Link: “Zombies—what’s up with that?” at The Mystical Christ

A nice, brief look at part of why zombies and unstoppable killer robots from the future appeal to us, from an esoteric perspective. There’s a lot to unpack, here, and it connects nicely with my own recent articles and poetry on the “morbid” and “decayed” as faces of the Divine. This may be the single most direct symbolic parallel between Śaivism and Christianity.

To Touch the Earth

To touch the Earth
as the Buddha did
is to feel your own
personality in all of
its moist and firm
and pliable and dry
lumpiness. Your very
body bears witness
to your deepest, most
essential duties, rights,
godly responsibilities.

To touch a tomb
the weight of these
bears down on you
as the mossy stone
presses down on soil
amid the pungent loam.
No longer whitewashed,
the inward decay seeps
out, a viscous fluid
which sticks to the
fingers and nostrils
until you finally learn.

To touch a corpse
as Lord Śiva does,
with tenderness and
gentle smile, is to
take up that lesson,
that mantle of God
which wraps itself
freely and with no
heft about your merely
human shoulders. That
is not the end, but
the beginning of the
first day you have
ever been awake to see.

Pile of Dreams

When our brains overwhelm us
with castles of cloud and dream,
filled up with fairy princesses
and creeping corpses who all seek
to hold us down to the cellar
floor — whether with warm embrace
or cold bones — now! now is the
time for prayer and poetry!
Death and damnation lie only in
thinking oneself a spiritual failure,
not again trying to stir from
underneath those bricks of cloud.

No Religion, No Spirituality

The past two years, or so, have seen a lot of articles online and even in mainstream publications about the so-called dichotomy of “spirituality” and “religion”. The question has existed for a lot longer than that, of course, and has been part of public discourse in the United States and other Western nations for several decades, at least as far as being a socially significant idea. Everybody from beatniks to hippies, from New Age/New Thought to occultism, the claim is made that there is no need to belong to an organized religion, no need to set oneself at the feet of a Master, and certainly no need to hold to any definite ideas or disciplines in pursuit of spiritual goals.

Part of the problem is in a misunderstanding of what constitutes a “spiritual goal”. The common perception among these approaches is that anything which makes one feel “empowered” or “positive” is inherently spiritual; their watchwords include “Follow your bliss!” and “Find yourself!” We mustn’t journey far from home to see how much damage “following your bliss” can do. The pleasant is not identical to the good. Ask any child with a bellyache on Easter afternoon! If each person were to simply do what felt good at the time, certainly moral responsibility would break down entirely within a very short period. This saccharine vision of the “state of nature” is simply one more delusion which needs to be rooted out during the spiritual quest. To paraphrase Jesus, if you break the Law and know not what you are doing, you commit a grave error; only one who knows perfectly what he is doing may transgress the Law for only he knows fully what the Law actually is. His transgression is only apparent. It is pride alone which claims to know this deeply through sentimentalism and personal pleasure alone.

Therein do we find what a goal must look like in order to be genuinely spiritual. If that goal leads us from pride to humility, from combative to surrendered, from passionate to peaceful, from sentimental to empathetic, we may safely proceed. Of course, much of this is not immediately clear, and we often require a great deal of wandering around, backsliding, bumping our heads, before we find our way forward. This underlines the necessity of an established lineage and a living Master thereof in the spiritual process.

The argument is often made that belonging to a religion or sect with even one level of hierarchy beyond that of “lay practitioner” is inherently wrong because limiting. This also misses the point. We first of all must learn humility and, to do so, we must surrender ourselves to somebody whom we can see and touch. Most of us are simply not capable of sincerely surrendering completely to the Self God directly because we are not yet capable of directly perceiving the Self God. (Here, then, is the esoteric purpose of the sacrament of confession and absolution in Catholicism.) Any such effort to surrender before the right time is liable to be more imaginary than real and, quite likely, to lead us off into the dark with no guide. Even aside from this, the Preceptor or Guru has been through the process before us, knows the lay of the land and each dark cavern and corridor we may have to pass through along the way. His job is not to tell us point-for-point where to go, but to provide us with the tools and techniques we will need, as we need them and not a moment sooner. He cannot do so until and unless we have placed our faith in him. This means a dramatic shift in awareness from the purely personal-egoic center of the mind to increasingly subtle centers.

