Mysticism and Philosophy
Chapter 7: Mysticism and Immortality
The physiological evidence against the survival of consciousness after death is very strong. Consciousness, in all known cases, exists only in connection with a body and a nervous system. Moreover it varies with the variations of the nervous system and the growth and condition of the body. To say this in no way involves us in any sort of materialism. It is not inconsistent with the view of dualism that consciousness is nonphysical. For even if this is so, the correlation between the physical and the nonphysical is rnore or less complete. In an infant body we find an infant consciousness. With the maturing of the body consciousness matures. With the running down of the body foolishness and senility supervene on the conscious life.
If consciousness survives the death of an old man, is it then in that future state the senile and semi-imbecile consciousness which perhaps existed at the time of death? Or is it the virile consciousness of the man when he was forty? Or is it the crude mentality of his adolescent years? Or does the infantile mlnd of the baby appear again after death and set out on the road of eternity? We cannot avoid the embarrassment of these questions by pleading that we do not know the right answers. For the point is rather that whatever answer were given would appear equally arbitrary and senseless and unlikely. Further evidence of the dependence of the mind on the body appears in the fact that injury to the brain may produce a mental life disordered or insane.
The doctrine of evolution also makes diffculties for the theory of
survival. Human consciousness must have evolved out of animal consciousness. At what point in the continuous development was an immortal soul, or even a surviving consciousness, suddenly introduced?
[It is assumed here that the soul itself was not subject to evolution but manifested "complete" in man once man reached a certain level of evolution. It is an interesting question, and one that is not asked: Did the soul itself "evolve" in the sense of Darwinian evolution?
Alternatively, has the soul always been present but unrecognised until man evolved a capacity to recognise it. This corresponds to the Theosophical account, of a gradual raising of awareness through physical, astral, manasic, buddhic etc planes of existence? DCW]
Did a miraculous change occur with the first man — if it now makes any sense to speak of a first man? How did this happen, and why? We can avoid these questions by saying that all animal consciousnesses, including those of oysters, crabs, and worms, will survive death. This might be consistent with the Indian mystical view that all things are alive and are parts of the one universal consciousness into which all will be reabsorbed. But it is hardly consistent with the Western theory of individual survival. Or at least it makes little sense in that context.
Plainly this Western theory originated in pre-evolutionary times when it was still possible to regard man as a special creation unrelated to "the beasts of the field." Man could then be supposed to have an immortal soul, while the "beasts" were soulless. This argument from evolution does not render the survival of the individual impossible, but it clearly increases the difficulties it [the theory of the existence of an immortal soul] has to face and makes it appear far more improbable than it appeared in pre-evolutionary days.
The physiological argument and the argument from evolution, though they constitute a strong case against the survival of personality after death, are of course only empirical and probable arguments which are theoretically capable of being refuted by positive evidence on the other side. [Note Stace's use of the word "personality" here to stand for that part of ourselves which is individual. When he moves to a conclusion later on it will be in favour of the immortality of a soul without its "personality". DCW] Some psychical researchers maintain that they have discovered such evidence. But although their assertions should be received without prejudice, and with an open mind, this evidence appears, at least at the present time, to be inconclusive. In these circumstances, and since we admit the logical possibility of a rebuttal of the physiological and evolutionarv arguments by positive evidence from some other source, it is natural to ask whether the phenomena of mysticism throw any new light on the subject.
According to R.M. Bucke a "sense of immortality" is one of the characteristics common to all mystical experience. But our own list of common characteristics advisedly did not include it. Furthermore, Bucke expresses some astonishment because in one of the cases of
"cosmic consciousness" which he quotes, the individual who had undergone the mystical experience still firmly disbelieved in survival after death. It is true that mystics do often give expression to a feeling of having attained immortality, but it is not universal, and it is in any ease open to a variety of different interpretations.
Tennyson says that in his experience "death seerned an almost laughable impossibility." There is no indication that he meant by these words to suggest a life after death. His words on the face of them seem to mean that it appeared to him during that experience that it was laughably impossible that he would ever meet the common human fate of the death and corruption of the body. But unfortunately there is credible evidence that he is now dead.
