Mystical Musings

For about a half hour every night, after I’ve completed an outline of what needs to be covered during studies with my daughter for the following day, I pick up Carl McColman’s The Big Book of Christian Mysticism and settle in for a very enjoyable and informative read.

I’ve kept up with Carl’s blog off and on for over 5 years and can’t say I always agree with his views, but I certainly respect and appreciate them.  That’s been true of The Big Book of Mysticism, too.  Carl’s writing style is easy to follow, organized, informative and gracious.  I always feel like I am reading the thoughts of an extremely kind, gentle soul when I read his writing.  I appreciate his spiritual perspectives, but I do not agree with his view of mysticism.  It seems to me as though he is trying to define it in order to “sell” it and that makes me uncomfortable because I don’t think mysticism is something that can be bought and sold.  It is certainly an experience that can be shared with others, but not in a coercive, manipulative marketing sort of way.

Robert Bly was once asked if he hoped to make poetry mainstream.  He said that was not at all his goal because once something becomes mainstream, it loses its power.  Professional marketers are aware of this.  Once you discover that cutting edge thing that resonates “cool” and market it to the masses, it almost immediately loses its “cool” so you have to go off looking for the next cutting edge thing to market.   Bringing something into the mainstream does not give it power, it takes it away because the mainstream always demands that the ineffable be made concrete.

The way I see it, mysticism is to religion what poetry is to literature.  In order to sell it to the masses, you have to reduce it to labels and catch phrases that turn it into something far less significant than what it actually is.

Granted, I’m only 75 pages into the book and my intellectual understanding of Christian mysticism is admittedly somewhat limited.  It’s not non-existent, but I know I don’t have Carl’s knowledge.  I had a significant mystical experience in my youth that has provided my primary understanding of mysticism.  Everything gets checked against that experience which is what made me interested in Christian mysticism in the first place.  It resonated with my experience.  Beyond that, I attended a dozen or so Franciscan and Jesuit retreats and conferences during the 8 years I was Catholic.  Most of these were silent retreats and a few were specifically based upon a study of the Christian mystics.  More recently, I’ve made a fairly extensive study of The Cloud of Unknowing, Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton and a few others.  But my knowledge of Christian mysticism, in general, is somewhat lacking.  I know very little about the Celtic influence on Christian wisdom, for example.  I’ve made an in depth study of Church history, but I have not made an in depth study of many of the Christian thinkers themselves.  So undoubtedly Carl has far more knowledge than me.  But I’m still uncomfortable about his desire to nail mysticism down so concretely.  What is the point of doing this?  To gain converts?

Carl says that he can’t guarantee that he will win anyone over to his point of view.  Fair enough.  But doesn’t mysticism have more to do with helping people enlarge their perspective from their own point of view rather than trying to get them to adopt someone elses’ point of view?  Carl very clearly says that his goal is to inspire and encourage us to make Christian mysticism a part of our lives.  His selling point is that Christian mysticism “promises” to make our lives better.  This is also the standard selling point of Christianity which has all but become a “brand” these days.  (Well, maybe it IS a “brand”!!)

Carl says that a central “goal” of Christian mysticism is experiencing the ineffable splendors of the mutual indwelling of the soul in Christ.  This doesn’t seem right to me.  I think it would be more accurate to say that mysticism is the experience of the ineffable splendors of the mutual indwelling of the soul in Christ.  To claim mysticism has “goals” makes me cringe.  Perhaps it was Paul’s goal, but that doesn’t mean Christian mysticism has goals.

Carl writes:

Paul promises that the mystery of Christ leads to a glorious end that so many mystics since have described – union with God, beatific vision, communion with the Holy Trinity, deification, to be filled with the utter fullness of God.

I have a problem with the word choice here, specifically the word “end”.  Is union with God, etc. an end result?  If so, an end result of what?  Doing what Christian mysticism says we should do?  Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems highly problematic to assign “end results” to mysticism.  Goals that create end results have a lot to do with the modern striving for achievement and marketing tactics (as in growing a church), but very little to do with mysticism as I understand it.

