Evgeny A. Torchinov

(St. Petersburg State University, Russia)


Mysticism and Its Cultural Expression (An Enquiry into Models for the Description of Religious Experience)

This paper is dedicated to the examination of the problem of the forms of cultural expressions of mystical experience.

But prior to that examination, I would like to make a preliminary
remark of terminological character. It is related to the definition of the term “mystical” as such.

The word “mysticism” (and its derivatives) can be used in a number of fairly different meanings, so the polysemic character of its using can produce a kind of terminological ambiguity. This word is used:

1. To designate the experience or feeling of the unity of the person with the ontological ground of the Universe and/or of all beings (God, Absolute, etc.);

2. To designate different esoteric rites and practices (mysteries);

3. To designate various forms of occultism, which often have obviously pseudoscientific nature – magic, astrology, mantic, and so on.

It is clear that all these phenomena are rather heterogeneous possessing perfectly divergent natures. Therefore, the word “mysticism” looses its terminological qualities becoming a source of misunderstanding and perplexities.

Besides this, the word “mysticism” became strongly associated with irrational or even obscurantist approach to knowledge. It occurred because of the specifics of the Judeo-Christian (European) interpretations of such problems as faith and knowledge, faith and intellect. This circumstance produced a very negative reaction (or at least a negative presupposition) to the problem of the mystical experience among the scholars, scientists or professional philosophers.

But in non-European cultures opposition of “mystical” and “rational” is unknown. The “mystics” of those traditions do not negate the significance of intellect (or in more strict sense, the significance of discursive thinking) as the highest authority within the space of its competence. Moreover such “mystics” often created rational (in the broad sense of the word) systems on the basis of rational reflection (rationalization) directed upon their mystical experience.

This statement is valid first of all within the frames of the Indo-Buddhist cultural tradition though the described situation was not completely unknown in Europe. For example, it is possible to suppose that the philosophical system of Spinoza was in its essentials but the rationalization of the mystical experience (“illumination”) of this Dutch thinker on the basis of the Cartesian methodology.

B. Russell in his “History of Western Philosophy” suggested the idea that such an assumption is also valid in relation to the Hegelian absolute idealism. This idea even before Russell was supported by William James who compared the atmosphere of Hegelian discourse with some altered states of consciousness (James 1990, p. 436, 438). Within the history of Russian thought one can tell about Vladimir Solovyev, whose system of “all-unity” was closely connected with his mystical experience of the “Sophian” character. But nevertheless an idea of incompatibility of “mystical” and “rational” has been rooted deeply in the minds of the representatives of the Western cultures becoming a real obstacle for a serious and responsible discussion of the problems of mystical experience.

So, because of the ambiguity of the word "mysticism" here I will use the expression “mystical experience” only in relation to the state of a very special kind. This experience is usually described by the mystics themselves as the expansion of consciousness or as the feeling of the unity of a mystic's "heart-and-mind" with the hidden (or concealed) ontological ground of all existences or with the original principle of all things and beings. Such special states, which can transcend the everyday experience and its limitations, have a direct and immediate relation to metaphysics and metaphysical problems. And I will examine here only this kind of mysticism.

All of us sometimes use such an expression as “mystical experience”, and it is important now to elucidate in what sense the feelings and intuitions of the mystics can be called “experience”.

I would like to refer to the authority of W. James (who was one of the pioneers of the researches into the problems of religious and mystical experience). This thinker was probably the first who created a theory of the universal, or pure experience as a kind of “materia prima” (certainly, speaking metaphorically) which is the material from which everything in the world is “made” of.

In such a case knowledge can be understood as a relation between two portions of the pure experience. This is a very important statement because it eliminates an idea of the fundamental epistemological character of subject—object relationships. This point is of especial importance for examining the mystical experience, which according to the testimonies of the mystics of all traditions just tries to transcend, or to eliminate subject—object dichotomy. Thus, in a number of the branches of the Indo-Buddhist thought the highest state of mind (mind per se or mind par excellence) is described as advaita or advaya, i.e. “non-dual”, “non-dichotomist”, i.e., transcendent to the subject—object duality. In the same time, this highest state of mind is characterized as the ultimate gnosis (jnana), top wisdom.

