Chapter Summary: This chapter discusses various value and moral systems, with emphasis on systems appropriate to someone who desires gnosis. Various spiritual goals and motivations are also discussed.
Values and morals govern much of our conduct—what we do and what we refrain from doing. How does someone who has the goal of gnosis conduct their life? What do they value? What do they avoid? This chapter discusses some of the values and morals, some the attitudes and actions, which seekers of gnosis often embrace—that is, it discusses some mystical value systems. It’s not intended as a handbook for mystical life, however. Anyone seriously interested in such a life should refer to their own religious tradition, or to a few of the many recognized mystical texts in the bibliography.
We’ll discuss value systems which contain only common goals, then systems which contain afterlife goals as well. Finally we’ll discuss mystical value systems.
Some value systems contain only common goals. The people who follow such systems have no afterlife or mystical goals. Their hopes and aspirations are entirely for the things of this life, for physical, emotional, and intellectual satisfactions.
Of the people with common value systems some are naturally charitable, humble, forgiving, or chaste. They’re kind and considerate, not for the sake of any ulterior goal, but simply because they feel that’s how one ought to act. As we’ll see, such people are unknowingly progressing toward gnosis. Others who follow common value systems are ruthless. Being kind, charitable, etc., isn’t part of their value system, and they consider people who are to be sentimental and foolish. For those who are ruthlessly pursuing one or a few common goals morality is simple: do whatever is necessary to win. Their morality is much like the one described by Niccolo Machiavelli, medieval author of The Prince.
The Prince is a classic manual of values—of “morals,” if you will—for someone interested in the single-minded, utterly unscrupulous pursuit and welding of political power. Machiavelli recommends such a person not limit themselves by morals.
For there is such a difference between the way men live and the way they ought to live, that . . . anyone who determines to act in all circumstances the part of a good man must come to ruin among so many who are not good. Hence . . . he must learn how to be not good, and to use that ability or not as is required. ([M01],141).
For example, says Machiavelli, it’s not necessary to keep one’s word.
A prudent ruler . . . cannot and should not observe faith when such observance is to his disadvantage and the causes that made him give his promise have vanished. ([M01],148).
And while it’s best if a ruler can win the love and fear of others, if only one can be won then fear is the better choice.
. . . [S]ince men love as they please and fear as the prince pleases, a wise prince will evidently rely on what is in his own power and not on what is in the power of another. ([M01],147).
Machiavelli doesn’t regard virtues as completely useless, however. Their appearance, at least, does have its uses.
It is not necessary . . . for a prince really to have all the virtues . . . but it is very necessary to seem to have them. ([M01],149).
Machiavelli’s recommendations make sense if a single common goal—in his case, political power—is all someone desires. If acting morally isn’t a goal itself and if no other goal demands moral action, then there is no reason to be moral.
But what single goal is worthy of ruthless pursuit? Is any goal so valuable that for its sake all other considerations—morals, consideration for others, common decency—may be ignored? Fables such as the tale of King Midas dramatize the risk of achieving a poorly chosen goal. There seems to be a real danger in “putting all one’s eggs in one basket,” in pursuing any single goal, no matter how well chosen. Moreover, an unprincipled pursuit usually earns enemies. So even if one’s own conscience permits enjoyment of a goal unscrupulously obtained, one’s enemies may not. Is there any single goal worth ruthless pursuit and not liable to be lost to others? Probably not.
Perhaps for these reasons, perhaps for others, most people have many goals. First of course is surviving, fitting in with others, “getting by.” A common strategy is accepting the reigning ideology. If one lives in a communist country, then one is communist. If one lives in a capitalist country, one is a capitalist. If one lives in a fascist country, even perhaps a Nazi-like country bent on genocide of a certain sub-group, then one is a good fascist and, if necessary, participates in genocide. (I don’t mean to condone or recommend this strategy. I merely want to acknowledge its existence and widespread use.)
After survival comes enjoyment, the acquisition of desirable people such as a loving spouse, children, and congenial friends; of desirable things such as possessions and wealth; and of intangibles such as fame and creative or intellectual accomplishment, respect and power. People famous and unknown have devoted their entire lives to the pursuit and enjoyment of such things. Some of the famous evidently found them unfulfilling, as their frustrated lives or even suicides demonstrate. Others, no doubt, were well satisfied with their achievements—for a time. But even if that time reached to the end of their life, death sooner or later separated them and their possessions.
For death awaits all, regardless of how much or little they’ve won here. Therefore, many people have afterlife goals as well as common ones.
Afterlife value systems include a goal beyond common goals and beyond the present life. Paradise and another life here, that is, heaven or a favorable incarnation are afterlife goals. Many people have some form of afterlife value system. Since our time here is limited, it’s not surprising that there’s widespread concern for what happens afterwards. Understandably, many people are willing to devote some small part of their time and effort to the next world. Conveniently, some religions promise heaven or a favorable incarnation in return for a minimal investment of time and money. An hour or two a week, a small donation, observance of moral and ritualistic rules which usually aren’t too taxing, and one is right with God, yet available for the somewhat moderated enjoyment of this world.
Some of the rules and values which allegedly lead to heaven or a better incarnation seem natural: charity, love of neighbor, honesty. Others seem quite arbitrary. For example, there is a great diversity in religious rites and observances. In particular, rules about food vary widely. For example, ham is allowed in some religions, but forbidden in others. Beef is allowed in some religions, forbidden in others, and allowed in others only if slaughtered in the ritually correct way. Some religions allow, even demand, the use of alcohol; others strictly forbid its use.
Liturgies also differ. Some are somber and austere. Others, performed with candles and incense in dark churches, seem close to magic.
