Mysticism and Spirituality – Interim Synthesis of Essays
Prepared by Alon Goshen-Gottstein
For the Inaugural Meeting of the
Guerrand-Hermes Forum for Interreligious Study of Mysticism and Spirituality
A Project of the Elijah Interfaith Academy
The first meeting of the Guerrand-Hermes Forum for Interreligious Study of Mysticism and Spirituality has a threefold goal:
1. To form a community of scholars and religious leaders who will engage the issues of this particular forum over the coming years.
2. To forge a common conceptual language, drawn from the collective wisdom of the participants and their respective religious traditions, through which these issues may be engaged.
3. To establish an agenda and a program for the Forum’s work in the coming years.
As a first step in meeting these goals, each participant was asked to write a short piece, based on 9 leading questions that were presented to him/her. These essays are being disseminated, along with this synthetic overview, in preparation for our forthcoming meeting. The present introductory essay is an attempt to offer an overview and synthesis of the main points that have emerged in the 15 essays, that have been submitted in preparation for our meeting.
It is by no means my intention in this essay to draw final and definitive conclusions. In terms of our forthcoming meeting, the discussion remains open and we intend to examine key issues that have come up in the papers as well as to jointly discuss future activities. Accordingly, the present contribution is titled “Interim Synthesis of Essays”.
The terms “mysticism” and “spirituality” are both newcomers on the linguistic field of religions, the former having gained currency in the earlier part of the 20th century, the latter having gained popularity only in recent decades. Both have grown on Christian soil, and there have been voices that have queried their usage outside a Christian context, and to what extent the terms may be divorced from that original context. But more significantly, while both terms point to a domain that we may intuitively recognize, there does not exist an agreed upon definition or usage for either term. Thus, in coming together under the aegis of the Hermes Forum, we must first give attention to the very use of these terms. Discussion of the terms is more than a necessity; it is an opportunity. If much of the usage of these terms has grown on Christian soil, bringing together a group of representatives from six faiths for a discussion of these terms provides an opportunity for gaining new perspectives on these terms and how they may be applied. Given that there is no agreed upon definition of these terms within the scientific or religious community, it would be vain to hope to come up with normative definitions. Nevertheless, we could come up with our own agreed upon understanding for purposes of our work, and such understanding could provide a model for others. It would have the obvious benefit of being the fruit of considered group deliberation and would obviously benefit from the interreligious composition of our group.
While we do intuitively gravitate towards mysticism and spirituality as terms that define the area within which we seek to work, we should also consider ourselves free to come up with some alternative terminology, as a way of best designating what we seek to achieve and the area within which we seek to work. Accordingly, I will point in this synthesis not only to the various intriguing suggestions for understanding “mysticism” and “spirituality”, but also to various other ways of defining the field that have emerged out of our essays.
I would like to raise one additional consideration, as a preliminary concern. Our group is different than a common academic research group, due to the composition of its participants. It is not only that the participants come from, or even represent, multiple religious traditions. It is that they are themselves practitioners. Moreover, the makeup of the group is such that all are practitioners and seekers who have a personal stake, voice and experience within the field of our deliberations. This places before each one of them, and consequently before our meeting and our long term project, an interesting challenge. Shall we speak from our own personal experience, using our personal voices, or shall we simply be vehicles for transmitting the wisdom of our traditions, as we already do in so many other contexts? And if we do give ourselves permission to speak from our own experience, what is the relationship between our own voice and that of our tradition, and how can the listener distinguish between them? One of the keys to our long term success is in our ability to wisely negotiate these two voices. It may even be the case that our ability to speak about some matters in the first person, and not about others, may determine our long term agenda, as well as our preference for either mysticism or spirituality as the main focus of our attention.
This leads to a further consideration that is relevant to this group, making it distinct from the more standard academic exercises. We come together not simply to discuss academic terms, their definitions and applications. We come together to share wisdom, possibly the deepest wisdom of our tradition. But precisely because we are all seekers and practitioners, we must pose the question of whether the only way to share is through words and theoretical discourse, or whether this particular group also offers the possibility for sharing spiritual practices, thereby opening doors to other kinds of exchanges of understanding. The organizers of the first session are operating under the assumption that indeed it is possible for another kind of sharing to take place, and have accordingly built into the program times for sharing of practices and techniques. However, these too must be the subject of common deliberation and consensus. A first step towards articulating what practices might be shared will be attempted in the present essay and further deliberation will be left for our meeting in Marrakesh.
Mysticism and Spirituality – Attempting Definitions
It is probably the case that each participant has a different understanding, or at least a different nuance, attached to these two terms. As a way of exploring these terms, I would like to propose the following exercises, to be carried out as a first step in our meeting. Imagine you have before you two circles, one representing spirituality, the other representing mysticism. How would you juxtapose the two circles? Do they overlap, fully, partially, not at all? Does one contain the other? Would you require a 3D drawing to express their relationship? Now, to further complicate matters, what if “religion” was added as a third circle. How would you draw the relationship between these three circles? I would ask each one of you to give some thought to this exercises, so that it can serve us well as an introduction to our discussions.
