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.