Greetings of Peace. This blog contains selections from my correspondence and other sources on a variety of subjects related to religion, philosophy, and spirituality. I hope that they may be of benefit to the interested reader. Concerning the title of the blog, read this entry.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Spiritual Significance and Symbolism of the Hijab

... I have previously given little thought to the subject of the hijab for the mere fact that, as a man, it has not been made incumbent upon me and so I have not been in the situation of giving necessary consideration toward adopting it. Nevertheless, it is an important subject and one which may have a significance beyond that which has been addressed above. Thus far, the discussion of the hijab has centered around its association with the attitude of modesty. While this is certainly true, and constitutes an inward attitude both independent of and reflected within the outer garment, I do not believe that it exhausts the significance of the symbolic reality of the veil within the context of Islam. As an element of the sharia which derives from the Islamic revelation, the veil undoubtedly possesses a dimension of significance extending beyond the outward social domain.

Considered as a symbol, the veil (hijab) is an image of the metaphysical phenomenon of "Relativity", both divine and cosmic, the same phenomenon that is expressed in Vedantic terms as "Maya" or cosmic and metacosmic "illusion". Of the primary hypostases of the Divine Principle which qualify it as Absolute, Infinite Perfection, Maya results from the quality of Infinitude. This implies the tendency toward radiation of the Principle in the actualization of its possibilities including that of its own negation. Maya is the field of illusion within which these possibilities are realized and through which the Principle unfolds in the direction of its negation thereby giving rise to the ontological hierarchy of manifestation.

Maya possesses a dual nature and function owing to the complimentary qualities of transcendence and immanence of the Divine Reality. Maya both veils the Principle through its diminutive capacity and unveils it through its theophanic quality. According to Frithjof Schuon,

"The Hindu notion of 'Illusion', Maya, coincides in fact with the Islamic symbolism of the 'Veil', Hijab: the universal Illusion is a power which on the one hand hides and on the other hand reveals; it is the Veil before the Face of Allah or, according to a multiplying extension of the symbolism, the series of sixty-six thousand veils of light and darkness which either through clemency or rigour screen the fulgurating radiance of the Divinity."

The principial duality prefigured in the Divine Hypostases is reflected on all levels of reality giving rise also to the complementarity of the sexes which serve as their symbol on the human plane. According to Islam, God is both al-Jalal (the Majestic) in his quality of Absoluteness and al-Jamal (the Beautiful) in his quality of Infinitude. The beauty of woman is the summit of perfection of God's beauty within the terrestrial realm. Embodying the expression of His Infinitude, her beauty takes upon itself the dual qualities of the cosmic veil of illusion, or hijab, which in its physical form serves as her outward distinction and ensign, and of which she constitutes, in a manner of speaking, an incarnation. According to Schuon, "Woman, incarnating Maya, is dynamic in a double sense: either in the sense of an exteriorizing and alienating radiation, or in that of an interiorizing and reintegrating attraction." Concerning her feminine beauty we may say that, woman contains an element of physical seductiveness as well as contemplative interiority. Like music, she possesses the capacity to bestow either sensual inebriation or spiritual intoxication.

According to a hadith, the Prophet Muhammad - may peace be upon him - declared that "Three things in your world were made for me worthy of love, women, perfume, and prayer" a statement that in itself testifies to the great spiritual significance of women in Islam. Ibn Arabi elaborated upon this hadith in his Bezels of Wisdom, wherein, as Seyyed Hossein Nasr has stated, he "goes to the point of describing the contemplation of God in Woman as the highest form of contemplation possible." In the chapter on the Wisdom of the Singularity in the Word of Muhammad, Ibn Arabi wrote,

"When man contemplates God in woman, his contemplation rests on that which is passive; if he contemplates Him in himself, seeing that woman comes from man, he contemplates Him in that which is active; and when he contemplates Him alone, without the presence of any form whatsoever issued from him, his contemplation corresponds to a state of passivity with regard to God, without intermediary. Consequently his contemplation of God in woman is the most perfect, for it is then God, in so far as He is at once active and passive that he contemplates, whereas in the purely interior contemplation, he contemplates Him only in a passive way. So the Prophet - Benediction and Peace be upon him - was to love women because of the perfect contemplation of God in them. One would never be able to contemplate God directly in absence of all (sensible or spiritual) support, for God, in His Absolute Essence, is independent of the worlds. But, as the (Divine) Reality is inaccessible in respect (of the Essence), and there is contemplation (shahadah) only in a substance, the contemplation of God in women is the most intense and the most perfect; and the union which is the most intense (in the sensible order, which serves as a support for this contemplation) is the conjugal act."

Frithjof Schuon stated that "the veil is a notion which evokes the idea of mystery, because it hides from view something that is either too sacred or too intimate." Within the spiritual economy of Islam, it appears that the incumbency of the veil upon women is intended not only as a means of expressing modesty and guarding society against a tendency toward sensual inebriation, but also a means of preserving the sanctity and inviolability of the outward manifestation of God's interiorizing beauty prior to the proper moment of its unveiling following the rite of marriage and prior to its consummation. Such a circumstance bestows upon the act the potential to realize the full value of its sacramental quality and contemplative depth. In Schuon's words,

"Woman is veiled as in Islam wine is forbidden, and she is unveiled ... with the aim of operating a kind of magic by analogy, the unveiling of beauty with an erotic vibration evoking, in the manner of a catalyst, the revelation of the liberating and beatific Essence; of the Haqiqah, the "Truth-Reality" as the Sufis would say."

Ultimately, it appears that in Islam woman has been given the veil as a symbolic reflection of her identity, as an expression of her inherent dignity, and as a responsibility owing to her providential birth as the ultimate theophany of God's beauty and bearer of the divine graces that such beauty may bestow upon those who see her unveiled.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Way of Go

I originally conceived of the idea for this essay when I first entered into Islam and devoted myself to the spiritual life. It was at that time, and even earlier, that I began to consider my activities in light of my convictions to determine which were compatible with the kind of life that I wanted to lead. I inquired into the history of the game and examined some of the essays and perspectives of Schuon, Burckhardt, Prince Ghazi, and others that provide an examination of the symbolism and salutary assessment of the game of chess. I desired to produce a similar examination and appraisal of Go and the present humble effort is the result.

Mountain monks sit playing go
Over the board is the bamboo's lucent shade
No one sees them through the glittering leaves
But now and then is heard the click of a stone.
- Po Chi (772-846)

Introduction and Origins of Go

Go (also known as wei-chi in China, baduk in Korea, and i-go in Japan) is an abstract strategy board game traditionally played on a wooden board inscribed with a nineteen by nineteen matrix. Game play begins with an empty board and players alternate turns placing black slate and white clamshell stones on the intersections of the squares where they remain stationary for the duration of the game unless captured and removed by the opponent. Although very sophisticated guiding principles of strategy have developed over time, there is no predetermined method of placement, leaving players to contribute stones to any area of the board, oftentimes choosing between many positions of equal value and strategic possibility. This is particularly evident at the beginning of the game, where all possibilities exist in a state of equilibrium. As the game progresses, the choice of moves becomes increasingly limited based upon the relative positions of existing stones as they gradually fill the board.

The object of the game is to secure territory by surrounding empty points. To accomplish this, two fundamental strategies are employed which include connecting one's own stones by placing them side by side after which they form a single unit, a technique that gives rise to the illusion of movement, and capturing the opponent's stones or groups of stones by surrounding them and occupying all of the points adjacent to the targeted group. Captured stones count negatively toward the opponent's score which is determined by the number of empty points that have been surrounded after all of the territory has been secured and the game has concluded by mutual agreement.

The precise knowledge of the origins of Go is lost to antiquity. It is known to have originated in Taoist China up to 4,000 years ago, where it has traditionally been conceived as one of the four accomplishments of the cultured Chinese aristocracy, the others being painting, calligraphy, and music. Its valued intellectual and aesthetic qualities have aptly been described by a contemporary player who stated that "The unfolding of geometrical patterns, the interaction of the basic elements of line and circle, stone and wood, and the meshing of grand-scale opposing strategies make go an artful game." Additionally, it was adopted as a salutary practice within Cha'an Buddhist monasteries and underwent further refinement and ceremonial perfection within the Zen culture of Japan where it was sometimes referred to as Kido or "The Way of Go." Along with such practices as archery, gardening, and tea, the game of go was used by Buddhist monks as a direct and valuable support of the spiritual life.