. . . [I]nvocative arrangements of the Names of God . . . Sacred numbers, ritual actions, perfumes, purifications, words of power, are all used . . . by institutional religion in her work of opening up the human mind to the messages of the suprasensible world. In certain minor observances, and charm-like prayers, we seem to stand on the very borderland between magician and priest. ([U01],163-4).
How are religious values—rules, rituals, and morals—determined? What are they based on? Religions often derive their morals and rules of conduct in a bottom-up manner. In a bottom-up approach to morals we begin with the practical rules of conduct called morals and then figure out the implied ethics, values and world view. We start with morals and derive the rest. But where do the morals come from in the first place? Usually, from some God who is a Person. Bottom-up approaches are common to systems where morals are simply the will—the commands—of some God who is a Person, or the dictates of some impersonal entity such as Reason or Natural Law. To act in accordance with God’s (or Nature’s) will is to act morally. To act otherwise offends God, and therefore is immoral and sinful. Knowing what is moral and what is not—i.e., knowing God’s will—isn’t a problem since there are scriptures and established churches to make it known.
One problem which does arise, however, is the following: is God free to will anything at all into rightness or wrongness? or are there standards of right and wrong even God must respect? In other words, is something wrong simply because God happens to forbid it? or does God forbid it because it’s already wrong, harmful or evil?
Suppose we choose the first alternative and define “good” as whatever God wills. Then saying “God is always good” is merely a tautology—it’s true by definition, just as if we define “dozen” to mean twelve, and then say “a dozen always had twelve things.” It’s true, but has little significance. It’s just a kind of game with words. Moreover, if whatever God wills is good, then war, murder, sadism, torture, and rape are good when God wills them. You may feel that God never actually does will war, murder, sadism, torture, and rape. The millions throughout history who have fought holy wars, burnt heretics, and conducted inquisitions, however, would disagree. Some of them sincerely believed they were doing God’s will. Didn’t the invading armies of Europe’s “holy” crusades and the religious leaders who organized it shout “God wills it”?
On the other hand suppose we choose the second alternative and decide there are certain standards of right and wrong which even God must respect. Then God can will only what is already inherently good. In this case, God seems the discoverer of good rather than its creator. How can such a God be omnipotent?
So is anything God wills good, or can God only will what’s already good? It’s a dilemma that’s more theoretical than practical since regardless of the answer, right and wrong are forever etched into sacred scriptures in a bottom-up moral system. All a believer need do is follow them, with no explanation or justification needed or given. For example, in Exodus Yahweh commands (Ex 20:1-17) the Israelites to obey the Ten Commandments. They are to blindly follow what Yahweh commands because Yahweh commands it. With no explanation.
Another question which arises in a bottom-up moral system is the following: if moral principles really are the dictates of some universal God (or Reason or Natural Law) then they should be universal too. But cultures have different, sometimes vastly different, morals. The following retells a story found in the History of Herodotus.
Darius . . . found . . . the Callatians . . . customarily ate the bodies of their dead fathers. . . . [T]he Greeks practiced cremation . . . One day . . . he summoned some Greeks . . . and asked them what they would take to eat the bodies of their dead fathers. They were shocked . . . and replied that no amount of money could persuade them to do such a thing. Then Darius called in some Callatians, and . . . asked them what they would take to burn their dead fathers’ bodies. They Callatians were horrified and told Darius not even to mention such a dreadful thing. ([S02],12).
Why do moral codes differ? An unassuming solution is that all moral codes are imperfect and still struggling toward the one, objective, true moral code. A more common answer says that one’s own existing moral code perfectly embodies the true, objective, universal moral code, and all other moral codes are wrong. Another solution is that there is no single perfect moral code. What one calls sin, another may call virtue. If so, then morals are subjective, either to individual persons or to whole societies. Things are good or evil according to society’s or the individual’s taste. There are obvious problems with this approach. Many people feel the murder of innocents, the genocide of entire ethnic groups, sadism, etc., are objectively and universally wrong, not merely not to “taste.”
What’s the value of religious practices? of morals? of food taboos? of rites and rituals? The religious see them as part of the optimum way to live. They believe the practices are valuable because God wants us to follow them and because a reward in the afterlife follows.
Skeptics on the other hand often view religious practices as mere superstition and ignorance. Or if they take a more charitable view, they admit the practices reinforce one’s sense of belonging to a community, and give the believer peace of mind and the assurance they’re right with God.
But many people, religious or skeptic, agree that religious values such as love, humility, charity, honesty, concern and respect for others, contribute to social harmony. In fact, many people—especially if they don’t believe in any sort of existence beyond death—see teaching the community’s commonly-held values as religion’s main purpose. But as we’ll see, some religious practices have a value beyond social harmony and integration: they can lead to gnosis. And that perhaps is their most important function, as well as religion’s.
Yet while religion can be a path to gnosis, it doesn’t seem to go all the way: it can’t actually give the experience of the Ultimate Ground of Existence. Religion can’t
. . . extract finality from a method which does not really seek after ultimate things. This method may and does teach men goodness, gives them happiness and health. It can even induce in them a certain exaltation in which they become aware, at any rate for a moment, of the existence of the supernatural world—a stupendous accomplishment. But it will not of itself make them citizens of that world: give to them the freedom of Reality.
“The work of the Church in the world,” says Patmore, “is not to teach the mysteries of life, so much as to persuade the soul to that arduous degree of purity at which God Himself becomes her teacher. The work of the Church ends when the knowledge of God begins.” ([U01],164).
Religion can make us aware of the existence of the door, show us its location, and encourage us to knock. The knocking, however, is up to us. Once we decide to knock for ourselves, our value system includes a mystical goal: we have a mystical value system.
