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4: Reflections on Buddhism and Christianity

Pattern and Accident in Religion

To try to bring understanding of how it is that the Theravada and Christianity differ so much and yet may belong in their own ways to a general history of religions is a great task. But it is one which can yield fruit. For nothing is more barren than accepting at the start that the divergences are mere accidents of history and culture. That there are accidents of history and culture who would deny? The shape of Indian religion is, for instance, partly determined by adventitious geography: the Himalaya range, for instance, has had a powerful effect on Indian symbolism. Given the great ‘snow-store’, the vast upthrusting mountains, the cascading streams tumbling down into the plains, the rarefied air and the arching effect of the peaks — it was no surprise that India should often think that the continents were clustered around a vast mountain, Mount Meru. Still the details of that magic mountain may give us some surprise. It is traditionally thought to have been 80,000 leagues high. Round it are great circular mountain ranges sticking out of the ocean, the seventh and outermost being a mere 1,250 yojanas high. Outside of it are the four continents, including the southern continent, the island of the rose apple tree, Jambudvipa, often identified with India, or else with the whole of the known world. Of course, once one begins to look at such mythic geography one perceives that certain less accidental features have entered into traditional Buddhist thinking. Mount Meru itself represents the axis of the world, the great thrusting central pole going up through the earth to the heavens: it is the path up which the holy man may in his strange experiences ascend. It is the symbolism of the centre and the symbolism of height combined. And such spatial symbolism is characteristic of human culture: archetypal one might wish to say. So we will generally find that men’s systems of belief, their worldviews are like much else of their cultural existence, a mingling of pattern and serendipity, of theme and accident. It is characteristic of the human being to try to make sense of the accidents, to weave personal or collective existence into a kind of collage (nothing changes so much as the past, we might say). So though we must look to the genesis of Christianity and Buddhism necessarily in certain configurations of particularity, there may nevertheless be some recurrence of theme and contrast of pattern which may make sense of their divergence.

We could of course look at things more concretely, and less from the point of view of the history of religions, but from the angle of commitment. What is the Christian, for instance, to say about the Buddha’s teaching and experience, given that in the Theravada at least it is hard to discern anything approaching a personal theism? Putting it crudely: Did the Buddha see God but not realize what he was apprehending? Conversely, the Buddhist might ask what is to be made of the whole history of Christian theism given that it seems to rest (according at least to Buddhist analysis) on a mistake? Can one deflate it by supposing that it has a Freudian origin — that the Christian God is Dad projected large, and has no external substance? Or is it possible that some Christian contemplatives — men such as whoever it was wrote the works ascribed to Dionysius the Areopagite, and Eckhart and others who have emphasized the unknowability of God, his ineffability — have in fact reached the higher stages of contemplation even if they have failed to draw the right conclusions from their experience?

Again, we might see the faiths from a Marxist or humanist angle, and consider them ultimately, for all their nobilities here and there, to be delusions. But even here there is the unnerving question as to how it is that alienation should take such differing forms. But these questions — of secular analyses of religion — I shall leave to the second part. For the time being, let us try to look at the two religions (or phases of religion) from the perspective that, given their differing accounts of the world and of the way to release and redemption, there may nevertheless compatibly be a manner of accounting for the differences that makes use of recurrent themes of religious experience and symbolism. And it seems that it is with the mystical that we find the best starting point.

The Purification of Consciousness

Mount Meru may remind us that the idea of an ascent up the axis mundi to the high heavens (as well as the idea of a trip to visit the land of the dead) is a theme of shamanism. It is, that is to say, a theme to be found among hunting cultures and projected symbolically into later civilizations. And we may think that there are relations between shamanism and the practice of yoga. There are also relationships to other styles of religious experience. Muhammad’s night journey to Jerusalem is suggestive of shamanism, as also is Paul’s account of how whether in the body or out of the body (God knows) he was taken up somehow into the higher heavenly world. It may be that we can see in shamanism a kind of prototype religious experience and symbolism which lies behind the varying patterns of religiosity later to appear in the historic era of men’s life. So it may well be that Indian yoga was not without shamanistic antecedents. Even in the sophistications of Buddhism there are traces: the various levels of jhāna or meditation correspond to the various heavens as the adept moves to ever more refined planes of existence. Again, the heat generated by many a yogi of the Buddha’s day and even of our own is reminiscent of the way in which fire is used in sweat lodges and the spiritual prototype of the sauna. Typically the Westerner sweating it out in the sauna is thinking of his waist line not of the higher purifications and ecstasies which heat can induce: transmute the spiritual into the physical — a typical ploy, perhaps a hangover of the sacramental attitude. Nevertheless, though the symbolic background of yoga is important, the way it developed in the Buddha’s time was increasingly technical and analytical. It is as though the various factors and forces of the psyche had to be labelled and clearly distinguished as part of the whole project of mastering them and so gaining a state of pure and unruffled consciousness.

