“By losing myself in the colors and shapes around me I seemed to become very detached… The feeling wasn’t only caused by observing, being aware of, “beautiful” things, such as goldfish or pieces of moss; a full dustbin of dogshit with flies around it led to exactly the same result…”
— Janwillem van de Wetering, The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery
The ecstatic dimensions of human life are often left in the periphery of thought and culture. Sure, popular religion may give many of us some sort of ultimatum, but you often don’t hear about the core of it all: mysticism.
Now “mysticism” is a finicky term with a myriad of definitions. While it always relates to something either spiritual, religious, or paranormal (or any combination thereof), there are different views regarding exactly what it means: dictionary descriptions differ, and put it as anything from “the belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender,” to a “belief characterized by self-delusion or dreamy confusion of thought, especially when based on the assumption of occult qualities or mysterious agencies…” Merriam-Webster states that mysticism is “the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality reported by mystics,” and also defines it as “vague speculation: a belief without sound basis,” as well as “a theory postulating the possibility of direct and intuitive acquisition of ineffable knowledge or power…”
For my purposes, I will side with the very last definition as best explaining what it is that I’m trying to get at: A direct experience and acquisition of a certain state of being or understanding.
Anyway, while I am of the opinion that genuine spiritual experience, which you might call transcendent, mystical (as I say), or (using a term Sam Harris is fond of) “numinous,” is available to every competent human being, religious or not, religion proper is perhaps the most recognizable vehicle for spiritual experience and the realization of what some may call “divinity”—to use a broad, and frankly quite connotative, phrase—otherwise a direct experience of metaphysically-, or spiritually-, directed consciousness.
No: To my mind there is no need whatsoever to introduce dogmatism, ritual, or anything outside of an evidentialist worldview in order to realize and experience the ineffable. This is a profound and profoundly powerful feeling recognized by individuals throughout history, by a variety of means, individuals who, say, utilize hallucinogens or practice deep meditation, or perhaps pondering philosophers, and artists of all stripes (in this case see Henry Miller’s The Wisdom of the Heart, esp. the essay “Creative Death”), many of whom have no specified religion or belief in the supernatural. Often we equate the supernatural with the metaphysical, or the mystical, but it is not always the case! Semantics or otherwise, these terms all bear unique meanings and impart flavors that, while quite similar, are very different in subtlety.
—I wanted to clear that up, first off.
So, in any case, religion is a vehicle for mysticality, or whatever one defines as “mystical” (or “numinous” or “transcendent”)—admittedly vague terms that quite obviously fall short of explaining what can only be “known” through direct experience. As the late wise moon-bat Terence McKenna once noted: “… direct experience has been discounted and in its place all kind of belief systems have been erected… If you believe something, you’re automatically precluded from believing in the opposite, which means that a degree of your human freedom has been forfeited in the act of this belief.” While I don’t necessarily agree or believe (heh) that beliefs are inherently bad for spiritual well being or “human freedom” (cf. chaos magic), they really do represent something less meaningful and profound than direct experience, which, to my mind, is really the holy grail, the ultimate end of having beliefs in the first place.
So it is here that we can establish, I think, that religion is characterized by certain traits that are perhaps more mysterious, inexplicable, to-the-point in a way that can’t be articulated. We don’t often think of it this way: militant atheists, at least, contend that religion is all bullshit or blind dogmatism. But even Richard Dawkins, the infamous disbeliever extraordinaire, admits that religion has given us art, beauty, awe, in some sense. In a four-way conversation with his other colleagues (the collective “New Atheists,” including the aforementioned Harris, as well as Dan Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens), he notes religious architecture as being particularly worthwhile, making the point that even hardline atheists don’t want to see history destroyed through, say, the burning of churches or demolishing of mosques. (To paraphrase loosely.) We can admit that many places of worship erected throughout the ages represent some of the most astounding examples of human creativity, and this is patently obvious to anyone who cares to really look…
But aren’t they also something more, as well?
