The Unity of Mystical Traditions by Randall Studstill

Randall Studstill. The Unity of Mystical Traditions: The Transformation of Consciousness in Tibetan and German Mysticism. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2005. Hardcover, xii + 304 pages.

Mysticism is a world-wide phenomenon to which scholars in the field of religious studies have devoted much thought and ink. It also happens to be an ill-defined concept, and this despite hundreds of books on the subject. Moreover, however one may wish to define mysticism, its study is bedeviled by a good many problems, not least the nature of mystical experiences and how best to study and understand them. Must we take the mystics’ universal claim that they are experiencing “ultimate Reality” serious, or are we dealing here with a massive delusion? If mystical experiences are true, in what sense are they true? Also, how must we understand the fact that the mystics’ descriptions of their realization of an “ultimate Reality” are by no means uniform but rather widely divergent?

This book, which is based on Studstill’s doctoral dissertation, is a tour-de-force (a) in appraising existing interpretations of mysticism (of which there are quite a few) and (b) in making the best possible case for a “pluralist” theory of mysticism. This model is essentialist in that it affirms that the mystical traditions have much in common at the level of mystical experience, doctrine, and practice. Studstill’s version of it also is strongly oriented toward a systems-theoretical approach.

Pluralist theory is the principal alternative to constructivist theory, as it was crisply articulated by Steven Katz in his influential book Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (1978) and as it has been championed by other well-known philosophers and scholars of mysticism since then. Constructivism categorically denies not only that there is much commonality between mystical experiences but also that they have a common object— ultimate Reality. Katz and other constructivists insist that there are no unmediated experiences and that mystical experiences are all overdetermined by the mystic’s individual conceptual framework.

Studstill goes to extraordinary length in dissecting the constructivist model and exposing its many shortcomings. He takes fully into account Katz’s later modifications of his position. From the vantage-point of his own first-hand acquaintance with Tibetan Buddhism (notably Dzogchen), Studstill manages to score several excellent points for a pluralist theory. He notes that Katz does not, like other constructivists, regard mystical experiences as neither merely psychological nor pathological but accepts that they have a real object, but then goes on to point out that Katz’s position of assuming many such real objects (since there are many divergent experiences) is needlessly convoluted and not very convincing.

The author of this finely argued work concedes that most descriptions of mystical experiencing entail a significant personal bias (in terms of the mystic’s concepts and expectations). But this overdetermination, he affirms, is not inevitable. The greatest mystics themselves deconstruct their experiences in order to attain a realization that cannot be said to be subject to personal bias.

Using both Dzogchen and the teachings of the great German mystic Meister Eckhart, Studstill explores that rarefied dimension of mystical experiencing to which even the label “experience” does not properly apply.

This monograph gives one an excellent overview of the philosophical debate and a good sense (and feeling) that a pluralist theory of mysticism is at this point the most convincing model available.

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