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 Great Cave of the Mind

So many teachings
So many schools
So many methods
So many philosophies
So many religions and creeds
There is no end really

As there exist different societies and nations
All throughout the world
There will always be different methods
Which have been developed over the ages
To commune with the divine
To that which is unspeakable and beyond words
Unbelievable and unknowable
And the existence behind non-existence

But they all stem no doubt
From the first man who thought he saw god
The burning bush
The ten commandments
The calling of Moses to the mountain top

To great prophet Muhammad
The seal of the long line of prophets
Descendant from Abraham
Who would hide in recluse
In the darkest of caves in the mountains
Somewhere in the dirt wasteland
Of the Saudi Arabian peninsula no doubt
To commune with the client teacher
The ever present and subtlest of guides

And Gabriel was his teacher
Whose he saw in his visions
Like the great prophets of old
Who spoke to him in Arabic verses
To inspire him to guide and lead his people
And bring back the truth of the unity of the divine
And the importance of living together
In a civilized and compassionate world

Christ too no doubt
Had his moments of communion
Where God the Father revealed himself to him
In all his glory
And promised him a seat at his right hand
And showed the terror of crucifixion that was to befall him
If he chose the wayward path
The path of righteousness and loyalty

Christ was given the choice
And he chose Truth over falsehood
Professed the power of the divine
And its living presence within all of us
In the multitudes of the poor and the starving
As well as the aristocrats and rabbis
Who ultimately sent him to his death

And for this choice,
His stubborn unwillingness to deny
That he and the Father were One
He was punished and tortured
And Christianity born from his ashes
2000 years and billions of faithful
born from the deeds of one courageous man
And man he was
Child of God or not
He was of human flesh and blood
Just like each and every last one of us

We saw this journey of his
His stubbornness and willingness to die for principle and Truth
As his gift to us
Although it cannot ever be understood
Whether his message was Truth was to be followed at all costs
And that God is the blessed gift of us all
Or that, as the later Christian Fathers teach us
That he died for our sins for our salvation

Buddha too
Having grown up studying the Vedas with the Brahmin priests
Practicing asceticism after he renounced the kingdom to which he was heir
Denying the physical form of his body
Until he lay almost dead and utterly lifeless
And then he sat, just sat, under the bodhi tree
And again with the stubbornness of a child
Refused to move until the Truth was revealed to him

And the earth shook, and the beasts roared
And after he played the demons and desires
That plague the mind of us all
He saw it as clear as day
The Middle Way
The path to enlightenment
The birthright of us all
To which he devoted his life to teaching
To all those who would listen
And which teaching has survived all this time
2500 years in the making
And going stronger than ever
As its roots in Asia have migrated to the West
So far from the lands it originated from
So many ages past from which the teachings themselves were born

But one has to ask
Was this Truth revealed to these great men
And women too to be fair who we have failed to mention
Mother Theresa perhaps being the best and most recent
Woman of such divine spirit
That each and every one she came into contact with
Was her very own
Was the child of Mother Earth
Just as Sarada Devi
The great consort of Sri Paramhamsa Ramakrishna
Who treated each and every one of Ramakrishna devotees
That flocked to her after his death
As one of her own as well

‘More work is to be done for you my child’
Ramakrishna said to her in his astral form after his passing
And ‘Truth and the Essence of Being I shall hold back from you my child
Until your work is done here
After which you shall see the vision of the Ultimate Reality again
And be merged into it as your heart so desires’
As Ramakrishna said to Vivekananda
After revealing to him the secret of secrets
The wisdom of the ages
The essential and all pervading consciousness of the universe

And Vivekananda after years of wandering throughout India
Begging for his food and alms
Came crashing upon the West
With his message of Vedanta
That he had gleaned from the teachings of his Master
Through his boundless love and compassion
And wonderful visions of mystical and spiritual truths
Embodying the Truth of the Vedas
Fulfilling the modern ages’s need to have these eternal truths
Refreshed and reborn once again
In this modern age of greed and lust
Where every want is but a click or a call away

So he combined these ancient spiritual teachings
With his Western education
And genius photogenic brilliant mind
A renewed birth of Vedic wisdom
Was unleashed on the world
Where Karma, Bhakti, Raja and Jnana yoga
Are woven together in the greatest fabric
To shield the spiritual seeker
From the veil of Maya
Which has us all in her playful grasp

But digress we have
Because the point we make here
Is that in all these illustrious lives
Communion with the divine was understood
As a basic assumption of all faiths
In all the Great Books
But Jesus and Buddha especially
And of course Ramakrishna and his 12 disciples
The great prophets of our age
Taught that God is our very own

Which begs the very interesting question
Well then where can He (She) be found?
Where can he (she) be seen?
Some say in Nature
Some say in Churches
Some see him in books
Or visions and dreams (Jung)

But if we take this leap of faith
And we trust in these crazy souls
And their message of the existence of a world
Greater and stronger and more lasting than this one
To which this one in turn seems just like a passing dream
To what means must we employ then?
In order to see this Truth for ourselves
That is said to be our very birthright

And here is where religion comes into play
And the mastery of the mind becomes the game
And the practices laid out by so many masters over the millennia
By so many priests and sages
With their myriad of of rituals and spiritual practices
Sadhana the Hindus call it
Penance of the Christians
In different tongues with different instruments
In different nations and faiths throughout the world
Since time immemorial
In all religious sects
In all esoteric and mystical creeds

We confront the power of the mind
And the energy that courses through and gives life to the embody
Which connects us with
The embodied soul and energy of the Cosmic Mind
The great giver of life to all created beings
And the Universe itself

The mind itself though, perhaps our greatest tool
Its almost overwhelming potency
Of drawing not just correlations and connections
But seeing differences and distinctions as well
As categories and systems of thought
Spread throughout the linguistic tree
That has been embedded in each and every one of us
Since even before we could walk

And these symbols, these ideas
To Plato at least were primary
Subsidiary was the world around us
Physical reality
The Allegory of the Cave from The Republic
Shows us this great idea
Forms and Ideas
Lead us to the ultimate reality of the Sun

But Plato used dialogue and dialectic
So no one really truly knows
What he taught in his Academy
What his beliefs truly were
His dialogues were read aloud no doubt
And debates arose about ethics and morality
And the structure of the perfect society
Of the role of Myth and Truth
And how his great master Socrates
Died the death of all deaths
Taking the hemlock
Rather than denouncing the only thing he knew
Beyond any doubt whatsoever
Was that he knew nothing
And by knowing nothing
He was the wisest man in all of Athens
As proclaimed by the Oracle at Delphi

But Plato’s Forms, Aristotle’s Categories
These divisions and classifications
And associations which can be drawn
Inherent, contingent, associative, primary etc
It doesn’t matter which system of thought
One believes or trusts or puts the most credence into

The path, the way
Laid out and kept alive in the East
All these millennia
Captured away in ancient schools of learning
And old dusty books and manuscripts
Copied by hand through the ages
Translated into so many different tongues
Interpreted and commented on by so many renowned and brilliant scholars

Where the passage of knowledge
From teacher to student
Lasted centuries and centuries
And lineages could be quoted
Back thousands of years
As a waiter or waitress would read a custom menu
At a fancy Italian restaurant in NYC

So we have the books and these religious systems
That the prophets left us with
And we have these mystical traditions
Which survive in various forms in the East
That are now being introduced back into the West
And religions are being rejected
With their hypocrisy and rigid dogma
And political contamination

And people flock more toward
Individual practices which promote peace and harmony
And have a practical and positive impact
On their lives and the lives of those around them
So that their lives can be more fulfilling
So that virtue can be understood
And practiced and integrated into daily life
In an integrated and powerful way

And the sins of nations
Can perhaps be healed
Without the need for violent revolution
Which has been the way of the past
The heritage of the human race

And in each of these systems
That have now been introduced to the West
Be they Buddhist, Taoist, TM (Transcendental Meditation)
Zen Buddhism or Christian Prayer,
Muslim submission to the will of the one true god Allah
Or the chanting of the names of the different manifestations
Of the supreme power of Brahman
Which has been kept alive in so many different forms and rituals
In the great land of India
The system of Yoga
Their great gift to the world

It is the power of symbol,
The power of thought,
The power of sound
The power of grace
The power of Faith
That each has in common

And with this basic start
And an explanation of these various symbols and words and chants and hymns
In each of the respective theo-philosophical systems
Either godless (Buddhist or Taoist for example)
Or monotheistic like the Judeo-Christian-Muslim faiths
Relate back to the one true Creator of all that has been created

The first cause as Aristotle would call him
The Good of Plato from which all Forms and Ideas come forth
Which are naturally ordered in the most elegant way possible
‘All who do not know geometry may not enter here’
The words inscribed outside his illustrious Academy
The first Academic institution in the history of mankind

And yet these symbols
Which must be categorized and organized in our mind
That play out as the string of words and thoughts
That ring in our heads when we sit in meditation practice
No matter what school we have been taught from
Or what tradition – theological, philosophical or religious – we come from and adhere to

All lead to the same source
EVERY LAST ONE OF THEM
These thoughts and symbols
If we follow their course
Emerging from the Universal Mind
And then germinating and manifesting
In the small mind that is tied to this physical form
Which we borrow for such a short time

COMES FROM AND ENDS UP IN
THE VERY SAME ESSENTIAL BEING
WHICH IS WHAT ALL THE GREAT PROPHETS
TAUGHT TO ALL OF THEIR FOLLOWERS

This is the great Mind the Buddhist tradition speaks of
When these thoughts calm down and serenity can be found
Even for a moment
It is then that God’s grace can be found
Not as a gift from someone other than ourselves
But as a self-evident and essential feature
Of not only the natural world with which we live and breathe
But also of the spirit that animates us
And which connects us to every living thing
That we share this world, and the next, with
And that exists in each and every moment
For every being that inhabits this world

Follow the thoughts and symbols
But latch onto a system of symbols you are attracted to
That you have faith and devotion in
For these are fundamental requirements
For any successful endeavor
Which will get you to practice and learn
Even when it is the last thing in the world you’d like to do
While buried in this world madness
Of capitalism and greed

And don’t reject your thoughts as they come
Don’t try to quiet them
Don’t try to do anything with them
The Zen Masters say just let them arise and fall
Like passing waves in an ocean
But this is misleading for those of us that struggle
And where suffering and pain is real
And heartbreak and disappointment rests around every corner

So our thoughts will yield emotions
Yes they will
Some painful and hard to stomach
Some joyous and uplifting
But we must let them all go
And know them for what they truly are
Manifestations of the Great Mind
In our small mind that have manifested
In our seemingly insignificant life

And these these waves lead to further thoughts
Which emerge from the very same source
All leading onward and onward in a seemingly endless flow
Of a mind that will never settle
The caged monkeys Paramhamsa Ramakrishna used to call them

But do not fight them
Play with them, accept them
As manifestations of the great Mind
The Great Cosmic Spirit
In our own lives and in our own being

Let the thoughts and their associated emotions come and go
But have faith in whatever system of belief that drives you
That we are all not lost
And that that which has created the universe itself
Rests within our breast
Just as it rests in the spirit of every living creature
That crawls and walks and runs on this great Earth
And perhaps on other Earths like ours that we knoweth not

And what you just might find
As this madness and frustration
Of the attempt to control that which is uncontrollable
Is that as the thoughts arise,
They can be transformed
To the symbols of the tradition which you have chosen
And you can bring the mind back
To focus on the highest of the high
The greatest good
Satchitananda itself
In whatever form suits the individual soul
And our lives which are filled with all these thoughts and emotions
Can be accepted for what they are
Expressions of the great Mind and Spirit
Which is the source of all
Every last one of us

This is what has been taught
By all the great Masters that have found the way
And passed it down to us
This is the importance of following a teaching
That you have a path, and a set of symbols
Through which the truth can be revealed
Be you have a teacher or not
For we are all our own teachers
And there is no greater teacher
Than our own inner voice
Although help is always welcomed of course

But a path must be chosen
And these symbols
And thoughts and sounds
Interesting enough you will find
Will begin to get more and more abstract
Higher Ideals will be presented
Built upon the acceptance of the lower thoughts and deeds
Which plague our Soul
And the belief and faith that just maybe
We are not lost in a sea of greed and selfishness
And that a shepherd is among us
Who will not abandon any of its flock

And with this belief, this Faith
We can find our thoughts and ideas becoming crystallized
Just as Plato described them
In his Allegory of the Cave
And as the thoughts dim down
And the Forms and Ideas move higher and higher
And more virtuous and more Good

We will break our chains
See the visions of shadows on the wall
That we thought were real all this time
And we will pass beyond the entrance
Of that great deep cavern that we had spent our whole lives in
Believing it was real

And our guide will show us
Our anima or animus as Jung would call him
They will show us the way out
And they will point into the sky
While our eyes adjust from the great darkness
That covered our whole being for our whole lives
And say, ‘See look. It is the Sun that shines true light’
‘And those shadows should be abandoned for what is true and real’

So do not fight the thoughts or the emotions
Embrace them as difficult as they may be
Forgive, let go of anger and hate
And open your heart to allow for Plato’s Good
The Sun of his universe
To shine in your heart and mind

And maybe if we are lucky
And our practice is sound
And our heart is true
And a genuine effort for balance and harmony
And understanding and empathy
For those with whom we must live and work
Some peace can be found
In the madness of our times
Where the writing of mystical poetry
And the belief and faith in the reality of the world of the spirit
Is considered madness and ethereal
With no practical value
By most if not all

Regardless, all the practices are the same
The symbols and methods are slightly different
But to open up the clarity and purity of mind
One must start with faith in something
Submission to something larger and greater than us as individuals

And then let the thoughts flow
And let the waves subside
And let the new waves form at the same time
New and powerful waves
Of Goodness and Righteousness
And Virtue and Love
Inspired by whatever teaching or whatever Master
That has touched you in some way

And then and only then
Will the true transformation take place
And you will find after all that
Ironically enough
That the reality we must live and work in
To survive and thrive
And feed our endless desires
For wealth and power
And Lust and Greed
And the world of the spirit
Which we place our faith in
And if we are lucky see glimpses of
From time to time
Could not be further apart

And then the problem presents itself
Perhaps the greatest challenge of all
That which marks the true masters
Is the problem of the integration of the two worlds
Where the inside and the outside are in balance
And the world of the spirit and the world of ‘reality’
The materials world and the world of the Soul
Can coexist and perhaps thrive together
In harmony and balance

A man can dream
That is what poets do
Namaste

What is Vedanta?

Introduction

The ancient Indo-Aryan civilization sprung forth in the Indus valley region in modern day India and Pakistan (to the ancients Eastern Persia), and was the source of the “Vedas”, some of the oldest extant literature of mankind. This ancient Indus Valley civilization, from which one of the great world renowned religions called Hinduism was birthed, spread and flourished in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent from circa 3300 to 1300 BCE, roughly aligning with the peak of ancient Egyptian civilization although contact between the two civilizations was limited if not absent entirely based upon the archeological record. The civilization from which Hinduism emerged is traditionally associated with the Indus valley, a river system from which an ancient culture could grow crops and thrive, a similar relationship to the Sumerians and their Tigris/Euphrates and the Egyptians and their Nile. This relationship with water and its fundamental existence and prerequisite feature for the source of life, clearly left its mark on the Cosmology and creation mythology of all of these ancient cultures. The Hindus believed in the Cosmic Waters (apas in Sanskrit) as the source of the known universe, just as the Egyptians had their concept of Nu and the Ancient Sumerians had their Apsu.[2]

Their theological doctrines and philosophy, as reflected in the Vedas, was a core part of their society and from a very early stage and the social structure even was architected to reflect this, namely that the sacred teachings of the Vedas were to be protected by a specific class of society, the Brahmins. In some respects the establishment of a priestly, learned class that was kept separate from the rest of the society (the Kshatriya or ruling/warrior class, the Vaishyas or the merchant class and the Shudras or laborers being the other classes of society in classic Hindu culture) reflected developments to the West where first the priests, then the philosophers and then finally the Church itself (the Imam in the Muslim community) became the established authority on matters dealing with intellectual development, education, or course religious matters and ultimately eternal freedom.

Although in antiquity Vedānta referred more specifically to the philosophic portion of the Vedas (Vedanta literally means “end of the Vedas”), the bulk of the content coming from the Upanishads, over time Vedanta took on a broader meaning to represent the body of work and knowledge that interpreted the meaning of the Upanishads, which in turn incorporated the Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras more directly into the philosophic tradition.

The primary sources for what is considered modern day Vedanta are three main collections of verses or texts are the Upanishads[3], representing the end of the Vedas or the philosophical and mystical portions of the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita or “Song of the Lord” from the epic poem the Mahabharata, and the Brahma Sutras which was an attempt at consolidating and synthesizing Vedantic philosophy from the 2nd or third century CE. Vyasa is the supposed author attributed to the works of the Mahabharata and the Brahma Sutras, while the Upanishads are considered to be the divine inspiration of the rishis, or seers, who fully realized and codified the knowledge of Brahman as put forth in the Upanishads. The three works together are also referred to as the Prasthanas, or canonical books, that form the foundation of the philosophy of Vedanta and form the foundation of Hindu religion even to this day.

