Stages Of Faith

Stages of Faith, James W. Fowler

Faith is not always religious in its content or context…Faith is a person’s or group’s way of moving into the force field of life. It is our way of finding coherence in and giving meaning to the multiple forces and relations that make up our lives. Faith is a person’s way of seeing him- or herself in relation to others against a background of shared meaning and purpose.

Even our nearest relatives in the animal world are endowed with far more set and specific instinctive guidance systems than are we. Matters such as dating, building dens or lairs, searching for food and knowing how to care for their young are far more programmed even in the chimpanzee than they are in us. But as far as we know none of these other creatures bear the glory and burden we carry of asking what life is about. They do not struggle under the self-consciousness of shaping their lives through the commitments they make or of searching for images of meaning by which to give sense to things. Homo poeta Ernest Becker call us, man the meaning maker. We do not live by bread alone, sex alone, success alone, and certainly not by instinct alone. We require meaning. We need purpose and priorities; we must have some grasp on the big picture.

In the 1950’s Paul Tillich published a small book that became a classic. Dynamics of Faith struck a fresh note of honesty about the ways we order our lives and the hungers we have. Pushing aside a too easy identification of faith with religion or belief, Tillich challenges his readers to ask themselves what values have centering power in their lives. The “god values” in our lives are those things that concern us ultimately. Our real worship, or true devotion directs itself toward the objects of our ultimate concern. That ultimate concern may center finally in our own ego or its extensions—work, prestige and recognition, power and influence, wealth. One’s ultimate concern may be invested in family, university, nation, or church. Love, sex and a loved partner might be the passionate center of one’s ultimate concern. Ultimate concern is a much more powerful matter than claimed belief in a creed or a set of doctrinal propositions. Faith as a state of being ultimately concerned may or may not find its expression in institutional or cultic religious forms. Faith so understood is very serious business. It involves how we make our life wagers. It shapes the ways we invest our deepest loves and our most costly loyalties…another theologian, H. Richard Niebuhr…sees faith in the shared visions and values that hold human groups together…in the overarching, integrating and grounding trust in a center of value and power sufficiently worthy to give our lives unity and meaning.

Faith…is a universal human concern. Prior to our being religious or irreligious, before we come to think of ourselves as Catholics, Protestants, Jews or Muslims, we are already engaged with issues of faith. Whether we become nonbelievers, agnostics or atheists, we are concerned with how to put our lives together and with what will make life worth living. Moreover, we look for something to love that loves us, something to value that gives us value, something to honor and respect that has the power to sustain our being…

As a way of clarifying these issues some of the more recent work of the comparative religionist Wilfred Cantwell Smith claims our attention. Smith is one of the very few students of the history of religion who has the linguistic competence to study most of the major religious traditions in the languages of their primary sources. For nearly two decades he has devoted himself to, among other things, the task of researching and interpreting the contribution each of the central world religious traditions makes to our understanding of faith…

In The Meaning and End of Religion Smith makes his first, seminal distinctions between religion and faith. Speaking of religions as “cumulative tradition,” he suggests that we see a cumulative tradition as the various expressions of the faith of people in the past. A cumulative tradition may be constituted by texts of scripture or law, including narratives, myths, prophecies, accounts of revelations, and so forth; it may include visual and other kids of symbols, oral traditions, music, dance, ethical teachings, theologies, creeds, rites, liturgies, architecture and a host of other elements…Faith, at once deeper and more personal than religion, is the person’s or group’s way of responding to transcendent value and power as perceived and grasped through the forms of the cumulative tradition. Faith and religion, in this view, are reciprocal. Each is dynamic; each grows or is renewed through its interaction with the other…

Smith says, somewhat wistfully, “Faith is meant to be religious.” But in fact, faith struggles to be formed and maintained in many persons today who feel they have no usable access to any viable cumulative religious tradition.

This situation, Smith believes, results in part from certain confusions that have arisen in our understandings of religion, faith, and belief. Having demonstrated that faith needs to be distinguished from religion, Smith turns…to the task of exposing as an error the widespread identification of faith with belief. This is an error both in an accurate reading of the history of religious traditions and in any adequate effort to describe the nature and functions of faith…

If we examine…religious traditions in the light of contemporary religio-historical knowledge, Smith says, we recognize that the variety of religious belief and practice is far greater than we might have imagined. But in like manner we find that the similarities in religious faith also turn out to be greater than we might have expected. In explaining why, he characterizes faith in contrast to belief:

Faith is deeper, richer, more personal. It is engendered by a religious tradition, in some cases and to some degree by its doctrines; but it is a quality of the person, not of the system. It is an orientation of the personality, to oneself, to one’s neighbor, to the universe; a total response; a way of seeing whatever one sees and of handling whatever one handles; a capacity to live at more than a mundane level; to see, to feel, to act in terms of, a transcendent dimension. Belief he takes to be “the holding of certain ideas.” Belief, in religious contexts at least, arises out of the effort to translate experiences of and relation to transcendence into concepts or propositions. Belief may be one of the ways faith expresses itself. But one does not have faith in a proposition or concept. Faith, rather, is the relation of trust in and loyalty to the transcendent about which concepts or propositions—beliefs—are fashioned. Smith again writes:

Faith, then, is a quality of human living. At its best it has taken the form of serenity and courage and loyalty and service: a quiet confidence and joy which enable one to feel at home in the universe, and to find meaning in the world and in one’s own life, a meaning that is profound and ultimate, and is stable no matter what may happen to oneself at the level of immediate event. Men and women of this kind of faith face catastrophe and confusion, affluence and sorrow, unperturbed; face opportunity with conviction and drive, and face others with cheerful charity.

Smith gives a persuasive demonstration that the language dealing with faith in the classical writings of the major religious traditions never speaks of it in ways that can be translated by the modern meanings of belief or believing. Rather, faith involves an alignment of the heart or will, a commitment of loyalty and trust. His treatment of the Hindu term for faith, sraddha, perhaps puts it best: “It means, almost without equivocation, to set one’s heart on.” To set one’s heart on someone or something requires that one has “seen” or “sees the point of” that to which one is loyal. Faith, therefore, involves vision. It is a mode of knowing, of acknowledgment. One commits oneself to that which is known or acknowledged, and lives loyally, with life and character being shaped by that commitment.

The Hebrew (aman he’ min, munah), the Greek (pistuo, Pistis), and the Latin (credo, credere) words for faith parallel those from Buddhist, Moslem and Hindu sources. They cannot mean belief or believing in the modern sense. For the ancient Jew or Christian to have said, “I believe there is a God,” or “I believe God exists,” would have been a strange circumlocution. The being or existence of God was taken for granted and therefore was not an issue…

The failure to probe beneath this shallowing of faith, equating it with the modern understanding of belief, means to perpetuate and widen the modern divorce of belief and faith. If faith is reduced to belief in credal statements and doctrinal formulations, then sensitive and responsible persons are likely to judge that they must live “without faith.” But if faith is understood as trust in another and as loyalty to a transcendent center of value and power, then the issue of faith—and the possibility of religious faith—becomes lively and open again. Smith’s work makes an extraordinary contribution to our grasping the need for re-imaging faith. No summary can adequately evoke the rich new perspective that results from a meditative reading of these writings, but perhaps I have shared enough to enable us to benefit from a review of his major conclusions:

1. Faith, rather than belief or religion, is the most fundamental category in the human quest for relation to transcendence.

2. Faith, it appears, is generic, a universal feature of human living, recognizably similar everywhere despite the remarkable variety of forms and contents of religious practice and belief.

3. Each of the major religious traditions studied speaks about faith in ways that make the same phenomena visible. In each and all, faith involves an alignment of the will, a resting of the heart, in accordance with a vision of transcendent value and power, one’s ultimate concern.

4. Faith, classically understood, is not a separate dimension of life, a compartmentalized specialty. Faith is an orientation of the total person, giving purpose and goal to one’s hopes and strivings, thoughts and actions.

The unity and recognizability of faith, despite the myriad variants of religions and beliefs, support the struggle to maintain and develop a theory of religious relativity in which the religions—and the faith they evoke and shape—are seen as relative apprehensions of our relatedness to that which is universal. This work toward a “universal theory as to the relation between truth itself and truth articulated in the midst of the relativity of human life and history” represents a rejection of faith in “relativism,” (the philosophy or common sense view that religious claims and experience have no necessary validity beyond the bounds of the communities that hold them) and serves a commitment to press the question of truth in the living and in the study of faith.

Structural Stages and the Contents of Faith

At various points earlier in this book I have hinted at a conception of the sequence of faith stages and their interrelations in terms of a rising spiral movement. Although models can be misleading and each has decisive limits, I have found it helpful in communicating my understanding of faith stages and of the process of transition, regression and conversion, to (ask you to) imagine the whole process as dynamically connected, each successive spiral stage linked to and adding to the previous ones. Each stage…marks the rise of a new set of capacities or strengths in faith. These add to and recontextualize previous patterns of strength without negating or supplanting them. Certain life issues with which faith must deal recur at each stage; hence the spiral movements in part overlap each other, though each successive stage addresses these issues at a new level of complexity. Overall, there is a movement outward toward individuation, culminating in Stage 4. Then the movement doubles back, in Stages 5 & 6, toward the participation and oneness of the earlier stages, though at quite different levels of complexity, differentiation and inclusiveness. Each stage represents a widening of vision and valuing, correlated with a parallel increase in the certainty and depth of selfhood, making for qualitative increases in intimacy with self-others-world. Please do not forget that the transitions from one spiral stage level to another are often protracted, painful, dislocating and/or abortive. Arrests can and do occur at any of the stages. Also I ask you to keep in mind that each stage has its proper time of ascendency. For persons in a given stage at the right time for their lives, the task is the full realization and integration of the strengths and graces of that stage rather than rushing on to the next stage. Each stage has the potential for wholeness, grace and integrity and for strengths sufficient for either life’s blows or blessings.

The model needs to be imagined as at least four-dimensional. Looked at from above or below the “spiral” of your stage or mine will not appear perfectly rounded or smooth. We all exhibit warps and indentations, skews and broken places. (There is a) broken line passing through the centers of the stages (indicating) thematic and conventional continuities across stage transitions. These may be centering and supportive, funding the readiness for the relinquishment of one’s way of making meaning that begins the process of stage change. The line of thematic and convictional continuities may, on the other hand, symbolize a deficit of assured meanings, salient in our lives as crippling images of faith and convictions of an untrustworthy ultimate environment. The new structural features of each successive stage mean a reworking of the contents of one’s faith stage. Radical changes in the contents of one’s faith—as in conversion…may either lead to or result from structural stage change.

Stage 1: Intuitive—Projective

This stage is the fantasy-filled, imitative phase in which one is powerfully and permanently influenced by examples, moods, actions, and stories of the beliefs of primarily related adults.

The stage most typical of the child three to seven, it is marked by a relative fluidity of though patterns. The child is continually encountering novelties for which no stable operations of knowing have been formed. The imaginative processes underlying fantasy are unrestrained and uninhibited by logical thought. In league with forms of knowing dominated by perception, imagination in this stage is extremely productive of long lasting images and feelings (positive and negative) that later, more stable and self-reflective valuing and thinking will have to order and sort out. This is the stage of first self-awareness. The “self-aware” child is egocentric as regards the perspectives of others. Here we find first awareness of death and sex and the strong taboos by which cultures and families insulate those powerful areas.

The gift or emergent strength of this stage is the birth of imagination, the ability to unify and grasp the experience-world in powerful images and as presented in stories that register the child’s intuitive understandings and feelings toward the ultimate conditions of existence.

The dangers in this stage arise from the possible “possession” of the child’s imagination by unrestrained images of terror and destructiveness, or from the witting or unwitting exploitation of her or his imagination in the reinforcement of taboos or moral or doctrinal expectations.

The main factor precipitating transition to the next stage is the emergence of concrete operational thinking. Affectively, the resolution of Oedipal issues or the submersion in latency are important accompanying factors. At the heart of the transition is the child’s growing concern to know how things are and to clarify for him or herself the bases of distinctions between what is real and what only seems to be.

Stage 2: Mythic—Literal

This stage is the stage in which the person begins to take on for him- or herself the stories, beliefs and observances that symbolize belonging to his or her community. Beliefs are appropriated with literal interpretations, as are moral rules and attitudes. Symbols are taken as one-dimensional and literal in meaning. In this stage the rise of concrete operations leads to the curbing and ordering of the previous stages imaginative composing of the world. The episodic quality of the Intuitive-Projective stage gives way to the more linear, narrative construction of coherence and meaning. Story becomes the major way of giving unity and value to experience. Marked by increased accuracy in taking the perspective of other persons, those in Stage 2 compose a world based on reciprocal fairness and immanent justice based on reciprocity. The actors in their cosmic stories are anthropomorphic. They can be affected deeply and powerfully by symbolic and dramatic materials. They do not, however, step back from the flow of stories to formulate reflective, conceptual meanings. For this stage the meaning is both carried and “trapped” in the narrative.

The new capacity or strength in this stage is the rise of narrative and the emergence of story, drama and myth as ways of finding and giving coherence to experience.

The limitations of literalness and an excessive reliance upon reciprocity as a principle for constructing an ultimate environment can result either in an over-controlling, stilted perfectionism or “works righteous” or in their opposite, an abasing sense of badness embraced because of mistreatment, neglect or the apparent disfavor of significant others.

A factor initiating transition to Stage 3 is the implicit clash or contradictions in stories that lead to reflections on meanings. Previous literalism breaks down; new cognitive conceit leads to disillusionment with previous teachers and teachings. Conflicts with authoritative stories must be faced. The emergence of mutual interpersonal perspective taking creates the need for a more personal relationship with the unifying power of the ultimate environment.

Stage 3: Synthetic—Conventional

At this stage a person’s experience of the world now extends beyond the family. A number of spheres demand attention: family, school or work, peers, street society and media, and perhaps religion. The challenge of this stage is to find a coherent orientation in the midst of that more complex and diverse range of involvements, to synthesize values and information and provide a basis for identity and outlook. It structures the ultimate environment in interpersonal terms. Its images of unifying value and power derive from the extension of qualities experienced in personal relationships. It is a “conformist” stage in the sense that it is acutely tuned to the expectations and judgments of significant others and as yet does not have a sure enough grasp of its own identity and autonomous judgment to construct and maintain an independent perspective. While beliefs and values are deeply felt, they typically are tacitly held—the person “dwells” in them and in the meaning world they mediate. But there has not been an occasion to step outside them to reflect on and examine them explicitly or systematically. At this stage a person has an “ideology,” a more or less consistent clustering of values and beliefs, but he or she has not objectified it for examination and in a sense in unaware of having it. Differences of outlook with others are experienced as differences in “kind” of person. Authority is located in the incumbents of traditional authority roles (if perceived as personally worthy) or in the consensus of a valued, face-to-face group.

The emergent capacity of this stage is the forming of a personal myth—the myth of one’s own becoming in identity, incorporating one’s past and anticipated future in an image of the ultimate environment unified by characteristics of personality.

The dangers in this stage are the expectations and evaluations of others can be so compellingly internalized (sacralized) that later autonomy of judgment and action can be jeopardized; or interpersonal betrayals can give rise either to nihilistic despair about a personal principle of ultimate being or to a compensatory intimacy with God unrelated to mundane relations.

Factors contributing to the breakdown of this stage and to readiness for transition may include: serious contradictions between valued authority sources; the encounter with experiences or perspectives that lead to critical reflection on how one’s beliefs and values have formed and changed, and how “relative” they are to one’s particular group or background.

Stage Four: Individuative—Reflective

The movement from Stage 3 to Stage 4 is particularly critical for it is in this transition that the late adolescent or adult must begin to take seriously the burden of responsibility for his or her own commitments, lifestyle, beliefs and attitudes. Where genuine movement toward stage 4 is underway the person must face certain unavoidable tensions: individuality versus being defined by a group or group membership; subjectivity and the power of one’s strongly felt but unexamined feelings versus objectivity and the requirement of critical reflection; self-fulfillment or self-actualization as a primary concern versus service to and being for others; the question of being committed to the relative versus the possibility of an absolute.

Stage 4 most appropriately takes form in young adulthood (but many adults never construct it and for others it emerges in the mid-thirties or forties). This stage is marked by a double development. The self, previously sustained in its identity by an interpersonal circle of significant others, now claims an identity no longer defined by the composite of one’s roles or meanings to others. To sustain that new identity it composes a meaning frame conscious of its own boundaries and inner connections and aware of itself as a “world view.” Self (identity) and outlook (world view) are differentiated from those of others and become acknowledged factors in the reactions, interpretations and judgments one makes on the actions of self and others. It expresses its intuitions of coherence in an ultimate environment in terms of an explicit system of meanings. This is a “demythologizing” stage. It is likely to attend minimally to unconscious factors influencing it judgments and behavior.

Stage 4’s ascendant strength has to do with its capacity for critical reflection on identity (self) and outlook (ideology). It dangers inhere in its strengths: an excessive confidence in the conscious mind and in critical thought and a kind of second narcissism in which the now clearly bounded, reflective self overassimilates “reality” and the perspectives of others into its own world view.

Restless with the self-images and outlook maintained by Stage 4, the person ready for transition finds him- or herself attending to what may feel like anarchic and disturbing inner voices. Elements from a childish past, images and energies from a deeper self, an gnawing sense of the sterility and flatness of the meanings one serves—any or all of these may signal readiness for something new. Stories, symbols, myths and paradoxes from ones’ own or other traditions may insist on breaking in upon the neatness of the previous beliefs. Disillusionment with one’s compromises and recognition that life is more complex than Stage 4’s logic of clear distinctions and abstract concepts can comprehend, press one toward a more dialectical and multileveled approach to life truth.

Stage 5 Conjunctive

The Conjunctive Stage involves the integration into self and outlook of much that was suppressed or unrecognized in the interest of Stage 4’s self-certainty and conscious cognitive and affective adaptation to reality. This stage develops a “second naivete” in which symbolic power is reunited with conceptual meanings. Here there must also be a new reclaiming and reworking of one’s past. There must be an opening to the voices of one’s “deeper self.” Importantly, this involves a critical recognition of one’s social unconscious—the myths, ideal images and prejudices built deeply into the self-system by virtue of one’s nurture within a particular social class, religious tradition, ethnic group or the like.

Unlike before mid-life, Stage 5 knows the sacrament of defeat and the reality of irrevocable commitments and acts. What the previous stage struggled to clarify, in terms of boundaries of self and outlook, this stage now makes porous and permeable. Alive to paradox and the truth in apparent contradictions, this stage strives to unify opposites in mind and experience. It generates and maintains vulnerability to the strange truths of those who are “other;” ready for closeness to that which is different and threatening to self and outlook (including new depths of experience in spirituality and religious revelation), this stage’s commitment to justice is freed from the confines of tribe, class, religious community or nation. And with the seriousness that can arise when life is more than halfway over, this stage is ready to spend and be spent for the cause of conserving and cultivating the possibility of others’ generating identity and meaning.

The new strength of this stage comes in the rise of the ironic imagination—a capacity to see and be in one’s or one’s group’s most powerful meanings, while simultaneously recognizing that they are relative, partial and inevitably distorting apprehensions of transcendent reality. Its dangers lie in the direction of a paralyzing passivity or inaction, giving rise to complacency or cynical withdrawal, due to its paradoxical understanding of truth.

Stage 5 can appreciate symbols, myths and ritual (its own and others’) because it has been grasped, in some measure, by the depth of reality to which they refer. It also sees the divisions of the human family vividly because it has been apprehended by the possibility (and imperative) of an inclusive community of being. But this stage remains divided. It lives and acts between an untransformed world and a transforming vision and loyalties. In some few cases this division yields to the call of the radical actualization that we call Stage 6.

Stage 6: Universalizing

In order to characterize Stage 6 we need to focus more sharply on the dialectical or paradoxical features of Stage 5. Stage 5 remains paradoxical or divided because the self is caught between those universalizing apprehensions and the need to preserve its own being and well-being. Or because it is deeply invested in maintaining the ambiguous order of a socioeconomic system, the alternatives to which seem more unjust or destructive than it is. In this situation of paradox Stage 5 must act and not be paralyzed. But Stage 5 acts out of conflicting loyalties. Its readiness to spend and be spent finds limits in its loyalty to the present order, to its institutions, groups and compromise procedures. Stage 5’s perception of justice outreach its readiness to sacrifice the self and to risk the partial justice of the present order for the sake of a more inclusive justice and the realization of love.

The transition to Stage 6 involves an overcoming of this paradox through a moral and ascetic actualization of the universalizing apprehensions. Heedless of the threats to self, to primary groups, and to the institutional arrangement of the present order that are involved, Stage 6 becomes disciplined, activist incarnation—a making real and tangible—of the imperatives of absolute love and justice of which Stage 5 has partial apprehensions. The self at Stage 6 engages in spending and being spent for the transformation of present reality in the direction of a transcendent actuality.

Persons best described by Stage 6 typically exhibit qualities that shake our usual criteria of normalcy. Their heedlessness to self-preservation and the vividness of their taste and feel for transcendent moral and religious actuality give their actions and words an extraordinary and often unpredictable quality. In their devotion to universalizing compassion they may offend our parochial perceptions of justice. In their penetration through the obsession with survival, security, and significance they threaten our measured standards of righteousness and goodness and prudence. Their enlarged visions of universal community disclose the partialness of our tribes and pseudo-species. And their leadership initiatives…constitute affronts to our usual notions of relevance.

Stage 6…(is) “contagious” in the sense that they create zones of liberation from the social, political, economic and ideological shackles we place and endure on human futurity. Living with felt participation in a power that unifies and transforms the world, Universalizers are often experienced as subversive of the structures (including religious structure) by which we sustain our individual and corporate survival, security and significance…The rare persons who may be described by this stage are more lucid, more simple, and yet somehow more fully human than the rest of us…Life is both loved and held loosely. Such persons are ready for fellowship with persons at any of the other stages and from any other faith tradition…Persons who come to embody the Universalizing Stage are drawn into those patterns of commitment and leadership by the exigencies of history…as if they are selected by the great Blacksmith of history, heated in the fires of turmoil and trouble and then hammered into usable shape on the hard anvil of conflict and struggle.

Structural Stages and the Contents of Faith

At various points earlier in this book I have hinted at a conception of the sequence of faith stages and their interrelations in terms of a rising spiral movement. Although models can be misleading and each has decisive limits, I have found it helpful in communicating my understanding of faith stages and of the process of transition, regression and conversion, to (ask you to) imagine the whole process as dynamically connected, each successive spiral stage linked to and adding to the previous ones. Each stage…marks the rise of a new set of capacities or strengths in faith. These add to and recontextualize previous patterns of strength without negating or supplanting them. Certain life issues with which faith must deal recur at each stage; hence the spiral movements in part overlap each other, though each successive stage addresses these issues at a new level of complexity. Overall, there is a movement outward toward individuation, culminating in Stage 4. Then the movement doubles back, in Stages 5 & 6, toward the participation and oneness of the earlier stages, though at quite different levels of complexity, differentiation and inclusiveness. Each stage represents a widening of vision and valuing, correlated with a parallel increase in the certainty and depth of selfhood, making for qualitative increases in intimacy with self-others-world. Please do not forget that the transitions from one spiral stage level to another are often protracted, painful, dislocating and/or abortive. Arrests can and do occur at any of the stages. Also I ask you to keep in mind that each stage has its proper time of ascendency. For persons in a given stage at the right time for their lives, the task is the full realization and integration of the strengths and graces of that stage rather than rushing on to the next stage. Each stage has the potential for wholeness, grace and integrity and for strengths sufficient for either life’s blows or blessings.

The model needs to be imagined as at least four-dimensional. Looked at from above or below the “spiral” of your stage or mine will not appear perfectly rounded or smooth. We all exhibit warps and indentations, skews and broken places. (There is a) broken line passing through the centers of the stages (indicating) thematic and conventional continuities across stage transitions. These may be centering and supportive, funding the readiness for the relinquishment of one’s way of making meaning that begins the process of stage change. The line of thematic and convictional continuities may, on the other hand, symbolize a deficit of assured meanings, salient in our lives as crippling images of faith and convictions of an untrustworthy ultimate environment. The new structural features of each successive stage mean a reworking of the contents of one’s faith stage. Radical changes in the contents of one’s faith—as in conversion…may either lead to or result from structural stage change.


Japanese Zen

Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy

Japanese Zen Buddhist Philosophy

First published Wed Jun 28, 2006; substantive revision Fri Oct 8, 2010

Zen aims at a perfection of personhood. To this end, sitting meditation called “za-zen” is employed as a foundational method of prāxis across the different schools of this Buddha-Way, through which the Zen practitioner attempts to embody non-discriminatory wisdom vis-à-vis the meditational experience known as “satori” (enlightenment). A process of discovering wisdom culminates in the experiential dimension in which the equality of thing-events is apprehended in discerning them. The most distinguishing feature of this school of the Buddha-Way is seen in its contention that wisdom, accompanied by compassion, is expressed in the everyday “life-world” when associating with one’s self, people, and nature. The everyday “life-world” for most people is an evanescent transforming stage in which living is consumed, philosophically speaking, by an either-or, ego-logical, dualistic paradigm of thinking with its attendant psychological states such as stress and anxiety. Zen demands an overcoming of this paradigm by practically achieving an holistic perspective in cognition, so that the Zen practitioner can celebrate, with a stillness of mind, a life of tending toward the concrete thing-events of everyday life and nature. For this reason, the Zen practitioner is required to embody freedom expressive of the original human nature. Generally speaking, Zen cherishes simplicity and straightforwardness in grasping reality and acting on it “here and now,” for it believes that a thing-event that is immediately presencing before one’s eyes or under one’s foot is no other than an expression of suchness, i.e., it is such that it is showing its primordial mode of being. It also understands a specificity of thing-event to be a recapitulation of the whole; parts and the whole are to be lived in an inseparable relationship through an exercise of nondiscriminatory wisdom, without prioritizing the visible over the invisible, the explicit over the implicit, and vice versa. As such, Zen maintains a stance of “not one” and “not two,” i.e., “positionless position,” where “not two” signals a negation of the stance that divides the whole into two parts, i.e., dualism, while “not one” designates a negation of this stance when the Zen practitioner dwells in the whole as one, while suspending judgment in meditation, i.e., non-dualism. Free, bilateral movement between “not one” and “not two” characterizes Zen’s achievement of a personhood with a third perspective that cannot, however, be confined to either dualism or non-dualism (i.e., neither “not one” nor “not two”).

1. The Meaning of the Term Zen

2. Zen’s Methods: Kōan Practice and Just Sitting

3. Zen as Anti-Philosophy

4. Overcoming Dualism

4.1 Logical Meaning of Not Two

4.2 An Epistemological Meaning of Not Two

4.3 Zen’s Meaning of Not Two

5. An Experiential Meaning of Not-Two

5.1 Zen’s No-Thought and No-Image

5.2 Zen’s Nothing

5.3 Zen “Seeing”

6. Zen’s Understanding of Time and Space

6.1 Here and Now

6.2 Zero Time and Zero Space

6.3 An Integrated Time and Space

6.4 The Structure of Things Appearing

7. Returning to the Everyday “life-world”: Not One

7.1 Zen Person

7.2 Zen’s Freedom

  1. Concluding Remarks

1. The Meaning of the Term Zen

The designation of this school of the Buddha-Way as Zen, which means sitting meditation, is derived from a transliteration of the Chinese word Chán. Because the Chinese term is in turn a transliteration of the Sanskrit term dhyāna, however, Zen owes its historical origin to early Indian Buddhism, where a deepened state of meditation, called samādhi, was singled out as one of the three components of study a Buddhist was required to master, the other two being an observation of ethical precepts (sīla) and an embodiment of nondiscriminatory wisdom (prajñā). The reason that meditation was singled out for the designation of this school is based on the fact that the historical Buddha achieved enlightenment (nirvāna) through the practice of meditation. In the context of Zen Buddhism, perfection of nondiscriminatory wisdom (Jpn., hannya haramitsu; Skrt., prajñāpāramitā) designates practical, experiential knowledge, and secondarily and only derivatively theoretical, intellectual knowledge. This is, Zen explains, because theoretical knowledge is a form of “language game” (Jpn.; keron; Skrt., prapañca), i.e., discrimination through the use of language, as it is built in part on distinction-making. Zen believes that it ultimately carries no existential meaning for emancipating a human being from his or her predicaments, for it maintains that discriminatory knowledge of any kind is delusory/illusory in nature. To this effect it holds that it is through a practical transformation of the psychophysiological constitution of one’s being that one prepares for embodying nondiscriminatory wisdom. This preparation involves the training of the whole person and is called “self-cultivation” (shugyō) in Japanese. It is a practical method of correcting the modality of one’s mind by correcting the modality of one’s body, in which practice (prāxis) is given precedence over theory (theōria). (Yuasa, 1987.)

