De Anima Mundi

Some questions have emerged about what the hell (or heaven) I might be talking about in my last essay about death and the soul. These questions provide me with an opportunity to reflect on my own writing in an attempt to more fully articulate the vision behind it. I don’t already have answers to these questions, but now that they have been asked, I will try my best to respond to them.

Most of the questions inquire into the nature of the World-Soul. I’ll answer each in turn.

1) What is the relation between the World-Soul and the individual soul?

The relation is that between a Macrocosm and a Microcosm. The individual soul is the World-Soul in miniature, its holographic or fractal recapitulation on a different scale or level. Logically, there is no way to coherently prove that something infinite and eternal is related to something finite and temporal; it appears to be a blatant contradiction. The best medieval neo-Platonist theologians argued endlessly about how God might be related to man, always trying to avoid describing man as too close in nature to the divine, an obvious heresy (at least if you ignore most of what Jesus is reported to have taught about the relation between the Father and His Children), or placing man too far away from divinity, such that all communication between Creator and creature (even revelation) is made impossible. Even if its nature cannot be precisely formulated by the human tongue, somehow the World-Soul (as Plato describes it in the Timaeus) is able to reconcile or mediate between creature and Creator (or between Difference and Identity, Time and Eternity, the Good and the World). I can only offer a likely story about how and why this is so. Tell the tale in whatever way you’d like, somehow or other the One becomes Many, remaining One despite being in each of the Many. The differentiation of the One is not just an accident, but of its very nature. The One becomes Many. God creates. To say “God” is already to speak God’s Word, which is the creation of worlds. The Creator cannot exist without the creation and the creature.

2) What is the relation between the World-Soul, Wisdom, and the shadows of human history? 

If there were a complete and simple identity between the perfection of the World-Soul and the events of human history, it would seem to be well hidden beneath the violent warfare, economic pettiness, and ecological ignorance of our kings, generals, corporations and  nations. Clearly, there is a clog in the pipelines from heaven. I think opening this portal requires that human beings engage with the universe religiously and spiritually, especially through the sorts of initiatory rites practiced by the world’s Mystery schools, where the death-rebirth experience is ritually reproduced. Initiates into such traditions encounter Wisdom first hand, which is the only way, since Wisdom cannot be taught verbally by others. Hegel wrote about the World-Spirit, which was the particular human community that most fully incarnated the Idea at any given point in history. This is very controversial, raising questions about the ethics of thinking race, culture, and/or gender, since in speaking about the World-Spirit, Hegel implies that the German people of his time were providing Spirit the clearest portal into world history. Hegel also claimed he was not a philosopher, since he no longer loved wisdom but had attained it. I can’t speak for his claim, but even if he had Wisdom then, he doesn’t any longer!

3) Why is the soul normally depicted as feminine? What is the relation between body and soul? 

I depict the Soul as feminine because my consciousness is masculine. It is a bit like a mirror, this psyche of mine, and so whenever I attempt to feel for her I find what ever it is in me that is not doing the feeling. The soul is not a body that can be seen, but my own body deeply felt (which, it turns out, is not other than the whole world). Her beauty is not in appearance only, but it is not despite appearance, either. It is not independent of the body, but nor are the two, body and soul, simply identical. You could say our individual bodies are modes of the World-Soul, but this would bring up all sorts of parallels with Spinoza that I’m not sure are appropriate (or at least that I can’t explore fully at the moment). I think Beauty is not an idea at all, but a relationship. Beauty is that which is produced when soul and body are in resonance with each other, when the one is able to recognize the other as a friend.

4) Is the World-Soul “heavy,” or is it the lightness of being? What is the difference between mass and energy/matter and light? 

If Wisdom is light, the World-Soul is matter. The World-Soul is that which underlies the animate materiality of the world. Matter is everywhere self-organizing, and it does so out of the power of the World-Soul to unify identity and difference, or eternity and time. Individual souls, animate beings, are heavy, because they each inevitably die. They are bodily beings: they are born, they age, and they die. The universal being, cosmic animal, or Living Thing spoken of in Plato’s Timaeus, is supposed by Plato to be eternal. But perhaps this World and its Soul will die, just like us. I tend to think that the physical universe known to contemporary science will indeed die, in some sense, but that this death will only be an opening onto a universe whose dimensions we (consciousness, Spirit) cannot yet fathom while still on this side of the 13.7 billion light year expanse of space surrounding us.  Intuitively, it seems as though there is no outside to this universe, that is has no biggest body that includes all others as organs. Rather, it is an infinitely nested fractal of creative expression dying and being reborn forever and always. A visionary participation in this fractal provides the lightness of Wisdom that counteracts the heaviness of the inevitable death that will remind us again of our source in the World-Soul.

Death as Trickster

A reflection after participating in Steven Goodman‘s “Tibetan Trickster” workshop at CIIS several weekends ago. See my follow up comments to this essay here.

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I should begin. I don’t know how much time I have… I’d like to tell you a secret, even though I’m not sure if I can repeat it exactly as I hear it whispered to me inwardly even at this very moment. It is my secret, you see, and by verbalizing it in order to share it with someone else, it will undoubtedly lose some of its existential force. However, despite its being my secret, and so difficult to communicate to others, I know intuitively that it is of ultimate concern to everyone. I must risk telling you, even if it sounds at first like something obvious, something you’ve known since you were seven years old. It is a Big Secret, but it won’t dispel The Mystery or explain Life’s Meaning; knowing it can only deepen the mystery of your life’s meaning.

Are you ready? You may never be. It takes a whole life to prepare for. Here goes: it is absolutely certain that you and everyone you love will die.

Did you hear me? Now listen for an echo of what I’ve said within you. If you hear it, know that it is not an echo, but your own soul sharing the essence of her earthly mission with you. Ask your soul: “Why have you wed yourself to this mortal body?” I imagine she will answer as mine has: “Because love means nothing without death; there is no other way for Spirit to truly matter, no other way for your soul to find its way back to heaven but to die with love in your heart.”

  Behind death hides the Immortal Soul. It is not your’s that lives forever, mind you, but the World’s Soul. The World-Soul is love itself, the center of all creation, the gravity that “moves the sun and other stars.”

The Soul is a universal embrace holding all things together in the radiant space of Wisdom. But Wisdom’s light is not always bright enough to make the meaning of matter transparent, and so the Soul is also a battlefield upon which the chaos of shadow confrontation unfolds. Human history, which provides the background and container of your own personal life, is a “tangled web of fate” spun by the sustained encounter of Soul with shadow, Spirit with matter, Self with other. Death is denied by most human cultures, becoming a great evil to be fought against at every turn. Our fear of death’s ego-dissolving depths leads to all kinds of violence against other mortals, since the only power over death we are capable of securing comes by taking the life of others.

Perhaps it is not ignorant power that truly defeats death, but clear insight into the mystery hiding in its depths. Do not forget to hear death’s secret. Turn inward and face death squarely: Wisdom can be heard, in the still, dark center of our souls, beneath the crowded places and tormented faces of earthly time, silently speaking the Truth of freedom and love. History cannot escape the gravity of the World-Soul, and so inevitably there germinates within her the seed of enantiodromia: the shadow, confronted and integrated, becomes its opposite. When the horror of the shadow is swallowed, the Soul becomes pregnant with the Savior. Light shines through matter from the far side of death, escaping its dark lie to emerge within our soul as Wisdom, becoming our spirit-guide or daemon.

What had been a fearsome phenomenon observed only second hand through the death of others becomes what it always really was: the numinous source of all meaning and spiritual substance of all love. No longer something abstractly held at a distance from life, death becomes itself the point of the emergence of the mind’s present perspective, the Seer behind all that is seen. The Soul is not living as opposed to being dead, she is the Life that conquers death, the portal through which eternity flows into and transforms history, one generation at a time.

Death is a trickster. At once the most sacred and the most desecrated of rites, it shapes your life long before it ends it. If Socrates was right and the Soul is immortal, then death does not end our need of her love.

“…The soul demands our care not only for that part of time we call life, but for all time… If death were a release from everything, it would be a gift-of-Hermes (hermaion) for the wicked, because by dying they would be released not only from the body but also from their own wickedness together with the soul” (Phaedo).

But death, despite the Soul’s everlastingness, may still be Hermes’ gift to saint and sinner alike, since it carries with it a secret message to each individual human being from the gods. The secret is one I have tried to tell, but in the end it can only be heard in one’s own heart, there whispered by the Soul. In truth, it is a secret that cannot be shared between mortals, since its meaning cannot be limited by any language, nor pointed at by any finger. It is an open secret whose signature is nowhere in particular precisely because it can be found everywhere in the universe: in the passing clouds of the daytime sky, in the folds of our aging palm, in the names of those we love. There is no great significance in anything but for its being a sign of transience and death. All earthly things point away from their origin and toward their own demise, and it is precisely by indicating that which is before and beyond them that they are illuminated and made alluring to the Soul. A beautiful thing is never just what it is. It also is not, and in the space of this not, the whole of eternity is opened to our loving contemplation.

Humans are unique in our ability to sense what is not there, in our capacity to think and to feel not just actuality, but possibility. This power to recognize what is not is as much our gift as our curse, since it all but erases the instinctual “species knowledge” that so perfectly situates other creatures in the world according to their natures (Trickster Makes this World, by Lewis Hyde, p. 42). For this reason, despite the apparent harmony of the cosmos in which we live, we are generally riddled by anxiety and shame, imitating others since we are never sure how to behave ourselves. We lack our own way, and sense also in the life of the world that a certain arbitrariness is responsible for its beauty. There seems to be no universal principle to determine what is aesthetically pleasing from what is not. Beauty is unruly; its concreteness cannot be made to conform to formal notions of symmetry or measure. Tragedy is as touching as comedy, the absurd as provocative as the ordered. Beauty is seen or felt in a thing not because of what it is, but because of what it makes possible within the Soul who sees or feels it.

Perhaps our anxiety is due not only to our sense of the possible, and to the lack of a natural way that results, but also to our aborted knowledge of death. We know only that we will die, that a threshold will be met that surely will transform the ego and the arbitrarily ordered world it has come to think of as real. We do not know, however, what this transformation will produce in us, nor how we ought to conceive of the eternal nowhere and nowhen that it takes us. Knowing that, while not knowing what–this is the recipe for a lifetime’s worth of anxiety.

Typically, human cultures construct “cosmetologies” to cover up their ontological insecurity. These stories provide us with masks to hide our deep wounds and to avoid our having to face the forms of cosmic order and chaos at work outside our feeble comfort zones. What is needed is a more compassionate and developmentally open ontology, a cardiontology or mettaphysics, that provides a way of encountering the demons associated with death as our teachers. Demons can be invited into the Soul in order to help us heal, since it is they who carry to us an awareness of that which we are least aware and least compassionate. Only when demons are rejected do they seem to be motivated by evil intentions; faced with loving kindness, they lose agency altogether and are revealed to consist only of our own unclaimed traumatic material.

Has the secret been adequately told? Perhaps not. Though its meaning can only be postponed by being summarized (since its essence is either heard at once or forgotten), the limits of my medium require that I do so.

In Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illich, Ivan says, “At the moment of death I hope to be surprised,” and doubtless death will be quite a surprise for most of us. Why so? Because, according to our common sense, death is the end, something we have never experienced before and can never experience until we die.  Sure, plenty of us give ourselves various religious labels, belong to such and such a church, temple, mosque, or monastery, believing in this or that kind of afterlife… but how much of it is genuine? How much of our own spiritual opinions do we take seriously? It has become hard in today’s skeptically-minded times to truly believe anything but the standard company line that our entire existence on Earth consists of nothing but this one fleeting breath of life between birth and death. It is commonly thought that to demand more is to regress into fantasy, to ignore the hard fact of life that is death. But surely even the skeptical rationalists, beneath their veneer of intellectual pride, still feel the chilling air of uncertainty bubbling up from the darkness of their own impending death.

Death unites us all in a common mystery, though most of us mistake it for misery. If death is really the end of our personality, and by all biological accounts it seems to be, then what is it all for? Why live? What more could life be, in this case, but a hesitation, a rejection of the inevitable, a denial of our fate? To consider ourselves alive, we must deny ourselves death. But our denial cannot prevent its inevitable arrival. It’s coming to swallow us up into a timeless void for all eternity and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. In such a situation, there is only one reasonable option for those seeking freedom. In the teachings of the Buddha, we find a path toward the realization of this freedom. But the path, rather than leading away from death, leads directly into it. The Buddha suggests, in other words, that we learn to “die” while still alive, so that the eventual death of our bodies won’t be such a shock to us. This death while still alive is enlightenment, realization of the Dharma, and it consists in seeing deeply enough into the Soul in order to discover that which is neither dead nor alive but eternal.

If the struggle against death gives rise to the ego—in a sense, is the ego—then the dissolution of the ego should be one and the same as the acceptance of death. The Buddha’s doctrine of anatman here becomes relevant in that it reveals the selfless nature of reality, thereby giving one the sense that death need not be feared because there never was anyone to die to begin with. Similarly, the Buddha’s doctrine of sunyata, or emptiness, shows us that life has meaning only within the context of death, and vice versa. Life itself has no self-nature. Its appearance in the relative realm of maya depends on its contextual relationship with death. In such a realm, life means whatever death does not, just as death means whatever life does not. The Buddha saw the trap inherent to all discursive methods of thought that attempt to understand the life-death polarity intellectually. The coincidence of these opposites can be known only experientially, and even then, their reconciliation inevitably slips away and is forgotten.

Contemporary humanity finds itself in just such a strange epistemological paradox. We are convinced out of sheer habit of thought that the meaning of life is knowable and rational—that it obeys a reliable and symbolically describable order, and that it has some demonstrable purpose; but all the while, whenever we happen to stop and look into the mystery of our own being, we become aware of the terrifying fact that all of our supposed knowledge rests on blind assumptions about the completely unknowable experience of death that will one day befall us.

We, as civilized humans, are raised to act and think as though we are isolated individuals, as if our skin was an ultimate boundary completely cutting us off from the world around us. We are brought up in a way that distorts our initial childhood perception of reality, which is the simple truth of our growth out of this world, and therefore of our inseparable connection to it. This intuition is denied and repressed in favor of the more intellectually useful idea of having been thrown into this world.  From this outside, third-person perspective, scientific map-making becomes possible. Such maps are directly responsible for the great technological successes of our society. But the rewards of this perspective come at a cost. By pretending to be an outsider on our own planet, we have alienated ourselves from nature. This “outsider’s view” of the universe is a major source of our anxiety about death, as any human who was in touch with his nature would be as accepting of his death as he was of any other naturally occurring event. Were we to remain in touch with our childhood intuitions about reality, we would not fear death but instead spend our lives preparing for it with great excitement and expectation.

“To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise,” says Socrates,

“for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them: but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?”

Religious Dialogue as Soul-Making: A Prayer to Buddha and Christ

Why Religious Dialogue?

Interreligious dialogue is not a distant possibility but a present necessity. This essay is a response to this need, but it is written also as an intrareligious dialogue. This is because the conditioned nature of my own personality, having been historically shaped into what it is by my unique imaginal participation in certain texts and practices, at first allows me to speak and be understood only within the personal and communal bounds of these traditions.

By seeking out the essence of my own spiritual path, I hope to become more capable of generating wise and compassionate relationships with those who walk adjacent paths. There’s a way in which the intra- and interpersonal boundaries generated by each of the world’s religions also opens them to extra- and transpersonal bonds. These bonds tie the traditions to each other within an ecology of Spirit, each of them creating and receiving love from the other within the space opened up by Spirit’s eternal passage into history.

