AOH :: SCIBND12.TXT|
"Science Without Bounds" - Values
This is 12VALUES.TXT, chapter 12 of
Science Without Bounds
A Synthesis of Science, Religion and Mysticism
The author invites comments and criticism,
and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Science Without Bounds" is copyrighted by Arthur J. D'Adamo and
may be freely redistributed.
- Values -
Values and morals govern much of our conduct - what we do and
what we refrain from doing. How does someone who has the goal of
gnosis conduct their life? What do they value? What do they
avoid? This chapter discusses some of the values and morals, some
the attitudes and actions, which seekers of gnosis often embrace
- that is, it discusses some mystical value systems. It's not
intended as a handbook for mystical life, however. Anyone
seriously interested in such a life should refer to their own
religious tradition, or to a few of the many recognized mystical
texts in the bibliography.
We'll discuss value systems which contain only common goals,
then systems which contain afterlife goals as well. Finally we'll
discuss mystical value systems.
Common Value Systems
Some value systems contain only common goals. The people who
follow such systems have no afterlife or mystical goals. Their
hopes and aspirations are entirely for the things of this life,
for physical, emotional, and intellectual satisfactions.
Of the people with common value systems some are naturally
charitable, humble, forgiving, or chase. They're kind and
considerate, not for the sake of any ulterior goal, but simply
because they feel that's how one ought to act. As we'll see, such
people are unknowingly progressing toward gnosis. Others who
follow common value systems are ruthless. Being kind, charitable,
etc., isn't part of their value system, and they consider people
who are to be sentimental and foolish. For those who are
ruthlessly pursuing one or a few common goals morality is simple:
do whatever is necessary to win. Their morality is much like the
one described by Niccolo Machiavelli, medieval author of The
The Prince is a classic manual of values - of "morals," if you
will - for someone interested in the single-minded, utterly
unscrupulous pursuit and welding of political power. Machiavelli
recommends such a person not limit themselves by morals.
For there is such a difference between the way men live
and the way they ought to live, that . . . anyone who
determines to act in all circumstances the part of a
good man must come to ruin among so many who are not
good. Hence . . . he must learn how to be not good, and
to use that ability or not as is required. (,141).
For example, says Machiavelli, it's not necessary to keep one's
A prudent ruler . . . cannot and should not observe
faith when such observance is to his disadvantage and
the causes that made him give his promise have
And while it's best if a ruler can win the love and fear of
others, if only one can be won then fear is the better choice.
. . . [S]ince men love as they please and fear as the
prince pleases, a wise prince will evidently rely on
what is in his own power and not on what is in the
power of another. (,147).
Machiavelli doesn't regard virtues as completely useless,
however. Their appearance, at least, does have its uses.
It is not necessary . . . for a prince really to have
all the virtues . . . but it is very necessary to seem
to have them. (,149).
Machiavelli's recommendations make sense if a single common
goal - in his case, political power - is all someone desires. If
acting morally isn't a goal itself and if no other goal demands
moral action, then there is no reason to be moral.
But what single goal is worthy of ruthless pursuit? Is any goal
so valuable that for its sake all other considerations - morals,
consideration for others, common decency - may be ignored? Fables
such as the tale of King Midas dramatize the risk of achieving a
poorly chosen goal. There seems to be a real danger in "putting
all one's eggs in one basket," in pursuing any single goal, no
matter how well chosen. Moreover, an unprincipled pursuit usually
earns enemies. So even if one's own conscience permits enjoyment
of a goal unscrupulously obtained, one's enemies may not. Is
there any single goal worth ruthless pursuit and not liable to be
lost to others? Probably not.
Perhaps for these reasons, perhaps for others, most people have
many goals. First of course is surviving, fitting in with others,
"getting by." A common strategy is accepting the reigning
ideology. If one lives in a communist country, then one is
communist. If one lives in a capitalist country, one is a
capitalist. If one lives in a fascist country, even perhaps a
Nazi-like country bent on genocide of a certain sub-group, then
one is a good fascist and, if necessary, participates in
genocide. (I don't mean to condone or recommend this strategy. I
merely want to acknowledge its existence and wide-spread use.)
After survival comes enjoyment, the acquisition of desirable
people such as a loving spouse, children, and congenial friends;
of desirable things such as possessions and wealth; and of
intangibles such as fame and creative or intellectual
accomplishment, respect and power. People famous and unknown have
devoted their entire lives to the pursuit and enjoyment of such
things. Some of the famous evidently found them unfulfilling, as
their frustrated lives or even suicides demonstrate. Others, no
doubt, were well satisfied with their achievements - for a time.
But even if that time reached to the end of their life, death
sooner or later separated them and their possessions.
For death awaits all, regardless of how much or little they've
won here. Therefore, many people have afterlife goals as well as
Afterlife Value Systems
Afterlife value systems include a goal beyond common goals and
beyond the present life. Paradise and another life here, that is,
heaven or a favorable incarnation are afterlife goals. Many
people have some form of afterlife value system. Since our time
here is limited, it's not surprising that there's widespread
concern for what happens afterwards. Understandably, many people
are willing to devote some small part of their time and effort to
the next world. Conveniently, some religions promise heaven or a
favorable incarnation in return for a minimal investment of time
and money. An hour or two a week, a small donation, observance of
moral and ritualistic rules which usually aren't too taxing, and
one is right with God, yet available for the somewhat moderated
enjoyment of this world.
Some of the rules and values which allegedly lead to heaven or
a better incarnation seem natural: charity, love of neighbor,
honesty. Others seem quite arbitrary. For example, there is a
great diversity in religious rites and observances. In
particular, rules about food vary widely. For example, ham is
allowed in some religions, but forbidden in others. Beef is
allowed in some religions, forbidden in others, and allowed in
others only if slaughtered in the ritually correct way. Some
religions allow, even demand, the use of alcohol; others strictly
forbid its use.