The essays submitted in preparation for our meeting already take us a good distance into our discussion. Many of the authors offer their own definitions, some of which are original, all of which are thought-provoking. Let me attempt a brief presentation of the main understandings, or insights, that struck me, as I read the papers. I do not claim to have exhausted all the insights offered in our papers.
Geshe Tashi Tsering draws the distinction between self knowledge (spirituality) and the revelation of secrets, which is at least initially an external matter (mysticism). Similarly, Swami Atmapriyananda connects spirituality with Spirit, which he identifies with the science of the inner self, atman, spirit, in other words – self knowledge. Mysticism, as we learn from his exposition, involves knowledge of God, in all his rich facets. Sheikh Hisham Kabbani too seems to distinguish between them in similar manner. He distinguishes between self knowledge (spirituality) and the knowledge of metaphysical truths and things celestial. Accordingly, spirituality would be about raising yourself; mysticism about attaining something outside ourselves. Unlike the Indic traditions that consider the external realization as part of the Self, for the Muslim understanding these two dimensions seem to be distinct, thereby providing a convenient way of distinguishing between mysticism and spirituality. Mysticism remains invisible, while spirituality will find its application in the visible world.
This brings us to Ruben Habito, who seems to distinguish between the field of daily life, where spirituality is practiced, and the realm of the unique dimension of consciousness or subjectivity, wherein cessation of the ego leads to a feeling of unity with all. Spirituality would accordingly be about how we live life; mysticism – how we transcend our conventional boundaries of consciousness or of experience. Habito’s definition, as well as Geshe Tashi Tsering’s, already take us beyond what many of our authors refer to as a standard definition for mysticism, namely the experience of the beyond. Both point to a dimension of knowledge and understanding that is more than simply an experience. This coheres with many Jewish understandings that bring together esotericism, theosophy and an experience of the beyond. Common to them is the recognition that mysticism cannot be reduced to an experience or a feeling and that it entails consciousness, at the very least, but also involves a specific understanding, often related to a body of knowledge.
That experience cannot stand on its own is the point of Anant Rambachan’s essay. Rambachan makes the point that all experience is in need of interpretation and that it is tradition that holds the key to the interpretation of experience. For Rambachan, this is one important expression of the impossibility of severing either spirituality or mysticim from religion, a point to which we shall return shortly.
That spirituality is grounded in daily life leads us to the body, the site of our daily life. Von Brueck suggests to us that spirituality is embodied, and can, or does, involve our bodies. Mohinder Singh provides beautiful examples for this claim when he speaks of the disciplines of the various parts of the body. On the other hand, distinctions between mysticism and spirituality seem to break down when we consider one expression of the body – the heart. Hisham Kabbani offers us a detailed study of the heart, as the locus where both mysticism and spirituality take place.
A completely different approach to spirituality and mysticism is offered by Laurence Freeman. For Br. Laurence, the one (mysticism) is more abstract, while the other is particular, a translation of the abstract in the personal life of the practitioner. Mysticism thus points to a common ground (perhaps better: common sky), beyond our particularities. A different, if related, distintion is suggested by Philip Sheldrake. Indeed, spirituality is particular. Mysticism, by contrast, is not simply abstract, but that which can take us beyond our individualities and differences, hence beyond our religions and theologies.
For Art Green, spirituality is the totality of our quest for God. Mysticism is the point in that quest where the boundary between self and God gives way. For Haviva Pedaya both mysticism and spirituality involve a process of return to the source. However, while mysticism does so from the context of a religion, spirituality may amount to a return to an open source, an approach to the source that is not mediated by tradition and religion. Based on the precedent of Jewish mysticism, Pedaya describes mysticism as a means of working out the meaning of ritual, in all of its particularity, in relation to the absolute, the source of revelation. Mysticism is accordingly inextricably bound with the particularity of religion and religion. It is interesting to note how the different starting point, grounded in the particularity of one religious tradition, yields an understanding of our two terms that is different from other more conventional definitions.
Our essays not only suggest how to distinguish mysticism from spirituality, but also make various contributions to the understanding of each of these concepts. I have already noted that a starting point for understanding mysticism is the view of mysticism in experiential terms. However, many of our authors round out the understanding of mysticism, by pointing out that it is more than simply an experience or a feeling. The cognitive dimensions of consciousness emerge from the presentations of Von Brueck and Iqbal. Sheldrake highlights that mysticism is a process of life, and therefore more than altered states of consciousness. And I have already noted Rambachan’s emphasis on mysticism requiring the interpretive dimension of tradition, in order to make sense of the experiential dimension.