The Vedas are the oldest Indo-Aryan Sanskrit[4] texts and are the oldest extant Hindu scripture. The Sanskrit word véda means “knowledge” or “wisdom” and is derived from the root vid, “to know”. Like many other religious traditions, the Vedas are said not to have been recorded and authored per se, but were revealed to these ancient rishis, passed down from generation o generation from teacher to student in a long standing oral tradition, and then documented and transcribed by scholars and sages somewhere between the second and first millennium BCE. Vedanta, somewhat literally translated as “the end”, or “goal”, of the Vedas, represents the philosophical or metaphysical tradition of the Hindus and represents the philosophical portions of the Vedas, i.e. the portions of the Vedas that do not deal with sacrifice, ritual or dharma (righteous action).

Vedānta is also sometimes referred to as Uttarā-Mīmāṃsā, or the ‘latter’ or ‘higher’ inquiry, as juxtaposed with Purva-Mīmāṃsā, or the ‘former’ inquiry which deals with ritual and sacrifice described in the Samhita portion of the Vedas and Brahmanas while Vedanta proper expounds upon the more esoteric teachings of the Āranyakas and the Upanishads. As defined by Shankara, perhaps the greatest of all the Vedic philosophers in antiquity, the term Upanishad is in effect a veiled reference to the content of the Upanishad itself, namely Brahmavidya, knowledge of Brahman, and Atmavidya, knowledge of Self.

The corpus of Vedic texts, all transcribed in some form of Sanskrit, include the Samhita, which are collections of mantras from the four Vedas, the Brahmanas which are prose texts that describe Hindu sacrifice and ritual, some of the older Upanishads such as the Mukya, Chandogya, Katha and Brhadaranyaka which deal with esoteric ideas and concepts describing the nature of Brahman and the soul (Atman), and other sutra (literally “thread”) literature dealing with Hindu rituals and sacred rites. Each of the Brahmanas is associated with one of the Samhitas and may also include Aranyakas, literally “forest texts”, as well as Upanishad texts which again represent the philosophical and metaphysical, or perhaps better put mystical, interpretations of the sacred rituals.

Parts of the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, as well as Upanishads explore what have become the theological underpinnings of Hinduism, notions such as Brahman, the absolute or underlying nature of all things, and Atman, the individuation of the principle of Brahman in man or the soul as it is usually translated, the relationship of which represents the core pillars of Vedic philosophy. The Upanishads however form the philosophical backbone of Vedanta and much like the ancient scripture of the Jews (Old Testament) or Zoroastrians (Avesta), the Upanishads and the rest of the Vedic scripture in toto represent an oral tradition that reaches deep into antiquity that was only later documented, dated by most scholars in the second and first millennium BCE.

The oldest parts of Vedic literature, the Rig Veda for example, give us a glimpse of the life of the Indo-Aryan peoples who first settled and formed complex social structures in the Indus Valley some seven thousand years or so ago and the nature of the language of old Vedic Sanskrit points to shared linguistic and philological with Indo-Iranian culture and civilization that populated the region to the West dominated by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The Rig Veda is one of, if not the, primary source texts of mythology, rituals and belief systems of the people of the Indus Valley region, and is one of the oldest extant texts in the Indo-European language family. It is thought to have been composed somewhere in the middle or end of the second millennium BCE (based upon philological and corroborated archeological evidence), roughly between 1700 and 1100 BCE. Even though the text is interspersed with mythology and outlines the characters and principles from which the known universe was birthed, the text also states unequivocally the unknowable nature of the source of the universe/cosmos, marking its core philosophical bent and providing the foundation for the later Upanishads which were primarily concerned with the nature of Brahman and Atman and their realization and manifestation rather than mythology per se.

Fundamental to the Upanishad texts themselves and the broader Vedanta philosophic tradition as a whole is the establishment of the importance of self-realization as the goal of life. In the Upanishads it is Brahman that represents the universal spirit that underlies all of the cosmos and all of its creation and it is through connection with Atman is that the individual can recognize their unity with all pervading Brahman. This knowledge is called “Brahmavidya”, or literally knowledge of Brahman, which reveals to the jiva the illusory nature of physical reality or maya, the universe being the “play”, lila of Ishvara. Brahman as espoused in the Upanishads, despite the tendency toward anthropomorphization, represents the ultimate unity of all things and creatures, animate and inanimate, and the belief in an indelible construct or consciousness which pervades the entire universe and which feeds and gives energy to all life.

Interpretations of Vedanta

The first attempt at compiling and synthesizing the teachings of Vedanta, their interpretation as it were, is contained in the Brahma Sutras (sometimes referred to as the Vedānta Sutras) which are believed to have been written somewhere around the 2nd century CE, the text being attributed to the mythical sage Vyasa who is also the author to whom the Mahabharata is attributed. The Brahma Sutras are part of the Uttara-Mimamsa (Vedantic) tradition and are in essence a summary and compilation of the teachings of the Upanishads. It is in the Brahma Sūtras that the teachings of Vedānta are set forth in a systematic and logical order, rather than the scattered and somewhat inconsistent manner which the teachings are presented in the Vedas given their deep historical and sometimes esoteric roots and their focus on ritual and sacrifice.

The Bhagavad Gita, or the “Song of the Lord”, has also played a significant role in the development of Vedantic thought over the centuries. The text is a part of the ancient Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata of which some of its oldest parts date from the middle or early part of the first millennium BCE. The Bhagavad Gita is a portion of this mythological epic text and is a narrative of a dialogue between Lord Krishna and Prince Arjuna that takes place on the eve of a great battle. Arjuna, whose name means “bright” or “shining”, is one of the five Pandava brothers, all sons of Pandu who are aligned against their cousins the Kauravas, descendents of Kuru in the Kurukshetra War. This is he stage from which Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer, gives his great teaching around the nature of duty, the soul, the universe and the path to liberation – the “Song of the Lord” which is undoubtedly one of the greatest epics of all time commensurate in stature and influence to the East as the Iliad or the Odyssey is in the West.

Arjuna voices to Lord Krishna great reservations and misgivings about the righteousness of the war in general and more specifically the duty to kill his enemies, who in this particular case were his cousins. Krishna at one point in the dialogue reveals himself as God in a great vision to Arjuna and represented an example of the avatar tradition which is a marked and unique trait of the Hindu faith. An avatar is a human incarnation of the divine, one who although is none other than the great Ishvara himself takes human form from time to time to show jivas the true nature of existence and lay out the path to liberation for each new age.

Krishna helps Arjuna understand why he must fight, and why it is morally right for him to do so, and the context of this dialogue forms the essence of the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita. In the process of his expositions, Lord Krishna expounds upon key Vedantic philosophical constructs such as moksha (liberation), karma (action), and dharma (righteous conduct), forming the foundation of the practice of Yoga and helping the great prince understand that while it may seem immoral for him to go to war with his kin, it is nonetheless his duty to do so and it would in fact be immoral to abstain from fighting. The metaphor is intended of course to not only justify the class differentiation which represented the fabric of ancient Hindu society but to hold Arjuna up to its people as a “shining” example of the just and moral life.

Outside of the esoteric notions of Brahman and Atman which are explored and eulogized in the more esoteric parts of Vedic scripture, there does also exist in the tradition a parallel notion of anthropomorphic deities consistent with the pantheon of gods that colored the mythology of the rest of the cultures from antiquity – The Greeks, Persians, Romans, Egyptians, etc. This concept of God, or Ishvara, is present in the Upanishads and the Vedas as well (and is topic of the Puranas, one of the other canonical works of Hinduism proper), but at least within Vedanta is subservient to the higher, more abstract, truths elucidated throughout the Vedic literature – Brahman alone is real, and it is through knowledge and realization of Atman and its ultimate unity with Brahman that the cycle of birth and death can be broken and the bondage of desire and attachment be rent asunder.

The core premise of the Upanishads and Vedanta in general then, and what distinguishes the philosophical system from the Western philosophical and theological traditions, is the belief in each individual’s (Atman) ultimate unity with the divine light that permeates the entire universe that is omnipresent and all-pervading (Brahman), and the intrinsic innate ability of all individual souls (jivas), to achieve the experience of this unity directly and therefore become fully realized beings free from all suffering and bondage – a state called moksha in Sanskrit. Although from the absolute perspective, Brahman and Atman are one and the same, indistinguishable entities, we do not realize this as such due to our belief in the reality of the human form and the physical world, the ultimate source of all suffering and delusion according to Vedanta. [One can see the clear parallels to Buddhist doctrine here despite the different semantics and the different focus on the “path” rather than the esoteric philosophy itself.]

Brahman then, as conceived by the Hindus which is the word we use in modern parlance to describe the people of India who descend from the people of the Indus Valley region, is a self-evident construct that was is not just as old as civilization itself, it is in fact as old as mankind and is the source of life. The ancient Vedic religion from which Vedanta emerged was steeped in ritual no doubt, consistent with all of the hunter-gatherer societies throughout the world and from which modern civilization eventually evolved, but the essence of the rituals was not lost and the highest form of teaching in the Vedic tradition was not the rituals per se, but the meaning behind the rituals, an idea that was part of the tradition itself since inception.

While the Hindus kept their various gods and goddesses, they also held true to the messages of the great rishis of old and laid out perhaps a sophisticated system of psychology, theology and metaphysics whose ultimate objective was the realization that God (Brahman) did in fact exist, could in fact be realized just as clearly as the realization of the world of objects all around us are realized by our (physical) senses, and that in fact we as humans were fundamentally designed for this realization, our individual consciousness being simply a reflection of this broader sometimes anthropomorphized principle of the universe, i.e. Brahman. According to the Hindu faith, this heaven on earth so to speak was the birth right of all of us – no passage or gateway or ticketing required.

The authors of Vedic scripture in fact took pains to apply as systematic and comprehensive an intellectual framework as possible, alongside guidelines on morality and ethics that were based upon virtues like justice and duty, in contrast to its Western religious brethren that laid out more specific rules of conduct that were baked into the fabric of the theology – a trademark of Judaism and Islam and a source of much of their rigidity and inflexibility to adapt to modern times in many respects.

The Ultimate Aim of Vedanta: Yoga and Samadhi

Another aspect of the teaching which was unique was the metaphysics and theology laid out the reality of a divine superconscious state, samadhi in the Yogic branch of Vedanta, which corresponds more or less to the Buddhist concept of nirvana, along with a natural philosophy and system of ethics which for the most part – independent of the caste system, remnants of which can still be found in modern India – evolved independent of authority and power. Although the Hindu caste system which is embedded in the fabric of Vedic literature had/has its draw backs no doubt, reflecting a system that is anything but a meritocracy, one advantage to the system is that there is a clear demarcation between the ruling class – Kshatriya to which Arjuna belongs – and the priestly class, the Brahmins, allowing for independent development of philosophic thought and “freedom of religion” so to speak that is definitely not a characteristic of Western theological development. This separation of classes allowed sages over the centuries to pursue the end of these Vedas without the risk of persecution.

In Hinduism then, and in its branches like Buddhism (for Buddhism is to the Hindus what Judaism is to the Christians, Buddha was a Hindu like Jesus was a Jew) presumed this fundamental distinction between church and state, or perhaps more aptly put this individuation (to borrow a Jungian term) of religion. The Hindus did not codify these separation principles into law per se, as has been done in modern American and European society (i.e. the West) after centuries of religious persecution, but the principle of religious freedom represented a core, integral part of Hindu culture just the same.

And from this social acceptance of the individual expression of the divine, many great sages and seers, known as rishis , had been born since the dawn of man that perennially personified this apex and goal of the Hindu religious system – namely the realization of the divine in this very life. The Indo-Aryan theological tradition (which includes Buddhism and Yoga as well as Hinduism/ Vedanta) more so than any other allows for, and in fact insists upon, the existence of sages and seers throughout history who literally incarnate the divine and eternal truth underlying the universe and re-establish the core tenets of the Vedas, translating the eternal message for each era and each people as the need arises. Krishna, Buddha, and Chaitanya, Ramakrishna and countless others are examples of incarnations where Ishvara himself has taken human form to shed light upon the mysteries of the universe.

These great sages, these rishis, personified the goal of oneness with the divine, the perception of the kingdom of heaven within, and realized the end of the Hindu scriptures. And they all accomplished this in their own unique way and yet at the same time each of them reestablished the validity of these ancient scriptures, renewing the people’s faith in their content and precepts which had been born so many thousands of years prior. To all of these great sages the mind and body, and reason and logic itself, was to be used to realize the truth of this oneness. That was its sole purpose of existence. This truth was the great gift that was handed down from the ages from the Vedas.


[2] You could argue that all of these traditions stemmed from one ancient source mythology, and in fact some scholars in modern times had started looking at and for such similar roots as put forth by E.J. M. Witzel in his The Origins of the World’s Mythologies, but it seems more plausible that an explanation of the similarities in the cosmologies of these ancient civilizations stems from individual cultures and societies having similar challenges and relationships with the environment which governed their existence from which their similar mythologies emerged, which in each case was defined by their relationship with the river system that their civilization grew and evolved around. The river system was the source of their food and sustenance, and framed their idea of the passage of time and sense of order. Therefore these basic principles were reflected in each of the different civilization’s cosmology to a large extent.

[3] The word Upanishad is derived from the Sanskrit root sad, which means to ‘to loosen’ or ‘‘to attain’ or even ‘to annihilate’, combined with the prefixes “upa” and “ni”, which denote ‘nearness’ or ‘sitting beside’ and ‘totality’ respectively. You can therefore translate the meaning of Upanishad to mean something along the lines of “that which is attained completely and entirely whilst sitting beside or near to”, referring to the tradition of sitting beside a teacher and learning, the educational practice that is embedded in the Vedic tradition itself from inception.

[4] Sanskrit was the primary liturgical language of Hinduism and its offshoots Buddhism and Jainism and virtually all of the ancient texts of these religions were authored in Sanskrit. Sanskrit’s position in the cultures of Greater India is akin to that of Latin and Greek in Europe and it has significantly influenced most modern languages of the Indian subcontinent, particularly in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. The pre-Classical form of Sanskrit is known as Vedic Sanskrit, and it was the language used in the Vedas, the oldest texts of the Indo-Aryan peoples that described their cosmologies and rituals that survive and whose underlying rituals and theology carry into Hinduism and Buddhism even to this day. This qualifies Rigvedic Sanskrit as one of the oldest attestations of any Indo-Iranian language, and one of the earliest attested members of the Indo-European language family, the family which includes English and most European languages.

The Philosophy of the East: The Legacy of the Indo-Aryans

Introduction

Throughout academic parlance in the Enlightenment Era intellectual and philosophical development throughout mankind’s history has been divided into Eastern and Western branches.  The Eastern branch of thought and development for many centuries was looked upon as “Oriental”, a term that has fallen out of favor in academic and intellectual circles in no small measure due to the fact that it implied and originated within the context of the colonization of a good part of the “Eastern” world and Western academic pursuits into understanding the nature of theological and philosophical, as well as socio-political development of the so-called East – an outsiders view that came with its own bias that is considered by most scholars to be one of supremacy and dominance that looked down upon the cultural and religious systems of the East with not disdain per se but most certainly with a sense of arrogance and superiority.

The problem however, despite these known biases, is that the classification of East versus West does have a certain clarity and clean delineation in modes of thought however, modes of thought that are divided at least intellectually by what could be termed reductionist versus holistic.  In other words, even if the classification of certain ways of thinking and development as a whole doesn’t have a specific geographical divide between East and West (although one could argue that in fact does), the tendency to break things down into parts and explore their relationships as individual automata and their interactions does in fact characterize Western thinking more or less since Hellenistic antiquity and the tendency to look at individuals within the context of their relationship to the whole, or the universe at large, does in fact characterize “Eastern” modes of thought to a great extent.

Charlie had spent a great deal of time considering and outlining as best he could the theological and philosophical development in the West, starting with ancient cosmological and theistic systems based upon the worship of deities, sacrificial practices and such that were steeped in mythology and then evolved into the monotheistic forms of religion which we are most familiar with and dominate the Western intellectual and theological landscape today – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and out of which, mostly in reaction to, arose our fascination toward science proper which although has allowed for great advancements in science and technology has to a large extent left us with a very objective and reductionist view of reality.

There were parallel developments to the East however, to the East of ancient Greece, Rome and the Byzantine Empire which evolved very much independently to Western theological and philosophical development.  Specifically we’re referring to the Vedic and Indo-Aryan tradition which arose out of ancient India based upon the philosophy of the Upanishads, the mythology of the Bhagavad Gita, Brahma Sutras and other ancient Indian texts and their subsequent interpretation from 2500 BCE onwards, the tradition of Buddhism which stemmed from the teachings of the great and influential Siddhartha Gautama who himself was greatly influenced by ancient Vedic religious doctrines and practices even if he rejected them for the most part, and in Taoism which took root in China and the far east from the middle of the first millennia onwards and still thrives today.  These theological and philosophical systems of belief are interesting to analyze not just in the wisdom which they present but also as contrasting and opposing modes of thought to the reductionist and rationalist way of thinking which underpins modern science as well as the overall worldview of the West.

