Joining Reason and the Senses : The Mystics


Part 4

Mystics do not inhabit the same location in Buddhism and in Christianity. In the former, they constitute the majority of the spiritual actors, since enlightenment is a process relying mostly on self-realisation. By contrast, Christianity, with its divine and revealed message, and agents carefully chosen to interact with God, spaces for an original, personal or even more, an uncanny spiritual approach, would tend not only to be disliked but even rejected by the Church. But, as Alain Delaye remarks, “like in the Trojan horse, Christian mystics are there,” 1 and this allows us to close our comparative reflection with perhaps the greatest and strongest bridge between Christianity and Buddhism : the mystics. As a sign and proof of this closeness, unlike my approach through the previous sections, I will, here, be able to present both traditions simultaneously.

Awakening and enlightenment are combined in the Buddhist experience. Nirvana is an experience of an unambiguous clarity of and onto the world, like a powerful ray of sunlight. Dogen, the patriarch of the Zen tradition, writes : “The truth of the Buddha-nature is the bursting void of light.” 2 In Christianity, the metaphor of light has not been the most popular generally, but it is widely found in the accounts of the mystics. Saint Paul was shocked by an intense clarity on the way to Damascus; Saint John saw in the Verb the enlightening energy of humanity; while the Greek Fathers understood the spiritual journey as an ascent towards Light. 3 For the orthodox mystics, like Symeon, Nicephore or Gregory Palamas, this light is non-created. But it is also precisely the metaphor of the awakening, very dear to Buddhism, that one finds with the Christian mystics. For John of the Cross, the union with God is like an awakening “of the soul in God and of God in the soul,” 4 or for Eckhart, a union that modifies awakening into birth. The concept of resurrection is also relevant here, since it is conceived, in the New Testament, as the awakening of the whole being, the entry into the Kingdom of the “Father of lights.” 5

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A light, and not a verb : for both Christianity and Buddhism, the realisation is not expressible. None but Nagarjuna could be mentioned here, he who emphasised on deconstructing all linguistic and rational statements that tried to describe not only Nirvana but also any other object or even phenomenon of the world, as they are fundamentally united in the experience of enlightenment.

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A light, and not a verb : for both Christianity and Buddhism, the realisation is not expressible. None but Nagarjuna could be mentioned here, he who emphasised on deconstructing all linguistic and rational statements that tried to describe not only Nirvana but also any other object or even phenomenon of the world, as they are fundamentally united in the experience of enlightenment. For the Bengali mystic Saraha, precursor of Vajrayāna Buddhism, language was strictly unable to express the fundamental experience : “How to describe the gem of the Victor? It would be as if a mute preached a deaf.” 6 In Japan, Houang Po would mention a “silent coincidence” and Dogen, a “quiet awakening.” 7 The same feeling is found with the Christian mystics. Saint Paul mentioned having heard “ineffable words which the man is not allowed to say again.” 8 For Denys, the essence of God is incomprehensible, a statement confirmed  by Augustine : “If you understand, it is not God.” For Simone Weil, “the word of God is the secret word.” 9

From the very first teaching of the Buddha on the Wheel of Existence, interdependence became a mainstay of the Buddhist understanding. With Mahāyāna Buddhism in particular, non-duality is affirmed though the unity of Samsara and Nirvana. The Yogācāra tradition would plead for a unique Consciousness, while shortly before, Nagarjuna developed a (non-) theory of emptiness that, paradoxically, unifies the whole world. For the Chinese Houei-Neng, Dhyana (meditation) and Prajna (wisdom) are but one, united in Samadhi (meditation). 10  Near to the non-duality of Advaita Vedanta, Buddhism professed a worldview in which all phenomena are unique and transient, yet unified. In Christianity, the mystics would have to confront brutally the institutional Church for which God and his creation, human world and heaven, sin and virtue, are the short lists of many profound dualistic thoughts. God, seen as looking down on humanity in the Hebraic tradition, gets closer to the humans in the words of Jesus. “The kingdom of god is celestial certainly, but it is destined to become earthly.” 11 With a Platonic-influenced Christianity, dualism comes back and is reinforced with an opposition of deadly bodies and immortal souls, and of heaven and hell. But Origen, among others, would move towards remedying this excess. For him, the final reconciliation reinserts even the demons into the Kingdom of the Father. With the Church Fathers, divine and human are close enough to become merged. Slowed down by Augustine, the non-dualist Christianity would reemerge later with Francis of Assisi, and after him, a number of mystics, adepts of Panentheism : God, beyond the world, is in each thing of the world. For John of the Cross, “God is all the things in a simple being,” 12 and for Mechtild of Magdebourg, He is “all in all.” 13

