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The Essential Mystics, Poets, Saints, and Sages
A Wisdom Treasury
By Richard Hooper
The Perennial Philosophy
Mysticism is not merely an adjunct to a religion, nor is it a religion unto itself. It is, rather, what Aldous Huxley called The Perennial Philosophy, the viewpoint and doorway that leads to the path that ends in union with Ultimate Reality, or the Ground of All Being. Mysticism is the attempt to gain direct experience of Ultimate Reality through achieving a state of consciousness that Eastern religions call "Enlightenment."
Most mystical traditions evolved out of formal religions, or at least within a specific religious milieu. There were, of course, the ancient Greek mystic philosophers like Pythagoras, Plato, Democritus, and Plotinus. Even the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria held ideas similar to those found in Hinduism and Buddhism.
Still, these men were philosophers, and philosophers approach the problem of existence from the outside, while mystics turn within themselves for answers. Philosophers can theorize that "All is One," yet they cannot experience the Reality itself unless they follow the path of the mystics.
The word "mysticism" means different things to different people, but in this book it will refer only to the inner-directed effort of the individual to realize complete union with the Absolute—to realize our already existing Oneness with all things, or Ultimate Reality.
This Ultimate Reality, the mystics tell us, is both immanent—pervading all that exists in the phenomenal world—and transcendent—pervading all universes and whatever lies beyond all universes. According to most mystics, this "God," if you will, is entirely impersonal and may or may not even be aware of Itself. The "Ground of Being" may or may not be Self-conscious.
The cosmology associated with mysticism is monistic rather than dualistic. In mysticism, there is only one Reality in the universe, not two. "God" alone exists. But "God" is not simply equal to all that exists (pantheism), but is also beyond all things (pan-en-theism). The Absolute contains all things, but it is simultaneously beyond all things. It is immanent and transcendent simultaneously.
Mysticism is the realm of higher consciousness and altered reality. The All may be known only when the individual mystic—the ego-self—completely disappears, so all that remains is the One.
Anyone who has lived long enough on this planet to observe history and human nature can easily be frustrated that religion—indeed, all human endeavors—has not succeeded in making the world what it could be. We can have sympathy for the mindset of the biblical author of Ecclesiastes who declared twenty-three hundred years ago that all human endeavors are, in the end, vanity.
Were it not for this recognition, this disappointment with the world, mysticism might never have arisen in any religion—for it is this very frustration that leads some to conclude that if we cannot change the world, we can change our perception of it.
Both the Buddha and Jesus understood the human condition and the nature of the illusory world. While they counseled their followers to heal the sick and feed the hungry, they also told them that they should not expect to find happiness in this illusory realm. Instead of trying to change the world, they taught, we should turn inward in an effort to change ourselves.
Ironically, it is only when interior illumination is finally attained that one suddenly perceives the world in an entirely different way—as transformed! The Kingdom of God, Jesus said, has always been here—both within us and all around us—we simply haven't been capable of seeing it. And it is only when our eyes are completely open that we become fully capable of having compassion for all living beings.
One thing we may perceive in growing older is that good and evil are inextricably mixed. Knowledge, happiness, success, and perfection turn out to be idealized illusions. The Buddha was correct: suffering is the human condition, or at least one aspect of it. And the Buddha would also agree that traditional—religious, political, or social—approaches to ending suffering will always fail.
In the end we cannot change how the universe works. If we still want to be happy in life, we are left with only one option: change ourselves; that is, change our own perception of the world. Mysticism holds out the possibility that with enough insight into the nature of Reality, we might just discover that all things are as they should be—the way they are meant to be, if not the way we would prefer them to be.
The Kingdom of God is not something outside of ourselves; it has been within us all along. The Kingdom of God is not some perfect utopia yet to come. It is here, now; it is within us and all around us. But we can only enter it when we develop mystical eyes to see and ears to hear. The Kingdom becomes evident the moment our perception of Reality changes.
In my experience the Kingdom is real, for I've been there and seen it for myself. Many years ago I had an abrupt and totally unexpected change of consciousness that lasted a full week, and it was the result of an act of utter surrender to divine will. At the time my personality was such that it didn't take a lot to push my buttons. I was often defensive, grumpy, and judgmental. But in this altered state of consciousness, nothing—literally nothing—could upset me. Not only did I not express anger, there was no anger to express. Anger itself did not exist in my consciousness. I had but a single attitude and a single response to everything that happened around me: unconditional love and unbearable compassion for every living being.
