contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Buddhism

EXPLORING ‘EMPTINESS’: CARLO ROVELLI AND NAGARJUNA

A modern western humanist learns from an ancient Buddhist philosopher. Carlo Rovelli’s book Helgoland (1) is mostly about the development of quantum mechanics in the early to mid-twentieth century and the scientists who developed it. The title references ‘Werner Heisenberg’s sojourn on the remote island of Helgoland working on the maths. But one chapter concerns the second century CE Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, and how his work has helped Rovelli to frame a philosophical understanding of quantum phenomena.

“When speaking about quanta and their relational nature I had frequently met people who asked: Have you read Nagarjuna? … Though not widely read in the West, the work in question is hardly an obscure or minor one: it is one of the most important texts in Buddhist philosophy. … The central thesis of Nagarjuna’s book is simply that there is nothing that exists in itself, independently from something else.

“The resonance with quantum mechanics is immediate. Obviously Nagarjuna knew nothing, and could not have imagined anything, about quanta – that is not the point. The point is that philosophers offer original ways of re-thinking the world, and we can employ them if they turn out to be useful. The perspective offered by Nagarjuna make perhaps make it a little easier to think about the quantum world (2).

“If nothing exists in itself, everything exists only through dependence on something else, in relation to something else. The technical term used by Nagarjuna the absence of independent existence is ‘emptiness’ (sunyata): things are ‘empty’ in the sense of having no autonomous existence. They exist thanks to, as a function of, with respect to, in the perspective of, something else.

“If I look at a cloudy sky – to take a simplistic example – I can see a castle and a dragon. Does a castle and does a dragon really exist, up there in the sky? Obviously not: the dragon and the castle emerge from the encounter between the shape of the clouds and the sensations and thoughts in my head; in themselves they are empty entities, they do not exist. So far, so easy. But Nagarjuna also suggests that the clouds, the sky, sensations, thoughts and my own head are equally things that arise from the encounter with other things: they are empty entities.

“And myself, looking at the star, do I exist? No, not even I. So who is observing the star? No one says Nagarjuna. To see a star is a component of that set of interactions that I normally call my ‘self’. ‘What articulates language does not exist. The circle of thoughts does not exist.’ There is no ultimate or mysterious essence to understand that is the true essence of our being. ‘I’ is nothing other than the vast and interconnected set of phenomena that constitute it, each one dependent on something else. Centuries of Western speculation on the subject, and on the nature of consciousness, vanish like morning mist.

“Like much philosophy and much science, Nagarjuna distinguishes between two levels: conventional, apparent reality with its illusory and perspectival aspects, and ultimate reality. But in this case the distinction takes us in an unexpected direction: the ultimate reality, the essence, its absence, is vacuity. It does not exist.

“If every metaphysics seeks a primary substance, an essence on which everything may depend, the point of departure from which everything follows, Nagarjuna suggests that the ultimate substance, the point of departure … does not exist.

….

“The illusoriness of the world, its samsara, is a general theme of Buddhism; to recognize this is to reach nirvana, liberation and beatitude. For Nagarjuna, samsara and nirvana are the same thing: both empty of their own existence. Non-existent.

“So is emptiness the only reality? Is this, after all, the ultimate reality? No, writes Nagarjuna, in the most vertiginous chapter of the book: every perspective exists only in interdependence with something else, there is never an ultimate reality – and this is the case for his own perspective as well. Even emptiness is devoid of essence: it is conventional. No metaphysics survives. Emptiness is empty.

“Nagarjuna has given us a formidable conceptual tool for thinking about the relationality of quanta: we can think of interdependence without autonomous essence entering the equation, In fact interdependence – and this is the key argument made by Nagarjuna, requires us to forget all about autonomous essences.

“The long search for the ‘ultimate substance’ in physics has passed through matter, molecules, atoms, fields, elementary particles … and has been shipwrecked in the relational complexity of quantum field theory and general relativity. Is is possible that a philosopher from ancient India can provide us with a conceptual tool with which to extricate ourselves?”

“The fascination of Nagarjuna’s thought goes beyond questions raised by contemporary physics. His perspective has something dizzying about it. It resonates with the best of much Western philosophy, both classical and recent. … He speaks about reality, about its complexity and comprehensibility, but he defends us from the conceptual trap of wanting to find it an ultimate foundation.

“His is not metaphysical extravagance: it is sobriety. It recognizes the fact that to inquire about the ultimate foundation of everything is to ask a question that perhaps simply does not make sense.

“This does not shut down investigation. On the contrary, it liberates it. Nagarjuna is not a nihilist negating the reality of the world, and neither is he a sceptic denying that we can know anything about that reality. The world of phenomena is one that we can investigate, gradually improving our understanding of it. We may find general characteristics. But it is a world of interdependence and contingencies, not a world that we should trouble ourselves attempting to derive from an Absolute.

“I believe that one of the greatest mistakes made by human beings is to want certainties when trying to understand something. The search for knowledge is not nourished by certainty: it is nourished by a radical absence of certainty. Thanks to the acute awareness of our ignorance, we are open to doubt and can continue to learn and learn better. This has always been the strength of scientific thinking – thinking born of curiosity, revolt, change. There is no cardinal or final fixed point, philosophical or methodological, with which to anchor the adventure of knowledge.

“I am not a philosopher; I am a physicist: a simple mechanic. And this simple mechanic, who deals with quanta, is taught by Nagarjuna that it is possible to think of the manifestation of objects without having to ask what the object is in itself, independent from its manifestations.

“But Nagarjuna’s emptiness also nourishes an ethical stance that clears the sky of the endless disquietude: to understand that we do not exist as autonomous entities helps us free ourselves from attachments and suffering. Precisely because of its impermanence, because of the absence of any absolute, the now has meaning and is precious.

“For me as a human being, Nagarjuna teaches the serenity, the lightness and the shining beauty of the world: we are nothing but images of images. Reality, including ourselves, is nothing but a thin and fragile veil, beyond which … there is nothing.”

(1) Carlo Rovelli Helgoland global.penguinrandomhouse.com 2020 (Translated by Erica Segre & Simon Carnell, 2021) Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist who has made significant contributions to the physics of space and time.

(2) The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika: Translation and commentary by Jay L. Garfield. Oxford: The University Press, 1995. Nagarjuna, who lived in South India in approximately the second century CE, is the most important, influential and widely studied Mahayana Buddhist philosopher. At the time of publication Jay L. Garfield was Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Hampshire in India Program, an exchange program with the Tibetan Universities in exile, at Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts. His translation is from a Tibetan, rather than Sanskrit, text.

BOOK REVIEW: THE BURNING HOUSE

A highly recommended illustration of spirituality in support of political action. In The Burning House: A Buddhist Response to the Climate and Ecological Emergency (1), author Shantigarbha affirms that ‘the ecological crisis is nothing if not a spiritual crisis, a crisis of meaning and direction for our civilisation’. Most Druids would say the same, and see value in his approach.

Shantigarbha (Seed or Womb of Peace) (2) is a teacher of Buddhism and Nonviolent Communication (NVC). He has also trained members of Extinction Rebellion (XR) in nonviolence and de-escalation skills. He believes that we cannot wait to change our lives before we change the world, or to change the world before we change our lives: we have to do the best we can with both, together, now. He sees the climate crisis as primarily one of ’empathy, connection and community’ and says that ‘when we use our energy to cultivate our own vitality, we naturally use the abundance we discover in the service of life’.

The book title The Burning House references a traditional Buddhist story about a father trying to get his children out of a burning house. There is no time to pick them up individually, so he simply commands them to leave. But they are busy playing with their toys and ignore him. He has to find a skilful means of getting them out. In his anguish (but also inspiration) he tells them that there are even more wonderful and exciting toys outside. In the parable the burning house stands for a life of samsara and unawareness. Outside there is the opportunity for awareness and the tools to develop it.

The book looks first at the climate crisis and ways it can be understood. There follow chapters on how Buddhist ethics support environmental ethics, and how compassionate action based on wisdom can enable the transformation we need. There are chapters on aspects of emotional intelligence. How to transform anger is the first – rather than acting out our anger or repressing it, we can identify and mobilise ‘the life in it’. Hatred, by contrast, is characterised as always toxic and self-harming. There are chapters on ecological grief and its potentially heavy weight – and also on gratitude for what we do still have. There is a beautiful quote from Francis Weller: ‘How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible’ (3).

