Editorial Note

Neal Donner is an independent scholar and private teacher living in Los Angeles California. His doctoral dissertation, The Great Calming and Contemplation of Chih-I, Chapter I: The Synopsis (translated, annotated, and with an introduction) [University of British Columbia, 1976, UMI #7809458], dealt with one of the fundamental texts of Chinese T'ien T'ai Buddhism. This study is now available, with both additions and subtractions, as The Great Calming and Contemplation, A Study and Annotated Translation of the First Chapter of Chih-i's Mo-ho-chih-kuan [Neal Donner and Daniel B. Stevenson, Kuroda Institute Book, University of Hawaii Press, 1993].

Mysticism and the Idea of Freedom: A Libertarian View

by Neal Donner, Ph.D., Los Angeles, CA

Table of Contents


Mysticism has a bad name in libertarian circles, partly because of Ayn Rand's denunciations of mystics as antirational, coercive totalitarians. Yet a closer look at the behaviors and ideas associated with certain important forms of mysticism in history reveals that mystics have often been found in dedicated opposition to the State, indeed to all forms of "tyranny over the mind of man," in Jefferson's phrase. Non-theistic mysticism moreover proposes a respectful critique of reason that bears an uncanny resemblance to some of the main principles of Friedrich Hayek's thought.

1. Rand and Rothbard on Mysticism

Ayn Rand's views on mystics may be presented in her own words (from the remarkable and lengthy John Ga1t speech in Atlas Shrugged):

Make no mistake about the character of mystics. To undercut your consciousness has always been their only purpose throughout the ages -- and power, the power to rule you by force, has always been their only lust....The supernatural power that a mystic dreads, the unknowable spirit he worships, the consciousness he considers omnipotent is-- yours.

A mystic is a man who surrendered his mind at its first encounter with the minds of others....He chose to submit rather than to understand, to believe rather than to think....When a mystic declares that he feels the existence of a power superior to reason, he feels it all right, but that power is not an omniscient super-spirit of the universe, it is the consciousness of any passer-by to whom he has surrendered his own...

Every dictator is a mystic, and every mystic is a potential dictator. A mystic craves obedience from men, not their agreement. He wants them to surrender their consciousness to his assertions, his edicts, his wishes, his whims, as his consciousness is surrendered to theirs....

There is only one state that fulfills the mystic's longing for infinity, non-causality, non-identity: death. (pp.969-970)

On the other hand, the also brilliant and influential Murray Rothbard had this to say about the author of one of the great mystical classics of all time, the 3rd century B.C. Tao Te Ching (The Book of the Tao):

One of the first libertarian philosophers, Lao-tzu, living in the midst of ancient Chinese despotism, saw no hope for achieving liberty in that totalitarian society except by counseling quietism, to the point of the individual's dropping out of social life altogether. (pp. 62-63)

What is going on here? Do mystics really hate freedom as much as Rand insists they do? Or can they love freedom as much as Rothbard suggests? It becomes apparent that we cannot learn from either Rand or Rothbard what a mystic really is. Rand's sense of the word is completely idiosyncratic, a technical term in her own philosophy, only vaguely reminiscent of the conventional sense. On the other hand, Rothbard studiously avoids the use of the word (it is, after all, a red flag to any Objectivist) in praising Lao-tzu's devotion to liberty -- but anyone who has taken even a one-semester college course in Chinese philosophy or religion knows very well that Taoism, the tradition of which Lao-tzu is conventionally regarded as the founder, is by far the most mystical of all the various trends of ancient Chinese philosophy.

So what is a mystic, anyway?

2. What is Mysticism?

To begin where such discussion often begins, let us glance at a dictionary definition:

Mysticism. 1. The doctrine or belief that direct knowledge of God, of spiritual truth, etc., is attainable through immediate intuition or insight and in a way differing from ordinary sense perception or the use of logical reason; as, nature mysticism. 2. Any type of theory asserting the possibility of attaining knowledge or power through faith or spiritual insight. 3. Hence, vague speculation.

