Theology Reconsidered: An Introduction

What follows is the Introductory chapter from a newly published, two Volume work entitled Theology Reconsidered.  The book can be purchased from Lambert publishing via their website; Volume I here and Volume II here.

 


When looking at the first mythological and philosophical works from antiquity, it is very easy to get lost in the “facts” surrounding these ancient works and lose sight of their true meaning and import to the people and cultures within which these works emerged from and out of.  Much of the modern academic and scholarly literature concerning these ancient “theo-philosophical” works falls into this category.  To a large extent, the purpose of this work is to try and “recover” said meanings of these ancient works as much as possible, and to look at them within a much broader theological, mythological and philosophical narrative that we find throughout Eurasia in the first millennium BCE, the so-called “Axial Age” of modern man.

In order to do this, we take a primarily intellectual journey through the mind of ancient man, as he sees the world and as is reflected in the earliest literary evidence of man, trying to understand these works not only within the broader “Eurasian” context, but also trying to look at them through the eyes of the ancient philosophers, theologians, priests and scholars who wrote these ancient texts, or in many cases were the ones to “compile” or “transcribe” these longstanding theo-philosophical traditions, but also to try and understand them within the theological, intellectual and socio-cultural context within which these works arose.  This broader meaning we call knowledge, which from a modern philosophical perspective is referred to as epistemology.

This knowledge is what Philo Judaeus takes great pain to describe in his exegesis of the Pentateuch, Genesis in particular, what the Neo-Platonists take pains to describe in their literature which arises in defense of their doctrines as Christianity takes root and begins to supplant and snuff out their schools of learning and wisdom, it is what is alluded to in the so-called hidden, or unwritten, teachings of Plato and that which is hidden, kept secret, by the followers of Pythagoras  and also in the Eleusinian mysteries and the alchemical Hermetic doctrines attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, and also what the Upanishads refer to as Brahmavidyā, or knowledge of Brahman, that from deep antiquity is believed to be passed down from teacher to disciple – as Plato refers to in his Seventh Letter as that which is “brought to birth in the Soul, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and thereafter nourishes itself.”.[1]

After the author completed his first major work, the Snow Cone Diaries, we considered the writing “experiment” complete, the Work was done.  Following that exercise, and for reasons we cannot completely explain, we found it necessary to flesh out some of the ideas therein, reflecting a continued interest, and ultimately curiosity, concerning the advent, development, and evolution of what we term theo-philosophical developments of mankind which abound in the historical record, following the intellectual journey as it were up until modern times, what we refer to herein as the Information Age, where Information is at our finger tips, where activity is “informed” by its surroundings (Quantum Theory), and yet while we all for the most part (and in particular in Western academia) ignore the wisdom of the ancients.

The Snow Cone Diaries was somewhat manufactured in the sense that it was intentionally modelled after one of the most influential books that the author has read written by a modern self-proclaimed “metaphysician”, or philosophologer (i.e. one who studies philosophy) named Robert Pirsig entitled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, initially published in 1974 but which the author encountered and read during the summer between his freshman and sophomore years in college, years of great tumult and change for most, the author being no exception.

After college, as is documented in Snow Cone Diaries, the author spent several years pursuing a career in professional tennis which in the end amounted to more so than anything else a time period of intense reading and personal analysis and introspection that led the author, in a manner that can perhaps best be described as “chance”, or if you believe in such things, Fate as it were, to Eastern philosophy and mysticism.  The author had been prepared for this adventure somewhat as he had majored in Ancient History as an undergraduate at Brown University and had written his thesis on the “Origins and Influence of Hermetism”.  In a sense then, the author’s initial, and now very persistent and long lasting, foray into Eastern mysticism was a natural extension of the intellectual pursuits of his undergraduate years.

The impetus and source of the author’s interest in Eastern philosophy, Kuṇḍalinī Yoga specifically in fact, stemmed primarily, at least at the beginning, from an interest in the mental and psychological demands of the game of tennis at the professional level, where many matches were determined by an individual’s performance at key points within a given match.  After spending a 6-9 months on the professional tour, mostly travelling in Europe, It became very clear that an individual’s success (which was of course almost entirely measured in Wins and Losses) while depending of course on physical attributes such as power, strength and fitness, at the same time very much depended upon what is referred to in sports as the mental aspect of the game.

This somewhat revealing and interesting component of the game, which arguably is an aspect of all professional sports but is more accentuated as it were in tennis given that it is mono y mono so to speak, became even more pronounced when two opponents were somewhat evenly matched as it were, and victory hinged upon just a few points – which as it turned out happened more often than you might think.  The author became somewhat intrigued by this phenomena, if we may call it that, and he became fascinated with what in professional sports is referred to as The Zone.

As such, it became very clear that in order to get into The Zone, there was a very well documented and well-studied connection between what peak performance and what we might call “clarity of mind.  In turn, this clarity was connected to, and in many respects seemed to be dependent upon, what are even in the sports psychological literature referred to as the development and cultivation of various rituals and practices, both on and off the court, before, during and after matches, in order to facilitate and/or “bring about” these states of mind where peak performance could be “attained”, or in Eastern philosophical parlance, realized.[2]

With this background then, the author while he was playing and studying, began writing – primarily about the so called “mystical experience” which was such an integral part of the Eastern philosophical tradition and its fundamental relationship to The Zone as it was understood in Sports Psychology.  The effort was centered around (and to a large extent this is also true for the Snow Cone Diaries as well as the current work) an attempt to establish a rational grounding, or intellectual footing as it were, within which these states of mind could be better understood and as such better integrated, or at least somewhat integrated, into what the author now calls the objective realist intellectual framework that underpins not just Western academia, but also is clearly the very rational ground of the Western mind, or psyche.

For despite all the author’s education and training, mental and physical gymnastics galore as it were, no one had ever even broached the topic or discussed with him this idea of peak performance and its relationship to the cultivation of clarity of mind, and the related states of consciousness that were associated to these “states” as it were, despite the fact that it appeared to be an almost empirically proven correlation between the two – at least in Sports Psychology circles.  It also became clear over time that this goal of peak performance as it were was not just dependent at some level upon these so-called states of mind, but in fact that that there seemed to be a very direct, causal relationship between the two.  Furthermore, these very same states of mind that were described in the Psychological literature around peak performance were not only clearly an exteremly significant, and somewhat undervalued and under practiced, component of competing as a professional athlete at the very highest levels, but that they were also an integral part of the mystical experience as well as it was described in almost all of the Eastern philosophical literature.  And of course, after some reflection, these states of mind seemed to be an integral component to success in life, however one might choose to define such a thing.

Following the model of Robert Pirsig then, and because the author felt strongly that the ideas that he was exploring, presenting and analyzing were best understood only within the psychological and mental context within which the author himself initially encountered and confronted such ideas, the author felt compelled to take his initial more “academic” works and wrap them around a loosely fictional character which he named Charlie, as well create additional (also loosely fictional) characters to which Charlie was “responding” and “reacting” to in order to try and establish the empirical reality and power of the nature of mind, and along with it the fundamental truth and power of the ancient art of meditation and mysticism to which it is integrally tied.  For perhaps the hallmark of the Eastern philosophical tradition is the emphasis and description of the art of meditation and its relationship to the attainment of these states of mind, what the author calls the Science of the Mind as it were, an altogether Eastern discipline.

Using Charlie as his mouthpiece then, we essentially argue in the Snow Cone Diaries, as Pirsig had done before him, that not only are our current (Western) intellectual models lacking in some very basic and fundamental ways – given the lack of emphasis and focus on the mind and experience itself as basis of reality as we understand it – but that these limitations had, again as Pirsig had argued before him as well, significant implications on how society in the West functioned and how individuals within that society behaved toward each other as well as the nature of the relationship between individuals and (Western) society as whole to the world around them in general.[3]

Given the level of effort and personal sacrifices that were made to publish Snow Cone Diaries, and given that the author is by no means a full time writer and first and foremost has a demanding professional career and responsibilities as a parent that were and are first priority, we never thought that he would embark upon a subsequent work.  We thought we were done.  However, our interest in ancient philosophy and the art of meditation did not dwindle, and the author’s meditation practice continued to flourish and grow and (as it is wont to do as any persistent and schooled meditation practitioner will tell you) the practice itself continued to have a profound impact on us in the following ways as it pertains to this work specifically:

  1. Our own personal conceptions of the nature of reality and the disconnect between it and commonly held and systematically taught “belief systems” which we are taught from early childhood and are presented as “empirically true” in the West,
  2. a continued and increased dissatisfaction of the current prevailing “Western” worldviews and belief systems,
  3. a deeper appreciation for the eternal truths that the very first philosophers from classical antiquity, as reflected in the term the Axial Age, were trying to convey and seemed to be missed or passed over in much of the scholarly work surrounding these ancient texts and authors,
  4. that in fact there were many more parallels and commonalities between these various belief systems that were compiled in classical antiquity throughout “Eurasia”, much more so than was reflected in most if not all of the scholarly and academic work surrounding these traditions, and
  5. the disciplines surrounding the study of the philosophers of deep antiquity were “siloed”, in the sense that the Sinologists (Chinese) weren’t collaborating with the Vedic or ancient Sanskrit scholars and the “Classicists” who studied the ancient Greek philosophers didn’t seem to be collaborating with either of these two disciplines either

Given these facts, and after studying the various traditions from antiquity, again as reflected in the so-called Axial Age, even from a layperson’s perspective it seemed that there were underlying similarities and patterns that were being missed primarily because these disciplines in and of themselves independently requires such a rigorous and deep level of knowledge about the specific domain.  Those that could understand and read ancient Chinese script were not necessarily the same people that knew and could read Vedic Sanskrit, and these people of course were not necessarily the same people that knew ancient Greek or Latin, and in turn these people were not necessarily the same people that could read cuneiform of the ancient Sumer-Babylonians or the hieroglyphs of the ancient Egyptians for that matter.

However, given that we now live in the Information Age, and that the translations of many of these texts, as well as the underlying meaning and etymologies of the various terms and words of the ancient languages themselves as reflected in the ancient writing systems that developed in the 3rd and 2nd millennium BCE throughout Eurasia, are now readily available, the time seemed to be ripe for a generalist of sorts to pull together the knowledge from all these somewhat disparate domains and bring them together in some sort of cohesive whole, in a more comprehensive and somewhat more scholarly fashion than had been done in Snow Cone Diaries, which was more of a personal journey tan it was an intellectual or academic one.

So given that the disciplines and domains of study and research described herein continued to impress themselves upon the author, and given our continued interest in ancient philosophy, and writing even after the publishing of Snow Cone Diaries, we ended up publishing two interim works thereafter that summed up and further explored some of the more esoteric and less well known aspects of Hellenic philosophy and their subsequent influence on the development and foundations of early Christianity, as well as an exposition of the philosophy of the Far East, the latter being and area of research that was relatively new to the author and that was not considered in the Snow Cone Diaries.[4]

The Far Eastern ancient philosophical tradition, what is referred to as ancient Chinese philosophy, which is covered in detail in the current work, is intriguing for many reasons but for the sake of brevity in this Introduction, suffice it to say that the Yijing, what is more commonly known as the I Ching, is arguably the most fascinating and intriguing theo-philosophical work from antiquity, hands down.  And the more the author studied it and was exposed to its origins and influence throughout Chinese history, the more impressed he was with its place as one of the greatest and most intellectual achievements in the history of mankind, one that reached far back into Chinese antiquity (3rd millennium BCE at least) and one that undoubtedly rivaled the Vedas and Avesta as representative of some of the oldest theo-philosophical treatises of ancient man.[5]

Furthermore, as the author began to understand more and more of the nature, content, structure and origins of the Yijing, the most prolific and influential of all of the ancient Chinese “philosophical” works, if we may call it that, it became apparent that its basic architecture, particularly from a numerological and metaphysical perspective, shared many common characteristics of ancient Pythagorean philosophy, in particular as reflected in the symbol that perhaps more so than anything else has come to represent said philosophy, namely the Tetractys.  Following this intellectual thread as it were, the author published what was supposed to be a small academic piece on the similarities from a numerological and arithmological perspective between “Pythagorean” philosophy, or what we know of it, and classical Chinese philosophy as reflected in the I Ching, what is referred to in this work as its more modern Romanized form, i.e. the Yijing.[6]

 

This work in its current form is to a large degree an outgrowth and evolution of the intellectual journey that is documented and mapped in the Snow Cone Diaries, and in particular an outgrowth of research done after Snow Cone Diaries was written exploring the nature and origins of early Hellenic philosophy and its relationship to early Chinese philosophy as well as ancient Vedic or Indo-Aryan philosophy as reflected primarily in the Upanishads, the latter of which was rigorously and systematically studied at the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York under the guidance of Swami Adiswarananda to whom this work is dedicated to.

So while this work can at some level be considered to be extensive revision and expansion of the academic and intellectual pursuits that are reflected in the Snow Cone Diaries, it is distinctive from the author’s first major work in many respects and represents a much deeper dive into the material covered therein, as well as covers topics and areas of inquiry that are not covered.  Having said that, this work is much more “academic” in the sense that it represents – at least from the author’s perspective – a much higher level of scholarship than is reflected in the Snow Cone Diaries, and of course the personal narrative, Charlie himself, has been put to rest (God rest his Soul).[7]

Given the extent of the material covered in this work, the author in no way intends to represent it as an exhaustive study of any of the specific topics that is covered herein.  In fact, each chapter or section of the work could be covered, and is covered, in much greater length in a variety of works that are cited as references and for further study and research.  The author has however taken great pains to try and refer to, and directly cite, the most influential and comprehensive works that cover the various topics in question and of course the interested reader can follow these lines of inquiry and these references to learn more about any given topic.

The specific source material that is used is not only cited directly throughout as footnotes, but is also covered from a much broader perspective in the Sources and Bibliography section at the end of the work.  Perhaps more so than other works from before the 21st century, an era the author refers to as the “Information Age”, this work stands directly on the shoulders of many academics and scholars that have toiled and taken great pains to open up the world of antiquity to the modern Western reader and scholar through countless translations and historical books and records, many of which are now electronically available and upon which easy access the author has greatly relied.

There are no doubt particular sections or chapters which the author has glossed over in a manner that may be considered to be “superficial”, particularly by academics and scholars who have spent the better part of their professional careers studying and writing about the specific topics in question.[8]  However, each of the lines of thought represented in each Chapter of each Part of this work represent a coherent and cohesive whole and in their entirety, and of course for the sake of brevity (as ironic a term that may be given the length and scope of this work), is intended to show as complete a picture as possible in one text.

