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Mystical Experience as a Bridge for Cross-Cultural Philosophy of Religion: A Critique
John Y. Fenton
I. The "Essence" of Mystical Experience
he belief that mystical experience is both ineffable and essentially the same in all religious traditions has become fairly common in the twentieth century. The use made, by different authors, of these two alleged facts about mystical experience varies but, in general, putative ineffability has been used to discount all language and all differences in language about mystical experience as merely accidental and to characterize mystical experience as either trans- or subconceptual. Putative unanimity in the descriptions mystics have given of their experiences follows easily from the ineffability of the experiences. Since ineffability supposedly makes it impossible to make any distinctions between one ineffable experience and another, and since theological interpretations have nothing to do with mystical experience, all mystical experiences are therefore essentially the same./l/ In the more extended forms of the claim that mystical experience is ineffable, the experience becomes so different from other kinds of experience that ineffability becomes unique to mystical experience and even a part of its definition. A barrier is made to appear between mystical experience and its interpretation, so that nonmystics cannot really know anything about mystical experience. Mystical experience is sometimes characterized as subconceptual—as primarily emotive, aesthetic, or consisting in a certain sort of attitude or special awareness./2/ Other authors understand mystical intuition to be transconceptual—a special kind of truth or wisdom that far transcends ordinary conceptual knowledge. It is only a small additional step to argue that mystical
John Y. Fenton (Ph.D., Princeton University) is Associate Professor of Religion at Emory University. He is the editor of Theology and Body and has contributed articles to various journals.
John Y. Fenton
intuition is self-authenticating and indubitable. Truth then appears, implicitly or explicitly, at two levels, with ordinary human knowledge confined to the level of mere conceptually, below wisdom and incommensurate with it. Knowledge, scholarly or otherwise, is thus unable to get at mystical wisdom. The claim that mystical intuition is transconceptual also gives additional support to the claim that mystical testimony is unanimous in essence. Since truth must always be in agreement with itself, mystical truth, wherever it is found, must also be in essential agreement with itself. .Specific traditional contexts in which mystical experience occurs can therefore be ignored, and common factors in the universal mystical experience can be abstracted and generalized without respect to context./3/ The truth as understood in one mystical tradition can also be used to understand the truth in any other mystical tradition. Extracted from its contexts, mystical experience then appears to transcend linguistic, cultural, philosophical, and theological differences as a sort of universal vision, and the unanimous testimony of mystics gives mysticism a kind of intersubjective verification that is in principle replicable. Against this common argument, the thesis here is that mystical experience is not ineffable in the strong sense, and mystical experiences vary significantly from one tradition to another. The putative unanimity of mystical experience is based primarily upon its putative ineffability. It must first be shown that mystical experience is not ineffable in the strong sense discussed before it will be possible to treat differences in theological description and evaluation among different mystical traditions as significant. While it is true that mystical experience is frequently not susceptible to straightforward literal description, and while the relationship of mystical experience to conceptuality is complex and somewhat peculiar, the language mystics use to talk about mystical experience does communicate meaningfully and gives specific directions to the aspiring student. Once this has been proved, it will be possible to marshal sufficient evidence to show that the language of mystics discriminates the right method and the right mystical experience from counterfeits and that different mystical traditions disagree with each other about which experiences are the right ones and which are counterfeit. Within specific mystical traditions theology has a constitutive role because the issue at stake is liberation, or salvation. The combination of ineffability with unanimity on this subject has, of course, a certain initial implausibility that strikes one immediately. If mystical experience were completely ineffable, it would have no intellectual content and no descriptive characteristics, and the claim to unanimity would be meaningless. Alternatively, if the claim to unanimous description of the mystical experience is meaningful, then the experience must in some sense be characterizable, and mystical experience is thus not entirely ineffable. Ineffability and unanimity cancel each other.
II. Ineffability and Mystical Experience Ineffability as such is not sufficient either to set off one particular kind of experience from all others or to classify them all together as the same experience. We all have experiences that are difficult to describe. I cannot very well tell anyone what it feels like to have an orgasm, but my inability to do so seems to be no reason to equate orgasm with other indescribables such as mystical ecstasy. Indescribability is not unique to mystical experiences. Our inability to describe orgasm adequately causes little difficulty, primarily because a consensual fund of experience makes up for the inadequacy of the words we use to talk about it. The communication problem seems to be much more striking in the case of mystical ecstasy. If shared experience is absent it will be considerably more difficult to break through the words. But meditational experience is becoming much more common for a sizable minority of Americans, and it is at least comparable to mystical experience. Meditation may provide "foretastes" of what mystical experience is like. This sort of comparable experience makes mystical ineffability less of a problem than it might have been formerly. Orgasm has no close analogues (although it has been compared to mystical experience). The lack of common experience would make talking about orgasm with a prepubescent child extremely difficult. But prepubescent children are by no means incapable of various degrees of sexual arousal. There are thus analogues in the child's experience that would make it possible to communicate something about this experience which he or she has not yet had (if the child were interested). As a male I have only the most flimsy notion of what female orgasm is like, and females probably have the same difficulty comprehending male orgasm. Yet reasonable communication is possible because the male and female orgasms are at least analogues of each other. If there are analogues to mystical experience in common experience, mystical experience will also not be totally ineffable. Some things that are initially indescribable may become describable when we have understood them better. Some cases resist clear understanding. But even for these a conventional language and vocabulary can be developed if talking about these matters is important to us. Special conventional languages of this sort have at times been developed within the mystical traditions. The inner experiential reality of both mystical experience and orgasm nevertheless seems to be at least partially lost in attempts to express this reality in direct, literal description even of a conventional sort. The mystical traditions also ascribe a certain sacred aura to mystical experience that makes direct description inappropriate, if not taboo (Proudfoot:361-64). When conventional
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language gets too close to the mystical goal, there is a tendency to increase the distance between conventions and the ultimate mystical culmination. But even at this level, there are ways in which communication is possible. A certain degree of indescribability or ineffability, therefore, seems characteristic of mystical experience. But if there are comparable experiences, and if there are analogues to mystical experience in common human experience, then even for the nonmystic, the ineffability of language about mystical experience cannot be absolute. Mystical ineffability is weak rather than strong. By the weak ineffability of mystical experience I mean the following: (1) Mystical experience is not directly describable or conceptualizable, and the intent of the language of mystics about mystical experience is not conceptual. (2) The language about mystical experience nevertheless "takes off' from or is oriented away from descriptive and conceptual language, frequently in negative or superlative fashion. Mystical language points in a specific direction and leads the mystic to a specific kind of mystical experience that varies from one mystical tradition to another. The differences in the language used indicate a difference in the reality that is sought. (3) The language about mystical experiences does distinguish specifically among potential ineffable experiences, choosing some and avoiding others. Different mystical traditions choose different ineffable experiences. (4) Mystical experience is therefore regarded in the mystical traditions as something about which communication is possible, such that the language used conducts the aspirant through a specific mystical path in a specific way toward a specific goal./4/ The mystical path, the mystical resolution experience, and the role of the mystic should in all likelihood be classified as "liminal." The path, the experience, and the role are typically depicted as on the edge of or "beyond" cultural structures, or "betwixt and between" the ultimate reality and mundane, ordinary reality. As both Victor Turner (1967, 1968, 1974, 1977) and Mary Douglas have suggested, liminality does, under comparable conditions, have similar cross-cultural characteristics. But liminality is also culture specific (Leach; T. Turner; Mandelbaum: 414-17, 526-28). Liminality is antistructural relative to a specifically structured culture. The patterns of possession, for example, are culture specific, as are also the roles of "holy man" or "prophet" (Ray:65-72). If the role of the mystic is similar to other liminal roles, as I am suggesting, then we can expect that a specific kind of mystical transcendence will also be a specific antistructure related to specific cultural structures and that understanding the specific cultural structures in which a mystical tradition articulates the problem of human existence will be indispensable to understanding the antistructural resolution to which that specific mystical path leads. Freedom or liberation is specific and relative to a tradition's understanding of what confinement is.
Mystical experience is often discussed by mystics explicitly or implicitly in the context of two incommensurate levels of truth: wisdom and knowledge. The theory of two levels of truth occurs cross-culturally in varying forms, most explicitly in Advaita Vedanta and in the Buddhist Madhyamika (Sprung), but also to some extent in Western mystical traditions conditioned by the neo-Platonic teachings filtered through Plotinus and the Pseudo-Dionysius. According to the Advaita Vedanta, mystical or intuitive insight (brahmavid) provides immediate awareness of Ultimate Reality that merges the being of the subject into Being-Itself (sat). Wisdom (vidya) is perfect awareness (chit), perfect bliss or enjoyment (ananda), and perfect reality (sat). True wisdom is nondual; subject and object are not-two. Ordinary knowledge (nescience or avidya), however, is completely pervaded by the subject-object dichotomy. Knowledge and wisdom are thus entirely different modes of comprehension. From the standpoint of ordinary knowledge, therefore, mystical experience must appear ineffable. In fact, the isolation of wisdom from knowledge and of knowledge from wisdom is not and cannot be maintained either in the Vedanta or in any of the other mystical traditions. An initial and official proclamation of strong ineffability is followed by an unofficial and unacknowledged shift to weak ineffability. The supposed hiatus between the two levels is continually bridged in both directions: knowledge must be used to obtain wisdom, and wisdom is relied upon to provide new knowledge and to sanction it. In the theology of the great Sankaracharya, for example, ordinary knowledge not only conceals wisdom, it also reveals it. Philosophical and theological argumentation can lead to intuition of the nondual Reality (pt. I, 16-37). The connection of knowledge to wisdom for Sankara is not merely theoretical. He also makes frequent appeal to a common element of human experience as a sort of "foretaste" or "inkling" of wisdom. This element is the "witness of experience" (saksin), the ineluctable subject of all of our ordinary experience (pt. I, 14, 150, 424; pt. II, 14). As the "knower" of knowing, the "hearer" of hearing, and so on, the true Self (atman) is interinvolved in and makes all ordinary experience possible. Both theoretically and experientially a particular kind of knowledge and a particular kind of common experience have a positive relation to Sankara's specific wisdom. The degree to which Sankara thought that wisdom provides new knowledge is possibly a matter for exegetical disagreement. But it appears to me that after a pro forma disclaimer that Vedanta is only a point of view (dariana), the aura of certainty associated with wisdom is allowed to spill over quite regularly into the sphere of knowledge, providing an elaborate theory of the levels of the human psyche and a complete cosmological theory. The same sort of initial proclamation of strong ineffability that is subsequently weakened appears to be characteristic of other mystical
