Buddhism And Mysticism

Buddhism is an Eastern religious system that differs from Western religious systems in many significant ways.  Founded in India in the sixth century BCE by Siddartha Gautama, it has since spread over much of the world and claims hundreds of millions of adherents.  Since many Buddhists do not recognize a Supreme Being, many people think that Buddhism is not a religion at all.  This is in fact quite an erroneous conclusion, as this article will demonstrate.

It must be understood that mysticism is at the heart of all religious systems, Buddhism included.  Mystical insights, it is claimed, can only be attained by direct, divine intervention, or else by inward contemplation.  If the former (which the Buddhists call Jhana), it is likely to result in a closed system of thought.  A closed system of thought simply refers to a system that claims to possess all the necessary knowledge for the proper conduct of life and that our only task is to understand it and apply its principles to modern living.  This is what is often referred to as religious fundamentalism, which invariably manifests itself as hostility to any new ideas that seem to call into question older perceived dogmas and notions of reality.  Such systems tend to be extremely dogmatic, as they view with hostility anybody having the temerity to question the divine.  These religions usually take the form of “revealed” religions, and are more characteristic of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam than of Buddhism.  However, if the alleged “revelation” is arrived at through reflective contemplation alone, whereby one does not actually “hear” the divine, but instead perceives it intuitively, an open system is more likely to develop.  These systems tend to be more open toward diversity and modernity in general.  Eastern religious systems tend to be more open in this regard.

Nonetheless, mysticism is at the heart of both open and closed systems.  Mysticism is the notion that the senses and the mind are not enough to guide our lives by.  It is the claim of access to some alleged higher reality, which is non-sensory, non-rational, non-identifiable, and not to be questioned.  Hostility toward reason, while much more pronounced in Western religious traditions, is nonetheless also present in Buddhism and other Eastern religions, such as Hinduism, Taoism, and Jainism.  No mystic ever enters into a “search” with no preconceived ideas; their “findings” always correspond to what the mystic was looking for in the first place.  For example, it should come as no surprise that a Christian mystic will always claim to have “seen” Jesus and not the Buddha.

Inevitably, the hatred of this life is at the base of all mystical searching and alleged insight.  When one thinks that life has little or nothing to offer, the search for some other reality will begin in earnest.  But in doing so, values invariably become reversed; pleasure, accomplishment, and intelligence tend to be reviled and evidence of one’s sinful nature or innate depravity.  One’s thinking begins to turn against one’s own best interests, and our very nature as rational beings is called into question.

Again, such treason against human nature is much more characteristic of Western rather than Eastern religions.  Nonetheless mysticism, whether employed by Buddhists, Christians, or anyone else, is inherently anti-reason and, since our reason is what separates us from the lower primates and is our fundamental tool for survival, is by nature anti-life.  In Eastern religions, reason is usually not denigrated as such, but instead promoted as a sort of “handmaiden” to mystical insight.  To the mystic, emotions are valid cognitive tools, representing a reality said to be higher than that given to “mere” reason.  At the root of all mystical thought is the idea that subjective intuition or insight is an axiomatic, irreducible primary.  The obvious problem with mysticism is that not all mystics arrive at the same “truth;” more often than not, they contradict one another.  The history of warfare has largely been the history of the conflicts between opposing belief systems, all with mystical insight at the foundation; if one cannot demonstrate the verities of his/her religion by logic, the only alternative is the initiation of force.

The Buddha, to his credit, was able within the context of his time, to obviate a strictly mystical outlook and recognize the essential role of sensory perception in validating our knowledge.  Buddhist knowledge, Jnana, must be conjoined with seeing, which is called Pasya, for without sensory validation, one cannot hope to understand the world around us.  The original Buddha was, for all intents and purposes, profoundly atheistic in this regard, although his followers in subsequent centuries would attempt to coat his message and his life with religious garb.  Nonetheless Buddhism, unlike most western religions, has no need to subjugate the senses or blindly attack reason.

The values of reason and sensory validation were recurring themes in Gautama’s teachings.  The first item in his “Eightfold Path” was called “right seeing,” and it emphasized sensory validation.  This formed the foundation for all his subsequent teachings.