It is this purification of consciousness which in one way or another unites mystics or contemplatives from different traditions. True what is found in such a state is described rather differently: and it could be that purification is only so to speak a stage on the inner way. To questions of the relation between experience and its interpretation we must return a little later. But that the contemplative succeeds somehow in going beyond ordinary shifting thoughts and mental images, and cuts out in his interior life the external perceptions of ordinary life; that he or she finds himself experiencing something to which the usual distinction between subject and object is no longer quite apt; that in such a state time so to speak stands still, and a kind of experienced timelessness appears; — about such descriptions of the inner mystical life one can find very widespread agreement. But the yogi or mystic does not just of course live in this rarefied state: in his return from the mountain, so to speak, he confronts ordinary life, and therefore there must emerge the relationship between the higher state and everyday existence, between the imageless and the images, between the timeless and the temporal. The varied interpretations of his experience provide that bridge between the two realms, that way of relating. They also may have been part of the ways used to approach the higher state: the worldview of the contemplative already determines much about his quest, its shape and feeling. More than that: there may be a dynamic interaction between the purified state of consciousness and the concerns to understand and cope with the world with which the contemplative may already of course have been wrestling. And in the case of the Buddha one can say something like this: not only had the Buddha in his quest for spiritual depth practised various forms of yoga, powerful elements of which were to be incorporated into the Buddhist tradition; but also he had explored various speculative, spiritual and philosophical analyses of the way the world is. He was concerned not just to find peace (one aspect of the stilling of consciousness in its higher states), but also insight. And so the Dhamma which he taught was both contemplative and analytic: both a matter of experience and understanding. There has been a certain swinging as of a pendulum in later Buddhist history, now towards making it predominantly intellectual, now towards something of immediate experience. But the intention is between the two, a kind of fused balance between what can be found in higher consciousness and what can be discovered through reflection. Philosophy is liberating if properly conducted and consciousness if rightly directed is philosophically illuminating. So we have to ask, regarding Buddhism as it developed into the Theravada, what reasons seem to have been behind the relentless drive to dissolve things into impermanence, and with them the substantial soul or self?

The Context of the Buddha’s Search

One needs to see the matter in context. At the time of the Buddha there were various schools, with the leader of some of which he is supposed to have studied. Basically, as we have noted, they belonged to those movements known as sramanic, after the term śramana or wandering holy man. These were teachers alternative to and often in conflict with the Brahmin class. The latter sometimes joined with śramanas and took on their way of life and ideas, but in doing so they excluded themselves from the pukka tradition to which they belonged. That tradition not only gave them a preeminent place in society, but also entitled them to administer the sacrificial rites which had played so large a part in later Vedic religion and whose inner meaning was to be discussed so profoundly and mysteriously in the Upanishads. Roughly speaking we can say that such belief in a supreme God as the Buddhist scriptures discuss was that held by some or most Brahmins, and which gave a special place not merely to the great gods of the Vedic hymns but very centrally to Brahmā. This personal being, personal variant so to say of that neuter power Brahman which pulsed through the sacrifice and was part of the very marrow and substance of the Brahmin himself, was conceived both as Creator and of course as having a special relationship to the Brahmin class. Though the Buddhist scriptures incorporate a critique of theism (as the belief that there is an eternal God and that everything else is non-eternal), the primary concern was with the kinds of doctrine which were current in the sramanic schools.

It is reasonable to say that the theism essentially rejected by early Buddhism was that associated with the Brahmin tradition, partly because it was part of the sacrificial and class system which came under the Buddha’s criticism. In other words, when we ask the question, perhaps too concretely: ‘Could it be that the Buddha had experience of God but interpreted the Transcendent quite differently?,’ we should at least recall that any rejection of theism had little to do with the dynamic personalism of Jewish monotheism or the classical conceptions of later Christianity. It is easy for us to be anachronistic and neglectful of context. The fact is that the Buddha might have come to say something rather different had he been acquainted with Plotinus or Paul. This does not mean that it is incorrect for Buddhists now on the basis of the canonical tradition to undertake a critique of Western theism. The best Theravadin minds of today have been pretty much convinced of the incompatibility of Buddhism and theism as understood in the West. But once we remember the variation of context, once we remember that rejections are themselves functions of the beliefs which are rejected, then it seems more reasonable to distance ourselves more from the concrete form of the question we have raised above, and say something more like this: ‘Does it seem at all reasonable and in accord with the facts of religious history to suppose that the same transcendent X would be experienced under different forms and in such a way that both Isaiah and the Buddha might in differing ways have been in touch with the same Reality? And could it be that the belief systems emerging separately in differing cultures represent differing grids of interpretation, but because they point beyond themselves to something (or some things) discovered in revelatory or enlightenment experience, there may be some higher level of interpretation which would help us to understand the experiential roots of the different systems?’ In other words, it may be that a theory of types of religious experience will help to make sense of the variations in spiritual position most starkly perhaps represented by sacramental theism on the one hand versus analytical mysticism on the other.

Types of Religious Experience

My theory, already outlined, on this score is as follows. The mystical experience, which perhaps could better be named differently, and by which I mean the purified consciousness in which the eternal somehow presents itself, very often as a result of or in the context of a strenuous path of self-discipline, both physical and psychological, can occur in differing cultures but does not require for its interpretation the postulation of a God. It may be seen in the context of God. It may itself be interpreted as a kind of union with God. It may or may not be the case that somehow theistic mysticism incorporates into the yogic experience something which goes beyond or is somehow superior to that kind of consciousness-purity which does not. It could of course be the other way round — but note how terms like ‘higher’ are value-laden: our immediate task here is not to say what is true or better but to consider possibilities of how things actually are and have been in the actual operations of religious experience. The main point is that there is a kind of transcendental consciousness-purity which enters as a dynamic element into various religious traditions. The importance of this thesis is partly to be found in what it denies. What it denies is that such inner consciousness-purity is at all the same thing as certain other important modes of religious experience. The person who somewhat like Wordsworth feels a kind of unity with all that is, who identifies in his inner feeling with the natural world around him — such a person has an experience which taken in conjunction with consciousness-purity is significant, and which is relevant to it. But it is not the same. It is described very differently.