The diversity of understanding of mysticism does mean that different authors speak of different things, or at least conceive of those things differently, in their presentations. One clear distinction between different forms of mysticism emerges from the Christian papers. Following the Christian tradition, these distinguish between the kataphatic and the apophatic, a distinction that may be equivalent to the one found in the Indian tradition, between approaching God in form and through formlessness. We should note that several authors, notably Laurence Freeman, seem to identify mysticism with the apophatic experience. The mystical approach to God is accordingly also conceived in negative terms, contrasted with images, forms and words. It happens through silence. Silence emerges as a significant feature of mysticism in several presentations. It is an important feature of Daniel Cohen’s presentation. Ruben Habito’s Zen based presentation provides an important complement to Freeman’s Christian based presentation. Both seem to share a common appreciation for silence. This appreciation also allows them to identify silence, and along with it mysticism as such, as a significant meeting point between religions. It remains to be seen whether our authors’ preference for mysticism or spirituality might itself be a function of how they define mysticism. For the apophatics, mysticism may be more suitable meeting ground. For the kataphatics, spirituality may prove to be more congenial. Pedaya may provide the needed proof for this distinction. Or perhaps herein lies the greatest challenge – how to allow kataphatic mystics to recognize their spiritual commonality. I personally believe we need not go the apophatic route to recognize commonality in our spiritual lives. Atmapriyanda seems to be of the same opinion.
Some important questions regarding mysticism are raised in our essays. The first is whether it is really possible to speak of mysticism generically? Is there really mysticism as such, which then breaks down into specific manifestations, in accordance with individual religious traditions, or is mysticism always an intensification or a spiritual growth that takes place as an extension of particular religious tradition. Is mysticism the outcome of specific religious structures or a distinct dimension of the human spiritual quest? The answer to this question will be significant not only for the possibility of exchanges on mysticism between the traditions, but also for the question of whether mysticism can exist at all outside the framework of religion.
A second question concerns mysticism and language, or better put, whether mysticism transcends language, concepts or both. The distinction between kataphatic and apophatic mysticism pushes us to this distinction. Not surprisingly, all three Christian presenters rely on this distinction in some way, and both Lulias and Sheldrake are explicit about mysticism going beyond language, while Freeman appeals to silence, as the stuff of mysticism. Here too we may be dealing with an understanding that is specific to a particular religious tradition. I note that not all religious cultures take silence as their highest point. Judaism’s mysticism is highly verbal, and does not privilege silence in the same way (a point not made in the papers, but one that I would offer for discussion). The Sikh presentation highlights name and word, not silence. And both Sufi and Hindu tradition may be interrogated in this light, possibly yielding a preference for sound, word and chanting, rather than for silence, and the attempt to go beyond thought and speech.
Finally, we should not lose sight of the different aims attributed by our authors to mysticism. I note three main goals, variously associated with mysticism. The first is experiential, highlighting the intensity of contact, feeling, or presence of the divine. The second is knowledge centered, highlighting the knowledge of the divine. Such knowledge may be related to experience, but in theory could be independent of it. This leads to the kinds of discussions alluded to in Green’s paper, with regard to Jewish mysticism and its relationship to Kabbala. As noted also in Pedaya’s paper, if we were to draw mysticism and Kabbala as two circles, following the exercises above, the overlap would be only partial. Esoteric or mystical knowledge may thus be independent of experience. Finally, a third goal of mysticism is union. Several of our authors speak explicitly of union. Other traditions are more reticent about using such language. It may be that the goals of mysticism are so fundamentally distinct, perhaps even at odds with one another, that we should avoid speaking of mysticism. The quest and process of someone leading to union with God could be fundamentally different or distinct from that of someone seeking knowledge of the divine. If we continue to refer to them as phenomena that are of a kind, we must justify such usage.
Our papers also make some important contributions to the understanding of spirituality. I begin with Art Green’s reference to spirituality and inwardness. This seems to me a fundamental statement, and I suspect that even those authors who developed their notion of spirituality in very different ways would agree that there is no spirituality without inwardness. Intention seems closely related. Rambachan’s reference to intentionality as the site for identifying spirituality complements Green’s affirmation. Rambachan provides another example of drawing from the categories that are internal to a tradition, and using them to develop its notion of spirituality, perhaps of spirituality as a whole. His starting pointis ritual, at least in part. Not surprisingly, his suggestions have strong affinity to Jewish teachings that grow on similar soil, and that could also be harnessed to a definition of spirituality; compare Pedaya’s contribution. Ritual is external. What provides it with its ultimate meaning is the intention that accompanies it. This intention can be self oriented, seeking the fulfillment of the personal self, in worldly ways. Or it can be oriented towards God, seeking to attain knowledge, proximity or union with God. It is intention that defines the quality of the act. Hence, it is intention that takes us into the domain of the spiritual. Rambachan’s emphasis on intention finds an echo in Singh’s presentation of the different motivations for service, with selfless service, that does not seek any personal rewards, as the highest form.
