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.

The Theogony of Hesiod: Order (Cronos) from Chaos

One of the nice things that you found as you studied more advanced civilizations, as you got further into the first millennium BCE, you had better material and source texts to work with.  You no longer had to rely on texts and tablets that described ancient rituals for specific temples, or documents or inscriptions associated with royal burial grounds, you actually had books or treatises that were authored and compiled by a single individual that had coherent narratives and compiled and consolidated all the various traditions that might be represented throughout that particular culture.  One of the other nice things as you moved into the study of the civilizations of the Greeks and the Romans is you started to see pretty good one to one representations of their words into modern day English given its more direct relationship to the Latin.

Prior to looking at the mythological creation narratives that were prevalent in classical Greece, it’s worth pointing out some of the terminology that we use today that originated with the Greek language, the Greek poets and philosophers, that has come down to us in English, through the Latin translations, that we use to describe these intellectual traditions.

The words “theogony” and “cosmology” specifically actually both come from their Greek counterparts which in English have very similar meanings but in the Greek have different definitions, definitions that are symbolic of the intellectual tradition which each in turn belonged.  Theogony, or thæogonía (θεογονία) means the study of the origin and genealogy of the gods whereas “cosmology”, or kozmogonía (κοσμογονία) denotes the study of the origins of the universe, the latter term coming into use as the philosophical tradition arose, “kosmos” first being attributed to Pythagoras in fact circa 5th century BCE.  Theogony signifying, as in the case with Hesiod for example, the mythological narrative that described the creation of the gods of the pantheon and their successors.

While thæogonía (theogony; Gr. θεογονία) is the origin and genealogy of the Gods, kozmogonía (cosmogony; Gr. κοσμογονία) is the origin of the universe. In Hellenic polytheistic religion, these two terms are closely related and cannot actually be entirely separated, for the phenomenal universe is itself divine and the personal deities are intimately connected with its origin and both emerge simultaneously.

The etymology of thæogonía is Θεοί (Gods) + γέννα (birth), hence, the birth or origin of the Gods.  The etymology of kozmogonía is kόσμος (order, to put in order) + γέννα (birth); the word kόσμος only later came to mean the entire universe, but its original meaning has some bearing on how we understand our world, as the view of Orphismós sees the birth or origin of the kózmos (cosmos; Gr. κόσμος) as having a form and order, what Pythagóras (Gr. Πυθαγόρας) called diakózmisis (diakosmesis; Gr. διακόσμησις), the orderly arrangement of the universe.[1]

Having clarified this subtle but important distinction, in particular as we look at this time period of ancient Greece where philosophy begins to take precedence over mythology – logos over mythos – the analysis and study of the theogonies of Hesiod and the one attributed to the pseudo-historical figure of Orpheus actually shed much light on the transition, or at least the precursors to the transition which start with Pythagoras and Plato and come to a more solid, rational, foundation with Aristotle.

To the Greeks, and in particular t the tradition associated with Hesiod, it is Chaos that was the arche, or underlying origin, of the universe.  Arche means ‘beginning’, ‘origin’ or ‘first cause’ and ‘power’ in Greek.  It can also denote ‘ultimate underlying substance’ or ‘ultimate indemonstrable principle’ at least as seen in the context of Greek Cosmology.  Later philosophers such as Aristotle expanded upon the meaning of arche as the element or principle of a thing, which although indemonstrable and intangible in and of itself, provides the conditions of the possibility of the existence of such a thing.

In the Greco-Roman tradition, particularly in the works of the Neo-Platonists and other historians of philosophy from Cicero to Diogenes Laertius to Plutarch and others, it was the “first principles” of things that were the topic of the early Greek classical authors such as Hesiod and in turn Orpheus, who was the attributed author of various hymns and poems devoted to the gods that spoke of an alternative theogony, through which later philosophers viewed and interpreted these first principles and through which these later authors juxtaposed and defended the Hellenic philosophical tradition in the face of impending Christianity which took over the theological beliefs of the Mediterranean and Near Eastern peoples a few centuries after the death of Jesus and the birth of Christianity and its adoption by the Roman Empire by Constantine.

In modern times, the arche is the word used by Carl Jung to describe the underlying psychological themes he found present in individual’s unconscious mind through his psychological practices.  To Jung these basic symbols and images that he found present in the modern mind bore striking similarity to primitive mythological motifs, motifs that are found in virtually all of the mythological traditions that we are studying and analyzing within the context of this work.  Jung called these symbols archetypes, the commonality of which across many of his patients he used as the rationalization for the existence of what he called the collective unconscious, the same principle which Joseph Campbell indirectly leveraged to explain the commonality of mythical themes and stories across all pre-civilized man across the globe – as presented in his Hero with a  Thousand Faces for example.  In essence this notion of arche to the Greeks represented the establishment of the basic universal building blocks, the first principles of abstract thought and ideas, upon which was superimposed Greek theogony as it was formulated in order to establish a more rational basis upon which the cosmological world order was maintained and was to be understood.  This transition is typically referred to in the academic literature as logos over mythos but we can view it here within the context of theogony to cosmogony.