Arguably one of the unique contributions of Indo-Aryan philosophy (to which Vedanta and Buddhism ultimately owe their heritage) to modern day theology and spirituality is their fundamental belief in the individual nature of the religious experience and the faith in what is variously referred to as “realization”, “liberation”, “enlightenment”, or “nirvana” all of which are various terms used to describe the state or act of direct experience of the divine in this very life – juxtaposed with the focus on an afterlife in heaven which characterizes most if not all of the Western theological traditions.  This fundamental belief lies at the heart of the Vedic philosophical system, which is the philosophical and mystical counterpart of Hinduism proper, as well the theo-philosophical system of Buddhism.  [Taoism has a slightly different bent in that it focuses on the way and the balancing of opposites as the path to peace, tranquility and happiness rather than as enlightenment itself being the ultimate goal of life, more akin to Buddhism with its emphasis on the way than Vedanta per se].

 

What is Vedanta?

The ancient Indo-Aryan civilization sprung forth in the Indus valley region in modern day India and Pakistan (to the ancients Eastern Persia), and was the source of the “Vedas”, some of the oldest extant literature of mankind.  This ancient Indus Valley civilization, from which one of the great world renowned religions called Hinduism was birthed, spread and flourished in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent from circa 3300 to 1300 BCE, roughly aligning with the peak of ancient Egyptian civilization although contact between the two civilizations was limited if not absent entirely based upon the archeological record.  The civilization from which Hinduism emerged is traditionally associated with the Indus valley, a river system from which an ancient culture could grow crops and thrive, a similar relationship to the Sumerians and their Tigris/Euphrates and the Egyptians and their Nile.  This relationship with water and its fundamental existence and prerequisite feature for the source of life, clearly left its mark on the Cosmology and creation mythology of all of these ancient cultures.  The Hindus believed in the Cosmic Waters (apas in Sanskrit) as the source of the known universe, just as the Egyptians had their concept of Nu and the Ancient Sumerians had their Apsu.[2]

Their theological doctrines and philosophy, as reflected in the Vedas, was a core part of their society and from a very early stage and the social structure even was architected to reflect this, namely that the sacred teachings of the Vedas were to be protected by a specific class of society, the Brahmins.  In some respects the establishment of a priestly, learned class that was kept separate from the rest of the society (the Kshatriya or ruling/warrior class, the Vaishyas or the merchant class and the Shudras or laborers being the other classes of society in classic Hindu culture) reflected developments to the West where first the priests, then the philosophers and then finally the Church itself (the Imam in the Muslim community) became the established authority on matters dealing with intellectual development, education, or course religious matters and ultimately eternal freedom.

Although in antiquity Vedānta referred more specifically to the philosophic portion of the Vedas (Vedanta literally means “end of the Vedas”), the bulk of the content coming from the Upanishads, over time Vedanta took on a broader meaning to represent the body of work and knowledge that interpreted the meaning of the Upanishads, which in turn incorporated the Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras more directly into the philosophic tradition.

The primary sources for what is considered modern day Vedanta are three main collections of verses or texts are the Upanishads[3], representing the end of the Vedas or the philosophical and mystical portions of the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita or “Song of the Lord” from the epic poem the Mahabharata, and the Brahma Sutras which was an attempt at consolidating and synthesizing Vedantic philosophy from the 2nd or third century CE.  Vyasa is the supposed author attributed to the works of the Mahabharata and the Brahma Sutras, while the Upanishads are considered to be the divine inspiration of the rishis, or seers, who fully realized and codified the knowledge of Brahman as put forth in the Upanishads.  The three works together are also referred to as the Prasthanas, or canonical books, that form the foundation of the philosophy of Vedanta and form the foundation of Hindu religion even to this day.

The Vedas are the oldest Indo-Aryan Sanskrit[4] texts and are the oldest extant Hindu scripture.  The Sanskrit word véda means “knowledge” or “wisdom” and is derived from the root vid, “to know”.  Like many other religious traditions, the Vedas are said not to have been recorded and authored per se, but were revealed to these ancient rishis, passed down from generation o generation from teacher to student in a long standing oral tradition, and then documented and transcribed by scholars and sages somewhere between the second and first millennium BCE.  Vedanta, somewhat literally translated as “the end”, or “goal”, of the Vedas, represents the philosophical or metaphysical tradition of the Hindus and represents the philosophical portions of the Vedas, i.e. the portions of the Vedas that do not deal with sacrifice, ritual or dharma (righteous action).

Vedānta is also sometimes referred to as Uttarā-Mīmāṃsā, or the ‘latter’ or ‘higher’ inquiry, as juxtaposed with Purva-Mīmāṃsā, or the ‘former’ inquiry which deals with ritual and sacrifice described in the Samhita portion of the Vedas and Brahmanas while Vedanta proper expounds upon the more esoteric teachings of the Āranyakas and the Upanishads.  As defined by Shankara, perhaps the greatest of all the Vedic philosophers in antiquity, the term Upanishad is in effect a veiled reference to the content of the Upanishad itself, namely Brahmavidya, knowledge of Brahman, and Atmavidya, knowledge of Self.

The corpus of Vedic texts, all transcribed in some form of Sanskrit, include the Samhita, which are collections of mantras from the four Vedas, the Brahmanas which are prose texts that describe Hindu sacrifice and ritual, some of the older Upanishads such as the Mukya, Chandogya, Katha and Brhadaranyaka which deal with esoteric ideas and concepts describing the nature of Brahman and the soul (Atman), and other sutra (literally “thread”) literature dealing with Hindu rituals and sacred rites.  Each of the Brahmanas is associated with one of the Samhitas and may also include Aranyakas, literally “forest texts”, as well as Upanishad texts which again represent the philosophical and metaphysical, or perhaps better put mystical, interpretations of the sacred rituals.

Parts of the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, as well as Upanishads explore what have become the theological underpinnings of Hinduism, notions such as Brahman, the absolute or underlying nature of all things, and Atman, the individuation of the principle of Brahman in man or the soul as it is usually translated, the relationship of which represents the core pillars of Vedic philosophy.  The Upanishads however form the philosophical backbone of Vedanta and much like the ancient scripture of the Jews (Old Testament) or Zoroastrians (Avesta), the Upanishads and the rest of the Vedic scripture in toto represent an oral tradition that reaches deep into antiquity that was only later documented, dated by most scholars in the second and first millennium BCE.

The oldest parts of Vedic literature, the Rig Veda for example, give us a glimpse of the life of the Indo-Aryan  peoples who first settled and formed complex social structures in the Indus Valley some seven thousand years or so ago and the nature of the language of old Vedic Sanskrit points to shared linguistic and philological with Indo-Iranian culture and civilization that populated the region to the West dominated by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The Rig Veda is one of, if not the, primary source texts of mythology, rituals and belief systems of the people of the Indus Valley region, and is one of the oldest extant texts in the Indo-European language family.  It is thought to have been composed somewhere in the middle or end of the second millennium BCE (based upon philological and corroborated archeological evidence), roughly between 1700 and 1100 BCE.  Even though the text is interspersed with mythology and outlines the characters and principles from which the known universe was birthed, the text also states unequivocally the unknowable nature of the source of the universe/cosmos, marking its core philosophical bent and providing the foundation for the later Upanishads which were primarily concerned with the nature of Brahman and Atman and their realization and manifestation rather than mythology per se.

Fundamental to the Upanishad texts themselves and the broader Vedanta philosophic tradition as a whole is the establishment of the importance of self-realization as the goal of life.  In the Upanishads it is Brahman that represents the universal spirit that underlies all of the cosmos and all of its creation and it is through connection with Atman is that the individual can recognize their unity with all pervading Brahman.  This knowledge is called “Brahmavidya, or literally knowledge of Brahman, which reveals to the jiva the illusory nature of physical reality or maya, the universe being the “play”, lila of Ishvara. Brahman as espoused in the Upanishads, despite the tendency toward anthropomorphization, represents the ultimate unity of all things and creatures, animate and inanimate, and the belief in an indelible construct or consciousness which pervades the entire universe and which feeds and gives energy to all life.

 

Interpretations of Vedanta

The first attempt at compiling and synthesizing the teachings of Vedanta, their interpretation as it were, is contained in the Brahma Sutras (sometimes referred to as the Vedānta Sutras) which are believed to have been written somewhere around the 2nd century CE, the text being attributed to the mythical sage Vyasa who is also the author to whom the Mahabharata is attributed.  The Brahma Sutras are part of the Uttara-Mimamsa (Vedantic) tradition and are in essence a summary and compilation of the teachings of the Upanishads.  It is in the Brahma Sūtras that the teachings of Vedānta are set forth in a systematic and logical order, rather than the scattered and somewhat inconsistent manner which the teachings are presented in the Vedas given their deep historical and sometimes esoteric roots and their focus on ritual and sacrifice.

The Bhagavad Gita, or the “Song of the Lord”, has also played a significant role in the development of Vedantic thought over the centuries.  The text is a part of the ancient Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata of which some of its oldest parts date from the middle or early part of the first millennium BCE.  The Bhagavad Gita is a portion of this mythological epic text and is a narrative of a dialogue between Lord Krishna and Prince Arjuna that takes place on the eve of a great battle.  Arjuna, whose name means “bright” or “shining”, is one of the five Pandava brothers, all sons of Pandu who are aligned against their cousins the Kauravas, descendents of Kuru in the Kurukshetra War.  This is he stage from which Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer, gives his great teaching around the nature of duty, the soul, the universe and the path to liberation – the “Song of the Lord” which is undoubtedly one of the greatest epics of all time commensurate in stature and influence to the East as the Iliad or the Odyssey is in the West.

Arjuna voices to Lord Krishna great reservations and misgivings about the righteousness of the war in general and more specifically the duty to kill his enemies, who in this particular case were his cousins.  Krishna at one point in the dialogue reveals himself as God in a great vision to Arjuna and represented an example of the avatar tradition which is a marked and unique trait of the Hindu faith.  An avatar is a human incarnation of the divine, one who although is none other than the great Ishvara himself takes human form from time to time to show jivas the true nature of existence and lay out the path to liberation for each new age.

Krishna helps Arjuna understand why he must fight, and why it is morally right for him to do so, and the context of this dialogue forms the essence of the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita.  In the process of his expositions, Lord Krishna expounds upon key Vedantic philosophical constructs such as moksha (liberation), karma (action), and dharma (righteous conduct), forming the foundation of the practice of Yoga and helping the great prince understand that while it may seem immoral for him to go to war with his kin, it is nonetheless his duty to do so and it would in fact be immoral to abstain from fighting.  The metaphor is intended of course to not only justify the class differentiation which represented the fabric of ancient Hindu society but to hold Arjuna up to its people as a “shining” example of the just and moral life.

Outside of the esoteric notions of Brahman and Atman which are explored and eulogized in the more esoteric parts of Vedic scripture, there does also exist in the tradition a parallel notion of anthropomorphic deities consistent with the pantheon of gods that colored the mythology of the rest of the cultures from antiquity – The Greeks, Persians, Romans, Egyptians, etc.  This concept of God, or Ishvara, is present in the Upanishads and the Vedas as well (and is topic of the Puranas, one of the other canonical works of Hinduism proper), but at least within Vedanta is subservient to the higher, more abstract, truths elucidated throughout the Vedic literature –   Brahman alone is real, and it is through knowledge and realization of Atman and its ultimate unity with Brahman that the cycle of birth and death can be broken and the bondage of desire and attachment be rent asunder.

The core premise of the Upanishads and Vedanta in general then, and what distinguishes the philosophical system from the Western philosophical and theological traditions, is the belief in each individual’s (Atman) ultimate unity with the divine light that permeates the entire universe that is omnipresent and all-pervading (Brahman), and the intrinsic innate ability of all individual souls (jivas), to achieve the experience of this unity directly and therefore become fully realized beings free from all suffering and bondage – a state called moksha in Sanskrit.  Although from the absolute perspective, Brahman and Atman are one and the same, indistinguishable entities, we do not realize this as such due to our belief in the reality of the human form and the physical world, the ultimate source of all suffering and delusion according to Vedanta.  [One can see the clear parallels to Buddhist doctrine here despite the different semantics and the different focus on the “path” rather than the esoteric philosophy itself.]

Brahman then, as conceived by the Hindus which is the word we use in modern parlance to describe the people of India who descend from the people of the Indus Valley region, is a self-evident construct that was is not just as old as civilization itself, it is in fact as old as mankind and is the source of life.  The ancient Vedic religion from which Vedanta emerged was steeped in ritual no doubt, consistent with all of the hunter-gatherer societies throughout the world and from which modern civilization eventually evolved, but the essence of the rituals was not lost and the highest form of teaching in the Vedic tradition was not the rituals per se, but the meaning behind the rituals, an idea that was part of the tradition itself since inception.

While the Hindus kept their various gods and goddesses, they also held true to the messages of the great rishis of old and laid out perhaps a sophisticated system of psychology, theology and metaphysics whose ultimate objective was the realization that God (Brahman) did in fact exist, could in fact be realized just as clearly as the realization of the world of objects all around us are realized by our (physical) senses, and that in fact we as humans were fundamentally designed for this realization, our individual consciousness being simply a reflection of this broader sometimes anthropomorphized principle of the universe, i.e. Brahman.  According to the Hindu faith, this heaven on earth so to speak was the birth right of all of us – no passage or gateway or ticketing required.

The authors of Vedic scripture in fact took pains to apply as systematic and comprehensive an intellectual framework as possible, alongside guidelines on morality and ethics that were based upon virtues like justice and duty, in contrast to its Western religious brethren that laid out more specific rules of conduct that were baked into the fabric of the theology – a trademark of Judaism and Islam and a source of much of their rigidity and inflexibility to adapt to modern times in many respects.

 

The End of the Vedas: Yoga and Samadhi

Another aspect of the teaching which was unique was the metaphysics and theology laid out the reality of a divine superconscious state, samadhi in the Yogic branch of Vedanta, which corresponds more or less to the Buddhist concept of nirvana, along with a natural philosophy and system of ethics which for the most part – independent of the caste system, remnants of which can still be found in modern India – evolved independent of authority and power.  Although the Hindu caste system which is embedded in the fabric of Vedic literature had/has its draw backs no doubt, reflecting a system that is anything but a meritocracy, one advantage to the system is that there is a clear demarcation between the ruling class – Kshatriya to which Arjuna belongs – and the priestly class, the Brahmins, allowing for independent development of philosophic thought and “freedom of religion” so to speak that is definitely not a characteristic of Western theological development.  This separation of classes allowed sages over the centuries to pursue the end of these Vedas without the risk of persecution.

In Hinduism then, and in its branches like Buddhism (for Buddhism is to the Hindus what Judaism is to the Christians, Buddha was a Hindu like Jesus was a Jew) presumed this fundamental distinction between church and state, or perhaps more aptly put this individuation (to borrow a Jungian term) of religion.  The Hindus did not codify these separation principles into law per se, as has been done in modern American and European society (i.e. the West) after centuries of religious persecution, but the principle of religious freedom represented a core, integral part of Hindu culture just the same.

And from this social acceptance of the individual expression of the divine, many great sages and seers, known as rishis , had been born since the dawn of man that perennially personified this apex and goal of the Hindu religious system – namely the realization of the divine in this very life.  The Indo-Aryan theological tradition (which includes Buddhism and Yoga as well as Hinduism/ Vedanta) more so than any other allows for, and in fact insists upon, the existence of sages and seers throughout history who literally incarnate the divine and eternal truth underlying the universe and re-establish the core tenets of the Vedas, translating the eternal message for each era and each people as the need arises.  Krishna, Buddha, and Chaitanya, Ramakrishna and countless others are examples of incarnations where Ishvara himself has taken human form to shed light upon the mysteries of the universe.

These great sages, these rishis, personified the goal of oneness with the divine, the perception of the kingdom of heaven within, and realized the end of the Hindu scriptures.  And they all accomplished this in their own unique way and yet at the same time each of them reestablished the validity of these ancient scriptures, renewing the people’s faith in their content and precepts which had been born so many thousands of years prior.  To all of these great sages the mind and body, and reason and logic itself, was to be used to realize the truth of this oneness.  That was its sole purpose of existence.  This truth was the great gift that was handed down from the ages from the Vedas.

 

 


[2] You could argue that all of these traditions stemmed from one ancient source mythology, and in fact some scholars in modern times had started looking at and for such similar roots as put forth by E.J. M. Witzel in his The Origins of the World’s Mythologies, but it seems more plausible that an explanation of the similarities in the cosmologies of these ancient civilizations stems from individual cultures and societies having similar challenges and relationships with the environment which governed their existence from which their similar mythologies emerged, which in each case was defined by their relationship with the river system that their civilization grew and evolved around.  The river system was the source of their food and sustenance, and framed their idea of the passage of time and sense of order.  Therefore these basic principles were reflected in each of the different civilization’s cosmology to a large extent.

[3] The word Upanishad is derived from the Sanskrit root sad, which means to ‘to loosen’ or ‘‘to attain’ or even ‘to annihilate’, combined with the prefixes “upa” and “ni”, which denote ‘nearness’ or ‘sitting beside’ and ‘totality’ respectively.  You can therefore translate the meaning of Upanishad to mean something along the lines of “that which is attained completely and entirely whilst sitting beside or near to”, referring to the tradition of sitting beside a teacher and learning, the educational practice that is embedded in the Vedic tradition itself from inception.

