Buddhism: Into the Mystic?

We were born before the wind
Also younger than the sun
Ere the bonnie boat was won as we sailed into the mystic

– Van Morrison

Well-known writer on Buddhist subjects, Stephen Batchelor says, “The Buddha was not a mystic.” This is true, if by “mystic” you are referring to “esoteric” or “otherworldly”, or if by using the word “mysticism” you mean, “vague speculation: a belief without sound basis”. However, if you refer to another definition of mysticism found at Merriam-Webster, “the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (as intuition or insight),” then the Buddha was certainly a mystic, sans the God part.

The Buddha taught that nirvana (representing ultimate reality) was not some far-off transcendent realm, but was present in the here and now and accessible to all. However, nirvana is just one way of expressing the ultimate. Nagarjuna said, “The Buddha teaches the one dharma in numerous ways . . .  the ultimate truth, the reality that is not itself anything specific (akincana) is the heart of the teaching of the Buddha,” and Chih-i said, “The one truth is given many names.”

Batchelor has attracted a lot of attention with his deconstruction of Buddhist philosophy. For me, his notions have a scorched earth effect, because after he has deconstructed and demystified dharma, there is very little left: a classic case of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

I don’t find Batchelor a particularly original thinker. But then, those who are seem to be few and far between. I’ve noticed some similarity between Batchelor’s work and that of Prof. Trevor Ling (1920-1995), who was also British. That’s okay, all writers and philosophers build upon what came before. Assuming he has at least read Prof. Ling, which I think is a reasonable assumption, Batchelor seems to have missed some of Ling’s finer points.

Here is the expanded passage from Buddhism Without Beliefs, published in 1998, which was quoted briefly above.

The Buddha was not a mystic. His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God. He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks. Only as Buddhism became more and more a religion were such grandiose claims imputed to his awakening. In describing to the five ascetics what his awakening meant, he spoke of have discovered complete freedom of heart and mind from the compulsions of craving. He called such freedom the taste of dharma.

And here is a passage from Prof. Ling’s The Buddha, published in 1973:

The nature of the change which took place when Gotama sat meditating under the bodhi tree on the bank of the Nairanjana river is traditionally described by saying that he became the Buddha, that is, the Awakened. In later Buddhist literature, the transition is described in terms which make it literally an earth-shaking event, but the earlier literature gives a more prosaic and analytical account, and one which makes the event described extremely difficult to fit into the categories of ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ experience. This was no ‘inaugural vision’, such as the prophets of Israel underwent. There was no sense of awe at the realization of the presence of divine being, such as Isaiah felt; no ecstatic experience like that of Jeremiah; no voice from heaven accompanying the descent of the holy spirit as Christian tradition represents happening in the case of Jesus; no archangel as in the case of Muhammad, coming down to announce ‘Thou art God’s apostle’, making the chosen one to fall upon his knees and tremble. . .

The account given in a Pali Sutta called Discourse of the Ariyan Quest is represented as the Buddha’s own version of the matter given years later to some of his disciples . . . an account of the intellectual penetration into the nature of the human situation which the Buddha then achieved . . .

Just as the Buddha’s experience was unlike those Ling cites from the Bible, the collection of texts that are the source of nearly all Western religious thought, the Buddha, too, as a teacher, was unlike Western models. He was not a prophet like Isaiah or a law-bringer in the way that Moses was; he was a meditation teacher, a mendicant philosopher. Prof. Ling describes the Buddha’s awakening as “humanistic discovery based on analysis.” In the Majjhima Nikaya or “Middle-length Discourses”, the Buddha says, “I am an analyst, not a dogmatist.”

After dealing with the Buddha’s awakening, Batchelor goes on to describe the “Four Noble Truths” by saying “At precisely this juncture, Buddhism becomes a religion.” In my opinion, Batchelor is projecting his own Western religious prejudices onto the matter. The Four Noble Truths were not offered as religious beliefs but rather, as Ling indicates, the Buddha’s analysis of the human situation.

In its original presentation, the Four Noble Truths does transform Buddhism into a philosophy, but not necessarily a religious one. There is a point of view to be sure, and without it, Buddhism would just be one more meditation technique or another form of yoga.

My feeling is that Batchelor and others who take the same tact are actually reacting against Western religion and not Buddhism. They have a beef with religion, and that’s cool, so do I.

