This briefly covers the connection between Zen master Eihei Dogen’s notion of meditation as perfection and founder of Thelema Aleister Crowley’s idea of one’s present incarnation being “perfect”.
Feel free to read it!
This briefly covers the connection between Zen master Eihei Dogen’s notion of meditation as perfection and founder of Thelema Aleister Crowley’s idea of one’s present incarnation being “perfect”.
Feel free to read it!
So, things came down to a big-brained ape from the African plains. Now, the world teems with billions and billions of people, come and gone. How many have lived? How many will? What will they think? What will they make of the world, and of themselves?
For every competent human soul that has graced our universe, there has been a paradigm unto itself. We are, all of us, philosophies on foot. In each one of us the world becomes recursive, looking at itself through the eyes of billions of years of evolution and cosmic development. From that recursion comes examination, and wonder, and then formulation.
Worldview (and view in general): It’s something we all have, in some way or another. You needn’t be a philosopher, mystic, or prophet to have one; and you don’t have to be a skilled orator or verbose writer to proclaim one. For many of us, a commonly held view of life is one which includes the general principles of decency and goodness and—I think most universal, and important—the pursuit of happiness.
However, some of us are more particular with our views… Sometimes, we take our views to a certain height. We magnify our views until a point so minute, and yet profound, is reached, that we can’t help but stand back, slack-jaw, and declare our awe to all the world.
This is the point at which otherwise “mundane” theories enter into the realm of the transcendent—the numinous sphere of heartfelt purpose, existential rapture, metaphysical ideals… “the meat of the matter.” In this conceptual space, you may very well encounter questions like “Who am I?”, “What am I doing here?”, “Why is this happening?”, “Why is there anything at all?”, and (perhaps most pertinent here) “What am I supposed to do with all this?”
“Enlightenment” is a vague term. (In many ways it’s one of the ultimate “for lack of a better word” words.) For most of us, in colloquial usage (similar phrases such as “The Enlightenment” (referring to the period in Western history) omitted) “enlightenment” refers to some kind of spiritual, mystical, or religious epiphany—a life-changing event… one which alters the “enlightened” individual in some fundamental, and ideally “good,” way. Most often this is regarded as some kind of change in the state of the mind, or consciousness, or in one’s fundamental nature or being. Depending on what one believes, such a change may (or may not) bring about a new set of values, or lifestyle, or an alteration in personal ethics and day-to-day actions.
Different traditions—whether you want to refer to them solely or separately as “religions,” “wisdom traditions,” “philosophies,” “paradigms,” “mystical systems,” “metaphysical systems,” “worldviews,” and so forth—emphasize different aspects of individual change as necessary, or at least preferred (a certain number of systems are not exclusive in this regard), in order to approach an ideal state of being.
Some systems which are overtly mystical in their nature include these lines of thinking in their approach toward what one might call “enlightenment”:
“O monks, what is the Absolute? It is, O monks, the extinction of desire, the extinction of hatred, the extinction of illusion. This, O monks, is called the Absolute”
—Buddha (Shakyamuni, Siddhartha Gotama), Samyutta Nikaya (Tipitaka)
Enlightenment as a religious or mystical concept arguably owes most of its popularity to Buddhism, in which it is known as bodhi (बोधि) , or awakening.
In Buddhism, an individual achieves enlightenment through insight and meditation, realizing impermanence (अनिच्चा anicca) and selflessness (the metaphysical reality of no-self, or anatta) and doing away with delusion (an illusory or ignorant experience of existence), thus being released from craving—attachments and aversions—karma (intention and causation in the Dharmic sense), and subsequently all suffering.
In a supernatural context, this equates with exiting the cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth—Samsara—that sentient beings are bound to wander through throughout innumerable lives, and attaining pure tranquility in the state of Nirvana, which means “blowing out” or “extinction.” (i.e. “blowing out” the fetters of evil and suffering and [false] selfhood.) Buddhist enlightenment is preceded and/or followed by an ethical life, as well as the quality of boundless compassion, manifested as freedom from wrath and greed.
Some schools of Buddhism emphasize practicing specific rituals, or chanting and adhering to particular sutra, as a method of either gaining enlightenment directly or in order to be reborn after death into a so-called Pure Land, a celestial abode where one can be taught more about the attainment of enlightenment from enlightened beings themselves.
“The nature of phenomena is nondual, but each one, in its own state, is beyond the limits of the mind. There is no concept that can define the condition of “what is” but vision nevertheless manifests: all is good. Everything has already been accomplished, and so, having overcome the sickness of effort, one finds oneself in the self-perfected state.”
—Garab Dorje (Prahevajra), The Six Vajra Verses (Cuckoo’s Song of Total Presence)
Tibetan Buddhism, an esoteric, tantric, and cultural form of the Vajrayana “vehicle” of Buddhism, emphasizes expediency in attaining enlightenment through devotion to a spiritual teacher—or guru—ritual practice (including “empowerments,” self-identification with deities or bodhisattva, and visualizations) and deductive and inductive reasoning and insight during meditation.At the core of two types of Tibetan Buddhism—the collective Sarma (“New Translation”) schools of Gelug, Kadam, Kagyu, Jonang, and Sakya on one hand; the single “Old Translation” school of Nyingma, and the related religion of Bon (a curious blend of Tibetan Buddhism and other practices endemic to the Himalayas) on the other—are the mystical teachings of Mahamudra (Sanskrit for “Great Seal”) and Dzogchen (Tibetan for “Great Perfection”—also called Atiyoga), respectively.
In both traditions, a disciple is lead by a master to the attainment of enlightenment by discovering the true nature of mind, which is the nature of reality—perceived by the adept to be clear, “vivid” and, importantly, non-dual.
Now, such an attainment is aimed for in all schools of Buddhism (and equated with Buddhahood, bodhi, and Nirvana), though the difference here is a unique and particular method (or set of methods) of practice, and a very specific focus on non-duality, which reminds one of the Vedantic tradition of Hinduism.