This consciousness ended abruptly after seven straight days, and I understood then, as I understand now, that I had experienced an instance of cosmic grace. Grace allowed me to experience firsthand what life would be like all the time if only my consciousness were permanently altered. This consciousness is the pearl of great price to which Jesus referred. For Hindus and Buddhists, it is the jewel within the lotus. It seems to me that the personal quest for such a treasure is the most worthy goal of any life.
I was a religious person at the time this event took place. Quite possibly I would not have had this experience had it not been for my religious faith. But the experience itself transcended all religious doctrines and dogmas.
We hardly need to be reminded about the limitations of religion. Throughout history religions have caused wars, fostered terrorism in small and great ways, and very often killed their own prophets and mystics.
Marguerite Porete, quoted earlier, was a fourteenth century Roman Catholic nun. She was also a mystic, and that led to her being burned at the stake by the Inquisition in 1310 C.E. The evidence against her was her own book, The Mirror of Simple Souls, in which she was audacious enough to suggest a non-dualistic universe, and to describe how the soul could unite with the Divine.
But without religion, Jesus, the Buddha, Saint Francis, and Mahatma Gandhi might never have graced this earth. Religions have always been the ferries that deliver to our shores the profound insights of humanity's spiritual giants.
Since the mystical experience transcends religious dogma and allows one to have direct insight into the nature of Reality, we should not be surprised that the essential understanding of all true mystics is, in all the most important ways, identical. And since these men and women came from different religions and cultures, neither should we be surprised that they used, and continue to use, different religious metaphors to describe their understanding of Ultimate Reality.
Thus, the validity of the mystical experience is confirmed not by differences, but by what mystics hold in common. William James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience, states that overcoming "...all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states we become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystic tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime and creed.
"In Hinduism, in Neo-Platonism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, all these men and women overcame all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute. Nothing less than the unification of the individual with its Source of Being was, for them, a passionate necessity."
Many students of religious texts assume that those mystics in Hindu, Sufi, Christian, (and even Jewish) traditions who use the metaphor of the "lover" and "the Beloved" were, by definition, dualists. After all, the metaphor of lover and Beloved seems to suggest both a subject and an object. But this is a wrong assumption. I believe that the mystics' own words in this book will irrefutably demonstrate that they were all monists, not dualists—for the realization of Oneness is the very nature of the mystical experience.
There are those who would disagree, but I believe that the various philosophical differences between one mystical tradition and another are ultimately irrelevant and unimportant. All true mystics seek union with the All. They also recognize that physical phenomena are, essentially, illusory. All mystics also recognize that the only way to reach their goal of union with the One is through the sacrifice of their own ego-identity.
It should not matter that different mystics use different metaphors and cultural/religious language to describe their interpretation of the Absolute. No matter what name mystics choose to use when speaking of Ultimate Reality, be it "God," "Brahman," "Buddha-nature," "Nirvana," or the "Beloved," they are all talking about the same Reality.
That some mystics, whether Jews, Christians, Sufi Muslims, or Hindus, use "God language," while Buddhists and Taoists do not, is really irrelevant. When we are speaking about the abstract and impersonal aspect of the Supreme, we call it the Absolute. When we want to emphasize the Absolute as a self-aware, self-blissful being, we might use the word "God."
That which is Real is beyond all names and all conceptions of personality and impersonality. The attempt to give That-Which-Is any name at all reflects the inadequacy of all terms and definitions. If we use the word "God," while the implication seems personal, it refers to the basis of all that exists, and is the goal of all. The "personality" of the Godhead is nothing more than a metaphor and a symbol, and if we ignore its symbolic nature we miss the truth.
Though religions themselves seem divisive, the opposite is the case for religious mystics. No matter what religious tradition the mystic comes from, he or she speaks not of division, but of unity. Such spiritual giants have unshakable faith in the supremacy of Spirit, together with invincible optimism, ethical universalism, and religious toleration.