Mystical value systems are value systems which include the goal of direct experience of and, perhaps, union with God. In some, God is a Person who has left explicit instructions for how to achieve gnosis. In such a system, morality is based on the will of that God. What about systems where God isn’t a Person? What basis can be given for morality in such a system, especially if good and evil are said to be ultimately illusions?
Of course, a moral code could be offered with no basis or theoretical justification, as a collection of rules which in some undefined sense “should” be followed. It could be presented as something which has been found over time to promote a pleasant, harmonious life. In art, crafts, and manufacturing there are “rules of thumb,” rules which have no theoretical basis but nonetheless are widely followed. Such rules, like rules handed down from on high, aren’t intellectually satisfying. To be a science rather than an art, a scientific religion would require a theoretical foundation for its moral code.
We’ll base our mystical value system’s values and morality on the idea of helps and hindrances.
“Norma”, a 15 year-old high school girl, has a goal: she wants to be an Olympics ice skater. Norma skates at least an hour every morning before school, and feels missing a practice is a kind of “sin.” The word “sin” comes from words which signify ([P01],148-9) falling short or missing the target, and for Norma missing a practice falls short of her ideal of daily practice. Of course, missing an hour’s skating isn’t a moral failing; so “hindrance” would be a better word than “sin.” Conversely, skating each morning isn’t a moral virtue, but it is a “help” toward the goal of Olympics participation.
Similarly, certain thoughts and acts help our journey to gnosis; others delay it. Therefore, a value may be placed on thoughts and acts depending on whether they aid or impede our journey towards knowledge of or union with the Eternal. That is, we can construct a moral system based not on the supposed commands of some God who is a Person, but on whether the act, action, or thought in question has proven in general a help or hindrance to gnosis.
The Vedantist sage’s Shankara derived morals in a similar way. Shankara taught that all acts belong to the realm of Maya. Yet he divided them into those which bring us closer to seeing the One (which we are calling helps), and those that re-enforce Maya’s illusion (hindrances). He called these two kinds of maya
. . . avidya . . . and vidya . . . . Avidya is that which causes us to move away from the real Self, or Brahman, drawing a veil before our sight of Truth; vidya is that which enables us to move towards Brahman by removing the veil of ignorance. ([V01],111).
Helps and hindrances to gnosis (or any other goal) still exist, even when there’s no objective God who is a Person whose will defines virtue and sin. They exist independent of any God who is a Person. Something is a help or hindrance not because of some Divine command, but rather because of the very nature of the universe.
When we exercise, the result is written into our body in the form of stronger muscles, increased flexibility, or more efficient cardiovascular function. When we fail to exercise, the result is also written into our body in the form of weaker muscles, decreased flexibility, or less efficient cardiovascular function. Our body is a living record of our past physical activity. Even though Norma’s actions, either practicing or not, aren’t recorded in some heavenly book by a god who gives or withholds Olympics success, her actions nonetheless leave their record in her body and her level of skill. Norma carries with her the consequences of her past actions.
In a similar way, our character and state of consciousness results from—is a living record of—our past thoughts, emotions and actions. And as we’ll see, our character and state of consciousness is a measure of our progress towards gnosis.
In the biblical system of good and evil, Yahweh directly distributes rewards and punishments. He punishes disobedience, eventually, and rewards virtue, sooner or later. Does the system of helps and hindrances still have rewards and punishments? In one sense, yes; in another, no.
Since all entities, including our thoughts and acts, have equal yin and yang, each is equally rewarded and punished. Getting out of a warm bed early on a dark winter morning to practice is punishing; the reward is increased skill. Staying in bed and resting is rewarding; the punishment is eroded skill. In this sense, therefore, it doesn’t matter which course is taken since practicing or not practicing both have their own rewards and punishments, their own yang and yin aspects.
On the other hand for a person with a direction and a goal, there are rewards and punishments. For Norma, increased ability is rewarding, and deteriorated ability is punishing. She chooses to see only the rewarding aspect of practice, and dismisses the punishing aspect as simply the price required for increased ability, as “paying dues.” Similarly, she chooses to see only the punishing aspect of missing a practice.
The dual aspects underlie why some good, virtuous actions are such a pain, while some sinful, forbidden actions are so much fun. (A quip I once heard: “Everything I like is either immoral, illegal, or fattening.”) Some virtuous actions have their yin aspect “up front,” and some sinful actions have their yang aspects in the forefront. Later, the yang aspect of virtuous actions becomes apparent, as does the yin aspect of sinful actions. Perhaps this phenomena underlies the Christian “As you sow, so you shall reap” principle and the similar Hindu “Law of Karma.”
Before using the idea of helps and hindrances to derive our mystical value system—that is, before discussing a theoretical foundation for many of the acts, thoughts, and beliefs which mystics value—let’s discuss a point about theoretical explanations.
Our theoretical explanation for mystical practices and attitudes will explain why the practices and attitudes are helps in the quest to gnosis. It won’t necessarily explain why mystics valued these practices. Some mystics may have adopted the practices and attitudes for entirely different reasons than our theory gives.
There’s an analogy in nutrition. Suppose a scientist finds a primitive society’s most popular recipes are also the most nutritious. The scientist would say the recipes are popular because they are nutritious. The local people, however, might know nothing of nutrition. They might believe the recipes are popular because of tradition, or because some god or seer commanded it.
In Diet For A Small Planet Frances Lappe writes:
The proteins our bodies use are made up of 22 amino acids, in varying combinations. Eight of these amino acids cannot be synthesized by our bodies; they must be obtained from outside sources. ([L03],66),
that is, from food. Moreover, the eight essential amino acids must be present in the proper proportion for the body to use them. In other words, proteins are component entities, and their components (the amino acids) must have the proper relation to create a protein. Given a hundred b’s, o’s, and d’s, but only ten y’s, the word “body” can be made only ten times. The remaining ninety b’s, o’s, and d’s are useless. Similarly, if one essential amino acid is deficient, the body can’t use the others.
