80-104 Freshman Seminar on Mysticism


Please remember to give me back the last set of graded papers on Thursday so I can record the scores.


  • Instructor: Kevin T. Kelly.
  • E-mail kk3n@andrew.cmu.edu.
  • Phone: X8567.
  • Room:  212 CFA
  • Time: TH 10:30-11:50 PM
  • Office 135 K BH.
  • Office hours: T 4:00-5:00, H 3:00-4:00, or by appointment.


D. Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy, available in the bookstore


  • 30% reading exercises to be turned in at the end of class.
  • 35% first paper project (4 page max)
  • final paper proposal (counts as one reading exercise)
  • 35% final paper project (5 page max)


"Mysticism" has come to be associated with vagueness, foggy thinking, paranormal phenomena and magic.  In fact,  is something far more interesting.  Since pre-recorded time, people have engaged in the practice of sitting and focusing their minds to enter a kind of trance.  Those who do so report, cross-culturally, that they undergo a special kind of compelling, incommunicable experience of the underlying unity of all things that motivates deep selflessness,  kindness, and joy.  

Mystical experience is the starting point for both religion and philosophy.  In religion, it is thought to provide direct, empirical evidence about the object of devotion, which lies beyond all ordinary sensory evidence.  Successful mystics don't need religious faith any more than you need faith in trees, because they think they observe fundamental reality directly, but neophytes and lay people need faith that they are on the path to mystical experience, just as a grade school science student requires faith that she will eventually understand quantum mechanics. 

In philosophy, mystical experience motivates the fundamental questions about the nature of reality, self, reason,  knowledge, and philosophy, itself.  For if mystical experience is true, then reality is much different from the way we ordinarily understand it to be, so ordinary (and even scientific) reason cannot be trusted as a guide to fundamental truth.  If, on the other hand, mystical experience is a psychologically-induced delusion, then physics and psychology win, reason should be heeded, and philosophy has the responsibility to unravel the delusion.  The trouble is that both the mystic and the scientist say the other side is deluded and both could be right.

The aim of this course is to provide an introduction to a range of mystical traditions drawn from different cultures and historical periods and to examine their relationships to philosophy.  We will consider the matter both ways, examining the impact of mystical experience on philosophy and the influence of philosophical concepts on the mystical tradition itself.  Throughout the term,we will be asking ourselves the hard philosophical question whether mystical wisdom is purely experiential and authoritative or is actually infected by philosophical presuppositions.


This is a freshman seminar.  The course will be based on discussion.  It is imperative for all involved (particularly your fellow students) that all of you read the course material twice over and think about what you are reading. 


The primary mystical texts are highly ambiguous and it is up to you to come prepared with alternative interpretations.  The secondary texts discuss what is admitted to be indescribable and, therefore, present their own challenges.


To credit you for this hard, but private preparation for class discussion, I will assign short reading questions along with each reading assignment to be turned in at the end of the class at which the reading is discussed.  The reading questions will lose 50% of their value if turned in later than the end of class, since the point is to be prepared for the class discussion, rather than to listen to the discussion to find the answers to the questions.  Also, the reading questions must be printed from a word processor rather than hand written, both to facilitate grading and to preclude last-minute adjustments during class. In fairness to you, I will be quite firm about all of this.


The reading questions should require only one or two short sentences in response. Aim for brevity and accuracy rather than vague coverage of all possibilities.


The papers are very short, in order to force you to focus upon what is essential. A good idea is to write a paper twice as long and then cut it down to its bare essentials.

Class Outline:


  • William James on mysticism
  • William James on philosophy

Hindu Mysticism

  • The Upanishads
  • The Baghavad Gita
  • Sankara's Monism: Advaita Vedanta

Ineffability and presupposition

First paper assignment


  • Theravada
    • Basics
    • History and Epistemology
    • Causality and Existence
    • Nirvana
  • Mahayana
    • Abhidhamma
    • Early Mahayana
    • Madhyamika School
    • Yogacara School
    • Zen
    • Taoism
  • Mysticism in Ancient Greek philosophy
    • Pythagoras
    • Parmenides and Melissos
    • Zeno
    • Plato


Nature of Mysticism

Reading assignment 1.
William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience Lectures XVI and XVII, on Mysticism.