Look, for instance, at this photograph:
This is the vaulted dome of the interior of the Shah Mosque in Isfahan. The ornate details are beautiful. The coloring is wild and vivid. And yet what seems to strike the heart is the ascendance of all these details towards a central point. There is almost a fractal-like quality which aspires toward a unification in the one, prime shape. Without any supernatural or philosophical injunction, without any speculation or lengthy discussion, we almost immediately appreciate this. It strikes a chord. Is that merely an aesthetic appreciation? Or does it go beyond that in some sense? If so, why?
What is it about this photo that seems so incredible?:
The north rose window in Notre Dame de Paris. (Source unknown.)
… Or this one?:
The Triumurti temples at the Prambanan Hindu temple complex. (Source unknown.)
Call it a matter of giving credit where it’s unwelcome, but to me every “sacred space,” plain or ostentatious, gilded or glued together, opens up into the mystery, the mystical. Even in plain, rural Baptist churches the uniformity of the pews and aisles and the act of people coming together to embrace a great, final unknown… well, that’s something, isn’t it? It’s something that strikes me in holy places, whether empty or brimming with crowds of worshipers. Well, what do you deem that?
To me, the temple, the mosque, and the synagogue all come down to this: A place is set aside, somewhere in a world otherwise wild, and within the confines of the space a sense of unity and awe is erected. Unity is found through some kind of order amid the wrack and commotion of everything outside, the indifference of the universe.
On that topic, both order and unity seem important in mystical aesthetics…. (And perhaps unity more so…) The idea that everything is pervaded by one substance or essence, even if (as Buddhists contend) that essence is, in fact, non-essence or emptiness. This thing, however you imagine it, is a perhaps a monad beneath the surface, a universal so slight that you can barely see it. Yet it passes through your mind as you wander the halls of vaulted cathedrals or circumambulate the borders of a stupa: order, pattern, singularity, microcosm and macrocosm coming together in a beautiful, inseparable whole. You don’t know it or talk about it, you don’t quantify or qualify it… you experience it, become it, are it.
Recently, I discovered a phrase and concept that helps shine some light on the ubiquitous beauty of mystical aesthetics: Shapes and visual patterns ascribed to the “sacred,” such as religious structures, as well as visionary, psychedelic, and religious art; and non-religious objects and spaces that may otherwise be considered “spiritual,” can fall under the category of “sacred geometry.” (No superstitious associations necessary.) According to Paul Calter, et al (thank you Wikipedia), sacred geometry is any, well, geometry that provides or elucidates symbolic and sacred meanings. More broadly (by my own definition), it may be geometry that evokes a sense of awe, interconnectedness, and transcendence (a preferred phrase which is comprehensive enough to include most religions); or an example of the work of a divine being or agent (i.e. the monotheistic, often Abrahamic God) through said being’s establishment of order in the universe, or a visual appeal to or glorification of that being/God.
A Sri Yantra, a sacred diagram which figures into Hindu tantra, and is related to the Tantric or Tibetan Buddhist mandala. (Source unknown.)
The squared circle, an alchemical symbol of the philosopher’s stone and an example of sacred geometry. (Source unknown.)
Another depiction of the squaring of the circle, this from a work by the 17th century alchemist Daniel Stolz von Stolzenberg. Note the representation of non-duality, or the pairing of opposites, in male (Sun) and female (Moon) coming together as one.
Sacred geometry seems to play a larger role in religious architecture and art relegated to certain traditions or contexts. A prime example: While alchemy is not in any full sense a religious endeavor, alchemical symbols, motifs, etc. (as shown above) figure in religions and systems of ceremonial magic (which may, depending, rely on supernatural or paranormal claims) such as those associated with the Hermetic and [broader] Western esoteric tradition—Hermeticism, the Golden Dawn, Thelema, Gnosticism, Rosicrucianism, and some other belief systems associated with a Neoplatonic worldview or “occult” practices. Alchemical symbols often denote certain elements, substances, forces, or other aspects of reality, and thus provide a measure of “language” with which these belief systems can communicate particular ideas.
