Frits Staal - Wetenschappelijk onderzoek van de mystiek

Aula 1975, ISBN 9027453764

Door Jan Brouwer  The Mystical Site

My compatriot Frits Staal has done mysticism a great favor. Often mysticism has been belittled or laughed at, both in church, temple or mosque as well as in schools and at the academia. For most religious people tend to distrust mysticism. Most of them have the belief that only faith, reading the scriptures and repeating the words of their Founder can bring us salvation. They do not think that mystics are religious. Mystics are more like scientists in their eyes. Mystics speak of methods, a path, proof. They talk about mystical experiences. They lead you to their laboratories and want to show you all kinds of instruments that can make the mystical experience visible to your eye. They speak of spiritual as well as physical transformations taking place. The tone of their voice is more like the scientist who has seen and has proved his case. Mystics do not want to convert you. They want to show it to you.

A lot of religious people do not trust this approach. With them religion is something irrational, that is not in need of proof. In the West, far more than in the East, religion has come to be seen as something irrational. There is a historical reason behind this. Upcoming Christianity had to defend itself against the high brows of established intellectual life. Most Christians originated from the underclasses of society. They were ill at ease with the intellectuals and philosophers of their time, mostly sons of upperclass families. Early Christianity was most of the time hostile to the proofs and arguments of the philosophers of Antiquity. Though a number of Church Fathers tried to reconcile Christianity with ancient philosophy, there was also a loud voice that spoke with contempt about the rationality of the Greeks. And the 'credo quia absurdum' of Tertullianus is a tone of voice that can still be heard in church, even nowadays. So most people in the West think that there is a big difference between religion and philosophy: the former is irrational and the latter rational.

In Modernity and Postmodernity this idea, that religion is something irrational and that mysticism is a strange duck for being rational, has not become obsoleted. A religious philosopher like Blaise Pascal preferred the irrational God of Abraham to the rational God of the Greeks. Theologians like Karl Barth defended the irrationality of faith against the rationality of philosophy and mysticism. This influence can still be detected in the bulk of modern theological writings in the West: one jumps up with joy and ecstasy if one finds just one clear and understandable word in all of their writings. Even the rational existentialist Karl Jaspers wrote in 1948: 'ein bewiesener Gott ist kein Gott (a God that can be proved is no God)'.

Frits Staal argues that mysticism is also condemned and pushed aside by the majority of thinkers, because people think that mysticism and (orthodox) religion are the same thing. And if religion is considered to be something irrational - even by religious believers themselves - then mysticism cannot do any better: she also must have that same taint of irrationality. But Staal points to the fact that there have always been clashes between the mystics and orthodox religion. Most mystics had to squirm and wriggle to stay off the stake. Some of them did not succeed very well and got nails driven through their hands. So there must be a difference between orthodox religion and mysticism. Staal thinks that is because mysticism is far more rational.

Mysticism is not irrational
Biased into believing that religion is something irrational, Western scholars have studied mystical texts both from the East and the West and have tried to show that these texts aren't very logical. These texts seemed to violate some fundamentals of logic, like 'no inner contradiction' (not both A as well as not-A), 'the excluded third' (or A or not-A), or 'the double negation' (if not not-A then A). As an example they pointed to the Vedantic notion of 'reality' that seemed to contradict itself by stating that reality was both real as well as unreal. But for the Western logical mind a third is always excluded, so it must be one or the other. If reality is not unreal it must be real.

But mysticism tries to show that there are levels of experience - levels 'beyond thought' - that escape the logical bipartite framing of our mind. These levels are not necessarily irrational. They seem to unite the dualism of opposites into a wider embrace, a higher truth, a non-dual logic. Like looking from a meta-viewpoint and seeing that all opposites form united pairs. This point of view is just as rational as L.E.J. Brouwer's intuitionistic logic, that discovered that the principle of 'the excluded third' did not hold for endless mathematical compilations. So also in modern logic multiple and non-dual forms of logic have established themselves (it may come as no surprise that L.E.J. Brouwer was very interested in the findings of mysticism).