The approach from a reference and bibliography standpoint is to have significant footnotes and references directly within the material itself rather than, as is the case with most academic works, at the end of a chapter or even at the end of the work.  The footnotes, the explanations and small intellectual excursions which are reflected in the extensive footnotes that are included directly in the text not only serve to give credit to the reference material and the work and analysis put in by other academics and scholars on whose research and work mine ultimately depends and builds upon, but also as sidebar notes that may be of interest to the reader that provide direct links and references to works that the reader can refer to if they are interested in a certain topic that is not covered in detail in this work.[9]

The footnote style that is used is essentially adopted from the writings of Swami Nikhilananda (1895 – 1973), one of the foremost Sanskrit and Vedic scholars in the West in the 20th century.[10]  Nikhilananda’s works have in no small measure influenced the author, as he studied at the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center which he founded in the middle of the twentieth century which was led by the author’s teacher, Swami Adiswarananda from 1973 until his passing in 2007.[11]

In this context, Vedānta, and more broadly what we refer to as “Indo-European philosophy”  in this work, is a central and constant theme throughout this work, in particular with respect to the modern conception of ancient Indian philosophy as it is presented in the teachings and works of Swami Vivekananda (1863 – 1902), one of the foremost proponents and most influential of the modern “Indian philosophers”.[12]  From the author’s perspective, Vedānta, as reflective of one of, if not the, oldest and richest of the Indo-European theo-philosophical traditions, can (and should) be leveraged as an intellectual and theo-philosophical benchmark of sorts for the recasting of the definitions of knowledge and reality in the West, one of the main thrusts of this work.

 

The work is divided into 4 major sections, Books or Parts, following more or less the intellectual development of mankind since the dawn of “history”, history in this sense being marked by the invention and widespread use of writing after which we have a “direct” or “first hand” exposure to the mind of man, or at least into the minds of the authors of the works that are covered herein.

  1. On Creation and On Metaphysics, Parts I and II: how the ancients looked at the world and defined reality and knowledge (),
  2. On Theology and Physics, Part III: how we came to our current, modern conceptions of reality and knowledge in the West (Part III), and
  3. On Ontology Part IV: a deeper and more comprehensive look at the nature of reality, Being in the sense that it was looked at by Aristotle and Plato as understood through a modern Western intellectual lens, and in particular in light of the knowledge of the East.

The chapters and sections in each of the respective Parts, or Books, are designed and written as much as possible to be modular as much as possible.  By “modular” we mean to say that they are written with the intention, again as much as possible, of being stand-alone essays or dissertations of their respective topics such that the reader can read a particular chapter without necessarily reading preceding chapters.  That is to say, the design of the work itself is such that it need not be approached or “read” in a sequential fashion from start to finish.  And of course as such, some material and content is repeated in the various sections and Parts of this work so that said “modular” design is achieved.  Given the breadth of the topics covered herein, this type of modular design is not only intentional but is almost required in order for the work to have value.  For if it is not read, it of course cannot have the intended impact or influence on modes of thinking which to a large extent the intended purpose of the work.

One of the main underlying themes of the work, especially in Parts I and II, is an exploration and analysis of the potentially shared origins of not just the mythology of the first “civilized” peoples in Eurasia, which the “Laurasian” Mythos hypothesis of Witzel, but also an expanded version of said hypothesis which analyzes and discusses the potential shared the origins of “philosophy” – what is referred to again as theo-philosophy throughout following the terminology of Snow Cone Diaries which brings attention to the fact that the earliest systems of “philosophy” from antiquity are not just analytical or rational systems of thought, but are also fundamentally theological in nature.

Parts I and II of this work are primarily focused on this area in history, the 3rd to 1st millennium BCE when we have introduced into the historical record evidence and documents that outline the Mythos of these early Eurasian peoples, specifically the creation narratives (what we refer to as cosmological or theogonical narratives), which is followed by a detailed analysis of the subsequent theo-philosophical tradition which emerges from, and is fundamentally and intrinsically related to, the underlying comsogonical narrative, i.e. again the respective Mythos.

Part III focuses on intellectual developments that take place in the West post classical antiquity from the intellectual developments that characterize Hellenic philosophy, through the advent of more orthodox religious or theological developments, straight through the Enlightenment Era and Scientific Revolution periods of Western intellectual history where effectively the worldview is overturned and Science, as we define it in more modern terms, begins to eclipse the dogmatic religious and theological worldviews that had dominated the intellectual landscape in the West for some thousand years prior, the so-called “Dark Ages” .

Part III then goes on to look at scientific developments in the 20th century, Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics in particular, which call into question our modern (and pervasive) notions of deterministic, objective based frameworks of reality, what we refer to collectively as objective realism, which represent from the author’s perspective a somewhat unintended byproduct of the Scientific Revolution and which, given their limitations with respect to understanding reality from a comprehensive or holistic perspective (i.e. ontology, or the study of the nature of being or reality), require – in the same intellectual spirit and intent pursued by Kant, Pirsig and other more modern Western philosophers – a wholesale revision in order for not only the two theoretical pillars of modern Science (Classical Mechanics and Quantum Mechanics) to be understood in any meaningful way, but also such that the knowledge and wisdom of the East is integrated into our conception and understanding of reality as well.

Part IV covers in detail much of the material that was first introduced in Snow Cone Diaries with respect to the fundamental incompatibilities of Quantum and Classical Mechanics, going into (theoretical) detail not just with Relativity but also Quantum Theory, as well as some of the philosophical, and ultimately metaphysical, implications of Quantum Theory, covering two interpretative models in particular that the author thinks are relevant to the ontological questions that are the topic of Part IV – namely the Relative-State formulation of Quantum Mechanics by Hugh Everett as well as the pilot-wave theory that is attributed to Louis de Broglie and David Bohm.  The Metaphysics of Quality as presented by Robert Pirsig is also offered up as an alternate model for ontological inquiry given its adoption and incorporation of the direct perception of “intuitive” reality directly into its metaphysics as it were.

Part IV then offers up various alternative interpretations of reality that attempt to present and synthesize what we understand about the nature of reality both from a scientific perspective, as well as from what we might term a mystical or spiritual perspective, models which directly incorporate experiential reality into account when defining reality or the extent of knowledge itself, i.e. what is referred to as epistemology in modern philosophical nomenclature.  The models and analysis in Part IV directly take into account the role of active consciousness, cognition and perception, what in Quantum Theory has come to be known as the act of observation which from a Scientific perspective, at least again from the author’s standpoint, must be taken into account in any formulation of reality and in any definition of knowledge.

The alternative approaches to defining reality and knowledge that are presented and described in Part IV basically synthesize typically “Eastern” and “Western” worldviews, and from the author’s standpoint, are far better suited than existing philosophical or religious intellectual frameworks to prepare us not just as individuals to survive and thrive in the modern, Information Age, but also are much better suited to serve the society as a whole, from a national as well as global perspective, given the level of interdependence and interconnectedness of not just the human race, but also the natural world within which we live and depend upon for our survival moving forward into the future.

The last several chapters of Part IV, much more so than the author originally intended in fact, are dedicated to a fairly lengthy discussion of a relatively modern debate surrounding different ways or approaches to interpret, how best to understand, the life and teachings of the 19th century Bengali (Indian/Hindu) sage Rāmakrishna Paramhamsa, a tradition of course to which this author is closely linked from a theo-philosophical perspective.  Rāmakrishna in this sense, and how he is perceived and approached in these final chapters of this work, is the full manifestation of, and in turn the perfect example of, the limitations of Western “thinking” and the implicit epistemological restrictions and assumptions that while true, are fundamentally limited in their capacity to deal with anything that falls outside of the realm of Science proper and as such is dealt with as a case study of sorts for the need to integrate the Science of the Mind as it were into any ontological framework that we are to choose that would include the knowledge of the East along with the knowledge of the West.

This so-called mystical, or supraconscious experience, which is the intended result of the practice of the ancient art of meditation as it has been passed down to us through various classically Eastern theo-philosophical traditions – in the Upanishads in particular but also implicit in the writings and teachings of Plato and Greek Eleusinian mystery and Orphic traditions and of course in the teachings of Buddha as well – are presented as a necessary and integral component of any “redefinition” of reality and knowledge which, following any sort of rational interpretation of Quantum Theory must take into account the role of the observer and the act of cognition i.e. perception, into account in any coherent and complete model of reality.

Along these lines, various intellectual frameworks and models which include direct experiential reality are explored and discussed at length in Part IV, as well as in the Epilogue, with specific chapters dedicated to the re-interpretation of Upanishadic philosophy as presented by Vivekananda in the early 20th century as well as an objective analysis of the experiences and interpretation of the life of Paramhamsa Rāmakrishna in particular who according to tradition of course was the primary influence and inspiration for Vivekananda’s teachings and life in general.

Rāmakrishna as a mystic then, and mysticism  in general – specifically defined by the practices and experiences associated with the direct perception of the ground of reality and existence itself which is the hallmark of Eastern philosophy – is not only one of the main, recurrent (and under emphasized) themes of ancient theo-philosophy in all its forms throughout Eurasian antiquity as reflected in the material in Parts I and II of this work, but also from an ontological standpoint represents one of the other main thrusts of this work which is covered in Part IV as well as summed up in the Epilogue which follows Part IV.

This “Western” view of Rāmakrishna, which is primarily represented in the book Kālī’s Child (a work which is critiqued at length in Part IV and the first section of the Epilogue as well) is from the author’s perspective a perfect illustration of the fundamental limitations of Scientific inquiry as we understand it in the modern Ear in the West.  An intellectual domain that rests squarely on the implicit, and very often left out, assumptions of not just empiricism and rationalism, philosophical modes of thought which characterized the Enlightenment Era for the most part, but also causal determinism and again objective realism, which provide the very basis for epistemology (i.e. our scope and understanding of knowledge itself) in the West, be they recognized as such or not.

Therefore when it comes to understanding, or again interpreting from a Western intellectual perspective, fundamentally Eastern theo-philosophical constructs such as Satcitānanda, Brahman, Purusha, Dao, or Nirvana, all words and terms that fall outside of Science proper in the West given their lack of empirical, objective reality and yet at the same time reflect concepts and ontological principles that are fundamentally required to come to any sort of understanding of any great sage, saint or prophet in the history of man – Paramhamsa Rāmakrishna included.  The choices we are left with given the modern Western intellectual landscape are the need to either study these domains specifically where these words and their associated meanings originate from, or alternatively expand our intellectual domain in the West to include some sort of corollary to these ideas, what they inherently mean and signify – the latter of which is the approach that Pirsig takes by formulating a new metaphysics which he calls the Metaphysics of Quality but what he unfortunately falls short of doing, a topic covered at length in the Epilogue as well.

This analysis of course lends itself to one of the core and final arguments of this work, namely that the intellectual and metaphysical model that is applied to reality in the West, i.e. our ontological framework, while being extraordinarily powerful from a natural philosophical perspective, i.e. Science, is in fact an inadequate conceptual framework for the comprehension of the full scope of reality and therefore  is in need of wholesale revision and/or significant expansion and extension metaphysically and theo-philosophically speaking in order to support a more broad definition of reality through which a more complete and fuller understanding of existence itself can be at least approached.  Hence the title of Part IV of the work, On Ontology.

 


[1] See Plato, Letters.  Letter 7, aka Seventh Letter 341c – 341d.  From Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 7 translated by R.G. Bury. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1966.  See http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0164%3Aletter%3D7%3Asection%3D341c.  While the actual authenticity of the letter by Plato is debated by scholars it does for the most part reflect the writing style and philosophy as presented by Plato from the author’s perspective and so while perhaps not written by Plato’s hand, still nonetheless seems to accurately represent something akin to what Plato would write, specifically with respect to the specific part of the work cited herein.

[2] The Psychology of peak performance was spear headed in the Nick Bollettieri Academy in the 70s and 80s by the now well renowned and prolific Dr. Jim Loehr, now founder and Chairman of the Human Performance Institute.  See https://www.jjhpi.com/why-hpi/our-people/dr-jim-loehr.

[3] An overview of Pirsig’s work and his invention of a new mode of thinking to address some of the inherent limitations of the modern, Western worldview which he refers to as the Metaphysics of Quality are covered in some detail in the final section of this work.

[4] These works are Philosophy in Antiquity: The Greeks and Philosophy in Antiquity: The Far East respectively.  Both published by Lambert Academic Publishing in 2015.

[5] Tradition has it that Confucius is believed to have said that if he had fifty years to spare, he would spend it to contemplating and studying the Yijing.

[6] The original paper by the author regarding the similarities between Pythagorean philosophy and the Yijing is entitled “Numerology and Arithmology in Pythagorean Philosophy and the Yijing”, published in 2016 and can be found at https://www.academia.edu/27439070/Numerology_and_Arithmology_in_Pythagorean_Philosophy_and_the_Yijing.

[7] Two interim works were published by the author covering Hellenic philosophy and Chinese philosophy specifically that were leveraged as source material for some of the content herein, specifically some of the content in Parts I and II of this work.  See Philosophy in Antiquity: The Greeks (2015) and Philosophy in Antiquity: The Far East (2016), both published by Lambert Academic Publishing in 2016.

[8] In particular the author cites the sections on Enlightenment Era philosophy as well as Arabic/Muslim philosophy as examples of Chapters which could be expanded upon greatly and to a large extent do not do justice to the actors and individuals, and the belief systems which they put forward in their writings, described therein.

[9] The footnotes also incidentally serve as reminders and reference points to the author himself so as sections of material are revisited and/or reworked and/or revised, the pertinent sources are readily available.

[10] Swami Nikhilananda is a direct disciple of Sarada Devi (1853 – 1920), the consort and wife of the 19th century Bengali sage Paramhamsa Rāmakrishna (1836 – 1886).  He is also the founder of and subsequent leader of the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York from 1933 to 1973 and is one of the foremost interpreters (and translators) of Vedic philosophy into English in the 20th century.  He has authored definitive translations with extensive commentaries on the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gītā, and he is also known for providing the definitive English translation of the Srī Srī Rāmakrishna Kathāmrita, commonly referred to in the West as the Gospel of Srī Rāmakrishna, a monumental work covering detailed teachings and events of the last few years of Rāmakrishna’s life as seen through the eyes of one of his foremost (householder) disciples, Mahendranath Gupta (1854 – 1932), or simply ‘M’.

[11] See https://www.ramakrishna.org/ for information regarding the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York.

[12] Swami Vivekananda was the first to introduce Yoga and Vedānta to the West at the end of the 19th century.  He was the foremost student and spiritual successor of Paramhamsa Rāmakrishna, a figure who is dealt with at length in Part IV of this work.  Vivekananda’s modern conception of Vedānta and Indian philosophy more broadly, is also covered at length in Part IV of this work.