2. Zen’s Methods: Kōan Practice and Just Sitting

There are basically two methods utilized in meditation practice in Zen Buddhism to assist the practitioner to reach the above-mentioned goals, together with a simple breathing exercise known as “observation of breath count” (Jpn., sūsokukan); one is the kōan method and the other is called “just sitting” (Jpn., shikan taza), a form of “single act samādhi.” For example, the former is employed mainly by the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism, while the latter by the Sōtō school; they are the two main schools of this form of the Buddha-Way still flourishing today in Japan. In the Rinzai school, the kōan method is devised to assist the practitioner to become a “Zen person” (Kasulis, 1981) who fully embodies both wisdom and compassion. A kōan is formulated like a riddle or puzzle and is designed in such a way that intellectual reasoning alone cannot solve it without breaking through ego-consciousness by driving it to its limit. This is, Zen believes, because it is fortified by the shield of a dualistic conceptual paradigm with all its attendant presuppositions and conditions which the ego-consciousness in a given cultural and historical milieu accepts to be true in order to live a life anchored in the everyday standpoint.

According to Hakuin (1685–1768), who systematized kōans, there are formally seventeen hundred cases of kōans, and if sub-questions are added to them, a total number of cases comprising the system would roughly be three thousand. The Zen practitioner of the Rinzai school is required to pass them all in a private consultation with a Zen master who checks the practitioner’s state of mind before he or she is granted a seal of transmission. This transmission is said to occur “only from a Buddha to a[nother] Buddha” (yuibutsu yobutsu). Kōans are accordingly grouped into five categories in a most fully developed system: the first group is designed for 1) reaching li (suchness) (richi) or the body of truth (hosshin), 2) the second group for a linguistic articulation (gensen) of meditational experiences, 3) the third group for those kōans truly difficult to pass (nantō), 4) the fourth group for the practitioner to make an insight of kōan experiences pertinent in daily life (kikan), and 5) the fifth group for going beyond the state of buddhahood by erasing traces of enlightenment (kōjō). The Rinzai school summarizes this process of self-cultivation in four mottoes: “a special transmission outside of the scriptures,” “no dependence on words and letters,” “point directly into [one’s] human mind,” and “see into [one’s] nature to become a buddha.” (See, for examples, The Gateless Gate and The Blue Cliff Record.) While the first two phrases point to the fact of discovering an extra-linguistic reality that naturally opens up in meditational experience and of articulating it linguistically in the “best” way according to the capacity of an individual practitioner, the last two phrases indicate a concretization of the original enlightenment (hongaku) in the Zen practitioner, where the original enlightenment means that the human being is innately endowed with a possibility of becoming a Buddha.

On the other hand, the Sōtō school, of which Dōgen (1200–54) is the founder, does not rely on an elaborate kōan system to learn to become a Zen person, but instead follows a method called “just sitting” (shikan taza). It refers to a single-minded, diligent practice where the qualifying term “just” means the practice of meditation without any intervention of ego-logical interest, concern, or desire, so that the practice remains undefiled. This is a method of meditation predicated on the belief that the Zen practitioner engages in the practice in the midst of the original enlightenment. Or to characterize it by using Dōgen’s phrase, it is a method of “practice-realization.” By hyphenating practice and realization, the following implications are suggested: meditation is not a means to an end, i.e., a means to realization, and thereby Dōgen closes a dualistic gap, for example, between potentiality and actuality, between before and after. Accordingly, he collapses the distinction between “acquired enlightenment” (shikaku) and “original enlightenment,” where the “acquired” enlightenment means an enlightenment that is realized through the practice of meditation as a means. With this collapsing, the Sōtō School holds that practice and realization are non-dual to each other, i.e., “not two.”

According to the Sōtō school, the meditational practice, when it is seen as a process of discovery, is a deepening process of becoming aware of the original enlightenment with an expansion of its corresponding experiential correlates and horizons, and it is for this reason called the school of “gradual enlightenment” or “silent illumination.” On the other hand, the Rinzai school is called the school of “sudden enlightenment,” because it does not recognize a process leading to enlightenment (satori) as something worthy of a special attention; what counts is an experience of satori only. Even though there is the above difference in approach between Rinzai and Sōtō schools, the outcome is the same for both insofar as the embodiment of wisdom and compassion is concerned. This is because they both follow the same practice of sitting meditation. Whatever differences there are between the practitioners of the two schools in regard to the linguistic articulation of their meditational experience, they arise from an individual practitioner’s personality, disposition, intellectual capacity, and/or linguistic ability.

3. Zen as Anti-Philosophy

As may be surmised from the foregoing explanation on Zen’s methodological stance, it is perhaps best to understand Zen as an anti-philosophy if the term “philosophy” is taken to mean the establishment of “the kingdom of reason,” which has been launched vis-à-vis an intellectual effort of the most brilliant minds in Europe since the modern period as a way of emancipating human nature from the confines of Christian theological dogmas. Since then, various Western philosophers have attempted to capture human nature with this goal in mind by using ego-consciousness as a starting point as well as a destination in philosophy; to name a few representative ones, human nature has been captured in terms of ego-consciousness (e.g., Descartes), Reason, Personality, Transcendental Subjectivity (e.g., Kant and Husserl), Life (e.g., Dilthey), Existence (e.g., Existential philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Jaspers and Sartre) and Dasein (Heidegger). (Yuasa, 2003, 160–61.)

By contrast, Zen’s stance of “anti-philosophy” maintains among other things that reason in its discursive use is incapable of knowing and understanding in toto what reality is, for example, what human beings are and what their relation to nature is. For this reason, Zen contends that physical nature and human nature must be sought in an experiential dimension practically trans-descending, and hence transcending, the standpoint of ego-consciousness. That is to say, it must go beyond “the one” and “the two,” as both of these stances are prone to generate a one-sided, and hence incomplete world-view. Instead, they must be sought in the depths of one’s psychē and beyond. For example, Zen Master Seigen (Chin.,; Qīngyuáng, 660–740) expresses the process of self-cultivation to the effect that: “Before the practice, mountains are mountains, during the practice, mountains are not mountains, and after the realization, mountains are [truly] mountains [again].” In the meditational process of discovery then, Zen moves from an ordinary, commonsensical standpoint to an extraordinary standpoint and with this transformation returns to the everyday “life-world,” wherein no Aristotelian either-or logic is accepted as the standard for knowing and understanding reality. Due to this reason, paradoxes, contradictions, and even what appears to be utter nonsense abound in Zen literature. The kōan method mentioned above exemplifies this point. To cite just one such example: “the river does not flow but the bridge does.” If one attempts to understand it by relying on Aristotelian either-or logic as one’s standard for understanding, one will be under the impression that this expression is nonsensical or meaningless.

As may be surmised then, by relying on the above-mentioned methodological stance, Zen Buddhism has produced an understanding of reality—one’s own self, living nature and human nature—quite different from those offered by Western philosophy. Therefore, we can say that Zen is an anti-philosophy in that it is not a systematization of knowledge built on the use of a discursive mode of reasoning anchored in the (alleged) certainty or transparency of ego-consciousness, by following an Aristotelian either-or logic. Yet, it upholds something like a philosophy that springs forth through a reflective restatement of the practice, though this “upholding” must be understood with a proviso that it maintains, as mentioned in the foregoing, a “positionless position.” (Abe, 1989.) This is because Zen abhors “holding onto” anything, which Zen considers an instance of “self-binding without a rope.” That is, this self-binding traps the Zen practitioner into a mode of attachment that is the source of suffering and, consequently, disrupts the sense of embodied freedom it cherishes.

4. Overcoming Dualism

Accordingly, Zen demands the practitioner to overcome the dualism operative in the everyday standpoint, which it speaks of by using the phrase “not two.” The use of the phrase “not two” expresses Zen’s proclivity to favor the simple and the concrete, such that it is not expressed as a negation of dualism. This overcoming is an existential, practical project, a goal for the Zen practitioner, although it is paradoxically stated as “if you face it, it goes away.” This is because “facing” presupposes a dualistic stance. “Two” in “not two” designates any “two” things appearing from within the everyday standpoint, especially when it is taken to designate an absolute sense of reality. This standpoint, as mentioned in the foregoing, relies on the discursive mode of reasoning to understand reality, while presupposing an ego-consciousness as the standard referential point. From this perspective for example, a distinction between the outer and inner worlds emerges, using a sensory perception as the point of reference. One of the salient characteristics of this standpoint is that the world appears to be dualistic in nature, that is to say, it recognizes two (and by implication, many) things to be real. Zen questions this standpoint when it is used as the paradigm for daily living, including philosophical thinking, for this standpoint accepts as its foundation an individual’s discrete “I” with a belief that “I” am self-contained and self-sufficient and, therefore, am distinguished and isolated from other individuals and things of nature. Zen observes that it renders opaque, or at best translucent, the experiential domains beyond the sensible world as well as ego-consciousness, both either taken naturalistically or by means of theoretical speculation. The inability to go beyond these experiential domains, Zen explains, occurs because ego-consciousness is physiologically rooted in the body and psychologically in the unconscious. This points to a philosophically important consequence. Namely, once the practitioner accepts this outer-inner dichotomy even provisionally, he or she is led to accept as true a host of other “two” things that are affirmed to be real, as is seen in pairs of opposites such as mind vs. body, I vs. others, love vs. hate, good vs. evil, and I vs. nature.

4.1 Logical Meaning of Not Two

Logically speaking, Zen explains that “two” things arise because the everyday standpoint stipulates Aristotelian either-or logic as the standard for cognizing the whole, however the whole may be construed. (Nagatomo, 2000, 213–44.) This logic thinks it reasonable to divide the whole into two parts when knowing or understanding reality. That is, when this logic is applied to the whole, it compels the user of this logic to choose, reasonably in the mind of the user, one part, while disregarding the other part(s) as irrelevant or meaningless. It prioritizes one part at the expense of the other part(s), while celebrating the exclusion. In so doing, it looks to the explicit while becoming oblivious to the fact that the implicit equally exists as a supporting ground for the explicit, where the explicit is something “obvious” to the senses and the rational mind. It champions one-sidedness in cognition and judgment as the supreme form of knowing and understanding reality. However, Zen thinks that this prioritization, this exclusion, violates a cardinal principle of knowing, for knowledge of anything demands an understanding of the whole. Either-or logic fails on this account. Moreover, it contends that when this logic attempts to understand the whole, it theoretically reduces the other to the one that is judged to be true and/or real. For example, if one maintains that the mind is real, one disregards the body as unreal, yielding an idealist position. On the other hand, if one thinks the body is real, it disposes of the mind in the same way, favoring materialism as true and real, which is presupposed, for example, by natural science. Either position commits itself to reductionism. Here, questioning this practice and the consequences it entails, Zen instead speaks of mind-body oneness, an holistic perspective, as it abhors one-sidedness. However, it warns that as soon as “one” is contrasted with “two” in a discourse, it is no longer genuine and authentic, because once it is objectified linguistically or reflectively, it slips into being an idea, an abstraction.

4.2 An Epistemological Meaning of Not Two

From the point of view of epistemology developed by modern European philosophy, the “two things” are the subject who knows and the object that is known. Zen finds that these two things impose on the epistemological subject a structuring that is framed dualistically and either-or ego-logically. Accordingly, this structuring unknowingly frames things to appear dualistically and either-or ego-logically to the epistemological subject, while extending the paradigm to itself for self-understanding as well as things other than itself in the same manner. Consequently, the subject stands opposed either to the outer world (e.g., nature) or to the inner world (the world of psychē), or both, and hence it promotes an oppositional mode of thinking. Moreover, Zen notes that the subject cannot by definition become the object or vice versa, for they are distanced from each other either really or ideally. It depends on whether the “distance” and “opposition” occur in space-consciousness or in time-consciousness; an object appears to be “out there” with space-consciousness, while it appears to be “in here” as an immanent object in the field of consciousness in time-consciousness. Suppose one applies this epistemological structure in knowing others, for example, one’s friend. When one attempts to know her from the everyday standpoint, one relies on the language she speaks and her body language. Here one cannot know her in toto, let alone the destiny of her life-history, because she is shielded from an observer by the spatial-temporal density of her being.

4.3 Zen’s Meaning of Not Two

Zen maintains that the situation created by assuming this epistemological standpoint is not ideal, or real, for that matter. Hence, Zen says “not two.” “Not two” is in part a recommendation for experientially achieving oneness through the practice of meditation, informing the holder of the “two” of the narrow and limited scope of her/his understanding, where the idea of oneness may, for now, be conceived at many levels, starting with the physical, the subtle, and the samādhic. Generally speaking then, Zen takes “not two” to designate a negation of any “two” things that are affirmed to be individually real, in which the perspective that realizes the place or domain where two things occur is ignored. The dualistic standpoint also ignores the logical fact that any “two” things cannot be individually one because for one to be, it must be dependent on, and interconnects with, the other one. An either-or logic ignores this interdependence. With this recommendation, Zen maintains that mind and body, I and others, I and nature ought to be experienced as one for those who remain in the everyday standpoint. To express this idea, Zen states that “Heaven and Earth share the same root, and I and the myriad things are one (-body).” It demands an holistic perspective necessary to achieve knowledge that is genuine and authentic. Otherwise, Zen fears that the practitioner will fall into one-sidedness, in which knowledge claim ends up being partial, imbalanced, and even prejudiced. Dōgen captures it by stating: “When one side is illuminated, the other side remains in darkness.” To characterize the dualistic, either-or ego-logical standpoint by borrowing Nietzsche’s phrase, Zen would say that it is “human, and all too human.”

Care must be exercised in understanding the meaning of “not” in the phrase “not two” however. Zen insists that the “not” primarily refers to an existential, practical negation of the “I,” which means “up-rooting the ego-consciousness” and in turn yields, by implication, a logical negation as well. This is because Zen thinks the practitioner cannot achieve this negation simply by following either-or logic, or for that matter by following the intellectual process of reasoning, because both logic and reasoning intrinsically involve two things, for example, the thinker and the thought. Or with either-or logic, a mere logical negation involves an infinite regress in negating the “I”; one who negates the “I” retains the affirmative act of holding “I” in the mind as that which negates. And when the “I” further attempts to negate this affirming act, there still remains an “I” who negates it and the process goes on ad infinitum. For this reason, Zen recommends the practitioner to “forget the ‘I”“ when engaging oneself in any action, be it a mind-act, bodily-act, or speech-act, as is seen for example in both Dōgen and Takuan (1573–1645).

To recapitulate the idea of the Zen meaning of negation as expressed in ”not two,“ Zen sees its self-cultivation as involving a thoroughgoing negation of the ”I“ to the point that no problem, either existential or psychological, entrenched in the ”I“ remains. Hence, we have Rinzai’s phrase: ”if you becomes a master in any place, wherever you stand is true.“ (Iriya, 1989, 70) Truth for Zen is not merely a matter of formulating or uttering a propositional statement, but rather embodying it by becoming, to use his phrase again, a ”true person of no rank,“ (ibid, 20) where ”no rank“ designates the freedom of standing beyond social or linguistic conventions such that a Zen person can use convention freely. Equally important is Zen’s contention that both logical and intellectual methods are abstract, for they become divorced from the actual reality of day-to-day existence. In other words, in the eyes of Zen, these methods lack consideration for the concreteness and immediacy of lived experience. This is because the theoretical standpoint defines the human being who observes things of nature from outside, which can be characterized, by using Yuasa’s phrase, as a ”being-outside-of-nature.“ Instead, Zen maintains that the human being must be understood as a being rooted in nature. To use Yuasa’s phrase again,it is a ”being-in-nature.“ This point is well portrayed in Zen’s landscape paintings wherein a human figure occupies the space of a mere dot in vast natural scenery. (Yuasa, 2003, 160–1)

5. An Experiential Meaning of Not-Two

How does Zen then articulate the experiential meaning of ”not two“? Throughout its long history, which spans from the sixth century in China to the twenty-first century in Japan, Zen has produced numerous ways of linguistically capturing a response to this question, depending on what ”two“ things are thematized in the Zen dialogue (Zen mondō). As a textual study, these dialogues are a primary paradigm for the non-practitioner to learn what ”two“ things are by studying a discourse that unfolds between a Zen master and his disciple. Moreover, this situation is complicated by the fact that a Zen master’s response is usually tailored to an individual disciple’s caliber. This is in keeping with a general method of teaching in Buddhism, i.e., to speaking to the caliber of a listener (taiki seppō). This complication is further compounded by the differences in the personality of Zen masters. Hence, Zen’s responses to the above question are as varied and numerous as there are Zen masters. In spite of this situation, it is reasonably possible to provide a glimpse into the experiential meaning of ”not two“ by looking into a phrase that often appears in Zen dialogues. This phrase is ”no-thought and no-image“ (munen musō), whose experience point to practically going beyond ”not one“ and ”not two.“

5.1 Zen’s No-Thought and No-Image

Upon hearing the phrase, ”no-thought and no-image,“ one may wonder if there could be such a thing. To properly respond to this question, Zen thinks it important to determine whether it is posed with a practical concern or a theoretical concern in mind. The difference allows a Zen master to determine the ground out of which this question is raised, for example, to determine if the inquirer is anchored in the everyday standpoint or in a meditational standpoint. In the case of the former, for instance, Zen would respond by saying that as long as the inquirer poses this question from within the everyday standpoint with a theoretical interest, relying on Aristotelian either-or logic, the inquirer cannot understand the meaning of ”no-thought and no-image,“ as intended by Zen. This is because to formulate the question, ”Is there or is there not no-thought and no-image?“ linguistically drives the inquiry into a contradiction, for one cannot predicate ”is“ on ”no-thought“ or ”no-image.“ Only insofar as ”no-thought“ or ”no-image“ is treated as an idea in a linguistic space without consideration for its referent, can one ask if ”there is“ or ”there is not“ such a thing as ”no-thought.“ In response, Zen maintains that when ”there is“ or ”there is not“ is topicalized in its tradition, it is not the same as ”there is“ or ”there is not“ as understood from within the everyday standpoint. Zen claims that neither ”no-thought“ nor ”no-image“ can be linguistically or logically apprehended from this standpoint.

Why does Zen insist on this? Zen explains that both ”there is“ and ”there is not“ (or more generally ”being“ and ”non-being“) are intellectually framed from within the everyday standpoint by accepting the oppositional ontology where the meaning of ”is“ is predicated on the meaning of ”is not,“ and vice versa. Therefore, Zen maintains that to understand ”no-thought“ or ”no-image“ we need an experiential dimension that goes beyond the oppositional thinking of the everyday standpoint.

5.2 Zen’s Nothing

Zen condenses ”no-thought and no-image“ into a singular word ”no“ in keeping with its proclivity to favor the simple, as this contraction allows Zen to expand the scope and the meaning of ”no-thought and no-image.“ This ”no,“ for example, is made pivotal by Zen Master Joshū (Chin., Zhaozhōu; 778–897). It is usually rendered in English as ”nothing“ and has been presented to the Western reader as if it is the central and cardinal concept of Zen philosophy. At the risk of de-emphasizing other important aspects of Zen such as how it understands the living phenomena of nature, humanity’s relation to them, and aesthetic sensitivity, we will here focus on the scope and meaning of this Zen ”no.“

This ”no“ appears in a Zen dialogue between Joshū and a monk, in which is thematized an issue of whether or not a dog has Buddha-nature. It reads as follows: A monk asks Joshū: ”Does the dog have buddha-nature?“ He replies: ”No[thing].“ The monk says: ”All sentient beings have buddha-nature. Why doesn’t the dog have it?“ Joshū replies: ”He has discrimination due to his karma.“ Joshū’s response of ”no“ to the monk’s question points to the latter’s inadequate, and hence also mistaken, understanding of being. However, as articulated in the Nirvānasūtra, Mahāyāna Buddhism, of which Zen is an offshoot, asserts that all sentient beings have buddha-nature. With this understanding in mind, the monk asked the question, to which Joshū replied ”no.“ His ”no“ points to the fact that the way the monk formulates his question regarding being is predicated on an either-or logical understanding or an affirmation-negation linguistic device. In so doing, the monk relativizes Buddha-nature qua being, while contrasting and opposing it with non-being. Buddha-nature is not something that the dog can have or not have; Buddha-nature is not something contingent. Joshū’s ”no“ allows the monk to return to the ground from which the idea of the Buddha-nature springs forth as an essential characterization of all beings. As such, Joshū’s ”no“ points to a transcendence of being and non-being. Insofar as Zen’s ”no“ is turned into an issue questioning the ground of being, it is appropriate to understand it as ”nothing,“ and in fact as ”absolutely nothing,“ because the latter goes beyond the relative nothing that is contrasted with being.

As Joshū’s ”nothing“ has been made a kōan, numerous Zen masters have used it to test a student’s progress in meditation. In such a case, a Zen master expects a monk to come up with his or her original response by stipulating a condition: ”I don’t expect you to answer that the dog has buddha-nature nor that the dog does not have buddha-nature. Nor do I expect you to reply that the dog neither has nor does not have buddha-nature. How do you respond to this?“ This is a warning that a monk cannot rely on Nāgārjuna’s tetralemma as an acceptable response, namely the four possible ways of understanding thing-events insofar as logic is concerned: ”there is,“ ”there is not,“ ”both ‘there is’ and ‘there is not,’“ and ”neither ‘there is’ nor ‘there is not.’“ This master is admonishing that as long as a monk’s response is framed from within the logic of the everyday use of language, no answer is forthcoming. Here the reader can sense that the scope and the meaning of ”no-thought and no-image“ has been expanded to include the logical use of language, not simply a rejection of oppositional thinking.

A further expansion of the scope and the meaning of ”no“ can be found in an instruction Zen Master Daie (Chin., Dàhuì;1089–1163) gives to his students, though it is given via negativa—when they attempt to discover a response to Joshū’s ”nothing.“ (Yanagita, 1974, 181–2.) Prefacing his remark that ”this one word [i.e., “no(-thing)”] is a cane that shatters numerous [instances of] erroneous knowledge and perception,“ Daie instructs the students not to take ”no[thing]“ in the context of being or nonbeing by applying either-or logic. An appeal to discriminatory thinking based on the standpoint of [ego-]consciousness is of no use either. It is also unacceptable to appeal to bodily action, let alone to engage in a mere verbal exchange. Not even a metaphysical response will do either, for Daie states: ”Do not throw it out into an empty-void where there is nothing. Do not swallow it where something is generated.“ To seek an answer in a text is also out of the question. Daie demands that the practitioner come up with his/her own original answer.

What is evident in the above instructions is that the Zen practitioner must tackle this ”no[thing]“ by mobilizing the whole of his or her person in order to delve into the ground of his or her personhood, where the ”whole“ in question involves both the mind and the body, both the consciousness and the unconscious. This is, no doubt, an existential challenge to the Zen practitioners, and so they make an all-out effort, staking life and death, because it guarantees them an embodiment of truth and freedom. In this context, Zen metaphorically speaks of reaching the whole as ”kicking through the bottom of a bucket“ to designate the ground of a person, which Zen understands to be bottomless. That is, it understands this ground to have ”no“ bottom, i.e., it is a bottomless ground. To avoid the danger of interpreting this ground nihilistically or relativisitically, the modern Japanese thinker, Nishida Kitarō (1870–1945) adds that it is absolutely nothing, where ”absolutely“ means cutting off all pairs of polar opposites.

5.3 Zen ”Seeing“

The experiential dimension in which Zen’s ”nothing“ becomes understandable refers to a quiescent state of meditation in which is arrested the activity of an individual practitioner’s ego-consciousness that functions in a close correlation with his or her body. Upon reaching such a meditational state, the Zen practitioner comes to experience an event generally known as ”seeing into one’s nature“ (kenshō), an initial satori experience. Although this phrase may on the surface suggest a dualistic state, namely that there is something that is called ”nature,“ which the Zen practitioner comes to see as an object, it refers to an experiential fact that seeing has turned into one’s nature (according to the interpretation vis-à-vis the acquired enlightenment), or that one’s nature is seeing (according to the interpretation vis-à-vis the original enlightenment). The Zen tradition interprets ”nature“ to be ”buddha-nature,“ i.e., a possibility to be awakened from the fundamental ignorance. That is to say, to become a Buddha, and the way of its being is designated by the term tathatā, suchness or a thing-event’s being such that it is showing its primordial mode of being. When this aspect of knowledge is emphasized, Zen calls it ”original“ or ”natural“ knowledge. In this connection, it contends that the ”seeing“ is ”not two,“ i.e., it is non-dualistic in nature.

To illustrate an experiential basis for the above observation, we may cite another example, namely Dōgen’s enlightenment experience. This will aid the reader to catch a glimpse of an experiential meaning of ”not two,“ for it is descriptive of the experience itself. He expresses it as ”dropping off the body and the mind“ (shinjin datsuraku). (In order to get an idea of this experience from a contemporary point-of-view, or from outside of Zen tradtion, one may also consult out-of-body experiences.) The experience of ”dropping off the body and the mind“ informs us that the dualistic relationship between the mind and the body has disappeared in meditational awareness and by implication ”I“ and others, and ”I“ and nature. Hence they are ”not two.“ If the distinction has disappeared, it implies that the Zen practitioner is thrown into a non-dualistic domain of experience. It points to a practical transcendence from the everyday either-or, ego-logical, dualistic standpoint.

In light of the outer-inner distinction Zen interprets the non-dualistic experience to mean that the distinction has been epistemologically collapsed, as it arises in such a way to respond to the dualistic perspective from which the outer and the inner worlds appeared. It understands this collapsing of the distinction then to be the meaning of ”not two,“ from which an holistic perspective emerges. Conceptually, Zen takes this holistic perspective to mean the de-substantialization and de-ontologization of any two polar concepts, such as one and many, being and non-being, universal and particular, absolute and relative, transcendence and immanence, and birth and death. Zen’s observation is that each of the polar terms is non-dualistically related to each of the other polar terms such that they are connected with, interdependent on, and relative to, each other for their being and meaning. They are thrown into a holistic context of an interdependent causal series. And for this series to be operative, Zen maintains, following Nāgārjuna, that each of these terms that enters the relationship is empty of self-nature, where self-nature means a power to generate itself on its own without dependence on anything. For if thing-events designated by these terms are endowed with self-nature, they cannot enter into the series; what enters such a series is only an accidental attribute or property. According to the substantialistic or essentialistic ontology, nothing can really change. For example, criminals who want to correct their criminal behavior cannot change themselves if being a criminal is the essential characterization of their being. This would pose an insurmountable challenge, if not impossibility, to a correction officer at a prison. Or, for that matter, anyone who wants to correct one’s own psychological characteristic or tendency, particularly if it happens to be pathological, cannot succeed in such self-correction if it is an essential characterization of one’s being.

In order to give a still more concrete sense of what Zen-seeing is like, we now return to the question of how Zen understands the experiential meaning of ”seeing into one’s nature.“ Zen’s contention is that the bottomless ground is that which non-dualistically ”sees“ when the practitioner experiences the state of nothing, (or no-thought and no-image). How then does Zen articulate this ”seeing“? This question points to an examination of the epistemic structure of how knowledge operates in Zen experience. For this purpose, the following Zen dialogue between Jinne and Chōsetsu concerning ”no-thought“ is illuminating. Although it is lengthy, I will quote it in full in order to provide a sense of how a Zen dialogue unfolds:

The disciple asks: What then is it [i.e., no-thought]?

The master replies: It is nothing like ”what is.“ Therefore, we can not explain ”no-thought.“ The reason why I am speaking about it now is because you have asked about it. If you haven’t asked about it, there is no need to explain it. Suppose that there is a clear, transparent mirror. If it does not face a thing, no image is reflected in it. To say that it mirrors an image means that because it faces something, it just mirrors its image.

The disciple asks: If it does not face any thing, is there or is there not a reflection in the mirror?

The master replies: That the mirror reflects a thing means that it always mirrors regardless of whether it is facing or not facing a thing.

The disciple asks: If there is no image and since you do not give an explanation, how can all beings and nonbeings become an issue? Now when you say that it always mirrors, how does it mirror?

The master replies: When I say that the mirror always mirrors, it is because a clear, transparent mirror possesses an original nature as its essential activity of always mirroring things. Analogously, people’s mind is originally undefiled, and naturally possesses a superb light of wisdom that illuminates the perfect world of nirvāna.

The disciple asks: Insofar as people’s minds are originally like that, when do people get it?

The master replies: It just sees nothing.

The disciple asks: When it is nothing, what can it see?

The master replies: Seeing is not like something you can call a thing.

The disciple asks: If it is not like anything one can call a thing, what does it see?

The master replies: it sees no-thing. That is the true seeing. It always sees.

(Yanagita, 1974, 132–3.)

