Archive for June, 2007

Metaphysics in Western Mode

Tuesday, June 26th, 2007

I have looked back at the chapter in question—”Axioms of the Sophia Perennis” in The Transfiguration of Man—and I think the solution, though you have already said you do not find it satisfying, is simply that Schuon is writing with a western readership in mind. In fact the specific formulations that seem so problematic to your Buddhist friend may well have been culled from a letter to one of Schuon's disciples. I cannot be sure of this, but I do note that the preceding section of the chapter—beginning with the words “We say that there is an absolute, transcendent Reality”—are verbatim from “The Book of Keys”, No. 1097, “What We Say”; as I believe you know, it was not uncommon for FS to use a variety of pre-existing materials, originally prepared in answering specific questions that had been put to him by disciples and other inquirers, in composing chapters for publication.

So I strongly suspect that what we have here is a transposition of the metaphysical, and therefore universal, “axioms” of the Sophia Perennis as such into the idiom of a western exoteric tradition, a transposition that entails their reduction to a “more elementary” level, though a level that is nonetheless symbolically and sacramentally “essential” for those who subscribe to that tradition. Perhaps I am splitting hairs, but I am struck in rereading the relevant section of the chapter by the fact that while “the fundamental data of the Sophia Perennis” are said to be contained in “human intelligence” as such, the more elementary set of axioms can be adduced only with the aid of a personal pronoun: thus Schuon speaks of “our spirit”, “our Benefactor”, “our Judge”, “our soul”, and “our innate theology”—not, N.B., “our metaphysics”, since metaphysics belongs to no one and no religious collectivity.

I agree with you that the title of the chapter has a universal and principial ring about it, and given this fact one may be surprised to find that it contains certain formulations of a more “confessional” order. It is important to remember, however, that FS, metaphysician though he was—to say the least!—was also a spiritual master and that many of his writings were aimed at provoking anamnesis in what he knew would be a largely western-born or western-educated audience. If he often gave pride of place to the “saving strategems” (upayas) of the semitic religions, most notably those of Christianity and Islam, this was itself an upayic, and “pastoral”, means of his own. He was, in short, not writing to or for Buddhists. By the way he discouraged Marco Pallis from remaining in a Tibetan tradition on the grounds that only Amidism was appropriate for a western psyche; Pallis accordingly made the change.

I have copied C. on this message, as she had raised something of the same question recently in a different context. She had written: “In his reflections on Schuon that you gave to our class, Whitall Perry notes that Schuon faulted Coomaraswamy for denying the eternality of individual souls. I wonder if those who seem to differ on this issue do so primarily as proponents of varying methods: for some it is more or less helpful to think more or less about their immanent and individual self while for others it is a distraction”. In replying I observed: “It was Schuon's spiritual vocation to speak mainly to the West—and this of course in an operative and not a merely doctrinal way—and thus to make provisional use of a language that characteristically gives a greater weight to the ego.” Doubtless there is more to the difference between FS and AKC, but surely this is an important factor in explaining their differing dialects.

Relying on the Angels

Thursday, June 21st, 2007

With regard to your question, I am minded to use your own wording and reply koanically: what one must do is to “fight” the mind precisely by “joining with it” so as to “follow it gracefully back to the invocation”. In other words, you seem to have set up a false dichotomy. Sometimes, indeed, we must force ourselves to concentrate, while at other times we need to be gentle and as carefree as the birds in their song. In both cases, however, we are aiming for a point in between, where we are alertly relaxed, or gently at war.

If you are aware that your mind is not obeying; if you maintain the good intention of calling it back to the Name; if you are doing what you can outside the formal sessions to make certain you are fully ready for prayer—eating a balanced diet, getting sufficient sleep, avoiding disequilibriating music, movies, television, magazines, etc.; if in short you are making a proportionate effort to “live in a little garden of the Holy Virgin”: then you may be confident, as Schuon puts it, that the angels will make up for the lack in your concentration. Do not worry.

From Experience to Station

Monday, June 18th, 2007

Thank you for sharing this very beautiful dimension of the “inner me”. It is clear that what you describe afforded you a veridical insight into the nature of things; I have never had any doubts on that score—doubts, that is, about whether you are operating on the basis of real experience(s). The trick, of course, is to move from experience or state (hal) to station (maqam).

The fact that this particular intuition seems to have been prompted in some way or on some level by your reading of Chuang Tzu and that it occurred during the night reminded me of Benoit’s description in Zen and the Psychology of Transformation of a state of “pure calm” induced by reading a book and then of the succeeding “instant”, in which “I no longer feel that the world and I are separate”.

