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.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Esoteric Amorality


 Tantric Carvings from Vishwanath Temple, Khajuraho

Greetings of Peace. Today I began re-reading The Transcendent Unity of Religions after many years and encountered the following esoteric conception of amorality. I was surprised to find it in this book because I was under the impression that these ideas were not developed as such until many years later. I found the example at the end to be somewhat problematic and was wondering if anyone had any additional thoughts on the matter. Here is the quotation

“It may nevertheless be asked what consequences such a ‘nonmoral’—we do not say ‘immoral’—conception of ‘evil’ implies for the initiate; the reply to this is that in the consciousness of the initiate, and consequently in his life, ‘sin’ is replaced by ‘dissipation’, that is by everything which is opposed to spiritual ‘concentration’ or in other words to unity. Needless to say, the difference here is primarily one of principle and of method, and this difference does not affect all individuals in the same way; however, what morally is ‘sin’ is nearly always ‘dissipation’ from the initiatory point of view. This ‘concentration’—or tendency towards unity (tawhîd)—becomes, in Islamic exotericism, faith in the Unity of God, and the greatest transgression is to associate other divinities with Allâh; for the initiate (the faqir), on the other hand, this transgression will have a universal bearing in the sense that every purely individual affirmation will be tainted with this aspect of false divinity, and if, from the religious point of view, the greatest merit lies in the sincere profession of Divine Unity, the faqir will realize this profession in a spiritual manner, giving to it a meaning which embraces all the orders of the universe, and this will be achieved precisely by the concentration of his whole being on the one Divine Reality. To make clearer this analogy between ‘sin' and ‘dissipation’ we may take as an example the reading of a good book. From the exoteric point of view this will never be considered as a reprehensible act, but it may be considered incidentally so in esotericism in cases where it amounts to a dissipation, or when the dissipation entailed by the act outweighs its usefulness. Inversely, a thing which would nearly always be considered by religious morality as a ‘temptation’, and hence as a first step on the path to sin, may sometimes play the opposite part in esotericism, inasmuch as, far from being a dissipation, ‘sinful’ or otherwise, it may be a factor of concentration by virtue of the immediate intelligibility of its symbolism. There are even cases, in Tantrism for example and in certain cults of antiquity, where acts which in themselves would count as sins, not only according to a particular religious morality but also according to the legislation of the civilization in which they occur, serve as a support for intellection, a fact which presupposes a strong predominance of the contemplative element over the passionate; however, a religious morality is never made for the benefit of contemplatives only but for that of all men.” (p.49-50)

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Greetings of Peace. Thank you for your responses. I seem to have somehow overlooked that lengthy passage concerning nudity during my first reading of the referenced chapter or perhaps it is simply the case that I did not have a frame of reference for it yet. I am beginning to realize that my first foray into Schuon's writings was much like my first exposure to Plato. I read through his work quickly and uncritically, understanding portions of it while passing over the rest in silence. It is very relevant to my own problematic reference because it provides a concrete illustration with which to engage the idea of the non-moral dimension of esoterism. Indeed, the majority of the references to tantrism in his writings seem self-reflective, pertaining to the explanation and justification of his own practice of sacred nudity and perspective concerning sexuality.

The original problem that I encountered in the passage that I quoted concerns the seeming tension and disproportion between Revelation and Intellection within the domain of moral activity. If esoterism is capable of bypassing the exoteric laws of morality by an appeal to the symbolic and theophanic quality of the natural world, carried to its furthest possible application, this effectively destroys the significance of moral boundaries and renders uninhibited access to anything provided that the qualitative vision of things is accessible through it. Again, carried to its furthest possible application, all created things bear the trace of the divinity.

***

I agree with you concerning the concept of intrinsic morality which we have discussed in the past. In fact we may expand the inquiry to include the concepts of intrinsic orthodoxy and the implied concomitant of intrinsic orthopraxy all of which stem from the dichotomy introduced between subjective intellection and objective revelation. If, to follow our example, an objectively beneficent activity transposed into the subjective intellectual domain of the faqir (engaged in methodical invocation for example) can become a dispersive and therefore intrinsically immoral activity and an objectively immoral activity transposed into the same context can become beneficent, this seems give rise to a rather deeply rooted and problematic relativism. If one man's poison is another man's medicine and potentially vice versa, what happens to the higher order and deeply rooted nature of things?

Thank you for engaging in this exchange. My interrogation of these ideas is not meant as some kind of challenge. It is only a small part of my ongoing effort toward understanding Frithjof Schuon's teachings and their practical application.

