ConfuciusPrecepts of TaoismBuddhist No-SelfBuddhist EthicsIntegral ConsciousnessVedantaUniversal SpiritualityRobert Waxman

 

Universal Concepts in Eastern and Western Spiritual Thought

Robert Waxman 

                                                 Abstract                                                     

       In The Mystic Heart by Wayne Teasdale, the author is proposing to combine Christian and Hindu mysticism to create an ideal mystical religion. He calls this concept ‘inter-spirituality’. His proposal allows an individual to combine two mystical traditions, while maintaining his spiritual identity with a single religion. Therefore, the individual adopts a second religion, if he believes it is compatible with his primary religious affiliation. As an example, Teasdale refers to the Passover Seder (the Last Supper) as having meaning for both Christians and Jews. He also says the Jain principle of non-violence has meaning for other Eastern religions, as Eastern meditative practices have a meaningful effect on Christians. Teasdale claims there are Hindus worshipping Jesus, as well as Japanese and Tibetan Buddhists who are seriously studying Christian theology. Teasdale asserts that inter-spirituality is a growing worldwide phenomenon that is attracting large numbers of spiritual seekers. 

Introduction 

     This paper discusses the author’s claim that Hindu and Christian mysticism are compatible traditions. Consequently, it is important to review the teachings of these two mystical traditions, to gain a better understanding of their similarities and differences. The topics discussed in this paper include identifying the limitations and benefits of both traditions, and determining the feasibility of combining them into one religious ideology. After reviewing the details of Hindu and Christian mysticism, a conclusion is offered regarding the compatibility of these two religions and their mystical traditions.  

                                                            Discussion                                                            

     In The Mystic Heart, Teasdale argues throughout the book that mystical religious traditions are gaining in popularity. In many aspects of our culture, mystical themes can be found. Bestselling books such as Tolle’s The Good Earth, popular television shows such as Medium, and films such as What Dreams May Come, are reflecting a renewed interest in paranormal and mystical subjects. There is easy access to esoteric websites, classes on mysticism, and availability of online ancient texts that are helping people to understand the teachings of mysticism.

     Religious dogma, literal interpretations, and rationalism are becoming less popular, and many people are searching for a more meaningful form of spiritual fulfillment. Also, controversy and scandal are plaguing the Catholic Church, and many of its followers are leaving or becoming disillusioned. These events, along with an evolution in consciousness, are leading to a spiritual awakening in the West. People are tired of hearing clichéd answers to their spiritual questions such as, “It is God’s Will” or “It was not meant to be”. This type of unfulfilling, vague spiritual guidance is not acceptable for many modern spiritual seekers. These individuals are feeling discouraged by dogmatic religious teachings, and want meaningful answers to their spiritual questions.

     This current wave of inter-spirituality is allowing spiritual seekers to ‘mix and match’ religious teachings from East and West. More people are choosing to seek their own version of liberation, salvation, enlightenment, and oneness. They are customizing their beliefs into a unique, personal system of religious and mystical thought. These individuals are severing or loosening their ties with organized religion, and are overcoming the fear associated with sin and damnation. By thinking for themselves, spiritual aspirants are breaking away from the dogma of the Church, and establishing their spiritual independence. The influence of other religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, are contributing to opening the Western mind.

Vedanta philosophy is a threat because it tends to eat further away the foundations of the Christian faith. This process of de-christianization is being accelerated by the infusion of Hindu and Buddhist philosophies through various manifestations of the "metaphysical movement." (Hashimoto, 1960)

     As traditional Christians try combining the teachings of the New Testament with the goals of Hindu mysticism, they will find fundamental differences between the two. The Christian identifies himself with Jesus, while the Hindu identifies himself with the ‘no-self’. According to Thurman (1983), “As Jesus declared that it was necessary to lose oneself for His sake to find life everlasting, is it possible that one can lose one’s very self and still clutch onto the self-identity, ‘Christian’,  or ‘I am a Christian?’” It is ironic that Jesus is speaking about losing one’s self, while the Church is saying to the Christian – you will find your ‘self’ through Jesus. The Church believes Jesus is a conduit for finding your ‘self’ – but, according to Jesus – this is the self you are trying to lose. Incredibly, Jesus is instructing his disciples to act like Hindus, while the Church is instructing its followers to act in a manner contrary to the teachings of Jesus. This theological contradiction is the central dilemma for establishing the validity of mysticism within Christianity. Even if Jesus is viewed as ‘the Word’ or Logos, he still remains a manifest, divine power existing in duality. Therefore, if the goal of mysticism is to transcend reality by experiencing oneness with a Divine Source, then Christianity has limitations as a mystical tradition.