Of course, the next step for you is to begin converting or extending the insight acquired in this relatively passive state through an active engagement or actualization—an engagement that comes in part from “living things out to the full”, including in your case a married life with H. You must eventually get up from your zafu and mindfully begin the day. Thus does kensho open on to satori.

Asymmetrical Dyophysitism

Wednesday, June 13th, 2007

Not surprisingly, my post on “Enhypostatic Humanity” (17 April) has fomented more than one response. Sister N., you say, wants to know how “my” position differs from the Apollinarian heresy, which denied that Christ had a rational soul, picturing Him instead as God in a “body suit”. Another correspondent worries that I have been led to embrace “at least a more respectable form of monophysitism (respectable in the sense that it does not altogether do away with the humanity of Christ) if not Eutychianism”.

In the first place the post was not intended to represent “my” position—or not at least on this particular point—but that of the Chalcedonian Fathers. I admit I am inclined to give the language of their historic Definition a Cyrillian emphasis—after the fashion, that is, of Saint Cyril of Alexandria, who (not for nothing) has been called the “seal of all the Fathers”. But there are any number of honorable precedents for this reading of the Fourth Council, among both Eastern and Oriental Orthodox.

In any case, no: to say (as I did) that the human nature of Christ “was anhypostatic as such but enhypostasized in the Logos” is by no means to ignore His full humanity or to deny He was “like us in all things, sin only excepted”. Chalcedon is very clear in insisting that Christ had a fully human soul in addition to a physical body—a soul that included (like every soul) rational, volitive, and affective faculties, the last being much in evidence, to say the least, in Gethsemane!

But the point you and other critics seem to be missing is that the One who “had” both body and soul was precisely the Logos Himself. There was not some other “individual human being”—to use a phrase that recurs in several replies I received—named “Jesus” who had a body and soul and who was in turn somehow linked to this Logos. This way of envisioning the matter represents on the contrary a clear return to the Nestorian heresy, as I had said in my post.

I could cite any number of respected Orthodox authorities on this matter, but shall let a few words from John Meyendorff suffice for now. I am quoting from an essay of his entitled “Chalcedonians and Monophysites after Chalcedon”, published in The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Vol. 10, No. 2:

If it is not God—”One of the Holy Trinity”—who made His own our very death, as the last expression of our entire fallen condition, which He came to repair and recuperate, if He is not Himself the subject of the redemptive act in its entirety, nothing is achieved and, even grammatically, the Nicene Creed is nothing but a misunderstanding, for it affirms that “the Son of God … was crucified”…. Jesus possessed a human nature, but not a human hypostasis, because the hypostasis is not an expression of natural existence but something that gives natural existence a conscious, autonomous, personal reality. This “something” in Jesus was God the Word, who assumed humanity. Here lies the inevitable and necessary truth of Chalcedon.

One of the criticisms I received said that “my” [sic] formulations concerning “enhypostatic humanity” would have the effect, if accepted as valid, of establishing a kind of hierarchy between the two natures of Christ, whereas (the critic opined) Orthodoxy insists on a “co-equal relationship”. But this is simply wrong! Think about it: How could there ever be a “co-equal relationship” between God and man, even in the God-Man? Here again Meyendorff is helpful:

There are in fact two different kinds of dyophysitism—I call them respectively: symmetrical and asymmetrical. Nestorianism is a symmetrical dyophysitism: there is a strict and complete parallelism of two natures, and this leads inevitably to the duality of the prosopa or subjects, which may be united only in the unity of function…. The dyophysitism of Chalcedon is on the contrary an asymmetrical dyophysitism: there is but one hypostasis, as the subject of all attributions, although the distinction of Divine and human natures is carefully safeguarded…. “Humanity” is included in the Divine hypostasis and exists as it were within this one hypostasis. There is no symmetry: two natures, but one hypostasis. The human nature is as it were sustained by the Divine hypostasis: enhypostatos.

Indeed this enhypostasia, as it has been explained in later Byzantine theology, indicates a different status of Christ’s humanity in comparison with the humanity of “ordinary men” (psiloi anthropoi). It is the humanity of the Logos. Yet in its character it is “consubstantial” with the humanity of all men. But Christ is not a man [my italics] even though kata ten anthropoteta [“according to humanity”] He is homoousios hemin [“consubstantial with us”]. The “status” of His humanity, however, is different from ours: choris hamartias [“except sin”]. This has a decisive soteriological significance.