 

The orthodox version of creation mythology from classical Greece is from a poetic work attributed to Hesiod called the Theogony.  Compilation of the text is dated to somewhere between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE, somewhat contemporaneous to Homer, and representative of the height of literature to the Greeks even by the classical philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle among others that followed in their footsteps..  The Theogony, or again literally the birth of the gods”, describes the origins and genealogies of the gods of the ancient Greek pantheon.

Hesiod markedly begins his work with an attribute to the divine Muses, the great daughters of Zeus who in the Hellenic world were the masters of mystery and the keepers of the divine mysteries through which any true knowledge or truth could be known.  It is through the Muses themselves that Hesiod relates his tale, speaking directly to their source through which his tale, his Theogony, is related and written.

(ll. 1-25) From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing, who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon, and dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring and the altar of the almighty son of Cronos, and, when they have washed their tender bodies in Permessus or in the Horse’s Spring or Olmeius, make their fair, lovely dances upon highest Helicon and move with vigorous feet. Thence they arise and go abroad by night, veiled in thick mist, and utter their song with lovely voice, praising Zeus the aegis- holder and queenly Hera of Argos who walks on golden sandals and the daughter of Zeus the aegis-holder bright-eyed Athene, and Phoebus Apollo, and Artemis who delights in arrows, and Poseidon the earth-holder who shakes the earth, and reverend Themis and quick-glancing (1) Aphrodite, and Hebe with the crown of gold, and fair Dione, Leto, Iapetus, and Cronos the crafty counsellor, Eos and great Helius and bright Selene, Earth too, and great Oceanus, and dark Night, and the holy race of all the other deathless ones that are for ever. And one day they taught Hesiod glorious song while he was shepherding his lambs under holy Helicon, and this word first the goddesses said to me — the Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus who holds the aegis:

(ll. 26-28) `Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies, we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things.’

(ll. 29-35) So said the ready-voiced daughters of great Zeus, and they plucked and gave me a rod, a shoot of sturdy laurel, a marvellous thing, and breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things there were aforetime; and they bade me sing of the race of the blessed gods that are eternally, but ever to sing of themselves both first and last. But why all this about oak or stone? (2)[2]

We see here not just the invocation to the Muses, in fact the allusion to the very source of the material being the Muses themselves who speak through Hesiod, but also the purpose of the work as explaining the existence of the Greek gods and goddesses that we know all too well even from modern renditions of Greek mythology – reference to Zeus and Hera, Apollo and Athena, Poseidon and Aphrodite, and even Cronos, the older parent of the Greek pantheon who is to play such an important role in the Theogonic tale that Hesiod is to tell.

A few verses later Hesiod provides us with his account of the first initial principles or gods from which the pantheon emerges from, the initial cosmological account of creation as it were.  The reference to the first beings that were ever created from which the pantheon of Greek gods originated and from which his story of rulership, succession, betrayal and the ultimate establishment of order is unfolded.  In Hesiod’s account of the creation of the universe, the initial state of the universe is Chaos, or Khaos in the Greek, and from this initial state of disorder, from which the word still carries the same meaning even in modern English today, the universe comes to life and order begins to manifest.

Verily at the first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundations of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth, and Eros (Love), fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them. From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night; but of Night were born Aether and Day, whom she conceived and bare from union in love with Erebus. And Earth first bare starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods. And she brought forth long Hills, graceful haunts of the goddess-Nymphs who dwell amongst the glens of the hills. She bare also the fruitless deep with his raging swell, Pontus, without sweet union of love. But afterwards she lay with Heaven and bare deep-swirling Oceanus, Coeus and Crius and Hyperion and Iapetus, Theia and Rhea, Themis and Mnemosyne and gold-crowned Phoebe and lovely Tethys. After them was born Cronos the wily, youngest and most terrible of her children, and he hated his lusty sire.[3]

 

So here in the work of Hesiod lie the beginnings of some of the basic principles, or framework at least, from the transition from theogony to cosmology, the primordial arche as it were upon which the Greek pantheon emerges.  We are presented at the beginning of the genealogy with the notion of Chaos, or disorder as the term is still used today, that represents the primordial substance that forms the basis of all creation.  In Hesiod’s account Chaos is a pseudo-anthropomorphic being, a being that although not anthropomorphic per se, i.e. it is without gender or form, and yet it is the primordial substance form which the primary first generation deities and their offspring come forth from.  According to Hesiod out of Chaos emerge Gaia (Earth) and Tartarus – Mother Earth and the Underworld respectively, the great pillars of the world of being inhabited by human souls.  And then, perhaps surprisingly, in this tradition Eros, or Love, is a primary force which then acts to create the rest of the first generation of gods and goddesses and from which the realms of Heaven and Earth and all the basic natural principles and their anthropomorphic counterparts are created and established.