Liturgies also differ. Some are somber and austere. Others,
performed with candles and incense in dark churches, seem close
. . . [I]nvocative arrangements of the Names of God . .
. Sacred numbers, ritual actions, perfumes,
purifications, words of power, are all used . . . by
institutional religion in her work of opening up the
human mind to the messages of the suprasensible world.
In certain minor observances, and charm-like prayers,
we seem to stand on the very borderland between
magician and priest. (,163-4).
The Bottom-up Approach to Morals
How are religious values - rules, rituals, and morals -
determined? What are they based on? Religions often derive their
morals and rules of conduct in a bottom-up manner. In a bottom-up
approach to morals we begin with the practical rules of conduct
called morals and then figure out the implied ethics, values and
world view. We start with morals and derive the rest. But where
do the morals come from in the first place? Usually, from some
God who is a Person. Bottom-up approaches are common to systems
where morals are simply the will - the commands - of some God who
is a Person, or the dictates of some impersonal entity such as
Reason or Natural Law. To act in accordance with God's (or
Nature's) will is to act morally. To act otherwise offends God,
and therefore is immoral and sinful. Knowing what is moral and
what is not - i.e., knowing God's will - isn't a problem since
there are scriptures and established churches to make it known.
One problem which does arise, however, is the following: is God
free to will anything at all into rightness or wrongness? or are
there standards of right and wrong even God must respect? In
other words, is something wrong simply because God happens to
forbid it? or does God forbid it because it's already wrong,
harmful or evil?
Suppose we choose the first alternative and define "good" as
whatever God wills. Then saying "God is always good" is merely a
tautology - it's true by definition, just as if we define "dozen"
to mean twelve, and then say "a dozen always had twelve things."
It's true, but has little significance. It's just a kind of game
with words. Moreover, if whatever God wills is good, then war,
murder, sadism, torture, and rape are good when God wills them.
You may feel that God never actually does will war, murder,
sadism, torture, and rape. The millions throughout history who
have fought holy wars, burnt heretics, and conducted
inquisitions, however, would disagree. Some of them sincerely
believed they were doing God's will. Didn't the invading armies
of Europe's "holy" crusades and the religious leaders who
organized it shout "God wills it"?
On the other hand suppose we choose the second alternative and
decide there are certain standards of right and wrong which even
God must respect. Then God can will only what is already
inherently good. In this case, God seems the discoverer of good
rather than its creator. How can such a God be omnipotent?
So is anything God wills good, or can God only will what's
already good? It's a dilemma that's more theoretical than
practical since regardless of the answer, right and wrong are
forever etched into sacred scriptures in a bottom-up moral
system. All a believer need do is follow them, with no
explanation or justification needed or given. For example, in
ExodusYahweh commands (Ex 20:1-17) the Israelites to obey the ten
commandments. They are to blindly follow what Yahweh commands
because Yahweh commands it. With no explanation.
Another question which arises in a bottom-up moral system is
the following: if moral principles really are the dictates of
some universal God (or Reason or Natural Law) then they should be
universal too. But cultures have different, sometimes vastly
different, morals. The following retells a story found in the
History of Herodotus.
Darius . . . found . . . the Callatians . . .
customarily ate the bodies of their dead fathers. . . .
[T]he Greeks practiced cremation . . . One day . . . he
summoned some Greeks . . . and asked them what they
would take to eat the bodies of their dead fathers.
They were shocked . . . and replied that no amount of
money could persuade them to do such a thing. Then
Darius called in some Callatians, and . . . asked them
what they would take to burn their dead fathers'
bodies. They Callatians were horrified and told Darius
not even to mention such a dreadful thing. (,12).
Why do moral codes differ? An unassuming solution is that all
moral codes are imperfect and still struggling toward the one,
objective, true moral code. A more common answer says that one's
own existing moral code perfectly embodies the true, objective,
universal moral code, and all other moral codes are wrong.
Another solution is that there is no single perfect moral code.
What one calls sin, another may call virtue. If so, then morals
are subjective, either to individual persons or to whole
societies. Things are good or evil according to society's or the
individual's taste. There are obvious problems with this
approach. Many people feel the murder of innocents, the genocide
of entire ethnic groups, sadism, etc., are objectively and
universally wrong, not merely not to "taste."
The Value of Religious Practices
What's the value of religious practices? of morals? of food
taboos? of rites and rituals? The religious see them as part of
the optimum way to live. They believe the practices are valuable
because God wants us to follow them and because a reward in the
Skeptics on the other hand often view religious practices as
mere superstition and ignorance. Or if they take a more
charitable view, they admit the practices reenforce one's sense
of belonging to a community, and give the believer peace of mind
and the assurance they're right with God.
But many people, religious or skeptic, agree that religious
values such as love, humility, charity, honesty, concern and
respect for others, contribute to social harmony. In fact, many
people - especially if they don't believe in any sort of
existence beyond death - see teaching the community's commonly-held
values as religion's main purpose. But as we'll see, some
religious practices have a value beyond social harmony and
integration: they can lead to gnosis. And that perhaps is their
most important function, as well as religion's.
Yet while religion can be a path to gnosis, it doesn't seem to
go all the way: it can't actually give the experience of the
Ultimate Ground of Existence. Religion can't
. . . extract finality from a method which does not
really seek after ultimate things. This method may and
does teach men goodness, gives them happiness and
health. It can even induce in them a certain exaltation
in which they become aware, at any rate for a moment,
of the existence of the supernatural world - a
stupendous accomplishment. But it will not of itself
make them citizens of that world: give to them the
freedom of Reality.
"The work of the Church in the world," says Patmore,
"is not to teach the mysteries of life, so much as to
persuade the soul to that arduous degree of purity at
which God Himself becomes her teacher. The work of the
Church ends when the knowledge of God begins."
