W.T. Stace

Mysticism and Philosophy

Chapter 8: Mysticism, Ethics and Religion

Why callest thou me good? There is none good but God.

It is my position that there are no absolute ethical or moral standards or principles or imperatives.

All moral statements are relative to an in-group. An event that is experienced or judged as good by one group or person is likely to be experienced or judged as bad by some other group or person relative to the perceived interests of that group or person.

It is also my position that morality and ethics have no part to play in mystical consciousness. They may emerge from a mystical consciousness, and perhaps even in an absolute form, or one that appears to be so, but as a natural set of behaviours rather than a constrained duty.

This is quite obviously not the position adopted by Professor Stace. I believe that the attempt to tie a dualistic morality to a unitary state of consciousness is doomed to result in confusion, and does so in his case.

The Ten Commandments are often held out as absolute moral principles but they are by no means absolute. They applied to and protected an elect ingroup.

In the chapter in the Bible immediately following the handing down of the Ten Commandments, including, "Thou shalt not kill", there are listed at least half a dozen crimes for which the prescribed penalty is death. The children of Israel, throughout the Old Testament, and still, today, in fact, have no compunction about dealing death to those who oppose them.

In the context that the Old Testament provides there is no crime in coveting someone's house or his wife or his ox or his ass or his oilfields, or in stealing from anybody, as long as he isn't your neighbour.

Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan went some way to revise the concept of "neighbour", but it was in the beatitudes that His teaching utterly confounded conventional Old Testament morality - confounded it so much that even today, almost nobody pays any attention to them.

The culmination and essence of that teaching was Christ's injunction to "Resist not evil". To resist evil, to fight against it is to perpetuate the dualistic consciousness that gave rise to it in the first place. The flag of God does not fly above a battlefield.

The man who brought his gift to the altar was turned away, until he had resolved outstanding matters with his brother. We cannot make the gift, which is always the gift of ourselves, while we have unresolved power issues. God is the essence of politeness. If our attention is elsewhere, for good or evil, he will not interrupt.


[p 323]

Section 1. The Mystical Theory of Ethics

There are two problems to be discussed in treating of the reIation between mysticism and rnorality. The first concerns the main problem of philosophical ethics, namely, the question, What is the source of ethical rights and duties? For the mystic claim is that, whatever partial or relative truth there may be in utilitarianism, or eudaemonism, or ethical intuitionism, or deontology, the ultimate source of ethical value lies in mysticism itself. Such words as "source" and "foundation" are in this context ambiguous and metaphorical. 'They rnay refer to the psychological source, as in those theories which locate the source of ethical values in emotions, preferences, likes and dislikes. Or they may refer to logical justification, as in Kant's attempt to derive ethics from logic. In the first instance at any rate, the mystical theory of ethics uses the word "source" in the psychological sense. Mystical experience, it maintains, is that part of human experience out of which moral feelings flow. The experience is also the justification of moral values, not a logical but an empirical justification. For moral values are a function of that which is experienced as the highest human good.

The second problem which we shall find ourselves called upon to discuss is not properly philosophical at all. It is perhaps historical or sociological. It raises the question of the actual influence which

[p 324]

mysticism tends to have, or actually has had, on the living of the good life. Does it make men more moral or less, more active in giving loving assistance to their fellow men or less? Does it tend to operate as an incentive to nobler living, or does it not rather serve mainly as an escape hatch from the responsibilities of life?

Though this question is not in the strict sense a philosophical one, yet it cannot be ignored if we are to estimate the value of mysticism as an element in human culture. And it has at least an indirect bearing upon the answer which we may give to our first question — that of the source of ethical value. For we could hardly accept the claim that mysticism is the source of ethics if we should find that in practice its influence on human life is unethical. I will consider these two problems in order.

The basis of the mystical theory of ethics is that the separateness of individual selves produces that egoism which is the source of conflict, grasping, aggressiveness, selfishness, hatred, cruelty, malice, and other forms of evil; and that this separateness is abolished in the mystical consciousness in which all distinctions are annulled. The inevitable emotional counterpart of the separateness of selves is the basic hostility which gives rise to Hobbes's war of all against all. The natural emotional counterpart of the mystical awareness that there is, in that reality which the mystic believes himself to perceive, no separateness of I from you, or of you from he, and that we are all one in the Universal Self — the emotional counterpart of this is love. And love, according to the theory, is the sole basis, and also the sole command, of morality.

[Most of this I would go along with, to the point that the love that manifests in the mystical state becomes a duty. It is not a duty and cannot be a duty, in that those who are not mystics are excluded from it, and for those who are, it is inevitable. Any such duty envisaged is an attempt to enjoin a set of behaviours on non-mystical mankind consistent with the behaviours that are natural and spontaneous for the mystic. But the springs that generate the behaviour in the mystic are absent in the nonmystic and as far as I can tell, uncodifiable. DCW]

Now since the vast majority of men do not profess to have attained at any time to such a mystical experience — and may indeed be highly sceptical of it — and yet such men may exhibit love and unselfishness and in general lead highly ethical lives, there is a gap in the theory here. How can the source of their ethical values be in mystical experience, when they do not have any such experiences. The theory will have to hold that their ethical feelings arise from an infiltration into their normal consciousness of some faint mystical sense which is latent in all men and which influences their feelings.

