7. Buddhist Understandings of the Spiritual and Mystical Life

  • Video

Buddhist Understandings of the Spiritual and Mystical Life

It is recommended that participants listen to the ‘Fundamentals of Buddhism’ interview on the Elijah website prior to undertaking this lesson.


Lesson Opening:

What distinguishes Buddhism from the other religions represented at the forum?
The absence of ‘God’.

So how does this affect our definition of ‘religion’? What makes Buddhism a ‘religion’?

Review the terminology in lessons 2 and 3.


View the video.


Text study:

Zen Spirituality and Mysticism of Engagement: Emerging out of Silence

Ruben L.F. Habito



Ven. Geshe Tashi Tsering:

I have a question because there are three rounds: spirituality, religion and mysticism. So far what we have heard are different views, mainly the spiritual traditions or the religious traditions who have the belief in God. Buddhism does not believe in God. So how does that fit? I keep thinking, is it possible without believing in God, one still can be a spiritual person?

Dr Ruben Habito: When I was listening to Tashi, I felt the Christian side of me debating with the Buddhist side of me.

Dr Ruben Habito: Are we talking about ‘theism’ or are we talking about ‘religion’?

Ms Therese Andrevon:

I know that ‘desire’ is a problem for the Buddhist tradition and maybe we can have a translation. Is it ‘desire’ or to kill the ‘desire’? In place of ‘mysticism’ we could put ‘contemplation’ or there could be another term of religion. And at least we can all agree on the human being and the experience of the human being pertaining to the mountain and here we have ‘God’ or  I don’t know but maybe it is possible to translate and this could be [the ‘D’ is ‘Dieu’]. So I propose the possibility of this sense of sequence, dynamic, and the combination of ‘spirituality’, ‘mysticism’ and ‘religion’.

Piotr: I think this model can be some kind of reconciliation between theistic traditions and Buddhism. All our thoughts, all our images, must be negated. We should not be attached to any of our ideas of God. So, if we are not attached to any of our ideas of God, any of our concepts of God, we can leave this line open – this infinite line, without any … end. Tashi, can you accept this image, if this line is open?

Ven. Geshe Tashi Tsering: You can talk about having attachment to God or not having attachment to God – but first you have to understand ‘God’ – otherwise we don’t talk about attachment or not attachment.

If there isn’t a God, why would we have an attachment?

Dr Hedieh Mirahmadi:  Is there some transcendental energy?

Ven. Geshe Tashi Tsering: OK. Now you can be transcendent, in the sense of initially, like me, then getting peace through the training, through the spiritual , which gives you entry through the training you can be a being who has all the energy, but not right at the beginning.

Dr Hedieh Mirahmadi:  Not born that way?

Ven. Geshe Tashi Tsering: Not born that way and not being that.

Dr Hedieh Mirahmadi:  But there is a force outside of the human existence that can be infused in the human spirit? Is there something coming from out there?

Ven. Geshe Tashi Tsering: When you talk about ‘is there?’ that is one thing – ‘is there?’ ‘eternally’, no.

Mr Xavier Guerrand Hermes: What is your belief about Buddha?

Ven. Geshe Tashi Tsering: When you talk about the Buddha, he is called the ‘Buddha’ – he was like me, ‘unenlightened’. Through the practice, becoming an enlightened being. Buddha means ‘awakening’. He wasn’t awakened right at the beginning.

Mr Xavier Guerrand Hermes: He is your reference?

Ven. Geshe Tashi Tsering: He is my reference in the sense that the teachings that he taught through his experience is helpful, useful, beneficial. In that sense, he is my..

Mr Xavier Guerrand Hermes: Would you say there is anything ‘mystical’ or anything ‘spiritual’ about him?

Ven. Geshe Tashi Tsering: Then we get into different stages. We can say in a certain stage, he is mystical. He is not a Buddha right at the beginning but through the practice he becomes enlightened.

Swami Atmapriyananda: They would say Buddha-hood is potentially in each one of you. And you can manifest this Buddha-hood through practice and penance and so on. One thing which Buddha accepted was reincarnation, a series of reincarnations, being born again and again and again, till you reach the Buddha-hood. Don’t expect an external agency to help you. All the help that you need from Buddhism, through practice and penance and contemplation, you’ll be able to reach that state of Buddha-hood in course of time, through a series of reincarnations.

Dr Ruben Habito: May I make a point, as a footnote, putting on my Buddhist hat. I heard Tashi’s comment as an appeal to those who come from traditions where the Divine and God are obvious parts of your world-view and vocabulary to just set that aside, if you will, and listen from a perspective that does not have that. And don’t try to equate, ‘Oh, that means God in our terms’ or ‘That means spiritual in our terms’. If we could bracket all of that and listen from that perspective from below, that this is a tradition that comes from a human being seeking the point of it all  and arriving at certain experiences that he imparted to others, that became the Buddhist tradition. And not to try to read it from a theistic point of view, but from a totally different , fresh category. So it’s not necessarily trying to find a common denominator but really, perhaps, being able to appreciate our differences.

Ven. Geshe Tashi Tsering: I can draw some similarities – ‘mysticism’ – when you experience selflessness – I can understand it, I can play with that word, but the essence it goes down to mysticism

Dr Ruben Habito: ‘Paths to the infinite’ would be one way of putting it.

Ven. Geshe Tashi Tsering: Whether we serve God or do prayer or do meditation, the main target is [serving] living beings. From the Buddhist perspective, the entire purpose, to do meditation, whatever, is to serve living beings.’

Dr Ruben Habito: Since my early 20s, this encounter with the Zen tradition has informed and transformed my life. I can see how just doing nothing but being silent, facing a wall, being aware of one’s breath, can be so transformative in so many individual human beings. Somehow we are able to touch something in the depths of our soul – that place that is beyond all words.