[I would question this interpretation of Tennyson's words. The world experienced by the mystic is a timeless one. Beginnings and ends are equally impossible, equally incomprehensible. It is quite conceivable in this sense that Tennyson would find the idea of death laughable. But that is not of itself, I agree, proof of immortality, of an existence that continues beyond the death of the body, or of a reality of any kind that is perceptible by one following the death of one's body. That proof, if it exists, lies elsewhere. DCW]
It may simply be an attribute of the specific experience of the mystic.
In the Upanishads there are frequent passages to the effect that he who reaches the Brahmic consciousness has attained to immortality. No doubt the experience which supported this statement was the "sense of immortality" of which Bucke speaks. "He who knows Brahman becomes Brahman," says the Mundaka Upanishad. "He passes beyond all sorrow. . . . Freed from the fetters of ignorance he becomes immortal."(1)
But it is far from clear that this must be interpreted as immortality after death rather than as immortality now. Mystics unite in asserting that their experience is beyond time. And it is natural to surmise that the immortality which they feel themselves to have achieved is the immortality of the timeless moment. No mystic is as insistent as Eckhart that the soul which has attained to the mystic state has passed beyond time into the "eternal now." Of the "apex of the soul" [This is another key term which Stace will use later as a tool to detach from the immortal soul its elements of "personality". DCW] wherein the mystical union with God takes place he tells us that
No doubt Eckhart as an orthodox Christian believed in a life after death — although perhaps he thought of it not as a continuation in time of the life lived here but rather as a final entrance into the eternal Now. But his belief must have been based upon an intellectual acceptance of the dogmas of the Church, not upon his mystical experience. Assuming that he had experience of the "sense of immortality" previously mentioned, it is not given by him as evidence of a life beyond the grave, but is interpreted as the attainment to the eternal Now during the moment of mystical union.
Mystical experience thus affords no unambiguous evidence of the survival of personality after death, much less of that persistence through everlasting time which is the popular conception of immortality. Indeed it may well be claimed that mystical experience provides evidence against any such temporal survival.
For as we have seen an important phase of such experience consists in a feeling of the dissoluticn of individuality, its melting away into the infinite. The very essence of that phase of the experience consists in the fact that the "I" ceases to exist.
But this is also inconclusive. For after the temporary experience is over, the "I" does after all come back again. Therefore the experience is consistent with the persistence of the "I" after the particular experience is past and presumably also after the death of the body. Moreover even during the experience it must be remembered that there is the paradox that in some sense the "I" still exists to experience the dissolution of itself. Or, as Eckhart puts it in a passage already quoted, "God has left her [the soul] a little point to get back to herself . . . and know herself as creature."
Thus we conclude that no clear light is thrown by mysticism on the question whether the soul persists after death as a disembodied spirit. There is, of course, another form of the doctrine of immortality, namely belief in reincarnation. Those who have held this belief have usually supposed that between any two incarnate lives an interval of time is passed by the spirit in a disembodied state. But a variety of the doctrine is of course logically possible which would maintain that the soul always passes instantaneously from one body to another. [Mathemeticians and demographers are at this point wont to point out that at any given time there are more people typically being born on earth than are dying. They will also point out that a good many of the people who have ever lived on earth are alive at present, so that if we divide the best estimates of the number of humans who have ever lived by the number alive today we get at best a small handful of reincarnations rather than the hundreds and thousands most reincarnationists believe to be necessary. This is not an impenetrable barrier for the theory of reincarnation but it does pose a number of conditions on the form it must take. DCW] But in any case we need not discuss reincarnation here because there
seems no reason to suggest that mystical experience provides any evidence of it.
It is true that those who have reached the highest spiritual plane, for instance the Buddha, are supposed by their followers to acquire the power of remembering their past lives, and thus to provide direct evidence of reincarnation. But whatever we may think of this, it would be evidence arising from the source of memory, not from the source of mystical experience. No doubt this miraculous power of memory is supposed to be acquired along with, or simultaneously with, the nirvanic experience, as are also other powers such as the gift of healing. But it remains true that mystical experience is one thing and memory another, and that the alleged evidence of reincarnation arises out of memory and not out of mystical experience. The evaluation of the memory evidence falls outside our enquiry, which is limited to the question whether mystical experience itself throws any light on reincarnation. We conclude that it does not.