If we sometimes think that it converges it is because as a matter of fact a certain sort of monism can be generated from different directions. It can be generated from the experience we have just referred to. But it can in differing guise be generated because consciousness-purity when interpreted as an experience of the holy Being underlying the world can lead to the idea that the true self found in consciousness-purity is identical with that Being, for the subject-object dichotomy has disappeared. In one case the person feels unity with nature directly in experience: in the other case the unity is felt in experience, but via some interpretative steps of identification. Again: it is not only that unity-with-nature experience differs from consciousness-purity. It differs markedly from that which classically has been described as the numinous experience. Here the individual is confronted by something awe-inspiring out there. Or if he hears something as it were tolling in his head it is perceived as coming from an Other. The dualism of subject and object — of subject and subject, we might say, for the numinous Other is typically perceived as a personal Being: in the case of Arjuna in the Gītā as a personalized nuclear explosion, it seems like — this dualism is intrinsic, vital, striking. It is true that we also have to consider cases of possession where something funny indeed happens to the subject-object dichotomy, but let us leave these cases on one side for the time being. The notion of the Other is not an equal one, either: as the use of the capital ‘O’ rather feebly points out. The Other is overwhelming, fearful, crammed with value somehow, of great and powerful substance. No wonder the person confronting the Lord in such circumstances finds his hair standing on end, or thinks that he is a sinful creature, or feels it would be safer if somehow the Lord went away. So it is not just that there is a twoness as between the Other and the subject: there is a qualitative difference in which the superior power and value of the Other is displayed.

From this sense of Otherness, superiority, so much else in religion flows: the sense of dependence, for it is presumptuous for the subject to suppose that he can truly influence the Other; the idea of grace, for power flows down from the Other to the subject, and again reliance on works would itself be a way of staking out an inappropriate independence; the sense of the supreme Power of the other which may imply that all of the universe flows from him in some way; the sense of holiness and goodness, for the good things of life including ethical conduct and good emotions, must be related to the Other’s supreme concentration of value. Sometimes it may look as if the religion of the numinous involves a simple appeal to power. And after all God did in effect use that ‘argument’ with Job, in the end. But that in itself helps to reinforce the sense of the uncontrollability of the divine. How often do we hear that it is not right to try to make God conform to norms invented by men, and so it is easy to be critical of an appeal to holy Power from a standpoint that may after all not be quite appropriate, within at any rate the boundaries of religious experience and sentiment. Above all, the experience of the Other generates worship. The reaction of the subject in acknowledging the Other’s majesty is something which in ritual can be formalized as liturgical worship. In that the sense of the Other is both acknowledged and stimulated, both expressed and evoked.

In the Theravada the saint does not worship nibbana. He may commend it as the summum bonum but it is not in any ordinary sense a source of power, nor is it the Other, still less a personal Creator. If in any way the consciousnesspurity and the numinous experiences point to the same Something or Someone, then it is only so, so far as we can see, in virtue of some theory which seeks to show a rather complex relationship between language and practice on the one hand and the postulated Ultimate on the other. To that we shall come. But it is facile and logically naive simply to say that God is transcendent, nirvana is transcendent — so God and nirvana are the same. Or that God is summum bonum, nirvana is so too — so the two are one. Or that there is a supreme sacredness about both so that they must somehow be the same. Or even that the X is beyond language, so surely in the ineffable sky beyond the clouds of language somehow the various different shapes of religion can meet, shining, unseen. The facts or supposed facts to which I have alluded in hinting at arguments which apologists for the transcendental unity of religions use all may show that ultimately the identity of what the Buddha saw and what Jesus heard can be affirmed. Can be, not must be. They provide possibilities, not entailments. As arguments in any case they are fallacious as they stand. But in simplifying perhaps I do misrepresent.

Briefly, then, I would argue that there are different patterns of religious experience, and it is in part because of this that the great religions differ. The fact that the Buddha was bound up as many of his sramanic associates were with the practice of a kind of yoga aimed at self-control and the increasing purification of consciousness meant that he was not inclined much to take seriously the numinous gods. It is a view entrenched in Buddhism that the saint can see the gods in a way which even the Brahmin cannot; but in seeing the gods the saint sees through them. It is as though the power emanating from gods and spirits and from the evil Satanic Mara were seen as merely transitory. The numinous, in brief, was seen as a subsidiary thing, and paradoxically of little power when confronted by the emptiness of the pure consciousness.

The Numinous in Buddhism

Now maybe it will be said that this diagnosis is scarcely true of the great Vehicle and the Vajrayana. The fearful aspect of Tibetan divinities, the power which emanates so beautifully from Amitābha, the devotion inspired throughout the Mahayana by the great Bodhisattvas, the fearsome aspect of Nichiren — these and other evidences will be brought in to try and redress my balance. I am glad about that: because I think that precisely they reflect the truth — that in the Great Vehicle and the Vajrayāna (and especially in the latter) the personal Other comes to play a much more colourful and central role. The Great Vehicle is a weaving together of differing strands of religion. But at the moment I am reflecting about the Theravada. But even so (it will be said) I have maybe underplayed the reverence emanating from the Buddha images, the sheer numinosity of the Perahera, the marvellous powers of relics and so on. Perhaps I have. But let me explain such power in a special way. I shall use a perspective which much later on in my argument as to the ultimate meaning of the divergences between the Theravada and Christianity will be important and I hope enlightening. For the moment let me just state this view of the matter with a certain dogmatism.

We notice with stained glass windows how dull they are from the outside and how wonderfully they glow from the inside. So it is with the gods and the powers of Buddhism. Viewed from those as it were inside this world — the world beyond in a sense seems wonderful: the Buddha so to speak glows with golden light when seen from the angle of the ordinary world. But once outside this world the glories are nothing. In the light and open air of the eternal the individual no longer needs the shelter or the props of the church. The saint sees nothing in the outer show: what for others are beauties are neither beautiful nor the opposite. As when we look at a stained glass window from the outside: it does not seem very meaningful judging it on its appearance from there.