Unlike most Zen dialogues that are often enigmatic and puzzling to those people who stand outside of this tradition, this dialogue provides a kind explanation in elucidating what ”seeing“ is like in Zen experience. This ”seeing“ is said to be ”seeing nothing or no-thing,“ and Jinne speaks of it by appealing to the analogy of a mirror, although he makes a disclaimer that it cannot adequately be explained in words. To get a glimpse of what he means by ”seeing,“ it is helpful to take note of the following points regarding this analogy. Jinne conceives of a mirror in terms of two modalities: the mirror in and of itself and the mirror as it engages an object other than itself. It is important to keep in mind that both are understood in light of their activity. He characterizes the ”original nature“ of the mirror in and of itself as being ”clear, transparent“ (or ”undefiled), wherein it is said to always mirror. “Original” means that it is not contingent on experience, while “always” refers to the mirror’s ceaseless activity of mirroring. Whether “there is” or “there is not” a specific object to mirror is a contingent matter for the mirror in and of itself. What makes a mirror the mirror that it is is its activity of always mirroring, and when considered in and of itself, it possesses no specific image to mirror. There is no characteristic to it and hence no image appearing in it, i.e., “no-thought” or “no-image.” This is the meaning of “no-thing or nothing” in the phrase “seeing no-thing or nothing.” In other words, the mirror is turned into nothing, or to use the earlier phrase, the bottomless ground is nothing except, epistemologically speaking, its capacity to mirror, and even this capacity is rendered “nothing” when it is in no use.

Zen explains the fact that the mirror “just sees no-thing or nothing” when its act of seeing is mobilized in “facing” a thing. The adverb “just” is crucial. “Just” here means without discrimination, without superimposition, without projection, or in short, without positing an ego-consciousness as that which sees. In phenomenological terms, there is no thetic positing in this kind of seeing. Zen maintains that these characterizations obtain because the Zen practitioner “kicked through the bottom of the bucket,” a practical transcendence. In other words, Zen’s contention is that there is no determination whatsoever in the mirror’s activity of “just seeing.” That there is no determination means to Zen that because the bottomless ground is nothing, it does not impose form on things that are mirrored. When these qualifications are taken together, Zen interprets “just seeing no-thing or nothing” to mean seeing or mirroring things without discrimination, that is, with a sense of equality. When a mirror, for example, reflects an image of a beautiful object, it does not make any discriminatory value judgment that it is beautiful. And neither does it make any discriminatory value judgment when it mirrors an ugly object. It mirrors thing-events as they are. That is, the mirror does not take any stance of likes and dislikes; it does not take a stance of “for” or “against.” It is non-egological in mirroring each thing equally. Moreover, Zen observes that the nature of the mirror is such that it does not change due to the kind of object it mirrors. For example, it does not increase or decrease in size in virtue of the fact that it mirrors an object. (Bankei, for example, expresses it as the “unborn.”) It remains as it is in its original nature of always mirroring, which highlights the fact that it is clear and transparent. Because equality is the characteristic of this seeing, Zen speaks of the activity of this seeing as nondiscriminatory. Yet, because an object is mirrored as object, whether beautiful or ugly, Zen considers the act of mirroring to be a “discernment.” Therefore, Zen characterizes the “seeing” in “seeing no-thing or nothing” in its act-aspect as a discernment vis-à-vis nondiscrimination (mubunbetsu no funbetsu). This, Jinne says, is “true seeing,” which is non-discriminatory wisdom (prajñā). The obvious point Zen wants to make through this analogy is that the minds of people are analogously the same in their original nature and activity. Zen summarizes all of the above characteristics of seeing by employing a simple phrase: “motion in stillness” (seichū no dō). However, an objection may be raised contra Zen’s holistic, non-dualistic meaning of its “seeing” or “mirroring,” namely the objection that if there is something that is mirrored, is there not still operative a dualistic epistemological structure? Zen would respond that this objection ignores the fact that the ground of seeing is the bottomless ground that is nothing. What appears against mirror qua nothing is just an object. In such a seeing, the object alone shines forth. Hence, it is characterized, to use Nishida’s terminology, as “seeing without a seer.” Below, we will explore further the structure of how things appear in Zen.

Although it may sound paradoxical, Zen maintains that this ground is also a fount of creativity. Because there is no determination in the ground, it is pregnant with many possibilities or meanings to be realized. Zen maintains, via the influences from philosophical Daoism, that this creativity is in the same order as that of nature, for the practitioner reaches the original source prior to the distinction between the outer world and the inner world. (Hence, Zen understands, as was mentioned in the foregoing, the human being to be “a being-in-nature.”)

It often uses the phrase “no-mind” (Jpn., mushin; Skrt. nirodha-samāpatti) to generally designate the above experiential dimension. However, Zen does not mean it to be a mindless state, much less losing the mind. Nor does it mean a disappearance of the mind. Rather it designates a dimension of experience in which the ego-logically discriminatory activity of the mind disappears. This is, Zen maintains, because the Zen practitioner trans-descends into, and hence transcends, the ego-logically discriminatory activity of the mind which, Zen contends, arises due to adhering to “name-form” (Jpn., myōshiki; Skrt., nāmrūpa). This transcendence results in a rejection of the belief that there is a reality corresponding to a name, or generally that there is a reality corresponding to a linguistic activity. Through the state of no-mind, Zen observes that each individual thing that is mirrored is recognized for the first time to be individual qua the individual with a sense of equality that is due to other individual things.

6. Zen’s Understanding of Time and Space

Given Zen’s seeing as articulated above, one may entertain a natural question: how does Zen understand time and space? Are they significantly different from time and space as conceived by many other theories of time and space? In what follows, we will briefly provide how Zen understands “here and now,” “zero time and zero space,” and “an integrated time and space.”

6.1 Here and Now

In spite of, or rather because of the above-mentioned experiential dimension of Zen-seeing, Zen insists that the Zen practitioner plant his or her feet in the everydayness of “here and now.” In this respect, Zen philosophically advocates a position of “not one.” Otherwise, it fears that if the practitioner remains in the stillness of meditation, while suspending judgment for action, it falls into one-sidedness, a source of prejudice and misunderstanding of reality. How then does Zen understand “here and now”? In this connection, one may reasonably ask: “how far and wide is ‘here’ and how long is ‘now,’” when Zen speaks of “here and now.” Are they each limited by a present perceptual experience? In the case of “now,” for example, is it an internal phenomenon of consciousness that allows the practitioner to experience time sometimes as a “memory” (or retention) and some other times as “anticipation” (or “protention”) in the ever flowing stream of “present” (e.g., St. Augustine, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty)? And in the case of “here,” is it delimited by the practitioner’s spatial range of perception within the sensory field, situating the Zen practitioner as the point of reference? (There is in both cases a suggestion of involvement of the autonomous activity of the unconscious, of which Zen demands we must stand outside.) Zen’s response to both of these questions is a resounding “Yes!” and “No!” however contradictory it may sound. “Yes,” because the practitioner, while living, cannot depart from the “here and now,” because he or she is incarnate, in which case time and space is always experienced as “here and now.” “No,” insofar as the perceptual model implies an ego-logical “human, all too human” stance (Nietzsche) with its attendant limitations, even though Zen does not exclude this model as long as it is not delimited by the dualistic, either-or ego-logical perspective. In the everyday human world that is “here and now,” Zen maintains that “riddhi and [its] wondrous activity all shoulder water and carry firewood” where “riddhi” refers to a power that naturally becomes available to the practitioner through the practice of meditation.

6.2 Zero Time and Zero Space

Yet Zen thinks that the preceding is still a partial understanding of “here and now.” To fully understand it, it is helpful to examine the following often-quoted phrase, as it is particularly illustrative. Zen demands the practitioner “to show one’s original face before one’s parents were born.” This demand points to an experiential dimension prior to the bifurcation between the subject and the object—and hence “not two”—where “prior” means negation of the spatial-temporal ordering principles such as in Kant’s understanding of time and space as a priori forms of intuition. It points to a non-dualistic experiential dimension that is zero time and zero space, by which Zen means that neither time nor space is a delimiting condition for Zen-seeing. In zero time there is no distinction between past, present, and future, or between “before” and “after,”; in zero space there is no distinction between the whole and its parts. One can also say that both time and space, experienced from the point-of-view of the everyday standpoint, is relativized when zero time temporizes and zero space spatializes, where zero time and zero space characterize the bottomless ground. Accordingly, Zen contends that zero time and zero space are the natural and primordial being of all things including human beings, for they are all grounded in it. Taking these points together, the Zen enlightenment experience suggests a leap from a causal temporal series.

Consequently, Zen contends that “here and now” is enfolded in both zero time and zero space. This means that one time contains all times and one part contains the whole, as in the case of a holographic dry plate in which a part contains the whole. Seen in this manner, “now” for the Zen person is a temporalization of zero time, while “here” is equally a spatialization of zero space, even though he or she may be anchored in the perceptual field of “here and now” as understood above. In other words, for the Zen person both “now” and “here” are experienced as an expression of thing-events in their suchness, because, as mentioned in the foregoing, Zen takes zero time and zero space to be the original abode of thing-events. Caution must be exercised here, however. Zen’s zero time should not be confounded with the idea of eternity standing outside a temporal series (e.g., Thomas Aquinas, Newton’s “absolute time”) by means of a logical or intellectual transcendence, nor the zero space to be identified with “absolute space” (e.g., Newton) wherein there is no content of experience. In other words, Zen does not understand time and space by imposing a formal category on them, by presupposing in advance a form-matter distinction, which indicates an operation of the discursive mode of reasoning by appealing to the either-or, dualistic, and ego-logical epistemological structure.

6.3 An Integrated Time and Space

Zen makes another equally important contention through this abstention, namely that time and space are lived as integrated space-time in the interfusion of a concrete temporalization and spatialization. For example, Dōgen speaks of it as “being-time” (u-ji) to indicate their inseparability; being cannot be apart from time, and time cannot be apart from being, where a being spatializes through the process of temporalization, and where it temporalizes through the process of spatialization. This is a concrete spatialization-temporalization that is lived without any intellectual abstraction, reflecting the Buddhist position that everything, excluding no-thing, is impermanent. Zen abhors an intellectual abstraction that merely thinks time and space. This is because the Zen person rides on the rhythm of living nature. That is, “here and now” is one experience (and hence “not two”), and for this reason they should be designated as “here-now.”

In living this integrated, living space-time, Zen does not understand time to be a quantifiable and homogeneously punctuated unit (i.e., the clock time of natural science), nor does it conceive of it as a linear progression from past to future through the present, although it does not exclude them insofar as they are useful for everyday life. The negation of the linear idea of time also includes the negation of the idea of time as symmetrical as well as reversible, because in the Zen experience of space-time, a teleological intentionality, an “in order that,” is absent. Yet, Zen does not accept, time as a “fleeing image of eternity” (i.e., Plato). Zen takes time to be living. According to Zen, theories of time built through conceptual abstraction, are distanced and separate from the immediacy of “here-now.”

Space, too, is neither a container (i.e., Newtown’s “absolute space”) nor an a priori limiting condition (i.e., Kant), nor the place of displacement for the volume of an extended thing (i.e., Aristotle). Rather it is a living space. Dōgen for example captures this sense of space as “the bird flies the sky and the sky flies the bird.” In this statement an independence of both the sky and the bird is recognized, but it also recognizes that the sky and the bird each become themselves only through their interdependence. In other words, what makes this space a living space is the dynamic, interdependent, bilateral play of both bird and sky, from which the living space-time as the continuum of “here-now” emerges as an ambience, where each of the terms entering the relationship through the activity is granted a full recognition of their being. This is because the Zen person lives the dynamic activity of non-dualistic “coming-together” of “the two,” whether this “two” happens to involve the “betweenness” of two individuals, individual and nature, or individual and trans-individual.

6.4 The Structure of Things Appearing

Given Zen’s mode of seeing, which is non-dualistic in nature, occurring in zero time and zero space, one may be curious to raise a question as to how things appear to the Zen mind under these condtitions. We can interpret Zen’s nondualistic experience epistemologically as that experience which arises from a nondiscriminatory state of meditational awareness. To be more specific, the nondiscriminatory awareness means that it is the foundational background, as articulated in the foregoing, that is bottomless or is nothing, and as such it does not participate in the discriminatory activity. However, when a thing appears, a discrimination occurs on this foundational, though, bottomless, background. Because it occurs on this foundation, it does not distort the shape of things to appear along with its force. We designated its activity as discernment vis-à-vis nondiscrimination in the foregoing. Or, it may also be characterized as nondiscriminatory discrimination, in order to capture a sense of how things appear in meditational awareness. In this nondiscriminatory discriminatory awareness, no ego is posited either as an active or a passive agent in constituting things of experience as this awareness renders useless the active-passive scheme as an explanatory model. This awareness lets a thing announce itself as a thing. It is a rejection of the idealist position, e.g., Husserl’s intentionality thesis in which a meaning-bestowing activity is assigned to the act of consciousness. It is also a rejection of the British empiricist’s stance in which the epistemological subject is considered a passive being of tabula rasa upon which attributes are impressed. These implications are suggested because Zen’s nondiscriminatory discriminatory awareness arises out of the state of no-ego in which no projection from the unconscious and no superimposition of intellectual ideas occur in the field of meditative awareness.

Moreoever, because things are experientially “constituted” in this manner, we can interpret the epistemological structure of appearing to be such that things appear in the field of meditative awareness without presupposing the Gestalt psychology’s distinction between foreground and background. This is because the ego is turned into nothing in the state of nondiscriminatory discriminatory awareness, and hence no-ego, where this nothing is paradoxically a background that is not the background at all, because it is a bottomless background. To use Nishida’s terminology again, the nondiscriminatory discriminatory awareness is an act of “seeing without being a seer.” Or, to use the terminology of Phenomenology, the bottomless background or the background of nothing is the stance in which the noetic act is rendered nothing. Accordingly, the noematic object is allowed to announce iteself without an intentional constitution by the latter. This is the meaning of “no projection” and “no superimposition” mentioned above. It consequently opens up a bottomless horizon, on which a noematic object announces itself in toto as a phenomenon.

This opening up simultaneously accompanies, as mentioned in the foregoing, a de-substantialization and de-ontologization of things of experience, because there is no act of the ego that substantializes and ontologizes them; substantialization and ontologization both arise as a consequene of an anthropomorphic activity that is intricately tied to the discursive mode of reasoning. Consequently, we are led to conclude that things of experience announce themselves in toto without concealing anything behind them. This is because there is nothing in the bottomless background to determine or delimit how things appear. Zen uses such terms as “suchness” or “thusness” to designate it. For example, Dōgen captures it by stating in “the Buddha Nature” fascicle that “nothing is concealed in the universe.”

In order to see how the above mentioned structure of appearing operates under the conditions of zero time and zero space, we must capture a sense of a temporal-spatial awareness reflective of the nondualistic experience. In the foregoing, we discussed zero time temporalizing and zero space spatializing in which temporalization is spatialization and spatialization is temporalization, e.g., Dōgens theory of “being-time,” wherein there is no formal separation between temporalization and spatialization. Hence, neither time nor space is conceived to be a container. Rather, they are expressions of things “thinging” the primordial mode of their being. This thinging of things springs from zero time and zero space. One must stand in ground zero to see the “thinging” of things where there is no temporalization and no spatialization of things.

7. Returning to the Everyday “life-world”: Not One

If we are to stop at sketching what Zen-seeing is together with its understanding of time and space as an integrated space-time, Zen fears there occurs a danger of fixing the stance thus “obtained,”—although we must keep in mind that Zen “obtains” the stance of “not two” in such a way that it cannot be obtained, for in the non-dualistic dimension nothing can be “obtained.” However, Zen also recognizes at the same time that any stance that is fixed is one-sided and partial. It will deprive Zen, for example, of an opportunity to utilize Zen-seeing in the actions of everyday life. For this reason, Zen insists that the practitioner move to the stance of “not one.” What then is Zen’s stance of “not one”? This question affords the reader, for the purpose of the present essay, to get a glimpse into Zen’s movement from “not two” to “not one,” although in actuality this movement operates in a dynamic bilateral movement between them. This movement is symbolized in Zen by a circle, an image of the whole, which is also an image of perfection. Insofar as “one” is a negation of “not two,” “not one” then brings the Zen practitioner back to the everyday “life-world,” the world of multiplicity that is ordinarily constructed either-or ego-logically and dualistically.

7.1 Zen Person

For the Zen person, the move from “not two” to “not one” is an issue of concretely instantiating in the everyday “life-world” what is experienced through the stance of “not two.” This point, for example, is well illustrated in the following Zen dialogue between Zen Master Ungen (Chin. Yúnyán, 780–841) and a fellow practitioner, Dōgo (Chin., Dàowú; 769–835). It runs as follows:

Dōgo: Who are you going to serve the tea you are preparing?

Ungen: There is one person who wants it.

Dōgo: Can’t the person who wants it make the tea himself?

Ungen: Fortunately, I am here to do it for him. (Ueda, 1981, 165–66.)

This dialogue points to an activity of “trans-individual qua the individual,” where the “trans-individual” designates a Zen person with nondiscriminatory wisdom, while the “individual” designates those who remain in the everyday “life-world”. (In the above quote, the former is designated by the phrase “one person,” while the latter by the pronoun “you.”) However, in the everyday human “life-world,” the “trans-individual” cannot “make the tea himself,” because he is not incarnate like the individual who remains in the dualistic, either-or ego-logical, everyday standpoint. This is because he or she is one who follows the non-dualistic, non-ego-logical standpoint having practically transcended the former. This creates the dilemma of how to be trans-individual while assuming the form of an individual. If this is not properly dealt with, Zen warns that it results in developing a pathological condition or a mana-personality. For this reason, Ungen says “fortunately ‘I’ am here to do it for him.” Here, Zen conceives of the relationship between the individual and the trans-individual as one, i.e., “not two,” and yet they are “not one.” Insofar as both the trans-individual and the individual refer to the same person (in the above quote, “I”), they are “not two,” but insofar as their stances operate differently, they are “not one” (“I” and “him” in the quote). “Both individual and trans-individual” designates a harmonious assimilation of the two stances, a consequence of which is a person who can avail him or herself of both of these perspectives, i.e., the dualistic world of the everyday life and the non-dualistic world of “not two.” On the other hand, “neither individual nor trans-individual” refers to a person who cannot be pinned down or delimited by linguistic means. In spite of, or because of this, such a person is a carrier of freedom who goes beyond these perspectives, i.e., an person in whom the trans-individual and individual have disappeared in action, in which case the individual qua trans-individual is no longer ordinary, but extraordinary. Yet, he or she is quite ordinary in appearance. All of these points are synthesized into a Zen person.

7.2 Zen’s Freedom

How then does the Zen person, thus understood, live freedom? The term that Zen uses to express the idea of “freedom” is “jiyū” and it consists of two characters; “ji” meaning “self on its own,” while “yū” means “out of.” When they are used together as a compound, the phrase as a whole designates an action arising out of self on its own. This action then carries a sense of spontaneity, much like the spontaneous creative act of living nature. This idea of freedom is foreign to Western intellectual tradition, however. For example, consider how freedom is defined by British empiricists like John Locke. According to Locke, freedom (or to be specific, liberty) is defined as a lack or absence of external constraint. According to this model, freedom is to express an ego-desire save in the name of will arising from an individual in “the state of nature” where and when there is no external constraint. By contrast, because it arises out of the self on its own, where the self in Zen is a groundless ground that is nothing, Zen’s free action is not delimited by ego-desire, because it arises out of nothing. It “kicks through the bottom of the bucket,” that is, it purifies all the “defilements” interlaced with the activity of the ego-consciousness, as well as the personal and collective unconscious. For this reason, there is no issue involved in the Zen person’s action that addresses the will of ego-consciousness. For what motivates the Zen person to action is a thrust he or she feels, surging from the creative source in the bottomless ground. Moreover, the Zen person does not experience, as Nietzsche has it, “bad-faith” or “self-deception” when explaining a motivation for action as a rationalist would, because a rationalist must rationalize an irrational desire rooted in the body and the unconscious. (See, for example, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil.)

Does this mean then that the Zen person has eliminated the demand of instincts or desires? If they are eliminated, the Zen person would turn into a living corpse. Such a person can perform no action, let alone a free action. Obviously then, the Zen person does not eliminate them, but rather transforms them into “non-defilements,” into a higher spiritual energy. We see a heightened spirituality upheld by Zen master Baso (Chin., MÄzū; 709–788), which he insists to be concretely expressed in the everyday “life-world.” He expresses it by phrasing it: “the mind as it is is the way.” (Yanagita, 1974, 147.) This statement, “the mind as it is is the way” (heijōshin kore michi) is sometimes rendered in English as “the everyday mind is the way.” This rendition can be misleading if we ignore Baso’s qualification that this “everyday mind” operates without defilements such that it is not “[entrenched in the samsāric cycle] of birth and death,” and moreover that it is not dominated by a teleological intentionality, i.e., it negates the “in order that.” Otherwise, there is a danger of interpreting Baso’s statement as promoting an evil naturalism. That is, whatever a person desires in the state of “nature,” i.e., “the everyday mind,” is the expression of the Way. There is no problem of a misinterpretation then, as long as Baso’s “everyday mind” is understood to mean the mind which is freed from “the samsāsric cycle of birth and death,” and yet it is the mind which is concretely instantiated in the everydayness of a human everyday “life-world.”

Let us see how Baso’s idea of “the mind as it is is the way” is carried to a highly artistic action, whether it be a performance technique of martial artist, dancer, actor/actress or musician. Takuan’s reflection on this point is illuminating. He speaks of a “nondiscriminatory knowledge” realized in action as “immovable wisdom”: “It [immovable wisdom] moves as the mind is wont to move: forward or back, to the left, to the right, in the ten directions and to the eight points; and the mind that does not stop at all is called immovable wisdom.” (Takuan, 1986.) Zen’s free action is predicated on the fact that the mind “does not stop at all,” what Takuan paradoxically calls “immovable wisdom.” Here one can discern an echo of Jinne’s mirror analogy. Takuan calls it “immovable” because the mind remains absolutely still (i.e., not two) in the midst of action, like the stationary shaft of a top. Such a mind does not fluctuate in its center, in the deep region of psyche. In this state, because the mind moves in such a way that it does not dwell on anything, there is no obstruction for the mind to move freely.

Generally Zen describes the freedom of bodily movement as “stillness in motion” (dōchū no sei) and is contrasted with “motion in stillness.” It is noteworthy that “stillness in motion” cannot accurately be analyzed by appealing to the active-passive scheme, which presupposes a dichotomy as a proper method for understanding. However contradictory it may seem, this is a description of how Zen understands its freedom as expressed through an integrated mind and body. In order for this sense of freedom to be embodied, however, Zen emphasizes that a performer of any kind repeatedly undergoes mind-body training. Takuan calls this the “body’s learning,”—that is the core meaning of self-cultivation—because in “body’s learning,” both the mind and the body are brought to action in one integrated whole. (The “body’s learning,” neurophysiologically speaking, is closely related to an activity of the cerebellum in conjunction with the hippocampus, although it is not only that.) When a skill or performing technique is learned through this method, one’s own body moves freely as it is habituated to move without waiting for a command from the mind. This describes a freedom of action in a Zen person for whom the mind is completely assimilated into the object-body, while the body is equally rendered into the subject-body. They are one. At such a time, Takuan says, a spiritual life-energy of psychophysiological nature, called “ki,” permeates “one’s body”—an energy that cannot be delineated by either the mind or the body. (Yuasa, 1993) In this connection, Zen also speaks of Zen’s free action as a purposeless purpose, as an actionless action, for neither the purpose nor the action arises from the everyday consciousness which sets up a purpose or a goal for action. Zen calls it “samādhi-at-play,” where there is no individual qua the trans-individual, but what there is is just “play,” for the Zen person is absorbed in the activity when engaging a thing of the everyday “life-world.” In short, Zen freedom designates a term of achievement. What Zen says of freedom of action has an implication for every action people perform in daily life, from the simple act of opening a door to the magnificent play of a great athlete or performer of any kind. In them, Zen contends however, the spirituality of a performer must be expressed. Zen extends an invitation to all of us to act in this way, so that the quality of life will be enhanced with a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment, free from stress and anxiety.

8. Concluding Remarks

This essay has articulated a Zen Philosophy, though as anti-philosophy, by thematizing such topics as “overcoming dualism,” “Zen-seeing,” “Zen’s understanding of time and space,” “Zen person,” and “Zen freedom,” in which process is noted a sense of the movement from “not two” to “not one.” This was to indicate Zen’s sense of achieving personhood. Zen’s methods of meditative practice are concrete ways for an individual to become a Zen person by awakening to the fundamental reality in the everyday human “life-world.” In so doing, it teaches to participate in the whole, and to express freedom in daily action, by showing one’s “original face” right here-now and right in front of one’s eyes.

In closing this essay, a cautionary remark is in order, however: all of the preceding accounts are simply a heuristic way of conceptually articulating Zen philosophy. Or to use a Zen phrase, this conceptual articulation is only “a finger pointing to the moon,” where Zen insists that there should not be a confounding of the moon with a finger. In Zen language, the moon metaphorically designates an experience of enlightenment and the finger a linguistic or reflective endeavor.

Psychedelics and Religious Experience

Psychedelics and Religious Experience by Alan Watts

The experiences resulting from the use of psychedelic drugs are often described in religious terms. They are therefore of interest to those like myself who, in the tradition of William James, are concerned with the psychology of religion. For more than thirty years I have been studying the causes, the consequences, and the conditions of those peculiar states of consciousness in which the individual discovers himself to be one continuous process with God, with the Universe, with the Ground of Being, or whatever name he may use by culturalconditioning or personal preference for the ultimate and eternal reality. We have no satisfactory and definitive name for experiences of this kind. The terms “religious experience,” “mystical experience,” and “cosmic consciousness” are all too vague and comprehensive to denote that specific mode of consciousness which, to those who have known it, is as real and overwhelming as falling in love. This article describes such states of consciousness induced by psychedelic drugs, although they are virtually indistinguishablefrom genuine mystical experience. The article then discusses objections to the use of psychedelic drugs that arise mainly from the opposition between mystical values and the traditional religious and secular values of Western society.

The Psychedelic Experience

The idea of mystical experiences resulting from drug use is not readily accepted in Western societies. Western culture has, historically, a particular fascination with the value and virtue of man as an individual, self-determining, responsible ego, controlling himself and his world by the power of conscious effort and will. Nothing, then, could be more repugnant to this cultural tradition than the notion of spiritual or psychological growth through the use of drugs. A “drugged” person is by definition dimmed in consciousness, fogged in judgment, and deprived of will. But not all psychotropic (consciousness-changing) chemicals are narcotic and soporific, as are alcohol, opiates, and barbiturates. The effects of what are now called psychedelic (mind-manifesting) chemicals differ from those of alcohol as laughter differs from rage, or delight from depression. There is really no analogy between being “high” on LSD and “drunk” on bourbon. True, no one in either state should drive a car, but neither should one drive while reading a book, playing a violin, or making love. Certain creative activities and states of mind demand a concentration and devotion that are simply incompatible with piloting a death-dealing engine along a highway.

I myself have experimented with five of the principal psychedelics: LSD-25, mescaline, psilocybin, dimethyl-tryptamine (DMT), and cannabis. I have done so, as William James tried nitrous oxide, to see if they could help me in identifying what might be called the “essential” or “active” ingredients of the mystical experience. For almost all the classical literature on mysticism is vague, not only in describing the experience, but also in showing rational connections between the experience itself and the various traditional methods recommended to induce it: fasting, concentration, breathing exercises, prayers, incantations, and dances. A traditional master of Zen or Yoga, when asked why such-and-such practices lead or predispose one to the mystical experience, always responds, “This is the way my teacher gave it to me. This is the way I found out. If you’re seriously interested, try it for yourself.” This answer hardly satisfies an impertinent, scientifically minded, and intellectually curious Westerner. It reminds him of archaic medical prescriptions compounding five salamanders, powdered gallows rope, three boiled bats, a scruple of phosphorus, three pinches of henbane, and a dollop of dragon dung dropped when the moon was in Pisces. Maybe it worked, but what was the essential ingredient?

It struck me, therefore, that if any of the psychedelic chemicals would in fact predispose my consciousness to the mystical experience, I could use them as instruments for studying and describing that experience as one uses a microscope for bacteriology, even though the microscope is an “artificial” and “unnatural” contrivance which might be said to “distort” the vision of the naked eye. However, when I was first invited to test the mystical qualities of LSD-25 by Dr. Keith Ditman of the Neuropsychiatric Clinic at UCLA Medical School, I was unwilling to believe that any mere chemical could induce a genuine mystical experience. At most, it might bring about a state of spiritual insight analogous to swimming with water wings. Indeed, my first experiment with LSD-25 was not mystical. It was an intensely interesting aesthetic and intellectual experience that challenged my powers of analysis and careful description to the utmost.

Some months later, in 1959, I tried LSD-25 again with Drs. Sterling Bunnell and Michael Agron, who were then associated with the Langley-Porter Clinic, in San Francisco. In the course of two experiments I was amazed and somewhat embarrassed to find myself going through states of consciousness that corresponded precisely with every description of major mystical experiences that I had ever read. Furthermore, they exceeded both in depth and in a peculiar quality of unexpectedness the three “natural and spontaneous” experiences of this kind that had happened to me in previous years.