A Tibetan Buddhist mandala. (Source unknown.)
Another case: Islamic architecture has long featured extremely detailed, maximalistic tiling, calligraphy, etc., especially—it seems—in Persian and Ottoman Islamic architecture. (To an extent some features were borrowed from Byzantine Christian aesthetics, as well as earlier Roman and pre-Islamic or Zoroastrian Persian styles.) One thing to note is that while the Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches were generally—or at least some time after Christ’s death—comfortable with the depiction of saints, angels, and other revered individuals or beings, iconoclasm was much more frowned upon in Islam, as idolatry is a serious sin (as far as I understand) in the faith of Muhammad. Thus Islamic artists and architects specialized in the aforementioned elements, whereas Christian artists and architects more easily took to depicting the human form.
In any case, this use of geometry and whimsical, curving calligraphy beautifies and glorifies the interior of great mosques, pointing to the oneness and uniqueness of Allah (Arabic: توحيد tawḥīd), a cornerstone of Islamic theology.
Again, the interior of the Iranian Shah Mosque is striking, and strikingly relevant:
The Shah Mosque of Isfahan. Notice the Qur’anic scriptures laid out against the blue. (Source unknown.)
No doubt, this work moves the heart, whether one is religious or not. For Islamic mystics, or Sufis, this may just lay the soul bare…
More of the masjid. (Source unknown.)
… And now notice the difference between this and the statuary of Catholic Christendom, which yet engenders mystical or transcendent feeling, albeit in a much different way:
The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa by Bernini. (1652.) In the Santa Maria della Vittoria church in Rome. (Source unknown.)
This statue gives us insight into ecstasy (in the mystical sense), or more specifically religious ecstasy, a feeling of blissful communion with something much greater than oneself. The Catholic mystics have long reported this experience.
Taking a gander at statues, we slip from the world of religious architecture into religious visual art proper, which also clarifies the mystical state of being.
Adi Shankara (ca. 8th century CE) with disciples. Shankara consolidated the Hindu philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, which posits the non-duality, or unity, of all objects and subjects in one’s self (atman) and the supreme self (Brahman). (Source unknown.)
Here we see Adi Shankara in a state of peace and perhaps meditative absorption. Shankara is revered as one of the greatest gurus in Hinduism and the consolidator of the profound philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. This mystical ideology posits the unity of oneself and the universe, of object and subject, and of the notion that it is an illusion to see oneself as detached from anything in the universe. This philosophy was no doubt influenced by Mahayana Buddhist ideas, with their concepts of Tathatā (Sanskrit: तथता “suchness”, or the state of things being simply what they are) or Dharmata, as well as Dharmakāya. (The inconceivable aspect of an enlightened being, or Buddha, which goes beyond characteristic.)
In Tibetan Buddhism religious art is especially important as a means of meditation. Hence there are a number of “meditational deities” (yidam) upon whose images meditators gaze in order to view themselves as being said deity, or embodying its qualities to a certain degree.
Vajrakilaya, a yidam or meditational deity in Tibetan Buddhism. (Source unknown.)
Now to digress a little:
Visual art is maybe the most obvious means of conveying sacred feeling, as far as religion and associated worldviews go. I dug up a pertinent excerpt from blogger Sean Robsville, who notes of the aesthetician Roger Scruton in his blog Transcultural Buddhism, “Scruton believes that all great art has a ‘spiritual’ dimension, even if it is not overtly religious. It is this transcendence of the mundane that we recognise as ‘beauty’.”
However, it’s important to remember that religion, while imagined by its outward appearances, conveys its greatest teachings, its bare-bones paradigms, through its literature. (Granted, this is omitting many indigenous and shamanistic or animistic religions which depend on oral traditions.) After all, most religions have their religious texts. Without these from whence do we proceed, philosophically or otherwise?