Certainly there is Buddhism with beliefs, Buddhism as religion, as dogma, but there is the opposite as well. Really, Buddhism in today’s world is a potpourri where you can find almost anything you are looking for. But, at its core, I do not see the belief-system and religion that Batchelor does, and I suspect that he sees those things mainly because he wants to.

Prof. Ling had something to say about that, but first I should note that Ling’s thesis is “what we today call a religion is the remains of what was once a complete civilization” and when he uses the word “sacred” Ling is referencing what Durkheim called ‘a sense of the sacred’, or “the human individual’s awareness of his own dependence on the values and collective life of the society to which he belonged, something which greatly transcended him, with his own short span of life, something to which he was indebted, which upheld him, and which provided the sanctions of his conduct.” Prof. Ling:

Thus, in one sense of the word ‘religion’, denoting beliefs and practices connected with spirit-beings, Buddhism was in origin not a religion, but a non-religious philosophy. In the other, more sophisticated meaning of the world ‘religion’, which indicates awareness of that which is sacred, that which sanctions every individual existence, Buddhism in its Asian setting remains in certain respects what it was in origin, a way of attempting to restructure human consciousness and the common life of men in accordance with the nature of what it conceives to be the sacred reality.

There are signs that in the modern period this important dimension of Buddhist civilization – the societal and political dimension – has been lost sight of, and that Buddhism is being reduced from a civilization to what the modern world understands by religion: that is, a system of ‘spiritual’ beliefs to be taken up by the minority in whatever country it happens to be who care for that sort of thing, a source of comfort to some, but in the last resort a private irrelevance, having little bearing on the real issues that shape human affairs. When Westerners have looked at Buddhism, too often they have seen only this, because this was all they were looking for.

Mysticism, but let it be a flower,
let be the hand that reaches for the flower,
let it be the flower that imagined the first hand,
let it be the space that removed itself to give place
for the hand that reaches, the flower to be reached –
let it be self displacing self
as quietly as a child lifts a pebble,
as softly as a flower decides to fall, –
self replacing self
as seed follows flower to earth.

– Conrad Aiken

Memo: Here is an interesting essay about what various religions (I hate to lump Buddhism into this group, but its included) in Japan are doing to help with relief and recovery efforts, and as well, a connection of sorts to my post on March 14th. From religiondispatches.org: Tokyo Governor Says Tsunami is Divine Punishment—Religious Groups Ignore Him


12 thoughts on “Buddhism: Into the Mystic?

  1. Hey David :
    What, no mention of my post which inspired this post? Isn’t that a violation of some Vinaya commandment? 🙂 Geez

    (1) I would think some Buddhists would disagree with you that the Buddha’s awakening entailed seeing any “spiritual” truth or “ultimate” reality. But I guess it all hinges on lots of words and nuances of English. Can you give an example of a quote of Siddhartha where the word “ultimate” is translated. I may be wrong. Though I know this sort of thinking permeates much of Mahayana thinking. But I am no Buddhist scholar by any imagination. So I am curious.

    Batchelor strikes me more as a phenomonologist who does not want to reach further that the skills gained.

    I think Batchelor is just fighting the invested interest of religious specialists, among other things. I find his uses of Religion and Mystic to be just fine.

    Your shots at Batchelor include:
    — Batchelor is not original (but then you through in the caveat that no one is, so why say it?)
    — Batchelor is projection his own Western religious prejudices (hmmmmm, no glass houses here either?)
    — Batchelor only sees things because he wants to (ouch, I feel you are coming across very self-righteous with low, unsubstantiated and un-useful generalizations. Very curious. I wonder if you’d say these things to his face.)

    1. Thanks for the comments.

      I don’t think many Buddhists would disagree, perhaps I am mistaken. If anything I think some might object to the way I downplay the Buddha’s awakening, making it seem much more mundane. Besides I didn’t say that his awakening entailed seeing any spiritual truth or ultimate reality, although I don’t have a problem with that notion. Perhaps you need to read the first quote from Prof. Ling over again.

      I don’t know who these religious specialists Batchelor and others are fighting are. If you know, please clue me in. Perhaps a specialist can shift through the nuances of Batchelor’s work, but I think most people who read him are left misled and confused.

      I did not say no one is original. I said original thinkers are few and far between. Mainly so no one would suspect that I am claiming to be one of the them.

      “Batchelor only sees things because he wants to” is merely reiterating what Prof. Ling says. “Self-righteous” is a bit of a straw man here. I don’t think what I have written here is much different in tone from what you write, Sabio. I might be a bit more opinionated, but then again maybe not. Either way, if you want to talk about useful, it would be useful for you to discuss the substance of any claims I have made, rather than unfairly criticize my attitude.

