First ~ Twenty-first Interrogations
Those who find the Mysterium Magnum will now what it is: but to the godless it is incomprehensible, because they have no desire to comprehend it. They are captured by the terrestrial essence and are unable to desire to know the mystery of God.
~~ Jacob Boehme (1575-1624)
Boehme was a German Christian philosopher.
We can translate this passage from Boehme, always a difficult writer, into contemporary terms.
The important phrase is “captured by the terrestrial essence.” For Boehme it probably meant general “worldliness,” the conviction that this material world is all there is and our task is to pursue the happiness and success, wealth and power, comforts and consolations, it offers. He probably thought of sins: lust, greed, gluttony, pride.
In our modern world, 400 years later, the “terrestrial essence” is essentially the same. We are “captured” by the consumer identity, by ads and commercials, the billions of images of happy consumers with which we are bombarded all our lives, by what has been called “commodity culture.” This culture really is, if we look at it objectively, the inflammation of gluttony.
And the interesting wrinkle that Boehme introduces is that this “capture” drains us of the desire to think beyond it. We are totally taken up, our souls possessed, leaving no room for the will or wish or interest to look further. We are unable, according to Boehme, to to enter upon a spiritual quest, because that appetite, the true essence of our hope and our humanity, the celestial appetite, has been pushed out by the ravenous appetite of worldliness.
Now this assault hits us all. We aere all targets and we’re all hit by an uninterrupted bombardment of unerring marksmanship. Does it work? Does the contemporary assault of worldliness and the commodity culture accomplish what Boehme claims it does, making us unable to “desire to know the mystery of God”?
This is a very difficult question to answer. The Wisdom Tradition, disagreeing here with Boehme, would argue that the celestial appetite, the longing to know God, to explore the Great Mystery, the Mysterium Magnum, is indestructible, being the very essence of our humanity, our theomorphic being, the imago dei: that it can be suppressed but never destroyed. On the other hand, if we examime contemporary life it’s hard to deny that shopping is where it’s at.
The Sioux Indians have a saying: May the Great Mystery make sunrise in your heart.
Can earthly things seem important to him who is acquainted with the whole of eternity and the magnitude of the universe?
~~ Cicero (106-43 B.C.)
Marcus Tullius Cicero was a Roman statesman and philosopher.
Can they? Well, yes and no!
Cicero is making one of those many colossal sweeping Wisdom Tradition asserions that have to be qualified. Essentially true, demanding direct experience and offering the vision to be realized, but forgetting that most of the time we are simply dealing with the challenges of daily life, the responsibilities and moral demands, the “earthly things” that are indeed important, and not only in themselves but as a part of our spiritual practice.
How does it play out?
We have meditations and contemplative glimpses in which we are rewarded with realization of the Truth. We see “the whole of eternity” then, and earthly things not only gradually fade into unimportance but but disappear altogether, become something like a dream. We realize that they always were a dream.
Returning to the dream, we remember the Reality: a nagging secret, unforgettable, a refuge from pain and sorrow, an infinite glory, pure peace, and we come to live only for the return, the reentry into the Bliss from which the universe is perpetually born. We know what what we saw was the Truth and becoming one with It is the only goal of life.
So regular meditation, a glowing background to our daily consciousness, occasional feelings of consolation and bliss, solitary remembrance — in Islam, dhikr Allah — become central to our lives. We’ve discovered the strange, inarticulate and wonderful truth about human birth, and about the universe. The reliable contingencies of earthly life — setbacks, disappointments, loss, suffering in its infinite variety, even tragedies — lose something of their power over us.
And for some, a serious distinction between human affairs and untouched Nature begins to emerge. Human affairs seem precarious, inescapably tainted — with suffering, pretense, false values, false hopes and false fears, the certainty of seduction and betrayal — while Nature, where everything is pure because devoid of intentions, becomes increasingly a refuge, a Face of God. Peace.
For those who have become “acquainted with eternity,” as Cicero put it, life becomes truly rich. Invisible courage, invisible dedication, inform their days.
Man is a creature who has received the order to become God.
~~ St. Basil (330-379)
St. Basil was a Doctor of the Church and a founder of monastic institutions.
Basil was not alone in this challenging and bewildering assertion. It is the consensus of the Wisdom Tradition. Christ urged us to “be perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) Plotinus (205-270) wrote, “Our concern is not merely to be sinless but to be God.” And Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux holy man who died in 1950, claimed, “Of all the created things or beings of the universe, it is the two-legged men alone who, if they purify and humiliate themselves, man become one with — or may know — Wakan-Tanka.
The idea, “made in His image,” imago dei, is found in the esoteric teachings of all spiritual traditions. We are all already deiform, theomorphic, merely by virtue of human birth, and need only to “purify” ourselves — a procedure with very many and widely diverging interpretations — in order to realize the truth of what we are. (Basil didn’t have it quite right. We don’t become God, we already, in our essential being, are God, are divine.)
This is far out indeed, and nothing we need worry about. The “command to perfection” is heard and heeded by a very tiny minority of very deadly serious people. We have their testimony to the truth of the imago dei, and each of us, in our spiritual practice, may make of it what we wish.
