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This week’s post is a slightly abridged version of a paper I wrote eleven years ago for Robert Gimello’s class on Buddhist meditation traditions. I’m posting it now for a couple of reasons: because I still enjoy its punchy rhetoric, because it’s a useful corrective to Wilberian and similar perspectives that assume “religion” is fundamentally about mystical experience, and because I think it’s likely to be relevant to posts I want to make in the months ahead. I also still agree with it to at least some extent, but I am not entirely sure what that extent is, and that is something I hope to be sorting through.

In his chapter “What would Buddhaghosa have made of the Cloud of Unknowing?”1, Ninian Smart argues that “there are phenomenological similarities between the differing practices despite the contrast in language and style between Buddhaghosa and the author of the anonymous 14th-century Christian text The Cloud of Unknowing.” Although Smart never defines “phenomenological”, I believe from the context of the article that he uses the term to refer to similarities of experience, and specifically mystical experience.

To what extent does Smart’s chapter succeed in its project? Robert Sharf2 notes that in reading texts about mystical experience, we need to keep in mind the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive texts: does the text claim to describe the author’s own experience, or merely prescribe the experience one is supposed to have? For example, Sharf notes pointedly that Buddhaghosa himself never claims to have had any sort of “personal inspiration or meditative insight.” Furthermore, Buddhaghosa claims that the exposition of his Visudhimagga relies “on the teaching of the dwellers in the Great Monastery…”, not on personal experience. (239)

Nowhere do Smart’s quotations from the Cloud of Unknowing (or, for that matter, from the Visudhimagga) ever indicate that the text’s author has actually had the experiences in question. Smart agrees that the character of the Cloud is at least in part prescriptive: “the author [of the Cloud] urges readers to do something active about the various objects of their attention.” (107, emphasis added)

But is the Cloud descriptive as well? Smart generally tiptoes around this issue. On many occasions he uses weak language that strongly suggests the Cloud author had the described experience, without actually coming out and saying as much. For example, he says “The notion that the mystic must blot out the attributes of God leads him to some passages that seem antidogmatic, as if he were heretical…. The author of the Cloud is a devout and orthodox Christian, but even from within the tradition there are forces that make a mystic go beyond doctrines.” (112) Smart does not explain this enigmatic comment. What “forces” is Smart talking about? All that Smart says by saying “there are forces” is that this antidogmatism has causes. Sharf would surely agree to such a limited statement: there are social, political, psychopathological, historical “forces” at work in the rejection of doctrine. But Smart does not specify any such forces. I think Smart believes that the forces are specifically mystical, or experiential — but recognizes that he has insufficient ground on which to say such a thing, and therefore must leave it unsaid.

I do not have space to discuss Smart’s many other uses of equivocal language that is suggestive of a mystical experience taking place without openly stating it. But he does, I think, believe that the Cloud author did have such an experience. There is one — as far as I can tell, it is the only one — place in Smart’s entire article where he says openly that the author of the Cloud actually had a mystical experience: “It may be that the author of the Cloud is right to diagnose his experience in the cloud of unknowing as being a kind of contact and ultimately oneness with God.” (117; emphasis added) Even here, only the possessive pronoun makes it clear that Smart believes this experience actually happened. If the sentence read “the experience” instead of “his experience”, it would be more in character with the rest of Smart’s piece.

Why is Smart so reluctant to say the experience happened, if he believes that it did? I think that he wants to make the claim that Buddhaghosa and the Cloud author had the experiences he describes. But, I think, not only does he know he could never verify such a claim (who knows what went on inside the authors’ heads?), he also knows that Buddhaghosa never actually claims to have had the experiences he describes. (I suspect the same is true of the Cloud author, since Smart never gives us any quotes that say otherwise.) So he is forced to tiptoe around the edges of the claim. The point where he actually says the Cloud author had a mystical experience seems more like a Freudian slip than anything else.

Why would he want to claim the experiences happened? I think that without such a claim, establishing similarities in the described experiences is far less important. Similarities in actual experience lead us to believe that perhaps there is something perennial in human nature, or in the reality of the universe, that is conducive to such an experience across cultural boundaries. Similarities in textual prescription, if they do not reflect actual experiences, are mere curiosities, of mostly antiquarian interest.

