Experience of the Transcendence Transpersonal States and Psychotechnique

Prof. Evgeniy Torchinov

Review by Dr. Nikolay Borschevsky (Israel)

Prof. Torchinov (b. 1956) is one of a generation of prominent and prolific Sinologists, translators and specialists of comparative religion who belongs to the 3rd generation of Soviet/Russian Orientalists.

The slash between Soviet and Russian is a symbol of this generation of scholars who grew up and were taught under the Communist regime where virtually every scholar, including quantum physicists, not to mention historians of religion, had to write their work within the strictures of the Marxist-Leninist theory which was considered infallible. New social theories which made the dialectic-materialistic approach look fallible were dangerous and considered ungrateful. Therefore, many talented and decent humanists preferred to escape to the more exotic realms of ancient Eastern (Far Eastern) philosophies to concentrate their research on concrete subjects and to distance and even isolate themselves from dangerous methodological generalizations.

In the 1980s, a new Russia without ideological censure of these scholars came into being allowing them to speak openly on various issues in the Social Sciences.

During his twenty-five year career, Prof. Torchinov has published many articles and books on Taoism, Buddhism and Chinese culture, along with various aspects of comparative religion in Russian, English and Chinese.

Religions of the World - Experience of the Transcendence, Transpersonal States and Psychotechnique, is an academic summing up of all the previous researches and publications of Prof. Torchinov. It should be noted that this monograph, written in 1994 and published in Russia in 1997, is one of the first attempts, both in Russian and international scholarship, to analyze religion as a coherent psychological phenomenon. As one can see from the introduction, Prof. Torchinov does not fully deny the sociological approach to religion, and, in fact he acknowledges its merits (occasionally too apologetically for my liking), but he correctly points out that it is not sufficient to understand religion as a universal psychological phenomena. Inquiring into the nature of religious experience, Prof. Torchinov arrives at the conclusion that, at its core, the foundation of the entirety of the religious experience may be rendered through the concepts of transpersonalism.

Research into transpersonal states was initiated in the 1950s and 1960s by S. Grof. It allowed psychologists to study the earliest, deepest and most universal experiences of human beings during the prenatal and perinatal processes. Transpersonal states usually refer to any kind of psychological experience that goes beyond the borders of everyday personal conscience. For his research Grof used LSD, which he did not consider a drug but rather a tool for reaching the deepest and innermost levels of human conscience. LSD allowed the researcher not only to attain the level of Freudian subconscious personal experience, which actually turned out to be the first level of the subconscious, but to descend more deeply into the second level - Jungian archetypes of the collective subconscious, which are connected to the prenatal and perinatal experience of every human being. It transpired that beneath these two levels of the subconscious there exists a third innermost plane of transpersonal experience which many scholars of religions identify as mystical experience.

A person who attains the transpersonal state of ultimate reality may experience not only memories of the fetal state in the womb, or the traumatic experience of being born, but may glimpse the genetic and racial memory, philogenetic and evolutionary memory, as well as various kinds of cosmic consciousness. They may start recollecting the life of their ancestors who lived many centuries before and may re-experience the historical life of ancient cultures that ceased to exist long before (e.g. genetic and racial memory). Some of Grof's patients who attained this state described the experience of being in the body of some animal (philogenetic memory).

Transpersonal/mystical states are very diverse. Among them is the feeling of ultimate unity with the universe on a macro- and micro-plane; experience of encounters with various die ties in the other world; intuitive understanding of universal symbols; self-identification with cosmic consciousness or cosmic void.

Although these types of transpersonal experience are not identical with each other, they can interact and supplement each other.

Prof. Torchinov agrees with the opinion of the Grof School that such states are not psychopathological states, but rather a universal "mystical" experience whose form is shared by many prophets, shamans, saints and founders and followers of religions all over the world.

Prof. Torchinov definitely does not limit religions only to transpersonal states and does not ignore the richness of forms of concrete religions. Nevertheless he considers the transpersonal state, which he compares to a "tree's root" (p. 41) to be the basic and universal element of every religion. According to Prof. Torchinov this "root is the innermost essence of religion," while the concrete forms of every religion, i.e. rituals, doctrines, institutions, are the manifestations of this essence.