This “command,” however, is the ultimate tantalizer in the spiritual world! Something to fantasize about, like being a world-class athlete, winning the triathlon, a world-class chess player, snatching the title from the Russians, singing the main role in Don Giovanni, dancing the main role in a great ballet or rock musical, playing the piano like Bill Evans. “I want satori!” cried a contemporary Zen Buddhist teacher, early in his career, in unembarrassed desperation.
But we know, in the intuition of the heart, that heaven couldn’t really be interested in or impressed by our achievement. It’s sincerity, the “mother of all virtues” according to Islamic teaching, and difficult enough, that counts in spiritual practice.
And is noticed. And rewarded.
Our innate nature is happiness itself, and we ever have it with us. But we do not realize it. On the other hand, we begin to seek for it elsewhere in the objective world outside us, just as a person who is ignorant of a treasure buried in his own house goes about begging. The world fascinates us only because of this ignorance. There is no doubt about it.
~~Sri Chandrasekhara Bharati Swamigal, Hindu sage, died 1954
No doubt about it for the sage, maybe, but plenty of doubt for the rest of us! What is he talking about here? How might we go about finding, or at least searching for, this innate happiness, always with us? He obviously has in mind something more significant than an occasional episode of dreamy contentment or the conviction, always cautious, always alert to threats, of having achieved success in life. Something permanent, indestructible, invulnerable to contingencies, to the reliable and unpredictable blows of circumstance.
As a Hindu, Swamigal is talking about the Atman, the true or higher Self within us which is God. Realization of this Self, whose nature is bliss, attaining identity with It by emancipation from the lower self we think we are, the ego simmering with emotions, is accomplished in meditation. This Realization is the heart of the doctrine and the entire goal of meditation in the Hindu tradition. It takes a long time, years of practice by very serious and determined people — although there are always tales of rare lucky ones who, for no apparent reason, have experienced a vision without ever having head about the Atman. Don’t count on it.
Let’s forget about the doctrine, the years of practice, and the rare lucky ones.
Let’s address the simple idea of happiness, which the Declaration of Independence entitles us to pursue and we all do pursue, with fierce determination, even if we never read the Declaration of Independence. The argument of the Wisdom Tradition is that we never attain it in this world, in external circumstance, and the traces of it we do experience are fleeting, precarious, illusory and nothing in comparison with the Real Thing. In the words of Angelus Silesius (1624-1677):
To call an object in the world sweet and lovely
Is not yet to know the Sweetness that is God.
So: If you’re satisfied, really honestly satisfied, with what the world has to offer in the way of happiness, there you are! The claim of the Wisdom Tradition, that you are ignorant, deluded and missing out on the Real Thing, is irrelevant to you!
And on the other hand, if you are blessed by not being satisfied with what the world has to offer, if you can say with Romeo in Act II, “I wish but for the thing I have,” you’re ready to set forth on the Great Path.
There is one Lord revealed in many scriptures.
~~ Saraha (2nd century Buddhist saint)
The Wisdom Tradition is unanimous in declaring all the world’s religions authentic. Each is a Path to spiritual realization, the goal of life. They are different only in their procedure. As Ramana Maharshi, the 20th-century Hindu saint, explained, “The goal for all is the same. Yet different names are given to the goal only to suit processes preliminary to reaching the goal.” As Isis, the Egyptian universal Mother Goddess, revealed: “My divinity is adored throughout the world, in diverse manners, in variable customs, by many names.”
And there is no measure of the blood shed in consequence of the refusal to acknowledge this truth. We all know the tragic story of religious warfare.
In a way, humanity can be forgiven; or at least we can understand the source of the error. There are two reasons why it has been and remains so hard for people to accept any religion other than their own as authentic.
First, each religion actually claims to be the One Truth. “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life,” announced Jesus. “I am the Truth and the Joy forever,” announced Krishna. “There is no god but God and Muhammad is His prophet” announces the famous Shahadah of Islam.
Second, in their external forms, their ritual, there ceremonies, their doctrines, the entire fabric of their presence in the world, the religions appear so utterly different from one another that it would seem impossible that all of them, or any two of them, to be “true.”
But this is as it must be. Every spiritual tradition must present itself as absolute, as Truth, because its claim, that it is the Divine Reality and the path to Salvation, is absolute, and no one would accept it otherwise. There is an inevitable and tragic consequence of diversity. Why then, we may protest, did heaven “do it” this way? Why doesn’t heaven offer one Path, one religion, for all?
We really aren’t competent to answer that big question, but Tierno Bokar (1875-1940), a Muslim saint from Mali, came as close as we are likely to get: “The beauty of the rainbow is due to the variety of its colors. In the same way, we regard the voices of different believers which rise from all parts of the earth as a symphony of praises on behalf of God who can only be One.” Heaven has a style! Inexhaustible beauty in infinite variety! A world with only roses? No violets, daffodils, tulips, buttercups, honeysuckle, heather, clover? Forget it!
Nonetheless, the tragedy of conflict unfolds as it always has. People blessed with the ability to see and love the truth of other religions than their own are rare indeed.
God can be known only by God.
