Buddhist Perspective #3

Comparative Spirituality and Mysticism: A Tibetan Buddhist View Statement

by Geshe Tashi Tsering


There are no Tibetan words that exactly match the range of meanings covered by the English language terms mysticism and spirituality. And looking at various entries in dictionaries and encyclopaedias I am not sure that the range of meanings for these terms is either agreed or has finished growing in English!

In modern English it seems that the term ‘mysticism’ comes with both positive and negative connotations. On the positive side it is taken as covering those practices that nurture the conscious awareness of, or communion with, an ultimate reality or spiritual truth through direct experience. It is often portrayed as being less bound up with words and concepts and more accepting of the practices of other traditions if they are proven to generate the same kinds of experiences. Often the mystic tradition within an organised religion is seen as less bound to doctrine, more experiential, more anarchic, more prone to being stifled by organised religion. On the negative side, particularly amongst ‘rationalists’ and the non-religious, it seems mysticism can be taken to mean cloudy, unclear if not deliberately so, and unable to stand up to any real analysis.

Spirituality on the other hand seems in modern English to have only positive connotations at present. Spirituality is often taken as referring to the practices that enable a person to discover the essence of their being or the deepest values and meanings by which people live. Spirituality is not seen as the exclusive preserve of the organised religions, there can be secular spirituality. Again organised religions are critiqued as being prone to stifle spirituality under the weight of doctrine.

We as practitioners of these organised religions should take note of the criticism in these understandings of mysticism and spirituality.

Is there an understanding of mysticism and spirituality that grows out of Tibetan Buddhism?

In Tibetan Buddhism, there are practices (mainly meditative techniques) that we already see as being part of a common Indian inheritance and so shared with Hindus and Jainas for example. There are also practices we see as being shared across the Buddhist traditions. There are others that we see as practiced only by a few Buddhist traditions, and yet others that we are under strict instruction not to share outside of a small circle.

Buddhist science, philosophy and religion

Currently His Holiness the Dalai Lama is presenting Buddhism as being comprised of three complementary strands, what he calls Buddhist science, Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist religion.

Buddhist science is mainly concerned with the investigation and study of the mind and of experience. It uses different categories than those of science but the basic drive is to observe the experienced reality of one’s life to draw conclusions about the nature of oneself and one’s experience.

Buddhist philosophy is that part of Buddhism that uses reasoning to explore the experiential and emotional implications of the fact of subtle impermanence and the fact that the things and events of experience are dependently arisen.

Buddhist religion is that part of Buddhism that requires a leap of faith to some degree or other, whether it is belief in the operation of karma or belief in former and future lives, or that from giving comes wealth. It would also include the teachings and practices that come from the visions of deities experienced by individual masters in their meditations

Of these three, His Holiness seems to feel that the first two are the Buddhist contribution to world heritage and can be openly shared with anyone. This seems to come partly from his belief that such things are verifiable through experience and reason and do not require any leap of faith or adoption of Buddhist religion, i.e. in the same way that scientific hypotheses stand or fall on experience, observation and reasoning.

Ethical trainings, meditative techniques and wisdom

Tibetan Buddhism might also usefully be viewed through another set of three headings: ethical trainings, meditative techniques, and evaluative consideration or wisdom.

Ethical trainings concern the various types of behaviour or commitment to behave in certain ways that come with various levels and styles of Buddhism. Examples of these are what are known as the ten ways of acting, the commitments that come with formally becoming a Buddhist (taking Refuge in the Three Jewels), the lay vows, the various levels of monastic vows, the bodhisattva vows and tantra vows.

Meditative techniques covers a vast array of techniques used to first settle and concentrate the mind and then to develop its powers of observation, emotional engagement and creative transformation. These range from developing sustained calm attention, to developing unbounded wholesome emotions, to a vast array of visualisations, to meditations known as Dzogchen and Mahamudra which are considered at the pinnacle of Buddhist practice.

Evaluative consideration or wisdom covers all the techniques that lead to greater mental clarity, strength and agility and to the ability to see beyond or see through the surface level of appearances. These techniques can range from deliberation through to discussion and reasoning.