     Christian mysticism stresses the importance of experiencing the dualistic god-object, while Vedanta stresses the importance of experiencing the non-dualistic, absolute, all pervading Brahman. The entire system of Vedanta-Advaita centers on teaching a person how to merge his spark of Atman with the Ultimate Reality of Brahman. According to the Advaita teacher Shankara:

The Atman, to know whom is salvation, not to know whom is bondage to the world, who is the root of the world, who is the basis of all creation, through whom all exists, through whom all is conceived – the Unborn, the Deathless, the Fearless, the Good, without a second – He is the Real. He is thy Self. And therefore, that art thou. (Politella, 1965)

The mysticism of Advaita does not require dependence on a dualistic god, or adherence to an exoteric doctrine. Therefore, Advaita mysticism does not have the same limitations as Christian mysticism. Advaita offers a non-dogmatic, unrestricted form of mysticism. However, Christian Gnosticism, which predates modern Christianity, includes mystical teachings that are not limiting or restrictive.

     In the text, The Testimony of Truth (circa 80 CE – 120 CE), Gnostic mysticism is explained. A Gnostic becomes ‘a disciple of his own mind’, as he discovers that his mind ‘is the father of the truth’ (Pagels, 1989). A Gnostic engages in silent meditation daily, and “considers himself equal to everyone, maintaining his own independence of anyone else’s authority” (1989). The Gnostic relates to Jesus as a great teacher, but not as a divine being. Consequently, in Gnostic meditation there is no need to find one’s self through Jesus. This form of mysticism focuses on inner spiritual progress, rather than transferring one’s spiritual needs onto a god-object. These teachings coincide with Jesus’ philosophy of finding ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’ within oneself. However, according to Pagels (1989), “By 200 CE, Christianity had become an institution with a three-rank hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons, who understood themselves to be the guardians of the ‘true faith’” (1989).  Eventually, the Gnostics lost their power within the Catholic movement, and the leaders of the Church destroy Gnosticism. Since Gnostic beliefs were in direct conflict with the strict theology of the Church, Gnosticism was viewed as a threat to the Christian establishment. Even though the Gnostic message of discovering the god-within was popular, its followers were not sufficiently organized to establish a powerful Church. Its loose organization could not compete with the well-organized structure of the Catholic Church with its gospels, rituals, prayers, and weekly gatherings. Pagels (1983) describes one of the reasons for the downfall of Gnosticism:

For ideas alone do not make a religion powerful, although it cannot succeed without them; equally important are social and political structures that identify and unite people into a common affiliation. 

The Gnostic movement was formally denounced at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, and its mysticism was labeled as heresy. In Against Heresies, Irenaeus goes to great lengths to refute the teachings of the Gnostic schools, both biblically and logically. Clement also attacks Gnostic leaders, including their leader Valentinus, by citing from Gnostic texts and arguing against their theology. Clement takes large portions of Theodotus, a teacher of Valentinian Gnosticism, and denounces Gnostic teachings (Baker, 2008). During this time (200 CE – 325 CE), the popularity of Gnosticism was in steep decline, and it was finally denunciated by the Christian Apologists in the 4th Century CE (2008). From that time forward, modern Christianity became an exoteric religion with political ambitions, strict scriptural interpretation, and a dualistic Deity.

      In 325 CE, Jesus was elevated to divine status of god-incarnate, and becomes the only begotten Son of worship, devotion, and judgment. At the same time, the Church Fathers were creating the Nicene Creed, and demanding the acceptance of a three-part god-object. They were rejecting mysticism in all forms, and anyone practicing mysticism was excommunicated, jailed or killed. Therefore, Christianity cannot be considered a mystical tradition, and its founders had no intentions of including mysticism in their original, exoteric theology.

     Christian mysticism, as we know it today, is a relatively new interpretation of the New Testament. Its history begins with the teachings of Meister Eckhart in approximately 1300 CE. According to Politella (1965): 

All that Eckhart says of the Godhead can be paralleled from Buddhist, Vedanta and Taoist sources. Eckert is speaking, like the Vedantist in a world of instantaneousness, a world where time is not, where man and the Godhead are one, and where Christ is not born historically, but awaked and realized in the soul. 

There is no historical evidence proving that Eckhart was familiar with Vedantic, Buddhist, or Taoist philosophies. However, there are so many similarities between the writings of Shankara and Eckhart; it is easy to see an ideological bridge forming between these two mystical traditions. According to Rudolf Otto (1965):

When Meister Eckhart is set side by side with South Indian spiritual genius Shankara, with little skill, it would be possible so to weigh up and present their fundamental teachings that the words of the one would read like a translation of the other. 

