Is mysticism the antidote to fundamentalism?

A Facebook friend asked me whether mysticism is the antidote for religious fundamentalism. My answer is “No.” The real antidote to fundamentalism is critical thinking and functional literacy. Sadly, these are rare commodities. The comprehension of any literature requires a certain level of cultural and historical literacy. In order to decipher religious texts, one has to be well-educated. One has to understand the text within its historical and social context. In addition, much of religious fundamentalism has to do with a refusal to accept the modern mindset, which is based on openmindedness, empiricism, skepticism, and the scientific spirit. Mysticism, based on highly personal experiences, will not solve the problem of blind faith in a belief system, including beliefs in various conspiracy theories and QAnon.

In Buddhist literature, there are several very important sutras — the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra — which are generally considered difficult to understand. “Experts” such as D.T. Suzuki have been telling the West that the understanding of Zen and the comprehension of Buddhist sutras requires “dropping the mind,” because Zen is irrational. This is utter nonsense. What is “mysticism”? The Macmillan Dictionary defines the term as “the belief that you can understand God (or Ultimate Reality) directly by praying and meditating, or the practice of doing this.” Zen is sometimes considered a form of mysticism.

This is nonsensical talk, posturing to be profound. How can we experience anything “directly”? We always experience the world through our minds (or our consciousness). Everything that we experience is mediated by the mind. I, being a contrarian and a heretic, am a teacher who combines Western Enlightenment with Eastern enlightenment. In the last few years, I discovered that even abstruse sutras such as the Diamond Sutra can be interpreted rationally. The more likely reason that many people claim that Zen is irrational is that they are faking profundity and they are not the world’s best communicators. Or they have no deep understanding of their own, which is even worse.

My advice is that you should not blindly accept the opinions of the “experts.” Whatever you hear, you should try to refute it. Wrestle with it. Don’t give in easily. You should accept something only after you have exercised your critical thinking and come to a conclusion on your own. Don’t be intimidated by “authority.” Appeal to authority is a well-known fallacy. The Dharma can be understood with the mind. That is why there are so many Buddhist and Vedic writings in the first place. The Chinese Zen masters are a verbose bunch. Buddhist literature is an immense ocean.

Yes, you are going to hear the mantra which says “Zen cannot be put into words,” as if saying this over and over again will make it true. Just ask yourself this — is the saying that “Zen cannot be put into words” contradicting itself?

Listen to what other people have to say about various topics. But don’t abdicate your reason and thinking ability. Always be skeptical. If there is a message Buddha tried to convey time and again, it is “Take refuge in yourself,” or “Be a lamp unto yourself.” It is one of Buddha’s last words. We should remember that.

Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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