Book Review: Diaphany, vol. 1

Diaphany: A Journal & Nocturne, Volume One
Aaron Cheak, PhD; Sabrina Dalla Valle, MFA; Jennifer Zahrt, PhD (eds)
Rubedo Press

Aaron Cheak of Rubedo Press kindly sent me a PDF of Diaphany for the purpose of a review and after only the first few pages I knew that I would be ordering a hard copy at some point soon. Peer-reviewed philosophy journals tend, in my experience, to be two things first and foremost: somehow both dry and masturbatory at once. Diaphany is neither of these.

How did Rubedo Press and their body of academic contributors manage this? Why, they navigated through to the other side of that cramped but complex city in which many an intellectual finds himself lost years or decades after entering. No, not Pittsburgh, but good guess; I mean abstraction. Abstraction is a useful tool when trying to examine general principles, but it is altogether too easy to wander around in abstraction in search of some ever-evasive reductive truth. But the men and women who edited and contributed to Diaphany drew from that one thing which absolutely forbids abstraction: reality. I’ll let the website blurb briefly do the talking for me:

While strictly peer-reviewed, and while upholding the highest standards of academic research—including an unwavering fidelity to source materials—Diaphany is not a conventional academic journal. That is, Diaphany is not interested in so-called ‘objective’, ‘dispassionate’, or ‘impersonal’ inquiry for its own sake. Rather, Diaphany seeks philosophers tempered in the fires of genuine wisdom rather than mere information; scientists whose work emerges as much from a fervent, personal quest as it does from the perception of inexorable, impersonal realities; and artists of poēsis and presence who make the invisible visible and the eternal tangible according to a Kandinskian ‘inner necessity’ (innere Notwendigkeit).

The articles contained herein stand apart from one another in showcasing the unique experiences and thought processes of their respective authors (as well as any traditions from which those authors draw), never flattening them out into mere principles. The eminently Gebserian contribution by Aaron Cheak, “Rendering Darkness and Light Present” cannot be adequately compared to the Zen-inspired “Never Paint what Cannot be Painted” by Jason M Wirth, even less to “Exploring the Fractal Nature of Ibn ‘Arabi’s Cosmology” by Moselle N Singh—except to say that their central message is ever and always about what Craig Williams (author of Cave of the Numinous, which I previously reviewed here) calls “sacramental vision”, the increasingly direct perception of what is embodied and revealed within phenomena. Here is no Procrustean bed of esoteric religious traditions but an exploration of some of the ways in which experience of one way can deepen the experience of other ways. The diaphany of which the title speaks is therefore not an opaque vale which one must pull from the face of Isis, but a vale of gossamer which, if one looks upon it with intellectual intent and an open heart, is here opaque, there translucent, and there again entirely invisible, as the subtle currents of the atmosphere cause it to sway about in the light of the Moon. Each and ever written piece which makes up this volume shows off not the theoretical or merely metaphorical knowledge of this vale, but the loving approach to whatever of the face of Isis the Goddess Herself chooses to reveal. While the writing is therefore the thing, the supplementary or, perhaps, exemplary artwork included enhances rather than distracts from the overall impact of each article. In the piece aforementioned “Never Paint what Cannot be Painted”, for instance, the reader is treated to examples of precisely what can be painted and, blessedly, not a stroke more.

If modern philosophy is that guy at the dinner party who is somehow both boring to an almost catatonic degree and yet somehow so obnoxious as to be unavoidable, Aaron Cheak is the guy who gently directs you to the door and says, “C’mon, I know of a really laid-back after-hours place with good beer on tap and comfortable couches.” In volume one of Diaphany, he and his fellow editors and contributors kindly take us in their midst, pour us a relaxing cold one, and gather around with unforced smiles, and talk of what must be known if the world is to mean a damn.

The Luminous Space of David Chaim Smith: A Review of “The Kabbalistic Mirror of Genesis”

When read literally, the Vedas seem like hymns, rituals, and magic spells devoted to many gods, goddesses, and spirits all seasoned in a warrior triumphalism. But the parabolic commentaries of the Upanishads and distillations of the epics and Puranas reveal a clearer vision of a dynamic nonduality which acknowledges the infinite variety of manifestation. This is Dharmic thought at its best. Kabbalistic tzaddikim, like Dharmic sages, are able to see nondual reality not merely through but active in the heart of phenomena.