In Dzogchen, this non-duality is described as a “reflexively self-aware primordial wisdom” known as rigpa. Rigpa is emphasized as being both “self-empty” and “other-empty,” (placing an emphasis on “emptiness,” or sunyata—of so much importance in Zen Buddhism), giving way to spontaneity and boundless compassion. Mahamudra places emphasis on both non-duality and bliss, but at their core the two traditions point to the same fundamental state.
§ Zen (emphasis):
“To see nothing is to perceive the Way, and to understand nothing is to know the Dharma, because seeing is neither seeing nor not seeing and because understanding is neither understanding nor not understanding.”
—Bodhidharma, “Wake-up Sermon” (悟性論)
The phrase “Zen” is Japanese for Ch’an (Chinese), which comes from the Sanskrit dhyana, which means “meditation” or “meditative absorption.”Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism, and (as its name suggests) it emphasizes (simple) meditation and direct insight over other practices as the means to attaining enlightenment. In Zen, sitting meditation (zazen) is the traditional route of practice, and in certain schools walking meditation (kinhin) and other practices are included.
Rinzai Zen (a school of Zen associated with the monk Rinzai Gigen), moreover, emphasizes koan (Japanese: “public case”) practice (in conjunction with meditation—especially zazen), or the examination of Zen Buddhist “riddles”—in actuality more like anecdotes or dialogues—and monks of the Fuke sub-sect of Rinzai Zen (though now extinct) once practiced suizen (“blowing Zen,” “blowing meditation”), which involves reciting sacred musical pieces known as honkyoku on an end-blown bamboo flute called the shakuhachi.
All told, the foundation of Zen is mindfulness and meditation generally, and the tradition—while often formal in its rituals, especially in Japanese Zen (though these rituals are themselves often considered a kind of meditation, rather than being merely petitionary or superstitious)—ultimately boils down to awareness, non-attachment, and (as in other forms of Buddhism) the experience of emptiness, non-selfhood, and non-duality—thus reality.
Zen is clearly influenced by Taoism, and Taoist phrases like “the Way” (Tao in Taoism, though often used in Zen Buddhism to refer to the Buddhist Dharma, or Magga (“path”)), “the ten-thousand things” (万物 wanwu, meaning everything, the cosmos, or totality), “emptiness” (rendered as mu in Japanese, referring to the Buddhist sunyata, but similar in concept to (though not the same as) the Taoist emptiness of wu) can be found in Zen discourses and scriptures. The aesthetic and spiritual application of simplicity, naturalness, quietism, and an appreciation of the incommunicable (Zen, after its legendary founder Bodhidharma, is sometimes called the “silent transmission,” and “beyond words and letters”) can be found in both traditions.
Zen also largely absorbed a similar Chinese school known as Huayan (which survives as Kegon in Japan), the focus of which was the interpenetration of all phenomena.
“The Divine Mind is the Father who sustains all things, and nourishes all that begins and ends. He is the One who eternally stands, without beginning or end. He exists entirely alone; for, while the Thought arising from Unity, and coming forth from the divine Mind, creates [the appearance of] duality, the Father remains a Unity… Made manifest to Himself from Himself, He appears to be two. He becomes “Father” by virtue of being called so by His own Thought.”
—Simon Magus, Apophasis Megale (“Great Declaration”), according to Hippolytus of Rome in Refutation of All Heresies
“Gnosticism” is a blanket term for a group of old religious and philosophical traditions which (tend to) emphasize the dualistic nature of existence, divided between an evil or illusory material world, created and/or sustained by a figure known as the Demiurge—sometimes presented as a false deity—and a good or true supernal world, sometimes considered the abode or manifestation of a higher God.
Some of Gnosticism’s other common characteristics (differing between different sects) include a “divine drama” involving mythological or cosmological strife, as well as the emanation of divine beings known as “Aeons.”
Gnosticism’s origins are steeped in mystery, and it has been suggested that Gnostic traditions (including the Eastern traditions of Mandaeism, Manichaeism, and the religion of the Sabians) were influenced by Buddhism, Platonism, or Neoplatonism. Many Gnostic traditions seem to take part in an overtly Judeo-Christian narrative, however (e.g. the Cathari, Bogomilism—there is, in fact, a Christian Gnosticism), and Gnosticism overlaps with both Hermeticism and the Jewish Kabbalah in some respects, as well as various other Western esoteric/occult traditions (especially Luciferianism) and the quasi-Islamic tradition of the Druze, which it has no doubt influenced.
In any case, the point of Gnosticism is the attainment of gnosis (“knowledge”), or self-knowledge, a quality of self-realization and salvation equivalent with freedom from the mundane and unification with the supramundane, the Monad (“God” or “Godhead”), or “One.”
“If then you do not make yourself equal to God, you cannot apprehend God; for like is known by like. Leap clear of all that is corporeal, and make yourself grown to a like expanse with that greatness which is beyond all measure… Think that for you too nothing is impossible; deem that you too are… able to grasp all things in your thought… make yourself higher than all heights and lower than all depths; bring together in yourself all opposites of quality… think that you are everywhere at once… think that you are not yet begotten, that you are in the womb, that you are young, that you are old, that you have died, that you are in the world beyond the grave; grasp in your thought all of this at once, all times and places, all substances and qualities and magnitudes together; then you can apprehend God.”
—Hermes Trismegistus (“Thrice-great[est]”), Hermetica (Corpus Hermeticum)
“Hermeticism” is a bit of a blanket term (though not as broad as “Gnosticism,” I’d wager), covering those traditions associated with the legendary figure Hermes Trismegistus. Hermeticism overlaps significantly with, and often informs, Gnosticism, and has also had an impact on the philosophy of Neoplatonism (which itself impacted Hermetic thought)—to which it bears certain metaphysical similarities.