Rene Guenon has suggested that "games were originally something quite different from the mere profane amusements that they have become today." Like chess, Go "is certainly one of those games in which traces of the original sacredness have remained most apparent in spite of this degradation." This thesis has been developed very fully in Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad's admirable treatise on The Sacred Origin of Sports and Culture. Prince Ghazi writes concerning sports, a term which he uses in its broadest possible sense to include competitive physical recreation, physical culture, martial arts, and even mental sports such as traditional boardgames, that "in general the disciplines of history, archaeology, anthropology, and literature concur that organized sports had religious origins wherever they are found in the ancient world."

Although, the precise origins of Go are unknown, evidence suggests that it evolved out of a method of divination practiced among the ancient shamanistic Shang culture which involved the casting of 'chi pieces' or go stones, upon a plate or board inscribed with astrological and geomantic symbols. Divination as traditionally conceived and practiced is not the profane amusement of fortune-telling that we associate with it today. Rather, it was a sacred art and revealed method of communicating with the Divinity or lesser spiritual intelligences such as gods, beneficent spirits, or the spirits of the ancestors. In a fragment of an ancient text containing what is probably the oldest mythic reference to Go situated during the reign of the first of the golden-age kings, it speaks of a companion of the Yellow Emperor traveling within a mystic vision to the summit of a holy mountain to perform the sacred divinatory rite of Go.

"Mr. Chang, musician-companion of the Yellow Emperor, assumed wings and was given the name of Teacher Hun Yai. At the summit of Chuan-nan Mountain, he played go."

Symbolic Dimensions of Go

The original divinatory practice of "casting the chi pieces" probably made its initial transition into a game in the period between 1300 and 900 BC when the shamanistic Shan culture became dominated and influenced by the rationalizing tendencies and anthropocentrism of the conquering Chou. Even after the transition into a game, however, many of the basic astrological and cosmological associations were retained and such concepts remained deeply embedded in the terminology and philosophy of the game until the twentieth century. The earliest surviving statement of the philosophy of Go was written in the first century AD by the historian Pan Ku long after the initial transition had already taken place. In his essay "The Quality of Go", he wrote

"It has deep significance. The board has to be square, for it signifies the earth, and its right angles signify uprightness. The pieces are yellow and black: this distinction signifies the Yin and Yang - scattered in groups all over the board, they represent the heavenly bodies. These significances being manifest, it is up to the players themselves to make the moves, and this is connected with kingship. Following what the rules permit, both opponents are subject to them - this is the rigor of the Tao."

This early description is important because it both legitimizes the effort toward a symbolic interpretation of the game based upon an established tradition and also because it lays the foundation for such an interpretation. Within Go, we find many of the same dimensions of symbolism that are present in Chess including a macrocosmic-terrestrial symbolism reflected in the nature of the game, a macrocosmic-celestial symbolism reflected in the geometric properties of the board, and a metacosmic or metaphysical symbolism reflected within the colors of the stones. Unlike chess, go does not possess a dimension of microcosmic symbolism, a fact of great significance with regard to its use as an operative support of the spiritual life.

The first dimension in which the symbolism of Go naturally unfolds concerns its explicit association with warfare. The game presents itself as the battle between two opposing armies who are struggling to gain control of an area by surrounding and securing its territory. Go strategy bears a direct correlation to traditional Chinese military strategy and many books have been written about this subject. Exemplary in this regard is Ma Xiaochun's 36 Strategems Applied to Go. In addition to its adoption as a cultured pastime among the aristocracy and its refinement as a spiritual art by Buddhist monks, go also enjoyed a significant degree of popularity among the warrior classes. A go set was commonly included among the equipment of the samurai, for instance, who would play between battles. This motif figures prominently within traditional Japanese paintings that include a depiction of the game.

As early as the second world war and continuing to the present day, the study of Go is even encouraged by millitary officials as a means of gaining insight into the nature of military strategy within the far eastern nations. A cursory glance through Sun Tzu's Art of War can yeild many explicit parallels, including the following simple example.

"The Highest realization of warfare is to attack the enemies' plans; next is to attack their alliances; next to attack their army; and lowest is to attack their fortified cities."

Concerning the symbolism of warfare, this is identical to that of chess in that it reflects the fundamental opposition between the contending forces of good and evil wherein the angels and demons dispute the go board of the world. As Titus Burckhardt has written,

"It is here that the symbolism of black and white ... takes on its full value; the white army is that of light, the black army that of darkness. In a relative domain, the battle which takes place on the [board] represents, either that of two armies each of which is fighting in the name of a particular principle, or that of the spirit and of darkness in man; these are the two forms of the 'holy war'; the 'lesser holy war' and the 'greater holy war', according to the saying of the Prophet Muhammad. One will see the relationship of the symbolism implied in the game ... with the theme of the Bhagavad-Gita."

The second dimension of the symbolism of Go to be considered is that pertaining to the board itself. As Stuart Colin stated in Games of the Orient, "the board has the same cosmical significance discovered to underlie all other boards upon which games are played." Although they possess a fundamental consonance in their connotations, the particular manner in which this symbolism is expressed differs among the various games. That of Go is to be sought in its proposed origins in the practice of divination. As previously stated, many of its original associations have been preserved even in the modern game, a situation which lends it a greater dignity and contemplative quality than might otherwise have been the case if these elements had not been retained. According to William Picknard,

"Some fundamental go terms still in common use today have an astrological meaning. In Japan, for example, the center of the board is still called tengen, 'axis of heaven', the eight specially marked key points near the perimeter are called hoshi, 'stars', the nine together making up the traditional 'Nine Lights of Heaven', that is, the seven stars of Ursa Major, the center of the Chinese astronomical system, and the sun and moon. In both China and Japan the four quarters of the board are named after the four directions, each correlated to one of the basic trigrams of the I Ching system. Beginning in the upper right and going clockwise, they are: Southwest (female, earth), Northwest (male. heaven), Northeast (hard, limit), and Southeast (gentle, yeilding)."

Combined with Pan Ku's indication that the square form of the board signifies earth, all of these elements together reveal the go board to possess the characteristics of a cosmological mandala. Through the progression of gameplay on the board we may bear witness to the reflection of the cosmic drama unfolding within the intermediate realm conditioned by the polarity of Heaven and Earth.

This fundamental polarity is reiterated and exemplified by the black and white colors of the stones which lead from cosmological associations to the consideration of a metacosmic symbolism. According to Guenon,

"In the most immediate sense, the juxtaposition of white and black naturally represents light and darkness, day and night, and consequently all the pairs of opposites or of complementaries ... in this respect then, we have here the exact equivalent of the Far Eastern symbol of the yin-yang."

Yang and Yin are essentially the primordial qualities of light and darkness that pervade all aspects of cosmic manifestation, yang corresponding to the spiritual or essential nature, and yin referring to that which causes attachment to substance. With regard to their cosmological associations, Guenon writes also that

"yang is whatever proceeds from the nature of Heaven and yin whatever proceeds from the nature of Earth ... Heaven is entirely yang and Earth entirely yin, which is tantamount to saying that Essence is pure act and Substance is pure potency. However, this applies to Heaven and Earth alone, as the two poles of universal manifestation; in all manifested things there is no yang without yin and no yin without yang, for everything by nature partakes simultaneously of both Heaven and Earth."

Inasmuch as these two primary qualities have issued from the equilibrium of the primordial Unity, contemplation of this symbolism leads beyond the cosmos to the metacosmic reality of Tai Chi. Tai Chi is the symbol of primordial equilibrium and perfection or wholeness as the first determination of the Absolute, just as Beyond-Being gives rise to Being. The 'ten thousand things' are brought into being by Tai Chi and conditioned by yin and yang by virtue of their entrance into manifestation within the realm of Heaven and Earth. Like the permutations of the two determinations from which the various trigrams and hexagrams of the I Ching are derived, the infinitely variable patterns of alternating black and white stones on the Go board symbolize the unfoldment of the ten thousand things from the principial unity of the Divine All-Possibility.