[p 325]

and lives without their knowing or understanding it. In this way, if even the most debased and uncultivated man exhibits in his life — in regard to his children, wife, and friends, for example — any feelings of affection, sympathy, kindness, or goodwill, these must be held to have their source in the rnystical side of his nature, in this potential and unrealized mystical sense which lies perhaps far below the threshold of his surface consciousness. And to make the theory cornplete and self-sufficient, it must be held that if it were not for mysticism, whether latent or explicit, there actually could not be any such thing as love, or even mere kindly feeling, in human life. Life would be the wholly unmitigated Hobbesian war of all against all. For the theory cannot admit a rival nonmystical source of morals.

[I dispute this point. We are talking apples and oranges. The ethical behaviour of the mystic is of quite a different order from the ethical behaviour found within a family or tribe. Christ acknowledged this when he said, (Matthew 5:46-47  "For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?" DCW]

Perhaps Schopenhauer (of all people!) has expressed the metaphysical essentials of the theory as well as anyone in the following passage:

The man who . . . raises himself above particular things, who sees through the individuations of the real . . . sees that the differences between him who inflicts suffering and him who bears it is phenomenal only and concerns not the thing in itself. The inflicter of suffering and the sufferer are one. If the eyes of both were opened, the inflicter of suffering would see that he lives in all that suffers pain.(1)

Schopenhauer was not himself a mystic nor was his own life a model of ethical virtue. But his thought was deeply influenced both by Western mysticism as represented by Jakob Boehme and by the Eastern mysticism of the Upanishads and Buddhisrn. In the above passage the Kantian influence also appears in his use of the concepts of phenomenal and noumenal.

Although the view that the spacetime world is illusion, or mere appearance, or phenomenon only, is often found in connection with mysticism, it is not a necessary component of it. For instance, it is not characteristic of Christian mysticism, which in general tends to realism. And in general mysticism goes just as well with realism as with idealism. Therefore, though the above passage does express the essentials of the mystical theory of ethics, the reader should not be misled into supposing that the

[p 326]

view that the world of sense is phenomenal is a necessary part of it.

Our enquiries have led us to maintain that mystical experience is not merely subjective but is transsubjective. It is a union with the One or the Universal Self, which is also the creative source of the universe. [I can acknowledge the term, the One, as I can check it against personal experience. It seems to be an accurate description of what I experience myself. It seems to me that to go beyond that to claim that the One, the Universal Self, is also the creative source of the universe is a conjecture rather than a report of experience. I would personally be inclined to phrase such a conjecture as "manifests as the universe." DCW] If this is a correct interpretation of mystical experience, it will necessarily enter into the mystical theory of ethics. According to that theory, ethical values have their source in mystical experience. [This is not the same as saying that such values can be codified into absolute moral principles which non-mystics are to be constrained to follow. DCW] If mystical experience were only subjective, this would produce a subjectivistic mystical theory of ethics. The so-called "emotive" theory of ethics usually holds that morals derive from emotions and that emotions are subjective. It would no doubt be possible to substitute mystical feeling or experience for ernotion in such a theory.

Ethical values might have their source in the mystical elements in human nature, and this mystical part of human nature might be subjective only. But this certainly has not been the view of the great mystics, nor is it the view which is here recommended.

According to the theory as it will be expounded here, ethical values arise out of mystical experience, and this experience itself has its source in the One or the Universal Self, which is the foundation of the world. It is therefore part of the theory that ethical value is not merely a human thing, but reflects and is founded in the nature of the universe. Consequently, the usual view of naturalism that the nonhuman world is indifferent to values is rejected by the mystical theory.

Altruistic or moral action may sometimes seem to be motivated by a sense of duty or principle and not by a feeling of sympathy or love for those whom it is intended to benefit. The sense of duty is praised by Kant as the only genuine source of morality. This concerns us because it conficts with the contention of the mystical theory that moral action is motivated by sympathetic or loving feelings. But Kant's opinion is, in our view, mistaken. For whatever Kant may have thought, it would seem that a sense of duty must ultimately be rooted in sympathetic feelings. Towards the suffering of those who are close to him or belong to his own immediate environment, and esperially to those who are in his physical presence, a sensitive man will feel intense sympathy. But it is simply a psychological

[p 327]

fact that even in the best men these emotional feelings decrease proportionately to the distance of the sufferers from them. And in the case of schemes of wide social reform, for instance the abolition of slavery or the creation of an international institution which aims at the abolition of war, the initiator or supporter of such activities cannot possibly visualize the individual sufferings of the thousands or even millions of absent and far-distant persons whom he hopes to benefit. Personal feelings of sympathy are then impossible. Therefore the man rnust act on principle or out of duty. The principle is that he should treat all individuals, even those who are wholly unknown to him, as if he felt personal love for them. The principle is a rational extension of the feeling which is possible because reason is universal and independent of proximity or distance while feeling is particular and local. A man whose heart is so cold and cruel that he is incapable of sympathy for any sentient being in the world, a man incapable of the feeling of love — if such a man could exist — would never have the sense of altruistic duty which so impressed Kant. This sense of duty to others is itself rooted in genuine love and sympathy, and is a kind of indirect and rationalized form of it.

