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beauty and the mystical sense

Waiting at the crosswalk, near the bridge by the Osaka Dome: a man my age, perhaps a few years younger, ordinary guy in khaki windbreaker holding hands on either side with his daughters, maybe six and eight: they, on unicycles, one pink, one yellow, white tires; the girls in matching outfits (unicycle team outfits? or just kawaii?): blue jeans (with mutli-colored stars low on the leg), pink jackets/sweatshirts, white puffy parka-type vest.

Me, big smile, trying not to stare; the girls sneaking looks at the funny-looking long-haired gaijin. All beautiful.

Speaking of beauty...

All of us have some sort of aesthetic sense, a sense of beauty. What triggers it may be as varied as Cantor's diagonalization argument about the infinity of the reals versus the infinity of rational numbers, or the Ramones classic punk anthem "Blitzkrieg Bop", or a folk song played in Japanese with harmonica and guitar, but every human being of sound mind possesses the ability to experience the recognition of beauty. We would hold a person without this ability to be damaged, lacking, an object of pity.

Similar to this aesthetic sense, but distinct from it, is what we might call a "mystical sense".(Credit to Raymond Smullyan for this analogy between the aesthetic and mystical senses.) The experience of the mystical is sometimes expressed as the sense of "the presence of the divine", sometimes as an experience of "Cosmic Consciousness", sometimes as "the perception of emptiness" or a "feeling of oneness with the universe", depending on the social conditioning and religious training of the experiencer. But these are all perceptions of the mystical sense, just as things are varied as the beauty of a sunset, of a Bach fugue, and a Zen garden are all perceptions of the aesthetic sense.

Until relatively recently, most Western societies regarded the mystical sense as the province of a few - those who had any sort of mystical experience were sent off to the seminary, monastery, or convent, safely isolating their contagion of our ordinary consciousness. But in the past century or so, an increased interest in mysticism and Eastern spirituality began to wear away this belief that the mystical sense was a rare possession. And the notion was pretty much destroyed by the introduction of psychedelic drugs to the mainstream in the mid-20th century - suddenly, with the ingestion of a few hundred micrograms of LSD, housewives and investment bankers and thoroughly ordinary, boring people were "seeing the face of God".

(Two notes here: one, this is not a suggestion to go drop acid at random. Two, as I write this I am listening to "House of the Rising Sun" being sung live in Nihongo at "Folk Jamboree Night" at the Cellar in Osaka - in a world like this, are drugs really necessary? (And then the singer changes to English for the last few verses, seeing an American around.) More and more, I see why Taoist masters of old used to hang out in inns to spring mystical tricks on travelers far from home, open to new and crazy truths.)

But it is important to understand that the way in which this mystical sense is experienced is often heavily culturally conditioned. A Christian sees Jesus, a Hindu sees Krishna; the danger in this is that each then concludes that all the associated dogma with which they've been infected is therefore true, when in fact the dogma and conditioning have just determined what color glasses they are wearing when they behold the Clear Light. (To behold the clear light without glasses of some color is highly unlikely; to be conscious of the color of the glasses we wear, and perhaps even be able to swap to a few different colors, is quite a high achievement.)

The development of this mystical sense, the ability to have these experiences, is what we call "magick" (not the tricks and illusions of "magic", as wonderful as they are, but the mage-way of "magick"); the ability to become conscious of the glasses we are wearing, what color they are, is mindfulness; to be able to try on different colors, is an aspect of compassion and of wisdom.

Is it worthwhile to have these experiences?

Is it worthwhile to have experiences of beauty? we might as well ask.

But the danger of dogma, of mistaking these wonderful subjective experiences as being indicative of truth about the "objective" universe of consensual reality, is real, and not to be taken lightly. Therefore the path of training must include grounding, good solid smacks upside the head (figurative or literal) if the seeker becomes too attached to the fantastic. This is why Zen masters carry a stick, and say things like "If you say this is a stick, I will hit you thirty times, and if you say it is not, I will hit you thirty times!" (Discordian masters carry a joy buzzer, and SubGenii will empty your wallet, but the idea is the same.)

Not much can be said directly about the mystical experience. By its nature it is not well-expressed in words, and attempting to do so is what tends to the establishment of dogma.

A classic Zen koan asks us to imagine a men hanging from a high tree branch by his teeth. He can't reach any hold by his hands or his feet. Then along comes a seeker who asks, "Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?" (in Zen language, this means "Please teach me"). If he opens his mouth to answer, he falls (some versions say he falls straight to hell); if he remains silent, he fails in his duty to aid the querent (and thus, some versions say, will be killed and dammed). What should he do?

No answer here. I'll just note that I'm siting in a bar in Japan without understanding a damn thing that's going on around me, the songs people are singing or the conversations or the culture (though it seems, by the cake and the singing of "Happy Birthday", to be someone's birthday).

But not understanding doesn't mean I can't enjoy. Sort of like life. Wakarimasen, demo tanoshii desu!

As Bugs Bunny once put it, "Don't take life too seriously. You'll never get out alive."

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