And so while it may at first appear so on the surface, the condition “we”—the English speaking post-secular intelligentsia, or whoever—currently find ourselves in is not one of lacking an effective method or means of contacting those of “other”—let us say, non-Christian, non-secular, or indigenous—traditions. If “we” have identified ourselves as “the same,” we have already set ourselves in differential relation to “others.” No tradition has known itself as religious or salvific in the absence of a relation to other traditions claiming the same. In other words, the self-consciousness of each of the world’s religious traditions never could have emerged but as a consciousness of otherness. Moving from the historical to the metaphysical register, we can say that differentiation begets identity even as identification begets difference. This seems to be a logical contradiction, when it fact it is the principle of life (or incarnation) itself. The concepts—self/identity and other/difference—are conditioned by one another and so exist relatively. Only the relation is absolute. “Religion” is that which relates, or binds together, this with that, me with you, time with eternity, secular with religious, human with divinity. Religion may appear to us through the expressions and experiences of many religions, but underlying all of them is a universal love for and convergence upon the unspeakable oneness of Spirit (unspeakable because always arising anew, eternally born within and between us).

The need for dialogue on dialogue is now more urgent than ever, since our species’ ability to communicate compassionately across borders is already determining the sorts of worlds being brought forth by an increasingly planetary civilization. Unfortunately, the most powerful form of transnational communication taking place today is governed by the purely economic norms of corporations. The earth and its human and non-human populations are being exploited by these amoral entities. They operate under norms with no system of evaluation but that selected by “the invisible hand” according to the laws of supply and demand. “The strongest will survive, and the species will progress”: so goes the market mantra. Transitioning into a just, peaceful, and ecologically resilient planetary civilization will require that our governing ethos shift away from that of monetarily-motivated corporate entities toward institutions not concerned solely with their own profit. Power must be transferred to institutions concerned for the welfare of all sentient beings.

For the last three or four centuries, the political influence of the world’s religions has waned, but the secular nation-states that have risen to replace them in the hopes of mediating their discord have proven unable to prevent violence. In fact, nations continue to wage war upon one another, always under the pretext of self-defense. It seems that the capitalist logic to which the nation-state is subject inevitably generates economic pressure that leads them to militarily secure and/or expand their industrial markets. One of the underlying assumptions of interreligious dialogue generally seems to be that, in the wake of this failure of the modern secular state, the religious traditions of the world must be among the institutions called upon to reclaim a more enlightened version of their former power and responsibility for directing the course of world history. What is needed is not a return to feudalism and monarchy, nor a re-absorption in “dogmatism, fanaticism, and sectarianism” (MMR, p. 16), but a more integral way of politically mobilizing the world’s great wisdom traditions as a counterweight to the market religion that has come to dominate the planet.

Traditional religion, as it had been known by civilizations yet to planetize, is being re-invented within the crucible of the global encounter of the religions (including secularism). As Haridas Chaudhuri put it, religion is “the undying substance of the spirit of man” that, if it is “destined to play a vital role in the advancement of civilization,” must today “be reborn out of its own ashes” (MMR, p.  15). In the hopes of furthering this rebirth in some small way, the remainder of my intrareligious “confession” will circle around just two traditions, those most responsible for the ongoing formation of my soul: Mahayana Buddhism and Esoteric Christianity. The wisdom of these traditions will be approached in light of the poetic insights of William Blake and John Keats, both of whom sought a new experiential revelation of Spirit at the personal level.

It is not only the various religious institutions that must renew themselves; each person’s consciousness of the religious must also be transformed before Spirit can adequately guide human civilization into the next century. The planetary is personal, since the planet can only be redeemed through the love of person for person. We must each continue to speak compassionately from within in search of the One who binds us all together:

When the two will be made one, both the inside and the outside, the outside and the inside, the superior and the inferior…then you will enter [into ‘The Kingdom’], (Gospel of Thomas, quoted in IRD, p. xix).

Soul-making with Christ and Buddha

Rather than attempt to sum up what are in and of themselves vast and diverse traditions with their own inner tensions and controversies, or deal with the intractable question of who should speak for either, I will take is as a matter of course that Buddha and Christ exist as spiritual beings who are potentially in communication with human consciousness independently of any specific institutions or canonized texts. Though I will still draw from the scripture and practice built up around them, I do so with the assumption that each being is eternally present on the imaginal plane of consciousness and so irreducible to (though not separable from) culture and history. This is a religious realism that stands in contrast to both relativism and exclusivism, since it takes seriously the reality of multiple more-than-human Teachers whose supersensible love and wisdom enters into the world through the power of Imagination. The respective teachings of Buddha and Christ will be brought into dialogue within my own consciousness to exemplify the activity of “intrareligious soul-making,” an activity growing increasingly relevant to the current generation of planetary citizens. A person is not a “conscious atom,” but “a knot in a net of relationships,” and so though what I have to say is peculiar to my own process, I say it in expectation of the resonance and dissonance that it will provoke in others. This internal dialogue is but an opening gesture humbly offered in service to the ongoing struggle for a more humane planetary mythos.

“Soul-making” is a “system of salvation” and “spirit creation” first articulated by Keats in a letter to his brother and sister-in-law in May of 1819. Keats was after a form of spiritual wisdom that did not “affront our reason and humanity,” and that would reframe many of the problems besetting traditional Christianity. “Intrareligious dialogue” has been defined by Raimon Panikkar as a “quest for salvific truth” that “takes place in the core of our being” as “an authentic prayer open in all directions” that is “no longer concerned with mere formulations of our own tradition or of other people” (IRD, p. xvii). This essay is my experiment in soul-making, which Keats defined as a search for the “proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming the Soul.” It could also be called an inward opening, or intrareligious prayer, to Buddha and Christ. I beckon these beings, asking them to reveal, if they will, “the whole human world and also the entire reality” as it is reflected within the microcosm of my soul (ibid., xviii).

Though Keats had but little conscious knowledge of the Buddha, the development of his system of soul-making was motivated by realizations nearly identical to the First and Second Noble Truths, that life is suffering caused by attachment to a transient world.

“Circumstances are like clouds continually gathering and bursting,” writes Keats,

…while we are laughing the seed of some trouble is put into the wide arable land of events—while we are laughing it sprouts [and] grows and suddenly bears a poison fruit which we must pluck…This is the world—thus we cannot expect to give way many hours to pleasure.

The world, or perhaps the soul’s relation to the world, has gone astray. It is this condition and circumstance from which all salvific religion emerges. It was only once I had awakened to the truths of suffering and impermanence—to the waywardness of the human world—that my spiritual path began. As Christ has said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Only upon recognizing and accepting my own fallen state can I hope to hear the saving Word within a receptive heart. Otherwise, without the inner silence brought by such recognition, my mind wanders endlessly, grasping at one temporary pleasure after the next, never finding in them the Love I so desperately seek. No matter the worldly progress I may make by achieving money and fame, it inevitably leaves me unhappy and wanting more, since, as Keats writes, I am “mortal and there is still a heaven with its stars above [my] head.” Unless I find Love, upon death I “would leave this world as Eve left Paradise”: sinful and with regret. Such a world remains fallen, what Keats called “a vale of tears.”

The Buddha’s Third Noble Truth suggests that there is a cure for the suffering of this world, and that it may be attained, if not in this life, then in one of the many lives to come. Rather than temporally relieving pain with pleasure, Buddha uproots it entirely, offering a way out of the cycle of samsara through the gradual elimination of karma. Christianity’s way of salvation is often contrasted with Buddha’s, since the former’s focuses on the overwhelming importance of this life as our one chance to prepare for death, after which we may be “redeemed,” writes Keats, “by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven.” Keats finds this a doctrine too “little” and “circumscribed” to be believable. But the larger possibilities of reincarnation are not entirely foreign to Christian theology. One of the first Christian theologians, Origen, articulated a doctrine of metempsychosis in the 2nd century based on the fallen soul’s need of passing through successive stages before returning to God. Rudolf Steiner, a 20th century seer, suggested that, without accommodating itself to the truths of reincarnation and evolution, Christianity would remain too narrowly focused on the salvation of the ego or private personality, rather than the whole cosmic community to which the individual is karmically tied (CMF).