Carl writes, “For example, many forms of non-Christian mysticism are anchored in the idea that human beings are (or can become) identical with God.  Christianity denies this and Christian mysticism concurs.” Mysticism concurs? With what exactly?  I wish Carl had provided specific examples here, because these sorts of blanket statements made by Christians are what I find to be the most detrimental of all.

God is a metaphor and means very different things within different religions.  Mystical Jainism is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of a non-Christian religion that believes human beings can become “identical” to God.  But to compare the God of the Jains with the God of the Christians is completely inappropriate.  The Jains do not believe that there is a beginning or end as far as the universe goes so they do not believe in a creator God.  For the Jains, God is perfect Being.  When Jains say that human beings have the ability to become identical with God, they do not mean that they have the ability to become identical with a creator God.  What they mean is that human beings have the the potential to achieve perfect Being. Of the Christian mystics I’m familiar with, I’m fairly certain that this idea would not pose a problem.  Some may not agree with it, but at worst, it would be a non-issue.  (Note: We’ve warped Augustine’s “Original Sin” beyond all recognition since Descartes!!)  Buddhists don’t maintain a belief in God at all.  There are something like 330 million gods in Hinduism.  All of these gods represent the one Supreme absolute called Brahman.  Each god is an aspect of Brahman who is formless and beyond human conception – human beings do not become “identical” to Brahman.

Carl says that the Christian idea of God as a Trinity is a unique idea.  That’s not necessarily true.  Hinduism is far older than Christianity and maintains a triumverage -Brahman, Vishnu, and Shiva.  Brahman (Creator) is “Being”; Vishnu (Preserver) is “Thatness”; and Shiva (Destroyer) is the holy word or holy spirit.  The Christian trinity is Father (God), Son and Holy Spirit.  I don’t see a huge difference here. God is “the Ground of Being”, Son is “Thatness” (God on earth; the Word made Flesh); and the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit.  Each aspect of the Christian trinity, like the Hindu trinity, contains and includes the others.

In Wicca, the Goddess is understood as a trinity: Mother (preserver), Maiden (creator), Crone (destroyer).  Look at it this way…

  • Maiden (Creator) – innocence, continual new beginnings, the youthful enthusiasm of infinite potential.  In Hinduism, Brahman is the Creator and is also known as “Being”. Paul Tillich called God (the Father) the “Ground of Being”.  Dostoevsky said God was “a field of infinite potential”.
  • Mother (Nurturer and Sustainer) –  fertility, sexuality, fulfillment, stability, life.  In Hinduism, Vishnu is the Preserver and also “Thatness”.  Thatness is the ineffable thingness of stuff.  Human sensual experience.  Thisness/Isness is Brahman/God.  Thatness is based on human experience.  This is the individual experience of infinite potential.  God made flesh.  The Son.  God’s way of experiencing Himself. (In Christianity in the form of Jesus who represents all of humanity.)
  • Crone (Destroyer) – wisdom, repose, death, endings.  In Hinduism, Shiva is the Destroyer.  Shiva is also considered to be the holy word/spirit.  In Christianity, it is the Holy Spirit that leads us to new perspectives which means the death of old ones.  It is the Holy Spirit that undoes the ego so that we can hear God.  It is the communication mechanism between Isness and Thatness.

I think Carl was a Celtic Pagan before becoming Christian. There is a trinity within Celtic paganism, too.  The Trinity exists everywhere.  It is NOT unique to Christianity.  Why would it be?

Also, Christian pantheism is not unknown.  Paul said, “For in him we live, move and have our being”.  What is that if not pantheistic??  Carl writes:

A corollary of this principle is the Christian insistence that mysticism does not lead to a pantheistic merging of you and God, but rather culminates in a loving communion, where mystical unity with God occurs as a loving embrace.

Mystical unity?  To me, there is ultimately very little difference between pantheism and panentheism.  Personally, I think panentheism is a pantheism because the definition of pantheism is broad enough to embrace it.  Perhaps some pantheists insist upon a merging of “you and God”.  But come on!!  God is a metaphor.  We don’t understand metaphor anymore!  If we did, the idea of merging “you and God” wouldn’t make any sense at all!  It’s total nonsense, not pantheism.

I don’t mean to imply that I dislike everything about Carl’s book.  My discomfort with his view of mysticism is nothing new, I have voiced it several times on his blog and he is always very gracious.  I always enjoy reading his blog despite my discomfort and look forward to having time to read his book.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll change my mind as I make my way deeper into it.

The King of Masks

The King of Masks came out in 1999.  I remember seeing it with a friend during one of our rare outings without kids.  She and I were both crying by the end of the film. It actually would have been perfectly appropriate for the kids to have seen, too, but we didn’t know that until after we had seen it.  Maybe it wasn’t rated.  Or maybe we just wanted to get out of the house without kids.  I’m not sure.

Last night, it showed up on my Netflix Instant Watch queue of “Films You Will Love” so I watched it again.  It’s a beautiful story set in 1930s China.  The King of Masks is an elderly street performer who can change masks with a slight of the hand.  The literal translation of the art is “Face Changing”.  This is an old Chinese art and is based on a performer who could change 12 masks at once.  The actor for the film learned to manage 4 (the rest was managed by the magic of film).  He can only pass his art down to a male heir so he goes to where children are sold illegally in the hopes of purchasing a male child.  Lots of girls are sold because there is such a strong preference for males in 1930s China.  It’s heartbreaking!

The old man, Wang, purchases a child who tugs at his heart.  He thinks he has purchased a boy, but soon discovers she is an 8 year old girl.  After this discovery, he tries to get rid of her but she stubbornly remains with him because she has already been sold 7 times.  Her last master beat her.  She promises to scrub the decks and do whatever work Wang demands of her.  So Wang agrees to keep her on, but he is no longer “Grandpa” to her, he is “Boss”.  Zhou Renying plays Doggie and offers a heartwarming performance.  She’s a phenomenal child actress!

The director, Wu Tianming said, “I wanted to make this film because I fear that society is forgetting our Chinese traditions. Those traditions emphasized the value of morality and ethics, proper manners, a sense of honor, and taking care of each other…Through this story of an old man and a child in a world full of struggle and suffering, I wanted to express the importance of love.”  In 1930s China, a street performer was considered to be a member of an elite fraternity, despite his meager lifestyle.  His life is honest, full of integrity, beautiful and even prestigious despite being extremely humble.  He lives a very happy life despite his poverty.

Throughout the film, there are displays of beautiful Chinese festivals and operas complete with the incredible, colorful costumes that go along with them.  We are also shown magnificent statues of Buddha and several Buddhists temples where Wang goes to worship.  It’s an absolutely exquisite film.

The Kindness Handbook

I finished reading Sharon Salzberg’s The Kindness Handbook yesterday and got a lot out of it!  Salzberg has studied Buddhism for 35 years so much of the book involves Buddhist practices which seem to me to be quite practical.

Salzberg says that from the Buddhist perspective, lack of effort is lack of courage.  But this is not an easy thing to see about oneself. We think of ourselves as being kind or compassionate when really all we are is afraid.  We can also think ourselves compassionate when we’re really actually feeling guilty.  We may see someone else suffering and think we do not deserve our own happiness because of their suffering.  But this is not compassion.  It’s guilt, which is defined within Buddhism as a form of self-hatred.  Concern can be helpful, but it must to contrasted with guilt.  Going over and over what you should have said or done is not concern, it is guilt which drains our energy and puts us in center stage.  Concern, on the other hand, puts the other in center stage.

Salzberg says that evolving a spiritual practice is not about having and getting.  It’s about becoming more and more compassionate toward ourselves and others.  I think this is what bothered me somewhat about Gay Hendricks and his book I recently read, Five Wishes. He seems to equate spirituality with desire fulfillment – having and getting.  Self compassion has three components: self-kindness vs. self-judgment; a sense of common humanity vs. isolation; and mindfulness vs. over-identification.