It may be taken as a fact that love and compassion are feelings which are parts of, or necessary and immediate accompaniments of, mystical experience; and that from this source love can flow into the hearts of rnen and so come to govern their actions. But this is not in itself enough to establish the mystical theory of ethics. For that theory requires it to be shown not only that love flows from the mystical consciousness but that that consciousness is the only source from which love flows into the world. If mysticism is to be the basis of ethics, then the sole fountain of love, which is the principle of ethics, must be in the mystical experience. It will not do to show merely that mysticism is one of several sources frorn which love comes into men's hearts. For if that were so, then there might be love and ethical action and ethical principle, even if there were no mysticism in existence at all. [Why not? DCW]

Now to show that there is no love in the world at all which does not have its source in mysticism would seem to be impossible — and yet

[p 328]

it is a necessity for the theory. When a man loves his children or his friends, these feelings of affection seem to arise quite naturally in human beings including those who certainly are quite unaware of any mystical elements in their own natures. Moreover even animals feel love for their young and act altruistically towards them. And it is likely to be thought fantastic to attribute the feelings of a horse or a dog to mysticism! Yet this would not have appeared foolish to Plato. Important passages in his writings suggest that all appetition, all desire of any kind or for anything, is for him a mystical phenomenon. In The Republic, speaking in this case no doubt only of human souls, he suggests that the Good, the summum bonum, is that which "every soul possesses as the end of all her actions, dimly divining its existence, but perplexed and unable to grasp its nature" (2) In The Symposium, putting the wards into the mouth of Diotima, he asks: "What is the cause, Socrates, of love and the attendant desire? See you not how all animals, birds as well as beasts, in their desire of procreation are in an agony when they take the infection of love. . . . Why should animals have these passionate feelings? [It is because] love is of the immortal . . . the mortal nature seeking as far as possible to be everlasting and irnmortal, and this is attained only by generation because generation always leaves behind a new existence in place of the old." (3) The source of all appetition, whether in men or in animals, is, the hunger for the Immortal, the Good, the One. Whoever wishes to suppose that Plato was merely indulging in a fanciful idea, a flight of his lively imagination, is welcome to do so. But this is not the interpretation of the present writer. That Plato was a mystic in the sense that he was directly acquainted with mystical experience is uncertain, though there is at least reason to suspect it. But that his system of thought is a strange mixture of rationalistic and mystical ideas is quite certain. In the above quotations from The Republic and The Symposium the mystical feeling is uppermost.

However fantastic these ideas may seem to the reader, the mystical

[p 329]

theory of ethics is logically forced into the position of maintaining that all love (though not necessarily other kinds of appetition), whether in men or animals, arises out of mystical experience either explicit or latent. The mystical theory can thus only maintain itself by supposing that mystical experience is latent in all living beings, but that in most men and in all animals it is profoundly subrnerged in the subconcious and that it throws up influences above the threshold in the form of feelings of syrnpathy and love. To say that I love or sympathize with another living being is to say that I feel his feelings — for instance, that I suffer when he suffers or rejoice if he rejoices.[I doubt I am alone in viewing this definition as inadequate and something of a straw man. The two words are scarecely synonymous. DCW] The mystical theory will allege that this phenomenon is an incipient and partial breaking down of the barriers and partitions which separate the two individual selves; and that if this breakdown were completed, it would lead to an actual identity of the "I" and the "he." Love is thus a dim groping towards that disappearance of individuality in the Universal Self which is part of the essence of mysticism. Our feelings of love are not recognized by us as mystical because the experience of the union of all separate selves in the one cosmic self is hidden from most of us in the abyss af the subliminal. The unifying experience is at a greater depth below the threshold in some men than in others, in selfish and materialistic men more than in altruistic and idealistic personalities. The hypothesis will also have to say that in the animal it is buried beyond all possibility of being dragged up to the light.

Since no reason, evidence, or argument has so far been given for believing what will seem to be wild suggestions, let us now consider whether there is any good reason for supposing that the mystical consciousness must be potential in all beings. First of all, I shall try to show that this has been, either openly or implicitly, the common belief of all mystics. And secondly, I shall show that there are good theoretical grounds which will support the belief. We may begin by glancing briefly at Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist sources.
What we call the mystical consciousness is the same as what in Mahayana Buddhism is called by various names, such as the Buddha-nature, Mind-Essence, the womb of the Tathagata, and so on.

[p 330]

Mind-Essence, the term which is used in the Surangama Sutra, is — as the phrase itself implies — that which is common to all minds or to mind as such apart from its differentiation into individual minds. Of this "pure essence of mind" it is asserted in the sutra that "we conceive it as . . . the 'storage' or Universal Mind!" (4) It is described as "pure" because it is empty of all empirical contents. It is therefore identical with the pure ego or pure consciousness which we have elsewhere recognized as being in all of us. Moreover, Buddhist theory carries this view to its logical condusion with a rigorous consistency which does not exclude the animal mind. For that which is the essence of consciousness will be essential to any consciousness whatever, animal or human. The cat too has the Buddha-nature in it. For the Buddha-nature is nothing but that pure undifferentiated unity which, beyond all multiplicity, is the essence of the introvertive type of mystical consciousness wherever found. Now the cat's consciousness is a unity and therefore, if it too could "obliterate all multiplicity," get rid of all empirical content, what would be left would be that pure unity which is the Buddha-nature.
In Hindu thought the doctrine that the mystical consciousness is potential in all of us appears in the central theme of the Upanishads, namely, that the individual self is identical with the Universal Self. It is not that in the enlightenment experience we become identical with Brahman. We are now, and always have been, identical with Brahman. But our ordinary sensory-intellectual consciousness does not realize this identity. What happens in the enlightenment experience is that we cease to be deceived by the illusion of separateness. We realize the identity which has always been the truth. In other words we actualize what was always potential in our nature.

