Buddhist Perspective #2

Spirituality and Mysticism

by Michael von Brück

University of Munich, Germany

1. Spirituality and Religion

Spirituality is a central core of all cultures and religious traditions. I use the term in the sense of conscious reflection and formation of one’s own consciousness in terms of all aspects of conscious life – cognition, emotion, will. Spirituality is handed down in religious traditions, but it is different from religion. Religion is theology, worldview, ritual, ethics, building of social groups etc., whereas spirituality has to do with the shaping of consciousness. No doubt, that ritual, ethical commandments, structures of thinking etc. are possible tools for spiritual formation. Spirituality and religion are closely linked, but they need to be distinguished as well.

1. All world religions have a claim to explain the world as a whole, i.e. to state that the whole of Reality is somehow under One God or one principle, the spirituality involved here is a spirituality of Oneness in Diversity. However: Oneness is not uniformity, but mutuality. The attempt to form a uniformity of Western Christianity has been given up, and any attempt to form a uniform society of world structure will not work either. The reality of multiplicity, which is a product of biological as well as cultural evolution, is against all trends of uniformity, and if economic, religious and spiritual globalization is a hidden agenda for exercising power leading to uniformity instead of mutuality it will be dramatically resisted by localizing forces.

2. Though humans in all cultures seek to partake in the technological “benefits” of Western civilization, they use precisely these technologies to separate themselves from a unifying cultural trend, look for separate religious and cultural identities which are built upon delimitation, not on identification with the “other”. This is not new in history but a significant tendency today which needs to be taken into consideration. Spiritually this means, that in all experience of Oneness (of Humankind, of Reality of God and World) we need diversity psychologically as well as politically. A mature spirituality holds the two aspects together. The more secure you are spiritually the more you can be open towards otherness without being troubled or without being instigated to change the other into your own image.

3. To say the same in the language of Semitic traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam): We are made in the image of God, not in the image of each other. The image of God is a potential in all of us, without discrimination. But it can be realized only in mutuality, in I-Thou-Relationship which transcends the Ego. To say it in Buddhist terms: transcending the Ego is the attainment of nirvana, and this precisely for the same reason as indicated above. We need a spirituality of Self-awakening towards mutuality.

2. Mysticism

Religion which is much shaped by spiritual practice and experience is usually called mysticism. Though this is a Western term we do find similar structures in many religions. Mysticism combines the (spiritual) path and the goal in a unique way of holistic transformation of life: In mysticism all is related to and transformed by the awareness of Ultimate Reality (God, Buddha Nature etc.). Mysticism is built upon the images, scriptures, metaphors, experiences and history of a specific tradition. It is in-formed by religious tradition. Therefore, there is no mysticism independent of religion. However, the relationship is intricate: Mysticism may strengthen a tradition, but it also may transcend the respective tradition. Usually it does both in different ways.

In Indian traditions the following metaphor is used: the spiritual life is like the flow of a river. It needs two river banks to flow. One is the tradition, representing form, ritual and a specific (religious) language. The other bank of the river is the charismatic breakthrough. It smashes all images and goes beyond.

This reflects the relationship between form and going beyond form. Both sides are interwoven, they are complementary, one needs the other. For creativity and charisma need to be informed by the belonging to a community, for it is the community which provides both confidence and correction. Mysticism is open all the time to integrate new forms, because it does not depend one specific form. But it is not formless. Yes, there is a formless Self. But form and formlessness are non-dual, as it is expressed in Buddhist parlance.

Everything depends on what we understand under “spirituality”. As it was said in the beginning: Spirituality is the reflection of consciousness onto itself, including cognitive and emotional elements as well as the will. It does so in realizing the importance of the body, for consciousness expresses the body and the body expresses consciousness. So: What is consciousness?

3. Consciousness and the Subjectivity of the Person

What is consciousness? It is certainly not a “thing” but the continuous process of configuration of patterns of perception and the correlating activity of shaping those informative inputs into relative stable concepts. Thus, consciousness is the flux of patterns of perception. It was William James who – in disagreement with Descartian presuppositions – stated that consciousness was not a thing to be localized but a process to be studied.[1] It can be shown by experiment that a state of consciousness last about 150 milliseconds, after that the neural basis for that rather constant state of consciousness changes and the configuration of “consciousness” takes a new turn. However, in Western philosophies there has been a tendency to conceptualize the Ego or a centre of consciousness as a rather autonomous entity which would collect and order all impressions according to its own impulses and reactions of the will. In this view the Ego or a personal centre would to be placed on a higher level of hierarchy that the system of processing impulses coming from the perception of objects. The Ego would be a centre which directs everything, it would have a specific place in the grain which not only Descartes failed to be able to localize.

It is entirely different in Buddhism. Here, this kind of imputed Ego is precisely what has to be overcome by spiritual practice. The Ego is a reflection of conscious processes which comes into being by a false representation during the processes of active coordination of conscious events which happen by the “computational power” of consciousness. This is interesting for it seems to correspond to the present assumption of neurosciences that an Ego function cannot be found and is not necessary to explain the processes of conscious coordination. Thus, the Ego is a biographical construction, depending on processes of mental coordination which are culturally conditioned.

Each pattern of consciousness is an interdependent arising. Even memory is not a given or inherent “something” which would be unchangeable, but a process which is in constant change. Patterns which once have been activated will be strengthened by repetition. During this conditioning process they are transformed. The context of the remembered changes the content of memory as much as the repetition under different conditions. Memory is memorized present or re-presented past – yet here the paradox of time comes into play which we cannot follow up here. Thus, the place of locality of “consciousness” is not a spatial difference, but a time-space occurrence depending on all relations in the universe (the Chinese Buddhist “ten thousand things”) which is a unique realization of the whole universe.

The brain is a product of evolution. Thinking is depending on the brain. Therefore, the processes of thinking are results of the selecting processes of evolution. The brain is situational, thinking is too. What we think is not a clear representation of the world, but the result of the coincidence of “world” and our patterns of experience which have gone through the processes of evolutive selection. Part of the “world” in this sense is one’s own inner patterns of experiencing. The conscious processes based on the brain try to establish a constant communication between these impulses according to ever new patterns of coordination which are the learning process in constant relation to new environments. To state it more simply: We experience what our brain allows us to experience. This is historically conditioned and multivalent. What follows is that states of consciousness are conditioned by biography, exercise, environment, i.e. by learned activity.

We have to make a certain leap now and ask what so called “mystical experiences” might signify in this context. Is there a “pure experience” which attains at a higher (or deeper, altus) level of coordination, i.e. reflecting those conscious processes in their entirety or on a different level of organization design? Or are these non-dualist states merely regressing into an oceanic undifferentiated state, as Sigmund Feud wanted to have it?

4. Conclusion

My conclusion is that mystical experiences – in so far as they are not regressive as it may be established by methodologically sound inquiry – are not reductive primary experiences (“oceanic feeling” which retreats from differentiation and complexity), but highly complex experiences of Oneness (or better: Non-duality) which do integrate the differentiating processes of rationality. This would have to be proven by evidence from historical studies with hermeneutical tools, a task which cannot be taken up here.


[1] G.M. Edelman / G. Tononi, Gehirn und Geist. Wie aus Materie Bewusstsein entsteht, (München) C.H. Beck 2002, p.198.