Reading Questions:

  1. What are the four characteristics of a mystical experience?
  2. What did James experience under nitrous oxide (laughing gas)?
  3. How did Al Ghazzali compare non-prophets to blind men?
  4. Why are non-mystics exempt from believing what mystics say?
  5. How do mystical states undermine the authority of normal cognition?

Special Extra Assignment (counts as a whole reading assignment):  Reread the discussion of Al Ghazzali.  Try your best to explain what blue is to a blind person and anticipate the blind person's skeptical objections to what you say.

Philosophy and Mysticism

Reading assignment 2.

William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience Lectures XVIII, on Philosophy.

Reading Questions:  Please answer from James' point of view.

  1. How does British philosophy differ from Continental philosophy?
  2. How does the pragmatist principle undermine philosophical deductions of God's non-moral attributes?
  3. How does James criticize philosophical deductions of God's moral attributes?
  4. How are conceptual processes related to facts?
  5. How should philosophy relate to religion?

Hindu Mysticism

The Upanishads

Reading assignment 3

Reading Questions:

  1. What are the Upanishads?
  2. What are the four stages described by the Mandukya Upanishad?
  3. In the Katha Upanishad, why doesNachiketas refuse to ask Death for a long life?
  4. In the Katha Upanishad, how does one avoid death and rebirth?

Check this:
Other Upanishads online
Lots of Upanishads online
Eknath Easwaran, ed., The Upanishads, Berkeley: Nilgri Press, 1995.

Reading assignment 4

"Tadvana" is a mysterious name for Brahman that is thought to mean "beloved one".

Reading Questions:

  1. What makes a Hindu school "orthodox"?
  2. How do the Kena and Svetasvatara Upanishads characterize Brahman (in a positive way)?
  3. What are the first practical results of meditation, according to the Svetasvatara Upanishad ?
  4. How does the Svetasvatara Upanishad describe the process of rebirth?


Reading assignment 5
The Bhagavad-Gita
Chapters 1, 2, 3.

Reading Questions (optional for extra credit due to late posting of assignment):

  1. What is Arjuna sad about and what does Krishna tell him to do?
  2. Why shouldn't Arjuna grieve?
  3. What are the two paths to goodness?
  4. How do we avoid rebirth when action is unavoidable?

Reading assignment 6
Short introduction to the Bhagavad Gita
Short description of Krishna
The Bhagavad-Gita: Chapters 4,  9, 12

Reading Questions:

  1. Krishna's personality is a syncretism (combination) of what elements?
  2. How is knowledge related to the effectiveness of sacrificial acts in chapter 4?
  3. As the Bhagavad Gita progresses, how does the message seem to shift?
  4. Whom does Krishna love the most?

Monistic Philosophy of the Upanishads

Reading Assignment 7

Reading Questions

  1. What is superimposition and what does it have to do with ignorance?
  2. Who commits the error of superposition?...(!)
  3. Is Brahman known or unknown?
  4. What are the main Vedantist schools?

Check this:

Pro Advaita page: real people who are devoted to Shankara's philosophy
Summary of Shankara's position
Dvaita (anti-advaita page)

Mysticism and Ineffability

Reading Assignment 8

Handout:  Excerpt from chapter 1 of  Robert Nozick's Philosophical Explanations (here is the last page).

Sorry, the scanned files came out big so use dsl or the Ethernet to read them.

  1. What is a presupposition?
  2. How is presuppositional failure analogous to mystical discourse?
  3. When is it proper to utter contradictions?
  4. How does ineffability go beyond Al Ghazali's blindness analogy (discussed in the James reading)?