Likewise, I think that Smart wants to state that the similarities of experience he finds are deeply meaningful, but that he cannot say that either (if he wants to be taken seriously, that is). Again his language is very careful: “at least the possibility of the congruence of the two experiences exists” (111); “Psychologically or phenomenologically, it could be that the purification of consciousness (Buddhist) is equivalent to the attainment of nakedness of being (the Cloud).” (110; emphases added)

What phenomenological similarities does he find? The most important, I think, is that the cloud of forgetting is “the systematic effort to blot out sense perception, memories, and imaginings of the world of our sensory environment and of corresponding inner states.” (108) This is comparable, he thinks, to the Buddhist jhānas, which also involve a process of “blotting out” or of forgetting. Robert Gimello in “Mysticism and Meditation”3, I think, could agree with this depiction of similarity. His description of the jhānas fits Smart’s account, as various mental objects and mental states are successively dispensed with. The response to these claims of Smart’s, implicit in Gimello’s articles, is not “You’re wrong”, but “So what?” The point of Buddhist dispensing with mental states is something quite different from the point of the cloud of forgetting; each of these are tied up with particular beliefs. The same, I think, applies to the other similarities Smart finds in the experience, such as the image of going outside time.

Now Smart affirms the importance of beliefs and values in each tradition. His point is to show the existence of something similar in experience behind the difference of beliefs. He uses the notion of “ramified” language: “A highly ramified description is one in which a number of propositions are presupposed as true, lying well outside what could be revealed by the experience itself.” (118-9) “I saw a yellow patch” is less ramified, “I saw a black cassock” more so. The latter requires knowledge of what a cassock is and its function; it adds layers of interpretation to the bare experience of yellow in the former. Smart thinks that Buddhaghosa would recognize the Cloud experience as similar to the jhānas at a less ramified level, underneath the highly ramified language of God.

But what is the significance of the less ramified description? For Gimello in “Mysticism in its contexts”4, beliefs are central to, and constitutive of, mystical experience. Subtract the beliefs from the experience, and one is left with “a pattern of psychosomatic or neural impulse signifying nothing.” (62) I think that this applies generally to less ramified language. Consider Smart’s (117) distinction between seeing a patch of red and seeing a patch of bougainvillea. The less-ramified description, “I see a patch of red”, is useless without some more ramified interpretation. If we do not know whether the red thing we see is bougainvillea, a barn or a BMW, its redness really doesn’t matter. The experience of seeing red is simply a neural impulse that signifies nothing.

Smart acknowledges that the Cloud author sees the experience he describes as being an experience of God. Smart adds: “Whether he is right or wrong depends on a much wider set of conditions than can be drawn from the mystical experience itself, but it is a wider set that could be put on one side by Buddhaghosa.” (117) I think Smart is right in that Buddhaghosa could put the language of God on one side in order to compare “the experience itself”. The question is, why would he want to?

My point is as follows. What Smart would like to establish is that Buddhaghosa and the Cloud of Unknowing author had essentially the same experience, even though they were in different contexts. This would be an impressive and significant point that goes some way to demonstrating the existence of a philosophia perennis or a common mystical core among religions. But all that Smart actually does demonstrate is that the Visuddhimagga and the Cloud contain descriptions of an experience which neither author necessarily had, and which is similar only at a level that is inessential and insignificant to the experience. Smart has succeeded at the very modest task he set himself at the beginning of his chapter: to establish “that there are phenomenological similarities between the differing practices despite the contrast in language and style between Buddhaghosa and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing.” But we might well ask: who cares?

1 Smart, Ninian. 1992. “What would Buddhaghosa have made of The Cloud of Unknowing?” Ch. 4 in Steven Katz (ed.) Mysticism and Language. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. 103-12.

2Sharf, Robert H. 1995. “Buddhist modernism and the rhetoric of meditative experience.” Numen 42: 228-83.

3Gimello, Robert M. 1978. “Mysticism and meditation.” In Steven Katz (ed.) Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis. London: Sheldon Press. 170-99.

4Gimello, Robert M. 1983. “Mysticism in its contexts.” In Steven Katz (ed.) Mysticism and Religious Traditions. New York: Oxford University Press. 61-88.