Mysticism without transcendence:

Reflections on liberation and emptiness

Louis Nordstrom

Philosophy East and West

Vol 31 No. 1 January 1981

Pp.89 -95

Copyright @ by The University Press of Hawaii


Most writers on mysticism would agree that transcendence is crucial for mystical experience, and that there cannot be, in principle, mysticism without transcendence. In my opinion, this view tends both to blur distinctions among kinds of mysticism and to deepen an already rather deep confusion about the nature of mystical experience. What I wish to do in this article is to clarify the concept of transcendence by seriously entertaining the (somewhat provocative) possibility that it is both meaningful and useful to speak of mysticism without transcendence. If this is indeed possible, then we need to reexamine, in a thoroughgoing way, what we mean by mystical experience.

The perspective adopted is, broadly speaking, Buddhist; in particular, I am concerned with showing the implications of the Buddhist concept (or experience) of emptiness (.suunyata) for an understanding of the meaning of transcendence and mystical experience. What I wish to maintain is that the concept of emptiness requires a mysticism without transcendence and that this kind of mysticism is exemplified in Zen Buddhism. Furthermore, I wish to claim that what liberation or enlightenment means in the Zen Buddhist tradition is essentially the insight into the emptiness of transcendence, and that it is this insight which distinguishes Buddhist mysticism from other kinds of mystical experience.

Candor requires that I indicate at the outset that the locution "mysticism without transcendence" is ambiguous and misleading. It does not mean the literal absence of transcendence; rather it refers to the normative thesis, characteristic of the Zen tradition, that what might be termed true transcendence is the transcendence of transcendence, which implies in turn that where transcendence has not been transcended, there is no real transcendence at all. To use a typical Zen locution: mysticism without transcendence is no-transcendence, where the hyphenated form implies, once again, not that there is literally no transcendence, but rather that true transcendence is self-transcending. To paraphrase from the Mahaayaana classic The Heart Suutra: to have gone thoroughly beyond is to have gone beyond beyond. The point is that true transcendence leaves no conceptual (or conceptualizable) trace-no trace of what has been transcended, what it has been transcended toward, nor any trace of the experience itself. True transcendence can neither be understood in terms of anything else nor in terms of itself: the former because it cannot contain any trace of the relative, the latter because it is, like all things, empty or devoid of self-nature. From a Zen point of view, transcendence, as the term is usually used, would refer to something relative; but the Zen insistence is on the radically absolute character of transcendence. And it is this insistence which requires that one say that true transcendence is in effect self-emptying, or transcendence-without-transcendence. This hyphenated locution indicates the way in which


the absolute and the relative perspectives interpenetrate in such a way as almost to cancel each other, so that true transcendence may justly be said to leave no trace whatsoever.

The truly radical Zen move at this point is to insist that such true transcendence is already revealed and realized in the emptiness and suchness of things as they are. What this means is that there is really no need for transcendence at all, since true transcendence is, as it were, built into the nature of things. What one needs liberation from, in effect, is the very impulse to transcend, an impulse necessarily based on an inability to see things as they are as self-transcending. Seeing through the deluded nature of transcendence (in the relative sense) is true transcendence-a transcendence of the very impulse to transcend. It is this insight which is behind the Zen emphasis on liberation as nothing special and on the profoundly mystical character of so-called ordinary mind.

To explain what is meant by the "self-transcending" character of things as they are, I shall have to explain what I consider to be the essential meaning of the Buddhist concept of emptiness.