Theravada Buddhism

There are two main branches of Buddhism, Theravada (way of the elders) and Mahayana (great vehicle).  Theravada Buddhism says that the later texts are spurious additions.  Mahayana Buddhism says that the early texts were written for ignorant peasants who couldn't understand the Buddha's secret teaching.  

The "tipitaka" (three baskets) is the basic core of the Buddhist canon, taken as authoritative by all branches of Buddhism.  It is thought to derive from oral tradition descending from Gautama himself.  The usual  Buddhist catechisms and FAQ sheets are usually drawn from this fundamental source, as are the third and fourth reading below.


  1. Which fruits of meditation did the Buddha reject and which did he ultimately find useful (check the Majhima Niyaka 36)?
  2. What are the four noble truths?
  3. What is the cycle of causes of pain and rebirth?
  4. What is the goal?  How does it differ from the Upanishadic goal?
  5. How did the Buddha end up?

Background and Epistemology

Chapters 1 and 2, Buddhist Philosophy by David C. Kalupahana (the paper textbook for the class).  The first chapter places Buddhism squarely in the context of the material we have studied so far, so it provides a useful outline of the first half of the semester..

  1. What did the Buddha's "middle path" steer between?
  2. How does Kalupahana argue that the Upanishadic authors were anchored in the Vedic tradition rather than in the indigenous mystical tradition?
  3. What are the three pre-Buddhist responses to the Upanishads and how does Kalupahana argue that they are "absolutist"?
  4. What was the Buddha's attitude toward sense perception?  Meditation?
  5. What does "everything" mean for the Buddha?

Cross-indexed hypertext of the tipitaka! Very well done: technical terms are hyper-linked to definitions occurring in primary sources.  Double-check Kalupahana's references!  Hypertree table of contents for easy navigation.  Great resource for, say, a paper on Buddhism....

Causation and Existence

Chapters 3 and 4, Buddhist Philosophy.
Causal cycle of rebirth:  Samyutta Nikaya XII.2, Paticca-samuppada-vibhanga Sutta.

  1. In what sense was the Buddhist account of causation a "golden mean"?
  2. What is "deathlessness" and how did Mahayana Buddhism reinterpret it?
  3. How did the Buddhist account of the self differ from the account in the Upanishads?
  4. Why didn't the Buddha clearly settle the nature of the self?


Chapter7, Buddhist Philosophy
Majjhima Nikaya 72, Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta, To Vacchagotta on Fire

  1. Is Nirvana the deepest (fifth) meditative state?  Explain.
  2. How does Kalupahana explain the  famous Udana passage?
  3. How does the unknowability of the dead arahant differ from the unknowability of the live arahant?
  4. How does Johannsson interpret Nirvana?


Mahayana Buddhism


Chapters 8, 9, Buddhist Philosophy, to page 101.

  1. What trend is Mahayana the culmination of?
  2. How did absolutism first enter Buddhism?
  3. How did the abhidarmika account of mind differ from that of the sutras?
  4. How did the abhidarmika account of  moments lead to absolutism?

Early Mahayana

Chapter 10, Buddhist Philosophy
The following text is quoted in the chapter:  Chapter 4, Lotus Sutra

  1. How did concept of the Buddha change?
  2. How did the concept of Arahant change?
  3. How did the Buddha's wisdom change?
  4. What is a bodhisattva and why was the idea appealing to lay Buddhists?

Madhyamika School of Mahayana

Chapter 11, Buddhist Philosophy

  1. How did Candrakirti "refute" theories of self-causation?
  2. How did Candrakirti "refute" the non-identity theory of causation?
  3. How does Kalupahana contrast the Buddha's and Nagarjuna's views on the "conflict of reason"?
  4. According to nagarjuna, what is emptyness?

Yogacara School of Mahayana

Chapter 12, Buddhist Philosophy

  1. How did the Sautrantika theory of moments contribute to Yogacara idealism?
  2. How does Vasubandhu claim to go beyond the Hinayanists?
  3. How does Vasubandhu answer the realist?
  4. How does "absolute idealism" differ from "immaterialism" (you will have to read between the lines a bit)?


