Eastern Mysticism



         The way of Hinduism reaches back three thousand years, and its religious life culminates in the mystical union with the Absolute. The Hindu scriptures are resplendent with teachings leading to Union with God, but there is no way to know who actually wrote those early texts. The better-known books are The Rig Veda, the Bhagavad Gita, the Mahabharata, and the Upanishads.

         Hinduism’s attitude toward life is practical and realistic. It recognizes the toil and trouble of life, and also the joy and success that come with it. But eventually every human being comes to realize with Simone Weil “that there is no true good here below, that everything that appears good in this world is finite, limited, wears out, and once worn out leaves necessity exposed in all its nakedness.” We all seek pleasure, success, and dutiful living, but the point eventually comes when these things lose their original grandeur, and we ask if this is the ultimate that life has to offer. Hinduism recognizes that what we really want is liberation from the countless limitations that press so closely to our earthly existence.

         Liberation brings infinite being, knowledge, and joy. Not only are these things within reach, Hinduism teaches they are already ours. Huston Smith writes: “Underlying man’s personality and animating it is a reservoir of being that never dies, is never exhausted, and is without limit in awareness and bliss. This infinite center of every life, this hidden self or Atman, is no less than Brahman, the Godhead. . . .The answer, say the Hindus, lies in the extent to which the Eternal is buried under the almost impenetrable mass of distractions, false ideas, and self-regarding impulses that comprise our surface being. A lamp may be so covered with dust and dirt that its light will be invisible. The problem life puts to man is to cleanse the dross of his being to the point where its infinite center will be fully manifest.”

         The path to liberation and transcendental union is through a method of training called yoga. There is not just one path, but four, and each address a person’s individual nature. Jnana Yoga is intended for spiritual aspirants who have a strong intellectual bent. Bhakti yoga is based on devotion and love of God. Karma Yoga stresses one’s work, which diminishes self-centeredness. Raja yoga is “the royal road to reintegrating,” or the way to God through deep meditation. India also distinguishes between four periods of life: childhood, student, householder, and the period of retirement. The latter years of life are better suited for seeking spiritual knowledge since the affairs of life have mostly been attended to; the aspirant is now free to follow his goal toward spiritual enlightenment. The yogi leaves loved ones and home behind, and sets out with little more than a begging bowl. They are a common sight in India, and are usually treated with respect as holy men.

         While similarities remain between Western mystical views and Eastern mysticism, the big difference is in what role God plays in both traditions. One can say that the Christian God is a personal deity, although separate from the individual, and that the Hindu God is an impersonal Being within the Self. Hinduism refers to God as the Absolute, or Brahman. Through asceticism and meditation, one can rise to Selfhood, or Brahman, which is sought within the Soul. The Christian mystic empties the self of all content allowing God to enter. The Hindu mystic merges his consciousness with the infinite Void or Absolute.

         Regarding the finite ego Radhakrishnan observes that: “This spiritual consciousness is not a metaphysical fantasy but one that can be realized by each of us. In this transcendental consciousness, where the body is still, the mind attains quiescence, and thought comes to rest, we are in contact with the pure spirit of which the states of waking, dream, and sleep are imperfect articulations.” In regard to the self he says: “The self is the silent eternal witness, a light which no power can extinguish, whose attributes are truth and beauty, peace and wisdom, our true being which we do not perceive on account of the cloud of ignorance which covers our eyes. We can, however, see it in the empty space of the heart, in the bare room of the inner man. When the interior darkness is illuminated there is the reflection in our consciousness of that principle which is the foundation of our life, which by its continuous presence sustains the broken part of life and correlates them. It is the mysterious depth in which the spirit turns back on itself, its most secret dimension.” In the state of perfect union the soul is transformed to God and becomes Atman; thus, Brahman is Atman, “That art thou.”

