Interrogative Imperative Institute

Is mysticism really mysterious?

The states and stations of the mystical path may have their qualities and dimensions of mystery, but the methods are fairly straghtforward ... namely, to purify the self from anything which would distort or undermine one's capacity to engage the truth in as objective and unbiased manner as one's capacity permits.

Mysticism: A Rational Exploration - Part 4

Even within Buddhism one finds a strong strain of the notion of 'other power' (tariki) which underlies much of the doctrine and practices. Of course, someone may object that in the more mystical aspects of Buddhism, the notion of self-power (jiriki) is stressed and, consequently, the notion of Grace doesn't really apply to any ensuing discussion of Buddhist mysticism.

There are, however, several important considerations with respect to such an objection that should not be forgotten. First, as pointed out above, the aspirant, regardless of tradition, brings little to a Path except an ignorance and a certain willingness to escape from such ignorance.

The seeker also can be said to possess a certain spiritual capacity, but the individual hardly can take credit for having such a capacity. It is a given.

Even if one were to try to account for capacity in terms of a reserve of positive karma that had accumulated over the course of so many kalpas, one still would have to account for the capacity to attract positive karma through 'good' acts. Human existence has been described as being 'hard to obtain', and obtaining it, cannot be reduced to a simple function of individual effort without running into the problem of having to account for how a capacity for such effort came into being or is possible. Whether by virtue of inherent tendencies or 'external' intervention, the individual is the beneficiary of certain "gratuities".

Instructive in this regard is the manner in which many Zen Buddhists are reported to have attained satori. While preliminary preparation is said to be necessary in all instances, many have been described as coming to satori in conjunction with a certain, 'inspired' comment, or a twist of the nose, or a beating, or a broken bone that were delivered through the presence of a teacher.

Wondering whether, or not, these aspirants would have attained satori without the help of their master's insightful intervention is an exercise in contra-factual conditionals. The reality of the matter is that the aspirants all expressed gratitude to their masters for the latter's "action", and this seems to reflect an acknowledgment of the presence of tariki.

Finally, consider the following parable, if one might use this term, which is taken from Zen literature:

"It is said that on one occasion Bodhidharma came to the seashore waiting to cross to the other side. Finding no boat, he suddenly espied a piece of reed and promptly seized and launched it on the water; then stepping boldly on its fragile stalk, he let himself be carried to the farther shore... the point to note is that Bodhidharma found that reed on the seashore; he neither created it, nor brought it with him. Who was it, then, that placed that reed there ready to be discovered? The "other power"; it could be no other. The reed came to the Zen Patriarch as a grace, to which in the first place he could not be passive." 18

Of course, there may be some who interpret the story as an indication of the great resourcefulness of a Zen Master, as a kind of 'Tale of Power' intended to inspire and encourage the aspirant who still is somewhere on this phenomenal side of the waters. Such tales of power, however, are not in keeping with the general, if not complete, de-emphasis within Zen Buddhism concerning this dimension of the mystical quest.

As is the case with most mystical traditions, the seeking after powers is discouraged because it represents an attachment and, therefore, an obstacle in the Path of Enlightenment. Consequently, while one cannot automatically rule out other possible interpretations, especially since teaching stories can be understood at a variety of levels, Pallis' suggestions (given in the previous quote) does not seem out of place.

While those people who would wish to follow the example set by Buddha and not speculate about the implications of a doctrine of Grace (i.e., "other power") with regard to Buddhism - as, indeed, the Buddha was reported to have rigorously discouraged any sort of theorizing or speculation - those of us who are more prone to succumb to the temptation will be tantalized by another example from Buddhism referred to in a book by Frithjof Schuon:

"... the Buddha picks up a handful of leaves and explains to his disciples that just as these leaves are but a small thing compared to the forest, so also the doctrines he preaches are but a minute portion of what he knows; of this knowledge he will only reveal that which is useful for Deliverance." 19

This certainly seems to leave the door open for a possible merging, on some appropriate metaphysical level, with other mystical doctrines. In fact, considering the similarity of epithets which are often used, in different mystical traditions, to hint at the unlimited, absolute nature of the Transcendent One, one would not be being unreasonable to suppose that if Oneness is truly what It is indicated to be by those who have experienced It, then, Oneness is entirely capable of dissolving, on a transcendent level, the provisional differences that appear on the Samsaric surface of Reality. To give emphasis to the foregoing point, one might quote several passages from Ch'uang Tzu that are cited by Rene Guenon in his paper 'Taoism and Confucianism': "Philosophers lose themselves in their speculations, sophists in their distinctions; investigators in their researches. All these men are caught within the limits of space and blinded by particular beings."

"In the primordial state, opposition existed not. They all came from the diversity of beings and from their contacts caused by the universal gyration. They would cease, if difference and motion ceased. They cease at once to affect the being that both reduced his distinct individuality and his particular motion to almost nothing. This being entereth no longer into conflict with any being else, for he is established in the infinite, withdrawn in the indefinite. He hath reached the point from which start all transformations, wherein are no conflicts, and there he abideth."20

Although maintaining that all mysticism must be viewed in terms of, or from the perspective of, the undifferentiated unity-experience, Stace makes a distinction between introverted and extroverted mystical experiences and argues that the former kind of experience is the "major strand in the history of mysticism" (p. 15 of Teachings of the Mystics). Moreover, Stace considers extrovertive mysticism to be an impoverished brand, so to speak, of introverted mysticism because, according to Stace, the extroverted mystic uses the physical senses and sees the One in external objects, whereas, the introvertive mystic has turned 'inward' and goes beyond all considerations of space and time. As Stace says in The Teachings of the Mystics:

"It is suggested that the extrovertive type of experience is a kind of halfway house to the introvertive. For the introvertive experience is wholly non-sensuous and non-intellectual. But the extrovertive experience is sensory-intellectual in so far as it still perceives physical objects but is non-sensuous and nonintellectual in so far as it perceives them as 'all one.'" 21

Objections already have been voiced concerning Stace's identification of visions with sensory-intellectual consciousness. And, even though the above quote is not directly concerned with visions, nevertheless, one should re-emphasize the point that the mystic is not necessarily 'seeing' just with the physical senses but may be 'seeing' with, or by virtue of, the spiritual eye, as well. What Stace assumes to be a sensory-intellectual component of the extrovertive mystics experience may be something entirely different.