In the major Abrahamic religions (at least), this is where esotericism, or esoteric interpretation, is important. Many readers of the Christian Bible, the Torah or Tanakh, or the Qur’an may find those texts to contain rather straightforward injunctions regarding societal organization, politics, and morality. (Although it must be noted that even the basic interpretations of these texts, whether literal or metaphorical, vary significantly. It seems there are many translations and versions of the Bible (among Christian denominations) in particular.) Yet each of these religions has adherents who see the deeper, more profound meanings hidden behind platitudes and proverbs. Mystics among all traditions have long divided their pertinent holy writings into different levels of meaning.
The beautiful allegories of many religious texts are championed by monastics and mystics alike (although monasticism often reflects a degree of mysticism, if it is not simply a subset of, or is related to a mystic’s style of life, as exemplified by Christian tradition primarily) to validate a deep-seated sense of spirituality. In the case of many monotheistic religions, nearness to or union with God is a primary objective.
Two passages, from the Bible and Qur’an, are pertinent:
- Bible (New Testament): John 14:20: “In that day you will know that I am in my Father (God), and you in me, and I in you.”
- Qur’an: Qaf 6/16[?]: “And We (God) have already created man and know what his soul whispers to him, and We are closer to him than [his] jugular vein.”
In Eastern religions, the concept of union is also important (cf. yoga, which literally means “to yoke” or “to unite”), although it is presented in a different light.
- Mandukya Upanishad: 1.2: “All this is, indeed, Brahman. This Atman is Brahman.”
- Note: In Hinduism, “Brahman” refers to the supreme self, the “self” of the cosmos, which is ultimately indefinable. “Atman” refers to one’s self. In the Upanishads (which reveal the aforementioned Vedanta) it is consistently reaffirmed that oneself is not separate from the supreme self and the universe.
- Tao Te Ching: Ch. 16:
“Attain the ultimate emptiness
Hold on to the truest tranquility
The myriad things are all active
I therefore watch their return”
- Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra: Ch. 4: “When appearances and names are put away and all discrimination ceases, that which remains is the true and essential nature of things and, as nothing can be predicated as to the nature of essence, is called the “Suchness” of Reality.”
From all of these texts we can pick out the commonality of oneness and universalism—union, interconnectivity, non-duality, “suchness”; the return to a mysterious, inscrutable (and yet perceived!) source.
Now, the media of experiential spirituality is not limited to religious work. This must be understood in order to truly cross over into the fold of spirituality/mysticism—that it is not merely in the domain or possession of religion. Religion certainly is the traditional vehicle or vessel of spirituality and mystical experience, but as I have stated, similar states can be engaged by people with no religious background. Certainly philosophers and artists of all stripes can come close to these experiences in their own ways. (While philosophy is mainly about intellectual analysis and the arts about creative work, the trance state can and has historically been engaged (albeit not often reported) in the course of doing philosophy and art. Not to mention the fact that throughout history throngs of artists (by this I mean musicians, writers, etc. as well) and philosophers have also been “mystics”, or have at least reported or sought out mystical experiences by one means or another. (Cf. Jean-Paul Sartre and Alan Watts’ experiences with mescaline.))
Mystical poetry is a long-standing tradition, and many people have expressed a connection to some Absolute or another, or a sort of universal love, by way of poetry. The great Persian poet Rumi—a Sufi (Islamic) mystic and antecedent of the Mevlevi Order—is perhaps the most famous example, especially in the case of love. (Particularly a sort of Islamic divine love. (the Christian phrase, from the Greek, is agape.)) This, for instance, comes from his Masnavi:
“The lover’s cause is separate from all other causes
Love is the astrolabe of God’s mysteries.”
This is another outstanding piece entitled “Only Breath”:
“Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu
Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen. Not any religion
or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up
from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,
am not an entity in this world or in the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any
origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.”