Salzberg has a very different understanding of success than Gay Hendricks, too. Hendricks suggests that success is however we define it.  But Salzberg claims success goes way beyond our ability to perceive. Just being willing “to take a risk, trying hard in new terrain, learning to be whole hearted instead of diffident, courageously working to overcome setbacks rather than despairing, beginning again if we falter – these are often actions we do not count when we are accessing our “successes”.   In Buddhist teaching, the immediate result of an action and how others respond to it is only a small part of its value. The more significant aspect is the intention that gives rise to an action. This intention is formed by our worldview.  Is an action motivated by love?  Or hatred and revenge?  For instance, giving something away because you are motivated by the thought – “I don’t deserve to have anything so I might as well give it away” is not an action motivated by love. It seems like an ethical, generous act but it is motivated by fear.  Also, we can never know how our actions ripple out and affect others.  So it is important to at least recognize what motivates our actions. As T.S. Elliott wrote, “There is only the trying.  The rest is not our business.”

She quotes Bob Thurman on seeing the world more truthfully:

Imagine you are on the New York City subway, and these martians come and zap the subway car so that those of you in the car are going to be together…. forever.  What do we do?  If someone is hungry, we feed them.  If someone is freaking out, we try to calm them down.  We might not at all like everybody, or approve of them – but we are going to be together forever, and we need to respond with the wisdom of how interrelated our lives are, and will remain.

What a powerful image!!

The Kindness Handbook was an exceptionally helpful little book.  So glad I read it!

Wesley & Buddhism

There is a saying in Zen Buddhism:  Before enlightenment, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.  With enlightenment, mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers.  After enlightenment, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.

I’ve been reading John Wesley’s sermons and he says something similar.  He claims that we all go through three stages of the “soul”.  The natural stage of the soul is when we don’t recognize the Holy Spirit.  Essentially, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.  There is no fear because we think we see things as they are.  But once we begin to allow the Holy Spirit into our lives, we begin to see things differently.  Mountains are no longer mountains, rivers are no longer rivers.  Jesus is no longer a human being.  He is now super human.  This is when we take on “the letter of the law”.  We are afraid and the containment of our fear requires belief in the miraculous.  (Jesus walking on water, incantations having the power to evoke the protection of God, following the “right” religion assuring us a safe place in some afterlife, etc.)  But eventually, we begin to question the miraculous, and we realize, mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers, stories are stories, men are men. According to Wesley, herein lies salvation.  And according to Buddhists, this is true enlightenment.  It requires the courage to accept life exactly as it is, foibles and all.

I have so many thoughts on this.  I’ve especially been wondering about my views of the world had I been able to divorce the idea that Christianity is the only “right way” from my ideas about social justice.  But more on this later when my thoughts are more coherent.

Kagemusha (1980)

Kagemusha is gorgeously filmed. You can tell Kurosawa was trained as an artist by the beautiful way he makes use of color. I also learned a lot about Japanese history from Stephen Prince’s commentary on the Criterion Collection version.

Did you know that the Samurai warriors in medieval times had a system of homosexuality? I had no idea. The pages of the war lords were hired, in part, to perform homosexual acts with the war lords and there are many stories of war lords having deep love affairs with their pages. Prince says that popular Japanese culture doesn’t like to admit to this, but Kurosawa was too careful of a historian to suppress it so alludes to the love affairs of both Shingen and Nobunaga with their pages.

Kagemusha means Shadow Warrior and takes place in the 1570s. It’s about the warring feudal factions just prior to the unification of Japan. Kurosawa focuses on the Takeda clan, according to Prince, because Kurosawa saw it as much more traditional and classically Samurai than the other clans (although Prince points out that this wasn’t really true) and they were the great losers. For Kurosawa, their loss represents the vanishing of the Samurai world. The clan is Buddhist and its leader, Shingen is a Zen practitioner known as the mountain, in part because of the calmness that he has acquired through his Zen training. Buddhism gave Shingen and his generals the conviction that if they lived an honorable life, they’d live in paradise in the next world. This gives them a sensitivity to beauty in the midst of death and violence that doesn’t exist in modern society.