It is perhaps possible to consider an additional dimension of symbolism of a more speculative nature. Through the symbolic properties of the traditional physical substances of the game and their arrangement, stone or earth over wood, Go constitutes a material representation of the I Ching hexagram Sheng which is composed of the trigrams Kun, the Receptive (earth) and Sun, the Gentle (wood). It literally means Pushing Upward and pertains to the image of wood growing upward out of the earth. The I Ching states concerning this image, "Within the earth, wood grows: The image of Pushing Upward. Thus the superior man of devoted character heaps up small things in order to achieve something high and great." This hexagram is associated with the effort of the will and bears the denotation of vertical ascent or transcendence. The game of Go appears to be in full accordance with this message, especially in the context of its use as a support for the spiritual life. Perhaps no one has explained the content of this message better than Frithjof Schuon, whose sagacious words might very well serve as a commentary upon the text itself. He wrote,

"The noble man is one who masters himself and loves to master himself; the base man is one who does not master himself and shrinks in horror from mastering himself. The spiritual man is one who transcends himself and loves to transcent himself; the worldly man remains horizontal and hates the vertical dimension."

Go as a Ludic Support for the Spiritual Life

Honinbo Shusaku (1829-62), a great Japanese master
of the game from the Edo period

As previously mentioned, Go does not possess a microcosmic symbolism reflected in the distinctive identity, initial position, and determined movement of the playing pieces as does the game of chess. In the latter game, according to Titus Burckhardt

"If the significance of the different chessmen is transposed into the spiritual domain, the king becomes the heart, or spirit, and the other pieces the various faculties of the soul. Their movements, moreover, correspond to different ways of realizing the cosmic possibilities represented by the chessboard: there is axial movement of the 'castles' or war chariots, the diagonal movement of the 'bishops' or elephants, which follow a signle colour, and the complex movement of the knights. The axial movement, which 'cuts' through different 'colours', is logical and virile, while the diagonal movement corresponds to an "existential" - and therefore feminine - continuity. The jump of the knights corresponds to intuition."

Unlike chess, the game of Go begins with an empty board and the stones are entirely homogeneous, possessing no distinctive qualities of their own. In principle, a stone may be played anywhere on the board and its quality is determined entirely by the judgment of the player in consideration of the relative positions of existing stones and the concomitant framework of implied threats and possibilities. As such, rather than serving as a symbol for the various faculties of the soul, it instead manifests its content in a direct and operative manner, thereby serving as an expression of the present subjective state of the player.

This idea is represented in the idiosyncratic philosophy of Takeo Kajiwara, a contemporary professional player of the highest rank. In his manual The Direction of Play he teaches that stones are instruments of power.

"Every time you place a stone on the board," he writes, "you are exposing something of yourself. It is not just a piece of slate, shell, or plastic. You have entrusted to that stone your feelings, your individuality, your will-power, and once it is played there is no going back. Each stone carries a great responsibility on your behalf."

Taking into consideration the fact that no game, however noble, can equal the reality of life experience, these unique properties of the game of Go allow it to provide a virtual field of operation for the cultivation of the virtues, insofar as it is possible for a game to do so. The completed game serves thereby as a testimony to the expression or absence of virtue during the moment of and in the context of gameplay. It is undoubtedly this characteristic that brought about its cultivation within Buddhist culture as a ludic support of the spiritual life.

Mastery of Go is not limited to the acquisition of technical skill and strategic prowess predicated upon the memorization of common patterns. It also depends upon the ability to overcome deficiencies and weaknesses in the soul that affect one's ability to make proper judgments and effective use of the stones. The nature of these weaknesses can literally be ascertained by reading the record of the game as is evidenced by many professional commentaries. As one contemporary player has observed,

"The board is a mirror of the mind of the player as moments pass. When a master studies the record of a game, he can tell at what point greed overtook the pupil, when he became tired, when he fell into stupidity, and when the maid came by with the tea."

The primary vices of the Go player that must be overcome on the journey toward mastery of the game and of himself may be synthesized into a few distinct but interrelated categories including attachment, fear, impetuosity, and greed.

Within the context of the game, attachment is expressed by becoming emotionally invested in a particular stone or group of stones to the detriment of the potential advancement of other positions on the board. It may be that one wishes to futilely attempt to preserve a group that cannot be made to live or simply that one is too narrowly focused on a single area of the board thereby losing sight of the development of the game as a whole.

The expression of fear is particularly notable within the presence of a stronger player whose superior skill may cause one to become nervous, underestimate one's own abilities, and to develop a passive and defensive posture, even when one has the advantage. This may lead to the unnecessary fortification of groups, over concentration of stones, and a slow development of positions.

Impetuosity represents in some ways the opposite extreme to that of fear. It generally manifests in the presence of a weaker player and involves the expression of undue aggressiveness. It may cause one to exploit the inferior skill and ignorance of the weaker player, attacking his stones excessively and unnecessarily, while making moves that are in themselves poor, but which a weaker player may not be able to exploit. Impetuosity destroys the dignity of the player, the morale of the opponent, and the beauty and harmony of the game.

Finally, greed is perhaps the most common vice of go players. It is rooted in acquisitiveness, the continual desire to capture more stones and accumulate more territory. It arises out of a lack of consideration for the existence and right of the other player and a false sense of needing to dominate the entire board. There is a sense in which greed derives from and contributes to all of the other vices inasmuch as one may lust after that which one cannot possess (attachment), cling tenaciously onto what one already has (fear), and unduly attempt to take what is rightfully in the possession of the opponent (impetuosity).

With keen insight and wisdom, the Buddhist communities of China and Japan would certainly have recognized within this internal struggle played out upon the board, an opportunity to support the development of the paramitas or 'perfections' of Mahayana Buddhism. According to a prevalent six-fold division, Schuon describes the paramitas as follows:

"'Charity' (dāna), which in a way constitutes the framework or the periphery of the Mahayana, is the first of the six pāramitās or virtues of the Bodhisattva; 'Wisdom' (prajnā) is the sixth and the culmination of all the pāramitās. The four other virtues are as it were intermediary: these are 'abstention' (shīla) 'virility' (vīrya), 'patience' (kshānti) and 'contemplation' (dhyāna); these spiritual modes amount to so many paths, at once simultaneous and successive, and any single one of them can determine a whole life without needing, or being able to exclude the daily practice of, the others. The first five pāramitās moreover are not really separated from the virtue of prajnā, whereof they are secondary aspects destined to con­tribute in their own way to the awakening of liberating Knowledge."

Instead of expressing attachment, one may posit detachment (shila) by treating the stones lightly, as possibilities rather than absolutes. It frequently happens during a game that a group of stones which is incapable of surviving may later be rescued and turned toward one's advantage. Instead of expressing fear, one may posit courage (virya), and with an attitude of respectful consideration, view the presence of a formidable opponent as an opportunity to correct mistakes and learn from the demonstration of superior skill. In the opposite situation instead of expressing impetuosity and exploiting a weaker player one may practice restraint and recollectedness, positing the virtue of patience (kshanti) and thereby serving as an exemplar of dignified and beautiful play.

As with its counterpart, greed, charity (dana) possesses a special significance within the game of Go. As in Mahayana Buddhism, the concept of charity or generosity in a way constitutes the ideal framework of the game for it manifests the correct attitude toward the significance of the opponent. Recognizing the necessity for the other, both may join together in the spirit of cooperative competition reflecting the dignity of kingship expressed in accordance with the rigour of the Tao as related by Pan Ku in his description of the philosophy of the game. This is a reflection of the same type of cooperative struggle described by the Quran in the verses which admonish us to "as brothers fight ye" and "vie with one another in good works," both opponents having joined forces against a common enemy, the weaknesses of the human soul.

The experiences of gameplay do not necessarily lend themselves directly to the cultivation and expression of the fifth and sixth paramitas for these pertain to the highest degrees of realization upon the spiritual path. Nevertheless, they are represented in the symbolism and essential message that the procedure of gameplay presents to those who reflect upon it. The go game commences with an empty board signifying the transcendent void or sunyata and the transitory and illusory nature of the cosmic drama unfolding thereon is revealed when at last the stones are cleared away and only the empty board remains.

