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There are certain general characteristics of mysticism that are shared by Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, and Christianity. This common ground is a unifying principle that positions the Divine in the midst of all genuine mystical experiences.
A Contrast of the Mystical Elements of Buddism, Taoism, Judaism, and Christianity
Running head: RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS: EAST AND WEST 1Religious Traditions: East and WestA Contrast of the Mystical Elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, and ChristianityDavid GrinsteadAtlantic University
RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS: EAST AND WEST 2Religious Traditions: East and WestA Contrast of the Mystical Elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, and ChristianityThere are certain general characteristics of mysticism that are shared by Buddhism,Taoism, Judaism and Christianity. This common ground is a unifying principle that positions theDivine in the midst of all genuine mystical experiences. This statement from The SecondVatican Council On Non-Christian Religions provides clear insight regarding this empiricaltruth: “From ancient time down to the present there has existed among diverse peoples a certainperception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events ofhuman life…The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true an holy in these religions.” (Fox65)The main point of this commonality is based upon a universal human desire to experienceand enjoy union with the Divine, and it is this seeking and longing for One-ness that is theessence of all mysticism, both Eastern and Western. (Marby 149) The unification experience cannot be rationally explained, yet it is the mysterious cornerstone of the mystical experience. AlbertEinstein provides insightful understanding of the unification experience with this statement:I want to know the mind of God. The rest is all details. The most beautifulexperience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion whichstands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it andcan no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead. (Fox 47)There are different kinds of union which are accompanied by different understandings ofthe object with which union is achieved. Generally nature mystics experience an expression ofunity without a clear content. This is sometimes termed Pantheism which is the “doctrine thatGod, or at least the divine being, is everything and everything is divine.” This may be a mistake
RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS: EAST AND WEST 3because a “simple feeling of unity or exaltation does not necessarily involve any divine being ortheos.” (Parrinder 13)Another type of mystical experience is sometime termed pantheistic, but in reality it ismonistic. In the strictest sense, monism is the belief there is only one universal being, force, orprinciple. (Parrinder 12-15) Monistic mysticism seeks identity with this universal force whichresults in the “obliteration of the distinction between Creator and creature.” (Parrinder 131)Basically the I is God and God is the I.Theistic mysticism seeks union with God, but there remains a distinction between thedivine and the human in this unity. An example is that of marriage in which two, who wereformerly separated, becomes one flesh; yet even with unity some differences remain. (Parrinder14)One major criticism often leveled against mysticism is that it is self-centered and placesan overemphasis on the individual experience at the expense of then needs of the collective. Theindividual may become so concerned with the attainment of self-salvation or a state ofblissfulness that she fails to develop compassion or love for others. A mystical practice void ofcompassion is in reality pseudo-mysticism. The unitive experience (an awareness that all areinter-connected) of an authentic mystical practice will naturally lead the practitioner down thepath of compassion and love. (Fox 63)Some doubt if Theravada Buddhism is a religion and if it is mystical? Early Buddhismseems to be agnostic about God and the soul, so if the “monks rejected the idea of God andsoul,” there can be no unity or mysticism for either. (Parrinder 55) Buddha had many differentexperiences that seem to be mystical, but there was no divine union; however, there seems to
RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS: EAST AND WEST 4have been a self-unity. While Buddha taught that there is no permanent self (anatta), ego, orpersonal survival after death, maybe what he meant was that the self cannot be comprehended.Is it possible that he meant that the self is other than the five constituent elements of thepersonality, and that at death there is an “extinction of desires, not of all being?” (Parrinder 57)Theravanda mysticism is pantheistic in nature and seeks to go beyond the gods to theVoid. It considers its doctrines to be invisible to theists whose minds are “befogged by conceptssuch as good and evil.” This strict reliance of self-power often seeks to save only self. It mayproduce a primary concern for self-isolation and the removal of ego while ignoring the needs ofothers less fortunate. (Parrinder 62)What is taught in theory is often ignored by the religious masses. Where the originalTheravada form was practical and without any concept of eternal reality, over time the faithfulforgot or rejected certain doctrines and became attached to countless images, ceremonies, andobjects of worship and communion with them. “People believe in Buddhas and gods, worshipthem and pray to them, speak of their souls and hope for personal rebirth, mediate little andregard Nirvana as a far distant goal.” (Parrinder 55) Even in Theravada Buddhism “there is notonly the indescribable sate of Nirvana but a communion with Buddha.” (Parrinder 60)Mahayana Buddhism has a great richness and variety n expressions of the supernaturaland can be compared favorably to Christian experiences. It teaches that all beings have theBuddha-nature and are potential Buddhas. It is the Buddha within which makes us long forunion, and the union experience produces Buddha-wisdom. (Parrinder 60-61)This is mystical theism which responds to the previous actions of the deity. The “Buddhain the Lotus Sutra is called Father of the world, the Self-born, the Saviour, Protector of all
RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS: EAST AND WEST 5creatures,” and he seeks to save all of creation via active love which reaches out to bringsalvation to all. The seeker of Buddha-union is responding to divine grace that is the previousactin of a living God. (Parrinder 62-63)Devotion to Buddhas and Bodhisattva is characteristic of Pure Land schools ofMahayana Buddhism, though it affects all schools to some extent, and it showssomething of the potency of Buddhism as a fervent, all-embracing and communalreligion. It is not a mere ethic, but a religion which seeks mystical union.(Parrinder 64-65)The Tao is the undivided Great One that cannot be named or known but can beexperienced through mystical union. To know the Tao and how to live within it was common tothe ancients, but it is the people of Lao Tzu’s time (and ours) who have forgotten this truth andneed to rediscover it. (Marby 150)Taoism is:“…the way of man’s cooperation with the course or trend of the natural world.”That’s it. There is nothing inherently spiritual about it. There is nothing inTaoism that relies on some form of divine revelation, nothing that any sensitivehuman being could not learn by simply observing nature.” (Marby 15)The pure Tao mystical experience is not grounded in world-denial, but is instead a naturemysticism that seeks union through the affirmation of nature and the world. (Parrinder 115)At another level the Tao mystical experience is pantheistic. The Taoists sought to returnto the simplicity of the “Uncarved Block, the Great Concordance, the Great Way, the Mother ofall things, the original harmony of nature” (Parrinder 69) through the use of mystical intuitinand the worship of Tao. By clinging to quietness and pushing out into the Void they tried “touncover the layers of consciousness so that they would arrive at pure consciousness, and see theinner truth of everything.” (Parrinder 68)
RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS: EAST AND WEST 6Because of this seeking after quietness, the effects to overcome self and cleanse oneself,the efforts to obtain truth and happiness, and most of all to have power over self and the world;Taoists were often called Quietists and condemned by critics as those “who walk bythemselves.” (Parrinder 68) There were and are Taoists who interpret the Tao Te Ching as acreed for hermits who withdraw from society. This is not taught by Lao Tzu, but comes fromthe later works of Chuang Tzu who was practically indifferent to society and sought to riseabove the world rather than to reform the world. (Parrinder 69-70) Lao Tzu did not teachpeople to drop out of society, but instead to overcome self first and then to work behind thescenes of society by serving others quietly without calling attention to self.Theistic mysticism is grounded in the reality that the union between humans and Godresults from divine grace and God’s initiation of the mystical experience. The God of Judaismtakes men in his arms, heals them, and “draws them with cords of a man, with bonds of love.”(Parrinder 115)Many claim that Judaism is focused primarily on the transcendental because of itsemphasis on the Wholly Other, but throughout the Bible there are a multitude of examples ofvarying “forms of mystical experience, devotional, speculative and practical: Isaiah speaks ofGod as being high and lifted up, transcendent, but also ‘with him that is of a contrite andhumble spirit,’ immanent. The Psalmists often felt the presence of God. ThomasAquinas…constantly used the words of the Psalmist, ‘Oh taste and see that the Lord is good.’(Parrinder 113) Rabbi Barneet Joseph, in a lecture on Aspects of Jewish Mysticism, declaredthat the ‘Bible is the world’s greatest classic of mysticism.’ (Parrinder 112)
RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS: EAST AND WEST 7I have associates who view the Old Testament as a bloody book with a savage God. Thisview stresses the dark side of the Old Testament at the expense of the light, and both arecontained and balanced throughout. They overlook the reality that the development of bothdoctrine and morality in the Bible correlates with the state of men’s understanding of Godwhich “differs greatly in successive ages, and that men may learn from the past and progress toa better understanding of God. Of course God is always the same, he is unchangeable.”(Parariinder 112)Contrary to Christian doctrines which emphasize the fallen state, Judaism teaches that notonly is man made in God’s image, but ‘You are gods, and all of you are sons of the Most High.’(Psalm 72.6) We are created in the divine image, “by the special love of God,” and “one man isequal all the rest of creation.” World affirming Jewish mysticism is not linked with world denialbut is life-affirming because God made the world and ‘saw that it was good.’ (Parrinder 115)Out of the Jewish experience during medieval times developed schools of practical andspeculative mysticism which evolved into the Cabbalah. Associated with the Cabbalah is a longand complex work called Zohar, ‘Splendour’, which provides an exposition of mysticalspeculation. The Zohar teaches that love is the secret of mystical union and that all levels of theexperience (moral and devotional work) ‘Love unites the highest and lowest stages and liftseverything to the stage where all must be one.’ (Parrinder 117)The most striking example of mystical imagery in the Old Testament is that of the divinemarriage, which is the closest form of unity, and is presented in the story of Hosea (representingGod) and his marriage to a prostitute (representing the nation of Israel). The Song of Solomonis also a classic of mystical imagery considered to represent the passionate love of God for
RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS: EAST AND WEST 8Israel. (Parrinder 114) Both of these examples are sometimes interpreted as representing thepassionate love of God for the soul which many believe is feminine in its essence. This love isalso found in many verses of the Zohar “in expositions of biblical texts, for when ‘Jacob kissesRachel’ (Gen. 29.11) it is the Lord who embraces each holy soul, foundling her and presentinggifts.” (Parrinder 117)Another mystical element of Judaism is the Hasidic movement which was popularized forthe modern world by Martin Buber. Buber teaches that mystical unity with God is not the sameas identity with God. While the experience may feel like an undivided unity, it is in reality ‘anoriginal pre-biographical unity.’ His position is that it is easy to mistake the basic unity in one’sown soul, especially in a pantheistic environment, for identity with the divine Being. “Bubercontradicts those who maintain that I and Thou are superficial, and that deep down there is onlyone primal being without any relationships.” (Parrinder 119)Reflecting back to the days of my youth and growing up on a farm and hunting, fishing,and camping; it is amazing how I never experienced a sense of unity or awe regarding thenatural world. However, after having a mystical awakening and turning my life over to aHigher Power (I was still an agnostic), I was often overwhelmed by the awe of nature. At duskI would go walking around the farm and intense feelings and strange intimate energies ofintimacy would flood my body and overwhelm me. Impressions of God were so real. We wereas one and I felt like I would explode because my body could not contain the love and peacewhich flooded it. Trying to describe the experience, I wrote these thoughts on June 6, 1974:
RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS: EAST AND WEST 9Ocean … a depth fashioned of swirling currents consisting of infinite greatness …an endless force stretching forever into tomorrow.Trash, shells, and life forms coming together for one big party, praying for andbeing preyed upon, life giving unto life.Ocean … life … an analogy in time.Though this was primarily a nature mystical experience and resembled pantheism, it wasnot enough. I sensed the presence of something more standing behind but represented throughmy encounter with nature. Now I understand that twenty-five years ago I was a nature mystic,but now I am a Christian mystic. “For the Christian mystic, pantheism, though closelyresembling the experience of God in the physical world, is ultimately inadequate for it does notallow the equally valid experience of God as transcendent; nor does the impersonal nature of thepantheistic God allow for the personal aspect of god revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth.” (Marby156-157) There is a tension between those two realities of experience and it is a paradox; God ispresent in nature and beyond nature.Christianity differs greatly from Judaism in its doctrines of God (as expressed primarilyin the doctrine of the Trinity) and is more immanetal than Judaism (Parrinder 141-142), but itshares common ground with the Hasidic traditions. This common ground is the love experience,“the experience of ravishing love, of meeting a Divine Lover whose justice is consummate inself-giving love” and the sense of “being saved from something by this love.” (Kelsey 87) Thislove experience is a divine response to the “deepest yearnings of the human spirit fortranscendent meaning and authentic fulfillment, the experience of purification, illumination, andwith the ‘Beautiful Savior’ has succeeded in ennobling every natural sensibility and elevating itinto a means of grace.” (Pelikan 132)
RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS: EAST AND WEST 10At its core, Christianity is concerned primarily with the lived experience. The NewTestament should not be regarded as a doctrinal statement, but as a “living testimony of what theauthors saw, felt and experienced to the depths of their being.” (Marby 148) Christian mysticismis generally treated by the Western Church as a dangerous heresy, but this erroneous thinkingbecause mysticism is “an essential ingredient to vital Christian living.” (Marby 148)The goal and the achievement of Christ-mysticism had been formulated in thewords of the New Testament: “We are God’s children now; it does not yet appearwhat we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for weshall see him as he is” (1 John 3.2) This could be interpreted as the promise thatthe creaturely state of the soul would fly “from the alone to the Alone.” (Pelikan132)Mysticism may result in some people withdrawing from the world, but the doctrine of theIncarnation, which means the marriage of Spirit and Matter, helps check this flight into world-denial.New Testament mysticism is conditioned by the fundamental belief in the love ofGod … the divine initiative. Because of this love of God, Christian mysticalunion looks outward to others and produces loving actions.” (Parrinder 144 &145)Excessive mystical individualism which promotes one’s own private relation to Jesuswhile excluding or at least diminishing that to others is dangerous and ego-inflating. (Pelikan132) “From the Christian point of view, experiences of God that do not bear the fruit ofincreased love are either form the wrong source or have been misused.” (Kelsey 87) Christ-mysticism is not anchored in belief but in relationship: the love of and for God and the love ofand for others.
RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS: EAST AND WEST 11The ultimate mystery to me is how my mystical experiences have resurrected myreligious life:One of the great surprises is that the fire of mysticism can melt even the rigormortis of dogmatism, legalism, and ritualism. By the glance or the touch of thosewhose hearts are burning, doctrine, ethics, and ritual come aglow with the truth,goodness, and beauty of the original fire. The dead letter comes alive, breathingfreedom. “God’s writing engraved on the tablets” is what the uninitiated read inExodus 32:16. But only the consonants are written in the Hebrew text: (chrth).Mystics who happen to be rabbis look at this word and say: Don’t read charath(engraved); read cheruth (freedom)! God’s writing is not “engraved,” it isfreedom. (Steindl-Rast)“Saying more than she realized, a schoolgirl wrote, ‘Many dead animals of the past havechanged into fossils while others have preferred to be oil.’ This’s what mystics prefer, alive ordead, they keep religion afire.” (Steidl-fast)
RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS: EAST AND WEST 12ReferencesBuber, M. (1970) I and Thou. New York: TouchstoneFox, M. (1988) The Coming of the Cosmic Christ: The Healing of Mother Earth and theBirth of A Global Renaissance. San Francisco: Harper & RowKelsey, M. (1996) Companions on the Inner Way: The Art of Spiritual Guidance. NewYork: CrossroadParrinder, G. (1995) Mysticism In The World’s Religions. Oxford: OneworldPelikan, J. (1985) Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture. NewYork: Harper & RowMarby, J. (1994) God As Nature Sees God: A Christian Reading of the Tao Te Ching.Rockport, MA: ElementSmith, H. (1989) The Religions of Man. New York: Harper & RowSteindl-Rast, D. “The Mystical Core of Organized Religion,” Revison, 12 (1) (Summer1989), 11-14.