Can we trace any such thought in Christian mysticism? If I am not mistaken, we can recognize it quite clearly in Eckhart's theory of the "apex of the soul." The apex, which Eckhart also calls the "core" or "essence" of the soul, and the "divine spark," is not the possession of mystics only, but of all men. It is identical with the

[p 331]

Mind-Essence or Buddha-nature of the Mahayana. What the mystic achieves, according to Eckhart, consists in reaching inwards to this core of his soul after getting rid of the multiplicity of sensations, images, thoughts, and other empirical contents. It follows — though perhaps Eckhart does not explicitly say this — that every man could achieve the mystical consciousness if only he could rid himself of the multiplicity of empirical contents. And this is equivalent to saying that mystical experience is potential in all human beings. We cannot, of course, expect a rnedieval Christian to carry the theory through to the animal kingdom, since he would be prevepted from doing so by the dogma of man as a "special creation" apart from the animals. Buddhism, of course, was never influenced by this belief.

Thus the view which the mystical theory is forced to adopt, namely, that the mystical consciousness is potential at least in all men, is what mystics of the East have always held without question, and what is also implied in the beliefs of the most philosophical of the Christian mystics. What we have now to show is that there are good theoretical reasons for believing that this is correct. And this indeed follows from what has been previously established, namely, that the introvertive mystical cansciousness is nothing but the bringing to light of the pure ego, the pure unity which underlies all consciousness. If this is so, then mystical experience must neces- sarily be latent in all beings who possess a single unified centre of consciousness. Indeed any normal sensory consciousness implies a unity of its disparate and manifold elements. The many sensations, images, etc., are together in the unity of one consciousness. The mystical experience is simply the realization of the unity after the manifold has disappeared. This will be just as true of the cat or the monkey as of the man. For the animal too must have a consciousness which is the togetherness of a manifold in a unity. It may be asked what empirical evidence could possibly be quoted in support of the proposition that "mystical consciousness is potential in the animal mind." It seems to me that although the empirical backing is slight, it is not wholly nonexistent. Presumably Albert Einstein was descended from apelike ancestors. One must assume

[p 332]

that whatever is in the human mind was developed out of the animal minds of our ancestors by natural evolutionary processes. In this sense the mathematical and scientific genius of Einstein was potential in the animal mind. What is true of Einstein will also be true of the Buddha or of St. Teresa or of Eckhart. The Buddha-nature is potential in animals for the simple reason that the Buddha himself must have been descended from animals.

This discussion is intended to show that it is possible to maintain that love and affection and sympathy can have their source in the mystical consciousness even in those men who are unaware of the existence of any such consciousness in themselves or others; and that even animal love may have the same source. But what our discussion up to this point has not shown — and what we have seen to be necessary for the theory — is that mystical consciousness is the only possible source: in short, that there could exist no love in the universe which could arise from any other source.

So far as I can see, the only thing which it is possible to say on this subject is that the mystical theory of ethics is in no worse a position in this respect than any other theory of ethics. The dfficulty which the mystical theory has to face only amounts to saying that the theory must not only give a self-consistent account of itself and of the arguments which can be used in its favor, but must also, if it is to be accepted as a known truth, refute all rival theories. It rnust show that all other theories have failed to locate a source of moral obligation. But the same demand could be made of any theory. The only way in which one could attempt to meet it would be to refute systematically all other theories. It would be absurd to embark on such an undertaking here, since this would involve one in writing a general treatise on ethics. The result of these considerations is that the mystical theory, like its rivals, must be regarded as one hypothesis among others, and that therefore it cannot achieve certainty. The mystic rnay possess his own sense of subjective certainty, but the philosopher who is not a mystic cannot share this. To him it must remain a hypothesis.

Finally one may claim that the mystical theory restores to morals

[p 333]

once more that basis in a religious view of the world which has been lost, at least in the West, for several centuries.

In this discussion I have not attempted to show that the mystical theory is true. I have attempted only to clarify in some degree what the theory actually is and means, what it implies, and what difficulties it has to meet. These difficulties, it will be seen, are very great and certainly constitute a great strain on our capacity for belief, although it does not follow that we should reject it. Perhaps a little more than mere clarification has been accomplished by us. That part of the theory which asserts that love and compassion are actually parts of the mystical consciousness must be accepted as true, since it is so stated by those who have that consciousness. It will follow that love can flow from it into the world and be a source of ethical action. This will follow even if we refuse to accept the speculations of the theory in regard to the potentialities of the animal consciousness. We are left at least with the assurance that the mystical consciousness should be, for those who possess it, a powerful motive and impulsion towards ethical, and therefore tovvards social, action.

Section 2: Mysticism and the Good Life in Practice

In the second paragraph of this chapter I pointed out that there are two problems to be discussed in treating of the relation between mysticism and morals. The first was the mystical theory of ethics. On this problem I have said as rnuch as I am able. The second problem was the histarical or sociological question of what influence mysticism has actually had an the living of the good life. Has it in fact tended to make men better? And I pointed out that, although this may not be strictly speaking a philosophical problem, yet, if it were answered in the negative, if it could be shown, for instance, that rnysticism actually inhibits, rather than advances, moral activity, such a finding would inevitably reflect back adversely upon the theoretical claim that mysticism is the source of ethics. I turn now therefore to this second question.