[4] Sanskrit was the primary liturgical language of Hinduism and its offshoots Buddhism and Jainism and virtually all of the ancient texts of these religions were authored in Sanskrit.  Sanskrit’s position in the cultures of Greater India is akin to that of Latin and Greek in Europe and it has significantly influenced most modern languages of the Indian subcontinent, particularly in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal.  The pre-Classical form of Sanskrit is known as Vedic Sanskrit, and it was the language used in the Vedas, the oldest texts of the Indo-Aryan peoples that described their cosmologies and rituals that survive and whose underlying rituals and theology carry into Hinduism and Buddhism even to this day.  This qualifies Rigvedic Sanskrit as one of the oldest attestations of any Indo-Iranian language, and one of the earliest attested members of the Indo-European language family, the family which includes English and most European languages.

The Royal Yoga: Patanjali’s Eight Limbs

Charlie was young and naïve enough to believe in his younger days that he could create a new paradigm of reality that assimilated the scientific empiricism of the West with the mystic, meditation of the East.  This is what he and Jenry had toyed around with back in his undergrad days when they had nothing better to do than sit around their run down old apartment, smoke bowls and philosophize about the meaning of life.  An activity as it turned out that became interwoven into Charlie’s thesis in a way he never imagined but he did never quite sort out that 5 dimensional mathematical model beyond anything more than a pencil and paper and some poorly hand drawn images/graphs.

In this model that Charlie conceived of, the individual mind, with meditation as its primary and ultimate source, was the foundation of a reality within which the paradigms of the two seemingly opposite and contradictory views of life – the material and spiritual – could be integrated into a single mathematical model of the universe, be seen as two sides of the same coin.  That endeavor proved illusory though, perhaps too much work for the gladiator to take on, and too much complex math.  And at the time Charlie was into different matters, leading of course to his “extended” thesis work; there were trophies to win, opponents to crush, spoils to be won.  All much more important than trying to dig into multi-dimensional, entirely hypothetical mathematical (and relatively outrageous) models of reality.  First things first for heavens sake.

But Charlie’s thesis, and the attack on the subjective which was the essence of Niels’s position, did form a springboard for Charlie to take a deeper look into this subjective vs. objective world. The same one that Pirsig tried to overcome with his Metaphysics of Quality, but yet still ending up in this same place, one where the intellectual model of reality was framed in a language which had within it the implication of subjects and objects, despite the notion of Quality from which Pirsig attempted to try and build his model, his metaphysics, around.  So Charlie tried to build a cohesive argument for Niels, one that again centered around the fallacy of relying on Reason and Intellect as the hall bearers of truth, and one that just might help him see the light of day.

And as he tried to formulate this argument, he came to the conclusion that Niels had a point, he did, and he most certainly reflected the position of many modern fundamentalist Christian or Muslims for that matter, and even hard core physicists and mathematicians – materialists or objectivists you could call them – who thought meditation and any sort of direct experience of pure consciousness was a fool’s errand that may have some health benefits but couldn’t be considered science, upon which the notion of “reality” in the West was ultimately based, in any meaningful way.

He had begun his argument by exploring the concept of the subjective itself.  What could be considered objective truth?  In every encounter or situation in each person’s life, there is continuity.  That is to say that throughout one’s span of existence, there is always something that binds experience together.  Usually we call this something “I”.  This wasn’t something novel that Charlie had come up with, this was in essence the cogito ergo sum of Descartes, a Western interpretation if you will of age old Eastern philosophical notion of the mind.

But what is this “I” that lays at the foundation of our very existence.  We assume at every corner that we exist.  But have we really delved into the nature of this “I” that provides the framework for our lives?  Charlie believed that the answer to this question to be a resounding “NO!”  Certainly the philosophers throughout the ages had, and the mystics and shamans before them most certainly had, there was plenty of evidence for this as Charlie dug into the development of Western thought for his thesis.  But the everyday folk, the ones that ran the banks and the schools and were in Congress and ran countries, had they really?  Wasn’t this one of the primary themes of Plato, and even the Muslim philosopher Al-Farabi of the 10th century, the importance of the role of the philosopher in society.  Where had this notion gone?  Had it been lost somewhere or was it never really adopted outside of a theoretical construct of a philosopher or two throughout the ages?

And he thought it was here that the main distinction between the East and the West lay.  The eastern philosophical systems believed taught that the search for the nature of “I” represented the ultimate task of life, whereas the western systems relied on objective proof, verifiable results from the interaction between hosts of objects, as the basis for life and reality.  And Charlie thought that it was this obsession with duality, the distinction between subject and object, although the cornerstone to scientific method and the means by which civilization has made so many significant advancements no doubt, had perhaps become an obstacle to the discovery of the very meaning of life itself.  The quest for the answer to that age old question, as old as man itself: “Why are we here and from whence we came?” had been relegated to the world of religion, a marked deviation from Aristotle in fact, where the question of why – causation – was in fact the pillar upon which knowledge was built.

Charlie didn’t know it then, but his very physical and to him very real in the Western sense of the term, practice of the attainment of peak performance on the tennis court, the search for the Zone, from which his journey into Yoga and the art of meditation began, was very much akin to the practice of Kundalini Yoga, or Raja Yoga as espoused by the notorious Samkhya philosopher Patanjali.  From his studies of the works of Vivekananda, as well as his practice of Yoga in general, Charlie kind of knew what Raja Yoga, and the principle of kundalini meant, but he hadn’t quite made the translation to competitive sports quite yet, at least not in the beginning.

And yet in fact, when he strove to achieve peak performance, when he entered that world of complete concentration, achieved via the performance of those subtle rituals on court, what he was really doing was cultivating the control of his kundalini, or inner force, and attempting to leverage it to squeeze every ounce of physical and mental performance out of that frail, physical form of his call the human ‘body’.  Kundalini Yoga, or Hatha Yoga, is a very physical and exact science in many respects, its principles are based upon the artificial inducement of energy through the chakras in the body to achieve or reach higher states of consciousness, effectively the same process Charlie was attempting to bring about do to achieve peak performance.

Raja Yoga on the other hand, the Yoga described by Patanjali in his eight limbs, has a different focus than Hatha or Kundalini Yoga, although it shares with it some of the very same principles and methods.  In the case of Raja Yoga the focus is on the control and purification of the mind, the mental sheathe of the jiva, rather than focus on the physical sheathe, although even in Patanjali’s system, there is a preparatory focus on the physical system as reflected in the 3rd and 4th “limbs” of his eight limbed system which has come to be known collectively in the West as Yoga, namely asana, “posture” or “seat”, and pranayama, “breath” or “life force” control.

Both these limbs however are looked upon in Patanjali’s system as preparatory for higher states of concentration and experiences of consciousness however, as indicated by the last four limbs of Patanjali’s system namely pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses from the external world of name and form, dharana, concentration of the mind on a single physical object, deity or symbol, dyhana, steadfast and unwavering concentration on said object (the act of meditation and the object of meditation remain distinct in this phase), and ultimately samadhi, where the distinction between the object of meditation and the meditator falls away and unity is directly “experienced”.  All of these limbs in Patanjali’s system are meant to hang together and be practiced collectively and constantly, and the physical aspects of Yoga, which are emphasized in most if not all of the Western adaptations of his system, are but a means to the end and not an end in and of themselves.

 

Raja Yoga is one of the four Hindu philosophical systems that Swami Vivekananda taught and integrated into a holistic approach to enlightenment in the modern era all based upon the timeless teachings of Vedanta in one form or another, interpreted for the West in a language that we could understand.  In fact Vivekananda coined the term Raja, or Royal Yoga, given his perspective on its importance within the four pillars of Yoga that were necessary to lead a balanced and liberated life in what he saw, and Charlie certainly was exposed to the same thing, an overly materialistic and capitalistic culture whose main focus was the betterment of the individual at the expense of the whole.

But you can’t really truly understand Raja Yoga unless you have some sort of background in its underlying philosophy which is Samkhya philosophy.  Samkhya is one of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy and is fundamentally atheistic, i.e. it’s philosophy does not adhere to or believe in the existence of any anthropomorphic God or deity, but instead believes the universe to be a manifestation of an underlying ground of existence Purusha, the male aspect of the cosmos which when acted upon and combined with the generative female force of the universe, Prakriti, brings about the existence of the physical universe it its various forms as we perceive it.  Samkhya is a fundamentally dualistic philosophy, in the sense that it lays out more than one fundamental principle from which the universe comes into existence, namely the inert Purusha combined with the active principle of Prakriti.  This is juxtaposed for example with Advaita Vedanta where the individual Soul, or Atman, is considered to be one and the same and fundamentally indivisible from the universal Soul, or Brahman, classified accordingly as a non-dualist philosophical system.

In Samkhya philosophy the individual Soul, or Jiva, is bound to its physical form due to desire, desire for pleasure and desire for life.  It is desire that is the glue that binds the jiva to the manifest, physical reality which we all perceive as the human condition.  But this is not the true state of reality, it’s not purest and most unadulterated perspective on reality, and at its core is based upon ignorance of the true nature of the universe and our place in it.  The underlying premise of this philosophical system then is that it is only through the false identification one’s small self, or ego (ahamkara), that the jiva perceives itself as a separate and unique entity bound to a physical form which is subject to birth, growth, decay and ultimate death and destruction, characterized most emphatically by suffering and loss, in this sense it shares many of the same characteristics of Buddhism but its underlying philosophy, as well as the path which it lays out for liberation, are altogether different[1].  In Samkhya philosophy however, and in turn in Yoga as it is interpreted by Patanjali, it is through self-knowledge, atma-bodha, that true liberation can be achieved, where the shroud of ignorance is removed and one’s true identity with the underlying ground of existence, Purusha, is ultimately realized and experienced directly.

It is from this philosophical perspective then that Patanjali articulated his system of Yoga, which lays out, in very much the same way as Buddha laid out his Noble Eightfold Path, the steps and principles upon which one should lead their life in order to facilitate the attainment of this state of perfection, or samadhi.  Yoga as outlined by Patanjali emphasizes the importance of posture, asana, control of the breath, pranayama, and concentration, dharana, all as key tools to be employed by the spiritual aspirant who wishes to be liberated from the bondage of phenomenal existence and ultimately to experience the pure state of consciousness itself, i.e. samadhi, but what is most often overlooked, particularly in the West, is that these physical and mental practices are grounded in a thorough and in many respects unyielding system of morals, ethics and observances that prepare the aspirant, provide the foundation for the aspirant, upon which the more advanced limbs of Yoga are to be based.  The first 2 limbs of Yoga reflect this focus on the necessary grounding of ethics and morality, the way to live, to prepare oneself for the path to liberation, namely yama and niyama.

Yama consists of five “abstentions”; ahimsa, non-violence, satya, truth in thought word and deed, asteya, non-covetousness or the lack of desire and brahmacharya, or abstinence with particular emphasis on sexual activity.  Niyama consists of five “observances”; shaucha, cleanliness of body and mind, santosha, satisfaction or acceptance with one’s state of existence, tapas, or austerities related to physical and mental observances which yield control of the mind, svadhyaya, or study of the Vedic scripture to cultivate knowledge of the Soul which drives human existence, and ishvarapranidhana, or surrender/worship of the ultimate source of creation, i.e. God (Ishvara in Hinduism).

What Swami Vivekananda laid out for the West however, aligned with the teachings of his guru Paramhamsa Ramakrishna, was that in order to gain a more accurate and effective perspective on spiritual life, and ultimate liberation from suffering and bondage achieved, four different aspects of Vedanta should be practiced and honed together as one cohesive system which should guide not only the inner life of the spiritual aspirant, but also the external life of the aspirant as well.  These four pillars of Yoga, as taught by Vivekananda, are Raja Yoga, as expounded by Patanjali, Jnana Yoga, or the pursuit of knowledge from which the fetters of bondage can be broken intellectually, Karma Yoga, or the practice of selfless action which provides the moral and ethical basis for right living for the spiritual aspirant, and Bhakti Yoga, which is love of the divine which propels aspirant along the path, a path which has been aptly described by some as “the razor’s edge” given how precarious and difficult it can be to follow correctly without stumbling along the way (which is why a guru, or guide, is an integral part of the Eastern philosophical teachings, no matter what philosophical school you adhere to).

To Vivekananda, these four perspectives or aspects of Vedanta were to be thought of and taught as a single, coherent philosophical system rather than as independent systems of belief, collectively providing the aspirant with a more complete and expansive guidebook on spiritual life, for the advancement of the human Soul, that could be gained by following one specific school at the neglect of the other three.  This, from Charlie’s point of view, was Vivekananda’s unique contribution to the modern era, he crystalized, synthesized and interpreted Vedanta for the West in a way that could be grasped both intellectually and physically by modern man, just as his teacher, Ramakrishna, had brought all the various religious practices together and illustrated them to be all different paths to the same goal, or different entrances to the same home as he liked to put it.  To Vivekananda, life and the universe was a gymnasium for the Soul, and his interpretation of Vedanta for the West, was the guidebook for the modern spiritual gymnast.

All religious systems, either from the East or the West, espoused morality and ethics as a core fundamental principle for the life of man.  Even the Greek philosophical schools had comprehensive system of ethics at their core.  The Western system taught that these morals and ethics should be followed for the attainment of heaven.  The Eastern theological and philosophical systems however, and arguably the teachings of Christ themselves if they could be parsed from the Book within which they sat, looked at morals and ethics not as something to be followed for attainment of some desire or need, but as a representation of a higher and finer form of truth.  In Aristotle’s terminology it was in virtue that the greatest good could be achieved, and that ultimate happiness could be achieved, and that this virtue was a learned skill and could be cultivated by habit, just as any art form could[2].

In its most pure form as Charlie understood the basic tenets of Eastern philosophy however, and the fundamental principles that underlay morality or ethics in general, was that there was an interconnectedness to all things, all beings animate or inanimate, and leading a moral and ethical life allowed the individual to better comprehend and understand this interconnectedness, or at least abide by it and be in harmony with it.  In Patanjali’s model, arguably the most systemic and well thought out of the systems of Yoga as they survive down to us in modern times which Vivekananda for no insignificant reason termed “Royal” Yoga, consistent with all religious systems in one way or another, sound morals and ethics were a core prerequisite on the path of ultimate liberation or illumination, or in Patanjali’s terminology samadhi, a goal which can be reached only by the practice of sound morals and ethics.

In contrast to the Abrahamic religions which rested their moral and ethical code on the revelation of God as handed down by their respective prophets, to which its followers must abide or they be subject to eternal damnation in Hell, which were wrapped up in mandates of specific modes of worship, Yoga as it emerges as an offshoot of the philosophy of the Vedas, aka Hindu philosophy, in the first few centuries CE as reflected by Patanjali’s Yoga sutras focus on the scientific method of the production of liberation, irrespective and independent of the object of meditation, or God, that one chooses to believe in.

 

All great religions speak of mankind’s special place in the universe of creation.  In the Eastern tradition specifically, as taught by Ramakrishna and in Tibetan Buddhism for example, the uniqueness of the human life, the jiva, as an instrument of the direct perception of the divine and the vehicle of liberation is emphasized.

In the Buddhist tradition, there is a wonderful story, a parable, which illustrates this.  There is a turtle in a great, vast ocean.  And in this vast ocean there is a small ring that floats on its surface somewhere, a ring with a circumference no bigger than a few feet across.  This ring bobs and floats in this vast sea carried by currents and storms and waves.  In this same ocean, there lives a sea turtle.  A turtle which like all turtles must pop his nose above the surface every few minutes in order to breathe and stay alive, even though he lives most of his life under the sea.  It is said that to be born in a human, and have the opportunity for liberation and illumination which is unique to our species, is said to be as lucky as fortunate and as improbable as that very same sea turtle, swimming in the vastness of the great ocean of the universe, popping its head up for air and happening to stick his nose through that small ring bobbing and floating on the surface.  As Ramakrishna so succinctly puts it, “He is born in vain, who having attained the human birth, so difficult to get, does not attempt to realize God in this very life.”

What is it that is so special about the human form?  The Yoga tradition specifically calls out this form as a tool for illumination and realization, in a manner that is quite direct.  Raja Yoga describes how to perfect and hone this human form to prepare it for illumination, how to harness its energy.  This system describes how to perfect the strengthening and flexibility of the body (asanas), use the life force within the body (prana) and direct it upward through the spiritual channels that flow through the human form (chakras) running parallel to the spine (sushumna), for the purpose of moksha, or mukti, of the jiva, or liberation of the soul.

