Friday 27 June 2014

The Mystery and the Heart

What lies behind the appearances of this world and our ordinary perception of it is a mystery. We may be given some insights into that mystery from the external sources of religion and art, and the more personal ones of intuition and what we call spiritual experience but, in itself, it remains a mystery, and will do so until after death. That is true, I believe, even in the cases of those rare beings who have undergone the process called enlightenment. They may have severed the knot that binds an incarnate soul to self-identification, but, because they are still in a brain and body, they lack full and complete revelation. That will only come when the soul is set free from its earthly casings. For most of us it won't come even then, not in its entirety anyway, but the point I am trying to make is that there is no absolute knowledge in this world, and that is because of its currently very imperfect state which makes it impossible for spirit to manifest in anything like its proper purity. Speaking figuratively, the denseness of matter nowadays blocks its proper assimilation by spirit. Form, using that word in the sense of a Platonic archetype, can only manifest in a very rudimentary way. There are grounds for thinking that this will not always be the case (maybe what evolution means in spiritual terms is the refinement of matter so that eventually it may perfectly express form), but it has certainly been so for as long as we know, and will undoubtedly be so for the foreseeable future. Here we see through a glass darkly, indeed, and that goes for all of us, even if some see a lot better than others.

All of us who have some small sense of the spiritual try to describe our fleeting perceptions as best we can. But when we do this we need to be aware that words limit as much as they express, and that too close an identification with the literal meaning of the words we use can block off deeper understanding. The fundamentalist is one who prefers the security of the word (or the idea) to the more elusive freedom of the reality behind that word (or idea). Furthermore, any person aspiring to spirituality must know that we often approach the centre from very different points on the circumference which is why Christianity can speak, correctly, of the personal nature of the divine and Buddhism can speak, also correctly from its point of view, of emptiness and no self. I happen to believe that these Buddhist doctrines are largely provisional in that they relate to the cleansing of impurity and illusion, the negation of the false self and identification with form, but stop there rather than going on to see what remains when the false self has gone (which is fullness, completion and a transformed, indeed you might say a risen, self), but that is not the point. They reveal truths which Christianity, with its focus on the manifestation of God in a person, either lacks or does not emphasise, just as Christianity brings out truths neglected by Buddhism. Reality is too big to be encompassed by any one description of it, or, for that matter, by multiple descriptions of it.  It is a mystery, and is so because it is inexhaustible.

Of course, not all descriptions and depictions of the spiritual world are equally valid or of similar depth. That is something we occasionally lose sight of in these days when quantity appears to have the upper hand over quality and horizontal equalities are given more respect than hierarchical differences. Some penetrate more deeply into the mystery than others, some much more deeply and with a power that captures something of its real nature. But none can do more than hint at the mystery which remains beyond expression, inviolable and ever sacred. In truth, all we can do before it is prostrate ourselves.

The mystery is being but it is more than just being as normally understood.  After all, everyone has being and it is a common fallacy to say that, because of this simple fact, we are all already enlightened and only have to realise it. That idea may be attractive but it is not correct. For this realisation is not just a matter of intellectual insight or true seeing or meditative stillness or living in the now or stripping away illusion, though these are sometimes regarded as all it takes for the truth to stand clear and be known. To be sure, these are ways to detach oneself from the dominance of the thinking mind but, on their own, they are not entries into true spiritual being. Being can only be fully known in the heart or, to distinguish this from the physical organ with which it has nothing to do, the Heart. The Heart is to the mind as the sun is to the moon, and it is only when consciousness is fully anchored in the Heart that enlightenment takes place and the disciple enters into the mystery. Most of what passes for enlightenment these days is the enlightenment of the moon and, as such, lacks true light except that which is derived at various removes from the source. Only the person who is centred in the Heart is one with the source and only he can radiate the light as from himself, hence the golden aureole of the saints. Only he knows the mystery and he knows it because he has entered into it. And he has been able to enter into it not for the negative reason that he has disassociated himself from the mind but for the positive one that he has realised his true nature as the Heart.

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Two Questions on Salvation

Here are two questions that have been put to me on roughly similar subjects. What lies behind both of them is the idea of salvation which is not very popular nowadays since it implies, a) that we are not what we should be and need to be saved from something, and, b) that we might not be saved. But what we need to be saved from is ego, pride and self-will on the one hand and ignorance on the other, and it can hardly be denied that we all have these to some degree. The reason we tread the spiritual path is precisely to overcome them. There may be those who don't like the idea that there is an element of judgment in this, but in a universe built on truth (which means law) as well as love the demands of justice and mercy must both be met. This is not to say that God's mercy has limits or is conditional, but it cannot override justice indefinitely because that would amount to injustice. Besides, in reality any judgment that takes place is not God's on us but ours on God.

Q. Do you believe that all paths lead to the same goal eventually?

A. Not necessarily. While it is true that there are many valid ways up the mountain, particularly at the beginning of the quest when we may be starting from very different points around the base, it is also the case that there exist numerous spiritual diversions and temptations to deviate from the true path as we ascend. This can be seen both as an opportunity and a test. It is an opportunity to exercise discernment and not succumb to what may be attractive to the ego, and it is a test to expose the unregenerate elements or errors of thought in a disciple that need discarding and which can usually only be so when their consequences are fully experienced. 

The deviations I speak of take various forms, which is only to be expected as they must appeal to each and every type of human consciousness. They will usually contain elements of truth but along with that they will include errors. The truth is the sweetness that attracts and masks the poison of the error but the error might well unbalance the whole so, no, I don’t believe that all spiritual paths lead to the same goal. At least, I don’t believe that all that are called spiritual paths truly are spiritual paths in the proper sense. Many may take you part of the way but then have to be abandoned if you would progress further but there are some that might not even be able to do this much. Having said that, I should add that if a disciple is spiritually mature enough the path he chooses is of less importance than the attitude he brings to bear as he treads it. That's because true spirituality is not dependent on method or technique but on intention and purity of heart. 

Q. In your book you seem to imply that everyone will eventually reach the goal of spiritual liberation and enlightenment but is this really true? It seems to me a nice thought but unlikely when you look at how human beings are. I’m sure we’ve all got goodness in us but there are some people who really do seem past redemption. And if human beings genuinely do have free will, there must be some who never turn to God. I was raised a Christian and I find it hard to shake off the idea that there are people who just refuse to be saved. I don’t believe in hell but are you saying that the idea of salvation is wrong?

A. This is one of those questions to which I can only give you my opinion but, for what it’s worth, here it is. It's based on the implications of free will which is the defining characteristic of a human being. I don’t think every human soul will realise its potential destiny and become an immortal spiritual being. I do think that what is sometimes called, after a passage in the Book of Revelation, the second death is a possibility. Slim, unlikely, remote maybe, but real. This is what happens to a soul that, despite repeated opportunities, persistently rejects God, becoming more and more entrenched in self-will. It means that the individual soul is spiritually disintegrated and its energies returned to the unmanifest source and original purity from whence they arose. It’s not that the soul is sent to eternal punishment. It simply ceases to exist as an individual.

This is not something that would happen to the normal irreligious or even sinful person (and who is not that?), but only to someone who persists in wrongdoing and extreme selfish thinking for life after life,  who constantly defies God and who eventually uses up all their allotted time. Our actions have consequences. If they did not then nothing would matter for all would come right in the end, but in that case the whole process of life in this world would be meaningless. Moreover it would imply that any freedom we might seem to have would be illusionary and we would be little more than puppets. That is not God's plan for us. He wants souls that consciously, voluntarily, joyfully choose the good.

The human soul, our individual self, was created and whatever is born must eventually die. There are two ways this can happen. The first is through the process of liberation when the soul is taken up in full consciousness into pure spirit and transcends itself to win eternal life. But there is also the possibility of the second death when the soul is dissolved into the elements as though it had never been. Obviously our spiritual teachers do everything they can to avoid this second possibility, but it is a possibility and it is so because of, as you correctly say, free will. Even God will not overrule the free will of a created being, but if that being, through pride and lack of love (because that is what is behind all this), consistently rejects the path of truth and righteousness then it will reach a point for which the bill for all its wrong choices must be paid. This reckoning cannot be put off indefinitely. It will then be faced with a stark decision, either to repent and work out its salvation with diligence or else to cease to exist. It is said that even at this stage it is the soul's own choice as to whether it turns around or not so its dissolution will take place only if it refuses to accept the consequence of past behaviour and current attitude.

Either the ego or the soul must eventually die. One is liberation, the other is extinction. The choice is ours.

There is no reason to be concerned by this, on the face of it, rather alarming teaching. The fundamental law of the universe is love and only a soul that absolutely rejects God’s love will be brought to this pass. And that soul will take the step in full knowledge of what it is doing, in defiance and self-will. I am sure we are given chance after chance to redeem ourselves but, at the same time, we must accept that the opportunities cannot be endless or that would make a mockery of free will. The freedom to choose death rather than life is a necessary part of the gift of freedom. 

I realise that this answer might seem controversial but it simply means that we have responsibility for ourselves.

Monday 9 June 2014

Beyond Oneness

The spiritual path is a path of transformation in that it must change us from what we are now into something completely other. Different traditions, looking at the same thing from different angles, express this in various ways, ranging from becoming what you already are by removing veils of ignorance to becoming something completely new, and much ink can be pointlessly spilt on arguing which of these is the more accurate description of the process. Having said that, I now consider that the non-dualistic philosophies that teach awakening to pure consciousness, the consciousness that is always ever-present behind the sense of 'I' and the coverings of form, are limited in that they don't embrace the whole of reality. They express a very important part of it, but reality is stranger and subtler and more wonderful than their rather one-dimensional (pun intended) view of it, and their denial of the individual, and the potential for individual spiritual growth, as well as the validity and purpose of the created world and the fact of a God who is infinitely greater than His manifestation within us as consciousness, make them incomplete assessments of spiritual truth. They grasp one aspect of it but, in so doing, fail to see that there is more. For complete understanding only arises when you realise that duality and non-duality are not mutually exclusive but two equally important parts of the whole.

Despite its current adoption by the West non-duality originally stemmed from Hindu and Buddhist philosophies and practices. Traditional Western approaches to spirituality, however, certainly since the time of Christ and probably going further back to Greek and Egyptian times, do not deny the reality of the individual. Indeed they regard that as central to the whole business of spiritual perfection. God is not reduced to a near abstraction, as is the case with most non-dualistic approaches, but is a living reality. He is not just 'life' but is actually alive. And what He creates is real, a truth that is effectively denied in non-duality. There is, therefore, a higher destiny for humanity than simple reabsorption into the One. It is the uniting of spirit and matter, God and Man, the Universal and the Individual, but in such a way that the latter, though transformed and its limitations transcended, is not swallowed up in non-existence. The self is not destroyed or seen as illusion (the ego may be but that's a different matter) but sanctified and made divine through grace, though a grace that is only possible to receive because of the efforts of that self towards its own purification and transcendence. For while you cannot merit grace (or become spiritual) through your own efforts, it is only through supreme efforts that the obstacles to grace (or spirituality) can be removed.

What I am saying here is that spiritual truth in some mysterious way actually goes beyond unity (or non-duality, if you prefer). The non-dualistic philosophies of the East that reduce everything to pure consciousness are completely logical and make perfect sense. And they are not wrong. They correctly perceive that duality is but a mask of unity, a mask that must be seen through if one would see and be what is. But they stop there. However there is more, and that more is the reason for and the gift of creation. Spiritual truth goes beyond the simple logic of oneness, enunciated to perfection by the Buddha, to something higher that is only made possible by the fact of manifestation in form. That something is the relationship between God and Man or, in other words, love. Love is the reason for all that is and it can only exist in duality. This is why I think that the union of the sanctified soul with its Maker goes beyond the enlightenment of the non-dualist. The latter discards the world of becoming to seek truth only in being but the former unites being and becoming to bring about something higher than either of them on its own. It combines the two to produce a new truth and a state of being beyond either of them. And this is why Christ, both in his teachings and in his person, presented a higher form of spiritual truth than did the Buddha. I mean this in no sense disrespectfully for I have always loved and revered the Buddha. But for him the highest truth was in pure consciousness, the ground of being, whereas for Christ it is in relationship. Christ unites in his person the two worlds of being and becoming, giving meaning to both, but Nirvana is the end of becoming which means it is the end of relationship and the end of qualitative growth. Essentially it discards the beautiful and the good in favour of the true alone. In Christ, however, all three co-exist equally and eternally.

This does not mean I think that the Buddha's enlightenment was in any way invalid. His achievement was unparalleled in that it penetrated to the very heart of being. He had purified himself of all desire and attachment and gone beyond identification with the mind as we all must. However I do suggest that it is not the final answer to the question posed by life in this world. Perhaps it was the final answer at that time but Christ brought something new, something that reconciled being and becoming in a way that might not even have been possible in Buddha's day.

When I look back at the teachings I received from the Masters who spoke to me I see that they support the interpretation of spiritual truth that I have outlined here. Of course, these Masters never went into theoretical details, being only concerned with the practicalities of spiritual instruction in the here and now. Matters of duality and non-duality would have been irrelevant to them as signifying no more than mental constructs. But the corner-stone of their teaching was the absolute necessity for love and humility, and these are virtues that are directly concerned with the self and its sanctification. They point to going beyond but including the individual. They are not qualities required for awakening or the dispelling of illusion so much as preparing the soul to become receptive for union with God, a union that takes one beyond the non-dualistic state of pure consciousness (in some senses analogous to that of Adam before the Fall) to one in which the self is transformed by grace into true divine being.  And this is not the transcendence of self but its sanctification. 

An image may help here. The non-dualistic enlightenment entailing the realisation of pure consciousness is like a clear blue sky, but the higher state of spiritual beatification introduces the radiance of a blazing sun into that sky. Is this duality? Of course, and that is the glory of creation!