Of these three most of the third would be considered to fall into the area of Buddhist science and Buddhist philosophy and can therefore be shared openly. Many of the fundamental meditative techniques in the second such as developing sustained concentration and developing unbounded wholesome emotions are already considered a part of the common Indian heritage that is already shared. And of the first, the ten ways of acting are considered by Buddhists to be practically universal in application and to not require belief in Buddhism or its doctrines.

The need to preserve the creative tensions within our tradition

The final addition to the mix is to recognise that within Tibetan Buddhism (as it would seem throughout Buddhist history) there has been a creative tension between organised, formal, institutional and settled forms of the religious life and the often less organised, less settled lives of our hermits and high practitioners. There are also creative tensions between meditation and study (how much time to devote to each and at what stages of our religious development), the value of the arts, preservation of tradition and innovation, etc.

It seems to me that the discussion about what we can helpfully share with others outside of Buddhism and what is not likely to be that helpful because it is more bound up with Buddhist doctrines or because the mystical practice to be effective requires acceptance of key Buddhist doctrines and privacy of practice is really a freshening of the creative tension between tradition and innovation referred to above.

These tensions when properly managed are highly productive and creative spaces within our religion. Poorly managed they become sources of narrow minded dogmatism and sectarian thinking.

So for the purposes of this paper I take the English language term ‘spirituality’ to cover meditation techniques such as Shamata and the Four Immeasurable Thoughts (unbounded love, compassion, joy and a complete lack of bias), the teachings and meditations on developing a kind and engaged heart, the teachings on basic awareness of experience and its components, and the philosophy based on the idea of impermanence and its ramifications.

Similarly Here I take the English term’ mysticism’ to cover the practices we would not generally openly share such as the yogic trainings to deal with attachment or hard heartedness. The teachings on karma and rebirth, the meditations of the tantras and the meditations of Mahamudra and Dzogchen associated with them. It would also include visionary experiences of meditators and the teachings and practices that come out of them.

How is the relationship between the two conceived?

Taking the English terms mysticism and spirituality to cover the kinds of meditative techniques, ethical trainings and evaluative contemplations in Tibetan Buddhism that I have indicated above, the relationship between the two is seen within Tibetan Buddhism as necessary and complementary.

The practices under the spirituality heading are seen as foundational and some are seen as already held in common with certain other Buddhist traditions and certain other religious traditions. The techniques, trainings and contemplations under the mysticism heading are seen as particular to the Buddhist tradition, or within that the bodhisattvayana yogic and tantric meditative traditions, and as based on the foundation laid down in the practices grouped under spirituality.

What position do they occupy within the overall economy of Tibetan Buddhism?

Both sets of practices, the mystical and the spiritual, are seen as central, necessary and as vitally important within the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition. The mystical practices are seen as suitable for practitioners with firm conviction in Buddhism and its methods, though beginners are introduced quite quickly to at least a flavour of these. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition sees itself as the inheritor of North Indian bodhisattvayana practice traditions, in particular those of Buddhist Tantra. These mystical practices (the Buddhist tantras) are seen as the core practices of Tibetan Buddhism and as at the core of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

The practices grouped under spirituality, such as developing sustained attention (Shamata) or the four Immeasurable Thoughts are generally not worked with in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition as separate practices but are subsumed in to the tantric sadhana practice of the Tibetan Buddhist practitioner. In that process they tend to take the role of preliminary practices that enable the tantric practice to be accomplished more successfully.

Is it preferable to focus on mysticism or spirituality?

In my view it is preferable to focus the activities of the group on those practices from all the traditions that the different traditions feel can be comfortably shared with others and that deliver noticeable beneficial change in the emotional health and welfare of the individual practitioner. Those that pose challenges to the doctrines of any particular tradition we should leave aside for now. I have labelled these practices spiritual, but others may label them mystical. No need to get caught in terms. The point is that they are felt within the Buddhist tradition to either already be shared with other traditions, such as the Shamata and jhana meditation techniques in Tibetan Buddhism or not to carry much doctrinal baggage, such as the mediation technique of developing the four wholesome emotions.

