Who cares about phenomenological similarities?

I think one often learns the most about a philosopher from those points where her views change. With that in mind, I’d like to highlight a way I think my own thought has changed recently. Ten years ago on this blog, I posted an essay that I had written ten years before that, for Robert M. Gimello’s graduate course on Buddhist meditation traditions. That paper critiques Ninian Smart’s chapter “What would Buddhaghosa have made of The Cloud of Unknowing?” (in Steven Katz’s Mysticism and Language). My now twenty-year-old essay tears Smart to pieces for his comparison between Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga and the fourteenth-century English The Cloud of Unknowing. And in the light of my more recent thoughts on mystical experience, I now think that tearing up went too far.

The Visuddhimagga and the Cloud both describe, in Smart’s words, a “systematic effort to blot out sense perception, memories, and imaginings of the world of our sensory environment and of corresponding inner states.” Neither text’s author ever claims to have done this themselves, successfully or otherwise. Smart seems to assume that they did, and my essay makes a lot of that unjustified assumption. But I think I went too far when I said this:

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.

That last line, I think, is wrong in a couple of ways. Similarities in prescription can easily be of more than antiquarian interest – prescription is what ethics is about, after all, and such similarities could provide common ground for ethical dialogue. But beyond that, I don’t think it’s true, or even likely, that similarities in textual prescription do not reflect actual experiences!

Indeed, we can’t assume that either Buddhaghosa or the Cloud of Unknowing author had the experiences they describe, when nothing in their respective texts says that they did. Yet they did feel the need to record a description of these experiences anyway. And that strongly suggests to me that someone must have had or claimed to have these experiences and recounted them, even if we now only hear it second- or third- or fourth-hand. I can’t really think of a reason why someone would go to such length to make such an experience up and recount it in such detail from scratch – especially if they’re not claiming to have had it themselves, since they wouldn’t get the prestige that might come from impressing people with their own experience.

So it seems to me likely that, indeed, the Visuddhimagga and the Cloud are respectively each describing experiences that someone in Sri Lanka and medieval England actually had, whether or not that someone was the author. And so they do “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.” Not every “mystical experience” is like what either of these texts describe, but the described experience seems to be something available to humans in multiple and very different cultural contexts – and yes, it could also be that some drugs may give us quick access to such an experience.

There is a place where I think the essay, and the critics of universal mystical experience, still have a point. And that is on the question of significance. The Cloud author speaks of the state in question as an experience of God; Buddhaghosa obviously does not. Smart says that whether the experience is of God “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.” And I asked: “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?”

The latter question doesn’t have to be rhetorical. It does remain rhetorical in the context of Smart’s article, which never actually asks it. As I understand them, the Cloud author prescribes a path to experience God; Buddhaghosa prescribes a path to clear away the mental hindrances that keep us in suffering. These are different things. For neither thinker is it the experience itself that matters most; the experience is for something, and that purpose is what really matters. Smart’s “could be put on one side” neglects those questions of purpose and significance – in line with a Wilberian or Theosophical approach that says, against all historical evidence, that the core of the world’s great traditions is in replicable experience.

All that said, though, it’s not so hard to imagine Buddhaghosa encountering a text like the Cloud and indeed “putting the language of God on one side.” (Since to imagine such an encounter is already science-fictional, let’s further assume for this thought experiment that Buddhaghosa was one person, rather than a committee, as Maria Heim has argued.) Buddhist and non-Buddhist traditions in India drew from each other’s practices and theories. It’s not so hard to imagine Buddhaghosa saying, for example: “you mlecchas have strange and false beliefs about your big deva. Yet the practices you describe take you to a jhāna. Perhaps then you have other practices that could be helpful for us on our path.”

A comparative philosopher like myself strives to be more open to other traditions than would a stricter Buddhist like Buddhaghosa. So I as a Buddhist have even more reason to say something like that than Buddhaghosa would have: it is at least possible that the different experiences are illuminating a common reality. For that reason, I no longer think similarities between the Visuddhimagga and the Cloud are “mere curiosities, of mostly antiquarian interest.” My old essay closes as follows:

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?

Who cares? Twenty years later, it turns out that I do.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

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