The mystical is culturally relative

The social conditions behind transcendance

It is widely held that mystical experiences have certain common qualities, such as ineffability and a sense of connection to a greater being, that point to a perennial philosophy underpinning otherwise diverse religious traditions. Philosopher Steven T. Katz argues that this is too simplistic: a closer look at accounts of mystical experience indicates that they are shaped by their cultural and religious context, as well as the conditions that govern what and how we are able to think.


From the late nineteenth century until the 1980s, the most common, widely accepted interpretation of mystical experience was that the ultimate experience was the same across all ¬religious traditions. William James characterized the mystical experience as transient; as ineffable, or defying expression; as noetic, or imparting a form of knowledge or insight; and as passive, in the sense that the experiencer perceives an absence of his own will, and may also perceive the presence of another, greater will.  James also characterized such experience as creating a feeling of love and bliss.

What gives rise to the different schools of mystical teachings is the fact that the ultimate experience is ineffable, beyond language, and so when the individuals who have had this experience want to describe it and share it with others, they are forced to employ the existing language and metaphysical ideas they knew from their own religious communities, resulting in diverse mystical traditions. This view was endorsed by a long and distinguished line of scholars that includes James, Evelyn Underhill, Rudolf Otto, Ninian Smart, and more recently, William Wainwright. And it was shared by all those many advocates of the interpretation of mysticism as an undifferentiated philosophia perennis. Here, one thinks of scholars as different as Frithjof Schuon, Sayyed Hossein Nasr, Robert Forman, and most famously, Aldous Huxley.


There is no pure, unmediated, universal experience that transcends history, religion, and culture.


I want to insist that this form of interpretation is too simplistic.  The mystical situation is more complex than usually appreciated. It involves not just (a) the content of the mystical experience and (b) the post-experiential description of it, but also (c) the deep question of what mystics bring to their experience.  The mystic already, prior to his or her experience, belongs to a particular religious tradition, has knowledge of the relevant scriptures, and, almost always, has had a teacher from that distinctive tradition.

I suggest, instead, an alternative three-step model of how we should approach understanding and deconstructing mystical experience. The epistemological principle on which it is based –  reflecting the diversity of the evidence supplied by the world's mystical teachings – is that there is no pure, unmediated, universal experience that transcends history, religion, and culture. Mystical experience is shaped by these factors too.

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My evidence for this judgment comes from four different sorts of reflection. The first is narrowly philosophical and emerges out of a consideration of the process of knowing, including mystical knowing. All knowledge – and here I explicitly include mystical knowledge – is subject to rules that make it possible. In order to decipher mystical experience, we must tie the experience to the conditions of having such an experience.  For example, our minds, our consciousness, is not a tabula rasa (blank slate), but an active reality that provides such basic necessities as concepts of space, time and causality.

Second, all the testimonials and other evidence relevant to correctly deconstructing accounts of mystical experience suggest that this experience is conditional, i.e., mediated. This means that God, or nirvana, or satori, is experienced only as we can experience them. Even when an individual encounters an Ultimate Object or Subject, the happening is, let us call it, a "mediated immediacy." This is because of the inseparable connection between what an individual brings to such moments – e.g., language, religious tradition, the influence of religious teachers, the role of tradition, and the like – and the mystical encounter that is had. These teachings, longings, and dogmas connected with the world's religious experiences are influential not only as post-experience phenomena – they are shaping the mindset of the individual in the experience itself.

So, for example, as testimonial evidence from two famous mystics reveals, their experience is a pre-shaped Christian experience of Jesus and the Trinity. Teresa of Avila, in a famous passage, reports:

I saw in his hands a large golden dart and at the end of the iron tip there appeared to be a little fire. It seemed to me that this angel plunged the dart into my heart and that it reached deep within me. When he drew it out, I thought he was carrying off with him the deepest part of me; and he left me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan, and the sweetness this greatest pain caused me was so super abundant that there is no desire capable of taking it away; nor is the soul content with less than God. The pain is not bodily but spiritual, although the body doesn’t fail to share in some of it, and even a great deal. [1]

Margery Kempe tells of her experience with the incarnate Jesus: 

And then she thanked God for all, for through these ghostly sights her affection was all drawn into the manhood of Christ and into the mind of his passion until that time when it pleased our Lord to give her understanding of His inunderstandable Godhead. [2]

Both Teresa and Margery set out to meet Jesus and they met Jesus. This claim is not post-experience. If it were, it would be of much less interest.

Third, is the fact that the content of mystical experience is almost always what the mystic wants it to be. As St. Teresa of Avila wrote: ‘Behold Him what I seek and Whom I desire.’ That is, Christian mystics experience God or Jesus but not Nirvana or the Doa. Alternatively, Sufis and Buddhists never experience Jesus or encounter the Virgin Mary. Arjuna begins with the knowledge of the reality of Krishna and devotes himself to encounter this specific deity. There is a congruence between the tradition from which the speaker comes – and that sets his or her goals – and the experience that he/she has. Thus, Pope Innocent III’s vision after the visit of Francis of Assisi was of Jesus and not the Buddha.