The main theme in the film is that of “doubling” and the relationship between illusion and reality. Shingen was known to use doubles. His brother, Nobukado, doubled for Shingen, but the protagonist of the story is the thief, who at first reluctantly doubles for Shingen, but eventually seems to almost channel Shingen. Prince says that Kurosawa is exploring the limits of individual expression in the feudal system. At first, the thief is skeptical about those who hold political power which is like most of Kurosawa’s heroes, but the thief does not end up being the typical Kurosawa hero who holds out against the system. He fully gives into it and becomes willing to die for the Takeda clan. He loses his skepticism and gains respect and obedience to the laws of the clan.

Prince says that Kurosawa is beginning to view history much differently than he did in his younger days with this film.  Rather than celebrating the rebellious hero as a critique of society, in Kagemusha, Kurosawa celebrates the institution. Kurosawa now sees a sort of beauty in the individual being swallowed up by the institution and he does not treat the inhumanity that is part of the system as something to critique, but simply how things were at the time. He’s far less sentimental about history in this film than in his previous films. Freedom in such a system is equated with selfishness. Kurosawa sees history as a sort of process of chaos and apocalypse.

Shingen dies and the thief impersonates him. The thief (who I don’t think is ever given a name) does this so well that it is almost as though Shingen lives through him. Prince says that Kurosawa makes use of the Noh theater here. There is a tradition in Noh theater of ghost warriors which is deeply informed by Buddhism – that there is a deeper unity which informs the sorrows of life. Kurosawa doesn’t go so far as to create a ghost warrior, but there is the definite sense that Shingen’s presence is felt through the thief.

What happens once it is discovered that Shingen is dead? The thief clearly no longer has meaning and the Samurai class structure inhibits the recognition of the inherent nobility of the thief and what he has done for the Takeda. The power of ritual and code both crushes free will and does great violence to the sense of self. So he’s tossed out of the clan but has become too heavily identified with it to leave it so dies for it.

Do the Takeda have meaning without Shingen? They don’t. Their house is built on nothing more than a shadow figure.   What Kurosawa is doing is following his beloved Samurai world to the point of extinction.

When Nobunaga finds out about Shingen’s death, he sings a song from the Noh theater. This is really interesting to me.  Prince says that Nobunaga was poised to unify Japan and had it been he who unified Japan rather than Leyasa, Japan would have been part of the cosmopolitan world rather than closed off to it. Nobunaga was not a Buddhist and found it problematic. He was friends with the Jesuits and with the Portuguese traders. There is an interesting scene where he and Leyasa are sitting together and Nobunaga introduces Leyasa to European Sake (red wine). Clearly, Nobunaga is has had this wine several times before and enjoys it. But Leyasa takes a sip and makes a terrible face. Prince suggests that this is Kurasawa’s way of showing that Leyasa is going to have a very different leadership style over a unified Japan than Nobunaga would have had if he had not been killed.

Anyway, even though Nobunaga was not a fan of Buddhism, he did love the Noh theater which is deeply informed by Buddhism. So the song he sings in honor of Shingen is very Buddhist:

Life is brief,

Nothing in this world is permanent,

All vainishes quickly,

All is illusion.

This is a sort of counterpoint to the warlords’ desire to gain land, hold power, and to rule over others. Their rule is very materialistic and this is what the Noh seeks to remind people. Kurosawa wants to show that the way of the Samurai is ultimately death. In fact, the code was a natural path toward death and distinction. Suicide was a way to show loyalty.  If your lord died, then those under him would kill themselves so that they couldn’t serve another lord. The thief isn’t a Samurai, yet he has taken on the rituals and codes of the Samurai so in the end, there is nothing for him but death.


I like this (from Pema Chodron via James at The Buddhist Blog):

Nontheism (a.k.a. non-theism) is defined as the Oxford English Dictionary as: “… not having or involving a belief in God, especially as a being who reveals himself to humanity.” The author Pema Chödrön, when writing about Buddhism, states:

The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God. … Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there’s some hand to hold. … Non-theism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves. … Nontheism is finally realizing there is no babysitter you can count on.”

Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam

I watched a movie recently called “The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam”. It wasn’t a great movie as far as movies go, but I learned a lot I didn’t know.