      If anything is too general, then it is due to a desire to not be too lengthy. However, I feel that I am rather specific here, and if you read this blog regularly, I think you will find that I make an effort to substantiate my thoughts.

      I don’t think I have written anything on this blog that I would not say to someone’s face.

  2. Hey David,
    I have to fly, so I only want to address your first claim:

    In the beginning of your post, you said,

    However, if you refer to another definition of mysticism found at Merriam-Webster, “the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (as intuition or insight),” then the Buddha was certainly a mystic, sans the God part.

    So you I was going by your definition.
    (1) Direct Knowledge of God
    (2) Spiritual Truth
    (3) Ultimate Reality

    So you dismissed the first but implied that the later two make Buddha a mystic — the thesis of your post where you dismiss Batchelor’s opinions. But in this comment you deny this by saying:

    Besides I didn’t say that his awakening entailed seeing any spiritual truth or ultimate reality, although I don’t have a problem with that notion.

    Then you chide me saying I need to read Ling’s quote. I think you need to read you own post.

    Let’s just focus on if the Buddha was a mystic — the question addressed by your post. Or, more interestingly, if his followers think he was a mystic and what that means for them. I could prefer to discuss Ling’s view separately (if you do a post on that) so as to keep the confusion to a minimum. This is hard enough stuff without complicating it.

    1. I supposed I tripped myself up with my poorly written response. What I mean to say is that while I agree with Batchelor that the Buddha’s awakening beneath the Bodhi Tree was not a “not a shattering insight into a transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God” (I don’t know why people keep interjecting God into this) or that was it necessarily a “spiritual” event, I do believe that it was insight into a transcendent truth. Again, transcendent has several meanings. Furthermore, “ultimate reality” need not be a “spiritual reality.”

      If you are a regular reader then you know that the theme of The Endless Further is enlightenment or awakening or whatever you want to call it is not a single event but rather a gradual process, although it can begin with sudden insight or realization.

      I share an irritation and frustration with various aspects of religious and spiritual language and mind-sets, but I am not interested in looking for spiritual monsters under every bed.

      The Buddha’s way is the Middle Way and that is where I stand, midway between spirituality and I suppose you could call it realism. I don’t believe that spirituality and religion are inherently evil, but at the same time I don’t think most people understand them correctly. People either want to accept things in a literal sense or dismiss them likewise, without bothering to try to grasp them metaphorically, which I think is the key.

      Hopefully, when I criticize I am not just negating concepts and failing to provide another way to look at them. I think I am offering readers an alternative and useful way of interpreting some of these notions.

  3. It seems the question is: Did Siddhartha Gautama experience satori, or did he “just” figure the Dharma out?

    Is that oversimplifying the issue? Satori seems inescapably “mystic” (subjective insight into greater reality). The Four Noble Truths are beautifully logical. And it’s not necessarily an either/or question, of course.

    Does Batchelor — or Ling — suggest that, because the Buddha’s insight was intellectual analysis rather than mystical revelation, the satori path is not a legitimate Buddha path?

    1. Good questions. I suppose it depends on what your definition of satori is. I believe that literally it means simply understanding or comprehension. It’s said that satori is a flash of sudden awareness.

      I don’t know what Batchelor would say. As for Ling, I don’t think he would dismiss satori as a legitimate path, but perhaps he would suggest that it is subtler than most people imagine or talk about. I like to use the word “intuitive” because carries the connotation of something innate and inborn, natural. Where does awareness come from anyway? Only from within, although it can be stimulated by external causes. I don’t think mystic is a wrong word to use, but most people only consider one sense of it.

      Ling says of the Buddha’ enlightenment: “True, the achievement does not come through intellectual effort alone; it presupposes moral striving and purification, but this, too, is something which men are regarded as able to achieve without needing to resort to supernatural aid.” Add to that this intuitive quality which goes beyond our ability to accurately describe it and then, in a way, it is mystic.

      So I think the real point that both Batchelor and Ling are trying to make is that whatever it is, enlightenment or awakening or satori is not some earth-shattering psychedelic experience but instead one that is far more mundane as an experience. And what is even more important, is what comes afterward, how one utilizes this awareness for the benefit of self and others.