Religion can make us aware of the existence of the door, show
us its location, and encourage us to knock. The knocking,
however, is up to us. Once we decide to knock for ourselves, our
value system includes a mystical goal: we have a mystical value
Mystical Value Systems
Mystical value systems are value systems which include the goal
of direct experience of and, perhaps, union with God. In some,
God is a Person who has left explicit instructions for how to
achieve gnosis. In such a system, morality is based on the will
of that God. What about systems where God isn't a Person? What
basis can be given for morality in such a system, especially if
good and evil are said to be ultimately illusions?
Of course, a moral code could be offered with no basis or
theoretical justification, as a collection of rules which in some
undefined sense "should" be followed. It could be presented as
something which has been found over time to promote a pleasant,
harmonious life. In art, crafts, and manufacturing there are
"rules of thumb," rules which have no theoretical basis but
nonetheless are widely followed. Such rules, like rules handed
down from on high, aren't intellectually satisfying. To be a
science rather than an art, a religious science would require a
theoretical foundation for its moral code.
We'll base our mystical value system's values and morality on
the idea of helps and hindrances.
Helps and Hindrances
"Norma", a 15 year old high school girl, has a goal: she wants to
be an olympic ice skater. Norma skates at least an hour every
morning before school, and feels missing a practice is a kind of
"sin." The word "sin" comes from words which signify (,148-9)
falling short or missing the target, and for Norma missing a
practice falls short of her ideal of daily practice. Of course,
missing an hour's skating isn't a moral failing; so "hindrance"
would be a better word than "sin." Conversely, skating each
morning isn't a moral virtue, but it is a "help" toward the goal
of olympic participation.
Similarly, certain thoughts and acts help our journey to
gnosis; others delay it. Therefore, a value may be placed on
thoughts and acts depending on whether they aid or impede our
journey towards knowledge of or union with the Eternal. That is,
we can construct a moral system based not on the supposed
commands of some God who is a Person, but on whether the act,
action, or thought in question has proven in general a help or
hindrance to gnosis.
The Vedantist sage's Shankara derived morals in a similar way.
Shankara taught that all acts belong to the realm of Maya. Yet he
divided them into those which bring us closer to seeing the One
(which we are calling helps), and those that re-enforce Maya's
illusion (hindrances). He called these two kinds of maya
. . . avidya . . . and vidya . . . . Avidya is that
which causes us to move away from the real Self, or
Brahman, drawing a veil before our sight of Truth;
vidya is that which enables us to move towards Brahman
by removing the veil of ignorance. (,111).
Helps and hindrances to gnosis (or any other goal) still exist,
even when there's no objective God who is a Person whose will
defines virtue and sin. They exist independent of any God who is
a Person. Something is a help or hindrance not because of some
Divine command, but rather because of the very nature of the
When we exercise, the result is written into our body in the
form of stronger muscles, increased flexibility, or more
efficient cardiovascular function. When we fail to exercise, the
result is also written into our body in the form of weaker
muscles, decreased flexibility, or less efficient cardiovascular
function. Our body is a living record of our past physical
activity. Even though Norma's actions, either practicing or not,
aren't recorded in some heavenly book by a god who gives or
withholds olympic success, her actions nonetheless leave their
record in her body and her level of skill. Norma carries with her
the consequences of her past actions.
In a similar way, our character and state of consciousness
results from - is a living record of - our past thoughts,
emotions and actions. And as we'll see, our character and state
of consciousness is a measure of our progress towards gnosis.
Reward and Punishment
In the biblical system of good and evil, Yahweh directly
distributes rewards and punishments. He punishes disobedience,
eventually, and rewards virtue, sooner or later. Does the system
of helps and hindrances still have rewards and punishments? In
one sense, yes; in another, no.
Since all entities, including our thoughts and acts, have equal
yin and yang, each is equally rewarded and punished. Getting out
of a warm bed early on a dark winter morning to practice is
punishing; the reward is increased skill. Staying in bed and
resting is rewarding; the punishment is eroded skill. In this
sense, therefore, it doesn't matter which course is taken since
practicing or not practicing both have their own rewards and
punishments, their own yang and yin aspects.
On the other hand for a person with a direction and a goal,
there are rewards and punishments. For Norma, increased ability
is rewarding, and deteriorated ability is punishing. She chooses
to see only the rewarding aspect of practice, and dismisses the
punishing aspect as simply the price required for increased
ability, as "paying dues." Similarly, she chooses to see only the
punishing aspect of missing a practice.
The dual aspects underlie why some good, virtuous actions are
such a pain, while some sinful, forbidden actions are so much
fun. (A quip I once heard: "Everything I like is either immoral,
illegal, or fattening.") Some virtuous actions have their yin
aspect "up front," and some sinful actions have their yang
aspects in the forefront. Later, the virtuous's actions yang
aspect becomes apparent as does the sinful action's yin aspect.
Perhaps this phenomena underlies the Christian "As you sow, so
you shall reap" principle and the similar Hindu "Law of Karma."
Concerning Theoretical Explanations
Before using the idea of helps and hindrances to derive our
mystical value system - that is, before discussing a theoretical
foundation for many of the acts, thoughts, and beliefs which
mystics value - let's discuss a point about theoretical
Our theoretical explanation for mystical practices and
attitudes will explain why the practices and attitudes are helps
in the quest to gnosis. It won't necessarily explain why mystics
valued these practices. Some mystics may have adopted the
practices and attitudes for entirely different reasons than our
There's an analogy in nutrition. Suppose a scientist finds a
primitive society's most popular recipes are also the most
nutritious. The scientist would say the recipes are popular
because they are nutritious. The local people, however, might
know nothing of nutrition. They might believe the recipes are
popular because of tradition, or because some god or seer
In Diet For A Small Planet Frances Lappe writes:
The proteins our bodies use are made up of 22 amino
acids, in varying combinations. Eight of these amino
acids cannot be synthesized by our bodies; they must be
obtained from outside sources. (,66),
that is, from food. Moreover, the eight essential amino acids
must be present in the proper proportion for the body to use
them. In other words, proteins are component entities, and their
components (the amino acids) must have the proper relation to
create a protein. Given a hundred b's, o's, and d's, but only ten
y's, the word "body" can be made only ten times. The remaining
ninety b's, o's, and d's are useless. Similarly, if one essential
amino acid is deficient, the body can't use the others.
