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In the Zen Buddhist tradition, Zen masters give novice monks a riddle, or koan, to solve. The riddle, however, is intentionally unsolvable. The monk doesn't fully comprehend this at first, so he makes an all-out effort to solve the riddle using the reasoning process of his mind. Every time the monk thinks he has the right answer, he tells the Zen master. But instead of praise he receives a whack from the Zen master's bamboo cane.
By using this method of teaching, the Zen master is trying to push the monk's discursive mind to the breaking point. If a monk is ultimately successful, it is only because his thinking mind finally short-circuits. The moment the mind exhausts itself and shuts down—wham! Satori!
One day after long years of practice on the part of the monk, the Zen master asks for the solution to the riddle yet again. While this time the monk gives an answer that would make little sense to you or me, the Zen master perceives it differently. Instead of smacking the monk with his cane, he just smiles—knowing that the monk has finally attained illumination.
Years ago it occurred to me that I had no objective means of knowing whether what I perceived as "objective" reality was, in fact, objectively real. The philosophy of solipsism holds that no reality exists outside the individual mind. While I was not ready to go that far, I did understand that I could not confirm the existence—or the nonexistence—of objective reality because supposedly objective information was still being processed through my subjective mind.
Such philosophizing tends to annoy people. Were I to state these sentiments to someone, he or she might stomp on my foot, and ask: "Oh, yeah? Is that pain objectively real or not?" I would only annoy them further—and gain a second crippled foot—by stating that there was still no way of knowing. The pain, after all, was subjective. In our normal, or default consciousness there is simply no way to confirm or deny objective reality.
Perception is the essence of mysticism, and that raises an important consideration. If we attain Enlightenment, the enlightened experience itself is, quite literally, subjective. This may account for the different ways mystics describe Ultimate Reality.
It also appears that there are different stages and levels of Enlightenment. The Hindu's experience of Samadhi is described as a state of bliss, and doesn't sound quite like the Zen experience of Satori. And Zen Satori doesn't sound quite like the final Buddhist experience of Nirvana.
Though Hindu, Christian, and Sufi mystics often describe their experience of Ultimate Reality in ecstatic terms, one can also find in their literature the warning not to remain in this state. Buddhists take this for granted. Ecstasy, bliss, is apparently not the highest state of awareness.
If Buddhists pay little attention to states of ecstasy in their literature, it is probably not because they don't experience them, but because ecstasy represents just one more level of consciousness where one can get stuck. After all, ecstatic states of consciousness can be achieved by using psychedelic drugs, but the drug experience is not Enlightenment.
Taoist mystical expression is different yet again. The ancient Taoists wrote about achieving harmony with Tao, the way things are; to go with the flow, not against it. As a consequence, much of Taoist literature, like much of Chan Buddhist literature, is based on becoming completely transparent to the natural order of things. To disappear into Tao, to become nobody, is stressed in all mystical systems, but it is emphasized most often in Taoist poetry.
Jewish mysticism is unique from all other systems. It cannot be properly understood apart from Judaism itself. While the essence of Hindu, Sufi, and Buddhist thought has remained essentially the same over the past two thousand years, Jewish mysticism has taken great leaps in one direction or another during the same period of time.
The earliest period of Jewish mysticism had much in common with Gnostic philosophy. The ecstatic ascent of the soul to the highest realm can be found in both systems during the first millennium of the Common Era. The latest incarnation of Jewish mysticism is Hassidism, and it contains few of the elements found in early Jewish mysticism. Since Jewish mysticism is highly esoteric, it is not easily understood by those who stand outside the tradition of Judaism.
Jewish mysticism today is represented symbolically by the Sephiroth, the inverted Tree of Life—interconnected circles, with names representing levels of consciousness. Each circle represents a focus for attention, and a symbolic method for making spiritual progress. The anonymous author of the book, Toward the One, states:
From Malkuth (Kingdom), the lowest level of awareness... One can rise to Yesod (foundation) by thinking of the body as part of the fabric of the planet; rise to Hod (majesty) by giving up the image of the self, and reach Netsach (perpetuality) by abandoning the mind to its own devices; and reach Tiphereth (adornment-mercy) by emotional sublimation, giving up the notion of the self; and reach Geburah (strength-judgment-power) by abandoning the notion of contingency or entities; and reach Chesed (loving kindness) by overcoming karma by love; and reach Binah (heart/left hemisphere of the brain) by giving up acuity; and reach Dhokma (the mystical state in which all ten Sephirot are united as one) by realizing that the causes of all events are intended to conceal Reality; and reaches Kether (the crown—the most hidden of all hidden things) in the consternation of intelligence. In the noughting of unity one reaches Ain Soph (infinity or nameless being) by ceasing to be.