Perhaps the commonest moral accusation against mysticism is

[p 334]

that it functions in practice merely as an escape from the active duties of life into an emotional ecstasy of bliss which is then selfishly enjoyed for its own sake. From this point of view, mystical experience is sought only because of the feelings of peace, blessedness, and joy which it brings. The mystic wallows as in a bath of delicious emotions. This is a mere flight from life and from the urgent work of the world. It may even be suggested, by those who cultivate so-called depth psychology, that what the mystic is "really" trying to do is to go back into the warmth of his mother's womb. I have put the criticism in its strongest possible terms, perhaps exaggerating it in a way which no one who has any knowledge of the actual history of mysticism would endorse. But whether we express the criticism in stronger or weaker language, the essence of it is that in greater or less degree the mystic pursues his own salvation, his own beatitude, in a selfish way, while other men, whom he does not help, suffer.

It has been common to level this sort of accusation more especially at Indian mysticism. The Western critic commonly holds that Christian mystics have generally been devoted to seeking unselfishly the welfare of others while Indian mystics have not. Indian civilization, it is alleged, has in general tended to recognize the right of the mystic to retire from active life into the forest or wherever he may, and to devote himself to nothing but the ecstasy of his own contemplation. It is also often suggested that there is a connection between this tendency and the historical fact that Indian civilization, until it came under the influence of the West, stagnated, and that the ideal of the alleviation of misery through social reform did not take root in the Indian mind.

It is very difficult to evaluate, objectively and fairly, vague charges of this kind leveled against a whole civilization. But I will make a few rernarks on this topnc. It should be noted in the first place that it has always been the habit of the Indian mystic to attempt to pass on the torch from man to man through the instrumentality of gurus and ashramas. In this way he seeks to show to others the path to salvation which he has found. He is a teacher of what he conceives to be the good life. This activity cannot be called selfish.

[p 335]

In the second place, the Indian tends to have a different set of values from the Western man. To him spirituality is a far higher value than the satisfaction of material needs or even the alleviation of ma- terial sufferings. Hence to pass on the torch of spirituality to other men is the highest altruistic action which an Indian mystic can perform. Finally, there is a difference of basic philosophies in another way. The men of the West think that it is theoretically possible to remove or at least to alleviate material misery through schemes of social reform. But Buddha taught that suffering is inherent in life and cannot be removed by any action whatsoever so long as the individual man retains his separateness from other men. Suffering is a consequence of finitude and therefore cannot be got rid of by finite beings. The only way is to get rid of finitude by the expansion of the personality until it coincides with the Infinite. On the whole, the Indian rnind has agreed with the Buddha and hence in the past has put little faith in schemes of social reform. However, although the Buddha was right in believing that misery is inherent in finitude and therefore cannot be got rid of completely while finitude remains, yet history has shown that it can be alleviated and that this is worthwhile. This is the rational justifictation of reform schemes and indeed of altruistic action in general, and the India of today has come to show awareness of this fact.

Thus the coolness af Indian civilization in the past to social reform, to the ideal of helping the poor and unfortunate, has not been wholly due, as the Western critic is apt to think, to callousness and lack of love, but largely to its philosophical beliefs. This is also proved by the fact that the Buddha not only preached but practised universal love and compassion for all beings, yet expressed this in his life almost entirely on the spiritual plane and not much on the material plane. On the other hand, the secret of Gandhi is that, although his basic inspiration, like that of the Buddha, came from the spiritual plane — and in this he remained characteristically Indian — he yet perceived that the alleviation, though not the destruction, or suffering is possible on the material plane and is to be achieved by social and political action. This has now been understaod, not

[p 336]

only by Gandhi but by India in general. And this fact, which found its most perfect expression in the life of Gandhi, must be regarded as one of the most hopeful examples of that synthesis of Eastern and Western philosophies and values of which we all ought to be in search. Gandhi's enormous stature is in part due to the fact that he combined in his personality all that is greatest and strongest and noblest in both East and West.

Perhaps Gotama Buddha is the ideal figure of the Indian mystic. And it is true that he left his family and began to seek enlightenment in solitude at an early age. But notice that when he had attained enlightenment he did not remain in retirement in the forest in order to enjoy his own blessedness but, on the contrary, returned to the world of men to found his religion and to bring to all men the way of salvation. For forty years or more he remained in that nirvanic consciousness to which he had attained and yet lived and acted in the space-time world. So that Aurobindo writes that "it was possible for the Buddha to attain the state of Nirvana and yet act puissantly in the world, impersonal in his inner consciousuess, in his action the most powerful personality that we know of as having lived and produced results upon earth." (5)

Nevertheless it would perhaps be wrong to deny that there is some truth in the contrast between the passive acceptance of social evils in the past history of India and the active fight against them which the West has tended to carry on at least in recent centuries. But how could it be shown that this is to be blamed upon the mysticism of India? It is just as likely that climate is the main cause. Extreme heat produces lassitude and passivity, whereas a cold climate stimulates activity. Of course both suggestions — that mysticism is the cause and that climate is the cause — are presumably oversimplifications.There is no such thing as the cause af the characteristics of a whole society or a whole religion. In all such cases there must have been a vast assemblage of conditioning causes. And it is absurd to pick out one factor of Indian civilization and to attribute to it all the national ills.

[p 337]

We have instanced the case of the Buddha as a man who poured
out in the active service of mankind that compassion which he received as part of the enlightenment experience. And the ideal saint of Mahayana Buddhism, the bodhisattva, is one who, though he has attained enlightenment and with it the right never to be reborn but to pass after death into his final nirvana, yet deliberately gives up this right and comes back again and again in renewed incarnations in order to help other more backward souls along the path to salvation. We may perhaps think that the bodhisattva's vow never to enter final nirvana until all other beings have entered it before him has a slightly theatrical air — as if he wished to dramatize his own unselfishness. Yet we cannot deny that the ideal here preached is not that of a selfish escapism, a flight from practical duties. On the contrary, it is the same ideal as that of the Christian mystics — namely, the enjoyment of mystical beatitude not as an end in itself but for the purpose that its fruits may be poured out in the loving service of mankind. That is the ideal which Mahayana Buddhism preaches. To what extent either Buddhists or Christians have practised what they preach is of course another matter.

But perhaps it is against the ideals of Hindu rather than of Buddhist mystics that the cry of amoralism tends to be raised by Western critics. The root question seems to be whether the blessedness and peace of the mystical consciousness is regarded as an end in itself in which the mystic who has attained it can rest content as having reached his final goal, or whether that experience is thought of as chiefly a means to a life of active and loving service. Professor R. C. Zaehner in his book Mysticism Sacred and Profane contrasts in this respect the theistic mystics of the West, both Christian and Muslim, with Sankara. Sankara, according to him, despised the ideal of the active life, believing that he who has attained to the realization .of his identity with Brahman should rest in that as his end.

[Much of the confusion and dissension that surrounds discussion about morality and ethics seems to me to arise from the common perception that moral principles, are necessarily or ought to be universal, and then trying to find some way in which that might be possible. It is much simpler to acknowledge that morality is local and situational and strictly relative to the ability to enforce or propagate such standards as are deemed locally desirable.

My perception is that in the process of attaining/experiencing mystical consciousness a transformation occurs in one's relation to the universe which alters the source, orientation, and nature of our behaviour.

Instead of our behaviour relating to ourselves or our family or country, it now relates to a bigger "universal" picture with which for the first time we are familiar. It is not even seen as a moral choice: It is just doing whatever seems to be required of us, or, in other words, service in what I would regard as its true form.

As far as I can see, ordinary moral "virtue" depends on the possibility of choice, or of putting aside "self"-interest; and moral accolades tend to be bestowed by that social unit in whose interests the choice is made. This is what distinguishes moral behaviour from mystical behaviour. The former is what I "should" do, enjoined on me by some interested party, self, family, nation, whatever: the latter is just "what I do now".

Mystical behaviour is just God manifest in my surrendered life from moment to moment. Whether I am involved in active service of some form, or simply contemplating is irrelevant — though I would regard as suspect any attempt to assign absolute value to either, or to categorise either in terms of "selfishness" or "selflessness". DCW]

There is certainly some truth in this contrast. Hindu mystics have tended to be spiritually and speculatively superior to the mystics of the West but lacking in the moral fervor of the latter. The danger of resting selfishly in mystical contemplation has been more clearly

[p 338]

recognized and emphasized by Christian mystics than by the Vedantists or other branches of Hindu mysticism. For instance, Eckhart writes:

What a man takes in contemplation he must pour out in love.

If a man was in rapture such as St. Paul experienced, and if he knew a person who needed something of him, I think it would be far better out of love to leave the rapture and serve the needy man.

It is better to feed the hungry than to see even such visions as St. Paul saw. (6)

[Christ remonstrated with his disciples when they protested about Mary anointing him with precious ointment. They were of the opinion that the ointment were better to have been sold and the proceeds used to feed the poor.  Christ told them not to trouble her, "for she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always."

The assumption that mysticism should be seen to be useful is a constant source of confusion. Christ was in no doubt. The poor are always with us. The unalloyed experience of the presence of God is something to be valued for its own sake. DCW]

In another passage he writes:

Those who are out for "feelings" or for "great experiences" and only wish to have this pleasant side: that is self-will and nothing else.(7)

[I believe that if one allows oneself the unalloyed experience of the presence of God, without worrying about how one might put it to "use", the experience will lead one in the direction of behaviour that is universally appropriate. Trying to find a practical application for mystical experience when it is not immediately apparent will simply remove one from the experience and from the only source of valid information on the subject. DCW]

Ruysbroeck expresses the same certainty that the highest mystical experience must overflow in love into the world. He writes:

The man who is sent down by God from those heights . . . possesses a rich and generous ground, which is set in the richness of God: and therefore he must always spend himself on those who have need of him. . . . And by this he possesses a universal life, for he is ready alike for contemplation and for action and is perfect in both of them (8)

[I am more inclined to agree with this phrasing. I think that if one gives oneself completely to God, there will be a balance, there will be a perfection in both, but perhaps not necessarily one that conforms to human expectation. I think a mystic is likely to "spend himself", BUT, NOT because he OUGHT TO, and has the option to refuse, but simply because it is part of his nature to be this way.