What possibilities do we have to appeal to them as ways of advancing relations between Tibetan Buddhism and other religious traditions?

I personally think that all the religious traditions I have met seem to have techniques for opening the heart and making us more caring, more kind, more loving beings actively engaged in lessening suffering in the world. I would very much like to from the practitioners of those religions what techniques they use to bring that about.

Similarly it seems to me that nearly all the religious traditions that I know of prize the ability to quiet the mind and contemplate a chosen object for as long as it takes to positively and deeply affect the mind. The techniques we Buddhists use for this are the techniques of Shamata and Jhana meditation which we already share with the Hindu and Jaina traditions, and I think to some extent with the Sikh tradition. But I am sure that they and the other traditions have other techniques that they use for bringing that about and again I would find that sharing very interesting.

Finally it seems to me that all the great religious traditions have methods to combat, within our own faith communities, narrow mindedness and angry disrespectful behaviour towards others. We use mindfulness of the effects that such behaviour has on our state of mind, amongst other things. Again I would be interested to hear what methods others use.

Do they make sharing and borrowing between the traditions possible, and are these legitimate, in the eyes of the traditions themselves?

Sharing the practices outlined above with religious (or non religious) people outside of Buddhism would not I think be thought of as disrespectful to the Buddhist tradition or illegitimate by most of its practitioners. I think borrowing between the traditions is possible.

Clearly in the past the Buddhists ‘borrowed’ the techniques of Shamata and Jhana meditation from the traditions that evolved into the Hinduism of today, presumably because they were effective in bringing about the calm concentrated attentive states of mind that we prize as tools for self transformation. Also in Tibet it would seem that in a number of the Tibetan schools there was borrowing and experimentation, at least at the level of the individual, between Buddhism and Bon, the pre Buddhist religion of Tibet.

Buddhists clearly don’t have a monopoly on techniques to generate loving wise gentler minds, there are some wonderful examples of inspiring love filled practitioners across the various traditions – from my tradition I would cite the Dalai Lama as an example. And he is not the only one.

What practices from Tibetan Buddhism may be shared, how can these be shared within this group and possibly beyond it?

I have highlighted them above. The practices I think Tibetan Buddhists can fruitfully share with others are the fundamental techniques of meditation set out in our teachings on how to develop sustained attention (Shamata) and refined states of concentration (Jhana). The other things I think we can share are our techniques for developing wholesome emotions and reducing negative thoughts and emotions through the practices of the four unbounded wholesome emotions and mindfulness of mind and mental content, and other techniques.

Are mysticism and spirituality significant common ground, between Buddhism and the different religions?

We may well find that the spiritual, if not the mystical, provides significant common ground between our traditions. I honestly don’t know as my exposure to the actual practices of other religions has not been that extensive. We each tend to be working in our own field, mine is the Buddhist/ the ‘spiritually inclined but unaligned spiritual seeker’ field. One joy of gatherings such as these organised by Elijah is that it gives me a chance to step back, take stock, and think more widely.

What questions should be tackled as part of a responsible exposition of these issues within an interreligious context, particularly one associated with leadership?

In the context of effective leadership within the traditions and more widely on the world stage I think the questions we can most usefully ask are:

How should religious leaders model respective for and possibly even the borrowing of practices from other religious traditions without losing the freshness and distinctiveness of the tradition they are supposed to be giving leadership too or distracting or confusing their followers ?

How should leaders advise their followers on sharing and borrowing practices from other traditions? Is it only after they have learned their own tradition well? How should the risk of not knowing either tradition well be handled by leaders?

Which is more beneficial initially – to share techniques and practices that generate kind and loving hearts or to share techniques that strengthen, calm and clear the mind? If the first, how should leaders avoid sounding wishy washy platitudes, all ‘motherhood and apple pie’ with no substance? How should leaders manage the risks of naivety and credulity (and therefore ease of manipulation by the unscrupulous) in their followers?