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Archive for March, 2008

Trinities

I’ll start off the debate on trinities in various religions with a very simple (sceptical) observation:

I very much doubt it makes sense to pretend the various trinities in various religions can be equated. Father-Son-Holy Spirit is the Christian trinity and it says something about the relationship between the divine and each individual, as well as about how God relates to man. The son is said to have died for us, while the Father stayed immaculate, or something. The Holy Spirit is the one way in which God can communicate with normal human beings like us – and I would say it might (with a stretch) be equated with our Buddhi: that which mediates between the divine (Atman) and our ordinary personalities (kama-manas).

(more…)

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sort of perplexing

The following passage seems to go against basic Buddhist thought- at least what i have heard- that there is no “self ” outside of the 5 skandhas, and what we experience as “self”  is nothing other than a coalescence of the stuff’s of the five skandhas, perhaps mixed with a bit of avidya. but here is a passage that seems to be saying otherwise, which seems to imply that there is something “other,” which actually maintains from life to life- another no -no, i thought, in buddhist philosophy. What do you think?

“According to tantric theory, the residence of the mind is not the brain, but the heart. The mind is said to reside in the indestructable drop at the heart chakra. There are two types of indestructable drop, on coarse, and one subtle.  The coarse drop is a coalescence of cells from the semen of father and ovum from mother, and the subtle drop is a coalescence of subtle levels of consciousness and subtle physical energies. The course drop is said to be “indestructible” because it endures throughout one’s life, from the moment of conception untill the final moment  of physical death. The subtle  drop is “indestructible” because it endures throughout all of one’s lives, from beginningless time and into the future, untill the time of enlightenment, at which point one’s body is transformed into the perfect body of a buddha.”

Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, by John Powers. page 295/6

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To Be or Not to Be

Katinka, Chris and I have been discussing in the last few posts about the value of our personality, our psychological self, and so on. I need to use the theosophical terminology in order to express more or less accurately my understanding of this topic.
I’d say that kama-manas (the personal mind, identified with this particular body and working in close relationship with our personal emotions) has to cease as a center of consciousness for buddhi-manas (the enlightened or spiritual mind, which perceives unity and truth) to work. As I see it, manas functions alternatively associated with either one or the other principle. As HPB says in The Voice of the Silence:

The Self of matter and the SELF of Spirit can never meet. One of the twain must disappear; there is no place for both.

Our real consciousness comes from Atman, the universal Self, and it acquires self-consciousness through Manas, a ray of the universal mind. But the light of Manas reflected in the lower principles gives origin to an illusory self, the psychological “me”, our personal mind. This illusory self is like the “me” in a dream. Would you say it is real? Well, it has a reality behind, but that “me” is created by the mind and will soon disappear. In the same way, the feeling “I’m Pablo” is an illusion. By “crucifying the material self” I only meant to get rid of that false identity. Then, the real Self, our spiritual individuality, would express itself through our brain-consciousness, emotions and body, without being deluded as to its real nature, without that feeling of “I’m this personality”. In fact, I think that all real virtues have nothing to do with the psychological self, but with the expression of our spiritual individuality. As HPB states in her Diagram of Meditation, the virtues:

… are really the outcome of wisdom, for benevolence, sympathy, justice, etc., arise from the intuitive identification of the individual with others, although unknown to the personality.

Katinka wrote in her previous post Self confidence or letting go of self about how self confidence may be healthy or unhealthy. I think there is a personality-centered self confidence that comes with feelings of pride, self-sufficiency, etc., and a different self-confidence that brings courage and calmness, which is the outcome of our spiritual nature expressed through the personality.
Even those feelings of ecstasy Chris was talking about in Everyday Ecstasy appear when for some reason (for example, the perception of beauty) our personal self ceases to be, at least for the time being. In that sense, the personal self is like a clown. After a good act is performed by a skillful juggler, the clown goes to the stage and undeservedly receives the applause.
I don’t mean that we should have a feeling of low self esteem or hate ourselves, etc. If there is love in our hearts, that love will embrace everything, including our personality. But we should always be aware of our process of identification with things, and strive to “Live in the Eternal”.
Would you agree with that?

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Two recent posts by Pablo and Katinka have addressed a similar idea.

I’d like to talk more about the idea of crucifying our material selves. Generally, I’m curious about the range of attitudes towards not only the physical body, but the embodied self, the personality, the ego (which also relates Katinka’s distinction between self-confidence and letting go of the self).

Granting that in reality the traditions are more subtle than this, we can nonetheless see a tendency to diminish, perhaps even demonize the ‘lower’ self. In Gnosticism the body becomes a prison, in theosophical circles there is abundant talk of transcending the ego.

I don’t experience my body as a prison. To me it provides opportunity (in the same way any limitations are necessary for creativity), incarnation is a gift, even with the body’s weakness, vulnerability and inevitable collapse. Same with my personality. Metaphysically, I believe my spirit choose this body and self, and its legion flaws, intentionally.

If the entire manifest universe is the ultimate One coming to know itself, then the ultimate aspiration for each of us, for every moment of manifestation, is to be fully our self.

Let me be clear. In the vast, concept defying, vastness of time and space, there will be only one You (insert your name and defining story here). Your atma-buddhi-manas is eternal, but the particular form it chose to take here and now is utterly, radically unique.

That uniqueness includes, essentially, your temporal, embodied self, your body and personality. To negate that is to negate the motivation of manifestation.

The subtlety comes from the fact that we are layered beings. The question, then, is where to locate our uniqueness. I’ve done some incredibly selfish, mundane, harmful and indulgent things in the name of ‘following my bliss’ and ‘being true to my self’.

I keep coming back to Krishna talking to Arjuna about the chariot, where the horses are the senses and the chariot is the body. It isn’t a matter of getting rid of the horses and the chariot, it is a matter of who is guiding them.

This is why theosophy is so important.  It gives us a model of the self that can help us identify who, or what in us, is really responding.

To play on the Easter theme, Pablo is correct to say we must crucify our materials selves, but the message is also that this material self is reborn, not discarded.  Our eternal, spiritual self acts through our temporal, physical/emotional self.

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Psychologists, especially amateur psychologists, emphasize self confidence as a major predictor of success and happiness. On the other hand, spiritual traditions like Theosophy, Buddhism and Sufism stress the fact that our personalities are a major source of trouble and we should let them go.

Can those two views be connected? Sure they can. They target very different life-experiences.

First lets look at why self confidence works in so many ways. A friend of mine in high school, lets call her Esther, was a troubled teen. Obviously teens, most teens, lack self confidence – but they do express that in very different ways. Some limit their lives to partying. Some work harder because it never seems good enough. Esther wasn’t the best student, but she was a fabulous dancer. She really had energy and style. She also had a weight problem and her bone structure would never have passed most performance dancing standards. She had a choice, after high school, to pursue dancing and perhaps become a teacher of dancing or to do what her family wanted her to do: work with kids. Being an insecure teen, she went along with what her parents wanted. I am very curious where she ended up. Had she had more self confidence, perhaps she would have lost the weight and become the best dancer she could be and taught it to others.

Now Esther’s parents did have good reason to discourage this. After all: working with kids is a more stable career move. Perhaps she did have to let go of the dream and serve humanity through working with kids. This is the sort of thing that is very hard to judge. Balancing out realism and just going for it is one of the main challenges in all of our lives. It is part of the struggle of modernity.

Spirituality is about letting go of self. Letting go of hurt feelings, when someone does something to make you feel slighted for instance. But to let that go, one needs a certain amount of emotional maturity, self confidence if you will: you need to know that in many cases such things aren’t about you. People are busier thinking about themselves and their own preoccupations than about your needs. Letting that go is wisdom, but it’s also hard if you don’t have self confidence. So actually, it seems self confidence and wisdom go hand in hand.

On the other hand, like all virtues, too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing. Too much self confidence does become arrogance. Too much self confidence also makes for less of a willingness to learn. Self confidence is needed for learning as well. Self confidence can help with perseverance, certainly a trait necessary in learning. Arrogance stops a person from being open to the world and learning from it. N. Sri Ram put that aspect differently by saying:

To be conscious of one’s ignorance is the beginning of wisdom, and an ignorance of parts will not trouble the man who has achieved a happy sense of relationship with the whole. All truth will come to him who has a living relation to things, since to live is to grow and progress. (Thoughts for Aspirants, the chapter on Wisdom)

Paradoxically perhaps – only when you are really secure in yourself is it possible to really be open to the whole. Psychologists might put that differently. They might say that arrogance actually isn’t self confidence. Arrogance is an artificial shell people who are really not so confident hide behind. I’m not sure I agree with that though. Some people have just had so much success that it doesn’t seem necessary to listen to others, be open to them, learn from them. That is self confidence, but it is surely harmful in the long run. Some types of criminals suffer from too much self confidence as well. So self confidence is not the panacea to all the ills people have.

I do feel that in this crazy world one needs self confidence to find ones way – which may be part of the reason ‘the secret’ is so popular.

By the way, I have a very good Robert Frager quote on various levels of transforming the self within the Sufi tradition on my website.

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A Good Day to Die.

