Nature, And The Absolute

As just stated, metaphysics and theology are to be avoided. But

since Mysticism is generally associated with belief in an

Unconditioned Absolute, and since such an Absolute is fatal to

the claims of any genuine Nature Mysticism, a preliminary

flying incursion into the perilous regions must be ventured.

Mysticism in its larger sense is admittedly difficult to define. It

connotes a vast group of special exp
riences and speculations

which deal with material supposed to be beyond the reach of

sense and reason. It carries us back to the strangely illusive

"mysteries" of the Greeks, but is more definitely used in

connection with the most characteristic subtleties of the wizard

East, and with certain developments of the Platonic philosophy.

Extended exposition is not required. Suffice it to state what may

fairly be regarded as the three fundamental principles, or

doctrines, on which mystics of the orthodox schools generally

depend. These principles will be subjected to a free but friendly

criticism: considerable modifications will be suggested, and the

way thus prepared for the study of Nature Mysticism properly


The three principles alluded to are the following. First, the true

mystic is one possessed by a desire to have communion with the

ultimately Real. Second, the ultimately Real is to be regarded as

a supersensuous, super-rational, and unconditional Absolute--

the mystic One. Third, the direct communion for which the

mystic yearns--the _unio mystica_--cannot be attained save by

passive contemplation, resulting in vision, insight, or ecstasy.

With a view to giving a definite and concrete turn to the critical

examination of these three fundamentals, let us take a passage

from a recently published booklet. The author tells how that on

a certain sunny afternoon he flung himself down on the bank of

a brimming mill-stream. The weir was smoothly flowing: the

mill-wheel still. He meditates on the scene and concludes thus:

"Perhaps we are never so receptive as when with folded hands

we say simply, 'This is a great mystery.' I watched and

wondered until Jem called, and I had to leave the rippling weir

and the water's side, and the wheel with its untold secret."

There are certain forms, or modes, of experience here presented

which are at least mystical in their tendency--the sense of a

deeper reality than that which can be grasped by conscious

reason--a desire to penetrate a secret that will not yield itself to

articulate thought and which nevertheless leaves a definite

impress on the mind. There is also a recognition of the passive

attitude which the ordinary mystic doctrine avers to be essential

to vision. Will these features warrant our regarding the

experiences as genuinely mystical?

The answer to this question brings into bold relief a vital

difference between orthodox mystics and those here called

nature-mystics, and raises the issue on which the very existence

of a valid Nature Mysticism must depend. The stricter schools

would unhesitatingly refuse to accord to such experiences the

right to rank with those which result in true insight. Why?

Because they obviously rest on sense impressions. An English

mystic, for example, states in a recent article that Mysticism is

always and necessarily extra-phenomenal, and that the man who

tries to elucidate the visible by means of the invisible is no true

mystic; still less, of course, the man who tries to elucidate the

invisible by means of the visible. The true mystic, he says, fixes

his eyes on eternity and the infinite; he loses himself when he

becomes entangled in the things of time, that is, in the

phenomenal. Still more explicit is the statement of a famous

modern Yogi. "This world is a delusive charm of the great

magician called Maya. . . . Maya has imagined infinite illusions

called the different things in the universe. . . . The minds which

have not attained to the Highest, and are a prey to natural

beauties in the stage of Maya, will continually have to turn into

various forms, from one to another, because nothing in the stage

of Maya is stable." Nor would the Christian mystics allow of

any intermediaries between the soul and God; they most of

them held that the soul must rise above the things of sense,

mount into another sphere, and be "alone with the Alone."

What, then, is the concept of the ultimately Real which these

stricter mystics have evolved and are prepared to defend? It is

that of pure and unconditioned Being--the One--the Absolute.

By a ruthless process of abstraction they have abjured the world

of sense to vow allegiance to a mode of being of which nothing

can be said without denying it. For even to allow a shadow of

finiteness in the Absolute is to negate it; to define it is to

annihilate it! It swallows up all conditions and relations without

becoming any more knowable; it embraces everything and

remains a pure negation. It lies totally and eternally beyond the

reach of man's faculties and yet demands his perfect and

unreasoning surrender. A concept, this, born of the brains of

logical Don Quixotes.