Cultural and religious influences, however, are not the only reason some mystics use metaphorical, dualistic language. The case of Marguerite Porete is but one example of how dangerous it is to be a mystic within dualistic religious traditions. For this reason, mystics within Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions have sometimes found it necessary to use coded language to describe their experiences. In theory, this (dualistic) coded language serves as protection against heresy hunters. But using the metaphor of the lover and the Beloved to describe one's relationship to the All doesn't always work.
The Sufi Muslim mystic Abu Yazid, who died in 875 C.E., was able to get away with writing about the extinction of the empirical self as the mystic melts into God. He further dared to write that one achieves this union with God, not necessarily by prostrating oneself and praying to Allah, but by self-control—ascetic and contemplative practices which ultimately lead to a state wherein all consciousness of one's own individuality as separate from God is lost. Less than a century later, however, another great Sufi mystic, Al Hallaj, was both crucified and beheaded for daring to proclaim his identity with Allah.
The Lover and the Beloved
The metaphor of the Lover-Beloved parallels the Hindu concept of Atman-Brahman. Atman, or Self—the localized divinity within—is Brahman, or God. When the "Lover" (the individuated divine Self) melts into the Beloved, only the Beloved remains. Once Atman is fully recognized as identical to Brahman, only Brahman remains. Duality, for mystics, is an illusion.
Christian and Sufi mystics use "God language" because they are comfortable with it, and while Hindus refer to Brahman as "God," Brahman is not a deity in any true sense of the word. Brahman is the wholly impersonal Absolute. Christian and Sufi mystics use the term "God" in the same way.
While the Christian or Sufi mystic's ultimate goal is no different from that of a Buddhist or Hindu, there are differences between their metaphors, emphasis, philosophy, and practice. The writings of Christian and Sufi mystics—and in many cases, Hindus as well—are often ecstatic in nature. The human traits of passion and emotion are common to Christian, Sufi, Jewish, and Hindu mystical literature, whereas they seem less present in Taoism and Buddhism.
There are several reasons for these differences, and they are all essentially philosophical. Hindus may "worship" different gods like Shiva or Vishnu or Ishvara, but their expression of devotion is not really polytheistic. The Godhead of Brahman describes Brahman's function: Brahma represents the Creator of life, Vishnu the Sustainer, and Shiva the Destroyer.
Tibetan Buddhism may be similarly misunderstood given its devotion to a pantheon of deities. This may seem paradoxical since Buddhists do not believe in a theistic God.
But when mystic ecstasy and the personified metaphor of "God" or the "Beloved" is missing, spiritual poetry is often missing as well. Hymns and prayers to the Beloved seem to be highly emotional. Buddhism discourages emotions in favor of achieving equanimity of mind, so it has no foundation for ecstatic poetry. Likewise, Buddhism rejects the metaphor of the Beloved—believing (falsely, in my opinion) it to be a theistic term.
Chan Buddhists of China and Zen Buddhists of Japan, on the other hand, are masters of haiku-like, intentionally cryptic, poetry written in such a way as to force the reader to use the intuitive, not the discursive, mind. Since ancient Chinese Taoism had a major influence on Buddhism when it first came to China, there are parallels between Taoist and Zen poetry.
Buddhists also refer to the Absolute as the "Void" or Sunyata. By definition, Buddhism is—at least metaphorically—nihilistic, and nihilism is hardly an incubator for poetry. Still, Chan and Zen Buddhist literature is often poetic. Consider the words of the Third Chinese patriarch of Zen:
The Great Way (Tao) is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the slightest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
This particular Buddhist text is quite beautiful prose, partly due to the particular translation, and partly due to the influence of Taoism. Taoist poetry also lacks ecstatic language, but the verses attributed to Lao Tzu in The Tao Te Ching, as well as those written by other early Taoists, are often highly poetic. If these poems are not ecstatic in nature, they still give us a sense of the sublime.
The Nature of Perception
Although Buddhists are atheistic, the historical Buddha never specifically denied the existence of "God." He simply had no use for ontological debate on the subject. He pointed out that philosophizing about the nature of Reality was pointless; it did not relieve suffering. For the Buddha, the most important goal was to discover the nature of the mind that perceives Reality!
Just as Jesus used parables to encourage his listeners to access their intuitive minds, the Buddha did not tell his disciples what the true nature of mind is. Instead, he encouraged them to find out for themselves. Using a dialectic form of teaching, the Buddha rejected every answer about the nature of mind that came from intellectual reasoning rather than from direct insight.