Plato’s Metaphysics: Being and Becoming

Perhaps Plato’s greatest contribution to Western philosophy is the idealism embedded in his Theory of Forms, which in essence breaks down existence itself as not only a physical world of inanimate and animate objects, but a theory of knowledge and understanding which is based upon the notion that a) the understanding of a thing is predicated upon the existence of a true Form, or Idea of a thing without which the understanding, or even the thing itself, could not truly “exist:, and b) that such Forms or Ideas existed eternally as intellectual constructs upon which our understanding of the world around us was based.  It is from this premise and starting point that we must begin to try and grasp Plato’s perspective on not just reality and knowledge, but also ultimately his views on universal creation as well as his conception of the human Soul, all of which underpin not just his ethical philosophy but also his socio-political philosophy as reflected in the Republic and Laws most notably.

One of the primary themes that underlies all of Plato’s works, and can be especially seen in the Timaeus and Phaedo among other of his prominent works, is that the principles of reality or the known universe, and the very meaning of life and the pursuit of wisdom and understanding are not just worth exploring, but represent the very highest goal of life – the end of the philosopher.  His means of exploration, and perhaps the most defining characteristic of the Hellenic philosophical tradition which he so greatly influenced, is the role of reason and argument in the form of dialogue, logos and dialectic respectively, in ascertaining these universal truths, even if absolute truth or certainty is not completely possible given the limits of human understanding.  Whether or not he believed that absolute knowledge (sophia, phronēsis) was altogether possible or not is debatable and this is perhaps one of the great mysteries of Platonic philosophy as we try to understand it through the metaphors, analogies and arguments he presents and explores throughout his dialogues, the method and means of communication of these ideas and principles in fact lending itself to skepticism which was a hallmark of many of the philosophers which succeeded him at the Academy.

With respect to the nature of what can truly be known, from which any definition of reality can be drawn, Plato’s teachings as we understand them through his dialogues establish the first and foremost tradition of skepticism in Western – Indo-European really – thought.  This tradition, which starts with Socrates and clearly influenced Plato significantly, establishes the grounds of epistemology – the study of knowledge (epistêmê)– which is reflected in the philosophical tradition which Plato leaves behind at the Academy which he founded in Athens circa 387 BCE.  This tradition of skepticism” represented the core intellectual stream of thought emanating from the Academy subsequent to Plato which provided the basis for other currents of more materialistic and empiricist philosophical schools such as Stoicism and Epicureanism which has a much more broad definition of knowledge, each playing a strong role in the development of Hellenic philosophy in the classical Greco-Roman period.

Plato’s teachings were founded upon the principle, again believed to have been a legacy of Socrates himself, that there were significant intellectual limits upon that which could be truly known given that knowledge itself was predicated on the a priori existence of Forms or Ideas without which any understanding or comprehension of the physical world of matter comprehended by the senses is possible.  For Plato considered knowledge itself to be a type of “recollection”, which was part of his argument for the immortality of the Soul, which was the “form” of the body, one of the primary themes of the Phaedo, a dialogue which circulated in antiquity under the title of On the Soul.

Probably the most comprehensive literary expression of Plato’s notion of knowledge, the distinction he draws between the intelligible world (higher form of knowledge) and the visible world (lower form) comes from the Republic, expressed in what has come to be known as the analogy of the divided line.

“Conceive then,” said I, “as we were saying, that there are these two entities, and that one of them is sovereign over the intelligible order and region and the other over the world of the eye-ball, not to say the sky-ball, but let that pass.  You surely apprehend the two types, the visible and the intelligible.”  “I do.”

“Represent them then, as it were, by a line divided into two unequal sections and cut each section again in the same ratio (the section, that is, of the visible and that of the intelligible order), and then as an expression of the ratio of their comparative clearness and obscurity you will have, as one of the sections of the visible world, images.  By images I mean, first, shadows, and then reflections in water and on surfaces of dense, smooth and bright texture, and everything of that kind, if you apprehend.”  “I do.”  “As the second section assume that of which this is a likeness or an image, that is, the animals about us and all plants and the whole class of objects made by man.”  “I so assume it,” he said.  “Would you be willing to say,” said I, “that the division in respect of reality and truth or the opposite is expressed by the proportion: as is the opiniable to the knowable so is the likeness to that of which it is a likeness?”  “I certainly would.”

“Consider then again the way in which we are to make the division of the intelligible section.”  “In what way?”  “By the distinction that there is one section of it which the soul is compelled to investigate by treating as images the things imitated in the former division, and by means of assumptions from which it proceeds not up to a first principle but down to a conclusion, while there is another section in which it advances from its assumption to a beginning or principle that transcends assumption, and in which it makes no use of the images employed by the other section, relying on ideas only and progressing systematically through ideas.” [1]

Here we have Plato’s fundamental distinction drawn, in the analogy of a “divided line”, the world of the visible, that which can be perceived by the senses, and the world of intelligibles, i.e. thoughts and ideas divided into two unequal portions of a line, the intelligible portion being given greater emphasis and therefore greater (relative) size than its counterpart that represents the visible world.  Then each of these sections is divided again into two unequal portions of the same ration relative to each other, with the larger proportion of each subsection is sized based upon its relative clarity from an intellectual standpoint.

The smaller of the two segments of the visible portion of the line, i.e. the visible world, is made up of first images – shadows, reflections and the like – which are less “real”, more “obscure”, than the “things” which they represent in and of themselves, i.e. that which makes up the larger portion of the visible world part of the line because the “things” themselves are have more intellectual clarity or definition that the “images” or “shadows” of things.

Likewise, and analogously, the intelligible world is also divided into two unequal sections – of the same proportion.  The first of which, the smaller subsection, consists of the treatment of the images of things, and via various assumptions and conclusions various ideas or “theories”, abstract conclusions are drawn, i.e. “bottom up” or “deductive” reasoning of sorts.  The second section, the larger subsection of the intelligible world does not deal with things themselves, or even their images or representations but only deals with ideas in and of themselves and based upon pure intellectual reasoning – dialectic or logos – progresses from various assumptions or theses up to an ontological first principle or set of principles, i.e. bottom up logic or “inductive reasoning” of sorts.

dividedline-svg

Plato’s Epistemological worldview, i.e. the Analogy Divided Line[2]

Plato then goes on to use this analogy of the divided line as a representation, and relative worth or value, of four different types of knowledge, essentially using the divided line to describe his epistemological worldview.  Each section he describes as “affections of the Soul”, our perhaps better put, “capabilities” or “faculties” of the human mind.  The largest section of the line represents the clearest, the least obscure, and the closest depiction of Truth or Reality and is representative of conclusions drawn by use of pure Reason (logos), the faculty of the mind which deals only with ideas in and of themselves and reaches conclusions from principles up to the greatest and highest principle, i.e. the Good (segment DE).

This type of knowledge is followed then by lesser knowledge which is arrived at by the faculty of understanding, which draws various conclusions based upon “thinking” about not just abstract ideas in and of themselves but also about things and images as well (segment CD).  So although this type of thinking, like geometry for example, still deals with the intelligible world and therefore is of higher value than the “visible” realm of perception, is nonetheless of lesser value than conclusions drawn via pure reason and using pure ideas because this type of knowledge does deal with objects, even if they are simply images or representations of physical objects or things.

These two types of thinking that are categorized in the world of intelligibles are then followed by lower forms of knowledge which deal directly with objects of the visible world, the higher of which Plato refers to as “belief”, or “opinion” which deals with objects of the senses that exist within the world of visible world itself, what one might call the material world or the domain of  physics (segment BC), and then the lowest form of knowledge which he describes as “conjecture” or “imagination” (segment AB) which deals with not things in and of themselves but their shapes or images and deals with the likeness of visible things.[3]

In this section of the Republic, which precedes his more graphic metaphor of his Theory of Forms as told in his Allegory of the Cave, albeit wrapped up in the middle of a socio-political work, does represent from a Western standpoint the one of the first prolific and well-articulated forays into the world of metaphysics, i.e. the exploration of the true nature of reality that underlies the world of the senses, and attempts to explain our place in this world and the illusory and shadowy nature of the objects of our perception independent of any religious or theological dogma.  It also illustrates the prevalence of geometry and mathematics as a one of the primary means to which this reality can be understood, a marked characteristic of not just the Platonic philosophical tradition, but the Western intellectual tradition as a whole.[4]

It is in the Timaeus however, one of the later and more mature works of Plato where he expounds upon his view on the nature of the divine, the source of the known universe (cosmological view), as well as the role of the Soul in nature.  And although Plato, and Socrates as represented by Plato’s earlier works, rejected the mythological and anthropomorphic theology that was prevalent in Ancient Greece, Plato does not completely depart from the concept of a theological and divine or supra-natural creator of the known universe, at least as reflected in the words of Timaeus in the dialogue that bears his name.

In the Timaeus, Plato describes a “likely story” as to how the world was created, leveraging again reason (logos) and dialectic, and heavy use of analogy and metaphor, to describe the creation of the universe as a product of the intelligent design of a creator, his Demiurge.[5]  In many respects, the ideas and postulates of the Timaeus represent an expansion on Plato’s Theory of Forms which he introduces in Phaedo and the Republic but follows its intellectual development into the idea of the Good, and its role in the creation of the cosmos (kosmos), the material universe within which we live.

He starts again by drawing the distinction between the intelligible and sensible worlds, that which he calls Being and Becoming, two terms that have come to define Plato’s epistemological and cosmological worldview.

Now first of all we must, in my judgement, make the following distinction.  What is that which is Existent always [28a] and has no Becoming?  And what is that which is Becoming always and never is Existent?  Now the one of these is apprehensible by thought with the aid of reasoning, since it is ever uniformly existent; whereas the other is an object of opinion with the aid of unreasoning sensation, since it becomes and perishes and is never really existent.[6]

Here again Plato makes a distinction between the physical, or visible, world which is subject to change, and the eternal and changeless world of intelligibles, the Intellect (Nous) which can only be apprehended by use of the mind and reason, i.e. is not perceivable by the senses directly and can be discerned in the realm of the mind or thought.  He draws the basic distinction between that which is subject to change, the “visible” or “material” world (Becoming), and that which is eternal and changeless (Being).  Knowledge of the former, which falls under the category of the natural sciences which is the main thrust and emphasis of Aristotle’s reality, or sphere of knowledge, is not rejected outright by Plato but is held subservient – due to its constant fluctuating and changing state – to the world of ideas and thought which is apprehended by intelligence (Nous) and reason (Logos) and which is changeless and eternal.

The realm of Becoming is always subjected to perishing at some level and therefore never truly “is”, or can be said to “exist” within the context of Plato’s epistemological and ontological framework.  It is conceived of by what he deems “opinion”, alluding to the fact that perception is subjective in nature and what one perceives or experiences is not necessarily the same experience or perception of someone else, or some other being for that matter.  It is perceived via the senses, i.e. not by reason.  Whereas the latter realm always “is”, Being, is changeless and eternal, and is conceived of, apprehended as it were, by reason, mind and intelligence alone.  It is not subject to change and therefore according to Plato it truly can said to “be”, or can be said to “exist” within Plato’s epistemological framework, hence the term Being that he allots to it.

It is within this context of Plato’s distinction between the world of Being and Becoming, as he describes it in the Timaeus here, that the connection between Plato and Parmenides is drawn.  In many ancient philosophical circles, Heraclitus is said to be the mother of Plato’s teachings where Parmenides is said to be his father and it is his later works, and again specifically in the Timaeus, that we see this distinction along the lines of Being and Becoming clearly drawn, representing the most mature form of Plato’s’ intellectual conception of knowledge, i.e. what can be known, what philosophers call epistemology.

Parmenides (late 6th early 5th century BCE) is known for his one work, known by the title On Nature, written in hexameter verse which although does not survive in full, is believed to survive mostly intact through quotations and excerpts of later philosophers and commentators, reflecting its significant influence on early Hellenic philosophical development.  Most certainly Parmenides is one of the most influential of the “Pre-Socratics”, and it is through the interpretation of his philosophy through Plato really, that this determination is made.  He is believed to have been born in Elea in Southern Italy and therefore is historically categorized as part of the “Italian” branch of early Hellenic philosophy – as per Diogenes Laertius, the same branch as Pythagoras who represents the first and earliest of this tradition and as distinguished from the Ionian branch within which Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, as well as the Cynics and Stoics, belong to.

In Parmenides’s poem, he describes a pseudo allegorical journey up into the gates of Heaven driven by a golden chariot where he is initiated into eternal wisdom, i.e. the mysteries as it were, by the goddess of wisdom herself represented by the goddess Night, the very same goddess who plays a critical role in the unfolding of the universe in the in the Orphic mythological tradition.  [In later classical Greek mythology, she is personified as Athena, the goddess of wisdom and the daughter of Zeus, and it is no doubt she who most represents the notion of wisdom (i.e. sophia) as Plato perceives and describes it, in particular its illuminary nature from an intellectual perspective.]

In the excerpts that are extant from his poem On Nature, Parmenides distinguishes in very esoteric and almost mystical – and certainly cryptic – language that which is said to “be” or exist (to eon), or “true reality” (alêtheia), which he associates with thought and language and is wholly distinguishable from that which cannot in fact be said to exist in the same way, i.e. that which is not “real” and is wholly distinct from true reality (again alêtheia), due to its fluctuating and ever changing nature.

The thing that can be thought and that for the sake of which the thought exists is the same; for you cannot find thought without something that is, as to which it is uttered.  And there is not, and never shall be, anything besides what is, since fate has chained it so as to be whole and immovable.  Wherefore all these things are but names which mortals have given, believing them to be true—coming into being and passing away, being and not being, change of place and alteration of bright color.  [R. P. 119].[7]

In Parmenides, as we know him again through the quotations and comments of philosophers from the classical Hellenic period and later, we find what is believed to be the source of Plato’s epistemology where, in Vedic terms, the world of “name and form” which is in a constant state of change and flux, which falls in the domain of what Plato terms “opinion”, is held to be an inferior form of knowledge than the realm of the changeless and eternally existent world of ideas thought, as discerned by pure reason (logos), i.e. “true reality” which Parmenides calls alêtheia  and which Plato refers to as Being, again distinguished from that which is Becoming.  This bifurcation and sublimation of the material world for the ethereal or rational world ultimately provides the basis for Plato’s Theory of Forms and is the basis upon which he builds not only his theory of knowledge but also his cosmology as outlined in the Timaeus.