Unfortunately, many books on Kabbalah today reflect the largely dualistic habits of human thought. To use one of David Chaim Smith’s favorite words, they use language patterns which tend to reify rather than liberate our conceptual frameworks. Smith’s art has always served to undermine this tendency in the receptive viewer, and in the several interviews I have heard with the man I have always been impressed with his uncompromising push toward the luminous space of transpersonal Holiness.

Unlike the endless literature of neo-nondualism, which often seeks to transcend sectarianism by merely abandoning the discipline of sect rather than digging deeply into it, Smith’s writing in The Kabbalistic Mirror of Genesis does not shy away from the detailed analysis of kabbalistic teachings; and unlike much post-Golden Dawn “Hermetic” Kabbalah, Smith is not afraid of diving deeply into the Bible itself, as the gnostic container of kabbalistic wisdom.

As the full title suggests, The Kabbalistic Mirror of Genesis: Commentary on the First Three Chapters presents a multilayered exploration of the first three chapters of the Bible’s first book. In true kabbalistic fashion, each verse is picked apart by word and phrase, and then by numerology (gematria). This is not, as a famous modern occultist asserts, a game for confusing the cognitive faculty into abeyance, but is instead a very real flowering of gnostic insight. More, it is a means of making plain the interweaving natural to these concepts. Far from tricking the mind, gematria sets it to the very deliberate task of dissolving its own limitations. The Bible thus revealed is not different from the mind reading it: capable of opening or closing according to the angle of approach.

David Chaim Smith’s artwork is on display, here, small in number but representative in scope. All in grayscale, it resembles the famous alchemical woodcuts of the Renaissance though often more abstract in its composition. Though not integral to the text, the more complex pieces serve as powerful contemplative supplements, while the simpler diagrams directly illustrate the concepts being explored.

Though slightly familiar with Smith’s approach when I was offered a digital review copy of this book, I did not know what to expect from his writing style. His writing is clear but extremely dense. While concise and comprehensible, The Kabbalistic Mirror is no leisurely beach read. Far from a criticism, this is just a heads-up for the reader: be prepared to rearrange your brain.

I recommend this book in particular for two audiences: occultists looking to understand kabbalistic roots, and the many people born into either Christianity or Judaism trying to find a deeper spirituality in the Bible. In any case, approach this book with fresh eyes; read it the way you might read a book on a totally unfamiliar mystical tradition. Find the memory of the first time you read Herman Hesse, Gustav Meyrink, or Tao Te Ching, and bring those eyes to The Kabbalistic Mirror of Genesis. The work required from even a cursory reading will be repaid manifold as David Chaim Smith reveals the inner significance of the biblical creation as a living myth rather than the dry bones of our cultural assumptions.

Book Review: “Cave of the Numinous” by Craig Williams

Tantric Physics I: Cave of the Numinous”
Craig Williams, a.k.a. Yogacharya Dharma Rakshaka
Theion Publishing, 2014
159 pages, hardbound (540 copies), leatherbound (60 copies)

First of all, let me say a little something about the artifact itself. As a small press limited run, this book is a beautiful little gem upon my shelves. The hard cover is done in a “wine-red” cloth, with a gold-leafed impressed yantra on the front, and the spine is impressed with a gold-leafed author name, title, and publisher logo. There is no dust jacket. It is simple and elegant. I was not fortunate enough to have gotten one of the 60 leatherbound copies of the “Auric Edition”, which was done in dark-vine goat leather, hand-lettered, with a special page sigilized and signed by the author, though photos of it are gorgeous.

The author is a friend of mine and, if I may be so bold as to say, something of an informal teacher, as well. I say this for full disclosure, but also because it has something to do with the book itself. You see, the depth, compassion, and honesty of Cave of the Numinous go a long way toward explaining exactly why I have come to consider Craig to be a friend and colleague in a relatively short period of time.

The Foreward, by Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya, does an excellent job of introduction. Acharya-ji points out a lot of the social obstacles to genuine spirituality, and expresses plainly why Craig’s book is a good antidote. Like any antidote, of course, there must first be a diagnosis, then the antidote must be properly administered and duly taken, which Acharya-ji emphasizes.

