contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Mahayana Buddhism

BARE BONES

Where I live, November is the month when deciduous trees finally lose their leaves. It hasn’t happened yet, for all the leaves that have already been shed. The winter landscape of stark, skeletal trees against the skyline has still to come. But the process is happening, and I feel in tune with it. My spiritual view and practice are taking on a greater simplicity and economy, a clearer and starker definition.

My true home, or refuge, is presence in the stream of experiencing. This presence is a felt sense and a wordless kind of knowledge. It doesn’t seem like ‘self’ – and certainly not personality. It doesn’t seem like ‘other’ either. There’s no sense either of separation or of immersion. It doesn’t quite fit the Mahayana Buddhist or Advaita Vedanta descriptions of non-duality that I have seen, or the Western Way versions either. But it does point to the sacrament of the present moment.

I say sacrament because, for me at least, the full experience of presence has to be cultivated through attentiveness and a certain reverence. In one sense I am of course always present in the moment and cannot be otherwise. In another sense, I am often distracted from the fullness of this experience through inattention, fascination, distress and compulsive narration. I am not claiming an ontological difference between being awake to the present moment in this sense and being asleep to it. The differences are in core contentment, in seeing others and the world more clearly and compassionately, and the enhanced quality of life that goes with such shifts.

I am a meditator, because I find that meditation helps. But I do not fetishize formal meditation, or think that more necessarily means better. Meditation is a method, not the goal, and there are other routes to being mindful – anything, really, that makes us attentively alive. Some modern teachers of Direct Path Advaita Vedanta take the emphasis away from meditation, because it can encourage a deficit view of practice – that we lack something and need to have it, leading to a kind of inner materialism with ‘enlightenment’ as the desired possession. The work, to the extent there is work, is to recognize what we already are.

These are the bare bones of my spirituality, and it doesn’t require much of a superstructure. I attend a local meditation group. I have a parallel interest in ethics, and in other aspects of philosophy and culture, which in some ways come out of my spiritual stance. But at heart it is very simple.

IN A NUTSHELL

I value clarity and simplicity, especially in spirituality. Yet the subject often gives rise to mystifying ideas and language. From now on I want to avoid these, when genuinely avoidable, in my inquiry.

In 2014, not long before he became ill, Thich Nhat Hanh retranslated the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, foundational to Mahayana Buddhism, and revised his commentary. Although brief, the sutra develops Buddhist emptiness teachings and therefore the Buddhist view of non-duality. After more than sixty years of monastic study and practice, Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that a flower is made only of non-flower elements, so we can say that the flower is empty of separate self-existence. But that doesn’t mean that the flower is not there. “When you perceive reality in this way, you will not discriminate against the garbage in favour of the rose”.

Thich Nhat Hanh worked at making Buddhism accessible to a modern Western audience, because the teachings of Buddhism are not one, but many. When Buddhism enters a new country, that country always acquires a new form of Buddhism. As part of his own teaching, he invented the term ‘interbeing’. Yet he is also true to tradition. In thirteenth century Japan, Zen Master Eihei Dogen taught that “enlightenment is just intimacy with all things”. Such intimacy nourishes the seed of compassion. Thich Nhat Hanh offers essentially the same understanding to other peoples in another time.

EMPTINESS AND JOYFUL FREEDOM

This post takes its name from a book (1) about the ‘emptiness’ teachings traditionally associated with Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism. It makes the case that the ‘ease’ they bring can support a culturally ‘Western’ approach to life. The insights can illuminate us regardless of tradition, enabling new departures in the politics and art of living. The book includes meditations and exercises, so that readers can check it out for themselves.

“Through the immersion in these teachings, the rigidity and solidity of seemingly inherently existing phenomena give way to a precious lightness of life in the world. The famous Buddhist writer Shantideva expresses beautifully how our mind comes finally to rest:

“When neither something nor nothing

Remains to be known,

There is no alternative left

But complete non-referential ease.

“I feel that, as a person who had been seeking truth and ultimate reality, I found a satisfying answer in the realization of the emptiness of all phenomena. This realization comes with a greater sense of ease.

“For spiritual practitioners like me, the rigid attitude of knowing what’s right for everyone is an easy temptation. Spiritual teachings tend to have notions of absolutes, which by their very nature seem to trump everything else. None of them can claim to have absolute, transcendent truth on their side, so all of them need to prove themselves on the level of conventional, ordinary reality with practical questions like:

’Who does the view serve and who is being marginalized?’ or

‘Is the view helpful, compassionate or humane?’