Now admittedly, when I take the further step of asserting, as I did in the post in question, that “the Logos is fundamentally the Self of all men”, I am going further than Meyendorff (or most Orthodox) would have wished me to, for at this point I am deliberately passing beyond the frontiers of dogmatic theology and into the realm of pure metaphysics. Nevertheless—and this is extremely important to add—I am doing so in a way that is meant to do full justice to the essential Christological insight expressed by the dogma of the “two [asymmetrical] natures in one Person”.

Disputes between Giants

Friday, June 8th, 2007

On the question of Christianity and esoterism, you are right that this was the central point of division between Guénon and Schuon. The former claimed that the Christian sacraments, originally instituted by Christ as fully initiatic rites, had been “lowered” to a purely exoteric level by the authorities of the church in the early centuries and that other, esoteric rites were then added for those few able to follow a gnostic path. Schuon very forcefully repudiated this idea. You can read his arguments in this regard in René Guénon: Some Observations (Sophia Perennis, 2004).

You spoke of being “surprised” that such “giants” as RG and FS would disagree over so fundamental a point. But frankly your surprise is a little surprising to me, if I may be candid. It is important for anyone aspiring to a jnanic Path that he learn to distinguish at the very outset between the Path as such—including both doctrine and method—and the human dimensions of those who teach it.

If you think about this carefully, you will see that the dispute in question, far from being the exception, is nearly a rule in spiritual communities, to say nothing of “schools of thought”; we see this not only among gurus, startsi, and shaykhs, but even among the disciples and companions of avataras and prophets in the earliest days of a new Revelation.

Consider—as but one example out of many that could be mentioned—the single verse of scripture, Galatians 2:11, where Saint Paul writes about his confrontation with Saint Peter: “When Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed.” What if you had been an aspirant to the Christian community at this point and had chanced to be present when these two large personalities (to say the least) came into collision? If your criterion or expectation was that a true Path would include no such lack of “harmony” among its followers, then you would have doubtless gone your way disappointed—obviously to your own disadvantage.

Grading Papers

Tuesday, June 5th, 2007

You asked about my teaching, and I mentioned in answering how much I continue to love every aspect of our profession; you were a bit surprised, I think, when I said that this even includes grading papers! I thought you might like to see the little Breviary I have used over the years; as you can perhaps deduce from the “Table of Symbols”, grading becomes something of a detective game for me, as I attempt to ferret out and then classify the wide range of my students’ mistakes. There is something about dissecting their problems I find appealing; maybe I should have been a pathologist!

As for how I actually go about assigning grades, the following explanations of what each mark means are taken from a handout I always distribute the first day of class in my Honors Great Books Seminars:

A. This is an essay that demonstrates a real mastery of both readings and discussions; the author’s claims are well-grounded in quotations from the books, and connections are made where appropriate to points considered in class; the paper is imaginative and provocative in its approach and thorough in its presentation; it is focused throughout on a single idea, clearly introduced and faithfully pursued, and it contains very few, if any, grammatical, logical, or mechanical errors. It is a pleasure to read.

B. This is an essay that is more or less logically and grammatically sound, with fewer than ten stylistic errors or infelicities; it is enriched by quotations from the readings and by allusions to class discussion, though these are not as well integrated into the argument as in an “A” paper; the author says nothing that is really wrong, but the approach is pedestrian and the interpretation is lacking in genuine insight. This is a solid piece of work, but it takes no risks and is rather boring.

C. This is an essay that has possibilities, but it fails to bring those possibilities to fruition; the reader has a vague sense of where it is heading, or at least wants to head, but it is out of control: the syntax breaks down with disappointing regularity, there are conceptual inconsistencies (“x” is said on p. 1, but then the very opposite, “not-x”, is affirmed on p. 3), and the mechanics tend to be sloppy, with frequent formatting, typographical, and spelling errors. The underbrush of mistakes is so thick that reading is laborious.

D. This is an essay that shows every sign of having been thrown together at the last minute; foolish mistakes make it clear that the author has not read the books carefully; the writing is all over the map, and one searches in vain to find a single line of thought or thread of argument; the presentation is disfigured throughout by mechanical errors, to say nothing of syntactical and interpretive problems. The paper, in short, is slipshod, unintelligent, and unimaginative, and it is truly painful to read.

F. This grade is ordinarily reserved for an essay that fails to appear by the deadline announced in the syllabus, though on very rare occasions it is affixed to a piece of writing that is so abysmally bad as to have been better had it never been composed.