Prior even to Craig’s introduction, we have David Beth’s short essay, “Supreme Katabasis: Kaivalya and the Kosmic Gnosis”. I admit to having been rather puzzled by this essay, at first. It seemed, on the surface, to contradict much of what I know Craig to say, practice, and teach. By the end of the essay, though, I came to see that the problem is semantic. Beth spends much of the essay demonizing “spirit” and “logos”, which threw me for a bit of a loop. After all, Logos is the sun Who emanates all Gnosis, and Spirit is the individual core! What spirituality is possible without them? But Beth hints at his true intent right from the start: He is using the Aristotelian interpretations of “body, soul, and spirit” to accord more with the mistakes of modern ideologies which place reason in a position of priority, with the deeper and more exalted Intellect (budh) with its capacity for intuitive discrimination (viveka) being ignored or outright denied. In this case, “logos” is not the same as “Logos”; rather than being the enlivening Word, Beth refers to the tendency to dissect and measure — the letter which kills the spirit. This twist of language makes a greater point than initially appears: By pointing out the artificial opposition between the Transcendent and the Immanent, Beth turns our expectations in on themselves to reveal that there can be no real opposition between noumena and phenomena, essence and substance, but that the first inheres in the second, as the second expresses the first. It is the duty of the jivas (souls) to embody this dynamic Unity (spirit) through purified powers of observation (body), but that is only possible once we are able to understand the true nature of our task, as opposed to the flawed picture of it given over to us by faulty or incomplete educations. It is, in that sense, a restatement of the difficulty which René Guénon called the overtaking of Quality by Quantity.

From here, we get into Cave of the Numinous proper. I could go chapter by chapter, but that would not give the book proper due. It is not a book of analysis, of mere facts, but of digestion and synthesis. This is a book of yogic alchemy, as much talismanic as it is textual. More than a manual of technique, Cave of the Numinous is a long, breathy love-song to the Guru and an ode to Sakti, the Dark Goddess.

This is not to say that Craig never gets into practical particulars. In fact, the entire book is instructive. It teaches the reader how to fall in love. Craig gives strong advice in self-knowledge, accessing the slow-burning Alkahest which gradually, but mercilessly and finally, dissolves the bundles and blockages within our body-mind systems. He gives a handful of simple but potent rituals which bring us to deeper communion with the more difficult facets of our own psyches. Above all, this book reminds those of us with genuine Masters how those Masters serve us, and teaches those of us without Masters how we can draw ourselves to our true Master in this very life.

Craig’s approach is deeply traditional, in the best sense. His own life is an example of properly combining the complementary sciences of Jyotish (astrological psychology), Ayurveda (alchemical medicine), Yoga (internal alchemy), and Kriya Yoga (theurgy) into the integratively coherent whole they are intended to be. Cave of the Numinous is, if nothing else, a charged reminder of how we can find our own way there. I feel deeply blessed for having read it, and look forward avidly to the release of future volumes of the Tantric Physics series.

Dharma Obscured: A Brief Critical Response to “The Dharma Manifesto”

A Note of Introduction: The following essay was written in the winter of 2013, immediately after my reading of the book in question. I had originally intended it to run on another website, but it was not published there so as not to produce conflict. After that experience, among others, I have largely kept my opinion of the book and its impact to myself, feeling rather alone in my impressions. It was only after a friend and respected teacher of Dharma approached me for my thoughts on the topic that I showed him this article and he encouraged me to make it public. It is with his blessing and support that I do so now, and only in the hope of adding to a civil public discourse.

Politics is a difficult area for me. This is not because I have no political ideas, but because it is especially hard to draw out real, working solutions to complex problems from the myriad of possible approaches to any given situation. In large part, this is due to the fact that people tend to become very attached to their political labels, with more emphasis placed upon ideological purity than upon real, substantive strategies. So, I have been doing a lot of reading, lately, in order to try to broaden the scope of my own thoughts in this area. Śri Dharma Pravartaka Āchārya, in his recent book The Dharma Manifesto: A New Vision for a Global Transformation (2013, Arktos Media), is of particular interest for me. As a Western-born Saiva, I view Dharma as a model for finding solutions to even the most perplexing of difficulties. My initial impression of Āchārya-ji was largely positive; here is a man of spiritual trajectory, rational acumen, and moral passion putting in genuine effort to shape the socio-political world in accordance with Dharma. Whether or not I agree with each detail, his sincerity and dynamism cannot be denied or ignored. I excitedly ordered a copy of the book as soon as I saw reference to it. As it turned out, even flipping through the book raised in me many doubts on particulars. Though the volume is slim, it took me more than a month to complete, as I kept running across points which required much deeper thought on my part than a casual reading would allow.

