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Tag: Philosophy

Dead Men, Hollow Ghosts

” … But profoundly as I also feel the value of the religious impulse, so keenly do I feel the danger and almost necessary disaster of each and every creed and dogma.

For the material of religion is essentially the uncharted, the ungrasped, as Herbert Spencer would say, though with a somewhat different connotation, the ‘unknowable.’

Further, every religious dogma errs in two ways. First, it is a confident statement about something unknown and therefore practically always untrustworthy; secondly, if it were right and based on real knowledge, then its subject-matter would no longer belong to the realm of religion; it would belong to science or philosophy.

To win new realms for knowledge out of the unknown is part of the normal current of human effort; but to force intellectual dogma upon material which belongs only to the realm of dim aspiration is to steer for a backwater of death.

In that backwater lies stranded many an ancient galley, haunted by fair figures of serene Olympians, and even, it must be said, by the phantom of Him—the Desire of all nations—who is the same yesterday, to-day and for ever.

The stream of life flows on, a saecular mystery; but these, the eidola of man’s market-place, are dead men, hollow ghosts.”

Jane Ellen Harrison, Themis–A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion, 1912, p. xix.

Eschatological Elevation of the Soul After Death

“The Bahir’s idea of the sefiroth appears in Isaac’s writings in a fully crystallized form. In his commentary on the Yesirah 4:3, the verse 1 Chronicles 29:11 is used for the first time as a biblical reference for the names and the sequence of the seven lower sefiroth, especially the first five among them: “Yours, Lord, are the greatness (gedullah), might (geburah), splendor (tif’ereth), triumph (nesah), and majesty (hod)—yes all (kol) that is in heaven and on earth; to You, Lord, belong kingship (mamlakhah) and preeminence above all.”

From here come the designations not yet used in the Bahir, of gedullah for hesed, tif’ereth for ‘emeth, and hod. Isaac himself for the most part uses the names hesed and pahad (as in the Bahir) instead of gedullah and geburah. The name tif’ereth, however, is already familiar to him.

Whereas the word kol, occurring in the aforementioned verse, already served in the Bahir as an epithet designating the “Righteous,” Isaac uses for this sefirah the noun “Righteous” and the epithet “Foundation of the world.” For the last sefirah, on the other hand, he employs almost exclusively an epithet still not familiar to the Bahir, although it is undoubtedly alluded to there.

This epithet is ‘atarah, a synonym for kether, which designates the lowest of the ten “crowns.” Like the Bahir, he names the first three sefiroth kether or mahshabah, hokhmah and binah.

In his commentary on Yesirah, Isaac mentions many of these sefiroth in the framework of fixed schemata, but this does not always enable us to comprehend the sequence of the sefiroth within them. What is strange is that in point of fact the structure of the sefiroth beyond the supreme three only interests him in detail when it is a question of prayer mysticism, or the interpretation of certain ritual commandments. They have their importance as stages of the contemplative ascent or of the eschatological elevation of the soul, after death, to even higher spheres.

But never are any coherent thoughts presented concerning their function and structure. This is particularly the case for the potencies of tif’ereth, yesod and ‘atarah, which play an especially important role in the evolution of the doctrine of the sefiroth. In contrast to this lack of interest in detail, one discerns in Isaac a more pronounced interest in the totality of the spiritual potencies expressed in language and, in a more general manner, in spiritual entities.

Having said that, the terminological differences between concepts like sefiroth, middoth, letters (of the alphabet) and hawwayoth (literally: essences) are by no means always clear, and their interpretation is often fraught with difficulties.

However, these difficulties are closely related to what is truly new in Isaac’s Kabbalah. Indeed, from the historical point of view their interest lies in the combination of the world of ideas of the Bahir and the entirely new elements that erupt, inspired by gnostic ideas, into the oldest form of the Kabbalah as represented by the Bahir.

