Mysticism and Modern Perspective
Reviewed by Walter Houston Clark

Philosophy East & West
V. 14 (1964)
pp. 59-65

Copyright 1964 by University of Hawaii Press

san.gif (3539 bytes)




    Garma C. C. Chang, trans. and ed. The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa. 2 vols. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1926.

    W. T. Stace. Mysticism and Philosophy. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1960.

    W. T. Stace, ed. The Teachings of the Mystics: Selections. Mentor Books. New York: New American Library of World Literature, Inc., 1960.

    Alfred P. Stiernotte, ed. Mysticism and the Modern Mind. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1959.

    D. T. Suzuki. Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist. New York: Harper & Bros., 1957. (Paper, Crowell-Collier, 1962.)



    AFTER HAVING BEEN NEGLECTED and rejected for many years, presumably as something incompatible with the scientific age, the subject of mysticism has been enjoying a modest revival of interest in the last decade or so. The above titles are representative of many books on the subject published within recent years. Both scientists and philosophers seem to be coming to suspect that "there are more things in heaven and earth than have been dreamt of" in their philosophies, and so they have been willing to consider a somewhat wider range of phenomena than would have been possible not many years ago. The Enlightenment having banished mysticism, the Modern Age is now engaged in bringing it back.

    Problems both for the philosopher and the religious scholar that arise from a serious consideration of mysticism can be grouped roughly about two contrasted themes. First of all there is the fact of the commonality of the experience. There are certain features that ate the same wherever the phenomenon is found. There are problems of locating and describing identities, comparison, and communication. Then, paradoxically, there are the variety and multiplicity of the traditions by which mysticism is interpreted and explained, and from this observation different problems arise, such as the sources and explanation of this variety. This review article will first comment on the several volumes under review and then introduce briefly a psychological ap-




proach for the understanding of these problems and its bearing on the distinction of the East and West.

    Perhaps the most significant book on mysticism to appear recently is Mysticism and Philosophy, by W. T. Stace, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University. This volume is most helpful in describing the universal aspects of the phenomenon. Noting the importance of the tradition of mysticism, first in the East and then in the West, Stace has found it worth while to give systematic attention to the mystics in varying cultural contexts. As a result he has isolated the common characteristics of what he calls "the universal core" of profound mystical experiences as "(1) the Unitary Consciousness; the One, the Void; Pure Consciousness; (2) Nonspatial, non-temporal, (3) Sense of objectivity or reality, (4) Blessedness, peace, etc., (5) Feeling of the holy, sacred, or divine, (6) Paradoxicality, and (7) Alleged by mystics to be ineffable" (pp. 131-132). After having analyzed closely the consciousness of the mystics, so far as can be ascertained from their own subjective descriptions, Stace examines the implications for varying views of reality. Also, he distinguishes sharply between the essential experience, which is identical the world over, and the interpretations of it, which differ from faith to faith and from culture to culture.

    Probably the subject of mysticism has never been considered with such clarity. In analyzing the phenomena, Stace approaches his subject naturalistically, and the results are of equal value to the philosopher and the psychologist. Of course, no philosopher is bound to Stace's conclusions about the essential nature of mysticism and the light it throws on reality, though it  should be noted here that he is very persuasive in his preference for the pantheistic as opposed to the monistic or dualistic views.

    What might be considered a companion volume to this book is the paperback of readings edited by Stace entitled The Teachings of the Mystics. One of the difficulties encountered by the average educated reader of the mystics is that, never having had a cogent mystical experience, he does not understand what the mystic is saying. After an initial act of admiration at the freshness and depth of the mystic's skill with words and figures of speech, he is apt to find the going becoming boring for the lack of hooks either in his mind or in his inner consciousness to which to attach the imagery of the writings. This is obviated by Stace in this book of readings in two ways: first, through his clear introduction to each group of selections, and, second, through the brevity of the selections.

    Stace's two volumes, combined, constitute an excellent introduction for the scholar or the generally educated reader who wishes to acquaint him-




self with the phenomenon of mysticism in various traditions. As an aid to Mysticism and Philosophy, The Teachings of the Mystics suffers from the fact that, as in some of his other writings on mysticism, Stace does not precisely spell out his concept of the "universal core." Doubtless, though copyright is of the same year, Mysticism and Philosophy represents his ideas as more
recently formulated.

    The uninformed or provincial observer of the religious scene is not apt to look for mysticism among the liberals. For such, it will be instructive to look at Mysticism and the Modern Mind, edited by Alfred P. Stiernotte. This is a book of stimulating essays written by various liberal thinkers, including such well-known people as John Haynes Holmes and Henry Nelson Wieman. N. A. Nikam of India, the only non-Western philosopher included, in his article, "Mysticism in Indian Thought," relates Indian mysticism to Western tradition. On the whole, the essays are more even in their high quality than the contents of most symposia are apt to be. With the possible exception of Wieman's contribution, "The Problem of Mysticism," the clearest and most helpful essay seems to be the concluding commentary by the editor, whose cogent remarks entitled "Philosophical Implications" are enlightened with what appears to be some first-hand acquaintance with his material.

