3 Mystics With David Halpin: The Cloud of Unknowing, Thich Nhat Hanh & Thomas Merton


Starts on Thursday 14th of September at 7-9 pm.

This short three week course is an introduction to mysticism.  In it we will explore the concept of mysticism as it is manifested in the lives and teachings of three mystics – two from the Christian tradition and one from the Buddhist world. Each mystic brings their own distinctive perspective on the spiritual journey.  Over the three weeks we will look at their unique contribution and points of convergence.

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Evelyn Underhill over 100 years ago said ‘Mysticism is the direct intuition or experience of God; and the mystic is a person who has to a greater or lesser degree, such a direct experience – one whose religion and life are centered, not merely on excepted belief or practice, but on that which they regard as first-hand personal knowledge.’ A mystic therefore is a person who has opened their lives to the direct experience of God. But each mystic is different. This is so because each brings their own self, their personality and psychological make up, their educational and training background, their cultural framework and context.

Each mystic has a unique experience of the divine and so each mystic is different. In this short course we shall look at the three very different mystics. We shall explore a little of the culture from which they emerged and at their individual experience of God and how they presented their teaching. Each evening there will be a presentation of one of the mystics, an opportunity for discussion and some time for meditation in the style of the mystic.


Each evening this course will present a different mystic. This will involve:

  • The background to the mystic.
  • An exploration of their teaching.
  • An analysis of their importance within the world Mystical Tradition.
  • An exploration of their Influence and Relevance for Today.
  • An opportunity for discussion and sharing.
  • Some quiet time for meditation.



Faith Tradition: Christian

Background:    Known only as the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, the anonymous author is thought to probably have been a monk and a teacher of prayer. He lived in the fourteenth century in England.

Teaching: There are four main works attributed  to the  Cloud author. The main and most important work is the Cloud of Unknowing which was purportedly written as a manual on teaching contemplative prayer to a 24 year old student. It was influenced by the teaching of Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite’s Mystical Theology. He teaches apophatic approach to prayer which insists that God as he is in himself cannot be known in the ordinary sense of being known but in fact can only be known through unknowing. The central motif  involves imagining two clouds; a Cloud of Forgetting and a Cloud of Unknowing. In prayer one imagines a Cloud of Forgetting beneath oneself and into this cloud places all distractions, thoughts, worries, images,  etc. leaving ones mind free to strive to enter the Cloud of Unknowing above wherein in darkness is God. This motif is a helpful analogy and framework for envisaging the apophatic mystical spiritual journey.

Importance in Mystical Tradition: The Cloud has had a large influence on later mystics such as John of the Cross and Teilhard de Chardin. Its apophatic approach together with its striking central motif have enabled it to be a basis for interreligious dialogue Sufism and the religious traditions of the East.

Influence and Relevance for Today: The Cloud was written as a manual for prayer in the fourteenth century and has remained one of the most systematic, concise, insightful and practical manuals for those engaging in the mystical life ever since. Its relevance for today is best exemplified in the fact that the renowned Jesuit William Johnston, who spent most of his life teaching in Tokyo and who engaged in interreligious dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism, specifically Zen, based his approach on the Cloud of Unknowing.


Faith Tradition: Buddhist

Background: Perhaps the world’s second most famous Buddhist after the Dalai Lama, Thích Nhất Hạnh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist. He born in 1926 He was exiled from his homeland during the Vietnam War. He has lived in Plum Village in the Dordogne region in the south of France for many years. He travelled internationally to give retreats and talks for many years. He coined the term “Engaged Buddhism” in his book Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire. He is credited with bringing Mindfulness to the western audience.

Teaching:  His main teachings are contained in the Five Mindfulness Trainings and the fourteen Mindfulness Trainings.

