The Monistic Theory

by Nhân Tử Nguyễn Văn Thọ

TOC | Preface | Chapters: 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10 11 12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19

Chapter 2

Mysticism and the Monistic Theory


There is an intimate link between the Monistic and Emanation theory with Mysticism. One can say that, if the Emanation Theory is the Tree of Life, Mysticism is its fruit. On the one hand, the Monistic Theory is elaborated and formulated by Mystics who are at the same time philosophers, and on the other hand, the Monistic Theory can help people realize Mysticism or Union with God.

The Monistic theory formulates that the external world is proceeding progressively from the One, while Mysticism proclaims that everything must return to the One. Both form the great circle of world changes and englobes everything in themselves.

The Monistic Theory is the way of creation, it is extrovert, while Mysticism is the way of re-creation, it is introvert.

What is Mysticism?

Mysticism, put simply, is selfless, direct, transcendent, unitive experience of God or Ultimate Reality, and the experiencer's interpretation of that experience. [1]

"It is a change whereby that self turns from the unreal world of sense in which it is normally immersed, first to apprehend, then to unite itself with Absolute Reality: finally, possessed by and wholly surrendered to this Transcendent Life, becomes a medium whereby the spiritual world is seen in a unique degree operating directly in the world of sense. In other words, we are to see the human mind advance from the mere perception of phenomena, through the intuition - with occasional contact - of the Absolute under its aspect of Divine Transcendence, to the entire realization of, and union with, Absolute Life under its aspect of Divine Immanence.

The completed mystical life, then, is more than intuitive: it is theopathetic. In the old, frank language of the mystics, it is the deified life."[2]

AL-Ghazali comments: "When the mystic enters into the pure and absolute Oneness of the One and into the Kingdom of the One and Alone, mortals reach the end of their ascent... No higher ascent for the soul is possible, for there is no height beyond the highest and no multiplicity in the face of the Unity..." [3]

This Unitive life is rendered in verses by Jalalu'd Din:

"With Thy Sweet Soul, this soul of mine

Hath mixed as Water doth with Wine.

Who can the Wine and Water part,

Or me and Thee when we combine?

Thou art become my greater self,

Small bounds no more can me confine.

Thou hast my being taken on,

And shall not I now take on Thine? ..." [4]

If a mystic is a man who seeks the one God, the Substance of things, he is the proselyte of the Emanation Theory. Evelyn Underhill wrote: "One can say that this view appears early in the history of Greek philosophy. It is developed by Dionysius, by the Kabalists, by Dante; and is implied in the language of Rulman Merswin, St. John of the Cross and many other Christian ecstatics.

"The solar system is an almost perfect symbol of this concept of Reality; which finds at once its most rigid and most beautiful expression in Dante 'Paradisio'. The Absolute Godhead is conceived as removed by a vast distance from the material world of sense; the last or lowest of that system of dependent worlds or states which, generated by or emanating from the Unity or Central Sun, become less in Spirituality and Splendor, greater in multiplicity, the further they recede from their source. That Source - the Great Countenance of the Godhead - can never, say the Kabalists, be discerned by man. It is the Absolute of the Neoplatonists, the Unplumbed Abyss of later mysticism: the Cloud of Unknowing wraps it from our sight. Only by its "emanations" or manifested attributes can we attain knowledge of it. By the outflow of these same manifested attributes and powers the created universe exists, depending in the last resort on the Latens Deitas: Who is therefore conceived as external to the world which he illuminates and vivifies." [5]

"St. Thomas Aquinas virtually accepts the Doctrine of Emanations when he writes: "As all perfections of Creatures descend in order from God, who is the height of perfection, man should begin from the lower Creatures and ascend by degrees, and so advance to the knowledge of God... And because in that roof and crown of all things, God, we find the most perfect unity, and everything is stronger and more excellent the more thoroughly it is one; it follows that diversity and variety increase in things, the further they are removed from Him who is the first principle of all." [6]

"Suso, whose mystical system, like that of most Dominicans, is entirely consistent with Thomist philosophy, is really glossing Aquinas when he writes: "The supreme and super-Essential Spirit has ennobled man by illuminating him with a ray from the Eternal Godhead... Hence from out the great ring, which represents the Eternal Godhead, there flow forth... little rings, which may be taken to signify the high nobility of natural creatures". [7]

