Bernie Simon comments on my previous entry in his blog, The Careless Hand.
"My opinion on this is that Buddhists have similar experiences. They just receive greater prominence in Christianity because of the emphasis that St. John of the Cross places on them. The goal of Buddhism is to see things as they are. But before you do that, you have to give up your attachment to them. There's a gap between the giving up and the realization and this is sometimes painful. This gap is the "dark night". I don't think there's anything mysterious about it."
I think Bernie is right in what he says as far as it goes. But the real mystery for me is the difference in intensity and suffering between Christians and Buddhists. St. John is not speaking of something that "is sometimes painful." He is talking about anguish, extended mental pain that he says is "truly beyond all description."
He writes in chapter six of book two of The Dark Night,
"1. The two extremes, divine and human, which are joined here, produce the third kind of pain and affliction the soul suffers at this time. The divine extreme is the purgative contemplation, and the human extreme is the soul, the receiver of this contemplation. Since the divine extreme strikes in order to renew the soul and divinize it (by stripping it of the habitual affections and properties of the old self to which the soul is strongly united, attached, and conformed), it so disentangles and dissolves the spiritual substance - absorbing it in a profound darkness - that the soul at the sight of its miseries feels that it is melting away and being undone by a cruel spiritual death. It feels as if it were swallowed by a beast and being digested in the dark belly, and it suffers an anguish comparable to Jonah's in the belly of the whale [Jon. 2:1-3]. It is fitting that the soul be in this sepulcher of dark death in order that it attain the spiritual resurrection for which it hopes.
"2. David describes this suffering and affliction - although it is truly beyond all description - when he says: The sighs of death encircled me, the sorrows of hell surrounded me, in my tribulation I cried out [Ps. 18:5-6]. But what the sorrowing soul feels most is the conviction that God has rejected it, and with abhorrence cast it into darkness. The thought that God has abandoned it is a piteous and heavy affliction for the soul. When David also felt this affliction he cried: In the manner of the wounded, dead in the sepulchers, abandoned now by your hand so that you remember them no longer, so have you placed me in the deepest and lowest lake, in the darkness and shadow of death, and your wrath weighs on me, and all your waves you have let loose on me [Ps. 88:4-7]. When this purgative contemplation oppresses a soul, it feels very vividly indeed the shadow of death, the sighs of death, and the sorrows of hell, all of which reflect the feeling of God's absence, of being chastised and rejected by him, and of being unworthy of him, as well as the object of his anger. The soul experiences all this and even more, for now it seems that this affliction will last forever."
This is heavy stuff, and I have to say I just don't find this in the biographies I've read of the masters in my own tradition, or other Tibetan Buddhist lineages. This is what has puzzled me in the past.
There is one thing I may have missed. I know that Buddhists who make long retreats - ones that last months, or years - experience difficult times. But do their difficulties resemble what St. John writes of? I don't know. But if they do, this parallel hasn't made it into the literature. In Christian writings, in contrast, in the lives of saints and such, it's all over the place.
St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul -