Mysticism as the Crossing of Ultimate Boundaries
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A Theological Reflection
by Wayne Teasdale
Copyright © by 1999 Wayne Teasdale
Used by CSP with permission of the author.
All rights reserved.
It is inevitably and invariably difficult to write about mystical experience and the whole inner process of contact with the Divine, or Ultimate Reality; it is completely surrounded by mystery. This difficulty is compounded when we try to speak about mysticism theologically. Most theological topics deal with issues that have been ostensibly settled by the Church in councils, the Magisterium, papal encyclicals, and sound theological studies. Naturally there is considerable difference of opinion among theologians, but a lot of agreement as well. When it comes to mysticism, however, it's not quite as easy. The reason is clear: the ineffability of mystical, contemplative or transcendental experience. Theologically, this quality of ineffability, of incomprehensibility, Or ungraspableness is a result of two related factors: the limitations of the human subject /knower, and the experiential nature of mysticism as directly engaging the person within the depths of his/her subjectivity. The Divine Reality is infinite actuality and is eternal being, while the human person has an infinite potential, but only a finite experience. The ontological gap between the Divine and the human is unbridgeable from our side. We can never keep up with God left to our own intellectual devices, and we are always playing catch up. Now when we add to this situation the experience of other traditions, things become very interesting; the potential for confusion is also very high. In what follows, I want to explore what I call interspirituality as a way of naming the phenomenon of crossing-over boundaries that mysticism makes possible and concrete. Substantial common ground exists among the various forms of spirituality scattered among the world's religions. The mystical and practical common ground will be identified, and then theological implications mentioned. We begin by considering the origin and nature of mysticism itself.
The Origin and Nature of Mysticism
Every authentic religion derives from the primary spiritual realizations and experience of the founders. By authentic I mean arising out of the depths of our encounter with the Ultimate Mystery the Divine Reality in its essential hiddenness, rather than merely invented by a disturbed individual. Hinduism, or the Sanatana Dharma the Eternal Religion, as it is called, can be traced back to the rishis, the forest sages, or mystics of Indian antiquity. The Buddhist Dharma had its beginnings in the enlightenment event of Siddhartha Gautama, Sakyamuni, the Buddha, the Enlightened One. His life is paradigmatic of the inner spiritual process for every true Buddhist. Jainism arises out of the inner realizations of Mahavira and his twenty-three predecessors, and Mahavira himself was a contemporary of the Buddha, while Judaism was born out of a process of revelation from God to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and the Prophets. Revelation is itself a mystical process with a corporate goal: to educate a people and then the whole of humankind in divine matters. In each of these instances, mysticism was the heart of their understanding. It is the same with Christianity and Islam. The Christian tradition rests on Jesus' inner awareness of his relationship with the Father, and Mohammed encountered Allah through the mediation of the Archangel Gabriel. All these religious traditions emerge out of mystical experience, and mystical experience means a direct knowledge of and relationship with the Divine, God, or boundless consciousness. One can almost say that the real religion of humankind isn't religion at all, rather it is mystical spirituality, the bosom out of which the religions themselves have been born.
Mysticism is the awakening to and cultivation of transcendental consciousness. It is unitive awareness. All forms of mystical wisdom are unitive, that is, non-dual. They contribute to our deeper understanding of the mystery. This is a significant point of convergence among the religions themselves.1 To say that mystical consciousness is unitive, non-dual, or integrative, is simply to suggest that it points to an unusual state of awareness in which the person is united with God, Ultimate Reality, or for the Buddhists, the person achieves absolute realization, an inner process of awakening to non-dual consciousness in which a changeless wisdom is activated.2
In mystical consciousness, the transcendent is touched, or is reached, and it touches, embraces us. Mystical consciousness means integration with it and to know it directly with certainty, although it defies description. It can be experienced but not comprehended with any clarity, indeed not comprehended at all! We know but we do not fully grasp the Divine mystery. Encountering the transcendent reality confers on us a degree of knowledge, the knowledge that it is, that it exists, and a kind of wisdom that has a practical utility for our spiritual life. Mystical experience, however, is fleeting, and yet its fruits are lasting, often permanent. Some of the effects include: wisdom, deep peace or tranquillity, joy, compassion, patience, gentleness, selflessness and simplicity.
Interspirituality3 is a term to describe the breaking-down of the barriers that have separated the religions for millennia. It is also the crossing-over and the sharing in the spiritual, aesthetic, moral and psychological treasures that exist in the different traditions of spirituality living within the world religions. The deepest level of sharing is in and through one another's mystical wisdom, whether teachings, insights, methods of spiritual practice, and their fruits, The mystical life, in its maturity, is characteristically, naturally, even organically interspiritual because of the inner freedom and liberation the mystical Journey ignites I in the depths of the person. It frees us from the obstacles within us that would hold us back from that generosity and willingness to partake from the mystical springs of other traditions. To drink this precious nectar requires openness and a capacity to assimilate the depth experience of these venerable traditions. More and more it is becoming common for individuals to cross over the frontiers of their own faith into the land of another or others. So much so is this the case that we can speak of this new millennial period as the Interspiritual Age. This development is momentous news for the human family because up until this point humankind has been divided, segregated into spiritual ghettos. Out of this separation has come so much misunderstanding and thousands of wars sparked by mutual suspicion, isolation, competition and hostility.
