Yoga, Meditation, and Mysticism

Contemplative Universals and Meditative Landmarks

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Kenneth Rose
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , September
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The comparative study of religious phenomena, whether from a methodological perspective, of "religions" at large, or of specific practices, has returned to the agenda of academic enquiry. In 2016 alone it is possible to count several edited works and monographs that offer insights in, and responses or possible solutions to, the decades old post-modernist critique of the comparative method in the study of religions—for example: Interreligious Comparisons in Religious Studies and Theology  (Perry Schmidt-Leukel and Andreas Nehring, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016), Comparing Faithfully (Michelle Voss Roberts, Fordham University Press, 2016), The Value of Comparison (Peter van der Veer, Duke University Press, 2016), or New Patterns for Comparative Religion (William E. Paden, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016).

Kenneth Rose's new book represents an important and invaluable contribution to the reflection on the value, purpose, and mode of comparison, not only for its systematic philosophical approach to the question, but also, most notably and, in light of the influence of the works of such scholars as J. Z. Smith and Russell McCutcheon rather surprisingly, because it responds by putting forward a strong argument for "a return to nomothetic—or universalizing and essentializing—explanatory approaches to the study of religion and mysticism" (3). Yoga, Meditation, and Mysticism’s opening reflection on the pivotal debate between the two positions championed in the late twentieth century by Huston Smith and Steven Katz is thus revealing.

At its essence, Rose's work is a study in the comparative philosophy of mysticism, whose central aim is to address "questions about the unity and legitimacy of human spiritual experience" (xiv). Thus, the work presented in this book is not per-se, concerned with issues of textual or cultural analysis, historical or social contextualization, or philology—though Rose certainly does borrow and build from scholarship that addresses each one of these aspect contextually to the case studies examined. Rather, the investigation is geared towards addressing the fundamental question of what lies at the root of seemingly identical narratives in the mystical traditions of distinct religions.

To this end, Rose grounds his reflection on close readings and analyses of three case studies from three world religions that share a long history of mystical practice and literature: the Visuddhimagga by Buddhaghosa, the Yoga Sūtra by Patañjali, and Des grâces d'oraison by Augustine François Poulain. Notably, all texts are seen as providing a description of the mystical experience that Rose charts as being representative of five universal functions: 1) "convergence," in which the mind focuses on the object of meditation; 2) "coalescence," in which the mind fixes on the meditation object; 3) "simplification," in which the mind simplifies itself factor by factor; 4) "quiescence," in which the mind is stilled; and 5) "beatitude," in which the mind is transcended (51-55). These five mystical tropes, which Rose is careful to categorize as justified abstractions and which he identifies by analyzing the three literary meditative accounts, are also further corroborated by references to recent findings in the neuroscientific study of contemplative practices. Rose argues, in fact, with reference to Jason Blum ("The Science of Consciousness and Mystical Experience," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 82, 2014), that, though the neuroanatomy of meditation cannot offer any evidence for a mystic object, it can nevertheless indicate that "the mystic of any and all traditions who rhapsodizes the ineffable shares with other mystics a 'built-in natural human capacity for nonlinguistic experience'" (36).

In my view, the novelty and efficacy of Rose's work rests exactly on this Kantian spin as a possible solution to the constructivist versus essentialist impasse. In this perspective, therefore, that which is referred to as mysticism is not merely the communicable rhetoric of a subjective experience. Rather it is an objective universal human phenomenon that is such exactly because it is an intimate experience that is dependent on our human nature. Thus, through the combined examination of textual sources and neuroscientific findings, Rose argues that every human being apprehends the ineffable in the same manner, through a "progression of concentrative states [that] unfolds identically in each tradition as a process of simplification or unification of consciousness" (3), and that corresponds to the five tropes or "contemplative universals." These tropes are, in turn, not religious objects, nor are they contextual to any culture or historic-geographical locum, but rather, they exist "prior to all religious traditions, just as the capacity of human beings for language acquisition precedes any particular language" (156).

The book is elegantly written, it is well structured, in a manner that clearly and effectively puts forwards its complex argument, and it offers a sharp and solid philosophical analysis of its evidence as well as of the greater field of religious study, both structurally and theoretically, but also in light of its greater scope. In this respect, then, Rose's contribution is rather ambitious, yet it is also researched and presented so as to solidly stand to scrutiny and critique. I, for example, who am rather skeptical of essentialist and phenomenological approaches to the study of religious phenomena, have felt nevertheless compelled to question my own perspective on the issue of comparison and method in religious studies when confronted with Rose's critique of constructivism, convincingly presented to be, in light of its ascribed inadequacy to account, as a theory for the "globally available evidence for mysticism," as more of an "a priori, ideological, and dogmatic approach to the body of mystical evidence than an actual analysis of what the whole body of evidence suggests" (31).

Insofar as theorizing on religion and mysticism, on comparison and approaches to religious experience, Rose's latest book is a must-read: the argument is compelling, carefully researched, effectively structured, and convincingly presented. A word of caution—it is fundamentally a clear attempt at reviving a long-since-criticized approach to the study of religious phenomena that risks being rejected off-hand without due consideration of his novel approach to the argument. It is my hope that a comparably effective monograph, championing a competing view, will soon leave the press, thus offering us an antithesis to Rose's proposition, and eventually re-enacting that Smith vs. Katz standoff from which Rose's book emerges.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Massimo Rondolino is assistant professor of philosophy at Carroll University.

Date of Review: 
February 20, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kenneth Rose is professor of philosophy and religious studies at Christopher Newport University, Virginia. He has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Richmond, and the University of Massachusetts. He holds an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School and an M.A. and Ph.D. in the Study of Religion from Harvard University. At Harvard, he was a Fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions. He is the author of Pluralism: The Future of Religion and Knowing the Real: John Hick on the Cognitivity of Religions and Religious Pluralism as well as numerous academic articles and reviews.



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