This article looks at a fascinating strand of Christianity that has much in common with East Asian traditions of inner cultivation. Hesychasm (Greek: silence, stillness) is an Eastern Orthodox contemplative tradition that began with the Desert Fathers in the late third century CE. It flourished during the Byzantine era (395-1453 CE) and continues to exist within significant Orthodox monastic centres such as Mount Athos, as well as in pockets of Russia. The teachings of the hesychast masters were recorded in an enormous anthology known as the Philokalia (Greek: love of the good), which includes texts from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries.
Despite the growth of interest in alternative religious and spiritual traditions in the West, both hesychasm and the Philokalia remain almost entirely unknown. This is partly due to centuries old Western prejudice regarding Byzantium and Orthodox Christianity, a topic covered well in this podcast.
This article explores four aspects of hesychasm that offer an interesting comparison with East Asian traditions, often mirroring them surprisingly closely. It will not look at Orthodox Christianity’s doctrine or articles of faith, which are generally very different from Buddhism and Daoism. Instead, this article focuses on practice and the lived experience of inner cultivation.
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The Environment of the Desert
Religious and spiritual traditions are usually deeply imprinted by the natural environment in which they developed. Often remote and extreme, these environments are the soil in which traditions take root and grow. Much of Daoism was nursed within the seasonal extremes of Chinese low lying and humid mountain ranges. Tibetan Buddhism developed in the thin air and enormous sky of the Tibetan plateau and Himalaya. In a similar vein, the tradition of hesychasm was born and initially flourished within the Sinai Desert, Egypt.
The Sinai Peninsula occupies an important place in Christian memory. Exodus tells how Moses led the people of Israel out of Egyptian slavery and into the Sinai Desert. At the peak of Mount Sinai, he is said to have received the Ten Commandments. The desert also features in the New Testament — Jesus went into the Judaean Desert to fast for forty days and nights, at the end of which he is said to have been tempted by the devil. Such biblical scenes inspired early Desert Fathers such as Anthony the Great (251-356 CE) to reject the growing eminence and wealth of the Christian church to live a life of simplicity and hardship in the desert. In the words of one present-day Orthodox monk:
“The desert symbolises a standing back from all the developments that were taking place in the fourth century. At this time, the Church became the established religion of the Roman Empire. Christianity at heart is a sacred tradition of transformation, but when it became the religion of the Roman Empire it became a religion of convention. In order to retain the sacred tradition of transformation, people went into the desert in order to live the light, which is at the heart of transformation.”
At the foot of Mount Sinai is St Catherine’s Monastery. Built between 548 and 565, it is the oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery in the world. St John Climacus (579-649 CE) became abbot of St Catherine’s as an elderly man after spending over forty years as a hermit in the desert. It is mentioned in narratives of his life that the very nature of the desert propelled him upwards, that it assisted in his path of ascension towards God. In the words of a present-day monk living at St Catherine’s:
“I have often remembered this when I look at the harsh mountains, the brilliant and clear light, the lack of earthly support. It is almost a necessity to look for divine support whilst living here.”
The Neoplatonic Roots of Hesychasm
The early Christianity of the Desert Fathers and hesychast tradition emerged from the confluence of three sources. Two of these are generally well known — the Judaic thought of the Old Testament and the New Testament life and teachings of Jesus Christ. The other major influence was the complex web of spiritual and philosophical traditions that flourished throughout the culturally Greek, Eastern Mediterranean provinces of the Roman Empire.
Amongst these traditions, perhaps the most influential was Neoplatonism, considered to have been founded by the philosopher Plotinus (205-270 CE). The main thrust of his work was the interpretation of the philosophy of Plato in a strongly spiritual and mystical light. In his Enneads, Plotinus speaks about the path of inner cultivation as comparable to the work of a sculptor who:
“cuts away here, smooths there, he makes a line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring to light all that is overcast.”
Aside from the general orientation towards internal cultivation and transformation, Neoplatonism provided the early hesychast movement with the sophisticated notion of spiritual practice as a path of ascension towards higher, divine states of beings. This notion is predicated on the idea of all things existing within a hierarchy known as the ‘great chain of being’.
These ideas can be traced to Plato’s (427-347 BCE) theory of Forms, which suggests that all things in the physical world are imperfect reflections of immaterial, timeless and unchanging ideas, the highest of which is the form of the Good. Plato famously speaks about the ascent of a human being towards this higher, more real form of knowledge in his Allegory of the Cave. Plotinus developed this idea in a more spiritual direction. Most importantly, he suggested that the form of the Good was equivalent to ‘The One’ — a totally simple, ineffable first cause of everything. Moreover, he suggested that knowledge and unity with ‘The One’ is achieved through the same kind of internal refinement described through the metaphor of the sculptor quoted above.
Early Christian traditions drew upon these ideas, and simply replaced the abstract notion of ‘The One’ with their personified idea of God. The effect of this is that hesychast masters and writings within the Philokalia constantly conceptualise Christian spiritual life as a process of transformation towards God, through increasingly rarefied states of being and understanding. A famous twelfth century icon at St Catherine’s titled The Ladder of Divine Ascent captures this idea (see image above).