“ ….

“It was a wonderfully freeing moment to recognize that there simply is no one way that reality ‘really’ is, and therefore no way to miss out on it. … At that moment, it became completely OK to be my Western self again, rather than trying to emulate what I took to be the Eastern blueprint of an enlightened practitioner’s way of life.

“ …

“By realizing that the inherently existent self does not exist, one is free up to work with the empty self. This is where the West’s abundant sources of creative self-expression can come in handy. You can celebrate and transform the (empty) self, creatively expressing it in ever new ways. The self can even be treated as a work of art. Towards the end of his life Michel Foucault said:

‘What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects, and not to individuals, or to life.’

“Joyful irony is our Western Way to describe the fruition of the emptiness teachings. You no longer think that your own values and goals are underwritten by the nature of reality. This insight enables a flexible, unattached attitude towards your one views and vocabularies, and fosters respect for the views of others”.

(1) Greg Goode and Tomas Sander Emptiness and Joyful Freedom Salisbury: Non-Duality Press, 2013 (Section written by Tomas Sander)

DOVE ENERGY

Guanyin is the Bodhisattva of compassion, who hears the cries of the world. In Chinese iconography, she is sometimes portrayed as seated on a lotus, holding a jar that contains pure water. It is the divine nectar of life, compassion and wisdom. She also has a small willow branch, to sprinkle on devotees and bless them with spiritual and physical peace. The willow teaches the wisdom of knowing how to bend rather than break, and has a history of use in Chinese shamanic and medical practice.

Often depicted as a woman in white (signifying purity and maternity) Guanyin may also have doves flying towards or around her. Doves are associated with fecundity, marital fidelity and longevity. There was a tradition of awarding a jade sceptre with the figure of a dove to people who reached the age of 70. Ritualized dove releases were used as a means of warding off evil. The Lotus Sutra (1) contains a chapter on the transformations of Avalokitesvara, Guanyin’s male alter-ego, travelling the world and “by resorting to a variety of shapes”, conveying beings to salvation.

I feel increasingly that Guanyin represents the same archetypal energy as Sophia, the Gnostic “mother of angels” (2). In my icon of Sophia, she holds a chalice at heart level, and a dove sits in it, facing out. When I had a Temple of Sophia practice, she often appeared in dove form rather than anthropomorphically. She inherits dove symbolism from the Goddesses of the Eastern Mediterranean, and from Jewish culture, again with dove symbolism, derives the role of revealing God’s inward thought, and communicating insight and knowledge to mankind.

For me it is as if a dove energy has relocated me to a new practice community. The opportunity to work more systematically on lovingkindness and compassion than heretofore, yet in a gentle unforced way. Hence the cultural change of garment from ‘Sophia’ to ‘Guanyin’. Early this year I had two episodes of active imagination (open waking dreams rather than structured guided meditations). In the first, I was a mouse in the talons of an owl, flying over water to an unknown destination. I knew that the owl was Sophia. In the second, I was under the tutelage of Sophia on a small ocean-going yacht. Here too, I didn’t know the destination. I remember her asking me to contemplate my existing resources, and I thought of Russel Williams talking about “stillness, pure consciousness, emptiness of being – based on sense-feeling, and filling the emptiness with lovingkindness” (3).

Some months later I contacted the Community of Interbeing. It’s a Mahayana Buddhist community, and so under the aegis of Guanyin, and is proving a good place to be. Beyond its regular meetings, there have been two spin-offs. The first is my Mindful Self-Compassion course (4). The second is a recent retreat with members and friends of my sangha. The theme was ‘embodiment’. The purpose was to make Buddhist practice more somatically aware and Earth honouring. We spent a significant amount of time outside and making use of local topography. It was very like my outdoor experiences of contemplative Druidry and included the same sensitivity to the politics of Deep Ecology In terms of Dove guidance, I feel that I have landed now, and I simply go on from here.

(1) The lotus sutra: saddharma-pundarika Translated by H. Kern, 1884 (Kindle edition)

(2) Jean-Yves Leloup The gospel of Philip: Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and the gnosis of the sacred union. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2003 (Translation and commentary from the Coptic. English translation, Joseph Rowe. Forward by Jacob Needleman)

(3) Russel Williams (2015) Not I, Not Other than I: the Life and Spiritual Teachings of Russel Williams (Edited by Steve Taylor) Winchester & Washington: O Books

(4) https://centerformsc.org/

EMBRACING INTERBEING

“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the trees to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can see that the cloud and the paper inter-are. ‘Interbeing’ is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix ‘inter‘ with the verb ‘to be’, we have a new verb ‘inter-be’” (1).