It is interesting enough that in one of the earliest Upanishads (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad) the highest form of the mystical experience, the state of the unity of Atman (self) and Brahman (Absolute) even was not described in the terms of “consciousness”. As the author of the text states, consciousness is impossible without duality of cognizer and cognized, perceiver and perceived. But in the state of religious liberation (moksha) everything is but One and the Only Atman (absolute Self) which is non-dual, non-dichotomic (advaita) and which is equal to itself a “piece” or even a “clod” of knowledge (jnana; gnosis) without any shadow of subject—object duality. Consequently, after liberation consciousnesses as a product of subject—object relations will vanish.

Therefore we can even say that the highest mystical experience of non-duality is not a state of consciousness at all because consciousness in a strict sense of the word does not participate in it. Therefore I can agree with Nelson Pike when he criticizes Walter Stace's concept of the introvertive mysticism (Pike 1992, p. 93). Pike assists that in mystical consciousness as it was described by Stace nothing is given. Yes, sure. But this so-called mystical consciousness is not consciousness as a mode of a subject related to object at all. It is pure non-dual gnosis as such. If this very special state is empty of subject--object relationship, what can be given here at all? It is not such kind of experience towards which may be applied the questions like "what is given in it." So, here we can speak about a very special mind of no mind, or about consciousness without intention. Such a consciousness, of course, is impossible from the standpoint of the phenomenological school of E. Husserl and F. Brentano but some contemporary experts in the problems of mystical experience have serious doubts in such a claim of phenomenolgists (Forman 1998, p. 12-18; Pike 1992, p. 94). Thus the top experience of the mystics can be evaluated as consciousness per se or better as consciousness directed upon itself, the consciousness which experiences itself as a pure awareness itself (Forman 1998, p. 13).

It is important to note that the information about their states of minds which is given to us by the mystics of all epochs and all cultures is extremely significant for our understanding of the principles of mind and consciousness. Robert Forman states: "It should be clear that on empirical matters, the statements of philosophers have no legislative force. No matter how many Humes, Moores, or Hamiltons observe that they cannot catch themselves devoid of perceptions, this tells us little about what a Hindu monk, Dominican friar, or Sufi adept might experience after years of yoga, Jesus Prayer, or Sufi dancing. Indeed, many mystics do report that they have undergone something quite unique.

Probably a Hume or Moore tried to "catch" himself without perception on two or three quiet, furtive attempts. Furthermore, those attempts would have been the elements within their philosophical projects. Thus, probably without being aware of the experiential implications of their attitude of "trying to see something about consciousness", they could hardly have allowed themselves to "drop away" completely. Who is to say whether one of them might have achieved a silent consciousness after some years of meditation practices, visualizations, or other practices that were not saddled with such an ulterior agenda? Who is to say what Professor Moore might have "seen" in his sensation of blue had he performed twenty years of Tantric visualizations of blue mandalas? These are empirical matters, not logical or presuppositional. There are enormous differences between ordinary empirical attempts to "introspect the sensations" of consciousness and a transformative meditative path; the former does not impose logical limits on the latter" (Forman 1998, p. 16-17).

For a long time the majority of the philosophers (but certainly, not all of them) looked at the subject—object opposition as ontologically basic and fundamental. But it seems to me that such an approach too strongly ontologizes the epistemological value of such relations. In its metaphysical dimension the connections between subject and object are probably more complicated. There is no impenetrable gap between subject and object. And the very distance between them could not be seen as a border on one side of which stands subject absorbed in contemplation of the object which in its turn is located on another side of this border. It seems obvious that human beings are not such completely isolated separate and autonomous entities; the humans are included in the nature as organic and coherent aspects of the universal whole. Perhaps only such a phenomenon as a pivotal personality with its self-conscious egocentricity is responsible for the creation of illusion of self-sufficiency of a subject in its opposition to the nature taken as the pure isolated object of this self.

Such a presumption gives us a key to the non-classical solution of the problem of the relations between whole and parts. Thus, from one side subjects are included into object (human persons as parts of the universe) but from another one object(s) is (are) in its (their) turn included into a subject(s) as its (their) part(s) due to the process of perception and interiorization of the "objective universe" as the “private world” of individual experience, the world as it is given to a subject or as it is experienced by a subject. This "interiorized" world may be reduced to the psychic experience of a subject (it is a “phaneron” in the terminology of Charles Pierce). Thus the whole becomes a complicated system of inter-reflections or interrelations of subjective and objective aspects or sides of experience.