It is an interesting fact that anyone would even attempt to pen a “manifesto” of Dharma. “Manifesto” is formally defined as a public decree of intentions by an institution, with the implication that the institution in question is an organization or activist bloc with fairly singular ideology, objectives, and methodology. And, certainly, such a united front is presented in The Dharma Manifesto, complete with bullet-pointed policy planks and a fully-fledged strategy for gaining real political power.

The amount of research which went into the project is honestly staggering, and the intellectual effort is beyond admirable. Āchārya-ji refers to, and draws from, sources as diverse as the Buddha, Alain de Benoist, Julius Evola, David Frawley, Lao Tze, Plato, Oswald Spengler, Bhaktivedānta Swāmi Prābhupāda, and G.K. Chesterton. And, just as importantly, at no point does he try to fit any of these thinkers into his own box, rather taking ideas and inspiration from them where he can.

His basic premise, however, deserves examination in light of his presentation. As I have previously observed, disparate sources aside, Āchārya-ji tries to display a unitary Dharma where, in fact, no such thing exists. It may be true that Dharma is ultimately one (or beyond division), but here on Earth it is necessarily seen from a myriad of directions. It is simply not possible — and not useful, in any case — to reduce, say, Samkhya to Vedānta, or Buddhism to Śaiva Siddhānta. To compare them can be very instructive, but to smear-out their distinctions in service to a rhetorical strategy serves only the ideologue.

Hindu Dharma and its close relations — Taoism, Shinto, Buddhism, Jainism, etc. — are neither equitable nor monolithic. Even within Hindu Dharma itself, there are the six āstikā darshanas and numerous schools of admixture, approaches to practice, sects, and lineages. All of these “are” Hinduism, and Hinduism contains them all without prejudice. It is true that certain schools and sects are more statistically representative than others, but that does not imply an institutional orthodoxy in a model similar to the Roman Catholic Church. While there exist many Hindu organizations, and while it may be desirable to have greater Hindu solidarity, it is contrary to the radical pluralism inherent to Dharma to insist upon ideological uniformity beyond a few points of commonality.

This “radical pluralism” is pluralistic in that it demands comfort with ambiguity and mutual respect amidst often irreconcilable differences; and it is “radical” in that it must resist any violence done against freedom of intellect, regardless of the source of the assault. Yet, there is a uniting or organizing function to Dharma in the form of what Rajiv Malhotra calls “integrative unity.” (See Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism, 2011, HarperCollins.)

Integrative unity is the “unity of plurality”, or the conceit that everything which exists — including ideas — has its essence as a part or reflection of an underlying or inherent totality. The “part” may never be fully separated from the “whole”, but is so only as a contingency. This stands in contradistinction to “synthetic unity”, which begins from the “parts” and tries to form from them an artificial unit, often in spite of irreconcilable differences which inevitably lead to dissolution. In this case, the differences are either acknowledged only to subdue them, or else ignored entirely, whereas integrative unity begins with full awareness of differences and distinctions, but sees them as expressions of a profound indivisibility.

The vision expressed in The Dharma Manifesto is such a synthetic unity. Though I am loathe to say that a particular interpretation is not properly Dharmic — the aforementioned radical pluralism demands immense caution in making such declarations — on this particular point, I think it is warranted at least as a challenge. Simply, Dharma cannot be expressed by bullet points. This brings up an interesting question: either Śri Dharma Pravartaka Āchārya does not know this, or else he knows it and is intentionally ironing-out the nuances for rhetorical purposes. Quite honestly, the first possibility may be dismissed out of hand. Āchārya-ji is too obviously intelligent and well-studied for me to take such an idea seriously. The other possibility has the unfortunate implication of sinister motive, but I adamantly do not mean it in that way. I believe that Āchārya-ji is very sincere. However, that sincerity does not guard against the fact that oversimplification is often a natural part of constructing a political ideology.

It is true that Sanātana Dharma necessarily addresses the structure and functioning of a healthy society. Dharma is all-encompassing by nature, and so has lessons for every avenue of thought and activity. There are Dharmic law books with specific guidance for leaders and rulers, such as the famous Manusmŗti, but even these acknowledge that they cannot possibly apply equally to all places and times. In other words, Dharmic political thought is certainly possible, but Dharmic absolutism is a contradiction in terms.

