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.

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Comparative mysticism at Christmas

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When I was young I read a lot of books about religion. Around the same time I stopped going to church as soon as my parents would (reluctantly) allow it.

My approach to religion was quite ambitious in its scope: I believed that religions were a mix of essential and non-essential beliefs and practices, that all religions would converge on the essential, and that by comparing them all I could work out what they had in common and hence what lay at the heart of true religion.

The answer was mysticism: the search for and experiential knowledge of ‘ultimate reality’.

All religions had mysticism in common, and so I concluded that mysticism is the heart of religion and therefore the only thing worth pursuing. Everything else: the rituals, the prayers, the meditation, the complex beliefs; these were at best only a means of inducting people into mysticism and at worst they were misguided accretions derived from culture or lower aspects of human psychology.

I spent most of my time at university reading the works of different mystics and the mystical branches of different religions. I even wrote my Honours thesis on the subject, attempting to show how a set of mystical traditions contained the same basic approach to reality: a recognition that human experience is ‘not right’, identification of a transcendent reality or being that is right, and a method of approaching this transcendent reality that requires a shift in attention away from external, worldly affairs and interests, a ‘quieting’ of the mind, and an openness to this fundamentally different kind of being.

My actual thesis was not a good piece of scholarly work by any means. At that stage in my education I was so focused on this personal search for knowledge that I failed to heed or really comprehend the requirements of philosophy as a scholarly discipline. What I wrote may have been interesting to a small group of people, but all it really showed was that I had a particular belief about religion, and I could find selective evidence to support my belief.

Having seen religion in such a light, it is very hard to ‘unsee’ it. It is difficult for me to pretend that the different religions really are strikingly different where it matters. Yet I’m also conscious that my perspective may be tautological: “religious similarities are similar”; or as G.K. Chesterton put it:

Students of popular science, like Mr. Blatchford, are always insisting that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism. This is generally believed, and I believed it myself until I read a book giving the reasons for it. The reasons were of two kinds: resemblances that meant nothing because they were common to all humanity, and resemblances which were not resemblances at all. The author solemnly explained that the two creeds were alike in things in which all creeds are alike, or else he described them as alike in some point in which they are quite obviously different.

Thus, as a case of the first class, he said that both Christ and Buddha were called by the divine voice coming out of the sky, as if you would expect the divine voice to come out of the coal-cellar. Or, again, it was gravely urged that these two Eastern teachers, by a singular coincidence, both had to do with the washing of feet. You might as well say that it was a remarkable coincidence that they both had feet to wash. And the other class of similarities were those which simply were not similar. Thus this reconciler of the two religions draws earnest attention to the fact that at certain religious feasts the robe of the Lama is rent in pieces out of respect, and the remnants highly valued. But this is the reverse of a resemblance, for the garments of Christ were not rent in pieces out of respect, but out of derision; and the remnants were not highly valued except for what they would fetch in the rag shops. It is rather like alluding to the obvious connection between the two ceremonies of the sword: when it taps a man’s shoulder, and when it cuts off his head. It is not at all similar for the man.

These scraps of puerile pedantry would indeed matter little if it were not also true that the alleged philosophical resemblances are also of these two kinds, either proving too much or not proving anything. That Buddhism approves of mercy or of self-restraint is not to say that it is specially like Christianity; it is only to say that it is not utterly unlike all human existence. Buddhists disapprove in theory of cruelty or excess because all sane human beings disapprove in theory of cruelty or excess. But to say that Buddhism and Christianity give the same philosophy of these things is simply false. All humanity does agree that we are in a net of sin. Most of humanity agrees that there is some way out. But as to what is the way out, I do not think that there are two institutions in the universe which contradict each other so flatly as Buddhism and Christianity.

Identifying mysticism as the common core of religion might be similarly problematic. It may be true that the mystics within various religions invoke strikingly similar themes in their disciplines, but this does not mean that mysticism is necessarily central to religious truth. Mysticism might be just an addendum to the truth of a religion. It might be an interesting yet ultimately non-essential aspect of religious practice. After all, if we assume from the outset that mystical experience is the true heart of religion, then of course we will place less emphasis on the cosmological and teleological content of religious beliefs. For the student of comparative mysticism it doesn’t really matter whether we call our goal the realisation of buddha-nature and nirvana, or the beatific vision and the enjoyment of eternal life in heaven; we already accept the mystics’ claim that the experience of ‘ultimate reality’ is beyond words.