~~ Theologia Germanica, XLII
The Theologia is a 14th-century text attributed to the Teutonic Order.
The idea here, and in countless other texts making the same point, is that the Divine Reality is beyond the reach of human comprehension.
How then can God be anything but a speculation? How can the existence of God be anything but an arbitrary gamble of blind faith? A hope, an inference from creation to Creator, a “mystical feeling”?
The Wisdom Tradition asserts that humanity, being deiform, “made in His image,” has within it a “spark” of the divine Light, God being compared to light; or a “spark” of the divine Love, God being compared to love; or a “spark” of the divine Truth, God being compared to truth; or a “spark” of the divine Bliss, God being compared to bliss; or a “spark” of the divine Peace, God being compared to peace. God is within us. Divinity is within us.
So in the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna, the Hindu Avatar of God, announces, “I am seated in all hearts.”
The apostle Paul, speaking for the Christian tradition, writes in a famous passage, “I live, yet not I but Christ lives within me.”
Attar, a 13th-century Muslim poet, writes, “Dhu l’Nun al-Misri said, ‘Real knowledge is God’s illumination of the heart with the pure radiance of knowledge,’ that is, the sun can only be seen by the light of the sun.”
We are urged to seek God within ourselves, to look within, to discover our Buddha nature or true Self and identify with it. The deiform claim, found in different forms in the different traditions, points us in the right direction.
In other words, “we” can know God by realizing our identity with the divine Presence within us. The claim of the Theologia is true. But it doesn’t leave us out in the cold. We know God through identity with God. “Our” knowing God is God knowing God within us. Total identity.
So how do we “look within”? There’s only one way. Meditation. Close your eyes, forget yourself, forget the world. Wait for silence.
Ohiyesa, a Sioux Indian, wrote, “The American Indian believes profoundly in silence… If you ask him: What is silence? he will answer: it is the Great Mystery! The holy silence is His voice!”
Wise people, after they have listened to the laws, become serene, like a deep, smooth, and still lake.
~~ Dhammapada VI, 82
The theme here is Peace. “The Peace that surpasseth understanding.” As we read in the Yoga-Vasishtha, an ancient Hindu text containing the teachings of the Sage Vasishtha to Rama, “There is nothing so lovely and enduring in the regions that surround us, above and below, as the lasting peace of a mind centered in God.” And in Psalm 76, “In Peace is My dwelling place.”
We usually, in this context, use the phrase, “peace of mind,” and regard it as a difficult but desirable goal. People say, sometimes in resignation, sometimes in anger, “I only want to live in peace.”
This is really a matter of the stages of life. The younger we are, generally speaking, the less interested we are in peace, which seems synonymous with boredom. We orient out lives, instead, toward the pursuit of excitement. “How exciting!” is a phrase we often hear. A successful person, in this view, is one who eagerly identifies and travels through a series of exciting situations, or, even better, “an exciting life.”
There’s nothing wrong with being young and pursuing excitement. It’s a stage of life in which we are not interested in becoming serene, like a deep, smooth and still lake.
But as we grow older, after we have had a good share of excitement, the teaching of the Wisdom Tradition, which once sounded so absurd and incomprehensible — that excitement is pain — begins to ring true. Excitement, enthusiasm, righteous indignation, being carried away by any emotion whatsoever, even overwhelmed by joy…forms of pain.
Not everyone experiences this metamorphosis.
Those who do, according to the Wisdom Tradition, are moving in the direction of the fulfillment of a human birth. That fulfillment is Peace and Peace is Bliss. We feel that the ego, which we thought we were, the self made of passions, the illusory self, is finally banished, that we have abandoned pain and come home at last to what we always were, and are one with the universe. According to Swami Ramdas, “The perfectly still mind is the Universal Spirit.”
In the words of Angelus Silesius (1624-1677):
No one has ever attained to the grandeur or glory
Of the soul who has established repose in its heart.
It behooves us to become ignorant of this worldly wisdom; rather must we clutch at madness.
~~ Rumi (1207-12673)
Rumi was the great Sufi poet of Persia, universally regarded as one of the greatest writers of spiritual poetry in the world.
What is he driving at here?
Someone possessed of “worldly wisdom” is fluent and accomplished in the ways of the world, in how to acquire and achieve what the world has to offer. Worldly wisdom is the key to success, worldly people have “been around,” they “know the score,” they’ve seen through the facades and deceptions that characterize social transactions. They are sophisticated. They understand money.
Why would Rumi say we have to “become ignotant” of this kind of expertise?
Probably because its cultivation amounts to striving in the wrong direction, attaching value to things that pass away rather than to what endures. To the material rather than the spiritual, the fleeting rather than the eternal for which we are made, the mortal body instead of the immortal soul. Turning our backs on heaven.
Okay. This is a familiar point of view. “Lay up treasures in heaven rather than on earth.” But why is the alternative “madness”?
Probably because people who reject worldly goals in favor of invisible “spiritual” consolation, who choose only the bottom rungs of the ladder of success, are generally regarded as “out of touch with reality”: as foolish, childish, idealistic, eccentric and naive. They are oddballs. Nuts. Voluntary losers.