We find some helpful descriptions in our papers of how spirituality is lived in daily life, and in the body. Singh’s paper is particularly helpful in this respect, pointing to Sikh practices that emphasize the approach to God within the various daily settings of life. This perspective, however, must be balanced with the warning note sounded by Pedaya. For her, there is also a limit to how far spirituality may manifest in daily life. Spirituality is a quest for the transcendent, and we must beware of inappropriate affirmations of its immanence. These include the territorial and political domains, that must be considered as outside the range of spirituality. One assumes that these fields can easily slip into ideology and inappropriate appeal to God, hence Pedaya’s inclination to exclude them from the realm of spirituality. It is worth considering the drive for totality and oneness, expressed by von Brueck and others, in this context. If spirituality leads to the affirmation of God in daily life, what are the boundaries for this affirmation and what are the mechanisms by means of which we establish such boundaries?
In any event, it is clear that Pedaya’s attempt to exclude something from the realm of spirituality stems from recognition of the dangers attendant upon spirituality. This leads to an oft repeated point, concerning spirituality and the recognition of our limitations, weaknesses and imperfections. Spirituality leads us to recognize our weaknesses. Fundamental to it is recognition of these weaknesses and a training in how to confront them. Our greatest weakness is our ego, and spirituality is accordingly also an instruction in how to deal with the ego. Both Kabbani and Lulias paint before us a full picture of how a spiritual life is one spent confronting the weaknesses of our nature.
On Spirituality, Mysticism and Religion
Thus far, we have avoided reference to religion. But many of our authors struggle to situate mysticsm and spirituality in relation to the framework within which they have grown, which is also the framework that brings our Forum together – Religion. Swami Atmapriyananda situates both spirituality and mysticism at the heart of religion, all religions. All dimensions of religion are not universal, but spirituality, as well as the experiential dimension of mysticism, are. This provides fundamental commonality between religions. Many of our authors are aware of the present day tendency of affirming spirituality, at times also mysticsm, at the expense of religion. With the exception of von Brueck, who seems more sympathetic to this trend, most of our authors seem to be of the view that the divide between religion and spirituality is artificial and impossible. Rambachan makes this the focus of his presentation, but the point is raised by many of our authors. The consistent affirmation of the centrality of historical religions to the mystical life raises the question of the unique message that a forum of religious leaders and scholars might deliver. Would this point provide consensus, or near consensus, so that one of the messages of our forum might be that indeed the spiritual life should be approached within the matrix of religions, rather than as an autonomous component of the human spirit? And would such affirmation have any real value, beyond the act of making a declaration? Perhaps a middle road could be found, such as the one suggested by Pedaya. To her, we must draw from the wisdom of religions, respecting their depth. However, drawing from religions does not mean that we can only approach the ultimate through religions. While maintaining the depth awareness of religious traditions, we can approach the ultimate either through the forms of religion, or, as Pedaya puts it, through the quest for an open source. Spirituality might be a contemporary way of appealing to religions, their depth and wisdom, without going “through them”.
But Pedaya also offers a critique of spirituality as commonly practiced, and it is one that most of our authors may resonate with. It touches upon superficiality of practice, but even more so on the ultimate goals of spirituality. When spirituality is harnessed to the superficial ego, to the ideals of success and to the material world, put differently: when it is commercialized, it goes awry. Openness to new forms of spiritual life, beyond traditional religion, should not prevent us from critiquing forms of spirituality that are at fundamental odds with tradition.
It is worth pondering what might constitute an authentic spirituality, even if practiced outside a traditional religion. The criticism of affirmation of the superficial self can be extended. If spirituality is about confronting the negative qualities within ourselves, and dealing with our ego, these would seem to be fundamental aspects of any spirituality worthy of its name. We may pause to think of how the psychologist has come to replace the traditional teacher as the guide to confronting our selves, our character traits and our personalities. Roles previously associated with a spiritual teacher have been shifted in today’s culture to another professional, or functionary. This is one of the factors that contributes to a different, perhaps warped, sense of spirituality. As we shall shortly suggest, both mysticism and spirituality have been classically transmitted within teacher-disciple relationships. Such a matrix may provide one of the important checks for an authentic contemporary spirituality.
One more item from our discussion above may be significant for an attempt to distinguish spirituality or mysticism as practiced within or outside religion. We have already noted the definition of mysticism as experience. Spirituality, especially when practiced in distinction from religion, is also often approached as something experiential. The quest for experience is, in and of itself, an important corrective to a narrow view of religion, that emphasizes proper belief and action, as the constitutive features of a religion. However, it is prone to the opposite danger, namely emphasizing experience at the expense of the totality of action, thought and feeling, that makes for the holistic approach that religion is, in its ideal (significantly, several of our authors speak of spirituality as something holistic, note both von Brueck and Habito, in this respect). Mohinder Singh reminds us that religions do not seek experience as a self standing dimension. For the Sikh, Religious experience occurs, but it is a byproduct, not a goal. It is something that happens along the way, a gift, and not the focus of the quest. Shifting our attention away from experience is also a way of ensuring we are not self centered, and that the true spiritual fruit we bear is broader than what caters to our interest and experience.
How Shall We Speak of Our Subject?