There is no duty on the mystic to conform to the expectation of his fellow men however much they may claim spiritual authority over him or however much they may appeal to tradition or precedent or even justice or logic. The mystic's primary relationship is not local, it is universal, through his relationship with God. The Christian Church's insistence on hierarchical authority, normally vested in exoteric Christians rather than mystics, has traditionally obscured the essentially personal nature of mystical experience. DCW]

The last sentence of this quotation from Ruysbroeck teaches us an important lesson. Although the blessedness of the mystical consciousness taken alone and cut off from its fruit in action is not an end in itself, and to treat it as such is the error of which Professor Zaehner accuses Sankara, yet neither is its fruit in action to be treated as an end in itself to which the mystical consciousness is a mere rneans. What alone is an end in itself is the perfect life, the summum bonum, the total situation of the mystical consciousness poured out in loving service to mankind. This is, as Ruysbroeck says, the "universal life ready alike for contemplation and for action and perfect

[p 339]

in both." To treat the enlightenment experience by itself as the final end is selfishness. The opposite error of treating the enlightenment as merely a means to the end of action may result in treating material things as superior to spiritual things, and thus to a false set of values. The life of the spirit must not be degraded to the level of a mere instrumentality for material welfare or worldly success.

The moral force of the Christian mystics is certainly more impressive than that of either the Hindu mystics or any other mystics in the world. It is in this that the great strength of the Christian mystics lies, not in either their purely spiritual or their speculative profundity. In these it seems to me we have to awarcl the palm to the mystics of India and perhaps of the East generally. Whether the moral and social activities of the Christian mystics have been of much actual value to their fellow men is more questionable. St. Teresa spent her life in founding or reforming monasteries. A modern social reforrner or philanthropist is not likely to be much impressed by this. But this kind of activity was no doubt the rnedieval conception of the highest Christian virtue, and we have to take account of the times.

But the real issue tends to be obscured by partisan disputes between East and West, or between one culture and another. If we
are considering the general subject of spirituality or mysticism and social action, the important question is whether mysticism as such, wherever it may be found, is necessarily and by its nature a form of escapism, a way of selfishly enjoying bliss while avoiding one's duties to one's fellow men. Our discussion has already shown how serious a distortion of the truth this is. It is true that one who has mystical experience can treat it as a means of selfish enjoyment. And this has no doubt often happened. But this is an abuse of mysticism and is no part of its essential nature. Perhaps every ideal has its own characteristic abuse or form of degeneration. For instance, mob rule is the characteristic evil which tends to disfigure the ideals of democracy. Learning tends to degenerate into pedantry; religion into priest craft. But it is of prime importance to understand that no ideal is to be judged by its abuses but rather by its inherent nature. The

[p 340]

nature of democracy, its ideal, is not mob rule; the ideal of learning is not pedantry; the ideal of religion is not priestcraft. Likewise the ideai of mysticism is not escapism. Perhaps we might use here the idea of a besetting temptation. The besetting temptation of the mystic may no doubt be to enjoy his ecstatic experiences for their own sake, to indulge in what St, John of the Cross calls "spiritual gluttony." But departures from an ideal must not be blamed on the ideal but on the failures and defects of human nature. That Christians do evil is basically because they are fallible human beings. And if mystics do evil, this also is because they are human. The essential tendency of mysticism is therefore towards the moral life, the social life, the life of altruistic action, not away from these things.

But our original question was, Has mysticism actually tended to make men better or not? And it may be objected that we have defended only the ideal of mysticism, but not answered the question about its actual historical results. But this seems to me to be a question which it is almost useless to try to answer. Consider the parallel question whether religion — in so far as it is distinct from mysticism — has done good in the world or not, or more good than harm. Those who disbelieve in the truth of any religion, the sceptics and unbelievers, tend to say that religion has never made men morally better and that in fact it has done harm. Believers in religion take the opposite view. Neither opinion is based, I believe, on an impartial survey of the facts. Both are founded on little but the predilections and preconceived ideas of those who argue pro and con. And for this there is good reason. The empirical facts of history are so complex that the strands of god and evil tendency cannot be disentangled from the vast mass of events. The same must be said of mysticism. Those who dislike it will abuse it as escapism, or say that little or no good can be traced to it. Those who favor it will contend that it has rnade men better. Some have become saints whose influence for good has been incalculable. It has introduced lofty aspirations into the world, and these have infiltrated all civilizations. I have little inclination to be drawn into this battle of prejudices. I can only point to the fact that in its essence mysticism contains

[p 341]

the love which is the ultimate motivation of all good deeds, that its tendency must therefore presumably be towards the good — however much this ideal tendency may be smirched by the evils and weaknesses and follies of human nature.

Section 3: Mysticism and Religion

The essential facts regarding the relations between mysticism and religion, as they have emerged during the course of this enquiry, may be briefly summarized here.

It has been a common assurnption of writers on the subject that mysticism is a religious phenemenon. Having Western religions, especially Christianity, always in their minds, they may even simply define the mystical consciousness as "union with God." According to our view, the essence of the introvertive experience is the undifferentiated unity, and "union with Crod" is only one possible interpretation of it, which should not therefore be given as its definition. The same experience can be interpreted nontheistically as in Buddhism. Moreover, if by "religion" one rneans one or other of the recognized world reiigions, then Plotinus can be quoted as a nonreligious mystic, since the intellectual framework in terms of which he interpreted his experience was a system of philosophy, not a religion. Thus the first answer to the question whether mysticism is essentially a religious phenomenon is that it is not. It may be associated with a religion, but it need not be.

