“In every age there exist fervent mystics. God does not deprive this world of them, for they are its sustainers.”
(Al-Ghazzali, d. 1108-1111)
Mysticism is found in all the great world religions. In Christianity there has been a strong mystical thread that begins in the Bible and runs up to this very day, from Christ’s “The Kingdom of God is within you” to Thomas Merton’s exploration of Zen and Roman Catholicism. In this article, the main source of quotations is from such mystics as the amazing medieval Dominican priest Meister Eckhart who said, “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which He sees me.” In Islam there is the mystical tradition known as Sufism, the most famous of its exponents being the poet Jalaluddin Rumi, who also features below. Hinduism also features a long history of mysticism, with the guru Shankara being one of its main mystical exponents. Buddhism could be said to be, in essence, a mystical tradition, rather than a religion that contains mystical movements, with the Buddha himself being a mystic in the purest sense of the term.
This brings us to an important point to make clear at the outset, which is that one person’s mysticism is another person’s heresy. There are many different definitions of mysticism, including magical practices, way out philosophies involving aliens and the like, not to mention those that involve claims regarding the reincarnation of Cleopatra or Napoleon. We are not concerned with such wild and wacky beliefs here, but in a much narrower description of mysticism known as the perennial philosophy or perennial wisdom. In this sense, mysticism indicates the dying of the illusion of selfhood into the greater reality of God, Nirvana, Dao, or a number of other concepts representing the deathless and indefinable part of us that is often also called the Void.
As mentioned, it is the death of the individual self or ego into the indescribable that characterizes the perennial wisdom, and it is here that we shall begin our brief exploration of this kind of mysticism. In the New Testament, Paul says, “I am crucified with Christ; it is not my life that I now live, but the life which Christ lives through me.” Paul is telling us that he has surrendered his ego to the greater reality of Christ, or God manifest in the world. This statement may trouble many Buddhists who are doctrinally allergic to the word ‘God,’ but we need to be bigger than our dogmas if we’re to penetrate the real meaning of the mystics quoted in this article.
God, as the mystic understands the term does not correspond at all to the commonly held beliefs involving some egotistic anthropomorphic deity gazing down on humanity from on high. For the mystic, God is something much less cartoonish, and much more subtle and immediate. In mysticism, God is that which transcends all individualism, including the individualism of a deity; God is not a separate being to us, but rather the very ‘being-ness’ that lies at the heart of everyone. As Meister Eckhart declares below, we should understand God as “not-God.” This “not-God” is much easier to relate to the Buddhist conception of Nirvana, or the Chinese idea of the Dao, and this is why the writings of such luminaries as Eckhart, Rumi, and Shankara appear more often than any other in the following paragraphs. They seem to have experienced God in the same way as Buddhists experience Nirvana. This can be seen if we put aside our conceptual clinging and read between the lines. There is great inspiration to be gained if we do so.
Returning to the statement of Paul’s that Christ lives through him, it can be seen that it is in the giving up of identifying with being the individual ego or self that such an experience is gained. Buddhists, of course, are well-exposed to the notion that it is this very self that needs to be transcended if we are to experience our true nature. This is awakening to the way things are (the Dharma), and mystics of all the main traditions have recognized that the ego is blocking our view of God or Buddha:
“Whatever form [feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness] there is, past, present, future, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, whether far or near, all form [feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness] should, by means of right wisdom, be seen as it really is, thus: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’" (Anattalakkhana Sutta, B.C.)
