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Mysticism is "a constellation of distinctive practices, discourses, texts, institutions, traditions, and experiences aimed at human transformation, variously defined in different traditions."[web 1]
The term "mysticism" has Ancient Greek origins, with various, historically determined meanings.[web 2][web 1] Derived from the Greek μυω, meaning "to conceal",[web 1] it referred to the biblical, the liturgical and the spiritual or contemplative dimensions in early and medieval Christianity, and became associated with "extraordinary experiences and states of mind" in the early modern period.
In modern times, "mysticism" has acquired a limited definition,[web 2] but a broad application,[web 2] as meaning the aim at the "union with the Absolute, the Infinite, or God".[web 2] This limited definition has been applied to include a worldwide range of religious traditions and practices.[web 2]
Parson warns that "what might at times seem to be a straightforward phenomenon exhibiting an unambiguous commonality has become, at least within the academic study of religion, opaque and controversial on multiple levels". The definition, or meaning, of the term "mysticism" has changed throughout the ages.[web 2]
...the expression of the innate tendency of the human spirit towards complete harmony with the transcendental order; whatever be the theological formula under which that order is understood.[note 1][note 2]
Parson stresses the importance of distinguishing between
...episodic experience and mysticism as a process that, though surely punctuated by moments of visionary, unitive, and transformative encounters, is ultimately inseparable from its embodied relation to a total religious matrix: liturgy, scripture, worship, virtues, theology, rituals, practice and the arts.
According to Gellmann,
Typically, mystics, theistic or not, see their mystical experience as part of a larger undertaking aimed at human transformation (See, for example, Teresa of Avila, Life, Chapter 19) and not as the terminus of their efforts. Thus, in general, ‘mysticism’ would best be thought of as a constellation of distinctive practices, discourses, texts, institutions, traditions, and experiences aimed at human transformation, variously defined in different traditions.[web 1][note 3]
McGinn argues that "presence" is more accurate than "union", since not all mystics spoke of union with God, and since many visions and miracles were not necessarily related to union. He also argues that we should speak of "consciousness" of God's presence, rather than of "experience", since mystical activity is not simply about the sensation of God as an external object, but more broadly about
...new ways of knowing and loving based on states of awareness in which God becomes present in our inner acts.
D.J. Moores too mentions "love" as a central element:
Mysticism, then, is the perception of the universe and all of its seemingly disparate entities existing in a unified whole bound together by love.
Related to the idea of "presence" instead of "experience" is the transformation that occurs through mystical activity:
This is why the only test that Christianity has known for determining the authenticity of a mystic and her or his message has been that of personal transformation, both on the mystic's part and—especially—on the part of those whom the mystic has affected.
Belzen and Geels also note that mysticism is
...a way of life and a 'direct consciousness of the presence of God' [or] 'the ground of being' or similar expressions.
Some authors emphasize that mystical experience involves intuitive understanding and the resolution of life problems. According to Larson,
A mystical experience is an intuitive understanding and realization of the meaning of existence – an intuitive understanding and realization which is intense, integrating, self-authenticating, liberating – i.e., providing a sense of release from ordinary self-awareness – and subsequently determinative – i.e., a primary criterion – for interpreting all other experience whether cognitive, conative, or affective.
And James R. Horne notes:
[M]ystical illumination is interpreted as a central visionary experience in a psychological and behavioural process that results in the resolution of a personal or religious problem. This factual, minimal interpretation depicts mysticism as an extreme and intense form of the insight seeking process that goes in activities such as solving theoretical problems or developing new inventions.[note 4][note 6]
William James, who popularized the use of the term "religious experience"[note 7] in his The Varieties of Religious Experience,[web 1] influenced the understanding of mysticism as a distinctive experience which supplies knowledge of the transcendental.[web 1] He considered the "personal religion" to be "more fundamental than either theology or ecclesiasticism", and states:
In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime or creed. In Hinduism, in Neoplatonism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, in Whitmanism, we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity which ought to make a critic stop and think, and which bring it about that the mystical classics have, as been said, neither birthday not native land.
According to McClenon, mysticism is
The doctrine that special mental states or events allow an understanding of ultimate truths. Although it is difficult to differentiate which forms of experience allow such understandings, mental episodes supporting belief in "other kinds of reality" are often labeled mystical [...] Mysticism tends to refer to experiences supporting belief in a cosmic unity rather than the advocation of a particular religious ideology.[web 3]
According to Blakemore and Jennett,
Mysticism is frequently defined as an experience of direct communion with God, or union with the Absolute,[note 8] but definitions of mysticism (a relatively modern term) are often imprecise and usually rely on the presuppositions of the modern study of mysticism — namely, that mystical experiences involve a set of intense and usually individual and private psychological states [...] Furthermore, mysticism is a phenomenon said to be found in all major religious traditions.[web 4][note 9]
In the Hellenistic world, 'mystical' referred to "secret" religious rituals[web 1] The use of the word lacked any direct references to the transcendental. A "mystikos" was an initiate of a mystery religion.
In early Christianity the term "mystikos" referred to three dimensions, which soon became intertwined, namely the biblical, the liturgical and the spiritual or contemplative. The biblical dimension refers to "hidden" or allegorical interpretations of Scriptures.[web 1] The liturgical dimension refers to the liturgical mystery of the Eucharist, the presence of Christ at the Eucharist.[web 1] The third dimension is the contemplative or experiential knowledge of God.
This threefold meaning of "mystical" continued in the Middle Ages. Under the influence of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite the mystical theology came to denote the investigation of the allegorical truth of the Bible. Pseudo-Dionysius' Apophatic theology, or "negative theology", exerted a great influence on medieval monastic religiosity, although it was mostly a male religiosity, since woman were not allowed to study. It was influenced by Neo-Platonism, and very influential in Eastern Orthodox Christian theology. In western Christianity it was a counter-current to the prevailing Cataphatic theology or "positive theology". It is best known nowadays in the western world from Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross.