***

My initial perception of the seeming relativity of the esoteric perspective was limited and provisional. I now recognize that this is because although all things may bear traces of the divinity, they do not all do so in the same manner or to an identical qualitative degree. Schuon refers to exoteric morality transposed into the esoteric domain as the Sense of the Sacred, a mode of intelligence which in contrast to the rigorous and logical mind, is characterized by a kind of aesthetic and musical sensibility which allows us to exercise a subjective discernment over the holiness and interiorizing qualities of things independent of but not necessarily in condratiction to their consecration through an objective revelation.

***

This is a very important reminder for me as I seem to have created a false dichotomy between these two phenomena that Schuon did not intend or in fact communicate. Revelation and intellection are not equivalent to exoterism and esoterism. Rather, it seems that revelation is addressed to our will and sentiments exoterically and our intelligence esoterically, whereas our intellect itself is unconditioned and therefore linked in a mysterious way to the esoteric and universal dimensions of all revelations indiscriminately, to that domain of metaphysics in which they converge upon one another.

In case you are wondering where all these questions are coming from, I basically woke up one morning to find that I had been operating under the illusion of certitude due to an acceptance of these teachings without any true understanding. The adolescent breaking free of his childhood fantasies concerning God affords an apt analogy. Unlike the typical adolescent response of rebellion, however, I am instead reapplying myself to these teachings with renewed vigor. As Schuon wrote, "It is all too evident that fundamental intelligence is manifested, not necessarily in the fact of accepting lofty ideas, but by the capacity to really understand them..."

***

The following is a quotation from William Chittick's The The Sufi Path of Knowledge concerning The Scale of the Law that is very pertinent to all of the above considerations. He wrote,

"One of the most common terms that Ibn al-Arabi employs in referring to revelation in both a general sense and the specific sense of the Koran and Sunna is shar', which will be translated as 'Law' and from which the well-known term Shari'a, the revealed law of Islam, is derived. The original sense of the term is 'to enter into the water to drink of it,' said of animals. Secondarily it means a clear and open track or path. It came to be applied metaphorically to the clear and obvious path which leads to God, or in other words, the Law which God revealed as guidance to mankind. Ibn al-Arabi often speaks of revealed Law in general terms, showing plainly that he means revelation in a general sense, given to all peoples throughout history, down to Muhammad. But when he turns to specific applications and interpretations of principles, he always remains within the Islamic universe ...

According to Ibn al-Arabi, the Law is the scale (al-mizan) in which must be weighed everything having to do with God, knowledge, love, spiritual realization, and the human state in general. Without the Scale of the Law, we will remain forever swimming in a shoreless ocean of ambiguity. Only the Scale can provide a point of reference in terms of which knowledge and all human endeavors may be judged. The Law makes it possible to move toward the Center and avoid wallowing in indefinite dispersion, overcome by ignorance, multiplicity, and misguidance.

One might say that the function of the Law is to sort out relationships and put things in their proper perspective, this providing a divine norm for human knowledge and action. Faced with He/not He wherever they look, human beings cannot possibly search out the He and cling to light without a discernment deriving from the Light Itself. No doubt everyone has an inner light known as intelligence, but that also needs correct guidance to grow in intensity and begin functioning on its own. Only the friends of God have reached the station where they can follow the inner light without reference to the outer law. But this, as Ibn al-Arabi would say, is a station of great danger (khatar). Iblis and countless 'spiritual teachers' have been led astray by it. The law remains the only concrete anchor." (p.27)

***

Although the question of external authority was not central to my consideration, it certainly is not unrelated. My primary consideration was that if the exoteric perspective determines practical limitations through the legal dimensions of revelation (in a general sense without touching upon the consideration of varying interpretations as you have demonstrated), does the esoteric perspective also possess criteria for determining practical limitations? The answer was found in the realization that although esoterism does not conceive of limitations in light of a morality pertinent to the passional aspect of man, it does take consideration of qualitative differences "in the nature of things" with respect to their relative remotion or proximity to the Principle. It is of course comforting to note Schuon's acknowledgement that there is oftentimes, though not necessarily in all cases, a direct correlation and complementarity between the domains of moral rectitude and contemplative concentration as when he states, "what morally is ‘sin’ is nearly always ‘dissipation’ from the initiatory point of view."

***

God-willing brother, I think that [the movement from taqlid to tahqiq] is an appropriate description of my current tendency. I am also coming to believe that it is a necessary transition on the path of Gnosis.

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