The underlying theme of Easter is death and resurrection. And today, “Good Friday” Christians commemorate the crucifixion and death of Jesus at Calvary . That name, “Good Friday” is a very interesting and philosophical one, quite far in spirit from the current message of Christianity about Jesus’ death. Why is it called “Good Friday” and not “Sad Friday”, or “Sinners Friday”, or “It’s-your-fault Friday”?
Much before Jesus’ time, death and resurrection was the main theme of the Ancient Mysteries, so we can look at their philosophy for a deeper insight. From a symbolic point of view, the cross was always a symbol of matter. The deity who was put to death was a symbol of our spiritual nature. In Christianity, the Christ is this same symbol. When we are born, our spiritual nature is “crucified” in our body and dies, but only to be “resurrected” full of glory—when we work properly.
There is also a very interesting interpretation of this universal archetypal image on the psychological level. In order to be resurrected (in a new glorified being) we have to die first. Nothing new can appear if the old doesn’t die, psychologically speaking. And most of us don’t want to die. We cling to our attachments, to our memories, to our hopes—that is to our (artificial) self-identity. We are not a culture that encourages detachment from the things that identify us. For the most part life is a matter of acquiring more stuff. Not only material but also psychological stuff. This is the case even for those who try to tread the “spiritual path”. Many times we see this as a process of acquisition—acquisition of more knowledge, more experience, more virtues, more understanding, etc… Very little emphasis is usually placed on the idea of dying to the known, externally and internally. But as Jesus said, if you are wealthy and full of possessions you cannot get to the Kingdom of Heaven. We have to become like children, divested of all possessions, even at the psychological level. And that is not enough, according to Jesus we must die and be born again, to be able to reach that Kingdom.
Of course, he is not referring to a physical death and re-birth, but “to be born of water [of life] and of the Spirit.” The act of Jesus dying physically on the cross means for us to “crucify” our material self and be “resurrected” as spiritual beings. The road to Calvary is then our daily life.
So, how are we going to celebrate this Easter weekend?

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I’m reading one of the classics in theosophical literature, from the former leader of the Pasadena TS (which is what I’ll call it for convenience, it’s headquarters have moved about a lot in the past century): ‘Messages to Conventions: and other writings on the politics, work and purposes of the T.S.‘, G. de Purucker (See here for meanings of theosophical abbreviations).

In one of the lectures G. de Purucker says the following – which I’ve heard echoed through theosophical debates a lot as well:

(p. 19) the most ‘practical’ thing … is for us theosophists to concentrate on disseminating Theosophy as it was brought to us by H.P.B. from the Masters.

Well, that rubs me the wrong way on several levels. First of all – theosophy isn’t just the teachings of H.P. Blavatsky (HPB). Theosophy includes the study of the world religions as well. Second – is study really the only way to be practical about theosophy? This ties in with something else de Purucker says on the same page:

in concentrating our thoughts and our minds on the heart of our Theosophical teachings: in living them, in teaching them, in giving them to the world, so that we may change men’s minds and hearts. (italics in original)

I’m not sure I agree that the hearts and minds of people can be changed merely through teachings. I’m not saying the Blavatsky teachings aren’t important. In fact I do feel that one of the implicit duties of the TS is to keep a knowledge of her work alive and to keep her teachings accessible. It does that quite well by publishing books and having study classes. Other theosophical organizations have taken on the work of publishing her work online.

Sure – but do the hearts and minds of people really get affected by book-learning? Don’t practical initiatives not work better in that area? Certainly in most countries, where the divide between rich and poor is larger than in my own (The Netherlands), the poor are hardly going to be impressed by teachings about inner unity if it’s a struggle each day to find a decent place to sleep.

I could go on – I will stick quite simply to saying that there is a TOS for a reason. The Theosophical Order of Service does work all over the world for poor people – for instance to get them food on holidays, help in case of disasters like the Tsunami or Katrina and also organize schooling for unwed mothers and their children. All that without asking people for their opinion on religion and without forcing a theosophical point of view on them.
Each individual has to decide for themselves where the weight of their theosophical work needs to be. It takes all kinds. We need theosophical scholars, but the world also needs people who are willing to get dirty. For myself I have not yet decided where the center of my activity needs to be. I do know that Blavatsky herself gave Annie Besant of her limited monetary supplies in support of Besant’s social work in London. So G. de Purucker doesn’t seem all that Blavatsky based to me in his emphasis on ‘teachings’.

In general: I feel a healthy lifestyle includes volunteer work. Certainly for people who’s profession or personal life generally doesn’t have a reach out aspect. I’m going to protest at the Chinese Ambassy in The Hague later today (sunday the 16th of March) – in the rain. Protesting against things is generally not my thing, but what goes on in Tibet does have my heart. Also, with the Olympics coming up, this is a good time to remind the Chinese government of the importance of respecting human rights.

I guess it comes back to balance. Or in Buddhist terms: the middle path.

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