Luther dismissed the allegorical interpretation of the bible, and condemned Mystical theology, which he saw as more Platonic than Christian. "The mystical", as the search for the hidden meaning of texts, became secularised, and also associated with literature, as opposed to science and prose.
Science was also distinguished from religion. By the middle of the 17th century, "the mystical" is increasingly applied exclusively to the religious realm, separating religion and "natural philosophy" as two distinct approaches to the discovery of the hidden meaning of the universe. The traditional hagiographies and writings of the saints became designated as "mystical", shifting from the virtues and miracles to extraordinary experiences and states of mind, thereby creating a newly coined "mystical tradition". A new understanding developed of the Divine as residing within human, an essence beyond the varieties of religious expressions.
In the 19th century the meaning of mysticism was considerably narrowed:[web 2]
The competition between the perspectives of theology and science resulted in a compromise in which most varieties of what had traditionally been called mysticism were dismissed as merely psychological phenomena and only one variety, which aimed at union with the Absolute, the Infinite, or God—and thereby the perception of its essential unity or oneness—was claimed to be genuinely mystical. The historical evidence, however, does not support such a narrow conception of mysticism.[web 2]
Under the influence of Perennialism, which was popularised in both the west and the east by Unitarianism, Transcendentalists and Theosophy, mysticism has acquired a broader meaning, in which all sorts of esotericism and religious traditions and practices are joined together.
The term mysticism has been extended to comparable phenomena in non-Christian religions,[web 2] where it influenced Hindu and Buddhist responses to colonialism, resulting in Neo-Vedanta and Buddhist modernism.
In the contemporary usage "mysticism" has become an umbrella term for all sorts of non-rational world views. William Harmless even states that mysticism has become "a catch-all for religious weirdness". Within the academic study of religion the apparent "unambiguous commonality" has become "opaque and controversial". The term "mysticism" is being used in different ways in different traditions. Some call to attention the conflation of mysticism and linked terms, such as spirituality and esotericism, and point at the differences between various traditions.
Many religious and mystical traditions see religious experiences (particularly that knowledge that comes with them) as revelations caused by divine agency rather than ordinary natural processes. They are considered real encounters with God or gods, or real contact with higher-order realities of which humans are not ordinarily aware. Nevertheless, the notion of "religious experience" or "mystical experience" as marking insight into religious truth is a modern development.
The term "mystical experience" has become synonymous with the terms "religious experience", spiritual experience and sacred experience. A "religious experience" is a subjective experience which is interpreted within a religious framework. The concept originated in the 19th century, as a defense against the growing rationalism of western society. William James popularized the use of the term "religious experience" in his The Varieties of Religious Experience. It has also influenced the understanding of mysticism as a distinctive experience which supplies knowledge of the transcendental.[web 1]
Wayne Proudfoot traces the roots of the notion of "religious experience" further back to the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), who argued that religion is based on a feeling of the infinite. The notion of "religious experience" was used by Schleiermacher to defend religion against the growing scientific and secular critique. It was adopted by many scholars of religion, of which William James was the most influential.
A broad range of western and eastern movements have incorporated and influenced the emergence of the modern notion of "mystical experience", such as the Perennial philosophy, Transcendentalism, Universalism, the Theosophical Society, New Thought, Neo-Vedanta and Buddhist modernism.
The interplay between western and eastern notions of religion is an important factor in the popularisation of the notion of "mystical experience". In the 19th century, when Asian countries were colonialised by western states, a process of cultural mimesis began. In this process, Western ideas about religion, especially the notion of "religious experience" were introduced to Asian countries by missionaries, scholars and the Theosophical Society, and amalgamated in a new understanding of the Indian and Buddhist traditions. This amalgam was exported back to the West as 'authentic Asian traditions', and acquired a great popularity in the west. Due to this western popularity, it also gained authority back in India, Sri Lanka and Japan.
The best-known representatives of this amalgamated tradition are Annie Besant (Theosophical Society), Swami Vivekenanda and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (Neo-Vedanta), Anagarika Dharmapala, a 19th-century Sri Lankan Buddhist activist who founded the Maha Bodhi Society, and D.T. Suzuki, a Japanese scholar and Zen-Buddhist. A synonymous term for this broad understanding is nondualism. This mutual influence is also known as the pizza effect.
The understanding of "mysticism" as an experience of unity with the divine is reflected in a famous comment by Freud on the "oceanic feeling". In response to The Future of an Illusion (1927) Romain Rolland wrote to Sigmund Freud:
By religious feeling, what I mean—altogether independently of any dogma, any Credo, any organization of the Church, any Holy Scripture, any hope for personal salvation, etc.—the simple and direct fact of a feeling of 'the eternal' (which may very well not be eternal, but simply without perceptible limits, and as if oceanic). This feeling is in truth subjective in nature. It is a contact.[web 5]
Rolland derived the notion of an "oceanic feeling" from various sources. He was influenced by the writings of Baruch Spinoza, who criticized religion but retained "the intellectual love of God". Rolland was also influenced by Indian mysticism, on which he wrote The Life of Ramakrishna (1929/1931) and The Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel (1930/1947).[web 5]
In the first chapter of Civilization and Its Discontents (1929/1930) Freud describes this notion, and then remarks that he doesn't know this feeling himself. He then goes on to locate this feeling within primary narcissism and the ego ideal. This feeling is later reduced to a "shrunken residue" under the influence of reality.[web 5]
The notion of "experience" has been criticised. Robert Sharf points out that "experience" is a typical Western term, which has found its way into Asian religiosity via western influences.[note 10] The notion of "experience" introduces a false notion of duality between "experiencer" and "experienced", whereas the essence of kensho is the realisation of the "non-duality" of observer and observed. "Pure experience" does not exist; all experience is mediated by intellectual and cognitive activity. The specific teachings and practices of a specific tradition may even determine what "experience" someone has, which means that this "experience" is not the proof of the teaching, but a result of the teaching. A pure consciousness without concepts, reached by "cleaning the doors of perception",[note 11] would be an overwhelming chaos of sensory input without coherence.