And this conclusion could have been predicted if we bear in mind that rnystical experience, being a timeless and eternal Now, cannot include a memory of past time. To repeat what Eckhart says on this, "It . . . is unconscious of yesterday or the day before."
In spite of the entirely negative result of our investigation, it will be well worth our while to raise and discuss an entirely supposititious question. Granted that mysticism yields no evidence of survival, we may still ask whether, if for any other reason we suppose that survival is a fact, mysticism could throw any light on the nature of the life after death.
This is not at all the idle question which it may at first sight appear to be. For it will be found that there exists a most interesting and characteristic divergence of opinion between the East and the West about this matter. I do not refer to the difference alreadv mentioned between the Oriental doctrine of reincarnation and the Western belief in disembodied spirits. For both Eastern and Western creeds agree that a time does, or may, come when the spirit will be disembodied.
According to Western ideas this happens imrnediately after the present life. According to Hinduism and Buddhism it happens only after the final liberation of the spirit from the
chain of reincarnate lives. The question therefore is the same for both, namely, What is the nature of the spirit and its life after it has finally got rid of the flesh? It is on this question that the interesting divergence of opinion exists which will be found to have important implications and consequences in the realms of sociology and even political theory, if not in metaphysics or speculative philosophy.
Western religious thought insists that immortality means the persistence of the separate individual as an individual throughout all future time. [I am inclined to jib a little at the phrase "throughout all future time". It might be better left as "following death", which does not commit the Church or anybody else to an eternity of linear time. DCW] On the other hand the view of the major Hindu tradition — that of the advaita Vedanta — has always been that after its liberation from the round of reincarnate lives the individual ceases to exist as such and becomes absorbed or merged in the life of the Infinite Being.
Various metaphors are used to express this. The individual soul is like a river which loses its separate existence when it flows into the ocean. Or we hear that "the dew-drop slides into the shining sea." According to Buddhism nirvana can be attained during this life while a man is still in the body. For him who has thus attained it there will be no more rebirth. What then happens to him when his body finally wears out and falls away? In the case of the Buddha he is supposed then to have passed into parinirvana — the final deliverance from which there is no return. And what, we ask, is this state of final nirvana? Is it, as in Hinduism, the melting of the finite soul into the Infnnite? We shall in a few moments remind the reader of what the Buddha is supposed. to have said about this.
But in the meanwhile let us return to the Hindu conception of the afterlife as absorption into Brahman. There is no doubt that this conception, like nearly all Indian religio-philosophical thinking, is rooted in mystical experience; whereas Western eschatological ideas are not markedly mystical in origin. From the Indian sources we may therefore expect to obtain some light on the relation between mysticism and the hypothetical question how we ought to think of the future life, if there is one.
It is therefore well worth enquiring what is meant by these Indian conceptions. For as soon as we try to understand them we find ourselves involved in difficulties. As usual, the Indian mind tends always
to be satisfied with poetical metaphors the literal meaning of which, if any, is far from clear. Consider the metaphor about the dewdrop which slides into the sea. What does it mean? The fact that this particular phrase about the dewdrop is not of Indian origin, but was coined by an English writer, in no way vitiates the question. It certainly expresses the spirit of Indian belief. It is a metaphor. But what is the literal meaning of the doctrine about the future life which the metaphor symbolizes?
The reader may well think that the analysis I arn about to offer is an instance of absurd literalisrn; or an instance af the saying "we murder to dissect." This reaction would be justified if the metaphor of the dewdrop were to be treated as pure poetry, to be enjoyed for its poetic beauty and left at that. But we cannot regard it in that way. It is supposed to symbolize a truth which can only mean a literally true proposition — about the fate of the self which has achieved liberation and thereafter dies. We have to ask what this true proposition is.