The higher logic of mysticism often gives the impression of being paradoxical but it is only so at the level of dual bipartite logic. Once the mind comes to a higher stance of integration - to a form of multivaluable logic - the mystical logic isn't paradoxical anymore and can be understood, though it may often escape words, But this is not only the case with mysticism but with other forms of knowing, like aesthetic or intuitive knowledge, also.

So Staal could write:
'... mysticism and rationality are compatible and there are indications that it is completely wrong to assume that mysticism would not lend itself to scientific investigation.' (Staal 1975 p. 73)

criticism: Staal's train of thought is a bit confusing here, I think. Because a distinction has to be made between 'something being rational or not' and 'lending itself to rational investigation or not'. The one does not necessarily lead to the other. So the premiss seems to be not a valuable one, I think. The fact that something is rational or not, leads not necessarily to the conclusion that it thus can be investigated rationally or not. The one does not implicate the other. Something irrational can certainly be studied rationally, like the psychological study of the subconsciousness or the sociological study of war or the criminological study of involuntary crime etc. Perhaps also vice versa: something rational can also be studied irrationally, like when we brood with resentment over just reprobations made by a senior.

Also the term 'rational' is a tricky one when used to describe mysticism, because mystics have often pointed out the fact that the ultimate experience of samadhi, moksha or nirvana transcends the mind and her rationality. These experiences can certainly be studied in a rational and scientific manner and we may also try to phrase our findings in a rational way ('with words'), but the mystical experience will always escape a full rendering of account in rational terms. It would be like trying to phrase rationally a profound aesthetic experience like listening to the Ninth of Beethoven. One may try to phrase what the characteristics of such an ecstatic event were -and a very intelligent philosopher of the aesthetic experience may come a long way- but ultimately such a rendering of account would only be 'fingers pointing to the moon' (a favorite description in Zen of a Master telling his pupils what It's like). So I much prefer the term transrational when describing the ultimate experience, though I also agree with Staal that this does not necessarily mean that such a transrational experience would be irrational.

Wrong approaches to the study of mysticism
Staal wants our approach to the study of mysticism to be rational and scientific. But what exactly is a scientific approach? Let's try to phrase some general rules. One of the most important rules of science is that the results of research are not to be influenced by a prejudiced bias when the investigator is dealing with data. A scientist has to remain completely open, without expectations or anticipations, when doing his research. And this will not be the case if he studies mysticism from a dogmatic religious bias, when he has already formed in his mind certain fixed notions about religion and the religious experience. A number of investigators of the mystical experience have fallen into this trap. The outcome of their study was on forehand decided because they already knew what a religious experience should be like. Staal mentions as an example the Roman-catholic scholar R.C. Zaehner who could not offer an adequate description or explanation of the non-dual experience in Islamic Sufism because his cognitive palate was colored by his own views on religion: he thought that only a personal God could make a claim to truthfulness. So he tended to devaluate and discredit all mystical experiences of non-personal Oneness.

Other scientists studied mystical texts from a historical and philological bias. When confronting apparent contradictions or a paradox in the texts they tried to explain them away by attributing the different elements of the writing to different historical epochs or to different literary sources. That would explain why divergent and incompatible elements had come together in one text. Like F.A. Wolf in Germany or W. Leaf in England had done with the text of Homer. But this approach is even the more difficult for the Yoga Sutra's of Patanjali than it already was the case for Homer studies: the precise interpretation of mystical texts is for non-mystics rather difficult. So who decides what is a contradiction or a paradox in the first place? Do we not in the first place need an understanding of mysticism itself?

Phenomenological and sociological approaches to the subject have the disadvantage that they can show us the functionality of mysticism in day to day life, but can not reveal us the true meaning of mysticism as a phenomenon. So after reading such a study the question still remains unanswered what mysticism is all about, though we might have gained some insight in the importance people attach to it. In these approaches also the personal bias of the writer tends to color the interpretation of the phenomenon, like it did with Otto Frank whose theism got in the way of rightly explaining Shankara's mysticism.