If one agrees with the idea of pure experience in which there is no room for mutually exclusive ontological opposition of subject and object, it is possible to examine a subject as a kind of self-conscious focus of this experience or as a kind of a “whirlpool” on its surface or as a self-conscious center of pure experience.

In such a case we not only live in the outer world. In stricter sense of the words we experience it and it is experienced by us, it becomes the objective side of the field of pure experience while a human being becomes its subjective aspect. Nevertheless, the field of pure experience as a whole is completely transcendent to the dichotomy of subject—objects. In such a case this opposition will preserve only practical, behavioral, psychological and epistemological but not an ontological (metaphysical) value.

A well known Russian Buddhologist O.O. Rosenberg wrote that an analogous approach was a natural for the Buddhist thought which took a living being together with the contents of his/her perceptions as only one entity: there are no separate “sun” and “man” but there exists a man who perceives the sun and the sun perceived by a man. In this case the Buddhists do not reject the reality of the external; they simply do not analyze it per se, taken in itself as independent separate entity but they take it just as a Pierce’s “phaneron”, as interiorized in the course of an act of perception “private reality”, changed into the objective aspect of the psychic (mental) experience of a subject.

Rosenberg comments: “It is only said that a human being experiencing any phenomena, e.g., a man looking at the sun, consists of such and such elements which exist in such and such interrelations, and so on” (Rosenberg 1991, p. 90).

Nevertheless, it may be supposed that some events are not given in the immediate experience but we know that the take place (e.g., the events on another side of the Moon as it was pointed by B. Russell). Arguing against this point I will give here a rather long citation from the article “Concept of God” of the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyev:

“Certainly, our assurance in the religious matters cannot be covered only by the data of our religious experience but it is also doubtless that it is also based on such data and cannot exist without them as well as reliability of our astronomical knowledge is not covered by what we see and observe in the sky but undoubtedly it is based only upon this.

A very clear illustration can be seen in the famous discovery of Leverrier. At first, this discovery was caused by the given in experience appearances of another planets and on the basis of their orbits found with the help of observances and expectations. Secondly, further mathematical operations and combinations which led the Parisian astronomer to the necessity of the existing of a new planet could not by themselves give to anybody an assurance in its real existence: it could be a product of a kind of erroneous conclusion as the “counter Earth” of the Pythagoreans.

All its real meaning the work of Leverier received only from its experimental verification, that is only when a new planet became seen by a telescope <...> Generally speaking, the main role in the progress of astronomy undoubtedly was reached due to the using of telescope and spectral analysis, i.e., refined means of observance and experience” (Solovyev 1993, p. 230).

Vladimir Solovyev continues:

“Predictions of eclipses and other triumphs of science could refute but point of view of “voluntarism”, or “arbitriarism” which in any case has no supporters... But to subjective idealism, according to which the world is strictly ordered system of hallucinations, the triumphs of science do not stay in any relation at all. To think that the realized predictions of the eclipses tell something supporting the reality of those phenomena is to suppose that time as such is a real entity but it is just the point which needs proofs by itself” (Solovyev 1993, p. 246).

Taking this support given to my position by the discourse of Solovyev, I will examine the idea of being taken as pure experience devoid of ontologically based subject—object dichotomy or a rigid opposition of this kind. Therefore, we have dipolar space of experience: humans (or living beings as such) and the world experienced by them. It is obvious that every living being experiences the world of its (his, her) own and such worlds (“phanerons”) of different living beings differs greatly from each other.

Thus, our “human world” is full of colors and sounds but it is almost devoid of smells. But the “world of a dog” has no colors, its sounds are poor but it contains an abundance of smells. As the Estonian philosopher and biologist Jacob von Uexkull pointed it, for a human being a pine is a tree that can be used for esthetical contemplation or as a source of timber. For a fox a pine tree is its home and refuge: between the roots of a pine tree there is a fox’s hole. And what is a pine tree in the “world of a bark eating insects” it is even difficult to imagine! Or, as the Buddhists told, the very entity which is a Ganges river for human beings who perform sacred bathing there is at the same time a stream of ambrosia (amrita) for the divine beings and a river of the molten lead for the suffering hell dwellers which are immersed there by the servants of Yama – god of death.

