Mysticism and Meditation: Buddhist and Christian

My dear friend, Ralph Lane, wrote poetry in his retirement years. One such poem, entitled, "I Will Never Be a Mystic," reads: "I will never be a mystic and to be honest, I am not really trying though it all sounds so subtle and seductive, letting go of self in Sufi wisdoms, dancing until empty, whispering mantras, blotting out the world, peace in seeds of wheat, shared silence with brown-sandaled brothers waiting for a voice to embrace. I know that's not for me because I am stuck here working with those I love. They're easy, trying now and then to show I care a little for others so un-loveable... We think compassion is the key. It's a full-time job. And I know because the thorn keeps distracting me and there isn't time or inclination to escape the web that covers me."

I re-read the poem because it reminded me that most Christians or Buddhists (or Jews or Muslims who also boast their mystic seers) are not self-styled mystics. But I asked myself what might we lose—of human possibility, of living life with alertness and special zest—if we do not try to learn from our mystics? I did some of this reflection because I was asked by a Buddhist group to talk on the topic of mysticism and meditation.


I found two written sources quite helpful in understanding mysticism, Buddhist and Christian. One book, William Johnston's, The Still Point: Reflection on Zen and Christian Mysticism, was authored by an Irish Jesuit who taught at Sophia University in Japan and did lengthy dialogue with Buddhists and spent time with a Zen Roshi master to learn meditation techniques. The other helpful source are the magisterial five volumes by Bernard McGinn, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism. Especially helpful is the appendix to volume one, The Origins to Mysticism. Called "Theoretical Foundations: The Modern Study of Mysticism," it treats theological, philosophical and psychological and comparative treatments (e.g., William James, Baron von Hugel, Ninian Smart, Rudolph Otto, Evelyn Underhill). It is clear there are varieties of mysticism. One strand, called the apophatic, is the way of no images, silence, moving away from subject-object distinction. This is the way of Zen but also of such Christian mystics as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing and Meister Eckhart. Another strand of mysticism, the kataphatic, uses images, such as rich visionary experiences or the frequent image of a mystical marriage with Christ one finds in Catherine of Sienna or The Beguines.

Trying to define mysticism is no easy task. Authors take different tacks toward it and, as mentioned, there are varieties of mysticism. Eckhart, for example, did not much treasure images or visions while Teresa of Avila did. As Louis Dupre once put it: "No definition could be both meaningful and sufficiently comprehensive to include all experiences that, at some point or other, have been described as 'mystical.'" But some interesting stabs at definition have been made. William James, in his classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience suggests four traits of mystical experience: (1) It is ineffable (beyond words); (2) Yet, it is a true kind of knowing, a direct yet intuitive kind of knowing; (3) It is transcient—mystic experiences do not perdure for long times and (4) The mystic speaks of a kind of passivity—the experiences is received, somehow, not the fruit of the mystic's endeavor.

Zen does not talk much about the mystical break-through to enlightenment called Satori. There is a famous Zen saying: "He that speaks does not know. He that knows does not speak." Satori allows the Buddhist enlightened one to surpass I versus it or I versus Thou and move to what is just is. Subject-object dualism gets lost. Zen begins with a spring-cleaning of all images and attachments and a move toward what is called nothingness (but, paradoxically, that nothing or no-thing is surely not just something negative or an absence).

A number of Christian mystics follow also the apophatic tradition. John of the Cross speaks about nada. The Cloud of Unknowing urges " forget, forget, forget' and speaks of emptiness. Eckhart talks about " the unnamable, unknowable transcendent that continuously recedes beyond reference." In a point of comparison and contrast, Johnston notes: "Here we see the loss of self and the destruction of subject-object relationship different from Zen in two ways. Firstly, in that it is a union of love; secondly, while Zen is sometimes called meditation without an object, The Cloud of Unknowing speaks of meditation without a subject...To forget self, so that only God remains is different from forgetting everything until only self remains."

There is no one clear path for Christian mystical experience, no maps as such. Catholics, when and if they canonize a saint who was a mystic, do not really look so much at the so-called mystical experiences but at the love, humility, virtue of the saint. I suspect Buddhists too would credit a supposed mystic whose life overflowed with goodness.

Paul Ditetrich, in a rich essay, "The Wilderness of God in Hadeqijch [a Flemish Beguine mystic] and Meister Eckhart and His Circle" focuses on a cluster of topics: (A) The utter simplicity and purity of the divine nature and also of the soul and the essential nakedness or barrenness of the soul before God; (B) The mystery of God's simultaneous total transcendence and absolute immanence (as truly transcendent we can not really name or know God as such); (C) The self's growing detachment from all contingent reality; (D) The soul's reversion to its source and ground and the union of God and soul as a kind of unitas; (E) The identity of the soul's ground and God's ground( we only exist in and through God in whom we live and have our being).

