A Very Brief Comparison Of Christian And Eastern Mysticisms

I’m only a fifth of the way into The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, ed. Bernard McGinn, but, boy, is it good. True, the excerpts in this volume are quite short, though, it should be added, these are intended to be appetizers, the point being to entice one to read the primary texts in full.

So far, the similarities between Eastern spiritual practices and Christian mystical understandings are striking. Of course, I am reading with a view to coming to functional analogies, so the lens through which I interpret these texts certainly colors what and how I read. Still, the mystical dispensation–East and West–is definitely on display.

For instance, Christian mystics and Eastern adepts stress the need to turn away from “outward things.” Origen: “The eyes of the spirit are lifted up when they cease to truck with things of the earth and to be filled with the images of things material….” (p. 83). Or John of the Cross sounding as if he’s read “The Heart Sutra”: “When the soul denies itself the pleasure arising from what gratifies the ear, it remains, so far as the faculty of hearing is concerned, in darkness, without occupation” (p. 76). And Zen master Dogen: “Take the backward step and turn the light within.”

Or we might think, understood in a mystical vein, of original sin. Adam and Eve’s original sin was to seek knowledge of duality and, in so doing, to effect a separation between the finite and the infinite. Of course, separation, so understood, is awful. Original sin, so understood, is similar to the Eastern view of ignorance: profound and persistent ignorance of our original nature.

We might go one step further and compare venial and mortal sins with samskaras. Consider the sin of pride. Pride is precisely what maintains the ignorance, veiling the way of returning home to the divine by assuming the primacy and sufficiency of human autonomy. In samskaric language, pride is but one ego tendency or ego predilection, one that precludes surrender to God.

Reasonably, therefore, do early Christian mystics underscore the need for purgation. The daily sins must be washed away before one can be clean and pure enough to continue the journey home to God. Likewise, Zen Buddhists will speak of “polishing the mirror” while Advaita Vedantists will point to the samskaras that appear to stand between jiva (personal consciousness) and Atman (the true, divine Self).

A more basic map of mystical ways begins to emerge for those with eyes to see.