Therefore we may say that Prof. Torchinov has presented us with his search for this "innermost essence" in various religions of the world as well as different methods of reaching the transpersonal experience which is called here a "psychotechnique". His classification of religions is determined by his thesis of the essence of transpersonal experience for every religion. Based on this assumption, he classifies religions according to: (a) the character and type of transpersonal experience, (b) by the degree of intensity of this experience, and (c) by the functions of these experiences in tradition.

The above mentioned perinatal plane of transpersonal experience is characterized in archetypical symbolism and through dynamic patterns of the lost bliss, resurrection and revival, death, suffering and return to eternal bliss. This type of religious experience according to Prof. Torchinov, is prominent in the archaic religions (e.g. Shamanism), in Mediterranean mystical cults (e.g. the cults of Adonis, Osiris, Attis) and probably even in ancient Judaism. The most prominent religions of this type in terms of intensity of perinatal experience are the ancient Mediterranean mystical cults and Shamanism.

The other plane of a transpersonal state is that which is experienced as an "explosion" of individual conscience or the feeling of dissolving into the cosmic consciousness. Some may call this experience salvation, others nirvana or satori. Indian religions (e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism) are typical examples of religions where this particular transpersonal state plays a very prominent role. The doctrines of such religions are not only based on the transpersonal experience of the founders but such a state is considered to be the highest goal of the individual, and even salvation by itself.

According to Prof. Torchinov, transpersonal states also lie at the foundation of such religions as Judaism, Christianity and Islam where re-experience of transpersonal states by the followers is not encouraged, but is considered to be the privilege of the founders. Still, even in such institutionalized religions one can find certain groups of followers oriented toward attainment of transpersonal states (i.e. monks, sufis, members of mystical brotherhoods, hermits) who may be considered to be either an institutional elite or heretics depending on the historical circumstances.

Prof. Torchinov distinguishes three major types of religions. In the first part of his book he analyzes primitive religions (i.e. Shamanism) and mystical cults of antiquity (i.e. the suffering gods of the ancient Near East) where transpersonal experience play a very important role. In the second part, he analyzes religions of the pure experience (i.e. Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism) where attainment of mystical experience is not only dominant but is sometimes considered to be the essence of salvation. Religions of pure experience such as Yoga or Buddhism have extremely sophisticated psychotechniques which allow their followers to attain the transpersonal states. Finally in the third part of his book, Prof. Torchinov deals with the so-called dogmatic religions of the revelation, namely generically Bible religions in which the basic transpersonal experience of the founders take the form of the supreme revelation (e.g. Judaism, Christianity, Islam).

Naturally, we will pay special attention to the first two chapters of Part III of Prof. Torchinov's monograph - "Special Features of the Biblical Religions" and "Kabbalah and the East".

Prof. Torchinov admits that Judaism, as well as Christianity and Islam, do not easily fit into the same groups of religions as the ancient religions or Buddhism, where the phenomena of transpersonal states are quite detectable. He therefore classifies Judaism as: (a) a dogmatic religion; (b) a religion of revelation, and (c) a Bible-based religion.

In the Biblical Book of Revelation one can find descriptions of the transpersonal/mystical experience of its characters, Abraham, Jacob, the Prophets and Moses who is here called "a founder" of the Jewish religion. Nevertheless, in Judaism, as well as in Christianity and Islam, transpersonal experience is not considered a part of everyday religious practice. The mystical experience of the founders of the “religions of revelation” is considered to be the highest and most unique form of experience i.e. according to Jewish tradition, only Moses could speak "face to face" with G-d. Laity in these religions may be absolutely legitimate followers by following religious laws, rules, and traditions with no attempt at re-experiencing the mystical states of revelation which were granted to Moses, Jesus or Muhammad. These religions differ from the Far Eastern religions as analyzed in Part II in terms of more rigid dogma which is actually a systematized and formulated mystical revelation of the founders. In all three religions the rigidity of the dogma may vary; according to Prof. Torchinov the most dogmatic one, with universally approved theological formulas, is Christianity (Catholic and Orthodox churches), but in both Judaism and Christianity religious legal scriptures play a primary role. The importance of dogma and religious laws in these religions may be explained by their object which is primarily a community, a social group or even a state rather than an individual. Therefore in religions with a central goal of regulating the different aspects of social and religious life of the community, the attainment of transpersonal/mystical experience cannot be considered a universal goal for each follower. That is why in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, communal forms of prayer play the central role in religious practice and ritual.

