Mysticism: The Buddhist Approach

A  short insight in to Buddhist mysticismThe concept of mysticism is one of those concepts that does not have one true definition. There is no one way to have a mystical experience. Nor is there a specific time in one’s life which mystical experience happen. The best way to define mysticism is having an ultimate realization or realizing an ultimate goal. every religion has its own interpretation of the ultimate goal. For Christian’s, the ultimate goal, or ultimate reality is being one with God or finding a place with God and being accepted into heaven. A Buddhist’s ultimate goal, according to many, is to reach the state of Nirvana, whether it is through this present life or the next, or some life after that.

To understand Buddhist mysticism, we must understand where this philosophy comes from. The story of Gotama Buddha starts with a young prince of India. Though he was married and had everything to support his life and the life of his family, he abandoned the life of luxury to live a life of finding answers. Not happy with the state of the general public well being, Buddha left his home in search for answers and solutions at the age of 29. Six year later, after studying with various religious leaders and still not happy with the answers laid before him, Buddha decided to start his own search for answers. One day, while sitting under a tree, Buddha experiences enlightenment. This enlightenment could be considered a mystical experience. It was rapid, unexpected, and allowed Buddha to see life in a brand new way.

Mystical experiences, from a Christian’s point of view, are experiences in which a person experiences God. Some people do not have these experiences unless they have a near death experience. Others have it when they are doing their daily routines. These ultimate realizations can occur in several different forms of mystical experiences. Philosopher William James recognized Buddhist mysticism as enlightenment, or a form thereof. This form of enlightenment is considered to be the mind’s acknowledgements that it is in high states of existences. The existences is not of a god, but rather the existence of one’s self.

Mysticism in Buddhism is defined differently from other forms of mysticism. Rather than getting realization from a higher being or power, such as God, Buddhist mysticism is focused on contemplation, ideas, perspectives, and lack of all that. The experience is noetic, as William James would put it.

To attain mystical experiences in Buddhist traditions, it is not easy nor is it something that comes early in life. There is preparation that needs to be done. In Indian philosophy, yoga is used as a training into mystical insight. While many associate yoga as a form of exercise, body balancing, and relaxation, it is much more. In attaining mystical insight, yoga is used as a technique to reach those higher states of contemplation through breathing, following certain diets, attaining postures, and going through intellectual concentration.

In Zen Buddhism, the term for this intuitive experience is called Kensho, or satori. Satori is described as quick, instant experiences in which those experiencing satori gain new perspectives on everything. experiences of satori are usually never instant, but take time to develop or prepare. According to Huoston Smith, when someone experiences satori, it is like a silent rocket deep within the subject. When experiencing satori, one experiences many things, including new perspectives, as mentioned before, and joy. According to Meister Eckhart, this is what is called “a little point”. This little point in which we look at all directions is the same as the satori experiences mentioned above, where we look at things in new perspectives. An example given by Suzuki is “They eye by which I see God is the same as the eye by which God sees me.” Our Ideas, our perceptions of things, and the perceptions themselves, are merely one in the same.

When one reaches satori, all thoughts, ideas, perceptions, are final. In Buddhist philosophy, things are. There is not much questioning unlike in Western cultures. IThe point of these mystical experiences is to get answers or insight without having to second guess. Why question something we already have? Insights are not argued, there is no logical explanation or argument for these insights. They just are.

According to author William James, there is a higher contemplation, or state of existence, is called Samadhi or dyhana. To practice Samadhi means to practice meditation. This form of meditation is broken up into four stages. The first stage consists of concentrating on one point, intellectually. The feeling of desire is removed from the mind to keep focus on concentration. Stage two focuses on [satisfying] sense of unity between the point and the person. This is to say that there does not need to be concentration. Whatever point or idea a person is focused on and the person must feel like there is a unity amongst them. The third stage of dhyana drops satisfaction. In this stage, according to James, there is a sense of indifference between the mind and the point or thought. Stage four is the stage of perfection. The indifference between the point and the mind are perfected, and the mind’s self-consciousness is perfected as well.

The idea of emptiness plays itself into this concept of mysticism. As mentioned, the four stages of dhyana progressively removes feelings, and perceptions from one stage to another. However, mysticism does not stop there. It can go beyond that, removing all ideas and thoughts to reach what is called emptiness. All that there is in emptiness is a state of consciousness. This idea of emptiness plays well with the fourth stage of dhyana that James refers to, and the “happy living in this existence” that will be referred to in the next section.

There is a clear distinction that scholar D.T. Suzuki makes about the differences of Christian and Buddhist mysticism. During the final steps into reaching enlightenment, Suzuki suggest, in his book “Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist” that the crucifixion that most Christians are fixated on, is more than just a bodily sacrifice and crucifixion, but also the crucifixion of egos. Buddhist philosophy rids the ego which allows the mystical experience to be more pleasant, joyful and allow those experiencing to be more at the moment, rather than contemplate their soul’s future. Buddha’s teachings tell us that we must make these mystical experiences there and then. No matter what type of mystical experience one has, all experiences are, by Buddha’s teachings, created and provided by the mind. We, without letting our ego get to us, individually create these mystical experiences in our mind. once the time is right, our mind produces them to us. In order for a proper mystical experience, we must be liberated. They are “happy living in this existence.” Buddhism is about living in the present, which is what the Buddha realized when he had his mystical enlightenment. There is no contemplating the past or future; there is not an attachment to the beyond.

In Western traditions, there is an issue of attachment. People get attached to everything: time, objects, idea, etc. It is true for some religions as well. Both Christians and Muslims become attached to the idea of God or Allah, and worship their deity. Any form of mystical experiences to these religions is a persona and direct connection to the god. Buddhist mysticism lacks the persona aspect that Christian mystics might have with their experience with God. Buddhism does  not have a god, but the idea of being personal with Buddhist ideas and traditions, is not part of the Buddhist philosophy. Meister Eckhart and D.T. Suzuki argue that Christianity and Buddhism differ in this aspect because Christianity is based more on mythological paraphernalia, which allows a Christian to have a more concrete and persona establishment with God and Christ. Buddhism, on the other hand, does not need statues of Buddha or crosses to base their beliefs on. All that is needed are the teachings of Buddha, and present existence.

While both forms of mysticism are constructed on very different cultural mindsets, we can probably agree that satori and Christian mysticism share the same goals, whether we call it enlightenment or finding God. Both are the ultimate goals of each religion or philosophy, respectively. On the hand of those religions with a god, the goal which proceeds finding or experience a god is to achieve entering heaven or any form of it. Buddhism is not much different. While no god exists, the goal following the reach of enlightenment is to achieve the state of Nirvana. The state of Nirvana is similar to heaven. Of course, state of Nirvana is simply non existence. There is no return to the life world. Unlike many deity based religion, Nirvana is the state of non-existence. Like a candle at it’s final points of wicker, there is no more turning on or off.

As said before, mysticism cannot be narrowly defined into one definition. But the Buddhist idea is of mysticism is a simple one. Though its preparation seems complicated, the idea of a Buddhist mystical experience is simple and rapid. One moment we’re thinking about our future; the next moment we’re just conscious.

Author’s note: Happy New Year! For my final post of the year, I felt it should be on a topic that interests me very much: mysticism. Buddhist mysticism is fascinates me. Thank you for reading my blog this year. I look forward to sharing more this coming year. Happy New Year everyone! 


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Filed under Buddhism, Christianity, Philosophy, Religion

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