Even more explicitly non-particular in his tradition was the fantastical poet and mythologist (called a “glorious luminary” by William Rossetti) William Blake, who, although nominally Christian, expressed universalism and the all-pursuing qualities of a philosopher-mystic throughout his writing and art.
Blake’s frontispiece, depicting gnostic themes, for his book The Song of Los (written 1795).
… Here is his “The Divine Image”, originally featured in Songs of Innocence:
“To Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
All pray in their distress:
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.
For Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is God our father dear:
And Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is Man his child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart
Pity, a human face:
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace the human dress.
Then every man of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine
Love Mercy Pity Peace.
And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk or jew.
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.”
Poetry and prose have always had the potential, as much as art, to evoke mystical feeling. The variety of written works that may be characterized as “mystical” or “spiritual” is incredible. And yet as disparate as they may be, they all share in the perennial force of an Absolute, or engender a connection to this ineffable quality.
In contrast with the flowery language of Rumi and Blake, I will provide a much more contemporary example from the writings of the aforementioned Henry Miller (a personal hero—I’m currently working on my fourth book of his (Moloch: or, This Gentile World), since I recently finished Black Spring, and both of the Tropic novels before that), who, while quite gritty and very surreal by comparison, is yet like the proverbial “finger pointing at the moon” (spoken of in Zen discourse).
… From Tropic of Cancer:
“Today I awoke from a sound sleep with curses of joy on my lips, with gibberish on my tongue, repeating to myself like a litany – “Fay ce que vouldras!… fay ce que vouldras!”; Do anything, but let it produce joy. Do anything, but let it yield ecstasy. So much crowds into my head when I say this to myself: images, gay ones, terrible ones, maddening ones, the wolf and the goat, the spider, the crab, syphilis with her wings outstretched and the door of the womb always on the latch, always open, ready like the tomb. Lust, crime, holiness: the lives of my adored ones, the failures of my adored ones, the words they left behind them, the words they left unfinished; the good they dragged after them and the evil, the sorrow, the discord, the rancor, the strife they created. But above all, the ecstasy!”
Henry Miller. (Source unknown.)
(Interestingly, fay ce que vouldras is French for “do what thou wilt” (the common translation), from Rabelais (whom Miller was acquainted with), and the essential motto of the religion and [religious] philosophy of Thelema.)
As Miller said of his book, “My idea briefly has been to present a resurrection of the emotions, to depict the conduct of a human being in the stratosphere of ideas, that is, in the grip of delirium.”
Is this truly delirium, or mystical psychosis?
It is noteworthy that Miller was influenced to some degree by Theosophy and the ideas of Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom he mentions several times in at least one book.
… Lastly, I’d like to look at music. I’ve left this one for last in honor of Aldous Huxley’s well-known statement: “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
Whether this statement is true or not, music is an art form that quite seriously depends on states of duality, being and non-being… that is, sound and silence. The dance of dichotomy, of existence and non-existence, is readily noticeable in music. It is an aesthetic employed for mystical means in the appreciation of some traditional Japanese compositions, what with the notion of ma (間, “negative space”).
And Japan has a long, variegated tradition of sacred music. From Shintō court scores to monosyllabic Buddhist chants, music has been featured in much of Japanese religious life. Perhaps the most mysterious example is that of the shakuhachi…
The shakuhachi, known by a few as kyotaku (“empty bell”) and in certain forms as hocchiku (“dharma bamboo”), was originally more of a religious tool than an instrument: this vertical bamboo flute was employed by komusō, the eccentric-looking monks of the Fuke sect of Japanese Zen, who played it for enlightenment and alms as they wandered the countryside. They practiced suizen, or “blowing zen”, as a form of meditation, and concentrated on honkyoku, sacred Zen Buddhist pieces that reflect deep mystery (embodying the Japanese aesthetic of yūgen) and the qualities of enlightenment. I myself will admit to having dabbled in this instrument, and, by my own experience, it requires nothing if not the patience and persistence of a Zen master. A simple, holed-out length of bamboo can, in the correct state of mind, produce an audible symbol of gnosis. Hokyoku are spontaneous and utterly indescribable, and rightly so. I personally came face to face with this experience, this intangible nature, during a shakuhachi concert at Roulette in Brooklyn several years ago. (Props to the Japan Society, Ned Rothenberg, Kinya Sogawa, and Ralph Samuelson for an amazing performance. I remember it fondly!) The concert was indescribably mysterious. (Yūgen?)
A komusō in traditional garb, begging at Jochi-ji temple in Kita-Kamakura, Japan. (From Wikipedia.)
… Bamboo is also the basis of the bansuri, an Indian transverse flute famously employed by Krishna, avatar of Vishnu, admired (and even worshiped) by millions of mainstream Hindus, and beloved mystagogue of the Hare Krishna sect of Hinduism. (More properly known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.) The flute is involved in Krishna’s romance with Radha, and the sound of classical Hindustani music as played on the bansuri encapsulates a spirit of serene bliss and love. Whereas the shakuhachi’s typical music is characterized by a benign, wild indifference—blasts of air like claps of thunder centered and contrasted by soft drones and strange vibratos—the bansuri’s domain is one of ecstasy and calm joy painted by colorful tones and and a sense of pervasiveness. While the bansuri’s song is peaceful in the same sense as the shakuhachi’s, it’s more of a divine love ballad born from the depths of the heart and pouring over the world, whereas the shakuhachi’s is the portrait of a mind that has been liberated, one that resides on top of a mountain in the rain, or hides in the mist that hangs in a deciduous grove.
Krishna playing his bansuri. (From GodofIndia.com)
A similar instrument, although not bamboo, is the ney. A Middle-Eastern rim-blown woodwind, it is possibly most famous in Turkey and Iran. The ney is made from reeds, and so has the same basic properties as bamboo. (Canes and reeds are grasses like bamboo, albeit smaller.) The Turkish ney in particular is known for its use in the rites (sema) of the Mevlevi Order of Sufism (as per Rumi). By all rights, this order, known for its famous whirling dervishes, is probably the face of Sufism in the non-Islamic world. Their whirling is often accompanied by the ney and various other instruments.
Mevlevi whirling dervishes and ney players in 1887. (Source unknown.)
Whether by the means and methods of music, art, architecture, poetry, prose, dance, or sculpture—or anything at all, for that matter—the aesthetic is not merely the superficial face-value of a modern consumerist aeon; not evil as it may be to the gnostics, who have long regarded the material realm the creation of an opressive demiurge; not a fleeting hedonistic playground where every sense is tantalized and inundated with meaningless data, as per Kierkegaard… no, that couldn’t be further from the truth! The aesthetic is the portent of the spiritual, a portal into the mysterium tremendum, a bridge and not an end. The end, then, is left to be determined by us as individuals, who with our hands and blood and sweat and tears carve out art and engrave our souls into the vast mundaneness of of the universe, a blank scape laid below us and an immovable ridgepole supporting our existence. If we can see the beauty in the everyday, and fashion from the clay of the earth the mantle of the stars, then we may just be able to see the One thing, the mystic thing, the nameless thing, that lies at the end of the oft-trodden road.
As I posted to Unknown Dopeness (and I feel makes for a good summary):
“This is a tangentially philosophical article and examination that I wrote on my blog. In essence, it’s an exploration of what I like to call “mystical aesthetics,” which comprises the methods whereby art symbolizes and acts as a portent of the mystical. Basically, the aesthetic (the arts) have the potential to channel the metaphysical, or engender states of spiritual experience.
Schopenhauer, in essence, implied our contact with the nature of the world can come through music, for instance. Aldous Huxley said that music was only outdone by silence as “expressing the inexpressible”. Mystical poetry, visionary art, religious architecture, sacred geometry, and other mediums of expression point toward higher states of consciousness. It is my view that the artist may enter these states through the spirit of abstract work.
I hope you enjoy!”
—See the post script HERE.