Zen and the Art of Describing World Mysticism

A man named Jason who is currently reading The Big Book of Christian Mysticism writes:

I am only a few chapters in, but I do already have a question. When talking about mystical streams in other religions you bring up Zen in Buddhism. Why Zen? I would think that Vajrayana would be a better fit. It is Vajrayana that Ken Wilbur usually turns to when discussing the great mystical tradition in Buddhism.

It is within Vajrayana that you have the doctrine of Zhen-Tong or “empty of other”. In this view, ultimate nature is empty of everything except Buddha qualities such as love, compassion, etc. This seems a better match to Christian Mysticism.

Also within Vajrayana you have Dzogchen and Mahamudra, which get even closer. Indeed within Dzogchen (specifically Patrul Rinpoche’s commentary to Garab Dorje’s Three statements which you can find included in “The Golden Letters” translated by John Reynolds) you have instructions that read just like the Centering Prayer instructions or the method laid down in The Cloud of Unknowing. Within the Dzogchen practice of Thogyal you have the spontaneous appearance of lights that is remarkably similar to the Hesychasts “Uncreated Light”.

It may be the case that Vajrayana is a bit complex ritual wise, at least on the surface, and thus maybe a better fit for the term “esoteric” rather than “mystic”. It is not any more complex than Khabbalah, which you give as the example of Jewish mysticism.

Jason is referring to the fact that, at several points in the book when I am comparing Christian mysticism to the “mysticisms” of other faiths, I describe Zen as “Buddhist mysticism.” Here, for example, is the opening paragraph of chapter five:

What makes Christian mysticism so, well, Christian? What is the difference between it and all the other mysticisms out there—including Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), Sufism (Islamic mysticism), Vedanta (Hindu mysticism), Zen (Buddhist mysticism), and shamanism (indigenous mysticism)?

So, then, here is my reply to Jason…

In all humility I must admit that, merely on the basis of his email, Jason’s  knowledge of Vajrayana far exceeds my own. In describing Zen as “Buddhist mysticism,” I did not mean to imply that Zen is the only or  best school of mysticism within Buddhism. Arguably, Buddhism as a whole is nothing if not a mystical philosophy. For that matter, describing Kabbalah as “Jewish mysticism”  has its own problems: some Jewish scholars eschew the concept of mysticism altogether, seeing as a Greco-Christian concept that does not need to be imported into Judaism.

So please forgive my poetic imprecision! I hope readers will see that I mention Zen, Sufism, and so forth, merely to establish that mysticism is a word often applied to spiritualities outside of Christianity. But of course, my list of “world mysticisms” is never exhaustive, nor even meant to be anything other than an acknowledgement that mysticism appears in many diverse ways across the planet. Since this is a book about Christian mysticism, that is really the only topic I treat with any depth. It would take an entirely new book to truly plumb the depth and variety of mysticism in a global sense.

Anyone up for writing The Big Book of World Mysticism? I’m afraid it isn’t going to be me; my knowledge of the topic is simply too limited. But I sure would love to see such a book come along.

Faith, Doubt and Perseverance
Five Approaches to InterSpirituality
Is Mysticism Genetic?
Entering the Year of Mercy: Are You Willing to Take the "Rahner Challenge"?
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • http://heartofflame.blogspot.com Yewtree

    ** sigh ** I want to buy the book, but it’s not available in the UK yet :(

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

      Alas, I’m afraid that’s something I have no control over. I could send you one from the Abbey Store, but I’m afraid the postage would be ridiculous — book plus postage would cost about £24. When Amazon.co.uk finally does get it, it will cost only about half that! Hopefully it won’t be too much longer.

  • http://nemo235.wordpress.com nemo235

    the big book of World Mysticism, would actualy bee ten volumes, long at about a thousand pages, and would probably take five writers about 20 years to complete. lol

  • http://www.raxweblog.blogspot.com Paul Rack

    I can get books sent to NJ from Amazon.co.uk. Does it not work in the reverse just as well?