Few foods all by themselves have the perfect balance of amino
acids. Suppose beans have ninety b's and o's, but only ten d's
and y's. And suppose wheat has only ten b's and o's, but ninety
d's and y's. Then eating beans and wheat together will be much
more nutritious than eating either alone, since their amino acids
complement each other.
So if a scientist finds that popular recipes tend to have
ingredients with complementary amino acids, for example that bean
and wheat dishes are popular, the scientist would say the recipes
are popular because they are more nutritious. The local people
might know nothing of amino acids and complimenting protein, and
say they like the recipes for entirely different reasons.
Similarly, mystics may have had many different reasons for
adopting the practices and attitudes we'll discuss. They might
have known little or nothing of the God which is not a Person,
and little or nothing of the idea of the "end of drama."
The End of Drama
A familiar picture of the ernest seeker of God is the
contemplative hermit who lives devoid of almost all possessions,
in a cave, the desert, or atop some lonely mountain. The
stereotype is not entirely fanciful; in the past seekers have
lived that way. Some do even today. Let's attempt to understand
what might motivate someone to adopt such a life.
For someone whose goal is vision of, and eventual union with,
the One, with Isness, the habit of seeing "the many," dualistic
seeing, is a hindrance. This habit in turn is a result of our
attachment to Maya's drama, of our involvement with duality and
consequent ignorance of the One.
Watch a movie and try to continuously remember the images on
the screen are nothing but light. If the movie is exceptionally
boring, you may succeed. If, however, the movie has lots of
attraction - lots of adventure, if that is what you like, or
romance, if that's your preference - you'll become absorbed in
the drama, forgetting that all you're seeing is light projected
onto a screen. Even when the movie turns frightening or sad,
you'll probably remain absorbed, feeling the appropriate fright
or sadness. Only if the movie turns very disagreeable -
frightening, sad, or boring beyond endurance - will the thought
return "it's only a movie, it's only a play of light."
So it is with us and the Eternal. When life is going well, when
there are lots of interesting things occurring, it's a rare
individual who seeks the Eternal, the Light behind the show. Even
when life is going badly, many do not turn to the Reality behind
the illusion. For what prevents turning to the Root is not
whether life is pleasant or unpleasant, but how deeply the
individual is absorbed in life's drama. Attachment to the show,
the appearance, the illusion, - the world - hinders our
perception of the Reality standing behind it, the Eternal
How might someone completely dedicated to the goal of vision of
and eventual union with the One conduct the movie which is their
life? One straightforward way is to reduce involvement with
duality, the drama which diverts perception of the One to
perception of the many. Reduction of drama may be accomplished by
withdrawal from the world and society to a life of solitude and
quiet. Of course, desires and passions wouldn't be satisfied in
such a life, so they would have to be somehow transcended, even
uprooted. Poverty would eliminate most of the things which absorb
our attention; solitude would eliminate the people which absorb
our attention. Obviously, solitude would also imply abstinence
from sexual intercourse if not complete chastity.
Emotions, thoughts, and phantasies are just as much a movie and
drama as the exterior world. Someone completely dedicated to
union with the One, therefore, might seek to control, still, and
quiet them, too. Indeed,
[i]t is a common teaching of mystic writers that
introversion is effected by a successive silencing of
the faculties . . . till . . . the very being of the
soul . . . comes into immediate relation with the
Ultimate Reality which is God. (,33).
Moreover, awareness must be freed from consciousness of the
ego. Our body, emotions, and thoughts exist in the world of Maya.
That is, our very own self, the ego, is a perishable entity with
only relative existence. Our egos are waves on the Eternal ocean
of existence, but are not themselves the ocean.
Eventually, when Awareness has been freed from all that's
relative, It becomes aware, not of any impermanent entity with
only relative existence, but of Itself.
. . . the unitive state is the culmination of the
simplifying process by which the soul is gradually
isolated from all that is foreign to itself, from all
that is not God. (,149).
Thus, for the sake of perception of the Eternal in Its pure
state an aspirant may practice detachment of Consciousness from
the show world. They may reduce to a minimum their involvement
in, and perception of, any and all created entities, even their
own self. Such practices constitute an apparent rejection of
creation, which is viewed negatively as a veil, a hinderance to
vision of the One. Not surprisingly therefore this way to pure
vision of the Source has been called the Negative Way.
It will be helpful to investigate the practices of the Negative
Way in more detail. Since withdrawal from society and created
entities, the practice of silence and solitude, poverty and
chastity, the control of emotions and the mind, all motivated by
the desire for direct experience of the Root, constitute (surely,
not coincidently) the main values of the strictest cloistered and
hermetical monastic traditions, we'll turn to them for our
In the religions in which it exists, monasticism is often
considered the most radical, demanding, and direct way to vision
of and union with the Eternal. Monasticism has three forms: life
within a monastic community (cenobitic), life with the
companionship of a few others (cloistered), and the life of
solitude (eremitical). Of course, monastic communities with a
scholarly or humanitarian function can't always observe solitude
and silence. But many monastic situations have these
characteristics: detachment from the world and society, fasting
and abstinence, poverty, the practice of solitude, silence, and
continual prayer, the battle against passions and desires, the
fight to control the heart and mind, indifference to created
entities, all motivated by the search for vision of, and
eventually conscious union with, the Real.
Renunciation and Monastic Withdrawal
An obvious step for reducing attachment to drama, and the first
step in many monastic traditions, is reducing physical
involvement with the external world to a minimum.