The third definition is what the average person thinks of when hearing the word (if he knows it at all). However no student or practitioner of mysticism uses the term in this sense, so it need detain us no further. Both the first and second definitions are helpful and precise in suggesting that mysticism involves an affirmation of the possibility of knowledge (in a way different from the use of reason). Notice that, contra Rand, there is here no suggestion of any outright hostility to reason.

What is this intuition or insight? It has often been called mystical insight, and it is more or less equivalent to the cognitive aspect of mystical experience. As for mystical experience (a form of religious experience), the American philosopher and psychologist William James wrote the following oft-cited passage in his classic book, The Varieties of Religious Experience:

Our normal waking consciousness...is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are all there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question -- for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality. (pp. 378-379)

James quotes the following personal account:

For nearly an hour I walked along the road...and then returned. On the way back, suddenly, without warning, I felt that I was in heaven -- an inward state of peace and joy and assurance indescribably intense, accompanied with a sense of being bathed in a warm glow of light, as though the external condition had brought about the internal effect -- a feeling of having passed beyond the body, though the scene around me stood out more clearly and as if nearer to me than before, by reason of the illumination in the midst of which I seemed to be placed. This deep emotion lasted, though with decreasing strength, until I reached home, and for some time after, only gradually passing away. (p. 388)

For a similar view by another authority:

Then the spirit is transported high above all the faculties into a void of immense solitude whereof no mortal can adequately speak. It is the mysterious darkness wherein is concealed the limitless Good. To such an extent are we admitted and absorbed into something that is one, simple, divine, and illimitable, that we seem no longer distinguishable from it....In this unity, the feeling of multiplicity disappears. When, afterwards, these persons come to themselves again, they find themselves possessed of a distinct knowledge of things, more luminous and more perfect than that of others....This obscurity is a light to which no created intelligence can arrive by its own nature." (Poulain, p. 272. Quoted by Tart, pp. 26-27)

We refer also to an epoch-making and controversial paper by Walter Pahnke, in which he reported on the results of his successful double-blind experiment in chemically facilitating mystical experience in a group of Protestant seminary students (ten subjects and ten controls):

Mystical consciousness can best be described as a dimension of experience that, when expressed on paper by an experimental subject and subsequently content-analyzed, corresponds to nine interrelated categories....These were derived [by the author from a historical survey of the literature of spontaneous mysticism, including the commentaries of scholars such as William James and W.T. Stace. As Stace has emphasized, such categories attempt to describe the core of a universal psychological experience, free from culturally determined philosophical or theological interpretations....The ontological status of such descriptions may, of course, be debated....
  1. Experience of an undifferentiated unity... either internal or external....The subject-object dichotomy (is) transcended.
  2. Objectivity and Reality: knowledge or illumination about being or existence in general, and...(the conviction) that such knowledge is truly or ultimately real.
  3. Transcendence of space and time: a radical change in perspective where (the person) suddenly feels as though he is outside of time, in eternity or infinity.
  4. Sense of sacredness: a nonrational, intuitive, hushed, palpitant response in the presence of inspiring realities.
  5. Deeply-felt positive mood: joy, love, blessedness, and peace.
  6. Paradoxicality: significant aspects...are felt to be true in spite of the fact that they violate the laws of Aristotelian logic.
  7. Alleged Ineffability: language...is inadequate to contain or even accurately reflect such experience.
  8. Transiency: (The experience) remains for anywhere from a matter of seconds to a few hours and then disappear(s), returning the experiencer to his usual state of everyday consciousness.
  9. Positive changes in attitude and/or behavior: Increased personality integration is reported, including a renewed sense of personal worth coupled with a relaxation of habitual mechanisms of ego defense.
Tart, pp. 399-407)

Let us note in passing the phrase "renewed sense of personal worth" in item 9 above. We shall return to this point later.

