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Spiritual Ascent in Buddhism, Christianity and Islam- A Study in Comparative Mysticism-Abdul Kabir Hussain Solihu

Spiritual Ascent in Buddhism, Christianity and Islam- A Study in Comparative Mysticism-Abdul Kabir Hussain Solihu

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Transcendent Philosophy 151-182 © London Academy of Iranian Studies
Spiritual Ascent in Buddhism, Christianity and Islam: aStudy in Comparative Mysticism
Abdul Kabir Hussain SolihuInternational Islamic University, Malaysia
Abstract
This study examines the doctrine of spiritual ascent, central to mysticalexperience, as taught in theistic mysticism, as exemplified in Christianityand Islam, and non-theistic or monistic mysticism, as manifested inBuddhism. The study highlights the common characteristics and thevariations in the teachings of spiritual ascent according to these three worldreligions. The primary objective is to explore how the universal humanaspiration for a transcendent al experience common to these mysticaltraditions could be brought into contact with, or understood in the light of,the belief systems and values in which a particular mystical concept orformula sprouts.
Introduction
Mystical experience lies in the very depth of human spiritualconsciousness. All other relationships count for less when comparedwith the relationship of the soul with God/the Supreme Being. M ysticalexperience, claimed to be the custodian of this relationship, has beenseen by many writers as being at the heart of all religions, the point of light on which all seekers converge.
1
E. G. Browne, a great Orientalistscholar, has rightly observed it that “there is hardly any soil, be it everso barren, where it [Mysticism] will not strike root; hardly any creed,however formal, round which it will not twine itself … It is in essencean enunciation more or less clear, more or less eloquent, of the
 
 
152 Abdul Kabir Hussain Solihu
aspiration of the soul to cease altogether from self and to be at one withGod.”
2
 In moving towards this goal, of union with God/the SupremeBeing, there are naturally preliminary stages and processes, markeddifferently in different traditions, but sharing a number of commoncharacteristics. Spiritual ascent in Buddhism can be found in thedoctrines of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path, andthe final goal is called “
 Nirv
ā
na
” (annihilation). In Christian mysticism,three stages are described for spiritual ascent, which are: Purgative Life,Illuminative Life and Unitive Life. The experience of these three stagesis called the “Dark Night”, and the end of the quest is referred to as“Spiritual M arriage.” In Islam, spiritual ascent is taught in the Sufidoctrine of 
 Maq
ā
m
ā
and
 Ahw
ā
l
(stations and states), and the apex of the quest lies in
al-Fan
ā
(self-annihilation).The study is to a great extent a descriptive account based on theinsider’s perspective of the doctrine of spiritual ascent. Its purpose isneither to exhibit how a particular mystical teaching of one mystical
tradition might have infiltrated into another nor to investigate the
validity or the truth claims of a particular mystical experience. It israther to explore how the esoteric interpretation of religious experiencecould be brought into contact with, or understood in the light of, theexoteric ethico-religious tradition that harbours it.
Spiritual Ascent in Buddhist Mysticism
Origin and Development of Buddhist Mysticism
 Buddhism is a religion and philosophy founded by SiddharthaGautama in Northeast India within the period of the late Sixth Centuryto the early Fourth Century BC. The word ‘Buddha’, which meansawakened, illuminated or enlightened, is not a proper name but a title,
which the founder of Buddhism obtained only at the time of his
spiritual experience.
3
Since Buddha is a title, the Buddhist tradition haspostulated that other Buddhas have lived on earth in the past or will doso in the future. All such Buddhas, known as
samma-sambuddha,
or theperfect fully Awakened Ones, are nevertheless seen only rarely withinthe vast and ancient cosmos. As Buddha does not refer to a uniqueindividual, Buddhism focuses more on the teaching of Buddha and less
 
 
Spiritual Ascent in Buddhism, Christianity and Islam 153
on the personality of its founder than, for example, Christianity. Nordoes Buddhism recognise the existence of God, as in Christianity andIslam. Nevertheless, Buddhists do show great reverence to Gautama asa supreme teacher and an exemplar of the ultimate goal that all strivefor.
4
 The earliest Buddhist mysticism was concerned with theemptying of the subjective being, considered to be the greatest obstacleto individual spiritual growth. Central to the Buddhist teaching ispractical renunciation of the worldly appetites binding the soul to sufferand experience illusion. That detachment must be secured by thediscipline of meditation which leads to a spiritual enlightenment thatallows man to see the apparent world in its true light and thus deprivesit of all attraction. Because of this avowed quest for a realitytranscending outer appearances, mysticism, according to some writers,is interwoven in the whole pattern of Buddhism.
5
 There are three eminent aspects of Buddhism that aim to guidetowards perfection: (1) The Promethean personality of Buddha. (2)Dharma, the Good Law pointing the way to liberation. (3) Shangha orBrotherhood of the Bikhus, whole body of monks and saints.
6
 In the course of its long history, Buddhism has seen thedevelopment of three huge bodies of religious doctrine and practice,
which are characteristically called
 yana
(vehicles). The earliest
Buddhist movement was called H
 ī 
nay
ā
na (the Lesser Vehicle), laterknown as Ther
ā
vada
 ,
(the Doctrine of the Elders). Ther
ā
vadaBuddhism tends toward a conservative, orthodox interpretation of theBuddha's teaching. Since the beginning of the Common Era, Ther
ā
vadahas been challenged by a later movement that called itself M ah
ā
y
ā
na(the Great Vehicle). It claimed to be a more comprehensive anduniversal way toward liberation, with a more ambitious religious ideal,and with a more liberal and innovative interpretation of the Buddha'steachings. In the Sixth Century CE, or perhaps a little earlier, a thirdorientation emerged, the movement called Vajray
ā
na (DiamondVehicle), commonly referred to as Tantric or Esoteric Buddhism in theWest. It was characterised by its use of spells, symbols, and verycomplicated rituals, the acquisition of magic powers as a way towardenlightenment, by the development of psychological techniques; and bya system of esoteric transmission from master to disciple.
7
 

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