Not that absolutism and relativism did not have their representatives in past ages, but the partisanship which now attends them is an outgrowth of modernism. As the dissolution that is relativism became the going cultural assumption throughout the industrialized world, the formerly dominant ideologies began to express themselves increasingly in terms of ideological purity. This sort of absolutism came to be seen as the only alternative to total relativism, so that even those who may have preferred a different solution had to frame their ideas in terms of either relativism or absolutism. To this day, “Progressivism” is generally an expression of relativism, while “Conservatism” is absolutist in nature.

Āchārya-ji, like most political thinkers influenced by Traditionalist thought, tries not so much to “steer a middle course” between these poles, but turns to possibilities well outside of them. That said, he applies an absolutist “hard line” approach which instantly petrifies the ideas and strategies into uncompromising dogma.

A good example is his discussion of atheism (pp 73 – 74). The typically Dharmic approach to atheism is to dispute its fundamental premise as an intellectual aberration, but to admit its necessity as a possible position for the sake of freedom of intellect and conscience. Āchārya-ji, however, paints atheists with the brush of false consciousness, implying that atheists are sub-human by default:

Inclusion in human classification is predicated upon the ability of the individual human entity to both understand, and to subsequently choose to conduct his life in accordance with, the natural ordering principles of morality and nobility.


Since atheism intellectually disputes the existence of Natural Law, atheism is itself, subsequently, an attempt to negate the morality, ethics and legal norms and behavior that are predicated upon Natural Law.” (pg 73)

So we have a two-part process of dehumanizing those with whom we disagree. We first say that one is only human who adopts a certain ideology, and then demonstrate in what way our opponents are not doing so. Of course, we leave a paragraph in between so that this dehumanization is not totally obvious and may be softened, but it is certainly still there.

And this turns us back to the problem of oversimplification, inherent as it is to absolutism of any sort. Āchārya-ji says as part of the same argument that “[the] existence of moral principles is a disjunctive proposition: morality either is or is not. There is no grey area. The unequivocal capacity of morality is rooted in its transcendent provenance.” (pp 73 – 74) All Dharmic thought is willing to agree with the latter proposition, but the former is a decidedly Abrahamic assertion. It is true that Dharma sees all true ethics and morality as arising from transcendence or absolute inwardness. But there is the key, and there is the contradiction. Frithjof Schuon makes the point thus:

The Hindus and Far Easterners do not have the notion of ‘sin’ in the Semitic sense; they distinguish actions not according to their intrinsic value but according to their opportuneness in view of cosmic or spiritual reactions, and also of social utility; they do not distinguish between ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’, but between advantageous and harmful, pleasant and unpleasant, normal and abnormal, to the point of sacrificing the former — but apart from any ethical classification — to spiritual interests. They may push renunciation, abnegation, and mortification to the limits of what is humanly possible, but without being ‘moralists’ for all that.” (Spiritual Perspectives and Human Facts, 1954, Faber and Faber, pg 58, as quoted in Evola, Ride the Tiger, 2003, Inner Traditions International, pp 74 – 75)

Of course, there are what we would recognize as moral and ethical considerations in Dharma, or else we would not have the yogic yamas and niyamas or documents like the Tirukural of Saint Valluvar, but even here the discussion is always centered in action and reaction, with consideration of others as persons who can be known as such, rather than the intrinsic value of a given thought or action. Dharmic ethics are founded in absolute principles, but are applied according to present need rather than abstractions. What is often referred to as “Hindu idealism” is thus more of a “metaphysically-oriented realism”.

Throughout The Dharma Manifesto, Śri Dharma Pravartaka Āchārya translates Dharma as “Natural Law”, not just linguistically but also conceptually. While this is one sense of the term, it serves as neither a full definition nor an accurate translation. “Dharma”, as a word, is strictly untranslatable; every translation of it, then, is no better than an approximation — a point which many writers and translators on Dharma not just admit, but actively point out for the sake of clarity and accuracy. Often, the same author will employ a variety of words or phrases by way of a translation in different contexts for maximal precision. But, at least in the present book, Āchārya-ji never deviates from the phrase “Natural Law”. I bring this up as another example of boiled-out complexity.

