Dude, Ganesh! Sydney, 2010
Wikipedia defines mysticism as
...the pursuit of communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, instinct or insight.Zen is a mystical practice, even if most Zennies would probably not phrase it exactly like Wikipedia above. I find it kinda uncomfortable to admit that, and I'm fairly certain I'm not alone in this. The huge public interest in the health aspects of meditation, the medical research about it, and the general movement towards medicalizing it, using it in the context of therapy is, I believe, largely driven by this discomfort with mysticism.
The very word conjures up pretty funky connotations. When I hear someone described as a "mystic," the images that come up are of a naked bearded anchorite sitting on a pillar in a desert, or perhaps some charlatan in a tent with beads and joss sticks and crystal balls. When I hear about mystical insight, the images that come up are of Mohammed reciting the Qur'an, or the Buddha becoming enlightened, or Jesus going into the desert to wrestle with Satan. It all seems very remote and otherworldly and just plain weird.
I wonder if Western culture—based on that other kind of enlightenment—is particularly neurotic about mysticism? Direct intuitive experience cultivated in a systematic way is, after all, just about the diametrical opposite of the Enlightenment ideal of the fully rational man (yeah, usually a man), all of whose thoughts and actions are explicable and describable by the clear light of reason.
People do all kinds of stuff to avoid this discomfort. Some Zen teachers—Brad Warner, for example—get pretty snippy about mystical experiences, although I think he's really more nuanced about it than some of his snippiest quotes may indicate. Other Zen teachers make a huge deal out of it, coming uncomfortably close to the Rinzai caricature of spiritual gunnery sergeants whipping their leatherneck marines of mysticism to ever higher insights for ever greater bragging rights.
All of this—the vehement denials of the value of mystical experiences you get from some Soto Zen quarters, their equally vehement reification from some other quarters, the dissection of meditation under the scientist's MRI scanner—end up making an even bigger a deal out of it. It's either something to be denied, laughed at, or admired, coveted, and awed by. Attempts to demystify mysticism, such as those of the Dharma Overground or Daniel Ingram (Arahant) become automatically controversial. Perhaps Mr. Ingram's abrasive in-your-face style is, in fact, a reaction to the very reticence he wants to break.
What if it wasn't like this?
What if we treated mystical experiences as just another facet of human experience?
What if a mystical practice like zazen was thought of as just as ordinary—or extraordinary—as a physical practice like, say, riding a bicycle?
What if there was a whole range of mystical experiences, from the humdrum to the spectacular, just like there's a whole range of physical experiences, from going for a quiet promenade around the park on a summer's day, to cycling the double century?
I think that'd be cool.
One of the first Zen books I read was Philip Kapleau's Three Pillars of Zen. One of the things I liked most about it was the chapter about people's enlightenment experiences. I liked it because it demystified mysticism. These were, basically, ordinary people, our contemporaries, from countries much like ours, who were describing their mystical experiences in detail, as they lived them. Okay, sure, there was some idealistic froth there too, but the point was that these weren't some spiritual supermen or -women, doing extraordinary things or making extraordinary sacrifices. They were pretty much normal people living normal lives. Until I read those, I thought that stuff like that only happens to monks on mountaintops long ago and far away; something to be admired at a distance, but definitely not something that could apply to you or me. I never really imagined that I could take up a mystical practice.
But here I am.
I wish there were more stories like that around. Like this one, for example. I also think it'd be cool to read about less spectacular mystical experiences, not just those earth-shaking, universe-transforming big bangs that make the whole thing seem so awe-inspiring.
Obligatory disclaimer—no, I'm not, and no, I haven't. Er, I think. Thanks.