Later chapters focus more specifically on nonviolent social change, on being the change, and on the role of nonviolent disruption in the pursuit of climate justice. Practical examples draw on UK experience in 2019, mostly in London and Bristol. Whilst illuminating, they are limited in place and time. The last chapter, Final thoughts: the beauty and terror, summarises what we can do both individually and collectively. It sees some grounds for hope – if we treat the climate and ecological emergency as an emergency. Shantigarbha draws on Sraddha, ‘the Buddhist equivalent of hope’, better translated as confidence or trust. It is not faith or hope in the ordinary sense. ‘Sraddha represents a higher or broader perspective, our connection with vision. It signifies an emotional response to our ideals. In terms of the burning house it represents the father’s cry of inspiration’. We are invited to have the courage and confidence to do what we can, and let the effects ripple out. It is what we can do, and all we can do.

The Burning House offers valuable perspectives both on Buddhist political engagement and on climate action. Each chapter contains a link to a guided meditation, offered as a resource to readers.

(1) Shantigarbha The Burning House: A Buddhist Response to the Climate and Ecological Emergency Cambridge: Windhorse Publications, 2021 (https://www.windhorsepublications.com)

(2) See: https://www.SeedofPeace.org

(3) See: https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/478/the-geography-of-sorrow)

INQUIRY, IDENTITY AND COMMUNITY

I am looking downwards into water, identifying patterns, on a surface that swirls and moves and changes. I have the same impulse to identify patterns in my contemplative life. In essence, contemplative experience is simple, still, and drawn from wordless depths. But there’s a surface swirl that’s more agitated, largely driven by worries over naming and explaining, clarifying where my inquiry sits within human communities, and accurately representing spiritual philosophies. Here too, I am giving the surface swirl the attention it seeks. I do not ask the swirl to stop swirling, because swirling is what it does. There is value in the swirl.

I centre myself in modern Druidry, but my self-presentation from 2012 as a ‘contemplative Druid’ is slightly misleading – too narrow. I champion the value of a contemplative current within Druidry, and I am happy to describe my blog as a contemplative inquiry. But I also have a strong commitment to the life of the world and opportunities for the flourishing of all beings, within both the constraints and the opportunities of our interconnectedness. I am concerned with our planet and its biosphere; with human history and culture; with ethics and engagement; with beauty as well as truth and goodness; and with issues of wounding and healing. They are part of my inquiry. I cannot separate them from my contemplative commitment.

I also celebrate the influence of ‘nondual’ currents outside Druidry. Nondual is a translation of advaita (not-two) in classical Sanskrit philosophy. It describes the divine/human relationship. Its original home is the Advaita Vedanta path in India, but there are nondualists in other world religions, including the Abrahamic ones: Sufi currents in Islam, Jewish Kabbalah, contemplative Christianity. In Christian terms, you would say that we are all essentially Christs – in a creation of one Light and many lamps. In some interpretations, nonduality does not apply only to humans, but to all lives in the cosmos. Some iterations of nonduality – Mahayana Buddhist and Taoist in particular – avoid the language of divinity, preferring terms like ‘true nature’ or the deliberately undefinable ‘Tao’.

I have engaged with current nondualist teachings for some years, most recently with the Eckhart Tolle community – https://www.eckharttolle.com. I have learned a lot from them. In this blog’s About section, I say: “My inquiry process overall has helped me to discover an underlying peace and at-homeness in the present moment, which, when experienced clearly and spaciously, nourishes and illuminates my life. It is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given”.

I could maintain this stance as a humanist or existentialist, but my deepest intuition is that the ‘present moment’ (or eternal now), fully experienced, links my passing personal identity to a cosmic one, a ground of being that is my true nature. Belief has come in: ‘willingness to follow one’s deepest intuition’ is one definition of faith, and I have surprised myself by becoming a person of faith in this sense. The purpose of continuing inquiry is to keep me open to new experiences, understandings, and connections, as well as teaching me how best to live from the peace and at-homeness of the centre.