Or, maybe, viewed from their side, the oddballs are people who’ve seen through the glittering cust of worldly success, seen the emptiness within. And therefore those who believe in the rewards of worldly wisdom are the fools!
Can worldly wisdom and divine wisdom live comfortably together? Certainly. We have to get by. It would be a question of which one is closer to the heart. Would the world fall apart if it were not for worldly wisdom? Certainly this world would!
Al-Yafi, a Yemenite Islamic chronicler, reports:
“Ali ibn ‘Abdan knew a madman who wandered about in the daytime and passed the night in prayer. ‘How long,’ he asked him, ‘hast thou been mad?’
‘Ever since I knew.'”
Rumi was an extremist.
I will cease to live as self, and will take as my self my fellow creatures.
Shanti-deva was a renowned 7th century teacher of Mahayana Buddhism. His decision here is unanimous in the traditions. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is often offered as a summation of the Christian teaching.
Gampopa, a 12th century successor of Milarepa, explains the profound spiritual insight here. It’s not simply a matter of charity, but of wisdom: that spiritual insight into the nature of things that is the gift and basic function of the world’s religions. There’s a reason why the spiritual aspirant should “take as myself my fellow-creatures.”
“Unless the mind be trained to selflessness and infinite compassion, one is apt to fall into the error of seeking liberation for self alone.”
Therefore, since the goal of the Buddhist dharma, or spiritual aspiration, is Emancipation, “Compassion is the esseence of the dharma.” The message is clear. The life of compassion and the Path to liberation are one.
So it’s simply “in the nature of things” that we always feel right, centered, at peace with ourselves, when we are doing something for others. Bringing a up of tea to a parent, driving a kid to school, helping someone out, speaking a calculated kind or encouraging word, giving someone a life… you name it. The world falls into place around us, into harmony.
In the Christian tradition, whose key words in the intuition of Christ are love, suffering, sacrifice and miracle, the equivalent to Buddhist compassion would be sacrificial love.
The claim in all this, of course, is Oneness. The wisdom tradition claims that behind the scenes, and despite appearances, we are all One. There is an invisible divine Oneness which contains us all. As Ananda Coomaraswamy, a 20th century teacher, remarked, “Enlightenment is the end of all otherness.”
And “otherness”, as we must confess, is what we feel all day long. We may have our moments, we may experience, in profound meditation or sudden flashes of insight, the divine Oneness: but it is to “otherness” that we always return. “Narrow as the blade of a razor is the Path,” we are assured in the Upanishads.
But so what? Be of good cheer! The Path was made for us, and we for the Path. It’s in the nature of things. Like compassion.
“Let brotherly love continue. Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:1)
The vision of God is possible only through His Grace.
~~ Ananda Moyi (20th-century Hindu saint)
The traditions are unanimous that all transactions between heaven and earth, between God and human beings, are at the initiative of heaven. In prayer or meditation we are not summoning a Divine Presence, or even petitioning it: we are trying to make ourselves receptive. We are awaiting Grace.
In case anyone doesn’t get it, Ibn Ata-illah, a Sufi saint from Alexandria who died in 1309, points out, “Rarely come Divine Intuitions except on a sudden, lest the slaves should claim them as a result of their preparations.” A device of God to assure that people don’t get the wrong impression.
And the traditions take it even further. We are told that even the desire to pray or meditate, entertaining the very idea of it, is a gift of Grace. Joining a yoga class, buying a religious text, asking someone about their spiritual practice, wandering on a whim into a temple, simply thinking about religion, death, mortality, the meaning of life, wondering about what it is all about and why we are here: all a gift of Grace. The initiative, the impulse, was an invitation from heaven.
An obvious question arises. Why doesn’t everyone receive the invitation? Why are there any atheists at all? Why are the traditions compelled to concede that some people are the victims of “invincible ignorance”? This is a very important question, because if the initiative is always from heaven, are we not forced to conclude that some people are blessed and some damned?
Although in the final analysis the answer to this conundrum is beyond us — “Mysterious are His ways” means just that and that’s that — one thing at least is clear, which is that environment must play an important role. People living in a secural culture are less likely to believe that there is any “heaven” from which to receive an invitation than people born into a religious setting.
And there has never been a more secular culture than the one we inhabit today. Secularization, the gradual inexorable invalidation of spiritual intuition, of transcendence, the claims of religion and of the supernatural in any form, inaugurated in the West in the Renaissance and coming into its own in the Enlightenment — what a riot that’s the word! — has been the very direction of world history. It’s in the air we breathe.
Some eastern traditions claim that an ever increasing diastance from heaven is the way cosmic cycles unfold. It’s also claimed that the psychic pain people suffer in the falling Darkness, the haunting sense of emptiness and desolation, the subterranean fear, will arouse in the human soul, given its indestructible immortal destiny, an increasingly desperate longing for the Light. Grace is never withdrawn.
If ye trusted in God as ye should, He would sustain ye even as He sustains the birds, which in the morning go fiorth hungry, and return in the evening filled.
~~ Muhammad (570-632)
Muhammad, of course, is the Prophet of Islam.
