From the roots to the flower
"Toute métaphysique est à la première personne du singulier. Toute poésie aussi."
The mystical experience, perhaps one of the most complex terms in religious studies, is the focal point of Ninian Smart's article "What Would Buddhaghosa Have Made of The Cloud of Unknowing?" It is approached through the hermeneutical lens of language, one which, as the author purports, is often inadequate in relating the immediate and ineffable nature of the mystical experience. Smart argues that such experience, whether in the context of Christianity or that of Buddhism, is essentially the same despite the differing rhetoric and concepts employed to relate it. Other scholars however, postulate a different relationship between language and experience. Whether or not Smart's assertions hold up to these alternate views, and on a more analytical level, whether or not his comparison of The Cloud Unknowing and Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga is warranted are questions that shall be answered in the following pages.
Misconceptions and Misunderstandings
Before even touching on his thesis of a commonality between mystical or contemplative states in differing traditions, Smart outlines the potential obstacles to his thesis. All of them, in one way or another, are related to the issue of language. The lexical "atmosphere" of the texts, the way in which the instructions are presented, along with the various epithets employed all contribute to the particularism with which respective contemplative paths are conceptualised (Smart 104). The language used entails a slew of correlated discords between the texts. The Christian emphasis on love (as the highest virtue) for example, and original sin lie in stark contrast to the Buddhist trend to linger on ignorance and obsess over prescriptive minutiae; Smart approaches the cleavage apologetically: "Buddhaghosa is much more formal and detailed, as we have noted, but there is no reason to think that the two traditions point to differing systems of contemplation as such" (107).
The choice of compared texts itself is potentially unsound. Due to imposed restrictions it is impossible to go into apt detail, but suffice to say that the Cloud or the Visuddhimagga are by no means representative of their respective religions' mystical tradition, much less of their respective tradition. Christians, for instance, have oft accused the Cloud of not being sufficiently Christocentric (Smart 104). Furthermore, Smart makes the mistake of equating the texts soteriologically. Both are indeed works in the contemplative tradition, yet one aims toward "knowing" God (through un-knowing) while the other is rather geared toward jhanic exercises. Whether jhanic exercises, commonly classified under the rubric of samatha, lead to nirvana (what Smart might consider the Buddhist equivalent to God) is a debatable assumption. Smart also holds firm that "of course, Buddhism centers on the mystical quest, which is only one main element in the fabric of Christian experience and practice" (118). The argument that Buddhism primarily focuses on meditative practice is a tenuous one at best (1). Even if one presumed that it did, mystical experience is in fact, not synonymous to Buddhist meditation since it only comprises the lesser of two meditative components. On the basis of three distinctions--between calming and discernment, mundane and supramundane cultivation, and the affective and intellectual obstacles to liberation--Gimello has demonstrated that mysticism embodies a mere half of the ingredients that make up Buddhist meditation (Gimello 1978 184-188). He goes on to argue that liberation, or what Smart defines as nirvana, is not what is usually denoted by the term "mystical experience" (Gimello 1978 190). Hence, Smart might very well be confusing nirvana with other phenomena such as calming, or quiescence (samatha). The weight that Smart attributes to each text is thus feasibly skewed, and consequently, his grounds for comparison might be questionable (2).
Nevertheless, if the comparative compatibility of the Cloud and the Visuddhimagga is taken for granted, Smart alleges that the fundamental similitude lies in the two work's phenomenological approach to the contemplative path. More precisely, both texts stress the abandonment of discursive thought, to the point that even the bare consciousness of the self is suppressed; one makes a systematic effort to purge the mind of delusory phenomena such as sense perception, memories, cognition, knowledge and so on. Nonetheless, as the author of the article concedes, this "is not spelled out in detail" in the Cloud (108). Difference upon difference is enumerated, the one between sati and the Cloud's insistence on "forgetting" being a semantically notable one, yet are all explained away by logic of language. The legacies of Aristotelian substance-metaphysics and the negative theology of Pseudo-Dyonisian thought are conveniently cited as influences that have shaped the Cloud's (nebulous) rendering of mystical experience and made it seemingly different from that recounted in the Visuddhimagga. In other words, Smart claims that linguistically, "the language of theism is imposed on the experience" (111). Language is conceived as a hindrance to the immediacy of mystical experience since the mystic will "go beyond doctrines" or discursive thought (Smart 112).