To conclude his survey Staal mentions also the physiological approach as a wrong perspective for the study of mysticism. This may come as some surprise because the physiological approach is very promising nowadays as science is concerned. It is therefore popular with researchers of the mystical experience. They want to show us with diagrams of EEG's and ECG's and with diagrams of altered hormonal states that meditation and mysticism have altering effects on the brain and the body. It is assumed that these physiological changes go pari passu with changes in consciousness. But Staal rightly points to the fact that demonstrating that certain physiological changes do occur doesn't tell us anything about the subjective nature of these changes. Seeing on an EEG that someone is asleep does not tell us anything about sleep itself, about what it is like to be asleep. So studying mysticism as changes in brain wave frequency or reductions of blood lactate is not very informative or significant for our knowledge of what mysticism really is.

How should one study mysticism?
Staal is very definite about the right way to study mysticism: it can not be done from the outside but in a greater or lesser degree it has to be done from the inside, directly and not indirectly. We ourselves as researchers, we have to gain some immediate knowledge, some experience of what mysticism is about. We can not remain aloof and detached as is the way of Western science, but somehow we have to see that mysticism is not about an it, but that it is about the I.

That's why Staal wrote:
'A serious investigator of mysticism has to have mystical experiences himself. And because we can not learn these out of books or by other indirect means, we have to learn them from someone who knows and wants to transmit the knowledge.' (Staal 1975 p.184)

Let me try to explain this in my own words: everything that is being studied in science can only be an object of observation. The highest goal that science may achieve is a selfless description of an object in objective terms. This means that the scientist as a person needs to be excluded from the observation of the object in order to prevent subjective projections to color and thus to distort an adequate description of the object in question.? These are the high standards of a non-personal, value-free science.

But the difficulty with mysticism is that it is not and can not ever be an object of thought, except when we have a limited and narrow view of mysticism and equal her to some objective features, like to the history, the text, the author or the physical workings of mysticism. But these are only superficial features on the surface of the mystical experience. These are only the manifest outcome of mysticism.? These are not what mysticism is truly about.

Science is always about objects. But mysticism is about the (ultimate) subject. I almost made a mistake in writing. For I was tempted to write 'mysticism is the study of the subject'. But that would be a grave misrepresentation of the facts, because 'a study of the subject' would again make the subject into an object. And the fact is that the deepest forms of mysticism are never about any object but concern themselves only with the subject and the way I am.

There certainly are dual forms of mysticism where there is a split between Witness and relative consciousness. These forms of mysticism lend themselves to some form of scientific investigation. Then such a meta-witness can study relative consciousness as its own objectivation and try to describe its attributes. But the inner core of mysticism is non-dual. It is solely about the Ultimate Subject. That's why all mystics say that nothing can be said of the Ultimate Subject. For it can never be an object of thought. The eye cannot see itself. The mirror cannot reflect itself.

This is the difficulty with Staal's 'mysticism can be studied rationally'. Because the Subject in its ultimate formlessness, prior to manifestation, does not yet objectify itself so as to become an object in our ratio. It only is. It is, prior to manifestation, not something such and such that could be studied rationally. And the deepest forms of mysticism are about this ultimate formless Subject. That's why we said that the knowledge (if we can use this word) of mysticism is transrational experience of the subject state and not of any object state.