We asked our authors to reflect on mysticism and spirituality. Looking at the thoughtful essays we received, I am led to think that perhaps we should avoid choosing one, or the other, or both, and consider some alternative form of expression. Indeed, identifying such an alternative might situate our project as an alternative to those voices that many of our authors object to – voices that seek to separate spirituality from religion – and allow us to find our unique common voice as committed practitioners, coming from within religious traditions. Finding a different language by means of which to express our common interest may allow us to express ourselves in ways that are more faithful to our traditions, and less “trendy”, perhaps also less indebted to one specific tradition, the Christian tradition. I note that quite a number of our authors opted for forms of expression that are more faithful to their own tradition, or at least referred in passing to expressions or categories that might provide an alternative to “spirituality”, “mysticism” or both.
Pedaya suggests we speak of “spiritual mysticism”, thereby combining our two key terms. To her, this has the advantage of distinguishing our project from the superficial kind of spirituality, associated with the new age and other commercial expressions of spirituality. It may also have the advantage of distinguishing it from forms of esotericism that are not in and of themselves mystical, such as we find in the Jewish tradition. Such a composite term thus combines the best of both terms into one unified concept.
Perhaps a simpler way of achieving the same end is to refer to the spiritual life. “Life” suggests process, progress and transformation – all elements that were highlighted in our various papers. Two authors who really struggled with our terms and instinctively opted for alternatives are Iqbal and Lulias. A spiritual journey (Lulias) or spiritual path (Iqbal) seem to work better for both of them, than either of our key terms.
Iqbal also makes us aware of the notion of sanctity. If we take purification (Mirahmadi) and couple it with sanctification (Iqbal, Green), we may be able to say essentially the same thing as the term spirituality conveys, in another language. The advantage of this alternative language may be that it is more classical, that it appeals to the sources, and that it is not associated with various contemporary trends, as spirituality is.
A more neutral term might be “transformation”. While the term is not as religiously charged as sanctification, it does have the advantage of pointing to process and to continuing growth. In any event, it is clearly an important feature of any definition of spirituality and probably of mysticism as well.
I note one final term that was mentioned in brief by Singh, and that is “enlightenment”. The term may have as many, if not more, difficulties, than the two terms under discussion. However, in speaking of enlightenment it does speak of a state that is attained, its fruits and the process of reaching it. At least in this respect, it is more focused that spirituality that is so broad that it can almost encompass all of religion, even as it can be juxtaposed with it. It is also more specific than mysticism, inasmuch as it relies on some implicit understanding of the goal of the spiritual path and upon an implicit understanding that the goal can be attained and that it is possible to recognize when it has been attained. None of these assumptions is as self evident as insiders to the Indian tradition seem to think. Nevertheless, appeal to enlightenment does draw on the traditional language of a particular culture. That it is culturally specific and may not translate well into other religious cultures is both its strength and its weakness. It remains for us to determine whether using one or both of our generic terms really helps us gain greater understanding between our religions and whether it help us communicate more effectively their message.
One of the crucial concerns that most of our authors struggle with is the relationship between spirituality and mysticism, as practiced within particular religious traditions, and their generic counterparts, especially the I-am-spiritual-but-not-religious syndrome. The concern runs deeper than simply being protective about the traditions we love and represent. It is a concern for authenticity, and for preservation of the integrity of the traditions, as bearers of spiritual fruit and as forces that have successfully shaped the spiritual lives of many. One of the notions that has come up time and again in the various presentations is itself a form of protecting the tradition and ensuring its authenticity. I refer to the centrality of the teacher in the process of spiritual formation. The notion has come up with reference to almost all the traditions under consideration. I believe the Jewish presentations are the only ones that did not mention this aspect. This is in part an indication of some of the dimensions of crisis within contemporary Jewish spirituality and in part an accident of the composition of our papers. There is no doubt that teacher-disciple relations loom large in many defining forms of Jewish spirituality and mysticism. The very term ’Kabbala” denotes a process of reception, that occurs within such a relational matrix and the highpoints of spirituality and mysticism that have come to expression in movements such as hassidism have been thoroughly infused with the recognition of the centrality of the spiritual master and teacher.
Recognition of the centrality of the teacher to the mystical life opens up several different avenues for continuing discussion within our forum. For one, we all share the concern for what happens to the mystical or spiritual life when it is extracted from the framework of master-disciple or teacher-student relations. Can the spiritual life flourish? Does it remain authentic? What alternative protective mechanisms might be invoked? The quest for authenticity of spiritual life is certainly an important point around which a fruitful conversation may emerge. So are the challenges to the role of the teacher. These come from various quarters. Notions of authority and personal autonomy have changed widely from when most of the formative texts of world spiritual literature were composed. To the degree that the spiritual teacher is, as Sheikh Kabbani so aptly describes, the one who helps the seeker confront his various personality traits, much of the work classically attributed to spiritual teachers has become the domain of another professional – the psychologist. How does this impact on what is expected of a spiritual teacher and in what ways has the role of the spiritual teacher been transformed in light of current understandings of the person and of how he/she should be treated? Can we suggest and should there be clear demarcating lines between the work of the psychologist and that of the spiritual teacher? In short, as Muzzafar Iqbal indicates, we have here the opportunity for people who are themselves leaders and teachers on the spiritual way to discuss the tasks, challenges and difficulties in this process, as their common denominator.