The argument is confirmed in many places in the New Testament, especially in Matthew VI. And Swami Ramdas, speaking in the Hindu tradition, affirms, “The Lord is always good and full of love; He never abandons those who put their trust in Him.”
Can anyone actually believe this? Can anyone actually believe that there is a God watching over us and protecting us, taking care of us, intervening when we are in danger, an Infinite Benevolence overseeing the world?
Or that He would only conceren Himself with those who “put their trust in Him” — could that ever include children? — and abandon the rest to their fate? And are the targets of massacres and wars and atomic bombs and all the daily horrors inflicted by human beings, and the victime of earthquakes and floods and volcanic eruptions, usually called “acts of God”, ever seen to be divided into two groups, the faithless who perish and the faithful who are saved?
Let us not waste our time. The argument is so outrageously preposterous, so insulting to our intelligence and contrary to universal experience, such pure undiluted garbage, as to be beneath our consideration.
There’s an amusing retort to this absurdity within the Hindu tradition itself. A very pious man, as the story goes, having lived a life of unimpeachable virtue, toward the end of his days goes forth into the forest to build an altar where he may pray. Just as he finishes it a tiger drags him off and devours him. At that very moment a bandit wanders by, the perpetrator of innumerable crimes and atrocities. He seats himself before the altar and is instantly enlightened. There are similar ironic tales in other traditions as well.
But can God be redeemed in any way? Is there any sense in which God does care about us? Another way to approach the appeal to universal Benevolence?
For one, we might simply say that the faithful and faithless both have their paths, to which they are entitled, and the consequent quality of their lives. Faith in God is the heart of the matter here, and Faith by definition is a source of strength and peace invulnerable to rational argument.
But we might also hear the profound message in the most famous hadith, or saying, or the Prophet, speaking as God: “I was a hidden treasure and I wanted to be known, so I created the world.”
Thou shalt not siffer a witch to live.
~~ Exodus 22:18
In Maleus Maleficarum, a classic on witchcraft and demonology commissioned by Pope Innocent XIII in 1484 to help combat heresy, we read: “In the Church the devil prefers to operate through the medium of witches.”
We know, however, that there’s no such thing as a witch. Nor a “devil”: the Prince of Darkness, the Adversary, the Archfiend. We regard such beliefs as superstition, abject and unreasoning, and classify those who believe them today as “biblical literalists,” pathetically credulous, in the same camp with those who believe in the reality of ghosts, fairies and leprechauns.
The very urgent, and timely, question raised here is how we should read the Bible, a text whose authors had no doubt there were witches stalking and tempting the faithful, and also angels protecting them, and blandly accepted “as gospel” such miracles, to name two classic examples, as the parting of the Red Sea and Jesus raising the dead.
The authors of the Bible, who had no doubts about witches and miracles, also had no doubt that there was a God. The Bible was “the Word of God.” God was the Author, and if not, he employed human authors who were inspired by Him.
But if the quote from Exodus, like countless other Biblical citations, can be readily rejected as the superstition of ignorant people, what about the claim of these same people that there is a God? There can be no doubt in our time that the claim on that point is also being rejected.
A corrosion of religious belief, enormously complex but in its logic something like what has been briefly and symbolically traced here, is what actually occurred in roughly the last three hundred years in the West. Our culture, so it appears and so it has been claimed, has become, or is rapidly becoming, totally secular.
Okay. We might ask, “So what? To whom does this matter?”
The wisdom tradition would respond that it matters to everyone. That it is the One Big Thing that has happened to the entire human race.
The real hero is he who has subjugated his mind.
~~ Swami Sivananda (1887-1964)
Rumi, the great Persian Sufi poet, makes the same claim. “It’s easy to break an idol, very easy: to regard the self as easy to subdue is folly, folly.”
Now what do these two, and the entite wisdom tradition, have in mind here?
We can explore the claim on two levels: daily life, and meditation.
In our daily lives we are aware that we have very little control over the thoughts that pass through our minds, the “stream of consciousness.” It’s as if we have a mind inside us that has a mind of its own, something very much like another self. It raves, worries needlessly, repeats itself incessantly, flares out with accusations, anxiously rehearses and spitefully rehashes, thinks crazy thoughts. It’s the fountain of the passions, the emotions with which we instantly identify the moment they pop up. That’s bad enough.
But it also urges us to terrible decisions. It is uncontrollably impetuous, thoughtless, impulsive. It is incapable of lucid sobriety, of deliberating, reflecting, taking account of a larger picture, a context, relevant considerations, the ethical dimension. A lunatic counselor, devoid of compassion or prudence or mature judgment. It sees what’s right in frnt of it and responds with a knee-jerk reflex. Whenever we are swept away and obey its mindless commands, we live to regret it.
And it is the sworn enemy of meditation, the sworn enemy of concentration. This mind is the mind that wanders. Meditative practice calls for focus: focus in breathing, on a name of God, on a sacred mantra, on peace or beauty or compassion, on Emptiness, on a passage from the Koran, the Shahada or the Bismillah, on the form of an Avatar, be it Christ, Krishna, Siva or the Buddha.
