The merits of mysticism

temple

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.

More to life

Melancholics are motivated by a sense that there must be more to life.

More than what is on offer, more than what is accepted within the range of ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ life.  For me this sense translated into a fascination with mysticism, and I spent my late teenage years and my early years at university reading every strange philosophical and esoteric religious text I could get my hands on.  I steadily worked my way through the relevant section of the university library: Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Daoism, Vedanta, Sikhism, Sufism, Christian mysticism – Orthodox, Catholic and Heterodox.

I was looking for something particular in each of these books, and found in them the outlines of a methodology or set of guidelines that promised – in varying terminology – a better way of being, a solution to life’s existential conflicts, and freedom from the oppressive weight of everyday reality.

These texts each pointed to an objective albeit transcendent reality;  something beyond mundane human experience, yet immanent everywhere just beneath the surface.

The consistent message of these various mystics is that this transcendent reality is more real, more true, than our daily lives, and that to find true virtue, peace, and happiness we ought to turn our attention to this transcendent reality and diminish our reliance on and preoccupation with mundane reality.

Ethics and morality fits into this schema largely because excessive desires for worldly things are incompatible with an appreciation for the transcendent reality.  At the same time, there is a salutary aspect to this transcendent reality, suggesting a relationship between it and a balanced, virtuous life.

But the problem with this transcendent reality is that it is, from a worldly perspective, utterly useless; more useless than the virtue with which it is associated; more useless than the sages, philosophers and saints who devoted themselves to it.  It is too great to be useful, too rich to meet any particular human need.  In that sense, you can get by without it. It won’t make you money, it won’t help you find food, it won’t convince others to lavish you with praise and adulation.

It is precisely because of its uselessness, its being beyond use, that it is worth attending to.  We cannot employ it for a purpose, in fact it takes away our purpose and makes our worldly aims seem utterly petty and trivial, yet because of this it is worthy to shape and develop us.  In a world that is overwhelmed with utility, purpose, and occupation, this transcendent reality seems as empty and clear as the sky.  That is why it ought to be our foundation and our goal, that is why it alone can be the burden that enlightens rather than weighing down.