Archive for August, 2007

Is and Yet Isnt

Thursday, August 30th, 2007

As a Buddhist you’re puzzled, you say, by the Orthodox doctrine of theosis. How can something that was formerly created now become increatus et increabile? Either it was so from the beginning, or it was not. And how can a man become omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent? If he does, he is more—you object—than even the Buddha ever claimed to be.

We’re up against paradoxes here, to be sure. But it’s a mistake to think that the Western traditions are alone in presenting such puzzles. One could very easily object to the Buddha: “What do you mean there’s a Noble Eight-Fold Path? The word ‘path’ implies that there’s somewhere to go and someone to do the going. But neither is true—or not at least if your later, Mahayanic disciples were right.”

In every tradition an appeal is made to someone, or something, that is and yet isn’t what it should be. No appeal would be possible if we weren’t already what we have to become, and no appeal would be necessary if we were already all that we are. In Christianity the “soul”, which is said to be in need of salvation, is the name for what occupies the spectrum between the is and is-not. It’s not what we’re saved from, namely, the “flesh”; neither is it what we’re saved in, namely, the “Spirit”. But it’s the place where the appeal can be effectively heard and acted on.

By the way, a deified man is in fact omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. But qua “deified”, not qua “man”. Another paradox.

That Crazy, Mixed-Up Sufi

Saturday, August 25th, 2007

I’m still hoping to add a new page to my weblog describing a few of the highlights of our trip to Mount Athos. God willing, that will happen in the next few weeks. In the meantime, one quick anecdote that may interest and amuse you.

As coincidence or Providence would have it, the morning of our departure for the Mountain my son and I were sitting having breakfast in the lobby of our hotel in Ouranoupolis when in walk Vincent Rossi (my colleague from Rose Hill days) and a friend. They had apparently come to the village to interview someone associated with its historic Byzantine tower. During the course of our short conversation, I mentioned being somewhat bemused by the fact that the ancient Athonite monasteries now have fax machines. “Fax machines?” Vincent’s friend replied. “That’s nothing. I correspond by email with a monk in one of the sketes who uploads things to the internet on his solar-powered laptop!”

Three days later my son and I headed to the capital, Karyes, to get our diamonitiria extended from the standard four days to a week. At one point I left him with our backpacks so I could walk around a little and look at some icons in one of the shops near the Protaton. When I returned he was engrossed in conversation with a monk, who—out of the two or three thousand Athonite possibilities!—turned out to be none other than this very same Father Solar-Power. My son had apparently not yet mentioned our surname, so when I introduced myself the monk’s eyes widened and then immediately narrowed, and here’s the response I got: “You’re James Cutsinger? You’re that crazy, mixed-up Sufi!” Somewhat taken aback I had the presence of mind to reply, “On what authority do you say that?” To which he responded, “By my own authority!” To which I replied, “On what grounds?” At this point, he faked a flurry of punches to my jaw, and simply said, “GRRR!”

I confess I’m still not clear, even after a few more minutes of rather tense and awkward conversation, what he had in mind, though putting two and two together I suspect he must have been browsing the web and seen the piece on “Hesychia” I wrote for the Paths to the Heart book. I had fully intended to keep my “perennialism” to myself on the Mountain, not realizing I would be dealing with such highly “wired” monks!

An Essentialist Approach

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007

Yes, my academic term also begins tomorrow, and I’ve been giving considerable thought in particular to my “Introduction to Religious Studies” course. As you can see from the description on my website, it’s designed to give an undergraduate audience of mainly Christian students (this is South Carolina, after all) their first glimpse of several of the world’s major traditions.

I’ve just finished revising my on-line lectures for the course, giving them the new title of Paths of Return. I also put together a one-page summary of the barest essentials: An Essentialist Approach to World Religions for Christians. I won’t be handing this out in class; it’s obviously much too rarified a presentation for underclassmen, but it should give you a clear enough picture of my principal, and of course principial, goals.

Lustral Water

Friday, August 17th, 2007

“When we realize our faults, we must never ask, ‘What should I do?’ because knowledge is itself the cure.” I agree that this citation from Schuon is pertinent to your predicament. What he has in mind, by the way, is a passage from the Bhagavad Gt: “There is no lustral water like unto knowledge.” In any case, having quoted him, you proceeded to ask me, “What is the criterion for the kind of knowledge that comprises the cure?”

It goes without saying that the knowledge in question must be “ontological”, that is, rooted in our being, and not merely of a theoretical, let alone conjectural, order. I often think of the following lines from Coleridge in this connection:

If to mint and to remember names delight thee, still arrange and classify and pull to pieces, and peep into Death to look for Life, as monkeys put their hands behind a looking-glass! Yet consider, in the first sabbath which thou imposest on the busy discursion of thought, that all this is at best little more than a technical memory: that like can be known only by like: that as Truth is the correlative of Being, so is the act of Being the great organ of Truth: that in natural no less than in moral sciences, quantum sumus, scimus” (Aids to Reflection).

