The 20th century has witnessed a proliferation
of accounts of experiences with a super brilliant "living light,"
usually associated with feelings of ecstatic joy. At the turn
of this century, Canadian psychiatrist Richard Maurice Bucke
published an intriguing work entitled Cosmic Consciousness:
A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind. Dr. Bucke argued
that experiences of "Illumination," far from being a symptom
of mental instability, were in fact a feature of highly evolved
human minds. Bucke himself had had such an experience, which
he described as follows:
All at once, without warning of any kind, [Dr.
Bucke] found himself wrapped around, as it were, by a flame-colored
cloud. For an instant he thought of fire -- some sudden conflagration
in the great city. The next instant he knew that the light
was within himself. Directly after this came a sense of exultation,
of immense joyousness, accompanied or immediately followed
by an intellectual illumination almost impossible to describe.
Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning flash of the
Brahmic splendour which has ever since lightened his life.
Upon his heart fell one drop of the Brahmic Bliss, leaving
thenceforward for always an aftertaste of heaven.1
Bucke went on to interview 50 or so others that
he had run across who had had similar experiences. One was the
case of "C.M.C.," who had this to say about her experience:
...It was the gladness and rapture of love, so
intensified that it became an ocean of living, palpitating
light, the brightness of which outshone the brightness of
the sun. Its glow, warmth and tenderness fill(ed) the universe...2
The experience of "C.M.C." was typical of those
whom Dr. Bucke had interviewed. The prominent psychiatrist went
on to surmise that this is a feature of a late stage of human
evolution. This latter claim might be doubtful; one look at
the ancient texts described in the pages to follow show that
such experiences were reported often in the past. However, the
breadth and clarity of people's profound spiritual experiences
in this century, both within and outside of traditional religious
bounds, set off Bucke's work as a pioneering effort.
Shortly after Bucke's work, psychologist William
James published his now classic Varieties of Religious Experience.
In this work, James acknowledged the pioneering effort of Dr.
Bucke. He went on to describe the many and various kinds of
religious experience. James confirmed the modern day persistence
of the type of encounter that Bucke had focused on. As an example,
James drew upon the autobiography of a man called "J. Trevor":
...suddenly, without warning, I felt as if I
were in Heaven -- an inward state of peace and joy and assurance
indescribably intense, accompanied with a sense of being bathed
in a warm glow of light...
...When [experiences such as this] came,
I was living the fullest, strongest, sanest, deepest life...
I was aware that I was immersed in the infinite ocean of God.3
Remarkably similar to these accounts, but in
ever increasing numbers in recent years, are those found in
near-death experiences. In 1975, psychiatrist Raymond A. Moody,
Jr., published his ground-breaking account of these occurrences
in Life after Life: The Investigation of a Phenomenon -- Survival
of bodily Death. In this work, Dr. Moody accumulated some 150
interviews of people who had been pronounced clinically dead,
but had been resuscitated, and lived to tell what happened to
them on "the other side." While the accounts do vary somewhat,
the similarities are most remarkable. Typical is the experience
of a patient who was hospitalized for a severe kidney condition,
and had lapsed into coma:
During this period when I was unconscious, I
felt as though I were lifted right up, just as though I didn't
have a physical body at all. A brilliant white light appeared
to me. The light was so bright that I could not see through
it, but going into its presence was so calming and wonderful.
There is just no experience on earth like it....4
A proliferation of personal accounts of this
kind of experience, as well as scientific studies of the phenomenon,
followed Dr. Moody's book. Among the more noteworthy in the
latter category include Dr. Kenneth Ring's Life at Death: A
Scientific Investigation of the Near-Death Experience (NY: Coward,
McCann & Geoghegan, 1980). After having interviewed over 100
people who had had the experience under investigation, Dr. Ring
was able to confirm most of Moody's findings. Life at Death
was able to factor out such considerations as religious background
as a determining factor in what people experienced. In fact,
Ring concluded, reports of near-death experiences remain remarkably
similar regardless of the person's upbringing.
