The Mystical Core of the Great Traditions

Six great religions have shaped the major civilizations that exist today: the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and the three Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism/Confucianism). These religions seem to be quite at odds with each other when we look at their outer, or exoteric, forms. Not only do they have different rites, rituals, prayers and precepts, but in many cases their most fundamental doctrines about the nature of Reality appear to contradict each other. For example, Judaism's "Thou shalt have no other gods but Me" seems to stand in direct opposition to Hinduism's exuberant worship of three million gods. Christianity's Triune Deity contrasts sharply with Taoism's amorphous Way, while Islam's central tenet, "There are no gods but God," appears completely antithetical to Buddhism's insistence that there is no God at all.

If we dig more deeply, however, we find within each of these religious traditions an inner, or esoteric, stream of teachings given by their mystics—those men and women who claim to have had a direct Realization, or Gnosis, of the Ultimate Nature of Reality. Moreover, if we compare the testimonies of these mystics about the Nature of this Reality, we find that, despite vast separations in time, place, language, and culture, they are strikingly similar—so much so that many scholars have come to view their teachings as constituting a single perennial philosophy which, like some irrepressible flower, keeps blooming again and again in the human psyche.

One of the primary goals of the Center for Sacred Sciences is to preserve and promote the teachings of these mystics and to show exactly what it is they have in common. Here, for example, are nine points agreed upon by mystics of all the great traditions, together with a sampling of quotes which demonstrate this agreement.

1. All mystics agree that Ultimate Reality—whether It is called Allah, Brahman, Buddha-nature, En-sof, God, or the Tao—cannot be grasped by thought or expressed in words. (In fact, the word mystic is related to the word mute, both of which derive from the Greek root mustes, meaning "close-mouthed.")

The Tao which can be named is not the true Tao. —Lao Tzu (Taoist)

The Spirit supreme is immeasurable, inapprehensible, beyond conception, never-born, beyond reasoning, beyond thought. —Upanishads (Hindu)

Words and sentences are produced by the law of causation and are mutually conditioning—they cannot express highest Reality. —The Lankavatara Sutra (Buddhist)

That One which is beyond all thought is inconceivable by all thought. —Dionysius the Areopagite (Christian)

The gnostics know, but what they know cannot be communicated. It is not in the power of the possessors of this most delightful coin a word which would denote what they know. —Ibn 'Arabi (Muslim)

2. The reason Ultimate Reality cannot be grasped by thought or communicated in words is that thoughts and words, by definition, create distinctions and, hence, duality. Even the simple act of naming something creates duality because it distinguishes the thing that is named from all other things that are left unnamed. However, the mystics of all the great traditions agree that all distinctions are imaginary and that the Ultimate Nature of Reality is non-dual.

In essence things are not two but one. ...All duality is falsely imagined. —Lankavatara Sutra (Buddhist)

No matter what a deluded man may think he is perceiving, he is really seeing Brahman and nothing else but Brahman. ...This universe, which is superimposed upon Brahman, is nothing but a name. —Shankara (Hindu)

If we will see things truly, they are strangers to goodness, truth and everything that tolerates any distinction. They are intimates of the One that is bare of any kind of multiplicity and distinction. —Meister Eckhart (Christian)

That Oneness is on the other side of descriptions and states. Nothing but duality enters speech's playing-field. —Rumi (Muslim)

There all things are as one; Distinctions between "life" and "death," "land" and "sea," have lost their meaning. —anonymous Hasidic master (Jewish)

3. Although mystics cannot define Ultimate Reality in words, they still use words to point to That which is beyond words. For instance, all mystics agree that, while Ultimate Reality constitutes the true nature of everything, in itself It is nothing.