Next in Hesiod’s Theogony, also out of Chaos came Erebus[4], representing darkness or shadow, as well as Nyx, or the Greek’s personification of Night.  Erebus and Nyx then reproduced to form Aether, and Hemera (day).  Then came Gaia who gave birth to Uranus (sky/heaven), and Ourea (mountains) and Pontus (sea).  Uranus then fertilized Gaia and from this union the great Titans are born and the next generation of gods are born, the greatest of which is Cronos and from which the tale of the next generation of gods and the overthrow of Chaos by Cronos (time) is told.

These characters, these entities, represented the first and foremost parts of creation that sprung forth from the “void”, the first generation of gods for the Greeks.  Although the principles or deities themselves were different, there were some parallels to the genealogy of the Egyptians and Mesopotamian story lines albeit the ordering and gods themselves were different for each of the civilizations, perhaps indicative of the different aspects of each of the respective cultures.  Here we can find in this subsequent generation of gods, much like the Egyptian creation mythology, the generation and establishment of the world order, the pieces of the puzzle were laid down as it were, creating the foundations upon which mankind could emerge and flourish.

Hesiod then goes on to tell the tale of the overthrow of the evil ruler Chaos by Cronos, the greatest of the first generation of gods at the behest of his mother Gaia, Mother Earth.  Herein we find the great mythical narrative of the manifestation and establishment of order upon chaos, a tale that is gruesome and graphic no doubt in its details, and speaks to a consistent tradition of castration of the first principles of creation upon which the second generation of order is established.

(ll. 167-169) So she said; but fear seized them all, and none of them uttered a word. But great Cronos the wily took courage and answered his dear mother:

(ll. 170-172) `Mother, I will undertake to do this deed, for I reverence not our father of evil name, for he first thought of doing shameful things.’

(ll. 173-175) So he said: and vast Earth rejoiced greatly in spirit, and set and hid him in an ambush, and put in his hands a jagged sickle, and revealed to him the whole plot.

(ll. 176-206) And Heaven came, bringing on night and longing for love, and he lay about Earth spreading himself full upon her (7).

Then the son from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father’s members and cast them away to fall behind him. And not vainly did they fall from his hand; for all the bloody drops that gushed forth Earth received, and as the seasons moved round she bare the strong Erinyes and the great Giants with gleaming armour, holding long spears in their hands and the Nymphs whom they call Meliae (8) all over the boundless earth. And so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden. First she drew near holy Cythera, and from there, afterwards, she came to sea-girt Cyprus, and came forth an awful and lovely goddess, and grass grew up about her beneath her shapely feet. Her gods and men call Aphrodite, and the foam-born goddess and rich-crowned Cytherea, because she grew amid the foam, and Cytherea because she reached Cythera, and Cyprogenes because she was born in billowy Cyprus, and Philommedes (9) because sprang from the members. And with her went Eros, and comely Desire followed her at her birth at the first and as she went into the assembly of the gods. This honour she has from the beginning, and this is the portion allotted to her amongst men and undying gods, — the whisperings of maidens and smiles and deceits with sweet delight and love and graciousness.[5]

From the seed of the of Chaos then, intermingled and spread about across the earth and sea and land, the other great first primordial creative principles of the first generation of gods, the second generation of deities comes forth as Cronos takes the reins of power from his father and bears children with Rhea, his sister.  But the graphic tale of deceit and disorder continues though, and with this next generation of gods we finally come to the great Zeus, the god of Thunder and Lightning who finally restores balance and order not only to the immortals but to the world of man as well.

As the tale is told Cronos knew he was to be overthrown by one of his seed and therefore after Rhea bore each child, Cronos swallowed them whole to ensure that his reign would last forever.  But Rhea outwitted her spouse and when Zeus was born she hid him from his father in a deep and secret cave, replacing him with a stone and outwitting him in order to fulfill the prophecy and no doubt so that her children could be reborn and live.  In a story that bears much resemblance to the pantheonic struggles so well documented in Egypt between Osiris and Set, who is overthrown by the progeny of Isis and Osiris, namely Horus), Hesiod tells us that Cronos is convinced by Gaia to overthrow his father Uranus and claim authority over the gods.  He did this successfully (in particularly gruesome fashion as it were) and then wedded his sister Rhea after which Rhea and Cronos in turn birthed Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus, finishing the major Olympiad as it were.  After a long struggle steeped in myth and graphic tales of mischief and brutality, Zeus ends up taking over Olympus and control over the Greek pantheon from Cronos.