         One of the main philosophical trends in Hinduism is known as the Vedanta. Several streams of thought emerge from Vedantism, of which one is referred to as non-dualistic. While God enters the soul for an intimate communion with the saint in Christianity, God is also a separate entity with an existence apart from the mystic, hence the dualistic nature associated with Christian mysticism. In the East, the world is a manifestation of God (pantheism); in the West, the world is the creation of God (theism). In theism the mystic never is or becomes identical with God; there is always a “great gulf” between God and man. When Meister Eckhart claimed that “God and I, we are one,” he was accused of heresy by the church. In Hindu mysticism and Plotinus, mysticism seeks to go beyond all dualism and rest in an absolute undifferentiated unity. To these mystics it appears that there is within their mystical consciousness no division whatsoever, there is no God outside the Self; God is the Self. The secret is realizing that the individual self, the pure unity of the finite ego, IS the Universal Self, the Absolute. Where there is consciousness of the Self, individuality is no more. It is not that the individual self Becomes the Universal Self. It always was the self. It comes to realize this truth in the moment of illumination.

         Walter Stace summarizes the universality of the mystical experience with these words. “The undifferentiated unity is not in itself a Christian, or an Islamic, or a Jewish, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist phenomenon. It is world-wide. It is not the property of any religion. It does not favor any one religion above any other. But every religion can appropriate it and interpret it in terms of its own dogmas. Thus Eckhart interprets it in terms of the doctrine of the Trinity, Plotinus as the One, Buddhism as Nirvana. Moreover, mysticism can flourish outside the boundaries of any of the conventionally recognized religious creeds. Plotinus adhered to no religion but wove his mystical experience into the fabric of Platonic metaphysics. Many contemporary persons who are either agnostics or not followers of any specific religion have reached the mystical consciousness and have still remained outside the pale of any religious dogma. This is not because they are less religious than Christians, Muhammadans, and others . . . it means that the spirit of religion is not necessarily united to the body of any recognizable creed. For in the last analysis mysticism is not any theory about the Divine, and does not imply any theory. It is a direct experience of the Divine which can, as such, exist without any theory at all.”


         Religion can be roughly classified into two categories: those that seek God as an object, which is an attitude and faith directed to a power beyond the self, and those that seek God as an experience. For the Hindu and the Buddhist, religion is thought of as a transforming experience rather than as a worship of God. Theism seeks an almighty power to transform the individual through good works and prayer; Buddhism seeks enlightenment, the experience of conscious self-discovery, and contact with the divine within the individual.

         The Buddha never talked about God; the path to spiritual illumination and freedom is found in Nirvana. It is a state of pure bliss, happiness, knowledge, and at-one-ment with the infinite consciousness of the Godhead. Attainment of such an elevated state of mind also brings recognition of a world filled with misery, woe, and death, although the enlightened Buddhist no longer feels held in their grip. Enlightenment brings not only salvation but love, benevolence, and compassion. The Buddha insisted on the cultivation of goodwill for all kinds and conditions of men and animals. Gautama said: “Over the entire universe I send forth the power of benevolence which fills my spirit; the wide, the great, the immeasurable feeling which knows naught of hate, which doeth no evil.”

          Siddhartha Gautama was born around 560 BC in northern India. His father was a king of that region, and Siddhartha was brought up in luxury and royalty. While his father tried to protect him from the realities of the world, Siddhartha became distraught with the thought that life was filled with poverty, disease, and death. In his 29th year he made the break, and disappeared into the forest clothed in rags. After many years and adventures, Gautama came to meditate under the Bodhi tree; the great awakening had arrived. He sat rooted on the spot for seven days; on the eighth he tried to rise, but was lost again in bliss. He was deep in rapture for 49 days, after which his “glorious glance” opened again onto the world. He trudged the dusty paths of India for nearly half a century; he founded an order of monks, and maintained a hectic schedule of public preaching and private counseling. Three times a day he meditated that he might restore his center of gravity to its sacred inner source. The Buddha died at the age of 80 after accidentally eating poison mushrooms at the home of Cunea the smith.