It might be worth noticing that just as the Buddhist may be unimpressed by the gods and even the great god Brahmā, so he might not be much impressed either by the great god Yahweh or the great avatar Christ, you could find quite a number of Christians who would be rather unimpressed by the yoga, the dhyānas, the purification of consciousness. Such meditations and self-control are rather foreign to the spirit of the revivalist preacher. But as I have said earlier, such confrontations have a certain anachronism about them. But it is worth briefly speculating about the Buddha in the Western Isles of Scotland, or of Billy Sunday (or Graham) in the rock temples of Dambulla, Sri Lanka, to realize from what different experiential premisses the two religions come (or at least the two sub-religions come). For it leads us to reflect about the ultimate meaning of these styles of experience in today’s world. At any rate, the first part of any overall theory of religion will concern patterns of religious experience: and I have referred so far to three — the mystical or consciousness-purity type (which may itself of course have a number of forms), the numinous Other type (which again may have more or less personal forms) and the panenhenic type (to use the expression Zaehner used). I have also made some reference to shamanism, which may have within it elements that later were to be found distinctly in prophetism and in yoga. Because it involves ecstasy and possession by spirits, it exists as it were in a form which can move in either direction — inwards towards pure feeling, or outwards to what comes from outside in order to possess one. Possession, one may note, is a natural outflow of the numinous, in the sense that the Other breaks into a person’s consciousness and this breakthrough opens up a channel so to speak through which there comes the substance of the divine. That substance may take on the particular configuration of the truth, as held within the Other in some way, and that truth, conveyed into the prophet or oracle, thus makes the person share a portion of the divine. So that when uttering that truth he speaks on behalf of God: ‘Thus saith the Lord’. The spirit works within him, and so in a partial way he is possessed.

Substance and Sacrament in the Indian Tradition

Now we have also considered another polarity evident in the contrast between the Theravada and classical Christianity: the relationship to notions of substance and sacramental power. This is also, by and large, a contrast between Buddhism and the Hindu tradition. For Hinduism has much to do with the mediation of holy power, Brahman or more personally the Gods. The famed convergence between Buddhism and the Hindu tradition which made the former increasingly irrelevant because no longer a striking alternative had much to do with the Tantric emphasis, which reintroduced the mantra into Buddhism, the sacred formula, through which sacramental action is brought about. But perhaps we need to see the Buddhist tradition first of all merely as mystical, as tending to the purification of consciousness. Now other schools went in that direction too. And they evolved rather different worldviews, incorporating the idea of eternal souls or life-monads. We need to see the Buddha’s originality against the light of his critique of the notion of substance and the reasons behind it. For it is highly relevant to the way in which we may evaluate the spiritual and intellectual aspects of a religion in interplay. It helps to illuminate why and to what degree a religion needs to be philosophical. So why was it, then, that the Buddha did not take what after all might seem to be quite a natural path, namely that if you can attain to purity of consciousness you come to the timeless essence of the human being, and this is a soul?

The Logic of Non-self

It solved, I think, a number of different problems. First of all it brought the doctrine of liberation closer to experience. If the whole point of the teaching was to lead people to the Unborn, then let it alone stand as the ultimate ‘reality’. What is experienced there has no structure, for consciousness has been purified in the most extraordinary way. Why not let liberation, so to speak, explain liberation, without bringing in a timeless self, which, after all, turns out to be superfluous once we look at the world in terms of combinations of conditions and combinations of processes. Second, in dissolving substances the doctrine also dissolved Brahman as a Being, and so dissolved the divine Reality of the Brahmins. Thus it is common in the Buddhist scriptures for the expression brahmabhūto to occur and other combinations where the holy-power word is used, but it is used in quite a dissolved manner — the saint is someone who is brahma-ised, attains the brahma-states, and so on. The emphasis is upon movements, attainments, processes, dispositions; not upon a static Something underlying the whole of reality. Third, it seems reasonable to suppose that you can work the contrast between the mutable and the eternal in a number of ways. For instance, you can have one eternal Substance which lies behind or gives rise to a host of mutable substances. Or you can have an eternal Substance which lies behind simply a lot of processes. If you do this you tend to treat the processes as modifications of the Substance, like waves on the ocean or bodily changes of a person: thus, more or less, Rāmānuja in the Hindu tradition. But why not have an eternal non-Substance in contrast with a whole lot of processes? Why not treat the Unborn not as a kind of superthing, but as a timeless state? This seems to be an aspect of the Buddha’s originality, that he could see the possibility of a way of looking at the eternal in a manner which none of his contemporaries did.

Another thing which the total doctrine of impermanence achieved was a realization of the often misleading character of language. It is a matter of convention, not of intrinsic meaning, that words mean what they do, and this being so it is no surprise to discover that the conventions of worldly men have produced concepts which are all right for manipulating the world and for understanding it at a surface level but are misleading when it comes to the depth of things. Thus labels such as ‘I’ suggest that there are substances somehow beyond appearances, and selves and things permanently holding the world together in little packets, but this is largely an impression growing out of our perceptual and other apparatus. So the Buddha set his feet along that middle path between realism and idealism, which stressed how much what we think of as the world is the projection of our own psyches and our own structures of language. This momentous distinction between conventional language and a higher or deeper level of truth was developed in the Great Vehicle in a dramatic way, to which we shall later come.

The doctrine of impermanence by placing the emphasis upon change also of necessity raised the question of what causes change: it was the Buddha’s perception that only a change can explain a change which gave his outlook such philosophical power. It also led the Buddhist into thinking about what the particular laws of change are. In particular, there was the role assigned to karma in the developing tradition. If there are no things which hold packets of events together it must be regularities or patterns which constantly reappear in the way the flux works its way onward — and that complex pattern known as karma was a way of explaining how individuals persist both within one life and from life to life. Thus a pattern of causes was the substitute for a soul, together with the promise of liberation. For all the eternal soul could really do was (spuriously) to offer continuity through a succession of lived experiences and to promise the possibility of its isolation from worldly experiences, namely liberation. Combine karma and nirvana and you have a quite sufficient account of reality, so far as the progress of the individual goes.