Though bridges between mystical systems can be hard to build, the similarities of the mystical experience far outweigh the dissimilarities. All mystics describe the experience of Enlightenment as a sense of complete loss of one's ego-identity, and a complete absorption into the One—no matter what words are used to describe the One. The goal of all mysticism is the same.
One Buddhist scholar who tried to bridge the gap between Christian mysticism and Zen Buddhism was D.T. Susuki. He understood that the common goal of both systems was to discover reality beyond form. In his book, Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist, he makes many parallels between the teachings of Meister Eckhart and Zen Buddhism.
Meister Eckhart, himself a Christian monk, summed up his philosophy as follows:
When I preach, I usually speak of detachment and say that a man should be empty of self and all things; and secondly, that he should be reconstructed in the simple good that God is; and thirdly, that he should consider the great aristocracy which God has set up in the soul, such that by means of it man may wonderfully attain to God; and fourthly, of the purity of the divine nature.
One could replace the word God with Buddha-nature in Eckhart's statement, and it wouldn't really much matter. These words are only human constructs that are ultimately empty of meaning. Because the mystical experience itself is ineffable, religions and mystical traditions are limited in being able to describe the nature of the Absolute in words. To some extent, they are like the fabled blind men describing an elephant by touching only one part of it. Mystical language is always metaphorical.
Naming the Unnameable One
That-Which-Is, is beyond name and beyond form. It can be given names, or no name at all. All names for the ultimate ground of being can never be more than metaphors: Ultimate Reality, the Absolute, Universal Mind, Buddha-nature, Brahman, the All, Ain Soph, the Great Spirit, Tao, or the Force. In the end, Lao Tzu, in The Tao Te Ching simply calls it Tao:
The Tao that can be named, is not the everlasting Tao. Names can be given to it, but not the timeless name. As that which stands behind creation, it is nameless. As that which gives birth to creation, it is nameable. Because it is Reality Unseen, we should seek its hidden essence. Because it is Reality Seen, we should seek to understand its manifest nature. Both aspects flow from the same Source. Both are called mysteries, and the mystery of mystery is the gateway to the Essence that lies behind mysteries.
On one occasion when I was present at a conference of progressive Christian academics, the well-known professor of New Testament studies, Marcus Borg (an out-of-the-closet mystic), was pressed by a skeptical peer (an atheist) to define what he meant when he used the word "God." After a little hedging, Borg responded with an invented word: "Is-ness."
This answer only infuriated his inquisitor, who demanded that Borg define "Is-ness." I think the audience knew that Professor Borg was not going to be able to get through to an atheistic academic who was firmly rooted in the reasoning mind.
As for "Is-ness," Buddhists often use a similar word: "Suchness" (Thathagatta) to name the Absolute. Two thousand years ago, the Buddhist sage Ashvaghosha wrote: "Suchness is neither that which is existence nor that which is nonexistence, nor that which is at once existence and nonexistence, nor that which is not at once existence and nonexistence."
Judaism also refused to name God, and simply referred to "Him" as YHWH, which means "I Am That I Am." God is Being itself, and the Kabalistic Ain Soph, in fact, means "nameless being."
Hindus have many names for the source of all Being, but each of them simply refers to different attributes of the Un-nameable One, or Brahman. Brahman, the Godhead, is composed of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Sustainer, and Shiva the Destroyer.
Manifest reality—the Universe—comes into being out of nothing, exists for a certain length of time (trillions of years) and is then destroyed—returning into a state of nothingness, or pure energy and potential—out of which another universe will eventually appear. According to Hinduism, this hide and seek game of God (lila) has been going on for eternity and will continue for eternity.
Apparent Dualism/Qualified Non-Dualism
The relationship between the spiritual lover and Beloved is classical mystical language, but our reality is dualistic. I like to call this our "default reality." The way we normally perceive things is how the Universe reveals itself to us when we are in our "default" consciousness. From a practical point of view, we could not communicate, teach, learn, make love, write books, perform medical procedures, build houses, or even question our own existence if we did not live with the perception of separateness. Our perceived dualistic reality allows us to function as human beings.
Behind appearances, Buddhists and Hindus would argue, everything is ultimately empty of substance. Current quantum theory in physics seems to suggest the same thing. If we put aside for the moment the philosophical intricacies in Buddhist and Hindu thought on the subject, we see that both philosophies claim that while phenomena are real enough, ultimately phenomena are empty of substance. The phenomenal realm is essentially an illusion, or maya.
Ancient Gnostic-Christians came to this same realization. They, however, decided that the world of matter, including the human body, was not just apparent reality, but was essentially evil in nature. According to them, matter was created by an evil demi-god. Gnostics considered the Creator God of the Bible to be evil because his motive for creating humanity was to trap divinity in flesh, and thereby rob us of our divine inheritance. Matter cloaks divinity, and as long as it exists we are led into believing that we are separate from the All.