The theory of Immanence is the second pillar of mysticism

"To the holder of this theory, wrote Mrs. Evelyn Underhill, the quest of the Absolute is no long journey, but a realization of something which is implicit in the self and in the universe: an opening of the eyes of the soul upon the Reality in which it is bathed... "God", says Plotinus, "is not external to anyone, but is present with all things, though they are ignorant that He is so." In other and older words, "The Spirit of God is within you". "The Absolute, Whom all seek, does not hold Himself aloof from an imperfect material universe, but dwells within the flux of things: stands as it were at the very threshold of consciousness and knocks, awaiting the self's slow discovery of her treasures." "He is not far from any of us, for in Him we live and move and have our being". Aquinas says: "Since God is the universal cause of all Being, in whatever region Being can be found, there must be the Divine Presence." The theory of immanence..."is the philosophical basis of that practice of introversion, which has been the "method" of all great practical mystics of all creeds. That God, since He is in all - in a sense, is all - may most easily be found within our self... They claim with Ruysbroeck, that "by a simple introspection in fruitful love", they "meet God without intermediary." They hear the Father of Lights "saying eternally, without intermediary or interruption, in the most secret part of the Spirit, the one, unique, and abysmal Word."

"This discovery of a "divine" essence or substance, dwelling, as Ruybroeck says, at the apex of man's soul is that fundamental experience _ found in some form or degree in all genuine mystical religion - which provides the basis of the New Testament doctrine of the indwelling spirit. It is, variously interpreted, the "spark of the soul" of Eckhart, the "ground" of Tauler, the Inward Light of the Quakers, the "Divine Principle" of some modern Transcendentalists; the fount and source of all true life. At this point, logical exposition fails mystic and theologian alike. A tangle of metaphors takes its place. We are face to face with the "wonder of wonders" - that most real, yet most mysterious, of all the experiences of religion, the union of man and divine, in a nameless something, which is "great enough to be God, small enough to be me".

"According to the doctrine of Immanence, creation, the universe, could we see it as it is, would be perceived as the self-development, the self- revelation of this indwelling Deity.

"I understood", says St. Teresa, "how our Lord was in all things, and how He was in the soul; and the illustration of a sponge, filled of water was suggested to me."

"The world-process, then, is the slow coming to fruition of that Divine Spark which is latent alike in the Cosmos and in man. "If," says Boehme, "thou conceivest a small minute circle, as small as a grain of mustard seed, yet the Heart of God is wholly and perfectly therein: and if thou art born in God, then there is in thyself (in the circle of thy life) the whole Heart of God undivided." [8]

"It is worth noticing that both the theological doctrines of reality which have been acceptable to the mystics implicitly declare, as science does, that 'the universe is not static but dynamic; a World of Becoming'. According to the doctrine of Immanence, this universe is free, self-creative. The divine action floods it: no part is more removed from the Godhead than any other part. "God," says Eckhart, "is nearer to me than I am to myself; He is just as near to wood and stone, but they do not know it." [9]

Goal of Mysticism: Return to the One, Union with the One

A true mystic must be an emanationist; a true emanationist must be a mystic.

Both start their vocation by an illumination: The mystery of Being is revealed to them. They see nature's secret and God in all things. They realize that the Godhead, as Being or Essence, is manifesting itself by emanation, through all the phenomena.

Thus, they start their new life by a personal experience and not by a hearsay. After experiencing the presence of God in their soul, they see God immanent in the world. They declare with Eckart: "All that a man has here externally in multiplicity is intrinsically one. Here all blades of grass, wood and stone, all things are one." They sing with William Blake:

 To see a world in a Grain of Sand,

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour. [10]

The next step is to see the two selves in them:

1). An individual self or the human soul constituting with the body, the world of phenomena and of becoming: a transient world with transient sentiments, thoughts, dreams and imaginations, with physiological and anatomical changes, a world of actual facts, a world of personalities and separateness.

2). An Universal or Divine Self, constituting the world of Essence, of permanence, of eternity, of immortality and ideal, of serenity and happiness...

