A Basic Understanding of Eastern Mysticism

A Basic Understanding of Eastern Mysticism

You may think that you don’t really have that much interaction with Far Eastern Mysticism because you don’t hang out with Hindus or Buddhists. But if that is what you think, you have become desensitized to many of the things that are going on all around you.

There are many well known and popular movies and television shows which promote the beliefs of Eastern Mysticism. In addition to that, any time you hear people giving credence to ideas such as karma, Eastern meditation or reincarnation, you are bumping into this belief system. It is also not unusual for some people to use elements of modern science, particularly quantum physics, as a means of helping promote elements of the Far Eastern Worldview. Then there are several actual Eastern belief systems which have gained a firm foothold in our society – such as Buddhism, Transcendental Meditation, Hare Krishna, Taoism, and some elements of New Age philosophy. The fact is, the tentacles of this worldview have penetrated deeply into many parts of modern American society without most people even realizing what it is.

Because it has become such a prominent part of our society, it is essential for Christians to be able to recognize it and understand why it is not the Truth. To protect our personal faith and effectively share the gospel with those who follow this worldview, we must prepare ourselves to deal with it.

A Basic Understanding
Eastern Mysticism is a more popular term for the worldview we are calling Far Eastern Thought (FET). For Westerners, FET is probably the most difficult of the four worldviews to fully comprehend. That is because it is so dramatically different from the primary worldview beliefs of Western cultures. FET is the belief that the ultimate expression of reality consists of an impersonal life force. There is no God for a person to personally relate to, or one who is able to reveal himself to humankind. Philosophically speaking, this worldview does not distinguish between the secular and the divine (pantheism) and teaches that all of reality is composed of, and reducible to, a single substance (monism).

The gist of this belief system is that the essential core of all living beings is a part of the impersonal life force. The essence of existence is not personal and self-conscious, rather it is impersonal and without a personal self-consciousness. This means that even though you seem to be aware of yourself and to be able to live life based on your awareness of personal desires, that is all an illusion. Your ultimate fate is to have no self-conscious existence at all. Your life force simply exists as a part of a larger impersonal mass.

Looking at the big picture, the life force is a unified whole which exists in the cosmos. However, for some reason, pieces of the life force have become separated from the main body and trapped in the material universe. These pieces do, however, have within them a drive to become united with the main body. The belief is that this is accomplished through the process of many physical reincarnations which serve to bring an individual to higher and higher levels until, one day, they are able to escape the cycles of reincarnation in the physical world and become absorbed into the impersonal main body.

Adherents of FET are not able to take seriously any kind of material reality – whether knowledge or sensory experience. That is because they don’t acknowledge that such a thing actually exists. They go on to assert that the nature of ultimate reality (the impersonal life force) is quite beyond the ability of humans to fully comprehend. The goal of life, therefore, is to simply accept that reality cannot be fully known, and to passively live life. This attitude frees a person from the suffering that “seems” to be all around. The idea is that since pain and suffering are nothing more than an illusion, we can simply ignore it. When the state of total passivity is achieved, individuals are freed to simply let life come as it will.

Some of the major belief systems which have a foundation in FET include Hinduism, Buddhism, Hare Krishna, Transcendental Meditation, Taoism, Jainism, Sikhism, and some elements of the New Age movement.

Historical Background
The FET understanding of reality originated in India. Its various expressions have become known as Hinduism, but this characterization can be a bit misleading. Hinduism, even in its early period, was not a monolithic religion. It has absorbed uncountable customs and concepts from the various places it has moved into, and has branched off into many other religions, some radically different from their source. In fact, there are so many schools of Hindu thought today that almost anything that could be said about it must be qualified to some extent.

The history of Hinduism comes from the Aryan peoples who moved to the Indus Valley in northwestern India, somewhere around 1500 B.C. Over the next several centuries they conquered the entire subcontinent of India and brought with them the religion that was then in Iran. The Aryans were polytheistic and had an elaborate system of sacrifices which led to the formation of a priesthood (the Brahmins). This later evolved further into the caste system. In the process much of the religion of the invaded group was absorbed as well.