Other critics point out that the stress on "experience" is accompanied with favoring the atomic individual, instead of the shared life on the community. It also fails to distinguish between episodic experience, and mysticism as a process, that is embedded in a total religious matrix of liturgy, scripture, worship, virtues, theology, rituals and practices.
Richard King also points to disjunction between "mystical experience" and social justice:
The privatisation of mysticism – that is, the increasing tendency to locate the mystical in the psychological realm of personal experiences – serves to exclude it from political issues as social justice. Mysticism thus becomes seen as a personal matter of cultivating inner states of tranquility and equanimity, which, rather than seeking to transform the world, serve to accommodate the individual to the status quo through the alleviation of anxiety and stress.
Various religious practices include:
|This article possibly contains original research. (December 2013)|
The following table briefly summarizes the major forms of mysticism within world religions and their basic concepts. Inclusion is based on various definitions of mysticism, namely mysticism as a way of transformation, mysticism as "enlightenment" or insight, and mysticism as an experience of union.
|Host religion||Form of mysticism||Basic concept||Sources of information|
|Buddhism||Shingon, Vajrayana, Zen||Attainment of Nirvana, Satori, Bodhi, union with Mahamudra or Dzogchen|||
|Christianity||Catholic spirituality, Quaker tradition, Christian mysticism, Gnosticism||Spiritual enlightenment, Spiritual vision, the Love of God, union with God (Theosis)|||
|Hinduism||Vedanta, Yoga, Bhakti, Kashmir Shaivism||Liberation from cycles of Karma (moksha), self-realization (atma-jnana), non-identification (Kaivalya), experience of ultimate reality (Samadhi), Innate Knowledge (Sahaja and Svabhava)|||
|Islam||Sunni, Shia, Sufism||Innate belief in God (Fitra); Fana (Sufism); Baqaa.|||
|Jainism||Moksha||Liberation from cycles of Karma|||
|Judaism||Kabbalah, Hasidism||Abnegation of the ego, Ein Sof|||
|Sikhism||–||Merging with God, liberation from cycles of Reincarnation|||
|Taoism||–||Te: connection to ultimate reality|||
The Eleusinian Mysteries, (Greek: Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια) were annual initiation ceremonies in the cults of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, held in secret at Eleusis (near Athens) in ancient Greece. The mysteries began in about 1600 B.C. in the Mycenean period and continued for two thousand years, becoming a major festival during the Hellenic era, and later spreading to Rome.
The High Middle Ages saw a flourishing of mystical practice and theorization corresponding to the flourishing of new monastic orders, with such figures as Guigo II, Hildegard of Bingen, Bernard of Clairvaux, the Victorines, all coming from different orders, as well as the first real flowering of popular piety among the laypeople.
The Late Middle Ages saw the clash between the Dominican and Franciscan schools of thought, which was also a conflict between two different mystical theologies: on the one hand that of Dominic de Guzmán and on the other that of Francis of Assisi, Anthony of Padua, Bonaventure, and Angela of Foligno. This period also saw such individuals as John of Ruysbroeck, Catherine of Siena and Catherine of Genoa, the Devotio Moderna, and such books as the Theologia Germanica, The Cloud of Unknowing and The Imitation of Christ.
Moreover, there was the growth of groups of mystics centered around geographic regions: the Beguines, such as Mechthild of Magdeburg and Hadewijch (among others); the Rhineland mystics Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler and Henry Suso; and the English mystics Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton and Julian of Norwich. The Spanish mystics included Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Ignatius Loyola.
The later post-reformation period also saw the writings of lay visionaries such as Emanuel Swedenborg and William Blake, and the foundation of mystical movements such as the Quakers. Catholic mysticism continued into the modern period with such figures as Padre Pio and Thomas Merton.
The philokalia, an ancient method of Eastern Orthodox mysticism, was promoted by the twentieth century Traditionalist School. The inspired or "channeled" work A Course in Miracles represents a blending of non-denominational Christian and New Age ideas.
Kabbalah is a set of esoteric teachings meant to explain the relationship between an unchanging, eternal and mysterious Ein Sof (no end) and the mortal and finite universe (his creation). Inside Judaism, it forms the foundations of mystical religious interpretation.
Kabbalah originally developed entirely within the realm of Jewish thought. Kabbalists often use classical Jewish sources to explain and demonstrate its esoteric teachings. These teachings are thus held by followers in Judaism to define the inner meaning of both the Hebrew Bible and traditional Rabbinic literature, their formerly concealed transmitted dimension, as well as to explain the significance of Jewish religious observances.
Kabbalah emerged, after earlier forms of Jewish mysticism, in 12th to 13th century Southern France and Spain, becoming reinterpreted in the Jewish mystical renaissance of 16th-century Ottoman Palestine. It was popularised in the form of Hasidic Judaism from the 18th century onwards. 20th-century interest in Kabbalah has inspired cross-denominational Jewish renewal and contributed to wider non-Jewish contemporary spirituality, as well as engaging its flourishing emergence and historical re-emphasis through newly established academic investigation.
|Sufism and Tariqa|
[A] science whose objective is the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God.
A practitioner of this tradition is nowadays known as a ṣūfī (صُوفِيّ), or, in earlier usage, a dervish. The origin of the word "Sufi" is ambiguous. One understanding is that Sufi means wool-wearer- wool wearers during early Islam were pious ascetics who withdrew from urban life. Another explanation of the word "Sufi" is that it means 'purity'.
