When we get down to the essence of religion, spirituality, and mysticism, it seems to me that the broad divide between various sorts of faiths can be boiled down to this question:
Is the focus on experiences, or the experiencer?
This isn't an either/or, a crisp choice between one or the other. Still, Zen and Advaita Vedanta are decidedly on the experiencer side. Meaning, what's more important is how the consciousness of a practitioner perceives reality, not what is perceived.
Pouring a cup of tea (or for me, sipping a mug of coffee) is as significant, or not, as soaring to the highest heaven and beholding the radiant face of... whatever.
Monotheistic religions like Christianity and Islam are much more into experiences. Their theologies are pretty weak when it comes to explaining how our human subjectivity relates to so-called "objective" reality, which is a central concern of Buddhism.
Rather, the goal is to experience God's love, embrace Jesus after death, spend eternity with the angels in heaven.
I was inspired to ponder this subject after I started reading "Open Secret." The author is Wei Wu Wei, the pseudonym of Terence Gray. Between 1958 and 1974 this Taoism aficionado (who also was attracted to Zen and Advaita) wrote a series of books.
Previously I'd heard of Wei Wu Wei, a Taoist term meaning action that is non-action, but this is my first foray into his writings. I like his blend of logical Western philosophizing and indirect Eastern "pointing at the moon."
As several reader reviews of Open Secret on Amazon say, this book is best read slowly. The author frequently crams a lot of meaning into a few words.
Like many other "non-dual" writings, Wei Wu Wei's prose stimulates conflicting feelings in me. Sometimes I'm convinced that the guy is just talking gibberish. Then I'll come across a passage that strikes an intuitive just so chord, leading me to think, Ah, this indeed is what life is all about.
Wei Wu Wei/Terence Gray zeroes in on the nature of subjectivity and objectivity. Here we are, conscious. We're aware of all kinds of things. However, we can't make a "thing" out of our consciousness, since it isn't possible to step outside of our subjective awareness.
These are some quotes from a concluding chapter that I skipped ahead to and read this morning:
If you can't find it by looking -- don't look, if you can't find it by thinking, don't think! It is where there is no looking, and no thinking.
Not because it cannot be seen or thought, but because there is no "one" to look or to think!
If a phenomenon could be "enlightened" then "enlightenment" would be phenomenal, like inebriation or any other psycho-somatic condition. If it is not phenomenal -- and anything the word could mean metaphysically certainly is not -- then there is no "self" to experience it.
The sought is the seeker that is no thing, absence is the presence of no presence and no absence. What we are, apart from one another's objects, is the absence of all objects, whereby all objects appear to be!
In-seeing does not mean looking in one direction instead of in another, "in" instead of "out," from the same centre as is commonly supposed, but seeing from within instead of from without, seeing from the source, which is noumenon, not from manifestation, which is phenomenon.
I am not an identity which understands something: understanding that there is no one to understand and nothing to be understood is understanding what I am!
Reading Wei Wu Wei, I was reminded of how my wife and I have friends who do a lot more traveling than we do.
They're off to Europe, a Caribbean cruise, hiking in New Zealand, exploring Bryce Canyon, and such while we usually hang around fairly close to home here in Oregon. Even though sometimes they'll urge us to take a trip that they've enjoyed, I never feel like they consider their experiences to be superior to our experiences.
After all, each of us is always experiencing something (assuming that dreamless sleep and other states of unconsciousness are experiences). So no one has an experience deficit; people simply have different experiences.
Each to his own. That's the general attitude in everyday life, even when someone tells me "You absolutely must try this new restaurant. It's marvelous!"
I know what they mean. They had a really good experience dining there, and they think I'd like the place also. But they aren't saying that my life will be worthless if I don't do what they did. It's just a suggestion for a new experience.
However, when it comes to religious, spiritual, or mystical experiences, often people who supposedly have had a special vision, insight, or whatever will speak as if anyone who hasn't shared that experience is missing out on something vitally important.
Well, maybe I was sipping my coffee instead. Or mowing the lawn. Or cooking spaghetti. I now tilt much toward the experiencer side of the divide I mentioned at the beginning of this post, than the experiences side.
What I do doesn't seem to be nearly as important as the quality of the doing -- using "quality" to mean something that I can't really describe, yet is real to me.
I'll let Alan Watts say it better than I can.
If I may put it in a way which is horribly cumbersome and inadequate, that fleeting glimpse is the perception that, suddenly, some very ordinary moment of your ordinary everyday life, lived by your very ordinary self, just as it is and just as you are -- that this immediate here-and-now is perfect and self-sufficient beyond any possibility of description.
You know that there is nothing to desire or seek for -- that no techniques, no spiritual apparatus of belief or discipline is necessary, no system of philosophy or religion. The goal is here. It is this present experience, just as it is.
...You may believe yourself out of harmony with life and its eternal Now; but you cannot be, for you are life and exist Now -- otherwise you would not be here. Hence the infinite Tao is something which you can neither escape by flight nor catch by pursuit; there is no coming toward it or going away from it; it is, and you are it.
So become what you are.