This combination reflects speculative interests whose origin is no longer essentially determined by Gnosticism but rather by Neoplatonism and a language mysticism generated by the latter. Isaac is visibly struggling with new thoughts for which he is as yet unable to find clear and definitive expression. The awkwardness of his new terminology militates against the supposition that this lack of clarity, which often makes it so difficult to penetrate his meaning, is intentional.

His new terminology seems to be derived from philosophy, although we cannot identify its philosophical sources in the Hebrew tradition. The special importance of Isaac’s commentary on the Yesirah lies in the attempt to read into the old texts the new, speculative thoughts of a contemplative mystic. But we are no less surprised by the boldness with which he presents far-reaching ideas in his other cosmological fragments and in his remarks concerning the mystical theory of sacrifice. The particular manner in which Isaac applies his ideas to the task of man, to the connection between the terrestrial and the celestial worlds, and to eschatological matters merits closer consideration.

The path of the mystic, described by Isaac at the beginning of his commentary on the Yesirah, is (as Isaac of Acre already recognized in his paraphrase of several of these passages in his own commentary) that of systematically uncovering the divine—by means of reflective contemplation and within the innermost depths of such contemplation. Isaac postulates three stages in the mystery of the deity and its unfolding in creation and revelation.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 263-5.

Shiva, Kali, Illusion, Brahman

“The Shaivites envision the pure consciousness of Vast Face as Shiva, and the energy of that consciousness as His consort the Goddess Kali.

The Vedantic philosophy of advaita (non-duality) regards all Name and Form as illusory, and the Brahman (i.e. the Ayn) alone exists.

[Many] Buddhists perform variations of Vast Face meditation practices taught by Gautama Buddha (regarded as the eighth incarnation of Vishnu by Hindus) and other bodhisattvas (souls who reach enlightenment but remain incarnate to teach and help others awaken).

The Buddha practiced jnana yoga (lit. union through direct perception of the Ayn) and taught ashtanga yoga (lit. eight-limbed yoga of concentration and discrimination).

He sat under the Bodhi Tree, renouncing all experiences on all planes of existence. Seeing that all the koshas (Sanskrit words for shells of embodied existence) were empty, he perceived the ultimate Truth of Pure Being in nirvana.

The Vast Face Taoists follow “quietist practices” that lead them to Stillness in the Tao. The principal mood, or bhava, of Vast Face Yoga is called the “shanti bhava” peaceful mood).”

–Daniel Feldman, Qabala: The Mystical Heritage of the Children of Abraham, 2001, pg.  172-3.

The Ein Sof

“The concept of an infinite, perfect supreme being that cannot change, a concept absent from Jewish thought in antiquity, is dominant in both philosophy and kabbalah. This concept, which was expressed in the most powerful terms by Aristotelian thinkers when they discussed the primal cause or the unmoved mover, was accepted wholeheartedly by Jewish medieval thinkers. Kabbalistic terminology often used the term “ein sof,” no end, infinite, to designate this supreme entity.”

“The process of emanation that brought forth the system of the sefirot was the kabbalistic answer to the question, “How can anything different emerge from the unchanging and eternal divinity?”

“Many kabbalists insisted that the ein sof is not indicated by any biblical phrase, because its perfection and unchanging character put it beyond language, even divine language … The realm of ein sof in the kabbalah is therefore beyond language, beyond any kind of description, and essentially it is not different from the rationalistic designations of the infinite supreme eternal entity.”

“This and other such systems attempt to build a bridge between the timelessness of the ein sof and the sefirot, which exist in time … The most important aspect of ein sof in kabbalistic thought is as the ultimate source of the flow of the purest divine light (shefa) that constantly provides the power to exist in both divine and earthly realms. Emanation is not a one-time event, but an ongoing vital process that maintains the existence of all beings.

“The kabbalists differed from the neo-Platonists in the intense dynamism and mythological elements that they introduced into their system, especially in the lower realms of existence, and in their belief in the capacity of human deeds and behavior to influence processes in the divine world.”