This idea of stage-based internal transformation closely parallels East Asian traditions, especially Daoism. Within Daoism the ‘great chain of being’ is composed of highly abstract principles, famously linked together in Zhou Dunyi’s Taiji Tu. As a result of cultivation, a Daoist practitioner is able to experience, understand and master the phenomenological world from a number of increasingly subtle perspectives. The world of myriad beings (wanwu) gives way to that of the five phases (wu xing), which in turn leads to that of polarity (yin yang/ taiji). Polarity gives way to unity (wuji), which in turn allows for an entry into emptiness (xu), beyond which is the Dao. I will finish this section with another quote from Plotinus, who described ‘The One’ in a way astoundingly similar to how the Daoist classics speak about the Dao:
“The first Principle [The One] may indeed be conceived of as a spring (of water) which is its own origin, and which pours its water into many streams without itself becoming exhausted by what it yields, or even without running low, because the streams that it forms, before flowing away each in its own direction, and while knowing which direction it is to follow, yet mingles its waters with the spring.”
The Commitment to Constant Prayer
The hesychast tradition of the Desert Fathers is built upon a fundamental commitment to constant prayer, carried out in seclusion. The commitment to constant prayer is drawn from St Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), whilst commitment to seclusion is drawn from Matthew 6:6 which reads, “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Constant prayer is usually practised through a specific method known as the ‘Prayer of the Heart’.
A while ago, a friend of mine spent time on Mount Athos and met a Greek Orthodox monk who explained one version of this practice to him. You recite “Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me” until you lose your voice. The phrase continues to be spoken silently until it becomes so internalised that it fills one’s being simply by the act of breathing. Through continued practice, “Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me” sinks even deeper and becomes connected with, and arises simply as a result of, each heartbeat. It’s a different flavour, but this process of mastering a practice has many similarities to East Asian Buddhist and Daoist systems. At first one uses a certain amount of force to inculcate a quality into the body or mind, but over time the quality goes deeper, stabilises, and eventually becomes something natural that you do not have to consciously think about.
The significant difference, however, between Christian hesychasm and East Asian traditions is the centrality of faith in the former. The Christian belief that faith is the necessary gateway to inner cultivation may be seen clearly in the words of this present-day Orthodox monk:
“The life of prayer is a continuing struggle for the purification of the heart. The person who prays starts to feel the uncreated light within his own heart. His heart becomes incandescent and burns, but this heat does not consume him, it refreshes him. The light spreads throughout his entire being. The mind begins to enter the spirit of Christ in the same way that Christ acts in the world. He sees how God takes care of him personally, and then his faith increases and becomes the faith of contemplation. This faith is unshakeable. The key to all mysteries is faith.”
The Cultivation of Attention, From the Philokalia
The writings contained in the Philokalia date from the fourth to the fourteenth century. They’re the advice and practical teaching of generations of hesychast masters within the Byzantine monastic tradition. Unlike most Western spiritual writing, the Philokalia is neither poetic nor literary. It’s composed of technical documents that were preserved within monasteries on Mount Athos purely for later generations of practitioners. They didn’t appear in a popular edition until the end of the eighteenth century, and so were almost completely unknown until long after they were written and Byzantium had vanished. Selections from the Philokalia were only translated into English as late as 1964 and a complete edition was not published until 1984.
The writings within the Philokalia seek, above all else, to awaken a practitioner’s faculty of attention. What follows is a loosely connected sequence of passages from the Philokalia that demonstrate clearly what this means from a hesychast perspective. These passages are drawn from Richard Temple’s Icons and the Mystical Origins of Christianity, and I am extremely grateful to Richard for discussing this topic with me at length over the course of several interviews.
As touched upon in the section on Neoplatonism above, hesychasm is rooted in the hierarchical distinction between realms of sensory and intellectual thought, and that of divine, spiritual mysteries:
“Spiritual mysteries are above knowledge and cannot be apprehended by the physical senses or the reasoning power of the mind.”
“What we are always meeting [in spiritual work] is subtle and incomprehensible, and cannot be embraced by knowledge of our mind in the states in which we involuntarily find ourselves.
— St Issac of Syria, sixth century.
How can the mind reach these spiritual mysteries? How can it be freed of these states in which it involuntarily finds itself? The answer is though practice rather than words:
“You will never learn the work of spiritual striving by words alone.” — "Abba Dorotheus, sixth century.
In particular, this kind of spiritual practice is predicated on the development of an accurate understanding of one’s internal condition:
“Do you wish to know God? Learn first to know yourself.”
“A man… must observe his thoughts and notice on what they lay emphasis and what they let pass, which of them, and in what circumstances, is particularly active, which follows which and which of them do not come together.”
— Abba Evagrius, fourth century.