If asked for the choice between the two selves, the mystic must naturally opt for the Divine Self, and reject the phenomenal and transitory self. This greatest event, experienced only by greatest mystics in the world, is termed as Sudden Illumination, or Sudden Self-Realization .

Plotinus said: "No doubt we should not speak of seeing; but we cannot help talking in duality, seen and seer, instead of boldly the achievement of unity. In this seeing, we neither hold an object not trace distinction: there is no two. The man is changed, no longer himself nor self-belonging; he is merged with the Supreme, sunken into it, one with it... [11]

Then, no more Thou-I relationship, no more separateness, no more distinction, since:

" All that is not one must ever

Suffer with the wound of Absence,

And whoever in Love's city

Enters, finds but room for One

And but in One-ness, Union." [12]

Everything external is considered by a mystic as his companions, helping him on his way to God. A dying Hindu ascetic expressed himself as follows:

" Oh Mother Earth, Father Sky

Brother Wind, Friend Light, Sweetheart Water,

Here take my last salutation with folded hands!

For today I am melting away into the Supreme

Because my heart became pure,

And all delusion vanished,

Through the power of your good company. [13] 

This transcendental state requires, then, the prior loss of self, prior loss or prior death of human self, or human soul. It is what is referred to in the Gospel as self-denial (Mat. 16:24. Mark 8:34. Luke 9: 23). Jesus was emphatic about that. In the Latin version of the Vulgate, he said: "Qui enim voluerit animam suam salvam facere, perdiderit eam; qui autem perdiderit animam suam propter me, inveniet eam. (Mat. 16:26) (For whosoever will save his soul, shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his soul for my sake, shall find it.) [14]

This loss of the human self is termed by Buddhists, as annihilation of personality [15]; by Sufis, as total absorption in God [16]: by Chuang Tzu, as loss of self [17]; by Hindu mystics, as "that art thou" [18].

We see that the greatest mystics always profess the doctrine of annihilation of the ephemeral personality, of the ephemeral self or human soul, or of the limited personality, and they are reluctant to use the term "perfecting of personality", or transformation of the self into God, because, according to their view, the ephemeral cannot be changed into the eternal.

On the contrary, many Christian and Moslem mystics prefer the I-Thou formula. For them, the mystical life consists of Love, and finally of Spiritual Marriage between the human soul -the Bride- and God or Christ -The Bridegroom-. In the Divine Union, they like to keep their own identity and personality. For me, this is a very low conception of mysticism, because it implicates duality.

The Medieval Alchemists thought that they could purify the Soul, which stands for the Lead -, and transmute it into the "pure Gold", -which stands for God or Christ. They called it "the Great Work'. This could be done, if they could have at their disposition the "Philosopher's Stone" -which stands for the "Immanent God".

Common people look at the Mystic Way as an external pilgrimage, a quest for the Holy Grail, or for a Hidden Treasure in some lost land...

Poets, such as the Sufi poet, Attar, describe the mystic way as a journey through "Seven Valley", an arduous trip from the material to the spiritual world.

"Through all these metaphors of pilgrimage to a goal, a road followed, distance overpassed, fatigue endured, there runs one definite idea: that the traveling self, in undertaking the journey, is fulfilling a destiny, a law of the transcendental life; obeying an imperative need. The chosen Knights are destined or called to the quest of the Grail. "All men are called to their origin", says Rulman Merswin, and the fishes which he sees in his Vision of Nine Rocks are impelled to struggle, as it were "against nature ", uphill from pool to pool towards their source.

"All mystical thinkers agree in declaring that there is a mutual attraction between the Spark of the Soul, the free divine germ in man, and the Fount from which it came forth. "We long for the Absolute," says Royce, "only is so far as in us the Absolute also longs and seeks, through our very temporal striving, the peace, that nowhere in Time, but only, and yet absolutely, in Eternity."[19]

As for me, the Goal of all mystics is in our heart, and not outside. We have not to consider it as a long external journey. We must find our way in our self.

To reconcile these different views, we can say that the final Goal is the same - that is Union with God - while initial conceptions and personal expressions can vary according to temperament, to cultural contexts, to linguistic preference and to metaphorical veils.