It seems to me that to say that everything that exists is empty in the sense of being devoid of self-nature actually entails the thesis that everything exists under no description whatsoever, in a condition of, if you will, original namelessness. Nothing that exists has its appropriate descriptions built into it. All talk of nature, being, substance, or essence is to be consigned to the level of conceptualization or conventional truth. The error which the concept of emptiness seeks to expose is that of reification, which attributes a misplaced concreteness to the conceptual, actually confusing the conceptual with the actual. So the concept of emptiness refers to the way in which we would experience the world if such experiences were free from all traces of conceptualization. The point is that what is behind the impulse to transcend is precisely the error of reification, for if one does not commit this error, there is quite literally nothing to transcend. To put the point slightly differently: the very fact that everything exists under no description whatsoever means that there is a transcendence of all description and interpretation built into things as they are. Things in their suchness (the positive content of the concept of emptiness) transcend their own characteristics; to use a traditional term from mystical literature, things as they are ineffable. Because, in this sense, things as they are self-transcending, there is no need for transcendence; suchness itself becomes true transcendence. This is just a step away from saying that true transcendence is radical immanence! If everything exists under no description whatsoever, then every experience of the world is a mystical experience; this is what is meant by the profoundly mystical character of the so-called ordinary mind. For ordinary mind refers to a mind free from all trace of conceptualization; for such a mind, there is nothing but mystical experience, except that the term "mystical" no longer carries any connotation of the special


or the exotic. To liberate one's mind from all trace of conceptualization is to transcend transcendence, for there is a need to transcend only so long as one continues to confuse conceptualization with actuality. True transcendence, then, is the removal of this confusion which simultaneously eliminates the very need for transcendence. Even the notion of the beyond becomes devoid of significance, unless one radically reconstructs the notion in such a way that beyondness is built into the suchness of things by virtue of their emptiness.

By now it should be obvious that what the concept of emptiness entails is that transcendence is devoid of ontological content. One of the dramatic ways in which this is indicated in the Zen tradition is by transferring terminology usually used to describe some separate, ontologically distinct reality to this namelessly ordinary reality whose emptiness makes it perpetually self-transcending. We have already seen that ineffability is so transferred. Another term transferred in this way would be the idea of union. Instead of applying this notion to some superior, separate reality, in the Zen tradition one speaks of union with things as they are in their suchness. Once the emptiness of things as they are has been seen into, sa^msaara becomes, and conversely; and there remains no other relation to the world as it is than that of union. (Strictly speaking, "union" does not refer to a relation at all, but to that curious kind of nonrelation that ensures existential relatedness.) Inability to unite with the world in its suchness is what fuels the impulse to transcend the world. In turn, this inability derives from the error of reification, for it is this error which deludes us into thinking that the world is an object of knowledge from which we are necessarily estranged-as necessarily as a subject is estranged from an object. Once we deeply realize the fundamental unknowability of things as they are, we realize that it is their unknowability which makes union with them possible. But such union cannot be intellectual or cognitive in character; it can only be achieved through the process of meditation, in which the distorted primacy of intellect is overcome. So, instead of referring to a kind of transcendence, the term "union" in the Zen tradition refers rather to the transcendence of transcendence. In other words, we would not need to transcend the world if we were capable of remaining united with it. Implicit in this is the idea that transcendence is a function of alienation, and if mysticism be identified with transcendence, so is it also identified with alienation. The consequence of this would be that mysticism should ideally "wither away" (to borrow a Marxist term) with the overcoming of the alienation that requires it. In this regard, the so-called ordinary mind is the preeminently unalienated mind, in whose very ordinariness is concealed the extraordinary fact of continuous ecstatic union with the world.

In recent philosophical literature on mysticism much has been made of the importance of the distinction between experience and interpretation.(1) This distinction is treated almost exclusively in methodological terms. But in the Zen tradition it would have a radically substantive force, since the very concept


of emptiness can be construed as enforcing this distinction in such a way that the world is a world of pure experience from which interpretation and conceptualization have been excluded altogether. The point is that, as far as Zen is concerned, what is held to be true of the so-called mystical experience is just true of experience as such-it is nameless and exists under no description. For Zen, experience is itself mystical in nature; through this insistence the integrity of experience itself is restored, which may indeed be seen as the purposeless purpose of Zen practice. Such integrity is lost when one deals exclusively with conceptualized experience, which is the necessary consequence, again, of the error of reification. If meditation does nothing else, it makes the difference between actual and conceptualized experience vividly clear. Instead, then, of the distinction between experience and interpretation being a mere methodological starting-point for an understanding of mysticism, in Zen it is the substantive last word.