The Latin maxim means, “As much as we are [or “to the extent we are”] we know”, which implies the doctrine of degrees of being; with apologies to Shakespeare, “To be or not to be” is not the question, for one may “be” more or less fully—because more or less consciously—depending upon which of the several levels of the microcosmic hierarchy one identifies with, whether body, soul (including mind, will, and emotions), or Spirit (see 1 Thess. 5:23). And this level of identification is dependent in turn on the extent to which we have begun to die to attachment, in keeping with Plato’s dictum: “Those who pursue philosophy aright study nothing but dying and being dead” (Phaedo).

Schuon, as you may remember, reduces this Coleridgean insight to a kind of alchemical tincture in saying, “To know That which is one must be That which knows.” The upper case “T” in this formulation points above all to the opening pronoun of the Upanishadic Tat tvam asi, that is, to Nirguna Brahman, the unqualified Principle. But the basic truth at stake here applies no less at lower levels of Reality, at each of which authentic knowledge requires an adequation, and not merely a confrontation, between knower and known.

As for the “criterion” you ask about, such knowledge is surely its own criterion, for the truth it discerns—by way of “the mind’s self-experience in the act of thinking” (to quote Coleridge again)—must be self-evident. Were there some extrinsic standard of measurement, something else in view of which or compared to which a truly “curative” knowledge could be known to be such, this standard, and not the thing measured, would be the cure. The moral of all this, of course, is koanic: as long we’re looking to be healed we won’t be, or not at least fundamentally so—not at that deepest level where “the lustral water” is ever flowing. For finally the cure is not a means to becoming cured; it’s the discovery that we’re cured already, having never been ill.

Apples and Oranges

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

Regarding your challenge to the priest you’ve been talking to that he “show how the Incarnation and Trinity are as self-evident as suffering”, I wonder whether this is a fair demand or whether on the contrary it’s really an apples and oranges issue.

Existentially, Christianity begins with sin, which I would have thought was as obvious as suffering. It’s easy enough to see, with Saint Paul, that there is a kind of battle going on within us between the “spirit” and the “flesh” (Rom. 7:15-20) or—if you prefer—between what conscience knows to be right and what the ego with its self-serving desires wishes to think, feel, and do nonetheless. We know this just as certainly as we know we’re suffering.

By contrast the doctrine of the Incarnation, expressed apophatically with its four alpha-privatives (I have in mind the Chalcedonian Formula), is on roughly the same level as Nagarjuna’s teaching about emptiness. As I said in my brief dialogue with the Dalai Lama last year, Christ—like Nirvna—is “is not That alone, for He is not merely God; nor is He this alone, for He is not just a man; nor is He neither That nor this, for He is not an angel; nor again is He both That and this, for He is not a mixture, as a griffin is a mixture of an eagle and lion.” Now I readily concede that what all this means is not “self-evident”! But neither is it self-evident, as surely your Tibetan teachers would agree, that everything is empty of own-being; if it were, the dialectics of the Mulamadhyamaka-Karikas would be a waste of our time.

What I suspect you’re really looking for is some sort of inward or esoteric “correlate” for the Incarnation—some element of meditative experience to which the doctrine points or from which it might be thought to issue—and if so, that’s another question altogether, one too large for me to try to write about at any length here. Suffice it to say that Orthodox Christology is essentially nothing other than esoteric anthropology: in the eso anthropos—to allude to the same chapter in Paul (Rom. 7:22)—I myself am the Word-become-man.

Doing, Thinking, Being

Thursday, August 9th, 2007

You are—you say—more at home in “doing” than in “intelligent conversation”, and you ask whether you ought to be “aiming at improving [your] speech”.

I don’t think this is something you should worry about at all. Obviously you and your husband have different gifts, and as “there are many organs in the body”, this is just as it should be. Of course there’s no reason not to take steps to become a more orderly thinker and speaker if and when those steps become evident to you, as perhaps they will when you have studied, and rightly admired, his considerable abilities for a long enough time. But you shouldn’t fret about this; if your deficiencies in this domain “gnaw at your self-esteem”, good! You have no self, after all—no true self—outside of God, and He is perfectly capable of providing all the esteem you need; anything else, or more, is superfluous, if not an obstacle, to genuine growth in holiness.

To answer your other question, yes: it is certainly possible to “sort out” the difference between a mere “delusion of happiness” and the real thing, provided one applies the proper criteria, which in part at least have to do with continuity in the midst of changing circumstance. And yes, I would agree it also has something to do with taking “pleasure in being oneself”—which, you write, A. is not able to do but which (for the most part) you are. If this is really so, then congratulations! It is certainly better to be “coherent on the inside and muddled on the outside”, to use your expression, than the other way round!

The “Femininity” of the Essence

Monday, August 6th, 2007

Thank you for your inquiry concerning my article “Colorless Light and Pure Air“. You are right to suppose it has been controversial, to say the least.