In conclusion, we may state that for those who seek an enjoyable pastime to contribute an element of leisure to the daily rhythm of work, study, and prayer, the game of Go offers a viable alternative to indulgence in the profane distractions and amusements of the modern world.

Recommended Reading

The Go Players Almanac edited by John Power

This is perhaps the most important resource for general information on the game of Go. It includes articles on the history and philosophy of the game, its development worldwide, the various forms of rules and tournaments, biographical information on professional players, equipment, records, terminology, art, and media. Most of the historical information for the present essay was obtained from this book. (Kiseido)

Go For Beginners by Kaoru Iwamoto

This is a classic introduction to the game written by a high-ranking Japanese professional who passionately dedicated himself to teaching and spreading go throughout the United States. It contains an explanation of the basic rules and elementary tactics of gameplay. A few of the author's exemplary games are used to illustrate the practical application of basic principles. Lucid and intelligent, this is the ideal introduction for the aspiring player. (Pantheon)

Basic Techniques of Go by Nagahara Yoshiaki and Haruyama Isamu

This book is one of the first written by Japanese professionals that was published originally in English rather than in Japanese. It is a masterful exposition of all of the fundamental strategies needed to enable one to reach shodan, the first level of mastery. After reading the previous book and learning the basic rules, one can theoretically read this book exclusively, thoroughly assimilating its principles, and have no need to pursue any other volume before achieving shodan. (Kiseido)

Lessons in the Fundamentals of Go by Kageyama Toshiro

Whereas the previous books are formal and technical, this one is personal and anecdotal. The author shares his recollections from a career spanning seven years of amateur and twenty-two years of professional play while expounding the fundamental elements of gameplay with idiosyncratic and lighthearted wit and humor. The basic message of this book is that simplicity rather than sophistication and a thorough understanding of the basics are what cause one to fully appreciate and master the game of Go. (Kiseido)

Invincible: The Games of Shusaku by edited by John Power

Honinbo Shusaku is widely considered to be one of the greatest Go geniuses in history and this volume contains an extensive collection of his games with commentary. Shusaku's gameplay demonstrates the complete assimilation and mastery of fundamental principles and their application in the simplest and most harmonious manner possible. Shusaku is sometimes referred to as a Gosei, or Go Saint, indicating the fullness of technical and spiritual possibilities expressed through his play. Even at the beginning stages, reviewing these games can allow the aspiring player to witness something of the beauty and greatness of the game and of its possibilities. (Kiseido)

Monday, February 16, 2009

By the Sacred River Ganges

Varanasi, India 2006

Spiritual Disposition and Perception

Greetings of Peace. Marco Pallis' article on "Spiritual Counsel" is very pertinent to your inquiries and I would strongly suggest seeking it out and reading it in its entirety. I have read it several times and periodically return to it for the insight that it provides into the quest for religion and tradition.

Although I am not a priest or someone similarly endowed with authority on spiritual matters, I hope that what thoughts and experience I do have to share will be of some benefit to you and others who have similar concerns. I can also attest to the fact that many of the members here that I either know personally or have corresponded with are among the kindest, most intelligent, and insightful people that I have ever met. For many of them and for myself as well, there are few exchanges more enjoyable or rewarding than the discussion of God, religion, and the spiritual life.

* * *

This is an important statement which perhaps deserves some further exploration. I do not necessarily think that Marco Pallis was stating that a Westerner is intrinsically suited for the Christian Way, but rather that he is inclined toward it because of the very strong impressions that living and thinking in the Christian West have made upon him either overtly or subtly. His words that "his mental conformation, whether he likes it or not, will have been powerfully affected by Christian ways of thinking and acting" implies extrinsic elements at work, rather than an unfoldment of the innate disposition of the soul.

To clarify this statement, let us first turn to the nature of religion. All religions are in essence or "at heart" the religio perennis as it is providentially adapted to the different conditions of man. Similarly, the human soul bears within itself the faculty of the Intellect or the "eye of the heart", capable of discerning and bearing witness to this element of universality. This constitutes one kind of heredity of a primary nature to which may be added a secondary heredity attached to a particular religious form which has been providentially inherited by birth or circumstances. The former is primary and indicative of the intrinsic disposition of the soul while the latter is secondary and although both powerful and significant, ultimately extrinsic.

The person sensitive to the essential nature of religions whom we have designated as the esoterist realizes that although some may be extrinsically inaccessible, no religion is inherently incompatible owing to the primary heredity identified with the religio perennis. However, as Frithjof Schuon has so aptly remarked, the heart is covered by a sheet of ice, a fact that is true for nearly all men, one of the results of which are certain limitations directly contributing to the accessibility of a given religious form. This ice affects our ability to appreciate and bear witness to the beauty and sanctity of religious forms and render their symbolic qualities transparent to transcendent spiritual realities.

* * *

This is a very insightful comment. Although thinking is an important aspect of who we are and what we do as human beings, it is a limitation if our experience of religion consists of thinking alone. Not only is it impossible to witness your own transformation, which is like trying to watch a flower grow, if you only endeavor to think about the metaphysical significance of symbols, you fail to engage faculties which are as, if not more, important than the acquisition of theoretical knowledge. These faculties are best expressed through their physical analogues, senses such as sight, hearing, and tasting, which serve as symbols when transposed onto the spiritual plane. They all, but tasting especially, express the immediacy of metaphysical and presential knowledge in addition to indicating the means of its acquisition through a material medium and counterpart.

Frithjof Schuon very succinctly expressed this truth in the video interview that was recently circulating on YouTube when he stated with regard to the significance of art that "It is not enough to think about Metaphysics. We also want to see and to hear metaphysics." A full appreciation of a given religion can be obtained by not only thinking about its doctrines, but also by seeing and hearing the beauty of its divinely instituted formal elements, and ultimately by tasting its spiritual essence. Also like the flower however, these faculties grow imperceptibly over time, sustained by our faith in God and nurtured by the beauty and sanctity of the rites, traditions, and revelations that He has provided for our spiritual nourishment and salvation.

* * *

While it is true that a person referring to him or herself as a master probably is not, I think that this judgment is much more difficult to make concerning those who refer to themselves as Buddhists or even Christians or Muslims, for what degree of perfection is required to hold claim to such an identity? Certainly to testify to the adherence of the eight-fold path does not necessary mean that one fully realizes its meaning and actualizes that understanding within one's being, for that would make one a great saint. In a sense, religion begins and ends with its fundamental doctrine. It begins with faith and ends with the consummation of that faith in an through presential knowledge. Religions are broad and encompassing enough to accommodate men and women of various aptitudes, inclinations, and even degrees of sincerity. I think that this fact constitutes a great lesson to us, especially for esoterists. There is a wonderful passage in the Book of Wisdom of Ibn Ata'Allah that I like to relate in this context. It states that

"If you see a servant whom God has made to abide in the recitation of litanies and prolonged His help therein, do not disdain what his Lord has given him on the score that you do not detect the signs of gnostics on him nor the splendor of God's lovers. For had there been no inspiration, there would have been no litanty."

Saturday, February 14, 2009

That he should deceive the nations no more....

Michael Binding Satan by William blake

"And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, and cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season." -Revelations 20:1-3

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Life and Teachings of the Jagadguru

A full length documentary on the life and teachings of Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, the 68th Jagadguru of Kanchi

Hindu Dharma and other teachings are available online from the

Friday, February 06, 2009

Reflections on Freemasonry

I have spent a considerable amount of time in the past studying the rituals, symbolism, and philosophy of Freemasonry. The following are some of the conclusions that I have drawn concerning the fraternity. It began through the simple initiatory rites of the medieval craft guilds. After achieving a certain degree of proficiency, the apprentice would be initiated into the secrets of his trade, consisting of a knowledge of the principles of building, architecture, and symbolism. Reference to works such as The Ten Book on Architecture by Vitruvius can demonstrate the vastness and sophistication of the education of the architect while books on the symbolism and sacred geometry of such structures as Indian and Egyptian temples, mosques, and cathedrals can demonstrate the profundity of the spiritual wisdom which is his legacy. Within the traditional worldview, building, like all traditional arts and crafts, is attributed a divine origin. It is something given to us from God through the angels and prophets, and is therefore imbued with the sanctity of its origin. As a sacred and symbolic work issuing from a divine source, it may serve as a support of the spiritual life of the craftsman. The practice of building, the transformation wrought upon the physical substances, and the canon of sacred doctrine transmitted through symbolism, all serve to support the spiritual life provided by the religion of the community. Like the forms of spiritual practice which it supports, it only possesses efficacy within the context of the religious tradition as a whole. In other words it is an aspect and dimension of the tradition issuing forth from or working in concert with the revelation, not an independent means of salvation in its own right.