When Plato speaks of “Being,” his meaning differs from that intended when the term finds its way into the philosophical vocabulary of Spinoza and Schelling, or Sartre and Heidegger, to say nothing of Zen or Daoism.


Fourth, it is necessary to interrogate the mystical language used to “describe” the experience(s). Here, I would challenge the argument that all mystical experiences are the same because testimonials across religious traditions all refer to the experiences had as “paradoxical” and “ineffable.” On a simple reading of these descriptions, this might indicate that all the experiences were the same, but this interpretation reflects a logical error.

The terms "paradox" and ineffable" do not function as terms that inform us about the content of experience or any given ontological "state of affairs." Instead, they deny the possibility of coherent knowledge of the experience. Their function is to cloak experience from investigation and to hold mysterious whatever the ontological content of an experience was. Consequently, the use of the terms "paradox" and "ineffable" do not provide data for the comparability of experiences.

Consider the following example: (i) mystic A claims experience X is paradoxical and ineffable, while (ii) mystic B claims experience Y is paradoxical and ineffable. The only correct logical conclusion that one can draw, given this evidence, is that both mystic A and mystic B claim their experience is paradoxical: however, nothing can be said about the content of their respective experiences X and Y. There is no way, particularly when factoring in the limiting nature of claims involving “ineffability,” to give content to experiences X and Y. X and Y can be anything or nothing. There is no way to learn more about them other than they are unknowable. If both mystics, A and B, claim that their experiences are “paradoxical” and “ineffable”, this does not provide evidence for claiming that the experiences being referred to were the same.

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Furthermore, the claim that all mystical experiences are the same, which I shall call "the common core argument," is false, given what we know of mystical experience across traditions. These traditions tell us that the “object", the content, and the state of being involved in mystical experiences across traditions is clearly diverse. In this connection I would emphasize that terms like “God,” nirvana, etc., are more than names: they are descriptions, or at least disguised descriptions. That is, they carry a meaning relative to some more comprehensive ontological structure. So, for example, the term “God” carries with it ontological characteristics, e.g., all the omni predicates we attribute necessarily to “God” and certain predicates relating to what might be called God's personality – He is said to be "long-suffering, forgiving and loving." Alternatively, Atman, the Universal Self in Hinduism, carries some of the same as well as considerably different ontic (conditions of being), metaphysical and “personality” characteristics. And Nirvana (Nothingness) implicates radically different ontological correlates and entails no personality predicates. While the term “God” implicates concepts of fullness, ultimate Being, intentionality, a concern with justice, and the possibility of dialogue in some form(s) with human beings, the idea of Nirvana includes none of these notions.  It has no human characteristics and exhibits no consciousness.  It is a state of negation. Compare Teresa of Avila’s famous experience already cited and that of Buddhaghosa. The great Buddhist teacher instructs us that the adept passes beyond the contemplation of boundless consciousness “and ascends to the realms of nothingness and neither perception nor non-perception”. [3]


There is no intelligible way that anyone can argue that a "no-self" experience of empty calm is the same experience as that of an intense, loving, intimate relationship between two substantial selves.


Again, substituting what seem to be more neutral terms, such as “Being” for God or nirvana, also proves less helpful than at first appears because “Being” is not a free-floating bit of ontological information, but part of the flotsam and jetsam of specific meaning-systems. When Plato speaks of “Being,” his meaning differs from that intended when the term finds its way into the philosophical vocabulary of Spinoza and Schelling, or Sartre and Heidegger, to say nothing of Zen or Daoism. Thus, it is only reasonable to conclude – indeed it is the only reasonable thing to conclude – that the nature of mystical experience in different ontological contexts is different.

As an example: Buddhists seek extinction from suffering through the elimination of the "self" in a world in which there is no God. Nirvana is the absence of all relation, all personality, all love, and the elimination of identity. Alternatively, Jewish mystics believe in a self that exists in a world created and providentially cared for by a loving yet all-powerful God. They seek the state of devekuth, "clinging" to God, as their ultimate goal.

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There is no intelligible way that anyone can argue that a "no-self" experience of empty calm is the same experience as that of an intense, loving, intimate relationship between two substantial selves, one of whom is the personal God of Judaism. The "extinguishing" of self in a state of being in which there are no selves is not equivalent to the finding of another, especially when this other possesses the predicates attributed to the God of Jewish tradition. In consequence, the only reasonable conclusion is to recognize that the mediated nature of mystical experience creates a situation in which Jewish mystics experience God, while Buddhists experience Nirvana and Hindus experience Brahman.

The claim to a common core of mystical experience is mistaken. We should not assume the similarity — nor the sameness — of mystical experience. We should begin without a priori judgment on this issue and be open to the possibility that the best way to study mystical reports and other materials across cultures is difference.


[1] Teresa of Avila, Life (Washington, DC. 1976), pp. 193-194. Reprinted in S. Katz, Mysticism and Language pp. 204-205.

[2] The Book of Margery Kempe (NY, 2001), p. 152.

[3] Buddhaghosa, Visuddhimagga [Path of Purification] (Berkeley, 1976), chap. 10, p. 36

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