- Yoga, Meditation, and Mysticism: Contemplative Universals and Meditative Landmarks by Kenneth Rose
Despite its academic trappings of complex analysis and abundant footnotes (80 pages!) this is a bold, gutsy book. I would describe it as an in-your-face counter-offensive to the postmodern constructivism that still reigns in the academy of scholars, especially religious scholars. Despite postmodernists’ persistent warnings of the dangers of “essentialism” and their insistence on “incommensurability,” Rose proposes a comparative study of religions that is not only “post-constructivist” but also “essentialistic” (p. 4). In disobedience to the postmodern first commandment, “Thou shalt not have universals or meta-narratives,” he insists and seeks to demonstrate that there are universal truths and common experiences among the religions. “Unashamedly comparative” (p. xiii), he believes he is part of a “new boldness” among scholars who want to free religious studies from the prison of being “mostly descriptive accounts of individual religious traditions” (p. 11).
The basic structure of his book consists of a hypothesis and the evidence that proves it.
The hypothesis can be articulated simply and defiantly: The perennial philosophers had it right! “[T]here is an underlying core of mystical experiences” (p. 46), “a core mystical path at the heart of the world’s great spiritual traditions that is prior to, independent of, and creative of the local mysticisms” (p. 37). Therefore, we can discover “contemplative universals” in all the religions—not necessarily in their doctrines but, rather, in their spirituality and mystical practices (p. 20). This core mystical path leads to a common goal—a unitive, nondualistic, nirvanic experience in which “the yogi drops any sense of personalized identity and simply abides as the pure awareness” (p. 119).
These are assertions that make many a constructivist cringe. They are based on readily available evidence, Rose insists, if only contemporary religious [End Page 135] scholars would allow themselves to explore the possibilities of comparative spirituality and comparative theology.
The bulk of the book is made up of Rose’s careful, detailed, and sometimes tedious analysis of three spiritual practices—the Buddhist Jhanas, the Yogic Samadhi, and Catholic Unio Mystica. From the diversity of their practices and claims, he identifies five contemplative universals that constitute a “virtually invariant pattern in the development of consciousness” (p. 3): convergence: a required focusing of the mind; coalescence: a locking of the mind on the object of meditation that begins to expand the practitioner’s awareness beyond the object; simplification: a moving beyond, or seeing more deeply into, the tradition’s teachings and symbols; quiescence: the cessation of thinking and feeling that opens to nondual, unitive awareness; and beatitude: the peace and security of nibbana, Jivamukti, or unio mystica.
To this imposing store of evidence drawn from a comparative, multireligious exploration, Rose adds what he considers the just-as-imposing data from what he calls “the neurobiological turn” (p. 43)—the recent and still controversial but also nondeniable evidence that we are all endowed with the same neurological equipment for having mystical experiences. Rose’s conclusions, again, fly in the face of the constructivist insistence that we are confined to our individual cultural perspectives: “[A]ll human beings share the same neurobiology, psychology, and ontology. . . . Mystical graces are coded in our neurophysiology and engraved upon the ontological character of being and which unfold naturally, or better, spontaneously, in the experience of the committed contemplative” (p. 129).
While Rose can be criticized for sometimes trying to gain too much mileage from his data—e.g., in stretching biology into ontology, or a too assured description of interreligious commonalities—his hypothesis of contemplative universals, together with its supporting evidence, is, if not immediately convincing, certainly challenging. For theologians, his proposal lays a solid foundation for what he calls an “apophatic pluralist theology of religions,” which he proposed in his earlier Pluralism: The Future of Religion (Bloomsbury, 2013).
Whether Rose’s case that the religions of the world are much more similar than they are diverse and that they have much to...