One of the most important criticisms was voiced in the pages of the journal Sophia some years ago by Dr Martin Lings and Mr Alvin Moore—may their memories be eternal. I had erred, they argued, in saying that the Divine Essence may be regarded as feminine. Quoting Schuon I wrote, “The Supreme Divinity is either Father or Mother” (p. 26), and then, before proceeding to the contested remarks on the following pages, I was careful to insert the following cautionary note:

“We must not forget, of course, that the Divine is finally beyond all categories, and that in Himself [as Schuon says] ‘God could be neither masculine nor feminine, for it would be an error of language to reduce God to one of two reciprocally complementary poles.’ Insofar as each requires the other to be what it is, Reality is obviously neither alone, nor even both as a synthesis, for its perfect simplicity is prior to all such pairs or syzygies. On the other hand, if ‘each sex represents a perfection’, and if we attend to that perfection as such, ‘God cannot but assume the characteristics of both'” (p. 46, note 107).

What came next in the body of the article was an attempt to attend precisely to the “perfection as such” of Divine femininity.

At no point did I mean to suggest, however, that other darshanas are impossible, nor would I now dispute the fact that the point of view recommended by these two eminent gentlemen remains the doctrinal and metaphysical norm. One understands perfectly well what Dr Lings meant in saying that the Sanskrit neuter Tad, or That, “is greater than either” the masculine or the feminine. On the other hand I feel obliged to point out that this normative teaching in no way excludes the somewhat more “specialized” perspective set forth in my article—a perspective one is free to entertain, not of course as a doctrinal description of the Essence as such, but as an operative upya or methodic provocation having the power to effect an ascent within the Principle. Moore and Lings both stressed that the Essence in itself is not feminine, and their claim is incontestable. The position adopted in my article, however—solidly based, I believe, on a number of indications in Schuon’s published and unpublished work—was that in relation to the Divine Person, the Essence may be envisioned nonetheless according to a feminine mode and that as a means of transcending the domain of forms this approach to the very highest Reality may be regarded as having a certain alchemical priority.

Writing to me privately after the publication of these criticisms, a long-time friend of Schuon’s offered the following very helpful observation.

“It does not seem to me that you have gone too far in your claims about the Virgin. What can go too far is our need to put everything under the control of our mental formulations. The criticisms expressed in these letters could have been avoided by simply putting some words here and there between quotation marks. It is thus that I read them, and this expedient would perhaps have been enough to mark your intentions and to tranquilize those who would dot every ‘i.'”

I accept this advice very gladly, and with my correspondent’s suggestion in mind, I would therefore rephrase my thoughts on the disputed issue this way: while it is certainly true that the Essence is not in itself either masculine or feminine, it is precisely for this reason that the Essence is “feminine”, and it is to this mystery that I intended to point in saying that the Virgin Mary “is” the ineffable Dht (= Tad).

Near the start of his own letter on this subject Mr Moore wrote that “there are other valid and more compelling views” than the one presented in “Colorless Light”. Validity I concede—within the limits just discussed. At the same time, however, if one is treating a matter as subtle and elusive as the Divine femininity, surely what is more compelling for a given soul must in part at least be a function of vocation and temperament. Schuon would never have insisted it was necessary for everyone, even every esoterist, to accept all his teachings regarding the Virgin, and he certainly never supposed all and sundry would appreciate his paintings. My aim was therefore not to impose his vision on my reader nor to assume (as Moore worried) that Schuon’s “private revelations are incumbent” on others, but rather—as announced near the beginning of the article—to “assist the esoterist who is a priori open to the depth of this mystery to see Mary more truly in her intrinsic reality” (p. 5).

Need we quarrel about this? If in looking along the trajectory established by the Mariology set forth in the article one man finds himself drawn more deeply than another into the very heart of the Divine Reality, it is certainly not for him to take pride in that fact or to act as if his path were the only one possible. But neither, I respectfully submit, is it for another man to stand in his way.

Souls, Not Machines

Thursday, August 2nd, 2007

You asked whether it is “recommended as part of the spiritual Way to seek guidance regarding all areas of one's life”. The answer to this question is actually closely linked to what I said in a little post last week entitled “My Starets is Best for Me“. For it depends at least in part on the degree of affinity one has with one's spiritual teacher.

There are in any case no formulas or recipes here; we are talking after all about human souls, not machines—the usefulness of the Gurdjieffian metaphor notwithstanding—and it is simply not possible to predict in advance what direction a spiritual relationship will take. Here again I might quote from His Grace Metropolitan Kallistos: “The relation between child and spiritual father varies widely. Some visit a starets perhaps only once or twice in a lifetime, at a moment of special crisis, while others are in regular contact with their starets, seeing him monthly or even daily. No rules can be laid down in advance; the association grows of itself under the immediate guidance of the Spirit” (The Orthodox Way, p. 96).

So you see, the real issue here is not “how much” or “in what detail” one speaks with a guide, but rather whether you as a particular person feel free to give voice to whatever is of concern to you, and also whether you are prepared in turn to let your starets or murshid—also a particular person—put to you whatever questions he feels he must and give you whatever directions seem required in order to understand and guide you better.