For our next meeting in the "interreligious dialogue" we members are asked to do a statement about the "mystics" in each ones religion.

Now, "mystics" is itself a mysterious term, I looked via wikipedia at some sources, what exactly the term means - well, not much more than that there is something hidden that noone else can see/sense/know, derived from the greek root of the term saying "closing eyes, closing the mouth". (Which does not mean that the term was not used for many speculative or intimate concepts in many religious threads, be it in Brahmanism (later, around the Buddha's time with the Upanishads and even later many that threads which we subsume now under "Hinduism"), Judaism ("Kabbala"), even Christianism (especially in the medieval east-european religious scene), Gnosticism and also Islam (by "Sufism") and surely other religious stands which I cannot name all here, and that it does not have a very broad usage over the cultures.)

For me, Buddhism (as I know it from the Tipitaka) has never been a matter with (systematically) "hidden" things/concepts (at least not prominently), so I tend to develop my statement towards something like "mysticism (in this sense) has not been intended by the Buddha" - and I remember vaguely that there is a sutta, where he explicitely says, there is no "closed fist" in my teaching or something very similar.
(Of course, meditating towards the occurrence of Jhanas, the Jataka-stories, the Deva-worlds, the sutta about the Kalpas and the non-accesible "Beginning-of-all" deals with concepts which cannot be seen and need closed eyes, closed mouth and might be used as source for extended mysticism in folklore (I just recall the funny story of Maha-Mogallana, when he saw an otherwise invisible skeleton flying around and how this bizarre event made its way even into a discourse with the Buddha ...), but for me these are not so prominent as the teachings and guides for the analytic access to the relevant world)

So, my question is : in which sutta did the Buddha speak (explicitely/citeable (!) ) about that his teaching has nothing closed/hidden in it (as I think to recall with the term "fist")?

Addendum: I've put so much context around my question because it might as well be that there are (again explicitely/citeable) sayings which contrast this in a sensical way - of course when we meditate also we "close the eyes to look inside" and focus on the "inner world"...

  • 1
    Particularly in the context of an interreligious dialog, one might raise the topic of "teaching in parables". While those who are able to discern the message consider this the "skillful means" of a Teacher, those who are not able will consider it esoteric teaching, at best.
    – hardmath
    Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 16:39
  • Also, there's another sense in which "mystic" is one who sees a different reality (or something deeper within reality). As such, mysticism doesn't always imply hidden teachings. In fact, it can be used as a short-hand for those who strive for the experiential side of religion, as opposed to the vast majority who simply go through the ritual (Buddhists included).
    – R. Barzell
    Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 23:37

4 Answers 4


It's the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, DN 16:

31. And the Blessed One recovered from that illness; and soon after his recovery he came out from his dwelling place and sat down in the shade of the building, on a seat prepared for him. Then the Venerable Ananda approached the Blessed One, respectfully greeted him, and sitting down at one side, he spoke to the Blessed One, saying: "Fortunate it is for me, O Lord, to see the Blessed One at ease again! Fortunate it is for me, O Lord, to see the Blessed One recovered! For truly, Lord, when I saw the Blessed One's sickness it was as though my own body became weak as a creeper, every thing around became dim to me, and my senses failed me. Yet, Lord, I still had some little comfort in the thought that the Blessed One would not come to his final passing away until he had given some last instructions respecting the community of bhikkhus."

32. Thus spoke the Venerable Ananda, but the Blessed One answered him, saying: "What more does the community of bhikkhus expect from me, Ananda? I have set forth the Dhamma without making any distinction of esoteric and exoteric doctrine; there is nothing, Ananda, with regard to the teachings that the Tathagata holds to the last with the closed fist of a teacher who keeps some things back. Whosoever may think that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him, it is such a one that would have to give last instructions respecting them. But, Ananda, the Tathagata has no such idea as that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him. So what instructions should he have to give respecting the community of bhikkhus?


The Pali is simply:

natthānanda tathāgatassa dhammesu ācariyamuṭṭhi.

Ananda, there is no teacher's fist in regards to the dhammas of the Tathāgata.

  • Ahh, thank you. I didn't expect it would be such a prominent sutta where I would find it ... :-) Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 11:25

Even if a teacher doesn't hide it, teaching might be difficult to acquire or to explain effectively.