A decade later came Dr. Melvin Morse's Closer
to the Light. Morse, a Seattle area pediatrician, examined some
near death experiences of children in order to see if there
were any significant differences between these reports and their
adult counterparts. Children were good subjects because they
had not had time to absorb many adult conceptions about death.
Typical of these is the story of "Bill," who at the age of nine
had accidentally inhaled gasoline, and was suffocating:
All of a sudden I couldn't move. I found myself
floating into a dark tunnel. I saw light and the closer I
floated to it, the more I liked it. When I got to the portal
opening to the light and was just ready to step through, I
felt a combination of relief, joy, and pleasure. I just wanted
to be inside the light.5
Morse also concluded that reports of near-death
experiences are for the most part stable and consistent, whether
recounted by children or adults.
Personal accounts of the near-death phenomenon
continue to enjoy wide circulation. Not the least of these was
Betty J. Eadie's 1994 bestseller, Embraced by the Light. This
author tells of her own near-death experience, which turns out
to be considerably more detailed than other reports. The core
experience immediately following "death," however, is still
quite typical. In hospital for surgery, Eadie found herself
becoming weaker and weaker. After hearing a "soft buzzing sound,"
she felt herself leave her physical body. A deep darkness surrounded
her, and she felt herself moving forward through it. A "pinpoint
of light" appeared in the distance. Getting closer, this light
-- "far more brilliant than the sun" -- had the figure of a
man in it. Next,
I saw that the light immediately around him was
I felt his light blending into mine, literally, and I felt
my light being drawn to his... And as our lights merged, I
felt as if I had stepped into his countenance, and I felt
an utter explosion of love.6
Eadie identified this light with Jesus, and
went on to describe a moving account of her life "after death,"
as well as events in her life following recovery.
Another bestseller that year in the same category
was Dannion Brinkley's Saved by the Light. Having been struck
by lightning, Brinkley experienced a classic near-death episode.
He left his physical body, and looked at himself being slid
into the ambulance. The medical technician pronounced him "gone,"
and he saw the eye of a tunnel approaching toward him. The tunnel
eventually engulfed him completely, and he heard the "beautiful
sound of seven chimes ringing in rhythmic succession." Then,
I looked ahead into the darkness. There was a
light up there, and I began to move toward it as quickly as
possible.... Ahead the light became brighter and brighter
until it overtook the darkness and left me standing in a paradise
of brilliant light. This was the brightest light I had ever
seen.... It was as though I were seeing a mother, lover and
best friend. As the Being of Light came closer, these feelings
of love intensified until they became almost too pleasurable
Brinkley goes on to describe how he gained some
remarkable psychic abilities after his "return," including the
ability to foretell certain future events. Remarkably, he goes
on to tell us that he had a second near-death experience during
an operation that was supposed to mend a heart weakened by the
In 1995, Brinkley followed up with a new book,
entitled At Peace in the Light. He reports that he continued
to have psychic episodes, such as foretelling major world events.
Very interesting in relation to his own near-death experience
is Brinkley's account of a gentleman named Bill Wilson, co-founder
of Alcoholics Anonymous. Wilson is reported to have had a mystical
experience, without having been "near-death" at all. Brinkley
relates Wilson's story as follows:
Suddenly, my room blazed with an indescribably
white light.... I was seized with an ecstasy beyond description.
Every joy I had known was pale by comparison. The light, the
ecstasy -- I was conscious of nothing else for a time.8
The similarities between all of these reports
are quite compelling. Indeed, while this is far from being an
everyday occurrence, descriptions of this kind have been made
throughout history and across cultural boundaries. This book
will show in detail that these kinds of experiences are a core
component of human spirituality, and can be found extensively
in every major religious tradition in the world.