However, a different answer can be given if one understands the terrn "religion" in a different way. It may refer to feeling rather than to a creed or intellectual structure. There is no reason why mystical experience should not occur, not indeed pure, but pure enough to be free of any recognizable religious "beliefs." But it can still be said to involve religious feeling, the feelings of the holy, the sacred, or the divine. The sacred can be simply understood as that which a person feels to be capable of being profaned. Here I do not use "sacred" and "profane" in the conventional theological sense. The mystic refers always to the tirneless or eternal which is felt

[p 342]

to be also the supremely noble, transcending altogether the transient world of flux, vanity, frustration, and sorrow. There goes with it the peace which passeth understanding. All this can be experienced and felt without any creed at all. And in this sense mysticism can be rightly regarded as in essence religious.

The question whether the mystical consciousness favors one creed, one world religion rather than another, can plainly be answered by saying that it does not. The mystic in any culture usually interprets his experience in terms of the religion in which he has been reared. But if he is sufficiently sophisticated, he can throw off that religious creed and still retain his mystical consciousness.

Instead of asking whether mysticism is essentially religious, the converse question may be raised whether all religion is essentially mystical. It can reasonably be answered that Buddhism and the higher forms of Hinduism are essentially mystical because the enlightenment experience is their source and centre. But as Professor E. A. Burtt has noted, mysticism, which is a major component in Indian religions, is only a minor strand in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.(9) lt is a fair question to ask whether the founder of Christianity was a mystic in the strict sense of having in himself the mystical consciousness and living and speaking out of it as a basis for his teachings and his life, as the Buddha did. Perhaps Jesus was a mystic, but I cannot find that there is any real evidence of it. There is nothing of it in the synoptic gospels. In the Gospel of St. John we find several times repeated certain statements about union with God and oneness with God. In view of the negative evidence of the synoptic gospds, there is no reason to suppose that these phrases were ever uttered by the historical Jesus. Possibly they show that the author of St. John's gospel was a mystic or perhaps no more than that he was familiar with a few mystical phrases. They show nothing about Jesus.
It is difficult to suppose that if Jesus possessed the mystical consciousness he would not have set it at the centre of his teaching as

[p 343]

the Buddha did. And if one remembers that Judaism is the least mystical of the three great theistic religions — and indeed of all the great world religions — this further adds to the improbability that Jesus, born and brought up as a Jew, was a mystic. If Jesus was not a mystic, this explains the fact that mysticism is only a minor strand in the religion which he founded. This is really inexplicable if he was, in any genuine sense, a mystic. Mysticism comes into later Christianity as a result of influences which had their sources in Greece, nat in Palestine.

If in spite of thesc facts we wish to maintain that mysticism is ultimately the source and essence of all religion, we shall have on our hands a set of problems very similar to those which beset the mystical theory of ethics. We shall have to maintain that mystical consciousness is latent in all men but is in most men submerged below the surface of consciousness. Just as it throws up into the upper consciousness influences which appear in the form of ethical feelings, so must its influences appear there in the form of religious impulses. And these in turn will give rise to the intellectual constructions which are the various creeds. We have seen earlier in this chapter what difficulties this kind of view has to meet, and that these difficulties, though perhaps not insuperable, are very great.

The general conclusion regarding the relations between mysticism on the one hand and the area of organized religions (Christian, Buddhist, etc.) on the other is that mysticisrn is independent of all of them in the sense that it can exist without any of them. But mysticism and organized religion tend to be associated with each other and to become linked together because both look beyand earthly horizons to the Infinite and Eternal, and because both share the emotions appropriate to the sacred and the holy.


1. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea, Bk. 4, sec. 63

2. Plato, The Republic, ed. by F.M. Cornford, New York, Oxford Universoty Press, p. 211

3. The Dialogues of Plato, Jowett's translation.

4. Dwight Goddard (ed.), A Buddhist Bible, 2d ed., Thetford, Vt., Dwight Goddard, 1938.

5. Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, New York, The Greystone Press, 1949, pp. 29-30

6. Quoted by Rufus Jones in Studies in Mystical Religion.

7. Quoted by Rudolf Otto, Mysticism East and West, New York, Meridian Books, Inc.

8. The Sparkling Stone, Chap. 14, in Jan van Ruysbroeck, The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage. The Book of the Supreme Truth. The Sparkling Stone, trans. by C.A. Wynschenk, London, J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1916

9. E.A. Burtt, The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha, New York, Mentor Books, New American Library of World Literature, Inc., 1955, p. 16.



W.T. Stace: Mysticism and Philosophy

W.T. Stace: Religion and the Modern Mind

W.T. Stace: Theory of Existence and Knowledge

The problem of evil assumes the existence of a world-purpose. What, we are really asking, is the purpose of suffering? It seems purposeless. Our question of the why of evil assumes the view that the world has a purpose, and what we want to know is how suffering fits into and advances this purpose. The modern view is that suffering has no purpose because nothing that happens has any purpose: the world is run by causes, not by purposes.
         ... W. T. Stace, Religion and the Modern Mind