Emptiness and Unknowing: An Essay in Comparative Mysticism

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Over the last fifty years the study of mysticism has been shaped by the debate between ‘perennialists’, who claim that mystical experiences are the same across different cultures, and ‘constructivists’, who claim that mystical experiences are shaped by, and hence specific to, particular religious traditions. The constructivist view is associated with the ‘discursive turn’ that has dominated the humanities for the last half century, emphasising cultural relativism. Nonetheless, the constructivist position is not without problems. Inspired in part by Lance Cousins’ 1983 comparison of Buddhaghosa’s Path of Purification and Teresa of Ávila’s Interior Castle, the present article seeks to bring out parallels in the contemplative exercises and the progress of the ‘spiritual life’ found in Buddhist accounts of meditation (such as the Cūḷa-Suññata-sutta) and Christian apophaticism (as presented in The Cloud of Unknowing). The article seeks to establish specific parallels in the techniques of and approaches to contemplative practice in both traditions, as well as in the phenomenology of the experiences of the meditator (yogāvacara) or contemplative at different stages in the work of meditation and contemplation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)81–96
Number of pages16
JournalBuddhist Studies Review
Issue number1–2
Early online date8 Jan 2019
Publication statusPublished - 2019

Bibliographical note

Special Issue: Buddhist Path, Buddhist Teachings: Studies in Memory of L.S. Cousins


  • mysticism
  • meditation
  • emptiness
  • Buddhism
  • apophaticism
  • Cūḷa-Suññata-sutta
  • The Cloud of Unknowing
  • perennialism
  • constructivism


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