[A]s dawn arises on the new day, the Buddha achieves illumination. This illumination so stuns him — it is an opening of the world — that he sits there for seven days. Then he steps away and for seven days, regards the spot where he had sat. Then for seven days he walks back and forth integrating what he has learned. Then he goes and sits beneath a tree and thinks, This cannot be taught. And that is the first doctrine of Buddhism: it cannot be taught. No experience can be taught. All that can be taught is the way to an experience.
— Joseph Campbell, David Kudler
The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
— S. Mitchell, translator
At a website called, Ask the Atheists, back in October, some folks asked this question:
When theists and atheists feel awe, is it the same thing? I imagine that theists and atheists both get a feeling of awe and amazement when we see a beautiful sunset, mountain valley, etc. But the believer sees this as God’s handiwork, and attributes the beauty to Him. Is it a similar thing?
Five atheists then volunteered answers to the question. Four of them agreed that atheists and theists feel almost the same thing when they experience awe of nature, while, in my opinion, a fifth atheist (“logicel”) over-thought the question instead of answering it.
Here, as an example of someone who answered the question, is “Mike the Infidel”: “As a former believer, I can tell you that it’s almost identical. The only difference is that I don’t go a further step and feel awe at the thought that it was all made with us in mind.”
In general, the atheists answered the question in ways very compatible with Carl Sagan’s reflections on nature and wonder:
By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night. I believe that it is very difficult to know who we are until we understand where and when we are. I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky. This is reflected throughout the world in both science and literature. Thomas Carlyle said that wonder is the basis of worship. And Albert Einstein said, “I maintain that the cosmic religion feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.” So if both Carlyle and Einstein could agree on something, it has a modest possibility of even being right.
I happen to believe all of these folks are correct to suggest “the religious sensibility, the sense of awe” is more or less the same for atheist and theist alike. But only if they are not claiming that this religious sensibility, this sense of awe, is a mystical experience.
That is to say, the mystical experience is radically different from the awe of atheist and theist alike, and it should not be confused with that awe.
Of course, the two are confused all the time. There are plenty of people in this world — maybe a large majority of people — who could easily read Campbell’s and Kudler’s descriptive myth of the Buddha’s illumination and then promptly, without thinking about it, confuse the Buddha’s obviously mystical experience with Carl Sagan’s awe when “looking up on a clear night”.
Yet, I don’t blame them for their confusion. In my experience, the only thing more difficult to grasp than how radically different mystical experiences are from normal experiences is the nature of the mystical experience itself. Confusion is the norm, not the exception, and no one should ever be blamed for looking like an fool when discussing this particular subject. We all in some sense must become fools to discuss this subject.
Before we go on, it seems necessary to do a bit of housekeeping here: There are many kinds of mystical experiences. Yet, we are only concerned here with just one kind of mystical experience.
That is the kind of mystical experience the Buddha was referring to when he thought, “This cannot be taught”. And I take that kind of mystical experience to be practically the same kind of mystical experience that Lao Tzu, the author of The Tao Te Ching, was less directly referring to when he wrote, “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.”
Put differently, the mystical experience being discussed here is the experience that one seems almost certain to have should a person’s subject/object perceptions abruptly end, thus dissolving the process that creates the self, while experiencing yet continues.
So far as I can discover, people who have not had an experience like — or very close to being like — the mystical experiences of the great sages will almost always confuse those mystical experiences with Sagan’s feeling of awe.
To express the same point with a touch of absurdity: Sunstone’s Law of the False Equivalence of Mystical and Non-Mystical Experiences forceably asserts that, “Anyone who has not had a mystical experience will inevitably understand mystical experiences to be the mere equivalent of an intense feeling of awe (usually regarding nature).”
It’s the only law I’ve ever come up with, and it probably ought to be the last. Enjoy!
Further writings on mysticism are here.