Sufis generally belong to a Khalqa, a circle or group, led by a Sheikh or Murshid. Sufi circles usually belong to a Tariqa, literally a path, a kind of lineage, which traces its succession back to notable Sufis of the past, and often ultimately to the prophet Muhammed or one of his close associates. The turuq (plural of tariqa) are not enclosed like Christian monastic orders; rather the members retain an outside life. Membership of a Sufi group often passes down family lines. Meetings may or may not be segregated according to the prevailing custom of the wider society. An existing Muslim faith is not always a requirement for entry, particularly in Western countries.
Sufi practice includes
The aims of Sufism include: the experience of ecstatic states (hal), purification of the heart (qalb), overcoming the lower self (nafs), the development of extrasensory and healing powers, extinction of the individual personality (fana), communion with God (haqiqa), and higher knowledge (marifat). Some sufic beliefs and practices have been found unorthodox by other Muslims; for instance Mansur al-Hallaj was put to death for blasphemy after uttering the phrase Ana'l Haqq, "I am the Truth" (i.e. God) in a trance.
Notable classical Sufis include Jalaluddin Rumi, Fariduddin Attar, Saadi Shirazi and Hafez, all major poets in the Persian language. Omar Khayyam, Al-Ghazzali and Ibn Arabi were renowned scholars. Abdul Qadir Jilani, Moinuddin Chishti, and Bahauddin Naqshband founded major orders, as did Rumi. Rabia Basri was the most prominent female Sufi.
Sufism first came into contact with the Judea-Christian world during the Moorish occupation of Spain. An interest in Sufism revived in non-Muslim countries during the modern era, led by such figures as Inayat Khan and Idries Shah (both in the UK), Rene Guenon (France) and Ivan Aguéli (Sweden). Sufism has also long been present in Asian countries that do not have a Muslim majority, such as India and China.
Buddhism is the religion based on the teachings of Gautama Siddartha. The main goal in Buddhism is not some sort of "union", but insight into reality, which leads to liberation. The path to liberation may include several practices, including meditation.[note 13].
In classical Indian Buddhism, which survives in altered form in Theravada, this insight is believed to lead to the cessation by suffering reaching Nirvana, thereby being freed from samsara. East-Asian (Chinese) Mahayana Buddhism, emphasizes insight into the Buddha-nature, the innate capacity of all sentient beings to attain Buddhahood, non-duality of absolute and relative reality, and Bodhicitta, compassion for the benefit of all sentient beings. Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes the Madhyamaka-teachings of sunyata, but places equal emphasis on bodhicitta.
Buddhism has developed several branches and philosophies throughout its history, and offers various paths to liberation. The classic path is the Noble Eightfold Path, but others include Oath of Purification, the Bodhisattva path, Lamrim and subitism.
A central term in Buddhism is "enlightenment", the "full comprehension of a situation".[web 6] The English term "enlightenment" has commonly been used to translate several Sanskrit, Pali,[web 7] Chinese and Japanese terms and concepts, especially bodhi, prajna, kensho, satori and buddhahood. Bodhi is a Theravada term. It literally means "awakening" and "understanding". Someone who is awakened has gained insight into the workings of the mind which keeps us imprisoned in craving, suffering and rebirth,[web 6] and has also gained insight into the way that leads to nirvana, the liberation of oneself from this imprisonment. Prajna is a Mahayana term. It refers to insight into our true nature, which according to Madhyamaka is empty of a personal essence in the stream of experience. But it also refers to the Tathāgata-garbha or Buddha-nature, the essential basic-consciousness beyond the stream of experience. In Zen, kensho means "seeing into one's true nature". Satori is often used interchangeably with kensho, but refers to the experience of kensho.
[means] full awakening; buddhahood. The ultimate goal of Buddhist practice, attained when all limitations have been removed from the mind and one's positive potential has been completely and perfectly realized. It is a state characterized by infinite compassion, wisdom and skill.[web 9]
Many branches of Buddhism hold Gautama Siddartha was not unique, and that there were former, and will be future Buddhas. One of the main themes of Mahayana, a later development of Buddhism, is its emphasis on Boddhisattvas, individuals who delay their own entry to nirvana in order to assist in the salvation of other beings. Therevada, the older form, has the somewhat different concept of Arhats, loosely translated as "saints".
Various schools of Buddhist philosophy discern levels of truth, reflecting a polarity of "absolute" and "relative" truth. A fully enlightened life asks for the integration of these two levels of truth in daily life.
The two truths doctrine states that there is:
Vajrayana, literally the "Diamond Vehicle" is a form of Buddhism originating in India, but currently best known in its Tibetan form. Vajrayana is influenced by Tantra, in that it uses a wide variety of methods,or "skillful means", including mantras, visualisations and rituals. Vajrayana Buddhism is esoteric, in the sense that the transmission of certain teachings only occurs directly from teacher to student during an initiation or empowerment and cannot be simply learned from a book.
Dzogchen literally meaning "the great completeness", or the "great perfection", is a body of teachings within the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. It holds that "mind-nature" (sems nyid) is the abiding condition (gnas lugs) of every mind. It is manifested when one is enlightened, being nonconceptually aware (rigpa, "open presence") of one's nature, "a recognition of one's beginningless nature." It is an ever-present background or undercurrent to ordinary mental activity, and seeking for transcendence externally is therefore futile: instead, the practitioner should "realise the nature of [their own] mind".
Dzogchen as a system is regarded as being advanced and requiring preliminary preparations, although it lacks the complexities of many systems. Patrul Rinpoche describes it as "at once simple and profound". Dzogchen practitioners aim to attain rigpa, the awareness of the Ground, and integrate this into their daily life. As Sogyal Rinpoche writes:
The practical training of the Dzogchen path is traditionally, and most simply, described in terms of View, Mediation and Action. To see directly the Absolute state, the Ground of our being is the View; the way of stabilising that view, and making it an unbroken experience is Meditation; and integrating the View into our entire reality, and life, is what is meant by Action.
Zen aims at insight one's true nature, or Buddha-nature. In Soto, this Buddha-nature is regarded to be ever-present, and shikan-taza, sitting meditation, is the expression of the already existing Buddhahood. Rinzai-zen emphasises the need for a break-through insight in this Buddha-nature.