Through subsequent experimentation with LSD-25 and the other chemicals named above (with the exception of DMT, which I find amusing but relatively uninteresting), I found I could move with ease into the state of “cosmic consciousness,” and in due course became less and less dependent on the chemicals themselves for “tuning in” to this particular wave length of experience. Of the five psychedelics tried, I found that LSD-25 and cannabis suited my purposes best. Of these two, the latter–cannabis–which I had to use abroad in countries where it is not outlawed, proved to be the better. It does not induce bizarre alterations of sensory perception, and medical studies indicate that it may not, save in great excess, have the dangerous side effects of LSD.

For the purposes of this study, in describing my experiences with psychedelic drugs I avoid the occasional and incidental bizarre alterations of sense perception that psychedelic chemicals may induce. I am concerned, rather, with the fundamental alterations of the normal, socially induced consciousness of one’s own existence and relation to the external world. I am trying to delineate the basic principles of psychedelic awareness. But I must add that I can speak only for myself. The quality of these experiences depends considerably upon one’s prior orientation and attitude to life, although the now voluminous descriptive literature of these experiences accords quite remarkably with my own.

Almost invariably, my experiments with psychedelics have had four dominant characteristics. I shall try to explain them-in the expectation that the reader will say, at least of the second and third, “Why, that’s obvious! No one needs a drug to see that.” Quite so, but every insight has degrees of intensity. There can be obvious-1 and obvious-2, and the latter comes on with shattering clarity, manifesting its implications in every sphere and dimension of our existence.

The first characteristic is a slowing down of time, a concentration in the present. One’s normally compulsive concern for the future decreases, and one becomes aware of the enormous importance and interest of what is happening at the moment. Other people, goingabout their business on the streets, seem to be slightly crazy, failing to realize that the whole point of life is to be fully aware of it as it happens. One therefore relaxes, almost luxuriously, into studying the colors in a glass of water, or in listening to the now highly articulate vibration of every note played on an oboe or sung by a voice. From the pragmatic standpoint of our culture, such an attitude is very bad for business. It might lead to improvidence, lack of foresight, diminished sales of insurance policies, and abandoned savings accounts. Yet this is just the corrective that our culture needs. No one is more fatuously impractical than the “successful” executive who spends his whole life absorbed in frantic paper work with the objective of retiring in comfort at sixty-five, when it will all be too late. Only those who have cultivated the art of living completely in the present have any use for making plans for the future, for when the plans mature they will be able to enjoy the results. “Tomorrow never comes.” I have never yet heard a preacher urging his congregation to practice that section of the Sermon on the Mount which begins, “Be not anxious for the morrow….” The truth is that people who live for the future are, as we say of the insane, “not quite all there”–or here: by over-eagerness they are perpetually missing the point. Foresight is bought at the price of anxiety, and when overused it destroys all its own advantages.

The second characteristic I will call awareness of polarity. This is the vivid realization that states, things, and events that we ordinarily call opposite are interdependent, like back and front, or the poles of a magnet. By polar awareness one sees that things which are explicitly different are implicitly one: self and other, subject and object, left and right, male and female-and then, a little more surprisingly, solid and space, figure and background, pulse and interval, saints and sinners, police and criminals, in-groups and out-groups. Each is definable only in terms of the other, and they go together transactionally, like buying and selling, for there is no sale without a purchase, and no purchase without a sale. As this awareness becomes increasingly intense, you feel that you yourself are polarized with the external universe in such a way that you imply each other. Your push is its pull, and its push is your pull–as when you move the steering wheel of a car. Are you pushing it or pulling it? At first, this is a very odd sensation, not unlike hearing your own voice played back to you on an electronic system immediately after you have spoken. You become confused, and wait for it to go on! Similarly, you feel that you are something being done by the universe, yet that the universe is equally something being done by you-which is true, at least in the neurological sense that the peculiar structure of our brains translates the sun into light, and air vibrations into sound. Our normal sensation of relationship to the outside world is that sometimes I push it, and sometimes it pushes me. But if the two are actually one, where does action begin and responsibility rest? If the universe is doing me, how can I be sure that,two seconds hence, I will still remember the English language? If I am doing it, how can I be sure that, two seconds hence, my brain will know how to turn the sun into light? From such unfamiliar sensations as these, the psychedelic experience can generate confusion, paranoia, and terror-even though the individual is feeling his relationship to the world exactly as it would be described by a biologist, ecologist, or physicist, for he is feeling himself as the unified field of organism and environment.

The third characteristic, arising from the second, is awareness of relativity. I see that I am a link in an infinite hierarchy of processes and beings, ranging from molecules through bacteria and insects to human beings, and, maybe, to angels and gods-a hierarchy in which every level is in effect the same situation. For example, the poor man worries about money while the rich man worries about his health: the worry is the same, but the difference is in its substance or dimension. I realize that fruit flies must think of themselves as people, because, like ourselves, they find themselves in the middle of their own world-with immeasurably greater things above and smaller things below. To us, they all look alike and seem to have no personality-as do the Chinese when we have not lived among them. Yet fruit flies must see just as many subtle distinctions among themselves as we among ourselves. From this it is but a short step to the realization that all forms of life and being are simply variations on a single theme: we are all in fact one being doing the same thing in as many different ways as possible. As the French proverb goes, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose (the more it varies, the more it is one). I see, further, that feeling threatened by the inevitability of death is really the same experience as feeling alive, and that as all beings are feeling this everywhere, they are all just as much “I” as myself. Yet the “I” feeling, to be felt at all, must always be a sensation relative to the “other”-to something beyond its control and experience. To be at all, it must begin and end. But the intellectual jump that mystical and psychedelic experiences make here is in enabling you to see that all these myriad I-centers are yourself–not, indeed, your personal and superficially conscious ego, but what Hindus call the paramatman, the Self of all selves. As the retina enables us to see countless pulses of energy as a single light, so the mystical experience shows us innumerable individuals as a single Self.

The fourth characteristic is awareness of eternal energy, often in the form of intense white light, which seems to be both the current in your nerves and that mysterious e which equals mc2. This may sound like megalomania or delusion of grandeur-but one sees quite clearly that all existence is a single energy, and that this energy is one’s own being. Of course there is death as well as life, because energy is a pulsation, and just as waves must have both crests and troughs, the experience of existing must go on and off. Basically, therefore, there is simply nothing to worry about, because you yourself are the eternal energy of the universe playing hide-and-seek (off-and-on) with itself. At root, you are the Godhead, for God is all that there is. Quoting Isaiah just a little out of context: “I am the Lord, and there is none else.  I form the light and create the darkness: I make peace, and create evil. I, the Lord, do all these things.” This is the sense of the fundamental tenet of Hinduism, Tat tram asi–“THAT (i.e., “that subtle Being of which this whole universe is composed”) art thou.” A classical case of this experience, from the West, is in Tennyson’s Memoirs: A kind of waking trance I have frequently had, quite up from boyhood, when I have been all alone. This has generally come upon me thro’ repeating my own name two or three times to myself silently, till all at once, as it were out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality, the individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being, and this not a confused state, but the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest, the weirdest of the weirdest, utterly beyond words, where death was an almost laughable impossibility, the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction but the only true life.

Obviously, these characteristics of the psychedelic experience, as I have known it, are aspects of a single state of consciousness–for I have been describing the same thing from different angles. The descriptions attempt to convey the reality of the experience, but in doing so they also suggest some of the inconsistencies between such experience and the current values of society.

Opposition to Psychedelic Drugs

Resistance to allowing use of psychedelic drugs originates in both religious and secular values. The difficulty in describing psychedelic experiences in traditional religious terms suggests one ground of opposition. The Westerner must borrow such words as samadhi or moksha from the Hindus, or satori or kensho from the Japanese, to describe the experience of oneness with the universe. We have no appropriate word because our own Jewish and Christian theologies will not accept the idea that man’s inmost self can be identical with the Godhead, even though Christians may insist that this was true in the unique instance of Jesus Christ. Jews and Christians think of God in political and monarchical terms, as the supreme governor of the universe, the ultimate boss. Obviously, it is both socially unacceptable and logically preposterous for a particular individual to claim that he, in person, is the omnipotent and omniscient ruler of the world-to be accorded suitable recognition and honor.  Such an imperial and kingly concept of the ultimate reality, however, is neither necessary nor universal. The Hindus and the Chinese have no difficulty in conceiving of an identity of the self and the Godhead. For most Asians, other than Muslims, the Godhead moves andmanifests the world in much the same way that a centipede manipulates a hundred legs-spontaneously, without deliberation or calculation. In other words, they conceive the universe by analogy with an organism as distinct from a mechanism. They do not see it as an artifact or construct under the conscious direction of some supreme technician, engineer, or architect.

If, however, in the context of Christian or Jewish tradition, an individual declares himself to be one with God, he must be dubbed blasphemous (subversive) or insane. Such a mystical experience is a clear threat to traditional religious concepts. The Judaeo-Christian tradition has a monarchical image of God, and monarchs, who rule by force, fear nothing more than insubordination. The Church has therefore always been highly suspicious of mystics, because they seem to be insubordinate and to claim equality or, worse, identity with God.  For this reason, John Scotus Erigena and Meister Eckhart were condemned as heretics. This was also why the Quakers faced opposition for their doctrine of the Inward Light, and for their refusal to remove hats in church and in court. A few occasional mystics may be all right so long as they watch their language, like St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, who maintained, shall we say, a metaphysical distance of respect between themselves and their heavenly King. Nothing, however, could be more alarming to the ecclesiastical hierarchy than a popular outbreak of mysticism, for this might well amount to setting up a democracy in the kingdom of heaven-and such alarm would be shared equally by Catholics, Jews, and fundamentalist Protestants.

The monarchical image of God, with its implicit distaste for religious insubordination, has a more pervasive impact than many Christians might admit. The thrones of kings have walls immediately behind them, and all who present themselves at court must prostrate themselves or kneel, because this is an awkward position from which to make a sudden attack. It has perhaps never occurred to Christians that when they design a church on the model of a royal court (basilica) and prescribe church ritual, they are implying that God, like a human monarch, is afraid. This is also implied by flattery in prayers: O Lord our heavenly Father, high and mighty, King of kings, Lord of lords, the only Ruler of princes, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon earth: most heartily we beseech thee with thy favor to behold….

The Western man who claims consciousness of oneness with God or the universe thus clashes with his society’s concept of religion. In most Asian cultures, however, such a man will be congratulated as having penetrated the true secret of life. He has arrived, by chance or by some such discipline as Yoga or Zen meditation, at a state of consciousness in which he experiences directly and vividly what our own scientists know to be true in theory. For the ecologist, the biologist, and the physicist know (but seldom feel) that every organism constitutes a single field of behavior, or process, with its environment. There is no way of separating what any given organism is doing from what its environment is doing, for which reason ecologists speak not of organisms in environments but of organism-environments.

Thus the words “I” and “self” should properly mean what the whole universe is doing at this particular “here-and-now” called John Doe.The kingly concept of God makes identity of self and God, or self and universe, inconceivable in Western religious terms. The difference between Eastern and Western concepts of man and his universe, however, extends beyond strictly religious concepts. The Western scientist may rationally perceive the idea of organism-environment, but he does not ordinarily feel this to be true. By cultural and social conditioning, he has been hypnotized into experiencing himself as an ego-as an isolated center of consciousness and will inside a bag of skin, confronting an external and alien world. We say, “I came into this world.” But we did nothing of the kind. We came out of it in just the same way that fruit comes out of trees. Our galaxy, our cosmos, “peoples” in the same way that an apple tree “apples.”

Such a vision of the universe clashes with the idea of a monarchical God, with the concept of the separate ego, and even with the secular, atheist/agnostic mentality, which derives its common sense from the mythology of nineteenth-century scientist. According to this view, the universe is a mindless mechanism and man a sort of accidental microorganism infesting a minute globular rock that revolves about an unimportant star on the outer fringe of one of the minor galaxies. This “put-down” theory of man is extremely common among such quasi scientists as sociologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists, most of whom are still thinking of the world in terms of Newtonian mechanics, and have never really caught up with the ideas of Einstein and Bohr, Oppenheimer and Schrodinger. Thus to the ordinary institutional-type psychiatrist, any patient who gives the least hint of mystical or religious experience is automatically diagnosed as deranged. From the standpoint of the mechanistic religion, he is a heretic and is given electroshock therapy as an up-to-date form of thumbscrew and rack.

And, incidentally, it is just this kind of quasi scientist who, as consultant to government and law-enforcement agencies, dictates official policies on the use of psychedelic chemicals.  Inability to accept the mystic experience is more than an intellectual handicap. Lack of awareness of the basic unity of organism and environment is a serious and dangerous hallucination. For in a civilization equipped with immense technological power, the sense of alienation between man and nature leads to the use of technology in a hostile spirit–to the “conquest” of nature instead of intelligent co-operation with nature. The result is that we are eroding and destroying our environment, spreading Los Angelization instead of civilization.

This is the major threat overhanging Western, technological culture, and no amount of reasoning or doom-preaching seems to help. We simply do not respond to the prophetic and moralizing techniques of conversion upon which Jews and Christians have always relied.But people have an obscure sense of what is good for them-call it “unconscious self-healing,” “survival instinct,” “positive growth potential,” or what you will. Among the educated young there is therefore a startling and unprecedented interest in the transformation of human consciousness. All over the Western world publishers are selling millions of books dealing with Yoga, Vedanta, Zen Buddhism, and the chemical mysticism of psychedelic drugs, and I have come to believe that the whole “hip” subculture, however misguided in some of its manifestations, is the earnest and responsible effort of young people to correct the self-destroying course of industrial civilization.

The content of the mystical experience is thus inconsistent with both the religious and secular concepts of traditional Western thought. Moreover, mystical experiences often result in attitudes that threaten the authority not only of established churches, but also of secular society. Unafraid of death and deficient in worldly ambition, those who have undergone mystical experiences are impervious to threats and promises. Moreover, their sense of the relativity of good and evil arouses the suspicion that they lack both conscience and respect for law. Use of psychedelics in the United States by a literate bourgeoisie means that an important segment of the population is indifferent to society’s traditional rewards and sanctions.

In theory, the existence within our secular society of a group that does not accept conventional values is consistent with our political vision. But one of the great problems of the United States, legally and politically, is that we have never quite had the courage of our convictions. The Republic is founded on the marvelously sane principle that a human community can exist and prosper onlyon a basis of mutual trust. Metaphysically, the American Revolution was a rejection of the dogma of Original Sin, which is the notion that because you cannot trust yourself or other people, there must be some Superior Authority to keep us all in order. The dogma was rejected because, if it is true that we cannot trust ourselves and others, it follows that we cannot trust the Superior Authority which we ourselves conceive and obey, and that the very idea of our ownuntrustworthiness is unreliable!

Citizens of the United States believe, or are supposed to believe, that a republic is the best form of government. Yet vast confusion arises from trying to be republican in politics and monarchist in religion. How can a republic be the best form of government if the universe,heaven, and hell are a monarchy? Thus, despite the theory of government by consent, based upon mutual trust, the peoples of the United States retain, from the authoritarian backgrounds of their religions or national origins, an utterly naive faith in law as some sort of supernatural and paternalistic power. “There ought to be a law against it!” Our law-enforcement officers are therefore confused, hindered, and bewildered–not to mention corrupted–by being asked to enforce sumptuary laws, often of ecclesiastical origin, that vast numbers of people have no intention of obeying and that, in any case, are immensely difficult or simply impossible to enforce–for example, the barring of anything so undetectable as LSD-25 from international and interstate commerce.

Finally, there are two specific objections to use of psychedelic drugs. First, use of these drugs may be dangerous. However, every worth-while exploration is dangerous–climbing mountains, testing aircraft, rocketing into outer space, skin diving, or collecting botanicalspecimens in jungles. But if you value knowledge and the actual delight of exploration more than mere duration of uneventful life, you are willing to take the risks. It is not really healthy for monks to practice fasting, and it was hardly hygienic for Jesus to get himself crucified, but these are risks taken in the course of spiritual adventures. Today the adventurous young are taking risks in exploring the psyche, testing their mettle at the task just as, in times past, they have tested it–more violently–in hunting, dueling, hot-rod racing, and playing football. What they need is not prohibitions and policemen, but the most intelligent encouragement and advice that can be found.

Second, drug use may be criticized as an escape from reality. However, this criticism assumes unjustly that the mystical experiences themselves are escapist or unreal. LSD, in particular, is by no means a soft and cushy escape from reality. It can very easily be an experience in which you have to test your soul against all the devils in hell. For me, it has been at times an experience in which I was at once completely lost in the corridors of the mind and yet relating that very lostness to the exact order of logic and language, simultaneously very mad and very sane. But beyond these occasional lost and insane episodes, there are the experiences of the world as a system of total harmony and glory, and the discipline of relating these to the order of logic and language must somehow explain how what William Blake called that “energy which is eternal delight” can consist with the misery and suffering of everyday life.

The undoubted mystical and religious intent of most users of the psychedelics, even if some of these substances should be proved injurious to physical health, requires that their free and responsible use be exempt from legal restraint in any republic that maintains a constitutional separation of church and state. To the extent that mystical experience conforms with the tradition of genuine religious involvement, and to the extent that psychedelics induce that experience, users are entitled to some constitutional protection. Also, to the extent that research in the psychology of religion can utilize such drugs, students of the human mind must be free to use them. Under present laws, I, as an experienced student of the psychologyof religion, can no longer pursue research in the field. This is a barbarous restriction of spiritual and intellectual freedom, suggesting that the legal system of the United States is, after all, in tacit alliance with the monarchical theory of the universe, and will, therefore, prohibit and persecute religious ideas and practices based on an organic and unitary vision of the universe.




Bell’s Theorem

Physics Virtual Bookshelf

The bookshelf is a “permanent” repository for documents about Physics written by staff members of the Department of Physics, University of Toronto…

In 1975 Stapp called Bell’s Theorem “the most profound discovery of science.” Note that he says science, not physics. I agree with him.

In this document, we shall explore the theorem. We assume some familiarity with the concept of wave-particle duality; a document on this may be found here. We also assume considerable familiarity with the Stern-Gerlach experiment and the concept of a correlation experiment…

The origins of this topic is a famous paper by Einstein, Rosen and Podolsky (EPR) in 1935; its title was Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality be Considered Complete? They considered what Einstein called the “spooky action-at-a-distance” that seems to be part of Quantum Mechanics, and concluded that the theory must be incomplete if not outright wrong. As you probably already know, Einstein never did accept Quantum Mechanics. One of his objections was that “God does not play at dice with the universe.” Bohr responded: “Quit telling God what to do!”

In the early 1950’s David Bohm (not “Bohr”) was a young Physics professor at Princeton University. He was assigned to teach Quantum Mechanics and, as is common, decided to write a textbook on the topic; the book is still a classic. Einstein was at Princeton at this time, and as Bohm finished each chapter of the book Einstein would critique it. By the time Bohm had finished the book Einstein had convinced him that Quantum Mechanics was at least incomplete. Bohm then spent many years in search of hidden variables, unobserved factors inside, say, a radioactive atom that determines when it is going to decay. In a hidden variable theory, the time for the decay to occur is not random, although the variable controlling the process is hidden from us. We will discuss Bohm’s work extensively later in this document.

In 1964 J.S. Bell published his theorem. It was cast in terms of a hidden variable theory. Since then, other proofs have appeared by d’Espagnat, Stapp, and others that are not in terms of hidden variables. Below we shall do a variation on d’Espagnat’s proof that I devised; it was originally published in the American Journal of Physics 50, 811 – 816 (1982).

Sometimes one sees statements that Bell’s Theorem says that information is being transmitted at speeds greater than the speed of light. So far I have not seen such an argument that I believe is correct…we see that one-half the electrons pass and one-half do not; which is going to be the case for an individual electron appears to be random. Thus, the behavior at our polariser does not allow us to gain any information about the orientation of the other polariser. It is only in the correlation of the electron spins that we see something strange. d’Espagnat uses the word influence to describe what may be traveling at superluminal speeds…

Imagine we take a coin and carefully saw it in half so that one piece is a “heads” and the other is a “tails.” We put each half in a separate envelope and carry them to different rooms. If we open one of the envelopes and see a heads, we know that the other envelope contains a tails. This correlation “experiment” corresponds to spin measurements when both polarisers have the same orientation. It is when we have the polarisers at different orientations that we see something weird.

So far we don’t know which of the assumptions…in the proof [of local hidden variables that explain ‘spooky action at a distance’] are incorrect, so we are free to take our pick of one, two, or all three [deductive logic is invalid, there is a reality separate from observation, there can be no nonlocal hidden variables]…

Field Consciousness And Ethics


Field Consciousness And Field Ethics

Renee Weber, 1978, Revision Journal

Bohm’s theory reveals a remarkable cosmology. Perhaps no less remarkable is its source, a physicist. I our epoch of professional compartmentalization, the question arises: why does an eminent theoretical physicist with a scientific reputation at stake devote himself to exploring consciousness? An empathic grasp of Bohm’s vision of the universe sheds light on this question.

His contact with Indian philosophy, notably the Indian sage Krisnamurti, has convinced Bohm that thought, the form of consciousness most familiar to us and in which we habitually function, corrupts reality. The ancient hopes of metaphysics and physics, that thought might reveal reality, is necessarily doomed. Thought is a reactive, not an active ability, attuning man only partially to nature; distorting most of it. Thought is a fossilized kind of consciousness, operating within the “known” and thus by definition is uncreative. Reality or the ultimate (Bohm does not equate these two, but their clarification is beyond the scope of this paper), Bohm’s investigations have convinced him, is always fresh. It is a living process. Since thought is bounded by time, it cannot grasp what lies beyond a spatio-temporal finite framework.

Bohm only reluctantly admits the theories of other thinkers into his discussions, insisting on working out a given problem afresh without leaning on the past. Still, he allows that there are parallels between his views and those of certain philosophers of the past. A case in point is Plato, whose Allegory of the Cave coheres surprisingly with Bohm’s cosmology. When pressed, Bohm agrees to the correlation of Plato’s cave with the explicate order, and that of Plato’s metaphor of light with Bohm’s implicate order. Both Plato’s light (sun) and Bohm’s implicate order can be apprehended only through insight, both lie beyond language, and both are inaccessible except to those willing to undergo strenuous and single-minded change. The domains Bohm characterizes as “infinitely beyond” even the implicate order—namely truth, intelligence, insight, compassion—compare to Plat’s ultimates: truth, beauty the good, the one.

Other philosophical traditions come to mind. In the west Plotinus, Leibniz, and Spinoza; in the East, Buddha, Shankara, and jnana yoga. Jnana yoga, whose affinity with Krishnamurti and Bohm is striking, is the yoga of discernment and discrimination. It eschews metaphysics and exoteric religion, ritual and symbol-systems in favor of a pure awareness without frameworks or filters. It is known in the tradition as “the path that goes straight up the side of the mountain,” and is reputed to be the most direct and difficult path there is. Only the very few are said to be willing to meet its demands or are capable of this feat. According to those who have left us the record of their experience, its high point is silence. Thus Meister Ekhart (to turn to an experienced source) asserts that “there is nothing in all the universe so much like God and silence,” and connects this finding to methodology: “Why do you prate of God? Don’t you know that whatever you say is untrue?”

Beyond these remarks, we must leave tradition behind. Though it may be of historical and psychological interest to link ourselves to other explorers in this fecund stillness, to get stuck in the past is a hindrance and betrayal of the freshly minted moment, in which Bohm’s focus lies. However interesting may be the philosophers or systems one injects into a discussion with him, Bohm firmly reduces these to a minimum and brings the subject back to the present, to this moment. It is his commitment to this living moment-to-moment manifestation of reality that links his work in physics with his interest in consciousness.

Atom-smashing can occur only in the present and must occur ever afresh. The analogy of the atom with thought, and with the alleged thinker who authors the thought, is crucial. The thinker is the atom cohering in time through its binding energy. When the binding energy of the physical atom is released in the accelerator, the resultant energy, staggeringly huge, becomes freed. Analogously huge amounts of binding energy are needed to create and sustain the “thinker” and to maintain his illusion that he is a stable entity. That energy being tied up, is unavailable for other purposes, pressed into the service of what Bohm terms “self-deception” (a phenomenon described by Buddha as ignorance, avidya, literally “not really seeing.”). Thought, or what Bohm terms the 3-dimensional mind, mistakenly believing itself autonomous and irreducible, requires and hence squanders vast amounts of cosmic energy on this illusion. Energy thus preempted cannot flow into other grooves. The consequence is an unsound cosmic ecology, polluting the holomovement in at least two destructive directions. First, the holomovement misunderstands itself, choosing fiction over fact, and therefore enslaves itself. Second, the holomovement lacerates itself, substituting the isolated self for the consciousness of mankind in an abstraction founded on fallacy, enslaving others through its anger, greed, competitiveness and ambition. The result of both these missteps is a world of personal and interpersonal suffering.

The first misstep, the illusion of an ego, I, personal self or thinker, is intimately related with time and death. Let us be clear. The thinker, not consciousness, is death-bound. Death, according to these views, is precisely the psychological atom-smashing described above and need not be synonymous with the dissolution of the physical body (as has been noted by many recorders of the esoteric tradition). Psychological death occurs when consciousness keeps step with the ever-moving and self-renewing present, allowing no part of itself to become caught or fixated as residual energy. It is residual energy that furnishes the framework for what will become the thinker, who consists of undigested experience, memory, habit-patterns, identification, desire, aversion, projection, and image-making. This is not a purely personal process but the energy of aeons of such processes sclerosed through time, persisting on both personal and collective levels. Ego-death dismantles this superstructure, moving it into its rightful place in the background of our lives, instead of dominating and disordering the foreground as is presently the case. Bohm argues that such a move entails greater not reduced biological adaptation and health, and it need not threaten us. On the contrary, “death” thus conceived is really its negation, ushering us into the timeless present beyond death’s reach.

Our second point concerns ethics. Through the centuries, the thinker has prattled on about absolutes unquestionably noble—God, cosmic consciousness, universal intelligence, love—but the domain where he daily dwells has remained destructive and chaotic. This need not surprise us. The 3-dimensional quality of thought necessarily blocks the thinker’s own experiencing of reality about which he has chattered for centuries. Logical and substantive incommensurability, not ill-will nor insufficient effort account for this. The nonmanifest, as Bohm painstakingly argues, is n-dimensional and atemporal, and cannot be handled in any way whatever by 3-dimensional thought. Consciousness functioning a thought (as opposed to insight) cannot know truth or compassion at first hand, and herein lies the root of its failure to embody these energies in its daily life.

Only when the individual has dissolved the 3-dimensional self consisting of gross matter, can the ground of our being flow through us unobstructedly. To a theoretical physicist, the parallel of this state of affairs with quantum mechanics is evident. Bohm extends its applicability to psychology, urging us to the dissolution of the thinker as the highest priority the seeker for truth can undertake. With this he teeters on the very edge of what is culturally acceptable, in the interface between physics and religion. It is a strange terrain, since our current culture, lacking any conceivable concept to explain it, rejects such a link a muddled if not absurd. However strange and novel it may be, this integration is justified by Bohm’s model of the universe as a holomovement. The dismantling of the thinker yields energy that is qualitatively charged, not neutral or value-free. It is energy unbound and flowing, characterized by wholeness, n-dimensionality, and the force of compassion. Physics and ethics also become one in this process, for the energy of the whole is somehow bound up with what we term holiness. In short, the energy itself is love.

The atom-smashing applicable to consciousness Bohm and Krishnamurti term “awareness.” Such a process provides consciousness with direct access to that energy, leading it to experiential certitude based on evidence, that the ultimate nature of the universe is an energy of love. Mystics have proclaimed this with one voice. What is interesting is that a contemporary physicist finds such a theory and its method of interest. It is of course true that in many respects the aims of the mystic coincide with those of the physicist, i.e., contact with what is ultimate. But there is one critical difference. Smashing the atom is a dualistic enterprise; the physicist (subject) works on an object considered to lie outside himself. Changing the object does not fundamentally change him. By contrast, destructuring the thinker necessarily involves the operator or experimenter himself, for he is the test-object in question, at once the transformer and what is undergoing transformation. Hence the resistance, arduousness and great rarity of the event.

Though rare, it does occur, and as suggested above, Bohm relates its achievement to ethics. Psychological atom-smashing unpollutes what countless illogical egoic clusters (analogous to spasms that reduce the flow within the whole) have polluted with their misplaced sense of separateness and their ego-borne priorities, resulting in universal sorrow. The psychological atom-smasher thus coincidess with the saint, who no longer adds to the collective sorrow of mankind and instead becomes a conduit for the boundless energy of compassion. Consciousness becomes a conduit aligned with the energy of the universe, radiating it to the creature and human world without distorting it or diverting it for its own self-centered pursuits.