          Nirvana is the highest destiny of the human spirit and its literal meaning is extinction. Extinction refers to the boundary of the finite self. Negatively, Nirvana is the state in which the private desires have been completely consumed and everything that restricts the boundless life is dead. Affirmatively, it is that boundless life itself. Gautama insisted it was: “incomprehensible, indescribable, inconceivable, unutterable.” If we eliminate every aspect of the only consciousness we know, how can we speak of what is left? The Buddha declares: “There is, O monks, and Unborn, neither become nor created nor formed. . . . Were there not there would be no deliverance from the born, the made, the compounded.” Impressed by the similarities between Nirvana and the Godhead, Edward Conze has compiled from Buddhist texts a series of attributes that apply to both. We are told: “That Nirvana is permanent, stable, imperishable, immovable, ageless, deathless, unborn, and unbecome, that it is power, bliss and happiness, the secure refuge, the shelter, and the place of unassailable safety; that it is the real Truth and the supreme Reality; that it is the Good, the supreme goal and the one and only consummation of our life, the eternal, hidden, and incomprehensible Peace.”

         The Buddha recommended the spiritual exercises of meditation, concentration, and correct breathing. He taught that Nirvana is not a private state of mind, but an eternal principle which is not produced by exercises, rather it is a state in which the individual comes to participate. Nirvana is not compounded or produced by any cause; cause and effect lie in the stream of time. Nirvana is not permanent, since this means “enduring through time.” But Nirvana is in what Eckhart would call the “Eternal Now.” It is only because there is this “unborn” reality that an escape from Maya or illusion is possible.

             Other essential aspects of Buddhism include The Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and its two main sects’ Mahayana and Hinayana.

Zen Buddhism

         What is the sound of one hand clapping? This riddle is called a Koan in Zen; you won't go to the head of the class if you answer that it takes two hands clapping to make a sound. Zen is one form of mystical experience that has become well known throughout the world. Its home is India, but it has thrived in the Orient, and is at home in Japan. One usually trains for years in a monastery under a Zen master. The peak experience is called Satori, and often comes as a bolt of lighting, or a sudden flash of insight. While it may take years to attain Satori, once learned becomes a part of life, which leads to total control over mind and body. It is a state highly sought even by Westerners who have learned to take control of their lives for the better.

         Zen is the Japanese counterpart of the Chinese word, ch’an, which, in turn is a translation of the Sanskrit word ‘dhyana’ meaning the meditation that leads to insight. Zen can be understood by way of three words: zazen, koan, and sanzen. Zazen means literally ‘seated meditation.’ Training takes place in a large meditation hall; the monks sit on two long raised platforms in a position called the lotus posture. They sit for hours, days, months, and years, first to develop their intuitive powers, and later to relate their intuitive discoveries to the immediacy of their daily lives. One of the strangest devices for spiritual training is called the ‘koan’. In a general way koan means problem, but a problem of a fantastic nature. A Zen master asks: “What was the appearance of your face before your ancestors were born?” Or, “A cow passes by a window. Its head, horns, and the four legs all pass by. Why did not the tail pass by?” We would consider these questions meaningless, but the Zen trainee is commanded to bring the full impact of his mind to bear upon them. Using reason is little help, since reason is bound within its own conceptual structure. The koan’s contradictions increase the pressure in the trainee’s mind until the structures of reason collapse completely, clearing the way for a flash of sudden insight. With the breakthrough of the mental barrier, the puzzle of the koan is annihilated. Zanzen is consultation with the master; the trainee states his koan and follows it with his answer. These meetings are always brief. The master either rejects or affirms the answer, but his more important job is to keep the aspirant frantically seeking the correct answer until the ultimate breakthrough.

         As with most mystical experiences, they are hard to describe. Occasionally, descriptions do appear: “Ztt! I entered. I lost the boundary of my physical body. I had my skin, of course, but I felt I was standing in the center of the cosmos. . . . I saw people coming toward me, but all were the same man. All were myself. I had never known this world before. I had believed that I was created, but now I must change my opinion: I was never created; I was the cosmos; no individual . . . existed.” (The First Zen Institute of America, Inc.)

         Where does Zen training lead? A Western student who had been in training for seven years answered, “No parapsychic experiences, as far as I am aware. But you wake up in the morning, and the world seems so beautiful you can hardly stand it.”