By breaking up substances also the doctrine of impermanence helped to dissolve conventional attitudes and to induce a new moral vision. A new vision — because all concern for a permanent and precious self had to disappear once one realizes one is but a conventionally named swarm of differing patterns of events, held together in unity by the warp placed upon them by the law of karma. And a break from the conventional view of the world since nothing now seems really as it appears to be. We swim as it were in a mist of short-lived processes, to which we contribute colour, feel and emotion as they interact with that swarm which constitutes ourselves. The tiny atomic processes in my eye spin outwards to meet the processes flying away from the so-called solid objects around me. And if the only ultimate satisfaction is a permanent one then there is nowhere amid these swarms of events that we shall find it. Nor is there an I on which to rely. In brief, the doctrine of impermanence has a certain speculative, analytic validity; but its attraction from the practical angle lies in the fact that it substitutes a new vision of reality which tends away from selfishness and towards a kind of higher neutrality of feeling. The criticism of common sense is an instrument in the leading of a life conducive in the end to the non-dual perception of that eternal state which is nirvana.

Buddhism as Pure Mysticism

The radical attack on ideas of substance and sacramental power means that Buddhism, so far at any rate as we have here encountered it, is a kind of pure mysticism: mysticism in the sense that it is contemplative in character and tends to the purification of consciousness and the perception of the Transcendent — and ‘pure’, if that be the right word, in the sense that it does not blend pure-consciousness with ideas of God or divine Substance. It does not interpret the highest stages of meditation with any foretaste of the beatific vision of God such as the blessed enjoy in heaven; nor does it see in pure consciousness the Ground of Being or the sacred Brahman-Atman. Incidentally, it is this ‘purity’ of Buddhist mysticism which has for many Westerners a great attraction, in so far as they may have become disillusioned with the God of the preachers — a God sometimes perceived as abrasively human, patriotic, respectable, without psychological insight, in conflict with science. The inward thrust of Buddhism moreover chimes in with the introspection so likely to result from the atomization of society and its shifting reliance on good feeling as its cement.

Does this judgement about Buddhism, as pure mysticism, mean that the mystic does not see God? Or let me turn the question around and look at Buddhism from the angle of the theist. What, then, is to be said about the Buddha? Does he see God but not recognize him? Posing the question thus is maybe making things a bit too concrete. Still, it is a possibility, in the framework of my theory of types of religious experience, that the Transcendent can be perceived under different aspects. After all, it is frequent in the mystical traditions to speak of the ineffable, the cloud unknowing, the Abyss, the One and so forth: such terms are mysterious perhaps but they suggest a kind of experience which is beyond images, beyond relationship, beyond time. Even within the bosom of very personally oriented Christian mysticism such motifs recur. Why should it not be said that there is an aspect of the divine Substance which is not personal (is if you like transpersonal), which is timeless, inscrutable, dazzling? Why then not say that consciousness-purity is an avenue for the vision of God, even if this interpretation is not placed upon it by the Buddhist and some other non-theistic mystics? So my theory of types of religious experience is quite compatible with the claims of a theist, and for that matter the claims of a Buddhist. For the former, the mystical is one access to the divine; for the latter, there is no high evaluation of those factors in experience which may lead to and express belief in God — but rather mysticism is seen as sufficient in itself, if properly viewed through the lens of the Buddha’s analytic teaching, to serve as the liberating experience of the Transcendent.

Though religious experience may be a dynamic aspect of the way religions develop, it is wrong to suppose that we can see them out of context. They have to occur within a framework of interpretation. Thus ultimately the question of whether an experience is ‘valid’ or not is a question to be addressed in a wider milieu. Moreover it is clear that interpretation so to say colours experience. The Buddhist practising the stages of meditation understands what he is doing against a whole frame of teachings and traditions; similarly the numinous irruptions into prophetic experience themselves are perceived against a pre-existing background, though they may give rise to revolutionary new accounts of reality. This context-relatedness of experience means not only that the comparative task is a delicate one, but also that we cannot simply treat autobiographical and other accounts of mystical or numinous experience as simple descriptions. Of course there is also a general question of validity which as philosophical folk, reflecting, we need to consider.

The Validity and Invalidity of Religious Experience

For it may well be felt by many people that this concern with transcendental experiences is after all a little precious and misdirected. What can one find in the depths of meditation but the bright reflections of a sense-starved brain? What is there is pure consciousness but an uninteresting blank? In an age of science in any case perhaps we shall be able to go beyond the dream of the Sixties — the dream that by LSD or other substances the gates of heaven might be swung open: perhaps by fiddling with the cortex through electrical currents and the like it might be possible to short-circuit human experience and climb by technology to the highest stages of Buddhist dhyāna. Or again, it may be thought that the numinous theophanies to which the prophets testify are only peculiar projections out of human wishes and fears. In brief, it may be easy to think that religious experience as such has no validity. We are, so to speak, captured for ever within the colourful prison of the empirical world, and can never break out of it whether by plunging inwards or by waiting for voices from afar. If it is knowledge we want, then this is yielded by the procedures of science, by criticism, experimentation, empirical enquiry: not by some crazed gnosis or grace whose provenance must lie in an earlier, prescientific world. Maybe.

