A reader named Guido posted the following comment on the Christian Mysticism page of this blog:
Does it not occur to us that all “mysticism” is not the same? I came back today from hearing a conference on Christian/catholic mysticism. It spoke of the dark night of the soul and its place in the path of union with God. However, in making her points, the speaker used Buddist quotes. Does this not seem problematic given that the aims of Christianity and Buddhism are not the same. In the former the idea is a union with God understood as intimately connected with His creation and yet distinct from it. He is the creator. In the latter, God is that ultimate reality of consciousness behind the illusionary material world. God is not really a being per se in the Eastern non-Christian traditions. He is not a creator because all of what we see created is a part of the divine whole. Having read through this site, I get the impression that several feel that somehow it is all the same. Why do we persist in that way? Is it not disrespectful to both traditions to insist they are saying the same thing when they are not?
Thanks for this comment, Guido. I agree with your assessment that Christian mysticism celebrates relationship and communion with God “understood as intimately connected with His creation and yet distinct from it.” Likewise, many other types of spirituality seek not so much communion with a creator but union or identity with the monistic “One” — as Plotinus put it, “the flight of the alone to the Alone.” In fact, I would say the single most significant factor differentiating Christian from non-Christian mysticism is this question of whether mysticism is seen as culminating in Divine-human communion or in some sort of boundary-erasing union with the One/All/Brahmin/deity (however you wish to name the Absolute).
However… just because we can easily chart the distinctions between Christian mysticism and, say, Buddhist mysticism, is not to suggest that Christians can never learn from Buddhist wisdom, or apply Buddhist teaching to Christian practice (or vice versa). First of all, I think a measure of humility is in order here: ultimately, whatever we say about mystical experience remains, at best, attempts to put the Mystery into words, which means therefore that there is always an element of paradox, ambiguity, darkness, unknowing, and mystery in and beneath our discourse about mystical experience. Given this, we do well to remember that, no matter how eloquent our ability may be to put into words our understanding of Christian mysticism and how it differs from all the other mysticisms of the world, we might also bear in mind that all of our words ultimately fail to convey the full splendor of the mystery. Which means, quite frankly, that the “difference” between different wisdom traditions or different understandings of mysticism may ultimately be more a matter of our own linguistic and conceptual limitations than of any real ontological divide. Put another way: I think it is wise to understand the differences between wisdom traditions, and I believe it is also wise not to dwell on those differences overly much. After all, if we make it our business to emphasize what divides us, we then remain a divided people. I for one cannot believe that this is really what the Holy Spirit ultimately wants.
My second reason for accepting the use of non-Christian wisdom in exploring Christian mysticism is rather pragmatic. Frankly, true mysticism is such a rare phenomenon that I believe it is important to draw wisdom from every possible source of contemplative or mystical insight. Just because the ends of Christianity and Buddhism may differ does not mean that we cannot find much in the way of common ground. If our ultimately loyalty is to truth rather than to dogma, we must be prepared to recognize truth wherever it occurs, even if it is beyond the doctrinal bounds of our own faith tradition. To me, Christians who rely on Buddhist wisdom are not adulterating Christianity so much as they are ennobling it, by drawing on the riches of wisdom available to us from the east.
Certainly my views may be controversial, and so I will shut up now and, perhaps, some folks will see fit to comment here and perhaps take this conversation further. But let me summarize: yes, indeed, there are real differences, at least on the level of theory, between Christian and Buddhist mysticism, but I see no reason why Christians should therefore avoid Buddhist wisdom. If Buddhist teaching can shed light on our own journey into deeper communion with God, then I say “Bring on the Buddhist wisdom!”