         Huston Smith explains it this way: “The goal of Zen training lies in introducing the eternal into the now, in widening the doors of perception to the point where the delight and wonder that characterize the Satori experience can carry over to the ordinary events of man’s day-to-day life. It brings joy, a feeling of one-ness with all things and a heightened sense of reality which cannot be adequately described in the language of everyday life. The dualism of self and object, of self and other, is transcended. And as they fade, there grows upon one a feeling of infinite gratitude to all things past, and infinite responsibility to all things present and future.”

         Zen is genuine mysticism, although of a different order than looked at so far. Still, it has the components that all mystics rely on, and the same elevated state of consciousness, accompanied with mastering a life for better living.

The Sufis of Islam

         The mystical tradition of Islam was relatively short, probably no more than several centuries centering around the tenth and eleventh century AD. While Mohammed’s life included mystical events reported by those who knew of him, they did not play any prominence in the Koran as something to be actively sought by his faithful followers.

         Learning everything about Sufism, the great Islamic philosopher al-Ghazzali became a professor of divinity in Baghdad in 1091 AD. One of his aims was to reconcile Sufism with Islamic orthodoxy, but after four years of teaching felt he could go no further by the intellect alone, and quit his professorship to seek the mystic path himself. Only by immediate experience of the mystical state did he believe union with the divine possible. Seeking that goal he lived the rest of his life in retirement. Although he was sympathetic to his extravagant and wilder brethren that the mystic could attain immediate union with God, he took the orthodox view. This is understandable since some Sufis were taken to alcoholic intoxication that led to wild utterances and erotic imagery.

         In the developed mystical consciousness, there is no distinction between subject and object, since all multiplicity is transcended. The Eastern mystic says there is no distinction between the self and God, yet this is the deadly sin of pantheism so abhorred by the Catholic church. The Sufis, on the other hand, took pantheism to the extreme with wild statements such as: “I am God.” One Sufi pointed to his own clothes and said: “There is nothing inside this coat except Allah.” One Sufi saying in so many words that: “I am the Truth” came to be crucified in Baghdad. There is something odd about these statements in themselves, but taken in context with their experiences it is not saying quite enough, so the confusion remains. One Sufi, Ibn al-Arabi, writing about mystical experience sums it up this way:

         “When the mystery–of realizing that the mystic is one with the Divine–is revealed to you, you will understand that you are no other than God. . . . Just as he who dies the death of the body, loses all his attributes, both those worthy of praise and those worthy of condemnation alike, so in the spiritual death all attributes, both those worthy of praise and those to be condemned, come to an end, and in all the man’s states what is Divine comes to take the place of what was mortal. Thus, instead of his own essence, there is the essence of God and in place of his own qualities, there are the attributes of God. He who knows himself sees his whole existence to be the Divine existence, but does not realize that any change has taken place in his own nature or qualities. For when you know yourself, your ‘I-ness’ vanishes and you know that you and God are one and the same.” Miguel Asin Palacio, in “Islam and the Divine Comedy.” writes:

         “In the Beatific Vision god manifests to the elect in a general epiphany which, nevertheless, assumes various forms corresponding to the mental conceptions of God formed by the faithful on earth. There is, then, one single epiphany, which is multiple only by reason of the difference of forms by which it is received. The Vision impregnates the elect with Divine light, each experiencing the Vision according to the knowledge of the Divine dogma or dogmas gained by him on earth. The Divine light pervades the beings of the elect and radiates from them, reflected as if by mirrors, on everything around them. The spiritual enjoyment produced by the contemplation of this reflection is even greater than that of the Vision itself. For, at the moment when they experience the Beatific Vision, the elect are transported and losing all consciousness, cannot appreciate the joy of the Vision. Delight they feel, but the very intensity of the vision makes it impossible for them to realize it. The reflected light, on the other hand, does not overpower them, and they are thus able to participate in all its joys.”

         The Sufi doctrines accept that God is the author of nature and human beings, and that good and evil are part of the human condition. The soul transmigrates from body to body until sufficiently purified to be absorbed into the deity. The mystical state is a revelation of this vision.


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