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The Unity of Mystical Traditions: The Transformation of Consciousness in Tibetan and German Mysticism by Randall Studstill (Studies in the History of Religions, Vol. 107: Brill Academic) argues that mystical doctrines and practices initiate parallel transformative processes in the consciousness of mystics. This thesis is supported through a comparative analysis of Tibetan Buddhist Dzogchen (rdzogs-chen) and the medieval German mysticism of Eckhart, Suso, and Tauler. These traditions are interpreted using a system/cybernetic model of consciousness. This model provides a theoretical framework for assessing the cognitive effects of mystical doctrines and practices and showing how different doctrines and practices may nevertheless initiate common transformative processes. This systems approach contributes to current philosophical discourse on mysticism by (1) making possible a precise analysis of the cognitive effects of mystical doctrines and practices, and (2) reconciling mystical heterogeneity with the essential unity of mystical traditions.

Randall Studstill, Ph.D. (2002) in Religious Studies, The Graduate Theological Union, is an Adjunct Instructor of Religious Studies at San Jose State University. He has published on the phenomenological method of Mircea Eliade and the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

The purpose of this study is to present and support a mystical pluralist interpretation of mysticism. Through the application of a systems-based understanding of mind to Dzogchen and German mysticism, Studstill shows that the doctrines and practices of these two mystical traditions and by implication, mystical traditions in general, bring about common transformative processes in the consciousness of the mystic, experientially realized as a deepening attunement to the Real. The mystical pluralist thesis has close affinities to a number of other essentialist and transper­sonal approaches to mysticism. Mystical pluralism, Forman's perennial psychology, Combs' systems approach, shares the same core thesis: mystical paths function in similar ways to decondition structures of ordinary consciousness. Studstill goes beyond this basic idea by addressing in more precise terms how mystical doctrines and prac­tices cause transformation and what this transformation involves. It also addresses areas of the mystical data often ignored or left unex­plained by essentialist, constructivist, and transpersonal theories: the nature of visionary mystical experiences and their relation to contentless, unmediated mystical states. The role of doctrine and ethics in generating mystical transformation, and the intrinsic epistemic value of mystical experiences is also delineated. As comprehensive as this account is in its reach and clarity, this reviewer finds a greater insistence on a divorce with “ordinary consciousness” that this study most seriously breaches aspects of the traditions taken to support  and account for mystical pluralism. There is too much insistence upon transformation rather than upon the recovery of the Real in the real of ordinary experience.

 For Studstill mystical pluralism is justified on two levels. First, it is justified by the fundamental inadequacy of constructivism alone. Specifically, Studstill argues that constructivism is inadequate in its description of the mystical data, and both philosophically and psychologically problematic. The problems with constructivism provide the grist for an alternative view of mystical that Studstill calls mystical pluralism, based on its own philosophical, epistemological, and psychological merits, as well as its ability to account for the data. Studstill explains what a systems approach to consciousness and mysticism involves, reviewing some of the general principles of systems theory and discussing how such principles may be applied to consciousness or mind. Next the study presents doctrinally nuanced mystical data through overviews of two mystical traditions: Dzogchen and German mysticism respectively. Using the systems-based model of consciousness, Studstill’s interpretation of these traditions focuses on the issue of therapeutic efficacy: how they might transform the consciousness of the practitioner who internalizes them and lives them. Studstill concludes the study by comparing the traditions from a systems per­spective. This systems approach shows how both Dzogchen and German mysticism function to elicit common transformative processes and thereby supports a mystical pluralist interpretation of mystical traditions.

I admire the close reading and clear presentation that Studstill’s work accounts for mysticism as the conscious alternation of conscious`experience through meditative exercise. However Studstill’s account stresses the phenomenal, peak experience aspect of mysticism rather than the subtle deepening of “ordinary awareness.” I am reminded of Underhill’s youthful work Mysticism, 1901 which also tended to stress the extraordinary, to her own later more subtle formulations of contemplative experience. Perhaps Studstill will also exercise a more moderate and inclusive revision of his views, if he continues to develop his systems approach to a wider variety of religious experience.

Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary by Jeremy A. Black and Anthony Green, illustrations by Tessa Rickards ( University of Texas Press ) Ancient Mesopotamia was the home of some of the world's earliest cities, and the place where writing was invented. For these two major developments alone—urban society and literate society—it might justly be titled the 'cradle of civilisation', but in its literature, its religious philosophies and no less in its art it can also be placed firmly as the direct ancestor of the Western world. More

The Impossibility of God edited by Michael Martin & Ricki Monnier (Prometheus Books) Most people, believers and nonbelievers alike, are unacquainted with the variety and force of arguments for the nonexistence of God. In fact, the very mention of such an argument is usually a source of amusement, if not derision. Indeed, how can there be a serious argument for the nonexistence of`God, let alone for the impossibility of God, when so many people "simply know" that God exists? More

Early Works of Orestes A. Brownson: Volume IV- The Transcendentalist Years, 1838-39 by Orestes Augustus Brownson, edited by Patrick W. Carey (Marquette University Press) The fourth volume, covering the period from August of 1838 to October of 1839, contains a collection of essays that reflects Brownson's transcendentalism. In these essays on theol­ogy, philosophy, literature, politics, and education Brownson defines what he calls his own eclectic transcendentalism. He defines his own position within the American transcendentalist movement by reacting on the one hand to what he calls the subjectivism and logical pantheism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Amos Bronson Alcott, and on the other to the rational em­piricism and supernaturalism of Andrews Norton. More

Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality by John Horgan (Houghton Mifflin) it may well be at the 21st century will put an end to any war between science and spirituality according to Horgan in this episodic and quixotic investigation into the heather lands of science and religion. Has a pass contributing editor to Scientific American, scientists, scallywags to comment upon the basic questions of the convergence of mysticism and science. What resulted from this investigation is an entertaining and provocative discussion of the cutting edge in scientific and mystical inquiry. Horgan wonders if our understanding is any better about what happens in the brain during meditation or prayer.  What is the relationship between drug ecstasy and mystical experiences? Have we mapped in the brain neurological links between enlightenment and madness? How is analytical research related to seeking Nirvana? Do mystical experience serious insight into the nature of the cosmos, mind, and the eternal verities. More

Recalling Religions: Resistance, Memory, and Cultural Revision in Ethnic Women's Literature by Peter Kerry Powers ( University of Tennessee Press ) Chanted descent lines suggest an understanding of religious ritual much at odds with the grand visions of narrative coherence that religions often see in themselves, and also at odds with the even more grandiose vision of philosophical "Religion" that believes it can melt every particular human difference to a fundamental purity, discarding the incident of human place and time as so much cosmic slag. Kingston 's images also speak against the notion of literature common to the modernist canon that has formed so much of our thinking even to the present; this is no literature of the verbal icon, of the self‑consistent and purified whole existing in an impossible space apart from the particularities of human existence in time. Rather, these images are images of the con­trary and changing realities of the street. Here is the way religious traditions and literary texts work for people who live without the luxury of time to form a universal vision. More

Awakening to an Uncertain Future: A Case Study of the Promise Keepers by George N. Lundskow ( American University Studies. Series VII, Theology and Religion, Vol 218: Peter Lang) It may be considered ironic that the most successful movement to emerge out of the men’s movement was not a pro-femminst reevaluations of men’s human values but a reactionary evangelical reinterpretation of patriarchy called the Promise Keepersn The group is an interest success story of how some men find ways to reassert their rights with a renewed emphasis upon the importance of responsibility, unfortunately from this reviewers point of view without a more humane and gender inclusive cutting edge. More

The Essential Max Muller: On Language, Mythology, and Religion selected and edited by Jon Stone (Palgrave Macmillan) (PAPERBACK) "A classic," humorist Mark Twain is credited as saying, "is a book that everyone talks about but no one has read." Were Twain alive today he might have said the same of the scholarship of Max Muller (1823-1900), the famed German-born Oxford professor of comparative philology and Vedic studies. A prolific writer and a highly popular lecturer, Muller enchanted the literate public of Victorian England with his learned essays and addresses on subjects as varied and exotic as Asian mythology, Western folklore, comparative linguistics, the philosophy of language and thought, and the origins and historical development of the world's religions. More

Indian Esoteric Buddhism by Ronald M. Davidson (Columbia University Press) (Paperback) provides a resourceful and original historical study of Indian Esoteric Buddhism which is likely to become a standard reference for years to come. This pioneering effort is likely to raise some controversy and is not likely to have a ready audience among the gaggle of Buddhist devotees, as it deals with Buddhist evidence critically and not devotionally, seeking historical plausibility rather than mythic certainty. However for the critically informed Buddhist this work will prove enlightening for suggesting the social and political conditions in which the origins of the Tantric movement evolved in early medieval India. More

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