Appendix2, Buddhist Philosophy

  1. What is the derivation of  the word "Zen"?
  2. What was Zen a reaction against?
  3. What is the difference between the Rinzai and Soto sects?
  4. How do the two schools interpret the point of "koan"?

Taoism in China

Introduction to Tao te Ching with comments on Zen (stop at the heading "notes on interpretation")

Tao te Ching, chapters 1-50 (also in Chinese).

  1. Succinctly summarize the historical relationship between Zen and Taoism.
  2. List three reasons why a Taoist might conclude that Madhyamika and Yogacara Buddhists were talking about the Tao. Support your answers from the text of the Tao te Ching.


Mysticism in Western Philosophy

Ancient Greek Mystery Cults

Pythagoreanism: click "Pythagoreanism" and then look at Burnet's Early Greek Philosophy entry and at "Fragments" (just Plato's and Aristotle's).

  1. How is Orphism analogous to early Indian religion?
  2. What is the myth of Orpheus and Euridice?
  3. Why did the Pythagoreans pursue mathematics?
  4. How did the Pythagoreans develop the idea that everything is number?

Eleatic Monism


Reading questions:  

  1. What Indian religious development seems most similar to Parmenides' view?  
  2. Draw some analogies and disanalogies.

Zeno's Paradoxes

Zeno's paradoxes and discussion

  1. How does Zeno argue against the possibility of a Pythagorean unit?
  2. How does Zeno argue against the idea that space exists?
  3. How does Zeno argue that you can't cross a race course?  Do you agree?
  4. Which Buddhist figure does Zeno most remind you of?

If you think you solved the tortoise, look here

Plato's Phaedo

Phaedo (whole text)

List four analogies between Plato's doctrine and any of the Eastern mystical traditions we have studied.  Be sure to mention which tradition you are drawing an analogy to.

Plotinus and Neo-Platonism

Introduction to Plotinus

  1. What is the One?
  2. What is Intelligence?
  3. What is Being?
  4. What is the Soul?



First Paper Assignment

Length 4 pages + references
Double spaced
12 pt. Times Roman font.
Cite all sources.
Do some extra reading.
Don't include introductory fluff, like "The concept of Nirvana is very important"--- there isn't any room for it.  

Possible topics:

  1. Compare and contrast the Buddhist concept of self with that of the Advaita Vedanta school.
  2. Contradictions are necessarily false.  Mystics contradict themselves all the time, so their views are false.  Discuss.
  3. Creative project:  write your own Upanishad or sutra.  Don't just copy one, but try to master the style and convey the philosophy as persuasively as possible with analogies.
  4. Compare and contrast the views of Sankara and Gaudapada concerning the nature of maya.
  5. Contrast the Theravada and Mahayana views of Nirvana.


Final Paper Assignment

Due last day of class
Max length 5 pages + references
Double spaced
12 pt. Times Roman font.
Cite all sources.
Do some extra reading.
Grading criteria will be same as last time.  I'll expect a bit more sophistication on the second try.

Possible topics:

  1. Defend the Mahayana against Kalupahana's argument that it incorrectly imports absolutism into Buddhism.
  2. Compare and contrast "emptyness" with Brahman.
  3. Provide an exegisis of some Madhyamika or Yogacara arguments.
  4. Trace the Madhyamika and Yogacara influence on Zen.
  5. Seek Zen themes in Japanese arts.
  6. Trace the development of Tantric Buddhism.
  7. Compare Buddhism with another mystical tradition (e.g., Sufism, Kabbalah, Platonism). 
  8. Compare and contrast Plato's views with those of traditional Hinduism.
  9. Examine the influence of Platonic ideas on early Christian figures (e.g., Marcion, Augustine, Justin Martyr).
  10. Look for Platonic mystical influences in the 17th century Scientific Revolution (e.g., Copernicus and Kepler).