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traditions as well. Throughout the writings of St. John of the Cross, for example, the mystical path is officially called the way of darkness, the way of unknowing. The ascent of Mount Carmel is said to be indescribable, understandable only by a person who has experienced it (94-99). Nevertheless, the mystical writings of St. John of the Cross are in fact detailed manuals with very specific directions, not merely for beginners, but also for adepts. The way is negative, but very specifically so. Mystical experience is not entirely different from "ordinary" kinds of experience. The Theravada Buddhist Nyanaponika Thera (30-45) emphasizes, for example, that the development of mindfulness (sati) does not depend upon acquiring a new mental capacity. Mindfulness consists in the development of the common human capacity to pay attention passively. Already in the beginning stages of the practice the student experiences "foretastes" of the goal of the path. As these experiences accumulate and as the techniques of meditation are increasingly mastered, both the instructions for how to practice and the kind of insight that is sought as the goal become increasingly comprehensible. Once the student begins to practice meditation he also realizes that there are any number of possible realms of consciousness available to explore. Both the techniques and the description of the state of consciousness desired by the Theravada Buddhist are expressed clearly enough that the student is guided into the right kinds of consciousness and avoids those that lead away from the specific Buddhist goal or that have no significance in relation to that goal./5/ If different kinds of meditation characteristic of different mystical traditions lead to different mystical experiences, the unanimity that does obtain within a particular mystical tradition indicates that mystical experience cannot be entirely ineffable. The particular mystical traditions reject some methods and goals and indicate others. There are shared descriptions, directions, and techniques. Within a particular tradition the mystical experience sought comes close to being a stereotype to be reduplicated. The Zen student's acquisition of Buddha-mind is his being able to see things the same way the Buddha is supposed to have seen them. According to Zen tradition, this particular type of consciousness and insight has been transferred from master to student for centuries up to the present time. The Zen way of no-way is actually a particular way that leads to a particular type of insight. After this insight has been reached, Zen puzzles (koatts) of the Rinzai tradition become solvable one by one. Further, the dharma battles (or question and answer contests) in which enlightened Zen Buddhists engage are intended to test the depth of the combatants' insight. The language about mystical experience is difficult, complex, timeconsuming, and closely tied to experience, but it is not absolutely mysterious. In principle the jargon of mystical language may be no more esoteric than the jargon of nuclear physicists, although the specifics are obviously quite different. Mystical language is an esoteric jargon, but what it expresses is not ineffable in the strong sense.
Mystical language communicates and discriminates with sufficient precision to serve its peculiar transformative purposes. Of course, mystical writers can and do employ forms of communication that are also used by nonmystics. The kind of communication peculiar to mysticism occurs in the service of processes of spiritual therapy. Therapy begins with diagnosis and a prescription for the malady of the human condition that lays out a course of transfiguring treatment intended to lead to resolution. Mystical paths decondition and recondition attitudes, concepts, behavior, personality dispositions, perception, awareness, and understanding. Particular paths select and develop particular ingredients of ordinary experience that are judged by the tradition to be inklings of the human malady and of its resolution. Other aspects of common experience are excluded as irrelevant or obstructive to the process of transformation. The experience of passive attention from which the Theravada Buddhist begins is quite different from the "witness of experience" from which Sankara begins. Sankara's "witness" is for the Theravada Buddhist one of the delusions to be overcome. This selection and exclusion lead to experiential levels that may be quite peculiar to the path being followed and the goal intended. On the way some faculties are enhanced, others are repressed, so that the content of experience itself is changed. Progress from the problem toward its resolution is frequently marked by stages, with the initial stages most closely linked to ordinary experience, while subsequent stages are more closely linked to earlier mystical stages than to common experience. The path may begin with fairly straightforward descriptive analytical language, but often valence and meaning change to accord with progress in the process of transformation. Diagnosis, treatment, and resolution are formed and informed by the theological language of the specific tradition, the language serving as a model of experience that, when internalized, becomes a model for experience (Geertz). Straightforward description of the "advanced" stages of the mystical path is often not possible. Frequently, literal description is not even desirable at this level because the student might confuse the meaning of the words with the intention of the path. Other means of communication have been devised to give direction without describing. Some of these instructional devices are superlative: the intention of the words used is in the same direction as, but is more than, what is said. Many of the means of communication are negative, but even in negative cases the intention of the words is positive. Since it may be presumed that the superlative use of mystical language is readily understandable, the following discussion will be concerned with the more difficult problem of showing how negative mystical language communicates. Sankara and Nagarjuna, the Indian mystical theologians, used philosophical or theological argumentation as their primary means of communication. The reasoning of both of these authors can be readily understood even though neither of them begins with the kind of independent
