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Buddhist Mysticism1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 October 2008

Trevor Ling
Lecturer in the Comparative Study of Religion, University of Leeds


The word mysticism serves to draw attention to certain similarities in religious experience in both Western and Eastern religion, and it is difficult to find a really satisfactory substitute. What is important is that we should not suppose it to be a simple term, but should recognise that it has many variations. There are varieties of mysticism, recognisable by a certain family resemblance, and it is probably safer therefore to use the word with some qualifying adjective, e.g. Christian mysticism, Jewish mysticism, and so on.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1966

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Page 164 note 1 Buddhist Thought in India (1962), p. 77.Google Scholar

Page 164 note 2 See University of Ceylon Review, vols. vi to ix (19481951).Google Scholar

Page 164 note 3 Woven Cadences of Early Buddhism (O.U.P. 1945).Google Scholar

Page 165 note 1 Sutta Nipata (hereinafter referred to as Sn) 52 and 966.

Page 165 note 2 Sn 542.

Page 165 note 3 Sn 642.

Page 165 note 4 E.g. by the causative verb nibbāyati (Majjhima Nikaya, iii, 245).

Page 165 note 5 Majjh. Nik. i, 140; Samy. Nik. iii, 109.

Page 165 note 6 Visuddhimagga viii, 247.

Page 165 note 7 See, e.g. Abhidhammattha Sangaha vi, 14.

Page 165 note 8 Sn 456.

Page 165 note 9 Sn 370, 707, 735 et al.

Page 165 note 10 Sn 483–5.

Page 166 note 1 Sn 485.

Page 166 note 2 Sn 86, 267, 514, 758.

Page 166 note 3 Sn 822.

Page 166 note 4 Sn 940, 1061.

Page 166 note 5 Sn 365, 942.

Page 166 note 6 Sn 186, 233, 454.

Page 166 note 7 Sn 87.

Page 167 note 1 akincanam anādānam etam dāparp anāparam, nibbānam iti nam brūmi jarāmaccuparikkhayam (Sn 1094).

Page 167 note 2 See, e.g. Pali Text Society's Dictionary, under nibbāna; or Conze, E., Buddhist Thought in India, p. 73.Google Scholar

Page 168 note 1 The Buddhist understanding of the matter is that the commonsense view which affirms the existence of a real individual empirical self in the ‘five khandhas’ (or constituents of bodily empirical existence) is a false view. T. R. V. Murti summarises the matter as follows: ‘When the self is posited (i.e. empirical self or ego), then another confronts it; with the division of the self and the not-self attachment and aversion result’ (The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, p. 270). Thus, as he goes on to point out, samsāra (continued empirical existence) is present so long as there is attachment to the ‘I’. The doctrine of anatta is obviously very closely connected with that of suññatā (Skt. śūnyatā), often rendered ‘the void’. Murti says: ‘correctly understood śūnyatā is not annihilation, but the negation of negation; it is the conscious correction of an initial unconscious falsification of the real’ (op. cit. p. 271).

In Buddhist thought, therefore, the state of the man who is nibbuta, i.e. the state of nibbāna, is alone the real. Nibbāna, seen through the thought-forms of the empirical world, however, is samsāra. From this Murti concludes that the distinction between nibbāna and samsāra is, as he says, ‘epistemic (subjective) not ontological (objective)’ (op. cit. p. 273 f.).

This distinction seems rather dangerous, not only, as E. Conze points out, because Buddhism, like Marxism and Roman Catholicism, is prepared to make ontological assertions (a fact which might be overlooked if the distinction were pressed too far), but also because it might lead one to assume that the Buddhist aim is to bring about a change of epistemology, or, to substitute one epistemology for another. This is true in a limited sense, but since the Buddhist way is a religion as well as a philosophy, the Buddhist method of making the change is not simply a kind of gnosis, but involves a radical moral renewal.

Page 168 note 2 Visuddhimagga I, 4, 5.

Page 168 note 3 The Teachings of the Mystics (1960), p. 14f.Google Scholar

Page 169 note 1 W. T. Stace, op. cit. p. 77.

Page 169 note 2 Ibid.

Page 169 note 3 Udāna, VIII, 3, and Itivuttaka II 6.

Page 170 note 1 The Religion of India (Free Press, Glencoe, Illinois, 1958), p. 213.Google Scholar

Page 170 note 2 Ibid.

Page 171 note 1 People's Publishing House, New Delhi, 1959.

Page 172 note 1 Stanford University Press, California, 1962.

Page 173 note 1 As A. K. Warder does in his article in Historians of India, Pakistan and Ceylon (ed. C. H. Philips; O.U.P. 1961), p. 53.Google Scholar

Page 173 note 2 Visuddhimagga IV, 74.

Page 174 note 1 On this see the very significant words of a modern Buddhist statesman and scholar, Dr G. P. Malalasekera, in his article, The East and West in Buddhism (The Middle Way, London, vol. xxxiii, no. 4, p. 157).Google Scholar

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