Hermeticism is presented as a type of perennial philosophy (although the specific claim is that Hermeticism presents a prisca theologia, or perennial and universal theology) and has been promulgated in, or at least influences, the vast majority of Western esoteric/occult societies and systems of ceremonial magic[k], from the various Thelemic orders to the (appropriately-named) Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Rosicrucians. It bears some similarities to New Thought, and (along with other traditions) has influenced various New Age groups and other New Religious Movements. (NRMs.)
Hermeticism, while obscure, seems to make its goal something similar to Gnosticism: unification with the “All” or Godhead. How this is achieved is another matter entirely… though the old Hermetic texts seem to suggest healthy doses of astrology, theurgy (ceremonial magic[k] involving the invocation of deities, spirits, or angels), and alchemy. These three practices are collectively known as “Three Parts of the Wisdom of the Whole Universe.”
“The one who loves all intensely begins perceiving in all living beings a part of himself. He becomes a lover of all, a part and parcel of the Universal Joy. He flows with the stream of happiness, and is enriched by each soul.”
Hinduism is a religious complex encompassing a variety of faiths from Indian culture. In Hinduism, as with the other dharmic traditions (of Buddhism and Hinduism), individuals are bound to Samsara, or the cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth (although in Buddhism there is no self, or atman, which is reincarnated, whereas in Hinduism there is), though it is believed that one can exit this cycle.
Enlightenment and liberation from Samsara is known as moksha in Hinduism. (As well as Jainism.) In order to attain moksha, an individual must unite (or reunite) their self (atman) with the supreme self, Brahman (a kind of panetheistic, panentheistic, and monistic force or entity—also called the “world soul“—though different schools of Hinduism view Brahman (and deities generally) differently).
Certain discrepancies in the method[s] for attaining moksha exist among different Hindu sects or styles of Hindu and Indian philosophy and mysticism (such as the Advaita, Dvaita, Vishistadvaita schools), with some emphasizing metaphysical particularities (e.g. the duality of self and God (Ishvara), the unity of self and God, and so forth) and issues in praxis. (e.g. Is moksha attained by the practice of deity puja (devotion), yoga, or other forms of meditation or contemplation, whether overtly religious or merely contemplative and “natural?” Is it mainly found by the removal of ignorance (avidya), or by reasoning, or by ethical pursuits? … And so on…)
§ Advaita Vedanta (emphasis):
“He who renouncing all activities, who is free of all the limitations of time, space and direction, worships his own Self which is present everywhere… which is Bliss-Eternal and stainless, becomes All-knowing and All-pervading…”
—Adi Shankara, “Atma bodha” (आत्मबोधः “Self knowledge”)
Vedanta is one of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy, a spiritual system largely concerned with the relationship between the aforementioned atman (self) and Brahman (supreme self). The Advaita (advaita meaning “not-two”) sect of Vedanta philosophy—of which there are at least ten, all with their own particularities, and all worth exploring as mystical systems (though I’ll only write about one here)—is perhaps best known.
Advaita in particular lends itself to the mystical notion of non-duality. (Similar to many schools of Buddhism, and especially the Mahayana schools of Zen and Huayan, and the mystical disciplines of Dzogchen and Mahamudra.)
“One who knows the self knows the world. He who knows the external world, knows the self also.”
—Mahavira, Acharanga Sutra (from the Jain Agamas)
Jainism is a Dharmic tradition, similar to both Buddhism and Hinduism, which eschews the notion of deities (like (much of) Buddhism, though unlike Hinduism) while adhering to a cosmology of reincarnation (via karma) and the attainment of freedom and bliss (moksha) by the soul (jiva) through renunciation and non-harm (ahimsa). (Also on par with the views of Hinduism and Buddhism, though Hinduism promotes the notion of a soul or self (atman) which ought to reunite with the world-spirit or higher self (Brahman), whereas Buddhism disavows this notion in favor of no-self (anatta) and the “extinction” of Nirvana.
Jainism, while maintaining the concept of atman, has no concept of Brahman. However, Jains—practitioners of Jainism—share with Buddhists and Hindus the idea of Samsara. Jains worship and seek to follow in the footsteps of enlightened beings known as jina (“conquerors”), the most important of which are thirtankara (“ford makers”), who, like buddhas, declare the dharma (“truth,” “reality”) and illuminate the way to enlightenment.
Jains pursue right faith, right knowledge, and right conduct (very similar to three of the tenets of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path), through compassion, non-harm (which cannot be stressed enough in Jainism), meditation, and usually some form of asceticism (all of which is incumbent upon Jain monks or ascetics.)
Jains believe that with the freedom of the soul, attained by the shedding of karma, comes omniscience (kevala jnana), a view shared by some practitioners of Buddhism and Hinduism. One of the most important concepts of Jainism is Anekantevada, or the multiplicity of views (and the relativeness of truth or reality), similar in thought to Taoism, some forms of Buddhism (cf. “right view,” “two truths doctrine”) Hinduism, and many other mystical traditions.
“When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.”
—Laozi, Tao Te Ching
It should be noted here that there are essentially two forms of Taoism, at least to contemporary thinkers. (Although some say this kind of categorization is little more than a convenience for Westerner thinkers.) On one hand, there is Taoism as a codified religion, complete with dogma, rituals, and lay practices (sometimes called daojiao)—many of which overlap with Chinese folk/popular religion (some call this “Chinese native religion” (民俗宗教 mínsú zōngjiào), others (in the West) “Shenism,” and still others “Shendao” (神道 Shéndào, “Way of the Gods”)), and between which there is sometimes no hard distinction. (Chinese religiosity has long been characterized by a syncretic melding of philosophies and religious practices.) On the other hand, there is Taoism as a spiritual philosophy or way of life (daojia), based on the fundamental tenets laid down in Laozi’s (the legendary and putative “founder” of Taoism) Tao Te Ching and Zhuangzi’s (arguably one of the most important Taoist sages, alongside Laozi) eponymous work. (The Zhuangzi.)