Oddly, in spit of Bohm’s conviction that this is the true and desirable state of affairs with which our knowledge has simply not caught up, he is reluctant to discuss it other than in brief allusions to it. His emphasis is on methodology of the self-conditioning process, not on the promised land which might lie at the end of it. His rationale for this is simple. In its conditioned state, the mind can in any case do no more than translate what is unconditioned into conditioned patterns and, thus, lose the essence of what is sought. Faithful to the credo of science, Bohm holds out for the experiential, not verbal proof. The consequence of this position is strange if not bizarre. Nothing in the realm of knowledge, not even the elusive paradox of quantum mechanics, can rival it. On some level it seems at odds with our psychological makeup, for even those in full intellectual accord with this view encounter difficulties coming to grips with it on the existential level of their lives, as anyone who has experimented with Krishnamurti’s teachings will attest. What is this paradox? Just this: that the more we talk about or even think “the truth” the further away we push it from ourselves (the analogy with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is obvious). It is I, the thinker, the creator of the thought about the holy or God who, in that act itself, introduces the impurities (time, self, language, dualism) and thus beclouds what would otherwise be unsullied (Krishnamurti himself used that word in this context in a talk we had together in Ojai in 1976).

This claim is hardly novel, but its articulation has rarely been put forward with such single-minded eloquence as that found in the tone and language of Krishnamurti or with the clarity of Bohm. We need in fact not roam far afield. Kant comes to mind. Already in the late eighteenth century he insisted on our impossibility—grounded in logic or the laws of thought and thus constituting an obstacle that cannot be overcome—to experience what is ultimate. Kant called that domain the-thing-in-itself, i.e., what Krishnamurti and Bohm call intelligence or compassion (Buddha, the dharma and Plato “the good”). Kant killed metaphysics by carefully demonstrating in the Critique Of Pure Reason that whatever is thinkable and nameable must necessarily conform to the inherent structure of the mind: space, time, quality, quantity, causality, etc. The Kantian categories are what Bohm refers to as the realm of 3-dimensionality, with the distinction that the later is wider, containing emotion, will, intent and other psychological as well as cognitive qualities. All these concern the world of sensible experience (the manifest or explicate order in Bohm’s language), and they account for our ability to function in the phenomenal domain. In that dimension, we have no choice but to filter that which is through the universal perceiving apparatus just described. Our capacity for translation is useful when properly employed (i.e., biologically or in certain practical affairs of daily life). But we do so at a heavy price, as Kant realized. The noumenon or thing-in-itself, not capable of being caught in our net, remains inscrutable to us. Knowledge for Kant and Bohm is the process of tuning in on the manifestation (phenomenon) of the nonmanifest in order to make it accessible to creatures structured as we are. This filter and consequent distortion is inbuilt and universal. By definition, the thing-in-itself can never appear to us as it would be without our “tuning in” on it with out finite receiving apparatus.

Here the ways part. Krishnamurti, Bohm, and the whole mystical tradition agree with Kant’s analysis regarding phenomenal experience. They move beyond Kant, however, to proclaim the possibility of a state of consciousness lying outside there barriers. For Kant, whose views on the subject have been accepted as definitive by western philosophy, no other capacity in us is available on which to draw in order to approach the noumenon. Bohm, and those mentioned maintain that such a capacity exists in the universe, not in us strictly speaking. The challengefor the individual locus of consciousness is to provide the condition that allows the universal force to flow through it without hindrance. The result is not knowledge, in the Kantian sense, but direct nondualistic awareness, as state for which Kant made no provision and for which he had no vocabulary. Its precondition is emptiness, as Bohm repeatedly insists, which entails a suspension of the Kantian categories and of 3-dimensional space-time. Such emptiness brings about the cessation of consciousness as the knower and transforms us into an instrument receptively allowing the noumenal intelligence to operate through us, irradiating our daily lives and those of others. The specific mechanism at work is difficult to understand. Perhaps we become akin to electrical “transformers” capable of stepping down the staggering cosmic energy in ways that permit us to focus it on the microcosmic level where we live and act. However this may be, the rare individual who functions as such a channel seems to those who come in contact with him to belong to a new species of man (Krishnamurti, for anyone who has met him, clearly is a case in point). Such a human being radiates clarity, intelligence, order and love by his mere presence. He seems capable of transmuting our chaotic interpersonal world into an ethical realm by his very atmosphere, which unmistakably is charged with energies for which we have neither names nor concepts. At best we can vaguely capture the presence and power of that atmosphere in metaphorical and approximate terms.

Kant, by contrast, leaves us no doubt as to his unfamiliarity with such states of being, which a handful of humanity has recorded with remarkable consistency and intersubjective agreement. Bohm, like Kant, performs an invaluable service in delineating clearly where the limits of knowledge must lie. To paraphrase Kant: humankind is in a bind symbolized, as we might state it today, by a species universally endowed with contact lenses. Without these lenses, we cannot see at all, i.e., we can have no knowledge whatever. But as the lenses come pre-equipped with their own built-in tinted filters, with their aid we can “see” only what the filters permit. Thus we see either nothing or else “distortedly. In neither case do we contact what is ultimate.

Perceiving (not visually, of course) things as they really are, requires inactivating these lenses, in Bohm’s terms, by-passing the ego or self that manipulates the world through them, and becoming the empty channel for the wholeness which is our source. Nothing in that emptiness can be characterized, as already explained, because characterization is the translation of noumenon into phenomenon, of nonmanifest into manifest. Therefore all languages will fail to capture the essence of the whole, even the purest of languages, mathematics, as Plato conceded in the Republic. Only silence is commensurate with its nature and appropriate to its universe of “discourse” (samadhi, the rapturous culmination of yogic meditation described by Pantanjali, literally means “total silence” or “complete stillness”).

These remarks shed light on Bohm’s uncompromising stance. The hope of apprehending the noumenon through phenomenal eyes is founded on a logical absurdity, what Bohm calls confusion and self-deception. The age-old philosophical effort to tune in on the purity of being and perceive it as it would be in itself without being perceived by the knower is therefore a vain hope. To approach the infinite cosmic intelligence, love, or insight of which Bohm speaks entails that the knower has stepped aside altogether in favor of pure nondualistic awareness. In the light of this necessity, Bohm’s priorities become understandable and seem inevitable. Atom-smashing confined to gross matter—the province of the particle physicist—is but a first step in our reaching out to reality, and it is the path presently pursued by the community of physicists. But Bohm runs far ahead of the pack. The shape-shifting (cf. Tibetan Book of the Dead) of subatomic particles (gross matter) will not yield up the secrets of the universe. All it can offer us is knowledge, restricted to the 3-dimensional realm, as we have seen.

Bohm holds out for atom-smashing of a subtler kind: to slow down and ultimately to still the shape-shifter’s dance itself, i.e., the death of the 3-dimensional thinker and his rebirth within the n-dimensional domain of consciousness. Such an event would usher in the dynamic state Bohm refers to, in which creation and dissolution and creation would flow through us simultaneously, like quanta of energy born and borne away in the split micro-second, ever welling up afresh without being arrested, clutched at, or sullied. The consequence—were such a task successful—is a new paradigm of the universe, of consciousness and of human reality. No longer is it a question of a knower observing the known across a gulf of knowing which separates them. That model of consciousness has failed us through the centuries in which we have stubbornly clung to it.

It must be swept aside, as Bohm so clearly argues. Its replacement is the austere paradigm of a unified field of being, a self-conscious universe realizing itself to be integrally whole and interconnected. Knower and known thus are falsehoods: crude constructs based on abstraction. They are unwarranted by the way things really are, namely the monism which Bohm claims is most fully compatible with the message of modern physics, base on its penetration into nature thus far. Although the data is accepted by physicists, their interpretation of it remains restricted to realms that excluded themselves as conscious beings.

It is this reluctance and restriction that Bohm is challenging. He is willing to explore all the consequences of quantum mechanical theory and is risking his reputation on his commitment to the holomovement. His vision of a unified field theory undreamed of by science, in which the searcher and what is sought are apprehended as one, the holomovement becoming translucent to itself. Thatunified field is neither neutral nor value-free as current scientific canon requires, but an intelligent and compassionate energy, manifesting in an as yet unborn realm where physics, ethics and religion merge. For human life, widespread awareness of such a realm will be revolutionary, leading us to information to transformation and from knowledge to wisdom.

Unfolding Meaning


pp. 1-25

Ideas, concepts and theories are the stuff of thought, and thought affects the world in pervasive ways. What we think about reality can alter our relationship to it, just as what we perceive in the world around us can alter our thoughts. Thought is the ground upon which our understanding rests. With thought we see the world and in a continuing

process learn to interact with that world. We can look beyond our raw perceptions and alter the course of our actions. We can solve problems; we can create new products, technologies, ways of dealing with our environment and with one another.

But much of what we think remains hidden from our conscious awareness. Within our minds we carry a record of past experience, of lessons learned, of incidents and details long forgotten. Our thoughts are colored and conditioned by such limits as our language and our culture. We interpret our experience through a mixture of conscious and unconscious memories, imaginings and desires, and with these we organize our world. Often our thoughts, when acted upon, lead to unexpected and sometimes unimagined results. They seem to contain unrecognized implications of meaning of which we knew nothing, and that appear in spite of what we might have thought was our complete understanding. How then might we evaluate our thought? How might we discover whether or not our most cherished ideas are in fact valid and relevant to the circumstance before us? What do our thoughts mean?

This book is a record of an experiment in unfolding some of the vagaries of thought—an experiment conceived and developed during the course of a weekend of conversation between forty four people gathered to meet with Professor David Bohm and to consider with him some of his ideas on a far-ranging list of subjects. All had some familiarity with his work and an interest in looking further into its implications. Many had attended various conferences, seminars and workshops where a leader, or an invited expert, either taught or guided the participants toward an increased understanding of his or her area of expertise. This weekend turned out to be very different.

David Bohm is Emeritus Professor of Theoretical Physics at Birbeck College, The University of London. His work in physics has been predominantly concerned with the problem of motion and process which relativity physics deals with but quantum theory does not. Out of this interest he proposed the idea of quantum potential, a means by which the view of universal, unbroken wholeness, implicit in relativity theory, might be understood in the context of the more abstract, fragmentary approach of much of quantum mechanics. His theory of the implicit order, an approach whereby implicit potentials can be seen to unfold out of a universal, unbroken field into explicit phenomena before being reenfolded, has provided a new and valuable basis not only for new insights in physics but also for a whole range of other subjects.

For many years Professor Bohm has been especially interested in the philosophical implications of quantum and relativity physics, and with the discovering a metaphor that might make their meanings accessible to a general public unfamiliar with the mysteries of higher mathematics. His feeling has been that this is important because the mechanistic world-view that seems to dominate contemporary science and society has led to a state of increasing fragmentation, both within the experience of individual human beings and in society as a whole. The fact that this world-view is incomplete, and that it has not been widely recognized as such, has caused it to become bound up within a broad area of misunderstanding of science in general, but also—and more importantly—from a general confusion regarding the nature of thought and of its relationship to reality.

He has suggested that thought is, by nature, incomplete. Any thought, any idea, any theory, is simply a way of seeing, a way of viewing an object from a particular vantage point. It may be useful, but that usefulness is dependent upon particular circumstances—the time, the place, the conditions to which it is applied. If our thoughts are taken to be final, to include all possibilities, to be exact representations of reality, then eventually we run up against conditions where they become irrelevant. If we hold to them in spite of their irrelevance, we are forced either to ignore the facts or to apply some sort of force to make them fit. In either case fragmentation is the result.

Professor Bohm’s writings on universal wholeness, and his proposals concerning the implicate order have begun to have an influence on diverse disciplines. His idea are central to what has become known as ‘the holographic paradigm’. These ideas, which are explained and discussed in the main text of this book, have provided a new way of understanding a great many phenomena ranging from some of the problems of quantum physics to health care, social organization, religion, and the workings of the human mind itself.

In order to provide an opportunity to inquire more deeply into some of his thoughts, The Foundation of Universal Unity invited Professor Bohm to spend a weekend discussing these thoughts with a group of people of varying ages, nationalities and professional background. The intention was to discover if, by careful attention, a new and more fruitful vision of the possibilities for a greater harmony in the individual and in society might arise.

their irrelevance, we are forced either to ignore the facts or to apply some sort of force to make them fit. In either case fragmentation is the result.

Professor Bohm’s writings on universal wholeness, and his proposals concerning the implicate order have begun to have an influence on diverse disciplines. His idea are

central to what has become known as ‘the holographic paradigm’. These ideas, which are explained and discussed in the main text of this book, have provided a new way of understanding a great many phenomena ranging from some of the problems of quantum physics to health care, social organization, religion, and the workings of the human mind itself.

In order to provide an opportunity to inquire more deeply into some of his thoughts, The Foundation of Universal Unity invited Professor Bohm to spend a weekend discussing these thoughts with a group of people of varying ages, nationalities and professional background. The intention was to discover if, by careful attention, a new and more fruitful vision of the possibilities for a greater harmony in the individual and in society might arise.

On the llth day of May, 1984, the group gathered itself at a small, country hotel in the Cotswold village of Mickleton, Gloucestershire, England. Professor Bohm, accompanied by his wife Sarah, arrived seeming tired and preoccupied. This was to be his first experience of such a gathering. He had come prepared to give three talks, and to then develop his ideas with the group through question and answer sessions. As the weekend unfolded, though, a very different experience began to emerge both for Professor Bohm and all the participants.

The sessions developed an atmosphere of contained, mutual concern for the revelation of deeper insights. A spirit of friendship and respect between all those present emerged, and this quickly grew into a harmonious field where proposals of many sorts could be collectively investigated in safety and allowed to expand into new levels of understanding. A dialogue developed in which each participant was able to put aside his own views and listen to those of others. It became increasingly clear that no point of view was itself complete, and that a collective process of thought was the means by which understanding could be enriched. This fact became the focus of the group’s attention. No conclusions were reached nor were any programs initiated; rather the appreciation of a continual unfoldment of new insights revealed through friendly conversation was seen to be the means by which an increase of harmony might appear.

When such a process is translated into print it tends to take on the appearance of a finished product. The atmosphere out of which it emerged disappears, leaving only the arguments by which the various speakers hope to win agreement. Abstracted from the context of their creation the ideas stand naked, vulnerable to judgment, to criticism, to mere acceptance or rejection. This of course, is one reason for preserving ideas in print. As Professor Bohm suggests in the course of these discussions, ‘Ideas must be vulnerable.’

The ideas considered in these pages should be seen as part of a work in progress. They represent a slice of a creative process and they are presented not as conclusions but as an example of one way that new ideas might be raised, inquired into, and allowed to unfold further. They also introduce a new phase of Professor Bohm’s work, one in which the interactions between a group of individuals provide the focus of energy in which new meanings might be perceived, and where in his terms both the content and the context of thought enfold each other, and unfold into new meanings and insights.

In a conversation between forty five people there is much apparent clumsiness. People do not share their thoughts aloud in perfect sentences of a sort that the reader of a book

might ordinarily demand. There are many false starts, many incomplete proposals. Often in the course of these sessions, questions are raised, or statements made, that seemed irrelevant; but just as often, these opened the way to new and deeper levels of understanding. In attempting to document the proceedings I have tried to preserve as much as possible of the flavor of the event. I have opted for a balance that might make the ideas intelligible, while preserving something of the flow of interaction between the participants that was central to the experience. I have used the term ‘Question’ to mark the contributions by participants other than David Bohm, although only in the early stages of the dialogues did they particularly tend to take the form of questions. As the conversations progressed they became, simply, parts of the emerging whole.

I have only been able to include here the dialogues in which the entire group was present. In addition to these main discussions there were other sessions in which the larger group split into three smaller groups, and of course there were numerous more intimate conversations over meals, and so on.

The Implicate Order: A New Approach To Reality

Professor Bohm: Throughout history there has been a succession of world views; that is, general notions of cosmic order, and of the nature of reality as a whole. Each of these views has expressed the essential spirit of its time, and each of them in its turn, has had profound effects on the individual, and on society as a whole, not only physically, but also psychologically and ethically. These effects were multiple in nature, but among them, one of the most significant is notions of universal order.

I’ll begin by giving two examples of world views that are of key importance in this discussion. The first of these is the ancient Greek notion of the earth as the center of the universe, and the seven concentric spheres in the heavens in an order of increasing perfection of their natures. Together with the earth, they comprised a totality that was regarded as an integral organism, with activities they regarded as meaningful.

As suggested, especially by Aristotle, each part had its proper place in this organism, and its activity was seen as an effort to move toward that proper place and to carry out its appropriate function. Man was thought to be of central importance in this whole system, and this implied that his proper behavior was to be regarded as correspondingly necessary for the over-all harmony of the universe.

Now in contrast, in the modern view the earth is a mere grain of dust in an immense universe of material bodies—stars, galaxies, and so on—and these, in turn, are also constituted of atoms, molecules, and structure built out of them, as if they were parts of a universal machine. This machine, evidently, does not constitute a whole with meaning—at least, as far as can now be ascertained. Its basic order is that of independently existent parts interacting blindly through forces that they exert on each other.

The ultimate implications of this view of universal order are, of course, that man is basically insignificant. What he does has meaning only in so far as he can give it meaning in his own eyes, while the universe as a whole is basically indifferent to his aspirations, goals, moral and aesthetic values, and, indeed, to his ultimate fate. It is clear that these two views will, in the long run, have very different implications for our general attitude toward life, which can be profound and far reaching. For example, a man tends to feel much more at home with an organic point of view—organismic.

…for the present I’ll…call attention to the fact that a mechanistic notion of order has come to permeate most of modern science and technology, and for this reason has begun to affect the whole of life.

Now it’s in physics that the mechanistic world-view obtained its most complete development, especially during the nineteenth century when its triumph seemed almost complete. From physics, mechanism has spread into other sciences and into almost all fields of human endeavor—that is, the mechanistic attitude. So some examination of the form that mechanism has taken in physics is called for if we are to understand what has by now become a more-or-less dominant world view which deeply affects all of us. In this examination the correctness and necessity of mechanism has to be evaluated and criticized, especially with regard to whether or not the actual state of knowledge in physics continues to sustain and support this view, as well as to whether or not alternative views are possible.

I’ll begin by listing the principal characteristics of mechanism to make this idea more clear, and contrast its main features with those of an organismic type. Now firstly, the world is reduced as far as possible to a set of basic elements. Typically, these have been taken as particles, such as atoms, electrons, protons, quarks, and so on. But you can also add various kinds of fields that extend continuously through space, such as electromagnetic and gravitational. Secondly, these elements are basically external to each other, not only in being separate in space but, more importantly, in the sense that the fundamental nature of each is independent of that of the other. Therefore the elements don’t grow organically as part of a whole, but rather, as I suggested earlier, they may be compared to parts of a machine. The forms are determined externally to the structure of the machine in which they’re working. Now finally, as I also pointed out earlier, the elements interact mechanically, and are therefore related only by influencing each other externally—for example, by forces of interaction that do not deeply affect their inner natures.

In contrast, in an organism, the very nature of any part may be profoundly affected by changes of activity in other parts, and by the general state of the whole, and so the parts are basically internally related to each other as well as to the whole. Of course in a mechanistic view the existence of organism is admitted since it is obvious. But it is assumed, in the way I just described, that ultimately you can reduce it all to molecules such as DNA and proteins, and so on. So eventually the organism is a convenient way of talking about a lot of molecules. They may even say that some new properties and qualities have emerged, but they are always implicit in the molecules. In addition, it’s admitted that this goal of a complete mechanistic description is yet to be fully achieved, as there is much that is still unknown. So it’s essential for the mechanistic-reductionist program to assume that there is nothing that cannot eventually be treated in this way.

Of course, there is no way to prove this assumption. So to suppose that this assumption holds without limit is an article of faith which permeates the motivation of most of modern science and gives energy to the scientific enterprise. This is a modern counterpart of earlier faith in religious belief based on more organismic types of view, which also in their time gave energy to vast social enterprises. That is, we have not lost the age of faith; we have really changed from one faith to another. And faith is, according to Tielhard de Chardiin, just holding the intelligence to a certain world view—that’s his definition of faith.

Now how far can this modern faith in mechanism be justified? Of course, there is no question that it works in a very important domain. It has brought about a revolution in our mode of life. Indeed, during the nineteenth century, as I said, there seemed to be little reason to doubt this faith, because what appeared to be several centuries of successful application leading to vast vistas in the future. Therefore it’s hardly surprising that physicists of the time commonly had an unshakable confidence in the correctness of this whole thing. And I may illustrate this by referring to Lord Kelvin, one of the leading theoretical physicists of the time, who expressed the opinion that physics was more-or-less complete in its development. He therefore advised young people not to go into this field, because further work in it would only be a matter of refinements in the next decimal points.

He did however mention two small clouds on the horizon. These were the negative results of the Michaelson-Morley experiment, and the difficulty in understanding black-body radiation. Now we have to admit that Lord Kelvin was at least able to choose his clouds properly, because these were precisely the points of departure for the radical revolution in physics brought about by relativity and quantum mechanics, which overturned this whole conceptual structure. Now this clearly illustrates the danger of complacency about our world views, and makes it evident how necessary it is to constantly have a provisional, inquiring attitude toward them. That is, in some sense, we have to have enough faith in our world-view to work from it, but not that much faith that we think it’s the final answer, right?

I couldn’t here go into a detailed explanation of how this all took place—this change in view—but I’ll give now, beginning with relativity, a brief, non-technical sketch.

I can start by saying that relativity introduced a number of fundamentally new concepts regarding space, time and matter, which are quite subtle. The main point for our purposes here is that the notion of separate and independent particles as basic constituents of the universe had to be given up. The basic notion instead was the idea of the field that spread continuously through space. Out of this you had to construct the notion of the particle. I could illustrate these ideas in terms of an analogy of a flow of fluid such as a vortex. Now within this fluid there is a recurrent, stable pattern. You may abstract it in your mind as a vortex, though there is no vortex. There is nothing but a flowing pattern of water. But a vortex is a convenient word to describe that pattern.

Now if you take two vortices close together, they modify each other producing a different pattern, and eventually, if you bring them together, they merge into one vortex. So you can see, there is an inherent interaction of these patterns, but the basic reality is unbroken wholeness in flowing movement. Separate entities such as vortices, are relatively constant and independently behaving forms abstracted by the mind from the whole in perception and in thought.

This was of course, well known to nineteenth century physicists, but it was generally thought that real fluids such as water were constituted of myriad elementary particles which flowed only in an approximately continuous way, like grains of sand in the hour-glass. The reality underlying the microscopically observed fluid was considered to be a structure of discrete, mechanical elements in the form of particles. But on the basis of the theory of relativity Einstein gave arguments showing that such elementary particles would not be consistent with the laws of physics as developed in his theory. So instead, he proposed a set of continuous fields pervading all space, in which particles would be treated as relatively stable and independent structures in limited regions in which the field was strong. Therefore each particle is explained as an abstraction of a relatively independent and stable form, as with the vortex, spread out through space with no breaks anywhere. The universe is seen as unbroken wholeness in flowing movement.

Such an approach contradicted in an important way the assumption of separate, elementary particles as constituents of the universe, that had been characteristic of the mechanistic view. But still, this theory retained some of the essential features of mechanism, because the fields at different points were regarded as separately existent, and not internally related in their basic nature, and not related to the whole. It was still not anything like the organismic view. The assumption was that these fields are connected only locally—only by infinitesimal steps. The over-all field was viewed as a type of mechanical system that was more subtle than a set of particles, but the field approach was still an important step away from the mechanistic world view, even though it still remained within its general framework.

The quantum theory, however, actually overturned mechanism in a much more thorough way than the theory of relativity. I’ll give here its three main features. First of all, all action was in the form of what is called discrete quanta. For example, one found that the orbits of electrons around the nucleus would have to be discrete, as there were no allowed orbits in between, and yet, somehow, the electron jumped from one to the other without passing in between—according to this view. And the light shown on these things was also shown in the form of quanta, and in fact, every form of connection of energy was in the form of quanta. Therefore you could think of it as an interconnecting network of quanta weaving the whole universe into one, because these quanta were indivisible. So this led to some sort of indivisibility of the universe—though it doesn’t show up in large scale because the quanta are very small and, once again, it looks continuous, like the grains of sand in the hour-glass.

Secondly, all matter and energy were found to have what appears to be a dual nature, in the sense that they can behave either like a particle or like a field—or a wave—according to how they are treated by the experiment. The fact that everything can show either a wave-like or a particle-like character according to the context of the environment which is, in this case, the observing apparatus, is clearly not compatible with mechanism, because in mechanism the nature of each thing should be quite independent of its context. But it is quite like an organism, because organisms are very dependent on their context.

The third point is that one finds a peculiar new property which I call non-locality of connection. In other words, the connection can be between two particles at considerable distances in some cases. This violates the classical requirement of locality—that only things very close to each other can influence one another.

There is another point we can bring out in this connection, which is that the state of the whole may actually organize the parts, not merely through the strong connection of very distant elements, but also because the state of the whole is indifferent to exactly where the parts are. These are some new features. And all of this shows up in understanding chemistry for example. So when the chemists are using their laws, what underlies them is this peculiar quantum mechanical feature.

Now I want to show how this contradicts the basic mechanist assumption. Firstly, the action is through indivisible quanta, so as I said, everything is woven together in indivisible links. The universe is one whole, as is were, and is in some sense unbroken. Of course, only under very refined observation does this show up. Now the second point was the wave-particle nature, and the third was non-locality. So you can see all these things deny mechanism.

The people who founded quantum mechanics, such as Schrodinger, Dirac and Pauli, and so on all understood this; but since that time this understanding has gradually faded out as people have more and more concentrated on using quantum mechanics as a system of calculation for experimental results, and each time a new text book is written, some of the philosophical meaning gets lost. So we now have a situation where I don’t think the majority of physicists realizes how radical the implications of quantum mechanics are.

Now quantum mechanics also says that we don’t have complete determinism. That is, the laws are only determined statistically. You cannot tell exactly what is going to happen from these laws. Now this is important too, but perhaps it’s less radical than some of these other things, because even from a classical point of view, you can think of laws that are not completely deterministic, such as what’s called Brownian motion. So the lack of complete determinism is less radical a change than these others that I’ve mentioned.

Now how do quantum mechanics and relativity bear on each other? The first point is that the basic physical concepts are quite contradictory. Relativity requires strict continuity, strict determinism, and strict locality. In quantum mechanics, you have to say the opposite—discontinuity, non-determinism, and non-locality. The physical concepts of these two theories have not been brought together, although people are working out equations and methods of doing it mathematically. But the physical meaning has never been made clear.

If you want to look at relativity and quantum theory as being together coherently, we may ask a new kind of question. Instead of focusing on how the theories differ, let’s ask what they have in common. What is common to both is unbroken wholeness of the universe. Each has this wholeness in a different way, yet if wholeness is their common factor, that’s perhaps the best place to start.

We’ve seen that each world view holds within itself its own basic notions of order. So we’re naturally led to the question: Is it possible to develop a new order that is suitable for thinking about the basic nature of the universe of unbroken wholeness? This would perhaps be as different from the order of mechanism as the latter is from the ancient Greek order of increasing perfection. Now we won’t necessarily return to ancient Greek or organismic theories, but to something new, perhaps different from both.

This brings us to the further question though: What is order? Now we do presuppose that there is some kind of order—so a general and explicit definition of order is not actually possible. You see, to begin you must already understand something about order, because just to talk, you must have some understanding of what order is and what meaning is. You can take a few examples to illustrate this—the order of numbers, 1, 2, 3, 4; the order of points on a line; the order of functioning of a machine; the subtle order of functioning of an organism; the many orders of tones in music; the order of language; the order of thinking, and so on. You see, there are all sorts of orders that are more and more subtle. The notion of order covers a vast and unspecifiable range. So I’ll take for granted that we already know, tacitly, something of the notion of order. And then our whole point is to bring it out.

Most of this tacit notion of order is based upon perceptual experience, as you see from the examples. One could ask if there is not an analogy in our experience that would discuss the order of unbroken wholeness. Here I could point out that the operation of scientific instruments has often played a key part in helping to make certain notions of order clear. The lens, for example, is a device that makes an image.

Point P is imaged by the lens into point Q, roughly—it’s not exact. Now, in this way you can consider together all the image points Q, and you’ll have a photograph of the object. This constitutes a kind of knowledge of the object in which we are stressing the point-to-point correspondence between the image and the object. Therefore, you are stressing the concepts of points. With the aid of telescopes, microscopes, very fast and slow cameras, and so on, this kind of knowledge through correspondence of points, could be extended to things that are too far away, too small, too fast, too slow, and so on, to be seen with the naked eye. Eventually in this way you would be led to think that everything could ultimately be known in the form of separate elements. This shows that instruments based on the lens have given a great impetus to the mechanistic way of thinking, not only in science, but in every phase of life.

I could ask: Have any instruments been developed that would similarly help point vividly to the way of thinking that is compatible with unbroken wholeness? Now it turns out that there are several. I’ll begin describing the holograph which was invented by Dennis Gabor. This name is based on two Greek words—holo meaning whole, and graph meaning to write. The holograph writes the whole. From this point of view a lens could be called a ‘merograph,’ which writes the parts, and a telegraph, I suppose, writes far across. This instrument depends on another device called a laser, which produces a beam of light in which the waves of light are highly ordered and regular, in contrast to those of ordinary light where they are rather chaotic.