Few foods all by themselves have the perfect balance of amino acids. Suppose beans have ninety b’s and o’s, but only ten d’s and y’s. And suppose wheat has only ten b’s and o’s, but ninety d’s and y’s. Then eating beans and wheat together will be much more nutritious than eating either alone, since their amino acids complement each other.
So if a scientist finds that popular recipes tend to have ingredients with complementary amino acids, for example that bean and wheat dishes are popular, the scientist would say the recipes are popular because they are more nutritious. The local people might know nothing of amino acids and complimenting protein, and say they like the recipes for entirely different reasons.
Similarly, mystics may have had many different reasons for adopting the practices and attitudes we’ll discuss. They might have known little or nothing of the God which is not a Person, and little or nothing of the idea of the “end of drama.”
A familiar picture of the avid seeker of God is the contemplative hermit who lives devoid of almost all possessions, in a cave, the desert, or atop some lonely mountain. The stereotype is not entirely fanciful; in the past seekers have lived that way. Some do even today. Let’s attempt to understand what might motivate someone to adopt such a life.
For someone whose goal is vision of, and eventual union with, the One, with Isness, the habit of seeing “the many,” dualistic seeing, is a hindrance. This habit in turn is a result of our attachment to Maya’s drama, of our involvement with duality and consequent ignorance of the One.
Watch a movie and try to continuously remember the images on the screen are nothing but light. If the movie is exceptionally boring, you may succeed. If, however, the movie has lots of attraction—lots of adventure, if that is what you like, or romance, if that’s your preference—you’ll become absorbed in the drama, forgetting that all you’re seeing is light projected onto a screen. Even when the movie turns frightening or sad, you’ll probably remain absorbed, feeling the appropriate fright or sadness. Only if the movie turns very disagreeable—frightening, sad, or boring beyond endurance—will the thought return “it’s only a movie, it’s only a play of light.”
So it is with us and the Eternal. When life is going well, when there are lots of interesting things occurring, it’s a rare individual who seeks the Eternal, the Light behind the show. Even when life is going badly, many do not turn to the Reality behind the illusion. For what prevents turning to the Root is not whether life is pleasant or unpleasant, but how deeply the individual is absorbed in life’s drama. Attachment to the show, the appearance, the illusion,—the world—hinders our perception of the Reality standing behind it, the Eternal Substance.
How might someone completely dedicated to the goal of vision of and eventual union with the One conduct the movie which is their life? One straightforward way is to reduce involvement with duality, the drama which diverts perception of the One to perception of the many. Reduction of drama may be accomplished by withdrawal from the world and society to a life of solitude and quiet. Of course, desires and passions wouldn’t be satisfied in such a life, so they would have to be somehow transcended, even uprooted. Poverty would eliminate most of the things which absorb our attention; solitude would eliminate the people which absorb our attention. Obviously, solitude would also imply abstinence from sexual intercourse if not complete chastity.
Emotions, thoughts, and fantasies are just as much a movie and drama as the exterior world. Someone completely dedicated to union with the One, therefore, might seek to control, still, and quiet them, too. Indeed,
[i]t is a common teaching of mystic writers that introversion is effected by a successive silencing of the faculties . . . till . . . the very being of the soul . . . comes into immediate relation with the Ultimate Reality which is God. ([B17],33).
Moreover, awareness must be freed from consciousness of the ego. Our body, emotions, and thoughts exist in the world of Maya. That is, our very own self, the ego, is a perishable entity with only relative existence. Our egos are waves on the Eternal ocean of existence, but are not themselves the ocean.
Eventually, when Awareness has been freed from all that’s relative, It becomes aware, not of any impermanent entity with only relative existence, but of Itself.
. . . the unitive state is the culmination of the simplifying process by which the soul is gradually isolated from all that is foreign to itself, from all that is not God. ([N11],149).
Thus, for the sake of perception of the Eternal in Its pure state an aspirant may practice detachment of Consciousness from the show world. They may reduce to a minimum their involvement in, and perception of, any and all created entities, even their own self. Such practices constitute an apparent rejection of creation, which is viewed negatively as a veil, a hindrance to vision of the One. Not surprisingly therefore this way to pure vision of the Source has been called the Negative Way.
It will be helpful to investigate the practices of the Negative Way in more detail. Since withdrawal from society and created entities, the practice of silence and solitude, poverty and chastity, the control of emotions and the mind, all motivated by the desire for direct experience of the Root, constitute (surely, not coincidently) the main values of the strictest cloistered and hermetical monastic traditions, we’ll turn to them for our illustrations.
In the religions in which it exists, monasticism is often considered the most radical, demanding, and direct way to vision of and union with the Eternal. Monasticism has three forms: life within a monastic community (cenobitic), life with the companionship of a few others (cloistered), and the life of solitude (eremitical). Of course, monastic communities with a scholarly or humanitarian function can’t always observe solitude and silence. But many monastic situations have these characteristics: detachment from the world and society, fasting and abstinence, poverty, the practice of solitude, silence, and continual prayer, the battle against passions and desires, the fight to control the heart and mind, indifference to created entities, all motivated by the search for vision of, and eventually conscious union with, the Real.
An obvious step for reducing attachment to drama, and the first step in many monastic traditions, is reducing physical involvement with the external world to a minimum.
. . . [I]t was the universal conviction of the ancients . . . separation from the world constituted the climate . . . essential to the pursuit of monastic life. ([P09],193).
For example, The Ladder of Divine Ascent ([C09]), a famous Orthodox Christian work on the monastic life describing thirty stages of the soul’s journey back to God, begins with withdrawal to a quiet place. Historically and stereotypically, monastics have withdrawn to a cave, mountain, desert, forest or cloistered monastic cell.