This is the serpent of Kundalini which is implied in the Hindu/Yoga tradition and is explicitly called out in the Tantric Yoga tradition as Shakti, the divine force, typically associated with the goddess Kali that underlies all creation.  This Shakti, or Kundalini, typically lies latent at the base of the spine of the individual centered around the lower three chakras which are associated with the basic, core needs of the human form – eating, sleeping and sexual desire.  The doctrine of Yoga as outlined by Patanjali, although it doesn’t speak of Kundalini directly, is effectively the art of honing and facilitating the upward movement of this energy, up through the system of chakras in the human form as outlined in Tantric systems of Yoga, for the purpose of liberation, or in Patanjali’s nomenclature for the purpose of experiencing samadhi.  Patanjali’s system starts with principles that govern what to avoid (yama) and what to observe or cultivate (niyama), providing for a foundation of ethics, morals and even the basic notion of worship itself as core principles for anyone wishing to practice yoga with the intent of liberating oneself from the world of name and form, the endless suffering that is called out so specifically in the Buddhist tradition, which shares a common philosophical parent with Yoga i.e. the Vedas.

This practice of Yoga is essentially the conscious practice of awakening the energy or life force within each and every one of us, a notion which is very much aligned with the Christian notion of the Holy Spirit.  Tantric Yoga specifically is designed to lift this Kundalini, latent serpent power, to the higher chakras located at the region of the heart, the throat, the forehead and ultimately through the chakra located at the top of the head, the thousand petalled lotus, which once opened yields the state of samadhi.   Once these chakras are opened, through the practice of Yoga and other Tantric rituals that leverage mandalas (visual symbols) and mantras (incantations and sound), the jiva experiences unrefined and unfiltered consciousness, higher and more subtle realms of reality where the distinction between the observer and the observed gives way to the direct perception of divine consciousness, called samadhi in the Yoga tradition or in referred to as satchitananda, Existence Knowledge Bliss Absolute, in the Upanishads.

In this Yoga tradition, one which has been adopted by the West in the last hundred years or so as an alternative in many respects to the Abrahamic religions that have dominated Western thought for almost two thousand years, the human form is perceived as a bundle of energy, energy that is directly related to the cosmic energy from which it draws its source.  Is that not the true meaning behind the notion of mankind being created in God’s image which is a core tenet of Christianity, Islam and certainly Judaism from which this notion ultimately derives, i.e. in Genesis?  The Yoga tradition describes this in more concrete terms though, explaining why we as a species are so special, along with a fairly structured path toward the ultimate realization, the quintessential understanding, of this connection between the creator and the created.

From Charlie’s perspective however, this connection between the individual Soul and the universal Soul is essentially what all of the ancient cosmological systems were about, these same mythological stories of the creation of the universe and mankind’s place in it which are looked upon today as mere stories of the ignorant trying to explain that which these ancient peoples did not understand, notions that we now have a “better” grasp on in the age of science, were actually deep and profound mystical truths whose power had been lost throughout the ages as the metaphors had been watered down into stories that found their way into the literature of various religious systems – the Vedas of the Hindus, the Theogony of Hesiod, the traditions which yielded the cosmologies of the Ancient Egyptians which are found in the Book of Res-Menu, the cosmology inherent in the clearly sacred text of the Derveni papyrus, and of course in Genesis of the Old Testament which sits behind Christianity, Islam and Judaism to which some 4 billion people ascribe to today in some form or another.

The Western religious traditions had abandoned this notion of direct perception and realization of the divine, even though Jesus called it out specifically.  Why?  Because they were designed to unite an empire, unite a people, and in so doing could only ascribe to one path of worship and were forced to formulate, and legislate, their teachings such that the power of the divine was closely guarded by the select few.  But the Eastern traditions went down a different path, where not only was it believed the individual soul could be liberated from the world of ceaseless suffering, but that this liberation was the very purpose to existence, the ultimate goal of the soul as it were, the eudaimonia of Aristotle (typically translated as “happiness”) which is the ultimate purpose (telos) of the human being and thereby defines its existence to a great extent, much more so than the material causes which bring about the existence of the human form which we are so focused on in biology and western medicine today.

The Eastern traditions of Yoga and Buddhism not only lay out a system of ethics and morals within which life should be lived, but also lay out a purpose to life which is based upon the goal of, and fundamental belief in, liberation as the ultimate goal of life.  This is the ultimate freedom from suffering in the Buddhist tradition and the attainment of samadhi of Patanjali’s Yoga.  They all cajole us to go back to the source, to recognize our connection with supreme consciousness.  Not through any specific prophet or message, not espousing one set of beliefs, one God over any other, but the practice of Yoga, meditation and living in harmony with our surroundings as well as the people and society within which we live, in order that this illumination, this liberation, this “happiness” can be experienced.  And in this philosophy, the human form is said to be higher than even the forms of the Gods and Angels, for although in the world of the Gods there lie unlimited desires and powers, the prospect and chance of liberation does not exist.  This view of the mortal life being so special and unique can be found implicit in Greek mythology as well, where the realm of the gods and the realm of men mixed and coalesced for centuries prior to the advent of the historical record, giving rise to its mythology and the Age of Heroes for which arguably the Greeks are perhaps best known.

So it is up to the Jiva then, the individual soul, to determine what to do with this great energy that it has access to, this great opportunity for liberation.  Vivekananda, one of the great modern expounders on Vedanta and Yoga, talks about how all beings are moving toward the same goal whether they know it or not, either consciously or subconsciously.  That the natural flow and path of everything in existence is to get back to its source, whether this is directly perceived or not.  A reflection at the microcosmic level of the omnipresent inbreathing and outbreathing of Brahman, the process of evolution and devolution of all energy and matter from and back to its source, of which the human being represents its most latently powerful and beautiful form.


[1] It should be noted that Samkhya philosophy (Yoga) and Buddhism are related doctrines, both sharing a common parent philosophical system in Vedanta, hence their similarities.

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

The Game of Kings, Kipling, and Ritual: Strange Bedfellows

What struck Charlie as he dug deeper into the extensive philosophical and metaphysical systems that were created by Plato and even more so by Aristotle was an abandonment of the faith based mythological traditions of their predecessors in lieu of the power of the human mind, in its essential form of reason and logic.  The dawn of civilization in the Mediterranean was marked by trade and cultural exchange no doubt, this theme of cultural borrowing that Professor Lumina was so intrigued by.  But it was marked as well by the domestication of animals, the creation of language and writing which allowed for the creation of more abstract forms of thought and exchange, the creation of monumental structures such as the Pyramids of the Egyptians and the great temples of the Greeks, the invention of agriculture that provided the sustenance to support larger populations and the creation of urban centers which further facilitated exchange and places of learning, the invention of advanced forms of weaponry ship building to facilitate warfare and territorial expansion, and the building of roads and means of transportation that fueled the advance of civilization that so marked the populations of the Western world in the first millennium BCE.

All of these technical advancements must have led to mankind’s belief in the powers of their own mind, their own creative (and destructive) powers, the development of mathematics and building that fueled these societies all must have lent credence to the belief that it was man that was the great creator, and that the mind of man, reason itself, was the potent force behind it, and that in turn the gods that they had believed in for so long and the underlying myths that gave these gods life, as well as the rituals that were the means to supplicate these gods, must be mere fabrications of the mind, creations for a people who did not truly understand the nature of the world around them.  The seeds of Reason had been sown, and as they bore fruit they replaced the gardens of mythology with more sound analytical thinking and philosophical systems that simply made more “sense” than the mythology and ritualistic based belief systems that had supported mankind through their hunter-gatherer roots in the Stone Age and Paleolithic eras that preceded it.

These Greek philosophical systems questioned these age old belief systems, and in turn replaced them with more robust intellectual frameworks that were based upon the powers of the mind, on reason and logic, induction and deduction, on mathematics and astronomy.  And it was the questioning of faith that struck Charlie as the guiding force which drove these developments.  Were these age old stories, these myths told by the great poets of society true?  Should they believe these stories just because their ancestors had believed them for so many generations?  What in fact should the criteria for truth be?  What was knowledge?  What was the essence of existence itself and what were its constituents?

The Greeks were the first to start the ask these questions seriously, and it was the proliferation and beauty of their language which allowed them to construct the abstract systems of thought necessary to support these new systems of belief, alongside the development of their liberal and “democratic” society which permitted these systems of belief to flourish and permitted the questioning of the belief systems of their ancestors, and to question authority itself really which rested on the authority of these old gods and goddesses, and the fear of not supplicating to them in a manner that pleased them.

This question of faith, and the idea and relevance of the rituals that underpinned faith, reminded Charlie an awful lot of some of the main philosophical principles that he had learned as a tennis player, ironically enough things he’d learned to try and stimulate peak performance during match play, the “mental” aspect of the game that had gotten him into yoga in the first place.  The zone.

 

“What do you mean we’re going on tonight?”  Charlie spoke in broken Spanish.  He hadn’t learned Spanish in school so much, but he’d picked up a lot of it while living in Spain.  Traveling around in a caravan with two Spanish guys that don’t speak a word in English for eight weeks is the best way to pick up Spanish, let me assure you.  They learned around a dozen words in English and Charlie learned how to stay alive in Spain.  That skill required a few hundred words at least.  His accent was not bad though, even the locals gave him that.

“You’re the next match on court one.”  Marcelo, the tournament director, spoke to me without looking up from the draw.  Marcelo worked for the International Tennis Federation (ITF), but he was Spanish.  The ITF ran some of the smaller professional events, and certainly within a given region you saw some of the same tournament directors around.  Let’s just say that it was important to be nice to Marcelo.

Marcelo’s English was good however.  He was able to communicate with the other English speaking players that knew no Spanish, nor cared to learn.  He was a young man, probably in his late twenties.  His hair was short, military style.  He and Charlie had grown to know each other over the past few months.  Charlie had played a few Satellites[1] in Spain over the prior few months, and Marcelo ran pretty much the whole Spanish Satellite circuit.  This was business though, and it was getting late.  It was eight-thirty, and the moon was already glowing in the night sky.  Night match in Malaga, Spain in May.  One of 4 foreign players in a qualifying draw of 128.  Sweet, Chalrie had been waiting all day and now he was basically the last match on.

The match on court one was in the third set.  The matches on the other courts were coming to an end.  Charlie couldn’t believe that he was going to put me on at nine o’clock at night.  That was unheard of.  It was even against ITF rules.  But that was okay, because they didn’t play by the rules in Spain anyway.  Charlie had learned at least that much in his time in Spain.  And he certainly knew better than to start quoting the ITF rule book to the tournament director.  He wasn’t that stupid.

Charlie tried the soft approach.  “Don’t you think it’s getting a little late Marcelo?”  He tried not to sound sarcastic.  It was basically night time.  No one else was going on at that hour.  Send on the lone American way after anyone could possibly be interested in watching some tennis.

There were four foreigners in the draw out of a qualifying draw of some 250 players – an Aussie, a Brit, Niels the South African, and Charlie the New Yorker.

Although Niels was South African, he was really a British at heart, the British culture being instilled in him from his youth even though he grew up in Cape Town.  He was not affected by Apartheid per se, but the aura of Apartheid surrounded him culturally and sociologically and to this end he was a product of Apartheid.  Niels wasn’t white but he wasn’t black either.  He was a hybrid of sorts, and apparently South Africa had a classification of society, a social stratification as it were, based on the color/darkness of your skin, part of the system of apartheid really as far as Charlie could gather.  The blacker you were, the more far down the rung you were.  So Niels wasn’t at the bottom of the social rung, but he wasn’t at the top either.  And even though he had grown up somewhat privileged, spending most of his youth on the tennis court or travelling to tennis tournaments with his parents, he still ran up against discrimination every once and a while.  Just enough to show him that there was some basic injustice in the world, and many times there wasn’t a thing you could do about it.  But Niels was the product of a British colony, like the Aussies in that respect, and he had that regal adorable South African accent – an accent which only the well-traveled could place to South Africa, as opposed to Australia or Great Britain.

So the four foreigners had spent some good hours together over the prior two weeks, the tournament in Malaga being the third leg of the four week Satellite event.  And over those two weeks, their matches had started to develop an “us against them” sort of tone.  The Spanish satellites were Spanish.  That much was clear.  The ITF sponsored the tournaments, that’s where the money came from, but Charlie had begun to realize why there were so few foreigners, estranjeros as the Spanish referred to them, in these tournaments.

So Charlie sat by the tournament desk and waited.  There was no use arguing with Marcelo.  He was going to do whatever he wanted and there was nothing Charlie was going to be able to do about it.  Charlie could bark all night, but he was still going to be the next match on court one.  So Charlie just buckled himself in and tried to save his energy for the match.  A few minutes later his name was called.  He couldn’t remember the name of his opponent, but he’d never forget that match.  That was for sure.

They headed out on court and started warming up.  It was the legitimately night time.  It was dark and there was a cool, crisp air that came up from the sea.  The courts weren’t on the sea, but they were close.  Malaga was a tourist destination for those visiting Spain when the weather was good.  Many of the Spanish had summer homes there.  But it was too early in the season for it to be crowded just yet, hence the reason why the facility was available for two hundred young men to come together to fight for a hand full of ATP points.

The match started like any other – racquet toss, a few early holds of serve.  There weren’t too many people watching, just a few guys who were interested in the two competitors.  But Charlie’s friends were there – the Aussie, the Brit and the South African.  He noticed that.  And most of all Charlie noticed Niels, sitting right in the front row of the bleachers, just behind where Charlie’s chair was that he sat on during changeovers.  Those guys didn’t need to be there, it was late and some of them had matches to play the next day, but they were there.  And over the course of the match it was their presence, silent as they may have been at times, that carried Charlie through that match.

So Charlie’s “team” was there, perched in the bleachers with nothing else to do on a Sunday night in what you could definitely call the middle of nowhere.  And of course Charlie’s opponent’s friends.  He had a lot of them, Charlie thought.  It was his home country, so that seemed far enough at the outset.  The bleachers could fit a lot more people though, it was court one after all, the main court in the facility.  They hosted some bigger tournaments there throughout the year, so it was a legitimate venue.  But this was a smaller event.  And it was the qualifying.  So the bleachers were all but empty relative to how many people they could hold.  An odd sprinkling of people set to watch a last round qualifying match with two unseeded players, in Malaga, Spain.  I mean who really cared.  Really.

And then some typical competitive nonsense began to unfold.  The Spanish had a nasty habit of coaching during play.  One of the unique aspects of the game of tennis, at all levels, was that there was no coaching permitted, not during the match at all and not during change overs or even in between sets.  It was one of the aspects of tennis, part of its history, that made the game special and unique in the arena of sports.  It was mono y mono out there.  A mentally draining affair where you had no one to rely on but yourself, all the way through from beginning to end.  That was one of the reasons why the mental aspect of the game was so important, because if you weren’t there mentally, you were done.  There were no teammates to lean on, no break on the sidelines while someone lese picked up the slack.  No coach to give you guidance or pick up your spirits if things started going out of hand.  Just you.  And if you couldn’t handle yourself, if you couldn’t take the pressure, then the unfoldment of your mind, the breaking of your spirit, was out there in the open for everyone to see.

But in Charlie’s experience in Spain, players would constantly be taking direction from their coaches throughout the match.  Their coach would perch themselves behind the court and whisper/bark/gesture instructions to their players throughout the match.  Charlie was used to it.  But it was late.  It was a big match for him, the winner made it to the main draw, and there was the opportunity to win some ATP points if he could get through this match.  It was late, a big match, and Charlie was cranky.

 

There was a relationship between the mind and body that Charlie had become very aware of in his travels on the professional tennis circuit.  Tennis coaches and psychologists talked about the importance of eating right, of training properly, or hydrating yourself well before and during a match.  But the element of the complex relationship between mind and body had been underemphasized, at least in his training as a junior player and at the college level.  It was this ‘state of mind’ thing, a question of mental focus and concentration that was clearly integral to peak performance.  The game was mental as well as physical and when one aspect of this symbiotic relationship began to break down, performance suffered considerably, this much was clear to Charlie, hence his interest in yoga and its mental aspects that spoke specifically to the role of concentration and focus in meditation practice and mind/body balance.

It was clear for example, that when Charlie was relaxed, well rested, and felt physically strong (i.e. not injured) that was when he played his best.  And reproducing this state of mind, especially during the big points of the match, was the core essence of what you tried to achieve with your training.  But the emotional side of the game, the psychological side, the production of the state of mind which supported, and in fact was a requirement for, peak performance Charlie believed thought was not really expounded enough or taught enough by the teachers and coaches of the game.

At some level it came down to your support system.  Your friends, your family, your girlfriend.  All of these subtle elements of your life that gave you balance, or imbalance, emotionally were just as important as the physical aspect of your training.  These were prerequisites as it were to ensuring that your body, your mind, was ready from battle and could be pushed to its limits with limited amount of damage – damage both physically and mentally.  And in fact, focusing on this balance, and how important it was to success in any endeavor, was something Charlie didn’t really master until much later in his life.  When his days of gladiating were well behind him.  But certainly during this match, and in his professional playing days in general, he realized quite clearly how this emotional stability factor and this mental concentration factor were cornerstones to his success as an athlete.

But on this night, Charlie had his friends at least.  His temporal friends.  His “team” as it were.  His friends he had traveled with, slept with, ate with, trained with, and talked with over the last few weeks.  A bond much stronger than you would think could develop over a short time, but a strong bond nonetheless.  They wouldn’t be on those bleachers if it wasn’t.  That was clear.  And their presence there and their support gave him strength.

