This post is based on a recent question from a reader:
Subject: Darkness Vs Light
I am an occasional reader of your blog. I must admit some of it goes over my head. But I would like to see you write a piece taking on the role of light and darkness in mystical religion.
The concept of “light” is found on just about every level in every religion to describe the divine, from the banal to the esoteric. But there seems to be a smaller body of writing / thought that conceives of the ultimate as a kind of “divine darkness.” Not darkness as “evil” but as a kind of cosmic antecedent to all things. It can be associated with unknowing (as per the Christian Mystical text “The Cloud of Unknowing,”) but I think a straight one-to-one equivalency of “mystical darkness” with simple “unknowing” is facile and only part of the story at best.
I have puzzled over Zenmar’s “Dark Zen”, your recent “Dark Dharma” post, and other posts of yours where you invoke a mystical “darkness” as the ultimate. I feel there is something there, but something has still eluded me. On the other hand, the idea of light as a metaphor for the ultimate is obvious and well-stated by countless authors.
Would you be willing to do a “big picture” explanation of the relationship between “mystic light” and “mystic darkness”? If you can help me understand I would be greatful.
I will leave you with this: For years the opening paragraphs of the “Mystical Theology” by the early Christian writer Dionysius the Areopagite (“What is the Divine Darkness?”) have haunted and baffled me. He is one of the few Christian readers to speak of the Divine in terms of darkness rather than light, but his style is so obscure that I cannot pretend to grasp it. Perhaps you will get more out of it than I. I encourage you to read at least the beginning of his essay:
I think that despite being Christian rather than Buddhist, you will find it may resonate with much of your own explorations over the years.
Your enquiry is a good one and understandable regarding this question of darkness vs. light. Foremost to keep in mind, this “darkness” of which we write about here at Unborn Mind Zen has nothing to do with the form of “natural darkness” that appears after sunset, or something dark and sinister A more apt description is Luminous Darkness–which in actuality describes a form of spiritual light that is even brighter than the Sun. Darkness essentially refers to an absence of phenomena–such as your reference to Dionysius the Areopagite. We just finished a series here on The Cloud: The Cloud of Unknowing in Light of the Unborn. I suggest you read it in its entirety as well as our series on John of the Cross’ Dark night of the Soul and infused contemplation: Ascending the Noble Mountain of Primordial Perfection. These will more than adequately assist you. And you’re right, this “Darkness” cuts across the sectarian spectrum and is all-inclusive.
The following is from another blog:
The ancient Essenes-sect expounded that the Absolute was more about darkness than light. In this sense they were in league with Pseudo Dionysius–for him the Absolute was a via-negativa–the absence of light. Think of it—Darkness is the Real Eternal Delight—it is the essence of the Imageless Eternal-Self. Darkness IS deathlessness itself. Light suffers from limitations, like the death of a Star that soon turns-inward into a Black Hole which Alone remains. Light is born but the darkness is always there—it is deathless.
See also the series A Darkness Visible which wonderfully encapsulates the benefits of spiritual darkness.