The life of Julian of Norwich, who lived during the ([J06],22) “Golden Age of the English Recluse,” offers a vivid illustration. Julian was an anchoress, a religious seeker who pursued the search for God almost entirely alone.
The anchorite’s ideal was a renunciation of the world so complete that all thought of the world and its cares would be totally banished from his mind, leaving him free to fill his mind and heart with God alone. ([P09],386).
To become an anchoress, Julian first petitioned her bishop. Then, a Mass, probably a Mass of the Dead, was said for her.
In the Exeter rite the whole service strongly resembled an actual burial service . . . ([J07],xxxviii).
Next, Julian was led to the anchorhold, a enclosed suite of rooms about the size of an apartment, perhaps provided with an open air courtyard.
. . . [T]he In Paradisum was chanted as the postulant walked into the anchorhold, and the prayers for the commendation of a departed soul were said over the prostrate body of the newly-enclosed . . . The occupant of the anchorhold was now officially ‘dead to the world’. ([J07],xxxviii).
Dead to the world but ([J06],23) “alive unto God.”
An anchoress didn’t necessarily maintain absolute physical solitude, however; she might have a servant who purchased food, for example. Moreover, she could even have an occasional visitor. Nonetheless, each anchoress was considered sealed in their anchorhold for life.
Some ran away, of course; some went mad; the great majority were faithful unto physical death . . . What did they do? Fundamentally, they prayed . . . Julian cannot have been unique in the quality of the prayer life she lived: many another found that he was in fact alone with God, and was raised to great heights of prayer. ([J06],24)
Not all monastics are anchorites, of course. Many live retired from the world in the company of a few like-minded brethren. A famous example is Mount Athos, an Eastern Orthodox group of monastic communities. ([S12] describes Mount Athos in words and pictures.)
Hermit monks came to Mount Athos as early as the ninth century. The first monastery, Great Lavra, was founded by St. Athanasios in 963 . . . By 1400, 19 of the 20 monasteries active today had been completed. . . . Some 1,500 monks now inhabit the Holy Mountain. ([N01],740).
The monks live in Mount Athos’s ancient monasteries; the hermits in its small huts and caves.
In the West, the Carmelites, Carthusians, and other orders still follow a strict monastic life. Originally hermetical, Carmelite life eventually became more communal. Then, Teresa of Avila, the ([C10],42) “greatest mystic of her day,” founded a reform order, closer to the original ideal, and closer too to the life Julian led. Teresa
. . . insisted upon enclosure . . . and limited the opportunities for nuns to receive visitors . . . ([B04],132).
. . . stressed voluntary poverty and the ascetic lifestyle it entailed . . . ([B04],131-2).
Like Julian, Carmelite nuns and the hermits of Mount Athos live in a world with few enticements to their attention. They’ve reduced to a minimum their involvement with physical entities having only relative existence. Such material poverty is an integral part of monasticism.
The abandonment of material goods was an essential ingredient of the renunciation involved in the monastic vocation from the very beginning. ([P09],247).
Voluntary poverty is often recommended by the enlightened. Jesus, for example, advised his followers:
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: (Mt 6:19-20,[H08]),
. . . go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor . . . (Mt 19:21,[H08]).
. . . [i]t is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Mt 19:24,[H08]).
Why should this be so? Should a Christian view created things as inherently evil? Hardly. After all, Genesis 1:31 teaches God surveyed all He had created and saw it was good. But involvement with and attachment to such objects seems to prevent attachment to the Eternal.
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Mt 6:21,[H08]).
Poverty involves more than physical
. . . detachment from all that is worldly and unreal . . . True poverty is not merely lack of wealth, but lack of desire for wealth . . . ([N11],36-7).
Detachment—the giving up of desire for, involvement and concern with, and attachment to any created entity—is the second step in The Ladder of Divine Ascent. As hesychastic monks have found,
. . . the first step . . . in the long process of returning to God is to cut oneself off from all extrinsic attachments and then to tie the self to God in one’s heart. But before there can be attachment to God there must be detachment from the world. ([M02],52).
Before we can clearly see the movie as a play of light, we must first become unattached to seeing the various forms—the people and objects—the play of light creates. Similarly, before we can clearly see the world as a play of the Uncreated Light—and so come to see the Uncreated Light Itself—we must first become unattached to seeing the various forms, the people and objects, the play of Uncreated Light creates.
The Eternal Light is Reality, but Its play creates entities with relative existence, entities which are, in comparison, unreal. Detachment from the play gives us discrimination, enabling us to distinguish the Real from the unreal. For example, as Teresa
. . . severed her attachments to things of the world, so her experience of . . . God deepened. ([B04],121).
Religious teachers, therefore, often advise detachment. Buddha suggested his followers cease desiring any entity with only relative existence.
For that which is impermanent, brother, you must put away desire. . . . For that which is suffering, brother, you must put away desire. . . . For that which is no self, brother, you must put away desire. . . . ([B08],65).
Jesus, too, seems to have taught a similar detachment.
. . . if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. (Mt 5:40,[H08]).
More generally, he recommended
Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. (Mt 6:24,[H08]).
Take therefore no thought for the morrow . . . (Mt 6:34,[H08]).
The world’s exterior show isn’t the only play of the Eternal to which we are subject. And desires with respect to it aren’t our only desires. Inside of us is a drama of emotions and thoughts, memories and fantasies. These too are impermanent entities having only relative existence; their perception therefore is also a hindrance to perception of the Eternal. So, to completely free Awareness, we must detach It from the internal drama, from passions and other emotions, from thoughts, memories, and fantasies.
