared, it can’t be bought or sold, and in a strange inversion it even rebukes us silently for the time and energy we waste on truly meaningless vanities.

The paradox of mysticism is that it is useless from a worldly perspective, yet reveals in turn the vanity of the world. Despite the difficulty of the path, it reveals from an early stage that our cares and worries and preoccupations are nothing but dust and straw. Many have compared it to waking from a dream, or seeing clearly for the first time.

Its merits are hard to fathom because we are so used to judging merit by worldly standards. Even climbing a mountain and enjoying the view can be packaged as an ‘experience’, bought and sold, shared and bragged about, measured in mundane terms. What cannot be measured, assessed, described or shared is the emptiness of mysticism, its silence and humility.

As the Dao De Jing puts it (Lau translation):

When the best student hears about the way
He practises it assiduously;
When the average student hears about the way
It seems to him there one moment and gone the next;
When the worst student hears about the way
He laughs out loud.
If he did not laugh
It would be unworthy of being the way.

Hence the Chien yen has it:
The way that is bright seems dull;
The way that is forward seems to lead backward;
The way that is even seems rough.
The highest virtue is like the valley;
The sheerest whiteness seems sullied;
Ample virtue seems defective;
Vigorous virtue seems indolent;
Plain virtue seems soiled;
The great square has no corners.
The great vessel takes long to complete;
The great note is rarefied in sound;
The great image has no shape.

The way conceals itself in being nameless.
It is the way alone that excels in bestowing and in accomplishing.

What this means is that one can fulfill the ideal of human life while doing ‘nothing’ by worldly standards. It means that the endless struggle, striving, craving and distraction of human life is not the final word. To know the finality, the telos, of one’s existence is far beyond being useful, valuable, or meritorious; instead it recasts and reshapes the entire landscape of use, value, and merit. Thus a practice which the world has cast aside nonetheless stands in rebuke of worldliness and prevails.


Freedom from desire

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An interesting theme in my current studies is the boundary between self and other, and how this boundary shifts as a consequence of different theories of free will.

For example, a simple theory of free will might hold that one acts voluntarily except when one’s actions are the result of physical coercion or ignorance.  Non-coerced actions can be considered the product of free will.

But a more complex theory of free will would recognise that sometimes we act in ways that are difficult to own as fully voluntary, such as eating dessert when you’ve sworn you want to lose weight.  No one has physically coerced you to eat the dessert, yet in the broader context of your wishes, intentions, and subsequent regrets, it doesn’t seem quite right to say that eating the dessert is representative of your free will.

Accordingly some have suggested that we are not free when we act in accordance with our lower appetites.  In the same vein, others have said that ‘free’ actions are those which arise from truly rational considerations. To exercise free will is to act in accordance with rational desire; anything less is a kind of slavery.

But in accepting this more nuanced view of the will, we implicitly redraw the boundary between self and other; the coercive forces we face are no longer external, physical agents but internal appetites and desires.  What is the ‘self’ that is the subject of these appetites, the self that might somehow will instead to follow reason?

This internalisation of the self is not a necessary outcome of a more complex view of free will, but it does make such a perspective easier to adopt.  We start viewing ourselves a little like a homunculus positioned somewhere back behind our eyes, controlling our body and attempting to reason and make choices while assailed by powerful appetites and desires.

The internalised self may be a promising line of inquiry for when I start examining Chinese philosophical texts on the topic of free will. Take, for example, this extract from the QingJing Jing or ‘Classic of Purity and Rest’, a Daoist text developed supposedly in response to the emerging Buddhist theme of ’emptiness’ typified by the Heart Sutra.

Now the spirit of man loves Purity, but his mind disturbs it. The mind of man loves stillness, but his desires draw it away. If he could always send his desires away, his mind would of itself become still. Let his mind be made clean, and his spirit will of itself become pure.

As a matter of course the six desires won’t arise, and the three poisons will be taken away and disappear.

The reason why men are not able to attain to this, is because their minds have not been cleansed, and their desires have not been sent away.

If one is able to send the desires away, when he then looks in at his mind, it is no longer his; when he looks out at his body, it is no longer his; and when he looks farther off at external things, they are things which he has nothing to do with.

Sending the desires away may imply a similarly internalised view of the will, such that one is able to control or manipulate mental faculties as though they were external objects.

The end point in this Daoist context is achieving a state of purity and stillness concomitant with the Dao itself:

In that condition of rest independently of place how can any desire arise? And when no desire any longer arises, there is the True stillness and rest.

