Sam Harris' a priori Mysticism

Sam Harris writes in The End of Faith on the poverty of Western orthopraxy:

"In fact, the spiritual differences between the East and the West are every bit as shocking as the material differences between the North and the South."...
..."Mysticism , to be viable, requires explicit instructions, which need suffer no more ambiguity or artifice in their exposition that we find in a manual for operating a lawn mower. Some traditions realized this millennia ago. Others did not."

So prayer, confession, attending Mass, almsgiving, fasting, chastity, and so on are not explicit instructions? Harris ends his book concluding that
"[m]ysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not. The mystic has recognized something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion. The mystic has reasons for what he believes, and these reasons are empirical. The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism). Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time.
The Christian may rephrase: "The Christian has recognized something about the nature and history of the world prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion. The Christian has reasons for what he believes, and these reasons are empirical. The Logical mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is theology), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is the contemplation of prayer). Physicalist atheism is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of Good, simple Truth for all Time."

There are certainly differences between Eastern and Western traditions, but Harris' generalized argument against extraordinary historical claims as scientific claims is weak and arbitrary in the context of his discussion, since he admits the reality of mystic revelation and "sacred dimensions", but only insofar as it confirms his a priori embrace of Physicalism. A more grounded discussion of the differences and similarities of Eastern and Western traditions is possible:

Both the Christian mystic and the Zen Master begin with selflessness, and at this initial phase their tasks are the same. The Buddhist must let go of the ego at his center as a preparation for annihilation; the Christian must let go of his "geocentric" world in favor of a heliocentric view in which his "self" is received entirely from the Central Son. This emptying has for its purpose a filling up with love, which is attained by accepting and passing on forgiveness. Thus it is oriented, not towards an inner purity for its own sake, but to a relationship of love towards one's fellows and towards God. God's word is not understood solely as something "inner", but is communicated through history and through the world around us. The purification is never an end in itself, but a means for ordering the whole person, of eliminating any resistance to his openness towards God.

In both Buddhism and Christianity, the emptying imitates the Absolute. For the Buddhist, it is an imitation of the Void. For the Christian it is the image of the original Kenosis which is God himself. The Father's generation of the Son is an eternal act of self-surrender in which all that the Father is is handed over to the Son. Moreover, the Father must not be thought to exist before the self-surrender; he is the self-surrender that holds nothing back. The Son answers with a Eucharist as selfless as the Father's self-surrender and the Holy Spirit proceeds as their subsistent "we". "As the essence of love, he maintains the infinite difference between them, seals it and, since he is the one Spirit of them both, bridges it." But this kenosis which is God must not be understood as self-annihilation.

We must remember this; the Father, in uttering and surrendering himself without reserve, does not lose himself. He does not extinguish himself by self-giving, just as he does not keep back anything of himself either. For, in his self-surrender, he is the whole divine essence. Here we see both God's infinite power and his powerlessness; he cannot be God in any other way but in the Godhead itself.

Here we see a bridging of the gap between emptiness and fullness, between the One and the Many. God fills (or rather, fulfills) the divine nature in emptying himself. In begetting the Son, he let's the other "be". The divine unity is not threatened, because he has surrendered all he is, without remainder. We no longer need fret about the opposition between the One and the Many; God in himself is both one and many. He is as many as three, but he is many more, for the Son continues this kenosis by emptying himself of divinity to take the form of a slave. In these divine "emptyings" we find the ontological ground of our own kenosis; we imitate the divine action, however crudely, in emptying ourselves of our ego-centeredness, but this emptying allows us to be filled with divinity.

All this is possible because God is Love, but not an abstract love, but love which has an object, a beloved. It would be more accurate to say "God is a lover", first of God, and then of his creatures, creatures who are themselves created in love. Love this moves beyond the abstract of "compassion" to affirm the other. There is no longer need for annihilation, for love can let the other be, without itself being threatened. Thus real beings with a separate existence, with a separate "I" are possible. Of course, this "I", though separate, is not self-subsistent; it can only find its real identity in God, but not in such a way that annihilates that identity, but in a way that affirms it.


  1. Interesting - as a Buddhist, the discourse that you quite from the "more grounded discussion", about "imitation of the Void" and "preparation for annhiliation" indicates a quite old-fashioned, almost Victorian, grasp of Buddhist doctrine. It's certainly laden with negativity - and not the 'good' negativity of the via negativa either! I suppose that I keep hoping that I've seen the end of this, but it keeps cropping up...

    Yes, "fundamentally not one thing exists" (Hui Neng's assertion of the doctrine of anatta), but central to Buddhist ontology is the "Identity of Relative and Absolute". As is often said (there's even a song about it!) before Zen, mountains are simply mountains, rivers are rivers. With Zen, mountains are no longer mountains (their non-essential nature is grasped as is one's own lack of an essential independent unchanging existence), rivers are no longer rivers. And after Zen, mountains are again mountains and rivers are still rivers, as they always have been - the ten thousand things enlighten us daily.

    Now my understanding is far from complete, I don't consider myself a mature practitioner - but I'd like to be able to point out that the modern, lived discourse of Buddhism (perhaps I can only speak for Zen Buddhism) isn't about Void and Annhiliation, not of some negative enlightenment-to-be-attained, but of a positive, world-engaging englightenment-being-actualised (see the writings of Dogen Zenji).

    In this sense, while you may feel that Harris's view of Western spirituality is impoverished, I'd like to suggest that some Christian critique of Eastern praxis is equally lean and mean (again, not in the good sense!).

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