Thus, “in the earnest exercise of mystic contemplation,” “Dionysius” recommends one should
. . . leave the senses and the activities of the intellect and all things that the senses or the intellect can perceive . . . ([D08],191).
Similarly, hesychasm recommends one should ([M02],76) “contain the mind in the heart, freed of all imaginings.” For
. . . the mind, in order to reach true contemplation, must begin by emptying itself of all thoughts, whether they be good or bad. ([M02],113).
In fact, Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras, defines yoga as
. . . the control of thought-waves in the mind. ([H09],11),
Passions of course also exist in the drama, and so must be abandoned, too. Thus, Islam’s Sufis seek fana, a term which includes both passionlessness and thoughtlessness, and sometimes refers to gnosis as well. Fana is
1. A moral transformation of the soul through the extinction of all its passions and desires. . . . 2. . . . passing-away of the mind from all objects of perception, thoughts, actions, and feelings through its concentration upon the thought of God. . . . 3. The cessation of all conscious thought. ([N11],60-1).
To withdraw from the drama, an Awareness must be freed of everything external or internal which is not the Eternal. The play of the Eternal includes more than objects and people, more than feelings and thoughts. It also includes our relative selves, the ego. For as we’ve seen, our selves are changing entities with only relative existence. They are part of the drama. Awareness, the Self, must be detached from the ego, the self, if It is to be free of the drama. Therefore, religious teachers often condemn pride and arrogance, recommending instead detachment from ego in the form of humility, meekness, and self-surrender. Jesus, for example, taught
Blessed are the meek . . . (Mt 5:5,[H08]),
. . . whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Mt 5:39,[H08]),
And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. (Mt 5:41,[H08]).
Moreover, he held the person who serves others the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Similarly, Teresa of Avila
. . . rejected the principles of honor and lineage as incompatible with the religious life. For Teresa, obsession with one’s reputation was a particularly insidious example of attachment to “things of the world. ([B04],127).
[l]ike many of the great religious reformers, Teresa replaced honor with its reverse, humility, as the value most appropriate to the spiritual life. ([B04],130).
In her convents, wrote ([B04],127) Teresa, “All the sisters must be equals.” And the author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent recommended
. . . patience in annoyances, unmurmuring endurance of scorn, disregard of insults, and the habit, when wronged, of bearing it sturdily; when slandered, of not being indignant; when humiliated, not to be angry . . . ([C09],13).
Detachment from ego, in the form of humility and even-temperedness, helps dying to self and the consequent new birth of awareness of Self. It gives independence from external circumstances, making one a “king” of the interior world.
The usual image of a king is someone who has power and control of the external world. On a king’s command, buildings are constructed, people are knighted, wars are fought, etc. But such a person might have little or no control of their own interior world; they might be unable to resist anger, lust, greed, gluttony, etc. A king of the interior world, on the other hand, has power and control over their own interior world.
The ancient Stoics seem to have held the ideal of the interior king. For them
. . . sovereignty over oneself ceased to be a civic virtue and became an end unto itself. Autonomy secured inner peace and made a man independent of Fortune . . . This was preeminently the Stoic ideal . . . ([H07],v1,36).
And Buddha had an analogous idea. He considered various negative states to be “defilements” and suggested ([B10],180-2) one should “cleanse the mind of obstructive mental states” such as ill-will, sloth, and torpor, restlessness and worry, dejection, and coveting for the world.
One criticism of the negative way is that it’s life-denying. Is it? Yes, if life is identified with drama, the picture show of events, feelings, and thoughts that absorbs most of us. In fact, that’s it purpose. Drama-denying, however, is more accurate, for far from denying life, the goal of the negative way is the life which never ends, conscious union with the Eternal.
Another criticism is that it’s not always available. Some religions don’t have a monastic tradition. For some people, a retired, private life, in effect, a private cloister, may be the only option. Indeed, many people have pursued the negative way in that manner.
. . . [M]en and women have built their own cloister in the midst of the worldly activity around them. ([N03],v4,263).
Many people have lived in the world yet practiced renunciation, withdrawal, poverty, detachment, passionlessness, desirelessness, and mental stillness. So monasticism isn’t the only way to God. As Parrinder observes, there have been
. . . noted lay men and women living in the world yet famed for their mystical devotions and writings. ([P05],187).
The most serious criticism of the negative way, however, is it’s open to only the few. Many people, myself included, aren’t able (or, at least, aren’t willing) to make the radical life changes it demands. Complete dedication to beyond-the-show-world goals is itself beyond most of us.
So, what about us? How can we move towards gnosis? For us, there’s another way, the affirmative way.
In the negative way, creation is denied and withdrawn from. It’s considered an obstacle, a veil, a hindrance to perception of the Eternal. Siddhartha, protagonist of Hermann Hesse’s novel of the same name, once held this attitude.
“This,” he said, handling it, “is a stone . . . Previously I should have said: This stone is just a stone; it has no value, it belongs to the world of Maya . . .” ([H05],145).
Siddhartha saw that the play of the Uncreated Light, creation, veils the Eternal. Yet it embodies the Real, too. Like a diamond which holds and reflects light, the world around us holds and reflects the Eternal Light. Eventually, Siddhartha realized this.
But now I think: This stone is stone; it is also animal, God and Buddha. . . . I love it just because it is a stone . . . I see value and meaning in each one of its fine markings and cavities, in the yellow, in the gray, in the hardness and the sound of it when I knock it . . . There are stones that feel like oil or soap, that look like leaves or sand, and each one is different and worships Om in its own way; each one is Brahman. ([H05],145).
