Zen and Christian Mysticism

D.T. Suzuki, calling Zen "the ultimate fact of all philosophy and religion," explains that

Zen is not necessarily the fountain of Buddhist thought and life alone; it is very much alive also in Christianity, [Islam], in Taoism, and even in positivistic Confucianism. What makes all these religions and philosophies vital and inspiring, keeping up their usefulness and efficiency, is to the presence in them of what I may designate as the Zen element. (Zen Buddhism 111)
This is a classic example of what is generally called theological "inclusivism": my religion is true, your religion is useful if it brings you close enough to the truth of my religion. I have a bit of a problem with this kind of theology (which I'm going to get around to blogging about someday), but today I'm going to explain why I don't think this does justice to Zen, and obscures that part of Zen that the adherents of other religions can most benefit from.

In my last post I wrote, I think Christian mystics often affirm, rather uncritically, an understanding of the experience that includes elements that are not present in the experience itself. If Zen teaches us anything, it is to be judicious in our affirmation of whatever it is we understand from the experience.

Interpreting Mystical Experience

In his chapter on interpreting texts in Method in Theology, Bernard Lonergan describes what he calls the Principle of the Empty Head:
According to this principle, if one is not to "read into" the text what is not there, if one is not to settle in a a priori fashion what the text must mean no matter what it says, if one is not to drag in one's own notions and opinions, then one must just drop all preconceptions of every kind, attend simply to the text, see all that is there and nothing that is not there, let the author speak for himself, let the author interpret himself. In brief, the less one knows, the better an exegete one will be. (157)
Lonergan affirms that these contentions are right in trying to avoid a common problem, the tendency people have "to impute to authors opinions that the authors did not express," but they "are wrong in the remedy that they propose, for they take it for granted that all an interpreter has to do is to look at a text and see what is there" (157).

This principle, I think, is operative in Suzuki's contention that "the Zen element" is present in other religions. In Zen, he seems to be saying, the experience is pure. Other religions begin with this pure experience, but pollute it with ideas that are foreign to it.

A Note About Terminology

A "pure experience" is what I would call simply a "mystical experience." St. John of the Cross defined this experience as "pure contemplation," which is ineffable, as opposed to other experiences in which "the communications the soul receives are particular, such as visions, feelings, and so on" (Dark Night 2.17.5). I would not consider the latter type as a "mystical experience." When I say "mystical experience," I am referring to what St. John calls "pure contemplation."

This experience is basically the same as that which Suzuki calls satori. That this experience is expressed in different ways by people in different religions has to do with the interpretation of the experience rather than the experience itself.

All Experience is Mediated

It is not the case that in Zen, one has a pure experience, adds nothing to it, and therefore attains pure knowledge, while in non-Zen traditions, one has a pure experience, adds foreign elements to it, and therefore attains impure knowledge. Suzuki never says this in quite this way, but this is what I take him to mean (especially in his description of Christian mystical language on p. 106).

The knowledge we attain from experience is always mediated by our understanding and judgment. We understand the experience more or less correctly. We are more or less reasonable when we judge whether our understanding is correct.

Zen is not exempt from this, as I think Suzuki suggests. But it does urge us to be more judicious in our judgment of whether or not our experience is understood correctly. We cannot forego interpretation, but we can avoid reading into the experience something that is not there. I think Christian mysticism would benefit from doing this.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The knowledge we attain from experience is always mediated by our understanding and judgment."

I cannot agree. When you read the koans and stories of classic Zen masters, they usually won't even actively verbalize the experience per se... Only eluding to 'that which is just before it,' which, as is the nature of 'that,' includes the paradoxical nature of it. They don't talk of the experience, but rather, expose the illusion that hides it, thus revealing it through negation; this inherently defeats ego-interfearence, tainting, and 'interpretation' of most other systems and practitioner's experiences.

Any attempt at common communication of 'the way' is of the "lower-mind" or "ego-self" and inherently blocks the Way. Other than perhaps Krishnamurti (both of them), Zen is the ultimate no-way Way, which can be the only non-magical Way.

Zen masters don't add or create or taint the experience with ego-stuff 'upon return,' and this is the hallmark of true Zen mastery.


8:23 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

You are talking about something unrelated to what I wrote. It is true that koans do not describe the experience, but this has nothing to do with what I am talking about. Koans are a tool for bringing about the experience. I am concerned with the process by which this knowledge is attained.

If you are suggesting that experience itself is sufficient for gaining knowledge -- that is, that one gains knowledge through experience, but prior to understanding and judgment -- then you have misunderstood what I have written. That which is experienced is merely data. This data is known only after understanding what it is, and affirming that it is so.

1:45 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Belief is a hindrance to pure experience. Beliefs serve to keep primal repression and the shadow at bay in the unconscious. Beliefs are useful bridges at one stage of spiritual growth but become an obstacle at higher stages. When one begins to experience the Numinous face to face, it becomes obvious why the Numinous is described as transcendent. The initial "Kundalini Awakening" is a direct experience of numinous effulgence and is an experience that more and more people are having as humanity evolves. The religions and myths of the world are symbolic reflections and are mere interpretations of Numinous experience. In the higher, Cosmic Consciousness, the mental cognitive level is transcended altogether and a Being does not need beliefs or cognition as Knowledge becomes complete.

3:39 p.m.  

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