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The Taoist Mystical Experience: Analysis of the Numinous and Mystical Aspects

The Taoist Mystical Experience: Analysis of the Numinous and Mystical Aspects
by Jennifer Layton

In his essay "Mysticism and Meditation," Robert M. Gimello's praises Ninian Smart for his distinction between the "numinous" and "mystical" experience; however, this distinction can be misleading for it assumes that the "numinous" experience belongs solely to those mystics of the prophetic religions - Judaism, Islam and Christianity - and that the religious experience of "certain strands of Buddhism (along with some varieties of Taoism, Hinduism, etc.)" is exclusively "mystical" (Katz 171). Gimello, paraphrasing Smart, goes on to describe a numinous experience as"An encounter with a being wholly other than oneself ... gratuitous, in the sense that those subject to it are not themselves responsible for its occurrence" (Katz 171). By contrast, the mystical experience is "not so much an encounter with a 'sacred other' as it is the interior attainment of a certain supernatural state of mind" and is the result of the "subject's own efforts in following a certain contemplative discipline or method" (Katz 172).

Following Ninian Smart's distinction, one would naturally assume that the experience of the Taoist mystic is "mystical"; first, because Taoism is not a prophetic religion, and second, because the experience is self-initiated. However, the Taoist mystical experience is unique in that it can be considered both mystical and numinous. The Taoist mystical state is: spiritually elevated, supernatural, and incapable of being described, all of which are qualities that define the term "numinous."

Huston Smith, in his book The World's Religions, states that there exist three meanings of Tao: the Way of Ultimate Reality, the Way of the Universe, and the Way of Human Life (Smith 198). These three meanings of Tao allow for a more comprehensive understanding of how the Taoist mystical experience contains both numinous and mystical aspects.

The Way of Ultimate Reality: Smith states that "though Tao is ultimately transcendent, it is also immanent" (Smith 198). This point is crucial in that it shows that both numinous and mystical aspects exist in the Taoist mystical state. The concepts of transcendence and immanence directly relate to Smart's distinction. The numinous experience in a prophetic religion deals exclusively with transcendence because adherents of this type of religious tradition worship a supreme being that transcends humankind. In order for a union to form between the mystic and the supreme being, the mystic must "step outside" his or her mundane and bodily existence. By contrast, in mystical religions, the experience of the mystic involves immanence; one must reflect internally to form a union with the desired state of being, i.e., Atman/Brahman for the Hindu mystic, Enlightenment for the Buddhist disciple. While the Taoist mystical experience also involves internal reflection, both immanence and transcendence occur. Tao not only lies within the human "veiled in our consciousness by the artificiality's of civilization" (Eliade 291), but transcends all that it has created - Man, Earth and Nature. As Sidney Spencer states in his book Mysticism in World Religion," the Tao is the Source of all things; it is self-existent; it transcends time and space" (Spencer 99). Tao is spiritually elevated not only as the Way of Ultimate Reality, but as the Way of the Universe - Smith's second and significant meaning of Tao.

Although a supreme being does not exist in Taoism, disciples of this religion speak of a "supreme state of being and can be reached only through the greatest personal effort and self-discipline" (Reid 4). This supreme state of being is Tao - the Way of the Universe. According to F.C. Happold in his text Mysticism: A Study and an Anthology," though Tao is sometimes translated as the Way, in its transcendental aspect it is the Primal Meaning, the Undivided Unity which lies behind all phenomena" (Happold 149). Transcendence invokes the feeling of a clear separation between God and man, and in prophetic religions this meaning is solely accepted. However, Tao, as a supreme and supernatural state of being transcends all that is life, and the Taoist saint must "leave his material body" in order to return to Tao. According to the great Taoist sage Chuang-tzu, the Taoist adept "has the internal impression of flying off and moving freely in space but externally the individual in a state of ecstasy resembles a piece of dead wood" (Eliade 292). Through the discipline of meditation and inner contemplation, the Taoist saint is able to spiritually leave his/her material body and return to Tao. Once the Taoist mystic has achieved this state, he/she is able to return to the ordinary world with a spiritually illumined soul similar to the Buddhist arhat living in Nirvana with substrate. According to Mircea Eliade," mystical ecstasy is neither accessible to all Taoists nor permanent, a Taoist saint did not necessarily withdraw from the world, but he could at the same time be 'outside the world' and live as an ordinary man among others" (Eliade 292). This "spiritual voyage" illustrates the transcendental aspect of the Taoist mystical experience; although Tao is not a supreme being that transcends humankind, it is a supreme state of being that transcends humankind in its supernatural state as the Way of the Universe.