All of the above associations are in reference to the practice of the craft of masonry as it originally existed and as it exists in itself, not to the modern fraternity of Freemasons. The modern institution is secular, not in the sense that it does not acknowledge the existence of God (an acknowledgment that is actually one its prerequisites for membership), but in the sense that it does not ally itself with a particular religion so as to fulfill its function as a support to the spiritual path. Neither does it require of its membership such a participation. Perhaps the greatest deficiency of the modern institution consists in the transition from operation to speculation. When the institution ceased to perpetuate the practice of building, it seems to have lost its reason for being. The symbolism still possesses its meaning, but it is no longer integrated into the life of the initiate through the daily practice of the craft. The transition from operative masonry to speculative masonry precipitated an excessive emphasis upon discordant symbols. Without the practice of building to limit the range of symbols drawn upon and the nature of the knowledge transmitted, the initiation rituals soon began incorporate many foreign symbol systems and various bodies of occult doctrine virtually indiscriminately leading to the dizzying hierarchy of rituals and synrectistic aggregate of symbols which destroyed the original simplcity and elegance of the craft initiation.

To state my present position very succinctly, I believe that the modern institutions of Freemasonry have strayed so far from their origins that not only do they fail to support religion but can actually serve as a hinderance to it when taken as a false substitute.

The Two Greatest Commandments

"Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart." (Deuteronomy 6:4-6)

"Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him. Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am the Lord." (Leviticus 19:17-18)

"And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all? And Jesus answered him, the first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God is One Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: This is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:28-31)

"Say: He is Allah, the One! Allah, the eternally besought of All! He begetteth not, nor was begotten. And there is none comparable unto him." (Quran 112)

"None of you has faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself." (Sahih Muslim 45)

Considerations on Alchemy

Alchemy is one of several traditional arts and sciences that have descended to us from ancient, possibly prehistoric times. The alchemy that we are familiar with in the west has its origins within the ancient Egyptian civilization and developed into its present form with the synthesis centered around the prophetic figure of Hermes Trismegistus who emerged in Alexandrian Egypt around 100 A.D.. The Emerald Tablet of Hermes, which is perhaps the single most important alchemical document enshrining the entire perspective within its short passages, properly belongs to that complementary group of writings commonly known as the Corpus Hermeticum. Likewise, alchemy is not only one of the Hermetic arts, but is sometimes referred to exclusively as the Hermetic Art par excellence. When Guenon and other traditionalists write of “Hermeticism” it is specifically to the heritage of Alchemy that they are referring.

As an aspect of the Egyptian Tradition, particularly as it was transformed and Hellenized in the Hermetic milieu, alchemy constitutes an authentic traditional science. However, it is improper to speak of it as an integral tradition in and of itself. Rather, it is a spiritual science that uses artisanal operations (originally metallurgy but later including traditional crafts as well as other domains) as outward supports for the inward transformation of the soul. To understand the nature of alchemy we must first comprehend the primary defining characteristic of traditional society, that is, the fact that all aspects of life are oriented toward and reflective of the Divine Reality and so are bestowed with a sacred quality. The phenomena of alchemy emerges from the manner in which the labor of the artisan or the craftsman and their materials possess a sacred dimension arising from their intrinsic symbolism and thereby take on the function of an external or “additional” support for religion, that which “binds one back to God”.

To attempt to use alchemy outside the province of religion is to commit the error of the occultists by removing a method from its traditional context thereby secularizing it or divesting it of its sacred content. In such a state of destitution it is subject to all manner of false interpretation and perversion as attempts are made to fill the resultant void with something other than the appropriate sacred function bestowed upon it by tradition. It is first necessary for the alchemist to “bind himself back to God” using the means which God himself has provided us in the form of the revelations of His Prophets. As we are instructed in the Sophic Hydrolith, “When you are in inward harmony with God’s world, outward conformity will not be wanting. Yet our artist can do nothing but sow, plant, and water: God must give the increase. Therefore, if anyone be the enemy of God, all nature declares war against him, but to one who loves God, heaven and earth and all the elements must lend their assistance.”

This situation is particularly hazardous in consideration of the maleficent properties of the metals employed in metallurgical operations. The article by Guenon on “The Significance of Metallurgy” that was used as the basis for this discussion is concerned precisely with this issue. He writes that, historically, metals are subject to a taboo in some traditions such as the Hebrew while in others they are given special reverence such as in the Kabiric Mysteries. This is owing to an inherent two-fold symbolism. Metals are manifestations of the same spiritual archetypes as the planets and so possess the same dual “beneficent” and “maleficent” properties. However, owing to their participation within the infernal as opposed to celestial regions, their maleficent influences naturally predominate while their beneficent influences require a special intervention in order to take effect. According to Guenon,

“…if the metallic influences are taken in their ‘beneficent’ aspect by making use of them in a manner truly ‘ritual’, in the most complete sense of the word, they are susceptible of transmutation and ‘sublimation’, and are then all the more capable of becoming a spiritual ‘support’, since whatever is at the lowest level corresponds by inverse analogy, to what is at the highest level; the whole mineral symbolism of alchemy is based on this very fact, and so is the symbolism of the ancient Kabiric initiations. On the other hand, when nothing is in question but the profane utilization of metals, in view of the fact that the profane point of view as such necessarily brings with it the cutting off of all communication with superior principles, nothing is then left that is capable of effective action save the ‘maleficent’ side of the metallic influences, and this will develop all the more strongly because it will inevitably be isolated from everything that could restrain it or counterbalance it; this particular instance of an exclusively profane utilization is clearly one which is realized in all its fullness in the modern world.”

Although the traditional doctrines and methods are concealed within the enigmatic figures, symbols, and parables of the classic texts, alchemy is fundamentally an oral tradition to which the texts lend support. It requires for its efficacy possession of understanding founded upon interior illumination inspired by God in addition to the traditional instruction of a living adept. To quote the Testament of Alchemy of Morienus to King Khalid, the first alchemical treatise translated from Arabic into Latin,

“Almighty God in his power created powerless servants who can neither undo what he has done nor advance what he holds back. Nor can they even know anything except by the strength that same God has conferred upon them. And from among his servants, he chose select ones to seek after the knowledge he had established that rescues him who masters it from the wretchedness of this world and assures him riches to come, God willing. While those so chosen used to hand down this knowledge to their own heirs, it was at last lost and its masters dispossessed of it when none could be found any more who knew it. But of the books which set forth the matter correctly their remained a few by the ancient seers who went before us. They left their knowledge as a legacy to their successors, whom God had chosen to become adepts according to the methods that had been explained truthfully and forthrightly by their predecessors.”

According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who in his younger days, he has stated, used to seek out such living adepts, the alchemical tradition survived in Europe until the 18th century when it was discredited through its conflict with the prevailing paradigms of modern science. The few students of the art remaining in the 19th century then traveled to Fez in Morocco in order to reestablish contact with the tradition. This situation begs the question of what exactly is the value of the study of alchemy in the absence of a valid link to this traditional heritage of oral instruction. To adequately answer this question we will first need to examine some of its various facets and adaptations.

Alchemy is a composite system composed of a cosmological doctrine, artisanal method, and comprehensive symbolism allied to that method. It is cosmological in so far as it describes and affects the exterior and interior realms, the body and soul of nature and of man. Its particular province is what may be identified in a general way with the Lesser Mysteries, or first stage of the initiatic path which accomplishes the full realization of the possibilities of the human state or, to use the traditional symbolism of Abrahamic monotheism, “the restoration of man’s primordial adamic state antecedent to the fall.” In this sense, Alchemy may, but does not necessarily serve as a foundation for the Greater Mysteries which pertain to the realization of supra-human states or otherwise of “Supreme Union” which falls under the province of mysticism.

In so far as it is limited to cosmology and does not possess a system of theology, Alchemy was capable of assimilation within both the Islamic and Christian worlds where it was seen simply as another traditional science akin to Astrology and others. Its composite nature and comprehensive symbolism made it capable of application within a variety of different contexts including, as previously mentioned, the traditional crafts but also within the esoteric and therefore mystical dimensions of the religion itself. In Chapter 12 of his treatise on Alchemy, Titus Burckhardt gives as significant overview of “The Alchemy of Prayer” demonstrating how, as Rene Guenon stated, its symbolism is capable of being transposed so as to give it a truly spiritual and initiatic value. By transposition is meant adoption of the symbolism by and adaptation to another operative domain endowing the latter with a complex and functional symbolic language. A brief anecdote by William Stoddart is sufficient to illustrate the situation. In his pithy treatise on Sufism, he writes,

“The symbolism of alchemy is sometimes used to describe the practice of dhikr. The soul in its chaotic unregenerate state is ‘lead’. The Philosopher’s Stone is the Divine Name, in contact with which the ‘leaden’ soul is transmuted into ‘gold’, which is its true nature. This true nature has been lost, but is recovered by the practice of dhikr. The ‘alchemical work’ thus symbolizes the ‘work of spiritual realization’. In either case the essential operation is a ‘transmutation’ of that which is ‘base’ into that which is ‘noble’. The science of the macrocosm (the outward world) thus analogically coincides with the science of the microcosm (the inward world or soul).”

The mysterious art of alchemy has long been a subject of great interest to me so I feel that it is necessary to acknowledge its dignity as a traditional science and to demonstrate why the study of its doctrine and symbolism is relevant even with the loss of its traditional operative method. At a time when it has been subject to the grossest of misinterpretations and misapplications particularly at the hands of occultists eager to adopt its symbolism as their own and psychiatrists who see within it the imaginary world of schizophrenics, I also believe that it is important to identify authentic sources of information from which to conduct further research.

Ancient and Modern Thought

... it was an encounter with the ancient philosophy of Plato and his disciples that convinced me of the incommensurable gulf between ancient and modern thought. This experience of the superiority of ancient teaching makes it difficult for me to justify the time and effort that it takes to delve into most contemporary writing of a non-traditional nature, especially that presented by the occult, new-age, and (Blavatskian) theosophical schools, when this time and effort could be better spent studying the orthodox teachings and commentaries of the prophets and saints of the world’s great religious traditions. Perhaps the only thing that I can suggest to the reader enamored with occult teachings is a similar course of study and the hope that the exposure to principles will overcome established prejudices. In his article on “Orthodoxy and Intellectuality” Schuon provides some thought provoking comments on this very issue that I will reproduce at length. He wrote:

“When we say that a doctrine is providential, we mean by this that it is contained in its own way in the Revelation itself and that it cannot fail to be "crystallized" at the cyclic moment assigned to it by its nature … Every cycle has qualitative aspects: what is possible at a certain moment is not possible at another, so that the birth of a particular perspective cannot occur at some arbitrary moment. And this provides us with yet another criterion of orthodoxy — or of heterodoxy — for it is certain that in our times, that is for the last few centuries, the cyclic moment for the manifestation of the great perspectives (darshanas) is past; readaptations — in the sense of a legitimate and therefore adequate and efficacious synthesis — are always possible, but not the manifestations of perspectives that are fundamental and "new" as to their form.

The least that can be said is that no present formulation could surpass the ancient formulations; commentaries can be made on the traditional perspectives, they can be summed up from a particular point of view or expressed according to a particular inspiration, but they cannot be contradicted or replaced …The spuriousness of such attempts always shows itself — apart from intrinsic errors — in the belittling and falsifying spirit which is so characteristic of the modern world; in fact it requires a prodigious lack of spiritual sensibility and of a sense of proportion to take any contemporary thinking, even the best possible, for one of the great providential "crystallizations" of the philosophia perennis.

… In reality, the philosophia perennis, actualized in the West, though on different levels, by Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, the Fathers and the Scholastics, constitutes a definitive intellectual heritage, and the great problem of our times is not to replace them with something better — for this something could not exist according to the point of view in question here — but to return to the sources, both around us and within us, and to examine all the data of contemporary life in the light of the one, timeless truth.

One of the things that men of today seem to fear most is to appear naive, whereas there is really nothing more naive than to attribute naivety to the ancient sages of the East and the West, whose teachings embrace implicitly, and broadly, everything of value to be found among the precautions and subtleties of modern thought; a man has to have very little imagination to believe, with the satisfaction of a schoolboy who is promoted, that he has at last discovered what hundreds and thousands of years of wisdom did not know, and that on the level of pure intelligence. Before seeking to "surpass" any "scholasticism," one should at least understand it! And if one understood it, one would hardly any longer try to surpass it ..."

Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, and the Vedanta Society

I understand your plight and I think that at this forum there are a number of people who can recommend to you excellent books by authors that do not necessarily adhere to the traditionalist school and its perspectives. However, you will have difficulty finding books that represent an orthodox perspective of Christianity written by Hindus from the mere fact that Hindu thought is not considered orthodox in the context of the Christian tradition independent of the consideration of its intrinsic orthodoxy as displayed by the metaphysical perspective of Advaita Vedanta. The question of whether or not such literature is worthwhile is much simpler and although I cannot attest to the quality of the writings of P. Yogananda or R. Ravindra, I am quite familiar with the work of Swami Prabhavananda and can generally recommend it, but not without a few reservations. In collaboration with American authors, he has translated some of the major religious texts of Hinduism including the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Srimad Bhagavatam, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and the Crest Jewel of Discrimination. Although ultimately unreliable as translations, these works were meant to introduce the spirit of the text rather than its technical significance and in this respect they have admirably succeeded. Based upon a vast knowledge of Hindu Traditions he has also produced his greatest work The Spiritual Heritage of India which I unhesitatingly recommend as a significant overview and introduction to the numerous schools of thought and religion that populate the Indian subcontinent.

I do not have in my possession The Sermon on the Mount According to the Vedanta which is the book that you are most likely referring to, but I have the original articles (as part of another book) that it was based on. Assuming that few if any changes were made to the content, it is safe to say that this work has very little to do with Christian doctrine and so cannot legitimately be considered as a work of comparative religion. Rather, Swami Prabhavananda reflects upon the teachings of the Sermon in themselves, with little or no reference to other Christian writings or teachings, and applies their universal content to the context of his own experiences within the Hindu tradition. I do not recall encountering anything problematic in this book or in The Spiritual Heritage of India and would recommend the former as both interesting and inspiring and the latter as an excellent informative resource. I have, however, occasionally encountered certain problematic ideas in his work and it might be well to explain some of them in case you do happen to encounter them in either of these books. In order to do this, it is first necessary to say a few words about the organization of which he was a representative.

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa

Swami Prabhavananda belonged to a monastic society called the Ramakrishna Order of monks, named after the teacher of the original monks who founded it, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. He (Ramakrishna) was a great spiritual master of the 19th century who combined within himself the qualities of bhakti and gnani, or devotional worship and realization. The essence of his teaching has been aptly designated as a Vedanta-Japa synthesis. A small group of young Hindu men constituted his immediate disciples and it was primarily to them that he directed his teachings but he was known and loved by people of many religions and social groups. He taught his disciples to worship God as they were accustomed, according to the traditional rituals and prayers to various deities, but also to realize his nature as the transcendent Brahman, or Absolute Reality of which these various deities were as so many contingent manifestations. To achieve this, he taught that Japa, or the repetition of God’s Name, was the spiritual method most suited to the conditions of this age, the Kali Yuga. He himself was a devotee of the great Goddess Kali and lived for many years at the compound of her temple at Dakshineswar where he presided as priest.

There are many interesting anecdotes to tell of his personality and teachings, and for these I would recommend to you The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna particularly in its abridged form (because of its immediate accessibility to the general reader), a book that I think all people who are endowed with a love of God should be exposed to regardless of their religious background. The most important idea that I would like to convey is that Ramakrishna was a very simple man and without formal education, who followed the traditional prayers and rites of orthodox Hinduism. He was guided in the path of advaita from a wandering monk and later in tantric rites by a female priest. Through their training and his innate spiritual gifts he attained to the realization of his identity with the Absolute and was forever prone to frequent bouts of ecstasy when this realization would return to him. In fact, it is sometimes said (I believe originally by he himself) that after experiencing this realization, his normal state of consciousness became that of samadhi, characterized by ecstatic absorption into the Absolute, and it was only through an effort of concentration that he was able to maintain a level of consciousness such that he might communicate with his disciples and function within the phenomenal world. He taught to his closest disciples some of the spiritual methods that he had learned, and conveyed to them a transmission of spiritual influence that initiated them into the spiritual life.

The Emblem of the Ramakrishna Order of Monks

Following the master’s death, and after a period of wandering, these disciples took monastic names and vows and organized themselves into the Ramakrishna Order of Monks. The two most prominent disciples were Swami Brahmananda and Swami Vivekananda. The former was a soft spoken and pious Hindu whom Sri Ramakrishna considered to be his spiritual son. He had come to live with Sri Ramakrishna and learn from his words and presence the meaning of the spiritual life. Swami Vivenakanda was an outspoken and sometimes controversial member of the Brahmo Samaj, a Hindu reform movement. Sri Ramakrishna loved him dearly and viewed him as the acknowledged leader of the group due to his great mental prowess, oratory and rhetorical skill. He would frequently request Vivekananda to visit him so that, like Swami Brahmananda, he might receive the benefit of his spiritual influence and guidance, and thereby make the best use of his innate talents. By Vivekananda’s own admission, “He was afraid about me, that I might create a sect if left to myself.” The nature of these two monks represents the contrary influences that inform and characterize the present movement. On the one hand there is the heritage of orthodox Hinduism and the faithful adherence to the teachings of Ramakrishna and on the other, the modern ideologies deriving through Vivekananda from the Brahmo Samaj.

As a disciple of Swami Brahmanada, Swami Prabhavananda is characterized generally by orthodoxy and faithfulness to Ramakrishna as to his master, but the pervasiveness of Vivekananda’s personality and teachings within the Order are such that he was unable to escape their influence. Certain points of contention introduced by Vivekananda include the preoccupation with social welfare, a perspective concerning meditation as a scientifically justified and quantifiable method of realization, and the view that the modern world is the result of progress in the material realm which must ideally be synthesized with the progress of Indian civilization in spiritual realm. Swami Prabhavananda does not necessarily prescribe to these views in their entirety, and to my recollection they may be entirely absent from the works that I recommended. Nevertheless, one can occasionally catch a glimpse of Vivekananda’s influence at work in his more popular articles and it is best to be aware of such ideas such that we do not fall prey to them inadvertently by accepting them alongside those that are not objectionable.

In his very informative book Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines, Rene Guenon provides some background on the Brahmo Samaj and additionally, the following remarks on the Vedanta movement deriving from the Ramakrishna Order. He wrote,

“Another still more completely aberrant branch, better known in the West, is that founded by Vivekananda, the disciple of the illustrious Ramakrishna though unfaithful to his teaching; it has recruited its adherents mostly in America and Australia, where it runs ‘missions’ and ‘temples.’ There Vedanta has become, like Schopenhauer’s conception of it, a sentimental and ‘consoling’ religion, with a strong dose of Protestant ‘moralism’; in this degenerate form, it approaches very close to Theosophism, towards which it stands in the position of natural ally rather than a rival or competitor. The ‘evengelical’ attitude assumed by this pseudo-religion has earned it a certain success, chiefly in Anglo-Saxon countries; while its inherently sentimental character is well attested by the ardour for propaganda animating its votaries; for, as might be expected, an altogether Western propensity for proselytism rages intensely in these organizations, which are Eastern in nothing but the name, apart from a few merely outward signs, calculated to interest the curious and to attract dilettantes by playing on their taste for an exoticism of the feeblest type. This so-called Vedanta, which is a product of that queer American and characteristically Protestant creation called the ‘Parliament of Religions, ’ and which pleases the West all the better the more completely it is distorted, has practically nothing left in common with the metaphysical doctrine the name of which it bears. No more time need be wasted on it; but it seemed best at least to mention its existence, in order to put people who have heard of it on their guard against possible false assimilations; as for those who have not come across these movements, it is best that they should be made aware of them, since they are not nearly so harmless as might appear at first sight.”

I think that, contrary to Guenon’s assertion, a few more words might be said concerning the orthodox presence within the Society deriving from Ramakrishna’s spiritual transmission as well as the possibility of a westerner practicing Hinduism and the Path of Gnana Yoga in an authentic manner. I would be willing to devote a few more words to these subjects, but for now I will simply say that if you would like to learn about Hinduism or Christianity it might be best simply to study the sacred texts and their orthodox commentaries, avoiding altogether that which, despite whatever merits it might possess, may give rise to confusion or misinterpretation.

The Exploitation of Lost Traditions

I can certainly appreciate the desire to foster pride in one's culture and origins by embracing indigenous practices and perspectives, but I would be very wary of those who would exploit an essentially positive intention in order to amass wealth and prestige under false pretenses. I have witnessed a pastiche of various scientistic, new-age, and haphazardly presented occult doctrines exploiting the reputation and imagery of a noble and once-thriving traditional civilization. Much discrimination will be necessary to rectify the unfortunate situation of anyone who attaches himself to this or any similar movement or organization.

While we may certainly state that Hunbatz Men can be more aptly described as a new age writer than as a Traditionalist one -- for whom human endeavor and ingenuity, in a word caprice, overshadows the rightful place of the Divine -- the case of Julius Evola is a little more subtle. Julius Evola, a very intelligent author with a prodigious memory, acquired his understanding of traditional doctrines through his association with Arturo Reghini. From the latter he was to learn but not necessarily understand fully many of the teachings of René Guénon unfortunately colored by the perspectives of the Scuola Italica, Reghini's esoteric order that romanticized imperial Rome.

Evola consistently denigraded both religion and the exoteric point of view. For him authentic spirituality was limited to the esoteric dimension possessed by the Regal Warrior Elite. On the contrary, all of those identified with the Traditionalist School, while acknowledging the centrality of esoterism and the important role of the spiritual elite in our present age, consistently defend both the dignity and necessity of exoteric religion both in itself and as a necessary foundation for the pursuit of esoterism. This is one of the key perspectives that Evola shares with the various modern pseudo-spiritual movements and accounts for his popularity among various schools of occultism. Thus, although he expressed some important traditional ideas, he cannot be considered as an exemplary figure of the Traditionalist School.

Socrates once stated that any author will say something to the point. That is to say that (generally speaking) every book, however flawed or incompetent, will generally have at least one thing that is useful or interesting. Unfortunately, the accumulation of contemporary writing, especially with widespread access to the internet, is far too voluminous to read everything always looking for that "something to the point". Again there is the need for discrimination.

Or rather than discrimination, perhaps it would be better for me to say that discernment is necessary, because while the former implies a decision to choose that which is real over that which is false (a decision that has already been made), the latter refers to a keenness of insight and judgment. In other words, it refers to the ability to recognize which sources and individuals are authentic and which are not. Authenticity only comes into consideration when a given teaching is communicated on behalf of something greater than itself. For example, in the case of Hunbatz Men, he attempted to state that his teachings represented true Mayan religion and science, a situation immediately calling their authenticity into question.

An important distinction must here be made between a movement (in this case, a reform movement) and tradition. Reform movements desire a return to the past. Nonetheless, they are wholly modern phenomena, and the past that they desire to return to is generally a romantic fantasy developed in the imagination of the present. Tradition on the other hand implies a transmission which carries the past into the present through an uninterrupted chain of transmission. Cultural customs and practices may support this transmission but it is the presence of the sanctifying influence of the saint that causes it both to blossom and to revive in times of decline.

It may well be that living representatives embodying the ancient traditions of Mexico are still living amongst the people. Rest assured that they will not be writing popular occult manuals. Herein lays the need for discrimination. Three things can be used as a touchstone for determining authenticity. These are intelligence, dignity, and orthodoxy.