What I have been maintaining thus far can be related at this point to a well-known logical problem found in mystical literature. The problem is that mystics have a way of asserting both the ineffability of their experience of transcendence and at the same time invariably proceeding to "eff" the ineffable anyway. This confusion can be seen as being built into the very concept of transcendence. For on the one hand, transcendence is meaningful only if it can be conceptualized, but on the other hand, such conceptualization seems to be intuitively incompatible with the very force of the notion of transcendence. In effect, for transcendence to have cognitive content, what is transcended must be a certain conceptualization or interpretation of experience, and what this is transcended toward must also be a conceptualization of the experience of transcendence itself. But if one never breaks out of conceptualization and interpretation, there would seem to be no real breakthrough involved in transcendence; and yet if transcendence is not conceptualized, it runs the risk of being devoid of cognitive content.

Now what I have been saying applies to this problem in the following way. The concept of emptiness would make all experience devoid of cognitive content, since such content requires the error of reification; in turn, this would undermine the whole notion of mysticism as knowledge or gnosis. Once we are no longer talking about the cognitive content of transcendence, however, it is not at all clear that we can continue talking about transcendence at all-at least not in the usual sense of the term.

Another way of putting my point about the relationship between emptiness and transcendence would be to say simply that transcendence is devoid of cognitive content, and that when this is perceived, transcendence has in fact been transcended. One might look at the notion of union in Zen as a reconstruction of the concept of transcendence in such a way that union means transcendence without cognitive content. To employ a Zen metaphor: one can unite with the world in its suchness when the bottom of the bucket has


fallen out of the notion of transcendence as having cognitive content. When the bottom thus falls out, all experience becomes a "zero experience," devoid of cognitive content.(2) I submit that it does not make any sense to speak of transcending what is devoid of cognitive content to begin with; nor does it make sense to speak of transcendence if it itself has no such content. But at the same time, I see no reason why mysticism must be tied to knowledge and gnosis; for in Zen, to qualify as a mystic it is sufficient for one to engage in the discipline of continuous nonseparation from the world, the result of which is the overcoming of alienation from the world even though there is no sense in which the world is "known" by virtue of being united with it through meditation.

Paradoxically enough, then, it would seem that the breakthrough aspect of transcendence can be preserved best by denying the cognitive content of transcendence. To repeat: such denial is what the concept of emptiness necessarily entails. But what is thus broken through is the entire enterprise of reification, which conceals the emptiness of all experience, including that of transcendence.

From the point of view of the truth of emptiness, one needs to transcend one's conceptual scheme only as long as one sees it as something more than merely conventional in nature, only as long as one considers it part of the very fabric of what is. Similarly, if one drives a final wedge between what is and any conceptualization of what is, then no conceptual scheme can present any obstacle whatsoever to a direct encounter with reality. Moreover, there would be no need for any special kind of experience to drive this wedge. Mystical experience has the kind of privileged status it has mostly because we assume that only such experience reveals the truth of this wedge, as it were. But if the radical separation of what is from any conceptualization of what is, is not something uniquely effected by mystical experience, but is rather the simple consequence of the realization of the truth of emptiness, then mystical experience loses its privileged status. To the extent that the truth of emptiness itself does the job traditionally done by mystical experience, to that extent I submit there is no need for transcendence. It is only if we assume that our experience of the world must be indissolubly linked to conceptualization-which is our post-Kantian philosophical legacy, after all that mysticism requires some sense of special transcendence. By cutting the Gordian knot connecting experience and conceptualization, the truth of emptiness radically normalizes mystical experience by making all experience in its emptiness mystical experience.