But even in this case it is improper to think that a human being as well as any other non-human subject (and the animals must be treated as subjects in both biological and epistemological sense) is separated from the experienced world by a kind of the Chinese wall.

Just the opposite, subject and object are joined and coherent units which can be separated from each other as self-sufficient rigid entities only by the force of an abstract thinking, only epistemologically, not ontologically or metaphysically. But is it possible to recognize that reality which exists prior to the world of pure experience not as a kind of its substance (certainly, an obsolete idea) but as the very nature of any experience and of any experienced phenomenon? Or if one prefers to use the Buddhist parlance, is it possible to recognize reality as it is by itself (yathabhutam)? The proponents of the mystical mode of cognition say – “yes!”

From their point of view a mystical experience in its top forms may be evaluated as a form of such cognizing penetration. Subject and object might be embraced by a kind of unity, which is transcendent to the immanent space of pure experience. And the phenomenal interrelations of subjects and objects can be perceived as a kind of reflection (or appearance) of a highest unity of non-duality or of advaya spoken in the mentioned passage from Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (see above). So, one can suppose that phenomenological unity of pure experience needs a source beyond it: the contents of our experience are given to us and we are not able by our volition to change the overwhelming part of the contents of our experiences. A human subject is not a god of his/her phaneron; he/she is not a lord of this solipsistic universe. The universe is given to him/her by something transcendent to phaneron itself, be this transcendent “ens” matter of the materialists or God of the theists. Probably, the phenomenological unity of experience is preceded by a ground unity of subject and object. And just due to this original non-dual unity, empirical subjects and objects may enjoy their being of two poles of the field of pure experience possessing one and the same basic nature.

Thus, subject and experienced by it objects are aspects of the field of pure experience. Thus, human beings as well as any other part of the universe are phenomena, or appearances of the fundamental unity, which constructs their natures as well as the natures of all other phenomena

Arthur Schopenhauer (I think that not without the influence of the Eastern thought which always was especially attentive to the ways of self-cognizing) noted that the only path to the knowledge of reality as it is (or of “thing in itself” according to the Kantian phraseology adopted by Schopenhauer) is the path of self-cognizing. All the phenomena except with ourselves are given to our self-consciousness only vicariously, from the outside (certainly, we have no empathic capacity to penetrate into the objects or into the minds of another subjects). But as far as we can examine ourselves, we find that we know ourselves from inside. But in this case we are able to know the nature of the true “ens” as it is only through a kind of introspection and penetration into our own self-consciousness.

Human beings like a part of the world are unfolding, or appearances of the same nature as that of the whole world. So, it is easier to him/her to find this nature in himself/herself than in the outer world (i.e., in the world given in experience as other than conscious subject as such).Thus we may ex hypothesi conclude that the so-called mystical experience is a kind of cognizing (gnosis) penetrating in a very special manner from inside into the nature of the innermost “self” and thus recognizing the character and nature of this “self”. This is also a cognizing of the nature of all objective appearances as much as they are immanent to the cognizing “self” and thus attainable to the inner knowledge of the subject. We can describe such a cognizing as movement from the conceptualized world of appearances to the non conceptualized knowledge of non conceptualized reality as it is, or reality as such (Tathata, or Suchness of the Buddhist texts). This knowledge just was called by the Mahayana Buddhists knowledge of the reality “yatha bhutam”, or as it truly is out of the effects of the transforming force of the conceptualizing mind.

Kant stated in his “Critique of the Pure Reason” that the knowledge of the “thing as it is” (Ding an sich) could be possible only if we were able to eliminate our present forms of sensual intuitions and to obtain a kind of a new intuition but non-sensual one. It can be said that mystical experience is a similar way of cognition which is possible due to the acts of a certain intuition of the unknown kind (which was posited by Kant as a pure hypothesis only).

And here we meet the problem of the epistemological relevance of this kind of cognition. I will limit myself with the arguments of Robert Forman which seems to be rather valid and well posited (Forman 1998, p. 28):

    1. The foundation of every experience is a pure awareness, it serves to tie together contents and itself through time, it is transcendent to any contents.
    2. There are at least two experience modalities, or perhaps states of consciousness. They have different cognitive or epistemological structures.
    3. Mystical experiences show reasonable consistent structures across cultures and ages. The Pure Consciousness Event, the unitive mystical state and possibly other experiences show remarkable similarities across time and space.
    4. The transformative process that brings about mystical state of consciousness has a similar structure.
    5. Awareness itself and mystical experiences that tap into it are not learned but result from certain innate human capacities.