“If we observe the various phases of karmic chain-reaction [or evolutionary reincarnation],” writes Tibetan Lama Anagarika Govinda,

…we become conscious of a supra-individual karmic interrelatedness, comprising nations, races, civilizations, humanity, planets, solar systems and finally the whole universe” (FTM, p. 219).

If I contemplate the life and teaching of Christ, it becomes apparent to me that the meaning of the resurrection is already suggestive of reincarnation, or our ability to be “born again.” If I die to myself, to the reactivity of my physical body and pleasure-seeking soul, I am born again free of sin, like Christ, “not of the water, but of the spirit” (Luke 3:16). This rebirth is my reincarnation, my second chance at life, through participation in the eternally resurrecting Body of Christ. The earth and the cosmos are within this Body, and only dying for the sake of its Life awakens consciousness to his invisible Soul. The meaning of the historical arc of Christian redemption becomes all the more clear when each particular soul is understood to participate in a multi-generational work of uniting itself with the World-Soul and the visible universe it animates. God cannot force change upon the world from outside time and space, since God’s omnipotence is not other than God’s Love, which works only from within the world through the power of animation and the magic of soul (i.e., Imagination). As the particular soul seeks identity with the universal anew in every age, Spirit incarnates more fully into history. Gradually, karma is undone and sin forgiven, since life after life the Love of God for the world becomes more present between persons.

Gautama and Jesus were enlightened human beings whose bodies nonetheless bled upon the cross of time and space, there dying to finitude in order to more fully realize the infinite. “Do you not see,” asks Keats, “how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school a [divine] Intelligence and make it a Soul?” Without living and dying upon the earth, these beings could not fully grasp the nature of the eternal realm from which they came. Even divinity has something to learn from the condition of suffering. But rather than dissolving into the bliss of nirvana or remaining with the Father in heaven after their earthly deaths, they returned as bodhisattvas, vowing to remain in connection with the earth until the sin and suffering of all sentient beings is alleviated.

What form have they taken in their return? It does not seem to be physical or sensible, as then surely more would recognize their presence among us. Rather, these beings have taken up residence within the human soul, there acting as friends and advocates along our path through the school of the world toward spiritual happiness. The supersensible, rather than plainly visible presence of Buddha and Christ accounts for why the current state of human discussion concerning their reality tends to circle endlessly around the relative merits of belief or disbelief. While the secularization thesis (that modernization would inevitably lead to reduced religiosity) has failed, leaving the world more religious today than ever before, in general, the return to religion has tended to construe spiritual claims as merely notional, available for conceptual assent or not depending on one’s psychological disposition or moral inclination. Therefore, while religion can offer justifiable ethical standards, the ontology of Spirit has been bracketed, since no empirical proof has yet been made available that might scientifically verify its reality. For religion to meet both the practical and theoretical needs of a planetary civilization, it must respect the validity of the scientific picture while at the same time pointing out the limited scope of its empirical method. Religion cannot only be critical of science, however; it must also develop its own techniques of transformation to bring the soul into relation to supersensible spiritual realities. Soul-making is an example of such a technique, and can be the catalyst of a new consciousness of religion.

Empiricism has honed only one of the soul’s powers, namely, sensory perception, and due to its great practical successes in technologically extending the reach of sensation, science has tended to ignore the soul’s other capacities. The soul is dynamic, always in motion between its active (poeisis) and passive (paschein) poles. In its sensory mode, the soul passively suffers the world; in its thinking mode, the soul actively creates the world. The reality of Spirit must be considered in the context of this polarization in the life of the soul. A soul whose productive half remained dormant could not experience Christ or Buddha, since these beings are not simply waiting in the outer world for us to perceive. Nor could a soul released from its passionate attunement to the outer world experience their being, since then they would be but figments of inner fantasy evaporating as soon as the fervency of our belief grew tired. The reality of Spirit cannot be known through sensation or conception alone, but must be participated, or enacted, by the organ of Imagination. Imagination unites passivity and activity, perceiving and thinking, and is cultivated by the mutual work of heart and mind one upon the other.

“I am certain of nothing,” writes Keats,

but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination—What the Imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not… The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream—he awoke and found it truth (from a letter to Benjamin Bailey on November 22, 1817).

Science, of course, also draws from both ends of the soul’s polarization, being as much a logical as an empirical method. It is primarily a tool of the mind used to read the book of nature, but its emphasis on empirical data alone prevents it from hearing the divine Word spoken in the heart. The role of religion is to remind humanity that the eye of the mind is in need of the heart’s ear, lest we forget our real desire and true identity.

Who is the soul, what does it desire, and why? These are the questions besetting each individual person, and it is through our unique participation in the imaginative process of soul-making that they are answered. Regarding the issue of identity, Buddha taught some of his students the doctrine of anātman (no-self), while to others he granted the reality of the ātman (whose true identity is Bráhman) (GH, p. 81). This is no contradiction, but rather the result of Buddha’s upāya, or skillful means. His teachings are never final, but offered provisionally as helpful aids tailored to the students that he happens to be speaking with in any given moment. Perhaps in the Buddhist context, the soul is best conceived of as a principle, rather than an entity. According to D. T. Suzuki, the soul is tṛṣṇā, the principle of thirst, or desire. In this sense, the soul does not have desires, but in fact is desire (the polarity of the soul discussed above is here preserved, since as desire it is both an active seeking and a passive suffering). Suzuki also suggests that tṛṣṇā is the creator, not just of the individual soul, but also of the material universe itself. We are the microcosmic reflections of its macrocosmic extent.

“As its highest and richest expression,” he writes,

[the human being] can have an insight into the nature of tṛṣṇā and its working. When we really see into ourselves, tṛṣṇā will bare itself before itself in us…Tṛṣṇā lies in us not as one of the factors constituting our consciousness, but it is our being itself. It is I; it is you; it is the cat; it is the tree; it is the rock; it is the snow; it is the atom” (MCB, p. 107-108).

As was held by Christian scholastics, Suzuki is describing how, from a Buddhist perspective, “the soul is, in a way, all things” (Anima quodammodo omnia). In our literalistic age, the soul is looked for in the body, as if in the heart, the lungs, or the pineal gland. For a pre-modern seer like Aquinas, it is rather the body that is in the soul. As tṛṣṇā, the soul creates and gives form to the physical organism, which is “the coagulated, crystallized, or materialized consciousness of the past” (FTM, p. 68). The organism is the product of billions of years of accumulated desire, the materialized memory of past mental activity. In other words, even the body does not escape the process of soul-making. “Man can never be large enough to possess his psychic organs,” writes psychologist James Hillman, “He can but reflect their activities” (RP, p. 173).

Soul-making is an attempt to become more conscious of how our desires shape us, in body and in mind. Both Buddha and Christ teach that the desire that made the universe can, in the awakened, anointed human soul, become a Love that glorifies and redeems all things.

Trinity and Trikaya

When the teachings of Christ first encountered Greek culture, the Biblical account of the creation of the universe through the power of divine speech was understood to be akin to the role of the philosophical concept of Logos, or cosmic intelligence. The incarnation of Christ meant a radical change had occurred in the nature of the world and the human being. For the Greek convert to Christianity, the meaning of the incarnation is that, as John’s Gospel puts it, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). No longer simply a philosophical concept, Logos became a living human person made of flesh and blood. Logos, understood macrocosmically, entered fully into the microcosm.

A deeper understanding of the 2nd person, and of the Trinity generally, may be garnered from considering them in relation to the Buddhist Trikaya. My reading of the similarities between the Trinity and Trikaya is predominantly an imaginative exercise or experiment, not a textual exegesis of Buddhist or Christian sources (though these will be consulted). I do not mean to equate the two concepts, but to consider them as unique attempts to articulate the differentiated unity of ultimate reality. I’ll begin this exercise by describing the Trinity and Trikaya each in turn, before moving on to draw out their similarities.

