A student of mysticism soon discovers there is a plethora of esoteric traditions accompanying the more mainstream worship practices of any given culture. Though we might speak, for example, of Kabalism as the mystical tradition of the Jewish people or Sufism as the mystical tradition of the Muslim people, these are generalizations. In practice these things change with the times and adapt to the needs of those embracing their practices. Surveying centuries will uncover a kind of trekking through the wilderness of a culture’s meaning factory; its collective assumptions about what is real and not real and the experiences such assessments make possible.
The mystical heart of religion, while surrounded on all sides by mumbo-jumbo, is where individuals encounter the numinous, the sacred. A part of religion is social, another part is concerned with the preservation of stories and words and yet another part with cognitive maps; views, philosophies and theologies. Religion is multifaceted. By tracing the esoteric the existential aspect is placed front and center. William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience is perhaps the first of the type of psychological approach that is willing to take numinous encounters at face value, as experiences that do happen to people and often have profound, lasting effects. This psychology is interested in just what it might be possible for the human psyche to experience in its extremes.
James’s work is very much a product of his Christian culture though we should be careful not to dismiss his research into the conversion experience as irrelevant outside the Protestant traditions. The role of conscience before the fear of death is an ancient doorway into altered states of mind. The ancient Egyptian having his heart weighed in the land of the dead is not wholly unrelated to the person today unexpectedly struck by their conscience and turning their thoughts to “religious matters” to desperately “work out their salvation in fear and trembling.”
Though stating it this way is using terms used by the monotheisms, the actual human life event being referred to is universal. Everywhere and every when we find clues to indicated shocked encounters with the spirit world, or to put it less poetically: with the reality of one’s own death and how the actions of one’s life, good or otherwise, compare or ‘weigh’ against the stream of humanity of which you are a part. This shakedown of the ego blinded by ignorance, greed, and lust from valuing non-selfish behaviors and altruistic motivations seems to be an inescapable step on the path towards human maturity. The nexus of death symbolism that are always found in esoteric traditions is the psychological vehicle by which one generation communicates what it has learned about this encounter with the next. Skulls and skeletons, cremation grounds, coffins and all the rest show up in religious art and esoteric practices of both the east and the west whether the message is being delivered by an aboriginal shaman, city priest or a guru.
As important as this encounter with one’s personal mortality is on the path, it is not the only ordeal that is charted in esoteric traditions. Beyond the socially derived sense of self and obligation is the most fundamental encounter of all – the mystery of consciousness itself. The question of subjectivity and objectivity is translated into personal terms when we ask what is really real. Asking this question inevitably entangles us in issues of epistemology, how do we know what we know? Here the grand philosophical conundrums of realism and idealism push cognitive comprehension to its limits. Kant, Schopenhauer, and Wittgenstein come to mind as modern representatives mining all the rich inheritance of previous centuries careful thought that provide us an outline of what can be said and where silence must reign. This seems to be a second inevitable encounter a human being will experience on the path towards maturation. Here the nexus of symbolism deals with illusions, emptiness, interdependence and all the other symbols of union that speaks to us of non-dual awareness. These symbols include the union of heaven and earth in ‘as above, so below,’ the union of man and woman in Tantric embrace, the union of gods and goddesses with men and women, the union of organic and inorganic as when Dogen recognized his mind was no other than the mountains and rivers and finally the union of the personal and the impersonal somewhat like the center point of the ubiquitous mandala symbol.
The shaman or mystic comes with the message that things are not at all what they seem. Allow their medicines to work on you and they will turn your world upside down like a tree whose roots are in the sky and branches reach down into the earth. Down may be the way up and in may be the way out. The enlightenment insight shares these characteristics with jokes where the punch line turns everything around.
Speaking of a tree rooted in the stars prepares the way for this week’s discussion of one of the esoteric traditions born from the Jewish symbolism, namely the Kabala. It is particularly good at illustrating these two major events on the mystic path. Here is an image of the Kabala’s Tree of Life which consists of spheres and the paths between them.
The Jewish and Christian holy book starts with the story of the Garden of Eden which features a tree of good and evil and a tree of life. It should come as no surprise then to see a tree of life at the heart of an esoteric tradition related to it.
One of the ways this sigil is used in meditation and study is as an organizing framework for associations. Systems of associations are a common feature of a number of esoteric teachings. The idea is that everything we deal with in our physical and mental lives can be assigned a place somewhere on this organizing framework. The five Buddha families have played this role in Tibetan Buddhism which includes charts of what is associated with each one. These associations typically include a color, a compass direction, characteristic animals and other adornments of their ‘realms’ and an accompanying characteristic insight and ignorance, virtue and vice. Druids used types of trees as their framework for making associations, some Native Americans used the medicine wheel mandala, Sufis used the hundred names of Allah and Christians the four evangelists. In all cases the teaching tool is related to seeing the world as sacred. By associating everything to some aspect of the sacred glyph everything thereby takes on a touch of the sacred. This is the universal insight of the mystic; that even the most mundane is precious and holy, that chopping wood and carrying water are sacred acts.
We spoke in an earlier post about using the symbolism of the family to guide us to the heart of teachings. The main associations dealing with the family message of the tree of life are as follows. The second sphere is related to the father, the zodiac of stars and leads to wisdom; the third sphere is related to the mother, sea, night, tears and leads to understanding; the sixth sphere in the middle of the tree is related to the son, a king’s crown, the heart and the sun and leads to compassion and love; and finally the tenth sphere is associated with the daughter, the earth, and fertility and leads to being grounded in physical reality.