Furthermore, while Parmenides writes in hexameter verse, there is clearly a logical cohesion to his work, an argument or a case he is trying to make, to establish the grounds of being, in a classical philosophical sense, where he is attempting to justify and rationalize, and in turn provide the logical foundation for, his position of establishing that which “is” (to eon), or can be said to exist due to its eternal and unchanging nature which in turn again is distinguished from, and held to be of higher intellectual and philosophical value than, that which is subject to change and ultimate dissolution, i.e. the objective and material world.[8]

In this sense Parmenides work and philosophy that is represented therein is not only the forefather of Plato’s Being and Becoming as laid out in the Timaeus, but also the forefather of the means by which this distinction is established, i.e. by reason and argument which Plato presents in dialogue form using logic, or dialectic, which can be viewed as a more mature and evolved form of (written) communication of ideas and metaphysics than that which is used by Parmenides who follows in the footsteps of the earlier mythic poets Homer and Hesiod.

Transitioning back to Plato’s cosmology and its relationship to the worlds of Being and Becoming respectively in the Timaeus, we find a description which is markedly anthropomorphic in conception and yet at the same time rests upon his basic metaphysical delineation of reality between Being and Becoming – i.e. that which is permanent, eternal and unchanging and comprehended by reason (logos) and thought or ideas (eidôs), versus the sensible realm which is subject to change and “opinion” and therefore is characterized by an implicit creative and destructive process.

Again, everything which becomes must of necessity become owing to some Cause; for without a cause it is impossible for anything to attain becoming.  But when the artificer of any object, in forming its shape and quality, keeps his gaze fixed on that which is uniform, using a model of this kind, that object, executed in this way, must of necessity [28b] be beautiful; but whenever he gazes at that which has come into existence and uses a created model, the object thus executed is not beautiful.

Now the whole Heaven, or Cosmos, or if there is any other name which it specially prefers, by that let us call it, —so, be its name what it may, we must first investigate concerning it that primary question which has to be investigated at the outset in every case, —namely, whether it has existed always, having no beginning of generation, or whether it has come into existence, having begun from some beginning. It has come into existence; for it is visible and tangible and possessed of a body; and all such things are sensible, [28c] and things sensible, being apprehensible by opinion with the aid of sensation, come into existence, as we saw, and are generated.

And that which has come into existence must necessarily, as we say, have come into existence by reason of some Cause.  Now to discover the Maker and Father of this Universe were a task indeed; and having discovered Him, to declare Him unto all men were a thing impossible.  However, let us return and inquire further concerning the Cosmos, —after which of the Models did its Architect construct it?[9]

Here we see not only the implicit anthropomorphic, or perhaps better put anthrocentric, view of universal creation, but also the fundamental assumption of causality which rests at the heart of what is perhaps best terms his “theological” cosmological conception.  In other words, implicit in the existence of the universe as we know and perceive it, in fact implicit in the existence in anything, is some element of causality even if in this context he intends to mean “purpose” or “reason”, rather than a physical chain of causality which is how we have come to identify the meaning in the modern era of empirical science.[10]

Furthermore, he argues that the universe must have been “created” – i.e. has some sort of beginning in time and space as it were – because it exists within the sensible realm, the realm that is in and of itself defined by change, is apprehended by “opinion”, is subjectively perceived and is therefore – again by definition – in a constant state of flux which is bound by an implicit and eternally present creative and destructive process of Becoming.

[29a] Was it after that which is self-identical and uniform, or after that which has come into existence; Now if so be that this Cosmos is beautiful and its Constructor good, it is plain that he fixed his gaze on the Eternal; but if otherwise (which is an impious supposition), his gaze was on that which has come into existence.  But it is clear to everyone that his gaze was on the Eternal; for the Cosmos is the fairest of all that has come into existence, and He the best of all the Causes.  So having in this wise come into existence, it has been constructed after the pattern of that which is apprehensible by reason and thought and is self-identical. [29b]

Again, if these premises be granted, it is wholly necessary that this Cosmos should be a Copy of something.  Now in regard to every matter it is most important to begin at the natural beginning.  Accordingly, in dealing with a copy and its model, we must affirm that the accounts given will themselves be akin to the diverse objects which they serve to explain; those which deal with what is abiding and firm and discernible by the aid of thought will be abiding and unshakable; and in so far as it is possible and fitting for statements to be irrefutable and invincible, [29c] they must in no wise fall short thereof; whereas the accounts of that which is copied after the likeness of that Model, and is itself a likeness, will be analogous thereto and possess likelihood; for I as Being is to Becoming, so is Truth to Belief.

Wherefore, Socrates, if in our treatment of a great host of matters regarding the Gods and the generation of the Universe we prove unable to give accounts that are always in all respects self-consistent and perfectly exact, be not thou surprised; rather we should be content if we can furnish accounts that are inferior to none in likelihood, remembering that both I who speak [29d] and you who judge are but human creatures, so that it becomes us to accept the likely account of these matters and forbear to search beyond it. [11]

In this passage we find Plato, in the words of Timaeus in the dialogue, arguing that there must in fact exist a model upon which the cosmos (kosmos) is fashioned and that this model must be the “best” model, i.e. that which is eternal and changeless which he implies is the source of all things, i.e. the world of Becoming.  This model is based upon the Good, the Form of Forms, an eternal and changeless Idea which can only be apprehended – if it can be apprehended at all – by reason and thought and from which the world of Becoming is generated, or brought about from.

He equates the world of Being here to “true reality”, what he refers to as “Truth”, and the world of Becoming to the domain of “opinion” or “subjective belief”, lining up these two metaphysical principles which presumably derive from Parmenides squarely with his theory of knowledge. The former, the realm Being which is characterized by reason, thought and ideas, he considers to be the higher form of knowledge upon which the latter, the realm of Becoming which is forever changing and in a state of flux and is characterized by “opinion” and subjective belief, is molded from or shaped out of.

Plato then goes on, through the narrative of Timaeus in the dialogue, to describe in detail just how the divine craftsman, the Demiurge, establishes universal creation, what has come to be known as the “Cosmic Soul”, applying various rational, proportional, mathematical and geometrical (presumably of Pythagorean influence) constructs onto the primordial chaos out of which the four basic elements – earth, air, water and fire – as well as the heavens and earth and all living creatures therein came into existence.  But this world of Becoming, and the creative process which he outlines therein, attempting as best he can to provide a logical and rational account of creation in again what he refers to as a “likely” account, resting on and alluding to the limits of human knowledge in and of itself in understanding the reason and ultimate cause and process by which the universe comes into being, nonetheless presumes the universe to be crafted upon the model of the Good, a benign creator as it were that provides the foundation for the Judeo-Christian worldview.

[30a] For God desired that, so far as possible, all things should be good and nothing evil; wherefore, when He took over all that was visible, seeing that it was not in a state of rest but in a state of discordant and disorderly motion, He brought it into order out of disorder, deeming that the former state is in all ways better than the latter.  For Him who is most good it neither was nor is permissible to perform any action save what is most fair.  As He reflected, therefore, He perceived that of such creatures as are by nature visible, [30b] none that is irrational will be fairer, comparing wholes with wholes, than the rational; and further, that reason cannot possibly belong to any apart from Soul.  So because of this reflection He constructed reason within soul and soul within body as He fashioned the All, that so the work He was executing might be of its nature most fair and most good.

Thus, then, in accordance with the likely account, we must declare that this Cosmos has verily come into existence as a Living Creature endowed with soul and reason owing to the providence of God.   [30c] This being established, we must declare that which comes next in order.  In the semblance of which of the living Creatures did the Constructor of the cosmos construct it?  We shall not deign to accept any of those which belong by nature to the category of “parts”; for nothing that resembles the imperfect would ever become fair.  But we shall affirm that the Cosmos, more than aught else, resembles most closely that Living Creature of which all other living creatures, severally and generically, are portions.  For that Living Creature embraces and contains within itself all the intelligible Living Creatures, just as this Universe contains us and all the other visible living creatures [30d] that have been fashioned.  For since God desired to make it resemble most closely that intelligible Creature which is fairest of all and in all ways most perfect, He constructed it as a Living Creature, one and visible, containing within itself all the living creatures which are by nature akin to itself.[12]

We can see here that Plato sees the rational and ordered as of higher value than the chaotic and disordered, and he assigns the highest value to reason itself (again logos) which is attributed and ultimately equated with the divine or Cosmic Soul.  Furthermore, Plato perceives the universe, in very much the same vein as the Stoic tradition which was very influential in the Greco-Roman period and influenced early Christian theology (pneuma, the divine spirit), as a living, breathing entity which not only embodies, encapsulates as it were, all of the kosmos within it, but also is endowed with “Soul” and “reason”, just as the individual is at some extent.  God here, the Cosmic Soul, is fashioned in the image of man as it were as opposed to the other way around as it is presented in the Judeo-Christian account of creation.

At the heart of Plato’s philosophy was the belief in the ontological primacy of the rational faculty of man, Reason, along with the tools of the trade which reflected and were to be leveraged by this faculty – namely reason (logos), dialectic, logic and mathematics – as the means by which the fundamental truths of these ancient mystic traditions could be known or brought to light.  He was the first to establish the connection between cosmology, physics and ethics to a degree that had not be done before, a characteristic that became one of the primary characteristics of Hellenic and Roman philosophy and was even followed in the scholastic tradition up until the end of the Middle Ages.

Plato also established a good deal of the semantic framework, in Greek, through which these esoteric, complex and interrelated topics could be discussed and explored, a development whose importance cannot be overstated.  For before Plato the language of philosophy was shrouded in myth, analogy, and metaphor, and after Plato all of the Greek philosophic schools and practitioners now at east had a working vocabulary through which philosophic ideas and concepts could be further explored and elucidated upon, even if the various schools disagreed with each other on a variety of issues.

Plato’s unique contribution to theological development in antiquity then can be viewed as placing the rational faculty of man as the primarily tool through which any knowledge of the gods, or reality itself even, should be drawn.  His reach extended well beyond the theological domain however, extending into topics such as what could actually be known, psychological questions, systems of ethics and virtue, political philosophy, and most importantly the goal of life itself.  Many of his lasting contributions to the philosophic, and later scientific, development in the West are not necessarily the conclusions that he drew or solutions he put forth, but the tools and institutions which he established for their pursuit.

It can be said definitively however that with Plato the supremacy of reason and rationality in the search for truth and meaning in life as well as the nature and origins of the universe is firmly established.  To Plato the epistemological supremacy of the intelligible realm, the world of Being, over the sensible realm, or the world of Becoming, is the predominant characteristic of his metaphysics.  The former of which is characterized by Forms and Ideals from which the material universe as we know it, and all living souls as well, are ultimately “fashioned” from, all modeled and stemming from the belief that the Creator, if indeed he can be said to exist, must have fashioned things according to what is most fair and most just, i.e. the Good or Best.


[1] Plato Republic Book 6, 509d – 510b.  From Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D6%3Asection%3D509d

[2] AC represents knowledge of the material or “visible” world and CE represents knowledge of the “intelligible” world.  Image From Wikipedia contributors, ‘Analogy of the divided line’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 19 October 2016, 05:17 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Analogy_of_the_divided_line&oldid=745083560&gt; [accessed 19 October 2016]

[3] See Plato Republic Book 6, 510c-511e.-  From Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D6%3Asection%3D511e and Wikipedia contributors, ‘Analogy of the divided line’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 19 October 2016, 05:17 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Analogy_of_the_divided_line&oldid=745083560> [accessed 19 October 2016]

[4] Taken one step further can be interpreted to mean that Plato is espousing a doctrine of the illusory nature of reality much like the Vedic tradition and its concept of Maya.  But buried within his allegory is also his dim and morbid view of the role of the philosopher himself, who is tasked with trying to shed light upon the true nature of reality to those steeped in ignorance.

[5] Plato’s Demiurge, the so-called “Divine Craftsman” that he describes in the Timaeus, becomes one of the cornerstone theological principles in the Hellenic theo-philosophical tradition and one which bleeds, and fits quite nicely, into the Judeo-Christian (and Islamic) anthropomorphic conception of God.  The English Demiurge comes from the Latin Demiurgus, which stems from the Greek Dêmiourgos (δημιουργός), which means “craftsman” or “artisan” but of course morphed into the more theological notion of Creator within the Hellenic theo-philosophical tradition itself.  See Wikipedia contributors, ‘Demiurge’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 December 2016, 18:44 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Demiurge&oldid=755542807&gt; [accessed 18 December 2016].

[6] Plato Timaeus.  27a-28a.  Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0180%3Atext%3DTim.%3Apage%3D27

[7] Early Greek Philosophy, translation with notes and commentary by John Burnet.  Chapter IV., Parmenides of Elea.  3rd editions (1920).  London.  From http://www.classicpersuasion.org/pw/burnet/egp.htm?chapter=4

[8] For a more detailed description of the philosophy of Parmenides and analysis of the existent fragments of his work On Nature, see “Parmenides of Elea: What Is Versus What is Not”, by Juan Valdez 2016 at https://snowconenyc.com/2016/09/30/parmenides-of-elea-what-is-versus-what-is-not and Parmenides entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at http://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=parmenides.

[9] Plato Timaeus.  28a-28c.  Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0180%3Atext%3DTim.%3Apage%3D28

[10] It is in this context of Plato’s notion of Being and Becoming, and his fairly loose but at the same time all-pervading implicit assumption of causality or purpose, within which Aristotle establishes his metaphysical worldview which is based upon substantial form and  causality – the material, formal, efficient and final–  all of which looks to better define that which can be said to “exist”, his being qua being.  Aristotle’s efficient and final causes represent Plato’s notion of “reason” or “purpose” which underlies existence whereas Aristotle’s material and formal causes represent the underlying principles for the material or sensible world.  For more detail on Aristotle’s theory of causality and how it relates to his metaphysical worldview, see the chapter on Aristotle in this work and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Aristotle on Causality” which can be found here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-causality/.

[11] Plato Timaeus.  29a-29d.  Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0180%3Atext%3DTim.%3Apage%3D29

[12] Plato Timaeus.  30a-30d.  Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0180%3Atext%3DTim.%3Apage%3D30

The Legend of Prince Siddhartha: Buddhist Philosophy Part I

Running parallel to the maturation and evolution of Hellenic philosophy, to the East the Indo-Aryan people were going through a similar intellectual revolution from the prevalence of ritual and ceremonial worship of gods and goddesses embedded in their mythologically steeped traditions as preserved in their Hindu (Vedic) scripture, to a more speculative and metaphysical mode of inquiry into the nature of reality and existence and its relationship to change, impermanence, and the immortality of the Soul, or Self (Atman) as it was referred to in the Vedas.