For our last authority we take Agehananda Bharati, a former Hindu ascetic (though of European birth) who went on to gain a Ph.D. and join the department of anthropology at the University of Syracuse (New York):

A mystic is a person who says "I am a mystic," or words to that effect, consistently, when questioned about his most important pursuit. Further, his statement...has to have a general widely applicable meaning, and must not be a term used only by a group of people in a manner peculiar to them....(Such a person seeks) intuition of numerical oneness with the cosmic absolute, with the universal matrix, or with any essence stipulated by the various theological and speculative systems of the world. This alone is the mystical effort; a person who pursues it, and pursues it as his overwhelmingly central avocation -- doing everything else marginally, so to speak -- and who at the same time states that he has embarked on this quest, is a mystic....(There) is an additional objective criterion: (a mystic is) a seeker of intuitive union with the cosmic ground, who chooses experiments which would lead to such intuition. (Bharati, pp. 25-28)

It must be emphasized that there can be no doubt about whether mystical experience exists. Admittedly, the evidence is virtually all anecdotal (with the interesting exception of Mr. Pahnke's "experimental mysticism"). But there is so much of it that though a skeptic has plenty of room to doubt anyone's interpretation of such an experience, he has no more rational justification to doubt the existence of this psychological phenomenon than to doubt a crying child's earache. Where another's subjective experience is concerned, the jeer that "it's all in your head" amounts to little more than disapproval, mixed sometimes with envy. Mystical experience does exist. It has to do with a shift in the state of consciousness, evidently not just in the emotional but also in the cognitive dimension, like the shift from sleep to wakefulness (which is in fact a frequent metaphor in the literature).

With the testimony of James, Poulain, Tart and Bharati in mind, we are now in a position to construct a simple working definition:

Mysticism is a mode of life and thought of a person who:
  1. is having, or
  2. strives for, or
  3. lives out of the memory of, mystical experience.

Most observers seem to agree that the full-blown mystical experience does not admit of varieties (despite the title of William James' seminal work) -- it may be incomplete, but no feature in it will contradict the elements of, for example, the Stace-Pahnke description cited above. It is the same across the world, throughout history, in all cultures and all religions. Evidently it is something which humans are capable of simply by virtue of being human. Mystics in different places, times or traditions have, however, broadly divided into two groups according to how they have interpreted their own mystical experiences. They have attributed the source of their mystical experience to either (1) God, or (2) the self, and similarly, claim to have achieved knowledge of either (1) God, or (2) the self.

The average person who knows the word "mysticism" understands it in terms of the third dictionary definition: "vague speculation." But a bit of education teaches most people in cultures where monotheistic religion is the norm that it has something to do with knowledge of God. Nearly all practicing Catholics, Protestants, Moslems and Jews, and even skeptical atheists (like Rand) understand it in this way, whether they approve of it or not.

Too few people in the Occident are aware, however, of the other cognitive claim mystics have made: that it is the self which is the object of knowledge as well as the source of the experience. Yet for mystics themselves, this interpretation seems to be if anything dominant (for though they often talk in terms of "God," it turns out that this is a God not separate from the self).

In this way two spiritual orientations derive from the mystical experience: the theistic and the nontheistic. The theist posits an external entity (God) as source (and holds that the self is separate from it). On the other hand the nontheist (who is different from the atheist!) posits the self as source (and if he uses the word "God" at all, speaks of the latter as identical with the self).

The divergent interpretations of mystical experience become divergent theologies. Theism often involves a conception of God as king, as an authoritarian judge capable of both kindness and rage, whom we obey, worship, and attempt to propitiate. As a person, God's gender is determinate, and "He" is supposed to be infinitely greater than, and completely distinct from, us and the entire natural world. Rand inveighed against precisely this kind of spirituality.

A nontheistic theology or metaphysics on the other hand involves a conception of some kind of self as ruler, as source and as object of devotion. Rand apparently knew nothing of the nontheistic mystical traditions, which is why we will spend some pages below exploring various of their aspects, particularly what they have to say about freedom.

There are numerous paths to the mystical experience. The following are all mentioned in various religious texts:

It comes, but not always, to those who have spent a lifetime pursuing it, and it comes, often enough, unannounced to those who do not work for it. It comes sometimes in the first few attempts at meditation, and sometimes in the last moment of life. Elusive and swathed in mystery (a word with which it is sometimes confused), no single method can be guaranteed to attain it. Some methods are more reliable than others, however: the right drugs in the right context and with the right preparation can bring the probability close to certainty. as Mr. Pahnke's famous experiment seems to have demonstrated. The peyote ceremonies of the Native American Church are perhaps the best example in this country of a successful (and mirabile dictu, legally tolerated by force of court decisions) orchestration of several of these tried and tested methods to attain mystical experience.

3. Nontheistic Mysticism and the Idea of Freedom

The principle mystical tradition I will examine is Chinese Taoism, though Buddhism, Hinduism, and certain occidental mystical traditions as well have some important things to say about freedom.

Murray Rothbard implicitly suggests this to be our point of departure, since as we noted above, he refers to Lao-tzu, the Chinese sage whom tradition views as the fount of the Taoist tradition, as "one of the first libertarian philosophers."

4. The Effect of Mystical Experience on the Individual

When one discovers absolute ecstasy, peace and wisdom within oneself, what further need to depend on others? The mystical experience creates a sense of autonomy. But what political or priestly authority, what system of conventional mores, wishes to tolerate total autonomy in its subjects?

Prof. Agehananda Bharati, whom we quoted above on the nature of the experience, argues that:

Mysticism in its motivation and in its pursuit constitutes what is illicit, anathema in any specific social and religious tradition....The mystic merges, his ecstatic, often eroticized report is much more than an analogy to him; he does it -- he actually transgresses the rules of his society, he elicits within himself the keenest pleasure, and if successful, he creates what no husband, lover, or lecher succeeds in doing, he makes orgasm permanent, uninterrupted. The intimacy with which he handles his body, his mind and other minds, and auxiliary objects around him to achieve and stabilize this state, is forbidden in all societies...Since intimacy makes for autonomy, total intimacy entails total autonomy, and no society so far has put up with this possibility in any individual.... Intimate drugs, intimate love, and mysticism -- the most intimate of all if it were known to more establishmentarians - these are the real dangers, for they alienate a man's mind and body from the king; hence they are illicit. Mysticism was known to the priests as the supreme danger, as the irrevocable launching site for alienation from the king and his sacerdotal allies; hence they persecuted it when it appeared. (pp. 200-202)

If some Asian cultures seem less hostile to mysticism than our own, this is because their religious organizations are so decentralized:

The mystic is culturally accepted only in societies which have no ecclesiastical organization or a very weak one. To this rule I find no exception. (ibid., p. 195)

The Protestant Reformation, while for the most part devoid of true mysticism (with significant exceptions), did amount to an effort to break free from the ecclesiastical authority of the Roman church and the priests who represented it. In this case the Bible rather than the mystical experience was often what the Church tried to keep away from ordinary people. Authoritarian religion can tolerate no independent revelations (i.e. information sources), so not only did the church oppress and murder scientists and witches, but even a Bible scholar like William Tyndale (1492-1536) was executed, for translating the New Testament into English.

What does the mystical experience do for the person who has it? It creates self-esteem, the positive evaluation of the individual by himself. When value and energy are internally derived, the individual is immunized against control by other minds. Deep trust and respect for himself frees a person from dependence on positive evaluations from others. We all need energy sources, but some of us strike oil on our own property. Or to shift the metaphor, we discover the White Hole (opposite of a Black Hole) which is our self in its Absolute nature -- a boundless source of energy, pouring forth from some infinite beyond/within, a creator rather than an effect of its environment, free rather than in bondage.

The doctrine of original sin, on the other hand, plugs up that private oil well and creates an absolute dependence on the Great Electric Utility (the church, or a political authority) to furnish psychic heat and light. It turns us into Black Holes, lacking faith in ourselves and completely vulnerable to those who would offer absolution (the church or a fanatical political movement).

