The Buddha (c. 563–c. 483 B.C.E.) had spent one week in samadhi, a state of deep awareness when, on the morning of December 8, 528 B.C.E., he looked up at Venus, the morning star, beheld its brilliance, and exclaimed in a state of enlightenment, "That's it! That's me! That's me that's shining so brilliantly!"
Rinzai Zen master Shodo Harada Roshi (1940– ) writes, in Morning Dewdrops of the Mind: Teachings of a Contemporary Zen Master (1993), that Buddha, in the rebirth of his consciousness, looked around and saw how wondrous it was that all beings were shining with the brilliance of the morning star. From such a deep illumination of the mind of Buddha, all of Buddha's wisdom was born and all of Zen was held within the deep impression of Buddha's mind at that moment. Therefore, each year as the eighth of December approaches, Zen monks anticipate the rohatsu sesshin (intensive meditation retreat) and vow to experience the brilliance of such a deep realization.
In An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (1934), D. T. Suzuki (1870–1966) describes satori, the state of illumination attained by reaching a higher level of consciousness, as the state that the masters of Zen call the mind of Buddha, the knowledge whereby humans experience enlightenment or Prajna, the highest wisdom. "It is the godly light, the inner heaven, the key of all the treasures of the mind, the focal point of thought and consciousness, the source of power and might, the seat of goodness, of justice, of sympathy, of the measure of all things," Suzuki states. "When this inmost knowledge is fully awakened, we are able to understand that each of us is identical in spirit, in being, and in nature with universal life."
The Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita's instruction on how best to practice Yoga ends with the promise that "…when the mind of the Yogi is in harmony and finds rest in the Spirit within, all restless desires gone, then he is a Yukta, one in God. Then his soul is a lamp whose light is steady, for it burns in a shelter where no winds come."
In the chapter on "Basic Mystical Experience" in his Watcher on the Hills (1959), Dr. Raynor C. Johnson (1901–1987) places "the appearance of light" at the top of his list of illumination characteristics:
Johnson lists other aspects of the illumination as profound insights given to the recipient of the experience; a positive effect on the person's health and vitality; a sense that time has been obscured or altered; and a positive effect on the individual's lifestyle. Johnson quotes a recipient of the illumination experience who said, "Its significance for me has been incalculable and has helped me through sorrows and stresses."
In her autobiographical work Don't Fall Off the Mountain (1970), actress/author Shirley MacLaine (1934– ) tells of the night that she lay shivering in a Bhutanese hut in the Paro Valley of the Himalayas, wondering how she might overcome the terrible cold. Suddenly she remembered the words of a Yoga instructor in Calcutta who had told her that there was a center in her mind that was her nucleus, the center of her universe. Once she would find this nucleus, neither pain, fear, nor sorrow, could touch her. He had instructed her that it would look like a tiny sun. "The sun is the center of every solar system and the reason for all life on all planets in all universes," he had said. "So it is with yours."
With her teeth chattering, she closed her eyes and searched for the center of her mind. Then the cold room and the wind outside began to leave her conscious mind. Slowly in the center of her mind's eye a tiny, round, orange ball appeared. She stared and stared at it. Then she felt as though she had become the little orange ball. Heat began to spread down through her neck and arms and finally stopped in her stomach. She felt drops of perspiration on her midriff and forehead.
MacLaine writes that the light grew brighter and brighter until she finally sat up on her cot with a start and opened her eyes, fully expecting to find that someone had turned on a light. "I lay back," she said. "I felt as though I was glowing.… The instructor was right; hidden beneath the surface there was something greater than my outer self."
Parapsychologist Dr. W. G. Roll has commented that "It is true that this light phenomenon does occur. Some people believe it's a sort of quasi-physical light. When we get into these areas, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the physical and the spiritual worlds. What we call the spiritual, the physical, and the mental, are probably all the same thing."
Dr. Walter Houston Clark speaks of the phenomenon of the blinding light of illumination in connection with those who have undergone revelatory experiences as "…a kind of symbol of the new and freeing insight into the nature of the subject's existence. However, I am inclined to think that the profundity and excitement of the experience causes some kind of nervous activity that produces the light. Of course, in some sense, this may have a cosmic origin."
Writing in Psychiatry (Vol. 29, 1966), Dr. Arthur J. Deikman refers to the mystical perceptions of encompassing light in terms of his hypothesis of a "sensory translation," which he defines as "the perception of psychic action (conflict, repression, problem solving, attentiveness, and so forth) via the relatively unstructured sensations of light, color, movement, force, sound, smell or taste.… 'Sensory translation' refers to the experience of nonverbal, simple, concrete perceptual equivalents of psychic action." In Deikman's theory, "light" may be more than a metaphor for mystical experience: "Illumination may be derived from an actual sensory experience occurring when, in the cognitive act of unification, a liberation of energy takes place, or when a resolution of unconscious conflict occurs, permitting the experience of 'peace,' 'presence,' and the like. Liberated energy experienced as light may be the core sensory experience of mysticism."