Transpersonal/mystical experience is primarily an individual encountering of God. Only initiated members of religious communities (e.g., in Judaism - cabalistic, in Christianity - monks and hermits, and in Islam - Sufis) can be engaged in transpersonal experiments.

According to Prof. Torchinov, mysticism in these religions in general, and Kabbalah in Judaism in particular, are not in the public domain and they may be considered to be marginal and insignificant. However, such esoteric practices existing in the "dogmatic" and "communal" religion of Judaism, as Kabbalah, may help a scholar to discover its universal roots which Prof. Torchinov believes is transpersonal experience.

In order to unearth the universal roots of Kabbalah Prof. Torchinov compares Hebrew mysticism with relevant mystical traditions of Indian and Far Eastern regions.

In the Introduction "On the character of the problem and the borders of the research" to the chapter "Kabbalah and East" , Prof. Torchinov emphasizes that he is going to compare Kabbalah with various aspects of Far-Eastern, mostly Indian and Chinese, religions primarily on the assumption of common basic transpersonal experiences, (mystical) experiences of the adepts of these religions. He does not believe in the historic inter-influence of, say, Taoism on Kabbalah since the Middle East and Far East were quite isolated during the period of formation of these mystic traditions. In the same introduction we find an interesting comparison between the literal meaning of the world Kabbalah (i.e., to receive knowledge, to pass and receive knowledge) with the name of a Buddhist Tantric school Kargyu-pa which actually has the same meaning as the word Kabbalah. Its name should emphasize the belief that the knowledge of the initiated ones is being passed, uninterruptedly, from the first enlightened founders of the Tantric Tibetan school.

In the subchapter "Theology" Prof. Torchinov compares the so-called apopathetic (negating) theology of Kabbalah with the corresponding ideas in the Far-Eastern traditions. For example, if in Kabbalah, the God (Absolute) who cannot be described as a human being is given the name Ein-Sof which literally means "without end (and beginning)". In Chinese Neo-Confucian tradition one can find the concept of Wu chi and T'ai chi, which reflect the idea of transfer Original Nothing (wu) to the world of Being (yu). Prof. Torchinov also mentions an interesting parallel between the Kabbalistic concept of the interconnection between Ein-Sof (as a supra-personal absolute) and God Creator with the concept of the Advaita-vedanta. According to Vedanta theology, God (Brahman), from the point of ultimate truth, is unconditionally undefined, unexpressed and non-qualitative. But from the point of view of relative truth () God reveals Himself to us as Ishvara - God with all the attributes of the Creator, Almighty and Destroyer. From the point view of ultimate truth, Ishavara is still maya (illusion), but from the empirical point of view, Ishavara should be an object of human prayer and ritual. Ishvara is a God for people but he still remains eternal and an incognizable Absolute God. This is the same concept that one finds in Kabbalah, where Ein-Sof and God the Creator are certainly not two different deities, but the same God's substance relating to different points of view.

In Vedanta one can find a parallel between the Kabbalistic concept of tsimtsum, which according to Sarug may be considered as a self-limitation of God in Himself, and a Vedanta concept of the transformation of Brahman (non-personal Absolute) into Ishvara - a God with certain attributes, who is also considered to be a limitation (tsimtsum) and restraint of God for the sake of creation.

Prof. Torchinov could not ignore one of the most illustrative aspects of Kabbalah, i.e. the teaching of sfirot. Not only does he compare Kabbalistic sfirot with chakras in Hindu and Buddhist teaching but in the chapter "Theology", he demonstrates apparent parallels between what he calls "holographic principles of sfirot" - e.g., in Kabbalah each single sfira contains the attributes of all other sfirot - with the teachings of the Buddhist school Huayen. According to this teaching, each phenomenon contains and reflects all other existing phenomenon in the Universe. These Buddhist doctrines sound as "All in one, one in all, one in one, and all in all".

In the chapterCosmologyProf. Torchinov analyzes two Kabbalistic doctrines - one about the vertical structure of the Universe and the other, shmittot e.g., a teaching about cosmic cycles.