For the Christian, ultimate reality is conceived of as a loving communion between Father, Son, and Spirit. God, though of one substance, is nonetheless three persons, since otherwise, there would be no differentiation in the Godhead, and therefore no possibility of love or relationship. The Father is traditionally described as unknowable and infinitely transcendent (GH, p. 152). The First Letter to Timothy says of the Father that “…no one has ever seen or ever can see him” (6:16). The Son is the image of the Father, the transcendent made immanent by being given concrete form. The Son issues forth eternally from the Father, which is why Jesus says “I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself commanded me what to say and how to speak” (John 12:49). The Son could be described as a doorway, or gate, leading to the Father (GH, p. 105). The Spirit is the advocate who proceeds from the Father and the Son, and who remains on earth after Christ’s resurrection to council humanity concerning the power of Love. The Spirit has also been identified with the personal spirit or breath of Jesus that inhabited his disciples (GH, p. 154).

For the Buddhist (of the Tibetan lineage), ultimate reality is conceived of as infinite spaciousness, though not a spaciousness that is opposed to form. As the Heart Sutra says:

…emptiness [or spaciousness] is form; form is emptiness. Apart from form, emptiness is not; apart from emptiness, form is not. Emptiness is that which is form, form is that which is emptiness.

This spaciousness that is not other than form is called the body of truth, or the Dharmakaya. It is the primordial law and cause of all things (FTM, p. 213). The Dharmakaya, when envisioned and expressed in its mode of creative formation, is called the Sambhogakaya. This is the body of enjoyment and bliss. “From it,” according to Lama Govinda, “flows all deep wisdom and profound truth” (FTM, p. 214). The Sambhogakaya might be conceived of as akin to the Imagination discussed above, the organ of soul-making that unites the spiritual and the sensible through the wisdom and compassion of the heart-mind. When the inspired bliss of the Sambhogakaya is transformed into visible activity by incarnating into human form, it is called the Nirmanakaya, or emanation body (FTM, p. 213). In Tibetan, Nirmanakaya is translated as “tulku,” which refers to a reincarnate lama (GH, p. 190) who has re-entered the physical plane not on accident, but consciously. The Nirmanakaya, then, is a consciously created body (FTM, p. 221). Lama Govinda suggests that only through the Nirmanakaya, as seen from within the world of physical embodiment, can the other two bodies be experienced and realized (FTM, p. 222):

Only in the Nirmanakaya can we realize the Dharmakaya effectively, by converting it into an ever-present conscious force, into an incandescent, all consuming focus of experience, in which all elements of our personality are purified and integrated. This is the transfiguration of body and mind…achieved only by the greatest of saints (ibid.).

The parallels between the Trinity and the Trikaya may already have become apparent, but I will attempt to make them more explicit. It must be acknowledged that there is no perfect one-to-one correspondance between the three bodies and the three persons, but rather a rich ambiguity testifying to the deeply evocative meaning inherent in each doctrine.

Thupten Jinpa links the Dharmakaya with the Father, the Sambhogakaya with the Spirit, and the Nirmanakaya with the Son (GH, p. 189). In this scheme, the Dharmakaya and the Father are both recognized as the inexpressible mystery from which all things freely arise. They are the Truth and the Law underlying the manifest cosmos. The Sambhogakaya and the Spirit are recognized as the love, wisdom, and enjoyment of being that pervade the world at a level subtler than the physical dimension. The Dalai Lama describes how, after Gautama Buddha’s parinirvana, though his physical body decayed and disappeared, his Sambhogakaya, or “state of perfect resourcefulness,” continued and remains ever-present (GH, p. 119). Those still devoted to the Buddha’s teaching benefit by relating to this subtler form of his being. This is very close to the message of John’s Gospel, where Christ says that, after his ascension, the Spirit will be sent to remind the faithful of his message and to aid them in its practice (14:25). Finally, the Nirmanakaya and the Son are recognzied in Jinpa’s scheme as emanations or physical embodiments of subtler forces that have been “stepped down” so as to benefit the temperament of ordinary mortals like ourselves. Were it not for the historical emanation of Gautama Buddha, or the incarnation of Jesus Christ, normal human beings could never have accessed their divine teachings.

Another reading is possible. Relating the Dharmakaya to the Father is unproblematic, but Son and Spirit may also be fruitfully understood as parallels to Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya, respectively. The relation between the Sambhogakaya, understood to be the organ of Imagination (as discussed above), and the Son becomes clearer in light of William Blake’s oft repeated insight, that “Jesus is the Imagination.”

Jesus is the Imagination, the creative power at the core of man’s being. All things are comprehended in their Eternal Forms in the divine body of the Savior, the true vine of eternity, the Human Imagination” (BD, p. 159).

If, as Lama Govinda suggests, the Sambhogakaya is the body that provides an exalted vision of higer forms and ideas (FTM, p. 214), perhaps Christ is not (only) a historical emanation, but an eternally born, universal potency lying dormant in the human soul. Through the processes of interplay between heart, mind, and world at work in soul-making, Christ may be resurrected within each of us as an organ of Imagination, thereby granting us participation in eternal Love and bliss. On this reading, Christ is not (or at least not only) an individual who lived and died in Jerusalem during the first century CE (as in Jinpa’s scheme, where He is equated with the Nirmanakaya), but an ever-flowing creative presence available to those whose heart-mind’s are adequately prepared to witness Him.

The Nirmanakaya, then, can be related to the Spirit, or that which is awakened in the individual human being to the imaginal presence of the Son. As Blake put it, the Spirit is “the intellectual fountain proceeding from Jesus to man” (BD, p. 158). It would be impossible to remain a Christian while denying that Jesus Christ was both fully human and fully divine, and that he indeed walked the earth as a man in 1st century Jerusalem. That Christ is currently present to  consciousness on the imaginal, rather than the physical plane, does not mean he wasn’t once physically incarnate. His birth, death, and resurrection as a physical being prepared the human vessel for Spirit to enter into and be realized by our consciousness. The ambiguity between the Son and the Spirit, or the Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya, is a reflection of the permeability of the physical plane to the supersensible influence of the Imagination. According to Steiner, this permeability is a result of the spiritual transformation of the very substance of the earth brought about by the Christ event (CMF).

Conclusion: Soul and Spirit

“As various as the Lives of Men are,” writes Keats, “so various become their Souls, and thus does God make individual beings, Souls, identical Souls of the Sparks of his own essence.” If religion is to return to play a fruitful role in our post-secular context, it must re-envision itself so that it might speak to the needs of modern people. Nearly a hundred years of depth psychology have made it increasingly difficult to deny the inherently polytheistic tendencies of the soul. According to Hillman, for whom psychology was akin to soul-making, “The soul’s inherent multiplicity demands a theological fantasy of equal differentiation” (RP, p. 167). Each of us is uniquely shaped by our respective traditions, which is not to deny that all of us are also universally drawn toward Spirit. Spirit is such that, as soon as it is named, it becomes multiple. Christ and Buddha are the voices most easily heard by my soul, but it is through a devotion to their teachings of love and kindness that I become capable of hearing the voices of other traditions. There is no more important challenge, and perhaps none more difficult, than this openness to the wisdom of others.

The “New Age” approach taken in this essay could be criticized as leading to a “religion of the supermarket” (DRB, p. 44), wherein an uprooted individual borrows various elements from the world’s wisdom traditions in order to construct a spiritual orientation most comfortable to their personal inclinations. There is indeed a danger of superficiality in such practices, but the growing interpenetration of traditions in our new planetary context has also created new possibilities for soul-making.

As Chaudhuri has written,

…modern man is uniquely privileged to draw upon the manifold richness of world culture. He can select according to the needs and requirements of his growing soul. The selected material, however diverse in form, can be transformed into the harmony of balanced self-development by the creative spark within him, by his authentic self, which shines most in free communication with the boundless universe (MMR, p. 74).

The world becomes a vale of soul-making when earth is no longer radically separated, due to our sin (or clouded perception), from heaven, nor soul (or desire) separated from Love (or Spirit). Instead, an economy can be opened between the Above and the Below, such that creative divinity participates directly in the life of the soul, and, eventually, in the shaping of the body igniting it.