. . . [I]t was the universal conviction of the ancients
. . . separation from the world constituted the climate
. . . essential to the pursuit of monastic life.
For example, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (), a famous
Orthodox Christian work on the monastic life describing thirty
stages of the soul's journey back to God, begins with withdrawal
to a quiet place. Historically and stereotypically, monastics
have withdrawn to a cave, mountain, desert, forest or cloistered
The life of Julian of Norwich, who lived during the (,22)
"Golden Age of the English Recluse," offers a vivid illustration.
Julian was an anchoress, a religious seeker who pursued the
search for God almost entirely alone.
The anchorite's ideal was a renunciation of the world
so complete that all thought of the world and its cares
would be totally banished from his mind, leaving him
free to fill his mind and heart with God alone.
To become an anchoress, Julian first petitioned her bishop.
Then, a Mass, probably a Mass of the Dead, was said for her.
In the Exeter rite the whole service strongly resembled
an actual burial service . . . (,xxxviii).
Next, Julian was led to the anchorhold, a enclosed suite of rooms
about the size of an apartment, perhaps provided with an open air
. . . [T]he In Paradisum was chanted as the postulant
walked into the anchorhold, and the prayers for the
commendation of a departed soul were said over the
prostrate body of the newly-enclosed . . . The occupant
of the anchorhold was now officially 'dead to the
Dead to the world but (,23) "alive unto God."
An anchoress didn't necessarily maintain absolute physical
solitude, however; she might have a servant who purchased food,
for example. Moreover, she could even have an occasional visitor.
Nonetheless, each anchoress was considered sealed in their
anchorhold for life.
Some ran away, of course; some went mad; the great
majority were faithful unto physical death . . . What
did they do? Fundamentally, they prayed . . . Julian
cannot have been unique in the quality of the prayer
life she lived: many another found that he was in fact
alone with God, and was raised to great heights of
Not all monastics are anchorites, of course. Many live retired
from the world in the company of a few like-minded brethren. A
famous example is Mount Athos, an Eastern Orthodox group of
monastic communities. ( describes Mount Athos in words and
Hermit monks came to Mount Athos as early as the ninth
century. The first monastery, Great Lavra, was founded
by St. Athanasios in 963 . . . By 1400, 19 of the 20
monasteries active today had been completed. . . . Some
1,500 monks now inhabit the Holy Mountain. (,740).
The monks live in Mount Athos's ancient monasteries; the hermits
in its small huts and caves.
In the West, the Carmelites, Carthusians, and other orders
still follow a strict monastic life. Originally hermetical,
Carmelite life eventually became more communal. Then, Teresa of
Avila, the (,42) "greatest mystic of her day," founded a
reform order, closer to the original ideal, and closer too to the
life Julian led. Teresa
. . . insisted upon enclosure . . . and limited the
opportunities for nuns to receive visitors . . .
. . . stressed voluntary poverty and the ascetic
lifestyle it entailed . . . (,131-2).
Like Julian, Carmelite nuns and the hermits of Mount Athos live
in a world with few enticements to their attention. They've
reduced to a minimum their involvement with physical entities
having only relative existence. Such material poverty is an
integral part of monasticism.
The abandonment of material goods was an essential
ingredient of the renunciation involved in the monastic
vocation from the very beginning. (,247).
Voluntary poverty is often recommended by the enlightened.
Jesus, for example, advised his followers:
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where
moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break
through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures
in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt,
and where thieves do not break through nor steal: (Mt
. . . go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor
. . . (Mt 19:21,).
. . . [i]t is easier for a camel to go through the eye
of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the
kingdom of God. (Mt 19:24,).
Why should this be so? Should a Christian view created things
as inherently evil? Hardly. After all, Genesis 1:31 teaches God
surveyed all He had created and saw it was good. But involvement
with and attachment to such objects seems to prevent attachment
to the Eternal.
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be
also. (Mt 6:21,).
Poverty and Detachment
Poverty involves more than physical
. . . detachment from all that is worldly and unreal .
. . True poverty is not merely lack of wealth, but lack
of desire for wealth . . . (,36-7).
Detachment, the giving up of desire for, involvement and concern
with, and attachment to any created entity, is the second step in
The Ladder of Divine Ascent. As hesychastic monks have found,
. . . the first step . . . in the long process of
returning to God is to cut oneself off from all
extrinsic attachments and then to tie the self to God
in one's heart. But before there can be attachment to
God there must be detachment from the world.
Before we can clearly see the movie as a play of light, we must
first become unattached to seeing the various forms - the people
and objects - the play of light creates. Similarly, before we can
clearly see the world as a play of the Uncreated Light - and so
come to see the Uncreated Light Itself - we must first become
unattached to seeing the various forms, the people and objects,
the play of Uncreated Light creates.
The Eternal Light is Reality, but Its play creates entities
with relative existence, entities which are, in comparison,
unreal. Detachment from the play gives us discrimination,
enabling us to distinguish the Real from the unreal. For example,
. . . severed her attachments to things of the world,
so her experience of . . . God deepened. (,121).
Religious teachers, therefore, often advise detachment. Buddha
suggested his followers cease desiring any entity with only
For that which is impermanent, brother, you must put away
desire. . . . For that which is suffering, brother, you must
put away desire. . . . For that which is no self, brother,
you must put away desire. . . . (,65).
Jesus, too, seems to have taught a similar detachment.
. . . if any man will sue thee at the law, and take
away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. (Mt
More generally, he recommended
Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or
what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye
shall put on. (Mt 6:24,).