Light from a laser falls on a half-silvered mirror. Part of the wave reflect and part of them come straight through and fall on the object. The waves that strike the object are scattered off it, and they eventually reach the original beam that was reflected in the mirror and star to interfere, producing a pattern of two waves superimposed. It’s a very complex pattern, and it can be photographed. Now the photograph doesn’t look like the object at all. It may be invisible, or it may look like a vague indescribable pattern. But if you send similar laser light through it, it will produce waves that are similar to the waves that were coming off the object, and if you place your eye in the right spot you will get an image of the object which will apparently be behind the holograph, and be three-dimensional. You can move around and see it from different angles, as if through a window the size of the beam.

The point is that each part of the holograph is an image of the whole object. It is a kind of knowledge which is not a point-to-point correspondence, but a different kind. By the way, if you use only a part of the holograph, you’ll still get an image of the whole object, but you’ll bet a less detailed image, and you’ll see it from a more limited set of angles. The more of the holograph you use, the more of the object you can see, and the more accurately you can see it. Therefore every part contains information about the whole object. In this new form of knowledge information about the whole is enfolded in each part of the image. I can give an idea of enfoldment in a preliminary way by thinking of taking a sheet of paper, folding it many times and, say, sticking pins in it, cutting it, and unfolding it, and you’ve made a whole pattern. So the pattern is enfolded, then it unfolds. In some sense the holograph does that.

Of course, in this example the photograph is only a static record of light, which is a movement of waves. The actuality that is directly recorded is the movement itself in which information about the whole object is dynamically enfolded in each part of space,

while this information is then unfolded in the image. A similar process of enfoldment and unfoldment can be seen to run through a wide range of experience. For example, the light from all parts of the room contains information about the whole room and, in a way, enfolds it in this tiny region going through the pupil of you eye, and it is unfolded by the lens, and the nervous system—the brain—and somehow, consciousness produces a sense of the whole room unfolded in a way which we don’t really understand. But the entire room is enfolded in each part. This is crucial, because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to understand what the room was—the fact that there is a whole room, and we see the whole room from each part. The light entering a telescope, similarly enfolds information about the whole universe of space and time. And, more generally, movements of waves of all sorts enfold the whole in each part of the universe.

This principle of enfoldment and unfoldment may be observed in a more familiar context. For example, information out of which a television image is formed is enfolded in a radio wave which carries it as a signal. The function of the television set is just to unfold this information and display it on the screen. The word ‘display’ also means to unfold, but for the purpose of showing something, rather than for its own sake. This is especially clear in the older television sets that had an adjustment for synchronism, so when they went out of adjustment you could see the image folding up, and as you readjusted it, it unfolded.

In the mechanistic world view all these examples are well known, but they are explained by saying that the primary reality is ultimately the basic set of independently existing elements—particles and fields—while the enfoldment and unfoldment is only a secondary aspect. They say it’s not very important. What I’m suggesting here is that the movement of enfolding and unfolding is ultimately the primary reality, and that the obejcts, entities, forms, and so on, which appear in this movement are secondary.

Now how is this possible? As I’ve already pointed out, quantum theory shows that the so-called particles constituting matter are also waves similar to those of light. One can, in principle, make holographs using beams of electrons, protons, and so on, as well as sound waves—which has been done. The key point is that the mathematical laws of the quantum theory that apply to these waves, and therefore to all matter, can be seen to describe just such a movement in which there is continual enfoldment of the whole into each region, along with the unfoldment of each region into the whole again. Although this may take many particular forms—some known and others not yet known—this movement is universal as far as we know. I’ll call this universal movement of enfoldment and unfoldment ‘the holomovement.’

The proposal is that the holomovement is the basic reality, at least as far as we are able to go, and that all entities, objects, forms, as ordinarily seen, are relatively stable, independent and autonomous features of the holomovement, much as the vortex is such a feature of the flowing movement of a fluid. The basic order of the movement is therefore enfoldment and unfoldment. So we’re looking at the universe in terms of a new order, which I’ll call the enfolded, or the implicate order.

The word ‘implicate’ means to enfold—in Latin, to fold inward. In the implicate order, everything is folded into everything. But it’s important to note here that the whole universe is in principle enfolded into each part actively through the holomovement as well as all the parts. Now this means that the dynamic activity—internal and external—which is fundamental to what each part is, is based on its enfoldment of all the rest, including the whole universe. But of course, each part may unfold others in different degrees and ways. That is, they are not enfolded equally in each part. But the basic principle of enfoldment in the whole is not thereby denied.

Therefore enfoldment is not merely superficial or passive but, I emphasize again, that each part is in a fundamental sense internally related in its basic activities to the whole and to all the other parts. The mechanistic idea of external relation as fundamental is therefore denied. Of course, such relationships are still considered to be real but of secondary significance. That is, we can get approximations to a mechanistic behavior out of this. That is to say, the order of the world as a structure of things that are basically external to each other comes out as secondary and emerges from the deeper implicate order. The order of elements external to each other would then be called the unfolded order, or the explicate order.

The usual way of looking at things is, therefore, turned upside-down, and that’s how we arrive at the notion of the implicate order. The holograph is, of course, only a particular example of an implicate order. Its value in the present context is that it provides a good analogy as to how the implicate order is relevant to the quantum behavior of matter. The analogy is particularly good because, as I’ve said, the laws of propagation of the kinds of waves that are associated with basic quantum laws are also capable of being compatible with the theory of relativity, and therefore we see that the implicate order is able to have a significant bearing on both of these two most fundamental theories of modern physics.

But of course, analogies are necessarily limited, since by their very nature they are similar only in some ways to what they are representing and are different in other ways. One of the principle limits of the analogy of the holograph, at least as it’s usually analyzed, is that it does not adequately take into account all of the quantum properties of the waves that are involved. In particular, what it fails to consider is that the energy of the waves is in discrete units, or quanta, called photons. Now usually there are so many of them that this is not important. But if we wanted to be very accurate, this would be important. The holographic analogy still misses some some of the essential features of quantum mechanics. To make an accurate analogy one would have to also use modern, relativistic quantum theory, and this would lead to questions that are much too abstract and complex to be treated here. But the point about analogies is that they are always limited, and that if they were not limited, they would not be distinguishable from the thing itself. So we can keep on using analogies which are almost like metaphors to help get across what is meant.

Now as another analogy, I think you’ve all seen computer games. You have a television screen which you could call an implicate order because, as I’ve explained, out of this can be unfolded all sorts of forms according to what goes in. but if this screen is connected to a computer, then the computer will unfold forms, for example, spaceships and so on, according to its program, and you can see now that the computer enfolds the information needed to determine the spaceships. So there are two implicate orders—one, the implicate order of the screen, and two, the way in which the information is enfolded in the computer. Thirdly, there are the buttons that the player presses, and then we have the person who plays it—that’s the third implicate order. He enfolds further, and he of course, is affected by what’s on the screen, and so it goes around. So the three together make a kind of unit. And it becomes so absorbing that in some cases they really are a unit. Now this is a good analogy as to how the quantum mechanical field theory works, because the first implicate order is like the field, and there is a super-implicate order which organizes the field into discrete units which are particle-like. Without that super-implicate order however, the field would just spread out without showing particle-like qualities.

It’s possible to produce an indefinite number of additional analogies, but what I want to do instead is to discuss the more general significance of the implicate order beyond physics. What I want to say is that if you look beyond physics you will find orders similar to this implicate order are really quite common in experience. In fact, this idea of enfoldment is an ancient idea. It was known in the East a long time ago.

If you take the example of a living being such as a plant grown from a seed, the seed makes a very small contribution to the substance of the fully grown plant and to the energy needed to make it grow. These come from the air, the water, the soil and the sunlight. According to the modern ideas of genetics, the seed has information, if you like, in the form of DNA which is transmitted to the matter our of which the plant is eventually formed. Now we have already been led to use the notion of the implicate order for matter in general,. We see how it is constantly enfolding again into the background. You may think of an electron as unfolding from this background at a particular position, then it folds back in again, and another unfolds nearby, and it enfolds again, and another one, and another one, and gradually it looks like a track of a single electron. You can see the discontinuity here because the places of unfoldment need not be continuous. And you can understand why there can be discontinuity and also continuity—wave-like qualities—coming from the unfoldment. So we see that inanimate matter is constantly recreating itself through enfoldment and unfoldment—replicating itself, if you will—in the form of inanimate matter. That’s the proposal. Now with the further information from the seed, it unfolds to make a plant instead, which can then make seeds for new plants. You can look at it as a continuous process of unfoldment that can be modified by new orders coming from the genetic structure, so that it will unfold into a considerably different being.

Let’s go on to discuss consciousness, which we take to include thought, feeling desire, will, impulse to act and unspecified set of further features, such as awareness, some of which we may discuss. The question is: Do we find implicate order in consciousness? To answer this question I first will consider the process of thought. In describing this process we may refer to thoughts that are implicit. The word ‘implicit’ has the same root as implicate, and this suggests that a given thought may somehow contain other thoughts that it implies—that is, that it enfolds. Such implication may be, in some cases, equivalent to entailment or inferences if it obeys the laws of logic. But this is only a special case of implication, like that of a regular track. There may be implications which produce very regular tracks, or more irregular tracks, so that there could be leaps in thought, and so on. So implication has a much wider range of meanings, going from mere association to a sense that one goes with another, to a tacit, or unstated, ground of reason supporting the thought that is implied. All of these may be regarded as enfolded within the thought in question and are regarded as enfolded within the thought in question and are capable of emerging from it through unfoldment.

Here I could add that language, which is essential to the communication of thought and to its precise determination, may also be seen an an implicate order. After all, the word is only a sign or symbol of very little significance in itself. What is more important is its meaning. Generally this is determined only by a much larger over-all context. For example, the meaning of a given word may be effected by other sets of words, not only near to it but even quite far away, and this suggests that the meaning of each word, and indeed each combination of words, such as a sentence or a paragraph, is ultimately unfolded into the whole content that is communicated. Such a notion is suggested even more strongly by the fact that often one can sense that the whole sequence of words seems to flow out of a single momentary intention without the need for conscious choice for their order, essentially as if they had unfolded from something that was already there in the intention.

As a further interesting example, there is the fact that without the need for a search in memory we can sense whether a word is in common usage in the language or not. Thus nouns formed out of verbs, such as ‘alternation,’ generally have in common usage verbs that correspond with them, such as to alternate. We know immediately though, that in certain cases they do not. For example, ‘alteration’ does not have the corresponding form, ‘to alterate.’ You don’t have to search to find that out. So it suggests that some features of language are, as it were, enfolded in the whole, although that doesn’t necessarily explain all of them.

The immediate availability of this knowledge, then, suggests that you can think of the totality of a given language as an undivided whole from which the various words and their potential meanings unfold. A reasonable case can therefore be made for the proposal that thought and language form an implicate order. But these also enfold feelings, and vice versa, feelings enfold thought. Language, you see, is implicit in feelings and thoughts and words. The thought of danger unfolds into the feeling of fear, which unfolds into words communicating the feeling, and to further thoughts, and you see all of this mutual enfoldment.

Thoughts and feelings also enfold intentions. These are sharpened up into a determinate will and the urge to do something. Intention, will and urge unfold into more action, which will include more thought if necessary. So all the aspects of the mind show themselves as enfolding each other, and transforming into each other through enfoldment and unfoldment. And therefore we have a view in which the mind is not regarded as broken up dualistically or multiply into independently existent functions or elements like thought and feeling, because in enfoldment each aspect is internally related to the other rather than externally.

If you’re attentive you can see quite a few other things that indicate this enfoldment. I would like to suggest we consider listening to music. Your attention shows that while any given note is being played several preceding notes are still present in awareness as a kind of immediate after-echo, or reverberation. This is to be distinguished from memory, which is recalled or re-collected from a more permanent repository. Remembering notes a minute apart is not perceived as music, and most of the music is then lost. The notes must somehow be present together. One can sense that each note, as it starts as it starts to fade and turn into a diminishing sequence of after-echos, is in some way enfolding into various aspects of consciousness including emotions, associations of various kinds, impulses to move, and so on.

I’m suggesting here that this may be seen as a kind of enfolded order. That is to say, one can sense the co-presence of after-echos and other derivatives of several notes in different degrees of enfoldment. This is similar to the structure of the enfoldment of many waves into one in a holograph. The essential point is that the simultaneous co-presence of several notes, and possibly in some sense even some distant ones, has its origin in the sense of flowing movement of the theme, along with the preservation of its essential identity, which explains why notes that follow each other only after long intervals generally convey neither a sense of flowing movement nor a preservation of identity.

Now there is another example, brought up by Michael Polanyi, of bicycle riding. In order to remain stably upright, one must turn into the direction in which one is falling. Polyani has pointed out that a simple calculation based on the laws of physics shows that, if the bicycle is ridden properly, its angle of tilt and the angle at which the wheel is turned are related by a certain formula. But of course, any attempt to follow this formula would get in the way of actually riding the bicycle. What is of key significance is that the over-all movement that results and brings about approximately following the formula is the outcome of an entirely different level of activity involving muscles, nerves and brain. It is extremely complex and subtle, and evidently you cannot describe it in any explicit way. Polyani called this ‘tacit knowing,’ rather than explicit knowing. I would like to propose that this may be regarded as a kind of implicate order which unfolds into an explicate order of the motion of the bicycle as described by the formula. The law of the explicate order therefore emerges as an abstraction of what is actually a certain feature of a much larger implicate order.

Evidently this kind of tacit knowledge is very important in every phase of life. In fact, without tacit knowledge ordinary knowledge would have no meaning. In fact, when we talk, most of the meaning is implicit or tacit. In fact, even to talk or to think—although thinking may be very explicit as it forms images—the actual activity of thinking is tacit. You cannot say how to do it. If you want to walk across the room, you cannot say how it comes about, right? It unfolds tacitly.

On the basis of all of this I would then propose for further discussion the notion that both mind and matter are ultimately in implicate orders, and that in all cases explicate orders emerge as relatively autonomous, distinct and independent objects, entities and forms, which unfold from the implicate orders. This means that the way is opened up for a world view in which mind and matter may consistently be related without adopting a reductionist position.

Here we are going to say that mind and matter both have reality, or perhaps that they both arise from some greater common ground, or perhaps they are not really different. Perhaps they interweave. The main point, though is: because they have the implicate order in common it is possible to have a rationally comprehensible relationship between them. In this way we can leave open the possibility of acknowledging the differences that may be found between the mental and material sides without falling into dualism.

This question of how mind and matter are related has long been one that has perplexed those who have seriously inquired into it. Descartes gave an especially clear and sharp formulation of the difficulties. He considered matter as extended substance—that is, existing spread out in space in the form of separate objects. Mind he discussed in terms of thinking substance which is not separate and extended—that is, thoughts of distinct objects are not themselves spread out. You see, we can make clear and distinct thoughts, yet they don’t exist as separate and extended elements in any kind of space.

Descarte felt that the two substances were so different that there was no way to formulate their relationship clearly. The problem of how they are related was to be solved by bringing in God who created both, and who is thus the ground of their connection—that is, God puts clear and distinct thoughts into our minds which may correspond correctly to the separate objects of space. He also thought that maybe the pineal gland would connect mind and matter, but that’s not very consistent because he only puts the problem into the pineal gland and doesn’t say how it can do that—connect such different things.

Since the time of Descarte the idea that the problem of this kind can be solved by an appeal to the action of God has been dropped. But it has not generally been noticed by those who go on with Cartesian mind-matter duality that this leaves the whole problem of how the two are related unsolved. Or perhaps it has been noticed, but it has been more or less put aside.

The implicate order suggests a possible solution of this Cartesian duality which has pervaded much of human thinking over the ages. Instead of saying that there are two orders—the explicate order of extended structure, and something like an implicate order of thinking—we are proposing, to a large extent, on the basis of an understanding of recent developments in physics, that matter also is that way. And if we were to extend it to say that brain matter and nerve matter are that way, then in some way perhaps, mind and matter interweave. And perhaps something analogous to mind might exist in inanimate matter, at least implicitly, just as life is implicit in inanimate matter. Given a seed it forms animate matter instead.

And somehow mind is implicit in inanimate matter. Given the proper conditions it unfolds and forms living beings who might even be conscious. And that might suggest—that is something we’ll go into—that the mental and the material are two sides of one reality.

The division between mind and matter, or the observer and the observed, has produced very serious consequences in attempting to see that the world is a whole, because even if your are thinking of wholeness, you are thinking of an observer who is looking at this wholeness, and this creates a division. This starts to break up the whole, because you identify with one part of it, and then there is another part you are not identified with, and therefore the whole is broken up into two. And then this breaks up further, because there are many observers, and each observer is an external object for all the others. The many parts obtained in this way are related, and you have to break things up even more in order to understand their relationships. So the implicate order can be important as a way of seeing how this particular problem might be dealt with.

But let me emphasize that to have an approach of wholeness doesn’t mean that we are going to be able to capture the whole of existence within our concepts and knowledge. Rather it means firstly that we understand this totality as an unbroken and seamless whole in which relatively autonomous objects and forms emerge. And secondly it means that, in so far as wholeness is comprehended with the aid of the implicate order, the relationships between the various parts or sub-wholes are ultimately internal. This notion is suggested also by an organismic point-of-view; but as I’ve said, there is no way to exclude the possibility that organisms have a mechanistic base in their supposed constituent particles. But if we say that the particles themselves haven’t got a mechanistic basis, they why should the organisms have it? It would be peculiar to say that the particles of physics are not mechanistic, but as soon as they make organisms they are mechanistic.

It is important to keep in mind here that the whole and its parts are correlative categories—that each implies the other. Something can be a part only if there is a whole of which it can be a part. To understand this correlation of whole and parts, I want to return to the notion of the holomovement. Within the holomovement, as I’ve said, each part emerges as being a relatively independent, autonomous and stable sub-whole, and it does so by virtue of the particular way in which it actively enfolds the whole and therefore all the other parts. Its fundamental qualities and activities both internal and external are essential to what it is and are thus understood as determined basically in an internal relation, rather than in isolation and external relation.

This internal relationship is most directly experienced in consciousness. The content of consciousness of each human being is, evidently, an enfoldment of the totality of existence, physical and mental, internal and external. This enfoldment is active in the sense that it enters in a fundamental way into the activities that are essential to what a human being is.

A human being is part of the Whole…He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest…a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security”.


According to the content of his consciousness he acts, whether it is right or wrong. Each human being is therefore related to the totality, including nature and the whole of mankind. He is also therefore internally related to other human beings. How close that relationship is, has to be explored. What I am saying is that the quantum theory implies that ultimately the relationship of parts and whole—of matter in general—is understood in a similar way.

And perhaps I should also add here that in each sub-whole there is a certain quality that does not come from the parts, but helps to organize the parts. So the implicate order does not deny the significance of parts or sub-wholes, but rather it treats them in its own way as relatively stable, independent and autonomous. Wholeness is seen as primary while the parts are secondary in the sense that what they are and what they do can be understood only in the light of the whole.

I could summarize this in the principle: The wholeness of the whole and the parts.

And the opposite principle: The partiality of the parts and the whole.

Both principles have their place. But I will make an assertion: The need to accentuate the wholeness of the whole and the parts.

This assertion is needed, because we have to be careful not to assert wholeness too strongly, or else we will just simply create opposition to something that is perfectly valid, namely mechanism in a limited area. The difference is not whether the parts are included, but what is given primary emphasis. This is rather as in a musical composition, where the entire meaning depends upon which theme has a major or dominant role, and which is minor or secondary. This is a basic feature of communication at the metaphysical level. To some extent it’s an art form. You cannot get a precise communication, but it is implicit or tacit, what is being communicated. And therefore the form in which it is put is crucial. The form must be appropriate to the content.

There is a danger in seeing mechanism as totally destructive and saying that we must only discuss the whole. For that also is a partial view and, it is almost another form of mechanism. So we are just asking: Where do we put the ultimate emphasis? But of course, if you don’t want to do metaphysics, which is a view of the nature of reality as a whole, then you don’t have to accentuate either principle. You’ll say, you’re just going to take these two principles as practical principles to apply to wherever you think they’re appropriate. Then they become maxims, which may apply here or there. You choose your maxim according to where it works. However, we’ll see as we go along that this attitude cannot be maintained indefinitely, and that ultimately we must regard one of these two principles as the major theme and the other as the minor theme.

This approach of wholeness could help to end the far-reaching and pervasive fragmentation that arises out of the mechanistic world view. One can obtain a further understanding of the nature of such fragmentation by asking, what is the difference in the meanings of the word ‘part’ and ‘fragment.’ A part, as I said—whether mechanical or organic—is intrinsically related to the whole, but this is not so for a fragment. As the Latin root of the word indicates, and as the related English word ‘fragile’ shows, to fragment is to break up or smash. To hit a watch with a hammer would not produce parts, but fragments that are separated in ways that are not significantly related to the structure of the watch. If you cut up the carcass of an animal as in a butcher shop, this produces not parts of the animal but fragments again. So what I’m trying to say is that we have a way of thinking that produces irrelevant breaks and fragments, rather than seeing the proper parts in relation to the whole.

Of course there are areas where it is appropriate to produce fragments. If you can crush stones in order to make concrete, that’s perfectly alright. There are things that should be broken down into fragments. But what I’m discussing here, quite generally, is an inappropriate kind of fragmentation that arises when we regard the parts appearing in our thought as primary and independently existent constituents of all reality including ourselves—that is, that corresponding to our thoughts there is something in reality. Then a world view such as mechanism, in which the whole of existence is considered as made up of such elementary parts, will give strong support to this fragmentary way of thinking. And this in turn expresses itself in further thought that sustains and develops such a world view. As a result of this general approach, man ultimately ceases to give the divisions the significance of merely convenient ways of thinking, indicating relative independence or autonomy of things, and instead he begins to see and experience himself as made up of nothing but separately and independently existing components.

Being guided by this view, man then acts in such a way as to try and break himself and the world up so that all seems to correspond to this way of thinking. He therefore obtains an apparent proof of his fragmentary self-world-view, but he doesn’t notice that it is he himself, acting according to his mode of thought, who has brought about the fragmentation which now seems to have an autonomous existence independent of his will and desire.

Fragmentation is therefore an attitude of mind which disposes the mind to regard divisions between things as absolute and final, rather than as ways of thinking that have only a relative and limited range of usefulness and validity. It leads therefore to a general tendency to break up things in an irrelevant and inappropriate way according to how we think. And so it is evidently and inherently destructive. For example, though all parts of mankind are fundamentally interdependent and interrelated, the primary and overriding kind of significance given to the distinctions between people, family, profession, nation, race, religion, ideology, and so on, is preventing human beings from working together for the common good, or even for survival.

When man thinks of himself in this fragmentary way, he will inevitably tend to see himself first—his own person, his own group—he can’t seriously think of himself as internally related to the whole of mankind and therefore to all other people. Even if he does try to put mankind first, he will perhaps think of nature as something different to be exploited to satisfy whatever desires he may have at the moment. Similarly he will think body and mind are independent actualities, thought and feeling, and so on, and he begins to think to divide these up, each to be treated separately. Physically this is not conducive to over-all health, which means wholeness, and mentally, not to sanity which also has a similar meaning. This is shown, I think, by this ever growing tendency to break up the psyche in neuroses, psychosis, and so on.

Well, to sum up, fragmentary thinking is giving rise to a reality that is constantly breaking up into disorderly, disharmonious and destructive partial activities. It therefore seems reasonable to explore the suggestion that a mode of thinking that starts from the most encompassing possible whole and goes down to the parts as sub-wholes in a way appropriate to the actual nature of things, would help to bring about a different reality, one that was more harmonious and orderly and creative. And in this discussion here, I have tried to show that physics provides some justification for doing this. And in fact it is more justified than the mechanistic view if you go into physics deeply. But of course before it really changes things—to think differently—this thought must enter deeply into our intentions, actions, and so on—our whole being: That is, we will actually have to mean what we are saying. To bring this about requires an action going beyond what we have just discussed. The main point then is that your world views—it’s really a self-world-view because it includes yourself—have a tremendous effect on you. Even people who don’t think they have self-world-views have them tacitly. And the general prevalence of mechanism has helped has helped to give rise to fragmentation. The fact is however that even when people held an organic point of view in ancient Greece they also fragmented, so there’s more to it than that. The self-world-view has to be pursued carefully into the whole question of the division of mind and matter to see how fragmentation comes about. Such fragmentation doesn’t come only from philosophical views, but philosophical views can either contribute to it or contribute the other way. But of course, to understand this whole question, much more is required.


Mysticism, Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy

The term ‘mysticism,’ comes from the Greek μυω, meaning “to conceal.” In the Hellenistic world, ‘mystical’ referred to “secret” religious rituals. In early Christianity the term came to refer to “hidden” allegorical interpretations of Scriptures and to hidden presences, such as that of Jesus at the Eucharist. Only later did the term begin to denote “mystical theology,” that included direct experience of the divine (See Bouyer, 1981). Typically, mystics, theistic or not, see their mystical experience as part of a larger undertaking aimed at human transformation (See, for example, Teresa of Avila, Life, Chapter 19) and not as the terminus of their efforts. Thus, in general, ‘mysticism’ would best be thought of as a constellation of distinctive practices, discourses, texts, institutions, traditions, and experiences aimed at human transformation, variously defined in different traditions.

Under the influence of William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, heavily centered on people’s conversion experiences, most philosophers’ interest in mysticism has been in distinctive, allegedly knowledge-granting “mystical experiences.” Philosophers have focused on such topics as the classification of mystical experiences, their nature in different religions and mystical traditions, to what extent mystical experiences are conditioned by a mystic’s language and culture, and whether mystical experiences furnish evidence for the truth of their contents. Some philosophers have begun to question the emphasis on experience in favor of examining the entire mystical complex (See Jantzen, 1994 and 1995, and section 9 below, and Turner, 1996). Since this article pertains to mysticism and philosophy, it will concentrate chiefly on topics philosophers have discussed concerning mystical experience.

1. Mystical Experience

Because of its variable meanings, even in serious treatments, any definition of ‘mystical experience’ must be at least partly stipulative. Two, related, senses of ‘mystical experience’ will be presented, one in a wide definition reflecting a more general usage, and the second in a narrow definition suiting more specialized treatments of mysticism in philosophy.

1.1 The Wide Sense of ‘Mystical Experience’

In the wide sense, let us say that a ‘mystical experience,’ is:

A (purportedly) super sense-perceptual or sub sense-perceptual experience granting acquaintance of realities or states of affairs that are of a kind not accessible by way of sense perception, somatosensory modalities, or standard introspection.

We can further define the terms used in the definition, as follows:

  1. The inclusion of ‘purportedly’ is to allow the definition to be accepted without acknowledging that mystics ever really do experience realities or states of affairs in the way described.

  2. A ‘super sense-perceptual experience’ includes perception-like content of a kind not appropriate to sense perception, somatosensory modalities (including the means for sensing pain and body temperature, and internally sensing body, limb, organ, and visceral positions and states), or standard introspection. Some mystics have referred to a “spiritual” sense, corresponding to the perceptual senses, appropriate to a non-physical realm. A super sense-perceptual mode of experience may accompany sense perception (see on “extrovertive” experience, Section 2.1). For example, a person can have a super sense-perceptual experience while watching a setting sun. The inclusion of the supersensory mode is what makes the experience mystical.

  3. A ‘sub sense-perceptual experience’ is either devoid of phenomenological content altogether, or nearly so (see the notion of “pure conscious events,” in Sections 5 and 6), or consists of phenomenological content appropriate to sense perception, but lacking in the conceptualization typical of attentive sense perception (see below on “unconstructed experiences”).

  4. ‘Acquaintance’ of realities means the subject is aware of the presence of (one or more) realities.

  5. ‘States of affairs’ includes, for example, the impermanence of all reality and that God is the ground of the self. ‘Acquaintance’ of states of affairs can come in two forms. In one, a subject is aware of the presence of (one or more) realities on which (one or more) states of affairs supervene. An example would be an awareness of God (a reality) affording an awareness of one’s utter dependence on God (a state of affairs). In its second form, ‘acquaintance’ of states of affairs involves an insight directly, without supervening on acquaintance, of any reality. An example would be coming to “see” the impermanence of all that exists following an experience that eliminates all phenomenological content.

It is not part of the definition that necessarily at the time of the experience the subject could tell herself, as it were, what realities or state of affairs were then being disclosed to her. The realization may arise following the experience.

Mystical experience is alleged to be “noetic,” involving knowledge of what a subject apprehends (see James, 1958). To what extent this knowledge is alleged to come from the experience alone will be discussed below (Section 8.5).

Para-sensual experiences such as religious visions and auditions fail to make an experience mystical. The definition also excludes anomalous experiences such as out of body experiences, telepathy, precognition, and clairvoyance. All of these are acquaintance with objects or qualities of a kind accessible to the senses or to ordinary introspection, such as human thoughts and future physical events. (A degree of vagueness enters the definition of mystical experience here because of what is to count as a “kind” of thing accessible to non-mystical experience.)

Mystical writings do not support William James’ claim (James, 1958) that mystical experience must be a transient event, lasting only a short time and then disappearing. Rather, the experience might be an abiding consciousness, accompanying a person throughout the day, or parts of it. For that reason, it might be better to speak of mystical consciousness, which can be either fleeting or abiding. Hereafter, the reader should understand “experience” in this sense.