In the Hindu tradition this “mind” is simply called “the lower self,” and it is this self that we must master. It is the mortal enemy of our spiritual aspiration. Its other name is the ego. The spiritual prerequisite of “self-mastery” is a recognition of this enemy within. It is not who we really are, not oue true Self, the realization of which is called Enlightenment.
So. In daily life don’t heed the lower self, just watch it go by. In meditation, however, we must master it.
Sivananda’s true heroes are few and far between. Just never give up.
One lifetime spent in the quest for Enlightenment is more precious than all the lifetimes during an aeon spent in worldly pursuits.
~~ Gampopa (died 1152 A.D.)
The sages are unanimous on this point. Enlightenment, or Emancipation, spiritual realization no matter how it may be defined, is the one and only fulfillment of human birth, in the same inescapable sense that the oak tree is the fulfillment of the acorn and the rose the fulfillment of the seed.
Gampopa was a Buddhist. Saint Louis de Montfort (1673-1716), a Christian ecclesiastic, put it this way: “Know that the greatest things done on earth are done within, in the hearts of faithful souls.”
Our immediate reaction is that these people are selfish. They think only of themselves. Spiritual pursuit, however—and again the sages are unanimous on this point—does not rule out action in this world, action on behalf of humanity. We can do both.
But we must always remember that there is no such thing as what is called “the accumulation of merit”! Good deeds take us nowhere on the spiritual path, because the Path is always within, an inner transformation, a direct experience, a realization of the divinity within us that is also the divinity of the world.
The Hindu sage, Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950), however, went even further, claiming that spiritual pursuit is not merely personal: “Realization of the Self is the greatest help that can be rendered to humanity. Therefore, the saints are said to be helpful, though they remain in forests.”
Now how should we think about this? How can someone meditating in a cave be helpful to humanity?
By bearing witness. By reminding us in their example that there is something beyond this world and its transient ambiguous affairs, its hollow claims and urgent seductions, something permanent, eternal, real. As the Maharshi (which means “great teacher”) pointed out, “reformers have come and gone, but the ancient teachings still stand.”
But now consider this passage from Ansari, a Persian Sufi master and port who died in 1088:
He who becometh aware of thee,
What use hath he for life,
For children, family, earthly things?
In the words of an Arabic proverb that goes all the way, he would see the world as a caravan, and think: The dogs bark, the caravan passes.
All such precepts as define what is to be done, or what is not to be done, refer to divinity as their end.
~~ Iamblichus (d. circa 333 A.D.)
Iamblichus was a leading representative of Syrian Neopatonism.
The idea here is clear: Iamblichus is claiming that all ethical decisions, moral choices, must be aimed at the attaining of a spiritual goal and consistent with spiritual teachings. Our behavior must be governed by our spiritual aspiration.
This also implies that any moral precepts not based upon or emerging from conformity with a spiritual tradition are false, or at least questionable. A sincere practicing Christian, a sincere practicing Buddhist, any sincere practitioner of a particular tradition, will refer to their tradition for guidance and justification.
What if, as if true of many people today, you have no tradition, no spiritual aspiration, no belief in a divine authority to which you may appeal for guidance? What if, for example, you are not a follower of Christ or the teachings of the Old Testament or the Koran or the Hindu dharma?
From the point of view of Iamblichus, your decisions would be arbitrary and unreliable, ultimately founded on nothing but willfulness. You would be, quite simply, by definition, a lost soul.
Can we agree with this? Haven’t we inhaled the stench of this brand of dogmatic self-righteousness many times, and right up to today?
Have there been no mistakes made, no crimes committed, no hypocrisies consummated, no injustices enacted, no horrors perpetrated, by followers of religions, and under the banners of their heavens?
And why do virtues have to appeal to traditional precepts? Why can’t love, compassion, the sense of justice and common humanity, stand on their own?
Maybe there’s a way to resolve this. Maybe wisdom addresses only individuals. Maybe the argument of Iamblichus is valid only for individuals, for the simple reason that only individuals can actually be on a spiritual path and have spiritual realization as their devotion and their goal.
And if wisdom addresses and can only be received by individuals, all so-called “religious wars” and “religious movements,” from the armies of the Crusades to the contemporary “religious right,” are misnamed and have no more claim to divine sanction than nations and political parties.
Heaven doesn’t see a church, a temple or a mosque. Only the worshippers.
Attachment to this world
Brings the soldiers back,
Wandering over the battlefield.
~~Seami Motokiyo (1375-1455)
Motokiyo was a master of Nō theater, the classical theater of Japan.
The wisdom traditions, acknowledging as they must that we find ourselves here on earth, and earth, a mixed bag ending in death, is not heaven, address the sad news this way:
This world is not where we fulfill the purpose of human birth, which is always some form of spiritual realization independent of our earthly circumstances. But, on the other hand, this world is a divine manifestation, and through appreciating its beauty we are glimpsing the divinity behind and within it. As Robinson Jeffers wrote, “His beauty is the signature of things.”
The first view, however, is always the one emphasized, sometimes ferociously, because the erroneous conclusion drawn from the second view—that this world is all there is and let’s make the most of it—is a fatal seduction.