Every metaphor is built upon some resemblance which is supposed to exist between the sensuous imagery of the metaphor and the literal concept which it symbolizes. The metaphor of the dewdrop must mean that what happens to the self after death is like what happens to the dewdrop after its absorption in the ocean. But is it? An elementary analysis shows that it cannot be. The dewdrop consists of molecules of water. When it falls into the sea, the drop as a drop, as a little sphere of water, no doubt disappears. But the individual molecules persist and are scattered in all directions east and west so that, if they could be tagged and followed for a few years, one might be found thousands of miles away from another. This cannot be at all like what happens to a soul! It is not composed of little bits of soul — spiritual molecules — nor does the divisionless One have any parts or directions among which the spiritual molecules could be scattered. [There would be many in Theosophy and related belief systems who would maintain that there does in fact exist matter of a fineness peculiar to the soul, and that the soul is constructed of this matter. But while this notion takes its place in a larger theory which implies that this must be so, there is no instrumentation so far able to detect the individual "atoms" that make up a soul. DCW]
It is plain that the metaphor becomes nonsensical when pressed in this way. In other words the metaphor in spite of its sensuous beauty is rneaningless. Therefore it does not help us to understand the Indian conception of the absorption of the finite self in the Infinite.
The problem which is thus forced upon us is this: The Indian
doctrine of absorption certainly means that the individual ceases to exist as an individual — just as the dewdrop ceases to exist as a unified drop. On its purely negative side of the cessation of individual existence the metaphor may thus be said to be meaningful and accurate.
It is when we seek to understand what sort of positive existence the self is supposed to have after its absorption that all metaphors, including the metaphor of absorption itself, break down. For plainly there is a dilemma here. The logical intellect will insist that either the self must continue to exist as an individual or it must cease to exist altogether — in other words suffer annihilation. For the notion of a self which is not an individual self seems to the Western mind absurd. Hence it will be thought that the Indian doctrine of the cessation of the individual can only mean its total annihilation. What the metaphors do, it will then be supposed, is only to hide this unwelcome fact and dishonestly smother it under flowery words and poetic images.
Buddhism tends less to metaphors than does Hinduism. Hence to the Western mind the doctrine of nirvana, not being as a rule so much glossed over by poetic phrases, has constantly appeared as just another name for annihilation. The reports brought back from the East to Europe by early Christian rnissionaries and others always emphasized this. For they had no understanding or sympathy for mystical ideas and mystical paradoxes. If theirs was a correct interpretation, we should have to conclude that Eastern religions present no credible alternative to the Western conception of immortality as the persistence of separate individuals. But no Buddhist will admit that nirvana means annihilation, nor will any serious Western student of Buddhism at the present day maintain it. To attain nirvana means, it must be insisted, supreme bliss, although it also means loss of separate individuality. [So we lose what we regard as our "individuality", while retaining an identity of a nature that is able to experience the bliss of nirvana. DCW]
If we are inclined to reject this as impossible, we should rernember Tennyson's assertion that the loss of individvality which he experienced seemed to him "no extinction but the only true life." We should also call to mind Koestler's statement that "the I ceases to exist because it has established communication with or been dissolved
in the universal pool," and yet that this experience brings "the peace which passeth all understanding." I fail to see what is the difference between Tennyson's and Koestler's assertions and Buddhist assertions about nirvana. The same loss of individuality, accompanied by beatitude rather than annihilation, is reported by mystics from all over the world, in the Upanishads, by the mystics of lslam, and by the Christian mystics.
It so happens that the dilemma "either after death I must continue to exist as an individual or I must cease to exist altogether and suffer extinction" was posed, according to the Pali canon, to the Buddha himself, and his reply is recorded. I have reported on the passage more fully on an earlier page. I will here merely recall its essential features to the reader's mind. The wandering ascetic Vaccha enquires from the Buddha whether he holds that the saint "exists after death" or "does not exist after death:' The Buddha replies that he does not hold either view, and that any such language "does not fit the case."
The reason why it does not fit the case is plainly that Vaccha's question attempts, with its "either-or" dilemma, to apply the laws of logic — in this case the law of excluded middle — to a mystical state of mind. For nirvana is simply the introvertive mystical experience, the "unitary consciousness" of the Mandukya Upanishad, carried to its highest possible level. The Buddha also tells Vaccha that the doctrine of nirvana is "not to be reached by rnere reasoning" — which is the usual assertion that mystical experience is "beyond reason" or "beyond the understanding." He says further that it is "intelligible only to the wise" — and in this context "the wise" means the mystically enlightened man, not the intellectually or practically wise man. The upshot is that this passage powerfully reinforces our view of the essentially paradoxical character of all mystical ideas, and supports the opinion that the laws of logic do not apply to mystical experience.