Regarding the Five Mindfulness Trainings Thích Nhất Hnah says they are one of the most concrete ways to practice mindfulness. They are non-sectarian, and their nature is universal. They are true practices of compassion and understanding. All spiritual traditions have their equivalent to the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

The first training is to protect life, to decrease violence in one-self, in the family and in society. The second training is to practice social justice, generosity, not stealing and not exploiting other living beings. The third is the practice of responsible sexual behaviour in order to protect individuals, couples, families and children. The fourth is the practice of deep listening and loving speech to restore communication and reconcile. The fifth is about mindful consumption, to help us not bring toxins and poisons into our body or mind.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings are based on the precepts developed during the time of the Buddha to be the foundation of practice for the entire lay practice community. I have translated these precepts for modern times, because mindfulness is at the foundation of each one of them. With mindfulness, we are aware of what is going on in our bodies, our feelings, our minds and the world, and we avoid doing harm to ourselves and others. Mindfulness protects us, our families and our society. When we are mindful, we can see that by refraining from doing one thing, we can prevent another thing from happening. We arrive at our own unique insight. It is not something imposed on us by an outside authority.

Practicing the mindfulness trainings, therefore, helps us be more calm and concentrated, and brings more insight and enlightenment.

Importance in Mystical Tradition: His teaching on Mindfulness is of deep significance in today’s world. Mindfulness is one of the central practices in Buddhism. When we are mindful, we are aware, we notice what is going on around us and inside us.

Mindfulness is something we can practice anywhere. It is not religious – it’s simply about paying attention to what’s there with an attitude of interest and exploration. Through being mindful, we learn that small things can have a big effect. Becoming aware of our bodies, our emotional life, our communication with others, helps us to live a life that flows into a rich tapestry of awareness, imbued with beauty and appreciation.

Influence and Relevance for Today

From a Buddhist perspective, mindfulness includes even an awareness of ‘how things really are’ – an awareness of the true nature of things. By being mindful, the Buddha says, we become more wise and more free. It’s because of this that he said that ‘mindfulness is the direct path to freedom’. As one of the greatest modern teachers on Mindfulness, (He has authored over 100 books) Thích Nhất Hnah is hugely influential and relevant for today’s world.


Faith Tradition: Christian

Background: Born in France in 1915 to a New Zealand father and English mother. He converted to Catholicism and at the age of twenty six he became a Trappist Monk, at the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky.

Teaching: When he first joined the Trappist’s his desire was to lose himself in the anonymity of being simply one monk amongst the others monks. Being encouraged, by his Abbot to continue to write as   he was a gifted writer created a paradox between anonymity and success for his biography Seven Story Mountain became a best seller. Following a breakdown Merton changed his view and realised that God did not want automatonsž praising God like machines. His teaching is to bring oneself wholly to God to embrace the paradox of the necessity of the development of one’s ego identity emotionally and spiritually, an identity that would not simply feel useless and a no-one. Thus the importance of learning culture, poetry, literature, art etc. while at the same time losing ones ego in order to enter into God.

Importance in Mystical Tradition: Merton’s life can be seen almost as an metaphor of the place of  Christianity in a world what has increasingly turned away from organised religion. Merton’s life is a presentation of embracing paradox. He was: a monk who loved Jazz music; one who sought silence who ended up speaking to millions; one who entered the cloister yet ended up on the front rows of anti-war marches and campaigns; a Christian monk who embraced Zen; a Christian monk who fell in love with a woman and wrote movingly of the experience; one who sought to God by not knowing.

Influence and Relevance for Today: Merton is one of the best known and influential Christian writes of the twentieth century. Throughout his over seventy books there is a fountain of spiritual insight. Merton said: ‘Contemplation is the highest and most paradoxical form of self realization, attained by apparent self-annihilation.’ Also ‘contemplation goes beyond concepts and apprehends God not as a separate object but as the Reality within our reality, the Being within our being, the life of our life.’



David Halpin Biography

Coming from Loughshinny, a small fishing village in north County Dublin, David Halpin spent his teenage years walking along the cliffs. Looking at the beauty of nature as waves crashed on the shoreline, he wondered ‘Why are we here?,’ ‘What’s life for?,’ ‘Is there something or someone behind all this?’ This spiritual questioning eventually led him to consider becoming a priest. He was ordained in 1997 and worked in various parishes throughout the Dublin Diocese, currently he is parish priest of two parishes, Neilstown and Rowlagh in Clondalkin. He completed a Masters in Applied Spirituality and a Doctorate in Ministry and now lectures part-time in Spirituality in DCU and Waterford Institute of Technology. For the last four years he has worked alongside Korko Moses SJ at the Ashram Experience held in Howth each July. The searching that began in his teenage years continues to this day.