Just as there are two kinds of scientist: those who work from established knowledge; and others who seek to expand that knowledge-base through cutting-edge research, so there are two sorts of religionist: ones who deal uncritically in scripture, while others set out to push the boundaries of faith into areas of personal experience — mystics.
A typical example of mystical Zen art
Scriptural ministers are found conducting services on church premises and otherwise organising fetes and local social occasions. The spiritual adventurer, by contrast, is a mystic who will generally only accept what he can know personally.
In biblical times this division was clear-cut. The mystics were called Gnostics: the knowers. The conventional books were passed down to us by what we call the Catholic Church. Much Gnostic literature is only now coming to light in Egypt, hidden away in urns in bone-dry caves and burial plots.
In 1945 at Nag Hammadi, the biggest cache of manuscripts was discovered by simple Arab farmers. It was lucky that so much survived their rough handling — some were used as kindling on cooking fires.
What was unusual about this hoard was the number of Jewish/Christian gospels discovered. The Gospels of Thomas, Mary (Magdalene), Philip, Truth, and other manuscripts were seen largely intact for the first time since the beginning of the second millenium. They were all activist documents, that is, written in Gnostic terms by mystics.
Some were characterised by a wholly new vocabulary and religious viewpoint. In Gnosticism not all are saved, even by Jesus and his rather theatrical death. In this it resembles Buddhism in which people go round the wheel of life many times until they are ready to rise to the Buddha realm.
In other books, Jesus is not a saviour at all. He rather looks down on his clod-hopping “disciples” but recognises the divine in the soul of his closest friend, Judas Iscariot.
Yes, Judas, the same fellow who takes money from the authorities to betray Jesus by identifying him with a kiss. In the recently discovered Gospel of Judas, the old “villain” is lauded by Jesus in these terms: “You will exceed all of [the other disciples]. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”
This is wonderfully mystical. Jesus’s body is not divine, just the flesh that clothes his soul. It’s also authentic. How many mystics, who know what lies beyond death, yearn to be rid of the decaying carcass that “clothes them”? For them, the problem of human life is not sin but ignorance.
That is also a centrepiece of the Buddha’s message. Not coincidentally, I’m sure, the Apostle Thomas, whose Gospel is one of the Gnostic hoard, is said to have gone to the Madras area in the south of India where he founded a Christian-like cult. His tomb is believed to have been found there and his message influenced the southern form of Buddhism, later promulgated by Bodhidharma, who took it to China around 500 AD, where it flourished as Zen.
It seems then, that the most mystical form of Judeo/Christianity went around the world and could account for some of the remarkable conformity of view of many offshoots of religion that sought knowledge rather than doctrine (see One Simple Thing). We don’t have precise dates for these occasions, so can’t say which tradition influenced the rest most.
A couple of points to end with: the distinguished scholar of early Christianity Bart D. Ehrman, writes of the Gospel of Judas, “Here is a book that turns the theology of traditional Christianity on its head and reverses everything we ever thought about the nature of true Christianity … [T]he truth is not taught by the other disciples of Jesus and their pro-orthodox successors. The Christian leaders are blind to the truth, which was given only in secret revelations to the one disciple they had all agreed to despise: Judas Iscariot, the betrayer.”
I have to say, psychologically and mystically it makes much more sense than the story, as told in the four Gospels, manipulated into shape by the servant of Rome, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, which now form the core of The New Testament.
How it influenced the development of Zen through Thomas, if true, is one of the great untold stories.
Appendix: Belief and knowing
Belief seems to be essential to all peoples. Modern materialist pseudo-religions, such as secularism and scientism, are belief-systems too because their supporters believe in their own views, contrary to other people’s experience.
The problem we have in our scientific age is that our brains play such a large role in the modern world, we mistake them for our minds. The brain is a fantastic tool, like a hammer, a wheel or a knife. Since the European Enlightenment, we’ve been taught to identify with it completely. The result is that most developed humans are trapped in their own heads. Their worldview is limited by what the brain can do and what it perceives.
Everything perceptible beyond the brainview is dismissed as “myth”, fantasy and decidedly primitive. Richard Dawkins, riding on the back of a seemingly ambivalent Darwin, is the high priest of this message.
The alternative biologist Rupert Sheldrake, writes about “extended mind”, showing us the obvious fact that our minds extend well beyond our heads. It doesn’t take much introspection to arrive at that result.
We call explorers of extended mind — more accurately, consciousness — mystics, folk with their heads in the clouds. It’s a term of abuse to scientists. Yet mystics are scientists too, working in areas designated untouchable by the materialists.
Religion is man’s response to the ancient mystical message — that which lies beyond the cage of our brainview. Religion, like philosophy, has followed the worst of science slavishly down its tubular path. It has become an artificial construct, dependent on old, much-edited texts and a lot of wishful thinking. It is a dramatist’s creation, not a God’s.
Organised religions have caused more violence than almost any other aspect of human life. They are widely seen as the economic and political exploitation of who we really are, some more than others.
The mystic knows “God” as the sea of awareness that lies at the heart of everybody’s consciousness, the essence of Being. We rise and fall within it, share its characteristics — even its immortality.
We can be made to believe anything, but only through direct experience can we know the truth. Thus mysticism is empirical in nature, if only anecdotally. You are not a mystic unless you have experienced some of the truth personally. This can’t be turned on at will, or easily demonstrated in a laboratory setting. As a result this field of knowledge will always fail the repeatability test of science, unless, of course, it happens to you.
It is difficult to write about serious mystical encounters because they are experienced by individuals, not crowds. They are not public performances, or moments that can be shared socially. They don’t make news. No one understands someone else’s spiritual experience. And yet, at the same time, this is the field of gold we all share – the very ground and basis of our existence.
Coming soon: Mystology: A different way of looking at the world. Also a website, mystology.com.
Author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.
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