We must conclude that there are two possible alternative views of the nature of the future life — if we choose to assume that there is a future life. There is the Western view that it means the persistence of separate individualities. Tom is to remain Tom, Dick Dick, and Harry Harry. But we have found that the Indian view of the
absorption of the separate individual in the life of the Universal Consciousness, or in nirvana, while yet not suffering annihilation, is a real though paradoxical alternative. Hence the question now to be asked is which view the evidence of the mystical consciousness tends to support. And I do not see how it is possible to avoid the conclusion that the Indian view is more in accord with mysticism.
The question is, of course, bound up with the question of pantheism. In that matter also the theistic religions refuse to accept the disappearance of the individual self, even for the brief moment of mystical union. Exactly the same problem is involved here in regard to immortality, except that there is a difference in regard to time, or rather a difference as between time and eternity. In his rejection of pantheism as a "heresy" the theist refuses to surrender his separate individuality during the moment of mystical union, insisting that during that period the soul and the Divine Being remain distinct existences. In his view of immortal life he refuses to surrender his individuality in eternity.
Now we have most carefully reviewed the evidence on this matter in our chapter on pantheism, monism, and dualism. And we concluded that the theist was unable to maintain his dualistic view. We saw that although he was right to insist on the difference between God ard the finite self, he was wrong to reject their identity. The truth lay in the paradox of identity in difference. The considerations which led us to that conclusion in regard to the problem of pantheism all possess exactly the same weight when applied to the problem of irnmortality. We shall therefore be right simply to transfer that conclusion to the present situation. If our study of mysticism has not been in vain we shall have to admit that it points to the conception of the future life as a loss of separate individuality while at the same time the "l" is not annihilated but enjoys an ultimate peace.
We must remember that if we are disagreeing with the theist in so far as he denies identity of the individual with the universal self, our conclusion also disagrees with the Indian view if and in so far as that view is interpreted as denying differences and separateness.
As a matter of fact both interpretations-that of the pantheistic paradox and that of monistic pure identity — are found in India, but there is a better understanding of the mystical paradox view than there is in the West. We have to insist on identity as against the theist, and on difference as against any pure identity view. Therefore our conclusion ought not to be understood as an unqualified acceptance of one side of the paradox or the other. As was the case in our consideratian of the problem of pantheism, so here in the problem of immortality our view is offered as a reconciliation between the main tendencies of the East and the main tendencies of the West.
It should be of interest to see whether Eckhart, the most philosophically minded of all Christian mystics expressed views which have any bearing on the issue we are discussing. For it is also true that of all Christian mystics Eckhart was the one who had most in common with Indian views — without of course knowing anything about them. It is surely remarkable that his views have been the subject of a full-length comparison with those of the Vedantist Sankara in a book by Rudolf Otto (3) and of another full-length comparison with Buddhist beliefs by Suzuki. (4) It was of course precisely his leaning towards Oriental pantheistic conceptions which got him into trouble with the ecclesiastical authorities.
On the question whether mystical union with God should be understood as an identity with God his utterances are, as we have seen, equivocal. There are many passages which support the orthodox theistic position that the creature always remains a distinct existence from the Creator. But there are also many passages which seem to say, or at least to imply, the opposite. It was these that were seized upon for ecclesiastical censure. One gets the impression that his natural and spontaneous tendencies and syrnpathies were monistic or pantheistic and that the dualistic passages must have been written on those occasions when his obligations to assimilate his views with
those of the Church, and to bow to its authority, were uppermost in his mind. This is in no sense to impute to him any lack of honesty or sincerity. He doubtless was not conscious of the confiict of his own ideas with one another. Like most thinkers he presumably was not aware of his own inconsistencies. Naturally those passages in his writings which would tend to imply the view of immortality which conceives of it as absorption in the divine life are those which also tend to be heretical. In emphasizing them, we are of course aware that they tell only one side of the story of his mind. But it is the side which is of most interest to us in connection with the subject of this chapter.