Another scholar, R.L. Franklin, points out that all kinds of mystical experience have one and the same fundamental quality called by him “the flavor of nonseparatness” and which can be understood as a strong feeling of unity basic for practically all mystical experiences known to us (Franklin 1998, p. 233-234). Here it is possible also to refer to the authoritative opinion of Walter Stace who was a strong advocate for the theory of the universality and unity of the mystical experiences of all cultures and all traditions. Stace even rejected an idea of existence of specifically theistic mysticism because of the irrelevant to empirical data character of this concept (Stace 1960, p. 130-133). Stace ardently supported objective (public, intersubjective, transsubjective) character of mystical experience and its phenomenal unity known to us through the texts of the mystics of all times and all nations (Stace 1960, p. 134-206; this part of Stace’s book has a typical title “The problem of Objective Reference”).

But if mystical experience contains even an element of the true knowledge, why do we have a great number of its descriptions in different independent traditions and many doctrines of its interpretations?

Here we meet with a very complicated problem of the relations existing between the mystical experience and the language of its description (see also Stace 1960, p. 277-306). And this problem is followed by another one: the problem of socio-cultural determination of such kind of experience, and I will try to give a brief sketch of these questions here.

I suggest dividing the mystical experience and the related states into two levels: the level of immediate or direct experiencing which probably will have a lot of common in different traditions and cultures and the level of its expression and description. The second one will differ from individual to individual and from tradition to tradition: an adept will transfer his/her experience in the categories and terms of his/her doctrine which in its turn exists in the frames of a definite culture which plays a role of a determinant of the doctrinal expression and formalizing, or shaping of the basic immediate experience.

Here we can ask a question about principal possibility of description or expression of the top religious experience. It was considered here as non-conceptual experience but certainly, every description is but a kind of conceptualization. Here I am not being able to give a final answer to this question. I can only to suggest two possible solution of this difficulty. The first one is to limit a principle of non-conceptual nature of the mystical experience: it cannot be described in the period when a mystic directly has it but it may be expressed in words in different manners (negative definitions, symbolic language and even philosophical terms). Here it is possible to remind again about the position of W. Stace who stated that

1. Mystics often confuse the notions of paradoxical nature of the mystical experience and its ineffability. Nevertheless they try to express their experience in very distinctive and definite ways (Stace 1960, p. 299-303) and

2. Mystical experience is wholly unconceptualizible and wholly unspeakable when the very experience lasts but afterwards when experience is kept in memory the situation must be changed. Now a mystic has words and concepts and he or she can speak about his/her experience in the terms natural to his/her tradition or his/her culture (Stace 1960, p.297; alternative interpretation one can find: Pike 1992, p. 94-101). By the way it must be noticed that in any case every non-conceptualized experience may be at least conceptualized as non-conceptualizable. Therefore, its non-conceptualizing character cannot be an absolute one (Burton 1999, p. 55-56). Probably, it can be even said that mystical experience is non-conceptualizing but to some degree (or relatively) conceptualizible. Sometimes this problem becomes a fact of self-consciousness of this or that religious tradition. Thus, Tibetan Buddhists always understood the exact relationship between two modes of knowing, i.e. between the knowledge obtained through critical investigation which required using the concepts and the highest form of experiential knowing (paranormal mystical state of Enlightenment or Awakening) which was considered to be direct, non-linguistic and non-conceptual. This tension between these two modes of cognizing often became in Tibetan Buddhism a source of perplexities and serious controversies (Williams 1992, p. 190).

Besides this, a doctrine may fulfill (and generally it fulfils) a stimulating function to practice these or those methods of cultivation of consciousness (psychopractices or psychotechniques). For example, Vedanta teaches that liberation from the world of samsara (births-and-deaths) is possible only through realization of the unity of Atman (self) and Brahman (Absolute) which can be reached only due to the practice of Yoga. Therefore this tenet creates some additional motives to practice Yoga for a follower of Vedanta. Thus, we have here a chain: doctrine – mystical experience – doctrinally conditioned description of this experience. In this sequence neither first nor third positions are not identical to the middle one.