Three questions about mysticism seem important. First, is mysticism open to everyone or is it just a special gift for an elite? John of the Cross insisted it was open to everyone. Karl Rahner, the Jesuit theologian, agreed. Note this is not the same question as the one posed by the psychiatrist, Karl Jung, of whether there are types of temperament more attuned to mysticism, more connaturally drawn to mysticism. It could be open to all but easier for some. Second, if mysticism involves a kind of true, if ineffable knowledge, how is that knowledge binding on the mystic (it would seem it has to be)? Similarly, how is such knowledge ( its possibility and reality in the lives of mystics) binding, also, in some sense, on us, the non-mystics, that we might learn from it something about a human possibility for ourselves ?

A final question: Are there multiple forms of mysticism or, as Ninian Smart argues, is there a core to all mysticism across every religious tradition that is the same. I am reminded of a brilliant talk by the student of the Kabala Jewish mystics, Daniel Matt. He compared Jewish mystics, Buddhist mystics and Meister Eckhart on nothingness but insisted that, while all talked about nothingness, they talked about three quite different kinds of nothingness. However ineffable, Buddhist and Christian mystics have different languages and traditions they must appeal to in order even to talk about, in their tradition, or explain mysticism. For the Christian this includes union with the triune God in Christ.

Some Catholics talk about "natural" versus "supernatural" mysticism to contrast other religious mysticisms (interesting, perhaps, but purely human and natural) with Christian mysticism. Again, Karl Rahner suggeted that grace and God's action are more universal than this pat distinction would let on. God is not only acting among Christians or in the church. Moreover, in reality, there is no simple "natural" reality, untouched by grace or sin or God. These debates about Christian mysticism and other mystic traditions, such as that found in Buddhism, raged at Vatican Council II and beyond. Rahner argued to the ubiquity of God's action and grace. Another Jesuit peritus at the Council, Henri de Lubac, saw non-Christian mysticisms as purely cultural, not really religious, purely human, in no way an appropriate dialogue partner with Christian mysticism. Pope John Paul II seemed to side with Rahner, as when he engaged in prayer with other religions at Assisi. Ratzinger, in his letter from the Congregation of Doctrine and Faith, Dominus Jesus, did not see or admit any action of Jesus and the spirit in other religions. He would not pray with other religions at Assisi.

It is important to take a stand on the issue. I go with Rahner. Otherwise, dialogue between Christians and Buddhists would be in vain. Two final brief remarks. While meditation or centering prayer in silence or with a mantra or Zen sitting and breathing exercises do not cause or guarantee mystical union with God or Satori, these latter are unlikely ever to occur without such meditative practices as a prolegomenon. My second remark is that, if like my friend, Ralph Lane, I doubt I will ever be a mystic, nevertheless, as an ordinary Christian I am called to love God and love neighbor with God's own love. I can not achieve that without some real union with the love God pours out on me, the world and all creation and letting God's love motivate me in my actions. In that sense, even if I will never be a mystic, I can surely learn from them about what I have to be and become as a Christian.

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Ann Olivier
5 years 6 months ago
A Catholic scholar of mystical experience whose works are, it seems to me, sadly neglected by Catholics is Robert C. Zaehner, Spaulding Professor of Oriental Religions at Oxford. Or maybe Catholics generally have not heard of him. He was a pioneer in contesting the usual assumption of scholars of mysticism that there is eally ony one kind, and that it is the basis of all the great religions.. His learning was phenomenal, and he compared the writings of mystics in Western, Middle Eastern, and Asian traditions. He concluded that there are three basically different types of experiences called "mystical" but that only one of them is essentially religious, that is, only one kind is a meeting of sorts with God. He has often been accused of being biased towards Catholic mystics, but one of his main points is that genuinely religious mystical experience is not limited to Catholics, but religious mystics can be found in vastly different religions at different times in different places. His semi-popular work "Mysticism: Sacred and Profane" compares the writings of many, many mystics from many, many traditions. He gives particular attention to the use of drugs for producing certain types of non-religius experience, and he has a lot to say about certain poets. Very readable author in spite of his erudition.
Ann Olivier
5 years 6 months ago
A great Catholic scholar whose work in comparative mysticism is not well enough known is Robert C. Zaehner, Spaulding Professor of Oriental Religions at Oxford. A phenomenal linguist, he was a pioneer in contesting the usual scholarly assumptions that all mystical experiences are basically of the same kind, that all are religious, and that they are the basis of all the major religions. By comparing the texts written by the mystics themselves in the original Western, Middle Eastern, and Asian languages, he concluded that there are three basically different kinds of so-called "mystical experience", and only one kind is essentially religious, that is, only one kind is a kind of spiritual meeting with God. He has often been accused of admitting only Catholics as mystics, but one of his main points is that religious mystics can be found in all sorts of religious and cultural traditions, and he presents texts from the mystics themselves to support this contention. His semi-popular "Mysticism: Sacred and Profane" is a lively presentation of his very definite views. It is also notable for its consideration of the use of drugs in order to produce certain "mystical" experiences and in his consideration of certain poets. Very readable in spite of its erudition :-)


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