But this does not mean (and here I agree with Staal) that we would never be able to understand mysticism. For though we can not say anything about the Subject, we can study its working. In fact nothing in the world would be as clear, as simple and direct for our understanding as the state of moksha and enlightenment, once it is realized? So I agree with Staal that we can be scientific in our study (ie. practice) of mysticism.? But what does 'being scientific' really mean? Do not the rules of scientific investigation apply also to an inquiry into mysticism??
  • we have to be curious about mysticism and about what mystics tell us
  • we have to test it out for ourselves
  • we have to follow the injunctions of the mystic community (they have built up the expertise)
  • we have to have initial trust in these injunctions
  • we have to lay aside all our prejudiced biases (less they'd distort the outcome of our mystical investigation)
  • we have to remain always open and receptive during our scientific investigation
  • we may form hypotheses along the way, but we must remain open to their falsifications
  • we have to observe diligently and accurately what the injunctions and their effects are
  • in the end we may be critical but only after a profound, a long term and an open investigation
The study, the practice and the outcome of mysticism are so new and so different from everything that you are trained in and familiar with, that it is very difficult to follow all of these rules and remain scientific in your approach. But isn't this the great challenge of every pioneer in science? A true scientist tries to discover new grounds of experience. He is daring enough to lay aside all his presumptions, all his notions and prior beliefs, with the sole purpose of gaining new knowledge. All it takes is an open mind. In every field of science. Also for our study of mysticism.

Arnhem August 2004

Frits Staal
Frits Staal has been a major influence on academic thought throughout his long and distinguished career. His emphasis has been on the value of the great classical languages that have shaped contemporary civilization: Sanskrit, Chinese and Arabic along with Greek. In Indology, Staal's aim has not been to study cultural diversity or 'the exotic', but to show what South Asia has contributed to humanity. This emphasis on universality has led him to the study of Indian logic, linguistics and other sciences, where his background in philosophy and mathematics enabled him to adopt a cross-disciplinary perspective. The Introduction to his 1997 Festschrift, India and Beyond, highlights this fluidity and Staal's ability 'to melt down all sorts of conceptual barriers characterizing the faculties and departments in academia'. Although his ideas have sometimes generated controversy, they have been difficult to ignore: for example, the thesis that ritual and mantras are meaningless (with mantras being the missing link between ritual and language), which, in the words of Harvey Alper, 'cannot be refuted as easily as one might imagine'.

Staal studied mathematics, physics and philosophy at the University of Amsterdam, and continued with Indian philosophy and Sanskrit at Madras and Banaras Hindu Universities. Returning to Europe in 1957 on a cargo boat, he wrote his second book, on Nambudiri Veda Recitation. After delivering a lecture on Vedic recitation at SOAS, he was offered a job by John Brough. A brief spell at Philadelphia was followed by Staal's return to Amsterdam as Professor of General and Comparative Philosophy (1962-67). After a Visiting Professorship of Linguistics at M.I.T., he became Professor of Philosophy and South Asian Languages at the University of California, Berkeley, a position he occupied from 1968 until he took early retirement in 1991. He has held visiting posts in Banaras, Bangkok, Kyoto, Paris, Peradeniya, Stanford, Sussex, Tokyo and Washington. He continues his work today, adding to his voluminous publications, which include fourteen books, over 130 articles, two films and a record album.

Staal's publications include studies of Vedic ritual and mantras, Greek and Indian logic and philosophy, mysticism, Sanskrit grammar, the stamps of Jammu and Kashmir, Balinese ritual, science, orality, rationality and relativism. In 1975, a consortium of scholars, led by Staal, documented the twelve-day performance, in Kerala, of the Vedic Agnicayana ritual, published in two large illustrated volumes, and also recorded on film (Altar of Fire). His best-known books are, perhaps, Exploring Mysticism (1975), Universals: Studies in Indian Logic and Linguistics (1988) and Rules Without Meaning (1993). His recent study has been concerned with Greek and Vedic geometry.

Methodologically, Staal is convinced that the entire universe is open to rational inquiry: "Studying something 'irrationally' is refusing to study it." A recurring theme is that areas such as mysticism or ritual are as open to rational, scientific investigation as any other feature of the universe. According to Staal, artificial distinctions between 'East' and 'West' or the sciences and humanities prevent fruitful investigations of human life. His study of Panini's Sanskrit grammar undermined the previously assumed superiority of the ancient Greeks in areas of scientific analysis. Logic, linguistics and other sciences are not features of particular civilizations but universals of humanity.
Frits Staal is as interesting to meet as he is to read, with as profound and lively an interest in the individuals around him as in comparative study.

Profile by Mike Spencer-Naim and Matthew Clark

terug naar het literatuuroverzicht