As above, so below, and vice versa.

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 39-41.

Swiss Army Kabbalah

Joseph Dan claims that kabbalah transformed from a uniquely Jewish religious tradition into a European concept, “integrated with Christian theology, philosophy, science and magic, at the end of the fifteenth century.”

He stresses that there is no unanimity about the definition of the term “kabbalah,” that it is used differently, to refer to different things, by Christian cabalists, Jewish orthodox thinkers and others. “The confusion is increased by the fact that there is no unanimity in the usage of the term either within Judaism or outside of it, so that various, different and conflicting conceptions of what the kabbalah is prevail in both cultures.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 61.

Why Constitute a False God when you have a Real Universe?

“Many old idols must be dethroned, chief of all being that of an anthropomorphized Deity, with its train of debasing superstitions.

“And now,” says K. H., “after making due allowance for evils that are natural and that cannot be avoided . . . I will point out the greatest, the chief cause of nearly two thirds of the evils that pursue humanity ever since that cause became a power. It is religion, under whatever form and in whatever nation. It is the sacerdotal caste, the priesthood and the churches; it is in those illusions that man looks upon as sacred that he has to search out the source of that multitude of evils which is the great curse of humanity and that almost overwhelms mankind.

“Ignorance created gods and cunning took advantage of the opportunity. Look at India and look at Christendom and Islam, at Judaism and Fetichism. It is priestly imposture that rendered these Gods so terrible to man; it is religion that makes of him the selfish bigot, the fanatic that hates all mankind outside his own sect without rendering him any better or more moral for it. It is belief in God and Gods that makes two-thirds of humanity the slaves of a handful of those who deceive them under the false pretense of saving them. . . . .

Remember the sum of human misery will never be diminished unto that day when the better portion of humanity destroys in the name of Truth, Morality and universal Charity the altars of their false Gods.”

“Neither our philosophy nor ourselves believe in a God, least of all one whose pronoun necessitates a capital G. . . . Therefore we deny God both as philosophers and as Buddhists. We know there are planetary and other spiritual lives, and we know there is in our system no such thing as God, either personal or impersonal. Parabrahm is not a God, but absolute immutable law, and Ishwar is the effect of Avidya (ignorance) and Maya (illusion), ignorance based on the great delusion. The word “God” was invented to designate the unknown cause of those effects which man has ever admired or dreaded without understanding them, and since we claim–and that we are able to prove what we claim–i.e., the knowledge of that cause and causes, we are in a position to maintain there is no God or Gods behind them.”

“The causes assigned to phenomena by the Mahatmas, he says, are natural, sensible, supernatural, unintelligible, and unknown. The God of the theologians is simply an imaginary power, that has never yet manifested itself to human perception. The cause posited by the Adept is that power whose activities we behold in every phenomenon in the universe. They are pantheists, never agnostics. The Deity they envisage is everywhere present, as well in matter as elsewhere.”

“In other words we believe in Matter alone, in matter as visible nature and matter in its invisibility as the invisible omnipresent omnipotent Proteus with its unceasing motion which is its life, and which nature draws from herself, since she is the great whole outside of which nothing can exist. . . . The existence of matter, then, is a fact; the existence of motion is another fact, their self-existence and eternity or indestructibility is a third fact. And the idea of pure Spirit as a Being or an Existence–give it whatever name you will–is a chimera, a gigantic absurdity.

“Why constitute a false God when you have a real Universe?”

“I do not protest at all, as you seem to think, against your theism, or a belief in abstract ideal of some kind, but I cannot help asking you, how do you or can you know that your God is all-wise, omnipotent and love-ful, when everything in nature, physical and moral, proves such a being, if he does exist, to be quite the reverse of all you say of him? Strange delusion and one which seems to overpower your intellect!

–Alvin Boyd Kuhn,  A Modern Revival of Ancient Wisdom, pg. 89-90.

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