In Taoism, the enlightened individual is traditionally known as a zhenren (真人 “authentic person,” “perfect person,” “real person”), or “sage.” (The term xian (“immortal,” “transcendent”) is also used in certain contexts.) In Taoism, sagacity comes to one who has attained to, or lives in accordance with the Tao (meaning “the Way,” “way,” “path,” or “principle”), which is the source, essence, and end of all things—nature in its most fundamental, inscrutable form—beyond being and non-being.
Taoism, like Zen Buddhism (which it heavily influenced), oftentimes—if not more so than its Buddhist counterpart—points to simplicity and naturalness as part of the enlightened way of life. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that Taoism (at least in its more purely philosophical forms), if it could, would prefer to have no name, its “followers” no designation, and its philosophy scarce in the way of explanation. (Granted, one might suggest this to be the case with many mystical traditions and philosophies, which oftentimes point to themselves as manifestations of self-evident principles.)
One very important concept in Taoist philosophy is the aforementioned wu (emptiness), which by extension allows for the (also aforementioned) wanwu (often translated as “ten thousand things” or “myriad things”), as well as wu wei (often translated as “effortless action” or “action through inaction.”) The wu of Taoism is distinct from the sunyata of Buddhism, though the two concepts do share certain similarities.
Briefly: Wanwu is that without limit—all, everything, totality, and so on. In the Tao Te Ching it is explained that the Tao itself is the progenitor of the ten thousand things.
Wu wei literally means “non-doing,” implying actions which are “natural,” or done without struggle or unnecessary effort, thus rendering them simple, efficient, and (importantly) in accordance with the Tao.
“The Supreme and Complete Ritual is… the Invocation of the Holy Guardian Angel; or, in the language of Mysticism, Union with God.”
—Aleister Crowley (“Master Therion”), Magick in Theory and Practice
Thelema is a philosophical-religious-spiritual system consolidated and developed by the British mystic Aleister Crowley. Thelema makes use of Eastern and Western esoteric (occult) philosophies, practices, and religious systems, and incorporates vivid metaphors and concepts into a rich complex of mystical, perennial wisdom.
In Thelema, “enlightenment” equates firstly to the gnosis or “knowledge and conversion” of the “Holy Guardian Angel,” (HGA) a metaphor for the attainment of higher consciousness or “true self.” Paralleling the notion of the HGA is the atman of Hinduism, the augoeides (“luminous body” or “body of light”) of the Greeks (specifically the neo-Platonist Iamblichus), the genius (inner divine nature) of the Romans (and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn), the daemon of Gnosticism, and (I would wager) the tathagatagarbha (“Buddha Nature”) of the Mahayana (although one should remember that anatta, or non-self (or non-essence), is a cornerstone of Buddhist thought, and that sunyata—emptiness—is the ultimate aspect of all things in Mahayana Buddhism), as well as the (somewhat related) Dharmakaya.
Crowley called the Holy Guardian Angel the “Holy of Holies” and the “silent self,” and its knowledge and conversation “The Single Supreme Ritual.” In Liber Samekh, Crowley writes of the aspirant that “He identifies his Angel with the Ain Soph, and the Kether thereof; one formulation of Hadit in the boundless Body of Nuith.” To clarify: Ain Soph (Einsof) is the endless Godhead of the Kabbalah (ein or ayin means “nothing,” “nothingness,” or “without;” sof or soph means “end” or “limitation;” hence “endless” or “without end”); Kether is the “Crown” of attainment, wherein the aspirant identifies him- or herself with the Kosmos and the “divine will;” and Hadit being one formulation “in the boundless Body of Nuith” refers to the manifestation of one phenom, one’s true self (Hadit, the “the flame that burns in every heart of man, and in the core of every star”—a single point of experience), from the wellspring of All and Absolute (Nuit, the night sky—all possible experiences), and ultimately not different from this All and Absolute.
Secondly, “enlightenment” in Thelema refers to the True Will and its enactment—what Crowley refers to in Liber II as “Nirvana, only dynamic instead of static…” Not only does one need to discover one’s truest nature, but also one’s ultimate purpose or destiny, one’s absolute self-determination as it is aligned with the “will of God” (cf. Liber II) and the “inertia of the universe.” More importantly, one must carry out this Will with “(a) one-pointedness, (b) detachment, [and] (c) peace.” As Crowley writes, “Then, and then only, art thou in harmony with the Movement of Things.”
In the Thelemic order of the A∴A∴, beautiful ecstatic symbolism is used to illustrate the pursuit of enlightenment, as per the Kabbalah: For those within the order, the spiritual stage in which one attains selflessness, or ego-death, is known as the “Night of Pan.” (cf. anatta.) Within the Night of Pan lies the City of Pyramids, where the consciousness of the adept who has attained the knowledge and conversation of her or his Holy Guardian Angel comes to rest after crossing the spiritual void of the “Abyss.” This attainment equates to the mystical grade of Magister Templi, or 8=3.
“Is there such a thing as absolute truth in the hands of any one party or man? Reason answers, “there cannot be.” There is no room for absolute truth upon any subject whatsoever, in a world as finite and conditioned as man is himself. But there are relative truths, and we have to make the best we can of them.”
—Madame Helena P. Blavatsky, Lucifer
“Theosophy” is, like many phrases—as we’ve established—in the parlance of mysticism and spirituality, another broad term. However, we can safely say that it refers to any number of systems which attempt to unveil the nature of “divinity,” traditionally connected to Hermeticism, the Kabbalah, Neoplatonism, and esoteric Christianity.
In modern times, the phrase “Theosophy” has come to be nearly synonymous with the Theosophical Society, an organization founded in the 19th century by the occultists Helena P. Blavatsky (often referred to as “Madame Blavatsky”) and William Quan Judge and their colleague [Colonel] Henry Steel Olcott—an American writer and one of the first Westerners known to have converted to Buddhism.