(ll. 453-491) But Rhea was subject in love to Cronos and bare splendid children, Hestia (18), Demeter, and gold-shod Hera and strong Hades, pitiless in heart, who dwells under the earth, and the loud-crashing Earth-Shaker, and wise Zeus, father of gods and men, by whose thunder the wide earth is shaken. These great Cronos swallowed as each came forth from the womb to his mother’s knees with this intent, that no other of the proud sons of Heaven should hold the kingly office amongst the deathless gods. For he learned from Earth and starry Heaven that he was destined to be overcome by his own son, strong though he was, through the contriving of great Zeus (19). Therefore he kept no blind outlook, but watched and swallowed down his children: and unceasing grief seized Rhea. But when she was about to bear Zeus, the father of gods and men, then she besought her own dear parents, Earth and starry Heaven, to devise some plan with her that the birth of her dear child might be concealed, and that retribution might overtake great, crafty Cronos for his own father and also for the children whom he had swallowed down. And they readily heard and obeyed their dear daughter, and told her all that was destined to happen touching Cronos the king and his stout-hearted son. So they sent her to Lyetus, to the rich land of Crete, when she was ready to bear great Zeus, the youngest of her children. Him did vast Earth receive from Rhea in wide Crete to nourish and to bring up. Thither came Earth carrying him swiftly through the black night to Lyctus first, and took him in her arms and hid him in a remote cave beneath the secret places of the holy earth on thick-wooded Mount Aegeum; but to the mightily ruling son of Heaven, the earlier king of the gods, she gave a great stone wrapped in swaddling clothes. Then he took it in his hands and thrust it down into his belly: wretch! he knew not in his heart that in place of the stone his son was left behind, unconquered and untroubled, and that he was soon to overcome him by force and might and drive him from his honours, himself to reign over the deathless gods.[6]

Zeus then revives his brothers and sisters that his father has swallowed and takes over the rulership of heaven, defeating and killing his father like his father had done before him, and establishing balance and harmony in the heavens and on earth.

(ll. 492-506) After that, the strength and glorious limbs of the prince increased quickly, and as the years rolled on, great Cronos the wily was beguiled by the deep suggestions of Earth, and brought up again his offspring, vanquished by the arts and might of his own son, and he vomited up first the stone which he had swallowed last. And Zeus set it fast in the wide-pathed earth at goodly Pytho under the glens of Parnassus, to be a sign thenceforth and a marvel to mortal men (20). And he set free from their deadly bonds the brothers of his father, sons of Heaven whom his father in his foolishness had bound. And they remembered to be grateful to him for his kindness, and gave him thunder and the glowing thunderbolt and lightening: for before that, huge Earth had hidden these. In them he trusts and rules over mortals and immortals.[7]

 

This great mythical tale that Hesiod spins for us, from the direct inspiration of the Muses which are so closely associated not only with the lyric poetic tradition of of classical Greece but also the mystery cults of the Greeks as well, bears much resemblance to the mythical narratives to the East and West, each of which tell the tale of a first generations of gods or first principles that are born out of chaos, a watery abyss, from which emerge Heaven, Earth, Sea and Sky.  And then from this initial creation, the great Mother Earth (Gaia) produces the next generation of gods with the greatest of her siblings, Cronos, or Time (order, i.e. the Maat of the Egyptians), henceforth establishing order from the initial chaotic abyss.  And then the next generation of gods is brought forth and there is another (symbolic) overthrow of the reign of the gods and goddesses to a second generation, where Zeus, the god of thunder and lightning, takes the throne from his father after an epic battle between the older generation of gods (the Titans) and the new generation born of Earth.

Interestingly, the attributes of Thunder and Lightning which are so closely associated with the Greek god Zeus, the head of the Olympic pantheon as it were, are also closely associated with the Sumer-Babylonian god Marduk, who as we learn from the Sumer-Babylonian theogony of the Enuma Elis also comes to power via the overthrow of the second generation of gods ruled by Tiamut through another epic battle of the forces of good (represented by Marduk) and the forces of evil as represented by Tiamut.  Even more interesting perhaps are the parallels that can be drawn between Zeus and Marduk of the Greek and Sumer-Babylonian pantheons respectively to the role of Thunder and Lightning as a fundamental creative principle, a cornerstone of the cyclical process of universe creation as it were, in the mythos of the ancient Chinese as depicted in the notion of Zhen (Thunder) as one of the eight primary trigrams of both the Earlier and Later Heaven sequences of bagua from the Yijing.

 


[1] http://www.hellenicgods.org/orphiccosmogonyandtheogony

[2] The Theogony of Hesiod.  Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914.  From http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm

[3] http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm (ll. 116-138).

[4] Erebus , or Erebos, is translated into English roughly as “deep darkness, or shadow”.  Erebus is also referred to as a region of the Underworld where the dead had to pass immediately after dying, and is sometimes used interchangeably with Tartarus.

[5] The Theogony of Hesiod.  Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914.  Book II verses 167-206.  From http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm

[6] The Theogony of Hesiod.  Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914.  From http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm

[7] The Theogony of Hesiod.  Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914.  From http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm

 

 

 

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

As Easy as One, Two, Three

Numbers are an interesting thing really
One could, elementarily (both figuratively and definitively)
Break down the Western and Eastern ways of thinking
Into as easy as 1, 2, 3 – A, B, C

Pythagoras starts with the Monad,
From which the great dichotomy arises
These are the great forces of Yin (female, receptive)
And Yang (male, creative) of the East
The worlds of Heaven and Earth
The Darkness and the Light

But it is just as telling as to what is missing
As what is part of these ancient systems
No Monad exists in the East
From which the two archetypical forces emerge
While our Western tradition (Judeo-Christian)
Speaks of a great and benign spirit
That breathes life onto and throughout
The watery abyss (Apsu of the Egyptians)