  • http://www.raxweblog.blogspot.com Paul Rack

    I am interested that you seem to go with the “mysticism is a Greek influence on Christianity” thing, if I am reading you right. I am curious as to why you don’t say much (yet, anyway) about the influence of Jewish mysticism on early Christianity. This influence was mainly apocalyptic/eschatological. It seems to me that this is a more fruitful stream given that the apostles were all way more Jewish than they were Greek. You seem to be at least unintentionally maintaining the (in my view artificial) wall between mysticism and apocalyptic, which I think is mainly a product of Christendom. There is a very interesting web-site on this called “Jewish Roots of Early Christian Mysticism” or something like that.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Paul, thanks for your interesting comment. As I said above, the argument has been made by Jewish scholars that there is no such thing as “Jewish mysticism,” and I would tend to support that position. Consider this quotation from Joseph Dan in The Heart and the Fountain:

    The term mysticism does not have a Hebrew equivalent, and the concept, which developed in Christianity since the third century, has never been defined within Judaism. Using this term consists of the imposition of a foreign category by modern scholars on the vast body of Jewish spiritual literature, declaring — each scholar following his own individual definition — some texts as analogical to what in Christianity is regarded as “mystical.”

    With this in mind, I don’t see how the Merkabah tradition, or Jewish apocalypticism, or any other aspect of Jewish spirituality can necessarily be construed as “mystical,” certainly in the classical Christian sense of the mystery of Christ as set forth in the New Testament, and the later contemplative tradition of katharsis, theoria, and theosis. Having said that, I’d love to learn more about your perspective. Should you care to say more on how you see a necessary connection there (and why you believe Christendom severed this link), I’m all ears (or, er, all eyes, since I’ll be reading rather than listening!).

  • http://www.raxweblog.blogspot.com Paul Rack

    I guess it depends upon how narrowly or specifically one defines “mysticism.” (Some say there is no Jewish “mythology” either….) Check out http://www.marquette.edu/maqom/. You probably know about it already but there is a long list of interesting articles there basically arguing for a natural connection between Jewish apocalyptic/mysticism and early Christian mysticism.

  • Rustantio

    Fr. William Johnston, SJ books series, it lovely intercultural mysticism research all so,

    William Johnston, SJ, is a Jesuit theologian who has written extensively on Zen and Christian contemplation. He is based at Sophia University in Tokyo.

  • http://heartofflame.blogspot.com Yewtree

    @ Paul – yes I could order it from Amazon.com

    Christian occultism was influenced by Kabbalah in the Renaissance, but that’s obviously 1500 years after the period in question. There was also a lot of interplay between the 3 monotheisms in the Muslim period in Spain.

  • http://heartofflame.blogspot.com Yewtree

    For the benefit of any other UK readers, it turns out it’s only about £1 more expensive to order the book via Amazon.com.

    The book price is $14, which is £10, and postage is £5, whereas the price for the book on Amazon.co.uk is £14.

    So I will review it when I get round to reading it, which will be when I finish Karen Armstrong’s A History of God.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

      Thanks for the tip. And if anyone wishes to order it via Amazon.com, please use the following link, as it will generate a modest commission for me: http://www.tinyurl.com/BBOCM-CM


  • Rustantio

    Mr Carl, i am waiting for Indonesian version of The Big Book of Christian Mysticism
    The popular Indonesian Catholic publisher is Kanisius. http://www.kanisiusmedia.com.
    Open Mind Open Heart by Thomas Keating and Teology Mistic by William Johnston has been translated in Indonesian by Kanisius, i hope your book is soon as posible :)

  • http://christcenteredprayer.com sandy casey-martus

    what makes christian mysticism “christian” is the way/path/life process of transformation in christ, jesus (personal/historic) and beyond to the mystery the impersonal…jesus called (abba) and beyond even that. one aspires to the consciousness of one’s master and attains that consciousness and transcends even its finest relative value. this is not the rejection of any piece of the tradition rather the acknowledgment that there is certainly “reality” that is beyond the mind’s ability to reflect or any sense experience. consciousness rises in awareness. one can be aware of consciousness and that one is conscious, but one cannot be “conscious of awareness. ” for christians (note.. this is not to be arrogant…just practical and functional…one who has chosen a christian path and been initiated into that path and chosen to commit to that path, teacher etc…i am speaking now of an adult decision) christ consciousness may be realized (often through contemplative practices over time with fidelity, commitment, determination etc…)as a gift. as such it is received not acquired. there is no reason for the divine to with hold. preparation is necessary, readiness, and willingness to “go the mile” of total surrender of the personal sense of an individual separate “self.” when this is realized (from within not in reading books) the “mystic” is simply a realized expression of the divine living an extraordinary and compassionate life in a most ordinary way …depending on call.
    take care and good to chat…my first time…