The Rinzai-Zen tradition stresses the need of further training after attaining kenshō. Practice is to be continued to deepen the insight and to express it in daily life. To deepen the initial insight of kensho, shikantaza and kōan-study are necessary. This trajectory of initial insight followed by a gradual deepening and ripening is expressed by Linji Yixuan in his Three mysterious Gates, the Four Ways of Knowing of Hakuin, and the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures which detail the steps on the Path.
According to Hakuin, the main aim of "post-satori practice" (gogo no shugyo, or kojo, "going beyond") is to cultivate the "Mind of Enlightenment", "benefiting others by giving them the gift of the Dharma teaching".[note 14] According to Yamada Koun, "if you cannot weep with a person who is crying, there is no kensho".
But one also has to purify oneself by ongoing practice. And "experience" has to be supplemented by intellectual understanding and study of the Buddhist teachings; otherwise one remains a zen temma, a "Zen devil". Finally, these efforts are to result in a natural, effortless, down-to-earth state of being, the "ultimate liberation", "knowing without any kind of defilement".
Hinduism has a number of interlinked ascetic traditions and philosophical schools which aim at moksha and the acquisition of higher powers. With the onset of the British colonisation of India, those traditions came to be interpreted in western terms such as "mysticism", drawing equivalents with western terms and practices. These western notions were taken over by Indian elites, and popularised as Neo-Vedanta, in which the notion of "spiritual experience" as validation of "religious knowledge" plays an essential role. As Charles Eliot stated in 1921:
More than other religions, Hinduism appeals to the soul's immediate knowledge and experience of God. It has sacred books innumerable but they agree in little but this, that the soul can come into contact and intimacy with its God, whatever name be given him and even if he be superpersonal. The possibility and truth of this experience is hardly questioned in India and the task of religion is to bring it about, not to promote the welfare of tribes and states but to effect the enlightenment and salvation of souls.
Yoga is the physical, mental, and spiritual practices or disciplines which originated in ancient India with a view to attain a state of permanent peace. The term yoga can be derived from either of two roots, yujir yoga (to yoke) or yuj samādhau (to concentrate). The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali defines yoga as "the stilling of the changing states of the mind". Yoga has also been popularly defined as "union with the divine" in other contexts and traditions.
Various traditions of yoga are found in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. In Hinduism, yoga is one of the six āstika ("orthodox") schools of Hindu philosophy. Yoga is also an important part of Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.
In the vedantic and yogic paths, the shishya or aspirant is usually advised to find a guru, or teacher, who may prescribe spiritual exercises (siddhis) or be credited with the ability to transmit shakti, divine energy.
Classical Vedanta gives philosophical interpretations and commentaries of the Upanishads, a vast collection of ancient hymns. Vedanta originally meant the Upanishads. By the 8th century, it came to mean all philosophical traditions concerned developed by interpreting the three basic texts, namely the Upanishads, the Brahman Sutras and the Bhagavadgita. At least ten schools of Vedanta are known, of which Advaita Vedanta, Vishishtadvaita, and Dvaita are the best known.
Advaita Vedanta is a branch of Vedanta which states that there is no difference between Atman and Brahman. The best-known subschool is Kevala Vedanta or mayavada as expounded by Adi Shankara. Shankara's interpretation was influenced by Buddhism[note 15] It was reformulated by Shankara who systematised the works of preceding philosophers. In modern times, due to the influence of western Orientalism and Perennialism on Indian Neo-Vedanta and Hindu nationalism, Advaita Vedanta has acquired a broad acceptance in Indian culture and beyond as the paradigmatic example of Hindu spirituality.
Shankara emphasizes anubhava, correct understanding of the sruti, which is supposed to lead to mukti, liberation from endless cycles of reincarnation. In modern times, the term anubhava has been reinterpreted by Vivekananda and Radhakrisnan as meaning "religious experience" or "intuition".[web 10]
[T]he sages of the Upanishads believed in a supra-conscious experience of pure self-illumination as the ultimate principle, superior to and higher than any of our mental states of cognition, willing, or feeling. The nature of this principle is itself extremely mystical; many persons, no doubt, are unable to grasp its character.
Contemporary Advaita teachers warn against a rush for superficial "enlightenment experiences. Jacobs warns that Advaita Vedanta practice takes years of committed practice to sever the "occlusion" of the so-called "vasanas, samskaras, bodily sheats and vrittis", and the "granthi[note 16] or knot forming identification between Self and mind":
The main Neo-Advaita fallacy ignores the fact that there is an occlusion or veiling formed by vasanas, samskaras, bodily sheaths and vrittis, and there is a granthi or knot forming identification between Self and mind, which has to be severed [...] The Maharshi's remedy to this whole trap is persistent effective Self-enquiry, and/or complete unconditional surrender of the 'phantom ego' to Self or God, until the granthi is severed, the vasanas are rendered harmless like a burned out rope.
And according to Puligandla:
Any philosophy worthy of its title should not be a mere intellectual exercise but should have practical application in enabling man to live an enlightened life. A philosophy which makes no difference to the quality and style of our life is no philosophy, but an empty intellectual construction.
Tantra is the name given by scholars to a style of meditation and ritual which arose in India no later than the fifth century AD. Tantra has influenced the Hindu, Bön, Buddhist, and Jain traditions and spread with Buddhism to East and Southeast Asia.
Tantric ritual seeks to access the supra-mundane through the mundane, identifying the microcosm with the macrocosm. The Tantric aim is to sublimate (rather than negate) reality. The Tantric practitioner seeks to use prana (energy flowing through the universe, including one's body) to attain goals which may be spiritual, material or both.