The earliest stage of Hinduism is usually called the pre-Vedic period. At this time the people were polytheistic and worshiped a mother goddess and a horned god.

The second stage, the Vedic period, began around 1500 B.C. when the Aryans invaded northern India and imposed their Vedic civilization and religion on the Indians there.

Around 600 B.C. came the Upanishadic period when Hinduism became a more philosophical religion and began evolving into the popular religion of the masses. During this time, the Vedic religion boiled all the gods down into a single pantheistic principle (the absolute universal soul, or Brahman – our universal life force) with the belief that the universe is god and god is the universe. This completed the process of evolution from which the major tenets of FET emerged.

Basic Beliefs and Practices
There are many different branches of FET which philosophically and theologically diverge in various directions. There are several concepts, however, which form the basic foundation of almost all FET systems.

1. Submission to Fate – Man is understood to be a part of the eternal life force (the universal absolute) and has no access to a personal God who can help or do anything for him. Each person does his deeds on earth and “what will be will be.”

2. The Law of Karma – Karma is the principle that every action a person does has consequences beyond the act itself. Good actions create good karma and bad actions create bad karma. Karma is carried over from one lifetime to the next, so one’s present state of existence is determined by his performance in previous lifetimes. The goal is to accumulate enough good karma to end the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

There are different categories of karma. There is the karma one is born with which came from previous lives, the karma from the actions of one’s present life, karma produced by one’s thoughts and life plans, and the karma that is in force for this present life. In addition to individual karma, there is also the karma of one’s people and culture.

Karma is also used to explain evil. If something terrible happens to a person with no seeming connection to their direct actions, it is assumed that the law of karma is operating based on bad deeds of the past.

3. Reincarnation – This doctrine refers to a chain of rebirths in which each soul can move to higher or lower states through successive lives. It is believed that all living creatures, including man, are trapped in a nearly endless series of rebirths in a quest to rise to higher levels, and eventually escape the cycle altogether. All beings progress from lower life forms up through human life, which is the highest level. Once in human form, one ascends through the lower castes and ultimately to the highest caste of the Brahmins. At that stage, if one generates good karma over a lifetime, it is possible to finally achieve release or liberation.

4. Absorption into the Impersonal Cosmos – This is the final stage that one reaches when the soul is liberated from the chain of rebirths and is united with the “cosmos.”

5. Methods for Joining the Self with the Divine – Often referred to as “yogas,” these are physical disciplines which enable an individual to control the body and emotions. This is done in order to help individuals focus on the ultimate impersonal reality rather than the present illusory material world. By practicing the yogas, a person is able to build good karma in order to progress forward through the rebirth cycle.

6. The Moral Order – This principle asserts that there is a religious duty and practice that each individual must find and follow in order to reach the ultimate goal of being absorbed into the impersonal life force. Individuals may understand this based on their placement in life in their current incarnation. It is a person’s duty to live their life properly based on their current position. They must willingly and faithfully fulfill their duty.

Worldview Questions
In order to understand FET more fully, let’s look at how it answers the seven worldview questions.

1. What is the nature of ultimate reality?
Ultimate reality is impersonal, pantheistic (god is everything and everything is god), and monistic (all of reality is composed of different forms of a single substance).

2. What is the nature of material reality?
Material reality is impersonal, illusory, and seeking oneness.

3. What is a human being?
Personality and individuality are illusions. Humans are simply elements of the impersonal life force which are seeking oneness with the main body.

4. What happens to a person at death?
At death, the life force recycles (reincarnates) into another form which either moves it forward toward the ultimate life force or further from it.

5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?
Knowledge is an illusion. Nothing exists as it appears.

6. How do we know right and wrong?
The cosmos is perfect at every moment. Good and evil are an illusion.

7. What is the meaning of human history?
Time, as we experience it, is an illusion. It moves in cycles.

What are the Implications of Far Eastern Thought?
Based on the information above, it is possible to draw some conclusions about how this worldview is expressed in the actual lives of people who follow it.

1. The primary impact of FET on culture is to promote passivism. This passivism, however, is not defined by how we relate to conflict. It relates to the very essence of how one thinks about the structure of reality. The material world is understood to be an illusion. As a result, nothing that one accomplishes in this life relates to matters of ultimate significance. The purpose of this life is to live rightly in order to move to a higher level in the next life. The particular material accomplishments that one achieves really do not mean much.