So, even if the experiences of different mystics of different traditions are identical or at least similar, the ways of their expression in language (or their conceptualization) will inevitably different as being conditioned by the essential features of the culture and religious traditions which each of these mystics belong to (it is obvious that a Christian will not describe his/her experience in the Brahmanical terms but will try to find words and images in his/her native Christian tradition).

Thus, the experience of the ontological unity will be interpreted by a Vedantin as the experience of identity of individual subjective Atman (self) and the universal Spirit (Brahman), by a Buddhist – as realization of Buddha’s Dharma Body in which all oppositions and every form of duality disappear, by a contemplator Neo-Platonist – as submersion of the soul into the mind and of the mind into the One, and by a Christian – as exaltation of the soul up to its participation in the Divine unity (communion with the Divine nature as it was stated in the epistle of St. Peter), and so on (Stace 1960, p. 31-40; Forman 1994, p. 48).

Or one more example: one can compare the descriptions of the state of “jian xing” (Japanese: “kensho”, i.e., “seeing of nature” -- experience of the Buddha’s nature as the only nature of the adept as well as of all beings) in Chan/Zen school of Buddhism and the state of “sarva atma bhava” (“all-self-being” or “everything as self-being”) in Kashmir Saivism (Shivaism). It can be seen that they are practically identical: they both present the descriptions of the experience of the totality of being as the being of one and the only Self and the experience of the Self as the totality of being in which there is no even a shade of difference between “self” and “being”. But the Kashmir Saivists follow the Hindu doctrine of Atman, eternal self, while Zen masters follow the opposite Buddhist teaching of anatma, i.e., “non-atman”, which negates the existence of eternal substantial “self”, or “soul”.

It is interesting to note that Indian religious tradition with its especially precise attention to psychopractices and mystical experiences was quite conscious of this circumstance. This feature of the Indian religious mind appeared itself in its inclination towards via negativa, that is, negative description of the deep religious experience: the states experienced by a mystic are principally inexpressible and ineffable, they cannot be described, they are of “not this, not this” nature (“neti, neti” -- mahavakya, or a “great utterance” of the Upanishads).

This tendency towards the negative description also existed in the works of the Christian contemplators (especially, in the Oriental tradition) but in the Indian mysticism it is stronger and more unequivocal. The method of description of the highest states of consciousness in the Indian religions was called by a Russian philosopher and indologist D.B. Zilberman the “semantic destruction of language” (Zilberman 1972). Such destruction of the language takes place when a description, previously based upon a symbolic way of expression adopted by a certain tradition is changed into the negative one (or even as in Zen, into paradoxical and grotesque way of the presentation of the experience). Mystical texts can contain the statements about conditional or provisional character of even negative descriptions taken as a kind of expedient means to express the inexpressible. Thus, D.V. Zilberman noted that in the world of the deaf beings Shankara could not say that the speech of Brahman was but silence.

It is important to put a question in what degree the cultural stereotypes deform the immediate experience in the process of its description. It must be stated that any even the simplest inner (psychic) experience (e.g., feeling) cannot be described in an absolutely adequate manner. Language (at least, natural language) genetically had no aim to describe the inner world of a personality or inner psychic processes being first of all an intersubjective tool of communication.

So any description of any even elementary state of consciousness or of psychic experience deforms its nature and strictly speaking, is principally unsatisfactory. Even poetical metaphors do not describe or explain the inner psychic states being exclusively suggestive. Nevertheless, poetry gives us a kind of empathy, which is also the aim of metaphorical (sometimes – slightly mythologized) descriptions of mystical experiences.

Some psychopractical methods of mind cultivation can achieve such suggestive effects by another means. For example, Zen paradoxes (koans and mondo) have the goal to produce in the mind of a traditionally prepared person the mystical experience of satori (“awakening”).

And if even the simplest psychic states are hard to describe however complicated is the task to express in the words an experience which by its very nature transcends the limitations of subject-object relations and binary oppositions of any kind! Practically this task cannot be fulfilled at all.