And it is for such a monstrous abstraction we are asked to give

up the full rich world of sense, with all it means to us. It is

surely not an intellectual weakness to say: "Tell us what you

will of existence above and beyond that which is known to us;

but do not deny some measure of ultimate Reality to that which

falls within our ken. Leave us not alone with the Absolute of the

orthodox mystic, or we perish of inanity! Clearly the _elan

vital_--the will to live--gives us a more hopeful starting-point in

our search for the Real. Clearly the inexhaustible variety of the

universe of sense need not be dubbed an illusion to save the

consistency of a logic which has not yet succeeded in grasping

its own first principles. No, the rippling weir and the mill-wheel

were real in their own degree, and the intuitions and emotions

they prompted were the outcome of a contact between the inner

and the outer--a _unio mystica_--a communion between the

soul of a man and the soul in the things he saw.

"But" (says the orthodox mystic) "there is a special form of

craving--the craving for the Infinite. Man cannot find rest

save in communion with a supreme Reality free from all

imperfections and limitations; and such a Reality can be found

in nothing less than the Unconditioned Absolute." Now we may

grant the existence and even the legitimacy of the craving thus

emphatically asserted while questioning the form which it is

made to assume. The man gazing at the mill-wheel longed to

know its secret. Suppose he had succeeded! We think of

Tennyson's "little flower in the crannied wall." We think of

Blake's lines:

"To see the world in a grain of sand,

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour."

Is it really necessary to forsake the finite to reach the infinite--

whatever that term may be taken to mean? Do we not often

better realise the infinity of the sky by looking at it through the

twigs of a tree?

For the craving itself, in its old mystic form, we can have

nothing but sympathy. Some of its expressions are wonderfully

touching, but their pathos must not blind us to the maimed

character of the world-view on which they rest. Grant that the

sphere of sense is limited and therefore imperfect, let it at any

rate be valid up to the limit it does actually attain. The rippling

weir and the mill-wheel did produce some sort of effect upon

the beholder, and therefore must have been to that extent real.

What do we gain by flinging away the chance to learn, even

though the gain be small? And if, as the nature-mystic claims,

the gain be great, the folly is proportionately intensified.

Coleridge is quoted as an exponent of the feeling of the stricter


"It were a vain endeavour,

Though I should gaze for ever

On the green light that lingers in the West;

I may not hope from outward forms to win

The passion and the life whose fountains are within."

This, however, is too gentle and hesitating, too tinged with love

of nature, to convey the fierce conviction of the consistent

devotee of the Absolute, of the defecated transparency of pure

Being. If, as is urged by Recejac, we find among some of the

stricter mystics a very deep and naive feeling for nature, such

feeling can only be a sign of inconsistency, a yielding to the

solicitations of the lower nature. Granted their premisses, the

world of sense can teach nothing. It is well to face this issue

squarely--let the mystic choose, either the Absolute and Maya,

or a Ground of existence which can allow value to nature, and

which therefore admits of limitations. Or, if there is to be a

compromise, let it be on the lines laid down by Spinoza and

Schelling. That is to say, let the name God be reserved for the

phenomenal aspect of the Absolute. But the nature-mystic will

be wise if he discards compromise, and once for all repudiates

the Unconditioned Absolute. His reason can then chime in with

his intuitions and his deepest emotions. He loses nothing; he

gains intellectual peace and natural joy.

The never-ceasing influence of the genuine Real is bound to

declare itself sooner or later. Buddhism itself is yielding, as

witness this striking pronouncement of the Buddhist Lord

Abbot, Soyen Shaku. "Buddhism does not, though sometimes

understood by Western people to do so, advocate the doctrine of

emptiness or annihilation. It most assuredly recognises the

multi-tudinousness and reality of phenomena. This world as it

is, is real, not void. This life, as we live it, is true, and not

a dream. We Buddhists believe that all these particular things

surrounding us come from one Ultimate Source, all-knowing

and all-loving. The world is the manifestation of this Reason, or

Spirit, or Life, whatever you may designate it. However diverse,

therefore, things are, they all partake of the nature of the

Ultimate Being. Not only sentient beings, but non-sentient,

reflect the glory of the Original Reason."

Assuredly a comforting passage to set over against that of the

Yogi quoted above! But is not the good Abbot a little hard on

the Westerners? For the full truth is that while the Yogi

represents the old Absolutism, the Abbot is feeling his way to a

wider and more human world-view. Buddhism has evidently

better days in store. Let our views of ultimate Reality be what

they may, the nature-mystic's position demands not only that

man may hold communion with nature, but that, in and through

such communion, he is in living touch with the Ground of