The Theosophical Society regards Theosophy as a kind of (again) perennial philosophy: As William Q. Judge writes in his Ocean of Theosophy, “Theosophy is that ocean of knowledge which spreads from shore to shore of the evolution of sentient beings; unfathomable in its deepest parts, it gives the greatest minds their fullest scope, yet, shallow enough at its shores, it will not overwhelm the understanding of a child. . . Theosophy is a scientific religion and a religious science.” (This last sentence reminds one very much of the aforementioned Thelemic A∴A∴—which bases itself on the philosophy of “Scientific Illuminism”—whose motto is “The method of science, the aim of religion.”) Also, according to the Theosophical Society in America’s website, “Theosophy holds that all religions are expressions of humanity’s effort to relate to one another, to the universe around us, and to the ultimate ground of Being… Theosophy is not itself a religion, although it is religious, in being concerned with humanity’s effort to relate to ultimate values… Theosophists profess various [sic] of the world’s religions… Some have no religious affiliation.”
At its inception, the Theosophical Society’s stated goals included forming a “nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or colour;” (NOTE: This reminds the author very much of the tenets of the Baha’i faith… but more on that another time) encouraging the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science; exploring “the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man;” and to form a non-sectarian, non-doctrinal, and investigative spiritual organization more generally.
However, while it attempts to remain universal and undogmatic, the Theosophical Society has allowed itself, over time, to make at least a few specific metaphysical assumptions. Among these is the acceptance of reincarnation, that reincarnation occurs in accordance with the law of karma, and that it is “the natural method by which the soul learns its lessons…” (confer Dharmic teachings on reincarnation and karma); the acceptance that “life and consciousness are present in all matter, in different degrees of expression;” (confer animism and panpsychism) and that there exist “seven principles of man” or “Septenary” (the Society has established the esoteric and cosmological importance of the number seven, moreover) which, according to Theosophist Charles J. Ryan, “may best be regarded, perhaps, as various stages or points of contact between the permanent center in each individual and the “planes” or grades of substance and consciousness in the universe, which stretch from the most ethereal or spiritual downward to gross matter…”
Many Theosophists practice yoga as a form of spiritual development, attempting to attain to self-realization and the unveiling of what one may otherwise call the Absolute or Godhead. Helena Blavatsky herself reccomended jñana yoga for Western seekers as a method for gaining deeper understanding of the meaning of life.
Even a cursory examination of the enlightenment-traditions of the world—those systems of thought which teach a transformative ultimatum, whatever one may call it—exposes a deep and ineffable universality beneath the shallow surface of custom, culture, religion, and rite.
Where do these traditions intersect, and can their commonalities be distilled into a core tenet or concept which is altogether useful, rational, and numinous? Can they direct us to those states of transformation or realization necessary to live out the sentient condition in its fullest capacity?
Can any of this ever be achieved? And if not, what then?
“By losing myself in the colors and shapes around me I seemed to become very detached… The feeling wasn’t only caused by observing, being aware of, “beautiful” things, such as goldfish or pieces of moss; a full dustbin of dogshit with flies around it led to exactly the same result…”
— Janwillem van de Wetering, The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery
The ecstatic dimensions of human life are often left in the periphery of thought and culture. Sure, popular religion may give many of us some sort of ultimatum, but you often don’t hear about the core of it all: mysticism.
Now “mysticism” is a finicky term with a myriad of definitions. While it always relates to something either spiritual, religious, or paranormal (or any combination thereof), there are different views regarding exactly what it means: dictionary descriptions differ, and put it as anything from “the belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender,” to a “belief characterized by self-delusion or dreamy confusion of thought, especially when based on the assumption of occult qualities or mysterious agencies…” Merriam-Webster states that mysticism is “the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality reported by mystics,” and also defines it as “vague speculation: a belief without sound basis,” as well as “a theory postulating the possibility of direct and intuitive acquisition of ineffable knowledge or power…”
For my purposes, I will side with the very last definition as best explaining what it is that I’m trying to get at: A direct experience and acquisition of a certain state of being or understanding.
Anyway, while I am of the opinion that genuine spiritual experience, which you might call transcendent, mystical (as I say), or (using a term Sam Harris is fond of) “numinous,” is available to every competent human being, religious or not, religion proper is perhaps the most recognizable vehicle for spiritual experience and the realization of what some may call “divinity”—to use a broad, and frankly quite connotative, phrase—otherwise a direct experience of metaphysically-, or spiritually-, directed consciousness.
No: To my mind there is no need whatsoever to introduce dogmatism, ritual, or anything outside of an evidentialist worldview in order to realize and experience the ineffable. This is a profound and profoundly powerful feeling recognized by individuals throughout history, by a variety of means, individuals who, say, utilize hallucinogens or practice deep meditation, or perhaps pondering philosophers, and artists of all stripes (in this case see Henry Miller’s The Wisdom of the Heart, esp. the essay “Creative Death”), many of whom have no specified religion or belief in the supernatural. Often we equate the supernatural with the metaphysical, or the mystical, but it is not always the case! Semantics or otherwise, these terms all bear unique meanings and impart flavors that, while quite similar, are very different in subtlety.
—I wanted to clear that up, first off.
So, in any case, religion is a vehicle for mysticality, or whatever one defines as “mystical” (or “numinous” or “transcendent”)—admittedly vague terms that quite obviously fall short of explaining what can only be “known” through direct experience. As the late wise moon-bat Terence McKenna once noted: “… direct experience has been discounted and in its place all kind of belief systems have been erected… If you believe something, you’re automatically precluded from believing in the opposite, which means that a degree of your human freedom has been forfeited in the act of this belief.” While I don’t necessarily agree or believe (heh) that beliefs are inherently bad for spiritual well being or “human freedom” (cf. chaos magic), they really do represent something less meaningful and profound than direct experience, which, to my mind, is really the holy grail, the ultimate end of having beliefs in the first place.