This Monad became our God
And closed the universal boundaries with it
From One to Two
And to Two a third Force was added
To give us the Holy Trinity
The Greek Logos
Universal Mind – Nous
An underlying world order
The Maat of the Egyptians
Plato’s Good

And then this Three transforms to the base
Of the Perfect of all geometric forms
The equilateral triangle
The three become Four
And the structure of the Tetractys (the Decad) is complete
Earth, Air, Water, Fire
The elements that make up creation
Draw the final boundaries of the universe
All embedded and interwoven
Into the grandest of all gifts of the human mind
Geometry

But While Yin and Yang have their counterparts in the West
What developed there was a very different thing really
Not a cosmological creation story that bound the universe
With a beginning, middle and end
That needed a Creation Story, a Messiah and a Line of Prophets
That chain the word of God along the generations of men
Until one day a final judgment comes
And the end of the world as we know it is before us
And our Creator Judges us each and every one

What developed in the East
Was a manual, a guidebook on how to live
A manual that reflected the universal world order
That the worlds of Heaven, Earth and Men were intimately connected
And that one must search for balance and harmony
Between and among these seemingly disparate worlds
This is the what we call in the West the I Ching
Or also named The Classic of Changes (Yi Jing)

This is how the trigrams were originally conceived
As broken (Yin) and solid (Yang) lines
Denoting various combinations
Binomial combinations in base 2 and 3
Of yin and yang lines
That have motion and have being
And have status and material existence
But in a fleeting sort of ethereal way
For everything is always changing (Yi)
In this Eastern view of the world
The only thing that can be said to truly exist in fact
In this system of thought that reaches far back into antiquity
Is Change (Yi) itself and a Way (Dao or Tao) to follow it or traverse it

So in the Eastern Cosmological system
If we can even call it that
After Darkness and Light are created
Yin and Yang come together
To form the four basic elemental states of being
Greater Yin, Lesser Yin, Lesser Yang, Greater Yang

This is how it is handed down to us
According to the Ten Wings
That Confucian epilogue to the Zhouyi (I Ching/Yi Jing)
Which were attempts by later scholars
To make sense of the esoteric and ancient symbolism
That came forth from the River Lu (Lo Shu)
On the back of a great tortoise
And walked out of the Yellow River (He Tu)
Carved in Jade on the back of a great horse

And from these four states
The eight trigrams come forth (Bagua)
As each of the four elemental states
Is connected with a third line
That is either broken (Yin) or solid (Yang)
To form a band of eight symbols
Three lines each – the trigram

Which when all connected and drawn out
With their dark and light, yin and yang, broken and solid lines design
Into a wheel, a circle
That has no beginning and has no end
But has various formulations
Like the Earlier Heaven sequence of Fu Xi
Or the Later Heaven sequence of King Wen

But in the East there is no Monad
There is simply the interplay of these two opposing forces
Constantly searching and striving for balance
And the Two are not acted on by a third force
There is no Logos or Nous that brings order to the world
Simply the greater combinations of Yin and Yang
Which serve to add flavor and color
To the play of the basic forces of dark and light
Creative ad Receptive
Expansive and Retractive
Inbreathing and Outbreathing of Brahman
The Vedic sages (Rishis) would call it

In the Yi Jing it is said that
Two to the power of One
Transforms into Two to the power of Two (Four)
Greater and Lesser Yin – Greater and Lesser Yang

And then these Four (again Two to the Power of Two)
Becomes the Bagua (literally ‘eight symbols’)
Two to the Third or Two Cubed
Which forms the holistic cosmological world order
Hence rests all of Chinese philosophy
Who mind you adopted Buddhism and called it Zen

But the Daoist lives on
In Medicinal circles mostly now
For the Zhouyi (I Ching) is not consulted
As it once was
But it is left as an artifact of days gone by
When witchcraft was practiced
And astrologers were thought
To have great powers of sight

And with Two to the Power of Three
One is given Eight – the Bagua
Laid out in various circular arrangements
That describe the workings of the universe
The creative, destructive and structure of balance and imbalance
The passage of the seasons throughout the year
The context of the family and social unit
Which is meant to guide our every day life
And human society at large

All within the context of the three-pronged belief
That the worlds of Heaven, Earth, and Man
Are intrinsically, deeply, spiritually and physically connected
In ways beyond comprehension
Of the small human mind
But yet could be mapped out and understood
In a very basic and elemental way
Based upon solid and dashed lines
Working their energies against and with each other
Which inspired Leibniz
Some two thousand years later
To come up with a binary system of 1s and 0s
That now forms the basis of all automated processing
Of every machine created by man
That now touches every corner of the globe
And every human being

So what we have from the East then
Is the Fu Xi (Earlier Heaven)
And King Wen (Later Heaven) circular sequences
Of the grand Bagua
The forces of Heaven, Lake, Fire and Thunder
Acting and Balancing the forces
Wind (Wood), Water, Mountain and Earth