The Truth of Suffering is the first of the Four Noble Truths in the Buddhist tradition. And this Suffering is not accidentally distributed but inherent in human existence. All revelations are addressed to a fallen humanity: to a situation in need of redress.
“And thus I escaped from the cycle, the painful, the misery-laden,” reads the inscription on a gold funereal tablet found in Egypt. Rumi (1207-1273), Persia’s great Sufi poet, compares our earthly lives, as we roam from place to place, scene to scene, to “the dice in backgammon.”
It’s often pointed out that the crux of our dilemma here is the inescapable experience of the “pairs of opposites.” Joy and sorrow, good and evil, alive and dead, north and south, past and future, kind and cruel, and so on forever: the antonyms in the dictionary. We are always negotiating between these pairs. They are the structure of the world. Their existence, their logical necessity—how could we talk about one without the shadow of the other behind it?—defines our lives and is the dynamic of our experience.
Whereas spiritual realization, where we “rise above” the pairs of opposites, is the realization of our identity with Oneness: the infinite ocean of peace, love and bliss which is nothing less than the divine reality of the universe.
But the soldiers, meaning all of us, bewitched by this world where we struggle to find an always elusive happiness, return to wander over the battlefield.
Conceal your good deeds as you conceal your evil deeds.
~~ Rabia of Basra (717?-801)
Rabia al-Adawiyya al-Qaysayyi was one of the great woman saints of Islam.
How should we interpret her remark which has about it the tone of a warning? It disagrees with common practice and contradicts what seems to be plain logical common sense.
Our analysis, our explanation of our behavior—we’d hardly feel the need to call it a defense—would go something like this:
We don’t conceal our “good deeds,” because there seems to be no need to deprive the community of benefitting from our good example, and we do conceal our “evil deeds,” not only because we have a right to defend our reputation, but also for the very good reason that public knowledge of our errors or failings or misdeeds serves no purpose.
How might Rabia respond?
As a renowned Muslim, she might fiercely retort, “Didn’t Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, Peace be upon him, say ‘Hide the good you do, and make known the good done to you’?”
And if she could have dipped into the future and heard the words of Meister Eckhart (1260?-1327?), she might retort, “And didn’t your Eckhart say, ‘We are to practice virtue, not possess it’?”
We might discern two thrusts in the arguments of Rabia, Ali and Eckhart.
The first, originating in religious teachings, is simply the danger of egoism: the “inflammation” of the personal ego which, according to all the spiritual traditions, comes between us and spiritual realization, whether that realization is defined as Salvation, as in the western traditions, or Enlightenment, as it is defined in the eastern traditions. In the former the danger is the sin of Pride, in the latter the error is called Ignorance. In both cases, the virtue being denied is Humility.
The second thrust originates right here in our daily lives, and it is very subtle indeed. It argues that any public knowledge of our daily lives, any public definition of our earthly performances, is a form of contamination. Why? Because God alone knows who we really are. It’s a question of where is the authentic tribunal.
“Whatever gets praise from the world goes unnoticed in heaven. Whatever goes unnoticed by the world is kept in heaven.” A saying of the Sikhs.
To attain Buddhahood thus we must scatter life’s aims and objects to the wind.
~~ Milarepa (1052?—1135)
Milarepa, a Tibetan saint, is asserting here, in no uncertain terms, the necessity of Renunciation. We have to renounce worldly goals if we hope to attain spiritual goals.
The immediate answer argues that worldly comforts and achievements are a deception and always betray us, providing only temporary happiness and inevitably sowing seeds of dissatisfaction, suffering and renewed pursuit, whereas spiritual life offers a peace and joy that never fade.
Because there are two realms in this universe, forever opposed to each other and mutually exclusive, and our devotion and commitment must choose between them. They are contrasted in many ways by the traditional vocabularies.
How are they contrasted?
The temporal and the eternal, the finite and the infinite, the material and the spiritual, the mortal and the immortal, the unreal and the real, the profane and the sacred, the outer and the inner, the relative and the absolute, folly and wisdom, and so on and on. Christ spoke of Caesar or God: of laying up treasures on earth or in heaven, “for where your treasure lies, there will your heart lie also.”
That’s the way Milarepa saw things. This world is not a place of fulfillment, and a failure to understand that can only result in what Shankara, a renowned Hindu saint, called “that greatest of calamities, the waste of a human birth.”
However, believe it or not, the traditions agree that this is not the last word.
The tradition concede that there are two legitimate spiritual paths, the path of the householder and the path of the monk. The monk leaves the world, “scattering life’s aims and objects to the wind.” The householder practitioner lives in the world, fulfilling worldly responsibilities, but prays, meditates, practices the virtues of compassion, humility, charity, honesty, thankfulness, forgiveness, sincerity, generosity and sacrificial love, and tries never for a moment to forget the jewel in the lotus, the divine presence in the heart, the divine beauty of the universe, the divine source and destination of the human soul.
And it’s been simplified even further. We are told that there’s only one thing in this world we need to renounce to attain enlightenment: the ego: “me.”
What is life? It is a flash of a firefly in the night. It is a breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is as the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.
~~ Chief Isapwo Musika Crowfoot
Chief Crowfoot died in 1890. He was a leader of the Blackfoot Confederacy.