Mystics are aware of these differences:

"There are two kinds of Samadhi," writes Nikhilananda. In the one, the aspirant "retains consciousness of the individual soul, the body, and the world, and at the same time sees them all as permeated by Brahman..." In the other, "the I-consciousness is totally obliterated, and there no longer remains any distinction between knower, knowledge, and the object of knowledge." [20]

Prabhavananda writes: "Samadhi is chiefly of two kinds: Savikalpa, lower Samadhi, and Nirvikalpa, the higher kind. In the lower form of Samadhi, there exist the sense of "I" as distinct, though not separate from God, wherein is realized the personal aspect of God. God the Creator, God the Father, God the Mother, God the Friend, God the Beloved - any or all of these aspects of God may then be realized in their completeness.

"Nirvikalpa is the higher form of Samadhi, wherein no sense of the separate ego is left, and there is realized the oneness of the self with God, the Impersonal. In that experience, there is neither I nor you, neither one nor many. Pantajali defines it as the cessation of all waves of the mind, that is, the complete stoppage of all thoughts and impressions of the minds, conscious and unconscious. The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart mentions the same method of attainment in Mystiche Schriften. "Memory, understanding, will tend toward diversity and multiplicity of thought, therefore you must leave them all aside, as well as perception, ideation, and everything in which you find your self or seek your self. Only then can you experience this new birth - otherwise never." [21]

Evelyn Underhill wrote: "The metaphysical mystic, for whom the Absolute is impersonal and transcendent, describes his final attainment of that Absolute as deification, or the utter transmutation of the self in God.

The mystic for whom intimate and personal communion has been the mode under which he best apprehended Reality, speaks of the consummation of this communion, its perfect and permanent form, as the Spiritual Marriage of his soul with God...

The language of "deification" and of "Spiritual Marriage" then is temperamental language: and is related to subjective experience rather than to objective fact. It describes on the one hand the mystic's astonished recognition of a profound change effected in his personality - the transmutation of his salt, sulfur, and mercury into Spiritual Gold - on the other, the rapturous consummation of his love... [22]

It is worth noticing that these different attitudes can be explained also by the influence of different religions, which exert upon mystics and individuals.

According to Will Herbert "... The higher religions of mankind fall into two main groups distinguished by widely different, often diametrically opposed preconceptions and attitudes.

One group we may quite properly call Hebraic, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The other group consists, as Moore points out, of "the esoteric religions and philosophies of India and of Greece, and the foreign mysteries of the Hellenistic-Roman world." Perhaps the most appropriate designation for this type would be Greco-Oriental; Buddhism and Yoga are its best known modern representatives..."

"... Hebraic and Greco-Oriental religion, agree in affirming some Absolute Reality as Ultimate, but they differ fundamentally in what they say about this Reality. To Greco-Oriental thought whether mystical or philosophic, the Ultimate Reality is some primal impersonal force. To call it God, as so many has done, would be misleading; it is more nearly "goodness" than God, an all-engulfing divine quality, the ground and end of everything. Whether one names it Brahman or the All-Soul or Nature (as Spinoza does), or Nothing At All (as is the way of many mystics) does not really matter; what is meant is very much the same in all cases: some ineffable, immutable, impassive divine substance that pervades the universe or rather is the universe insofar as the latter is all real. This of course is pantheism; the All is "God". Greco- Oriental religion, whatever its specific form, irresistibly tends towards a pantheistic position.

"Nothing could be further from normative Hebraic religion. To Hebraic religion, God is neither a metaphysical principle nor an impersonal force. God is a living Will, a "living", active Being... endowed with personality." As against the Greco-Oriental conception of immanence, of divinity permeating all thing and constituting their reality, Hebraic religion affirms God as a transcendent Person, who has indeed created the universe but who cannot without blasphemy be identified with it.

