All real living is meeting

Finishing Mommaers and Van Bragt's "Mysticism Buddhist and Christian: Encounters with Jan van Ruusbroec",  I was fascinated by its discussion of 'natural mysticism' by which Ruusbroec meant contemplation that is achieved without grace, that focuses on internal stillness, that rests in an indwelling sense of unity (with God, with reality).

Of this form of contemplation, Ruusbroec is deeply critical, partly because it was associated in the fourteenth century with sectarian traditions that the orthodox Ruusbroec saw as heretical on other, doctrinal grounds. However, it is mainly because it does not see the heart of mysticism as a deepening of the ability to act in the world charitably, with love. It is anchored in an annihilating of self into a stable absolute not by falling into a dynamic union of love with the Creator that enhances the unique reality of the person and its relationship with others.

One of the questions the book asks is on which side of this contemplative demarcation does Buddhism lie - the quietism of a surrendering of any notion of self or a dynamic transformation of identity that centres on the practice of compassion? The authors, rightly in my view, decide on the latter.

In both religions (in different metaphysical modes) there is a temptation to renounce the world and rest in an identity with the absolute - this is often especially true in its theological/philosophical structuring but this is often denied when both traditions are inspected as dynamic religions. Thus, in Zen, for example, just sitting, resting in the Buddha nature is an ideal but one undermined in practice by the Bodhisattva vow that requires you to surrender nirvana/liberation to pursue the liberation of the 'last blade of grass'. There is a higher nirvana than the one that brings you rest outside the world. Its reality is in the world: nirvana and samsara are one!

I was greatly reminded of Martin Buber's surrender of religiosity. This he had identified with the exceptional, the other worldly, with opportunities for ecstasy. Until one day, after a period of exalting religious celebration, a young man came to him in search of meaning, of confirmation. Buber writes that he was not unsolicitous of the man's questions, and talked with him for a long time, in a way thought to be helpful. Yet Buber says he failed him. He failed to listen deeply to the questions the young man did not ask. He was not present to him and let him depart unconfirmed, the world still bereft of meaning.

"Since then," Buber writes, " I have given up the 'religious' which is nothing but the exception, extraction, exaltation, ecstasy; or it has given me up. I possess nothing but the everyday out of which I am never taken. The mystery is no longer disclosed, it has escaped or it has made its dwelling here where everything happens as it happens. I know no fullness but each mortal hour's fullness of claim and responsibility."

Buber often criticized 'mysticism' in his later life as an evasion of this responsibility to the other person (and it is a criticism not without foundation, now as ever, as people claim for themselves 'unique exceptional experiences) but it is a criticism that van Ruusbroec, probably the greatest 'mystic' of the Christian west, would have been fully affirmative of. For him 'mysticism' was the transformation of our natural faculties by and in God such that charity - the unique care of each person or thing - could become the ground out of which we responded to every moment's claim upon us.

All real living, to quote Buber, is meeting and for Ruusbroec that is true: we genuinely meet one another when we are grounded in the love that is of, with and in God, and of which we partake. In that grounding, we come to see clearly, with passions transformed, and a desire to embrace and liberate the other.


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