Laid out in a whirlish dervish sort of fashion
Which yielded the great Yin/Yang symbol we know so well today
The Symbol of Daoism (Taoism) and Yin/Yang Philosophy
Black and White molded together
In a grand and endless circle
Each with a sprinkle of the other that sits within its center
That looks like one white and one black fish
Each with an eye of the color of its sibling
Swimming around endlessly in a small fish bowl
Within which the universe is encapsulated and fulfilled
All at once and at the same time

The Chinese way then
Starts and ends with the idea of Change
As the ceaseless and only thing that can be said to truly exist
In various forms and states, indicated by trigrams and then hexagrams
States leading to states and balance leading to disharmony
And then back to balance and harmony again
In this constant struggle and exchange
Between opposing and complementary forces
The Creative and Receptive,
Dark and Light
Forces which rest within and without and everything in between

Its Eastern immanence
Versus Western transcendence
And it starts with those very basic numbers
One, Two, Three
And how they are combined
And constitute the manifested universe as we perceive it
As it truly can be said to exist
And the A, B, Cs behind it
That explain the world order

For both the Eastern and Western ancient mystics
Saw and Believed
That it was through the the most beautiful construct
Conceivable by the human mind
Numbers and Geometry
And their successive progression and combination
Into more and more beautiful symmetry
And more and more complex combinations
To which the natural universe
Has a deep mystical esoteric connection
That is only barely fathomable
By the mind of man

Or so they thought
And so it was written
And here we are

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

Chinese Monotheism: Worship of Heaven (Shangdi)

Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism (Daoism), all rich and prolific theo-philosophical traditions of the East which thrived in ancient times and still flourish today, were and are much more accepting of the worship of many different deities or aspects of the divine, or in some cases – Taoism and Buddhism for example – lack the divine anthropomorphic principle to be worshipped at all.  They all however do not outlaw idolatry explicitly as a tenet of faith however, and do not establish the worship of one and only one God as a fundamental tenet of their faith, a marked distinction from the religious developments that took place in the West.

So although religions of the East represent significant world factions in modern times, over 1 billion followers at least, these belief systems cannot be considered monotheistic in the sense that they do not profess and dictate the worship of a single, exclusive deity at the expense of the worship of all other deities and manifestations of the divine.  And perhaps not unrelated, the religions of the East have not been the source of great strife or persecution in the last few thousand years since their inception.  Having said that however, there are some monotheistic threads present in the Eastern religious traditions, in albeit not as hard or stubborn a form as their Western counterparts, again based on our working definition of monotheism being the explicit and law based worship of a single deity to the exclusion of all other deities and idols.

One of the unique attributes of the Chinese philosophical tradition is its lack of focus on what we would call in the West “theological” concerns, i.e. issues related to how the universe was created (cosmology) and what divine forces if any preside over it.  While even in the theo-philosophical systems of Plato and Aristotle we find a rejection of mythology and the realm of the gods as simply matters of faith or speculation, Aristotle’s prime mover and Plato’s demiurge, still plays a fundamental metaphysical role in each of their respective philosophical systems, even if they are not front and center so to speak.  In the Chinese tradition however, while we see an implicit theological stance per se in the role of Heaven, we do not see it dealt with specifically or directly in the works of the philosophers themselves, outside of an occasional appeal to the divine as a benchmark of world and natural order.  In other words, the existence of Heaven is not denied per se but it takes on the form of a more “naturalist” view as the philosophical systems mature in the classical period.

But implicit in all the classical philosophical works from Chinese antiquity is a cosmological belief in the tri-partite universal order based upon the realm of Heaven (Tian天), the realm of Earth (Di地), and the realm of Man.  It could be said that the whole of Chinese philosophy is meant to, and produced for, the establishment of harmony between these three interconnected yet distinct aspects of reality.

From the I Ching (Yijing), the Book of Changes, one of if not the cornerstone Chinese philosophical text from antiquity, the core of which was written and used as a divination text in the 2nd millennium BCE at the latest, is primarily interpreted (cosmologically speaking), as a means to balance and harmonize these worlds given a specific situation or circumstance in fact – at least how the work was interpreted by the classical Chinese philosophical tradition in the Ten Wings, the commentary that is tied to the work.

From the Great Commentary, one of the Ten Wings, we find the work described as:

As a document, the Yijing is vast and far-ranging, and has everything complete

within it. It contains the way of the heavens, the way of human beings, and the

way of the earth.[1]

The Yijing is seen as a work whose scope is the entire universal world order, a world order that is bound by the world of Heaven, the way of Man, and the way of Earth.

1 – The Book of Changes contains the measure of heaven and earth; therefore it enables us to comprehend the tao of heaven and earth and its order.

2 – Looking upward, we contemplate with its help the signs in the heavens; looking down, we examine the lines of the earth. Thus we come to know the circumstances of the dark and the light.  Going back to the beginnings of things and pursuing them to the end, we come to know the lessons of birth and of death.  The union seed and power produces all things; the escape of the soul brings about change.  Through this we come to know the conditions of outgoing and returning spirits.