So it is here that we can establish, I think, that religion is characterized by certain traits that are perhaps more mysterious, inexplicable, to-the-point in a way that can’t be articulated. We don’t often think of it this way: militant atheists, at least, contend that religion is all bullshit or blind dogmatism. But even Richard Dawkins, the infamous disbeliever extraordinaire, admits that religion has given us art, beauty, awe, in some sense. In a four-way conversation with his other colleagues (the collective “New Atheists,” including the aforementioned Harris, as well as Dan Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens), he notes religious architecture as being particularly worthwhile, making the point that even hardline atheists don’t want to see history destroyed through, say, the burning of churches or demolishing of mosques. (To paraphrase loosely.) We can admit that many places of worship erected throughout the ages represent some of the most astounding examples of human creativity, and this is patently obvious to anyone who cares to really look…
But aren’t they also something more, as well?
Look, for instance, at this photograph:
This is the vaulted dome of the interior of the Shah Mosque in Isfahan. The ornate details are beautiful. The coloring is wild and vivid. And yet what seems to strike the heart is the ascendance of all these details towards a central point. There is almost a fractal-like quality which aspires toward a unification in the one, prime shape. Without any supernatural or philosophical injunction, without any speculation or lengthy discussion, we almost immediately appreciate this. It strikes a chord. Is that merely an aesthetic appreciation? Or does it go beyond that in some sense? If so, why?
What is it about this photo that seems so incredible?:
… Or this one?:
Call it a matter of giving credit where it’s unwelcome, but to me every “sacred space,” plain or ostentatious, gilded or glued together, opens up into the mystery, the mystical. Even in plain, rural Baptist churches the uniformity of the pews and aisles and the act of people coming together to embrace a great, final unknown… well, that’s something, isn’t it? It’s something that strikes me in holy places, whether empty or brimming with crowds of worshipers. Well, what do you deem that?
To me, the temple, the mosque, and the synagogue all come down to this: A place is set aside, somewhere in a world otherwise wild, and within the confines of the space a sense of unity and awe is erected. Unity is found through some kind of order amid the wrack and commotion of everything outside, the indifference of the universe.
On that topic, both order and unity seem important in mystical aesthetics…. (And perhaps unity more so…) The idea that everything is pervaded by one substance or essence, even if (as Buddhists contend) that essence is, in fact, non-essence or emptiness. This thing, however you imagine it, is a perhaps a monad beneath the surface, a universal so slight that you can barely see it. Yet it passes through your mind as you wander the halls of vaulted cathedrals or circumambulate the borders of a stupa: order, pattern, singularity, microcosm and macrocosm coming together in a beautiful, inseparable whole. You don’t know it or talk about it, you don’t quantify or qualify it… you experience it, become it, are it.
Recently, I discovered a phrase and concept that helps shine some light on the ubiquitous beauty of mystical aesthetics: Shapes and visual patterns ascribed to the “sacred,” such as religious structures, as well as visionary, psychedelic, and religious art; and non-religious objects and spaces that may otherwise be considered “spiritual,” can fall under the category of “sacred geometry.” (No superstitious associations necessary.) According to Paul Calter, et al (thank you Wikipedia), sacred geometry is any, well, geometry that provides or elucidates symbolic and sacred meanings. More broadly (by my own definition), it may be geometry that evokes a sense of awe, interconnectedness, and transcendence (a preferred phrase which is comprehensive enough to include most religions); or an example of the work of a divine being or agent (i.e. the monotheistic, often Abrahamic God) through said being’s establishment of order in the universe, or a visual appeal to or glorification of that being/God.
Sacred geometry seems to play a larger role in religious architecture and art relegated to certain traditions or contexts. A prime example: While alchemy is not in any full sense a religious endeavor, alchemical symbols, motifs, etc. (as shown above) figure in religions and systems of ceremonial magic (which may, depending, rely on supernatural or paranormal claims) such as those associated with the Hermetic and [broader] Western esoteric tradition—Hermeticism, the Golden Dawn, Thelema, Gnosticism, Rosicrucianism, and some other belief systems associated with a Neoplatonic worldview or “occult” practices. Alchemical symbols often denote certain elements, substances, forces, or other aspects of reality, and thus provide a measure of “language” with which these belief systems can communicate particular ideas.
Another case: Islamic architecture has long featured extremely detailed, maximalistic tiling, calligraphy, etc., especially—it seems—in Persian and Ottoman Islamic architecture. (To an extent some features were borrowed from Byzantine Christian aesthetics, as well as earlier Roman and pre-Islamic or Zoroastrian Persian styles.) One thing to note is that while the Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches were generally—or at least some time after Christ’s death—comfortable with the depiction of saints, angels, and other revered individuals or beings, iconoclasm was much more frowned upon in Islam, as idolatry is a serious sin (as far as I understand) in the faith of Muhammad. Thus Islamic artists and architects specialized in the aforementioned elements, whereas Christian artists and architects more easily took to depicting the human form.
In any case, this use of geometry and whimsical, curving calligraphy beautifies and glorifies the interior of great mosques, pointing to the oneness and uniqueness of Allah (Arabic: توحيد tawḥīd), a cornerstone of Islamic theology.
Again, the interior of the Iranian Shah Mosque is striking, and strikingly relevant:
No doubt, this work moves the heart, whether one is religious or not. For Islamic mystics, or Sufis, this may just lay the soul bare…
… And now notice the difference between this and the statuary of Catholic Christendom, which yet engenders mystical or transcendent feeling, albeit in a much different way:
This statue gives us insight into ecstasy (in the mystical sense), or more specifically religious ecstasy, a feeling of blissful communion with something much greater than oneself. The Catholic mystics have long reported this experience.
Taking a gander at statues, we slip from the world of religious architecture into religious visual art proper, which also clarifies the mystical state of being.