We may also bring into question Āchārya-ji’s assertion that practically all non- or pre-Abrahamic religions are inherently Dharmic in the same way. This, along with the artificially constrained definition of Dharma cited above, begins to take on the tenor of a rhetorical strategy more than an actual ideological plank. Without speculating any further into motive, we are still left with a drastic simplification. Can we really relate every single one of the many and varied Native American religions and say that they are the same as Taoism? And is the purely political state polytheism of imperial Rome in the same category as state-independent Hinduism? It is certainly true that an incredible variety of religious and philosophical practices and orientations already exist within Sanātana Dharma, but even then their distinctions and differences are every bit as important as their similarities. It is not enough simply to declare them allies in a common cause; they must recognize themselves as part of an integral unity which exists prior to them and persists after them.

Finally, for all the accusations made against the Abrahamic faiths’ regressiveness and inhumanity throughout the book, there are many examples of similar inhumanity in Āchārya-ji’s positions. The aforementioned dehumanization of atheists is a good example, but there is also a policy of downright cruelty toward homosexuals. To quote:

Both gay and straight citizens are encouraged to observe sexual fidelity and sexual continence as much as is within their power and within the confines of the law. [!] For straight citizens, this means that sexuality should only be expressed within the vows of marriage. For gay citizens, this means that sexual expression should only occur within the context of a monogamous and committed relationship, and from inside the closet. Sexuality is a purely private matter, and must not be intrusively displayed to the public for personal gain or as a social statement. (pp 124 – 125, emphasis added)

It should go without saying that Āchārya-ji is opposed to gay marriage.

More to the point, he seems to be missing centuries of history, especially recent decades. While acknowledging earlier (pg 124) that Dharma does not consider homosexuality to be chosen behavior — and thus, by implication, not immoral — he goes on to treat it as a disease and a source of shame. If homosexuality is natural and not sinful, of what social value is it to force homosexuals into secrecy? The only purpose such a policy serves is to socially isolate and psychologically alienate every single homosexual in the society. And the not-so-subtle accusation that the entire gay rights movement has been for personal gain is nothing short of crass cynicism, or at least the projection of crass cynicism upon a misunderstood minority. The attached notion that public admittance of one’s sexuality for social change is somehow not different from using it for personal profit crosses into the absurd. While I agree that sex is a private matter, many things best kept private must sometimes be discussed in public fora, not to become rich and famous but to ensure that oppression does not persist in silence. Āchārya-ji’s sort of “middle ground” approach to LGBT issues accomplishes nothing worth accomplishing, being an essentially Old Testament attitude with the overt threat of violence softened to a purely psychological threat.

All told, Śri Dharma Pravartaka Āchārya’s The Dharma Manifesto is impressive in the scope of the author’s ambition, and his evident sincerity. I cannot help, however, but be skeptical of any attempt at forming a political movement of whole cloth. In this particular case, my skepticism is only intensified by the use of Dharma to justify any number of policy planks and strategies which vacillate between the perfectly sensible, the terribly cynical, and the puzzingly absurd. Quite frankly, Sanātana Dharma has much more to offer even within the purely socio-political sphere.

Books That Blew My Mind: “The Transcendent Unity of Religions”

[In] the case of intellectual intuition, knowledge is not possessed by the individual insofar as he is an individual, but insofar as in his innermost essence he is not distinct from his Divine Principle. Thus metaphysical certitude is absolute because of the identity between the knower and the known in the Intellect. ~ Frithjof Schuon

By the time I stumbled into Frithjof Schuon, I had been reading into esoteric practice from various angles for a long while. Yet, somehow, I had almost entirely missed the Traditionalist/Perennialist approach. When reading Huston Smith’s memoir, Tales of Wonder, the author mentioned his own initial run-in with Schuon’s work, dropping the title The Transcendent Unity of Religions as his first foray. Despite Smith’s warning that the book is deceptively difficult for its page count, I immediately ordered myself a copy and excitedly began to read as soon as it got to me.

For those unfamiliar with him, it needs to be said that Schuon is a very difficult writer, whether one is reading one of his English volumes, or a translation into English. This is not because he is a bad writer. In fact, the complexity of his subject matter is such that I am inclined to say that he is one of the greatest essayists who ever set pen to paper! It is that very complexity which can make his books slow going. But, by God, are they worth the time and effort. The Transcendent Unity of Religions struck me the same way René Guénon’s books struck a young Schuon: “At last, a man who sees it the very way I do!” may have been words spoken, once in German and once in English, separated by decades, yet converging in a single instant of recognition, eyes locking across a gulf of eternity’s mercy. I was refreshed, exhilarated, and exhausted by the read (and constant backtracking, to make sure I was following).