In the wide sense, mystical experiences occur within the religious traditions of at least Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Indian religions, Buddhism, and primal religions. In some of these traditions, the experiences are allegedly of a supersensory reality, such as God or Brahman (or, in a few Buddhist traditions, Nirvana, as a reality (See Takeuchi, 1983, pp. 8–9). Many Buddhist traditions, however, make no claim for an experience of a supersensory reality. Some cultivate instead an experience of “unconstructed awareness,” involving an awareness of the world on an absolutely or relatively non-conceptual level (see Griffiths, 1993). The unconstructed experience is thought to grant insight, such as into the impermanent nature of all things. Buddhists refer to an experience of tathata or the “thisness” of reality, accessible only by the absence of ordinary sense-perceptual cognition. These Buddhist experiences are sub sense-perceptual, and mystical, since thisness is claimed to be inaccessible to ordinary sense perception and the awareness of it to provide knowledge about the true nature of reality. Some Buddhist experiences, however, including some Zen experiences, would not count as mystical by our definition, involving no alleged acquaintance with either a reality or a state of affairs (see Suzuki, 1970).

1.2 The Narrow Sense of ‘Mystical Experience’

In the narrow sense, more common among philosophers, ‘mystical experience’ refers to a sub-class of mystical experience in the wide sense. Specifically it refers to:

A (purportedly) super sense-perceptual or sub sense-perceptual unitive experience granting acquaintance of realities or states of affairs that are of a kind not accessible by way of sense-perception, somatosensory modalities, or standard introspection.

A unitive experience involves a phenomenological de-emphasis, blurring, or eradication of multiplicity, where the cognitive significance of the experience is deemed to lie precisely in that phenomenological feature. Examples are experiences of the oneness of all of nature, “union” with God, as in Christian mysticism, (see section 2.2.1), the Hindu experience that Atman is Brahman (that the self/soul is identical with the eternal, absolute being), the Buddhist unconstructed experience, and “monistic” experiences, devoid of all multiplicity. (On “unitive” experiences see Smart 1958 and 1978, and Wainwright, 1981, Chapter One.) Excluded from the narrow definition, though present in the wide one, are, for example, a dualistic experience of God, where subject and God remain strictly distinct, a Jewish kabbalistic experience of a single supernal sefirah, and shamanistic experiences of spirits. These are not mystical in the narrow sense, because not unitive experiences.

Hereafter, ‘mystical experience’ will be used in the narrow sense, unless otherwise noted. Correspondingly, the term ‘mysticism’ will refer to practices, discourse, texts, institutions, and traditions associated with unitive experiences.

Care should be taken not to confuse mystical experience with “religious experience.” The latter refers to any experience having content or significance appropriate to a religious context or that has a “religious” flavor. This would include much of mystical experience, but also religious visions and auditions, non-mystical Zen experiences, and various religious feelings, such as religious awe and sublimity. Also included is what Friedrich Schleiermacher identified as the fundamental religious experience: the feeling of “absolute dependence” (Schleiermacher, 1963).

We can call a numinous (from “numen” meaning divine or spirit) experience, a non-unitive experience (purportedly) granting acquaintance of realities or states of affairs that are of a kind not accessible by way of sense perception, somatosensory modalities, or standard introspection. Your garden-variety sense of God’s (mere) “presence” would count as a numinous experience. Numinous experiences contrast with religious experiences that involve, for example, feelings but no alleged acquaintance with non-sensory realities or states of affairs.

Rudolf Otto reserved the term “numinous experience” for experiences allegedly of a reality perceived of as “wholly other” than the subject, producing a reaction of dread and fascination before an incomprehensible mystery (Otto, 1957). In the sense used here, Otto’s “numinous” experience is but one kind of numinous experience.

2. Categories of Mystical Experiences

Mystical and religious experiences can be classified in various ways, in addition to the built-in difference between mystical super sense-perceptual and sub sense-perceptual experiences. This section notes some common classifications.

2.1 Extrovertive and Introvertive

When any experience includes sense-perceptual, somatosensory, or introspective content, we may say it is an extrovertive experience. There are, then, mystical extrovertive experiences, as in one’s mystical consciousness of the unity of nature overlaid onto one’s sense perception of the world, as well as non-unitive numinous extrovertive experiences, as when experiencing God’s presence when gazing at a snowflake. Sometimes, the term “extrovertive” is reserved for experiences that pertain to a perceived character of the natural world with no added phenomenological data (see Marshall, 2005). When not extrovertive, we may say an experience is introvertive. An experience of “nothingness” or “emptiness,” in some mystical traditions, and an experience of God resulting from a disengagement from sense experience, would be examples of introvertive experiences (For more on these terms see section 4).

2.2 Theistic and non-theistic

A favorite distinction of Western philosophers is between theistic experiences, which are purportedly of God, and non-theistic ones. Non-theistic experiences can be allegedly of an ultimate reality other than God or of no reality at all. Numinous theistic experiences are dualistic, where God and the subject remain clearly distinct, while theistic mysticism pertains to some sort of union or else identity with God.

2.2.1 Union with God

“Union” with God signifies a rich family of experiences rather than a single experience. “Union” involves a falling away of the separation between a person and God, short of identity. Christian mystics have variously described union with the Divine. This includes Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) describing unification as “mutuality of love,” Henry Suso (1295–1366) likening union with God to a drop of water falling into wine, taking on the taste and color of the wine (Suso, 1953, p. 185), and Jan van Ruysbroeck (1293–1381) describing union as “iron within the fire and the fire within the iron” (see Pike, 1992, Chapter 2). Generally, medieval Christian mysticism had at least three stages, variously described, in the union-consciousness: quiet, essentially a prelude to the union with God, full union, and rapture, the latter involving a feeling of being “carried away” beyond oneself (see Pike, 1992, Chapter 1).

2.2.2 Identity with God

Theistic mystics sometimes speak as though they have a consciousness of being fully absorbed into or even identical with God. Examples are the Islamic Sufi mystic al-Husayn al-Hallaj (858-922) proclaiming, “I am God” (see Schimmel, 1975, Chapter 2), and the Jewish kabbalist, Isaac of Acre (b. 1291?), who wrote of the soul being absorbed into God “as a jug of water into a running well.” (see Idel, 1988, p. 67.) Also, the Hasidic master, R. Shneur Zalman of Liady (1745–1812) wrote of a person as a drop of water in the ocean of the Infinite with an illusory sense of individual “dropness.” And, the (heretical) Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart (c. 1260–1327/8) made what looked very much like identity-declarations (see McGinn, 2001 and Smith, 1997). It is still controversial, however, as to when such declarations are to be taken as identity assertions, with pantheistic or acosmic intentions, and when they are perhaps hyperbolic variations on descriptions of union-type experiences.

2.3 Theurgic vs. Non-Theurgic Mysticism

In theurgic (from the Greek theourgia) mysticism a mystic intends to activate the divine in the mystical experience. (See Shaw, 1995, p. 4.) Thus, a Christian mystic who intends to activate God’s grace, is involved in theurgy. Nonetheless, while typically theistic mystics claim experience of God’s activity, many do not claim this to result from their own endeavors, while others refrain from declaring the activation of the divine as the purpose of their mystical life. So they are not involved in theurgic activity.

The Jewish kabbalah is the most prominent form of alleged theurgic mysticism. In it, the mystic aims to bring about a modification in the inner life of the Godhead (see Idel, 1988). However, it is questionable whether in its theurgic forms kabbalah is mysticism, even on the wide definition of mysticism, although it is clearly mysticism with regard to its teaching of union with the Godhead and the Einsof, or Infinite.

2.4 Apophatic vs. Kataphatic

Apophatic mysticism (from the Greek, “apophasis,” meaning negation or “saying away”) is contrasted with kataphatic mysticism (from the Greek, “kataphasis,” meaning affirmation or “saying with”). Apophatic mysticism, put roughly, claims that nothing can be said of objects or states of affairs which the mystic experiences. These are absolutely indescribable, or “ineffable.” Kataphatic mysticism does make claims about what the mystic experiences.

An example of apophatic mysticism is in the classical Tao text, Tao Te Ching, attributed to Lao Tsu (6th century B.C.E.), which begins with the words, “Even the finest teaching is not the Tao itself. Even the finest name is insufficient to define it. Without words, the Tao can be experienced, and without a name, it can be known.” (Lao Tsu, 1984).

In contrast, with this understanding of kataphatic and apophatic, Fr. Thomas Keating has argued that Christian mysticism strongly endorses God’s being unknowable. Instead, the distinction between kataphatic and apophatic refers solely to differences in the preparatory regimen employed in the “mystical way,” the former using “positive” techniques, the latter only “negative” techniques. Kataphatic preparation, he states, employs reason, imagination, memory, and visualization for getting into position for mystical consciousness. Apophatic preparation involves a practice of “emptying” out of other conscious content in order to “make room” for the apprehension of God, who is beyond our discursive, sensual natures. (see Keating, 1996, Chapter 4).

Denys Turner takes a very different tack with the Christian tradition of apophatic mysticism in such figures as Pseudo-Denys the Areopagite (5th-6th century), Meister Eckhart (c. 1260–1327), and John of the Cross (1542–1591). Turner construes these figures to be against the very idea of an experience of God, on the grounds of God’s unknowability. (Turner, 1996) This view, however, is not widely accepted.

3 The Attributes of Mystical Experience

3.1 Ineffability

William James, (James, 1958, 292–93) deemed “ineffability” or indescribability an essential mark of the mystical. It is not always clear, however, whether it is the experience or its alleged object, or both, that are to be ineffable. A logical problem with ineffability was noted long ago by Augustine, “God should not be said to be ineffable, for when this is said something is said. And a contradiction in terms is created, since if that is ineffable which cannot be spoken, then that is not ineffable which is called ineffable” (Augustine, 1958, pp. 10–11). To say that X is ineffable is to say something about X, which contravenes ineffability. This problem has been raised anew by Alvin Plantinga (Plantinga, 1980, 23–25) and Keith Yandell (Yandell, 1975).

Several responses to this problem are possible for the mystic. One is to avoid speech altogether and remain silent about what is revealed in experience. Mystics, however, have not been very good at this. A second possibility is to distinguish first-order from second-order attributions, where “ineffability” both is a second-order term and refers solely to first-order terms. To say, then, that something is “ineffable” would be to assert that it could not be described by any first-order terms, “ineffability” not being one of them. A third possibility is to say, for example, that “X is ineffable” is really a statement about the termX,’ saying about it that it fails to refer to any describable entity. A fourth possibility lies in the ongoing negation of whatever is said about X, ad infinitum, in what Michael Sells has called an infinite “unsaying” or taking back of what has been said (See Sells, 1994, Chapter 1).

An example of unsaying can be found in the endless negations in some Madyamika and Zen Buddhist meditative consciousness. Since the truth about reality – as it is – lies outside of our conceptualizations of it, we cannot say that truth, only experience it. Hence, when we say, “Reality is not reality,” that is, that reality as it is differs from what we take it to be conceptually, we must also say that “Reality is not – not reality.” Otherwise we will have been caught in conceptualizing about reality (saying about it that it is not what our conceptualizations say it is). We must then immediately negate the latter saying by saying that reality is neither not-reality nor not not-reality. And so on. (See Thich Nhat Hanh, 1994, Chapter 5). A second, theistic, example of this approach is in the negative theology of (Pseudo) Dionysius (c.500) for whom God was “a most incomprehensible absolute mystery,” about which we can only say what it is not. Such continuing negation points beyond discourse to experience.

A fifth possibility for resolving the paradox of ineffability issues from William Alston’s observation that mystics professing the utter unknowability of God have had much to say about their experiences and about God (Alston, 1991). Alston maintains, therefore, that when mystics talk about ‘indescribability’ they refer to the difficulty of describing in literal terms, rather than by metaphor, analogy, and symbols. This is not a peculiar mark of mysticism, demurs Alston, since quite common in science, philosophy, and religion. Alston’s position, however, may not square well with the explicitly “unsaying” trends in mysticism.

A sixth solution to the ineffability paradox could come from Richard Gale (1960) and Ninian Smart (1958, 69) each of whom have argued that ‘ineffability’ is (merely) an honorific title marking the value and intensity of an experience for a mystic. Similarly, Wayne Proudfoot argues that mystics could not know that what they experienced could not be expressed in any possible language, because they do not know every possible language. He concludes that the ineffability-claim only prescribes that no language system shall be applicable to it, and is not a descriptive claim. The word ‘ineffable’ serves to create and maintain a sense of mystery (Proudfoot, 1985, 125–27). These positions beg the question against the possibility of there being mystical experience so different in kind from what humans otherwise know that it cannot be expressed by ordinary human language. Against Proudfoot it may be said that: because mystics could not know that a mystical object was indescribable in any possible language, it does not follow they would not, in their enthusiasm, make a claim beyond their knowledge. In any case, mystics might reasonably believe that since languages known to them cannot describe what they experienced, in all likelihood no other human language could describe it either.

Some philosophers think that a stress on ineffability signifies an attempt to consign mysticism to the “irrational,” thus excluding it from more sensible human pursuits. Grace Jantzen has advanced a critique of the emphasis on ineffability as an attempt to remove mystical experiences from the realm of rational discourse, placing them instead into the realm of the emotions (Jantzen, 1995, p. 344). Others have staunchly defended the “rationality” of mysticism against charges of irrationalism (Staal, 1975). The issue of ineffability is thus tied into questions of the epistemic value of mystical experiences, to be discussed below in section 8.

3.2 Paradoxicality

Scholars of mysticism sometimes stress the “paradoxical” nature of mystical experiences. It is not always clear whether the experience, the mystical object, or both, are supposed to be paradoxical. We can discern four relevant senses of ‘paradoxical’: (1) According to its etymology, ‘paradoxical’ refers to what is surprising or “contrary to expectation.” (2) Language can be intentionally ‘paradoxical’ in using a logically improper form of words to convey what is not intended to be logically absurd. This may be for rhetorical effect or because of difficulty in conveying a thought without resort to linguistic tricks. (3) As in philosophy, a ‘paradox’ can involve an unexpected logical contradiction, as in the “Liar Paradox.” (4) Walter Stace sees paradoxality as a universal feature of mystical experiences, equating ‘paradoxality’ with an intended logical contradiction (Stace, 1961, 212. See section 4 below).

Insofar as mystical experience is out of the ordinary, and the unitive quality strange (for ordinary folk, at least), reports of them may very well be surprising or contrary to expectation. Hence, they may be paradoxical in sense (1). Reports of mystical experiences may be paradoxical also in sense (2), because at times mystical language does assume logically offensive forms, when actual absurdity may not be intended. However, paradox in this sense occurs less frequently in first-hand reports of mystical experiences and more in second-order mystical systems of thought (Moore, 1973, and Staal, 1975).

There is no good reason, however, why mystical experiences or their objects should be paradoxical in either senses (3) or (4). In general, there is no good reason for thinking that reports of mystical experience must imply logical absurdity. As we have seen above, while there do occur forms of expression that are contradictory, the contradiction is often removed by the device of “unsaying” or canceling out, which propels the discourse into a non-discursive realm.

The attempt to designate mystical experiences as paradoxical in senses (3) and (4) may result from being too eager to take logically deviant language at its most literal. For example, Zen Buddhism speaks of reaching a state of mind beyond both thought and “no-thought.” However, rather than referring to a middle state, neither thought nor no-thought, often the intention is to point to a state of mind in which striving is absent, and labeling of mental activities ceases. The mind of “no effort” strives neither for thought nor for no-thought. No logical absurdity infects this description. In a different direction, Frits Staal has argued that paradoxical mystical language has been used systematically to make logically respectable claims (Staal, 1975). While mystics use much literal language in describing their experiences (see Alston, 1992, 80–102), the literality need not extend to paradox in senses (3) or (4).

4. Perennialism

Various philosophers, sometimes dubbed “perennialists,” have attempted to identify common mystical experiences across cultures and traditions (for the term ‘perennialism,’ see Huxley, 1945). Walter Stace’s perennialist position has generated much discussion (Stace, 1960, 1961). Stace proposes two mystical experiences found “in all cultures, religions, periods, and social conditions.” He identifies a universal extrovertive experience that “looks outward through the senses” to apprehend the One or the Oneness of all in or through the multiplicity of the world, apprehending the “One” as an inner life or consciousness of the world. The Oneness is experienced as a sacred objective reality, in a feeling of “bliss” and “joy.” Stace’s universal extrovertive experience (or the experienced reality, it is not always clear which) is paradoxical, and possibly ineffable (Stace, 1961, 79).

Secondly, Stace identifies a universal, “monistic,” introvertive experience that “looks inward into the mind,” to achieve “pure consciousness,” that is, an experience phenomenologically not of anything (Stace, 1961, 86). Stace calls this a “unitary consciousness.” Some have called this a “Pure Conscious Event” or “PCE” (Forman, 1993b and 1999. See section 6 below). A PCE consists of an “emptying out” by a subject of all experiential content and phenomenological qualities, including concepts, thoughts, sense perception, and sensuous images. The subject allegedly remains with “pure” wakeful consciousness. Like his extrovertive experience, Stace’s universal introvertive experience involves a blissful sense of sacred objectivity, and is paradoxical and possibly ineffable. Stace considers the universal introvertive experience to be a ripening of mystical awareness beyond the halfway house of the universal extrovertive consciousness.

Stace assimilates theistic mystical experiences to his universal introvertive experience by distinguishing between experience and interpretation. The introvertive experience, says Stace, is the same across cultures. Only interpretations differ. Theistic mystics are pressured by their surroundings, says Stace, to put a theistic interpretation on their introvertive experiences. Ninian Smart also maintained the universality of the monistic experience, arguing that descriptions of theistic mystical experiences reflect an interpretive overlay upon an experiential base common to both theistic and non-theistic experiences (Smart, 1965).

The psychologist, Ralph Hood, has argued extensively that psychometric studies provide “strong empirical support” for “the common core thesis” of mystical experience. (Hood, 2006)

Stace has been strongly criticized for simplifying or distorting mystical reports (For a summary, see Moore, 1973). For example, Pike criticizes the Stace-Smart position because in Christian mysticism union with God is divided into discernable phases, which find no basis in Christian theology. These phases, therefore, plausibly reflect experience and not forced interpretation (Pike, 1992, Chapter 5).

In contrast to Stace, R. C. Zaehner identified three types of mystical consciousness: (1) a “panenhenic” extrovertive experience, an experience of oneness of nature, one’s self included, (2) a “monistic” experience of an undifferentiated unity transcending space and time, and (3) theistic experience where there is a duality between subject and the object of the experience (Zaehner, 1961). Zaehner thought that theistic experience was an advance over the monistic, since the latter, he thought, expressed a self-centered interest of the mystic to be included in the ultimate.

William Wainwright has described four modes of mystical extrovertive experience: a sense of the unity of nature, of nature as a living presence, a sense that everything transpiring in nature is in an eternal present, and the Buddhist unconstructed experience. Wainwright, like Zaehner, distinguishes two mystical introvertive experiences, one of pure empty consciousness, and theistic experience marked by an awareness of an object in “mutual love” (Wainwright, 1981, Chapter 1).

  1. Pure Conscious Events (PCEs)

5.1 The Defenders of Pure Conscious Events

Much philosophical disagreement has taken place over questions concerning PCEs, allegedly an “emptying out” by a subject of all experiential content and phenomenological qualities, including concepts, thoughts, sense perception, and sensuous images. Do such events ever really occur, and if they do, how significant are they in mysticism? Defenders of PCEs depend on alleged references to pure consciousness in the mystical literature. One striking example is the Buddhist philosopher, Paramaartha (499–569), who stated explicitly that all of our cognitions were “conditioned” by our concepts save for the non-sensory “unconditioned” Buddhist experience of emptiness (see Forman, 1989). Another example cited is from the writings of the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart that describe a “forgetting” that abandons concepts and sense experience to sink into a mystical “oblivion” (Forman, 1993a). In addition, Robert Forman has testified to a PCE he himself endured, describing it as an empty consciousness from which one “need not awake” (Forman, 1993b).

5.2 Criticism of the Defense of Pure Conscious Events

Here is a sampling of important criticisms of the defense of Pure Conscious Events (PCEs): (1) Reports of PCEs found in the literature may not be decisive in establishing the occurrence of PCEs. We should suspect the phenomenon of “idealization” in these reports. Idealization occurs when an ideal goal is presented as achieved, when it wasn’t. Whether or not pure consciousness ever occurs, we should suspect it might be presented as though it did because so strived for by the mystic. (2) The PCE defenders exaggerate the centrality of complete emptying out in mysticism. It is questionable if it is central in the mainstream of Christian mysticism, for example, where typically the mystic forgets all else only to better contemplate God. Typical is the Christian mystic Jan Ruysbroeck who wrote that emptying oneself is but a prelude to the mystical life of contemplating God through an act of Divine grace (Zaehner, 1961, 170–71). Likewise, the “shedding of corporeality” in early Hasidism was meant, for example, to enable the mystic to contemplate the unified supernal structure of the divine sefirot. And the Zen master, Dogen (1200–1253), wrote about “wrongly thinking that the nature of things will appear when the whole world we perceive is obliterated” (Dogen, 1986, 39). (3) Accordingly, reports of “emptying out” and “forgetting” may refer only to an emptying of ordinary experiential content, making room for an extraordinary content. This accords well with the conception of ayin (nothingness) in Jewish mysticism, which is positively saturated with divine reality (Matt, 1997). Some have claimed that even for Meister Eckhart “emptying out” is having one’s mind on no object other than God, rather than an absolute emptiness of content (Matt, 1997). (4) Perennialists may be exaggerating the wakefulness of some emptying out. The Islamic Sufi fana experience (“passing away”) is sometimes described as an unconscious state, and the Sufi might become purely unconscious upon finding God, in wajd (Schimmel, 1975, 178–79). Therefore, an emptying out might sometimes simply be pure unconsciousness. (5) Even if a subject honestly reports on a pure conscious episode, there may have been conceptual events the subject either repressed or experienced in a nebulous way (see Wainwright, 1981, 117–119). These latter simply do not remain for memory.

6. Constructivism

‘Constructivism’ underscores the conceptual “construction” of mystical experience. Let us call ‘soft constructivism’ the view that there is no mystical experience without at least some concepts, provided by one’s cultural conditioning, concepts being what “construct” an experience. Let us call ‘hard constructivism’ the view that a mystic’s specific cultural background massively constructs — determines, shapes, or influences — the nature of mystical experiences (See Hollenback, 1996, Jones, 1909, Introduction, and Katz, 1978 and 1983). On the assumption that mystical traditions are widely divergent, hard constructivism entails the denial of perennialism. Soft constructivism is strictly consistent with perennialism, however, since consistent with there being some trans-cultural mystical experience involving concepts common across mystical traditions. Both hard and soft constructivist arguments have been mobilized against the existence of PCEs.

6.1 Soft Constructivist arguments Against PCE Defenders

Here is a sampling of soft constructivist arguments against PCE defenders: (1) PCEs are impossible because of the “kind of beings” that we are (Katz, 1978, 59). It is a fact about humans that we can experience only with the aid of memory, language, expectations, and conceptualizations. Therefore, we cannot have a “pure” awareness, empty of all content. (2) PCEs cannot be “experiences” (see Proudfoot, 1985, Chapter 4, and Bagger, 1999, Chapter 4). We must distinguish, the claim goes, between an “event” and an “experience.” That X has “an experience” E entails that X conceptualizes E. Hence, even if pure conscious events happen to occur, they do not count as “experiences” until the subject conceptualizes them. At that moment, they cease to be “pure consciousness.” (3) A survey of mystical literature shows that typical mystical experiences are conceptual in nature and not empty of concepts. (4) An epistemological objection: Subjects could not know they had endured a PCE. They could not know this during a PCE, because it is supposed to be empty of all conceptual content (Bagger, 1999, 102–3). A subject could not know this by remembering the PCE, since there is supposed to be nothing to observe while it is going on, and hence nothing to remember. Neither could a subject surmise that a PCE had transpired by remembering a “before” and an “after,” with an unaccounted for middle. This would fail to distinguish a PCE from plain unconsciousness. Indeed, it seems to matter little whether a subject who emerges with mystical insights underwent a PCE or was simply unconscious. (5) A second epistemological objection: Suppose a PCE has occurred and that a subject knows that, somehow. Still, there is a problem of the relationship of a PCE to the subsequent claims to knowledge, such as when Eckhart purportedly grounds knowledge of the soul and God as one, in a PCE (see Forman, 1993a). If in a PCE subjects were empty of all experiential content, they could not claim to have had acquaintance of anything (Bagger, 1999, 102–3).

6.2 Criticism of Soft Constructivism

Several objections can be raised against the Soft Constructivist Position:

  1. The argument from the kind of beings we are against the possibility of a PCE is not convincing. While our cultural sets shape our ordinary experience, this argument gives no good reason why we could not enjoy experiences on a pre-conceptual level of awareness, especially through a regimen of training. Steven Katz, the author of this argument, notes our “most brutish, infantile, and sensate levels” of experience when we were infants (Katz, 1988, 755). It is hard to see why in principle we could not retrieve such an unconceptualized level of experience. And it is hard to rule out the possibility that undergoing such events could provide allegedly new vantage points on the “nature of reality.”

  2. It makes little difference whether a PCE is called an “experience” or an “event.” A PCE occurs within a wider experience of the subject, including the subject’s coming out of the PCE and assigning it meaning. Let this wider experience be the “experience” under discussion, rather than the PCE alone.

  3. Defenders of PCEs maintain that persons who endure PCEs afterward place interpretations on them. The textual evidence that objectors cite against PCEs occurring, having do with the assignment of meaning to the events, often seems quite consistent with the view that PCEs exist and that different traditions place different interpretations on them (see Pike, 1992, supplemental study 2).

  4. Neuropsychological studies of mystical experience point to the possibility of events of pure consciousness. A theory by Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew Newberg (d’Aquili and Newberg, 1993 and 1999) claims to account for PCEs by reference to occurrences in the brain that cut off ordinary brain activity from consciousness. This theory, if upheld, would provide physiological support for episodes of pure consciousness (for more on this theory see section 8.7.1.)

  5. There need be no problem about mystics knowing they had PCEs. If we accept a reliabilist account of knowledge, a belief is knowledge if produced by a reliable cognitive mechanism (perhaps with some further conditions). In order to have knowledge, a person does not have to be aware of and judge evidence, nor be cognizant of the reliability of the mechanism that produces the knowledge. Hence, “awakening” from (what is in fact) a PCE, if it produces the belief that one has “awakened” from a PCE, could be a reliable cognitive mechanism sufficient for knowing one had had a PCE. If we stick to an evidentialist conception of knowledge, mystics might be able to have evidence they had endured a PCE, though not at the precise time of its occurrence. Here’s how: (a) By hypothesis, a PCE is an event of conscious awareness. (b) A conscious event can have elements one does not note at the time, but recalls afterward. This is especially possible when the recall immediately follows the event. (c) Therefore, it should be possible for a mystic who endures a PCE to recall immediately afterward the very awareness that was present in the PCE, even though that awareness was not an object of consciousness at the time of the PCE. The mystic, recalling the PCE awareness, could note that the awareness had been of a “pure” type. Since the recall takes place just following a PCE, the entire complex becomes enfolded into one recognizable “experience” of the mystic, for which the mystic has evidence.

  6. Defenders of PCEs can champion their epistemological significance, although PCEs are not of anything. Recall that the noetic quality of a mystical experience can come from an acquaintance of states of affairs involving an insight directly, without supervening on acquaintance of any reality (see Section 1.1, clause (5)). In addition, an experience is mystical as long as it allegedly grants such an acquaintance. Neither need the insight be exactly simultaneous with what makes the experience mystical. Hence, a person could undergo a PCE, which then granted acquaintance of states of affairs by a direct insight. The PCE plus the insight would constitute a complex mystical experience that afforded awareness of a state of affairs not otherwise accessible.

6.3 Hard Constructivism against Perennialism

Hard Constructivism’s main argument against any perennialism, not only against defenders of PCEs, may be presented as follows (Katz, 1978):

Premise (A): The conceptual scheme a mystic possesses massively determines, shapes, or influences the nature of the mystical experience.

Premise (B): Mystics of different mystical traditions possess pervasively different conceptual schemes.

Conclusion: Therefore, there cannot be a common experience across cultural traditions. That is, perennialism is false.

The hard constructivist denies the distinction between experience and interpretation, since our conceptual apparatus massively shapes our very experience. If successful, the argument would show that there were no common numinous experiences across religious traditions either.

6.4 Criticism of Hard Constructivism

This section summarizes objections against hard constructivism that are not objections to soft constructivism as well.

  1. It seems quite possible for subjects in the first instance to apply “thin” descriptions to experiences, involving only a small part of their conceptual schemes. Only on second thought, perhaps, will they elaborate on their experience in terms of the richness of their home culture. This would be like a physician with a headache, who experiences pain in the first instance just like ordinary folk and only subsequently applies medical terminology to the headache (Compare King, 1988). If so, there is a possibility of common first-instance mystical experiences across cultures, contrary to Premise A.

