Essentialist vs. Nominalist Mysticism:

Practically Identical Yet Fundamentally Different

Progress & Conservationđź”°
5 min readMar 28, 2024
Jesus and Buddha Drinking Beer Together, generated using AI

The mystical traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy and Buddhism are practically the same. What I mean by that is that the meditative practice is basically identical. That’s also the case with the Vedic (Hindu), Sufi (Muslim), and Taoist traditions. There is a universal mystical tradition with certain common practices that transcend religious traditions. Some key practices are: (1) mindfulness of breath, (2) stilling the mind, and (3) mantra meditation. An Orthodox Christian will meditate while repeating some version of the Jesus Prayer — Kyrie Iesou Christe, Eleison — and aligning their inbreath and outbreath with this prayer. This is basic mantra meditation, and it is a universal mystical practice. A Hindu may do the same with the Hare Krishna mantra, a Buddhist may use the Daimoku mantra, and a Muslim may recite la ilaha illallah. The mantra may be recited out loud or in one’s head. The basic formula for practice is universal and common across mystical traditions — it’s merely the words of the mantra that differ. What makes mystical traditions different from one another is that they have different interpretations of (1) the mystical experience and (2) the fundamental nature of reality.

My friend William used to distinguish between the core of mysticism and the shell. The core is the practical formula that makes mystical experiences happen. The shell, on the other hand, consists of philosophical and religious ideas or doctrines that constitute one’s interpretative framework. While the practical formula is basically universal, there are many particular “shells” or worldviews through which religious and mystical experiences can be interpreted.

These “shells” or interpretative frameworks can generally be divided into two broad categories: (1) essentialist frameworks and (2) nominalist frameworks. Essentialist frameworks conceive of things as having rigid permanent essences (the essence of dog-ness, tree-ness, soul, God, etc.) Things are what they are because they mimic some ideal form of that thing — they mimic or share in the essence of what that thing is. Nominalist or non-essentialist frameworks, on the other hand, view categories as being generalizations and things as being fluid processes rather than rigid concrete objects. The essentialist would say that a dog is a “dog” because it corresponds to the essence of dog-ness. And this essence of dog-ness exists either in the “world of forms” or in “the mind of God.” The nominalist would say that “dog” is a range on the spectrum of biological evolution and that we have simply generalized various similar things as belonging to a single category by convention.

Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism — as well as Platonism and Neo-Platonism — are essentialist, meaning that they view things as having rigid or concrete essences. In the Christian and Islamic worldview, things are what they are by design, because God made them that way—this leaves no room for evolution via blind natural selection. Trees are “trees” because they mimic the ideal form of tree-ness in the mind of God. On the other hand, Buddhism and Taoism — and Heraclitus, Whitehead, and “process philosophy” — are non-essentialist or nominalist, meaning that they tend to view things as processes and compositions that naturally evolve and change. The essentialist views things as static entities, whereas the non-essentialist would view them as dynamic processes. The essentialist holds that a person has an essential nature, a core or soul, that is unchanging and abides forever. The non-essentialist or nominalist, on the other hand, recognizes that things are not actually singular concrete objects but rather dynamic processes that change and evolve. I am not the same person that I was ten years ago. Every atom in my body has been replaced and my views and opinions have evolved as well — there’s no abiding core or essential nature that remains the same.

Creationists Riding Dinosaur, generated using AI

The problem with essentialist perspectives is that they conflict with the modern scientific understanding of the world. Many Christians, for instance, want to ban the teaching of evolution in schools because it undermines their essentialist dogma. The Bible says animals are “created according to their kind” by God via a deliberate act. The Theory of Evolution states that they evolved into their current forms through a process. The Bible says that God created mankind “male and female” with their respective roles. As a result of these essentialist ideas, the Christian is often uncomfortable with the mere existence of LGBTQ people because their existence undermines the essentialist ideology of the religion. They don’t conform to the ideal of maleness or femaleness laid out by the religious framework and so they threaten the integrity of the worldview or, at very least, they are rebels against it.

Buddhism and Taoism paint a picture of the world that is much more realistic. I am not a concrete individual but rather a dynamic process—I'm composed of countless disparate particles, cells, and organisms that constitute my body and my identity is relational in nature (I'm a son in relation to my father, a husband in relation to my wife, a volunteer in relation to the soup kitchen, an employee in relation to my boss, etc.). Who I am is a complex process plus a bunch of relations. Moreover, all things are like this. A “table” is composed of different pieces and those pieces, in turn, reduce to countless little molecules. This is how Buddhism, Taoism, and process philosophy view the world. Things lack any inherent essence or are "empty" of self-nature.

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These are two fundamentally different ways of viewing the world and so, although Orthodoxy and Buddhism practice meditation basically the same way, there’s a mountain of differences between them. And the Buddhist/Taoist/process view is the one that accords with our modern scientific understanding of the world. This “process” or nominalist view also tends to interpret mystical experiences differently. Essentialists are in the habit of reifying things or imagining things as being more concrete and definite than they actually are. Thus, when an essentialist has a religious or mystical experience and encounters some “entity,” they are more likely to reify it. The Christian will be more likely to see a mystical hallucination as an angel or demon — that is, as an entity that is really concrete and exists independently of the experience. The Buddhist, on the other hand, is more likely to see such apparitions as “thought-forms” or hallucinations and realize that they are ultimately unreal. Since they don’t reify things in general, they are less likely to reify things encountered during mystical experiences. The two frameworks have different implications on issues like evolution, gender, and even politics. And if one thinks through things consistently and tries to develop a consistent worldview, their opinions on virtually everything will be heavily influenced by the framework they choose, whether it be essentialist or non-essentialist.



Progress & Conservationđź”°

Radical centrist, functional finance, universal healthcare, social dividend, universal basic income, land value tax, nominal GDP targeting, social democracy