The Christian mystical concept of experiencing Christ Consciousness is similar to Shankara’s concept of moksha or merging one’s spark of atman with the Ultimate Reality of Brahman.

   There is also an important difference between the Christian mysticism of Eckhart and the Advaitic mysticism of Shankara. This divergence relates to contrary belief systems in Hinduism and Christianity regarding after-death states. The Christian mystic may find difficulty in accepting the Advaitic belief of merging with a non-dualistic, impersonal Brahman. Since aspects of Brahman are described as empty Nothingness, a Christian may not like the idea of merging the self into a dark, empty, vacuum of Nothingness. Especially, for Christians growing-up believing in an utopian, socially active heaven - the concept of self-annihilation may not sound enticing or rewarding. Consequently, Vedanta has limitations as a mystical tradition among Christians. However, if Vedanta’s afterlife teachings are separated from its Advaitic meditative practices, there are benefits for Christians who are interested in experiencing union with the Divine. By following the teachings of the Upanishads, they will find a direct path to enlightenment. There is no need to decipher parables, interpret ancient riddles, or contemplate the nature of The Godhead:

That wherein disappears the whole of that which affects the mind, and which is also the background of all; - to THAT I bow, - the all eternal consciousness, the witness of all exhibitions of the Intellect. (Ramacharaka, 1975)

     Teasdale (1999) believes the Advaitic model of meditation coincides with his vision of a universal, inter-spiritual, mystical system. “Advaita or non-duality is the core unitive experience of the Hindu tradition” (Teasdale, 1999). Since the goal of Advaitic meditation is to experience deep inner awareness, the spiritual seeker continues to meditate until he enters a blissful state of consciousness known as Saccidananda (existence, awareness and joy). Upon reaching this level of meditation, the mystic experiences union between the human and the Divine (moksha). Subsequently, he loses his ego-identity. In the Advaita system of meditation, there are few requirements. Most individuals find a quiet place to sit, assume a proper yoga position, monitor the breath, and clear the mind of all thought. It is not necessary to meditate in a sacred institution, pay money, or seek approval from higher authorities. Other advantages of the Advaita system include freedom from dogma, elimination of fear, and allowing the natural evolution of the self to unfold. However, there are also limitations to the Advaita system concerning the need for love, selflessness, and compassion for others.

     Teasdale (1999) proposes that Jesus’s teachings of love, selflessness and compassion should be combined with Vedantic teachings of developing the mind and intellect. He believes this combination of heart and mind philosophy will create one universal, inter-spiritual religion. Throughout The Mystic Heart, Teasdale is enthusiastic about this vision of an inter-connected, East-West, future religion based on higher consciousness. 

Conclusion

     Teasdale supports the idea of building a bridge between Eastern and Western religions. His book is an inspiring account of humanity’s progress over the last few centuries toward achieving oneness. He understands the basis of mysticism and its primary goal of achieving self-realization. He compares similar teachings of the great mystics throughout the ages who associated themselves with various religious traditions. Teasdale presents a strong case for the universal nature of mysticism and its potential as a future religion. He also discusses the merits of the perennial philosophy, and the mystics and philosophers who have known this truth for millennia. 

If Teasdale is in favor of basing a new religion on times wisdom traditions, he needs to combine neutral, non-religious accumulations of essential truths. The perennial philosophy eliminates the need for rituals, dogma, tradition, worship, prayer, culture, gods, theologies, and organizations. Teasdale’s evolving new paradigm of higher consciousness could find its way into the mainstream by westernizing and updating Vedantic thought. Thus, by eliminating Sanskrit words and quotations from Vedic and Hindu texts, the basis of Vedanta-Advaita becomes an appealing candidate for establishing a new religious paradigm.      

      Teasdale believes that its possible to combine Christianity, Vedanta, and Universalism. The Mystic Heart offers promising ideas for creating a new religion of higher consciousness. He is building on the work of other progressive thinkers such as Jonathan Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, William James, Rufus Jones, and Aldous Huxley. These individuals contributed to a body of knowledge that include universal truths, morals and ethics. 

     If a new paradigm for an inter-spiritual religion is to evolve, its religious philosophy needs to eliminate ancient superstitions and strict dogma. Thus, by moving away from controversial, theological problems that have stigmatized many religions, an all-inclusive religion based on mysticism could succeed. Such a new spiritual movement would reflect the enlightened thinking of a new age and could appeal to a great number of spiritual seekers and mystics throughout the world. 

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