Certainly he must have held that the soul's union with God in the future life will be, as it is with temporary union in this life, beyond space and time in the "eternal Now." For of our knowledge of God in this life he says:
And in a passage which rnakes direct reference to the life after death he says:
This certainly implies that the condition of the soul after death to which the Christian is to aspire is mystical union with God. What can there be then to function as principle of individuation either between one finite self and another or between the finite self and God? It cannot be space and time. In an earlier chapter we saw that nothing distinguishes one individual self from another except the stream of consciousness, i.e., the particular mental contents or experiences which constitute the ernpirical ego. Our empirical egos are
separate and multiple, but there is only one pure ego which is the Universal Self. Hence the persistence of individuality after death is only conceivable on the condition that our empirical selves, each with its particular experiences, persist after death. But Eckhart is quite clear that in our union with God in this life the particular contents peculiar to each individual consciousness have been obliterated. For the union takes place in the "apex" of the soul, leaving the rest of the soul, to wit its empirical contents, outside the union. But of the "apex" he teaches that no "creature," i.e., no finite thing, can enter into it. He writes:
The central silence is there, where no creature may enter, nor any idea, and there the soul neither thinks nor acts, nor entertains any idea either of itself or anything else. Whatever the soul does it does through its agents. It understands by means of intelligence, remembers by means of memory. If it is to love the will must be used. (7)
Eckhart, it is evident, accepted a "faculty" psychology. The "agents" of the soul are its faculties — memory, will, understanding, etc. Hence such an odd-sounding statement as that the soul "remembers by rneans of memory." The fact that he places his insights in the framework of an out-of-date psychology in no way, of course, robs the insights of their value. He thinks of the agents by analogy with instruments which a craftsman uses. These instruments, together with the actions of rernembering, understanding, etc., which they perfom, are excluded from the apex and therefore from union with God.
If we write off the unacceptable psychology, what is left is the following. The apex is the unity of consciousness, the pure ego. It is this which unites with God. The apex, being identified with God, is both God's eye and the soul's eye. Hence the oft-quoted saying that "the eye with which God sees me is the eye with which I see God. For God's eye and my eye art one and the same." The passage which we are expounding thus means simply that in the mystical union what is one with God is the pure ego, and that the empirical ego, i.e., the stream of ideas, memories, volitions, sensations, images, etc, is left outside the union. Hence it would be
impossible for Eckhart to argue that the soul when in a state of union in this life is distinguished either from other individual souls, or from God, either by space, time, or by the empirical contents of. consciousness.
[This is certainly consistent with the Theosophical notion that the astral and lower manasic bodies, constituting the "individuality" of a life, resolve like the physical body into their constituents, and are no more. The causal and soul bodies, together with the remaining finer bodies, corresponding to the "apex of the soul", persist, and form the template for the individuality of the life to come. Nonetheless, theosophy holds that each soul is yet an individual manifestation of God, though not individual in the sense that "personality" suggests. Consciousness at the level of the Buddhic body combines a sense of individuality, of one's soul identity with a co-existent sense of the shared oneness of all. Beyond this level of consciousness, individuality disappears. DCW]
It would also be impossible for him to hold that the eternal union of the soul with God in the future life could be less perfect and less complete than its union during this life. Thus the persistence of individuality after death is quite inconsistent with the most basic principles of his mystical philosophy — whatever he may himself have thought in his more conventional and orthodox moods.
The conclusion is that Eckhart's statements are more consistent with the theory of the afterlife as absorption than as persistence of individuality. Whether he himself would have admitted this is another matter. Also, even if Eckhart's views were interpreted to mean identity of the soul with God after death, this would have, in our view, to be corrected by adrnitting the difference as well as the identity.
Our general conclusion is that mysticism gives no evidence of survival, but that if survival is accepted on other grounds mysticism would favor the absorption theory rather than the theory of individual persistence.
