Review of Kenneth Rose, Yoga, Meditation and Mysticism: Contemplative Universals and Meditative Landmarks

Book Review

Kenneth Rose, Yoga, Meditation and Mysticism: Contemplative Universals and Meditative Landmarks. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2016, pp. xiii + 245, ISBN: 978-1-47257-168-7 (Hbk).

Is there a common reality or experience toward which the teachings of the various mystical traditions point? This is a question that has divided scholars of religion and one that Kenneth Rose attempts to answer in Yoga, Meditation and Mysticism.  This thought-provoking text examines the common contemplative experiences that arise from the meditation practices of three distinct religious traditions – Theravada Buddhism, Patanjala Yoga and Catholic mystical theology. Through a comparative exploration of the contemplative itineraries of each tradition, Rose identifies a set of ‘common meditative universals’ that arise during concentration practice, and which he believes are indicative of a religion-neutral human spiritual heritage.

The Introduction opens with a short description of a debate that occurred between Huston Smith and Steven Katz, at the Annual Conference of the American Academy of Religion in 1990.  The debate provides a background for a central theme of the book; the ongoing intellectual dispute between the two ideological camps of constructivism and perennialism. Rose, a self-described perennialist, admits that while he was siding with Smith, it was clear that the audience of mysticism scholars had been won over by Katz, and that “the day of perennialism appeared to have faded forever from the scene” (P.1).  This particular moment in history illustrates an important paradigm shift in religion studies that began in the late 1970s; the replacement of the widely accepted essentialist view of mysticism with a contextualist approach. In Rose’s view, constructivism served for a time as a much needed corrective to perennialism, providing a greater awareness to the academic understanding of the context and content of mysticism. However, he argues that the current ‘strong’ constructivist view of many religion scholars has become so extreme as to make the term ‘mystical’ meaningless, and has stalled real progress in the academic study of mysticism.

From the outset Rose acknowledges that his audience will likely consist of many constructivists, and he bluntly anticipates the criticism the book is likely to receive. As a result he spends the first half of the book (Part 1, Chapters 1 – 3) building a strong theoretical basis to support his new comparative approach to mysticism. Chapter 1, ‘A New Comparative Religion and the Search for Universals’, begins with a discussion of the recent turn to the general in the comparative study of religion; a move that the author argues has been informed partly by the findings of neuroscience and human consciousness research. Chapter 2, ‘Recovering the Mystical in the Reign of Constructivism’, opens with a short history of mysticism, and then moves on to discuss the essentialist/constructivist debate regarding the origin of mystical experience. Four compelling arguments against constructivism are presented, and a case is made for a ‘new essentialism’ in the philosophical study of mysticism. In Chapter 3, ‘Biological Essentialism and the New Sciences of Religion’, Rose argues that constructivist approaches to mysticism are being challenged by the rise of what he calls “biological essentialism”; in particular, the idea that religious experience can be accounted for in terms of brain processes. This chapter includes examples from the emerging fields of  contemplative neuroscience (for example, Persinger’s ‘God Helmet’ experiment and Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew Newberg’s concept of “Absolute Unitary Being”) and the evolutionary cognitive science of religion (ECSR) as evidence that specific types of mystical experience are rooted in the physiology and anatomy of the brain, and that spiritual experiences are essentially the same for all people, despite differences in doctrinal expression. This section of the book relies heavily on evidence from neuroscience, which, while alluring, is not immune to criticism. In particular, brain imaging scans have technological limitations and do not correlate perfectly to actual experience. Nevertheless, the fact that such neurobiological processes are shared among human beings, lends some support to a universalising approach to religious experience.

Part 2 moves on to discuss in detail the contemplative itineraries of the three distinct religious traditions selected by Rose – Theravada Buddhism, Patanjala Yoga and Catholic mystical theology. Rose argues that each of these contemplative itineraries charts a “typical and virtually invariant pattern” in the development of human consciousness as it moves from the everyday mundane to the transcendent (P.3). This pattern unfolds identically in each tradition, through the cultivation of deepening states of concentration, despite obvious differences in doctrines, symbols and cultural context. Chapter 4, ‘The Concentrative Itinerary of the Buddhist Jhanas’ is a discussion of the contemplative path of Theravada Buddhism, in particular the practice of samatha-bhavana (“calmness meditation”) and the associated meditative landmarks found in the Visuddhimagga.  Chapter 5, ‘The Concentrative Itinerary of Yogic Samadhi’, focuses on the practice of samyama as described in the Yoga Sutra. Interestingly, this is by far the longest chapter of the book, as it begins with a detailed defense of the religious heritage of Yoga. Rose argues that the “contemporary global-yoga-bashing” of some academic circles has become excessive, and that we should not be too quick to dismiss the antiquity and integrity of contemporary postural yoga traditions (P.88). This provides support for his discussion of Patanjala Yoga as a legitimate contemplative tradition with genuine roots in India’s ancient yogic spiritual culture. Chapter 6, ‘The Concentrative Itinerary of Catholic Unio Mystica’, provides a European account of mystical experience. The central figure of this chapter is Augustin-Francois Poulain (1836-1919), a French Jesuit, who published The Graces of Interior Prayer, an experiential account of mystical Catholic theology. While Buddhism and Yoga share a common Indic origin, this chapter provides an example of mysticism from a cultural context that is quite removed from the world of Indian spirituality, lending more weight to Rose’s argument that mystical experiences arise from a common source, prior to and independent of language and culture.

In sum, Rose puts forth a well-researched and compelling argument for a common human mystical experience that exists prior to all religious traditions, and that is supported by “the data of religious studies, the findings of science, and the speculations of constructive and comparative philosophy” (P.156). It is clear that Rose is neither arguing for a return to a now discredited perennialism, nor discounting the local and contextual focus that has dominated the past three decades of academic religious studies. Rather, he is proposing an entirely new approach to comparative religion; one that rejects the idea that idiographic approaches are the only useful methodologies, and that shifts the focus away from the search for generic doctrine and symbol, towards the study of the mystical experience itself. He asks the constructivist reader to keep an open mind and consider the possibility that there remains a kernel of merit in the perennial view, and that the exploration of universal mystical experiences, especially when combined with research in complementary disciplines such as neuroscience, may provide new insights that could both inform and transform the study of religion. Overall, this book provides a fresh perspective on perennial philosophy and the study of comparative mysticism, and will appeal to readers who are interested in the experiential aspects of religion, as well as the emerging fields of meditation research and contemplative science.

Anna Lutkajtis

Published in Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review 9:1 (2018).

Photo by Ashes Sitoula on Unsplash