My inquiry is a self-directed enterprise that welcomes input from multiple sources. But I draw on two main centres of community wisdom and support. The first is OBOD Druidry (https://www.druidry.org), with its embrace of the earth and its loyalty to the world of space and time, nature and culture. For many of us this includes the sense of a living cosmos and a divine ground. The second is the specifically nondualist Headless Way, based on the work of the late Douglas Harding (https://www.headless.org). I have started to think of myself as a Headless Druid, in a modern kind of way, whilst also aware of older traditions in which decapitation is indeed the gateway to a larger life:

‘It’s off with my head’, says the Green Man,

‘It’s off with my head’, says he.

Green Man becomes grown man in flames of the oak

As its crown forms his mask and its leafage his features;

‘I speak through the oak’, says the Green Man.

‘I speak through the oak’, says he.

William Anderson Green Man: Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth Harper Collins: London & San Francisco, 1990.

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/6/14/tree-mandala-oak and https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2017/05/11/poem-green-man

MADE OF THE SUN, MOON AND STARS

“Just as a wave doesn’t need to go looking for water, we don’t need to go looking for the ultimate. The wave is the water. You already are what you want to become. You are made of the sun, moon and stars. You have everything inside you.”

If I had authored the words above, they would be a clear statement of my stance as a modern Druid. In fact they were written by the Vietnamese Zen monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, who has spent the latter part of his life making Buddhism accessible to westerners. For me, this shows the wider resonance of his core understanding. Indeed he continues by using the language of a third tradition – the best known to most westerners – to develop his theme.

“In Christianity there is the phrase, ‘resting in God’. When we let go of all seeking and striving, it is as if we are resting in God. We establish ourselves firmly in the present moment; we dwell in the moment. We rest in our cosmic body. Dwelling in the ultimate doesn’t require faith or belief. A wave doesn’t need to believe it is water. The wave is already water in the very here and now.

“To me, God is not outside us or outside reality. God is inside. God is not an external entity for us to seek, for us to believe in or not to believe in. God, nirvana, the ultimate, is inherent in every one of us. The Kingdom of God is available in every moment. The question is whether we are available to it. With mindfulness, concentration and insight, touching nirvana, touching our cosmic body or the Kingdom of God, becomes possible with every breath and every step.”

Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Penguin Random House UK, 2017

SPIRITUAL ‘KNOWING’

I like the way this presentation uses the word ‘knowing’ to point to our underlying condition. This usage is clearly separated from everyday knowledge of or about (something), or even of wisdom and understanding. It also avoids the term ‘consciousness’, which tends to invite metaphysical and scientific debates that lead us away from direct experience. ‘Awareness’ is a noun and so seems like a thing – we don’t generally talk about ‘awareing’. I personally like ‘being’ as an alternative, but it carries philosophical baggage and is not specific enough for the context of this presentation. Current usages within the Western Way of the term ‘gnosis’ do not generally reflect the view discussed here.

It may be true, as the Tao Te Ching says, that the Way that can be named is not the real Way. But we still need language, as a pointer, for that in us which needs to make sense of experience and to share it with others. Here, a skilful choice of words can make a difference, and I think this presentation models the skill. Dzogchen is a tradition within Tibetan Buddhism. ‘Rigpa’ is the Tibetan word used to describe ‘knowing’ in this sense.

LEARNING FROM OTHER TRADITIONS: KASHMIR SHAIVISM

My Druidry is an earth pathway and a nature mysticism – and it is more than that. It is concerned with recognising, and living from, a divine identity in a divine world. I practice a panentheist, non-dual, Druidry. But few of the mystical traditions known to history have fully held the two aspects together as one. Kashmir Shaivism, a form of traditional Indian Tantra, is an exception. Sally Kempton (1) explains.

“Rejecting the Vedantic view that the material world is illusory, an empty dream, the sages of Kashmir Shaivism saw all forms of the universe as manifestations of divine creative energy, of Shakti, the dynamic female principle. They worshipped Shakti in themselves, in the earth, and in every substantial and insubstantial thing, and they looked for the pulsing heart of divine bliss within all domains of experience. Astute seekers of the tradition knew innumerable pathways for uncovering the experience of the divine. They knew how to extract it from states like terror or pleasure or in the high point of a sneeze; the knew how to find the pulsation of ecstasy in empty space, in fixed attention, and in the sensations that come from swaying or twirling, or enjoying music or the taste of food.