    The Buddhist D. T. Suzuki further puts the West in his debt through his sympathetic understanding of Christianity in a characteristic book in Harper's World Perspective Series, Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist. Recognizing a familiar mystical note in the works of Meister Eckhart, he shows, in spite of the difference in idiom, the essential similarity of experience and insight between the medieval Christian mystic and Buddhist mysticism, particularly in its Zen tradition. The book thus confirms, in a way, Stace's contention that the experience of mysticism, at least psychologically, is similar the world over.

    Chang's The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa presents the life and teachings of a twelfth-century Tibetan saint, a work translated into English in full for the first time. The reader can contrast this Buddhist text with the Bible in its main concern to cultivate the mystic way, with righteousness as a by-product. The Judeo-Christian tradition tends to concentrate on righteousness, with mysticism clearly present but not expressly recognized and hence less often--particularly in modern times---deliberately cultivated. The Western reader of Milarepa is sometimes at a loss to distinguish profound religious teaching from mete folklore, but there is no doubt of the high qualify of many of the songs. Like Stace's readings, Chang's The Hundred Thousand Songs documents for the student of mysticism the generalizations made in other volumes and enables him to test them.




    Both Stace and Suzuki confirm other authorities in the feeling that in the mystical consciousness we are confronted with a human experience that is universal in nature. It not only occurs under the most varied conditions of culture and faith commitment, but also occasionally in cases of no commitment. Stace includes in his readings a selection from Arthur Koestler recounting a mystical experience when he was a communist and therefore committed to atheism. Consequently, it would seem that, if we are to explain mysticism and its function, an important consideration would be a psychological one.

    In his contribution to Stiernotte's volume, Wieman throws some light on I this psychological function. He alludes to Karl Jaspers' account of how we meet existential problems like death, guilt, loneliness, and, chance disaster (pp. 35 f.). This includes (1) keeping the problems largely out of consciousness--the most common and popular way; (2) confronting them but reacting with despair and nausea--the way of Camus and Sartre; or (3) by what Jaspers calls "a change in our consciousness of being"--which Wieman takes to be the mystical way, or "rebirth."

    While a mystical experience in itself would seem to be no guarantee of a beneficial change in personality and behavior, there is no doubt that in certain individuals other favoring factors combine with the mystical experience to accomplish results obtainable in no other way. Aldous Huxley calls the mystical way the one effective method for "the radical and permanent transformation of personality."[1] For example, in the case of Koestler, his mystical experience set in motion an inner process that changed his goals and led him to withdraw from the communist movement within two years. Again, in the case of Teresa of Aa'vila, her mystical vision at the age of 42 transformed an ineffective neurotic into one of the most vigorous and competent Catholic leaders of her generation. It seems that it is the expansion of vision, the amazingly potent and fresh view of reality, as it appears to the mystic, that adds a new dimension to life both humbles the visionary and at the same time exalts him, and makes possible those personality changes that are so unique.

    When we seek help from the modern psychologist as to just what it is of which mystical experience consists, or even how to describe it, we are apt to find that he cannot tell us, and, quite likely, that, like Gallio, he cares for "none of these things." But the medieval Eckhart may help in distinguishing "three kinds of knowledge," the experience of sense, the exercise of reason, and, finally, the "exalted power of the soul, a power so high and noble

1.    Aldous Huxley, Grey Eminence (New York: Meridian Books, Inc., 1959), p. 306.




it is able to see God face to face in his own self" (Suzuki, pp. 53-54). We know how remote from the life of sense the life of reason is. If we can imagine the release and exultation that would come to a creature of pure sense from its first exercise of reason, then in the same manner those of us who have never experienced the mystical vision can imagine our own insufficiency and blindness in the presence of those who have unlocked within themselves their mystical potentialities.

    The question then presents itself as to what we are going to do with the mystical consciousness as a source of knowledge. The mystic reports his experience as a supreme source of knowledge, more cogent and convincing than the experience either of sense or of reason. In comparison, the latter may seem to pale into insignificance. To the skeptic, who objects that the experience of sense and reason can be verified publicly, the mystic may retort that his experience, too, may be verified--by another mystic. Also, he can say that everyone has mystical potentiality if he is only willing to develop it properly. Certainly mystics seem to have a sense for one another and find it easier to communicate among themselves than with non-mystics. This suggests, at least, a limited commonality of experience rather than quixotic abnormality. When one adds to this the frequent access of strength and capacity that often follows on the mystical vision, or the experience of "rebirth" that often seems to lift the individual to a higher plane, certainly it is appropriate to raise the question whether the mystic is not in contact with a more intense and satisfying order of reality wherein it is the unity rather than the distinction of man and Nature that is the impressive feature.

