Secular Mysticism


By Daniel Scharpenburg


“When, therefore, you put aside your preconceived ideas, your self-centered scale of values, and let intuition have it’s way with you, you open up by this act new appearances of the world. Such an opening-up is the most practical of all activities; for then and then only will your day-to-day existence, and the natural scene in which that existence is set, begin to give up to you its richness and meaning.”

-Evelyn Underhill, “Practical Mysticism: A Little Book For Normal People”.

I think of John Author as a friend.

He’s a dharma brother to me. I don’t remember how we met (we’ve been long distance friends on Facebook for years) but I remember very clearly when I suggested to him that he should write and submit something for The Tattooed Buddha. I had no idea that he would take to it so much.

We have a lot in common. I mean that in the sense of our spiritual journeys, not in our personal lives. I live in Kansas City and I’ve had two kids and two divorces. He lives in rural Illinois and hasn’t had his first child or divorce (yet).

But our spiritual journeys are similar.

We both discovered zen without being near zen temples. We’re both big fans of that tradition but we’ve also both explored. We both read sutras and esoteric Buddhist texts the way other people read novels. We both value Prajnaparamita. We both studied with the few teachers we could find and we both, in our own way, found the idea a little silly.

We’re both skeptics who embrace mysticism wholeheartedly. We both think dharma renegades and madmen are the best.

I know that was a big introduction, but I’m telling you all of this to make it very clear that this is not an unbiased review. I am well aware that the way I see things is similar to the way John does, and you should know that before you read any further.

That said, I enjoyed this book.

I’m going to write many positive things about it and then I’ll tell you the one thing I didn’t like at the end. If you can’t handle the suspense, by all means skip to the end and come back.

When I found out my friend John wrote a book, I ordered it before I knew what it was about. “Secular Mysticism” is a cool title. I think of myself as a Buddhist Mystic, so I knew this would be an interesting exploration for me. I didn’t know that he was writing essentially a long commentary to a work by a long-dead Christian mystic. It seemed like a random choice to me, at first, as the choice for his first book. But after I read it I understood why he felt connected to Evelyn Underhill.

Some people don’t know about the Western Mystical Tradition. Most of us haven’t delved into it very deeply. In this text John masterfully weaves the Western and Eastern traditions into a whole that makes sense together in a way that we can easily understand.

Mysticism in the east involves union with our true nature.

Mysticism in the west has traditionally involved union with God.

It’s important to note one thing: This isn’t a book about Buddhism, although it’s written by a Buddhist—this is a book about enlightenment. I suppose that applies to plenty of old Buddhist texts like the Diamond Sutra too, but we think of the Sutras as being about Buddhism even though they are pointing to something else. They’re pointing to our true nature and John is pointing to it too.

Ms. Underhill wrote the book on which John’s commentary is based early in the 20th century. Western mysticism had a long history before that—a history of being practiced largely by magicians like Aleister Crowley and spiritualists like Helena Blavatsky. It was the province of those who would, to put it kindly, share little in common with ordinary folks like us.

Ms. Underhill was responding to that by suggesting a mystical path that could be practiced by ordinary people like you and me. She wanted to let everyone know that a mystical path could be followed without having to join secret societies or practice bizarre occult rituals.

In Mahayana Buddhism we talk about things like Buddha Nature and “the one taste of suchness.” These aren’t terms for a union with God, but for a union with everything. And you get there by realizing you’re already there.

I’m not sure if a lot of people are aware that we even have a western mystical tradition, but in Evelyn Underhill’s time I think it was well known. Whereas, in the east those with mystical ideas could become well known Buddhist and Hindu teachers, in the west the opportunities for those with a mystical inclination were not (and still aren’t) the same.