Take therefore no thought for the morrow . . . (Mt
Passionlessness And Thoughtlessness
The world's exterior show isn't the only play of the Eternal to
which we are subject. And desires with respect to it aren't our
only desires. Inside of us is a drama of emotions and thoughts,
memories and phantasies. These too are impermanent entities
having only relative existence; their perception therefore is
also a hindrance to perception of the Eternal. So, to completely
free Awareness, we must detach It from the internal drama, from
passions and other emotions, from thoughts, memories, and
Thus, "in the earnest exercise of mystic contemplation,"
"Dionysius" recommends one should
. . . leave the senses and the activities of the
intellect and all things that the senses or the
intellect can perceive . . . (,191).
Similarly, hesychasm recommends one should (,76) "contain
the mind in the heart, freed of all imaginings." For
. . . the mind, in order to reach true contemplation,
must begin by emptying itself of all thoughts, whether
they be good or bad. (,113).
In fact, Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras, defines yoga as
. . . the control of thought-waves in the mind.
Passions of course also exist in the drama, and so must be
abandoned, too. Thus, Islam's Sufis seek fana, a term which
includes both passionlessness and thoughtlessness, and sometimes
refers to gnosis as well. Fana is
1. A moral transformation of the soul through the
extinction of all its passions and desires. . . . 2. .
. . passing-away of the mind from all objects of
perception, thoughts, actions, and feelings through its
concentration upon the thought of God. . . . 3. The
cessation of all conscious thought. (,60-1).
Detachment from the Ego, Detachment from World
To withdraw from the drama, an Awareness must be freed of
everything external or internal which is not the Eternal. The
play of the Eternal includes more than objects and people, more
than feelings and thoughts. It also includes our relative selves,
the ego. For as we've seen, our selves are changing entities with
only relative existence. They are part of the drama. Awareness,
the Self, must be detached from the ego, the self, if It is to be
free of the drama. Therefore, religious teachers often condemn
pride and arrogance, recommending instead detachment from ego in
the form of humility, meekness, and self-surrender. Jesus, for
Blessed are the meek . . . (Mt 5:5,),
. . . whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek,
turn to him the other also. (Mt 5:39,),
And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with
him twain. (Mt 5:41,).
Moreover, he held the person who serves others the greatest in
the kingdom of heaven.
Similarly, Teresa of Avila
. . . rejected the principles of honor and lineage as
incompatible with the religious life. For Teresa,
obsession with one's reputation was a particularly
insidious example of attachment to "things of the
[l]ike many of the great religious reformers, Teresa
replaced honor with its reverse, humility, as the value
most appropriate to the spiritual life. (,130).
In her convents, wrote (,127) Teresa, "All the sisters must
be equals." And the author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent
. . . patience in annoyances, unmurmuring endurance of
scorn, disregard of insults, and the habit, when
wronged, of bearing it sturdily; when slandered, of not
being indignant; when humiliated, not to be angry . . .
Detachment from ego, in the form of humility and even-temperedness,
helps dying to self and the consequent new birth of
awareness of Self. It gives independence from external
circumstances, making one a "king" of the interior world.
The usual image of a king is someone who has power and control
of the external world. On a king's command, buildings are
constructed, people are knighted, wars are fought, etc. But such
a person might have little or no control of their own interior
world; they might be unable to resist anger, lust, greed,
gluttony, etc. A king of the interior world, on the other hand,
has power and control over their own interior world.
The ancient Stoics seem to have held the ideal of the interior
king. For them
. . . sovereignty over oneself ceased to be a civic
virtue and became an end unto itself. Autonomy secured
inner peace and made a man independent of Fortune . . .
This was preeminently the Stoic ideal . . .
And Buddha had an analogous idea. He considered various negative
states to be "defilements" and suggested (,180-2) one should
"cleanse the mind of obstructive mental states" such as ill-will,
sloth, and torpor, restlessness and worry, dejection, and
coveting for the world.
The Negative and Affirmative Ways
One criticism of the negative way is that it's life-denying. Is
it? Yes, if life is identified with drama, the picture show of
events, feelings, and thoughts that absorbs most of us. In fact,
that's it purpose. Drama-denying, however, is more accurate, for
far from denying life, the goal of the negative way is the life
which never ends, consciousness union with the Eternal.
Another criticism is that it's not always available. Some
religions don't have a monastic tradition. For some people, a
retired, private life, in effect, a private cloister, may be the
only option. Indeed, many people have pursued the negative way in
. . . [M]en and women have built their own cloister in
the midst of the worldly activity around them.
Many people have lived in the world yet practiced renunciation,
withdrawal, poverty, detachment, passionlessness, desirelessness,
and mental stillness. So monasticism isn't the only way to God.
As Parrinder observes, there have been
. . . noted lay men and women living in the world yet
famed for their mystical devotions and writings.
The most serious criticism of the negative way, however, is
it's open to only the few. Many people, myself included, aren't
able (or, at least, aren't willing) to make the radical life
changes it demands. Complete dedication to beyond-the-show-world
goals is itself beyond most of us.
So, what about us? How can we move towards gnosis? For us,
there's another way, the affirmative way.
In the negative way, creation is denied and withdrawn from.
It's considered an obstacle, a veil, a hindrance to perception of
the Eternal. Siddhartha, protagonist of Hermann Hesse's novel of
the same name, once held this attitude.
"This," he said, handling it, "is a stone . . .
Previously I should have said: This stone is just a
stone; it has no value, it belongs to the world of Maya
. . ." (,145).
Siddhartha saw that the play of the Uncreated Light, creation,
veils the Eternal. Yet it embodies the Real, too. Like a diamond
which holds and reflects light, the world around us holds and
reflects the Eternal Light. Eventually, Siddhartha realized this.
But now I think: This stone is stone; it is also
animal, God and Buddha. . . . I love it just because it
is a stone . . . I see value and meaning in each one of
its fine markings and cavities, in the yellow, in the
gray, in the hardness and the sound of it when I knock
it . . . There are stones that feel like oil or soap,
that look like leaves or sand, and each one is
different and worships Om in its own way; each one is
Since the universe is a manifestation of the Real, knowing the
universe can lead to knowledge of the Real. So the show world,
the play of light, can be a bridge to the Center. Some mystics,
in fact, see that as its primary purpose. In the words of
The world . . . was made for the soul's sake, so that
the soul's eye might be practiced and strengthened to
bear the divine light. (,161).