“But the crucial insight of Shaivism is the recognition that when human consciousness lets go of its identification with the body and reflects back on itself, it is revealed as a perfect, if limited, form of the supreme ‘I’, which is God. By expanding their own I-consciousness beyond its limits, past its tendency to cling to narrow definitions of itself, yogis of the Shaivite path experienced God as themselves.

“Because they saw the world as divine, the Shaivite yogis of Kashmir had no difficulty enjoying life in all its different flavors. In this they differed from their Vedantic cousins and from the Madhyamika Buddhists who inhabited the same region of India. Shaivism was not a traditional renunciate’s path. Abhinavagupta (975-1025 CE), the preeminent genius of the tradition, was not only a philosopher and a widely revered guru but also an aesthetician, and artist and musician, and the center of a circle where sensory experience – including art, music and drama – was constantly being transmuted into yoga.

“It is this insight – that a serious practitioner of yoga does not reject their world, but instead transforms daily experience through their practice – that sets Kashmir Shaivism apart from many Indian yogic traditions, and has made this system particularly resonant for our time.”

(1) Sally Kempton Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2011

SLOW HEALING BREATH: CHANTING HELPS TOO

“When Buddhist monks chant their most popular mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, each spoken phrase lasts six seconds, with six seconds to inhale before the chant starts again. The traditional chant of Om, the “sacred sound of the universe” in Jainism and other traditions, takes six seconds to sing, with a pause of about six seconds to inhale. The sa ta ma na chant, one of the best-known techniques in Kundalini Yoga, also takes six seconds to vocalize, followed by six seconds to inhale. Then there are the ancient Hindu hand and tongue poses called mudras. A technique called khechari, intended to help boost physical and spiritual health and overcome disease, involves placing the tongue above to soft palate so that it’s pointed towards the nasal cavity. The deep, slow breaths taken during this khechari each take six seconds.

“Japanese, African, Hawaiian, Native American, Buddhist, Taoist, Christian – these cultures and religions all had somehow developed the same prayer techniques, using the same breathing patterns. And they all likely benefitted from the same calming effect.

“In 2001, researchers at the University of Pavia in Italy gathered two dozen subjects, covered them with sensors to measure blood flow, heart rate and nervous system feedback and then had them all recite a Buddhist mantra as well as the original Latin version of the rosary, the Catholic prayer cycle of the Ave Maria, which is repeated half by a priest and half by the congregation. They were stunned to find that the average number of breaths for each cycle was ‘almost exactly’ identical, just a bit quicker than the pace of the Hindu, Taoist, and Native American prayers: 5.5 breaths a minute”. [I find the same when chanting the awen – aah-ooo-wen – in Druidry: JN]

“But what was even more stunning was what breathing like this did to the subjects. Whenever they followed this slow breathing pattern, blood flow to the brain increased and the systems in the body entered into a state of coherence, when the functions of heart, circulation and nervous system are coordinated to peak efficiency. The moment the subjects returned to spontaneous breathing or talking, their hearts would beat a little more erratically, and the integration of these systems would slowly fall apart. A few more slow and relaxed breaths, and it would return again.

“A decade after the Pavia tests, two renowned professors and doctors in New York, Patricia Gerbarg and Richard Brown, used the same breathing pattern on patients with anxiety and depression, minus the praying. Some of these patients had trouble breathing, so Gerbarg and Brown recommended that they start with an easier rhythm of three-second inhales with at least the same length exhale. As the patients got more comfortable, they breathed in and breathed out longer.

“It turned out that the most efficient breathing rhythm occurred when both the length of respirations and total breaths per minute were locked into a spooky symmetry: 5.5-second inhales followed by 5.5 second exhales, which works out almost exactly to 5.5 breaths a minute. This was the same as the pattern as the rosary. The results were profound, even when practised for just five to ten minutes a day”.

Extract from James Nestor Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art Riverhead Books: USA & Penguin Life, UK: 2020 (Kindle edition)

CONTEMPLATING BELIEF

Spiritual commitment – faith in the path, and the perspectives underpinning it – need not depend on received understandings of ‘belief’. Buddhist teacher Stephen Batchelor discusses this issue below.