The aim of this inquiry, again just as it was in the West in the Hellenic philosophical tradition which was emerging at contemporaneously, was to explain not only the nature of reality, being, or “existence”, but also mankind’s place in as well as expound upon the goal of life, i.e. happiness, enlightenment, nirvana, liberation, moksha, eudaemonia or whatever other term the specific theo-philosophical tradition chose to denote this idea.  Unique to the Indo-Aryan philosophical tradition, which was also shared by Buddhism its close cousin, was that there existed a path to the ultimate liberation of the human Soul, by means of which death itself could be overcome.  This belief system was not just steeped in the notion of “realization”, or absolute knowledge (vidya), that which was spoken of by the great sages or seers of old, i.e. the Rishis, but also was characterized and underpinned by a system of metaphysics within which the nature of the Soul could be understood, and through which the means by which the Soul could be ultimately liberated rested upon.  This fundamentally intellectual development was driven not only by the analysis, commentary and interpretation of the more esoteric and philosophical aspects of the Vedas, or more specifically the Upanishads, but also by the teachings of Siddartha Gautama, the historical figure who is the founder of Buddhism.

Buddhism takes root in the Indian subcontinent toward the end of the 5th century BCE or so, originating in the northeast border between modern India and Nepal where Siddhartha Gautama was born (and where he presumably taught as well) at around the same time that the first of the Upanishads were compiled.  In modern academic literature, Buddhism is typically considered to be part of a broader philosophical movement that arose as an alternative to Vedic religion in the first half of the first millennium BCE in the Indian subcontinent called Śramaṇa.  This movement included Jainism, as well as other heterodox – i.e. not adhering to the Vedas as authoritative scripture – theo-philosophical schools of thought.[1]

The rise and influence of Buddhism then must be seen within the context of a broader intellectual movement that arose on the outskirts of the ancient Indo-Aryan civilization which reflected a basic and fundamental dissatisfaction with Vedic philosophy, culture and tradition as a means to liberation.  It represented almost a rebellion of sorts to the orthodox theological and religious dogma that was prevalent at the time which was encased within a very structured and elitist socio-political structure, i.e. Varna, which closely guarded theological study and knowledge by a specific class of society, i.e. the Brahmins, and which held that moksha, or immortality, was to be practiced only by the well trained and select few. Siddhartha, after much trials and tribulation, and after following many different paths and teachings, concluded that the prevailing orthodox Vedic philosophical system as a means to liberation or happiness was fundamentally flawed and after his Awakening, came up with an alternative philosophy (and underlying metaphysics) which became the basis of Buddhism in all its different variants today.

The popularity and spread of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent in the last half of the first millennium BCE, which spread all the way into the Far East and regions of Chinese cultural influence in the first few centuries of the Common Era and beyond, along with the establishment of Vedic philosophy as represented in the Upanishadic literature, is in many respects directly analogous theo-philosophical development in the Hellenic world which arose out of the prevailing mythological and theological based religious traditions from which our modern (Western) notion of “philosophy” itself was conceived.  It can also be understood as analogous to the Christian revolution in the first few centuries of the Common Era as Jesus of Nazareth rejected the fundamental teachings of Judaism and proclaimed his new philosophy, i.e. the Gospel, for which he was ultimately crucified.  The teachings of Jesus, who later became known as Christ or Logos personified, as interpreted and compiled by his followers who founded Christianity as we know it today, not only rejected the religion of the Hebrews (of which Jesus was of course a member), but also the so-called “pagan” religions that were prevalent in the Mediterranean at the time, proclaiming that not only was there one true God as the Hebrews had done before him, but that this God was accessible to, and was in fact indistinguishable from, the very inmost essence of all mankind.

But Christianity as well, in its formation in the after the death of Jesus and as the Church and its associated religious dogma became codified and canonized into the Bible, also integrated Hellenic theo-philosophy as well, this element of Christianity being specially emphasized by the early Christian Church Fathers.  Just like Jesus then, Buddha rejected the religious traditions of his forefathers proposed not only an altogether different theo-philosophy, but also a fundamentally different worldview, i.e. metaphysics, as well as a completely different means and approach by which the ultimate goal of life could be reached, a goal which he defined as the cessation of suffering.  Buddhism then was born out of Hinduism just as Christianity was born out of Judaism, and Buddha was a Hindu just as Jesus was a Jew.

After searching for keys to unlock the secret of human suffering in his many years of wandering after he left behind his family and kingdom, Buddha ultimately came to find that none of the teachings he encountered answered his questions satisfactorily, and therefore he rejected Vedic philosophy in all its variations and after his “Awakening”, came to understand and teach a practical handbook of sorts for all seekers of Truth and Knowledge, a much more simplified and practical philosophy, a way of life really, than was then offered by the more traditional orthodox Vedic philosophical schools.

 

The mythical narrative surrounding the birth, life and death of the Prince Siddhartha is consistent with the narratives of most pre-historical heroic figures (Jesus, Hercules, etc.) and starts with stories of his immaculate conception into a ruling family in the foothills of the Himalayas in Northern India.  It is said that upon his birth, which his mother did not survive, he was visited by a great sage who predicted that he would either be a great ruler of men or a great religious teacher and reformer (holy man).  His early childhood and young adulthood was spent living the life of luxury within the confines of multiple palaces and exposed to all the pleasures that one might expect were accessible to a prince.  It is said that his father, given the prophecy upon his birth of the potential for his son to be a great religious prophet and teacher, took great pains to shelter him from any outside influences that would expose him to the suffering and harsh realities of the world which in turn might lead to his renunciation of his birthright.  It is said that he married and had a son and spent the first 29 years of his life in the sheltered and elaborate palace of his father where no desire of his was left unfulfilled.

In his late twenties, a story is told that one day he left the palace of his own volition to view his subjects and kingdom first hand, despite the misgivings and sheltering instincts of his father.  On this journey outside the palace walls, he was exposed to his first examples of the great suffering of the world, seeing first an old man on the verge of death, then a diseased man in great suffering and pain, followed by the corpse of a dead man, and lastly by an ascetic monk who had renounced the world in the classic Vedic monastic tradition which was prevalent at the time.  This experience is said to have completely transformed his view of the world and invoked feelings of tremendous and overwhelming compassion for the plight of his people, inspiring him to renounce his royal pedigree, leave his wife and child, and begin to live the life of an itinerant wandering monk to search for truth and the meaning of life, which was from his perspective the source and possible secret to the end of suffering.

Prince Siddhartha then spent the next several years following various forms of extreme Vedic asceticism and renunciation to try and find the true nature of existence and the path to illumination as prescribed by the teachings of the Vedas, with each successive path and teaching that he followed getting him no closer to the answers to the questions that he was seeking.  It is then said that after practicing these extreme forms of renunciation and deprivation that led him close to the edge of death, he finally gave up these practices as fruitless and settled down under a Bodhi tree (believed to be in Bodh Gaya, India), and resolved to sit in contemplation until either the solution to the nature of suffering and its ultimate liberation was revealed to him or die in the process.

After supposedly sitting in deep meditation for some 49 days, being tempted during his practice by various demons and gods with all sorts of worldly temptations to lead him astray (think Jesus’s 40 days and 40 nights in the desert having been tempted by Satan), at the age of 35 Siddhartha Gautama achieved Enlightenment and arose as the Buddha the name being derived from the root Sanskrit verb ”to know”, or “budh”, meaning “one who is awake”, i.e. the Awakened One.  The term Buddha, or Buddha nature, has come to represent the eternal and ever-present nature of truth and existence which he came to embody after his enlightenment experience under the Bodhi tree.

Upon emerging from this deep meditative and transformative experience, which was supposed marked by a great earthquake when his state of enlightenment was achieved and the eternal truth and knowledge of the nature of suffering and the path by which it could be overcome was revealed to him, Prince Siddartha became Buddha.  Although initially reticent to teaching this new found knowledge to the rest of mankind, believing that everyone was too steeped in ignorance and worldliness to understand, comprehend and ultimately practice the eternal Truth which was revealed to him, it is said that he was convinced by one of the great Indian deities, Brahma Sahampati, to at least try to teach for the good of mankind.

Thus began the teaching phase of his life from which the philosophical system of Buddhism as we know it today has been handed down to us.  It is said that he traveled throughout India and taught his Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path, as well as instituted the practices of Buddhist monasticism, for some 45 years until his death sometime in the 5th or 4th centuries BCE.  These teachings, sometimes referred to as his Buddha Dharma, or the Way of Buddha, represented a complete explanation and exposition of the laws of nature as they applied to the problem, and ultimate solution, of human suffering which was from his perspective the end goal of any theological or philosophical pursuit.  He taught how the great cycle of birth, disease, decay and dying could be overcome by proper understanding, or knowledge of “reality”, or more precisely the shedding of ignorance of the existence of the Self and attachment to which to Buddha attributed the source of suffering.

The historical figure we know today as Buddha was raised on the northern Indian/Nepal border in the foothills of the Himalayas as a prince from an affluent ruling family, living and teaching somewhere between the end of the sixth and early part of the 4th centuries BCE but dated by most scholars to the 5th century BCE.  What we know about the historical figure named Siddhartha Gautama who later became known as the Buddha, is from a corpus of textual material written that is handed down to us in in Pali[3], as well as somewhat later Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese transliterations of the Pali texts.  The Tripitaka, or Pali Canon, which is term used for the orthodox and authoritative Buddhist texts, cover not only his teachings, but also include biographic material as well, the latter of which is interspersed with a variety of mythical accounts that established him as a pseudo-divine figure who was born to deliver his message for the good of mankind.  Tripitaka (Tipitaka in Pali), means literally “three baskets”, and while the earliest parts of the canon are believed to have been compiled or transcribed within a few centuries after Buddha died, the biographic material is believed to have been incorporated into the corpus in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE.

Siddhartha Gautama, or the “Awakened One” as he was referred to by his followers, is one of the most prominent and influential theo-philosophical teachers from antiquity whose influence has spread over the centuries from the Indian subcontinent throughout most of Asia and now in modern times to the West.  In many respects the Pali Canon and teachings of the Buddha which are contained therein can be seen as analogous to the Four Gospels which contain various narratives of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and form the core part of the New Testament of the Bible which were written some decades after his death and were only later included as part of the Biblical canon.

According to most scholarly accounts, it is the Pali Canon that represents the oldest authoritative Buddhist scripture.  This strain of Buddhism that considers the Pali Canon to be the authoritative Buddhist scripture is referred to as Theravada Buddhism, Theraveda meaning literally “school of elderly monks” in Pali, as opposed to the slightly more possible and well known variant of Buddhism, at least in the West, called Mahayana Buddhism – of which the more widely known schools of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism are representative for example – and relies on a different set of scriptures than the Theraveda school referred to as the Agamas (“sacred work” or “scripture” in Sanskrit or Pali), which are written in Classical Chinese and referred to as the Chinese Buddhist Canon, or Dàzàngjīng (大藏經).

Mahayana literally means “Great Vehicle” in Sanskrit and focuses more on the monastic aspects of Buddha’s teachings and emphasizes the, rules, rites and practices for those who wish to pursue enlightenment for the good of all sentient beings as Buddha himself did.  These enlightened beings are called bodhisattvas, or “enlightened beings” in the Mahayana school and while the Mahayana school does not necessarily differ from the Theravada tradition (which precedes it historically) in terms of basic philosophical tenets and practices, it nonetheless developed a unique and relatively independent scriptural and philosophical tradition which codified and institutionalized specific doctrines, teachings and practices for the pursuit and attainment of enlightenment, what perhaps Buddhism in modern parlance is best known for.

Despite their differences in interpretation and practices, each adheres to the core basic teachings of Buddha as reflected in his Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, the latter of which outlines the true nature of reality and the causes of suffering and the former which outlines the intellectual and metaphysical basis for the basic precepts and practices which are to bring about the cessation of suffering and ultimately enlightenment and the end if the cycle of death and rebirth.  While Buddhism does not lay out a philosophic doctrine per se, at least not in the classic Western sense of the term, nor does it lay out any systemic laws or beliefs as is characteristic of the Abrahamic religions, it does however lays out basic fundamental precepts about the nature of life and reality from which it establishes a path, the so called “Middle Way”, which is the means by which the bonds of attachment which ultimately lead to suffering can be broken for good, resting on the fundamental assertion that not only is enlightenment possible, but that there is a specific path which can be followed which will ultimately lead to nirvana, the term given to the cessation of suffering and the end of the “wheel of dharma”.

 

When analyzing the teachings of Buddhism, as reflected in the various textual sources which were compiled by his followers sometime after his death, we are left with very similar challenges and pitfalls when studying the philosophy of all of the great teachers in antiquity.  While we can optimistically assume that his precise teachings and doctrines, words and phrases and terminology , were faithfully transcribed by his followers even if several generations of teacher and student transmission existed before any of the actual texts which codify his teachings were transcribed, we still nonetheless have to try and extract what he actually said and taught from the extant literature – for the texts were written in a variety of languages that a) in all likelihood do not reflect the actually language that he spoke, and b) we do know that he did not leave any written materials behind himself.

According to tradition, the transcription of the Pali Canon is the result of the Third Buddhist Council that was convened at the behest of the pious Indian emperor Ashoka Maurya (304-232 BCE) who ruled much of the Indian subcontinent in the third century BCE.  His intent for convening the council, much like the Christian councils that were convened in the 3rd century CE onward, was to standardize the teachings, texts and some philosophical elements of Buddha’s legacy from amongst the various factions that had sprung forth after Buddha’s death, leading to the existence of a variety of teachers and philosophic schools who disagreed on many aspects of the Buddha’s message and precepts.

As the tradition has it, the council lasted nine months and consisted of senior monastic representatives from all around the emperor’s kingdom who debated various aspects of Buddhist doctrine, culminating in the canonization of the scripture, i.e. the establishment of the Pali Canon, and formation of the foundational principles and practices of Theravada Buddhism.  After the council it is said that the emperor dispatched various monks who could recite the teachings by heart to nine different locations throughout the Near and Far East, laying the groundwork for the spread of Buddhist teachings and philosophy not just in the Indian subcontinent, but throughout the ancient world as far East to Burma and even as far West to Persia, Greece and Egypt.