I shall conclude this chapter with some remarks on a possible connection between the eschatological views of the East and West on the one hand and their political philosophies on the other. It might be suggested that there is a connection between the Western belief in the persistence of individuality after death and the idea of the so-called infinite value of the individual, which plays a part in the political thinking of the Western democracies. If so, it might be further suggested that the Eastern theory of immortality as absorption in the Infinite is correlated with the failure of the Orient to develop democratic institutions prior to their importation from Europe in recent times. Perhaps it is the same emphatic assertion of the importance of the individual which expresses itself both in the Western theories of liberty and democracy and in Western religious beliefs about the life after death. And since we condemn political theories which de-emphasize the value of the individual and
submerge it in the life of the whole state, ought we not likewise to condemn, the same tendency when it appears in religious theories of the life after death?
But such an argument would be doctrinaire and unrealistic. It is true that we talk of the "infinite" value of the individual. But in the first place, the word "infinite" cannot be taken literally here and is plainly no more than a rhetorical device for exalting the importance of individuality and its rights as against the overbearing attitude of a possibly tyrannical state. This type of thinking is in politics entirely praiseworthy and justifiable. Against a brutal totalitarian tyranny, cynical in its contempt for human rights, callous in its infliction of pain and misery, we assert the inherent rights of each human being to be protected against these inhumanities, to be free from oppression, to lead his own life and seek his own happiness. And in the relative world of time and political action all this is right and admirable.
But we must not carry this over into a metaphysical theory of eternity. Its truth is relativistic and pragmatic; relativistic because it is only necessary to insist on the rights and value of the individual because of the existence of tyrannous and wicked men whose interest it is to enslave us and suppress our individuality. It is relative to the background of the human environment in time. It can have no meaning in the "eternal Now." And if there have been Christian and other theologies in which God is anthropomorphically pictured as a cruel and revengeful potentate, we need not at the present date take them seriously in our thinking. And unless we do take them seriously, conceiving God as a being against whom our individual rights have to be asserted, it has no meaning to carry the notion of the infinite value of the individual with us into eternity.
Moreover the Eastern religions might well have their own kind of answer to this attempt to disparage them. Hinduism, but more especially Buddhism, emphasizes that it is the separateness of each individual ego, and the clinging to this separateness, which is at the root of hatred and of moral evil generally. [Separateness implies the need for control and a morality that judges events on the bais of whether they contribute to or hinder that control which is seen as necessary for survival in an alien world. DCW] Out of my insistence on the importance of my own ego comes the grasping for whatever I can
get for myself; and out of this come hatred, envy, malice, stealing, cheating, murder, and war. Only if the separate ego of each man is got rid of, if he can feel himself as not merely "I" but one with the life of all other individuals and with the life of God, only then can we hope for salvation. To some extent this is possible even in this life. It is precisely what happens in mystical experience.
[Absolutely. this parallels my own experience 100%. DCW]
For in that experience the "I" ceases to exist as a separate being because the Infinite flows into it. And the emotional counterpart of this disappearance of the individual, and this giving up of belief in his own "infinite value," is that love of all other men which is the source of the moral aspect of all the higher religions. This happens even now in our best moments in time. And it is this which ought to be thought of as being fully, finally, and completely realized in the life after death, if there is to be any such life.
And the fact that the Western races of men insist on a theory of immortality which includes the persistence of individuality whereas the Indian races, at least in their majority traditions, do not — this, the Indians might plausibly argue, is merely a sign of the greater aggressiveness and self-assertiveness of the Western man.
Such an argument between East and West is profitless. But perhaps it shows at least that an attempt to condemn the Indian theory of immortality by carrying over the Western concept of the infinite value of the individual from the political to the religious sphere is without merit.
1. The Upanishads, trans. by Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester, New York, Mentor Book MD 194, New American Library of World Literature, 1957, p. 48. (Originally published by the Vedanta Press, Hollywood, Calif. Copyrighted by the Vedanta Society of Southern California.)
2. Meister Eckhart, trans. by R.B. Blakney, NewYork, Harper and Brothers, 1941, Sermon 12, p. 153.
3. Rudolf Otto, Mysticism East and West, New York, Meridian Books, Inc., 1957
4. D.T. Suzuki, Mysticism, Christian and Buddhist, New York, Harper and Brothers, 1957
5. Blakney, trans., op. cit., Sermon 6, p. 131.
6. F. Ffeifer, Meister Eckhart, trans. by C. de B. Evans, p. 352.
7. Blakney (trans.), op. cit., Sermon 1, p. 96.