Over time, Charlie lost touch with the Aussie and the Brit, their names fading into the recesses of his memory.  But he remembered their faces.  And their games of course.  But Niels and Charlie always remained close, as indicated by their correspondence after he had left the game of gladiating behind, and their continued dialogue and echange of the ideas of the mind, and the spirit, and their exploration of the idea of what it was that was “real” and “true” and what systems of belief could be trusted and believed in and which could not.  This frank exchange of ideas and strong bond they had developed together in moments like these, when your physical and mental skills were tested to the limits, and when all you had was a few friends on the sidelines who watched while you battled on court for those ATP points.  And the match that unfolded late that evening in southern Spain, and Niels’s role in keeping Charlie present and focused, and protected and safe at some level, when all around him seemed to be falling into chaos, was perhaps one of the reasons they remained close many years after their traveling days were behind them.

 

At a certain point Charlie had had enough.  Again it was late and he was cranky and the match was close, and it had great significance for both players.  Finally he broke his silence, and his stoic presence changed when he finally blurted out, “Coaching is not permitted here gents.”  Charlie stated bluntly to his opponent, piecing together a few Spanish words that got his point across.  His opponent ignored him of course.

It was a tight first set now, the tension on court rising as the two played deeper into the first set.  His opponent was clearly receiving verbal cues from his coach when he went to the far side of the court, direct instruction that seemed to not only be words of instruction but also specific commands about where to hit the ball and when.  They might as well have been having a cup of tea together.  They didn’t make much of an attempt to hide the fact that they were having an open dialogue.  They were daring Charlie to do something about it and Charlie had had enough.

“You can’t coach!”  This time Charlie said it directly to his opponent’s coach that was sitting just behind the baseline on one side of the court.  He said it in English and he said it loudly enough where not only the kid’s coach could here but that everyone in the stands watching could hear.  The guy knew exactly what had been said to him.  Exactly.  A look of death is what Charlie got in return.  ‘This was going to be fun’, Charlie thought to himself.

So Charlie found himself on court against a local Spaniard, battling to get into the main draw of this event and get some of those ATP points he had been fighting for so long over in Europe the past year, and he has to play against not only his opponent but also his coach, which was a direct violation of not only the spirit of the game, but a very clear and direct breach of the rules.  And Charlie needed this match.  Badly.  He had worked very hard to get himself into this position.  He’d only reached the main draw of an ATP event one other time in his brief professional tennis career, and now he had a great opportunity.  This guy was beatable.  He had beaten two seeds in the qualifying tournament just as Charlie had.  And there they were, two unseeded competitors, one match away from the main draw of the event.  One match away from being in a position to win some of those valuable ATP points.  BIG.  Charlie needed this win.  Everything he had trained for, had prepared for, in his playing days as a junior, in his college career, and now in his journeys on the professional circuit, all led him up to this moment.  Charlie could see that as clearly as he could see the moon above him as it rose and shone brightly on the far side of the court, high up in the heavens.

Many sports fans have a hard time understanding why coaching is not allowed in tennis.  It seems strange.  Coaching is permitted in virtually every other sport – soccer, basketball, football, the list goes on.  But tennis, steeped in tradition, does not permit coaching on the professional ATP tour.  But this rule, this golden rule, speaks to the importance and respect that the tennis world, steeped in its centuries of tradition[2], has for the mental aspect of the game.  The unique aspect of the game that pits two mind/body systems against each other on a court drawn up of lines, played with yellow fuzzy balls and a racquet with strings in it.  For tennis, more so than any other sport, pit the minds of two opponents against each other, and forced the competitors to face their demons in a way like no other sport could.  You were out there alone.  You had to battle your own thoughts as much as the performance of the opponent.

And it was your own thoughts, your own fears and psychoses that could stand in between you and peak performance like nothing else your opponent could throw out at you.  The battle against your opponent combined with the battle of your own personal demons and faith and belief in yourself.  A battle that was the microcosm of the battle of life, the subject of the great epic poem the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna inspired Arjuna the great warrior on the eve of battle to fight, and to fulfill his duty as a warrior and to his people despite the moral dilemma he faced with the death that surely awaited him, for either his or his brothers and sisters that he was to fight against.  In the words of the great champion Andre Agassi, the Zen Master of tennis:

 

It’s no accident, I think, that #tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature. Even the structure of tennis, the way the pieces fit inside one another like Russian nesting dolls, mimics the structure of our days. Points become games become sets become tournaments, and it’s all so tightly connected that any point can become the turning point. It reminds me of the way seconds become minutes become hours, and any hour can be our finest. Or darkest. It’s our choice…[3]

 

 

And yet Charlie’s opponent, in arguably the biggest match of his professional tennis career up to that point, had a coach, a direct support system for his mind that gave him an unclear advantage, an unfair and unjust advantage.  He had a psychological safety net that was clearly in violation of the rules, rules that were steeped in tradition for centuries.  And tennis had another rule, one that was even more subtle and nuanced than the no coaching rule.  One that was rarely enforced and a rule that was nonetheless part of the fundamental principles of the game.  The rule was that the receiver must play at the pace of the server.  From the ITF rulebook, the rule states: ‘The server shall not serve until the receiver is ready. However, the receiver shall play to the reasonable pace of the server and shall be ready to receive within a reasonable time of the server being ready.’[4]

Kind of a soft rule, and yet part of the game nonetheless.  It was a rule that in modern times began to be enforced more and more given the amount of time that the pros were beginning to take in between points.  Every player had his own place.  The rhythm within which his peak performance tended to manifest most naturally.  Part of the game in turn, was to not only find your optimal rhythm, but also to break the rhythm of the opponent.  John McEnroe, one of the other legends of the game, was a master at this.  If John felt the rhythm, the momentum of the match was swaying in his opponent’s favor, if he felt the match getting out of hand, he would invariably cause a scene, question a line call, berate a spectator, do anything to disrupt the flow of the match and break his opponent’s rhythm.  John could take over the court and the arena like no other champion before, or after, him.  This was where his tantrums and outbursts came from.  His desperate need to control the events as they unfolded around him.  Nothing was more frustrating to Johnny Mac than a tennis match that was not under his control and no one was a master at dictating the rhythm, the pace, the flow of a match like Johnny Mac.  This was his great strength and source of greatness, and his great Achilles heel at the same time as he was berated and cajoled in the media for his tantrums late in his career.

To drive this sense of rhythm, to “tune in” so to speak to that rhythm that made you most comfortable and freed your mind to execute a serve as well as possible, every player had a number of bounces that they took before hitting a serve.  Charlie liked to think of it as every player having a “number”.  He categorized the player, assigned him a number, equivalent to the number of bounces they needed and wanted prior to hitting a serve.  And if the number changed, it was a reflection of a change in the state of mind of your opponent.  It could mean he was taking more time, trying to achieve greater concentration.  Or it could mean that he was rushing, taking less time and his mind was starting to break down and the match was beginning to take its toll on him mentally.

Charlie was a three bouncer, he liked a fairly quick pace.  He didn’t like to think too much out there.  To Charlie his mind could be his enemy, if he thought too much he tightened up and that affected his shot execution.  Agassi was the same way, he was a one or two bouncer, played at a very quick pace.  In the modern game, there was a tendency to take even more time before the serve, one of the reasons why the rules were changed to give players just 25 seconds between points rather than the 30 that had been part of the game so long, because players were abusing the time limits between points and disrupting the flow of the game, which in the end was hurting the game at large and its popularity because matches were taking longer and spectators were losing patience.

Nowadays there were ten bouncers out there, fifteen bouncers even.  Novak Djokovic, one of the great champions of modern times with 6 grand slams to his name[5], redefined the bouncer limits.  He was like a twelve or fifteen bouncer.  But his bouncer number increased with the importance of the point.  Break point down, 5-6 in the third set.  Twenty bounces.  Maybe twenty-two.  But it was a symptom of the mental pressure he was under, the more pressure the more bounces he took.  It was like a mental disorder.  And the more bounces he took before he served invariable the tighter his body was during his service motion and the less effective his serve was.  This was something he greatly improved upon later in his career, especially in his runs that led to his grand slam titles, and his he gained greater control of his mind, found a place of peace and tranquility prior to his serve that facilitated better execution of the serve itself, the most important shot of the game no doubt, the number of bounces he took before serving decreased.  He had gained control of his mind, and in so doing the manifestation of his psychosis that was the source of all those bounces and all that extra time to prepare for his serve, to “control” his nerves, had dissipated and improved and the effect on his overall game and performance was significant, and it showed up quite clearly in his results on court.

The number of bounces you used to drop into your ritual of beginning a point, that defined your rhythm.  It defined the pace with which the points within your service game were played.  On grass Charlie was a one bouncer.  But on clay and hard courts he was a three bouncer.  Three bounces for sure.  One, two, three, strike.  And he didn’t take too much time between points either.  He liked moving at a good pace.  He liked the rhythm of it.  He had picked it up from watching Agassi, or at least so he liked to believe.  Agassi played faster when he got older.  Like he just couldn’t wait to get on with it.  To force the events to unfold at a dizzying pace.  To lose yourself in the rhythm.  The ‘Zen Master’, the nickname that Barbara Streisand gave to Agassi, a nickname that stuck in no small measure due to its accuracy – and you can’t argue with Barbara Streisand.  There is a special place in hell reserved for those that disagree with Barbara Streisand, and they don’t serve cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.

But what Charlie didn’t know then, but what he learned about more and more as he studied the ancient traditions of the east, was that this bouncing of the ball, the rhythm and peace that it created in your mind, was simply a practice of ritual, a ritual that was designed to relax the mind and the senses, and a ritual intended with a specific result, namely perfect execution of the shot at hand, just as the rituals of the ancients were designed to effect a specific result, the result dependent on the specific ritual being performed.

But Charlie still needed to find a way through this match, despite the fact that this Spaniard was clearly taking advantage of the fact that he was playing in his home country and bending and stretching the rules as much as possible in his favor, that Charlie was an estrangero and could barely speak the native tongue.

 

Matches in the qualifying rounds of these small pro tournaments never had dedicated umpires.  There were roaming umpires, so if you had a problem on court you could go grab one and he’d help the players work out the situation, and of course occasionally call foot-faults on you from three courts away, but no one was roaming at this hour.  They were the last match on court and everyone at the tournament was now waiting for them to finish so they could all go home for the night.  This had put a few more butts in the seats actually, because there was no one else to watch.  But no roaming umpires available.  Sorry.

Furthermore, cheating was pretty rampant at this level.  Players got away with anything they could basically, and there was a lot of bullying and “shortening of the court”, as the players used to call it.  And this Spaniard wasn’t doing Charlie any favors in that department either.  It was clear at this point Charlie needed an umpire, things were getting kind of out of hand and part of being a pro is recognizing when things were getting out of hand, when the flow or rhythm of the match was not in your favor, and doing something about it.  The tension was definitely rising on court, Charlie was getting crankier, and he wasn’t getting through to either his opponent or his opponent’s coach that coaching shouldn’t be going on.  And he needed this match, and he needed to level the playing field.

Enter Marcelo.  Charlie ran off court and got him.  Just what Marcelo wanted, to sit in the chair for some meaningless match at the end of the night between some cocky American and one of the local Spanish talent.  Once Charlie made this move the dynamics of the match definitely changed though, and that’s what Charlie had intended.  The stakes were now higher.  The tension now rose.  Clearly any sense of trust between Charlie and his opponent, a relationship that was tenuous at best in any match at the pro level, was completely eradicated.  Now that there was an umpire, calls were being questioned more often, not less.  The Spaniard dropped a little further from the baseline to make sure his feet didn’t cross the baseline prior to his serve, the dreaded foot-fault.  Charlie did the same.  You could feel the electricity in the air.

Charlie could sense the electricity in the air, it was palpable and everyone around them who was watching the match could feel it as well.  That old expression that you could cut the tension with a knife seemed appropriate.  Charlie didn’t know it them but a moment of what the Tibetan Buddhists referred to as bardo, or opportunity, had now arisen[6].  A moment where the flow of life, an opportunity for awakening (or in this case for winning or lose an important match) had arisen given all of the factors and elements that were now crescendoing as this match unfolded.  Charlie could sense it as any professional athlete could, and in the words of the great Robert Horry, the end of game three point NBA championship master who had hit so many big shots in his career, game ending shots in huge moments over and over again, “pressure can burst a pipe, or pressure can make a diamond”.  This was clearly one of those moments.

The good news was that the coaching stopped.  And this player that was so used to receiving instructions from behind the court from his coach started to flounder a little bit when this channel was cut off.  Charlie was hoping that was going to happen, and he began to see the web of the Spaniard start to unravel, to see the opening in his mind, the splinter which Charlie could exploit.

Breaking your opponent.  Breaking him physically and mentally.  Chipping away at his armor until he was wounded and on the ground kicking and screaming.  If you didn’t take joy in the process, relish in the physical and mental game of chess that tennis truly was, then you had no business competing, certainly not at this level.  Because it was only through love of the game, love of the unique mix of mental and physical opponents that challenged you during every match, that you could somehow make peace with it.  And deal with the dizzying heights that came from victory, along with the depths of despair that came from defeat.  That you could play the game to win, with all your energy, and yet at the same time accept the pain of a loss and wake up the morning after, lick your wounds, and prepare to put yourself out there one more time.  Against another opponent, in another city on another surface.  Accept the game in all its rawness, in all its glory which meant dealing quite directly with the world of opposites, the yin and yang of the east that played out on a court of lines and with yellow fuzzy balls, a court and game designed by monks ironically enough, played out in the courtyards in the 17th and 18th century in what now called “real tennis”, or “court tennis” and was the game upon which modern day tennis was developed.

Only in an individual sport like tennis, did losses present themselves so clearly.  If you didn’t win, you came in second in a game of two players.  There was no one else to blame but yourself.  You could whine and moan about the conditions, about the speed of the court, about the balls, about some injury or another.  But any tennis player, professional or otherwise, knows implicitly that the conditions are the same for both competitors, and it is the victor who is able to overcome the challenges of the conditions, the game of the opponent, and the psychological battle that rages within one’s mind as the match unfolds, that produces a winner on court and ultimately a champion.

This rawness of losing was very difficult to stomach sometimes, and you truly needed to love the game in order to pick yourself back up and compete again after a devastating loss, losses which invariably came, came to every player that played the game no matter what level.  Charlie loved the game, at least he thought he did.  Otherwise what the hell was he doing in the middle of nowhere playing a match against some unknown player in front of just a hand full of people, most of which could be categorized as strangers, chasing after some silly ATP points.

One of the other unique aspects of the game of tennis is the prevalence of losing.  Every competitor had to deal with it.  And it was this shared experience that Charlie thought brought tennis players together.  This shared rawness of putting yourself out there, and exposing yourself to the challenges of your mind, along with your opponent, that Charlie thought brought all players of the game together.  For in every tournament, there is only one player, just one, that doesn’t lose.  Every single other player in the draw loses.  They could lose early, in the qualifying rounds even, or get all the way to the final and lose there.  But everyone, except the winner who held up the tournament trophy at the end of the week, lost somewhere along the way.  In a draw of 128 players for example, the size of the main draw for grand slam events, every single player left the tournament a loser except for one, the guy (or girl) who held up the trophy at the end of the tournament .  That was the nature of the beast.  Even the top players lost half their matches over the course of the year, only the very very top, the top 10 or 20 in the world, ending up the season with winning records.  And it was the losses, much more so than the victories, and how the player dealt with and evolved after those losses, which defined the player.

Charlie had heard a story once, one of the many myths of the game that were part of the tradition, that after Boris Becker, another of the legends of the game, the winner of the Wimbledon title at the age of 17, the youngest ever, the winner of 6 grand slam singles titles as well, that after one of his losses in the finals of Wimbledon one year he was so distraught, do devastated, that he didn’t leave his apartment for a full week after the match.  Charlie didn’t know if it was a true story or not, but he certainly could relate and it certainly wouldn’t surprise him if it was true.

Was it love of the game, or a fascination of the journey of the of the depths of his being that pushed him to compete week after week, despite how difficult and unforgiving the challenge of rising in the rank and file of the tennis world was?  Was it some psychosis that drove him?  Some very basic elemental desire to prove himself that kept him coming back again and again to the game that seemed to be the source of such great emotional strain and suffering?  Was it the dizzying heights of victory that he was pursuing?  It was probably a bit of everything, Charlie mused.

But at that moment on court, Charlie was focused on trying to win.  Nothing else.  Every atom of his being was focused on trying to choke the life out of his opponent, while he had the chance, while he saw the chink in the armor, while he saw the opening, and while the opportunity was clearly present before him to put some points, some games, and some sets between him and his opponent.  For if Charlie had learned nothing in his tenure as a professional tennis player, going all the way back to his days competing as a junior at 10 and 11 years old, was that opportunities present themselves in a match typically only once.  And when they do, you must pounce on them.  For if you don’t capitalize on these opportunities, you will invariably be plaqued by regret and remorse for not having done so.  It was these moments of bardo, moments of opportunity, that needed to be seized upon.  And step one was you needed to be aware they were present, and step two was you needed to capitalize.  Sometimes, if you didn’t capitalize on those moments and you ended up losing the match, the mental anguish of the loss could pursue you for years after, even decades.  Just ask Johnny Mac about his loss to Lendl in the finals of the French Open, a title he never won, where he squandered a two sets to love lead and up a break in the third set.  That won left a mark that’s for sure.  It was this fear of regret of a potential loss when he saw this window of opportunity, this opening, so clearly, that perhaps more than anything else drove Charlie on that night.  What pushed him to squeeze victory out of a very precarious situation, when the stars arguably were not lined up in his favor.

