The Divine Discovery
Every religion has its pioneers, its mystical surveyors who venture into the unknown reaches of the spiritual realm and return with reports that simultaneously excite and confound. The Mystic experience is portrayed as one of divine unity: but what is this divinity? Some accounts speak of a union with “Infinity” – an awesome merger of the self and eternity where any kind of identity ceases to exist; other Mystics tell of a union of “Personality” – a sense of surrendering one’s relative self to an Absolute Self. Which is truly the Divine?
As the Mystic sets out on his path, he cannot cast off every psychological tether to his particular religion’s views of the Divine, and so his understanding of the mystical experience (as well as how he relates it to others) cannot help but be influenced by the Church, and the presence or absence of anthropomorphic language within its Scripture. Thus we encounter descriptions of the Divine that range from an exclusively monist “Infinity” to a wholly theistic “Personality”.
Religions categorized as “Eastern” are predominantly drawn toward the “Infinity” perspective. The most ardent adherent to the monist viewpoint is the religion of Jainism, which espouses no Creator, and sees each “jiva” (soul) as individual and separate from the others. For the Jain, the highest spiritual goal is to free the jiva from karmic bondage through action, a process which does not lead to union with anything, but results in a fully-realized spirit who is no longer re-born into the physical realm. If mysticism is present within Jainism, it exists as a glimpse into this spiritual perfection. “Personality” in Jainism is one of self – perfected and infinite, perhaps, but devoid of unification with an “other”.
Buddhism is another Eastern religion that, in its doctrine of Dependent Origination, rejects the concept of an independent Creator, and embraces an understanding of the infinite where all beings are already in union with the Divine, although most of us have yet to realize it. A pantheon of divine beings exists within Buddhism, populated by Arhats and Bodhisattvas, although these personalities are understood as aspects of the Infinite – as one Chinese recluse is quoted as saying, “Believe me, the Bodhisattvas are as real as earth and sky, and have infinite power to aid beings in distress, but they exist within our common mind, which, to speak the truth, is itself the container of earth and sky” (Harvey, 128). This underscores the Mahayana position that Buddha taught on two distinct levels, and prompts us to remember that dual interpretations exist for all religious Scripture: the conventional (literal), and the profound (metaphorical).
Throughout most religious Scripture, the conventional approach finds its voice in anthropomorphic, theistic language, while the profound tactic takes on a monist tenor. Both can be found in the sacred texts of Hinduism, a faith that sees the union of the relative soul (atman) with the Universal Soul (Brahman) as its essential objective. We find evidence of theism in the use of a pronoun, as in verses from one Upanishad: “His hands and feet are everywhere, He has heads and mouths everywhere: He sees all, He hears all. He is in all and He is" (Svetasvatara Upanishad, 90). But a monist tone is struck elsewhere: “The mind becomes one with the Infinite Mind and thus attains final freedom" (Maitri Upanishad, 103).
Anthropomorphic language permeates the sacred texts of Western religions, so it is not surprising that their prevalent understanding of the Divine is one of Personality. In the Hebrew Bible, divine “marriage” is depicted as the closest form of unity, and God is said to don clothing and participate in human activity. In the literal sense, Judaism is not only anti-monist, but, in the words of minister Geoffrey Parrinder, is “anti-mystical ... exclusively obsessed by the transcendent holiness of God and man's nothingness in face of him” (111). But the Talmudic scholar Adin Steinsaltz points out that anthropomorphic language is used as a metaphorical, literary device to convey depth and power: “When the prophets described their sublime vision of God ... they have to present the vision in a human context in order to be true to its emotional significance for men. Their descriptions may be considered as allegorical frameworks, using man as a metaphor for the Supreme" (44).
The anthropomorphic language of Christian and Islamic Scripture thrusts their views of the Divine to the theistic extreme. In these Scriptures, the vocabulary is heavy with personality, although monistic concepts can always be deciphered, especially in descriptions of mystical union. A traditional Islamic text reads that “Allah possesses a drink which is reserved for His intimate friends,” and concludes by revealing that, for those who drink it, “there is no difference between them and their Beloved.” The Christian Mystic Meister Eckhart writes, “When the soul is totally lost [discarded], it finds that it is the very self which it sought for so long in vain. Here the soul is God.”
Mystics undoubtedly relate to the Divine in both theistic and monistic terms. It is even likely that they, like the authors of Scripture, deliberately employ multivalent language in order to inspire dual conceptions of the Divine. The theistic perspective of Personality establishes man as an integral part of the Sacred, and points to the Divine within his own heart, while the monist perspective of Infinity draws man outward, to see the Divine in all of Creation. Language, then, is the Mystic’s art, and it is up to each of us to engage in it, and discover its meaning for ourselves.
Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.
Mascaró, Juan, translator. The Upanishads. London: Penguin, 1965.
Parrinder, Geoffrey. Mysticism in the World's Religions. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1976.
Steinsaltz, Adin. The Thirteen Petalled Rose: A Discourse on the Essence of Jewish Existence and Belief. Hanegbi, Yehuda, trans. New York: Basic Books, 1980.