Where Greco-Oriental thought sees continuity between God and the Universe, Hebraic religion insists on discontinuity. "Hebrew religion, Frankfort declares. "rejects precisely this doctrine (that the divine is immanent in nature). The absolute transcendence of God is the foundation of Hebrew religious thoughts. God is absolute, unqualified, transcending every phenomenon... God is not in sun and stars, rain and wind: they are his creatures and serve him." [23]

Our study on the Theory of Emanation, and Mysticism leads us to this very important conclusion:

Mysticism can be labeled as an esoteric religion, common to East and West. It is based on the Emanation Theory, viewing the world as proceeding from God; on the dual nature of man - human and Divine -; on the dual aspect of the world - transient and eternal, phenomenal and essential; on the immanence of God; on salvation by personal gnosis and illumination; and on final union with God. We must repeat that for mystics, God or the Ultimate Reality is rather a primal impersonal force, pervading the world. It is an esoteric religion, characterized by "the Kingdom of God within", by the search of the immanent God within the soul.

It is, therefore, reserved for an elected few. The aim of this esoteric religion is Union with God, which means Deification. It does not search for a Spiritual Marriage with God or Christ. It is not a communion with God, because this still implicates duality. It is not a long pilgrimage, because it is an internal quest for the Immanent God. It does not search for Paradise, nor for the beatific vision of God, but for the Identity with God.

In our way back to God, we are given a great gift, namely our Conscience, which, if we listen to it, can become a Pole Star or a beacon, leading us safely to our final goal.

The laws that govern mystics are eternal laws written in the heart of everything, as well as in their heart. These laws are not easy to be found out, and we should be very careful to find them. They are physical, anatomical, physiological, psychological, and spiritual, that guide us only to our best. In our times, we find out that between us and the environment, there is an harmonious symbiosis. And we are trying to keep our balance with the environment: no ecological pollution, no whimsical deforestation, no whimsical killing of animals etc

Institutional religions are based on the theory of creation ex nihilo; on the only human nature of man, and his depravity; on the transcendence and separateness of God from the world; they can be termed as exoteric religions, characterized by the "Kingdom of God without", "Kingdom of God among men, instead of within men"; by the search of God in churches, in temples, in external ceremonies, in sacraments, pomps and prayers. They are different from each other, and try to have as many followers as possible, and can be engaged in inhuman and bloody wars in order to consolidate their power and their control over men. Their aim is the fruition of the Beatific Vision of God in some Paradise, and the avoidance of eternal damnation in Hell. For them, the world is governed by arbitrary laws of God, who can destroy it at any time.

These two views of reality can help us have a better insight on the dual aspect -esoteric and exoteric- of the religious entity.


[1] Hal Bridges, American Mysticism, Harper and Row, 1970, p. 2.

[2] Everlyn Underhill, Mysticism, A Meridian Book, p. 174-175.

[3] Hal Bridges, American Mysticism, Harper and Row, 1970, p. 2.

[4] Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism, A Meridian Book, p. 426.

[5] Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism, A Meridian Book, 1974, p. 97.

[6] Summa Contra Gentiles, 1,iv. cap. i.(Rickaby's translation).

Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism, A Meridian book, 1974, p. 97.

[7] Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism, A Meridian Book, 1974, p. 97-98.

[8] Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism A Meridian Book, New York, pp.97-100.

[9] Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism A Meridian Book, New York, p. 99.

[10] Hal Bridges, American Mysticism, Harper and Row, 1970, p. 3.

[11] Ibidem p. 3.

[12] Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism, A Memento Book, New American Library, 1974, p. 82.

[13] Ibidem p. 208.

[14] Common translation: "For whosoever will save his life etc and whosoever will lose his life, etc.

[15] Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism, p. 171.

[16] Ibidem p. 171.

[17] Gia Fu Feng & Jane English, trans., Chuang Tzu, Alfred A. Knoff. p. 20.

[18] Hal Bridges, American Mysticism, p. 75.

[19] Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism, A Meridian Book, 1974, p. 132.

[20] Hal Bridges, American Mysticism, Harper, 1970, pp. 75-76.

[21] Swami Prabhavananda, Yoga and Samadhi. From Christopher Ishwerwood, ed. Vedanta for the Western Word. 1945.

[22] Evelyn Underhill. Mysticism, p. 415.

[23] Will Herbert, The Fundamental Outlook of Hebraic Religion, from Judaism and Modern Man, 1951, pp. 282-283.

TOC | Preface | Chapters: 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10 11 12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19