Buddhism is a mystical religion.It is noumenal. It does not fit within the common paradigm, but soars far beyond.
Those who turn their hearts and attention to what is beyond this world are called mystics. Buddha was one. This is why he is called a muni. This is why he is called Buddha. Buddha is one who has awakened to what others fail to see. Muni is a sage who comprehends holy things.
In many religions, the mystical aspect is fringe or secondary, whereas in Buddhism it is central. The vortex of Buddhism is the experience of enlightenment that transformed the life and impelled the teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha. This experience was not ordinary, not simply a matter of arriving at an intellectual conviction, not just deciding on a method of meditation. It was a profound “turning round in the foundation of consciousness”, a liberation of faith and entry into an unconditional life of spirit.
Buddhism coming to the West has gone astray in portraying itself as “not a religion”, as a here and now, self-help, technique based, humanistic path to happiness that can be added on to ordinary life, as a kind of ultimate consumer bargain. Such a pursuit of short term popularity will blows away as soon as the social mood changes. The aim of Buddhism is not simply the ability to taste a grape with greater sensual clarity, nor is it the ability to reduce stress in such a way as to make one’s participation in the rat race of materialistic life more effective. This is a complete travesty. Nor should it be a range of competing meditation shops.
Buddha taught a Dharma that is the fundamental meaning of life and, indeed, of all great religions; a faith that transcends worldly attachments, that brings nobility and meaning in the midst of the existential plight, that imbues life with mindfulness of holy being and sacred space, nirvana, the Unborn, the Deathless, the ultimate beyond.
On his enlightenment, Buddha declared that he had seen dependent arising both forwards and backwards. Modern people readily grasp the idea of the forward progression of cause and effect, of things arising on the basis of conditions, of the flow of time and of consequence following from deed. However, they do not comprehend and generally do not even pay any attention to the backward turn that was the crucial point. Buddha not only saw impermanence, he saw behind it. He not only saw how human nature rises and falls according to intentional action, he also saw how there was an escape, a liberation, a transcendence, or, perhaps we should coin the term scendence - a going down into the depths - that liberates from this surface existence in which we live like pond skaters, unaware of the profundity beneath.
We must ask, what did the great seer see? What was it that grasped hold of his life and turned it so comprehensively? What is the vidya beyond avidya? What is the backward turn that reverses all common assumption?
Buddhist “meditation” should be such a scendence. It is not a postural yoga, not an exercise, not a pose, but an enquiry into the mystery, into the Cloud of Unknowing, the divine depths that underpin life, love and meaning. It is not a procedure, nor a protocol, nor something to buy and sell. It is what is seen by “the divine eye, purified and surpassing the human”. Mystics of all faiths have reflected upon holy things and found a refuge therein and Buddhism is just such an awakening. Religions arise out of the report of those who have tasted the living water and thereby opened eyes that see glory in the darkness. It is transmitted by those who have faith, not by those who have ideas and techniques alone.
Buddhism is the attempt to live a holy life. Its aim is “the holy life fulfilled”. It is not about worldly success, but about living where “there is nothing left for this world” - no attachment to ephemeral fame and gain - because something altogether more full of wonders has come to sustain one’s being, far beyond all ego investment.
Individually, we may well feel that the noble goal of the Tathagata’s way is beyond our reach, and it is good to feel that, because it is a foundation for the kind of necessary self-humility. This should not lead us to worldly skepticism and short-termism, but rather to a realisation of the vastness of the Tathagata’s vision that completely liberates from all woe. Being in the midst of life as we know it and contemplating such things gives rise to a profound awe and sense of exile and it is the energy of such longing that is the ground of faith.
Buddhism is a mystical religion. The Buddha was the great seer. We can have faith in what he brought to us and we can contemplate our own poverty of spirit as well as the boundlessness that his Dharma displays. We can make faltering steps in the holy life and trust that whatever sincerity there may be in our hearts will not be fruitless. When Buddhas are enlightened, spiritual flowers fall from the sky and we live in their midst even now - not merely when we arrive in the Pure Land.