Neti neti (not this, not that) —Upanishads (Hindu)

Emptiness (shunyata) the ultimate nature of everything that exists. —Lama Yeshe (Buddhist)

The myriad creatures in the world are born from Something, and Something from Nothing. —Lao Tzu (Taoist)

It is within our intellects, souls and bodies, in heaven, on earth, and whilst remaining the same in Itself, It is at once in, around and above the world, super-celestial, super-essential, a sun, a star, fire, water, spirit, dew, cloud, stone, rock, all that is; yet It is nothing. —Dionysius the Areopagite (Christian)

He is not accompanied by thingness, nor do we ascribe it to Him. The negation of thingness from Him is one of His essential attributes. —Ibn 'Arabi (Muslim)

The hidden God, the innermost Being of Divinity so to speak has neither qualities nor attributes. —Gershom Scholem (Jewish)

4. Although mystics say Ultimate Reality is not a thing, they also agree that this emptiness or no-thingness is not a mere vacuum. It is radiant with the Light of Pure Spirit, Primordial Awareness, Buddha Mind, or Consciousness Itself.

He is the Eternal among things that pass away, pure Consciousness of conscious beings. —Upanishads (Hindu)

All the Buddhas and all sentient beings are nothing but the One Mind, besides which nothing exists. —Huang Po (Buddhist)

The light by which the soul is illumined, in order that it may see and truly understand God himself. —St. Augustine (Christian)

He is the spirit of the cosmos, its hearing, its sight, and its hand. Through Him the cosmos hears, through Him it sees, through Him it speaks, through Him it grasps, through Him it runs. —Ibn 'Arabi (Muslim)

Mind comes from this sublime and completely unified source above; it is divided only as it enters into the universe of distinctions. —Menahem Nahum (Jewish)

5. Mystics of all traditions also agree that when distinctions created by imagination are taken to be real—especially the distinction between 'subject' and 'object', 'I' and 'other', 'self' and 'world'—we lose sight of the Ultimate Nature of Reality and fall into delusion. This is the cause of all our suffering.

The fundamental dysfunction of our minds takes the form of a separation between I and other. We falsely grasp at an "I" on which attachment grafts itself at the same time as we conceive of an "other" that is the basis of aversion. —Bokar Rinpoche (Buddhist)

So long as the sense of "me" and "mine" remains, there is bound to be sorrow and want in the life of the individual. —Anandamayi Ma (Hindu)

Every man has plenty of cause for sorrow but he alone understands the deep universal reason for sorrow who experiences that he is. —Cloud of Unknowing (Christian)

As long as you are 'you', you will be miserable and impoverished. —Javad Nurbakhsh (Muslim)

How can any finite vessel hope to contain the endless God? Therefore, see yourself as nothing; only one who is nothing can contain the fullness of the Presence. —Menahem Nahum (Jewish)

6. The fact that distinctions are not ultimately real means that we are not truly separate selves. In Reality, all mystics declare, our True Nature is God, Brahman, Buddha-Nature, the Tao, or Consciousness Itself.

Our very self-nature is the Buddha, and apart from this nature there is no other Buddha. —Hui-Neng (Buddhist)

Having left aside Life and Death, he is now completely one with the universal Transmutation. —Kuo Hsiang (Taoist)

God is one's very own Self, the breath of one's breath, the life of one's life, the Atman. —Anandamayi Ma (Hindu)

Some simple people think that they will see God as if he were standing there and they here. It is not so. God and I, we are one. —Meister Eckhart (Christian)

Thou art He, without one of these limitations. Then if thou know thine own existence thus, then thou knowest God; and if not, then not. —Ibn 'Arabi (Muslim)

For now he is no longer separated from his Master, and behold he is his master and his Master is he. —Abraham Abulafia (Jewish)

7. Although the Truth of one's identity with Ultimate Reality cannot be grasped by thought, all mystics testify that It can be Realized or Recognized through a Gnostic Awakening (Enlightenment) which by-passes the thinking mind altogether.