Sure, we can point to poets like Thoreau, but largely the western mystical tradition consists of weirdos. Aleister Crowley tried to find mystical truths by joining secret societies, engaging in mysterious rituals and practicing Magick. Helena Blavatsky tried to find mystical truths through seances and automatic writing. She believed that she was in touch with the spirit world and could contact Ascended Masters, Enlightened beings who existed to guide us.

It was in this context that Ms. Underhill wrote a text on Practical Mysticism. She wanted to present a new way to look at Western mysticism. This was a new mysticism that wasn’t dependent on Magickal spells, psychic powers, or secret societies.

At the very start of the book John gives us Ms. Underhill’s definition of mysticism. I think that’s important. When I say Buddhism is a mystical path or I call myself a Buddhist mystic, sometimes people don’t know what that means. Sometimes people equate the mystic to wizards or something. She defines it like this: “Mysticism is the art of union with reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union [to some] degree; or who aims at and believes in such attainment…”

John further says: “Mysticism is about fading the perceptual barriers between this and that, yes and no, self and other.”

Mysticism is a small part of the human condition that runs through all civilizations to some degree or another. I’ll say right away that’s the reason why some of these teachings seem the same. Evelyn Underhill might have encountered Buddhism, but there’s no reason to assume she did without evidence. The ultimate truth of reality is the ultimate truth, regardless of how one discovers it or tries to describe it.

The Four Noble Truths are true everywhere, not just in the places that Buddhism has spread.

It’s not a challenging feat at all to see the connection John feels to her. Evelyn Underhill was, in her own way, a spiritual renegade.

She saw the mystical paths of her day and she wanted to teach in a different way. She wanted to study mysticism and try to spread it in a way that people could understand, without un-needed nonsense. One wonders if her criticisms of the western mystical tradition would apply just as much to the lineage tradition of Buddhism that some of the New Buddhists suggest might not be necessary.

So, this book John has written is essentially a commentary from a Buddhist perspective of a roadmap to awakening. There are Buddhist texts that are roadmaps to awakening too. John has turned the work of an obscure Christian mystic into a Buddhist roadmap to awakening.

And he has done so masterfully.

The book opens with defining mysticism and then goes on to describe the nature of reality as inherently interconnected. It states that we can see the interconnectedness of things in those quiet moments when we aren’t so distracted—when we aren’t putting labels and preconceptions on everything around us.

We have a detailed description of the true nature of things. As a Buddhist I’d describe the ultimate nature of things as tathatagarbha, Buddha nature—or even emptiness. Ms. Underhill doesn’t use those kinds of terms, but it’s clear that that is what she’s describing.

John says: “Some ancient hobos have said that we’re always in Samadhi, that we unite with whatever is on our mental screens.”

That’s the fundamental message. If we can just quiet down the constant chatter in our minds and put down the labels we put on everything, then we can see things as they really are—a vast interconnected whole. The Jewel Net of Indra, full of gems that reflect all of reality. The one taste of suchness. Enlightenment.

Part of the point of this book is to let us know that anyone can see Ultimate Reality. It’s not limited to a select few. Because realizing our enlightenment is our true nature, anyone can do it.

The book goes on to describe some spiritual practices we can do.

  • Stop clinging to things so much.
  • Meditate (Ms. Underhill describes a few different meditation practices)
  • cultivate lovingkindness

I don’t want to go into too much detail because I want you to get the book, but I will say that the meditation practices described by Underhill are really similar to Buddhist practices that I’m familiar with, specifically vipassana, shamatha, and tonglen.

On the whole, this is an amazing book. I can’t recommend it highly enough, especially because it was only $4. I think you can even get it online for free.

The only negative thing I want to say about the book is just a little quibble.

John refers to himself as a lay buddhist/secular buddhist. That’s much too much information. I think Independent Dharma Teacher would be more fitting, because that’s what he is. We come to the teachings in different ways and we all have different things to offer.

One more thing: this book is short. It took me the better part of an afternoon to read it and I was left wanting to read more.


Photo: (John Author)

Editor: Dana Gornall