Here we see Adi Shankara in a state of peace and perhaps meditative absorption. Shankara is revered as one of the greatest gurus in Hinduism and the consolidator of the profound philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. This mystical ideology posits the unity of oneself and the universe, of object and subject, and of the notion that it is an illusion to see oneself as detached from anything in the universe. This philosophy was no doubt influenced by Mahayana Buddhist ideas, with their concepts of Tathatā (Sanskrit: तथता “suchness”, or the state of things being simply what they are) or Dharmata, as well as Dharmakāya. (The inconceivable aspect of an enlightened being, or Buddha, which goes beyond characteristic.)
In Tibetan Buddhism religious art is especially important as a means of meditation. Hence there are a number of “meditational deities” (yidam) upon whose images meditators gaze in order to view themselves as being said deity, or embodying its qualities to a certain degree.
Now to digress a little:
Visual art is maybe the most obvious means of conveying sacred feeling, as far as religion and associated worldviews go. I dug up a pertinent excerpt from blogger Sean Robsville, who notes of the aesthetician Roger Scruton in his blog Transcultural Buddhism, “Scruton believes that all great art has a ‘spiritual’ dimension, even if it is not overtly religious. It is this transcendence of the mundane that we recognise as ‘beauty’.”
However, it’s important to remember that religion, while imagined by its outward appearances, conveys its greatest teachings, its bare-bones paradigms, through its literature. (Granted, this is omitting many indigenous and shamanistic or animistic religions which depend on oral traditions.) After all, most religions have their religious texts. Without these from whence do we proceed, philosophically or otherwise?
In the major Abrahamic religions (at least), this is where esotericism, or esoteric interpretation, is important. Many readers of the Christian Bible, the Torah or Tanakh, or the Qur’an may find those texts to contain rather straightforward injunctions regarding societal organization, politics, and morality. (Although it must be noted that even the basic interpretations of these texts, whether literal or metaphorical, vary significantly. It seems there are many translations and versions of the Bible (among Christian denominations) in particular.) Yet each of these religions has adherents who see the deeper, more profound meanings hidden behind platitudes and proverbs. Mystics among all traditions have long divided their pertinent holy writings into different levels of meaning.
The beautiful allegories of many religious texts are championed by monastics and mystics alike (although monasticism often reflects a degree of mysticism, if it is not simply a subset of, or is related to a mystic’s style of life, as exemplified by Christian tradition primarily) to validate a deep-seated sense of spirituality. In the case of many monotheistic religions, nearness to or union with God is a primary objective.
Two passages, from the Bible and Qur’an, are pertinent:
In Eastern religions, the concept of union is also important (cf. yoga, which literally means “to yoke” or “to unite”), although it is presented in a different light.
“Attain the ultimate emptiness
Hold on to the truest tranquility
The myriad things are all active
I therefore watch their return”
From all of these texts we can pick out the commonality of oneness and universalism—union, interconnectivity, non-duality, “suchness”; the return to a mysterious, inscrutable (and yet perceived!) source.
Now, the media of experiential spirituality is not limited to religious work. This must be understood in order to truly cross over into the fold of spirituality/mysticism—that it is not merely in the domain or possession of religion. Religion certainly is the traditional vehicle or vessel of spirituality and mystical experience, but as I have stated, similar states can be engaged by people with no religious background. Certainly philosophers and artists of all stripes can come close to these experiences in their own ways. (While philosophy is mainly about intellectual analysis and the arts about creative work, the trance state can and has historically been engaged (albeit not often reported) in the course of doing philosophy and art. Not to mention the fact that throughout history throngs of artists (by this I mean musicians, writers, etc. as well) and philosophers have also been “mystics”, or have at least reported or sought out mystical experiences by one means or another. (Cf. Jean-Paul Sartre and Alan Watts’ experiences with mescaline.))
Mystical poetry is a long-standing tradition, and many people have expressed a connection to some Absolute or another, or a sort of universal love, by way of poetry. The great Persian poet Rumi—a Sufi (Islamic) mystic and antecedent of the Mevlevi Order—is perhaps the most famous example, especially in the case of love. (Particularly a sort of Islamic divine love. (the Christian phrase, from the Greek, is agape.)) This, for instance, comes from his Masnavi:
“The lover’s cause is separate from all other causes
Love is the astrolabe of God’s mysteries.”
This is another outstanding piece entitled “Only Breath”:
Even more explicitly non-particular in his tradition was the fantastical poet and mythologist (called a “glorious luminary” by William Rossetti) William Blake, who, although nominally Christian, expressed universalism and the all-pursuing qualities of a philosopher-mystic throughout his writing and art.
… Here is his “The Divine Image”, originally featured in Songs of Innocence:
“To Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
All pray in their distress:
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.
For Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is God our father dear:
And Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is Man his child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart
Pity, a human face:
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace the human dress.
Then every man of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine
Love Mercy Pity Peace.
And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk or jew.
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.”
Poetry and prose have always had the potential, as much as art, to evoke mystical feeling. The variety of written works that may be characterized as “mystical” or “spiritual” is incredible. And yet as disparate as they may be, they all share in the perennial force of an Absolute, or engender a connection to this ineffable quality.
In contrast with the flowery language of Rumi and Blake, I will provide a much more contemporary example from the writings of the aforementioned Henry Miller (a personal hero—I’m currently working on my fourth book of his (Moloch: or, This Gentile World), since I recently finished Black Spring, and both of the Tropic novels before that), who, while quite gritty and very surreal by comparison, is yet like the proverbial “finger pointing at the moon” (spoken of in Zen discourse).
… From Tropic of Cancer:
“Today I awoke from a sound sleep with curses of joy on my lips, with gibberish on my tongue, repeating to myself like a litany – “Fay ce que vouldras!… fay ce que vouldras!”; Do anything, but let it produce joy. Do anything, but let it yield ecstasy. So much crowds into my head when I say this to myself: images, gay ones, terrible ones, maddening ones, the wolf and the goat, the spider, the crab, syphilis with her wings outstretched and the door of the womb always on the latch, always open, ready like the tomb. Lust, crime, holiness: the lives of my adored ones, the failures of my adored ones, the words they left behind them, the words they left unfinished; the good they dragged after them and the evil, the sorrow, the discord, the rancor, the strife they created. But above all, the ecstasy!”