Mysticism in the Sikh dharm began with its founder, Guru Nanak, who as a child had profound mystical experiences. Guru Nanak stressed that God must be seen with 'the inward eye', or the 'heart', of a human being. Guru Arjan, the fifth Sikh Guru, added religious mystics belonging to other religions into the holy scriptures that would eventually become the Guru Granth Sahib.
In Sikhi there is no dogma but only the search for truth. Sikhs meditate as a means to progress towards enlightenment; it is devoted meditation simran that enables a sort of communication between the Infinite and finite human consciousness.
The goal of Sikhi is to be one with God. For the Sikhs there is no concentration on the breath but chiefly the remembrance of God through the recitation of the name of God. Sikhs are instructed to recite the name of God (Waheguru) 24 hours a day and surrender themselves to Gods presence often metaphorized as surrendering themselves to the Lord's feet.
There are no priests, monastics or yogis in the Sikh dharm and these mystic practices are not limited to an elite few who remove themselves from the world. Rather, Sikhs do not renounce the world and the participation in ordinary life is considered spiritually essential to the Sikh.
Taoism is a Chinese philosophy, religion and body of practices founded on the teachings of Laozi and Zhuangzi. Taoist philosophy is centered on the Tao, usually translated "Way", an ineffable cosmic principle:
The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
Taoists seek to enter a state of harmony with reality in which action takes place without effort or struggle, a state known a wei wu wei, or doing without doing. The contrasting yet interdependent concepts of yin and yang also symbolise harmony, with Taoist scriptures often emphasing the Yin virtues of femininity, passivity and yieldingness.
Taoist practice includes exercises and rituals aimed at manipulating the life force Qi, and obtaining health and longevity (extending to physical immortality: the Taoist pantheon includes Xian, or immortals). These have been elaborated into practices such as Tai chi, which are well known in the west. Taoist philosophy has also been promoted in the west by such figures as Alan Watts, whilst religious Taoism, with its temples and priestly hierarchy, remains Chinese.
The Perennial philosophy (Latin: philosophia perennis),[note 17] also referred to as "perennialism", is a perspective within the philosophy of religion which views each of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single, universal truth on which foundation all religious knowledge and doctrine has grown.
The term philosophia perennis was first used by Agostino Steuco (1497–1548), drawing on an already existing philosophical tradition, the most direct predecessors of which were Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–94).
A major proponent in the 20th century was Aldous Huxley, who "was heavily influenced in his description by Vivekananda's neo-Vedanta and the idiosyncratic version of Zen exported to the west by D.T. Suzuki. Both of these thinkers expounded their versions of the perennialist thesis", which they originally received from western thinkers and theologians.
According to the Perennial Philosophy the mystical experiences in all religions are essentially the same. It supposes that many, if not all of the world's great religions, have arisen around the teachings of mystics, including Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tze, and Krishna. It also sees most religious traditions describing fundamental mystical experience, at least esoterically.
According to Steindl-Rast, this common core of mystical experience may be repressed by institutional religion. Conventional religions, by definition, have strong institutional structures, including formal hierarchies and mandated sacred texts and/or creeds. Personal experience may be a threat to these structures.[web 11]
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) was a pioneer of the idea of spirituality as a distinct field. He was one of the major figures in Transcendentalism, an early 19th-century liberal Protestant movement, which was rooted in English and German Romanticism, the Biblical criticism of Herder and Schleiermacher, and the skepticism of Hume.[web 1] The Transcendentalists emphasised an intuitive, experiential approach of religion.[web 12] Following Schleiermacher, an individual's intuition of truth was taken as the criterion for truth.[web 12] In the late 18th and early 19th century, the first translations of Hindu texts appeared, which were also read by the Transcendentalists, and influenced their thinking.[web 12] They also endorsed universalist and Unitarianist ideas, leading to Unitarian Universalism, the idea that there must be truth in other religions as well, since a loving God would redeem all living beings, not just Christians.[web 12][web 13]
The Theosophical Society was formed in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott, William Quan Judge and others to advance the spiritual principles and search for Truth known as Theosophy.[note 18] The Theosophical Society has been highly influential in promoting interest, both in west and east, in a great variety of religious teachings:
"No single organization or movement has contributed so many components to the New Age Movement as the Theosophical Society [...] It has been the major force in the dissemination of occult literature in the West in the twentieth century.
The Theosophical Society searched for 'secret teachings' in Asian religions. It has been influential on modernist streams in several Asian religions, notably Hindu reform movements, the revival of Theravada Buddhism, and D.T. Suzuki, who popularized the idea of enlightenment as insight into a timeless, transcendent reality.[web 14][web 15] Another example can be seen in Paul Brunton's A Search in Secret India, which introduced Ramana Maharshi to a western audience.
The New Thought movement is a spiritually focused or philosophical interpretation of New Thought beliefs. New Thought promotes the ideas that Infinite Intelligence, or God, is everywhere, spirit is the totality of real things, true human selfhood is divine, divine thought is a force for good, sickness originates in the mind, and "right thinking" has a healing effect.[web 16][web 17]
New Thought was propelled along by a number of spiritual thinkers and philosophers and emerged through a variety of religious denominations and churches, particularly the Unity Church, Religious Science, and Church of Divine Science. The Home of Truth, which belongs to the New Thought movement has, from its inception as the Pacific Coast Metaphysical Bureau in the 1880s, disseminated the teachings of the Hindu teacher Swami Vivekananda.[web 18]
According to Ernest Holmes, who belongs to the New Thought movement,
A mystic is not a mysterious person; but is one who has a deep, inner sense of Life and Unity with the Whole; mysticism and mystery are entirely different things; one is real while the other may, or may not, be an illusion. There is nothing mysterious in the Truth, so far as It is understood; but all things, of course, are mysteries until we understand them.