Thich Nath Hanh extends his proposition to include sunshine, the logger, the saw mill, the bread sustaining the logger (thus also wheat) and the logger’s parents. We are there too, because the paper is part of our perception. In fact, “you cannot point out one thing that is not here – time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper. … You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is. … As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.”

I have embraced ‘interbeing’. It is the most accessible and elegant way I know of talking about non-duality: clear, workable and sensitized to an ethics of empathy. It leans into the affirmation of embodiment, of loving relationship with the Earth, and a willingness to be socially engaged. I prefer this account to ones that tend in the direction of ‘I am the One’ or union with the Divine. We each seek the language with the most resonance and integrity for ourselves, whilst also knowing that any language is a finger pointing at the moon and not the moon itself.

For some time, I have been working towards a view like interbeing through my personal contemplative inquiry. My chapter in the compilation Pagan Planet is called Living presence in a field of living presence: practising contemplative Druidry (2). There I raise questions about paths that lack a felt sense of embodiment, inter-connectedness and inter-dependence even when they do valuably encourage agency, personal responsibility, self-cultivation and independence of mind.  I specifically note two apparently contrasting effects of meditation, beyond its being a “green anti-depressant”. The first is that it “makes me very aware of my fragility … and complete embeddedness in a web of interdependence, and the narrow limits of my usual consciousness and perception”. The second is to find myself almost melting “with love and gratitude for the miracle of being alive at all”, moved too “by the world’s seeming ability to be irrationally generous as well as unfairly hurtful (3)”.

I now have an outer court membership of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Community of Interbeing and have recently begun attending a weekly meditation session with the local sangha. It seems like a good place to be. It continues, in a new setting, an aspect of what I have already been doing in my contemplative inquiry.

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The heart of understanding: commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2009 (20th anniversary ed. Editor Peter Levitt)

(2) James Nichol Living presence in a field of living presence: practicing contemplative Druidry in Nimue Brown (ed.) Pagan Planet: Being, believing and belonging in the 21st century Winchester, UK & Washington. USA: Moon Books, 2016

(3) http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/12/rowan-williams-why-we-need-fairy-tales-now-more-ever

ANOTHER SHORE?

 

My sacred space at home has undergone a complete makeover. I am effectively in a different place. It happened this way. On 7 May, I ordered a statue of Guanyin, partly as a birthday present to myself and partly with reference to ‘the true thought of the heart’. Perhaps the true thought of the heart is the real gift. In a blog post I wrote on that day (1), I described Guanyin as sitting on a crescent moon, playful and androgynous. I said: “it is the note that I am looking for”.

When the statue arrived from China, it was much bigger than I expected. It was over two metres high and quite broad, because Guanyin is sitting on a crescent moon, which takes up space. Caught up in the elegance of the design, I had completely misread the dimensions. No room in my room for the true thought of the heart?

Making room involved a complete clearing and cleaning of the place, and a considerable re-arranging of furniture. During an afternoon, I reshaped the space entirely with Guanyin as the predominant focus. Other imagery is still there. The Western Way is still well represented. A Green Man represents our oneness with the Earth, and our apparent separation from it and need for healing stories. A somewhat Marian (both of them) Sophia is there, imaging sacred fertility, sacramental relationship and the challenge to awaken. So are other familiar objects – a dragon sitting on an egg, an abstract and geometrical mandala picture, a tiny wooden Buddha, (not new) contained and serene. (A hopefully only slightly larger and more expansive laughing one is on his way.) Around the walls I find a C17th map of Somerset, my native county; pictures of Glastonbury Tor and the Eildon Hills; a small painting of a crane; and a painting I commissioned in the early 1990s of the Pictish Dancing Sea Horses from the Aberlemno Stone in Angus.

Yet the defining presence is now Guanyin. It happened as if by itself. The rest of the room is familiar and understood. She by contrast is numinous, dynamic and unknown, as well as large. The relationship is not yet established. Close-up, she is indeed playful and androgynous, but she is much more than that. As Guanyin, s/he hears the cries of the world. In her male aspect, s/he is Avolokitesvara, who shared the wisdom gained from deep practice in The Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra. S/he opens the way to the whole tradition of Mahayana Buddhism and its Vajrayana or Tantric variants. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us of the seeming riddle of this path. “The Prajnaparamita Sutra says, ‘The Bodhisattva helps row living beings to the other shore but in fact no living beings are being helped to the other shore’ (2). Inevitably, it seems, I am drawn by this proposition. Necessarily, it seems, I am gathering Buddhist resources and accessing Buddhist networks, now attracted to the path as well as the Bodhisattva. I did not anticipate this.

This transcends contemplative inquiry, whilst emphatically including it. The Guanyin Oracle (3) tells me that I am under a God’s protection, and gives me a verse called After the Rain.

“After a long rain, we joyously watch the heavens clear.

The sun and moon grow slowly brighter.

The gloomy days are over, so be happy and joyous.

You will bound through the Dragon Door in one leap.

I am reminded of Penny Billington’s use of the term ‘egrigore’ in Contemplative Druidry (4). In Chapter 4 Druid Identity and Values, she says that spiritual movements have an egrigore, “an inner reality made up not only of the ideas of the members, but also the invisible influences from the other realms that resonate with that ‘flavour’ of spiritual thought; and as Druids we are dedicated to making connections not only in the natural world but on the other planes as well, other states of consciousness.” I certainly find that images and their associations can have a tremendous power if I am open to them, and for me, now, the Guanyin image is one of those. It is focusing my energy and attention, and making a Buddhist inspired matrix of references, aspirations, values, traditions and practices vividly present to me. This kind of process works much faster than ordinary thinking. Assembling a new Chinese statue out of three separate parts, cleansing and reordering a room, took me into a new space, and here I still am.

  • https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/05/07/sophia-and-guanyin/
  • Thich Nhat Hanh The miracle of mindfulness: a manual on meditation London: Rider, 1991
  • Stephen Karcher The Kuan Yin Oracle: the voice of the Goddess of compassion London: Piatkus, 2009
  • James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: people practice and potential Amazon/KDP, 2014 (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm)

SOPHIA AND GUANYIN

 

The Moon rising on the indigo sea,

A pearl like a seed.

Open your heart to compassion and change:

The protector will blossom there.

 

Sophia journeyed along the Silk Road to the wild west of China and became the Bodhisattva Guanyin*. In Mahayana Buddhism, a Bodhisattva vows to wake up and work for the happiness of sentient beings. At the point of entry to nirvana, or ‘no-wind’, where the hot winds of desire and compulsion are forever stilled, you choose to remain in the world of samsara, the world of illusions that we all inhabit, and fulfil your promised role. This pledge is inaugurated by the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, in which the Buddha’s disciple Avolokitesvara addresses another disciple, Shariputra. Guanyin emerges in history as Avolokitesvara’s female manifestation some hundreds of years later. Her emergence may well be owed to the influence of Sophia, who in that time and place is looked to as a Gnostic redeemer. I am grateful to Stephen Karcher for taking me through the history (1).

“Between 400-600 CE, various sects associated with the ‘great heresy’ of Gnosticism entered Northwest China, driven out of the Mediterranean area by the violent persecution of the Orthodox Church. Gnostics were not really heretic Christians; they were pseudo-Christian just as they were pseudo-Jewish and pseudo-Pagan. They represented an ancient strain of thought that attached itself to various symbol systems and ‘deconstructed’ them to orient us towards the gnosis or direct ‘acquaintance with the spirit’, a practice that may have originated in an old, pre-Rabbinic form of Jewish worship. This Gnostic stream flows through Manichean and Mandaean thought into the great melting pot of North West China, the beginning and end of the Silk Road. …  The Gnostic figure of Sophia the Redeemer who reaches out to awaken the divine spark in each being may have been the catalyst that produced Kuan Yin, the compassionate one, out of her male form Avolokitesvara”.

Once born, Guanyin takes on non-Buddhist characteristics local to the region, including powers such as that of the Mare associated with the K’un Field in the I Ching. She has strong Dragon associations. “These animal powers are still with us in dreams and visions as representatives of the sources of life. They speak with gigantic voices, the movers of the world”. She is also “clothed in the mystery of the Tao, the Taoist valley spirit or ongoing process of the real that nourishes all the myriad beings. … There are many images for this: flowing water, the uncarved block, child, female, mother, valley spirit, dark door, empty vessel, for it is the womb of creation. We can open this space within ourselves and return to the source of all things … [When] we have become empty within, we can return to the source and … watch the Tao shaping the universe out of chaos, while yin and yang continually transform it. When we grasp this process, our whole identity becomes fluid. We become like a spirit, a shen”.

