The essence of all religions?

Some people think it goes something like this:

“Through social and cultural conditioning, we each build a false self—an ego—and imagine that is who we really are.

This ego is a harmful illusion that prevents us from perceiving reality as it truly is.

Meditation gradually strips away the layers of ego. Buried deep within, we find our true selves.

This true self is radiant, pure, undivided, perfectly simple.

Our true self is none other than Ultimate Reality itself—or is directly, intimately, organically connected with that Eternal Absolute Infinite, which is the entire universe.

The essence of all religions is the transformative perception of that magical connection to all beings. It is the profound, non-conceptual experience of the Oneness of the universe.

This is heart and the path and the goal of Buddhism: the mystical experience of enlightenment.”

This is an attractive story, with a compelling logic. It is accepted without question in “Consensus Buddhism.”

I think it’s entirely wrong. It’s also almost right—so it’s a bit hard to see how wrong it is.

I think it matters that it is wrong. This is not just a matter of definitions, or sterile intellectual debate.

Here’s a really short version of why it’s wrong:

Here’s a really short version of why it matters:

This may take a whole lotta ’splainin’. The next several posts in this blog series will look at how different understandings of meditation have shaped Consensus Buddhism.

The mystical story is a modern, Western one. The reason many find it attractive and compelling is that it seems to solve the fundamental “problems of modernity.” It can also be found in some Buddhisms, which is part of why Buddhism is popular in the West.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to explain the “problems of modernity,” and why mystical experience seems like a solution. I’ll end by saying just a little about a better alternative.

The disenchantment and reenchantment of the world

1. Tradition: meaning is external and eternal

Before modernity, there was tradition. The traditional world was full of magic and meaning. Meaning was out there: in gods, demons, spirits, sacred places, idols, and saints. Meaning was unquestioned and unchanging.

In the traditional world, your identity was automatically defined by your fixed place in the eternal cosmic order.

In traditional Christianity, there was God, who was a bad-tempered guy in the sky; and people had souls, which survived death.

Traditional religion—in Christianity and Buddhism—consisted of ethics, rituals, and beliefs. No doubt people “had religious experiences,” but that was not what religion was about.

2. Modernity: meaning is internal and insecure

In the modern world, science and rationality leached the magic and meaning out of the material world. According to science, there is no awesome guy in the sky. The mind is the activity of the brain, and ceases at death. There’s no evidence of any afterlife.

Religious beliefs were all proven false. Ritual—an external activity—became meaningless. Waving your arms about and chanting gibberish did nothing.

The sacred, the numinous, the transcendant—they died. The glory of God’s creation was reduced to commodities to be bought and sold. The cosmic order collapsed. Humanity was alienated from nature and the universe-as-a-whole.

Meaning retreated from the external world to the internal world. Meaning became subjective, psychological. That meant people gave the world meaning, rather than the world giving us meaning.

Without an external cosmic order, people had to give each other meanings. Your own meaning—your self—was no longer given by God. You had to construct it out of partial meanings given by family, school, culture and society.

The traditional world had known only one, local, unquestioned culture. The modern world brought disagreement: diverging beliefs about what was true, what things meant, and what was right or wrong.

The defining feature of modernity was the search for a way to resolve those disagreements. Some foundational truth, some solid ground, was wanted to provide certainty.

Unfortunately, none could be found. Increasingly people realized that subjective meaning was no meaning at all. The threat of nihilism loomed: maybe reality was completely meaningless, ethics were just pointless social rules, and there was no purpose in living.

Meanwhile, the self, conditioned by increasingly complicated, dissonant social and cultural forces, became complex and divided against itself. This self, this ego, could not provide any stable meaning for the world. Increasingly it became itself a problem, an obstacle.

This lead to a search for a way to overcome, to transcend, the ego. Only by escaping social conditioning could one become a true individual.

These were the “problems of modernity.” They produced a pervasive, diffuse anxiety and alienation; a sense of lack, which led to constant questing.