It is true that studying within a sect, and under the guidance of a Preceptor, is limiting. Limits, however, create pressure, pressure gives rise to force, and force can be put to work. Imagine a system of plumbing. In order to get water into our sinks and toilets and water heaters, there needs to be not just water (inert all on its own), but also gravity to produce water pressure, and increasingly thinning pipes and tubes to draw that water upward with enough pressure to where we can put it to use. The water is our mind-psyche, a substance which is basically inert and takes the shape of any container it encounters, just as our mind takes the shape of the objects of our attention, generally following the path of least resistance. The gravity which pulls the water down, causing it to press upon itself, is surrender to the spiritual imperative. The pipes themselves are the sect and lineage to which we have committed ourselves; while numerous lines of plumbing will lead into the house, any given quantity of water must follow a specific line in order to reach any given spigot. Likewise, if we do not follow a given set of teachings within a more or less complete context to its conclusion, we never attain our goal.

The founders of great initiatory religious traditions did not generally abandon the traditions of their birth, but only reinterpreted and reapplied them according to certain contingencies, partly metaphysical and partly historical. They certainly never invented “new religions” out of whole cloth, but only followed the guidance of Self to re-present existing methods with differing emphases.

Jesus was a Jew; He never claimed otherwise, and certainly never encouraged His immediate disciples to turn away from Judaism. This is not to say that all Christians must also be Jews (as a small, but vocal, movement does claim, as was also the case in the very earliest days of Christianity), but to say that Jesus was not the model of the New Age. He may have interpreted the Law a bit differently than most (not all!) Jews of His time and place, but He certainly followed it.

The Buddha never made a dramatic break with orthodox Vedic Hinduism. Contrary to much later claims, He never rejected the Vedas; like Jesus did a few centuries later, the Buddha only rejected a particularly rigid interpretation and certain specific extremes of practice. Again, a Buddhist need not be a Hindu, and I know of no Hindus who would make that claim. Instead, we must understand that, just as Jesus fit within Judaism, albeit differently from most, so did the Buddha fit within Vedic tradition and, specifically, within the long-held “orthodox-but-outsider” tradition of the mendicant sadhu.

There is no such thing as spirituality without context, and context necessarily takes the form of doctrine. Holding to dogma (literally “teaching”) does not make one “dogmatic”; one becomes dogmatic by holding specific interpretations of teachings more closely than one holds the values and disciplines which those teachings transmit. Spirituality cannot be cobbled together out of spare parts any more than a street-safe car can be built from the contents of the boxes in my storage closet. The myth that my (or anybody’s) personal feelings have ultimate value is a corrosive one, as it undermines the discipline required for genuine spiritual experience and reinforces the egocentrism which is the very obstacle spiritual doctrine exists to undermine. Personal experience is a necessity in spiritual pursuit, but those experiences must be contextualized to have any lasting value. It sounds paradoxical, at first — but is no less true for it — that Reality cannot be grasped so long as it is conceptually reified within purely human categories, and yet we require intellectual processes in order to be able to begin at all. Some scholars of esoteric religion, such as Arthur Versluis (cf his book The Philosophy of Magic), go so far as to refer to this deconstructed morass of New Age relativism-bordering-nihilism as in some way being an “anti-tradition” which leads people deeper and deeper into a crystallization of their own personalities, a worse hell than which I cannot imagine.


Fog hangs amaranthine
over the green meadow
sunlight peaking through
and, slowly, overtaking
the earthbound cloud.
Woods surround on all
sides and the grass
reaches over the boy’s
What could here
be hidden, in this old
fairyworld hidden from
the cold gaze of adult
Is a magic
treasure buried here?
A crystaline cavern,
entrance just beyond
sight behind those big
old trees, there?
the headstones of a
long-forgotten graveyard?
He finds a patch of
tall goldenrods pointing
with humble pride up
to their god the Sun
and absorbs himself in
wondering over each slight
The ghosts and
sylphs silently smile
as they watch the boy
discover the world in
its eternal freshness.

Śiva and the Gunas

Śiva, the Auspicious, simultaneously beautiful, loving, merciful, and awful, is said by His Yogis and Bhaktas to be none other than the Uncreate Reality beyond all qualities; others say of Him that He is the essence of tamoguna, the quality or tendency to crystallization, involution, and inertia. There is a clear contradiction, here, for it is not right to say of Godhead that He is characterized by anything, let alone by materiality, density, and sloth! We can say of Śiva, however, that He is certainly the resolution of all paradoxes. The contradictory attributions made of Him in Scripture and philosophy always point beyond themselves to a more essential element.