Since the universe is a manifestation of the Real, knowing the universe can lead to knowledge of the Real. So the show world, the play of light, can be a bridge to the Center. Some mystics, in fact, see that as its primary purpose. In the words of Eckhart:
The world . . . was made for the soul’s sake, so that the soul’s eye might be practiced and strengthened to bear the divine light. ([M11],161).
For the divine light
. . . is so overpowering and clear that the soul’s eye could not bear it unless it were steadied by matter . . . so that it is led up to the divine light and accustomed to it. ([M11],161).
Indeed, as Ghazzali wrote,
Allah hath Seventy Thousand Veils of Light and Darkness: were He to withdraw their curtain, then would the splendours of His Aspect surely consume everyone who apprehended Him with his sight. ([A03],76-7).
Mystical value systems which view creation positively, as a help in reaching gnosis, are part of the so-called “affirmative way.” The affirmative way seeks to come to awareness of the Real not by denying Its manifestations, but by learning to see the Eternal Light behind all Its varied appearances.
Since it accepts the Eternal’s dance, Its drama, the affirmative way better suits someone who is in the world. It accepts the everyday world we live in, and demands no rejection and separation, no cave, mountaintop, or hermetical retreat. It looks for experience of God in the people and things around us. It replaces renunciation and withdrawal with a worldly life whose aim is gnosis, a life which is “in the world but not of the world.” In place of poverty there’s the moderated and charitable use of things; in place of detachment there’s an acceptance of occurrences as God’s will; in place of chastity there’s a restrained indulgence in sexuality, often only within wedlock.
The affirmative way looks for experience of God in the people and things around us. It sees each living and non-living entity as a manifestation or embodiment of the Eternal Light, what Johannes Scotus Erigena called a “theophany.”
How should someone treat a theophany? If the theophany is another person, one way is pacifism, an absolute refusal to use violence against them.
Some religions are pacifist. Eighteenth century Quakers ([F01],3), for instance, gave up political control of Pennsylvania, a state which they founded, rather than vote for war. Today, Quakers still believe that
. . . we must all seriously consider the implications of our employment, our investments, our payment of taxes, and our manner of living as they relate to violence. ([F01],35),
. . . war is wrong in the sight of God. . . . We would alleviate the suffering caused by war. We would refrain from participating in all forms of violence and repression. ([F01],34-5).
In this, they follow Jesus’ command to
[l]ove your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good . . . (Mt 5:44-45,[H08]).
Some religious groups even refuse to use violence against animals; they are vegetarian. Buddha, for example, described the monk as one who has abandoned
. . . the slaying of creatures . . . the taking of what is not given . . . the unchaste life . . . falsehood . . . slanderous speech . . . bitter speech . . . idle babble . . . injury to seed-life and plant-life . . . highway robbery, plundering and deeds of violence. ([B06],221-2).
And Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras, makes “not injuring” the first principle of “Abstinence,” which in turn is the first of the eight “limbs” of yoga.
(1) “Abstinence” includes (a) not injuring, (b) not lying, (c) not stealing, (d) not being sensual, and (e) not being possessive. (XXX,[Y01],96).
Of course, pacifism and vegetarianism aren’t the only ways to treat living theophanies. But many religious and mystical value systems do recommend patience and forgiveness of injury and insult, and a positive concern manifest in schools, hospitals, orphanages, humanitarian and poverty relief efforts, and social action groups.
In some systems, non-injury is practiced, in so far as possible, toward animals and even plants. For example, the hermit whose food is predominately dairy, fruit and nut is someone who refuses to injure animals and plants unnecessarily. In other systems, no obligation toward animals and plants is seen. Rather, they are freely exploited for the benefit of the human race. Even in these systems, however, a proper concern for other people may imply a certain treatment of animals and plants.
For example, we’ve seen that about 16 pounds of plant feed are needed to produce a pound ([L03],9) of animal flesh for the table. In addition, the animal consumes much fresh water between birth and slaughter. Therefore, a desire the conserve water and food for people, rather than any direct concern for animals, might persuade someone to avoid animal flesh.
So, concern for people may determine the proper treatment of animals and plants. The proper use of things may be derived in a similar way. The proper use of inanimate objects helps us and other people, while improper use hurts, not the objects, but ourselves or others. Therefore, even though the affirmative way doesn’t demand personal poverty, it does demand the ethical, charitable use of things, moderation in one’s own personal possessions, and an interest in the welfare of others. Humanitarian and poverty relief efforts are examples that come to mind. Religions often engage in such efforts.
There is, however, another type of humanitarian relief effort which religions often neglect.
It’s one thing to relieve poverty and sickness; it is quite another to attempt to understand and eliminate their cause. This realization has come recently to the Roman Catholic church in Latin America. Once,
[p]riests had . . . often preached resignation to “God’s will” in a way that could reinforce the belief that the present distribution of wealth and power comes from God. ([B03],31).
. . . morality focused on sins of marital infidelity or drinking, or treatment of other individuals, and was little concerned about the impact of social structures. ([B03],66).
Now, however, in some quarters material poverty is understood to be
. . . an evil, as the result of the oppression of some people by others. Poverty that dehumanizes human beings is an offense against God. ([B03],32).
Such ideas are sometimes labeled “Liberation Theology.” Liberation theology attempts to eliminate the causes of poverty by restructuring society. It teaches
[p]eople do not simply happen to be poor; their poverty is largely a product of the way society is organized. ([B03],5).
Therefore, it criticizes economic systems that
. . . enable some Latin Americans to jet to Miami or London to shop, while most of their fellow citizens do not have safe drinking water. ([B03],5).
Such thinking, however, is not entirely new. For example, believing that all people were equal in the sight of God ([F01],3), Quakers centuries ago worked for what were then unpopular causes, such as
. . . the abolition of slavery and of war, the welfare of Negroes and Indians, temperance, prison reform and the rights of women. ([F01],5).