  2. Premise A is thrown into further doubt by expressions of surprise by mystics-in-training about what they experience (see Gellman, 1997, 145–46 and Barnard, 1997, 127–130), as well as by heretical types of experience occurring with mystics acculturated in orthodox teachings, such as Meister Eckhart and Jacob Boehme (See Stoeber, 1992, 112–113). These illustrate the possibility of getting out from under one’s mystical background to have new experiences. Likewise, hard constructivism’s inherently conservative take on mysticism will struggle to explain transformations within mystical traditions, and cannot easily account for innovative geniuses within mystical traditions.

  3. Two people walk together down the street and see an approaching dog. One experiences the dog as “Jones’s favorite black terrier that came in second in last year’s competition,” while the other experiences it as “a stray mutt that the dog-catchers should take away.” Because of the excessive conceptual differences in their experiencing, the constructivist would have to insist that there was no worthwhile sense in which both dog-sighters had the same experience. However, there is an interesting sense in which they are having the same experience: seeing that black dog at that place, at that time. Similarly, there might exist an interesting commonality of experiences across mystical traditions, most plausibly theistic ones, despite conceptual disparity. The conceptual differences might not be sufficient to deny this important commonality (See Wainwright, 1981, 25).

  4. Specific cultural conditioning does not influence everyone to the same degree and in the same way. Individuals have rich and varied personal histories that influence their experiential lives in widely differing ways. Some accept cultural restraints gladly; others rebel against them; still others are blessed with a creative spirit, etc. A “fat people must drive fat cows” approach to mysticism fails to mirror the complex human phenomenon of acculturation.

  5. Mystical traditions characteristically involve disciplines aimed at loosening the hold of one’s conceptual scheme on subsequent experience. Techniques practiced for years promote a pronounced inhibition of ordinary cognitive processes, sometimes called “deautomization” (Deikman, 1980). This plausibly restricts the influence of one’s cultural background on one’s mystical experiences, in turn making possible identical experiences across mystical traditions.

  6. The hard constructivist over-emphasizes the influence of pre-mystical religious teaching on the mystic’s experience. Mystical experiences can circle around and reinvent meaning for the doctrines. An example is the Jewish Kabbalistic transformation of the notion of mitzvah (“commandment”) to that of “joining” or “connection” with God. Starting with commandment, the mystic ends up with devekut, “clinging” to God.

  7. Hard Constructivism fails to account well for widely differing mystical understandings of the same religious text. For example, the Hindu text, The Brahma Sutra, is monistic for Shankara (788–820), a “qualified dualism” for Ramanuja (c. 1055–1137), and yet again a strict dualism, for Madhva (1199–1278) (see Radhakrishnan, Introduction, 1968). Likewise, the teaching of emptiness in the Buddhist text the Prajnaparamita Hrydaya Sutra (The Heart Sutra), receives quite disparate unpacking in different streams of Buddhism. It’s plausible to conclude that distinct experiences were responsible, at least in part, for these differences.

On the one hand, talk about mystical experiences “the same” across all mystical traditions should be taken with a tablespoon of salt, if scholars claim to have discovered them solely from isolated descriptions of experiences. It is difficult to assess the nature of an experience without attending to how it “radiates” out into the structure of the local mystical theory and life of which it is a part (See Idel, 1997). Nevertheless, it does seem possible to generalize about experiences “similar enough” to be philosophically interesting.

7. Inherentists vs. Attributionists

“Inherentists” believe that there are experiences that are inherently religious or mystical. These experiences come with their religious or mystical content built in as would redness be built in to a sense experience. Rudolf Otto was an inherentist. Attributionists believe that there are no inherently religious or mystical experiences. There are only experiences “deemed religious.” Among their ranks is to be counted William James. A leading attributionist, Ann Taves, contends that first people or groups will have experiences of what strikes them as being “special.” Only then, depending on various factors they will attribute a religious or mystical meaning to them. (Taves, 2009) Taves is thus as much an anti-constructivist as she is anti-inherentist. The constructivist sees religious or mystical experiences to be constituted from the very start by cultural conditioning. The attributionist denies this, in favor of a tiered or “block-building” approach from experiencing something “special” to a religious or mystical conclusion. William Forgie has argued, as would an attributionist, that there could not be an experience “of God,” if we understand experience “of X” to mean that it is phenomenologically given that the experience is of X (Forgie, 1984, 1994). Forgie argues that phenomenological content can consist of general features only, and not features specifically identifying God as the object of experience. He compares this to your seeing one of two identical twins. Which one of the two you perceive cannot be a phenomenological given. Likewise, that you experience precisely God and not something else cannot be a phenomenological datum. Forgie’s type of argument applies as well to objects of mystical experiences other than God. Nelson Pike argues, against Forgie, that the individuation of an object can be a component of the phenomenological content of an experience, drawing on examples from sense perception (Pike 1992, Chapter 7).

Forgie assumes that the phenomenological content of a theistic experience must be confined to data akin to the “sense data” of sensory experience, somehow analogous to colors, shapes, movement, sounds, tastes, and the like. Individuation is absent from phenomenological content of that sort. Pike, for his part, teases out alleged phenomenological content for individuating God from analogies to ordinary sense perception. Both philosophers restrict experiences of God to phenomenal content somehow analogous to sense perception. This might be a mistake. Consider, for example, that God could appear to a person mystically, and at the same time transmit, telepathy-like, the thought that this was God appearing. Imagine further that this thought had the flavor of being conveyed to one from the outside, rather than as originating in the subject. The thought that “This is God appearing” would be part of the phenomenological content of the subject’s present (complex) experience (though not part of the mystical mode of the experience as defined in section 1.1), and yet not the product of an interpretation by the subject. Indeed, reports of experiences of God sometimes describe what seems to come with the thought included that “this is God.” Whatever the epistemological merits of such an experience might be, it would be quite natural to say that its phenomenology includes the datum that it is an experience “of God,” in particular.

8. Epistemology: The Doxastic Practice Approach and the Argument from Perception

In his celebrated, The Varieties of Religious Experience (London 1925, p. 415), Williams James, asked, “Do mystical states establish the truth of those theological affections in which the saintly life has its roots?” This question can be divided into two: (Q1) Is a person warranted in thinking that his or her experiences are veridical or have evidential value? And (Q2) Are “we,” who do not enjoy mystical experiences, upon examining the evidence of such experiences, warranted in thinking them veridical or endowed with evidential value? While related, these questions can be treated separately.

The major philosophical reply in the affirmative to (Q1) may be called the “Doxastic Practice Approach.” The major defense of an affirmative reply to (Q2) may be called the “Argument from Perception.”

8.1 The Doxastic Practice Approach

William Alston has defended beliefs a person forms based on mystical and numinous (in the terminology of this entry) experience, specifically of a theistic kind (Alston, 1991). Alston defines a ‘doxastic practice’ as consisting of socially established ways of forming and epistemically evaluating beliefs (the “output”) from a certain kind of content from various inputs, such as cognitive and perceptual ones (Alston, 1991, 100). The practice of forming physical-object beliefs derived from sense perception is an example of a ‘doxastic practice’ and the practice of drawing deductive conclusions in a certain way from premises is another. Now, Alston argues that the justification of every doxastic practice is “epistemically circular,” that is, its reliability cannot be established in any way independent of the practice itself. (See Alston, 1993) This includes the “sense-perception practice.” However, we cannot avoid engaging in doxastic practices. Therefore, Alston contends, it is rational to engage in the doxastic practices we do engage in providing there is no good reason to think they are unreliable. Now, there are doxastic practices consisting of forming beliefs about God, God’s purposes for us, and the like, grounded on religious and mystical experiences such as “God is now appearing to me.” Such, for example, is the “Christian Doxastic Practice.” It follows from Alston’s argument that it is rational for a person in such a practice to take its belief outputs as true unless the practice is shown to be unreliable. Thus we have an affirmative answer to question (Q1).

8.2 The Argument from Perception

Various philosophers have defended the evidential value, to one degree or another, of some religious and mystical experiences, principally with regard to experiences of God (see Baillie, 1939, Broad, 1953, Davis, 1989, Gellman, 1997 and 2001a, Gutting, 1982, Swinburne, 1991 and 1996, Wainwright, 1981, and Yandell, 1993). These philosophers have stressed the “perceptual” nature of experiences of God, hence the name given here, the “Argument from Perception.” We can summarize the approach as follows:

  1. Experiences of God have a subject-object structure, with a phenomenological content allegedly representing the object of the experience. Also, subjects are moved to make truth claims based on such experiences. Furthermore, there are mystical procedures for getting into position for a mystical experience of God (see Underhill, 90–94), and others can take up a suitable mystical path to try to check on the subject’s claims (see Bergson 1935, 210). In all these ways, experiences of God are perceptual in nature.

  2. Perception-like experiences count as (at least some) evidence in favor of their own validity. That a person seems to experience some object is some reason to think he or she really does have experiential contact with it. So, experiences of God count as (at least some) evidence in favor of their own validity.

  3. Agreement between the perceptions of people in different places, times, and traditions, enhances the evidence in favor of their validity (see Broad, 1953). Hence, agreement about experiences of God in diverse circumstances enhances the evidence in their favor.

  4. Further enhancement of the validity of a religious or mystical experience can come from appropriate consequences in the life of the person who had the experience, such as increased saintliness (See Wainwright, 1981, 83–88).

  5. (1)–(4) yield initial evidence in favor of the validity of (some) experiences of God.

Whether any experiences of God are veridical in the final reckoning will depend on the strength of the initial evidential case, on other favorable evidence, and on the power of counter-considerations against validity. Defenders of the Argument from Perception differ over the strength of the initial evidential case and have defended the staying power of the Argument from Perception against counter-evidence to varying degrees. All agree, however in advancing a positive answer to question (Q2).

8.3 An Epistemological Critique: Disanalogies to Sense Experience

Several philosophers have argued against either the doxastic practice approach or the Argument from Perception, or both (see Bagger 1999, Fales, 1996a, 1996b, and 2001, Gale, 1991, 1994, and 1995, C.B. Martin, 1955, Michael Martin, 1990, Proudfoot, 1985, and Rowe, 1982). Here the focus will be on objections related specifically to mystical and numinous experience, rather than to general epistemological complaints,

Philosophers have disputed the Argument from Perception on the grounds of alleged disanalogies between experiences of God and sense perception. Two issues must be examined: (a) whether the disanalogies exist, and (b) if they do exist, whether they are epistemologically significant.

8.3.1 Lack of Checkability

The analogy allegedly breaks down over the lack of appropriate crosschecking procedures for experiences of God. With sense perception, we can crosscheck by employing inductive methods to determine causally relevant antecedent conditions; can “triangulate” an event by correlating it with other effects of the same purported cause; and can discover causal mechanisms connecting a cause to its effects. These are not available for checking on experiences of God. Evan Fales argues that “crosscheckability” is an integral part of any successful perceptual epistemic practice. Therefore, the perceptual epistemic practice in which mystical experiences of God are embedded is severely defective (Fales, 200) In addition, Richard Gale (1991), argues that in experiences of God there is missing agreement between perceivers as well as the possibility of checking whether the perceiver was in the “right” position and psychological and physiological state for a veridical experience. For similar reasons, C.B. Martin concludes that claims to have experienced God are “very close” to subjective claims like “I seem to see a piece of paper” rather than to objective claims like “I see a piece of paper” (C.B. Martin, 1955).

William Rowe observes that God may choose to be revealed to one person and not to another. Therefore, unlike with sense perception, the failure of others to have an experience of God under conditions similar to those in which one person did, does not impugn the validity of the experience. Therefore, we have no way of determining when an experience of God is delusory. If so, neither can we credit an experience as authentic (Rowe, 1982).

8.3.2 God’s Lack of Space-Time Coordinates

Some philosophers have argued that there could never be evidence for thinking a person had perceived God (Gale, 1994 and 1995, and Byrne, 2001). For there to be evidence that a person experienced an object O, and did not have just an “O-ish-impression,” it would have to be possible for there to be evidence that O was the common object of different perceptions (not necessarily simultaneous with one another). This, in turn, would be possible only if it were possible to distinguish perceptions of O, specifically, from possible perceptions of other objects that might be perceptually similar to O. This latter requirement is possible only if O exists in both space and time. Space-time coordinates make it possible to distinguish O from objects of similar appearance existing in other space-time coordinates. God, however, does not exist in both space and time. Therefore, there could never be evidence that a person had experienced God.

8.4 Evaluation of the Disanalogy arguments

Although Alston defends the perceptual character of mystical experiences of God for his doxastic practice approach, there is no restriction to the perceptual on the inputs of a doxastic practice. Any cognitive input will do. Hence, disanalogies between experiences of God and sense perception, even if great, would not be directly harmful to this approach (Alston, 1994).

Regarding the bearing of the alleged disanalogies on the Argument from Perception, the disanalogists take the evidential credentials of sense perception as paradigmatic for epistemology. They equate confirming and disconfirming evidence with evidence strongly analogous to the kind available for sensory perception. However, the evidential requirement should be only “confirming empirical evidence,” be what it may. If God-sightings have confirming evidence, even if different from the kind available for sense perception, they will then be evidentially strengthened. If God-sightings do not have much confirming empirical evidence, be it what it may, they will remain unjustified for that reason, and not because they lack crosschecks appropriate to sense perception.

Perhaps the disanalogy proponents believe that justification of physical object claims should be our evidential standard, because only where crosschecks of the physical object kind are available do we get sufficient justification. However, this is not convincing. Our ordinary physical object beliefs are far over-supported by confirming evidence. We have extremely luxurious constellations of confirming networks there. Hence, it does not follow that were mystical claims justified to a lesser degree than that, or not by similar procedures, that they would be unjustified.

A problem with the argument from God’s lack of dimensionality is that the practice of identifying physical objects proceeds by way of an interplay between qualitative features and relative positions to determine both location and identity. The judgments we make reflect a holistic practice of making identifications of place and identity together. There is no obvious reason why the identification of God cannot take place within its own holistic practice, with its own criteria of identification, not beholden to the holistic practice involved in identifying physical objects (See Gellman, 2001a, Chapter 3, for a sketch of such a holistic practice). We should be suspicious of taking the practice of identifying physical objects as paradigmatic for all epistemology.

8.5 The Argument from Perception as Dependent on the Doxastic Practice Approach

In the end, the Argument from Perception might have to yield to the Doxastic Practice Approach. One reason is that it is doubtful if many experiencers of God make truth claims solely on the basis of their mystical experiences, rather than within a doxastic practice. For example, as Rowan Williams has commented concerning Teresa of Avila, she would never have imagined that her experiences alone were sufficient evidence for any truth. The criterion of authenticity for her experiences was how they related to subsequent concrete behavior, as judged by and within her religious practice. Mystical experience as such was given no special authority.Nelson Pike writes similarly about John of the Cross that John thought that, “The private experiences of individual mystics have no value whatsoever as sources of information, and that “To treat them as such is to risk a variety of pitfalls of considerable threat to the spiritual life.” (Pike, 1986, P. 16)

A second reason why the Argument from Perception might have to yield to the Doxastic Practice Approach is that if, as noted in section 8.4, identification of God takes place in an holistic practice, then quite plausibly this is a social practice in which one judges one’s mystical experiences to be of God. Turning again to the example of Teresa, her experiences in themselves did not always give her assurance that she was not experiencing the Devil rather than God. She adjudicated the issue from within the teachings of the Church. Finally, it is an open question to what extent alleged God-experiences are sufficiently detailed to provide grounds to the subject that they are of God. Hence, a subject’s judgment that a particular encounter is with God might well be the fruit of assimilating the present event into a larger social practice. Recently, Gellman has argued that the Argument from Perception might just collapse into the doxastic practice approach (Gellman, 2008).

8.6 An Epistemological Critique: Religious Diversity

A critique of the Argument from Perception for the epistemic value of theistic experiences comes from the facts of religious diversity. This critique applies to non-theistic experiences as well. In the history of religions, we find innumerable gods, with different characteristics. Shall we say they all exist? Can belief in all of them be rational? (Hick, 1989, 234–5) In addition, there are experiences of non-personal ultimate realities, such as the Nirguna Brahman of Indian religions. Nirguna Brahman cannot be an ultimate reality if God is (Hick, 1984, 234–5). The Argument from Perception cannot work for both, so works for neither. Furthermore, different theistic faiths claim experience of the one and only God, ostensibly justifying beliefs that are in contradiction with one another (see Flew, 1966, 126). If the Argument from Perception leads to such contradictory results, it cannot provide evidence in favor of the validity of experiences of God.

In reply to this objection, straight away we can discount experiences of polytheistic gods because of their being embedded in bizarre, fantastic settings, and because of the relative paucity of reports of actual experiences of such beings. Regarding clashing experiences within theistic settings, Richard Swinburne has proposed an ascent to generality as a harmonizing mechanism. Swinburne believes that conflicting descriptions of objects of religious experience pose a challenge only to detailed claims, not to general claims of having experienced a supernal being (Swinburne, 1991, 266).

John Hick has proposed a “pluralistic hypothesis” to deal with the problem of religious diversity (Hick, 1984, Chapter 14). According to the pluralistic hypothesis, the great world faiths embody different perceptions and conceptions of one reality that Hick christens “the Real.” The Real itself is never experienced directly, but has “masks” or “faces” which are experienced, depending on how a particular culture or religion thinks of the Real. The Real itself is, therefore, neither personal nor impersonal, these categories being imposed upon the Real by different cultural contexts. Hence, the typical experiences of the major faiths are to be taken as validly of the Real, through mediation by the local face of the Real.

Hick has been criticized for infidelity to the world’s religious traditions. However, we should understand Hick to be providing a theory about religions rather than an exposition of religions themselves would endorse (for criticism of Hick see Gavin d’Costa, 1987). Some propose harmonizing some conflicting experiences by reference to God’s “inexhaustible fullness” (Gellman, 1997, Chapter 4). In at least some mystical experiences of God, a subject experiences what is presented as proceeding from an intimation of infinite plenitude. Given this feature, a claim to experience a personal ultimate, for example, can be squared with an experience of an impersonal ultimate: one “object,” identified as God or Nirguna Brahman, can be experienced in its personal attributes or in its impersonal attributes, from out of its inexhaustible plenitude.

Whether any of these solutions succeed, the body of experiential data is too large for us to simply scrap on the grounds of contradictory claims. We should endeavor to retain as much of the conflicting data as possible by seeking some means of conciliation.

8.7 An Epistemological Critique: Naturalistic explanations

Bertrand Russell once quipped that “We can make no distinction between the man who eats little and sees heaven and the man who drinks much and sees snakes. Each is in an abnormal physical condition, and therefore has abnormal perceptions” (Russell, 1935, 188). C.D. Broad wrote, to the contrary, “One might need to be slightly ‘cracked’ in order to have some peep-holes into the super-sensible world” (Broad, 1939, 164). Thus is the issue engaged whether we can explain away religious and mystical experiences by reference to naturalistic causes.

Wainwright has argued that a naturalistic explanation is compatible with the validity of an experience since God could bring about an experience through a naturalistic medium (Wainwright, 1981, Chapter 2). However, we should take into account that there might be naturalistic explanations that would make it implausible that God would appear in just those ways (this is elaborated in section 8.7.2).

Various psychological naturalistic explanations of religious and mystical experience have been offered, including pathological conditions such as: hypersuggestibility, severe deprivation, severe sexual frustration, intense fear of death, infantile regression, pronounced maladjustment, and mental illness, as well as non-pathological conditions, including the inordinate influence of a religious psychological “set” (See Davis, 1989, Chapter 8, and Wulff, 2000). In addition, some have advanced a sociological explanation for some mysticism, in terms of the socio-political power available to an accomplished mystic (Fales, 1996a, 1996b).

Naturalistic proposals of these kinds exaggerate the scope and influence of the cited factors, sometimes choosing to highlight the bizarre and eye-catching at the expense of the more common occurrences. Secondly, some of the proposals, at least, are perfectly compatible with the validity of experiences of God. For example, a person’s having a religious psychological set can just as well be a condition for enjoying and being capable of recognizing an experience of God, as it can be a cause of delusion.

8.7.1 Neuropsychological Explanations

Neuropsychological research has been conducted to look for unique brain processes involved in religious and mystical experiences, resulting in a number of competing theories (see Wulff, 2000). The “explaining away” enters when one claims that “It’s all in the head.” The most comprehensive current theory, that of d’Aquili and Newberg (d’Aquili and Newberg 1993 and 1999), proposes the prefrontal area of the brain as the locus of special brain activity during mystical episodes. Through “deafferentiation,” or cutting off of neural input to that area of the brain, they claim, an event of pure consciousness occurs. The patterns set up in the brain create an overwhelming experience of “absolute unitary being.” If reinforcement of a certain hypothalamic discharge then occurs, this will prolong the feeling of elation, and will be interpreted as an experience of God. Otherwise, there will arise a deep peacefulness due to the dominance of specified hypothalamic structures. This gets interpreted as an experience of an impersonal, absolute ground of being. The theory associates numinous experiences with variations in deafferentiation in various structures of the nervous system, and lesser religious experiences with mild to moderate stimulation of circuits in the lateral hypothalamus. The latter generate religious awe: a complex of fear and exaltation (see d’Aquili and Newberg, 1993, 195). The brain functions in related ways in aesthetic experience as well (d’Aquili and Newberg, 2000).

The authors themselves do not say their theory shows there to be nothing objective to mystical or religious experience. However, they do recommend explaining away objective differences between, for example, theistic and non-theistic experiences. And their theory could be utilized in a “It’s all in the head” strategy.

Batson, Schoenrade and Ventis (1993) maintain (comparing religious experiences to creative problem solving) that a person who has a religious experience faces an existential crisis, and attempts to solve it within fixed cognitive structures, which are embedded in the brain’s left-hemisphere. This yields no solution. The person may then undergo a transforming religious experience, in which the brain temporarily switches from left-hemisphere to right-hemisphere dominance, from verbal/conceptual thinking to non-verbal insight “beyond” the person’s dominant conceptual structure. The switch then reverberates back to restructure the left-hemisphere conceptual network, now made apt for dealing with the existential crisis. The right-hemisphere switch can account for the sense of ‘ineffability,’ since the right hemisphere is not analytic or verbal (See Fenwick 1996 and Michael Persinger et al. 1994). Because the shift involves “transcending” the cognitive, it may explain the conviction of having contact with a “transcendent realm.” If offered as a naturalistic “explaining away,” this theory would imply that what a person thinks is an experience of God, say, is really an experience of temporary right-hemisphere dominance. The theory has the drawback, however, of applying only to conversion experiences, and not to other religious and mystical episodes.

Other theories that have attracted attention include one focusing on anomalous features of the temporal lobes of the brain, the locus for epileptic conditions (Persinger, et al 1987). One study even claims to have discovered a correlation between temporal lobe epilepsy and sudden conversion experiences (Dewhurst and Beard, 1970). James Austin, a neurologist and himself a Zen practitioner, has developed a theory of brain transformations for prolonged Zen meditative practice (Austin, 1998). The theory is based on gradual, complex changes in the brain, leading to a blocking of our higher associative processes. Austin believes that the Zen kensho experience, according to Austin an experience of reality “as it is in itself,” is an experience with (relatively) shut down neural activity.

8.7.2 Evaluation of Neuropsychological Explanations

It would seem that a neuropsychological theory could do no more than relate what happens in the brain when a mystical or religious experience occurs. It could not tell us that the ultimate cause for a theory’s favored brain-events was altogether internal to the organism. On the other hand, such a theory could help rule out cases of suspected deception and block the identification of mystical experiences with mere emotion. True, there may not be out-of-brain “God-receptors” in the body, analogous to those for sensory perception, which might reinforce a suspicion that it’s all in the head. However, out-of-brain receptors are neither to be expected nor required with non-physical stimuli, as in mystical experiences. God, for example, does not exist at a physical distance from the brain. Furthermore, God could act directly upon the brain to bring about the relevant processes for a subject to perceive God.

On the other hand, a neuropsychological theory would put pressure on claims to veridical experiences, if it could point to brain processes implausibly grounding a veridical experience. The implausibility would flow from a being of God’s nature wanting to make itself known by just that way. Suppose, for (an outlandish) example, researchers convinced us that all and only alleged experiencers of God had a brain-defect caused only by a certain type of blow to the shoulder to people with a genetic propensity to psoriasis, and that the area of the defect was activated in the experiences. This might not prove that experiences of God were delusory, but would raise serious doubts. It is too early in the research, however, to say that implausible brain conditions have been found for experiences of God.

8.7.3 The Superiority of Naturalistic Explanation

Some philosophers have argued that because the “modern inquirer” assumes everything ultimately explicable in naturalistic terms, in principle we should reject any supernatural explanation of mystical and religious experience (see Bagger, 1999). Invoking God to explain mystical experiences is like invoking miracles to explain natural phenomena. We should match our elimination of miracles from our explanatory vocabulary with an elimination of a supernatural explanation of mystical experiences of God. Hence, we do not have to wait until we discover a live alternative explanation to the theistic explanation of mystical experiences of God. We should resist a theistic explanation in the name of our epistemic standards. Hence, we should reject both the doxastic practice approach and the Argument from Perception.

This argument raises the important question of the relationship between theistic explanation and a naturalistic program of explanation. Various theistic philosophers have attempted to square special divine activity with a modern scientific understanding of the world (See for example, Swinburne, 1989). Whether they have succeeded is a question beyond the scope of the present essay, however. Of course, a person for whom supernatural explanation is not a live option would have reason to reject the Argument from Perception and refuse to engage in a doxastic practice of identifying valid God-experiences. However, most defenders of the Argument from Perception advance it at best as a defensible line of reasoning, rather than as a proof of valid experiences of God that should convince anyone, and the doxastic practice approach is not meant to convince everybody to participate in a theistic doxastic practice (see Gellman, 2001b).

9. Mysticism, Religious Experience, and Gender

Feminist philosophers have criticized the androcentric bias in mysticism and its philosophical treatment. There are three main objections: (1) Contemporary male philosophers treat mysticism as most centrally a matter of the private psychological episodes of a solitary person. Philosophers believe these private experiences reveal the meaning and value of mysticism (Jantzen, 1994 and 1995). Instead, philosophers should be studying the socio-political ramifications of mysticism, including its patriarchal failings. (2) Scholars of mysticism have systematically ignored or marginalized much of women’s mysticism. Closer attention to women would reveal the androcentric bias in male mysticism (Jantzen, 1995). Nancy Caciola (2000, 2003) argues that the criteria the Church developed for authentic mystical experiences curtailed the power of women in the Church. For example, on the basis of theories about female physiology, women were deemed more vulnerable to devil possession than men. Hence one was to be more suspicious that women are devil-possessed, and not God-possessed, than about men. (3) The traditional male construction of God has determined the way male philosophers think of theistic experience. Thus, theistic experience is conditioned from the outset by patriarchal conceptualizations and values, and by sex-role differentiation in the practice of religion (Raphael, 1994). Typically, the view states, men understand theistic experience as a human subject encountering a being wholly distinct, distant, and overpowering. A paradigm of this approach is Rudolf Otto’s “numinous experience,” of a “wholly other” reality, unfathomable and overpowering, engendering a sense of dreaded fascination. The mystic is “submerged and overwhelmed” by his own nothingness (Otto, 1957). Otto claims that this is the foundational experience of religion. This approach, it is claimed, is mediated by the androcentrism of Otto’s worldview, entrapped in issues of domination, atomicity, and submission. Feminist thinkers tend to deny the dichotomy between the holy and the creaturely that makes Otto’s analysis possible (see Daly, 1973 and Goldenberg, 1979). Feminist theologians stress the immanent nature of the object of theistic experience, and bring to prominence women’s experience of the holy in their fleshly embodiment, denigrated by androcentric attitudes.

The feminist critique poses a welcome corrective to undoubted androcentric biases in mysticism and mystical studies. Regarding (1), while studying the socio-political ramifications of mysticism is certainly a mandatory undertaking, and should contribute to future social justice, it is not necessarily the task of philosophers, and certainly not all philosophers. A division of labor should free philosophers to examine the important phenomenological and epistemological aspects of mysticism, though always in awareness of possible androcentric prejudices. That being said, the feminist critique should help to neutralize the conception of the private nature of mysticism and religious experience, introduced to philosophy largely by William James. Objection (2) has begun to bring about a welcome change with scholarship dedicated to women’s mysticism and its significance (see for example, Hurcombe, 1987, Brunn and Epiney-Burgard, 1989, Beer, 1993, and Borchert, 1994). Regarding (3), we must distinguish between Otto’s androcentric claim that his type of numinous experience constitutes religious experience at its most profound, and the rich variegation of religious and mystical experience of men throughout history. This includes men’s experiences of God’s immanent closeness as well as mystical union with God, quite opposite, by feminist lights, to Otto’s numinous experience. The study of gender in religious experience and mysticism has barely begun and promises new insights into and revisions of our understanding of these human phenomena.