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In this article, I address divergent Buddhist positions on conceptual and non-conceptual understanding of reality and the process of transition from the former to the latter. My discussion is anchored in the context of a well-known problematic issue in the field of religious studies, namely, the question of (un)mediated mystical experience. Connecting uniquely Buddhist philosophical and contemplative perspectives with the questions debated in contemporary studies of mysticism, I argue that Buddhism can make significant contributions to that field. Not only does it provide refined models of mind, contemplative processes, and other elements that help us understand certain mystical experiences, but it also encourages us to rethink the very meaning of “mediation,” “ineffability,” “experience,” and other categories used in discussions of mysticism. The application of the category of mystical experience to Buddhist traditions thereby problematizes that category itself, simultaneously suggesting new meanings and perspectives. Far from being passive objects of contemporary scholarly Euro-American discourse on this issue, Buddhist traditions can actively engage, challenge, and modify that discourse.
Research into specificities of experiences, insights, and realizations articulated by Buddhists themselves and interpreted from within the context of Buddhist worldviews and practices has much more to offer to the study of mysticism and mystical experiences than the one that starts with generalizations about mysticism across diverse religions grouped under such categories as “theistic,” “non-theistic,” and so forth. For example, most Buddhists would disagree that such key Buddhist experiences as realization of ultimate reality and awakening or “enlightenment” are accessible to those who have not undergone specific types of Buddhist training and conditioning. At the same time, they also agree on similarities or sameness of certain experiences across Buddhist traditions. That consensus in its turn is often interwoven with fierce polemics against seeming flaws of Buddhist traditions disagreeing with one’s own in the areas of contemplation, identification of reality, results of meditative practice, and so forth. Studying these elements across Buddhist traditions and analyzing how Buddhists themselves approach such differences, similarities, uniqueness, and diversity will greatly contribute to a more nuanced overall understanding of mysticism and mystical experiences.
In particular, I argue that if the category of “mystical experience” is applicable to Buddhism at all, the direct realization of ultimate reality (Skt. paramārthasatya) or emptiness (Skt. śūnyatā) should be treated as one of the highest expressions of that experience in the Buddhist context because of its supreme soteriological value as the only direct antidote to impediments to awakening. Likewise, because that realization both transcends and destroys conceptuality, mundane mentality, and dualistic thinking, it best approximates the category of “unmediated mystical experience,” if such a category has any relevant use in the Buddhist context. Correspondingly, because the process of direct realization of ultimate reality is one of the most challenging and important topics of Buddhist philosophical and contemplative theory and practice, the study of different approaches to accessing that realization directly bears upon and promises to contribute to the question of (un)mediated mystical experience. Therefore, although many elements involved in this polemical issue are uniquely Buddhist, their analysis can help us to achieve a better and more nuanced understanding of the issue of (un)mediated mystical experience. While only briefly addressing other forms of mystical experience in Buddhism, I will be targeting the issue of the process of realization of ultimate reality throughout this article.