The sophistication of the metaphysical observation made again and again throughout Schuon’s catalog is astounding, yet altogether obvious for a man or woman of a certain intellectual temperament. There is no attempt at making the shallow claim that all religions are identical, nor even the more interesting but equally wrong claim that they all make use of the same moral lessons and methods to reach the same Goal. He instead recognizes the distinction between exoteric religion and esoteric Dharma. Though the esoteric paradoxically transcends the exoteric — in the sense that practitioners of exoteric religion may be permitted, as the fruit of their sincere growth of character and worship, into the Holy of Holies — it must anchor itself to the world, and to humanity, by way of the formalisms of religion. It is thus that Sanatana Dharma, or sophia perennis, is seen as the transcendent-immanent Law and Wisdom that it is, while the revealed faiths of the world are given their place as gateways which may lead us inward to meet it. It is thus not at the level of name and form that the religions converge — often in fact opposing one another in necessary, though contingent, ways on this plane. Rather, it is only at the Heights of verticality (or the Depths of inwardness) that they become transcended, and, having gone beyond them in their limited forms, that they find their Goal in the Self or Divinity.

It is this point which liberal universalists and religious partisans miss alike. To the religious partisans, we may say that it is worthless to argue over who has the monopoly on Truth, as Truth defies merely mental and sentimental attempts at codification. To the universalists, we retort that we are well within our rights to defend our religions against assaults from outside and to stick closely to our traditional practices, for it is only thus that we retain our centrality — our humanity, in the fullest sense. In either case, we assert that the revelations and religions of the world cannot be understood “academically”, from the outside, but that Tradition-as-such can only be understood from inside a tradition. Similarly, religious traditions cannot be merely cannibalized for “techniques”; they are not golems or robots, but organically grown, distinct “personalities” unto themselves and, just as with animals, to analyze is to kill. Out of the killing ignorance, both mistakes arise naturally and inevitably, yet we must avoid falling into them ourselves.

Not much of this was news to me upon reading Schuon for the first time, but finally I did not feel quite so isolated in the observation and, just as importantly, I now had language with which to speak of it! Aside from this one overarching metaphysic, however, Schuon delves deeply into the esoterics of religious doctrine and practice and surfaces with treasures of the Intellect which take many lifetimes to discover for oneself. These lessons have had just as much impact upon me over time, and each re-reading of a Schuon book brings fresh rewards.

For as much as I love The Transcendent Unity of Religions, I probably should have listened to Huston Smith and gone with one of his other books first. With that in mind, if you’ve never read Frithjof Schuon before, and you want a good place to start, please allow me to suggest you begin with either Language of the Self or Survey of Metaphysics and Esoterism.

Books That Blew My Mind: “Initiation Into Hermetics”

Be kind, friendly and lenient towards your fellow man, but unrelenting and pitiless with yourself. ~ Franz Bardon

I’ve already written about Initiation Into Hermetics and Bardon’s corpus generally (PME & KTQ), but I did so from a purely practical standpoint. Now, I’d like to speak more personally.

At the time I discovered Franz Bardon, I was fairly invested in the black magic and demonology of various European grimoires. I had been in the habit of invoking and evoking various demonic powers, and had no scruples when it came to using these forces to do harm to those who annoyed me, or even doing so for money on behalf of others. It was as I reached my depth in this area that I met and befriended a guy named Chris; he had been practicing from Bardon on and off for a while, and had seen some results. Out of respect for my new friend (who is, to this day, like a brother to me), I picked up the Bardon books and read them a bit, but ended up just shelving them for a while, as they did not really speak to me.

Not more than two to three months later, I found myself quite unwillingly undergoing what academics insufficiently call “visionary experiences”. Without giving personal details, I was urgently shown the error of my ways and, mercifully, shown a way out of the hole which I had dug for myself. As part of my remedial curriculum, I was to immediately take up the work of Franz Bardon’s Initiation Into Hermetics.

And that I did, with gusto.

Bardon’s was one of the first books on occult practice which I had encountered which was as uninterested in abstractions as it was devoted to genuine spiritual — and not merely psychic — unfoldment. Bardon had no time for any doctrines beyond those strictly necessary to make sense of the practical exercises. Given the sizable heap of tangled mental patterns with which I had to deal before any significant forward progress could be made, this was precisely the stripped-down, essentials-only method that I needed; I, frankly, had no room in my head for particulars.