3 – Since in this way man comes to resemble heaven and earth, he is not in conflict with them. His wisdom embraces all things, and his tao brings order into the whole world; therefore he does not err.  He is active everywhere but does not let himself be carried away.  He rejoices in heaven and has knowledge of fate, therefore he is care free.  He is content with his circumstances and genuine in his kindness, therefore he can practice love.

4 – In it are included the forms and scope of everything in the heavens and on earth, so that nothing escapes it. In it all things everywhere are completed, so that none is missing.  Therefore by means of it we can penetrate the tao of day and night, and so understand it.  Therefore the spirit is bound to no one place, not the Book of Changes to any one form.[2]

While these excerpts no doubt represent later interpretations of the significance of the text, at least later than when the text was initially drafted and used which goes at least as far back as the Zhou Dynasty (early first millennium BCE) and probably much earlier, we see implicit here the fundamental belief in the cosmological world order being the tripartite world order of Heaven, Earth and Man, the understanding of which – via the Yijing – yields greater tranquility and social harmony in this world, in any one individual life.

So this worldview of the tripartite order of Heaven, Earth and Man which is meant to operate in harmony and balance that the sages, shamans really from early Chinese pre-history, attempted to align in the individual and social fabric via the use of divination texts like the I Ching (called the Zhou Yi in the Zhou Dynasty prior to the addition of the Ten Wings) clearly is reflective of a much older theological belief system that was no doubt tied to elaborate rituals and sacrifice and involved the belief in Heaven, what was Shangdi in those times, as a god that needed to be appeased and who was responsible for Truth and Justice at some level in the world of Man.  This Shangdi from pre-historic and Bronze Age China evolves into the Heaven (Tian) that we know from the classical philosophical works of the late Zhou, Qin and Han dynasty periods that make up what we know as Chinese Philosophy.  What we see clearly here in early Chinese history, no different than the other traditions in antiquity throughout the world, is that philosophy and theology in antiquity are closely linked, one born from the other really, and ancient China is no different in this regard.

The etymology of the character for Tian – 天 – which can be traced of its roots through Seal Script, Bronze inscriptions and even back to Oracle bone script in the early second millennium BCE reveals this theo-philosophical history of the Heaven, and Shangdi.  The character is representative of the character of a man, the similarity to a stick figure of the symbol is clear.[3]  So while the anthropomorphic qualities of Tian are smoothed over as it were by the time of the classical era (Confucius et al), we can see the direct reference of the idea, the concept, of an all pervading anthropomorphic deity, i.e. Shangdi, at least as far back as the Shang dynasty (2nd millennium BCE) but in all likelihood much earlier than this.

What we know about the Shang Dynasty period in China’s history comes from various archeological sites in Northeastern China as well as historical texts written in the classical period (5th through 2nd centuries BCE) that speak to the traditions in deep Chinese pre-history as well as the lineage of rulers and kingdoms, all the way back to the pseudo-mythical legendary times of Fu Xi and the Yellow Emperor.  These texts are primarily the Bamboo Annals, Classic of History (aka Book of Documents or Shujing) and Records of the Grand Historian.

From these sources we know that the Shang dynasty succeeded the legendary Xia (or Yin) dynasty which was established by Yu the Great, the tamer of the Great Flood.  They were based primarily in the North Eastern part of China, by the Yangtze and Yellow river, but their influence spread much further throughout what we today know as China.  The people lived in complex societies, large towns and created complex irrigation systems.  They domesticated animals and had mastered the art of Bronze craftsmanship hence the term Bronze Age used to describe this time in China’s history.  They also mastered the art of jade carvings and we know that jade was an important luxury and jewelry item of the upper and middle classes.

They had a highly developed lunar calendar system (the word for Moon and Month were the same for example) that was used by the ruler and his subjects to determine when to plant crops, when to harvest, etc.  We also see the first evidence of writing in this era of China’s history, first on tortoise and ox bones, and then later on Bronze inscriptions – hence the term Oracle Bone and Bronze scripts that are used to describe early forms of Chinese writing.  While it is believed that inscriptions were also made on bamboo or silk strips, consistent with later time periods in Chinese antiquity, we do not have any evidence of such given that these types of artifacts degrade quite considerably over time.  It is clear that the forms of writing we see on the bones and bronze is fairly mature however, and it can be safely assumed that writing developed in China at least in the third millennium BCE if not earlier, putting Chinese writing systems in line with the cuneiform of the Sumer-Babylonian and Akkadian peoples and the hieroglyphs of the Egyptians to the West in fact.