Karcher concludes: “Born from this great spiritual melting pot, partaking of its many traditions, Kuan Yin, the One Who Sees and Hears the Cries of the World, walked forth among the beings she vowed to cherish and enlighten, breaking all sectarian boundaries. She is equally at home with Buddhists, Taoists, Pagans and Gnostics. The stories of her miracles of healing, deliverance and enlightenment have proliferated in East and West. Her compassion and wisdom offer an exit from the compulsive worlds of greed, lust and power and a return to the true thought of the heart.”

One of my attractions to this story is that it identifies the spiritual traditions that have at different times, and indeed the same time, influenced my heart and imagination: Gnosticism, Buddhism, Paganism and Taoism. By implication, it excludes the ones that haven’t: the essentially God fearing Abrahamic traditions and God drunken Vedic ones, including their ‘non-dualist’ presentations. This is a matter of feeling and imagination, not of cosmology or belief. Although I can’t make a complete assimilation of Sophia and Guanyin, their iconography does, for me, help to bind these influences together. “Return to the true thought of the heart” is not a bad summary. I have bought a statue of Guanyin, as a birthday present to myself for later this month. In this statue she sits on a crescent moon, playful and androgynous. It is the note that I am looking for.

  • I use the form Guanyin. Stephen Karcher uses Kuan Yin.

(1) Stephen Karcher The Kuan Yin Oracle: The Voice of the Goddess of Compassion London: Piatkus, 2009

 

PRAJNAPARAMITA & POEM

Prajnaparamita_Java_Side_DetailPRAJNAPARAMITA AND POEM

Prajnaparamita is the Sophia of the East, her name meaning ‘perfection of wisdom’. My image* is a 13th century stone statue from Singhasari, East Java. The lotus at the right of the image holds a book of sutras. Prajnaparamita’s hands are held in the gesture of ‘wheel-turning’, from a Buddhist perspective the turning wheel of the Dharma, representing the Buddha’s teachings.

The Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, the best known work associated with her, is a foundational document of Mahayana Buddhism. It suggests that ideas of ‘personal’ enlightenment make no sense, either conceptually or ethically. The emphasis, rather, is on compassion and work towards the awakening of all beings. Vietnamese Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh (1) offers a translation and interpretation geared to modern westerners, presenting a view of radical interdependence that he calls ‘interbeing’. He has also written a poem about it that movingly illustrates this view. (A friend sent me this poem from a Buddhist magazine many years ago. The specific political references are from the 1980’s, but they apply at least as much today.)

 

PLEASE CALL ME BY MY TRUE NAMES

Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow

Because even today I still arrive.

 

Look deeply: I arrive in every second

To be a bud on a spring branch,

To be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,

Learning to sing in my new nest,

To be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,

To be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

 

I still arrive, in order to laugh and cry,

In order to fear and to hope,

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and

Death of all that are alive.

 

I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the

surface of the river,

And I am the bird which, when spring comes,

Arrives in time to eat the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily in the

Clear water of a pond,

And I am also the grass-snake who,

Approaching in silence

Feeds itself on the frog.

 

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,

My legs as thin as bamboo sticks,

And I am the arms merchant, selling

Deadly weapons to Uganda.

 

I am the 12-year-old girl, refugee

On a small boat,

Who throws herself into the ocean after

being raped by a sea pirate,

and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable

Of seeing and loving.

 

I am a member of the politburo, with

Plenty of power in my hands,

And I am the man who has to pay his

‘debt of blood’ to my people,

Dying slowly in a forced labour camp.

 

My joy is like spring, so warm it makes

Flowers bloom in all walks of life.

My pain is like a river of tears, so full it

fills up the four oceans.

 

Please call me by my true names,

So I can hear all my cries and my laughs at once,

So I can see that my joy and pain are one.

 

Please call me by my true names,

So I can wake up,

And so the door of my heart can be left open,

The door of compassion.

 

 

*Photographed by Gunawan Kartapranata and reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.

 

  • Thich Nhat Hanh (1988) The heart of understanding: commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra Berkeley, CA, USA: Parallax Press

 

SOPHIA AND THE ORAN MOR

Who is Sophia for me, here and now? To do the question full justice, I want to back up and look again at her presence in Eurasian culture.