The Fourth Way is a term used by George Gurdjieff to describe an approach to self-development he learned over years of travel in the East that combined what he saw as three established traditional "ways," or "schools" into a fourth way. These three ways were of the body, mind and emotions. The term "The Fourth Way" was further developed by P. D. Ouspensky in his lectures and writings. According to this system, the chief difference between the three traditional schools, or ways, and the fourth way is that "they are permanent forms which have survived throughout history mostly unchanged, and are based on religion. Where schools of yogis, monks or fakirs exist, they are barely distinguishable from religious schools. The fourth way differs in that it is not a permanent way. It has no specific forms or institutions and comes and goes controlled by some particular laws of its own."
The Fourth Way mainly addresses the question of people's place in the Universe, their possibilities for inner development, and transcending the body to achieve a higher state of consciousness. It emphasizes that people live their lives in a state referred to as "waking sleep", but that higher levels of consciousness and various inner abilities are possible. The Fourth Way teaches people how to increase and focus their attention and energy in various ways, and to minimize daydreaming and absentmindedness. The Fourth Way is an "in the world" practice, which rejects retreats and other forms of seclusion; its central concentrative technique, self remembering, is to be practised, as far as possible, under all circumstances. According to fourth way teaching, inner development in oneself is the beginning of a possible further process of change, whose aim is to transform a man into what Gurdjieff taught he ought to be.
In the 19th century perennialism gained popularity as a model for perceiving similarities across a broad range of religious traditions. William James, in his The Varieties of Religious Experience, was highly influential in further popularising this perennial approach and the notion of personal experience as a validation of religious truths.
Since the 1960s, debate has continued on "the question of whether mysticism is a human experience that is the same in all times and places but explained in many ways, or a family of similar experiences that includes many different kinds, as represented by the many kinds of religious and secular mystical reports". The first stance is perennialism or essentialism, while the second stance is social constructionism or contextualism.
The essentialist model argues that mystical experience is independent of the sociocultural, historical and religious context in which it occurs, and regards all mystical experience in its essence to be the same. According to this "common core-thesis", different descriptions can mask quite similar if not identical experiences:
[P]eople can differentiate experience from interpretation, such that different interpretations may be applied to otherwise identical experiences".
The contextualist model states that mystical experiences are shaped by the concepts "which the mystic brings to, and which shape, his experience". What is being experienced is being determined by the expectations and the conceptual background of the mystic. Critics of the "common-core thesis" argue that
[N]o unmediated experience is possible, and that in the extreme, language is not simply used to interpret experience but in fact constitutes experience.
Principal representants of the perennialist position are Walter Terence Stace, who distinguishes extroverted and introverted mysticism, in response to R. C. Zaehner's distinction between theistic and monistic mysticism; Huston Smith; and Ralph W. Hood, who conducted empirical research using the "Mysticism Scale", which is based on Stace's model.[note 19] The principal representant of the construction position is Steven T. Katz, who, in a series of publications,[note 20] has made a highly influential and compelling case for the constructionist approach.
William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience is the classic study on religious or mystical experience, which influenced deeply both the academic and popular understanding of "religious experience".[web 1] He popularized the use of the term "religious experience"[note 21] in his "Varieties",[web 1] and influenced the understanding of mysticism as a distinctive experience which supplies knowledge of the transcendental:[web 1]
Under the influence of William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience, heavily centered on people's conversion experiences, most philosophers' interest in mysticism has been in distinctive, allegedly knowledge-granting “mystical experiences.”"[web 1]
James emphasized the personal experience of individuals, and describes a broad variety of such experiences in his The Varieties of Religious experience. He considered the "personal religion" to be "more fundamental than either theology or ecclesiasticism",[note 22] and defines religion as
...the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude , so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.
According to James, mystical experiences have four defining qualities:
William James recognised the broad variety of mystical schools and conflicting doctrines both within and between religions. Nevertheless,
...he shared with thinkers of his era the conviction that beneath the variety could be carved out a certain mystical unanimity, that mystics shared certain common perceptions of the divine, however different their religion or historical epoch,
According to Harmless, "for James there was nothing inherently theological in or about mystical experience", and felt it legitimate to separate the mystic's experience from theological claims. Harmless notes that James "denies the most central fact of religion", namely that religion is practiced by people in groups, and often in public. he also ignores ritual, the historicity of religious traditions, and theology, instead emphasizing "feeling" as central to religion.
R. C. Zaehner distinguishes three fundamental types of mysticism, namely theistic, monistic and panenhenic ("all-in-one") or natural mysticism. The theistic category includes most forms of Jewish, Christian and Islamic mysticism and occasional Hindu examples such as Ramanuja and the Bhagavad Gita. The monistic type, which according to Zaehner is based upon an experience of the unity of one's soul,[note 23] includes Buddhism and Hindu schools such as Samhya and Advaita vedanta. Nature mysticism seems to refer to examples that do not fit into one of these two categories.
Zaehner considers theistic mysticism to be superior to the other two categories, because of its appreciation of God, but also because of its strong moral imperative. Zaehner is directly opposing the views Aldous Huxley. Natural mystical experiences are in Zaehner's view of less value because they do not lead as directly to the virtues of charity and compassion. Zaehner is generally critical of what he sees as narcissistic tendencies in nature mysticism.[note 24]
Zaehner has been criticised by a number of scholars for the "theological violence" which his approach does to non-theistic traditions, "forcing them into a framework which privileges Zaehner's own liberal Cathilicism."
Zaehner has also been criticised by Walter Terence Stace in his book Mysticism and philosophy (1960) on similar grounds. Stace argues that doctrinal differences between religious traditions are inappropriate criteria when making cross-cultural comparisons of mystical experiences.
Stace distinguished two types of mystical experience, namely extrovertive and introvertive mysticism. Extrovertive mysticism is an experience of unity within the world, whereas introvertive mysticism is "an experience of unity devoid of perceptual objects; it is literally an experience of 'no-thing-ness'". The unity in extrovertive mysticism is with the totality of objects of perception; the unity in introvertive mysticism is with a pure conscousness, devoid of objects of perception. Stace's categories of "introvertive mysticism" and "extrovertive mysticism" are derived from Rudolf Otto's "mysticism of introspection" and "unifying vision".