Unity is at the core of both Buddhist and Christian mysticism, but not any kind of unity : a unity that transcends time. The Christian eschatology, or coming of the promised day, has often been seen as close to a defeat : announced as imminent by the Christ twenty centuries ago, its surviving community is still waiting for it. But this is a classical misunderstanding. For the Christ, God’s coming on Earth is gradual, progressive. Metaphors of harvest, of grains, of growing plants are common in his discourse. The early community would dramatise this wait by instigating the idea of a chronological arrival, but Jesus’s view was much more appeased : he knew that “when the harvest is ready, one gets to the sickle.” 14 Paul and John, in the early days, would continue the effort of controlling impatience, and instead, call for unity and peace. Participation to the divinity and eternity of God would be found in all the Christian mystics. For Eckart, the Good is timeless, while for Simone Weil the experience of union is such that “the promise of future bliss would not add anything to it.” 15 Similarly, from its early days, the Buddhist experience is one characteristically outside of time. For the Buddha, Nirvana is indestructible and immortal. 16 For Nagarjuna and the Madhyamika School, time does not exist, or only as appearance. Beliefs in permanence and destruction are to be forgotten. Lacking substance, all things have neither permanence nor becoming, nor any time in which to reside. According to Houei-Neng, for the enlightened one there is neither birth nor death. Houang Po brings forth the above mentioned indescribable nature when he argues that the spirits of the Buddhas “since beginning-less times, never came to existence and never ceased to exist.” 17

Time is not, or time is transcended, but this does not suffice : to be at the heart of felicity, one must adopt a detached attitude towards life. Detachment is perhaps the most famous virtue of Buddhism : it is only by renouncing worldly desires and attachments that one can hope to attain liberation. Buddha sometimes compares detachment with the cleaning of a mirror : it allows it to reflect light. Here again, one of the most effective argumentation is found with Nagarjuna : if all things of the world are void of a substance, what is there to catch, to get attached to ? Saraha rejects all the rites and practices of Tibetan Buddhism, even as Upaya or useful means : “Can we reach liberation by diving into the water ? Leave all attachment there.” 18 For Kanha, one should even avoid getting attached to one’s master. In the Chino-Japanese tradition of Chan/Zen, detachment is generalised to everything. For Lin-Tsi, one must be detached even from enlightenment and from the Buddha.

In Christianity, detachment is found first at a more pragmatic level. Jesus would preach simplicity and poverty, to avoid the attachment to material wealth. Numbers of mystics, after the Greek Fathers, would defend an effort of detachment from all links, from all goods, from all comfort. For Eckhart, God is a total gift and a model for humans “in a total donation of ourselves which is a shift away from the centre, exit from oneself, dispossession of all.” 19 Simone Weil describes beautifully detachment when she explains : “One must not be linked by a string to anything created, if not to the whole of creation.” 20 More surprisingly, Christianity contains even a message of detachment from the self, very near to what Buddhism propounds : “The Buddhist approaches the despoliation of the self and the enlightenment of the Buddha like the Christian approaches the despoliation of the self (crucifixion) and the glorification (resurrection and ascension) of the Christ.” 21

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Through her care for simple encounters, for professional work, for home chores, for health or even cleaning, the mystic focuses on the integration of the spiritual realisation in the most practical aspects of her life.

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This detachment is not a renouncement of human life in its utmost simplicity. Both mystical traditions attest of a profound concern for the matters of daily life. Through her care for simple encounters, for professional work, for home chores, for health or even cleaning, the mystic focuses on the integration of the spiritual realisation in the most practical aspects of her life. The Buddhist monk is expected to maintain a very organised and timed day, faithful to the Eight-Fold Path, and in particular to the principles of Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood and the Right Effort. The path to liberation is radically practical : it requires a body and a practice, and a link with everyday reality. In China, it is said that Houei-Neng learned Buddhism while being a cook, while Lin-Tsi called simply for an ordinary life : “You all come from all parts with the idea of finding liberation, the exit from the Triple World. Leaving the Triple World, fool ! To go where ? … All you need, is to behave as simply as possible… stay in the ordinary. Be your own master. Be true.” 22 In Christianity, the concern for practical life is found in the Biblical message, calling for a love of the neighbour and for a simple life : one should not try to do great things, but just to do the small ones well. 23 Later, the mystics, like Brother Lawrence or Thérèse of Lisieux would call for missing nothing : “not a thing, not an act, not a sight or word, but profit from the smallest things to do them with love.” 24 For Simone Weil, attention is the final word, at the heart of the creative faculty of the human, and it stems from the everyday experience.

