BOOK REVIEW: THE GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT IN LIFE (REVISED AND UPDATED EDITION)
Highly recommended for anyone drawn to contemplative and mystical traditions. R. D. Krumpos’ The Greatest Achievement in Life: Five Traditions of Mysticism & Mystical Approaches to Life (1) is now available in print, in a new revised edition. I like having it now as an old-fashioned physical book that I can leaf through easily both for reference and for inspiration.
The book explores the mystical traditions embedded within Hinduism (Vedanta, Tantra), Buddhism (Zen, Vajrayana), Judaism (Hasidism, Kabbalah), Christianity (Gnostic and Contemplative currents) and Islam (Sufism). Krumpos shows how, underneath their manifold differences, they share an understanding of mysticism as the direct intuition or experience of God, or of an ultimate Reality not conceived as God.
Mystics are described as people whose spiritual lives are grounded “not merely on an accepted belief and practice, but on what they regard as first-hand knowledge”. Krumpos spells out the uncompromising idealism of this project. “Mysticism is the great quest for the ultimate ground of existence, the absolute nature of being itself. True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called ‘this life’. Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is i,e, the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now”.
The book is divided into two main sections: Five Traditions of Mysticism and Mystical Approaches to Life. Within these sections there is a further division into short essays, which can be read either in sequence or independently of the whole. The essays are based both on conversations with mystics and engagement with mystical literatures. Krumpos draws directly on the words of well-known mystics themselves, with 120 quotations interspersed with the essays. He also offers his own commentary and reflections. The book can either be seen as a source and reference book, or as a practitioner aide. It includes sentences and paragraphs that can themselves be used as a basis for formal contemplation. It is not just an ‘about’ book, though it serves that purpose well.
The traditions presented are seen as having much in common at the core, and The Great Achievement bears witness to that commonality. Yet there is enough interior diversity to make it clear that mystics in these traditions are not all the same, or saying the same thing, in the way that is sometimes lazily claimed. Overall Ron Krumpos’ sense of ‘direct experience’ and his definition of gnosis describe a gold standard for what ‘the greatest achievement’ is, based on the accounts of the mystics cited and discussed. In the second half of this book, the focus valuably shifts from the nature of mystical experience itself, to a consideration of its implications for how to live and serve.
For me, the cultural moment in which The Great Achievement has been offered is significant one. Perennialism’s ideas have been popularised and repackaged over the period since World War II at an ever increasing rate. There is now an extraordinary global spiritual hunger at least partly influenced by the spiritual paths that it includes – some, indeed, speak of a ‘spiritual market place’. This is a promising development, yet one with its downside. Krumpos’ work reminds us what these older traditions are and where they stand. For readers in new (or new-old) spiritual traditions with a different approach, the book offers opportunities for comparing and contrasting the fruits of the five traditions with those of their own chosen paths. Krumpos does acknowledge the value of shamanic and indigenous traditions, and practitioners within these traditions, reading this book, might be inspired to develop this conversation further.
(1) R. D. Krumpos The Greatest Achievement in Life: Five Traditions of Mysticism & Mystical Approaches to Life Tucson, AZ: Palomar Print Design, 2022. (Originally a free e-book available from http://www.suprarational.org/ as a printable pdf, published in 2012).
NB This review is a revision of my review of the original edition. See: