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.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Entertainment and the Spiritual Life

With regard to contemporary music and in fact music in general, I approach it as a muslim and so have investigated the subject primarily from this perspective. Apparently there is a lengthy precedent within Islam of denouncing all popular music in favor of quranic recitation only. However, among all of those whom I consider authoritative, there is a more judicious veiwpoint expressed. Although spiritual music is given the greatest merit, that which is beautiful and pleasant (as opposed to vulgar) is not forbidden to us as a form of leisure activity. This is the perspective for example of al-Ghazali in his book The Alchemy of Happiness where he states, "It is not right that music be considered forbidden because it is pleasant, for pleasant things are not forbidden. Pleasant things which are held to be unlawful are so deemed not because they are pleasant. Rather, they are forbidden because they are are deleterious and corrupting. The songs of birds are pleasing, but not forbidden. Vegetation, flowing water, and admiring the blossoms of flowers are pleasant but not forbidden. Consequently, a beautiful sound is the same to the ear as greenery, flowing water, and blossoms are to the eye, or the smell of musk to the nose, or good tasting food to the taste, or good wisdom to the mind. For each of the senses there is a kind of pleasure. Why should it be unlawful?" Elsewhere he also states that "being excessively pious, frowning, and refraining from things is not part of religion." In other words there should be a certain gentle quality to the soul rather than a heart hardened against beauty in any of its myriad forms.

Based upon these observations, the implications for any kind of music, classical or contemporary should be clear. Personally, I would be somewhat wary against the prospect of marginalizing certain activities and separating them, at least psychologically, from our spiritual lives, for once we have consciously entered into it, there is no activity that can be divorced from it. From that time on, anything that we do can be a support or a hindrance, "Is he then unaware that Allah seeth?" (46:14) Such a compartmentalization is unnecessary, however, granted that even leisure is justifiable and salutary from this perspective. It is not simply frivolity or laziness as it may also serve the function of enabling us to rest and gather our strength to continue the holy war with renewed vigor.

Concerning video games in particular, I think that they range from relatively harmless to genuinely harmful. I have a peripheral interest in certain independent video games playable though my iphone, for instance, while I find that most popular large productions center around the realistic emulation of the experience of killing, theft, destruction of the environment, etc. Another deleterious aspect of these types of games concerns the creation of an alternate reality, an aspect also present in film, which when pursued as a lifestyle, can cause one to live in a world of dreams (or nightmares depending upon the nature of the fabrication) whereas our aim should be to live in the reality of the present. One of the most interesting critiques of video games I have seen comes from the insiders perspective of a video game developer and is called Design Reboot by Jonathan Blow.

Unfortunately, I do not seem to have any definitive answers for you, just a few miscellaneous reflections. Ultimately, I think that we are responsible for determining the nature of the world that we choose to participate in, and whether or not we want to fill our mental, emotional, and physical space with things contrary to the spiritual life, always keeping in mind that that which is leisurely, fun, pleasant, and especially beautiful is not intrinsically incompatible.

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Perennial Vedanta

Advaita Vedanta is the tradition of non-dual metaphysics and the means of its realization as it has been transmitted in India. Its central teaching is the identity, complementarity, and harmony of the objective (transcendent) and subjective (immanent) qualities of the Absolute.

As you so aptly pointed out, the exoteric framework of this esoteric path is the revealed form of worship and civilization which has come to be known as Hinduism and which possesses certain inherent restrictions concerning its accessibility to those who are mentally and geographically foreign to it. As a darshan, that is, when viewed within the context of the Vedic tradition, it is heterodox to attempt the practice of Advaita Vedanta independent of its religious foundation irrespective of the withdrawal away from the proliferation of exterior forms of worship that takes place as a matter of course.

However, and here is where your question can potentially take on new meaning, metaphysics is the knowledge of reality. As such, it is one and universal however diverse are the forms wherein its exposition is clothed or however diverse are the forms of the souls wherein its realization takes place. One of the chief gifts of Frithjof Schuon is the manner in which he has exposed and formulated anew the universal meaning of the Vedantic doctrine and method, identified its analogues within other traditions, and assisted in the revitalization and preservation of esoterism in diverse religious contexts.

The three principle sadhanas of Advaita Vedanta are sravana (hearing), manana (reflection), and nididhyasana (meditation). Sravana is the formal Initiatic transmission of the scriptures in originally established by the primordial rishis who heard them within the depths of the heart, hence their designation as sruti or 'that which is heard.' Manana is the contemplation of the metaphysical doctrine contained in the scriptures and nididhyasana is the methodical concentration upon and total absorption within Brahman which may involve the use of a revealed mantra (literally manana trayate, that which when repeated saves).

According to Schuon, these sadhanas when considered in their universal content and significance as initiatic transmission (orthodoxy), metaphysical contemplation (doctrine), and methodical concentration (method), constitute the framework of all forms of esoterism. They may be found accessible in all authentic traditions wherever esoterism still thrives. It is in the context of this understanding that the notion of spiritual expediency arises within the teachings of the traditional school revealing a means by which Advaita Vedanta may in principle if not in fact be practiced outside of the Hindu context.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Transcendentalism and Tradition

Emerson bases his perspective upon the recognition of the transcendent nature of the intellect (he refers to it as intuition and somewhat inadequately associates it with instinct) and the metaphysical transparency of virgin nature. He is however, more poet than gnostic, as these insights tend toward the rejection of tradition. This is articulated most clearly in his essay on Self-Reliance, which in addition to the ordinary meaning of independence, also refers literally to reliance upon the Self, of an intuition unmediated and uninfluenced by religion. One might very easily mistake his position for gnosis if it was not tinged by a prometheanism that places subjective and objective revelation in opposition to one another.

Emerson is certainly enjoyable as an essayist and poet but I would not look to him as a source of orthodox teachings or traditional perspectives. Curiously, Mark Perry makes judicious use of his teachings in the book "On Awakening and Remembering" which may be of interest to you.

Alchemical Synthesis and Praxis

Guenon gives precise definitions and parameters of syncretism and synthesis within his book "Perspectives on Initiation", Chapter 6, Synthesis & Syncretism such that it is sufficient simply to refer to this source for clarification.

According to Guenon, "Syncretism in its true sense is nothing more than a simple juxtaposition of elements of diverse provenance brought together "from the outside" so to speak, without any principle of a more profound order to unite them." The two primary examples that he gives are "Modern counterfeits of tradition like occultism and theosophy ... fragmentary notions borrowed from different traditional forms, generally poorly understood and more or less deformed ... mixed with ideas belonging to philosophy and profane science." These represent practical and doctrinal syncretism respectively. Aleister Crowley's occult order Astron Argon (A.'.A.'.) is an example of the former. Practically, it combines elements of medieval, renaissance, and modern ceremonial magic with different forms of yoga as expounded by Swami Vevekananda, and psuedo-Egyptian initiatory rites, within an improvised framework of Kabbalistic symbolism. For an example of the latter, which is chiefly doctrinal, one can simply peruse either of Blavatsky's primary theosophical texts Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine.

Also according to Guenon, "Synthesis starts from principles, that is to say from what is most interior; it goes, one might say, from center to circumference." Guenon's chief example of synthesis is the metaphysical exposition of traditional doctrine. He states that "Whatever is truly inspired by traditional knowledge always proceeds from "within" and not from "without"; whoever is aware of the essential unity of all traditions can, according to the case, use different traditional forms to expound and interpret doctrine, if there happens to be some advantage in doing so." A good example of this is Schuon's alternate use of Platonic, Hindu, and Islamic equivalent terms when expounding metaphysical principles.