But this life needs to be an examined life, open to the critique which comes from Beyond. We need a critical voice from the Beyond. The prophet and the mystic have only in past times provided this because they genuinely felt that they had perceived the Unborn or the Ancient of Days. But for the moment I do not wish to enter into the general question; but rather to look upon the dynamics of religion as they relate to different types of experience. So far then, I have characterized Theravada Buddhism as a pure mysticism controlled by a psychologically-oriented analysis of reality which helps both in understanding and in the path of self-training (that is, the philosophy is in an important sense pragmatic).

Prophetic Religion and Christ in History

The numinous experience of the Jewish tradition found its most obvious expression in the lives of the Prophets. Can one also speak of something sacramental in the tradition? The clear candidate is the Law: which was an objectified something through which God’s mind was mediated to the Jewish people and which by its system of injunctions could produce behaviour that was holy, keeping the people of God apart from others and thus in a special relationship to his Power. Naturally, those who look upon the Torah as simply a set of regulations fail to perceive its sacred significance and the fact that it has a transcendental existence beyond the words over which the learned can pore and contend. It is an unusual sacrament perhaps; but it does provide an outer vehicle whose inward meaning is a communication from God to his people. Of course, the Torah is a complex object: partly written, but also enacted and observed — in the sacrifices in the Temple, in the old days, for example. But side by side with the sacramentalism of the Law was the critical voice of prophecy, stirred by numinous awe, and speaking, by a kind of possession, in the name of a God who continued to note the failings and follies of those with whom he had so generously entered into Covenant. Again, looking to theisms: the sacramental aspect of Islam can be seen as the Koran, the concretization of the Prophet’s messages, but more than a book, for it is laid up in heaven, everlastingly as a kind of offshoot of the divine mind. Let the Koran suffuse your life, with its inspiration and its law, and through that will flow the merciful blessings of Allah, so overwhelming in his awesome majesty. But in Christianity the sacramental motif took a very different direction: for in a sense Christ is the first sacrament, in that his earthly mind and body and career mediated a pattern of divine atonement to mankind. Secondarily, the power of Christ is mediated through the liturgy, preaching, etc.

There is hardly a question in classical Christianity of language’s being misleading. It might be inadequate for speaking or thinking of God; but the world conceived was a real one, in which substances and powers have their varied effects on each other and on men and in general reflect the Creator’s will, screwed up perhaps by the Devil. Apart from the fact that Genesis implied it, the reality of the cosmos was a reflection of the numinous polarity. If God and worshipper are two, then the worshipper is not nothing. Similarly in a very different context that great Indian proponent of the religion of devotion (bhakti), Rāmānuja, argued most vigorously for the reality of things, against the (for him) lethal illusionism of Śankara — lethal because robbing devotion of its ultimate meaning. Likewise Madhva in the Dvaita tradition, and the Śaiva Siddhānta, and the Lingāyats, and the Sikhs, and Caitanya. Wherever you get theism you get the reality of the created cosmos. It stems from the logic of the experience of the Other. All this was of course reinforced for Christianity by the Incarnation. It was not effective, so to speak, if Jesus was a mere phantasm. Norman Mailer once wrote of Nixon that he walked and moved as though his limbs were controlled by a hand inside his head wielding strings. How much more ridiculous would be the thought of Jesus the puppet, son of Mannikin, going through earthly motions for the sake of winning the faithful. No real suffering on the Cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’ a bit of a fraud. Worst of all: if he does not share human nature, fleshly, wartful, joyous and painful, then how can he expiate for human kind, and how can men genuinely be in solidarity with him in the sacrament and in the drama of salvation? It was this above all of course that moved the Fathers of the Church to resist the heresy of docetism, despite the painful cost of eel-wriggling and formulae required to utter the paradox ‘Fully God and fully man’. A phantasm would have made the old monotheism easier. So, then, the Buddhist scepticism of language was not characteristic of the Church; and language too was conceived as part of the fabric of powers and substances impinging on us. It was a linguistic image which dominated so much thinking about Christ indeed: the Logos. And the performatives were conceived in seriousness in the Liturgy, and not just as instruments for inducing certain states of mind. Further a certain realism pervaded the whole mythic aspect of the faith — a factor with incalculable later effects on human history.

It is commonly said that Christianity and for that matter Judaism are historical faiths. This is both true and in two respects misleading. It is true in that the divine drama is played very much in the light of the ongoing swirl of human affairs, history concretely considered. It may be that modern criticism may induce worries as to whether this or that in the Gospels and so forth is true — was the trial of Jesus really like that? Such questions persist. But the fact that we may be in doubt about this or that does not detract from two things: first those who listened to the Gospels through the classical Christian centuries took them to be among other things records of actual historical happenings. And second, Jesus actually lived and in a certain environment. Some sort of history was going on through and around him. But the ‘historicity’ of Christianity can be exaggerated if it suggests that there is no or little historicity elsewhere in the religions. Moreover it may lead us to forget that it is not just history with a transcendental outreach. Without the conceptions brought to bear, of a transcendent God, of heavenly judgement, of God’s dealings with Israel and so forth, the history would just be seen as human history. But for Christianity it is human history against a transcendental backdrop. Moreover, the realism on occasion wears thin and we do not know what to make of certain ideas and stories woven into the tapestry of biblical history. There is old Adam and the speaking snake and Eve’s strange birth. There are the bloodcurdling shattering ideas of the last things and the Second Coming. Is this an event in history or out of it? Obviously most Christians in the early Church took it in a realistic not an allegorical sense.