By intelligence is meant the expressed mental capacities of knowledge, reason, and understanding. By dignity is implied nobility of character. In this we can see the wisdom of the biblical aphorism, “He who lives the life shall know the doctrine.” These first two criteria of judgment are, to a certain degree, limited by one’s own possession of them. It is only by virtue of possessing a modicum of intelligence and nobility oneself that one is able to judge those qualities in others. To the base and ignorant man, that which is common achieves the status of dignity, but its worth is generally unrecognized, for in the achievement of that recognition the base man would already have begun to lift himself up as it were to that level.

Orthodoxy is a different issue altogether for it transcends the limited capabilities of human judgment. Orthodoxy, to which we may add its counterpart orthopraxy (literally right thinking and right action), concern originality in the sense of proximity to the origin as opposed to its modern connotation of individuality of expression. All elements of a traditional civilization have their origin within the divine principle. All religions, for instance, are rooted in the phenomenon of revelation, that is to say that the Absolute has entered into the world and revealed itself to man simultaneously revealing the Truth, the Law, and the Spiritual Path which joins them together. Orthodoxy consists in faithfulness and conformity to the revelation, an idea that is inherently antithetical to the pursuit of individuality.

The problem with false teachers such as Hunbatz Men and with occultism in general lies in the fact that the nature of the Absolute has been distorted if not lost sight of altogether, commonly being replaced with a kind of glorified material energy. The natural consequence of this is as follows. If reason, capable of apprehending the workings of matter, is exalted over the intellect which alone penetrates to realization of the Absolute, ethics becomes the province of human as opposed to divine judgment and all subsequent practice loses its proper foundation in the Law. The traditional principles of ethics which govern individual and collective behavior in conformity to the divine reality no longer serve as the support of a discipline leading to the Truth. All that remains is the vestiges of a spiritual method without foundation or aim, leading only to the pursuit of power and the vain glorification of the ego.

Hunbatz Men summarizes this great deviation of modern occultism and his perversion of Mayan Tradition on page 132 when he states, “These words help us develop our occult powers and become true reflections of Hunab K’u. This is the path to become Quezalcoatl or Kukulcan.”

The perspective of a purely rational and scientific origin of religion as opposed to divine revelation is given on page 28 when he states, “This introduction was intended to outline how the Maya created a religion based on secrets gleamed over many centuries from nature – from our earthly planet in union with cosmic laws.”

Again, Hunbatz Men describes the materialization of the Absolute and its subjection to purely rational formulation in the following quotation on page 24: “Our pre-conquest Mayan ancestors, through deduction and synthesis, came to a monotheistic conclusion, with a mathematical sense. Their concept of the Absolute was defined as measure and movement – measure of the soul and movement of the energy which is spirit.”

Many more examples can be given to illustrate the situation but I think that these are sufficient. I also hope to have demonstrated just how subtle these errors can be, especially for the inexperienced reader, and how far reaching the implications of improper foundations.

A significant plight of the modern world is the exaltation and idolization of quantity and the subordination of quality. Quantity consists of the amount of a thing as with its characteristics. quality consists of its level of excellence. In a secular worldview, the standard of quality is established through the judgment of an individual. Thus, in this situation value is determined through caprice or individual whim. In a traditional worldview this same standard is established based upon the conformity of the subject to the Divine Reality of the Absolute. Such a subject possesses a higher degree of quality in so far as its essential nature more adequately reflects the nature of the Absolute.

Once entered into consciousness as a perceived reality, the existence of the Absolute may thus serve as the key to the solution of all problems and the definitive answer to all questions of ultimate importance. Likewise, when it is absent, confusion ensues, there is a disruption of order in the world, and false gods are elevated to its place.

Sophia Perennis and Islam

My own understanding of the technical meaning of many of the terms and relationships of metaphysical principles in limited. I can at best point you in the direction of the writings of those who possess a greater understanding. An excellent source of information on this subject is the second chapter of Knowledge and the Sacred, "What is Tradition?"

A few of the ideas that I have taken away from this are the following. A revelation can be considered as an objective manifestation of the Logos or as a particular unveiling of the principles of the Universal Intellect. Sophia Perennis, or the eternally and perpetually existent Divine Wisdom is identical to these principles when viewed in their essentiality. Sophia Perennis, therefore, exists at the heart of all of the macrocosmic revelations which give rise to the world’s religions. However, it also exists within the microcosmic revelation of the human Intellect. “With Sophia Perennis, ” according to Schuon, “it is fundamentally a question of the following: there are truths innate in the human Spirit, which nevertheless in a sense lie buried in the depth of the “Heart” – in the pure Intellect – and are accessible only to the one who is spiritually contemplative; and these are the fundamental metaphysical truths.” For the pure of heart, the truths of revelation call out to the same truths inscribed in the human spirit. The natural and appropriate response to this call is prayer. Irrespective of how we choose to identify and define all of these terms and their relationships (as they are subject to multiple perspectives), I think it is of greatest importance to be able to hear and respond to this call.

I also realize that you are a devout Muslim assimilating the doctrines and traditions of your religion while also attempting to situate many of these ideas within that context. Some passages from the referred chapter of Knowledge and the Sacred may be of great assistance to you in this regard, especially the following:

“Before leaving the subject of philosophia perennis, it seems appropriate to turn for a moment to the destiny of this idea in the Islamic tradition where its relation to sacred knowledge and its meaning as a perennial truth revived within each revelation is quite evident and more emphasized than in the Christian tradition. Islam sees the doctrine of unity (al-tawhīd) not only as the essence of its own message but as the heart of every religion. Revelation for Islam means the assertion of al-tawhīd and all religions are seen as so many repetitions in different climes and languages of the doctrine of unity. Moreover, wherever the doctrine of unity is to be found, it is considered to be of divine origin. Therefore, Muslims did not distinguish between religion and paganism but between those who accepted unity and those who denied or ignored it. For them the sages of antiquity such as Pythagoras and Plato were “unitarians” (muwaḥḥidūn) who expressed the truth which lies at the heart of all religions. They, therefore, belonged to the Islamic universe and were not considered as alien to it.

The Islamic intellectual tradition in both its gnostic (ma‘rifah or ‘irfān) and philosophical and theosophical (falsafah-hikmah) aspects saw the source of this unique truth which is the “Religion of the Truth” (dīn al-ḥaqq) in the teachings of the ancient prophets going back to Adam and considered the prophet Idrīs, whom it identified with Hermes, as the “father of philosophers” (Abu‘l-hukamā‘). Many Sufis called not only Plato “divine” but also associated Pythagoras, Empedocles, with whom an important corpus which influenced certain schools of Sufism is associated, and others with the primordial wisdom associated with prophecy. Even early Peripatetic (mashshā‘ī) philosophers such as al-Fārābī saw a relation between philosophy and prophecy and revelation. Later figures such as Suhrawardī expanded this perspective to include the tradition of pre-Islamic Persia. Suhrawardī spoke often of al-hikmat al-laduniyyah or Divine Wisdom (literally the wisdom which is near God) in terms almost identical with what Sophia and also philosophia perennis mean traditionally, including its aspect of realization. A later Islamic figure, the eighth/fourteenth (Islamic/Christian) century gnostic and theologian Sayyid Ḥaydar Āmulī, made no reservations in pointing to the correspondence existing between the “Muḥammadan” pleroma of seventy-two stars of the Islamic universe and the seventy-two stars of the pleroma comprised of those sages who had preserved their primordial nature but belong to a world outside of the specifically Islamic one.

Ṣadr al-Dīn Shīrāzī identified true knowledge with a perennial wisdom which has existed since the beginning of human history. The Islamic conception of the universality of revelation went hand in hand with the idea of a primordial truth which has always existed and will always exist, a truth without history. The Arabic al-dīn, which is perhaps the most suitable word to translate the term tradition, is inseparable from the idea of permanent and perpetual wisdom, the sophia perennis which can also be identified with the philosophia perennis as understood by such a figure as Coomaraswamy."

I hope that I was able to contribute to a better understanding of the Sophia Perennis, especially within the context of the Islamic Tradition. I would also like to invite others to comment further on the meaning and significance of the principles involved, the idiosyncrasies of which I am admittedly deficient.