So, the traditions, which use psychopractices as the principal means to attain liberation or salvation through this or that kind of mystical experience are evidently sure regarding the ineffable, inexpressible and non-communicative character of the top mystical experience, which is non-semiotic or non-conceptualizing by its nature. All conditional types of its expression are only expedient means of suggestive character to fulfill the task of bringing a person to the obtaining of such mystical experience by himself/herself as it is clearly declared in the Mahayana Buddhist Prajnaparamita (Transcendent Wisdom) texts.

However was the Indian tradition sensitive to this circumstance, it by no means is an exception. One can take as an example a very famous parable of a Sufi poet of XIII century Jalal ad-din Rumi which tells us about four friends: a Turk, a Persian, an Arab and a Greek who found a coin by chance. The friends decided to buy grapes but each of them called it in his native language (uzum, engur, einab and staphylis). The friends could not understand each other as well as to realize that each of them wants one and the same thing. So, they even began to fight and were fighting until a wise man bought for them a bunch of grapes. The author finishes this parable by the words: “The sayings of the ignorant fools bring war; my words bring unity, peace and rest.” Under seemingly simple surface of the parable is hidden a profound idea of the identity of denotations with the existence of the differences on the levels of connotation and signification.

Certainly, there always existed people who tried to express their mystical experience in proper and precise terms notwithstanding all traditions and all cultural and confessional conventions. Usually they left the field of their native tradition in at least its orthodox dimension becoming “heretics” or the founders of certain new traditions. The most famous example is a historical Buddha who from the beginning of his religious career was a heterodox hermit (shramana) who rejected the Brahmanist interpretation of his experience of Enlightenment (or Awakening). But even in this case the descriptions of Buddha’s own experience and the conclusions made from them by his followers were given in the frames of the Indian cultural paradigm and its traditional language. So it is impossible for me to agree with an American Buddhologist Robert Gimello who supports the point of view that any kind of mystical experience is but intensified psychosomatic expression of the religious beliefs and values (Gimello 1983, p. 85). The situation is much more complicated and it is even more dialectical. Mystical experience is by no means only a result of the influence of the beliefs of the established religious doctrines. Just the opposite: mystical experience itself is able to create religious and philosophical teachings and systems (see also Forman 1994, p 38-49). Socio-cultural determination is a domain of the ways of its explications, descriptions and interpretations but it is not the principal factor in having the mystical experience itself. But unfortunately enough, the researchers often ignore this subtlety.

The mystical experience taken separately by itself and in itself is not a religion if under the word “religion” we will understand a system of doctrines, beliefs, cults and church institutions. But in the history of religions mystical experience often played a role of a genetic impulse and the latest interpretations of this impulse took shapes as dogmatic statements, doctrinal speculations, forms of cult services and church institutions. In the course of this process the immediate mystical experience was alienated from its original essence being reinterpreted in the ways conditioned by the teaching of established church orthodoxy. In different religious traditions the treatments of the mystical experience were different. In the religions of the East it crowned the religious self cultivation of the believers, and the people who obtained it were the people of religion par excellence but in Christianity (especially, in Roman Catholicism) the church treated mystical experience with some suspect being afraid of the possibility of its interpretations in the terms alien to its dogmatic teachings and also because of the strong inclinations of the mystics to put their experience higher than the doctrinal statements of the Church.

But the problem of the relations of the mystical experiences to the established religions is a very complicated subject needing detailed and systematic researches.


Burton 1999 – Burton D. Emptiness Appraised. A Critical Study of Nagarjuna’s Philosophy. London: Curzon, 1999.

Forman 1994 – Forman R.K.C. “Of Capsules and Carts”: Mysticism, Language and Via Negativa // Journal of Consciousness Studies. Controversies in science and humanities. Vol. 1, 1994. No.1. P. 38-49.

Forman 1998 -- Forman R.K.C. Introduction: Mystical Consciousness, the Innate Capacity, and the Perennial Philosophy // The Innate Capacity. Mysticism, Psychology and Philosophy. Ed. by Robert K. C. Forman. New York: Oxford University Press.

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This paper was presented to the conference “Philosophy of Religion as Philosophy. What it is?” held in the Faculty of Systematic Theology of University of Helsinki, Finland (October, 19-20 2001). The revised version of it was used for a special lecture at the Department of Religious Studies of University of Saskatchewan (Canada) on February 13th, 2002.