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argumentative basis to which Western philosophers are accustomed. Indian philosophy is in fact somewhat peculiar in this respect. Little effort is expended to prove the author's own point of view. All of the argumentative effort is instead directed toward proving that all of the alternative points of view are wrong. In the commonly used format, the prima facie points of view (purvapaksa) are discussed and rejected in favor of the right view (siddhanta). The right view is generally not proved directly. Instead the right view is "left over" as the residue of rejecting the wrong view. Sankara and Nagarjuna both follow the general method of discrediting alternatives. When all of the alternatives have been shown to be unreasonable, and when the student no longer has any alternatives, the siddhanta or wisdom emerges. (The siddhanta is frequently not logically implied directly by any previous reasoning.) Reasoning is used negatively to force the transfiguration of knowledge into wisdom. Negative argumentation enables the mystical philosopher to intend more than he can say. The wisdom intended emerges when all of the false alternatives have been blocked./6/ Both Sankara and Nagarjuna taught by the method of closing alternatives, but the openings they left for the student to find are not the same. As an oversimplification I will say that Sankara taught by denying all dualities while Nagarjuna taught by denying all substances and concepts. Despite the negative form of the words in which wisdom emerges for both authors, the wisdoms they intend are clearly not the same. For Sankara, reality is nondual (advaita). For Nagarjuna, it is empty (iunyata). The two realities are not the same. Negative language is used to direct toward a positive specific intention. Here in philosophical form we have what appears to be a general paradigm of the mystic via negativa.lll Mystical doctrine is less a worldview than a way (marga, pratipad). Mystical language frequently has positive meaning even when its form and force are negative. Some of the learning the student must do is of the "how to" variety and is comparable to motor learning. In addition to offering analogues, the teacher may indicate what to do indirectly by saying what the student should not do. Closing some doors, excluding some of the alternatives experientially, indicates the way to go dr1 at least the area for trial and error attempts until there is success. In addition, of course, some of the transitions to be made are abrupt and unprogrammable. A common transition of this sort for beginners would be that from active to passive meditation, i.e., from a self-consciously controlled program of paying attention selectively to spontaneous attention that no longer requires effort or direction. Much mystical instruction simply closes doors, leaving it to the student to find out what ways are still open either for learning or abrupt "mysterious" transitions. Ordinary Buddhist examples are: how to pay attention without being distracted, how to pay attention to breathing without controlling the breath, how to let your full body weight down evenly
without restraint, or how to sit erect and alert without tensing any muscles. Once the transition has been made, the words about it seem quite appropriate and meaningful. The Zen instruction "Empty your mind, but do not impede any thoughts" may initially sound selfcontradictory. But after it has been learned, the instruction seems both sensible and appropriate. The role of the teacher is in many respects crucial. Either in actual presence or through writing, he is the transmitter of the mystical tradition. Some of what he does to teach is quite straightforward and is comparable to any kind of teaching. In some respects the mystic teacher is like an athletic coach, with much that he does comparable to the motor learning already mentioned. Much that he wants to teach cannot be expressed in words lest the student confuse the words with the learning. If he is a good teacher who embodies what he teaches, he will exhibit what is to be learned in his mere presence (darsan) and in his postures and gestures (mudra). The frequent use of negativities, contradictions, paradoxes, absurdities, and even jokes in various mystical traditions is also, at an initial level of analysis, not really self-contradictory or nonsensical. But at another level closer to the needs of transformation, such negative linguistic forms are intended to break up and destroy ordinary expectations of the student's structured world in order to push him, not to another structural alternative, but to a liminal state beyond structure altogether (Hyers:54-59). Part of the mystical diagnosis is that the ordinary, expected structures of the individual and society are the crux of the human malady. Destroying reliance on these structures opens up access to the liminal states. The Tantric "twilight language" itself refers to those points "betwixt and between" (daylight and dark) through which it is possible to "slip out" of normal structures and limitations./8/ Symbolic language often maps out the path in ways that experientially are not so much to be deciphered as to be traversed. Mystical language with a narrative plot (such as dialogues, question and answer sequences, dramas, contests, progress stories, and multiple stage visualizations) are certainly susceptible to conceptual analysis and translation. But they are also aimed at providing a means of participation and identification so that the student may move with the plot—from diagnosis through the path to resolution. Especially when the story is oralaural, the plot is understood and consciousness changed when the hearer himself moves from question to answer. Mystical paths are thus particular kinds of rites of passage with many of the characteristics of performance, especially of drama, of transaction, of role transfer, and of role playing. They thus involve being a certain kind of character, walking (acharya, marga) or behaving in a certain way, playing a role within a plot as much as in completing the story and leaving the stage. Finally, the mystical path is communicated by means of what might be called "tactile" meaning. The use of melody, of timing and rhythm
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structures, of movement or lack of it, of recitation and repetition, of light and color, of sensory bombardment or sensory deprivation to retune and transform is not formless or ineffable, but quite specific in its intent and method. The body, the senses, and the consciousness are reshaped in specific ways, even though it may not be practicable at present to demonstrate how such methods work. Mantras, for example, work as much because they are sounds in specific patterns, and possibly with certain unrecognized references, as they do for any translatable conceptual meaning (Paul). Their continual, long-term repetition may plausibly "work" in a way analogous to the experimental work done by John Lilly (123-26) with tape-loops. That is, repetitious patterns of sound may force the mind to break the patterns of repeated sounds and hear the unvoiced sounds at the limit of the voiced. Repelling or frustrating all labeling of meditative experience may provoke breakthroughs in similar fashion beyond the effable to the liminal. But even so, what is heard is not ineffable in the strong sense. The unsounded sound is specific to the means of hearing it and relative to the specific mystical tradition. Examples used in this section have been taken from different mystical traditions to clarify the general problem of negative communication. It should not, however, be concluded that these communication devices are interchangeable from one mystical tradition to another. Different negative devices open up to different ineffable experiences (See part III). The correlation of different negative devices with different ineffable experiences shows that mystical experience is not ineffable in the strong sense. The case I have made for the weak rather than the strong ineffability of mystical experience makes it possible to state some elementary principles for the interpretation of mystical texts. The notion of weak mystical