How different are Buddhism and Christianity really? More to the point, how are we to determine what are and aren’t meaningful differences? If the ultimate reality transcends language, then we must accept that the contradictions may only be skin deep. Chesterton’s knowledge of Buddhism was admittedly superficial and mediated apparently by the idiosyncratic interpretations of his contemporaries – Buddhism under the influence of Theosophy and Orientalist popularisers; but one needn’t be well-acquainted with Buddhism to realise that there is a danger in upholding the common ground between two faiths as the only ground worth inhabiting. To interpret everything through the lens of similarity begs the question, diminishes differences before we even get to them.

Nonetheless, the reality of mysticism is compelling, and the ubiquity and consistency of it throughout human religious experience is hard to deny. Conversely, adopting the perspective of comparative mysticism distances us inevitably from the formal, exclusive, and particularist aspects of any one religious system. It doesn’t mean we can’t critically assess the strengths and weaknesses of different religions – and even come to recognise truly unique and revelatory elements within a religion; but it will always be somewhat distant, the observations and understanding of an outsider looking in.

To have this perspective and not promote it as necessarily superior, objectively true, and appropriate for others puts me in an unusual position. There’s not much I can say about it, and since most of my friends and acquaintances are either strongly religious or not religious at all, I tend not to discuss it with anyone. But it is nonetheless a view I have formed, examined, and considered over and again for more than half my life, and to which I keep returning, or should I say: it keeps returning to me. As indistinct as it may be in my own daily life, I have to acknowledge it as a profound influence on all aspects of my view of the world.

As Christmas approaches I can’t help but see it through this lens: the incarnation of that ‘ultimate reality’ within the utterly humble and unspectacular domain of ordinary human existence. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate the uniqueness of Christianity, not in as something that denies or refutes the past, but as fulfillment and reaffirmation of what has gone before. Not only God incarnate in its own terms, but a kind of ‘metaphor incarnate’ if we can set aside the misleading implications of such a phrase. To me this is the greatest sense I can make of it; a sense that grounds the metaphysical and ontological mysteries in the lived experience of the individual. An incarnation that mirrors the presence of the ultimate reality in the microcosm of the individual human being.

The awe-full truth of human dignity

Dignity

“It’s dignity! Gah! Don’t you even know dignity when you see it?” ~Credit: Sophie Vourlos (“A Milhouse Divided” S8E6)

My latest piece on MercatorNet.com looks at the other-worldly essence of human dignity:

a true appreciation of dignity can amend not only the abstract but the personal: spend some time sincerely meditating on, imagining how your whole world, the world where you are the centre of the universe, is reduced to a bit part in the mind of every person you meet from your own family and friends to complete strangers reading your online comments. Try imagining how you look from their perspective, how big or how small a presence you are in their reality, and the result is almost guaranteed to be utterly humbling.

“Follow your blisters”

There’s an apocryphal account that Joseph Campbell, the scholar of comparative religion and mythology and originator of the ‘follow your bliss’ saying, was unhappy with the hedonistic misinterpretation of his theme, and exclaimed:

I should have said ‘Follow your blisters.’

The original quote was apparently a reference to the Vedantic concept of Saccidananda: the threefold attributes of Brahman as ‘being’, ‘consciousness’, and ‘bliss’; not, it seems, an injunction to pursue freelance writing, or become a professional baker of cupcakes because that’s where you feel happiest.

Nonetheless, that’s how most people seem to understand it: do what makes you happiest and the path will open, and there are plenty of stories of successful people who took a chance based on doing what they loved.

But Campbell’s follow-up is equally apposite, because the whole point about doing what you love is that you are able to throw yourself into it more fully, to derive meaning from it, and therefore stand a better chance of excelling at it.

Take writing, for example: I’ve put more effort into two months of writing than I did in six to nine months of regular paid employment. It’s not that I shirked my responsibilities, just that initiative was not encouraged, and the work we were given was rather tedious and mediocre.

But because I love writing, I can put in comparatively huge amounts of effort and it feels like nothing. The effort still takes a physical and mental toll, but love of the work leaves me strangely oblivious to it, until I start wondering why I can no longer form sentences and my eyes feel like they’re filled with fine sawdust.

The fact is that Campbell’s transcendent Upanishadic triad of ‘being, consciousness, bliss’ and the more mundane idea of doing what you love do converge. In doing what you love, practising your art and your skill, pursuing something of the utmost meaning, you do in fact approach an experience of transcendence that accelerates and deepens your efforts. You love it all the more because it takes you beyond yourself, and brings you back with an even greater determination to transform this mundane reality, ordinary life, into something far more special, blisters and all.

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.