To believers, spiritual experiences often feels very real. In fact, religious thinkers of many different traditions have claimed that spiritual experiences are, in fact, more real than everyday life. But one of the most important hypotheses in contemporary religious studies is social constructivism, which is the idea that all religious concepts and beliefs are actually creations of human cultures. Social constructivists argue that religious and mystical experiences don’t reflect any higher reality, but in fact are merely products of history, culture, and society. But new research from China suggests that mystical experiences may go deeper than culture.
One of the most important aspects of spiritual or mystical experiences, as reported by different religious practitioners throughout history, is unity – a dropping away of a sense of boundaries between oneself and the universe, accompanied by a sense that somehow everything is connected or even one. The social constructivist hypotheses argues that these experiences of oneness or unity are actually very different from culture to culture, and that it is only European ways of thinking and talking about religion that make these experiences sound similar to one another. For social constructivist thinkers, a Sufi Muslim and a Chinese Buddhist may use similar language to talk about their mystical experiences of oneness, but they actually are talking about very different things.
In the 1960s, an academic named Walter Stace postulated that there were two basic kinds of mystical unity that could be found in many different religious traditions. The first, which he labeled “introvertive unity,” referred to the experience of focusing inward and losing all sense of time, space, and individuality. The second type, “extrovertive unity,” instead was the result of focusing outward and experiencing all the different phenomena of the world, include one’s own self, melting away until only the One remained.
Strange as it may sound to quantify inexpressible religious experiences, researchers have developed several surveys over the past fifty years to measure mystical experiences. Psychologist Ralph Hood found that mystical experiences often featured eight different facets. These included a sense of unity, but also other characteristics such as ineffability – the sense that an experience can’t be expressed in words – and inner subjectivity, or a sense that all objects and phenomena in the world have an inner awareness within them. The scale was called the “M-Scale.”
Hoping to investigate whether mystical experiences could be similar across cultures after all, a team of psychologists including Ralph Hood and led by Zhuo Chen of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga recently modified the M-Scale to apply it to Chinese Buddhists of the Chan (Zen) and Pure Land traditions. Chan Buddhism focuses on cultivating meditative states of inner awareness, while Pure Land Buddhism is a more devotional style that includes chants and veneration of the Buddha. Chen, Hood, and their colleagues reasoned that Chinese Buddhism was experientially very different from Christianity, and so it would provide an ideal contrast to the Western mystical experiences the M-Scale had been designed to measure.
To make up for theoretical weaknesses in the original M-Scale, the researchers altered the scale slightly to include Stace’s introvertive and extrovertive unity concepts. In a challenge to social constructivist thinkers, they anticipated that introvertive unity and extrovertive unity would be highly correlated with each other (or, in statistics parlance, that they would form a single factor), potentially supporting the idea that different kinds of mystical unity actually point to one basic experience.
In China, the researchers relied primarily on a kind of open interview process, allowing Buddhist monks and nuns to describe their own mystical experiences and transcribing the interviews. The investigators asked specific questions to determine whether their respondents had experienced different facets of the M-Scale, such as ineffability, positive affect (religious joy), or a sense of unity. Later, third-party readers looked over the transcripts and coded the answers.
When the numbers were crunched, the data seemed to reflect three basic groupings, or factors, of mystical experience. The “introvertive” factor included the mystical facets of egolessness and timelessness/spacelessness. This implied that there is one type of mystical experience in Chinese Buddhism that includes the feeling of being drawn inward, where one’s sense of self and of space and time are lost. Another factor, the “extrovertive” factor, (counterintuitively) included both introvertive and extrovertive senses of unity, along with a feeling that subjective awareness was in all things. This factor represented another type of mystical experience where all things, including oneself, seemed to be deeply interrelated and to have subjectivity.
The final factor, the “interpretive” factor, included feelings of ineffability, noeticism (a heightened sense of reality or trueness), sacredness, and positive affect. This factor pointed to a third distinct type of mystical experience, in which people felt elated because of the inexpressible experience of a sacred reality.
So, you may be thinking, this may be a lot of interesting information, but where’s the meat? Well, as it turns out, the findings of this study strongly backed up the claim that mystical experiences in fact feature similar elements across cultures, since the basic factors found in the Chinese Buddhists’ responses fit neatly into the categories put forth by Stace and Hood. The respondents in this study were allowed to describe their experiences on their own terms, and still the responses they gave suggested strongly that they were having the same basic types of experiences as many Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Added to this was the fact that, as the authors of the study put it, the experiences of introvertive and extrovertive unity seemed to “converge” – finding inner unity and experiencing outward merging with all of reality seemed to lead to the same basic experience.
When it comes to mysticism, the social constructivist claim is that there is no such thing as a “generic” mystical experience, since all mystical encounters are shaped and conditioned by their experiencers’ social world. Chen, Hood, and their colleagues actually aren’t disputing this claim with their recent study – instead, they claim that their results suggest mystical experiences may objectively share some basic, core elements that are similar across cultures. This doesn’t mean that mystical experiences are always the same, of course. It also doesn’t mean that there is one, universal, culture-free mystical or spiritual experience. But it does mean that, even if culture deeply shapes how we have spiritual experiences and how we talk about those experiences, it may be working with similar building blocks. The upshot? Chen, Hood, and their colleagues represent a kind of academic middle ground, acknowledging that real cultural differences exist while also finding similarities not across cultures, but amongst and between them. Buddha – advocate of the “middle way” between spiritual and materialist extremes – would probably quietly approve.
Click here for the original article, "Common Core Thesis and Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis of Mysticism in Chinese Buddhist Monks and Nuns," in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.