Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Esoteric vs Mystic
Esotericism vs Mysticism
So today I wanted to write a bit about the Esoteric vs the Mystic. Since both of these terms have different meanings for different people at different times, I need to narrow these terms a bit. For instance, when speaking of religion in general we can thing of most of them as having an exoteric (outer) and esoteric (side). Islam for instance (exo) has within it Sufism (eso); Judaism (exo) has Merkava and Khabbalah (eso); Buddhism has Sutra (exo) and Tantra (eso); Christianity (exo) has to many esoteric branches within it to even count. In this case the division is between an outer religion for the masses, and an inner practice for few. In most cases the outer religion rests much more on the development of faith (pistis), and the inner religion depends more upon direct experience (gnosis).
Once we focus exclusively on the interior practices of direct experience, the term Esoteric takes on another facet which distinguishes it not from Exoteric, but from Mystic. In this case Mystic paths tend to be concerned with union or ultimate realization directly and as fast as possible. Esoteric paths on the other hand, while having the same ultimate goal, tend to be much more concerned with mapping the territory and levels between the material and divine, doing things in graduated stages, and traveling the various by-ways and off-shoots that one may encounter on the way.
For instance, when one thinks of classical Gnosticism, Khabbalah, Hermetics, Tantra, Alchemy etc, we think of it is esoteric. However, when you think of Zen, Dzogchen, Sufism, Quakersism, and Hesychasm we think of them as mystics. In Christianity the esotericists have been marginalized completely, while mystics like John of the Cross, Jacob Boheme, Meister Ekhart, and even Thomas Merton have, while still on the fringe, been somewhat acceptable.
The Esoteric paths tend to rely upon complex external maps and processes for generating experience. Most emphasize passing through various spheres or encountering specific beings in a specific order. Various levels of the subtle body are explored and strengthened. Esoteric paths cultivate certain virtues and qualities in the mind and body one at a time, each one counterbalancing the other and leading one closer and closer towards divinity or enlightenment.
Mystic paths tend to cast aside the complex maps of the esoteric paths and focus instead upon simplicity, openness, relaxation, and direct perception without need of modification. Love is emphasized strongly by mystics of the Sufi and Christian traditions as a path in and of itself. Instead of traveling specific levels, the mystics see enlightenment as something that can be attained in an instant. Whereas Esoteric paths tend to utilize lots of rituals in their work, Mystics emphasize silence and meditation. Where the esoteric paths emphasize a path to travel, the mystics tend to emphasize realizing that you are already there and always were.
Most practical magick is an off-shoot of the various esoteric paths, yet ironically I consider myself more of a mystic than an esotericist when it comes to my own spiritual path. From the first mystical experience I had when I was five, to all the most important experiences I have had since, they have almost all been brought on by mystic methods rather than esoteric work. That’s not to say that I haven’t had a good many experiences brought on by esoteric ritual, but I largely consider these secondary, none have shaken me to the core. For instance, every month the Sodality I belong to works a path on the tree of life, but I consider that more about going over territory that I have already traveled in greater detail. It’s like taking a plane to California, than going back and walking it to enjoy the trip. If you have already been to the destination, there is no hurry.
If you attain Gnosis through mystical means, than you can use the various aspects of the esoteric paths as tools to accomplish this or that. Namkhai Norbu is very big on this. He teaches Tantra from a Dzogchen perspective, insisting that if one realizes rigpa, one need not bother with many of the Tantric processes in order to use some of the Tantric Sorcery. Instead you can use the Tantric Sorcery to support your Gnosis when needed. That’s why you will find lots of really short, pithy sadhanas filled with action mantras at a Norbu retreat, whereas you tend to find long (sometimes painfully long) sadhanas at most Tantric teachings, and than have to pull teeth to get someone to talk about the magtickal actions (dbang g).
Of course there are many examples of how these two are mixed. Abramelin for instance uses primarily mystical methods for attaining the K&C of the HGA and than applies that to further Esoteric work like binding the demons and so on. I don’t think that one is better than the other. In all cases I think that there are thousands of different ways to suit thousands of different dispositions. What teaching is “higher” than another depends solely upon what teaching would be best for you. Milarepa for instance encountered a Dzogchen teacher before he went to Marpa. Because it was too subtle of a teaching, he didn’t grasp it, and thus it was not a higher teaching for him. This is true even for completely outer paths. If your “outer life” has a higher volume than your “inner life” than outer religion is higher for you than any esoteric or mystical persuit. If however your inner life is more “real” to you than the “outer life”, you need eventually to decide if you are mainly a mystic or an esoteric.