For the divine light
. . . is so overpowering and clear that the soul's eye
could not bear it unless it were steadied by matter . .
. so that it is led up to the divine light and
accustomed to it. (,161).
Indeed, as Ghazzali wrote,
Allah hath Seventy Thousand Veils of Light and
Darkness: were He to withdraw their curtain, then would
the splendours of His Aspect surely consume everyone
who apprehended Him with his sight. (,76-7).
Mystical value systems which view creation positively, as a
help in reaching gnosis, are part of the so-called "affirmative
way." The affirmative way seeks to come to awareness of the Real
not by denying It's manifestations, but by learning to see the
Eternal Light behind all It's varies appearances.
Since it accepts the Eternal's dance, Its drama, the
affirmative way better suits someone who is in the world. It
accepts the everyday world we live in, and demands no rejection
and separation, no cave, mountaintop, or hermetical retreat. It
looks for experience of God in the people and things around us.
It replaces renunciation and withdrawal with a worldly life whose
aim is gnosis, a life which is "in the world but not of the
world." In place of poverty there's the moderated and charitable
use of things; in place of detachment there's an acceptance of
occurrences as God's will; in place of chastity there's a
restrained indulgence in sexuality, often only within wedlock.
Attitudes towards Others
The affirmative way looks for experience of God in the people and
things around us. It sees each living and non-living entity as a
manifestation or embodiment of the Eternal Light, what Johannes
Scotus Erigena called a "theophany."
How should someone treat a theophany? If the theophany is
another person, one way is pacifism, an absolute refusal to use
violence against them.
Some religions are pacifist. Eighteenth century Quakers
(,3), for instance, gave up political control of
Pennsylvania, a state which they founded, rather than vote for
war. Today, Quakers still believe that
. . . we must all seriously consider the implications
of our employment, our investments, our payment of
taxes, and our manner of living as they relate to
. . . war is wrong in the sight of God. . . . We would
alleviate the suffering caused by war. We would refrain
from participating in all forms of violence and
In this, they follow Jesus' command to
[l]ove your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good
to them that hate you, and pray for them which
despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be
the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he
maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good . .
. (Mt 5:44-45,).
Some religious groups even refuse to use violence against
animals; they are vegetarian. Buddha, for example, described the
monk as one who has abandoned
. . . the slaying of creatures . . . the taking of what
is not given . . . the unchaste life . . . falsehood .
. . slanderous speech . . . bitter speech . . . idle
babble . . . injury to seed-life and plant-life . . .
highway robbery, plundering and deeds of violence.
And Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras, makes "not injuring" the first
principle of "Abstinence," which in turn is the first of the
eight "limbs" of yoga.
(1) "Abstinence" includes (a) not injuring, (b) not
lying, (c) not stealing, (d) not being sensual, and (e)
not being possessive. (XXX,,96).
Of course, pacifism and vegetarianism aren't the only ways to
treat living theophanies. But many religious and mystical value
systems do recommend patience and forgiveness of injury and
insult, and a positive concern manifest in schools, hospitals,
orphanages, humanitarian and poverty relief efforts, and social
The Rightful Use of Things
In some systems, non-injury is practiced, in so far as possible,
toward animals and even plants. For example, the hermit whose
food is predominately dairy, fruit and nut is someone who refuses
to injure animals and plants unnecessarily. In other systems, no
obligation toward animals and plants is seen. Rather, they are
freely exploited for the benefit of the human race. Even in these
systems, however, a proper concern for other people may imply a
certain treatment of animals and plants.
For example, we've seen that about 16 pounds of plant feed are
needed to produce a pound (,9) of animal flesh for the
table. In addition, the animal consumes much fresh water between
birth and slaughter. Therefore, a desire the conserve water and
food for people, rather than any direct concern for animals,
might persuade someone to avoid animal flesh.
So, concern for people may determine the proper treatment of
animals and plants. The proper use of things may be derived in a
similar way. The proper use of inanimate objects helps us and
other people, while improper use hurts, not the objects, but
ourselves or others. Therefore, even though the affirmative way
doesn't demand personal poverty, it does demand the ethical,
charitable use of things, moderation in one's own personal
possessions, and an interest the welfare of others. Humanitarian
and poverty relief efforts are examples that come to mind.
Religions often engage in such efforts.
There is, however, another type of humanitarian relief effort
which religions often neglect.
It's one thing to relieve poverty and sickness; it is quite
another to attempt to understand and eliminate their cause. This
realization has come recently to the Roman Catholic church in
Latin America. Once,
[p]riests had . . . often preached resignation to
"God's will" in a way that could reinforce the belief
that the present distribution of wealth and power comes
from God. (,31).
. . . morality focused on sins of marital infidelity or
drinking, or treatment of other individuals, and was
little concerned about the impact of social structures.
Now, however, in some quarters material poverty is understood to
. . . an evil, as the result of the oppression of some
people by others. Poverty that dehumanizes human beings
is an offense against God. (,32).
Such ideas are sometimes labeled "Liberation Theology."
Liberation theology attempts to eliminate the causes of poverty
by restructuring society. It teaches
[p]eople do not simply happen to be poor; their poverty
is largely a product of the way society is organized.
Therefore, it criticizes economic systems that
. . . enable some Latin Americans to jet to Miami or
London to shop, while most of their fellow citizens do
not have safe drinking water. (,5).
Such thinking, however, is not entirely new. For example,
believing that all people were equal in the sight of God
(,3), Quakers centuries ago worked for what were then
unpopular causes, such as
. . . the abolition of slavery and of war, the welfare
of Negroes and Indians, temperance, prison reform and
the rights of women. (,5).