The Interspiritual Age promises to melt away the old barriers, and with them, the old antagonisms. This is one reason why it should be nurtured and encouraged. Interspirituality opens the way to friendship among members of differing faiths. Friendship creates bonds of community4 between and among the religions through their members, and community' represents a shift from the old competitive, antagonistic model to a new opportunity, a new paradigm of relationship that seeks to meet on common ground. Community makes interspirituality possible, and the cross over substantial. Transcendental experience awakens us to the possibility of radical spiritual change by allowing us to see beyond the boundaries that have kept us all separate from one another and isolated in our systems. The interspiritual development is a process of transcending boundaries, carrying us, and humanity also, to a new vision of life, one in which we live on the bridges that unite us, no longer in isolation. The bridge is our future, and that is an interspiritual vision. I believe it was the poet Kabir who likened life to a bridge, and admonished us not to build a house on it!
The common ground that interspirituality reveals is both in the reality of mystical experience itself and in the practical elements of the spiritual life in each tradition. In the mystical, transcendental sphere the basis of entering this realm of depth, height and breadth is consciousness itself All traditions emphasize the deep interiority of the contemplative vision. This vision, or rather, direction, is a sine qua non for breakthroughs, discoveries, and real progress on our own journey. All mystical experience requires consciousness as medium and as perceived reality of the Ultimate. The Divine modifies our consciousness so that we can be aware of it. Without consciousness there would be no mysticism.
On the mystical level there is an option between an intimate, personal, loving God, with whom we can enter into a profound relationship of love and knowledge in the embrace of divine union initiated by God, or the transpersonal, impersonal realization of the ultimate condition of mind, or consciousness of the Buddhist tradition. These two trajectories of mystical perception are available to us. Perhaps it is necessary for us to experience both of these ways, and that is what interspirituality challenges us to do. By so doing, we share in a much larger understanding of the Absolute, and have the opportunity to experience both the personal Divine and the transpersonal Source.
The practical dimension of interspirituality reveals to us the common ground among the traditions in those elements that are part of the mature expression of each tradition of spirituality in the lives of practitioners. If you take an example of an individual in each tradition of spirituality who has achieved a degree of genuine depth and transformation, the elements in each instance will be the same. These include an actualized capacity to live the moral life, a deep commitment to nonviolence, a simplicity of lifestyle, a sense of one's interconnectedness with all living beings and the earth itself, a spiritual practice like prayer, meditation, contemplation, along with liturgy, self-knowledge in which we see ourselves as we are, compassionate service, and a commitment to justice, or prophetic witness and action. Even a cursory glance around the traditions will demonstrate the value of this observation.
Theological Implications of Mysticism
If the mystical experience of other traditions is genuine and if it is on the same level as Christian contemplation in its fullness in the transforming union, the spiritual marriage between God the soul, then one implication is that Christianity does not have a monopoly on wisdom as it relates to the nature of the Divine. Christian theological formulations do not exhaust the infinite reality and subtlety of the Divine nature. This means that we can learn from the inner experience of other forms of spirituality. Christianity's understanding of God is not complete in this sense, nor is the experience and understanding of the other traditions complete without the Christian contribution. Buddhism, for example, needs the insight on the Divine, an insight won from thousands of years of mystical consciousness. Complementarity is thus the direction toward which the mystical leads us. In this way, humankind can cross the boundaries to reach the further shore of our eternal homeland.
1. Thomas Keating, American Trappist founded the Snowmass Conference, an interfaith group with fifteen members. Each member represents a world religion, and is a spiritual teacher in it. Over the years, the Snowmass Conference has discovered points of agreement, and these they have formulated in a document called Guidelines for Interreligious Understanding; they relate primarily to the Ultimate Mystery. See Speaking of Slience: Christians and Buddhists on the Contemplative Way, ed. Susan Walker (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), pp. 126-129.
2. The Tibetan tradition calls this Dzogchen, the perfected condition of the mind.
3. See my article, "The Interspiritual Age: Practical Mysticism for the Third Millennium", Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 34, 1, Winter, 1997.
4. The Dalai Lama has often remarked that interreligious dialogue must be based on friendship between those who engage in this important work.
5. See The Community of Religions: Voices and Images of the Parliament of the World's Religions, ed. George Cairns and Wayne Teasdale (New York: Continuum, 1996).