The effects of historical realism in Christianity were to be profound. Augustine’s great theory of history long dominated the Western imagination, and provided a charter for the medieval synthesis between Church and State. Various offshoots of theory spurred differing parts of the Church — for instance the idea of Moscow as the third Rome, destined to be the heir of the decadent and protesting West; and the sense of the struggle between Christ and anti-Christ in the historical events subsequent to the Reformation. But there seems to come a time in human affairs when the move is made from the personal beings of myth to strange, at best partly personal, forces and abstraction. Consider the Gnostic hierarchies, the ballet of the Sefiroth in the Kabbalah, the emanations from the One in Neoplatonism. In modern times there is the signal example of Hegel’s tremendous dialectic, replacing the older more ‘mythic’ way of viewing the history of the world; and then of course the tremendous inversions of Marx, providing a secular account of the meaningful rhythms of history which has proved up to a point heuristically fecund and undoubtedly a wonderful (for many) way of dealing with their own problems of collective identity. Thus the Maoist version made a rude and rough sense of modern Chinese history, better sense perhaps than any alternative available; and with it thus was created a tool for action and a scheme through which the reconstruction of China could be perceived and made real.

Identity, Myth and Personalism

Collective identity? I mentioned this because a major function of a myth may be to create identity. Indeed a group needs to have a past, a lineage (or at least a serious, persisting group). So the history in which Christ is involved is not just a set of interesting events but provides the fount and origin of a new Israel, a new community, a new ‘we’ in which men and women are solid with Christ through the Church and the sacraments and thus as it were become citizens of a new world. The old myth tied things and people together very well, for a person had identity first as member of the human race and thus somehow participated in Adam’s fall; second, the Christian participated in the new Israel, for which the old Israel provided the background. But in modern times the first part of the story has been shattered, with the coming of Evolutionary Theory. It does not matter much whether Darwinianism or Neo-Darwinianism is correct in the postulated mechanisms of evolution; what is most important, mythically, is that the picture of men emerging from a simian background and, beyond that, various extravagant species way back to some kind of primeval soup, has taken a pervasive grip upon most educated people’s minds. We need as it were a new theory of affiliation, so that we may know who ‘we’ are. Another feature important both as a deduction from prophetic experience and from the belief in Incarnation is a kind of personalism. Men are made it is said in the image of God, and part of the reason for this is that men are capable of communicating with God and, most vitally, of receiving the influx of experience and teaching in which God reveals himself. The incarnation implies even more intimately that men are made in the image of God. Not only is God human, but this was something ordained so to speak from the beginning, at least as a possibility. So humanity is taken up somehow into the Godhead. Because of this, and the realism associated with the Jewish-Christian myth of history, there is for Christianity no question of the ultimate perishing of the saved (or, more grimly it came to be thought of the damned). Thus though Christianity has by no means always been in the grip of the notion of an immortal soul it has yet been in the grip of the idea of some kind of God-derived immortality. In the course of the evolution of European culture, then, certain values stemming from the numinous and sacramental aspects of Christianity have acquired a life of their own: the idea of Nature as something not only distinct from God but actually emptied of all the other gods; the idea of realistic history as the scenario of salvation and the guarantee of identity; and a strong personalism.

The Mystical in Christianity

And what of mysticism? Was Christ perchance a mystic? We know nothing really of his inner life. But he called God ‘Dad’, and the main trend of his activities once he ‘went public’ was not towards contemplation. The fact that there are identity statements in the scriptures (‘I and the Father are one’) in no way entails anything mystical, for there are many varieties of identity statements in religion and elsewhere — e.g. ‘This is my body and blood’; ‘A cucumber is an ox’; etc. Moreover some forms of mysticism, notably the Theravada, do not go in for mystical, that is consciousness-purity, identity statements. Moreover in Jesus’ immediate Jewish environment it is doubtful whether we can speak of mysticism proper — thus attempts to trace Jewish mysticism back to Rabbi Akiba seem to me to founder on the problem of definition. Perhaps he would more accurately be likened to a shaman in certain respects. It seems, then, that consciousness-purity as an aim, even without the context of a search within for the great Spirit ruling the world and vivifying the hearts of men, is not a serious motif of early Christianity. This is not to say of course that Jesus and others may not have been visionaries: perhaps indeed though we do now know it Jesus had some kind of encounter with Satan in the desert and some encounter with his heavenly Father that spurred his mission. Consider Paul. Consider for that matter the ambience of Easter and Pentecost. But of the yogic type of quest we do not find serious traces. Yet is was not so very long in the evolution of the Church before gnosis beckoned, and the Desert, and asceticism leading to inward control. And out of such movements there distantly came the great glories of both Orthodox and Catholic mysticism: Hesychasm, St Gregory Palamas, the Jesus Prayer, Dionysius the Areopagite, Erigena, Eckhart, Suso, Teresa and so on. It should not surprise us. Monasticism, a great womb of interior religion, provided an ideal of purity once the Church had permeated the secular world — here was a new ‘kingdom not of this world’.

Moreover, the life of prayer itself can take differing directions, for the self-naughting implicit in adoration can also develop into techniques of self-purification leading ultimately to a kind of consciousness-purity. One should also remember that the great synthesis which Christianity achieved in its imperial days — the binding together of Graeco-Roman culture and the prophetic and sacramental traditions of the old and new Israels — involved taking up the Neoplatonic tradition, which itself was a noble working out of Platonism in the deep ambience of the mystical. So various impulses came together in the formation of Christian mysticism — the new quest for apartness, asceticism, the intensification of prayer, the other self-naughting side of adoration, the heritage of Plotinus, the rhythms of monasticism. It is perhaps not surprising that the Reformation was not so favourable to the inner quest of this kind: was it biblical? (it could be asked) and did it not depend too closely on (non-biblical) monasticism? But of course here certain criteria of judgement were being used. It seems to me quite valid to say that the evolution of mysticism is itself in some degree revelatory; and it certainly has (as Merton and others have shown) been a bridge to Asia. But of course even here the bright obscurities of the Western mystics involve a differing ontology from that which we have been looking at in the Theravada.