Mysticism and Spirituality – Social Responsibility and Action
One of the striking things about our papers is the role that social responsibility and action occupy in all presentations. We might wish to think further about whether the public and social dimensions are more a function of mysticism or of spirituality. One author at least, Mohinder Singh, argues that it is better for us to focus our attention on spirituality, rather than on mysticism, precisely because of its social consequences. Putting aside that distinction for the moment, we note how fundamental the social dimension is to almost all of our authors. Nikitas Lulias paints a picture of the spiritual life, where service to others is a fundamental feature. Self transformation provides the basis for the transformation of the world. Ruben Habito draws out the meaning of all things being interconnected by pointing to their social consequences. Mirahmadi points out how sufism translated itself into social institutions for transforming society. And for Art Green the very definition of spirituality does not simply address the individual, but society as a whole. Society is thus not simply the arena where the fruit of the individual’s spiritual life are manifested. Rather, spirituality addresses society itself. Similarly, for Pedaya commitment to social transformation is fundamental to the very definition of true spirituality. It is thus one of the distinguishing features between true spirituality and the self centered imitation of spirituality that often dominates the marketplace.
If mysticism and spirituality are not simply private affairs of the hearts of believers, we are challenged to ask what contribution they might have to society at large, to today’s world, to the challenges we face. Are there problems that we face collectively, as humanity, that might be addressed through mysticism and spirituality? The question is much more specific than whether religion has what to contribute to the world, or whether there are issues that religious leaders might profitably engage together. While some of the authors responded to such questions, many of our authors sought to articulate what the unique contribution of mysticism and spirituality might be to todays’ challenges. Philip Sheldrake’s discussion of “Spirituality and the City” is a very good illustration for how spirituality can serve as a means of engaging some of humanity’s contemporary challenges.
Mysticism and Interreligious Relations
One of the most burning social issues of our time are, of course, the relations between religions. The questions of tolerance and pluralism are therefore one notable social issue that our authors explore, in relation to the contributions of mysticism and spirituality. Do mysticism and spirituality provide an antidote to intolerance? Does the historical precedent justify the view that mysticism provides a solid foundation for tolerance? Even if history’s testimony is ambivalent, as Pedaya claims, there may still be resources within these disciplines that can help us meet the contemporary challenges of tolerance and pluralism. But if so, what about mysticism and spirituality makes us more tolerant? Is it the worldview, or are these the specific practices? Can we cultivate spiritual or meditative practices that increase our heart’s capacity for tolerance? Are there, accordingly, spiritual practices that might profitably be shared between traditions? Must mysticism be constructed in a certain way to achieve these goals, and should we, as br. Lawrence suggests, forge a new spiritual language, that cuts across the boundaries of traditions? In short, is mysticism’s contribution to interreligious tolerance, pluralism and harmony a given or must it be constructed?
Most of our authors do see a relationship between the spiritual life and validation and recognition of the other. Mirahamadi captures the question beautifully: “how can spirituality and mysticism humanize the other”? Pedaya points out that ultimately spirituality reaches into the realm of self identity, providing a foundation in the depth of spiritual reality for one’s identity. If so, such identity construction is radically different from the forms of identity construction that are based upon opposition to and negation of the identity of the other. We thus have here a very immediate account of how a spiritual perspective might transform our approach to the other.
Our discussions struggle with the question of how it is that mysticism and spirituality might make us more accepting of the other. There are several ways by means of which this can be accounted for. One has to do with the humility that is the natural fruit of the spiritual life (Lulias). Someone living a true spiritual life will recognize his or her limitations, acknowledging truth does not sit exclusively with him. An alternative understanding is suggested by Habito. Mysticism, as in the case of Zen, takes you beyond words into silence. In the space of silence there is acceptance of the other. In fact, Habito challenges us to consider whether rather than mysticim and spirituality, we might better speak of certain forms of practice, notably silence, as means of cultivating acceptance of the other. It is worth reflecting on whether those forms of spiritual life that privilege silence tend more readily to acceptance of the other, as an expression of going beyond external forms and expressions. Upon first examination, this phenomenological observation has much to recommend it. It is worth considering whether religions that do not emphasize silence as a major form of practice (Judaism for example) will therefore have less developed attitudes of spiritual inclusiveness and recognition. Laurence Freeman too considers that religions meet in silence. For him this is the apophatic dimension of the mystical tradition, that provides a common ground between various mysticisms. This understanding ties together the two previous insights. Whether the potential for interreligious harmony and recognition is the prerogative of apophatic mysticism, and whether other forms of spirituality and mysticism might have similar impact, is a subject we may consider exploring further. In part it hinges on the question of whether the dimension of religious experience can adequately account for attitudes to the other, or whether these must be sought in more complex webs of causality, that interplay with religious experience, but that may not be reduced to it.