ineffability entails communicability, specifically mystical but nevertheless intelligible principles of interpretation, and discriminations that are specific rather than vague. First, the scholar is not kept from the meaning of a mystical text by some sort of intrinsic impenetrable mystery. The meaning of the text is accessible, and general rules of interpretation are applicable. Second, the intent of mystical texts in general is a specific one: therapy for the human malady and the path to resolution. Third, the intent of mystical texts belonging to a specific mystical tradition may be peculiar to that tradition or even to some extent to a particular text. The principles of interpretation have to be picked up from each particular mystical tradition. Mystical texts are to be read in their whole immediate and general traditional context unless there is good reason not to do so. Taking elements out of context to represent mysticism in general is a quite misleading procedure. Fourth, mystical intent is to some extent individual and varies with the author and individual text of the author. But no rigid distinction is
warranted between the author's theology and the author's experience. The assumption (Stace, 1960b:10—11) that a traditional mystic first has an experience, then describes it, and only subsequently theologizes about it is the reverse of what the evidence indicates. Fifth, from a descriptive-interpretive scholarly point of view, there is no general key to the meaning of all mystical texts, and there is no intrinsic general ranking system for different types of mysticism. Nor is there a best, highest, purest, or most complete type of mystical experience. Such judgments are not phenomenological, they are theological./^
III. Unanimity and Mystical Experience When mystical texts are read broadly in the fashion recommended, the differences among the traditions become as striking as the similarities. Mystical writers from different mystical traditions do discriminate the right methods from the wrong methods and the right goals from the wrong ones. Authors from different traditions do not agree with those of other traditions about which experience resolves the human malady. Not only do some of the spokesmen for the traditions want to exclude possession, mental disorders, and aridity from mystical experiences, but they also want to exclude some of the illumination experiences favored by other mystical traditions. Sometimes the reasons for rejecting the efficacy of other putative liberation experiences appear to be merely verbal, technical, procedural, or a matter of misunderstanding. But frequently fundamental differences emerge. The differences are theological, but they are at the same time practical, for they concern what constitutes true liberation. Each particular Hindu tradition tends to have its own specific criteria for what the ultimate mystical state is. Hindu theologians have entered into detailed and sometimes heated argument with their opponents to prove their adversaries' conceptions and experience inadequate. Hindu toleration generally is paternalistic: other religious orientations contain truth, but not enough truth for genuine liberation. The Hindu Vedanta is split into several subtraditions. Divergencies are particularly marked between Vedanta and the other Indian darianas, but there are also significant differences within Vedanta. Sankara's Advaita Vedanta system is not based upon the authority of mystical experience, but rather upon the authority of the Upanishads, which teach the nonduality of Being (pt. I, 299, 23). The ancient seers' (rshis) intuition of Brahman (brahmavid) can be replicated, and when this occurs, the authority of the scriptures (.iruti) is no longer necessary (pt. II, 340). Nevertheless, the mystical intuition to be replicated is precisely and only that nondual resolution authorized by scripture. The normative, liberating experience is described definitively by Yajfiavalkya
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in the Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad: "For where there is duality, as it were, there one sees another; there one smells another; there one tastes another; there one touches another; there one understands another. But when everything has become just one's self, then whereby and whom would one see?" (IV, 5, 15; Hume:147). Sankara comments: "If he sees in that Self consisting of bliss even a small difference in the form of non-identity, then he finds no release from the fear of transmigratory existence" (pt. I, 71). For Safikara, non-duality is the theological norm of true Being and therefore of liberation. All other views and experiences are inferior and nonliberating. Sarhkhya and Yoga doctrine is pluralistic. In Sankara's judgment, yogic meditative practice leads only to unusual states of consciousness that do not bring liberation (pt. I, 298, 312; pt. n, 375). At the most, yogic trance leads only to knowledge of the quality-free character of the self (pt. I, 298). Sankara thought no better of Jainas and most Buddhists (pt. I, 400-434). Theistic orientations, such as the Bhagavata (pt. I, 440-43), were seen as inferior accommodations to weaker human beings who cannot get along without symbolic supports. No resolution experience is liberating if it is different from that described by Yajnavalkya. Sankara's negative language about Being has a positive, discriminating function: it clearly delineates and demarcates the particular kind of mystical experience that is sought and differentiates it from other kinds of ineffable experiences that are possible (such as yogic trance). The ontological reality of undifferentiated Being-Itself is presupposed by the teacher as the seeker's target so that negative description is thus contextually meaningful. Brahmavid is, so to speak, "what is left over" after all of the wrong alternatives have been blocked. "What is left over" is quite specific (pt. II, 168-69; Streng, 1978:164). Perhaps nowhere is it clearer that preferences in mystical experience depend upon the theological norms of the mystic than in the fundamental disputes between RamSnuja and Sankara. For Ramanuja, the highest, right, and only sufficient resolution experience is the constant, unbroker) love of God—a love that can grow ever more intense, but that does not bring final release until the spiritual self separates from the material body at death. The true resolution, as revealed to Ramanuja in the scriptures, was not beyond the subject-object dichotomy, nor was it in any sort of trance. Resolution lies in the steady remembrance of the Lord with an attention as smooth as flowing oil—so that the self (purusa) becomes totally subservient to God (parampurusa), and is answered by God's grace while continuing to do its specific duty (svadharma) in society for God's sake only (1956:296-99; 1966:14-16). Ramanuja doubted that the kind of nondual experience described by Sankara was even possible, since perception of all kinds is always of objects (1966:52-54). Without the true theology of the Self (atman), and unless combined with action while renouncing the fruits of action
