Beyond Belief

Posted on 27 July 2005


Teachers often say that mystical experience is something that ultimately cannot be described in words, and one has to directly experience it for oneself. It seems that without one’s own experience, then, one is left to either believe such experiences exist or not. So, how is this any different from a believer in unicorns telling us they have had a direct experience with unicorns, citing all sorts of evidence for their belief, and telling us we should believe also?

First, genuine mystics do not tell us we should believe, but tell us we can test out their teachings if we want to. Granted, to be motivated to seek Enlightenment or Gnosis it is helpful to at least believe it is possible. But this is not blind belief, but the kind of belief a scientist has when testing a theory. It might be found to be wrong.

At a deeper level, though, one should realize that the teaching “one has to directly experience it for oneself” can be a useful teaching, but like all mystical teachings it is relative and limited. So if we cling to it as absolute, then it will lead us into contradictions or inconsistencies. The analogy between Gnosis and other kinds of experiential knowledge is just an analogy, and it breaks down at a certain point. Why? Because, unlike ordinary experience of things, Gnosis is not an “it” to be experienced by “oneself.” Gnosis is not some “thing” one experiences or believes, like how one experiences or believes a UFO or anything else. It is not comparable to knowing or believing anything because it is not any “thing” at all.

If we think Gnosis is a thing, then we inevitably get caught up in thinking what it is and is not, how to get it or lose it, what it is and is not like to experience it, who has it and who doesn’t, etc., etc., ad nauseum. Although it can be of relative value to talk at times as if Gnosis were something, we can quickly get lost and confused if we grasp onto Gnosis as some definite thing to be experienced or attained or defined or whatever.

In short, it is helpful to keep in mind the saying of the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna: “Whether any teaching is true or not depends solely on whether one is non-clinging or clinging in regard to it.”