Works Cited

 MMR = Chaudhuri, Haridas. Modern Man’s Religion. 1966. J. F. Rowny Press: Santa Barbara, CA.

DRB = Cornille, Catherine. “Double Religious Belonging: Aspects and Questions.” Buddhist-Christian Studies, vol. 23. 2003. University of Hawaii Press.

BD = Damon, Samuel Foster. Eaves, Morris. A Blake Dictionary: The ideas and symbols of William Blake. 1988. University Press of New England: Hanover, NH.

FTM = Govinda, Lama Anagarika. Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism. 1959. Rider & Company: London, UK.

RP = Hillman, James. Revisioning Psychology. 1977. Harper: New York, NY.

GH = Kiely, Robert. The Good Heart: A Buddhist perspective on the teachings of Jesus. 1998. Wisdom Publications: Somerville, MA.

IRD = Panikkar, Raimon. The Intrareligious Dialogue. 1998. Paulist Press: New York, NY.

CMF = Steiner, Rudolf. Christianity as Mystical Fact. 1997. Anthroposophic Press: Hudson, NY.

MCB = Suzuki, D. T. Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist. 2002. Routledge: New York, NY.

Excerpts of John Keats are from the letter dated Feb 19th, 1819 to George and Georgiana Keats (unless otherwise noted by in text citation).

I am Time

I am Time

Time is unwinding

through its eternal hour

and life is heading always

toward the grave.

The sun is being born

and dying

every day

as the earth

rolls across the sky.

Toward the Origin

all creation flows,

though once upon a time,

the destiny of this world

was written with words.

History:

the dreadful deeds

of speaking animals

become fallen angels,

the confession of earthly prisoners,

their struggle

to be set free

from certainty,

from Fate.

The human being will fly

when with wings of light

it takes the leap into darkness,

dying into its depths.

There, at the still center of a eye-less world,

the soul catches wind of heaven

and begins to rise.

Through the wisdom of love

death is unmasked

as the bleeding heart of God.

In paradise, now twice,

the sun sets into night

revealing astral signs

of years far greater

than its height.

Here, I find my destiny,

who takes me for a fool.

She does not test me,

but trusts in my simplicity.

I judge not evil

the world that birthed me,

but good,

for my soul returns

to her same

secret womb

when my last breath

unbinds me

and in my body

only room remains.

The course of my earthly life

is guided ahead of time

by eyes divine and wiser

shouting silent words

from eternity

at my deaf reveries.

I live life

chasing the scents

of muses;

possessed by the songs

of sirens;

enamored with the endless tales

of Time.

These are the moods

of my soul’s relation

to the world’s.

Together, the world-soul,

you and I,

imagine eternity.

Time is a temple,

enter,

pray,

let its spirit

undo you.

Die.

Where have you gone?

Where had you come from?

Time tells its secrets to no one.

Time is one,

and though without a name,

time still speaks in me.

I am time.

You are time.

We are the world-soul,

a moving image

made eternally.

Buddhist and Christian Soul-Making

So far as I know, John Keats coined the phrase “soul-making” in a letter to his brother and sister in May of 1819.
He writes:

“…suppose a rose to have sensation. It blooms on a beautiful morning. It enjoys itself–but there comes a cold wind, a hot sun–it cannot escape it, it cannot destroy its annoyances. They are as native to the world as itself: no more can man be happy in spite, the worldly elements will prey upon his nature.

The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is ‘a vale of tears’ from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven. What a little circumscribed straightened notion! Call the world if you Please ‘The vale of Soul-making.’ Then you will find out the use of the world. (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it): I say ‘Soul making.’ Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence…There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions–but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. Intelligences are atoms of perception–they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God. How then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them so as forever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one’s individual existence? I–low, but by the medium of a world like this? This point I sincerely wish to consider because I think it a grander system of salvation than the Christian religion–or rather it is a system of Spirit-creation. This is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years. These three Materials are the Intelligence, the human Heart (as distinguished from intelligence or Mind), and the World or Elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming the Soul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity.”

Keats offers his scheme of salvation as an alternative to the Christian religion, which he says later in the same letter has disenchanted and depersonalized the world because of its obsessive monotheism. Without an “elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other,” the Intelligence is unable to mature into Individuality. The Soul remains a potentiality unable, through the schooling of a living universe, to self-actualize.

I’m interested in the spiritual fruits that may mature by bringing Keats’ scheme into conversation with Mahayana Buddhism and Esoteric Christianity. For the Buddha, selfhood was an illusion to be dissolved. Ego is not only a source of suffering, but its cause, since only such a false sense of identity allows one’s inherent Buddha-nature to become deformed by grasping after the fleeting images arising and perishing in the round of samsara. Samsara, for Keats, is the vale of tears. Nirvana is realized when our true identity, dependently co-arising with all that is and is-not, replaces the false identity of the ego.

The teachings of Christ suggest that within each of us dwells an innocence akin to Adam’s prior to the Fall. Through love of our neighbor, the world, and God, each of us may be born again, “not of the water, but of the Spirit.” Then, “not I, but the Christ in me” lives eternally within the heart of the Creator. The world becomes a vale of soul-making when Earth is no longer radically separated, due to our sin (or clouded perception), from Heaven. Instead, an economy is opened between the Above and the Below, such that creative divinity participates even in the shaping of the dust from which our bodies emerge and return. Each becomes, like Christ, a Son or Daughter of God. The Soul gains an identity by making itself particular, learning from the trials of the World aided by the universal Intelligence aflame within it. Soul-making is no less a task for humanity than incarnation is for divinity. To become who we really are: perhaps in this mission both Buddha and Christ are our partners.

I’ll be exploring some of these ideas further in an essay to be posted soon!

Meister Eckhart, Philosophy, and Soul-Making

The following is an essay written for a weekend course taught by philosopher Jacob Needleman on Meister Eckhart the 26th and 27th of February 2011.

————————–

Meister Eckhart, Philosophy, and the Soul

By Matthew Segall

And there shall be for thee all soft delight

That shadowy thought can win,

A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,

To let the warm Love in!

Ode to Psyche by John Keats

When Love said that word, my soul mellted and flowed away. Where he comes in, I must go out!

-Meister Eckhart summarizing the Song of Solomon (5:2-7)

“When thought races ahead of Being,” writes philosopher Jacob Needleman, “a civilization is racing toward destruction” (WIG, p. 19). It takes a genuine philosopher to voice such a prescient insight, a being rare among mortals who for better or worse has awakened to his or her participation in the ancient current of world-historical becoming. Practicing philosophy requires more than contemplation, and more than learning. It is also an art: that of thinking (noiesis) and speaking (poeisis) the truth of Being.

To philosophize, one must first have tasted the stillness of eternity abiding within the soul, a treasure hidden deep beneath the ephemeral garments of space and time. The philosopher has felt the breath of God upon her ears and, upon hearing its wisdom, is overcome with love and possessed by the duty to convey its meaning to others. Nevertheless, despite all brushes with divinity, the philosopher remains adrift in an inherited stream of collective unconsciousness, a mortal destined to die like any other.

Philosophers are responsible for shaping the further course of earth evolution by informing and reminding Human Being of Divine and Cosmic Being. The life of the philosopher, at least traditionally, has been guided by the love of wisdom, even unto death. Unfortunately, these days universities employ more scholars of philosophy than philosophers. But no matter: wisdom always finds a way to be heard.

The short essay to follow will record my philosophical participation in what John Keats called “soul-making.” This, according to Keats, is the lost-sight-of purpose of the world, the reason for the body’s trials in time and sufferings in space. Spirit needs a home, but cannot dwell in matter alone. It is the poetic soul who prepares its abode. Both a sincere love for the True, the Beautiful, and the Good, and the sermons of the medieval sage Meister Eckhart, will guide me along the textual path to follow.

The crisis of our civilization is bigger than politics or ecology, more deep-seated than a new policy initiative or technological invention could hope to overcome. Any sufficiently sensitive soul must already have confronted the existential void at the heart of our techno-industrial civilization’s demented cosmology. As a sensitive soul and an aspiring philosopher, I’m compelled to pursue solutions to our collective situation not by offering new ideas or forms of thought, but by provoking new modes of consciousness.