The Tripitaka contain three major sections, (in Sanskrit) the Sutra Pitaka, the Vinaya Pitaka, and the Abhidharma Pitaka.  The Sutra Pitaka is the oldest of the three parts of the canon and is said to have been recited by Ananda, Buddha’s secretary at the First Council, a meeting of five hundred disciples of Buddha shortly after his death to compile his teachings.  It is divided into five sections of sutras which are grouped as nikayas, or “collections” – the Digha Nikaya or “Long Discourses”, the Majihima Nikaya or “Middle Discourses”, Samyutta Nikaya or “Connected Discourses”, the Anguttara Nikaya or “Numerical Discourses”, and the Khuddaka Nikaya or “Minor Collection”.  Another disciple of Buddha named Upali is said to have recited the Vinaya portion of the Tripitaka which deals mostly with rules governing monastic life, reflecting the strong undercurrent of renunciation and monasticism which was an integral part of Buddhism from its inception.  The Abhidharma portion of the is the youngest material and reflects the Buddha’s teachings regarding various deities in heaven during the final period of his Enlightenment and deals with various philosophical and doctrinal issues which help elucidate the some of the more esoteric and obscure aspects of the scripture.

It is from the Sutra Pitaka portion of the Pali Canon that we ascertain the core of Buddhist doctrine as it was understood by his followers and is interpreted by the various schools and practitioners throughout the world today.

 


 

 

[1] Śramaṇa (Samaṇa in Pali) is a Sanskrit word meaning “seeker”, or “one who performs acts of austerity”, or simple an “ascetic” and is used to refer to several Indian theo-philosophical intellectual developments that emerged in the first half of the first millennium BCE as distinct, and in opposition to, the more prevalent “orthodox” Vedic tradition which came to represent the basis of the Hindu faith, hence their categorization as “heterodox”.  These intellectual theo-philosophical developments and schools of thought ran directly parallel, and are believed to have influenced, the philosophy of the Upanishads.  Theo-philosophical traditions such as Jainism, Buddhism, as well as the lesser known traditions such as Ājīvika, Ajñana and Cārvāka are all considered to be part of the Śramaṇa movement.  Classical Indian philosophical conceptions such as saṃsāra and moksha are believed to have originated within these schools of thought, conceptions that were later integrated into some of the major Indian philosophical schools such as Yoga and Samkhya.  See Wikipedia contributors, ‘Śramaṇa’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 September 2016, 02:20 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=%C5%9Arama%E1%B9%87a&oldid=739942627> [accessed 18 September 2016] as well as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Buddha: Siderits, Mark, “Buddha”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/buddha/&gt;.

[3] Pali is a Prakrit language native to the Indian subcontinent, believed to have originated in Northern India, and very closely related to Sanskrit, with most words existing in both languages with simple phonetic transliterations between the two.  Pali is a language in the Indo-European/Indo-Iranian language family whose main historical significance is that it is the language of one, if not the, main source of Buddhist scripture and philosophy

The Hetu and Luoshu Diagrams: Numerology in Chinese Antiquity

What we can definitively say about how the underlying symbols of the Yijing were created can be ascertained primarily from the commentaries that survive and were appended to text itself as it has been received from antiquity, a process that we know and has already been indicated was influenced by socio-political factors.  It is clear however that numerological and arithmological beliefs were instrumental in their creation, as indicated not only in the commentaries themselves which speak to how the hexagrams and their constituent trigrams were created, but also by associated mythology surrounding two figures in particular that seem to point to even deeper Chinese antiquity.

The two figures in question are the Yellow River Map, or Hetu (河圖), and the “Inscription of the River Luo”, or Luoshu (洛書, also written 雒書), each of which is connected in mythological lore to Fu XI and King Wen, two figures from Chinese antiquity lore that are integrally linked to the establishment of Chinese civilization.  The figures are referred to not only in the Ten Wings itself, but also in the “Book of Documents”, or Shujing (書經) which dates to the middle of the Western Zhou period (11th to 8th centuries BCE), as well as the Guanzi (管子), or “Master Guan”, which is a collection of various philosophical treatises on statecraft collected during the Spring and Autumn period (8th to 5th centuries BCE).[1]

Hetu and Luoshu diagrams

Hetu and Luoshu diagrams

While the derivation of the Hetu and Luoshu diagrams to the Earlier and Later Heaven arrangements of the bagua, or eight trigrams, which form the basis of the hexagrams of the Yijing does not show up in the written records until the Song Dynasty period (960 – 1279 CE), there is ample evidence to surmise that that the numerological and/or metaphysical connection between them reaches back into at least Bronze Age China from which the first evidence of the Zhou Yi emerges.

First and foremost, we have a direct reference to the Hetu and Luoshu in the Ten Wings commentary itself, albeit in a form that does not allow for too much explanation as to how precisely these diagrams are related to Yijing divination other than referring to the Hetu as a “map” and the Luoshu as a “document” or “inscription”, and indicating that they were used as a “model” for the ancient sages who used or created the Yijing.  The specific verse or passage from the Great Commentary is below:

 

Therefore: Heaven creates divine things; the holy sage takes them as models.  Heaven and earth change and transform; the holy sage imitates them.  In the heavens hang images that reveal good fortune and misfortune; the holy sage reproduces these.  The Yellow River brought forth a map and the Lo River brought forth a writing [document]; the holy men took these as models.[2]

 

It’s also clear from the archeological record though that ancient Yijing divination was performed in conjunction with the burning of tortoise shells so that does offer further corroborating evidence that these symbols, or at least the Luoshu, was related to ancient Yijing divination in some way.  We could speculate that that this ancient practice, using the Luoshu and Hetu diagrams, was the origins of the divination practice in deep Chinese antiquity and these practices ended up evolving into the yarrow stalk and hexagram based divination process that ended up being encapsulated in the Zhou Yi and then codified finally in the Yijing.

Furthermore, we have from Chinese mythology the association of the Hetu diagram with the legendary Fu XI who witnessed a “dragon horse”, or longma (龍馬), emerge from the Yellow River with a set of symbols on its back, i.e. the Hetu diagram, from which he supposedly “divined” an ordered system of trigrams within which the universal ordering of things could be understood.  This is the mythology that surrounds the creation of the “Earlier than Heaven”, or Fu Xi, arrangement of the eight trigrams.  We also have a very similar myth associated with the Luoshu diagram that speaks to the emergence of a dragon turtle, or longgui (龍龜), from the River Luo from which had the Luoshu symbol on its back, actually its turtle shell, from which an alternate trigram arrangement or sequence was established, the “Later than Heaven”, or King Wen arrangement.

It also seems clear that the design of the Hetu and Luoshu diagrams, being based upon the collection and arrangement of sets of dark and light circles, speaks to a much more archaic and older numerological system that predates the formulation of the trigrams or hexagrams that constitute the core part of the Yijing.

For in deep antiquity, and this is perhaps true of the evolution and creation of all counting systems in antiquity, numbers were represented by simple representations and collections of objects, objects that were typically easily accessible.  For example, the early numbering system of the Chinese, which was base 10 like ours and as reflected in the Hetu and Luoshu each of which have numerical representations of all of the numbers 1 – 9, used small bamboo rods (stalk like figures in fact) to denote the numbers 1 through 10.  This system of symbols allowed for not only the representation of very large numbers using a small set of symbols which were easy to learn and communicate, but also allowed for relatively straightforward arithmetic operations as well.[3]

The Luoshu diagram significantly, also is a clear representation of the magic square of base three – where each of the numerical representations on all of the lines of the diagram, the vertical, horizontal and diagonal axes, all add up to 15.  This may be perhaps the earliest known evidence for a magic square in antiquity.

This numerical diagram, across all ancient cultures and civilizations that understood numbers in fact, indicates not only a belief in the “divine” or “revealed” nature of base 10 as the core counting system upon which all numerology and arithmology is subsequently based, but also the “divine” or “eternal” nature of the numbers 1 through 9 and their inherent symmetry and harmony, tying these basic numbers directly with universal harmony and balance upon which the Yijing squarely (pun intended) rests.

We also find a reference, albeit indirect, to the Hetu diagram in specific passage from the Great Commentary (Dazhuan):

 

Heaven has 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9.  Earth has 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10.  Thus heaven has five numbers and earth has five numbers.  The two series are interlocked in order; each number in one series has its partner in the other [When they are distributed among the five places, each finds its complement].  The sum of heaven’s numbers is 25; the sum of earth’s numbers is 30; the sum of the numbers of heaven and earth is 55.  This is what stimulates alternation and transformation and animates spirits [It is this which completes the changes and transformations ad sets demons and gods in movement].  The full Number is 50, of which 49 are used.  Dividing into two lots represents duality.  Setting one aside completes the triad.  Counting by fours represents the four seasons.  Reserving the remainder between the fingers represents the leap month.[4]

 

As per the first part of this passage, in the Hetu diagram we see the odd numbers between 1 and 10 – 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 respectively – being represented by the white, or “yang”, circles/dots, yang being the primary attribute of the trigram named Heaven (Qian) which is made up of three solid lines.  And conversely we see in the Hetu all of the even numbers between 1 and 10 – 2, 4, 6, and 8 respectively – being represented by black, or “yin” circles/dots, yin being the primary element associated with the Earth trigram (Kun) which is represented by three yin, or broken, lines.  Furthermore, we can see in the Hetu diagram that in fact the two series of even and odd numbers are in fact paired, each number having its counterpart on the opposite side of the diagram – 1 opposite 2, 3 opposite 4 and so on.

It is within this framework of basic numbers, specifically the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 (from which 10, the most “complete” or “perfect” number is derived arithmetically in the Pythagorean system; 1 + 2 + 3 + 4) upon which the yarrow stalk divination framework is built upon.  We start with a reference to the calculation that is used to determine the total number of yarrow stalks, from the arithmetic summation of all the even and odd numbers between 1 and 10, summing 55 in all, of which 50 are used as the basis for calculation.  The fundamental duality underpinning the universe, represented by the number 2 (the Dyad in Hellenic philosophical parlance), is then manifest in the initial division process of yarrow stalks into two piles or sets.  The number 3 (the Triad) is then signified by the setting aside of one yarrow stalk after the initial division into 2 piles is completed.  We then use the number 4 (the Tetrad) as the means by which the yarrow stalks are counted, by fours.  We also see here a direct reference to (at least one of) the universal meanings of 4, i.e. the 4 seasons.

It’s important to note that the Yijing is in fact NOT a counting system, and despite the best efforts of many numerologists over the centuries, it is clear that the underlying hexagrams, as well as the underlying trigrams upon which the hexagrams are based, do not represent numbers per se.  However, it is factual to say that that the system of broken and solid lines from which the trigrams and hexagrams are constructed, as well as the divination process itself which underlies Yijing consultation, clearly has a strong numerological and arithmological basis – a numerological basis and theory that in all likelihood rests upon, and was formulated out of, the prehistoric numerology that is reflected in the Hetu and Luoshu diagrams.

So while the textual evidence seems to be unclear or hazy at first glance, upon reflection and analysis it’s clear that there existed a strong relationship between the inherent numerology encoded in the Hetu and Luoshu diagrams to the numerology and arithmology that underpinned the Yijing tradition, even if the textual and written evidence for the correlation and ultimate derivation of the bagua arrangements of Earlier and Later Heaven from the Luoshu and Hetu diagrams respectively is not clarified in the written record at least until a much later period in the Song dynasty circa 1000 CE.

 


[1] Reference the online resource Chinese Literature and Philosophy, from ChinaKnowledge.de entitled “The River Chart and the Inscription of the Luo” at http://www.chinaknowledge.de/Literature/Daoists/hetuluoshu.html

[2] The I Ching: Or Book of Changes.  Translated from the Chinese into German by Richard Willhelm and then to the English by Cary F. Baynes with a foreword by Carl Jung.  Princeton University Press.  Third Edition 1967.  The Great Treatise (Dazhuan) Book II Ch. XI verse 8 pg. 320

[3] See http://www.storyofmathematics.com/chinese.html

[4] The Book of Changes (Zhouyi).  Translation and commentary by Richard Rutt.  Routledge Publishing, 1996.  From the Ten Wings section, the Dazhuan or Great Commentary.  Wing 5, Dazhuan I, Chapter IX verse 1-3 pg. 415 and alternate translations in brackets from The I Ching: Or Book of Changes.  Translated from the Chinese into German by Richard Willhelm and then to the English by Cary F. Baynes with a foreword by Carl Jung.  Princeton University Press.  Third Edition 1967.  The Great Treatise (Dazhuan) Book II Ch. IX verses 1-3; pgs.  308-311

Pythagoras and Plato: From the One to Many

Philosophy to the Greeks not only helped them understand the cosmos, creation and destruction of the universe and the essence of the natural world, but also the harmony within which we as individuals should lead our lives, and in turn – as described by subsequent philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle and others – how the pursuit of excellence and harmonious virtue in our own individual lives corresponded to and aligned with a greater social good within which society as a whole could be organized.

In order to find this source of this “closed” view of the West, this almost obsession to break things apart and drill further and further into the constituent components of a thing until once can literally go no further, one needs to reach back to the beginning of development of thought, and language, in the West. To the ancient Greeks who laid down the intellectual foundations – linguistic, metaphysical and otherwise – that we have inherited in the West through language and culture down through the ages.

 

Pythagorean Philosophy as Expressed in the Tetractys

One can look at the beginning of this “bound” and “closed” systemic view of the world as having its roots in Pythagorean philosophy, a philosophy that as we understand it rested on the harmony and eternal co-existence of numbers and their relationship to each other, forming the underlying ground of all existence. It is from the Pythagorean tradition as we understand it, that Plato’s fascination with geometry – as reflected most readily in perhaps his most lasting and influential dialogues the Timaeus – was founded.

Pythagoras (c. 570 – c. 495 BCE) , or Pythagoras of Samos as he is sometimes referred to as, was born at the beginning of the 6th century BCE reportedly on the island of Samos in the Aegean Sea. While we don’t have any of his writings directly he was widely regarded as one of the most influential Ionian philosophers in antiquity and his views and beliefs greatly influenced the later philosophical schools of Plato and Aristotle among others. He is believed to have traveled widely throughout the Mediterranean in his youth, studying with the Egyptians, the Chaldeans and Magi, and even the Hebrews according to later biographers and interpreters of his school.

The Pythagorean school was known primarily for their obsession with, their identification with a complex and yet straightforward geometric symbol known as the tetractys – an equilateral triangle. The tetractys represented the core tenet of Pythagorean thought as understood by outsiders and later philosophical schools which either criticized and/or adopted some of its core principles, Plato being the prime example. The symbol, no matter how it is interpreted, represents the harmony of numerical order and relationships, and of course the underlying symmetry and geometry of the equilateral triangle, as reflected in the universe as a whole, the underlying symmetry and harmony of musical theory, and the underlying (or overarching depending upon your perspective) principle that sheds light on the comprehension of the universal order and in turn mankind’s place within it.

The Tetractys symbol is a perfect triangle of sorts that is classically viewed as a base of 4 equidistant points, on top of which a layer of three, then two and then at the top 1 point rested, altogether creating a perfect equilateral triangle with a base of 4 and a total of 10 total points in the system.