Several attempts, however brief, already have
been made to compare these modern era experiences with the historical
encounter with Divine light and ecstasy in mystical religious
writings. In Life After Life, Raymond Moody himself found some
significant parallels. Moody noted the vision of blinding light
witnessed by St. Paul on the road to Damascus. Moody also makes
reference to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which offers counsel
concerning the many things that we might encounter after death,
including an encounter with a "clear, pure light." Finally,
Moody recounts the experiences of Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th
century Swedish scientist. Swedenborg claimed that the soul
survives bodily death, and described the "'Light of the Lord'
which permeates the hereafter, a light of ineffable brightness,"
which Swedenborg himself had glimpsed.9
In a follow-up work entitled
Reflections on Life after Life, Moody found more parallels.
For example, the Venerable Bede, an 8th century English monk,
told the story of a man who had a near-death experience. After
several interesting encounters, the "dead" man came across a
clear, bright light. So bright was this light that it seemed
"greater than the brightness of daylight, or the sun's rays
Moody also made reference to Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan
Ilyich, which describes the death scene of Ilyich in terms of
being in a dark, cavelike space; of having a flashback of his
past life; and at last, of entering into a brilliant light.11
In 1978, Frederick H. Holck, Professor of Religious
Studies at Cleveland State University, wrote a journal article
that draws some interesting parallels between near-death and
mystical religious experiences. Holck adds to Moody's reading
of The Tibetan Book of the Dead that "non-physical existence
is to the knowing one blissful consciousness in its purest form."
In the same vein, in Zoroastrianism, a dead person is said to
experience as much joy in three days as one would normally experience
in a lifetime. Holck also pointed out that Plato's myth of Er
makes reference to a brilliant, pure light. Moreover, such references
are not restricted to near-death experiences: Hinduism's Bhagavata
Purana tells a story of a couple who, praying for Divine help,
fell unconscious, and "a light suddenly flashed." In the Jewish
extra-canonical tradition, we read of a "radiant light," an
"immeasurable light in heaven" in the Apocalypse of Abraham,
the Book of the Secrets of Enoch, and the Testament of the Twelve
Patriarchs. In Buddhism's Saddharma-smrityupasthana Sutra, we
find that when someone approaches death, "he sees a bright light,
and being unaccustomed to it at the time of his death he is
perplexed and confused."12
In a particularly superb study, Carol Zaleski
has found similar parallels in the medieval Christian tradition.
When it comes to visions of Divine light, both Gregory the Great's
Dialogues and Dante's Paradiso tell us about an "illuminated
unifying vision." While reserving judgement on the validity
of near-death accounts, Zaleski acknowledges that the medieval
accounts that she has examined bear "striking resemblance" to
the modern near-death encounter with a Divine Light.13
The parallels drawn to date
between modern day and more classic encounters with the light
Divine and its unsurpassed joy are quite valid. However, most
authors begin by drawing broad similarities between the near-death
experience in general and comparing that with religious writings.
This book will narrow the focus, to see what happens when we
compare the actual encounter with Divine light and ecstasy in
near-death experiences, and similar reports in the mystical
teachings of the world's major religious traditions. The volume,
depth and breadth of the similarities is compelling to say the
The most exciting result of this comparison is
the commonality of language that is used to describe the Divine
encounter. Even across cultures, throughout time, and with the
imperfections of translation we find strikingly similar words
being used to tell us what such an experience is like. For those
of us who can't accept the precepts of atheistic materialism,
it would seem that the onus is on the latter to explain how
these experiences can be so consistent. While descriptions of
God, "the gods," or Ultimate Truth vary wildly from tradition
to tradition, we now have a "thread that binds" not only the
major religions of the world, but also non-religious spiritual
The human spiritual encounter with light and
ecstasy is also deeply meaningful. It has given lasting new
meaning to countless people worldwide, and throughout history.
Recognizing this as a fundamental aspect of human spirituality
will help bind humanity together, rather than set groups apart.
For the individual, the realization of this kind of spiritual
knowledge will bring about a depth of feeling that would otherwise
be beyond our wildest imagination.