So the Buddhadharma, including early pragmatic Buddhism, is a type of mysticism.
In the Theravada Meets Mahayana post, I fiddled with the peripheral of this subject. I’ll dive deeper into its cavernous depths here.
Mysticism, as Evelyn Underhill saw it, is all about Oneness (or Not Two-ness, as they say in Zen). It’s realizing that the subject/object duality has always been something extra layered onto the present moment.
One of my favorite examples is: There’s a crystal clear diamond, just chilling on a stand. Then we shine a blue laser through it, and the diamond turns blue. Then we shoot a red laser at it; now the diamond’s red. Throughout all of this, the diamond isn’t actually changing colors at all – it’s still clear.
When it’s red, it isn’t actually red, that red hue is something extra being projected onto it. The lasers represent the self, the diamond’s hue symbolizes other. The diamond is Suchness.
We color our worlds with our views, beliefs, desires, and expectations. We push our perceptions away from ourselves and think that they’re separate from us. They aren’t. No one else in the entire universe can see things exactly the same way I do because they’d have to literally occupy the same space I am right now. They’d have to have my eyes, my brain and my memories as well.
So, right off the bat it’s clear that everything we experience is relative and mind-designed. The “goal” is to, through realizing this, move passed it to a clear, nondual understanding. To see the naked diamond.
Buddhism has, more or less, been about this from the get-go and the teachings are skillful means designed to nudge us toward this understanding.
Suchness is the direct experience of this clear diamond. The arbitrary separation between self and other, and between other and other, disappears and in that moment, you realize it was never really there at all. This is mysticism. The teachings provide practical ways to open up this view.
Every religion on the planet has the same two objectives: Making the unknown known, and 2) surrendering to something greater than oneself. Buddhism is no different, it just takes a different route—one based on non-attachment.
The main hurdle to genuine mysticism is that we can get attached to the experiences and insights we have. Clinging to these experiences, they become a further distortion of reality and another cause of suffering. So instead of focusing on the positive (meaning additive) terms used by most religions, the Buddhadharma uses negation.
Instead of All is Self, Buddhism says all is not-self. Instead of saying that All is Perfect, Buddhism says all is neither perfect nor imperfect. With that, the only challenge is not clinging to the words.
Advaita Vedanta, Raja Yoga, Taoism, the mystical versions of Abrahamic faiths, and Buddhism are all non-dual paradigms, they all lead to the same “place,” they just each have different obstacles along the way.
The obstacle in all of those traditions is clinging to an essence. This roadblock even creeps up in Buddhism, especially in Yogacara, Huayan, Tiantai, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism but some monks clung to the skandhas as essences in Theravada and early Buddhism as well. The Prajnaparamita and emptiness teachings came along to remedy this problem but they ended up creating a whole new set of problems in the process.
Essence vs. no essence has been the main debate in Buddhism from it’s inception until the present day. Really, it’s kinda silly though, right? I mean, who cares? If it makes you happy and helps to limit the suffering you bring into the world, then why would I take issue with whether you believe in an essence or not?
Really, it’s only important if you’re aiming for Buddhahood, for total, complete, unsurpassed clarity. If that’s your bag, then essences won’t do. You’ll have to ditch God, the Self, the Soul, the Spirit or any of the other names there are for It.
Instead, we’d have to take the path of: “Even if there is a God, soul, and/or Self, it too is empty; it too is impermanent and dependently arisen,” since that’s the Dharma. It applies to all things in the universe and the universe itself. So, if God is part of the universe, then God’s nature is identical to the universe’s.
You could take on a panentheistic view and say, “God is part of the universe, but also transcends the universe,” but then we’re back at square one: dualism.
Honestly, most of this is relatively irrelevant for most practitioners. It’s monastery talk, the worries of monastics who meditate most of the day. Out here, in the open air, it’s easiest to just avoid all fixed views whether they involve essence or emptiness.
We can experience Suchness without rationalizing it after the fact. Mysticism is something you do, not something you believe. Buddhism is the same; Taoism, Advaita Vedanta etc. are the same. As long as we make our practice, whatever it may be, into something living and dynamic—then we’ve navigated around the whole issue.