“The views that I hold about the things that really matter to me – meaning, truth, happiness, goodness, beauty – are finely woven tissues of belief and opinion. These views enable me to get by in my workaday world but would not stand up to a great deal of scrutiny from someone who was not sympathetic to them. I am prepared to defend some of them with greater vigor and passion than others. I drift and swim through life on a tide of derivative beliefs that I share with others who belong to the same kind of cultures as myself.

“Most Buddhists throughout Asia are and always have been polytheists. They believe in the existence of a range of spirits and gods whose worlds intersect with our own. These entities do not have a merely symbolic existence: they are real beings with consciousness, autonomy and agency … But since many of these spirits are fickle beings like ourselves, they cannot ultimately be trusted. On formally becoming a Buddhist, one ‘takes refuge’ in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, thereby renouncing reliance on those beings. But the spirits and gods are only downgraded, not abolished. They continue to play a role in one’s personal and social life. This is the thought-world one finds throughout the Pali Canon. Siddattha Gotama did not reject the existence of the gods, he marginalised them. He may have mocked their conceits, but he acknowledged their presence. At times they even functioned as inspirational voices that prompted him to act.

“However tempting it is for me to dismiss the existence of gods and spirits as outdated nonsense, I need to be aware of the equally tenuous foundations of my own beliefs. If challenged I would be incapable of persuading someone who does not already share my view of the universe or of human life that my beliefs about them are true. I once spent a couple of hours trying to persuade a learned and intelligent Tibetan lama that the world is spherical in shape – but with little success. I would have had even less success had I tried to convince him of other beliefs I held: those about the Big Bang, evolution by natural selection, or the neural foundations of consciousness. I believed in these on much the same ground as he believed in disembodied gods and spirits. Just as I unquestioningly accepted the authority of distinguished scientists, so he accepted the authority of eminent Buddhist teachers. Just as I trusted that what the scientist claimed to be true can be backed up by observation and experiment, so he trusted that what his teachers claim to be true can be backed up by direct meditational insight. I had to recognize that many of my truth claims were no more or less reasonable than his.

“Following the example of William James, John Dewey and Richard Rorty, I have relinquished the idea that a ‘true’ belief is one that corresponds to something that exists ‘out there’ or is beyond reality somewhere. For pragmatist philosophers such as these, a belief is valued as true because it is useful, because it works, because it brings tangible benefits to human beings and other creatures. Siddattha Gotama’s Four Noble Truths are ‘true’ not because the correspond to something real somewhere, but because, when put into practice, they can enhance the quality of your life. … What draws me to Buddhism is not because it has a more convincing explanation of the nature of reality than other religions, but that it offers a methodology which might actually work in addressing the question of suffering.” (1)

(1) Stephen Batchelor Confession of a Buddhist Atheist New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: THE GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT IN LIFE

The Greatest Achievement in Life is a free e-book available from http://www.suprarational.org/ as a printable pdf, published in 2012. Author R. D. Krumpos looks at five traditions of mysticism, in which mysticism is understood as a direct intuition or experience of God, or of an ultimate Reality not conceived as God. Mystics are described as people whose religion and life are grounded “not merely on an accepted belief and practice, but on what they regard as first-hand knowledge”. Krumpos himself speaks of finding that “preeminent Reality is the holy One in All and All in the wholly One”.

The five mystical traditions examined are those embedded within Hinduism (e.g. Vedanta, Tantra), Buddhism (Zen, Vajrayana), Judaism (e.g. Hasidism, Kabbalah), Christianity (e.g. Gnostic and Contemplative currents) and Islam (e.g. Sufism). I imagine that many people reading this blog will be working outside these traditions. But I recommend the book to anyone with a serious interest in mysticism, however you define it, given that the influence of these traditions is pervasive to the point where it can be virtually unconscious. As a person on a modern Druid path committed to inquiry and with a leaning towards mysticism, I have found Krumpos’ work very helpful in reminding myself of what the ‘five traditions’ are pointing to.