I will return to this aspect of the subject later~ but we can see in this context the proper role and meaning of faith: trust in one's own inner light -- not "uncritical acceptance of unproven propositions."

5. The Two Modes of Cognition

The years since Rand flourished have disclosed astonishing new facts about the functioning of the human brain. Though linked to each other in normal people by a thin strand of tissue, the two cerebral hemispheres pursue markedly different specializations in their modes of cognition. Though oversimplified, it is roughly correct to say that one hemisphere is predominantly analytical, the other "synthetical" (holistic, intuitive).

These and other modern findings in brain research have made completely untenable the claim of many philosophical ultra-rationalists, who like Rand denied that a thing was worth knowing if it could not be known through analysis. Scientific progress is now understood to depend partly upon those spontaneous flashes of insight that bestow a whole vision of reality upon the well-prepared mind. Einstein himself is known for having, in his most creative moments, resorted to mental images rather than Aristotelian logic.

"Mysticism" is a word that Rand uses to denounce those who are hostile to reason -- as if mystics were enemies of logic. But most mystics, like most artists and musicians, have no particular hostility to the rational. Rather they choose to focus upon the realm of the nonrational, the intuitive, in order to sink more fully into the realm of what they are trying directly to experience. And like artists and musicians (and great scientists), mystics are at their best when they are able to employ their practiced and analytical skills to formulate symbols that will convey to others at least some sense of what they have been experiencing.

Rand herself was powerful and persuasive not merely because of her verbal-analytical skills, but also because she was able to put these in the service of an exalted, intuitive vision.

No appeal to recent brain research is necessary for us to comprehend why things have to be known in at least two ways to be really known at all. It amounts simply to the difference between part and whole. As any high school student forced to dissect Shakespeare and Dickens can testify, appreciation of great art is more likely to be squelched than stimulated when analysis is the only mode of cognition used to apprehend it. But we must also part company with those on the other extreme, carefree romantics who suggest that discipline or careful study inevitably stifles the spirit.

Not all partisans of freedom look upon pure rationality as the golden road to Eden. Friedrich Hayek has some interesting comments in this connection:

[The modern European] development of a theory of liberty took place mainly in the eighteenth century. It began in two countries, England and France,...[the former] empirical and unsystematic, [the latter] speculative and rationalistic....It has been the rationalist, plausible, and apparently logical argument of the French tradition, with its flattering assumptions about the unlimited powers of human reason, that has progressively gained influence....Though these two groups [of philosophers, e.g. Hume for the English and Descartes for the French] are now commonly lumped together as the ancestors of modern liberalism, there is hardly a greater contrast imaginable than that between their respective conceptions of the evolution and functioning of a social order and the role played in it by liberty....[The English tradition] finds the essence of freedom in spontaneity and the absence of coercion, [the French] believes it to be realized only in the pursuit and attainment of an absolute collective purpose....It is the second view...that has become the origin of totalitarian democracy....The British philosophers laid the foundations of a profound and essentially valid theory, while the rationalist school was simply and completely wrong. (pp. 54-56)

Who can still maintain that the analytical is the only valid mode of cognition? And who can still assert that mathematics and scientific theory exclude paradoxical descriptions of the world and the mind? As Einstein once said, our theories determine what we perceive. Reality remains, but theories about it come and go, as Kant, and lately Thomas Kuhn (see bibliography) have shown us. We have learned from Heisenberg some of the limits of our formal knowledge of the world, and from Gödel some of the limits of logical and mathematical systems themselves. Light, indeed any form of matter or energy, can be thought of according to our convenience as composed of either waves or particles. The cells of our bodies can be viewed as complete individuals or as parts of a larger whole. No suspension bridges or skyscrapers, computers or airplanes, electron microscopes or spaceships, could ever be built without resort to "irrational" and "imaginary" numbers and a rigorous concept of the infinite. Today, when scientists ask us to contemplate such phenomena as the curvature of space, the Big Bang, and subatomic time reversal, let us not bridle at the paradoxical and fantastic descriptions to which mystics feel they must resort in order to convey something of their experiences (and by implication, something of Reality itself) to us.