    The question then arises concerning the source of diversity in faith commitments, if the psychological universality of the essential core of mystical experience is granted. As we have seen, Stace makes a clear distinction between mysticism's psychological core and its interpretation. The former is universal; the latter varies from tradition to tradition. If it should seem strange that a common psychological experience is so variously interpreted, we need only remind ourselves that interpretations derive from the rational or more analytical layer of consciousness rather than the mystical, which tends to perceive wholes. The theologian is not necessarily a mystic. The less he is, the more his rational explanations may be expected to diverge from the core experience in which the mystical root of spiritual life is to be found. Also, the theologian is serving other, less spiritual functions as well. One of these is to perpetuate the religious institution, for which dogma and creed are useful. Here there is a need for a high degree of differentiation from other religious institutions and faith commitments. If it should be suspected among




the faithful that all faiths are the same under the skin, an embarrassing tolerance of non-believers would weaken that close in-group feeling that arises from the sense that the truth has been divinely committed to one's own group.

    This means that there is a certain premium to be gained through idiosyncrasy which serves not only the individual's need for ego-inflation but particularly his faith group. Should he consider apostasy, it can punish him both through ostracism and by giving him the inward sense that he has abandoned truth. Thus it will be seen that, when faced with competition, faith groups have a tendency to emphasize the peripheral aspects of their belief-in other words, that which distinguishes them. For this purpose, what is absurd will serve better than what is sensible, for outsiders are not so likely to espouse it. Certainly there could be nothing more institutionally disturbing than the inner conviction, as opposed to the mere statement, that all men are truly one. This is one reason the mystic and the priest in all ages have tended to misunderstand one another. A little too influential to be abused during his life, Eckhart's bones were dug up after his death and scattered abroad in punishment for too plainly speaking out of his own vital experience.

    Thus we can see that the distinction between East and West is partly psychological in nature. The prevailing psychological mode in the West is rational. This has paid great dividends for the West in the form of science, technology, and the consequent power and influence that have gone along with them. This has meant that mystics have always been forced in some degree to swim against the stream of opinion in the West as heretics, visionaries, or otherwise peculiar people. Religious emphases have centered on ethical conduct, theology, creeds, and dogma. In the East the mystic has more often held an honored position, and this pre-eminence has conditioned all of Eastern culture. Thus the mystical or "aesthetic" mode, as F.S.C. Northrop prefers to call it, seems to predominate in some aspects of the culture of the East. This is to be seen to a certain degree when one compares The One Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa with Western scriptures. The former is composed very largely of poetry, in which are many warnings against analysis, words, and reason. Righteousness, Milarepa holds, as has been said, is not so much the immediate goal of the holy man as it is a by-product of enlightenment.

    The fact that in the West the mystics have tended to oppose authority and have produced creative works tempts one to characterize the mystic as a creative, "frontier" personality and the rationalist as a conservative. Certainly the rationalist is on much safer ground in the West. The workings of his mind




can be followed in a more or less public way, and he is apt to receive acclaim, particularly if he moves in the general direction of which the public approves. But this is an over-simplification, for there are rationalists who are adventurous and creative with ideas as well as with their applications. The West has been extremely creative and influential, but along the lines where rationality has dominated development, as in concepts, science, technology, and emphasis on the intellectual approach to ethics, however far away the actuality might be.

    At the same time, one can point to much in the way of stagnation in the East, where the passivity necessary for mystical contemplation has often been turned into the passivity of laziness and neglect. Often a mere appearance of mysticism has taken the place of the genuine experience. Though the East has been amazingly fertile and creative in some directions, as with Oriental art and religion, it has been conservative as well. A mystical cultural orientation is not an automatic guarantee of progress, in every direction, or regression, either.

    But we may note that to the psychologist one difference between East and West to some degree appears to be a psychological one. The difference in this respect is between the person who lives by his reason and him who is guided more by his intuitive and poetic sense. Each of these roads to knowledge has its characteristic strengths and weaknesses. Neither is one incompatible with the other, for great men operate in both modes. E. T. Buehrer, in his perceptive article in the Stiernotte volume, "Mysticism and A. N. Whitehead," speaks not only of the combination of rationalism and mysticism in the thought of Whitehead, but reminds us of others, such as Einstein, Schweitzer, and Pascal, whose keenness of reason has not kept them from a lively sense of the mystical as well. It is hard to say whether there is something constitutional which inclines a person toward the rational or toward the mystical--or whether it is the expectation of the culture that determines one's psychological preference.

    Certainly, though much has been left unsaid, enough has been said to indicate that, following the lead of the volumes under review, it is time that the subject of mysticism, both in its psychological and in its philosophical aspects, in art and also religion, receive the attention it deserves. Only if the balance is redressed in this direction can we gain the wisdom that is needed if philosophy, psychology, and religion are to make their full contribution to the solving of the great problems of the age.