(Interestingly, fay ce que vouldras is French for “do what thou wilt” (the common translation), from Rabelais (whom Miller was acquainted with), and the essential motto of the religion and [religious] philosophy of Thelema.)
As Miller said of his book, “My idea briefly has been to present a resurrection of the emotions, to depict the conduct of a human being in the stratosphere of ideas, that is, in the grip of delirium.”
Is this truly delirium, or mystical psychosis?
It is noteworthy that Miller was influenced to some degree by Theosophy and the ideas of Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom he mentions several times in at least one book.
… Lastly, I’d like to look at music. I’ve left this one for last in honor of Aldous Huxley’s well-known statement: “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
Whether this statement is true or not, music is an art form that quite seriously depends on states of duality, being and non-being… that is, sound and silence. The dance of dichotomy, of existence and non-existence, is readily noticeable in music. It is an aesthetic employed for mystical means in the appreciation of some traditional Japanese compositions, what with the notion of ma (間, “negative space”).
And Japan has a long, variegated tradition of sacred music. From Shintō court scores to monosyllabic Buddhist chants, music has been featured in much of Japanese religious life. Perhaps the most mysterious example is that of the shakuhachi…
The shakuhachi, known by a few as kyotaku (“empty bell”) and in certain forms as hocchiku (“dharma bamboo”), was originally more of a religious tool than an instrument: this vertical bamboo flute was employed by komusō, the eccentric-looking monks of the Fuke sect of Japanese Zen, who played it for enlightenment and alms as they wandered the countryside. They practiced suizen, or “blowing zen”, as a form of meditation, and concentrated on honkyoku, sacred Zen Buddhist pieces that reflect deep mystery (embodying the Japanese aesthetic of yūgen) and the qualities of enlightenment. I myself will admit to having dabbled in this instrument, and, by my own experience, it requires nothing if not the patience and persistence of a Zen master. A simple, holed-out length of bamboo can, in the correct state of mind, produce an audible symbol of gnosis. Hokyoku are spontaneous and utterly indescribable, and rightly so. I personally came face to face with this experience, this intangible nature, during a shakuhachi concert at Roulette in Brooklyn several years ago. (Props to the Japan Society, Ned Rothenberg, Kinya Sogawa, and Ralph Samuelson for an amazing performance. I remember it fondly!) The concert was indescribably mysterious. (Yūgen?)
… Bamboo is also the basis of the bansuri, an Indian transverse flute famously employed by Krishna, avatar of Vishnu, admired (and even worshiped) by millions of mainstream Hindus, and beloved mystagogue of the Hare Krishna sect of Hinduism. (More properly known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.) The flute is involved in Krishna’s romance with Radha, and the sound of classical Hindustani music as played on the bansuri encapsulates a spirit of serene bliss and love. Whereas the shakuhachi’s typical music is characterized by a benign, wild indifference—blasts of air like claps of thunder centered and contrasted by soft drones and strange vibratos—the bansuri’s domain is one of ecstasy and calm joy painted by colorful tones and and a sense of pervasiveness. While the bansuri’s song is peaceful in the same sense as the shakuhachi’s, it’s more of a divine love ballad born from the depths of the heart and pouring over the world, whereas the shakuhachi’s is the portrait of a mind that has been liberated, one that resides on top of a mountain in the rain, or hides in the mist that hangs in a deciduous grove.
A similar instrument, although not bamboo, is the ney. A Middle-Eastern rim-blown woodwind, it is possibly most famous in Turkey and Iran. The ney is made from reeds, and so has the same basic properties as bamboo. (Canes and reeds are grasses like bamboo, albeit smaller.) The Turkish ney in particular is known for its use in the rites (sema) of the Mevlevi Order of Sufism (as per Rumi). By all rights, this order, known for its famous whirling dervishes, is probably the face of Sufism in the non-Islamic world. Their whirling is often accompanied by the ney and various other instruments.
Whether by the means and methods of music, art, architecture, poetry, prose, dance, or sculpture—or anything at all, for that matter—the aesthetic is not merely the superficial face-value of a modern consumerist aeon; not evil as it may be to the gnostics, who have long regarded the material realm the creation of an opressive demiurge; not a fleeting hedonistic playground where every sense is tantalized and inundated with meaningless data, as per Kierkegaard… no, that couldn’t be further from the truth! The aesthetic is the portent of the spiritual, a portal into the mysterium tremendum, a bridge and not an end. The end, then, is left to be determined by us as individuals, who with our hands and blood and sweat and tears carve out art and engrave our souls into the vast mundaneness of of the universe, a blank scape laid below us and an immovable ridgepole supporting our existence. If we can see the beauty in the everyday, and fashion from the clay of the earth the mantle of the stars, then we may just be able to see the One thing, the mystic thing, the nameless thing, that lies at the end of the oft-trodden road.
As I posted to Unknown Dopeness (and I feel makes for a good summary):
“This is a tangentially philosophical article and examination that I wrote on my blog. In essence, it’s an exploration of what I like to call “mystical aesthetics,” which comprises the methods whereby art symbolizes and acts as a portent of the mystical. Basically, the aesthetic (the arts) have the potential to channel the metaphysical, or engender states of spiritual experience.
Schopenhauer, in essence, implied our contact with the nature of the world can come through music, for instance. Aldous Huxley said that music was only outdone by silence as “expressing the inexpressible”. Mystical poetry, visionary art, religious architecture, sacred geometry, and other mediums of expression point toward higher states of consciousness. It is my view that the artist may enter these states through the spirit of abstract work.
I hope you enjoy!”
—See the post script HERE.