Paradoxically, Tao lies within all humankind as it simultaneously transcends. Although the Taoist saint must "leave his body" in order to attain spiritual salvation, the "spirit" of Tao is also immanent. Happold states that the word Tao has a double meaning."In addition to its transcendental aspect, Tao is a way of life bound up with a moral principle or 'virtue' inherent in the very nature of the cosmos" (Happold 149). Thus, Tao is inherent in all humankind despite claims that it is impersonal. John Blofeld in his book Taoism: The Road to Immortality states that Tao is "An impersonal perfection from which beings including man are separated only by delusion" (Blofeld 2). By contrast, if Tao is a way of life for humans to follow, then it must contain a personal and spiritual element in which humans are able to follow throughout their existence in this world. Smith defines the third meaning of Tao as the Way of Human Life. According to Smith, the object of philosophical Taoism is to "Align one's daily life to the Tao, to ride its boundless tide and delight in its flow" (Smith 207). To do this one must live a life of wu-wei or "non- contrivance." This means that human behavior should always follow intuition," unmediated by thought or deliberation." The only way to truly understand Tao is through wu-wei or tzu-jan -"The attitude that does not discriminate or make distinctions about things but responds immediately or spontaneously" (Eliade 739). According to Smith, the effectiveness of wu-wei requires extraordinary skill. It is the Taoist saint, through deep internal contemplation and experiential knowledge through accordance with Nature, who can attain union with Tao.

The experience of the Taoist mystic has the numinous quality of ineffability. Happold dedicates a chapter of his book to the characteristics of mystical states and includes ineffability as a universal aspect of the mystical experience. The first two lines of the Tao-Teh-Ching state that the true Tao is incapable of being talked about or named. Names infer manipulation and limitation, and Tao is limitless, infinite and universal. Thus, the Taoist mystic realizes that any interpretation of his or her experience would be impossible and inconceivable. Adherents of philosophical Taoism recognize the ineffability of Tao and realize that Tao can be known only through direct and experiential knowledge. Tao cannot be comprehended through the intellect, and "elimination of knowledge" is encouraged. According to Eliade," the Taoists in fact condemn all discursive knowledge, for, they maintain, it introduces multiplicity into the soul, which should, rather, 'embrace Unity' - be unified in the Tao" (Eliade 291). Thus, Taoism advocates the gradual "elimination of knowledge" in order for the Taoist saint to gain intuitive wisdom and cultivate wu-wei.

Ninian Smart's distinction between the "numinous" and "mystical" experience provides the intellectual community with a way to categorize mystical states and, even more important, a way to differentiate interpretations of mystical experiences. However, this method of distinction is not without a flaw, for it causes the "one or the other" syndrome in one's attempt to name the unique experience of the Taoist saint as being either "numinous" or "mystical." While Rudolf Otto claims "Taoism moves wholly in the numinous" (Spencer 102), the Taoist mystical experience contains qualities that enable it to fall under both of Smith's labels. Concepts that define the term "numinous" such as "spiritually elevated," "supernatural" and "Indescribable" also can be ascribed to the Taoist mystical state. Further, union with Tao involves both immanence and transcendence. In relation to Ninian Smart's distinction theory, the mystical state of the Taoist can be understood in both "numinous" and "mystical" terms.

The Taoist Mystical Experience: Analysis of the Numinous and Mystical Aspects

Works cited

Blofeld, John. Taoism: The Road to Immortality. Boston: Shambhala, 1985.
Eliade, Mircea, ed. Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 14. New York: Macmillan PC, 1982.
Robert M. Gimello," Mysticism and Meditation."Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis. Ed. Steven T. Katz. New York: Oxford UP, 1978.
Happold, F.C. Mysticism: A Study and an Anthology. London: Penguin Group, 1963.
Reid, Daniel P. The Tao of Health, Sex and Longevity. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1989.
Smith, Huston. The World's Religions. San Francisco: Harper Collins P, 1991.
Spencer, Sidney. Mysticism in World Religion. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1971.
Tao Teh Ching. Trans., John C.H. Wu. Boston: Shambhala, 1989.

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