That True (stillness) becomes (a) constant quality, and responds to external things (without error); yea, that True and Constant quality holds possession of the nature.


He who has this absolute purity enters gradually into the (inspiration of the) True Dao. And having entered thereinto, he is styled Possessor of the Dao.


It is intriguing that the Daoist text portrays desires as an intrinsically disturbing force that should be ‘put away’.  This presents another opportunity for fruitful comparison with Stoicism, where such desires are viewed as the product of our assent to false beliefs.  This is, in turn, reminiscent of the Buddhist assertion that the unsatisfactory nature of existence can be traced back to ignorant desire.

If we put aside desires, our mind and spirit will revert to their natural purity and stillness, bringing us back to the influence of the Dao.  This is consistent with Wang Bi’s much earlier commentary on the Dao De Jing, the heart of the Daoist Canon, in which he depicts the goal of the sage as embracing ’emptiness’ through renunciation of private interests and desires.

I think this critical attitude toward desire is a crucial part of serious religious practice universally.  We should not be surprised to find it emerging in the context of Daoism, Buddhism, and even Stoicism, as part of a broader attempt to discover the root of humanity’s failing and misery, and the path towards a renovation of the human spirit.

The Disadvantages of Depth

One of the first attractions of philosophy was that it offered a deeper understanding.  It may not have promised answers, but some things are too big for questions and answers, and philosophy was the one discipline that allowed no limitations on its inquiry.  I took for granted that a deep understanding was superior to a shallow one; that a considered answer would always trump an ill-considered response.  But it turns out that there are realms where a shallow understanding is more than sufficient, and an ill-considered response is by no means disadvantageous.

How is this possible?

It is possible because regardless of the merits of depth, it has the following drawbacks: depth is slow, depth is cautious, depth is elitist.  Depth is therefore easy to decry as unnecessary, wasteful, and inappropriate.  Better still, depth can be characterised as something other than depth entirely – it can be superficially described as uncertainty, hesitation, arrogance, obstinacy, or inactivity.  In fact all of these descriptors may seem entirely justified from the point of view of someone with no interest in depth or appreciation of its value.  So long as one is judged by shallow people, one’s pursuit of greater depth will be entirely unappreciated and disparaged.

In many fields, shallow people are at an advantage.  Why look for greater depth than is required to convince one’s peers?  Greater depth will just slow you down, and when it comes to selling oneself, creating an image, or making an impression: qui prior est tempore potior est jure.  ‘He who is earlier in time is stronger in law’.

As one of the most enigmatic passages from the Dao De Jing explains, he who pursues a deeper understanding finds himself at odds with the rest of humanity:

How joyous the mass of people are, as if banqueting on the sacrificed ox, as if mounting a tower in spring –
I alone am still, without visible sign, like a new born baby yet to smile, all listless, like one with no home.
The mass of people have more than enough –
I alone appear bereft; I, with the mind of a dolt, so slow.
Ordinary men are brilliant –
I am dim.
Ordinary men are perceptive –
I am closed.
Sudden, like the sea, like a tempest, as though endless, the mass of people all have their means –
I alone am obstinate, uncouth.
I alone wish to be different from others, and value feeding from the mother.

translated by Robert Eno


The pursuit of depth separates us from the majority of people.  It brings with it different priorities, different concerns, a different way of perceiving the world.  But for us it is self-evidently the better part of life.  And if the better part of life is ridiculed by others, then as the Dao De Jing states:

When the man of highest capacities hears Tao
He does his best to put it into practice.
When the man of middling capacity hears Tao
He is in two minds about it.
When the man of low capacity hears Tao
He laughs loudly at it.
If he did not laugh, it would not be worth the name of Tao.
Therefore the proverb has it:
“The way out into the light often looks dark,
The way that goes ahead often looks as if it went back.”
The way that is least hilly often looks as if it went up and down,
The “power” that is really loftiest looks like an abyss,
What is sheerest white looks blurred.
The “power” that is most sufficing looks inadequate,
The “power” that stands firmest looks flimsy.
What is in its natural, pure state looks faded;
The largest square has no corners,
The greatest vessel takes the longest to finish,
Great music has the faintest notes,
The Great From is without shape.
For Tao is hidden and nameless.
Yet Tao alone supports all things and brings them to fulfillment.

translated by Arthur Waley