Nothing to disagree with here. It is a poetic Native American statement of the brevity of life, a truth we acknowledge but usually prefer not to think about.
As Chuang-tse, a Taoist teacher who died around 275 B.C., put it, “There is little difference between what one calls a long life and a short one. After all, it is but a moment in the infinity of time.”
And as we put it, “Here today, gone tomorrow.”
No one argues with this commonplace. What is of interest are the conclusions we draw from it, the significance we attach to it, how we choose to live a life in the awareness of its brevity.
Shall we squeeze in as much as we can? Shall we pursue goals, through political activism, which we feel to be important to the future of our community, our country or the world? Shall we try to live a life that embodies virtues such as love, compassion, integrity, sincerity, and peacefulness?
Embrace a religion? Devote ourselves to our families?
As we like to point out to each other, “we only go around once.” As far as we know anyway.
Some people, deeply aware of the brevity of life and the impermanence of all things—“the certainty of death and the uncertainty of life,” in the language of our last will and testament—are driven to seek consolation and refuge in something that endures, that doesn’t change, something eternal, a “peace everlasting,” the Truth. In other words, the proposal of the world’s religions.
Others, also deeply aware, but rejecting religion’s claim that there is something beyond this endless transience, a divinity within and without, an “immortal soul,” accept the indisputable, and view the passing show with serene detachment, choosing to be spectators of the fleeting world, even of their own lives.
They would agree with Prospero in The Tempest: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
No one can escape the choice: in Pascal’s words, “the wager.”
The sign of My forgiveness in the affliction is that I make it a means to a knowledge.
~~ Niffari (?-965)
This is one of those not uncommon citations in the Wisdom Tradition where someone presumes to be speaking as God. Niffari—Muhammad ibn’ Abd al-Jabbar Niffari—was a wandering dervish recognized as a great Sufi teacher. We can assume that in an ecstatic vision he felt the presence of Allah within him, addressing all humanity.
What do we do with such an assertion? Discount it as a delusion? Accept it as possible? Your choice!
But there’s one thing that might be regarded as helpful in making the choice, and that is the depth of the statement.
We might ask ourselves: Is this, if true, something a human being might have figured out on their own? Is this statement in any way verifiable? Does it somehow “ring true” to us, and if so does that mean that we have to accept Niffari’s claim? Does thinking about it, dwelling upon it and even meditating on it, orient our minds in a spiritual direction?
Let’s examine what God or Niffari is saying to us here.
There are three key words (keeping in mind that they are translations): forgiveness, affliction and knowledge.
Affliction must refer either to a transgression or to the spiritual state of someone who has committed the transgression, whether or not that state is actually experienced, say as doubt or remorse.
Forgiveness is a tough one. People in Niffari’s day believed that there was a deity overseeing our actions, approving or disapproving, forgiving or condemning, responding with Mercy or Rigor, a celestial tribunal. Niffari must have faced the problem of how we could know what the verdict was.
He concluded that, in simple terms, if we learned something in consequence of our transgression, acquired some kind of knowledge about life, about morality or rectitude, this means that we had been forgiven. He felt that this solution to the forgiveness problem had been given to him in God’s own voice. And he felt it was his responsibility to proclaim it.
This jurisprudence is, to say the least, very different from our own, a very different solution to the problem of “innocent or guilty” and the interpretation of justice. It points to a humanity, a human presence, vanished from the world.
This world, with all its stars, elements, and creatures, is come out of the invisible world; it has not the smallest thing or the smallest quality of anything but what is come forth from thence.
~~William Law (1686-1761)
What can this mean? What is “the invisible world”? What is Law talking about?
Let’s try to get into his mind. The mind of “the most eminent of English contemplatives.”
Law walked around in the world just as we do, saw with his eyes just what we all see. But instead of being satisfied—this is the world and here I am in it and that’s that—he must have felt that there must be more to the story. It couldn’t be that simple. He must have felt that there had to be something behind all this, behind what was visible.
He must have had an intuition, a conviction, that there was a Mystery here.
He must have reasoned, “How can there be greater depth in my own mind than there is in the vast universe around me, when I myself am part of that universe?”
He must have had, in deep and prolonged contemplation, a vision of what he decided to call “the invisible world.”
We, here in the 21st century, can easily dismiss Law’s conviction as a delusion. It was “all in his head.” Scientific instruments have certainly revealed an invisible world behind the visible world, but we know it isn’t what William Law saw, without instruments.
Now I doubt that there’s anyone reading this who hasn’t had moments in which they felt something akin to law’s intuition. The Wisdom Tradition is unanimous in affirming that we have a faculty, a power, actually given a name in Greek, Sanskrit and Arabic, that enables us to see what Law called the invisible world. Often that power is called “the eye of the heart.”
Usually, but not always, these moments occur when we are alone in Nature. When everything is pure. Never when we are shopping or watching a screen or leafing through a catalogue.
So here we are! Slogging our way through the visible world! Reworking our plans, responding to challenges, balancing our hopes against our fears!
Two questions arise: Is there an invisible world? And if there is, what difference does it make to us?