Before I can begin to think and feel with Eckhart, a few distinctions must be drawn: 1) that between ideas about reality and real wisdom, and 2) that between the mind and the soul.

1) The mind is interested in the active manipulation and production of worldly things and ideas, while 2) the soul is called to the timeless task of becoming inwardly silent—without thinking or acting or entertaining any idea (ME, p. 96).  This silence, according to Eckhart, is not an end in itself, but is done in preparation for the birth of the Word of God within us, which is but another name for wisdom. In short, the mind thinks about reality, employing a multitude of ideas to mediate its encounter, while the soul patiently labors to beget the Real within itself.

The philosopher Owen Barfield once echoed Needleman’s warning for our civilization: “We are no longer capable of thinking deeply, because we think too quickly” (WA, p. 67). What is needed is a participatory and heart-centered, rather than an alienated and skeptical way of engaging the unknown depths of Being. The philosopher cannot hold the mystery of life at theoretical distance, but must approach questions concerning the essence of existence with the quality of gentle intimacy that Keats called “Negative Capability”: dwelling in uncertainty without rushing to cover over its ambiguities. Contemplation of God is the soul’s source of meaning, and while definite answers about the Ultimate may remain forever elusive, it is the act of asking—of opening oneself to the procreativity of Godthat may produce the desired transformation.

“Since the soul itself does not know, it wonders” says Eckhart, “and, wondering, it seeks, for the soul knows very well that something is afoot, even though it does not know how or what” (ME, p. 100).

Though it cannot see what it seeks, since vision always reaches out beyond it to external things, the soul retains “the power to hear the eternal word within” (ME, p. 108). The eye is the organ of the searching mind, while the ear is the agent of the loving heart.

Perhaps Eckhart’s most important teaching concerns the difference between the passivity of the ear and the activity of the eye. Though the soul is largely ignorant of what it nonetheless is intrinsically compelled to seek, such “divine unconsciousness” pacifies the soul of its pretensions, quieting all its faculties so that I may “discover the birth of God’s Son” within myself (ME, p. 107-108). The human soul’s passivity “is the chief of [its] actions,” while God “should both be active and passive in order that he may know and love himself in the soul, and the soul may know as he knows and love as he loves” (.ibid). Though “no one has ever seen God” (John 1:18), the ears of an open-hearted soul make room for God’s Word to transform all the agents of the soul, so that “the eye with which God sees me” becomes “the same with which I see God” (Sermon IV). Creature and creator here unite in “one sight, one knowledge, and one life.”

Eckhart was deemed a heretic by a Franciscan-led inquisition, mostly because of the near identity he believed could come to exist between the human soul and God. As we have seen, he taught a path of inner stillness, so that, with the restless activity of the desiring soul quieted, God might speak his silent Word to a receptive heart. The utterance of this Word within our soul is a divine and eternal birth, “which occurred at one point in time, and which occurs everyday in the innermost recess of the soul—a recess to which there is no avenue of approach” (ME, p. 109).

There is no avenue of approach–no point of access, in other words—even to our own innermost nature. Eckhart’s doctrine of the soul is difficult—nay, impossible!to grasp. We cannot gain access to the Word who is perpetually being born within us, because we are Him already in eternity. The difference between will and grace, between works and salvation, is here resolved. There is nothing to be done about Christ, because there is no time to do it. The Spirit is present when I am it, and absent when I’m not. Heaven requires no work, but nor is it bestowed by grace from beyond. Every human being already takes part in the immortal life as a being existing by virtue of Being, if only he might remember.

Socrates once said that philosophy is learning to die. Eckhart’s way of soul-making is to overcome death with love: “Death separates the soul from the body but love separates everything from the soul. It cannot endure anything anywhere that is not God or God’s” (ME, p. 124). Eckhart points us to the core of our soul, where God takes on the burdens and beauties of human nature so long as we are able to die to our personal selves for the love of others, whether foreign or familiar (ME, p. 126). Death is crucifixion upon the axes of space and time, but heaven is touched by neither: “The course of heaven is outside time—and yet time comes from its movements” (ME, p. 131).

What sort of teaching is it that demands we “be dead to everything” (ME, p. 132) to participate in divinity? Eckhart is not interested in knowledge about God generated by ideas in the mind; he seeks the wisdom of God granted only through transformation of soul. Curiosity concerning the creaturely things of time and space leads in many interesting directions, but it cannot lead to the Love and Wisdom of God, since to these there is no approach or access. An inward rebirth is necessary before the “secret spring” of the soul can give birth to Christ, the Word of God (ME, p. 127). This change is produced by the death of the ego to all things of this world, so as to love them each with disinterested equality. God is in all things, but the body-bound mind does not see the Spirit dwelling in the world because it cannot hear the voice of the Son amidst the noise of its many desires (ME, p. 131).

This teaching is harder than hell, but God sends messengers to aid us along the impossible path. Angels are the ideas of God, and born in our mind they bear the message of his coming. Part of their divine message is the identity of being and knowing, which for thousands of years has been the founding principle of the philosophical pursuit. But, as Eckhart reminds us, God’s being is transcendent, and so cannot be known by any mental faculty. The soul that, with the help of angelic persuasion, has discovered a likeness to God in the primal purity of its core, “where everything that can be named is sloughed off,” comes to the only knowledge of the divine that is possible: that by way of identification (ME, p. 142).

Eckhart reminds us of the teaching of the Scriptures, which points to three factors preventing a person from knowing anything about God: time, materiality, and multiplicity (ME, p. 151). Of course, learning to remember our likeness to God may still take time, as when fire tries to burn wood, the wood must be progressively warmed to the point of smoking and crackling before giving up entirely to the fire, since the two are at first so dissimilar (ME, p. 152). The materiality of language, both spoken and written, may also be an aid along the way to inner transformation. Just as the Word took on flesh to commune with humanity more intimately, thoughts must be uttered and recorded in the idiom of the day so as to convey the way of God to a soul whose agents are initially turned toward the world. The Word must first meet humankind in the world if it wishes to lead us toward heaven.

The soul is more a potential than a given perfection. Its magic must be made, its sacred soil cultivated by good will and faith in the beauty of truth before its divine destiny can flower. “Soul-making” is nothing less than the task of birthing God on earth, one individual at a time. Eckhart’s insights are an invaluable source of guidance for those on the path of transformation. He is a true metaphysician, offering healing prescriptions for those seeking that which lies beyond. And yet, he also points us to what is already at hand: “God is nearer to me than I am to myself” (ME, p. 129).

Bibliography

1) Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation translated by Raymond B. Blakney (1941)

2) What Is God by Jacob Needleman (2009)

3) Worlds Apart by Owen Barfield (2010)

James Hillman on the folly of reducing mind to brain.

From The Soul’s Code by James Hillman, p. 150-154:

The upshot of genetic studies leads in two (!) directions: a narrow path and a broad one. The narrow road heads toward simplistic, monogenic causes. It wants to pinpoint bits of tissue and correlate them with the vast complexity of psychic meanings. The folly of reducing mind to brain never seems to leave the Western scene. We can never give it up because it is so basic to our Western rationalist and positivist mind-set. The rationalist in the psyche wants to locate causes you can put your hands on and fix.

Machines provide the best models for meeting this desire. Take them apart, find their inner mechanisms, and then adjust their functioning by modifying their ratchets, enriching their fuel, greasing their connections. Henry Ford as father of American mental health. Result: Ritalin, Prozac, Zoloft, and dozens of other effective products for internal adjustments that we consume in abundance, millions of us, daily or twice daily. The simplistics of monogenic causes eventually leads to the control of behavior by drugs–that is, to drugged behavior.