According to research conducted at the University of Wales, Christians, Jews, and Muslims have similar experiences in which they describe an intense light and a sense of encompassing love. The research-in-progress, funded by the Sir Alister Hardy Trust, has collected 6,000 accounts of religious experiences from people of all ages and backgrounds. About 1,000 of these describe a light which enters the room, and others tell of being enveloped or filled with light. Most people are alone when they have such an experience, but the researchers have collected accounts of a number of individuals witnessing the same light.
Sir Alister Hardy (1896–1985) formed the Religious Experience Research Unit, Manchester College, Oxford, in 1969 and began the program by studying a more general kind of spiritual awareness—the feeling of being in touch with some "transcendental power, whether called God or not, which leads to a better life." Although the researchers stressed their interest in collecting these kinds of reports, they immediately received an almost equal number "of the more ecstatic mystical type," which included experiences with the light phenomenon that accompanied illumination.
In his book The Divine Flame (1966) Hardy suggested that science should "entertain the possibility that the rapture of spiritual experience…may…be a part of natural history…and that perhaps it may have only developed as religion when man's speech enabled him to compare and discuss this strange feeling of what [Rudolf] Otto called the numinous…[and] what I am calling a divine flame as an integral part of the creative evolutionary process which man, with his greater perceptive faculties, is now becoming aware."
Hardy concedes that science can no more be concerned with the "inner essence" of religion than it can be with the nature of art or the poetry of human love. But he does maintain that "an organized scientific knowledge— indeed one closely related to psychology— dealing with the records of man's religious experience…need not destroy the elements of religion which are most precious to man—any more than our biological knowledge of sex need diminish the passion and beauty of human love."
With the advent of the twenty-first century, many scientists are involved in research projects dealing with religious, spiritual, and mystical experiences. Varieties of Anomalous Experiences (2000), edited by Etzel Cardena, of the University of Texas Pan American in Edinburg, Steven J. Lynn, of the State University of New York at Binghamton, and Stanley Krippner, of the Saybrook Graduate School in San Francisco, examines the scientific evidence for altered states of consciousness associated with mystical experiences and other so-called anomalous events. According to Science News (February 17, 2001), the three psychologists "see no reason to assume that supernatural worlds…exist outside of the minds of people who report them. Instead [they] want to launch a science to study the characteristics of human consciousness that make mystical experiences possible. Their focus on a spectrum of consciousness defies the mainstream notion that there's a single type of awareness.…"
David M. Wulff, a psychologist at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, has said that mystical experiences occur on a continuum: "Even if they are not religiously inspired, they can be striking, such as the transcendent feelings musicians sometimes get while they perform. I have colleagues who say they've had mystical experiences, although they have various ways to explain them."
Other scientists pursuing the study of mystical experiences suggest that the transcendent feelings noted by musicians, actors, and artists; the claims of two-thirds of American adults who claim to have been in touch with a force or spirit outside of themselves; and even the illumination of Buddha or the heavenly voices heard by Moses (14th–13th century B.C.E.), Muhammed (c. 570C.E.–632C.E.), and Jesus (c. 6 B.C.E.–c. 30 C.E.) were nothing more than the decreased activity of the brain's parietal lobe, which helps regulate the sense of self and physical orientation. And what of the feelings of unconditional love and overwhelming compassion for all living things that come over so many of those who claim illumination? These scientists argue that perhaps prayer, meditation, chanting, or some other religious or spiritual practice could have activated the temporal lobe, which imbues certain experiences with personal significance.
Other scientists testing the boundaries of the human psyche and the wonders of illumination are more open to the reality of the individual mystical experience. While researchers like Matthew Alper, author of The "God" Part of the Brain (1998), argue that human brains are hardwired for God and religious experiences, others, such as Daniel Batson, a University of Kansas psychologist, respond that the "brain is the hardware through which religion is experienced."
Duke psychiatrist Roy Mathew told the Washington Post (June 18, 2001) that too many of the contemporary neuroscientists and neurotheologians are "taking the viewpoints of the physicists of the last century that everything is matter. I am open to the possibility that there is more to this than what meets the eye. I don't believe in the omnipotence of science or that we have a foolproof explanation."
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Suzuki, D. T. Mysticism, Christian and Buddhist. New York: Perennial, 1971.
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Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism. New York: Dutton, 1961.