The time will come when your mind will suddenly come to a stop like an old rat who finds himself in a cul-de-sac. Then there will be a plunging into the unknown with the cry, "Ah, this!" —Yun-man (Buddhist)

When the mirror of my mind became clear... I saw that God is not other than me, and this non-dual knowledge completely destroyed all thought of "you" and "I." I came to know that this entire world is not different from God. —Lalleshwari (Hindu)

Here, renouncing all that the mind may conceive, wrapped entirely in the intangible and the invisible, he belongs completely to him who is beyond everything. Here, being neither oneself nor someone else, one is supremely united by a completely unknowing inactivity of all knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing. —Dionysius the Areopagite (Christian)

He sees only God as being that which he sees, perceiving the seer to be the same as the seen. This is enough, and God is the giver of grace, the Guide. —Ibn 'Arabi (Muslim)

It is by descending into the depths of his own self that man wanders through all the dimensions of the world; in his own self he lifts the barriers which separate one sphere from the other; in his own self, finally, he transcends the limits of natural existence and at the end of his way, without, as it were, a single step beyond himself, he discovers that God is 'all in all' and there is 'nothing but Him'. —Gershom Scholem (Jewish)

8. All mystics agree that Realizing our Identity with this Ultimate Reality brings freedom from suffering and death.

When a man knows God, he is free: his sorrows have an end, and birth and death are no more. —Upanishads (Hindu)

What is suffering? What is death? In reality, they do not have any existence. They appear within the framework of the manifestations produced by the mind wrapped up in an illusion. ...In the emptiness of mind, there is no death. No one dies. There is no suffering and no fear. —Bokar Rinpoche (Buddhist)

When the false apprehension is negated...from the heart of the enlightened ones, then "death shall be swallowed up forever and God will erase tears from every face." —Abraham Abulafia (Jewish)

Suddenly, I realized..."it really is like this, in reality there is not a single thing!" With this single thought, all entanglements were broken. Suddenly, it was as if a load of a hundred pounds had fallen to the ground in an instant. It was as if a flash of lightning had penetrated the body and pierced the intelligence. —Kao P'an-lung (Confucian)

This man lives in one light with God, and therefore there is not in him either suffering or the passage of time, but an unchanging eternity. —Meister Eckhart (Christian)

I have been delivered from this ego and self-will—alive or dead, what an affliction! But alive or dead, I have no homeland other than God's Bounty. —Rumi (Muslim)

9. Finally, mystics of all traditions agree that their teachings about the Ultimate Nature of Reality should not be taken on faith alone. Just as scientific theories can be verified by anyone willing to perform appropriate experiments, mystical teachings can be verified by anyone willing to engage in appropriate spiritual practices and disciplines. (This, incidentally, is why we at the Center believe mystical teachings and practices are rightly said to constitute a science of the sacred.)

Those who practice know whether realization is attained or not, just as those who drink water know whether it is hot or cold. —Dogen (Buddhist)

The pure truth of Atman, which is buried under Maya and the effects of Maya, can be reached by meditation, contemplation and other spiritual disciplines such as a knower of Brahman may prescribe. —Shankara (Hindu)

If you don't wash out the stone and sand, how can you pick out the gold? Lower your head and bore into the hole of open non-reification, carefully seek the heart of heaven and earth with firm determination. Suddenly, you will see the original thing! —Liu I-ming (Taoist)

The patriarchs opened up the channels of the mind in the world, teaching all who were to come into the world how to dig within themselves a spring of living waters, to cleave to their fount, the root of their lives. —Menahem Nahum (Jewish)

The way of the sufis is the way of the exact gnosis of God, and of the knowledge of the diverse ways of self training necessary for the gnosis of God. —'Abd al-Wahab Sha'rani (Muslim)

If you follow my teachings, then you are truly my disciples and you shall come to a gnosis of the truth, and the truth shall make you free. —Jesus of Nazareth (Christian)

Resources and Links

For further reading on the mystical traditions and their universal principles we recommend the following resources:
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