The two initiatory events are included on the tree of life glyph by the horizontal paths. They are referred to as places where the aspirant needs to cross an abyss or pierce a veil. The ego death involved in learning the value of love and compassion and the encounter with the existential roots of awareness empty of dualism are each characterized as journeys across dangerous waters or leaps off cliffs into space. The first event related to ego death is a leap into the space of the heart and is mapped on the tree by the horizontal path between the spheres seven and eight (feeling and thought). The second related to naked awareness is a leap into the space of space and is associated with the two horizontal paths connecting spheres four and five and two and three respectively. This gap between the two sets of spheres is the Great Abyss said to separate the all of the divine and eternal from the temporal and secular.
The focus of this cycle of posts is around waking up our capacity for compassion and so we will focus on the so called lesser abyss but it is worth mentioning a detail students of Buddhism will appreciate. The triangle made up of spheres one, two, and three is said to come forth from emptiness in its three forms. This is what the “Ain” above the tree indicates. Kabbalistic mysticism is fundamentally apophatic, that is, like many of the esoteric traditions it seeks its god in its absence. The not-this and not-that of Nagarjuna’s Middle Way, though not given the central place it is in eastern teachings, is not unknown to the west.
One way to understand the life challenges the tree of life is designed to teach about is to recognize the perennial generational challenge in its layout of family roles and where the abyss crossings occur. The great abyss simply separates one generation, the mothers and fathers, from the next which is made up of the sons and daughters. Like many of the great stories it presents a challenge about how the young will grow wisely enough to take on the responsibilities of adulthood. The Kabbalistic teaching is that through the correct act of the son (sphere six) the daughter (sphere ten) can be raised to the throne of the mother (sphere three). Obviously on one level the correct act of the son is the act of sex; pregnancy lifts those in the role of daughter to the role of motherhood. Indeed the ninth sphere between the son and daughter is associated with the sex organs.
However the richness of associations pushes the Kabbalistic lesson considerably further than just the act of procreation. We have looked at the abuses children suffer at the hands of those not capable of healthy embodiments of fatherhood and motherhood. One does not need to be Freudian to recognize much pathology includes a sexual element. The path through sex on the tree is associated with shooting an arrow. Our word for sin means to miss the mark like an arrow missing its target. The other symbolism associated with this path is the rainbow, Biblically the symbol of peace between man and God. We say crazy people are over the rainbow and that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. All this is related to the lesson this part of the tree is trying to educate us in; how to successfully navigate across this abyss.
One of the main associations not yet mentioned is how the holy name of God, Yahweh, is assigned the family spheres. One Hebrew rendering of Yahweh is IHVH. The initial I is assigned to the father in sphere two, the first H to the mother in sphere three, V the son in sphere six and the final H is associated with the daughter in sphere ten. The special act in this context is the redemption of the world. By this reading all sentient beings are female, members of the earth or samsara if you will. All sentient beings consist of a spark of awareness embodied in circumstances not of our choosing and beyond our control; life lives us. Part of the knack of wisdom is learning to embrace our restrictions and limitations, to accept with grace the causes and conditions of which we are a part yet which extend much, much farther than ourselves.
The person drawn to the esoteric path is willing to work hard to tame the mind but this is easily first understood as a willingness to storm the gates of heaven, to force the gods to do one’s bidding (echoes of Faust). This arises from our intuitions informed about the two truths that reflect our familial and existential situations. Nothing seems more important than achieving one’s spiritual goal. The whole study of associations is an example of actively using our intellect to try and construct a bridge between our ego and a perception of the world as sacred in non-dual states of consciousness. Meditation techniques, drugs, dancing and the whole host of esoteric technologies are more of the same; ways to try and force ourselves into blessedness. All these have their place but the masters both east and west are in one accord in teaching that ultimately all such forms must be set aside.
In the west it is said that ultimately one learns to wait on the Lord, to be the bride anxious for a visit from the bridegroom. The feminine, earthly soul awaits the quickening kiss of the sun / son spirit.
In the east it is said that ultimately one learns mediation without fixed forms. The aggregates rest in stillness, patiently expectant of Buddha’s dawning omniscience.
The love poetry we find in so many esoteric traditions is often a reflection of these psychological features whereby we are all the bride. The Bible’s Song of Songs, so long a puzzle to those not mystically inclined, finds its explanation here. So does some of what Carl Jung had to say about what he had discovered about the anima and animus. An important aspect of the feminine as symbol of the aspirant here is that it is a waiting in full awareness of the feelings and sensations that accompany human consciousness when it has the courage to face the cosmic without the ego hardened character armor. This waiting includes a rawness of perception and emotion we find it very difficult to maintain, requiring as it does extraordinary courage to accept just how deeply we feel what we feel.
It is not the act of sex as such that brings about the transcendence of the ego but the sharing it embodies which softens, if not dissolves, the barriers between inside and outside, self and world, you and me. This brings us to the final way in which we as Buddhists might learn from and learn to appreciate this esotericism of our western past. The colors on the tree and its overall structure have similarities to the chakra systems of the east. The middle pillar of the tree is associated with the spinal column and the right and left pillars are similar to the right and left channels found in chakra yogas. In this context it is easy to see how both traditions concern themselves with what my first teacher put this way:
“First we must get you right in your heart.”