However, this “seeing” has been significantly transformed by Gautama’s followers over the centuries.  While there certainly was an element of mystical “insight” in his original conception, it has become much more subjective since his time, emphasizing intuition rather than the actual evidence of the senses.  Most schools of Buddhism today teach that there are two types of knowledge (vidyas): “Lower” knowledge, or that acquired through the intellect, and “higher” knowledge, which is said to be acquired by intuition.  This is said to be a special, insightful kind of “seeing” which the Bahayana Buddhists call prajna that claims to penetrate into the very nature of existence.  Just what is meant by “the very nature of existence” is nowhere stated.  Through prajna, the Buddhist hopes to attain insight into reality that is unobtainable through reason.  This is mysticism, which while present in all religious systems, is absent from atheist philosophy.  Buddhism has thus absorbed many mystical core components that were either not originally present, or else have been magnified to proportions that would have certainly surprised, and probably shocked, Siddhartha Gautama.  This elevation of mystical belief is what has changed Buddhism from a largely philosophical system of thought into a religious one, and prajna alone is proof that Buddhism now elevates mysticism over reason.

Prajna is central to Buddhist thought since it is through prajna/intuition that one is supposed to arrive at anatman, or non-ego.  This is the goal of every Buddhist, to lose one’s own ego and thus unite with “ultimate reality,” however ill-defined.  Collectivism is thus at the heart of Buddhism, as it is in all western religions.

Also central to all religious systems, both Eastern and Western, is a fundamental dislike, or even hatred, of life itself.  Buddhist monks, like their Christian counterparts, seek to withdraw from the world.  This dissatisfaction or hatred is manifested in the Buddhist emphasis on suffering (dukha), which seeks to offer people a way of avoiding the suffering inherent in life.  Thus we see that Buddhism, like Christianity, starts off with a problem created by itself, and then attempts to offer a solution to this problem.

The goal of the Buddhist is to attain what he calls enlightenment, a term used very differently by rationalists.  If successful, the Buddhist experiences a total change of personality.  The Vinaya has a passage which indicates the arrogance and dogmatic nature of mystically acquired “reality.”  It reads:

“I have conquered and I know all, I am enlightened quite by myself and have none as teacher.”

A further stanza illustrates the kind of grandiosity usually associated with closed religious systems:

“I am the one who is really worth, I am the most supreme teacher.  I am the one who is fully enlightened.”

Arrogance such as this is of course a central characteristic of any religion.  This is one aspect of the divisiveness inherent in any faith.  Even so, Buddhism, being primarily an open system, tends to be psychologically much less harmful than Western religions.  One reason is that in Western religions, the ego exists and must be destroyed whereas in Buddhism, it doesn’t exist at all.  Christianity’s emphasis on the (non-historical) crucifixion illustrates this point perfectly; here, the ego must be sacrificed in order to attain salvation whereas in Buddhism, salvation is attained by eliminating Samsara (the endless cycled of rebirths which is supposed to be humanity’s greatest curse) and entering a different realm of existence.

Christianity emphasizes the crucifixion (the supreme manifestation of suffering) as a way of attaining moral perfection.  By contrast, Buddhism holds that there is no self to protect!  Without a self, there is no need for a crucifixion, and the sickening symbolism of a man suffering torment on a cross is not present.  Without this symbolism, asceticism loses much of its perverse and sadistic nature, and the element of fear is no longer a motivational factor leading to denial of objective reality.  This denial is a functional and psychological imperative in Western religions, particularly in Christianity and Islam, and when one is free of it, one is less likely to be hostile to views that contradict one’s own.  Thus Buddhism is more receptive to growth and change than Western religions.

However, the mystical component in Buddhism still gives it a fundamentally erroneous view of reality.  “A is A”, the Law of Identity first formulated by Aristotle, is unthinkable in any religious system, including Buddhism.  Eastern philosophical systems stress the integration of opposites (the yin and yang), in hope of bridging the gulf between existence and non-existence, and of all other metaphysical opposites, whether abstract conceptualizations or actually existing concretes.  However, this is not “non-rational” as many defenders of religion would have us believe, but rather irrational, or even anti-rational.  Existence is all there is, and non-existence is not a variation of existence or “something other”, but instead the literal void.  Non-existence is not another kind of existence.  Existence, and not consciousness, that is the primary starting point of understanding reality; it is where our knowledge begins, for without existence, there would be no one to be conscious of anything, and nothing to be conscious of.  Religions, by assuming consciousness as a metaphysical primary, start of erroneously with a false metaphysical premise.  The idea of a consciousness without anything to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms, an absurd premise that can only appeal to those who are not happy or comfortable with reality and seek to escape it through religious mysticism.  That is why Buddhism, at least in its current form, is fundamentally irrational.


  1. Understanding Mysticism, edited by Richard Woods, O.P. Published by Image Books, 1980
  2. Buddhism: Its Essence and Development by Edward Conze.  Published by Harper Torchbooks, 1959
  3. Entering the Stream edited by Samuel Bercholz.  Published by Shambhala Publications, 1993
  4. Philosophy: Who Needs It by Ayn Rand.  Published by the Penguin Group, 1984

By: Jon Nelson

Categories:   Atheism and Religion, Buddhism