The Moon Cannot Be Stolen

Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing to steal.

Ryokan returned and caught him. "You have come a long way to visit me," he told the prowler, "and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift."

The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.

Ryoken sat naked, watching the moon. "Poor fellow," he mused, "I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon."

Similarly from the Tibetan tradition,

In fact, advanced levels of Vajrayana (esp. Dzogchen) are often characterized as "self-secret" because they are simply incomprehensible to an unprepared student.

Likewise, I don't know what Buddha-nature is but from its descriptions perhaps it's mystic or hidden:

  • I note that the three examples I gve are from later forms of Buddhism than the Tipikata.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 11:34
  • Yes, that are nice examples for the contrasting of schools. For the Zen I've thought to simply refer to its, so-to-say, birthgiving legend of the discourse, where the Buddha showed a flower and most venerable bhikkhu Mahakassapa was the only one who understoond the secret teaching (by showing smile) - what, in the view of Chan/Zen, made him the first lineholder of the Chan/Zen. Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 11:36
  • "Even if a teacher doesn't hide it, ..."- yes, an annotation worth to be made. Thus I already wrote "mystics" is itself a mysterious term . Perhaps I should sharpen the argument, that although in almost all cases the job of a teacher is to make the formerly unseen visible and thus the term "mystics" might be applicable to nearly any teaching, the remaining difference is, whether there is a concept of making the formerly unknown/unseen a "secret", and keeping secrets becomes part of some esoterism/insider-business...., or so... ;-) Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 11:46
  • @GottfriedHelms Some further thought/grist towards your argument: in some other religions/times/societies, was the term "mystic" used for people who claim direct/personal knowledge (not just received/scriptural knowledge)? Maybe such claims (starting with, for example, Jesus's claims) were heretical/unorthodox ... and to that extent hidden/secret. Maybe some but not all mystics were accepted as saints. And then there are charismatic leaders, gurus, etc.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 12:37
  • "...were heretical/unorthodox ... and to that extent hidden/sevret" - Nice idea, thank you, I'll think about this. However I assume at the moment, it shall be sufficient to tell a) the basic line : no secrets in the fist, b) the ambiguousness of the term "mystic" and the existence (in few examples) of some historical threads (having come up to us) where it is more-or-less common in the religious/philosophical debate to assign the term "mystic" to their basic legends/way-of-transmission or their teacher/disciple-relation Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 12:56

One point to note is that the Buddha was primarily concerned with teaching liberation from rebirth and suffering, not metaphysics, so when he says 'I have held nothing back' it is perhaps in the sense of 'I have held nothing back that would help your liberation'.

Note also the Eightfold Way describes various levels of 'mystical absorption' i.e. 'right absorption' which is an experience of Prajna/Gnosis/Wisdom/Pneuma that is perhaps similar to what the Christian Mystics spoke of.

Also, there is the reference to the 'handful of leaves' of the teachings, hinting at much that is left unsaid, albeit irrelevant to liberation:




First, because writing an own answer at all, I like to take the opportunity to thanks all contributors for their answers/comments.
Second, perhaps "the Buddha didn't like me make bold statements like this..." ;-) I fell sick right in time before the meeting and I couldn't propose my prepared statement. In balance, I had time to listen to audio-talks; I took "the historical Buddha" by Werner Liegl (of course in german). And this reminded me to be not too fierce with the "non-mystic-Buddha" which should become the core of my intended statement!

Of course I knew/know that, but it was surely worth to be recalled, that the concept of rebirth (in the sense which the Buddha gave it different from the Brahmanism/Upanishads) and the concept of karma - which for any adept/disciple are hidden/invisible in the beginning and is thus in general of the quality "mystic" . Of course this itself was not needed to be recalled, but getting reminded by Werner Liegel that it is well at the ground/beginning of the teaching, "the turning of the wheel", it is of course no petitesse, but one should surely give it the same reverence that I wanted to give the aspect on "nothing-hidden-in-the-fist".

I think now, my first version of the statement would have been (at least) suboptimal, and sometimes one can even find some good in it, when a sudden problem prevents the intended action... :-)

P.S. I hope I've not too many spell-, grammatical- or expression-error, I'm still in bed and only slowly recovering. Feel free to correct errors as you encounter them, I'll come back to this myself later/next day(s) again)

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