Daniel Kohn too seems to place great weight on silence. However, in his reasoning, it is not simply that religions meet in silence, rather: religions meet in unity. The quest for unity is fundamental to the religious quest, better yet: it defines the mystical quest. Inasmuch as all religions reach out to ultimate unity, they can meet in that unity, beyond the diversity of their rituals and practices. What Swami Atmapriyananda attributes to Spirituality, is attributed here by Daniel Cohen to mysticism. Going beyond diversity is fundamental to the mystical experience.
A similar argument, based on a completely different reasoning, is offered by Swami Atmapriyananda. Following the example of his great master, Sri Ramakrishna, Swamiji considers spiritual gluttony – the desire to know more and more, and to learn and experience diverse aspects of the divine, a hallmark of mysticism. Accordingly, plurality and variety are hallmarks of the mystical life. These refer to the full mystical appreciation of the various aspects of the divine. But in Atmapriyananda’s understanding, these also include the knowledge of God, as experienced in other traditions, as part of the fullness of how God can be known and experienced. If so, we need not “go apophatic” in order to find common mystical ground. Instead, a truly mystical life will lead us to explore ever new dimensions of the rich and diverse reality of God, even as this finds expession in multiple religious traditions.
Sharing Spiritual Techniques
The claim that mysticism and spirituality provide common ground between religions and pave the way to mutual recognition leads to a consideration of whether we might also share spiritual practices. If spirituality is where religions recognize each other as participating in a broader common project, such recognition should, or could, lead to taking the next step – sharing what works within each of the traditions, as a means of advancing towards the common goal. This, then, raises the question of whether specific techniques might be profitably shared across religious traditions. Techniques might be general techniques related to the spiritual life, or more specifically, following the above discussion, techniques that might have beneficial aspects in relation to the “other”. Needless to say, if a group of religious leaders and scholars of stature, representing or belonging to a broad spectrum of religious traditions, is able to recommend shared spiritual practices, this is itself a major contribution, both in the spiritual field and in the field of interreligious relations. If we were able to identify practices and techniques that enhance our capacity to accept the other, the claim that mysticism points to a common ground between the religions would be shifted from the theoretical level of reflection upon mysticism and its benefits to the practical domain, providing proof of the pudding. This might be one of the challenges our group seeks to collectively address.
Our authors have attempted preliminary responses to the question of where sharing might take place. Not surprisingly, in light of the above discussion, many of our authors suggest silence, going beyond words, as a common practice, pointing to spiritual common ground. Meditation is for Br. Laurence a potent meeting ground between the religions. That practice reflects the patterns and priorities of a religion may be noted in the alternative suggestions of Sheik Kabbani. For him, recitation and chanting, along with meditation, are points of coming together. Needless to say, each author conceives of the means for sharing and coming together in light of what he or she considers the primary modes of spirituality in their own tradition. Hedieh Mirahamadi extends the range further yet – poetry, music and the arts are important loci for sharing between religions. The broader our definition of spirituality, the broader the potential range of activities for sharing is. A range of other activities are also suggested (see in particular Mirahmadi): fasting, breathing, retreat and healing. Most interestingly, Pedaya suggests that rituals of purification, particularly immersion rituals, might provide common ground, but more significantly, the common spiritual language that Laurence Freeman feels is so urgent for us to forge today.
While all acknowledge the theoretical importance of sharing practice, we also encounter voices of reservation. Iqbal wonders how the Way might be shared, if at key stages along the way, the Prophet, or other ideal specific figures, are invoked. Herein lies the challenge. If we simply “go apophatic” as br. Laurence would have us, then we have all gone beyond the realm of word and deed, of name and form. But much of our mysticism is kataphatic, and is colored by the details of our faith system and in particular by the formative personalities who serve as the teachers, masters and guides. Can we recognize each other also in our particularity? Can we recognize we are all walking along a common way, even if with different companions, or that our ways all cut across the same spiritual field? And might such recognition also provide us with the possibility of deeply appreciating, and even being inspired and supported by the practices reflecting the particularity of the other religion? It seems to me that if mysticism and spirituality can really serve as pathways to increasing our understanding of each other, then we must find ways of recognizing the particularities of other mysticisms and spiritualities, not just their commonalities beyond difference. Here we may actually be going beyond the precedent of tradition. In many cases our quest for recognition and tolerance in relation to the other is itself a leap beyond the comfort zone of much of the history of our traditions. Still, such ways do, I believe, exist. It may be that mysticism and spirituality do not simply provide recognition of the other as a given, a self evident consequence of engagement in these areas. They do, however, provide access to important dimensions of human experience, consciousness and aspiration that could be harnessed to such goals. Accordingly, in my understanding, both fields can be constructed, cultivated and harnessed to meet the challenges of interreligious pluralism and to provide it with a depth of spiritual vision and understanding that will depth authentication for this quest, beyond the social and political forces that usually drive such processes.
Some techniques might cut across the apophatic/kataphatic divide by focusing and aiding the person, rather than by appealing to different aspects of the divine or spiritual reality. Geshe Tashi Tsering points to important practices that would have an impact on our attitude to the other. He speaks of techniques for opening the heart, for overcoming intolerance, etc. The realm of techniques and tools might thus be considered instrumental, and the instruments it provides address the human person, without necessarily involving metaphysical, theological or even historically significant claims. If so, such neutral tools might be considered aids along the spiritual path. There would seem to be little wrong with sharing the aids, the tricks, the pieces of advice that have aided one to advance along the spiritual path, across the religious divide.
Sharing Spiritual Language
We have already noted Br. Freeman’s call for forging a spiritual language that cuts across religious traditions. In reading these essays we note various contributions towards such shared spiritual language. I would like to point a few out:
1. Art Green and Nikitas Lulias refer to the Temple as the model, the archetype, of spirituality. This is very suggestive. It raises the question of how broad the appeal of such language is. Is the Temple a metaphor or does it capture a fundamental dynamic of the spiritual life, pointing to the dwelling of the divine as essential to the spiritual process, possibly to mysticism as well? Can all cultures relate to it, and if not, what are the lines of demarcation that separate the different religious cultures and languages?
2. Light and darkness. These two appear more than once in our papers. Note the contributions by Kabbani, Lulias and Kohn. Are these universal? Once again, are they metaphorical or do they point to real experiences?
3. Many of our authors refer to the heart. The heart may actually have universal appeal. Is the heart a metaphor, or does reference to it address a major component of the spiritual life? It would seem that any attempt to forge a broad common spiritual language, cannot do without the heart.
Subjects for Future Discussion
Our authors have been asked what questions our Forum might profitably engage in coming years, as a consequence of this inaugural meeting. Many of the answers have referred to religious leadership in general or to the challenges of interreligious understanding at large. I would like to focus the question and the responses it has received more specifically on how the focus on spirituality and mysticism might lead us to explore various issues, in the future. Note the list of topics spelled out in Sheldrake’s paper, which I shall not repeat here. The question of future discussions obviously brings us back to the choice between mysticism and spirituality and to how broad our understanding of spirituality is. The broader the definition, the larger the area that we enter into as we consider the future. Iqbal provides us with a long and detailed list of topics that we might consider, each in its turn, as part of an ongoing discussion of spirituality – repentance, hope, joy, contentment, and above all – love. Indeed, spirituality may be more transparent, grounded in daily life, making it an easier topic for a spiritual exchange between practitioners and devotees, who seek to enrich each other with the fruits of their spiritual lives. Kabbani provides us with a still more detailed lists that depicts the range of experiences and internal realities, associated with spirituality – self valuation, memory, purification, solitude.
The quest for constancy is a theme that comes up several times in our papers. We note that spirituality casts a wide net into daily life, sanctifying it and aligning it with the purposes of the divine, the holy and the good. The reach into daily life implies extending the boundaries of the spiritual life, ultimately transforming all of life into a part of the sacred. Such transformation assumes that all of life, at every moment, can be sanctified, thereby expressing the quest for constancy of spiritual life. If such a quest is common to all the traditions, how might we speak about it with benefit, and how might we learn from one another to maintain such spiritual constancy?
One important challenge I would call the challenge of particularity. Pedaya’s reference to spirituality as going beyond the particularity of nation or territory raises a fundamental question that we confront so often in the history of our religious and spiritual traditions. If spirituality points to the universal, how do we account for the particular, without it losing its uniqueness and distinctiveness. Spirituality may point beyond to universal commonalities, but it also draws from and sustains a mass of particularities. How spirituality and mysticism negotiate the tensions of the universal and the particular is not only a fascinating topic of theoretical interest; it also informs some of the practical applications of these domains, especially as they relate to the other and the other’s spiritual life.
From this flows a further subject of great potential interest – spirituality and conflict resolution. The matter is alluded to in Pedaya’s paper, but is fundamental to the discussion of spirituality and tolerance. If spirituality and mysticism contain resources for overcoming intolerance, they also contain resources for combating violence, hostility and conflict. Religions may have not held conflict resolution as the highest value and may have not invested enough energy in making spirituality work for peace and for overcoming violence, but these are certainly major challenges for a contemporary application of spirituality.
In this context one particular resource comes to mind as a subject that is worthy of sustained comparative attention. Ruben Habito highlights the notion of the interconnectedness of all beings as one of the fruits of Zen reflections. It is worth exploring whether this notion of interconnectedness, or interdependence, of being is a universal feature of mysticism and spirituality and how it might be argued from the perspectives of multiple religions. Indeed, upon further reflection we might find in it a defining feature of what spirituality is about, or at least one major component of a future common definition of spirituality.