Their motives, perhaps, were similar to those of liberation
theologians today who've decided
. . . the causes of poverty were structural and would
require basic structural changes . . . [S]uch changes
would come about only through political action.
Such theologians envision
. . . a government that feeds the hungry, clothes the
naked, teaches the ignorant, puts into practice the
work of charity, and love for neighbor . . . for the
majority of our neighbors. (,18).
There's one danger to the spiritual seeker in political action,
and indeed all acts, that should be mentioned. In the affirmative
way, actions are meant to aid the journey to gnosis. When
[f]ar from being an obstacle to spiritual growth, the
giving of oneself in the service of others out of
charity fosters the interior life of the soul.
But if actions, the means, become more important than experience
of the Eternal, then the goal becomes political rather than
spiritual. The object shifts from changing one's own inner world
to changing the outer world. Someone who started out as a
spiritual seeker becomes a political activist. Their action
increases, rather than reduces, their attachment to drama.
The Two Ways Compared; Transcendence and Immanence
The negative and affirmative ways regard the world differently.
One views it as a veil of the Eternal, an hindrance to gnosis.
The other, as an embodiment of the Eternal, an aid to gnosis.
These two views have their roots in two different ways of
thinking of the Real: as either immanent or transcendental. Let's
examine these two ideas.
When we first introduced the idea of Ultimate Ground of
Existence, many chapters ago, we started with a table and
progressed to wood to molecules to, eventually, the table's
Eternal Substance. Approached in this way, the Real is immanent,
inherent, and indwelling in the table and, indeed, in all
entities. In so far as It's the world's Ultimate Substance, the
Eternal is the world and the world is the Eternal.
Yet the Unformed transcends the table, too. The table is brown,
perhaps; the Unborn isn't brown. In fact, It's very different
from anything we know. Grass is green, the Unconditioned isn't
green. Water is wet, the Uncaused Cause isn't wet. Lead is heavy,
the Unformed isn't heavy. The Real transcends the physical,
emotional, and intellectual spheres. Therefore, the Center goes
beyond and is not limited by the world. In this sense, the
Eternal isn't the world and the world isn't the Eternal.
Light may be thought of as particle or wave. The God who is not
a Person may be thought of as Person or not. Similarly, the Real
may be considered immanent in the world or transcendent to the
world. Shankara illustrated the situation as follows.
In India, cobras are greatly feared since their bites are often
deadly. Imagine a rope left coiled along a village path. It's
twilight. Someone on the path "sees" a snake and becomes fearful.
The immanent reality and the ground of existence of the "snake"
is the rope. Therefore, in a sense the rope is the snake. Yet the
rope transcends the "snake," goes beyond the "snake," and is very
different from any genuine snake. In this sense, the rope isn't
Even as the "snake" is the rope misperceived, the world is the
Eternal misperceived. And even as we may regard the "snake" as
actually a rope, or as something very different from rope, we may
regard the world as the Eternal Substance, or as something very
different. And, finally, even as the "snake" is illusory but its
ground is real, the world is illusory but its ground is real, in
fact, the Real.
Ramana Maharshi's once declared ,16) that 1) the Eternal
is real, 2) the world is unreal, and 3) the Eternal is the world.
The world is unreal, he says, but the Eternal, which is real, is
the world. Is, then, the world real or not? The statements may
seem to contradict themselves, but when understood in the light
of Shankara's illustration, they're no more contradictory than 1)
the rope is real, 2) the snake is unreal, and 3) the rope is the
Perhaps, "the Eternal appears as the world" and "the rope
appears as a snake" is clearer. For world and snake are unreal in
that they exist only in appearance.
How does all this concern the negative and affirmative ways?
The negative way seems based on a transcendent view of the Real.
Since the Real is very different from anything we perceive, it
says, perception of those things must be abandoned before
perception of the Real can arise. The affirmative way, on the
other hand, seems based on an immanent view of the Real. The Real
is here, right before us, if we could only see. Therefore, there
is no need to deny the world around us. Rather, seeing the world
properly will reveal its Eternal Basis.
Are then the two ways equally effective for reaching gnosis?
Perhaps not. For it seems as long as the "snake" exists there
some measure of illusion and unreality. Even if the "snake" is
known to be a rope, even if it's seen as such, as long as even
the appearance of snake remains, the rope is not fully seen as it
is, clearly, without illusion.
Rufus Jones observes that in the affirmative way,
. . . the seeker follows after the "beneficent
progression of God," and gathers up what light he can
from the revelations and manifestations, as God unveils
Himself by going out of His Hiddenness. (,105).
The discovery of the truth through manifestations is .
. . the affirmative way. . . . [I]n the outgoing of God
we can discover the attributes which in the Godhead "at
home" are swallowed up in the unity of His perfect
Not only are the attributes of God swallowed up in Godhead. For
if we follow the outgoings of God far enough, we too are
swallowed up in the unity of His perfect Self. But at this point
we've lost sight of creation, and see only God. The affirmative
way has turned into the negative way.
So, by itself, the affirmative way seems to have a certain
The affirmative way never carries the seeker beyond
"reflections" of the ultimate reality. (,108).
Only the negative way goes beyond reflections to Godhead. It
seems the affirmative way is a way of preparation which leads one
eventually to the negative way, and eventually the pure
contemplation of, and finally union with, the One.
We've examined different kinds of values systems, with emphasis
on mystical value systems, on systems which include the goal of
gnosis. We've seen that many of the negative way's practices,
that is, many monastic actions and attitudes, follow naturally if
someone is trying to abandon the drama of life to reach the
Reality behind it. We've also briefly discussed the affirmative
way, with emphasis on a few of its possible practices, namely,
pacifism, vegetarianism, and action for social justice.
Many more practices from both ways can be discussed. We'll see
more in the next chapter.
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