(karma-yoga) (1953:62), yogic trances consist merely of imaginative manipulation of memory images (1966:162). Safikara's way of wisdom (Jnana-yoga) also liberates only when the atman is correctly known (as defined by Ramanuja), and jnana-yoga runs against the grain of human nature unless it is approached through karma-yoga (1953:67-68). Karma-yoga is not only easy. It corresponds as well to natural human dispositions; it is human duty; and it is preparatory to the liberating devotion (bhakti) that is a wisdom engulfed in love (1953:75; 1956:250, 296-99). Although Sankara's norm for the liberating mystical experience has some affinities with Buddhist emptiness (sunyata) and shows Buddhist influence, Being and Emptiness are specifically different, both metaphysically and experientially. Two Ch'an masters criticize the nondual type of undifferentiated experience as the "dead void":
When working on Zen, the worst thing is to become attached to quietness, because this will unknowingly cause you to be engrossed in dead stillness. Then you will develop an inordinate fondness for quietness and at the same time an aversion for activity of any kind. (G. Chang:95) Some people begin to collect their thoughts, suppress their minds, and merge all things into the Emptiness. They close their eyelids and hide their eyeballs. As soon as distracting thoughts arise, they push them away. Even when the subtlest thought arises, they immediately suppress it. This kind of practice and understanding constitutes the very trap of the dead-void heretics. Such practitioners are living dead men. They become callous, impassive, senseless, and torpid. They resemble stupid thieves who try to steal a bell by stuffing their own ears! (G. Chang:101)
This "dead void" corresponds to Buddhist samatha (calming) without its balancing and fulfilling vipassand (insight) (Vajiranana:417; Gimello: 185-86; Bugault:73-75; Cousins; Beyer, 1975a:137), but it also corresponds phenomenologically with Advaita VedSnta's distinctionless intuition. Hui-Neng, the famous Chinese Sixth Ch'an Patriarch, makes the same point with great clarity:
The deluded man clings to the characteristics of things, adheres to the samidhl of oneness, thinks that straightforward mind is sitting without moving and casting aside delusions without letting things arise in the mind. This he considers to be the samidhi of oneness. This kind of practice is the same as insentiency and the cause of an obstruction to the Tao. Tao must be something that circulates freely; why should he impede it? If the mind does not abide in things the Tao circulates freely; if the mind abides in things, it becomes entangled. Some people teach men to sit viewing the mind and viewing purity, not moving and not activating the mind, and to this they devote their efforts. Deluded people do not realize that this is wrong, cling to this doctrine, and become confused . . . . Those who instruct in this way are, from the outset, greatly mistaken. (136-37)
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Mahayana emptiness and Advaita brahmavid are both ineffable (in the weak sense), but it is practicable to distinguish between the two experiences. The difference between nondual Being and Emptiness is expressed very emphatically in the Heart Sutra: "Form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, nor does form differ from emptiness; whatever is form, that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form" (Conze:152). The same point is made repeatedly and unmistakably in paired oppositions, with each half of the pair intended to qualify the other. If the Buddhist student took only the first half of each pair, he might well seek a seamless, undifferentiated trance experience. But the second half of each pair indicates that there is another possibility within the realm of the ineffable—no separate trance state that cuts off sense experience is to be accepted as the resolution. Satori is not the experience of the void. The void is another possibility within the nonconceptual, and it is not sufficient for resolution of the human problem. Emptiness without form, trance without insight, is mere withdrawal./10/ Zen meditation and Zen resolution experience are in strict alignment with each other. Zen meditation is not focused upon any one object of attention, and it does not proceed from one object of attention to another. The form of Zen meditation conforms to the resolution sought: an empty mind full of what is being experienced now without any restraints, conceptions, or attachments. The empty mind that has no conceptions or desires corresponds to nirvana, while the flowing, unimpeded experience with which it is filled corresponds to samsara. The empty mind that is full is nirvana in samsara; the present experience in an empty mind is samsara in nirvana. "If on the outside you are deluded you cling to form; if on the inside you are deluded you cling to emptiness. If within form you are apart from form and within emptiness you are apart from emptiness, then within and without you are not deluded" (Hui-Neng:166). The possible correlation of brain waves to specific mystic states of consciousness has been questioned, and rightly so (Principe:7; Staal: 108). But when measurable physiological differences correspond to intentional theological differences between specific methods of meditation, the evidence is corroborative. Experimental results obtained from subjecting Zen monks and accomplished yogins to external stimuli during deep meditation show differences that do correlate with what we would expect on theological grounds (Anand; Gellhorn; Kasamatsu; Emerson). Yogins doing an "objectless" meditation should be oblivious to external stimuli, and experimental results showed that they were. External stimuli had no effect on the alpha waves of the yogins. Zen meditators should be "object-oriented" rather than "subject-oriented" (as the yogins were), so that external stimuli should be experienced with clarity and as though they were newly presented each t i m e Each presentation of the external stimulus consistently blocked alpha waves
for the Zen meditators. The Zen meditators' nonattachment to stimuli should also allow rapid return to alpha waves after each stimulus, and, because they do not habituate, they should be ready to respond to repetition of the stimulus with the same intensity each time it is repeated. These expectations were experimentally verified. Control persons in a "normal" state of consciousness habituate, i.e., they recognize the repeated stimulus as the same one that was experienced before, they classify the stimulus as "the same," and thus they experience the stimulus with decreasing intensity with each repetition. For the control persons, the external stimulus in a short time no longer blocked alpha waves. Similar experiential effects may accompany different kinds of mystical resolution experiences in different mystical traditions. These similarities may appear significant only when they are abstracted from their contexts. If peak experiences or "zero experiences" are not regarded as self-authenticating within the mystical traditions and are not the source by themselves of the authority of mystical experience, and if theological norms are constitutive