Beyond this, one can question whether extroverted mysticism is merely a 'lesser' form of, or halfway house to, mysticism of the introverted variety. There are several levels of argument which seem relevant to such an inquiry.

First, the mystic who 'sees' Oneness in the world of forms could be said to be undergoing a very extraordinary experience, one in which multiplicity and Oneness are reconciled - something which Stace seems to consider inferior because it involves the world of forms. Yet, one wonders how this 'oneness' of the extroverted mystic's experience (which by Stace's own definition must somehow be undifferentiated and uncompounded) differs from the Oneness of the introverted mystic's experience.

At least two possibilities suggest themselves:

(1) There is only the One, but It can be experienced in a variety of ways according to the manner in which It reveals Itself to Itself; (2) there is only the One, and there is no essential difference between extroverted and introverted mystical experiences despite the differences in descriptive expression - that is, regardless of whether one's descriptive references include the world of appearances, or one excludes such features from the description, to one with spiritual or mystical discernment, there is only the One since irrespective of whether one 'looks outward', so to speak, or 'looks inward', the One is all that can be seen... and the One is all that Sees.

One might even suppose that both (1) and (2) hold in the sense that before one experiences the unifying mystical experience, on which Stace focuses, there may be a variety of other experiences that are appropriately classed as mystical and which serve as stations of a Path leading to ultimate union. However, once realization is undergone, then, there is only the One, regardless of how It is experienced.

Implicit in this latter statement is the possibility that on the level of the transcendental unity-experience there may be different kinds of undifferentiated unity. Without going into a great deal of elaboration, yet, wishing to give some indication as to what is meant by the foregoing, consider the possibility that is discussed in an unpublished paper entitled 'The Spiritual Ascension of a Sufi Master' by Dr. M. Q. Baig.

In describing the spiritual ascension (a mystical journey through certain transcendental mysteries to Self-realization) of Shaykh Ahmad Sarhindi, references also are made to the ascension of Shaikh Ahmad's eldest son, Muhammad Sadiq. During the course of the latter's ascension, he reported having attained stations which were higher than those of the Prophets. However, since Muslims firmly believe that no non-Prophet (not even a saint of the highest order) was superior to any of the Prophets, Muhammad Sadiq questioned the legitimacy of his own experience.

Dr. Baig states:

Shaikh Ahmad explained that there were two kinds of stations: one forms the origin of man, this is man's permanent abode; the other forms the point of ascension where one may reach temporarily only to return to one's station of origin. The stations of the Prophets that one passes through in ascension are only the points of their origin; in other words these are the Attributes of God from where the Prophets originated, their stations of ascension are so high as no mortal, even the greatest of Awliya (Saints), can reach. The proximity of the Awliya to God is much less than the nearness to God experienced by the Prophets." 22

On the basis of the above quote, there are differentiations to be made between the mystical experiences of a saint and the transcendental experiences of a Prophet. Moreover, while both can be said to have 'achieved' the condition of union with God, distinctions are, nonetheless, being made even at this level of spirituality.

This idea that distinctions can be made even within the Enlightened condition receives what some may consider 'unexpected' support from a treatise on Zen Buddhism by Garma C. C. Chang when he says:

"Zen is like a vast ocean, an inexhaustible treasury full of riches and wonders. One may behold this treasury, reach toward it, even take possession of it, and still not fully utilize or enjoy it all at once.... Zen only begins at the moment when one first attains Satori; before that one merely stands outside and looks at Zen intellectually. In a deeper sense, Satori is only the beginning, but it not the end of Zen." 23

Such is the case with all mystical traditions. Mysticism only begins with the realization of experience and, in a deeper sense, mystical realization is only the beginning and not the end.

The Absolute (or Void or God) is not definable. It exists without limitation. Its expressed attributes are merely hints and no more. It surrounds Itself in mystery and discloses Itself as It will. It is an Infinite Plenitude which can never be exhausted or encompassed.

That there could be more than one kind of undifferentiated unity experience, would not be surprising. That there could be more than one approach to It, would also not be surprising.

That people who have not attained even the most minimal degree of spiritual realization, could disagree about what constitutes mysticism, would still not be surprising. Indeed, this is to be expected.


18.) Jacob Needleman, ed., Sword of Gnosis, "Is There Room For 'Grace' In Buddhism?" by Marco Pallis, p. 293.[Return to Text]

19.) Frithjof Schuon, In The Tracks of Buddhism (London, Allen and Unwin Limited, 1968), p. 66.[Return to Text]

20.) Rene Guenon, "Taoism and Confucianism", Studies In Comparative Religion, pp. 245-246.[Return to Text]

21.) Walter T. Stace., ed., The Teachings of the Mystics, Ibid., pp. 16-17.[Return to Text]

22.) M. Q. Baig, "The Spiritual Ascension of a Sufi Master", Unpublished, 1971, p. 5.[Return to Text]

23.) Garma C. C. Chang, The Practice of Zen (New York, harper & Row, 1959), P. 51. [Return to Text]

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