And right from the beginning, IIH did the job. The knots and tangles of my soul began to come undone. No doubt, this is a frightening process. On not a few occasions, I was gripped by mental fear, buried in anger, entrenched in sloth; but Providence is with one who takes the Way seriously, so I was able to persist. While far from reaching instant enlightenment or freeze-dried perfection, within a year of beginning, I found my temper cooling and overall sense of self-mastery and understanding increasing.

Soon enough, I found myself drawn to those doctrines necessary to delve more deeply. Though he never says so directly, it is clear that Bardon’s whole method is based in the cosmology and theology of Corpus Hermeticum, directly or indirectly. Bardon’s opus thus serves as practical coursework for the doctrinal teachings of classical Hermetism, within a modern occult framework. But Corpus Hermeticum is an entry for another day.

Neuroscience & Panpsychism, some notes

The overwhelming misfortune of humanity is not that we are ignorant of the existence of truth, but that we misconstrue its nature. What errors and what sufferings would have been spared us if, far from seeking truth in the phenomena of material nature, we had resolved to descend into ourselves and had sought to explain material things by our own being, and not our being by material things – if, fortified by courage and patience, we had preserved in the calm of our imagination the discovery of this light which we desire all of us with so much ardor. ~ Louis-Claude de St-Martin

A friend of mine asked me to read this interview from Wired Magazine, concerning a neuroscientist’s interpretation of panpsychism and his views on how consciousness arises in the brain and other complex integrated information systems, and give him my thoughts on it. Instead of just shooting off a text message, I wanted to write my thoughts down in a slightly more fleshed-out form. While still basically just notes, here are those thoughts as they occurred to me. For the record, I am not a neuroscientist; further, I deeply respect what neuroscientists do, even if I do not always agree with their (admittedly tentative) conclusions. I am thus sharing these thoughts out of interest in the topic, and not any claim to expertise.

First thought: I love how things which Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Hermetists, Platonists, and other contemplatives have known for, literally, millennia are called “new” and “radical” and “revolutionary” when a physicist or neuroscientist says them with a lab coat on, but when a mystic says them wearing a dhoti, a robe, or a nice pair of jeans and fitted t-shirt, they’re dismissed as “delusion” or “irrational”. It’s all in having the right uniform.

Next thought: This is an interesting interview, and Koch’s hypothesis is an important one. From the perspective of a contemplative, however, it is incomplete. Koch still relies on the threadbare assumption of reductionism: that consciousness somehow arises from matter. This belief is based on the metaphysical assumption that there is no metaphysic, which is rather self-defeating. Rather than consciousness “arising” from integrated information systems, I would say that integrated information systems are the material structures which most efficiently permit of conscious experience within the matrix of matter.

According to Samkhya and Yoga, matter is just the grossest phase of Prakrti (roughly, “Nature” and “Substance”), while Purusha (“Consciousness”, “Spirit”, “the Essence of Personhood”) exists, in a sense, separately. They mix and mingle in the form of cosmoi, but Purusha is never truly native to Prakrti and, thus, to matter. Consciousness can thus be separated from matter, but this does not end consciousness; rather, the breaking-down of a complex integrated system represents the elimination of a single vertex of mingled consciousness and matter. While it is far from perfect, it is helpful here to remember the common metaphor of brain-as-radio receiver; if you take a hammer to your radio, you do not thus destroy the signal, but only the tool by which you experienced it. The difference is that, in the case of consciousness and the brain, the “experience” goes both ways. The “signal” is not a product merely transmitted, but is itself the substrate-independent essence of experience-as-such; cut off the receiver, and it may appear to the outsider as if the signal itself has disappeared, but all that has happened is that it no longer has a ready medium of communication.

Koch briefly mentions his interest in Buddhism, and uses the vaguely Platonic term “panpsychism”, but has fallen into a common trap in the modern West of believing that Buddhism, Platonism, and the like, can somehow be extricated or rescued from their spiritual contexts. Not only is this not possible  a reductionist Buddhism is not Buddhism at all it is not desirable, for it undercuts the very element which makes a methodology like Buddhism capable of teaching us anything significant. In short, it removes the method from the methodology. A deeper study and practice of Bauddhadharma would, I think, be every bit as valuable to Koch in the development of his hypothesis as his neuroscience research itself.