 

While there are a variety of ways to interpret the meaning of this geometric structure and how the Pythagoreans themselves understood it (no works from Pythagoras or his direct followers are extant), most later philosophers imposed a metaphysical transliteration of this geometric structure, applying some Neo-Platonic (actually Middle Platonic which integrated both Pythagorean/Italian philosophical elements with Peripatetic – Aristotelian concepts) principles onto the system, and looked at it as representing the cosmological world order.

At a very basic level of interpretation we have the top point of the triangle as the Monad, or the grand unifying principle from which the entire cosmos emanates, the next layer representing the Dyad or the grand opposing forces of nature within which the natural world comes into being, the third layer represents the great Triad of principles which culminates in later Hellenic philosophical development as the One, the Intellect and the Soul, and then at the base the Tetrad, or foundation of the world as represented by the four basic elements that the ancient Greek believed underpinned the entire physical world – earth, air, water and fire.

This geometric figure, along with the numerical and arithmological attributes associated with it, represented the finest layer of abstraction, the best explanation, of the underlying structure and order of the universe. The cosmos seen as having a beginning from the vast void comes forth, explained in the Judaic mythological tradition as “the spirit moving against the waters”, where the the One begets Two, and the Two beget Three the great Triad, and the Three rests on the foundation of the Tetrad (Four).

We can see this type of worldview all throughout the Mediterranean in antiquity in all the great schools of thought be they primarily philosophical or again theological. The foundational basis of the cosmos and its relationship to number and geometry was no doubt adopted by Plato from the Pythagoreans – “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here” was said was to be inscribed on the Academy at its entrance. While Plato’s philosophical system was broad and far reaching as reflected in his dialogues, it is in the Timaeus where we find his cosmological world view put forth and geometry, and the tetrahedron specifically, came to represent one of the core foundational building blocks of the known universe.

 

Philo’s Exegesis of the Fourth Day of Creation in Genesis

While we again do not have direct sources of the underlying meaning and explanation of this geometric symbol according to the Pythagoreans themselves, we do have later interpretations of the symbol and its underlying meaning from later Hellenic philosophers. One of the best sources of this material is Philo Judaeus (c. 25 BCE – c. 50 CE), or Philo of Alexandria, who lived and wrote in the first century CE in Ptolemaic Egypt. Philo was first and foremost a Jewish scholar, but he was trained in the Hellenic philosophical tradition and read and wrote in ancient Greek, the lingua franca from the Mediterranean in antiquity prior to the prevalence of Latin as advanced by the Roman Empire.

Embedded in Philo’s extensive analysis and “allegorical” interpretations of the five books of Moses from Hebrew Bible, or Pentateuch (πεντάτευχος in Greek or literally “five scrolls”) , specifically in perhaps his most influential work which was a commentary on the beginning of Genesis entitled De Opificio Mundi, or On the Creation of the World, we find a fairly extensive description of the symbolic figure in his explanation of the establishment of the heavenly bodies on the fourth day, the text of which is quoted below :

14 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:
15 And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.
16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.
17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,
18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.
19 And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

This passage, which describes the creation of the Sun, Moon and Stars by God (Yahweh) on the fourth day of creation is interpreted by Philo from an intrinsically Hellenic philosophical perspective, and in particular Pythagorean, as he interprets these heavenly bodies and their importance in the theo-philosophical traditions of antiquity as representing the establishment, and ultimate representation, of time and order underlying the universe.

In his explanation of this part of Genesis, in particular on day Four of creation, Philo lays out the understanding of the importance of the number 4 within the context of the Hellenic philosophical tradition, a tradition marked quite clearly – at least from a numerological and arithmetic standpoint – by Pythagorean philosophy as embedded in the tetractys even though he does not specifically allude to the tetractys.

But the heaven was afterwards duly decked in a perfect number, namely four. This number it would be no error to call the base and source of 10, the complete number; for what 10 is actually, this, as is evident, 4 is potentially; that is to say that, if the numbers from 1 to 4 be added together, they will produce 10, and this is the limit set to the otherwise unlimited succession of numbers; round this as a turning-point they wheel and retrace their steps.

Philo describes the underlying perfection, or completeness, implied by the number Four as viewed within the context of the number Ten which he calls the most “complete” or “perfect” number (the sum of the four layers of the tetractys – 1 + 2 + 3 + 4) within classically Aristotelian terms of potentiality (4) and actuality (10). He also describes the sense of motion, or cyclical nature implied by this number 4, which actuates to the number 10, as a “turning point” and “wheel”, alluding to the base 10 that was used by the Greeks for counting and within which after the number 10 one begins to “count again”, starting with 11, 12 and so on.

He also describes the number Four as embedding within it three dimensional space, making it the perfect day (symbolically speaking of course) within which God should establish the foundations of the Heavens within which the world of man was thought to be governed in antiquity, and speaking to the importance the field of geometry held to the ancients, a tradition that became the hallmark of the West.

There is also another property of the number 4 very marvelous to state and to contemplate with the mind. For this number was the first to show the nature of the solid, the numbers before it referring to things without actual substance. For under the head of 1 what is called in geometry a point falls, under that of 2 a line. For if 1 extend itself, 2 is formed, and if a point extend itself, a line is formed: and a line is length without breadth; if breadth be added, there results a surface, which comes under the category of 3: to bring it to a solid surface needs one thing, depth, and the addition of this to 3 produces 4. The result of all this is that this number is a thing of vast importance. It was this number that has led us out of the realm of incorporeal existence patent only to the intellect, and has introduced us to the conception of a body of three dimensions, which by its nature first comes within the range of our senses.

And lastly, in reference to the four elements, and four seasons upon which the ground and order of human existence ultimately rests, Philo concludes with the following summation:

There are several other powers of which 4 has the command, which we shall have to point out in fuller detail in the special treatise devoted to it. Suffice it to add just this, that 4 was made the starting-point of the creation of heaven and the world; for the four elements, out of which this universe was fashioned, issued, as it were from a fountain, from the numeral 4; and, beside this, so also did the four seasons of the year, which are responsible for the coming into being of animals and plants, the year having a fourfold division into winter and spring and summer and autumn.

 

Porphyry: On the Life of Pythagoras

Another source of Pythagorean philosophy in antiquity is through the works of Porphyry (c. 234 – c. 305) and Iamblichus (c. 245 – c. 325 CE) who were contemporaries in 3rd century CE antiquity and who both wrote biographies of Pythagoras, who by that time had become a pseudo mythical figure. It is from Porphyry that we find the reference that it was Pythagoras who created and “would swear by” the Tetractys, what Porphyry referred to as the “eternal Nature’s fountain spring”.

Within Porphyry’s biography, he describes the fascination of the Pythagoreans with numbers, arithmology, and ultimately geometry thus:

49. As the geometricians cannot express incorporeal forms in words, and have recourse to the descriptions of figures, as that is a triangle, and yet do not mean that the actually seen lines are the triangle, but only what they represent, the knowledge in the mind, so the Pythagoreans used the same objective method in respect to first reasons and forms. As these incorporeal forms and first principles could not be expressed in words, they had recourse to demonstration by numbers. Number one [Monad] denoted to them the reason of Unity, Identity, Equality, the purpose of friendship, sympathy, and conservation of the Universe, which results from persistence in Sameness. For unity in the details harmonizes all the parts of a whole, as by the participation of the First Cause.
50. Number two, or Duad [Dyad], signifies the two-fold reason of diversity and inequality, of everything that is divisible, or mutable, existing at one time in one way, and at another time in another way. After all these methods were not confined to the Pythagoreans, being used by other philosophers to denote unitive powers, which contain all things in the universe, among which are certain reasons of equality, dissimilitude and diversity. These reasons are what they meant by the terms Monad and Duad, or by the words uniform, biform, or diversiform.

Here we see not only an explanation of the underlying geometrical formation of the Tetractys in terms of Platonic Forms, reflecting the underlying sentiment of the period that geometry and numbers are the best and most profound way to describe elemental reality, but also an explanation of the principles of the Monad (the One) and the Dyad (the Two) as the basic archaic elements of the universe from which all numbers, all of reality really, ultimately originates and emanates from.

Porphyry goes on to describe the meaning of the Triad, and in turn the Decad (Ten), which is formed from 1 + 2 + 3 + 4, the four layers of the Tetractys, and underpins the Pythagorean philosophical system which reflected in the Tetractys thus:

51. The same reasons apply to their use of other numbers, which were ranked according to certain powers. Things that had a beginning, middle and end, they denoted by the number Three, saying that anything that has a middle is triform, which was applied to every perfect thing. They said that if anything was perfect it would make use of this principle and be adorned, according to it; and as they had no other name for it, they invented the form Triad; and whenever they tried to bring us to the knowledge of what is perfect they led us to that by the form of this Triad. So also with the other numbers, which were ranked according to the same reasons.
52. All other things were comprehended under a single form and power which they called Decad [10], explaining it by a pun as decad, meaning comprehension. That is why they called Ten a perfect number, the most perfect of all as comprehending all difference of numbers, reasons, species and proportions. For if the nature of the universe be defined according to the reasons and proportions of members, and if that which is produced, increased and perfected, proceed according to the reason of numbers; and since the Decad comprehends every reason of numbers, every proportion, and every species, why should Nature herself not be denoted by the most perfect number, Ten? Such was the use of numbers among the Pythagoreans.

Here we see the direct metaphysical link drawn between Nature and Number, Ten being the reflection of the most perfect of numbers, upon which – to use Philo’s analogy – the (metaphysical) world turns. We also here can see the source of the Trinity, not in terms of the language and words that are used to describe it as defined by the early Church Fathers, but the underlying potency and perfection of the Triad as a symbolic representation of that which is most holy.

 

Conclusion

So with Philo and Porphyry, both of whom undoubtedly had access to knowledge regarding the Pythagorean philosophical school and their obsession with the tetractys that has subsequently been lost (even though later scholars indicate that his teachings were incorporated into those of the Hellenic philosophical tradition that followed), we find a full and complete explanation of the numerology and arithmology embedded in the Pythagorean philosophical system as manifest in the tetractys, a system which ultimately bounds the spatial dimensions of the material universe within it and from it, as well as enclosing it as it were with a beginning and an end as represented by the underlying numerology, arithmology, and geometry of the figure itself which represented to the ancient philosophers the best possible representation of the inherent cosmological world order.

Beginner’s Mind

The odd thing
Is that every Westerner
Approaches the practice of meditation
With a goal in mind
Without exception

The even odder thing
Is that from an Eastern point of view
[Particularly Daoist/Zen Buddhist
Which are very related and symbiotic traditions]
This misses the entire point
Not part of the point
The entire point
Of meditation practice

Reflect on that for a moment
Because it’s important
If you are a practitioner
To understand this very simple
And yet at the same time subtle
Extremely relevant and critical point

There is no goal to meditation practice
To the true practitioner
To the Master
The great sage as the ancient texts refer to them as
The Rishis of the Vedic tradition
The ancient shaman really

Nirvana, Enlightenment, Samadhi
And other illustrious powers and visions
Which many many practitioners hope to obtain
Or even to the poor old soul
Who struggles with mental anguish
And is looking for some peace and relief
An escape from the trials of life
Or those that wish to lead
More successful and empowering lives
And believe meditation
Through the clarity of mind
Will help them achieve those goals

Indirectly or directly
Doesn’t matter which
This misses the entire point
Which is the very point
Of this poem if you can call it that

The purpose of meditation
The purpose of life
Is to lead the best life
The one that is most fulfilling
And one that is full of as much joy
And happiness as possible
Aristotle’s arete (Greek: ἀρετή)

This was the absolute primary purpose
Of the writings of the almost all
Of the ancient philosophers
From around the globe
From Confucius, to Mencius, to Laozi
To Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics
And even to the Hindus

[With Vyasa and the Rishis
And the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads
In a less direct way
More Confucian in a sense perhaps
Given the Vedic emphasis on ritual (li)]

Meditation practice then
Is not the means to some sort of end
It is the end
The practice and life are not different
Practice and Life are the same

We are so goal oriented here in the West
That not for any given moment
Can we actually find happiness
Even while it stares us in the face
Because it is always somewhere out of reach
Due to some inadequacy that has been identified
By the relative ego and its constant comparison
To the ideal self
Which does not nor ever will exist

This is my problem with the materialists
The causal principalists who claim
With their authoritative academic voices
And all their scholarly credentials and degrees
That the only reality is the physical reality
That which can be measured and quantified

Hence their loss in madness
And why quantum theory is so powerful a model
That they just don’t understand
Where causality and determinism themselves
Need to be abandoned in order for the model
To make any sense whatsoever

Unless they just call it a mathematical theory
That predicts results (Copenhagen interpretation)
And say that it says nothing about the ‘real’ world
Which is nonsense in and of itself
Or you get the other just as lunatic conclusion
That the math does in fact represent ‘reality’
And therefore there must be multiple realities
That exist simultaneously
Of which ours is the only one
That we know about or have access to

What?????????????????