Robert Plomin, on whose passionate, prolific, and perceptive writings this chapter has frequently relied, urgently warns against using genetics in a simplistic manner. He states: “Genetic effects on behavior are polygenic and probabilistic, not single gene and deterministic.” I gather from him a warning to psychiatry: Do not capsize your noble vessel under the weight of pharmaceutical, insurance company, and government gold, and do not set your compass toward Fantasy Island, where genetics will define “disease entities in psychiatry.” “We have learned little about the genetics of development [how genes act and interact over time] except to appreciate its complexity.” Therefore we can never arrive at that equation where one defective gene equals one clinical picture (except for true anomalies like Huntington’s chorea).

These warnings have little effect; simplistic thinking fulfills too many wishes. The heads of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison are carved into the Mount Rushmore of the mind. The monster of mechanism appears in every century of modern Western history and must be watched for by each generation–especially ours, when to hold out for “something else” besides nature or nurture means believing in ghosts or magic.

Ever since French rationalism of the seventeenth (Marin Mersenne, Nicolas de Malebranche) and eighteenth (Etienne de Condillac, Julien Offroy de La Mettrie) centuries and right through to the positivism of the nineteenth (Antoine Destutt de Tracy, Auguste Comte) in which all mental events were reduced to biology, a piece of the collective Western mind had been yolked like a dumb ox to the heavy tumbrel of French mechanistic materialism. It is astounding how people with such subtle taste as the French and with such erotic sensibility can go on and on contributing so much rationalist rigor mortis to psychology. Every import that arrives from France must be inspected for this French disease, even though it carries the fashionable label of Lacanism, Structuralism, Deconstruction, or whatever.

Today rationalism is global, computer-compatible every-where. It is the international style of the mind’s architecture. We cannot pin it to a particular flag, unless to the banners of the multinational corporation that can spend big bucks turning psychiatry, and eventually psychological thinking, and therefore soul control, toward monogenetic monotheism. One gene for one disorder: Splice the gene, teach it tricks, combine it, and the disorder is gone, or at least you don’t know you have it. The narrow path leads back to the thirties and forties of psychiatric history, though in a more refined manner and with better press releases. From 1930 into the 1950s, correlating specific brain areas with large emotional and functional concepts provided the rationale for the violence of psychosurgery and the lobotomizing of many a troubled soul at odds with circumstance.

The narrow path is yet more retro, going back to the skill analysis of Franz Josef Gall (M.D., Vienna, 1795), who settled in Paris and was much appreciated by the French. From him came the “evidence” that skull bumps and declivities could be correlated with psychological faculties (a system later called phrenology). Much as they are today, the faculties were given big names, such as memory, judgment, emotionalism, musical and mathematical talent, criminality, and so on. Refinement in methods over the years does not necessarily lead to progress in theorizing: 1795 or 1995–material location, and then reduction of psyche to location, prompts the enterprise.

The contrary direction to narrowing nature to brain simplistics is expanding nurture to a far more embracing notion of environment. If environment means literally what’s around, it must also mean whatever is around. This because the unconscious psyche selects quite arbitrarily among the stuff encountered every day in the environment. Tiny and trivial bits of information may have huge subliminal psychic effects, as the days’ residues in dreams show. We do dream of the damnedest things! Much of each day is never noticed or recalled, but the psyche picks up the environmental flotsam and delivers it to the dream. The dream–a processing plant recycling the environment, finding soul values in junk. The dream–an artist, appropriating images from the environment for recollection in tranquility.

Because we walk about in fields of psychic realities that influences our lives, we have to broaden the notion of environment in terms of “deep ecology,” the hypothesis that the planet is a living, breathing, and self-regulating organism. Since anything around can nourish our souls by feeding imagination, there is soul stuff out there. So why not admit, as does deep ecology, that the environment itself is ensouled, animated, inextricably meshed with us and not fundamentally separate from us?

The ecological vision restores to environment also the classical idea of providentia–that the world provides for us, looks out for us, even looks after us. It wants us around, too. Predators, tornadoes, and blackflies in June are only pieces of the picture. Just think of all that’s delicious and sweet-smelling. Do birds sing but for each other? This breathable, edible, and pleasant planet, invisibly serviced and maintained, keeps us all by means of its life-support system. Such would be an idea of nurture that is truly nurturing.

“Environment,” then, would be imagined well beyond social and economic conditions, beyond the entire cultural setting, to include every item that takes care of us every day: our tires and coffee cups and door handles and the book you are holding in your hands. It becomes impossible to exclude this bit of environment as irrelevant in favor of that bit as significant, as if we could rank world phenomena in order of importance. Important for whom? Our understanding of importance itself has to change; instead of “important to me,” think of “important to other aspects of the environment.” Does this item nurture what else is around, not merely us who are around? Does it contribute to the intentions of the field of which we are only one short-lived part?

As notions of environment shift, we notice environment differently. It becomes more and more difficult to make a cut between psyche and world, subject and object, in here and out there. I can no longer be sure whether the psyche is in me or whether I am in the psyche as I am in my dreams, as I am in the moods of the landscapes and the city streets, as I am in “music heard so deeply/That it is not heard at all, but you are the music/While the music lasts” (T.S. Eliot). Where does the environment stop and I begin, and can I begin at all without being in some place, deeply involved in, nurtured by the nature of the world?

Divine Imagination

I’ve been having a very stimulating discussion with a Christian theologian named Jason Michael McCann. He has held up a mirror to my ideas and allowed me to see them in a new light. His criticisms are fair and I hope we will each benefit from continued exposure to what may turn out to be radically different readings of the Christian tradition, as well as differing ways of expressing the Christ-impulse at our particular moment in history. I think it is already evident that JMM and I share similar perspectives, but for better or worse, my spiritual speculations and interpretations are unmoored from the venerable doctrines of any particular Creed or Council. I am not very systematic, either, and so to call any of what I do here on this blog “theology” is perhaps misleading. There may be some philosophy here, but I know for a fact there are many analytically-trained philosophers who would dismiss the expressions of my love of wisdom as poetic nonsense. I’m less interested in theo-logic, or any attempt to rationalize or justify a transcendent God, than I am in expressing what Raimon Panikkar has called the “cosmotheandric principle.”

In short, the cosmotheandric principle suggests that no account of reality can be complete unless it recognizes the interdependence of the universe, the divine, and the human. Christianity speaks to me not as a theology, but as an anthropology. This is not because, like Feuerbach, I think God is merely a human projection or ideal. Rather, Christianity is the natural culmination of anthropology, a lotus still sprouting from the murky soil of human civilization. And humanity is similarly the product of a cosmic longing for what Teilhard de Chardin called “personalization.” To continue the Teilhardian terminology: Cosmogenesis is anthropogenesis, and anthropogenesis is Christogenesis. (Incidently, Paul writes in Galatians 6:14 that the world itself was crucified upon the cross, implying that Christ’s Resurrection is also the creation of a new cosmos.)

Perhaps the primary difference thus far uncovered between JMM and I concerns the role of imagination, which is not, for me, unrelated to the nature of the divine-human relationship. I dwell on the spiritual significance of imagination in what follows.

“My imagination is a monastery, and I am its monk,” writes John Keats in a letter to Shelly. Blake went so far as to call imagination “the Divine Body of lord Jesus, blessed for ever.” Blake saw clearly that the old quarrel between Plato and Homer was alive and well: the abstract philosophy of “Newton’s single vision” was in his day “warring in enmity against Imagination.”

Why is imagination so important? Because it constantly challenges the intellect’s attempts to systematize experience. A deadened imagination lead the Pharisees to place the letter of the law before the Spirit (Mark 2:3-28). Not even stone tablets can survive the fiery caldron of imagination that lights the hearts of the faithful. “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6), which is not to say that scripture should not be read and respected. It is just a reminder that the Spirit’s revelations are ongoing, and that the doctrines codified by learned councils must be balanced by the poetic prayers and visions of mystics.

I believe the incarnation of the Word is an ongoing historical event that is re-making the world from the inside out. Human beings are participants in this divine-cosmic drama, and there is no higher form of worship than divine imitation (humble imitation!). Our task is to imaginatively body-forth an earth whose economy runs on love instead of envy and hate. Not closer adherence to law, but a transformation of the human heart-mind is required.