Buddhist Mysticism

Part 6 of 12 in the series Spiritual History

A Buddhist’s ultimate goal, according to many, is to reach the state of Nirvana, whether it is through this present life or the next, or some life after that.

Behind Buddhist mysticism is the story of Siddhārtha Gautama, who was born a prince of India. At the age of 29, Siddhartha left his palace to meet his subjects. Despite his father’s efforts to hide from him the sick, aged and suffering, Siddhartha encountered a diseased man , a decaying corpse, and an ascetic (A person who abstains from pleasure). Their suffering depressed him, and he decided to overcome aging, sickness, and death by living the life of an ascetic himself.

Six year later, after studying with various religious leaders and still not happy with the answers laid before him, Buddha decided to start his own search for answers. One day, while sitting under the Bhodi tree, Buddha experienced enlightenment. This enlightenment is considered a mystical experience. It was rapid, unexpected, and allowed Buddha to see life in a brand new way.

The whole Buddhist experience is developed from the mystic awareness of something greater, but not reliant on faith on the external, but on the inner experience, the removal of suffering through thinking and action. There is a consistency of mind, ethics and spirituality which has appealed to the world during the recent industrial and internet revolutions, as people grapple with their understandings of the metaphysical.

Mysticism in Buddhism developed differently from God-Concept within Egyptian, Jain, Hindu and Jewish predecessors. Rather than getting awareness from a higher being or power, Buddhist mysticism is focused on contemplation, ideas, perspectives, and lack of all that. William James  named such experience ‘noetic’ (inner wisdom or direct knowing).

To attain mystical experiences in Buddhist traditions, it is not easy nor is it something that comes early in life. There is preparation that needs to be done. In Indian philosophy, yoga is used as a training into mystical insight. While many associate yoga as a form of exercise, body balancing, and relaxation, it is much more. In attaining mystical insight, yoga is used as a technique to reach those higher states of contemplation through breathing, following certain diets, attaining postures, and going through intellectual concentration.

In Zen Buddhism, the term for this intuitive experience is called Kensho, or satori. Satori is described as quick, instant experiences in which those experiencing satori gain new perspectives on everything.

What is different?

The traditions of prior spiritual traditions at first glance seem to be at variance with the Buddhist view which does not accept the concept of an external God or god(s).

However to understand how Buddhists can despite having no god(s) still pray to deities (the 5 earthly Buddhas, Bodhisattvas etc) seems contradictory to the western mind. For example, Vajrapani is the Bodhisattva of power, one of the three main protective deities surrounding the Buddha, and is often represented in conjunction with the other two: Avalokiteshvara (compassion) and Manjushri (wisdom).

Perhaps this is about cultural understanding of what is divine?

What psychology has learnt about the human mind is that we are all able to modify our experience in some way by different thinking. Prayer, belief, faith, hope and loyalty are all ways of thinking.

Mystics are trying to remove thinking from the equation, to get back to what is beyond thought, to inner knowing without thought, just like the Buddha did under the Bohdi tree.

There is always a tension between non-thinking awareness and the mindful streams of thought. What you are reading is not what you believe inside. If it were that your mind and your Xconscious were totally in alignment you would be in nirvana.

Please do take the time to do the following IQS on Buddhism.

“Buddhists spend their time getting prepared for a moment that we spend most of our lives pretending does not exist, which is death.
We dwell in a whirlwind of activity, racing against time, defining success by measures of the material world, wealth and achievements, credentials of one sort or another.
This to the Buddhists is the essence of ignorance. They remind us that all life grows old and that all possessions decay.
Every moment is precious and we all have a choice, to continue on the spinning carousel of delusion, or to step off into a new realm of spiritual possibilities. T
hey offer an alternative that is not a dogma but a path, long and difficult but in so many ways irresistible.
The Buddhists speak not of sin and judgment, good and evil, but only of ignorance and suffering, with emphasis being on compassion. “
Wade Davis
 The essence of the Buddhist path,  is distilled in the Four Noble Truths.
  1. All life is suffering. By this the Buddha did not mean that all life was negation, but only that terrible things happen. Evil was not exceptional but part of the existing order of things, a consequence of human actions or karma.
  2. The cause of suffering is ignorance. By ignorance the Buddha did not mean stupidity. He meant the tendency of human beings to cling to the cruel illusion of their own permanence and centrality, their isolation and separation from the stream of universal existence.
  3. The third of the Noble Truths was the revelation that ignorance could be overcome.
  4. The fourth and most essential was the delineation of a mystic contemplative practice that if followed promised an end to suffering and a true liberation and transformation of the human heart. The goal was not to escape the world, but to escape being enslaved by it. The purpose of practice was not the elimination of self, but the annihilation of ignorance, and the unmasking of the true Buddha nature, which like a buried jewel shines bright within every human being, waiting to be revealed. The Buddha’s transmission, in short, offered nothing less than a road map to enlightenment. (Matthieu)
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