Guenon here emphasizes doctrinal synthesis but does not mention practical synthesis although we do know from prior comments that traditional ritual practices are inherently incompatible at the formal level. One practical domain in which synthesis seems plausible is that of the cosmological sciences such as astrology, alchemy, and architecture. The unifying element in this case is the cosmological vision underlying the science which may be transposed into various traditional domains and exposited within the language of the respective revelations with which it becomes associated. One may examine the Codex Rosae Crucis D.O.M.A., for example, which is a magnificent representation of Christian Alchemy, while remembering that the alchemical art passed into Christendom, through the Islamic tradition, which in turn inherited it from the Graeco-Egyptian tradition. Alchemy may be exposited in distinctly Christian terms, and related to from within the scope of the Anthropocosmic vision of Christianity, but the science remains internally consistent from "within" different traditional domains ...

Alchemy is fundamentally the science and art of the transmutations of the soul leading to the restoration of the perfection of the human state. Although its primary aim is the inner transformation of the alchemist, its outward supports may vary to include all traditional arts and crafts, especially metallurgy (which provides the fundamental basis of alchemical symbolism) and architecture (which has served as one of the primary vehicles for alchemical symbolism), prayer within an overtly spiritual alchemy, and the subtle centers of the body (which, although they are engaged inadvertently through any spiritual method, may also serve as a direct focus and operative support of concentration).

Although the language of alchemy is diverse and convoluted, often possessing subtle variations according to the individual alchemist endeavoring either to explain or veil the nature of the practice, it is internally consistent such that its basic themes and perspective may be reasonably communicated. Therefore there are a number of very clear contemporary writings on the subject not least of which are the chapter on Alchemy in Seyyed Hossein Nasr's Science and Civilization in Islam and Titus Burckhardt's Alchemy: Science of Cosmos, Science of Soul, this latter of which may perhaps be considered the final word on the subject in terms of contemporary expositions.

You ask, "how can one integrate a pursuit/study of alchemy with a general Islamic/tasawwuf orientation? I presume it's been done before, since I've come across many references to alchemy in the words of the sufis themselves..."

There are essentially three ways to do this correlating to the operative supports mentioned above: learning the interior dimensions of a craft from a traditional artisan, contemplating alchemical symbols to gain additional insight into a spiritual method, and directly incorporating the subtle centers of the body into the method. Each of these possibilities requires qualified guidance for improvisations never enter into the domain of orthodoxy.

In the first instance, a bond exists in the Islamic world between the traditional craft guilds and the orders of Sufism. With the rise of industrialization and the loss of traditional crafts, this possibility is more remote than in previous centuries, especially outside of the Islamic world. I have only ever met one craftsman, a blacksmith, in Southern California who claimed knowledge and practice of the alchemy of his craft, though his traditional filiation was questionable.

In the second instance, prayer, especially invocatory prayer, serves as the operative support and the verbal symbol a means of grace - Its permutations within the soul correlating to the various stages of alchemical transmutation. Al-Ghazali identifies four principal stages of invocation and specifically refers to the last as the Alchemy of Happiness and ultimate aim of the spiritual life, when the love of God overcomes the love of the world and the invocation takes possession of the soul. All Sufi orders teach a spiritual method correlating to this, though not necessarily in Alchemical terms in which case the contemplation of Alchemical symbolism may add an enriching point of reference for deepening one's understanding of the interior processes accompanying the method.

Finally, there is the consideration of the implementation of the subtle centers of the human body. Just as the spiritual archetypes present within the celestial realm as the planets manifest within the mineral kingdom as the metals, the interior analogue of these archetypes within the human microcosm are the subtle centers which are the domain or seat within the subtle body of various faculties. Concentration upon these centers in conjunction with the invocatory method corresponds to that phase of the alchemical work sometimes referred to as the embodying of the spirit which follows the spiritualization of the body. Many Sufi orders, including the Naqshbandiyya, Chishtiyya, and Shadhiliyya, integrate this form of subtle concentration into their spiritual methods.

These then are three ways in which an inclination toward alchemy can be pursued within the domain of Islamic esoterism.