From the archeological, written and inscription evidence we see a people described as having a complex hierarchical social structure on top of which sat the Emperor who was looked upon as having the so-called “mandate of Heaven” to rule and govern over the people.  These people not only had complex burial structures with vast and expensive artifacts left with the deceased, but also consulted the “spirits”, or ancestors, on various important topics or before making important political or social decisions, speaking to the divine reverence which the ancient Chinese had for their either direct, or ancient ancestors.  This is typically referred to as “ancestor worship” in the literature on Chinese history and this tradition was kept alive in some form or another certainly through the Han Dynasty period (206 BCE to 220 CE) period and is prominently reflected in the philosophy of Confucius.  Within this culture of worship of ancestors, we also see strong evidence for the worship of the great god of the sky, Shangdi, a tradition which was to later transform into, or morph into, the notion of Heaven in the Zhou dynasty and persisted throughout much of China’s history[4].

We see ample evidence in the archeological and written record of the worship of the great sky god (Shangdi), the ancient Bronze Age god of the sky of the Shang peoples, harkening back no doubt to China’s pantheistic roots.  The Book of Documents (Shujing) also references sacrifices and rituals to Shangdi going back to pseudo-historical Emperor Shun from the latter part of the third millennium BCE or so (23rd century BCE).

The two Chinese characters from which the word for “Shangdi” is derived are “上”, meaning “high” “highest” “first” or “primordial”, combined with “帝, which is typically translated as “emperor” and is the same character used in the name of “Huangdi”, the great Yellow Emperor of deep Chinese antiquity which is the same title sometimes used for the Emperor of China himself.  From earliest times, and consistent throughout Chinese history in fact, we can see the close link to the Emperor and the one supreme deity Shangdi, marking as in most ancient civilizations the notion of divine authority with rule of the people.

In the time of the Zhou dynasty at the turn of the first millennium BCE, we see a transition and semantic equivalence that is established between Shangdi and Tian (Heaven), which is also the word for “sky”.  Tian is of course one of the three pillars of the world order in classical Chinese philosophy – Heaven, Earth and Man.  We see this transition take place, along with the evolution of Classical Chinese as a writing system, first in the Zhou dynasty period and then maturing in the latter half of the first millennium BCE in the Warring States period, being firmly established in Chinese philosophical nomenclature by the beginning of the Han Dynasty in 202 BCE (Former or Earlier Han) when most if not all of classical Chinese philosophical works were commented on and “canonized” so to speak.

Rulers of the Chinese empire throughout its written history were looked upon as “Tianzi”, or sons of Heaven, which is the abstract concept who the deity came to represent over the centuries.  In the archeological and written record Shangdi is presented as the ruler of Heaven who presides over order and justice in the world of human affairs.  The notion that a supreme deity of the heavens establishes order and justice is a common theme throughout the ancient world in fact and parallels here can be drawn to the ma’at (Maat) of the Egyptians or the rta of the Indo-Aryans as well as of course the aforementioned association of divine legitimacy to the rulers themselves.  In this sense Shangdi can be looked at as analogous to Marduk of the Babylonians who rose to prominence as the head of the Babylonian pantheon as Babylon rose to power around the same timeframe much further to the West, or even Zeus/Jupiter in the Greco-Roman tradition a millennia or so later although the link to authority and power is not present.

We see the role of heaven played out in the socio-political sphere as well beginning with the Zhou dynasty specifically which Confucius looked upon as a bygone age of justice and virtue.  It’s in the transitional period between the Shang and Zhou dynasty that we find the first reference to the notion of the “Will of Heaven” which was used by the first dynastic rulers of the Zhou as justification for the overthrow the Shang dynastic rulers.  This idea that rulership is not necessarily by birth but by a so-called “Mandate of Heaven” (again Tian) which bestows a right to rule on a just ruler or Son of Heaven (Tianzi) is unique to the Chinese and has been used throughout its history to justify an overthrow of rule or governanceNatural disasters, unrest or famine were for example generally considered to be signs that the rulers had lost the Mandate of Heaven and so the well being of the ruled and the authority of the ruler were seen as tightly interconnected and interdependent upon each other.

Worship of Heaven (Shangdi  and later Tian) throughout China’s long history included the erection of shrines and the offering of prayers, and in the Shang dynasty and earlier, the use of sacrifices as a form of worship.  The last and greatest of these houses of worship was erected as recently as the 14th century CE, the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.  The connection of Shangdi to imperial rule and the seat of power, akin to the Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs in some respects, was prevalent even after Confucianism, Taoism, and then much later Buddhism took root with the Chinese people in the latter part of the first millennium BCE, as evidenced by the rulers of China continuing to perform the annual bull sacrifice, a beast with very ancient roots in mythology, in honor of Shangdi even in modern times.


[1] Great Commentary B8.  Quotation from The Great Commentary (Dazhuan 大傳) and Chinese natural cosmology by Roger T. Ames.  Translation by Ames.  Published March 2015 in the International Communication of Chinese Culture.

[2] From The I Ching or the Book of Changes by by Wilhelm/Baynes. Princeton University Press 1977.  “Ta Chuan” / “The Great Treatise” chapter IV pgs. 293-296.

[3] See https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E5%A4%A9

[4] The rituals surrounding the worship of ancestors and Shangdi in the Shang dynasty period was associated with animal, and in some cases, human sacrifice, a practice that was later abandoned but nonetheless did exist in some form or another in this time period of China’s history.

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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