It is Smart's contention that language and contextual knowledge is superimposed on a trans-tradition mystical experience. The extent to which language "taints" the experience is clarified in terms of degrees of ramification. Highly ramified language, of the kind encountered in the Cloud, presupposes a fairly extensive context of belief and/or action (Smart 119). Consequently, the mystical experience is shrouded in conceptual references and assumptions. Low ramification might imply a more immediate experience. Language of low ramification is similar (but not equated to) descriptions using the via negativa for it strives towards emptier characterisations of mystical experience. Smart insists that "there are no absolute divides between traditions, [and] still less between subtraditions," but because the language used to describe them is niched within a relative epistemological context, this further implies that there is no "possibility of using a common language to write about two traditions" (Smart 105).
Scholars such as Sharf would qualify Smart's approach to mystical experience as unfounded. A comparison between the mysticisms of differing religious traditions is ultimately gratuitous. Their points of commonality are intangible since they reside, by the own reasoning of academics who support the likeness of trans-religious experience, in the ineffable: "by situating the locus of religious signification in phenomenological "inner space," religion is securely sequestered beyond the compass of empirical or social-scientific modes of inquiry" (Sharf 1995: 229). Rather than being denotative or referential, terms applied to the definition of mystical experience are prescriptive and directly influence the experience itself.
Sharf entertains this possibility and in fact buttresses it by raising the logical impossibility of describing nirodha in the first person (1995: 237). By this token, magga treatises and texts dealing with mystical experience might very well be prescriptive systemisations of spiritual materials instead of actual lived experiences. Hence these texts are not to be taken as personal testimonials attesting to the veracity of the experiences they narrate. Authors often go to great lengths to render the texts impersonal and prosaic. Perhaps this passage from Sharf's article can prove more eloquent and authoritative than my own comments:
Nowhere in Buddhaghosa's works does he claim to have relied upon personal inspiration or meditative insight. The situation is, in fact, quite to the contrary: by his own account, the Visuddhimagga was composed on the basis of his study of the available commentarial and commentarial corpus: 'I shall expound the comforting Path of Purification, pure in expositions, relying on the teaching of the dwellers in the Great Monastery [Anuradhapura]…' (1995: 239).
Texts such as the Visuddhimagga and the Cloud are quite possibly the result of scholastic effort to organise, systematise and schematise scattered, and often conflicting sources on praxis and soteriology. It would not be unconceivable to propose that there might have never been any substantive experiential referents around which such literature would have evolved. This in effect completely overturns Smart's relationship between language (or doctrine for that matter) and experience.
If one understands it as Smart intends, "experience" devolves, in essence, into "a mere placeholder that entails a substantive if indeterminate terminus for the relentless deferral of meaning" (Sharf 1995: 268). In actuality, the textual representation of experience cannot refer to anything other than itself. Smart's nondiscursive and nonconceptual definition of the mystical experience does not mitigate the problem; namely, "that nothing can be said of a particular experience--that is, its ineffability--cannot in and of itself constitute a delimiting characteristic, much less a phenomenal property" (Sharf 1998: 113-114). It is thus hard to make a case for the superimposition of extraneous cognitive or linguistic conventions onto the mystical experience. If anything, cognitive and linguistic conventions that are relative to a tradition inform and prescribe that tradition's mystical experience. In other words, the relationship between language and experience that Smart was forwarding, is reversed. What once might have been thought of as phenomenological description, is revealed to be ideological prescription.
Le Juste Milieu
In opposition to the claim of mystical autonomy and trans-religious mystical sameness, Gimello similarly insists that "mysticism is inextricably bound up with, dependent upon, and usually subservient to the deeper beliefs and values of the traditions […] which harbour it. As thus it is intricately and intimately related to those beliefs and values, so it must vary according to them" (Gimello 1983: 63). Despite the a priori resemblance with Sharf's convictions, Gimello seems to represent a middle ground, and most probably the most academically stable ground between the two aforementioned positions. Instead of advocating a universal mystical experience upon which the filter of language is affixed, or negating the existence of experience divorced from the language that describes it, mystical experience is informed by language, yet, in some sense, its ultimate "reality' remains divorced from it. Language is, truly enough, the purveyor of conventional truth (samvrti-satya) however, it is the only means by which the ultimate truth (paramartha-satya) can be known.