I’m using the past tense here because, for some, the modern world ended late in the last century. For us, the problems of modernity are no longer compelling. Others feel them as keenly as ever. This explains a lot about Buddhism in 2011. But, we mostly won’t get to that until near the end of this blog series.

3. Mysticism: restoring certainty to meaning

Mysticism offers a way out.

Mysticism finds certainty in direct experience, which cannot be contradicted. This experience is non-conceptual, non-rational, ineffable, so it cannot be challenged with rational logic.

Psychology can probe the false self. Science can say things about thoughts, beliefs, cognition, even emotions. The true self, the deep self, cannot be found by external science. It has no characteristics. It is immune to empirical criticism.

The Absolute, the Ground of Being, cannot be found by science either. It is too pervasive, too ethereal, too simple. You cannot find it with a microscope or telescope. But you can experience it. And then you know. In the union of the true self and the Eternal Infinite, all doubt ends.

Because the Absolute is none other than the entire universe, it animates all things. It gives all things meaning. With mystic insight, you realize that everything is sacred. The magic of the world is restored. This magic is not the gross external violations of physics that science denies. It is the shimmering numinosity that can be perceived only with the awakened eye.

Because each of us is totally connected with this cosmic source, we never need to feel alienated from the natural world, or from each other.

In discovering your true nature, you are freed from the arbitrary fetters of society and culture. You become the limitless individual that you always really were.

There’s just one problem. How do you make all that stuff happen? Perhaps some rare, special people realize their true nature spontaneously. But for most people, this seems an unattainable fantasy.

No ordinary method will do. What is needed is some kind of magic that, like an electric spark jumping a gap to complete a circuit, connects the true self to the Absolute. Some method that—like the true self and the Absolute—is perfectly simple, profoundly internal yet encompassing the universe, devoid of characteristics.

In the late 1800s, the West discovered Hindu and Buddhist meditation with huge excitement. Here, it seemed, was the missing method.

Christian salvation without talking snakes and telepathic zombies

The mystical interpretation of Buddhism makes sense because it is an abstract version of Christian salvation.

To be a Christian, you have to believe that you suffer because a talking snake convinced your ancestors to eat a magic fruit, and that the way to end suffering is to communicate telepathically with a zombie.

By 1800, it had become impossible for educated people to believe this mythology. The German Romantic Idealists invented an influential form of mysticism as a demythologized version of Protestant Christianity.

The “true self” is the soul, which yearns to find the Absolute. The Absolute is a God which is no longer a guy in the sky, but which remains all-powerful and all-knowing, and is the source of everything that is good.

For Protestant Christianity, your job is to bring your soul into the right relationship with God. If you succeed, your soul returns to God after death. Mysticism wants to accomplish that before dying. Then the true self will be found to be eternal—because it is none other than the Absolute itself.

In Christian contemplation, you search your soul for for hidden impulses to sin, and for signs of God’s grace. In Protestant Buddhism, meditation is also taught as a close examination of one’s self. You examine your experience to find the kleshas, and hope beneath them to discover the luminous true self.

Protestant Buddhism bases its understanding of powerful meditation experiences—kensho, sotapatti, whatever—on the experience of radical conversion or “rebirth” in Christianity, in which you find God within yourself.

Buddhism without mysticism

I reject the mystical interpretation of Buddhism. Not because it’s not Buddhist; you can find something like it in some traditional brands of Buddhism. I reject it because I don’t believe there is a false self, a true self, or an Absolute.

That’s because we never were divided from the world. The chasm between self and other, which mysticism tries to leap, was never there.

When meditation is thought of as an examination of the self, of inner experience, it creates the problem it is supposed to solve.

There are other ways of understanding meditation.

Meditation can show that meaning is neither external nor internal; the self is neither infinite nor bounded; purposes are neither ultimate nor illusory; reality is neither One nor divided.

More about that later.