Their motives, perhaps, were similar to those of liberation theologians today who’ve decided
. . . the causes of poverty were structural and would require basic structural changes . . . [S]uch changes would come about only through political action. ([B03],15).
Such theologians envision
. . . a government that feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, teaches the ignorant, puts into practice the work of charity, and love for neighbor . . . for the majority of our neighbors. ([B03],18).
There’s one danger to the spiritual seeker in political action, and indeed all acts, that should be mentioned. In the affirmative way, actions are meant to aid the journey to gnosis. When properly performed,
[f]ar from being an obstacle to spiritual growth, the giving of oneself in the service of others out of charity fosters the interior life of the soul. ([N03],v1,99).
But if actions, the means, become more important than experience of the Eternal, then the goal becomes political rather than spiritual. The object shifts from changing one’s own inner world to changing the outer world. Someone who started out as a spiritual seeker becomes a political activist. Their action increases, rather than reduces, their attachment to drama.
The negative and affirmative ways regard the world differently. One views it as a veil of the Eternal, a hindrance to gnosis. The other views it as an embodiment of the Eternal, an aid to gnosis. These two views have their roots in two different ways of thinking of the Real: as either immanent or transcendental. Let’s examine these two ideas.
When we first introduced the idea of Ultimate Ground of Existence, many chapters ago, we started with a table and progressed to wood to molecules to, eventually, the table’s Eternal Substance. Approached in this way, the Real is immanent, inherent, and indwelling in the table and, indeed, in all entities. In so far as It’s the world’s Ultimate Substance, the Eternal is the world and the world is the Eternal.
Yet the Unformed transcends the table, too. The table is brown, perhaps; the Unborn isn’t brown. In fact, It’s very different from anything we know. Grass is green, the Unconditioned isn’t green. Water is wet, the Uncaused Cause isn’t wet. Lead is heavy, the Unformed isn’t heavy. The Real transcends the physical, emotional, and intellectual spheres. Therefore, the Center goes beyond and is not limited by the world. In this sense, the Eternal isn’t the world and the world isn’t the Eternal.
Light may be thought of as particle or wave. The God who is not a Person may be thought of as Person or not. Similarly, the Real may be considered immanent in the world or transcendent to the world. Shankara illustrated the situation as follows.
In India, cobras are greatly feared since their bites are often deadly. Imagine a rope left coiled along a village path. It’s twilight. Someone on the path “sees” a snake and becomes fearful.
The immanent reality and the ground of existence of the “snake” is the rope. Therefore, in a sense the rope is the snake. Yet the rope transcends the “snake,” goes beyond the “snake,” and is very different from any genuine snake. In this sense, the rope isn’t the snake.
Even as the “snake” is the rope misperceived, the world is the Eternal misperceived. And even as we may regard the “snake” as actually a rope, or as something very different from rope, we may regard the world as the Eternal Substance, or as something very different. And, finally, even as the “snake” is illusory but its ground is real, the world is illusory but its ground is real, in fact, the Real.
Ramana Maharshi’s once declared [T03],16) that 1) the Eternal is real, 2) the world is unreal, and 3) the Eternal is the world. The world is unreal, he says, but the Eternal, which is real, is the world. Is, then, the world real or not? The statements may seem to contradict themselves, but when understood in the light of Shankara’s illustration, they’re no more contradictory than 1) the rope is real, 2) the snake is unreal, and 3) the rope is the snake.
Perhaps, “the Eternal appears as the world” and “the rope appears as a snake” is clearer. For world and snake are unreal in that they exist only in appearance.
How does all this concern the negative and affirmative ways? The negative way seems based on a transcendent view of the Real. Since the Real is very different from anything we perceive, it says, perception of those things must be abandoned before perception of the Real can arise. The affirmative way, on the other hand, seems based on an immanent view of the Real. The Real is here, right before us, if we could only see. Therefore, there is no need to deny the world around us. Rather, seeing the world properly will reveal its Eternal Basis.
Are then the two ways equally effective for reaching gnosis? Perhaps not. For it seems as long as the “snake” exists there is some measure of illusion and unreality. Even if the “snake” is known to be a rope, even if it’s seen as such, as long as even the appearance of snake remains, the rope is not fully seen as it is, clearly, without illusion.
Rufus Jones observes that in the affirmative way,
. . . the seeker follows after the “beneficent progression of God,” and gathers up what light he can from the revelations and manifestations, as God unveils Himself by going out of His Hiddenness. ([J03],105).
The discovery of the truth through manifestations is . . . the affirmative way. . . . [I]n the outgoing of God we can discover the attributes which in the Godhead “at home” are swallowed up in the unity of His perfect self. ([J03],108).
Not only are the attributes of God swallowed up in Godhead. For if we follow the outgoings of God far enough, we too are swallowed up in the unity of His perfect Self. But at this point we’ve lost sight of creation, and see only God. The affirmative way has turned into the negative way.
So, by itself, the affirmative way seems to have a certain limitation.
The affirmative way never carries the seeker beyond “reflections” of the ultimate reality. ([J03],108).
Only the negative way goes beyond reflections to Godhead. It seems the affirmative way is a way of preparation which leads one eventually to the negative way, and eventually the pure contemplation of, and finally union with, the One.
We’ve examined different kinds of values systems, with emphasis on mystical value systems, on systems which include the goal of gnosis. We’ve seen that many of the negative way’s practices, that is, many monastic actions and attitudes, follow naturally if someone is trying to abandon the drama of life to reach the Reality behind it. We’ve also briefly discussed the affirmative way, with emphasis on a few of its possible practices, namely, pacifism, vegetarianism, and action for social justice.
Many more practices from both ways can be discussed. We’ll see more in the next chapter.