Instead of nirvana, a Godhead beyond God; or a super-essential nature not to be got at by affirmations but rather by negations, and yet somehow existing or if you like super-existing beyond the personal nature of the Highest. It is a bright dark substance which the Christian finds, exuding a kind of love in the melting union, touching inward the very apex or depth of the soul of a person, providing a foretaste of the beatific vision and yet somehow constituting no vision but rather a kind of uniting, a merging, a birth of Christ in the soul. But still different as the framework may be there is a hint of complementarity. The bent perhaps of evangelical Christianity, harking back to prophecies and rather literal tales of scripture, is anthropomorphism. True, the ikons and the plaster saints are banished in the Baptist chapel, just as Cromwell looked sternly on the aids to Catholic piety. True, it is firmly held that God is a Spirit and must be worshipped in spirit. But yet such faith often expresses itself with astonishing anthropomorphism. God speaks, guides, is a Father, punishes the wicked, fights for us, gives us commandments and so forth. Can it be denied that all this is scriptural? It seems so, and yet it is not checked by those elements which exist elsewhere — the traditions of scholastic theology or allegorical interpretation, the work of Rabbis and so on. For much of evangelical Christianity such intermediaries are irrelevant, and an obstacle. But the danger is that God becomes too vividly an old man, too vividly that Father figure which we also experience in childhood, and too easily an unseen spokesman for current human values. Divine anthropomorphism is itself under suspicion because of the changes in modern visions of the cosmos under the staggering impact of science and history. What for many Christians is a kind of comfort, an accessible God to talk to, is for many others an intellectual obstacle. But be all these things as they may, the Buddhist drive in the opposite direction, towards non-personification of the ultimate (and indeed of ourselves), represents a counterbalancing motif. Not surprisingly the Neoplatonist ‘higher agnosticism’ has been in the Christian tradition a main force in counterbalancing the figure of God as a human person painted large, infinite.

Emptying in Christianity

The self-naughting of the mystical path is of course part of the imitation of Christ. For Christianity contains within itself a strange dialectic. For on the one hand the Christian in being in sacramental communion with Christ not only overcomes that alienation from God which is the source and expression of sin and so of death; but also on the other hand he is a participant in the deathless, partaking that is to say of the divine substance and so gaining an ineffable security. He gains more than the whole world, the pearl of great price. So the Christian has, through the sacraments, the highest possible access to divine power and substance. What more in the whole wide world should he want or need? He is like a god. Christ became man that men should become gods. But though he gains this marvellous power, the form of that power is the opposite of what might be imagined. The power comes bearing a certain configuration and it is by conformity to that shape or pattern of the divine substance that the Christian expresses his oneness with Christ. That configuration is the story of Christ, and that includes at its central point the Crucifixion, the dark culmination of that whole process of self-emptying through which God became man and shed his glories and overriding powers. Dying on the Cross God in Christ felt himself forsaken, since this was true death and true humiliation, not just the playing out of an earthly charade. So too the Christian though he may be destined to rise again yet is destined to follow the Master through Gethsemane and Calvary.

In brief, the power of the divine substance is great, but its form is self-naughting. The Christian gains the highest possible security for his ego, because of God’s promises of salvation, and yet at the heart of that security lies the call to shed the securities of the world and of the ‘successful’ ego. Christianity is markedly at its mythic base not a religion of success. And so though Christians may begin from a different picture of the basis of the world, from a different ontology in other words, the effect of their conquest of power is the losing of the self. By contrast the Buddhist more directly attacks the ego by sweeping away the whole basis of substance and so the acceptance of a substantial self. Instead the world is so to speak neutralized, analysed away so that it no longer has its usual stirring impact upon us. This is self-naughting by analysis and the cultivation of neutral feelings; the Christian case is a kind of self-naughting in which the glories of immortal substance are found to be self-emptying. In both faiths there is a kind of emptiness then, but the styles of emptiness emerge from differing backgrounds and conceptions. But this is one of the ways in which there is a certain complementary between the religion of the Buddha and the religion concerning Christ. The one transcends the search for individual security and seeks to banish it by dissolving all identities. The other accepts the search for security and the need for meaningful identity, but binds the believer, in identity, to one for whom one should lose one’s soul in order to save it.

A Final Note on Christian Mysticism

We raised the question of mysticism within the Christian tradition. It has a natural place there, for reasons to which I have alluded; but yet there is a question mark about it because for some Christians it is not easily found in the Bible and it is mostly associated with classical Christianities which were under fire from reformers. If there is a question about the place of the inner quest in Christianity, is there not a converse question about the devotional worship which came to emerge in the Greater Vehicle tradition? Again it may be in some sense a natural and a valid development, and yet it is strikingly at variance with the Theravadin thinking about Buddhahood. This is not to say that the Theravada necessarily represents ‘primitive’ Buddhism and that Mahayana represents a growth upon that. For much of the Theravada is later development, and the one time fashionable picture of the Theravada as ‘primitive’ is not accurate. Rather, there was some early Buddhism which in its old form is lost to us, save in so far as we can look at it through the lenses of the various schools. Still, there is a certain puzzlement, even given all this, about the growth of the Mahayana, and in particular the ideals of the celestial Bodhisatva and of the semi-creative Buddhas ruling over paradises and the like. Why bhakti, then, in Buddhism? It is at this point suitable for us to move further in the comparisons of Buddhism and Christianity and to observe some of the characteristics of the Mahayana. I shall relate the bhakti element to the main impulses of modern Protestantism. For though bhakti is and was vital in Classical Christianity, it was a main force in the newer forms of Christian piety. To that we now turn.