Finally, all of these features found in the two traditions of mysticism, point towards a goal, an objective, an end : compassion. In Buddhism, the realisation of enlightenment calls for the spreading of a message of introspection for all humans, but also, in the meantime, a strong sense of compassion for all suffering beings. Interdependent in its organic core, life only grows with another type of connection : feelings, concerns, and compassion. One cannot hope to leave clinging behind without hoping the same for all beings : “the awakening of the Buddha, by revealing to him the interdependence of beings, could only arrive at compassion as a consequence of the original solidarity.” 25 With the ideal of Arahata, this solidarity would be weakened in Hīnāyana Buddhism, but would come back with the Bodhisattva ideal of the Mahāyāna schools. Shantideva had one dream : to be the one able to appease the suffering of all beings. In Tantric Buddhism, Avalokiteshwara, Bodhisattva of compassion, becomes the central deity. Throughout Mahāyāna mysticism, from Nagarjuna to Dogen, compassion is not one attribute but the very purpose of the Bodhisattva. While the term “compassion” is at times used in the Christian tradition, a more common expression is found with the ‘love of the neighbour’. The parable of the Good Samaritan 26 makes it clear that for Jesus, any person encountered can be one’s neighbour, and compassion alone is the mark of a care for this neighbour. It is a love given freely, without expectation of something in return and even without distinction for who will be its beneficiary : love is even demanded for one’s enemies. After Paul and John, the whole tradition of Christian mysticism would carry love as its central message : for Saint Francis, Eckhart or John of the Cross, love is one’s only duty. Simone Weil revisits the parable of the Good Samaritan and explains that because it is anonymous love, the love of the neighbour is a universal love. 27


All quotations from the Bible are excerpted from:

Bible de Jérusalem. Paris: Cerf, 2000.

Asanga. La Somme du Grand Véhicule d’Asanga (Mahayanasamgraha). Translated by Etienne Lamotte. Louvain: Institut Orientalist, 1973.

De Magdebourg, Mechthild. La Lumière fluente de la Divinité. Translated by Waltraud Verlaguet. Paris: Jérôme Millon, 2001.

Delaye, Alain. Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus. Paris: Accarias/L’Originel, 2007.

Dogen. Busshô, Shôbôgenzô. Paris: Encre Marine, 2002.

Drewermann, Eugen. Dieu Immédiat. Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1995.

Flandrin, Jean-Louis. “La vie sexuelle dans l’ancienne société.” In Sexualités Occidentales, edited by Philippe Ariès and André Béjin. Paris: Seuil, 1981.

Houang-Po. Les Entretiens de Houang-Po. Translated by Patrick Carré. Paris: Les Deux Océans, 1985.

Houei Neng. Discours et sermons. Translated by Lucien Houlné. Paris: Albin Michel, 1963.

Jean de la Croix. Oeuvres Complètes. Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1991.

Lamotte, Etienne. Histoire du Bouddhisme Indien. Louvain: La Neuve, 1976.

Lin-Tsi. Entretiens. Translated by Paul Demiéville. Paris: Fayard, 1972.

Merton, Thomas. Zen, Tao, Nirvana. Paris: Fayard, 1970.

Néher, André. “La philosophie hébraïque et juive dans l’Antiquité.” In Histoire de la Philosophie, edited by Brice Parain, 50-81. Paris: Gallimard, 1969.

Rubeinstein, Richard. Le jour où Jésus devint Dieu. Paris: Editions de la Découverte, 2001.

Schweitzer, Albert. Geschichete der leben – Jesu – Forshung. Berlin: UTB, 1984.

Silburn, Liliane. Le Bouddhisme. Paris: Fayard, 1977.

Weil, Simone. Attente de Dieu. Paris: Fayard, 1966.

Wieger, Léon. Bouddhisme chinois: Vinaya, Monarchisme et Discipline. Paris: Cathasia, 1951.

Image courtesy: Craig Stephenson



  1. Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 304.
  2. Dogen, Busshô, Shôbôgenzô (Paris: Encre Marine, 2002), 287.
  3. Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 305.
  4. Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 305.
  5. James 1:5.
  6. Saraha, quoted in L. Silburn, Le Bouddhisme, 358s.
  7. Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 307.
  8. 2 Corinthians 12.
  9. Simone Weil, Attente de Dieu (Paris: Fayard, 1966).
  10. Houei Neng, Discours et Sermons, trans. by Lucien Houlné (Paris: Albin Michel, 1963).
  11. Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 310.
  12. Cantique spirituel, str. 13, quoted in Jean de la Croix, Oeuvres Complètes (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1991).
  13. Les Torrents, quoted in Mechtild de Magdebourg, La Lumière fluente de la Divinité, trans. by Waltraud Verlaguet (Paris: Jérôme Millon, 2001).
  14. Mark 4:29.
  15. Weil, Attente de Dieu, 68-69.
  16. Majjimanikaya, quoted in Silburn, Le Bouddhisme, 27.
  17. Houang Po, Les Entretiens de Houang Po, trans. Patrick Carré (Paris: Les Deux Océanx, 1985).
  18. Saraha, La marche à la lumière, quoted in Silburn, Le Bouddhisme, 148.
  19. Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 317.
  20. Weil, Attente de Dieu.
  21. Thomas Merton, Zen, Tao, Nirvana (Paris: Fayard, 1970), 92.
  22. Lin-Tsi, Entretiens, trans. Paul Demiéville (Paris: Fayard, 1972).
  23. Matthew 25:21.
  24. Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 321.T
  25. Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 321-322.
  26. Luke 10, 29s.
  27. Weil, Attente de Dieu, 80.