I have been arguing that transcendence is meaningful in the sense of having cognitive content, only if one presupposes the acceptability of reifying one's conceptual scheme, an enterprise which is not acceptable from the point of view of the concept of emptiness. It is the reification of one's conceptual scheme that renders our experience of the world opaque and thereby precludes the possibility of direct encounter with what is. Once such reification has been removed, everything is returned to its original transparent condition. Through


meditation practice in the Zen tradition, one learns to see through the error of reification, and thereby transcends that which makes transcendence both necessary and possible. So it would seem that the point of meditation practice is the transcendence of transcendence.

Once one has seen deeply into the nameless character of all ordinary experience, the importance of a special mystical experience of transcendence, in Zen, becomes almost scandalous. This can be seen in the famous Zen story of the two monks climbing a mountain, the younger one having a mystical experience on the way which he exultantly announces to the older monk, only to have the senior student respond, "Yes, but what a pity to say so!" The experience of transcendence-the sense of attainment-is a source of boundless joy to the younger monk, but a source of embarrassment to the older, not because mystical experience is ineffable in some special sense, and therefore should not be announced in this callow way, but rather because the experience of transcendence reveals nothing but the deeply deluded condition that makes such experience necessary in the first place. What is that deluded condition? Precisely the assumption that one must go beyond one's conceptual scheme to have a direct encounter with reality. What is scandalous about transcendence is this link to delusion; it is, in a sense, like airing one's dirty laundry. But what is the alternative, you may ask? Implicit in the older monk's response, I think, is the view that if one simply and unostentatiously remained faithful to one's original mind-through meditation practice-a mind which is from the beginning free from conceptualization and hence free from any need to transcend such conceptualization, there would be no need for anything like special mystical experience. Moreover, I think it can be maintained that what the younger monk experiences as a breakthrough-to some separate reality transcending ordinary experience-is, in fact, for the older monk the breaking down of the younger monk's attachment to his conceptualization of such an experience. The younger monk feels that he has attained some mystical vision in which he has ascended to the ultimate reality, whereas, in fact, the bottom of the bucket has simply fallen out. So the older monk is saying, in effect, that the experience of transcendence should not be spoken of because it is essentially as deluded as that to which it is a response. For in fact, there is nothing: to transcend at all, given the original emptiness of all dharmas. This is Original Mind.

In Zen, the quasi-comic nature of the experience of transcendence, when viewed as a breakthrough into a superior and higher form of reality, is put vividly and with characteristically wry humor by saying that a person who has a mystical experience and thinks it involves some ontological transcendence is as deluded as a thief breaking into his own house! Instead of breaking into one's own house, one should simply live in one's house, and when hungry, eat, when sleepy, sleep. It seems to me that the Zen move in all matters mystical is always one of radical deflation.


Such deflation can be found in innumerable examples from Zen literature. One of the best anecdotes in this regard is about the great Zen master Dogen, who, upon being asked by a student to state what he had attained as a result of his sojourn in China, replied, "I now know that the eyes are horizontal, the nose is vertical." He also spoke of having returned from China empty-handed, a wonderful metaphor for the sense in which no-attainment is the best attainment. The mystical union so often inflatedly described in mystical literature is deflated in Zen on the ground that there is really no need for one big transcendent union at all; rather, what is needed is simply to unite with whatever is happening, completely to remove any trace of separation from the content of one's experience. To do so one must see through the merely apparent opacity of one's conceptual scheme which tends, existentially speaking, to result in a condition of extreme separation and alienation from what is experienced. In Zen any experience qualifies as mystical so long as it is an experience of non-separation and union with what is. The eloquent irony of Zen consists, therefore, in the fact that our nonconceptual experience of the world is so thoroughly mystical in character that there is nothing at all really mystical about it.


I.An especially good philosophical anthology on mysticism is Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, ed. Steven Katz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).

2.This expression, "zero experience," comes from Agehananda Bharati, The Light at the Center: Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism (Santa Barbara, California: Ross-Erikson, 1976). He denies that mystical experience has any cognitive content. For the opposite sort of view, see Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), in which the necessity of cognitive content for mystical experience is eloquently maintained.