In the old cosmologies, she is ‘Wisdom’ in three spiritually influential languages – Sophia (Greek), Hokhmah (Hebrew) and Prajna (Sanskrit). She has attracted titles like Goddess, Mother of Angels, Saint, and Mother of Buddhas. In the Mahayana Buddhist world, she is related to bodhisattvas such as Tara and Kuan Yin. She has resonances with the Shakti power of Kashmiri Shaivism and with ‘spirit of the valley’ and water imagery in the Tao Te Ching.

In the Hellenistic culture of the Roman orient, especially Alexandria with its large Greek and Jewish communities, she has clear resemblances to Isis (already somewhat remodelled by the Greeks from an indigenous original) and to Asherah, the lost goddess of Israel, and her continuing half-recognition as Shekinah. Sophia is also a key figure in certain iterations of Christian Gnosticism, in some of which Mary of Magdala has been understood as her human incarnation. She is sometimes a cosmic mother, but never exclusively an earth mother, though that aspect can be included. Her main role  is to complete our spiritual knowledge and understanding by imbuing us with compassion. The result is wisdom.

I am inspired by these ancient traditions. But I am not directly guided by them. I look more to my own experiences and sense-making, together with input from contemporary teachers. As I write, I sense Sophia as a body-feelings-mind wisdom, a systemic presence greater than my linguistic/narrative identity. It is as if she nudges me from all sorts directions. I might call some of these intuition; others, synchronicity.  Embarking on a Way of Sophia was part of a plan. Discovering the Headless Way, and finding that its methods worked, was not. It came at me in a very odd, sideways manner, that I had not thought of at all, and I just went for it.

In the past I have sometimes thought of Sophia as a cosmic mother, representing the whole world of form. I no longer have this sense. For me she operates at a more personal and human level. To name the world of form, and its relationship to empty awareness, I would rather work with the old Gaelic term Oran Mor (Great Song). Here – adopting auditory language – I am personally an ephemeral note, perhaps a brief tune, in the Great Song. Yet ultimately I, like you, am the timeless aware silence that contains the whole song, and which the song so beautifully fills.

And what is the The Way of Sophia? It is learning to live from the eternal silent centre, and lovingly offering my unique if passing note to the Oran Mor.

WISDOM OF SOPHIA

“I think I’ll go and meet her,” said Alice…
“You can’t possibly do that,” said the Rose, “I should advise you to walk the other way.”
This sounded nonsense to Alice, so she said nothing, but set off at once towards the Red Queen. To her surprise, she lost sight of her in a moment.

Lewis Carrol Through the Looking Glass

A significant thread within ancient Wisdom claims that we are not simply human. Outwardly we are human, but inwardly we are divine. According to this wisdom, the purpose of life is to awaken our divine inner self. If we awaken to who we really are, our lives will be blessed. This wisdom is sometimes known as the Sophia perennis, the eternal wisdom, and the cultural history of Sophia – whether as Goddess or Mother of Angels – is interwoven with it.

This wisdom is not confined to the Western Way or to a theistic use of language. Prajnaparamita (= Great Wisdom) is the Mother of Buddhas in Mahayana Buddhism, and the influential Lankavatara Sutra says: “Pure in its own nature and free from the category of finite and infinite, Universal Mind is the undefiled Buddha womb, which is wrongly apprehended by sentient beings”. Similar ideas, expressed a little differently, are to be found in Taoism.

Perennialism came to wide public notice when Aldous Huxley published The Perennial Philosophy in 1945, and has had a significant influence ever since. At the present time, terms like ‘nondual’ – as at www.scienceandnonduality.com – and ‘integral’ – https://www.integrallife.com –  are used for the current versions. In these, we find a partial shift from finding a common thread in ancient traditions to developing new ones, in some cases backed up by an ‘evolutionary’ narrative. My own active interest has been piqued by the Headless Way developed by Douglas Harding – www.headless.org – and I will be attending their residential workshop in Salisbury (Wiltshire, England) in July.

Colin Oliver is a poet of the Headless Way, and his poem Sea Shell appears on their website.

What secret lies
in the heart of a sea shell
you cannot tell.

But if one day
a shell on a rock should crack
and break its back

your gaze may fall
to find in its secret heart
nothing at all.

Then turning round
to the sea you may wonder
that the waves’ sound
can come from an empty heart.

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