According to the hesychast masters, an accurate understanding of our internal condition involves the realisation that a person’s mind, prior to cultivation, is defined by mental dissipation and confusion:
“Through neglect the mind has acquired the habit of wandering hither and thither.”
“The mind has in itself a natural power of dreaming and can build fantastic images of what it desires in those who do not apprehensively pay attention.”
— St Gregory of Sinai, fourteenth century.
Hesychasm’s answer to this problem is the in-depth study and cultivation of attention, which goes by a number of names within the tradition:
“Some have called attention the safe keeping of the mind, others the guarding of the heart, yet others sobriety, yet others mental silence.” — Nicephorus the Solitary, fourteenth century.
“Some of the Fathers call this doing silence of the heart, others call it attention, yet others sobriety and opposition to thoughts, while others call it examining thoughts and guarding the mind.” — St Simeon the New Theologian, tenth century.
“Wealth is brought to the soul from the daily practice of attention.” — Hesychius of Jerusalem, fifth century.
One example of the practice of attention will be very familiar to practitioners of East Asian traditions:
“Bring the mind from its customary circling and wandering outside and quietly lead it into the heart by way of breathing.” — The Monks Callistos and Ignatius, fourteenth century.
Within the Philokalia, much is said about the ‘passions’, which may be broadly understood as the emotions. Here is an example of the close psychological analysis that makes up some of the most piercing hesychast writing:
“First comes impact (contact, action when a thing thrown hits the thing at which it is thrown): then comes coupling (joining together: attention is fettered to the object so that there exists only the soul and the object which has impinged on it and occupied it); next comes merging together (the object which has impinged upon the soul and occupied attention has provoked desire — and the soul has consented to it — has merged with it); then comes captivity (the object has captured the soul which desired it and is leading it to action like a fettered slave); finally comes repetition (repeated gratification of the same desire) and by habit.” — Philotheus of Sinai, ninth or tenth century.
Just as Daoism takes a negative view of the emotions, referring to them as the ‘five thieves’ (wuzei). So hesychasm speaks about them in terms as follows:
“Passions are like dogs, accustomed to lick the blood in a butcher’s shop; when they are not given their usual meal they stand and bark.” — St Isaac of Syria, sixth century.
As for dealing with the passions, precise instruction is given:
“The basic method to resist passions is to plunge deep into the inner man and remain there in seclusion, constantly tending the vineyard of one’s heart.” — St Isaac of Syria, sixth century.
“Our mind is volatile, unless it is tied to some meditation it never stops wandering.” — St Gregory of Sinai, fourteenth century.
“The first passionlessness is refraining from evil actions; the second is totally renouncing all thoughts of mental consent to evil; the third is utter stillness of passionate desire; the fourth is complete purification from even the barest and simplest images.” — St Maximus the Confessor, seventh century.
Passing through such trials, the path of inner cultivation finally bears fruit. In the words of one present-day Orthodox monk:
“When the mind descends into the heart, centres in God and circulates around God (the angels have a circular movement around God), our own life then becomes a circulating of God in the midst and a circulation of the light, the uncreated light, which then heals the fixations and knots within us so that we begin to open up into light.”
It is perhaps in this aspect of hesychast practice, the analysis of mental dissipation and confusion, the overcoming of passions and the cultivation of attention that hesychasm most closely parallels East Asian traditions. In reading these quotes I often found myself thinking that, if one simply changed a number of terms, they could pass comfortably for passages written by a great Buddhist or Daoist master, speaking about the way in which to develop oneself through the practice of meditation.
Why Do These Similarities Exist?
During the research and writing of this article, I constantly found myself wondering why such strong similarities exist between traditions that are often believed to be so different, and which historically developed in isolation from one another.
The reason I would give is that, most simply — once a certain amount of internal awareness has been established, it is not difficult to observe the potential for elevation and transcendence within oneself, and also to see that progress in this direction is hindered by a variety of fetters. Moreover, it seems to be the case that practically all spiritual practitioners develop an awareness, dim yet palpable, of something absolute sitting behind the realm of constant transformation. It’s from these tangible, universal foundations that traditions appear, yet differences arise due to the variety of ways in which these basic facts can be worked with, as well as the environment and cultures in which traditions take root. Nevertheless, because human nature is universal, we also find a number of core similarities in the practice of all authentic paths.
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Great research! I bought The Philokalia volume One. I was planning to go to Mt Athos, considered a sacred mountain I think is very similar concept to sacred mountains of Daoism in China, places that enhance cultivation and where to find realized people to support it. I've read several stories about how in Mt Athos there were very advanced beings that basically could do all sorts of miracles, some even told to be couple of hundred years old. One modern saint that was living there is Saint Paisios of which there are some videos and books available, he also adviced often about The Heart Prayer and doing good deeds, saying that this world is like an illusion and we must work for the true reality.
Thanks for a fascinating article. The similarity between hesychasm and Sufism is striking, though should not be surprising given the historical and geographical proximity (and of course the parallels between Sufism and Daoism have been well researched though little publicised).