of mystical experience rather than subsequently added accidental interpretations, then some of the experiential elements that are commonly said to form the "essence" of mystical experience may not be particularly significant. Possibly the experiential similarities are side effects of resolution in general and its emotional accompaniments. If so, we would expect to find them in other kinds of resolution besides the mystical. Within the mystical traditions, intensity of emotions and dazzling trips do not guarantee resolution. A mystic judges which experiences count as resolution by reference to his own tradition, which provides guideposts, theory, criteria, guides, mentors, authority figures, and experiential stereotypes. The metaphysical structure of the specific mystical tradition sets up the mystical situation, but it does not necessarily produce the experience. In fact, failure to succeed is apparently quite common. That what is experienced is conditioned, focused, and evaluated by the structure of the tradition by no means excludes the possibility that the experience is also objectively based. Disagreement concerning the right method to be employed by the mystic seeker is also widespread from one mystical tradition to another. Not only is there controversy about whether or not there even are methods for attaining mystical experience, but even those traditions that say there are methods disagree with other traditions about which procedures are right. Some kind of renunciation is probably universal among the mystical traditions, but what must be renounced varies significantly from one tradition to another. Should the quest be a full-time vocation so that all other pursuits are given up, or can it be carried out in the midst of daily affairs? Must a variety of dietary restrictions be observed (either to avoid murder of animals or to make the body more spiritually healthy
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or both), should one aim to stop eating altogether (to avoid taking plant life also), should one eat only bland foods at room temperature to perserve alimentary equanimity, or should one avoid or indulge in alcohol and psychically stimulating drugs? Is sexual activity permissible (some forms of Buddhism and Hinduism), to be avoided completely (some forms of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity), or mandatory (some forms of Tantra)? There is obviously no consensus about what constitutes renunciation. It should also be evident that whether or not eating animals or plants is considered murder is dependent upon the value structure of the tradition. Some form of concentration is probably also universal in the various mystical traditions, but how one should concentrate varies widely. Discursive meditation upon theological doctrines or empathetic envisioning of episodes in the life of Jesus, such as the Passion, are efficacious for some, while they are relegated to beginners for others, in the Christian tradition. Visions are sometimes to be avoided as mere subconscious projections or hysteria (e.g., in much of the Christian tradition and in Zen), while in other traditions detailed stereotyped visions are deliberately cultivated until they are clearly and steadily perceived (especially in Hindu and Buddhist Tantric traditions with their elaborate mandala systems). The learned ability to concentrate attention at will for long periods of time is thought to be instrumentally necessary in some traditions (Buddhism); it is the essence of the matter in some (many forms of Yoga); and it is not stressed in others (e.g., Transcendental Meditation). Even when concentration is considered essential, there is marked divergence between subject-oriented and objectoriented concentration, between concentration for the purpose of "penetration" and concentration for the purpose of accurate observation, between concentration with a particular focus and concentration with no focus. Not only is it not possible to carry out all these methods at once, but many are mutually exclusive. What the seeker is able to experience is heavily conditioned by his tradition's method, which determines in large measure what can or cannot even cross the threshold of his notice. The method limits the kind of experience that is possible and acceptable. Within the limits of the method, mystical experience might or might not occur due to a wide range of variables. Some of the transitions are abrupt and mysterious. Mystery is part of the method. Even the method of no-method, of complete passivity, is also directed by method, for it excludes a whole range of possible activities, thereby directing consciousness elsewhere. Some scholars have questioned (Bharati, 1976) whether method has anything to do with the mystical goal. If the only aim of mystics were to have "peak experiences," the matter would be quite debatable. But insofar as the aim is resolution/liberation and being a certain kind of person of a traditional type specific to a mystical tradition, the specific mystical path is essential to the specific mystical goal.
Mystical Experience IV. Conclusion
I have argued that mystical experience within the mystical traditions is characterized by weak rather than strong ineffability. Thus, even when the explicit language of a tradition points beyond what it literally says, it does so in a way that is sufficiently explicit to discriminate the particular kind of experience that is sought from those that are regarded as counterfeit and to guide the aspirant toward that particular goal as opposed to goals that might be sought in other traditions. There is a plurality of possible kinds of mystical experience. Which kind of mystical experience is regarded as liberation or resolution is typically a value judgment guided by the theology of the particular mystical tradition. Theological and other differences among the mystical traditions are therefore not accidental matters to be ignored. They are intrinsic to and constitutive of the mystical path and its goal. The study of mystical experiences is directly relevant to the development of a cross-cultural philosophy of religion, but not in an easy, monolithic, abstractly reassuring way through the "essence" of mystical experience. The attempt to bypass metaphysical and theological differences among the mystical traditions by treating mystical experiences as subconceptual feeling, emotion, or aesthetics—or as transconceptual intuitions of the "same" ultimate reality—is both initially and ultimately to be false to the data. There will not be any easy end-runs around or forward passes over the problems of our differences. The divergencies among the traditions are not accidental or incidental. Cross-cultural bridges will have to be built upon clear recognition of the divergencies as well as upon the hope for some degree of mutuality. Theological, philosophical, behavioral, and institutional differences are intrinsic components in the task facing a cross-cultural philosophy of religion. Mystical experience does not subscend or transcend these differences. Crosscultural philosophy of religion is by no means an impossible task, but the "bridge" will be plural and complex, not single and simple.