These seemingly logical and rational
Mathematically coherent and consistent
But at the same time completely nonsensical
Conclusions are all necessary and determined by
The fact that experience and Being (Aristotle’s)
Are considered to be ontologically subservient
To quantifiable and measurable results
And ‘observable’ phenomenon
Along with the predictability of outcomes
Of other various measurement phenomenon
Upon which all reality is not only based
But upon which the borders of reality itself are drawn

While all this sounds pretty complicated
The point here is that the Eastern view
Not only considers subjective phenomenon to be real
It considers experience itself to be
The primary, and in fact only,
Definition of Reality that is possible
And the only thing that is true about this definition of Reality
Is that it changes constantly
And the experience of the subject
Cannot be distinguished from in any meaningful way
The object of attention or awareness or intellectual understanding
That is yielded from
Is created and born from
Each and every individual experience
That each and every individual has
In each and every moment
Of their separate but totally interconnected lives

This is why Change (The I Ching)
Is so important and telling
Given its primary significance in the Eastern tradition
And virtually the only book that embeds with it
Some sort of cosmological theory
[If you can call it that]
And why it is so hard for Westerners
To understand what the purpose of the word is
Why it lasted so long and is such an elementary part
Of every form of theology or philosophy
That has emerged from the Far East

Because it doesn’t really ‘say’ anything
It (and by it i mean the act of consulting the I Ching)
Simply identifies a specific situation
Within the cosmic order of Heaven and Earth
Via the enactment of a certain ritual
Which includes Fate and the Observer
In the very process by which
A specific hexagram is selected
Out of a series of fixed and finite
But at the same time completely interrelated
Set of symbols that describe the attributes
Of a given circumstance

The event (the selected hexagram)
Most accurately reflects the current situation
Depending upon the question that has been posed
To the Book of Changes

By this process
The cosmological experience
And one’s place within it as it occurs
Has manifested itself and can be understood
Within the overall set of cosmic experiences
And their interaction and constant flow into and out of one another
Each with their own balance and assortment
Of Yin and Yang elements
Constantly working together
Which began at the beginning
When the world was created
Which to the Eastern mind
Has no beginning
And has no end

After this consolation and interpretation
After this ritual is performed
An advanced practitioner
A priest in the Western sense
Can provide the person, the leader or aristocrat in ancient times
A better understanding of the current situation
And make recommendations regarding
What can be done to achieve greater harmony and balance
Between yourself and Heaven and Earth
Which yields happiness or contentment
Which is again the very goal and purpose of life

So where you ‘are’ in the cosmological universal experiences
Along with where you are heading
As described and bound by
The 64 hexagrams of yin and yang
That make up the Book of Changes then
Can reveal how you might
Move toward more balance and harmony
Between Heaven and Earth
And the ‘ten thousand things’
As wànwù is commonly translated
And the individual
By honing the practice of virtue (ren)
May achieve happiness
The Eudaimonia of the ancient Greeks
And thus can not only find happiness and purpose
In their individual lives
But also can construct
A harmonious and happy society
Along with it

But as usual we have lost our way
Or our wu wei (non-action, non-doing)
As the case may be

The point here is that
The purpose of meditation
Is not some sort of goal
Or any other goal
Than to lead a better life
Lead the best possible life

And to the Easterner
The Daoist and the Zen Buddhist
The only reality there is
Is the one that is sitting in front of you
At this very moment
Which is why mindfulness
Is so important in the Buddhist tradition

As also is emptiness
Which is basically is the opposite
Of the ancient Chinese word wànwù
Or ‘ten thousand things’ or ‘myriad of things’
As it is usually translated
Or at the very least
Emptiness can be considered to be
The origin and source
Or perhaps better put
Universal backdrop of
These ten thousand things
And what we in the West call Reality

So at some point the practitioner comes to realize
And it doesn’t happen in a moment
Because realization itself
Understanding and knowledge
Have many many levels
As Socrates last teaching showed us
That the wisest among us
Knows the least

That while we may speak of how
The end is not the goal
And it is the journey which is the whole purpose
The whole way to find the meaning of life
The holy Grail as it were

To be able to truly comprehend this fact
Gives us the illumination
That in fact our practice and our life
Are not two things but are one thing
And that the more they blend
And the more they complement each other
Our thoughts are not distractions from the View
They are the View

They, these thoughts that page us so sometimes
Are in fact the divine manifestations
That dwell within and originate
And flow out of and from Universal Mind
Into our own individual small minds
This is the Brahman and Atman
That the Vedic Rishis speak of
Which sits within (and without)
Coexists in fact
In each and every soul
And every animate thing
That can be said to exist

So with this sort of mindset then
These thoughts as they arise in our practice
Can be accepted for what they are
Manifestations of Mind within mind
And our emotional attachment
Or perhaps better put emotional reaction
To these thoughts as they arise
Can also be accepted
Along with the thoughts
Be they reflective or speculative
As manifestations of this divine principle
Which we all carry within us
And which is our source of being
And is also the source of Being itself

This is the practice
It is one of acceptance of the present situation
Your present situation in life
Your role in creating it
Your ability to truly understand it
To understand your codependence
On family, friends, colleagues, lovers, etc

And by so doing
Look to achieve this balance and harmony
Between the Earth and the Heavens
As the ancient Chinese so elegantly put it
Using symbols and not even words
Because once words are used
True understanding is actually lost in some sense

So don’t abandon your goals or objectives in life
The Western way of thinking has value too
But in your practice you must abandon such things
And then as the mind settles in
As thoughts and emotions settle
Out of and back Into
The grand abyss of awareness
That underlies all things and beings
One can recognize
Even if for a fleeting moment
The very source of Being itself
And our identity with it

The experience of Satchitananda
Existence Knowledge Bliss Absolute
Can be experienced
And perhaps more importantly
Its aftertaste spill into our daily lives
To make ourselves better people
And the world around us
A better place

Namaste

Divination in the I Ching

Divination, omens, portents etc. was a common practice throughout all of the ancient world in fact.  As already mentioned we see the practice, and its relationship with the priestly class not only in ancient Greece but most certainly ancient Persia (the “magi”), the Sumer-Babylonians (Chaldean oracles) and of course in ancient Egypt as well.  Each of these cultures has their own specific approach toward communing with the divine to determine either the course of future events, when it might be the most auspicious time to act, or even what course of action would be wisest given a specific desired outcome.[1]

Our relationship with this practice is broken in the West however as we began to question the validity of the practice in Roman times where reason, philosophical enquiry, began to take precedence over what was considered to be illogical and/or barbaric and antiquated superstitious practices.  This became even more pronounced of course when all things “pagan” were outlawed and ostracized once Christianity took a strong foothold in the West in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE.  An interesting insight into this transition period can be found in the works of Cicero for example, who wrote a whole treatise “De Divinatione” questioning these age old practices.

 

There is an ancient belief, handed down to us even from mythical times and firmly established by the general agreement of the Roman people and of all nations, that divination of some kind exists among men; this the Greeks call μαντική — that is, the foresight and knowledge of future events. A really splendid and helpful thing it is — if only such a faculty exists — since by its means men may approach very near to the power of gods. And, just as we Romans have done many other things better than the Greeks, so have we excelled them in giving to this most extraordinary gift a name, which we have derived from divi, a word meaning “gods,” whereas, according to Plato’s interpretation, they have derived it from furor, a word meaning “frenzy”.[2]

Now I am aware of no people, however refined and learned or however savage and ignorant, which does not think that signs are given of future events, and that certain persons can recognize those signs and foretell events before they occur. First of all — to seek authority from the most distant sources — the Assyrians, on account of the vast plains inhabited by them, and because of the open and unobstructed view of the heavens presented to them on every side, took observations of the paths and movements of the stars, and, having made note of them, transmitted to posterity what significance they had for each person. And in that same nation the Chaldeans — a name which they derived not from their art but their race — have, it is thought, by means of long-continued observation of the constellations, perfected a science which enables them to foretell what any man’s lot will be and for what fate he was born.

The same art is believed to have been acquired also by the Egyptians through a remote past extending over almost countless ages. Moreover, the Cilicians, Pisidians, and their neighbours, the Pamphylians — nations which I once governed — think that the future is declared by the songs and flights of birds, which they regard as most infallible signs.  And, indeed, what colony did Greece ever send into Aeolia, Ionia, Asia, Sicily, or Italy without consulting the Pythian or Dodonian oracle, or that of Jupiter Hammon? Or what war did she ever undertake without first seeking the counsel of the gods?[3]

 

What is unique about the method that was invented by the ancient Chinese however was that the system was based upon number theory and a fairly advanced set of symbols (the hexagrams) which encapsulated:

  • the situation, as proposed or communicated by the individual who was consulting the Yijing,
  • the cosmological/universal world order as represented by the fixed set of 64 states of the universe (the hexagrams) along with its propensity to change from a one state to another, and
  • the judgment which was yielded by the “divine” message or interpretation of the situation which came from the process of divination (in antiquity using yarrow stalks, again see below)

This process of divination, again using yarrow stalks in antiquity was quite lengthy and complex, was enshrouded in ritual and gravity, and was conducted by a priest, an individual who was trained in the art of consulting the Yijing and one who the “divine” spoke through in a very real sense.  This process of course included a fundamental element of randomness which allowed/allows for the divine to come through as represented by the numbers that it produces which not only divine the symbol which reflects the situation, one of the 64 symbols, but also which of the lines within the symbol are active, subject to change and transformation, and determine the direction, the flow of the event within the 64 hexagram sequence.

In the Great Commentary, one of the Ten Wings (which again was written centuries after the text had already been in use), we find an explanation of the process of divination, alluding to the cosmological significance of the process itself, and how the lines for a given hexagram were “drawn” for a given divination.

 

The number of the total is fifty [yarrow stalks].  Of these, forty-nine are used.  They are divided into two portions, to represent the two primal forces [yin/yang, darkness/light, firm/yielding].  Hereupon one is set apart, to represent the three powers [Heaven, Earth, Man].  They are counted through by fours, to represent the four seasons.  The remainder is put aside, to represent the intercalary month.  There are two intercalary months in five years, therefore the putting aside is repeated, and this gives us the whole.[4]

 

Here we have embedded into the yarrow stalk ritual itself the underlying cosmological world order according to the originals authors of the text.  We have the single yarrow stalk removed, symbolizing the unified and single creative force from which the entire universe emanates (the Dao, Tai Chi).  [1] Then we split the stack in two, randomly, signifying the basic bifurcation of forces from the One from which the material universe, the known universe comes forth.  To the ancient Chinese this was Heaven and Earth[5].  [2] We take the right hand bundle and set it aside for now.  [3] Then we take a single stalk from this right hand bundle, which symbolizes Man (one is set apart representing the three powers), yielding the symbolic “three powers”, and place it between our last two fingers, this will be added to the remainder total to help us build each gua.

Then we start to symbolize the creative process, the cycle of change, which to the ancient Chinese represented the fundamental characteristic of reality – the calendar, the seasons.  [4] We take 4 stalks at a time from the left hand bundle of stalks and put them aside until there are four or fewer stalks remaining in your hand.  [5] We place these remaining stalks in between our fingers and this represents the intercalary month.  [6] Then we pick back up the stalks from the original split from the right hand that we placed on the table and then we remove four stalks at a time again until we have four or fewer stalks left.  [7] We then place these stalks in between our fingers and then we count them, along with the other 4 or fewer stalks from the previous step (left hand bundle) along with the single stalk representing Man which should yield a sum of either 5 or 9.

[8] We then set these stalks (again either 5 or 9 of them) and begin the process again with all the stalks except a) the first stalk we set aside that represents Tai Chi, the One and b) the 5 or 9 stalks we removed from the result of steps 1-7.  [9] We repeat steps 1-7 with the remaining 40 or 44 stalks and get a sum of either 4 or 8.  Setting these stalks aside we now have 24, 28, 32 or 36 stalks left.  [10] We remove 4 stalks at a time, counting the total number of groups of 4 we have left – either 6, 7, 8 or 9[6].

From this remainder we draw either the Greater Yin (6) broken line with cross -x-, indicating a moving yin yao (or line), if the result is 9 (Greater Yang) we draw an unbroken line (yang) with a circle in the middle -0- indicating a moving yang yao.  If the result is 7 (Lesser Yang) we draw a simple unbroken line (stable, non-moving yang line) and if it is 8 (Lesser Yin) we draw a simple broken line indicating a stable, non-moving yin.  We then repeat this process again five more times, with the 49 yarrow stick (that first stick remains to the side the whole time) and we then complete our gua/hexagram picture with the moving lines embedded.  Note again that the individual Gua is formed from bottom to top.[7][8]

 

 

To the ancient Chinese clearly, at least the authors of the Yijing, it was the act of change that was the most relevant aspect of life to them.  There were fixed states of cosmic existence no doubt that reflected any given situation as presented to the oracle but it was the idea of change from one state to another that was most revealing in terms of cosmic significance.  The universe is a set of opposing forces constantly acting on each other to move from states of chaos to states of equilibrium and the ideal of man, his goal in any given situation you might say, would be to optimize – or better put align – the will of Heaven with the will of Man in the realm of Earth.  The Yijing is the tool that was devised for this purpose.

This is the powerful and unique perspective of the Yijing and one of the reasons no doubt it is considered to be one of the most important texts in all of Chinese literature and one of the reasons why its power and weight are still respected by the Chinese today.  It not only includes their worldview and philosophy of life but it also includes a method by which, if performed by a competent sage or scholar of the Yijing, the Will of the Gods so to speak can be “divined” for a given situation.

 


 

[1] A fairly lengthy and comprehensive look at divination practices in ancient Sumer-Babylon can be found in the book Divination and Interpretation of Signs in the Ancient World, edited by Amar Annus, University of Chicago 2010, Oriental Institute Seminars – Number 6.

[2] Phaedrus 244C μαντική = μανική from μανία (furor).

[3] Cicero, De Divinatione, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press 1923 translation by W. A. Falconer.  Book 1, Chapter 1.  From public domain via http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cicero/de_Divinatione/1*.html

[4] The I Ching or Book of Changes, Wilhelm/Baynes.  Princeton University Press, Third edition, 1967.  Commentary, Ta Chuan / The Great Treatise: verse 3. pg.  310.  [Notes in brackets are authors].

[5] This step, the separation of the single pile into a left (Heaven) and right (Earth) bundle is the random element in the process which allows for the cosmic force to reveal itself within the process.  It is from the splitting of the two bundles into two seemingly equal piles from which all of the remaining counts, and their sums, come from and hence from which the individual lines and their individual characteristics, and finally the specific unique sign, gua, comes from.

[6] The Wilhelm/Baynes version actually has the final step producing a number of 4 or 8, yielding three pairs of numbers that are either 5 (equivalent to 3) or 9 (equivalent to 2), 4 (equivalent to 3) or 8 (equivalent to 2) and 4 (equivalent to 3) or 8 (equivalent to 2) which yields totals of either 6, 7, 8 or 9 which are then converted to Greater Yin, Lesser Yang, Lesser Yin, and Greater Yang as in Huang’s description.  See I Ching or Book of Changes, Princeton University Press 1950, third edition 1967 pgs. 311 (under the section heading of the Ta Chuan or Great Treatise Chapter IX verse 3 or at the end ‘On Consulting the Oracle’, pgs 721ff (which actually has a mathematical error in it).

[7] The description of the yarrow stalk ritual is taken from Alfred Huang’s Complete I Ching from the Chapter ‘Flying with the I Ching’, pgs. 8-9 [Published by Inner Traditions, 1998].  There is a similar description in Wilhelm/Baynes translation of the I Ching [Princeton University Press 1950, third edition 1967] in the Chapter entitled ‘On Consulting the Oracle’, pgs 721ff but it’s not nearly as clear as Huang’s version which follows the Great Treatise description line by line.

[8] Yang is considered to be represented by odd numbers and is considered to be “advancing”, moving forward – hence the 9 corresponding to the Greater Yang and the 7 corresponding to the Lesser Yang.  Yin is represented by even numbers and is considered to be “retreating” and best for it to maintain central ground, hence the 6 representing Greater Yin and 8 Lesser Yin.  See The Complete I Ching, by Alfred Huang.  Inner Traditions 2010 “Introduction” pg. 4.

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