The good news for Charlie is that once he brought Marcelo on court, despite Marcelo’s Spanish roots, the pace of play on Charlie’s serve started to level out, and the Spaniard no longer had access to his coach.  His coach, in fact, was asked to move from beyond the baseline into the bleacher seats along with the rest of the spectators.  And the Spaniard was so accustomed to receiving direct instruction from his coach, sometimes even during points while they were being played, that when Charlie cut off that source of instruction from him, the poor bastard started to crumble.  His rhythm was broken, a rift in his mental state had been created.  Charlie had found the key that unlocked the room where the source of the Spaniard’s competitive spirit dwelt.  And Charlie charged right into that room, and made himself right at home, disrupting the Spaniard’s rhythm, getting into his head quite literally, and in turn disrupting his ability to play at his best, disrupting his peak performance.  It was almost painful to watch actually, even as his opponent.  To see such great play and competitive spirit turn into an error strewn display of frustration and anger.  Ok maybe it wasn’t so painful to watch.

Charlie started to gain momentum, the Spaniard started to make errors and get frustrated, and just like that Charlie saw a window to pulling out the match.  Up a set and a break.  Here we go.  The end is near.  And as the end of the match started to unfold on court, Charlie noticed that the bleachers had a few more bodies in them.  He wasn’t sure where they came from, but he was pretty sure that he had found himself right in the middle of a pretty good spectacle.  One with a villain, and a fallen hero.  Charlie was on the wrong side of this tale though.  At least on the wrong side from the spectator’s perspective.  From a won and loss perspective of course, Charlie very much liked the side he was on, the villain part he could deal with.

 

Charlie couldn’t help thinking though, even in the heat of battle, that this game was truly a test of the human spirit, a test of mental as well as physical strength and a test of skill and training, all wrapped up into one contest.  And the end result, the winner and loser, so illustrative of life itself on many levels, just as Agassi so elegantly put it, was the perfect example of the cold, heartless reality of a competitive game of tennis and in turn life.  Of one competitor doing everything in his power to break his opponent to achieve victory.  And there was a beauty in that, no question.  A beauty in the stark reality of it, in the test of the limits of the man’s competitive spirit.  But there was a harshness in it too.  A sense of brutal reality that one might find on the plains of the Serengeti where a lion stalks and hunts down the weakest of the gazelle so that she can feed her cubs.  Where there must be death in order to support life.  The whole circle of life thing as cliché as it was.

And Charlie had been here before, many times before.  And this training kicked in as he tried to navigate through points, and in turn games to create an opening for a victory.  And in the chaos of the moment, as Charlie started to create some separation between him and the Spaniard in that second set, he heard the echoes of that Kipling poem, in all its beauty and grace and power.

 

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son![7]

 

The words passed through his mind like shadows as the match started to unfold before him, in his favor this time around thankfully.  He knew the poem not from school, but because the lines ‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same’ were inscribed on the wall of the player’s entrance to Center Court at Wimbledon.  The holiest of holy places in the game of tennis.  The place that made, and destroyed champions.  Where all of the legends of the game had passed through and made their mark.  For if you didn’t make your mark at Wimbledon, well then, you hadn’t really made an indelible mark on the game, or so the legend went.

That was it wasn’t it?  All captured in those two lines by Kipling.  Tennis wasn’t a game of kings, it was a game of gladiators, exploring the depths of the human soul and spirit in a fantastic array of athletic talent, endurance, strength, mental toughness and insight, and agility, all played out on this court with white lines and boxes on it, with a net in the middle, and this yellow fuzzy ball that you struck with a round shaped racquet with strings in it.  Seriously?  Yes, seriously.  A silly little exercise of chasing a yellow fuzzy ball around the court against an opponent within which all of the mysteries of life could be revealed.

And in order to achieve peak performance, to hit what athletes called “the Zone” when you really needed it, you needed an understanding of the art of ritual and how it was the railing that you held onto when all felt lost for you on court, even if you didn’t call it ritual it was those small ticks, those small little habits and exercises you did between points, that either prepared you for the next point properly, or failed to do.  For when the desperation for winning, or in many cases simply the core drive to avoid the prospect of failure, started to overcome you and take over your mind and lock you up physically, it was these small little rituals, these little patterns and behaviors that could calm your mind, bring you peace and set yourself in the moment, that could make all the difference.  And it was the same pressure, the same tension, that same inner struggle that all tennis players felt and had to overcome, no matter what the level, and that was in some respect the beauty of the game, the mental struggle to achieve peak performance, to achieve victory, to avoid the anguish of defeat, that everyone who played the game could relate to.

And of course at Wimbledon, that was where they held the key.  The source of the game’s strength and longevity.  The reason why champions were made there.  The Kipling quote wasn’t out there on Center Court for everyone to see, it wasn’t outside the locker room for all the press to view and snap photos of.  It was inside the walkway to center court, underlining and underscoring the momentous event that was about to unfold before you.  And to remind you.  To tell you quite clearly as you walked on court, that the game was bigger than you, that the game was about the inner struggle for perfection yes, and about winning no doubt, but it was about the definition of your character, the illustration of the depth of your soul for all the world to see.  ‘Treat those two imposters just the same’.  Nothing harder to learn, nothing more difficult to comprehend, nothing more difficult to achieve, no question about that in Charlie’s mind even after all these years of playing and competing, and yet when you find it, when you truly understand the depth of meaning that Kipling so eloquently described, then you had won already then hadn’t you?  Won at the game of life in fact.

 

Once tennis fans figured out that there was an interesting match unfolding, one with a little dispute that added some spice and story line, people started to assemble.  Charlie saw that so many times.  Where the people came from he didn’t know.  But they assembled when the tension rose, when a battle unfolded and two great competitors challenged each other.

So the bleachers started to fill up a bit.  Charlie could clearly tell by the applause between points that he had not ingratiated himself to the “fans” so much.  He was playing the role of the villain well.  He didn’t care really.  He just wanted that damned W.  The bodies in the bleachers were blatantly rooting for the Spaniard to come back.  Even Charlie’s camp, the other three foreigners in the draw, the English speakers, was very quiet.  They didn’t want to say a word.  They knew when to keep their mouths shut.  But they were there.  They stayed.  They had Charlie’s back.  And that was important.  Charlie wouldn’t forget that.  Especially Niels of course, with whom he had developed a bond that would last well beyond his playing days.

But Charlie was up a set and a break.  He was getting close to closing out the match.  He could smell the end, taste it.  He was so close.  His opponent was starting to get even more frustrated, making more errors.  The Spaniard was crumbling now.  Charlie could sense it like a lion senses weakness in a pack of antelope.  Charlie’s fist pumping didn’t stop though, he was getting a little carried away in the moment as well.  And the closer Charlie got to match ball in his favor, the more vigorous and buoyant were his fist pumping and shouts of encouragement which he levied upon himself.  “Vamos!” was one of his favorite epithets and that one escaped his lips in fervor many times as he attempted to close out that match, and its Spanish origins no doubt even further irritated the Spanish spectators that were hoping and praying that this Spaniard would somehow pull a rabbit out of the hat and beat this arrogant American and send him home packing with his tail between his legs.

None of this behavior ingratiated Charlie to his mostly Spanish audience.  They wanted their local boy to win, no question about that.  But they also clearly perceived Charlie’s behavior to be unsportsmanlike and ungentlemanly.  Charlie needed to fire himself up to make sure he closed out the match without letting his nerves get to him, but from the spectators view it was Charlie stepping on the throat of an opponent who was wounded and gasping for air.  But that’s what Charlie need to do, squeeze every ounce of fight out of his opponent until he had no more fight left in him.  Charlie was looking to finish the gladiatorial spectacle off with murderous precision and cold heartedness, and he didn’t give a damned what the Spanish thought of him.

As Charlie mind bounced from that epic poem, back onto the court, he started to capitalize on the hole in the Spaniard’s defenses that he had opened up.  He saw the path to the W.  He saw his opponent on the ropes.  He got more aggressive.  He knew how to close out a match.  That was something innate in him.  Something you couldn’t teach, his coaches had told him.  And he saw it now before him, and he pounced on the Spaniard and broke through his defenses.  Getting more and more fired up along the way.  Lots of fist pumping.  A few more, “Vamos!” thrown in for good measure and assert his on court presence and dominance over the flailing Spaniard.

And all the while he heard Niels’s small quiet voice, almost hidden within the backdrop of the Spanish din, that cheered him on.  That gave him words of encouragement and support, when he needed it most.  Niels’s cheering was not the loud, boisterous kind that was coming from the Spanish, it was the subtle more grave kind, one that understood the mountain that Charlie was climbing, and inserting just the right words of encouragement, or the clapping and cheering that was not accompanied by words, that kept Charlie going through that night.

 

Tennis is a dance.  It’s a dance of adversaries, where the ballroom is the court and the dancers are not intertwined physically necessarily but most certainly connected.  When Charlie played tennis, particularly when he was plugged in, in the zone, you were integrally connected to you opponent.  Connected in a way that you could anticipate his movements.  You could see where he was going to hit his next shot.

You had angles, Johnny Mac was so good at knowing the angles, the percentages.  And the percentages told you about probabilities really, what was the probability that your opponent would hit the ball crosscourt?  Down the line?  What was the score?  Was it a time for him to play conservatively or be aggressive because he had a few points to play with.  The tighter you kept the score, the bigger and more important that the points were, the easier it was to anticipate where their next ball would go.

Speed and quickness in turn, is measured not be how fast you actually move from point A to point B, but also how well you anticipate the next shot.  For any athlete knows, as clearly and plainly as the sun that shines before them, that there is no substitute for that first step.  The proverbial jump you get on a ball.

So speed is deceiving somewhat. Because it depends on your court position, your ability to anticipate, as well as your actually speed – how fast your legs can actually move the body/mind system that must be in position for the next shot in order to strike it, move it back to your opponent, with just the right spin, just the right velocity, such that your opponent’s next shot was as difficult as you could possibly make it for him.

And you always had to keep in mind the angles and percentages that you had to cope with when you struck the ball.  And the better position you were in, the more solid your physical foundation when you struck the ball, the more opportunities and better percentages you had to work with.  That was why movement was so important, so key.  On all shots except the serve of course.

The serve was a different beast altogether.  It was the only shot where you weren’t moving, in flight.  You had basically all the time you needed (actually 25 seconds between points) and yet it was the most technically complicated of all of the shots.  You controlled where the ball was, where you tossed it, how far out in front it was.  And yet on the serve, you had all the physical forces of your body at work – the hips, the shoulders, the legs and calves, the elbow and wrist – and the all had to work in perfect fluidity and synchronicity.  To strike that yellow fuzzy ball some ten to twelve feet above the ground behind the baseline, some 99 feet across a net that was three feet above the ground at its center, and place the ball with the perfect spin and at the perfect angle within a few square inches of your desired location, preferably just where your opponent was least expecting it or at the very least just where your opponent least wanted to see it. The best servers had the most fluid and smooth motions, but their fluidity hid the complexity of the stroke, they made it look easy but it was far from easy and it was an art form that took years and years to master, and some never did.  But the ones that did were the ones that achieved greatness, the likes of Pete Sampras and Roger Federer to name probably the best servers of all time, and the ones of course with the most fluid and beautiful motions, works of art really and art forms that took decades to perfect.

And of course it was the serve, and how a player serves under pressure, that in almost every tight match has the most impact on the actual outcome.  For tennis is a mental game, no doubt.  It is a battle of wills and minds, an attempt by the adversaries that have the net and court between them to break their opponent down, to find their weakness and exploit it as much as possible.  An exploitation that leads to frustration, that leads to pressing and lack of fluidity, which in turn leads to more pressing and in the end defeat.

You physically needed the game, the tools, to compete at the highest level though, there was no question about this.  You needed weapons.  Big weapons.  You needed a bomb of a serve.  A bomb that could be slipped and placed into every corner and every crevasse in the service box on the other side of the court.  You needed precision, as well as power.  And you needed to be able to vary speed and spin, ball velocity.  And you needed to be able to hold your serve.  Not hold in the sense as win your service games, but hold the ball on your serve such that you opponent could not see where the ball was going to be targeted until after the ball left your racquet.  The hold.  This holding, this deception, was such a subtle nuance of the game, especially on the serve, that it was overlooked even by the best of commentators and spectators.

If you look at the serves of Pete Sampras or Roger Federer, look at their ball toss, the quickness with which they snap their hips, shoulders and arm into the shot, and at the same time recognize that it’s not until their opponent sees their racquet face strike the ball, that they know where that serve is headed.  Sampras was perhaps the best at this, you couldn’t tell where he his serve was going until after it left his racquet and in many cases this was just too late.  And this was their secret, their great gift.  And this subtlety depended upon the balance and fluidity of the entire service motion, and the softness of their hands to push and stretch that ball into different corners of that service box with as similar a motion every time they serve as possible.  The same could be said of baseball pitchers really, how to make a curve look like a fastball or a changeup, such that the hitter couldn’t tell which one it was until after the ball was released from the pitchers hand and it was too late to change the momentum of your swing.

 

And there it was.  The match before him.  On his own racquet as they say.  Charlie dropped into his pre-service ritual.  Walking back steadily to the fence to pick up all the balls.  Spinning the balls in his hand to pick out the ones he wanted to use.  Catching his breath.  Breathing deeply through his nose to try and relax his nerves, his mind, his body.

Match ball.  The slider out wide on the ad side of the court.  That’s where Charlie wanted to go.  That was his bread and butter, his set up shot.  His “go to” play when he needed a point on that side of the court.  His opponent knew it was coming.  He had ridden that play all night long.  The courts were slick.  The balls were bald, all the hair torn off them as the two gladiators had beat them into submission over the course of three grueling hours of battle.  That made the balls slide even more.  So slider it was.  Charlie was committed.

Charlie rolled the balls around in his hands once more prior to serve.  The last part of his pre-serve ritual.  He selected the one he wanted to use for the first serve slider he could see so clearly in his mind’s eye.  It was the one with the least amount of ‘fuzziness’, the baldest one that would slide off the court the most.  The ball that would catapult him into the main draw and put him one step closer to that ATP point that he had been chasing all around the world.

Match ball.  Charlie served out wide, a slider, and came in behind it.  Charlie was a lefty and that slider out wide on the ad side if hit well could set up either a baseline winner to the open court, or sometimes he’d come in behind it and cut off the volley into the open court.  He came in behind this one.  The serve was hit well.  He got a flailing reply, a nice easy floating ball up the line.  Charlie cut off the volley and carved it into the open court.  One last fist pump and he was off to the net to shake hands with his opponent.  It was done.  Victory.

Then the fun started.  The Spanish seemed to coagulate and congregate outside the court.  As Charlie stepped off the court after shaking his opponent’s hands, and Marcelo’s hand.  He walked right into a fray of people and noise.  Charlie was still really wired, he had just pulled the victory out a few seconds prior and was totally tuned into the match.  He now had to make that transition back to no-tennis playing reality.  That usually took a few hours.   After a big match like this that could sometimes take up to half a day in fact.

And he stepped into the chaos.  Charlie was shocked to see the energy and anger of the Spanish as he stepped off the court.  There must have been 4 or 5 of them still left watching the end of the match.  It was late, well past midnight, before they finished.

And Charlie for sure didn’t see the arms and fists that came at him from behind.  He just felt them on his back.  And just as Charlie turned to face his new adversary, in a setting that he was altogether unaccustomed for (Charlie had been in just one fight in his life, with a pal from school when he was in 4th or 5th grade.  Charlie had won that battle as it turns out but it was quite tame, two private school kids in blazers wrestling around for a few minutes basically, not altogether good preparation for a cock fight in Malaga Spain), he saw Niels fly past his peripheral vision, and straight on top of the chap that had his hands and fists buried in Charlie’s back and kidneys.  Niels to the rescue, how fitting actually.

By the time it was over and Charlie and Niels were back in their hotel room ready to shut it down for the night, Charlie looked over at Niels and said, “nice work tonight my friend.  Not quite sure what I would have done without you, on or off court”.

“You probably would have gotten your ass kicked.  On both fronts my man”.  Charlie could see the wry smile on his face as he said this even though Charlie was on the other side of the room getting ready for bed.

“Yeah, you’re probably right.”  Charlie responded.  Damn straight he was right.  A kinship that would last a life time, sown in the seeds of battle.  Rare indeed.


[1] The “minors” of the tennis tour, akin the triple A baseball league before the pros.  The Satellite events were four week events, typically under USD 20,000 in prize money.  Each of the four week long events would be hosted at different tennis facilities in the same general region, all in Southern Spain for example.  The best 32 players (in some cases just 16) qualified for the final week of the satellite, where all the ATP points were handed out depending upon performance.  The next level of the professional tennis tour were Challenger events which were in the neighborhood of USD 50,000, had smaller draws and were typically closed, i.e. there was no open qualifying rounds and you had to have a high enough ranking – 300 in the world or so – to qualify.  Satellites have since been replaced with what is called Futures, one week events as opposed to the four week Satellite tours.