Here he draws a parallel between the Kabbalah teaching of the four vertical worlds (atsilut, briya, yetsira and asiya) and the Hindu-Buddhist concept of the triple world (kama dhatu - world of senses populated by humans and lower deities; rupa dhatu - world of forms; and arupa dhatu - world of non-forms). The world asiya is compared with the world of senses (kama dhatu), the worlds of briya and yetsira with the world of forms (rupa dhatu), which is populated according to the Buddhist teaching by the highest deities (who are actually more superbeings than God the Creator), and finally, the highest world of Kabbalah - atsilut is compared with the highest plane in the Buddhist teaching - arupa dhatu - the world of non-forms which is a sphere of infinite space and consciousness. Prof. Torchinov points out the very important conceptual difference between these two worlds - in Buddhism the world of non-forms is a part of sansara ("wheel of life" ), while the atsilut of Kabbalah is a realm of God's wholeness which is unaffected by svirat ha-kelim.

As to the concepts of time and cosmic cycles of Kabbalah and Far-Eastern teachings, according to Prof. Torchinov, one can discover here even more similarity. He finds that contrary to the Biblical concept of linear time, in Kabbalah we may discover many references to worlds existing before the creation of our world. He mentions the "Sefer T’muna" teaching of Bahiya ben Asher, Itshak from Acco, Itshak Abarbanel about shmittot. He compares the Kabbalistic concept of these cosmic meta-cycles with the Buddhist and Hindu concept of cosmic cycles - kalpa.

In the chapter “Anthropology”, Prof.Torchinov analyzes the Kabbalistic concept of Adam Kadmon. He emphasizes that the teaching of the primary human being (Adam Kadmon) belongs not to the ancient creative myths like the First Man (Virat Purusha) in Rigveda or Chinese P'an-ku, to the later "secondary" mythology of the developed religious and philosophic systems. He compares Adam Kadmon with the Hiraniyagarbha (Golden fetus) of Brahmanism. According to the teaching of Brahmanism, Hiraniyagarbha is a soul of universality, a conjunction and association of all single entities in the Universe.

In the next chapter “The value of Holy Scriptures in Kabbalah and religions of the East”, Prof. Torchinov compares the Kabbalistic teaching about the absolute meaning of eternal Torah with various concepts of Brahmanism concerning vedas. According to this teaching, vedas represent ultimate truth which was transformed in the form of primeval oscillations "received" by ancient wise men. Prof. Torchinov points out the difference in Kabbalah and Brahmanism concerning the sacred text. If in Kabbalah special attention was put to the graphic patterns of Torah texts, Brahmanists emphasized the "audio" aspects of vedas (these sacred Hindu texts were written down during a comparatively late period).

In the chapterPractical Aspects of Kabbalah”, we find an analysis of the meditative practice of Avraham Abulafia and various Tantric (Buddhist) practices. Here Prof. Torchinov compares the "Jewish yoga" (Gershom Sholem's expression) of Abulafia with the corresponding methods of meditations on symbolic colors, sounds and letters in the Tantric schools of Buddhism.

In one of the daring, for Jewish readers, comparisons one may find in the chapter “Sexual Aspect of Kabbalah and Oriental teachings: The Doctrine of the Female”. Prof. Torchinov compares the Kabbalah teaching about Shekhina as a feminine aspect of God with the Daoism doctrine of Feminine as a primeval principle, a cosmic womb encompassing the whole universe. He also draws a parallel between the teaching of Shekhina with the medieval Hinduist concept of Shakti as an active and creative aspect of inactive Absolute (Shiva).

In this review we have tried to show the main points of this volume by Prof. Torchinov, paying special attention to his comparisons between Kabbalah and the various religious concepts of the Far East. One may assume that this comparative treatise, offering a new paradigm on the transpersonal experience as a core of all religions, will cause many disputes among the historians of Western religions, Judaism in particular. After all, according to the classical point of view the "Jewish yoga" and other mystic experiences occupy only a marginal place in Judaism. On the other hand, any student of contemporary Judaism cannot ignore the growing popularity of Kabbalah in Israel as well as in other countries. Nowadays Jewish mysticism attracts not only academic historians, but many Jewish and non-Jewish literati as well. We may therefore assume that the fascination of contemporary society with the mysticism in general and with Kabbalah in particular is actually a reflection of the universal desire to re-live the innermost experience (transpersonal experience) of human beings. After all, according to the main thesis of Prof. Torchinov this experience gave birth at the dawn of the mankind to, what we call now, religion, and which today in various disguises, still plays a very important role. We believe that Prof. Torchinov book is a very important step on the road to understanding the innermost relations between an individual, society and religion. This book should be translated into English in order to give specialists a fair opportunity to discuss its ideas.