When science studies the world, theory needs experiment (the empirical) for verification, and experiment needs theory (the rational) for interpretation. The nonscientist too best uses both modes of cognition to learn about his environment: he analyzes (theorizes) and he experiences (experiments).

6. Elements of a Possible Libertarian Theology

7. Mystical Indications in Hayek's Economics

8. The Mahayana Libertarian

I have distinguished between various forms of mysticism, or more accurately, between various verbal interpretations of the mystical experience. In one dimension we find that mystics have derived from their experiences either an affirmative or negative attitude to life and the natural world; in another dimension we find a differentiation between theistic and nontheistic.

It is time to make a final distinction, valid both for mystics and for political libertarians. We inquire, does this mystic, or this libertarian, live a life which is for and about himself alone, absorbed in the pursuit of his ecstasy/liberty in disregard of the ecstasies/liberties of others?

There do exist certain libertarians who view any concern for others as a distraction from the sole proper object of attention, which they think to be themselves. Other libertarians accept that no one is completely free unless we are all free. For them the urge to personal liberation does not sever the bonds of compassion that tie them to other human beings (and often, animals).

There is a fascinating parallel to this opposition in the history of Buddhism. Around half a millenium after the time of the Buddha (who lived ca. 560-480 B.C.), there arose a new philosophical, and ultimately popular movement, which called itself the Mahayana ("greater vehicle"). Labelling as Hinayana ("lesser vehicle") the earlier forms of Buddhism, which were concerned above all with personal realization, the new movement argued that the highest religious experience (enlightenment, Buddhahood, the mystical experience, etc.) could not be had without simultaneously striving for the enlightenment of others. According to the new teachings, the potential Buddhahood of every other living being had to be acknowledged in order for personal enlightenment to be achieved. While admitting that the "Hinayana" still qualified as Buddhism, the Mahayana schools and sects were conscious of making an important spiritual advance, in having that they had restored compassion (concern for others) to the wisdom (perfection of the self) already promoted by the earlier Buddhist schools. It was these newer Mahayana schools that turned out to be the more influential in the formation of Chinese Buddhism, no doubt partly because these were also the closest to the Taoist point of view that perceived the ultimate reality in every scrap of the phenomenal world.

As the Mahayana Buddhists insisted, there can be no contradiction in striving for the enlightenment (freedom) of others at the same time as one strives for enlightenment (freedom) for oneself. For the apparent contradiction is resolved by the awareness of our interconnections with each other, by our dawning knowledge that though we are individuals, paradoxically our destiny is unthinkable apart from other beings. Those mystics and those libertarians who insist that enlightenment/freedom requires a radical separation from society, a severing of ties with other humans -- a life where compassion, love and shared ecstasy are seen as a distraction from the main quest for enlightenment/freedom -- are prisoners of a lower understanding. Their dogma cannot stand, once they realize that virtually all they know, even about their zealous pursuit of a more elevated self, derives from other human beings, alive or dead, who in teaching them valuable knowledge, whether directly or indirectly, enriched their lives.

At the foundation then, of both the mystical quest and the quest for political and economic freedom, we find this odd paradox: the most resolute pursuit of self-perfection requires a constant awareness of one's interrelationships with others. Once aware of this, the seeker/activist sees no contradiction in working to enhance his personal and political relationships with others, or even to enhance the personal and political relationships between third parties, at the same time as he is focused on his own development.

It may be that the Greek and the Confucian traditions are here our best teachers: wisdom was for both Socrates and Confucius inseparable from excellence of character. And excellence of character is solely revealed in one's relationships with others.


Copyright (c) 1997 Neal Donner, All Rights Reserved

Emptiness and the Institutional Suicide of Chinese Buddhism, by Neal Donner

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