By focusing on "positive, if qualified, evaluations of language, and yet not lapsing into naïve assumptions of its definite referential capacity, we can get some purchase on the mystical efficacy Buddhists are willing to attribute at least to the judicious use of discourse, notwithstanding their sense of its limitations" (Gimello 1983: 71). Language is impotent in describing the "reality" of any experience. Regardless, it performs other paramount functions such as shaping and directly informing one's view of experience. In this sense, the value of language lies in its connative, corrective and performative functions (Gimello 1983: 72). The mystical experience is, in the end, indescribable and cannot be relegated to the simple apprehension of language. But none of this mollifies the efficacy that language does have in generating the goal of mystical experience. With regards to a passage in Tsung-Mi's "General Preface" to his elsusive Ch'an Sourcebook, Gimello writes that "success in mystical attainment hangs by a thread of rhetoric […]. There must then […] be some deep and necessary connection between discourse and experience" (1983: 77). The transforming experiences that mystics encounter are thus a function of the kinds of discourse they learn and use.
"Ultimate truth is not taught except upon the foundation of conventional knowledge." --Nagarjuna
Unfortunately, Smart may have fallen victim to what Sharf terms the "politics of experience" by imposing recent Western models such as those inspired by post-Enlightenment Christianity, in a phenomenological approach to the Buddhist rhetoric of experience. While it is true that the Christian mystical experience and that of Buddhism may exhibit some similarities, it is an unbridgeable logical leap to assume that mystical experience is autonomous and independent of religious, hence cultural and more importantly, linguistic contexts or constructs. Furthermore, Smart's mislead interpretations of the nature and role of meditation in Buddhism are likely to have obscured his judgement when analysing and selecting the works that he did. At the other end of the spectrum, Sharf has proposed a different, and more reasonable relation between signifier and signified. Succinctly put, his position contends that since mystical experience is contextual, it will manifest itself differently in different traditions. Thus, so-called mystical texts such as the Cloud or the Visuddhimagga, are likely to be prescriptive models designed to foster certain experiences in the context of a specific religion. However, Sharf pushes the envelope by stating that any attempt to signify "inner experience" is a futile effort doomed to failure. In his estimation of things mystical experience in a religious context is almost purely pro forma. Gimello offers the basis for the most reliable solution to the problem, and indirectly, the best alternative to Smart's thesis.gimello first lancanian and Saussure.
1 For elaborate rebuttals to this assumption see Robert M. Gimello, "Mysticism and Meditation," in Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, Stephen T. Katz ed. New York NY: Oxford University Press, (1978): 170-199, and Robert H. Sharf, "Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience," in Numen 42 (1995): 228-283.
2 Following a different line of argument--perhaps one reminiscent of Wittgenstein's "language game"--much in the same way that divergences between both texts can be explained away by means of language, so can the similarities. By that token, it is impossible to truly determine whether both texts treat the same mystical experience or whether or not the term "mystical experience" is even applicable to the subject of both works (what is "mysticism"?).
Gimello, Robert M. "Mysticism and Meditation," in Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, Stephen T. Katz ed. New York NY: Oxford University Press, (1978): 170-199.
Gimello, Robert M. "Mysticism in Its Contexts," in Mysticism and Religious Traditions, Steven T. Katz ed. New York NY: Oxford University Press, (1983): 61-88.
Sharf, Robert H. "Experience," in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, Mark C. Taylor ed. Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, (1998): 94-116.
Sharf, Robert H. "Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience," in Numen 42 (1995): 228-283.
Smart, Ninian. "What Would Buddhaghosa Have Made of The Cloud of Unknowing?" in Mysticism and Language, Steven T. Katz ed. New York NY: Oxford University Press, (1992): 103-122.
- Written by: Dominic