III The argument presented here is simplified and composite to represent the logic underlying the relationship between ineffability and unanimity that appears implicitly or explicitly in the interpretations of religions and of mystical experience associated with phllosophia perennis. Referring to the diversity of religious traditions, Huston Smith stated (9): "Outwardly they differ, but inwardly it is as if an 'invisible geometry' has everywhere been working to shape them to a single truth." Similar assumptions about the "essence" of mystical experience appear in Margaret Smith, Evelyn Underhill, Frithjof Schuon, Daniel Goleman, Aldous Huxley, and W. T. Stace. Spokesmen for "Renaissance Hinduism" such as Vivekananda, Aurobindo, and Sivananda (not listed in Works Consulted) share this orientation.
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111 Claudio Naranjo (32) reduces the essence of meditation to a common attitude: "a practice in awareness, in centeredness and equanimity, in attunement to our nature, in the capacity of giving up ourselves and being available to our perceptions, in receptivity and in freedom from pre-conceptions necessary to reception." Ill John Blofeld (25) makes the argument quite explicit: "Descriptions by people widely separated in time and place are strikingly similar, especially if allowance is made for four divisive factors: the impossibility of accurately describing an experience that transcends all concepts for which words exist; the pious tendency to reconcile all religious experience with cherished doctrines; the prohibition in some societies against expressing views not in accord with the prevailing doctrines; and the need to make descriptions intelligible and acceptable to others." 14/ Sacredness is naturally associated with the archi character of mystical experience. As the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching (de Bary: 51) have it: "The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao." Thus, it is ineffable. "Nameless, it is the origin of Heaven and earth," nevertheless, "Nameable, it is the mother of all things." Tao is both source and course of things. Here in essence is the problem of reification of the astructural into human structures. Somehow the nameless origin becomes the namable mother of all things. "That they are the same is the mystery." The ineffability in question is weak rather than strong. I SI According to Bugault (75-76, 229), prajnd (wisdom) is in the middle between the extremes of transcendental truth and conventional truth for the MahSyfina tradition also. Wisdom and ordinary knowledge are both continuous and discontinuous. 16/ Bugault (211) says that the dialectic of Nagarjuna, Buddhapalita, and Candraklrti is not dogmatic or didactic like that of Hegel. Dialectic's unique function here is to 'destroy all points of view (drsti), using one against the others, to make an opening for an eventual liberating intuition that issues into emptiness abruptly and instantaneously. The truth is unveiled by separating it from the untrue. This manner of revelation probably reinforces the archi character of the wisdom attained because attainment is not directly produced by any of the techniques employed to approach it. Resolution must not appear to be a product of the process by which it is reached. Ill The induction of the "doubt mass" or "great doubt" by techniques of negative reinforcement in Ch'an and Zen is a parallel variation on the via negativa. See the discussion in C.-Y. Chang especially; also Becker (44-48, 57-58); Kapleau (71-82); Suzuki (1956:102-3, 135-38; 1963:163-68); G. Chang (79, 91, 94-96, 103-11, 143-44, 150-55, 225, n. 9). /8/ "The twilights symbolized the sensitive points in the temporal flow when spiritual victory was possible. A special vocabulary was created to refer to these
critical points and was called in the Buddhist Tantra 'twilight language'" (Wayman:130). Conventional mystical languages are not directly involved in the question of ineffability insofar as they are primarily specialized jargon. The exception would be the use of allegories, codes, and secret keys of interpretation to intend the ineffable. The "overtones" of allegory and the spiritual sense of scripture, for example, can be used to "trigger" a breakthrough. 191 The assumption of the unity of mystical texts is comparable to the traditional Ved&nta theological assumption of the unity of the Vedas or to the traditional Christian theological assumption of the unity of biblical revelation. /10/ My argument based on evidence from the Zen tradition could be expanded to the whole MahaySna tradition. From the Vajrayana tradition Lama Govinda (273) says: "Those, however, who only suppress their sense-activities and natural functions of life, before they even have tried to make the right use of them, will not become saints but merely petrefacts. A saintliness, which is built merely on negative virtues, merely on avoidance and escape, may impress the crowd and may be taken as proof of self-control and spiritual strength; however, it will lead only to spiritual self-annihilation, but not to Enlightenment. It is the way of stagnation, of spiritual death. It is liberation from suffering at the price of life and of the potential spark of Illumination within us." Buddhaghosa (739-44) lists ten kinds of "pseudo-nirvana": brilliant light, rapture, tranquillity, devotional feelings, vigor, sublime happiness, quick and clear perception, strong mindfulness, equanimity, and subtle attachment to any of these phenomena. Bugault (76-78, 85) notes that the standard lives of the Buddha depict him as rejecting Yoga because it does not lead to true nirvana. Katz, Gimello, and Streng (1978) argue from evidence in a variety of Mahayana sources that Buddhist insight or emptiness is not the same as the oneness of Being. Gimello (192) notes that the "Ten Oxherding Pictures" of Zen Buddhism do not end the series at the blank circle, but go beyond it to return to the marketplace. The blank circle corresponds to the Vedanta nondual experience. While the discussion here has dealt only with calming and insight, iila, or behavior modification, is implicitly included to make an unexpressed triad. Even for Zen tradition resolution entails being a certain kind of person.
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