According to Hood, the introvertive mystical experience may be a common core to mysticism independent of both culture and person, forming the basis of a "perennial psychology". According to Hood,
[E]mpirically, there is strong support to claim that as operationalized from Stace's criteria, mystical experience is identical as measured across diverse samples, whether expressed in "neytral language" or with either "God" or "Christ" references.
According to Hood,
...it seems fair to conclude that the perennialist view has strong empirical support, insofar as regardless of the language used in the M Scale, the basic structure of the experience remains constant across diverse samples and cultures. This is a way of stating the perennialist thesis in measurable terms.
Katz rejects the discrimination between experiences and their interpretations. Katz argues that it is not the description, but the experience itself which is conditioned by the cultural and religious background of the mystic. According to Katz, it is not possible to have pure or unmediated experience. In an often-cited quote he states:
There are NO pure (i.e. unmediated) experiences. Neither mystical experience nor more ordinary forms of experience give any indication, or any ground for believing, that they are unmediated [...] The notion of unmediated experience seems, if not self-contradictory, at best empty. This epistemological fact seems to me to be true, because of the sort of beings we are, even with regard to the experiences of those ultimate objects of concern with which mystics have had intercourse, e.g., God, Being, Nirvana, etc.[note 25]
Andrew B. Newberg and Eugene G. d'Aquili, in their book Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, take a perennial stance, describing their insights into the relationship between religious experience and brain function. d'Aquili describes his own meditative experiences as "allowing a deeper, simpler part of him to emerge", which he believes to be "the truest part of who he is, the part that never changes." Not content with personal and subjective descriptions like these, Newman and d'Aquili have studied the brain-correlates to such experiences. They scanned the brain blood flow patterns during such moments of mystical transcendence, using SPECT-scans, to detect which brain areas show heightened activity. Their scans showed unusual activity in the top rear section of the brain, the "posterior superior parietal lobe", or the "orientation association area (OAA)" in their own words. This area creates a consistent cognition of the physical limits of the self. This OAA shows a sharply reduced activity during meditative states, reflecting a block in the incoming flow of sensory information, resulting in a perceived lack of physical boundaries. According to Newman and d'Aquili,
This is exactly how Robert and generations of Eastern mystics before him have described their peak meditative, spiritual and mystical moments.
Newman and d'Aquili conclude that mystical experience correlates to observable neurological events, which are not outside the range of normal brain function. They also believe that
...our research has left us no choice but to conclude that the mystics may be on to something, that the mind’s machinery of transcendence may in fact be a window through which we can glimpse the ultimate realness of something that is truly divine.[note 26]
Why God Won't Away "received very little attention from professional scholars of religion".[note 27][note 28] According to Bulkeley, "Newberg and D'Aquili seem blissfully unaware of the past half century of critical scholarship questioning universalistic claims about human nature and experience".[note 29] Matthew Day also notes that the discovery of a neurological substrate of a "religious experience" is an isolated finding which "doesn't even come close to a robust theory of religion".
In the widest sense, mysticism is every guidance to the immediate awareness of what is not reached by either perception or conception, or generally by any knowledge. The mystic is opposed to the philosopher by the fact that he begins from within, whereas the philosopher begins from without. The mystic starts from his inner, positive, individual experience, in which he finds himself as the eternal and only being, and so on. But nothing of this is communicable except the assertions that we have to accept on his word; consequently he is unable to convince.
Meditator: It suddenly seemed as if I was surrounded by an immensely powerful Presence. I felt that a Truth had been "revealed" to me that was far more important than anything else, and for which I needed no further evidence. But when later I tried to describe this to my friends, I found that I had nothing to say except how wonderful that experience was.
This peculiar type of mental state is sometimes called a "Mystical Experience" or "Rapture," "Ecstasy," or "Bliss." Some who undergo it call it "wonderful," but a better word might be "wonderless," because I suspect that such a state of mind may result from turning so many Critics off that one cannot find any flaws in it.
What might that "powerful Presence" represent? It is sometimes seen as a deity, but I suspect that it is likely to be a version of some early Imprimer that for years has been hiding inside your mind. In any case, such experiences can be dangerous—for some victims find them so compelling that they devote the rest of their lives to trying to get themselves back to that state again.
Minsky's idea of 'some early Imprimer hiding in the mind' was an echo of Freud's belief that mystical experience was essentially infantile and regressive, i.e., a memory of 'Oneness' with the mother.
"The truths of the ṛṣis are not evolved as the result of logical reasoning or systematic philosophy but are the products of spiritual intuition, dṛṣti or vision. The ṛṣis are not so much the authors of the truths recorded in the Vedas as the seers who were able to discern the eternal truths by raising their life-spirit to the plane of universal spirit. They are the pioneer researchers in the realm of the spirit who saw more in the world than their followers. Their utterances are not based on transitory vision but on a continuous experience of resident life and power. When the Vedas are regarded as the highest authority, all that is meant is that the most exacting of all authorities is the authority of facts."[web 10]
This stance is echoed by Ken Wilber: "The point is that we might have an excellent population of extremely evolved and developed personalities in the form of the world's great mystic-sages (a point which is supported by Maslow's studies). Let us, then, simply assume that the authentic mystic-sage represents the very highest stages of human development—as far beyond normal and average humanity as humanity itself is beyond apes. This, in effect, would give us a sample which approximates "the highest state of consciousness"—a type of "superconscious state." Furthermore, most of the mystic-sages have left rather detailed records of the stages and steps of their own transformations into the superconscious realms. That is, they tell us not only of the highest level of consciousness and superconsciousness, but also of all the intermediate levels leading up to it. If we take all these higher stages and add them to the lower and middle stages/levels which have been so carefully described and studied by Western psychology, we would then arrive at a fairly well-balanced and comprehensive model of the spectrum of consciousness."
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