The book is brief and divided into two main sections: Five Traditions of Mysticism and Mystical Approached to Life. Within these sections there is a further division into short chapters, which can be read either in sequence or independently of the whole. Krumpos draws heavily on the words of well-known mystics themselves, as well as offering his own commentary and reflections. The book can either be seen as a source and reference book, or as a practitioner aide. It includes sentences and paragraphs that can themselves be used as a basis for formal contemplation. It is not just an ‘about’ book, though it serves that purpose well.

The traditions presented are seen as having much in common at the core, and The Great Achievement bears witness to that commonality. Yet there is enough interior diversity to make it clear that mystics in these traditions are not all the same, or saying the same thing, in the way that is sometimes lazily claimed. Overall Ron Krumpos’ sense of ‘direct experience’ and his definition of gnosis describe a gold standard for what ‘the greatest achievement’ is, based on the accounts of the mystics cited and discussed. In the second half of this book, the focus valuably shifts from the nature of mystical experience itself, to a consideration of its implications for how to live and serve.

For me, the cultural moment in which The Great Achievement has been offered is significant one. Perennialism’s ideas have been popularised and repackaged over the period since World War II at an ever increasing rate. There is now an extraordinary global spiritual hunger at least partly influenced by the spiritual paths that it includes – some, indeed, speak of a ‘spiritual market place’. This is a promising development, yet one with its downside. Krumpos’ work reminds us what these older traditions are and where they stand. For readers in new (or new-old) spiritual traditions with a different approach, the book offers opportunities for comparing and contrasting the fruits of the five traditions with those of their their own chosen paths. Krumpos does acknowledge the value of shamanic and indigenous traditions, and practitioners within these traditions, reading this book, might be inspired to develop this conversation further.

HUNGRY GHOSTS

“These various spirits may live on the earth, beneath its surface, in the ocean or in the air. Although there are many different kinds, traditionally they are all pictured as one type, a kind of caricature expressing their hungry nature. They have tiny mouths, long thin necks and huge, swollen bellies, which can of course be a sign of starvation as well as greed. Their inability to satisfy their hunger manifests in different ways, according to whether they have distorted perceptions of the external world, of their own inner condition, or both.

“In the first cases, some search desperately for food and drink, but can never find any. Some imagine that they can see it in the distance, like a mirage, but when they get nearer, it turns out to be an illusion. Others can see a feast laid out for them and are just about to eat it when fearsome guards appear and chase them away.

“The second category of hungry ghosts have food available to them, but their mouths and throats are so small, and their stomach so large, that they would never be able to consume even a fraction of the amount they need. They have long, grasping fingers, with which they frantically grab and try to swallow whatever they can, but it only makes them feel more and more empty.

“Hungry ghosts in the third category are subject to various inner and outer hallucinations, so they cannot benefit from their food. For some of them, food and drink burst into flames inside them and burn them from within. For others, it turns into revolting substances like blood, pus and urine, which they eat; still others find that they are biting into their own flesh; and for some, food becomes inedible material, like iron or straw.

“The basic subjective feeling of this realm is overwhelming deprivation, a sense of poverty combined with greed. Paradoxically, the hungry ghosts are surrounded by an environment of richness and abundance; everything they want is already there, but their hunger prevents them from enjoying it. Self-preservation is very strong, so there is little sense of openness or relaxation. They are totally obsessed with trying to satisfy their own needs, so they cannot afford to feel the pain of others or arouse the slightest generous impulse. Birth in this condition of existence is the result of extreme avarice, meanness and stinginess.”

Francesca Freemantle Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2003

NOTE: In Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, there are six realms of existence in the wheel of life: two higher realms of gods and jealous gods, two intermediate realms of humans and animals, and two lower realms of hungry ghosts and hell-beings. Although not liberated from the wheel of life, the divine realms are places of reduced suffering and greater freedom. The results of positive actions outweigh the negative. In the lower realms, negative karma is very strong.

But these issues are not just something for another life. To Tantric Buddhists, nirvana and samsara are one. Every moment can be seen as a new birth. All realms are part of our lived experience, here and now. We do not have to look outside for hungry ghosts, or hell-beings (locked in a distorted logic of aggression that always puts the blame on others). They are part of us. There are times when we see them and times when we don’t.

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