Omar Khayyam was a Persian Muslim in the 11th century. He was a mathematician who laid down many of the principles of Algebra which were later adopted by Europeans. He was also a famous astronomer and created a calendar that is more accurate than the Gregorian calendar that we use today. It is also said that he proved, long before Galileo, that the universe does not revolve around the earth.

What he became best known for, however, is his poetry. I had read The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in college and was taught that it was a perfect example of hedonism. I didn’t question this interpretation at all until I watched The Keeper and re-read the poem.

It is clear from his Rubaiyat that Khayyam was not a religious man. He didn’t believe in a God that passed out rewards and punishments or any kind of divine intervention whatsoever. Life is for living so live it! Quit focusing upon eternal salvation in the future.

I recently made a fairly intensive study of Nietzsche who is also very often cited as promoting hedonism. But read Nietzsche carefully and you realize that an undisciplined hedonism is not at all what Nietzsche is prescribing. What Nietzsche is prescribing is a sort of mysticism. To understand this, you have to understand the term “mysticism” without all of its modern-day prejudices.

Nietzsche said “God is dead” and he was absolutely right as far as I’m concerned. But he wasn’t the first to make this claim. Read the famous medieval Christian mystics like St. John of the Cross and the writer of The Cloud of Unknowing. Both basically make the same statement. God cannot be known so any discussion about God (for or against) is nothing more than an idea. Eventually, all ideas die when they are no longer of use to society and this includes our ideas about God.

Thomas Merton, a more recent Christian mystic, had no trouble whatsoever with Nietzsche’s statement that God is dead. If you truly want to know God, you have to be willing to kill him. The Buddhists have a popular saying: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”. What you are being asked to kill is an image.

For both strict rationalists and faithful believers, this is very difficult to understand. Believers ardently and faithfully uphold their image of God by claiming their image is God. Disbelievers claim there is no God and thereby likewise uphold the image the ardent believers have made. Nietzsche realized this and writes of a madman who runs into a crowd screaming “God is Dead”. The madman realizes the people cannot understand – that he has come too early. If the crowd had been a religious crowd they would have been outraged by this claim. But the crowd did not attack, they just looked at him blankly like he was crazy. The madman was exclaiming “God is Dead” to those who claimed not to believe in God. Those who claim there is no God unintentionally uphold the very idea of God they claim to oppose so they do not yet know that God is dead even though they claim there is no God. Nietzsche warns us in no uncertain terms: we have been a slave to the Christian faith for far too long and now we should refuse to become a slave to reason.

Omar Khayyam was Muslim. He did not put his name on this Rubaiyat (a form of poetry that is comprised of four lines, three of which rhyme) because what he was writing was extremely controversial at the time. He spoke out against religious hypocrisy and promoted behavior that was considered sinful. Yet he never denied the existence of God. You cannot deny or affirm what cannot be known rationally and to think everything can be understood rationally is a religion all it’s own.

A few verses from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (I have Edward Fitzgerald’s rendering):

Oh threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain – This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once is blown for ever dies.


I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that After-life to spell:
And after many days my Soul return’d
And said, “Behold, Myself am Heav’n and Hell:”
Heav’n but the Vision of fulfill’d Desire,
And Hell the Shadow of a Soul on fire,
Cast on the Darkness into which Ourselves,
So late emerged from, shall so soon expire.


The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all Your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.


What is, is! Our piety, hopes of Paradise, and thoughts of reward and punishment won’t change what is. So accept life at face value and live in the Now! This isn’t undisciplined hedonism. It’s mysticism.

The next verse reminded me of Nietzsche’s discussions about how we need to move away from our worship of Apollo and turn to Dionysus:

You know, my Friends, how bravely in my House
For a new Marriage I did make Carouse;
Divorced old barren reason from my Bed,
And took the daughter of the Vine to spouse.

For “Is” and “Is-not” with Rule and Line
And “Up and Down” by Logic I define,
Of all that one should care to fathom, I
Was never deep in anything – but Wine

Apollo is the god of reason. Dionysus is the god of wine and ecstasy. Reason is important and valuable, but we cannot experience ecstasy through reason or the images we create. We experience ecstasy through the living of life itself on its own terms.