The twenty-five tattvas (ontological principles) of Sāṃkhya — ranging from the gross elements of earth, water, fire, air, and space, through the subtle bodies, to the two essentials of prakṛti (nature) and puruṣa (literally “man”, but in this context “spirit” is more direct) — describe, among other things, the codependent arising (in the Buddha’s sense) and expression of the three gunas. Those “thread-like qualities” make up the warp and woof of the entire created universe; they exist in chaotic potential within primordial prakṛti until manifestation is necessitated by her interaction with the orderly puruṣa. It is within this matrix that the so-called trimūrti of Brahmā, Viṣnu, and Śiva (in His form of Rudra, the Howler) is established as the personalities of the gunas, such that Brahmā = rajas (expansiveness), Viṣnu = sattva (peacefulness), and Rudra-Śiva = tamas (inertia and dissolution).

Reality is, however, essentially and ultimately non-dual. As such, Śaiva cosmology sees an additional eleven tattvas yet more subtle than the twenty-five. These trans-creational or supramanifest principles include the modes by which the Divine self-limits or contracts in order to “make way” for creation, and even include — in conceptual form, and only in order to provide a kind of map or diagram of sublimation and ascension — the unmanifest Godhead Itself. In short, Śaiva Sāṃkhya is a view of Sāṃkhya in its methodological, rather than speculative, aspect. It is seen equally in Kashmir Śaivism and in the Tamil Vedānta-Siddhānta of Sage Tirumūlar, in varying degrees of explicit exposition, but ultimately forms the base of all Śaivism.

At any rate, it ought to be clear that, beyond the level of prakṛti, the gunas do not obtain. Simply put, they only exist as the raw materials of the chaos from which manifestion issues; any more subtle application of the idea of the gunas is purely abstract and speculative.

An additional point bears on the present discussion: that Śiva is not (as is probably clear, by now) limited to a mere function. By His interactions with them, Śiva makes quite clear that Brahmā, Viṣnu, and Rudra are His functions, arising as graces from His more transcendent graces of Maheśvara (veiling grace) and Sadāśiva (revealing grace). So, the gunas manifest particular processes which, if we may so speak, issue from Śiva as both efficient and material cause, but in no way define Him.

There is a sense, however, in which we may discuss the gunas above prakṛti, and this sense, as previously suggested, is in the abstract — a means for the human mind to relate to Essence by way of contingency. This usage is illustrated explicitly in the well-known image of Kālī standing or dancing upon the corpse of Lord Śiva. Here, Kālī is the Mahāśakti or, more precisely, Paraśakti from Whom and by Whom even the six limiting principles, puruṣa, and prakṛti arise prior to the act of creation. As such, Hers is the entire process of creation, preservation, and destruction. Her passionate dance and violent power allow us to call Her — provisionally! — rajasic. The “corpse” of Śiva under Her feet presents to us Śiva in His mode as transcendent Ground of Being, the Self-Existent Nonexistence which forms the substract of Paraśakti’s activity. By way of conceptual exercise, then, we call Him tamasic.

It bears noting that there is no “sattvic” element to this image; for that, we must turn to Ardhanārīsvara, the “half-female Lord.” This is the re-unification of Śiva and Śakti at the level of the act of giving-forth the creation and reabsorbing the pure souls who climb back to their Source. It is in the sense of gracious mildness and benevolence that we may call this Form sattvic.

Of course, all of the observations of the last two paragraphs are symbolic in the lesser sense: they use the language of the dependent to point toward — for they are not capable of pointing immediately “to” — the essential. It can be very helpful to relate the processes of our immediate experience, of our own minds and bodies, to Transcendence, or temporal things to Eternity, but fanaticism and fundamentalism arise when we draw absolute conclusions from relative things.

Sattva, rajas, and tamas are the most basic processes — or, more precisely, tendencies — of Nature. None is either good or evil of itself. Yoga teachings, however, that only sattva tends toward openness, spontaneity, and peace. It is thus that we are taught to cultivate sattva in our individual economies. But Nature is, properly speaking, limited. She is the creation itself, and not the Creator. As the Scholastics, Hermeticists, and alchemists of the West know well, Nature is a living book; we may read her literally, morally, figuratively, or metaphysically, just like any true Scripture. But we must not mix up those senses; to do so is to stumble, and to persist is to fall into the abyss of reductionism, of solipsism, or of nihilism.