“Nothing burns in hell but the self.” (Theologia Germanica, c.1350)
“If you have not seen the devil, look at your own self.” (Jalaluddin Rumi, 1207-1273)
“Your own self is your own Cain that murders your own Abel. For every action and motion of self has the spirit of Anti-Christ and murders the divine life within you.” (William Law, 1686-1761)
The way to let go of the self and see the deathless beyond it is called prayer in most of the mystical traditions. This does not mean the commonly-held understanding of prayer, however, as a petition to some divine power intent on gaining something, but rather a series of practices or attitudes akin to Buddhist meditation. In this form of prayer, the mystic simply wishes, as Christ taught his followers to pray, that God’s will be done (rather than the individual’s own), and this corresponds with the Sufi Muslim’s intent to surrender completely to Allah, as in the whirling Dervishes graceful dance. This acquiescence is essential to the mystical merging into the divine, and is found in the Biblical injunction, “Be still, and know that I am God,” as well as in the following statements:
“Prayer makes the soul one with God.” (Julian of Norwich, c.1342-1420)
“The kernel of worship is melting away the self, and the rest of worship is merely the husk.” (Borhan al-Din Mohaqqeq, 13th century)
“The most powerful prayer, one well nigh omnipotent, and the worthiest work of all is the outcome of a quiet mind. The quieter it is the more powerful, the worthier, the deeper, the more telling and more perfect the prayer is. To the quiet mind all things are possible.” (Meister Eckhart, 1260-1327)
“Who is it that repeats the Buddha’s name? We should try to find out where this ‘who’ comes from and what it looks like.” (Xu Yun, 1840-1959)
So, as the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich points out, true prayer breaks down the egoistic barriers between the soul and God, rather than merely the former asking the latter for some favour or another. Again, Buddhists should elevate themselves above their conceptions of the words ‘soul’ and ‘God’ and see them in terms of mundane mind and Buddha Mind respectively. This is the “melting away of the self” that the Muslim Birhan al-Din refers to, which is facilitated by the absolutely quiet mind of Eckhart. Achieving this serene mental state usually requires a lot of discipline and skillful use of meditative tools such as the use of mantra that the Zen Buddhist Master Xu Yun mentions. For the mystic, such practices as mantra recitation, meditation, and the like are all aimed at quieting the mind to the point that it can see itself clearly. When this happens, the Unity that lies beneath the disparate elements of the self is revealed, and it is to this that the following words are commenting upon:
“You should love God as not-God, not-Spirit, not-Person, not-Image, but as He is, a sheer, pure absolute One, sundered from all duality, and in whom we eternally sink from nothingness to nothingness.” (Meister Eckhart)
“Behold but One in all things; it is the second that leads you astray.” (Kabir, b.1400)
“Though One, Brahman is the cause of the many. There is no other cause.” (Shankara, 789-820)
“One in all, all in One – if only this realized, no more worry about not being perfect.” (Seng-ts’an (d.606)
The nothingness that Eckhart describes is an essential part of the awakening of the mystic, for it is in the realization that the separate self is a delusion that the true interconnected oneness of life is revealed. This is called Brahman by the Hindu saint Shankara, but this label should no more be clung to than any other word used to describe the indescribable. Seng-ts’an, being a typical Zen Master does not even try to name the nameless, but instead highlights a practical result of seeing the unity behind the apparent diversity: that we will “no more worry about not being perfect.” For, in truth, there is no distinct self to be perfect or imperfect; there is just the way things are, the Dharma, the essence of which is that which the mystics variously call God, Zen, Allah, Buddha, Dao, Nirvana, and Brahman etc. This essence is also described as being deathless, for it is only separate things and beings that can perish, whereas the No-thing that lies behind all ephemeral phenomena is eternal:
“He who knows the soundless, odourless, tasteless, intangible, formless, deathless, supernatural, undecaying, uncreated, endless, unchangeable Reality, springs out of the jaws of death.” (Katha Upanishad B.C.)
“Past and future veil God from our sight;
Burn up both of them with fire.
How long will you be partitioned by these segments, like a reed?
So long as a reed is partitioned, it is not privy to secrets,
Nor is it vocal in response to lip and breathing.” (Jalaluddin Rumi)
“Time is what keeps the light from reaching us. There is no greater obstacle to God than time. And not only time but temporalities, not only temporal things but temporal affections; not only temporal affections but the very taint and smell of time.” (Meister Eckhart)
“Watchfulness is the path to the deathless, and heedlessness the path to death.
The watchful do not die, but the heedless are already like the dead.” (Dhammapada, B.C.)
All the great mystics speak of transcending not only the sense of being a separate self, but also of going beyond time, as do the quotations above. For, in the purest experience of this present moment, we discover eternity and deathlessness. It is aging phenomena that die, whereas that which is ageless and without a limited individual form cannot expire. The mystical process, whatever tradition or methods it uses, is ultimately aimed at breaking through the prison of mortality into the freedom of what both the Buddha and the Japanese Zen Master Bankei called the Unborn. Living as the Unborn we are no longer tied to the false ego and its eventual fate, but are liberated from all suffering as the very awareness that is the heart of every being in this universe.