2. The ultimate expression of this passivism, then, is to sit back and accept the life you have been born into. If it is a low level of life, you just accept it and do the best you can so your next one will be better. If it is a higher level, the goal is the same.

3. Nothing that we experience in this life is a true expression of reality. Thus, so there is no point in struggling to accomplish anything beyond the level of your current incarnation. People ought to do the best they can with this life, but the purpose is not to create a better physical life, it is to move to a higher level in the next incarnation.

What Does Far Eastern Thought Believe Concerning God?
As we have already noted, FET asserts that there is no personal God and that the essence of all existence is an impersonal life force. Since there is no personal God, there is no transcendent being to communicate with. Therefore, prayer is not a part of the belief system. Rather, meditation is practiced as a means for individuals to come to a personal realization of what they need to do in order to advance properly to their next incarnation. Essentially, ultimate reality is expressed as a mechanical process rather than the expression of a personal God.

What Does Far Eastern Thought Believe about Human Beings?
In FET, contrary to appearances, human beings are not personal. The fact that we seem to be personal, self-conscious beings is simply an illusion of our material existence. The truth is, the essence of a human being, as well as of any other life form, is an impersonal life force.

Due to the fact that we are currently residing in what seems to be a physical existence, we know that we are separated from the main core of the life force. The part of the life force, though, that is associated with our own body is actively working its way to merge with the main core. It is progressing, lifetime by lifetime, to higher levels until one day it will be able to merge with the main body.

What Does Far Eastern Thought Believe about Salvation?
FET understands salvation to be liberation from one’s physical existence by escaping the recurring cycles of life on earth, and being absorbed into the impersonal cosmos. Life in the physical world is perceived to be primarily characterized by pain and suffering. The goal is to leave physical existence where pain and suffering no longer exist.

This salvation is achieved by effectively working one’s way through successive life cycles to finally have one’s life energy merge with the impersonal cosmos. To accomplish this, individuals must live their lives according to the rules of their physical existence. If they do this properly, they are able to move to a higher level in their next incarnation – which is closer to escaping physical existence. Once they reach the highest level and live that life well, their life force leaves the physical world and merges with the main impersonal body.

Why Far Eastern Thought Does Not Represent the Truth
Based on all we have seen, let’s summarize the problems related to FET which help us see why this belief system does not represent the truth.

FET does not match up with the way we experience reality. Interestingly, it admits this up front by saying that our material reality are an illusion. The problem we run into is, how do we know that the assertions about the belief are not, themselves, an illusion? We are given a whole series of concepts but there is no reason to accept any of them as truth. The beliefs have been developed over the centuries based on the experience of religious leaders, but there is nothing authoritative to say that this approach to understanding reality is more valid than some other worldview approach. Basically the logic is, “This is what I believe and how I have learned to experience life, so it must be true.”

Since there is no transcendent God to reveal the Truth about reality, mankind is left to figure it out for himself. But, there is no way to affirm that what has been “figured out” by ancient sages actually relates to the way things really are. It simply uses limited human experience as its foundational authority. All that exists is the assertion of a group of people over a period of time who teach that it is impossible for us to fully know the nature of ultimate reality. Unfortunately, even the means used to put forth this line of reasoning are defined as an illusion. There, literally, is nothing to stand on in asserting FET as a truth position.

Whether you realize it or not, you run into concepts related to Eastern Mysticism all the time. When you don’t understand what it is you are confronting, the only choices are to accept it or ignore it. Accepting it pollutes your own understanding of the truth. Ignoring it puts you in a position where you are not able to stand strong in your own faith or to share the gospel effectively.

While you may not yet be an expert in this area, even with the little bit of knowledge contained in this article, you have gained enough understanding to know why FET is not the truth. This provides you with some of the elementary tools you need to stand strong and to be an effective witness. People who follow Far Eastern beliefs need to know a relationship with God. Now, you can be an instrument which God can use to bring these people to himself.

© 2007 Freddy Davis