      1. Here is D.T. Suzuki on satori, snipped from a website of unknown integrity & not doublechecked (although it sounds like Suzuki):

        “Satori is the sudden flashing into consciousness of a new truth hitherto undreamed of. It is a sort of mental catastrophe taking place all at once, after much piling up of matters intellectual and demonstrative. The piling has reached a limit of stability and the whole edifice has come tumbling to the ground, when, behold, a new heaven is open to full survey. When the freezing point is reached, water suddenly turns into ice; the liquid has suddenly turned into a solid body and no more flows freely. Satori comes upon a man unawares, when he feels that he has exhausted his whole being. Religiously, it is a new birth; intellectually, it is the acquiring of a new viewpoint. The world now appears as if dressed in a new garment, which seems to cover up all the unsightliness of dualism, which is called delusion in Buddhist phraseology….

        “Satori comes upon one abruptly and is a momentary experience. In fact, if it is not abrupt and momentary, it is not Satori.”


        No “supernatural aid” there (I understand that to mean outreach by a spirit/god/what-have-you), but not exactly “prosaic,” either. I’ll have to read Ling. I am an ignorant, under-read Buddhist; haven’t even read that much Suzuki.

        “…what is even more important, is what comes afterward, how one utilizes this awareness for the benefit of self and others”: Exactly so.

        1. Thanks for sharing that, Will. It looks familiar to me. I remember “mental catastrophe.” I have only limited personal experience with Japanese Zen. I have more with Zen’s older Chinese brother, Ch’an. Now I admire Suzuki but this is one instance where he is a bit over the top for me.

          I do feel confident is saying that I don’t believe there is just one way in which a person can experience awakening. After all, it is a personal experience and each person is different, so I think they probably also awaken differently. Perhaps some people have had satori is just the way. My own glimpses into enlightenment, and they are little more than that, have been of a subtler nature.

          1. I suspect Suzuki’s over-the-topness is largely about the subjectivity of the event. “Behold, a new heaven is open to full survey” — metaphors “describe” things subjectively which can’t be adequately described objectively, (or something like that,) and if satori is “mystical” experience (as in, “direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality… attained through subjective experience (as intuition or insight)”) — hard to describe that objectively. The Fourth Dharma Seal says, “Nirvana is beyond extremes” (or “beyond concepts”); how do you describe something that is beyond extremes? My guess is that Suzuki envisioned satori as a first-hand glimpse of nirvana, if nirvana is our “God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality.” I think of it as being sideswiped by the Void. I don’t know if it is possible. I don’t know anything.

            I agree completely that awakening can take innumerable forms. “You can get dharma from a dog,” a wise man told me. I think he was right, and that suggests you can get awakening from any direction. “Just sitting” can get you there, koan study can get you there, the sutras, the Four Noble Truths, the Dharma Seals, a sudden snow-shower at dawn….

            This is not an argument BTW. I can’t make a case for satori. For me this is about the nature of awakening and the nature of Buddha-nature. Awakening is an ongoing process — that’s all I feel confident enough about to assert.

          2. I think you are quite right about the subjectivity. So then, who can make a case for satori? The only problem I have with “a new truth hitherto undreamed of”, “mental catastrophe”, “a new heaven” and so on, is that it can set up unrealistic expectations in the minds of some practitioners and when their experience is not as dramatic as the language would suggest, they wonder what is wrong, where is their mind-blowing experience.

            Even though I used “God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality” that also is a bit misleading. Nirvana is not a form of heaven and emptiness is not the Buddhist version of God. All of which just points to the failure of language to accurately describe what is beyond description, as you mention.

            Awakening is indeed an ongoing process, so I guess the only thing we can make a case for is that, and to keep on keeping on.

  4. Thank you David. I am not a buddhist
    I am a rational atheistic scientist that happened to bump into buddhist ethics and found them interesting.
    When searching for more information on Buddhism, i started by reading the more “traditional” works on buddhism, i encountered some concepts i just could not accept, at least not in the way they were being explained, particularly Karma, Samsara and reincarnartion.

    Batchelor of course did a great job in getting those ideas under a different light, at least for us outsiders.

    The same can be said of these words you wrote, they act as triggers to keep the research going.
    I found there are so many different kinds of Buddhism, maybe this is all just part of a new type being born, a type that fits what we scientifically know today while keeping the very essence of this amazing phylosophical view.

    1. Richard, thanks for leaving your comment. Glad I have been able to help you to keep exploring this amazing philosophical view.

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