- Clear and Uncreated:The Experience of Inner Light in Gelug-pa Tantrism and Byzantine Hesychasm
In an essay collection dedicated to the religious experience of light, editor Matthew Kapstein asserts: “Among the themes sometimes taken to suggest that there is a universal basis for religious intuition and experience, images of light must hold pride of place.”1 The section of the book concerned with “the role of light in the mystic’s progression to the culmination of his or her path”2 includes two essays of particular interest: Andrew Louth’s treatment of the light mysticism of Eastern Christianity’s Hesychast tradition, and Kapstein’s own study of the “rainbow body” of light in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of Dzogchen (dzogs chen). Each describes particular meditative methods taught to produce one very similar experience: a blissful vision of inner light located in the region of the heart. Louth and Kapstein describe these similar religious phenomena independently, but the book includes no sustained comparative study. It is to this task that this essay turns.
Following generally their selected religious traditions of study, my subject matter will differ significantly from the aforementioned essays. While Louth’s explication of the “uncreated light” of Hesychasm is based in the writings of Saint Maximos, Saint Symeon, and Theophanes of Nicae, mine will be drawn exclusively from the work of the Eastern Church’s foremost theologian of Hesychasm, Saint Gregory Palamas. And whereas Kapstein discusses Mahayana Buddhism’s “clear light” only as background for his discussion of Dzogchen’s rainbow body, I will make the clear light my sole object of study, relying principally on the teachings of the Gelug-pa (dge-lugs-pa) rather than the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism for its explication.
Through a comparative analysis of the Hesychast’s uncreated light and the Gelug-pa’s clear light, I will investigate the extent to which their affinity might be said to intimate “a universal basis for religious intuition and experience.” The analysis will conclude with my suggestion that while the inner light experience represents for each tradition its own form of ultimate spiritual transformation, the Gelug-pa’s clear light [End Page 117] soteriology offers its adept the hope of a transformation, which, due principally to its naturalism, is more complete than that offered to the Hesychast by his church’s theology of uncreated light.3 This will be argued on the basis of two doctrinal points. First, while the Hesychast’s experience of the uncreated light is a mysterious gift from a self-willing God, the Gelug-pa’s clear light is presented as the reproducible result of a specific meditation methodology. Second, while the uncreated light experience is understood by the Hesychast as something that cannot be maintained, the Gelug-pa’s clear light is taught to hold the potential for systematic cultivation leading finally to permanent awakening.
The inner light experiences of the Gelug-pa and Hesychasm will be studied principally as they are described in the popular orthodox theologies of each tradition and not in their devotional or mystical literature. A focus on theology rather than mysticism will, I believe, help naturally strike the balance between constructivism and perennialism advocated by Kapstein: “What is needed, surely, is a reopening of comparative work on religious experience, but without insisting upon a single ‘common core,’ and now fully alive to the dialectical relationship among cultural, historical, and linguistic constructions and the universal possibilities of human experience.”4
I hope the reader is struck by the remarkable parallels that exist between the experiences of inner light in these two disparate contemplative traditions, for it was precisely this sense that drew me to the subject. A sober comparative study of the Palamite and Gelug-pa literatures should, however, avoid any perennialist tendency to equate their respective goals, largely because their authors have presented them in the highly systematic terms of their own orthodox faith traditions. While showing the experience of inner light to be of central importance for both Gelug-pa and Hesychast, I will also explore the ways it is defined and prescribed in relation to the specific and elaborate value systems of Tibetan Buddhism and Eastern Christianity...