[2] Tennis, or ‘Lawn Tennis’, had its root in Court Tennis, or Real Tennis, whose origins date back to the 17th century.  For a nice piece on the history of Court Tennis, see http://www.uscourttennis.org/index.php?id=48.

[3] Andre Agassi Facebook post, Dec 19th, 2013

[4] From Rules of Tennis, official rules of the International Tennis Federation (ITF), of which the United

States Tennis Association (USTA) is a member.

[5] As of Jan 2014 Djokovic had won four Australian Open titles, one Wimbledon title and one US Open.

[6] “The Tibetan word Bardo means literally “intermediate state” – also translated as “transitional state” or “in-between state” or “liminal state”. In Sanskrit the concept has the name antarabhāva. It is a concept which arose soon after the Buddha’s passing, with a number of earlier Buddhist groups accepting the existence of such an intermediate state, while other schools rejected it.  Used loosely, the term “bardo” refers to the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan tradition, after death and before one’s next birth, when one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena. These usually follow a particular sequence of degeneration from, just after death, the clearest experiences of reality of which one is spiritually capable, and then proceeding to terrifying hallucinations that arise from the impulses of one’s previous unskillful actions. For the prepared and appropriately trained individuals the bardo offers a state of great opportunity for liberation, since transcendental insight may arise with the direct experience of reality, while for others it can become a place of danger as the karmically created hallucinations can impel one into a less than desirable rebirth. The term bardo can also be used metaphorically to describe times when our usual way of life becomes suspended, as, for example, during a period of illness or during a meditation retreat. Such times can prove fruitful for spiritual progress because external constraints diminish. However, they can also present challenges because our less skillful impulses may come to the foreground, just as in the sidpa bardo.”  Quoted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bardo

[7] Rudyard Kipling, “If….”

The Scientific Revolution: God Learns Analytic Geometry and Calculus

After much study and analysis then, it was clear to Charlie that there was no notion of this hard distinction/separation of subject and object in the ancient cosmological and philosophical systems of thought that developed in the ancient civilizations in and around the Mediterranean and the Near East, the cradle of civilization as it were.  There was clearly a notion of an exploration into the concept of being as put forth by Aristotle, and then certainly some sense of a concept of a divine creator, or demiurge, as put forth by Plato and subsequent Platonic interpreters and philosophers, both traditions and concepts which became integrated into the theological and metaphysical systems of the Abrahamic religions quite clearly, but nowhere in these systems of belief or subsequent monotheistic traditions was there a clear distinction between the creator – the final cause of Aristotle, demiurge of Plato, Yahweh of the Jews, God of the Christian or Allah of the Muslims – and that which was created.  This mechanistic world view which required an objective view of reality and an explanation of the forces within which these objects interacted was a much later development, even if some of the terms that were used and principles which it leveraged did in fact have some roots in these ancient philosophical systems (like the term natural philosophy itself for example).

The Peripatetic school founded by Aristotle, arguably the other most predominantly anthropomorphically absent Hellenistic philosophy which you’d think you’d be able to find some roots of subject-object metaphysics, spoke of “being” as the core construct from within which first philosophy was to be explored; the qualities of which, or “being qua being”, represented the sum total of all reality, the boundaries of epistemology or that which could be known.  Aristotle’s world view rested on the assumption that there was a cause for the existence of anything, that reality in fact was determined by causation because existence depending upon causation.  His classification of substance, which covered the animate as well as the inanimate, also concluded that there existed some sort of final cause behind the existence of anything, albeit stopping short of any theological description of this final cause.  Aristotle diverged from Plato’s theological premise of a divine, intelligent creator as laid out in the Timaeus on the basis that Plato’s metaphysical foundations were weak and not fleshed out, not that the metaphysics was misguided per se.  But Plato’s worldview as encapsulated in his Theory of Forms also had no notion of separation between subject and object, simply a grand overarching nous or intellect, from which these abstract Forms and Ideas emerged.

In some sense, Charlie mused, language itself could be viewed as the beginning of this separation, the beginning of the bifurcation that characterized our collective, individually mutual exclusive and yet at the same time fundamentally interdependent (according to the Eastern philosophical systems at least), universal reality that defined the world in which we all lived and breathed.  The development of language itself, the bedrock of civilization as it were, required the notion of separation, required the concept of objectivity; objectivism to some degree was in fact a necessary precondition for the development of language.  For every word, which is some combination of strewn together syllables that has meaning in one language or another, can only be understood relative to some other idea or concept – the metaphor or analogy being used – or conversely could be understood in contrast to some idea or concept which represents the opposite of the meaning of the word in question, that which something is not.  For it is the world of opposites in which we live, which the great Indian sages tell us that the infinite lives beyond, and yet at the same time the greater the abstraction of a word or concept, the closer we come to truly understanding, and identifying with this unified existence.

Take the term Satchitananda from the Indian philosophical tradition for example; the word used to describe the essential nature of the non-dual ultimate experience of Brahman from which all things emanate that is described at great length in the Vedas, the Upanishads in particular.  Satchitananda is a composition of three Sanskrit words: the present participle of the Sanskrit verb “to be” or sat, combined with the nouns cit, meaning “consciousness” and ānanda meaning “bliss” or “absolute bliss” in this context.  Satchitananda is a word meant to convey the concept of or idea of “the existence of a pure essence that is present and active, and consists of pure consciousness and absolute bliss”, an analogy in the Platonic school to the penultimate Idea or Form in Plato’s world of Forms and Ideas which emerges from the divine creator described in the Timaeus, and the core Aristotelian teleological (causal) principle from which all that we consider exists, or being qua being, emanates.

But here’s the catch, and Charlie almost smiled wryly when his mind went down this road, that the word itself, Satchitananda in this case, a word ironically intended to describe a state of being that was beyond words and the world of name and form, it’s manifestation – spoken or thought – implied that there is a thing, something that exists, and something whose essential nature is the essence of bliss and consciousness, even if it was in its purest and most essential form, and of course some perceiver or subject who experiences this state.  Duality, or at least the existence of a perceiver and that which is perceived, was implicit in the term Satchitananda, and to take it one step further to its Neo-Platonic form, there must exist a meta or supra Platonic Form or Idea that rests behind or above the notion of Satchitananda that lends its understanding.

Ancient Theo-Philosophical Development in the West

Ancient Theo-Philosophical Development in the West

Although not so clear how we modern intellectuals latched so religiously on this mechanistic world view, it was clear however that as these ancient peoples evolved and progressed, a cultural melting pot emerged that facilitated the exchange of ideas, both of a religious and intellectual nature, as well as technology advancements that led to increased urbanization which further reinforced an environment conducive to the more rapid exchange of thought and ideas.  Individuals transitioned into more specialized and “civilized” roles in their respective societies and civilizations, allowing for the progression of metaphysical and theological development beyond the prevailing mythologies and pantheistic traditions that had reigned supreme for thousands of years prior to the advent of civilization in the Mediterranean and in the East.  This specialization and evolution of thought ran parallel to the expansion of trade and cultural exchange that developed as civilization emerged in the Mediterranean and Near East, marked most notably by the advent of successive empires and cultures in this region:  notably

  • the Persian Empire in the first half of the first millennium BCE in the Near East,
  • the period of Hellenic influence marked most notably with Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Eastern Mediterranean into the Near East, marking the rise of Greek influence(and philosophy) in the Mediterranean,
  • the period of Roman and Latin (and predominantly Christian) influence in the West starting at the end of the first century BCE that carried into the second millennium CE; the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and then the persistence of the Byzantine Empire in the Near East which carried forth a Greek intellectual and philosophical bent albeit Christian in faith, and lastly
  • a period of Islamic influence in the Near East beginning in the latter part of the first millennium CE and extending into the second millennium CE driven by the teachings and empire of Mohammed.

This melting pot and theo-cultural exchange continued well into the Middle Ages until the advent of what historians today call the Renaissance (14th and 15th centuries CE), the Scientific Revolution (16th and 17th centuries CE) and the Age of Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries CE) from which eventually emerged what we would today call science which reinforced a more literal and materialistic form of atomism and mechanism not necessarily professed by its Greek founders (Leucippus and Democritus) who are credited with the formulation of the concept of atomism and the void which it depends on.  It was in this time period of accelerated civilization growth in the West when the influence of all these competing cultures and theo-philosophies that had been developing for centuries, for millennia really, were analyzed again within a socio-political context (as in Plato’s Republic), rather than a religious or theological context as they had been with Christianity and Islam.

Even with the axe to grind from all the different competing religious systems that developed during this extended period of civilization development and evolution in the West, each of these religious systems assimilated and incorporated the Hellenistic philosophical principles in order to rationalize and justify their creeds, for even into the period of Christian and Islamic influence in the West, the Hellenic philosophers were considered to be the torch bearers of reason and were still looked upon as pillars of philosophical and theological thought.  The prominence of Hellenistic metaphysical and philosophical thought extended even well into the Middle Ages and through the period of the Age of Enlightenment, speaking to the power of the traditions and disciplines that were created by the Ancient Greeks.  These ancient Greek philosophical systems from the Hellenistic era were integrated into these subsequent theological systems (mostly Abrahamic) and in each of them there existed a belief in a single Creator of the universe, a universe which in the Platonic sense emanated from an anthropomorphic God the Yahweh of the Jews, the God of the Christians, and the Allah of the MuslimsEach of these Abrahamic religions which dominate even today’s religious landscape, views the universe’s existence as the result of the will of a benign and omniscient creator (Genesis), upon whose existence the universe depends.  Once integrated into their respective religious traditions, the Hellenic theo-philosophical traditions provided for the rational foundation for ethics and moral conduct in these religious traditions, stemming from the extensive metaphysical foundations created by the Greeks and subsequent interpreters of their traditions and then incorporated into the mythology of the Old Testament and then used as rational underpinnings to establish and reinforce the credibility of each school’s founder – Mohammad of the Muslims, Moses of the Jews and Jesus to the Christians.

Charlie without a doubt believed that religion, particularly after the fall of the Roman Empire straight through the Christian Crusades of the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, accounted for more death, suffering and destruction than any other source in the history of mankind, and even no doubt accounts for much of the conflict that we see in the world today with fundamentalist Islamic factions taking moral and ethical stands against the materialism and sensualism which is so prevalent in the Western world today and the Jewish community still desperately trying to defend what they consider to be their homeland and birthright that took them millennia to (re)establish from outside interlopers and invaders since the dawn of Western civilization, but Charlie thought that all of these religions of the West contained inherent in them a fundamental notion of wholeness and unity, stemming from their faith in a creative and anthropomorphic God that was intrinsic to each of their respective traditions, albeit in allegorical form, even if this faith in a unified creative whole was exclusive and intolerant of alternative points of view which yielded so much conflict in ancient times and through the Middle Ages.  This anthropomorphic principle so prevalent in the development of Western civilization has come under fire in the 20th and 21st centuries as science has advanced to the point where the creation of the universe itself could be explained in a rational and deterministic framework, as reflected in Big Bang theory which sits atop widely accepted astronomical and physical empirical data and evidence, providing the cornerstone for atheistic belief systems which have attacked the foundations of organized religion, and it was this abandonment of religion as a concept and its uses that disturbed Charlie to a great extent because something was lost there.  The soul had been cast aside as a tool of the priests to control their believers, and it’s essential link and connection to being, along with the value of the narrative of the soul, i.e. mythology, has been lost altogether.

But as Charlie parsed through and studied the great philosophers and theologians that crafted and evolved these sophisticated and complex theological systems that sat behind this faith in a single, unified and anthropomorphic God over the last three millennia, this notion of unity and interconnectedness which came from the philosophy espoused by Plato and Aristotle was not lost, it was integrated into these religious systems.  And to understand how science emerged from this age of imperialism and religious dogma that marked the two millennia after Socrates was executed for questioning authority, for espousing reason over faith, you had to look at how these theological systems evolved, who affected their evolution, and from what basis the rational and metaphysical platforms from which Descartes, Newton and the other prolific scientists that followed in their footsteps firmly established us in this current age of Science and Reason – a world where Science is the prevailing Religion, and Faith in the fundamental reality of the objective world, a world defined by that which can be measured and perceived by our senses and the instruments we have designed as an extension thereof, predominates intellectual thought.  For in modern times, faith in science (for good reason one might argue) has far eclipsed and overshadowed our faith and belief in religion, or God; a transformation driven by the intellectuals, scientists and learned scholars of the last few centuries which has relegated religion to the corners of the ignorant, uninformed and uneducated, and almost completely absent from academic study altogether.

There were centuries of thought and philosophical and theological inquiry that took place between the time of Plato and Aristotle’s original writings in Classical Greece, writings which broke from the reigning traditions of belief in the prevailing theos and mythos of their time, and the ensuing interpretations of their work which evolved and were assimilated into different cultural and religious systems not only throughout the Hellenistic and Roman eras which lasted well until the 5th century CE and beyond, but well up until the Renaissance which was marked by revolutionary thinkers such as Galileo, Descartes and Newton who challenged the reigning Christian belief systems which had had a choke hold on the Western civilization throughout much of the Middle Ages.  Running parallel to this development in the West was the evolution of Eastern theological and metaphysical systems which had their roots in Vedanta which reached as far back into antiquity as the first half of the second millennium BC[1] and continued to evolve and affect Eastern religious and philosophical development through the second millennium CE, marked most notably by the advent of Buddhism as professed by Siddhartha Gautama in the 5th and 4th centuries BC, and the exposition of Vedanta philosophy by Shankara in the 8th and 9th centuries CE.

Alongside the Hellenistic philosophical traditions which were thriving at the time of Christ, there existed all of the religious and theological traditions that were brought into India by conquering nations and immigrants over the first and second millennium CE, most notable of which were Islam and Christianity, both of which flourished and were accepted side by side with the native Hindu and Buddhist cultures that had at their core the acceptance of the Many, alongside the One, both being perceived as various reflections of the same unified Brahman, or in the case of Buddhism the belief in no godhead but simply the way.  [Ironically, it was most probably the polytheism that was inherent to the Hindu tradition, the belief in the joy and beauty of the celebration of the many different aspects of the divine, that allowed the Indian society to be so tolerant of other theological and religious systems over the centuries, or at least so it appeared to Charlie from where he stood in the beginning of the third millennia AD.  But this polytheism that was such a core tenet of the Hindu religion was married to a core, fundamental belief of the direct perception of non-dual realty that was the goal of all religious and spiritual traditions, the Satchitananda of the Vedas (a concept which Charlie looked at as a de-anthropomorphized Yahweh of the Jews, God of the Christians, and Allah of the Muslims) that created the foundation of tolerance from which all these religious systems could thrive and flourish side by side].

Religious belief systems as espoused by Islam and Christianity, as seen in juxtaposition to the teleological, epistemological, and non-anthropomorphic theological pursuits that characterized the Greek philosophical tradition, clouded some of these philosophical and metaphysical developments surely, but even in these religious systems there existed an undercurrent of philosophical inquiry that provided for the foundation of further pursuit of natural philosophy that took hold in the middle of the second millennium CE, culminating in what historians call the Age of Enlightenment a thousand or so years after which of course marks the end of what present day historians call the Dark Ages.

And yet what Charlie was searching for, was where this fundamental and immovable faith in the reality of the world of the senses, the world that exists only if it can be empirically measured or perceived by the senses or some extension of the senses, which stood in contrast (at least in its most modern interpretation) to the belief in a divine creator, found its unquestionable foothold.  But he couldn’t find it, at least not in the theo-philosophical traditions of the Ancient Mediterranean and certainly not in the Abrahamic monotheistic faiths that emerged thereafter in the West.  He found great philosophers and profound and extensive theological systems, he found great religious figures who professed illumination and direct communion with the divine from which the great Islamic and Christian religions sprung forth, and even great theologians and religious figures through the Middle Ages who attempted to integrate the profound metaphysics of the Ancients with their own religious creeds and belief systems like St Augustine (354-430 CE), Averroes (1126-1198 CE), and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 CE) among others, but none of them professed the supremacy of the material world over the spiritual, and none of them certainly dismissed the idea of a principle of a divine or otherwise omniscient creator.  This was clearly a much, much later development.

The schools of thought originated in Ancient Greece by Plato, Aristotle, Euclid and others were also very influential in the Muslim world as its influence spread as well as with its Christian brethren to the West.  During the first few centuries after Mohammad’s death in 632 CE and the subsequent proliferation of Islam in the Mediterranean and Near East via the Muslim conquests, many of the Greek philosopher works were translated into Arabic, providing for a metaphysical and theological underpinning of the Islamic faith as the Judeo-Christian tradition did to provide legitimacy to its school of thought.  The Arabs used the word falsafa as their translation for the Greek philosopher (“lover” philo of “wisdom” or sophy), and as these traditional Greek works were translated into Arabic and incorporated into the Muslim theological traditions via commentaries and teachings, you saw an assimilation of the ancient Greek philosophies into their religious tradition as had occurred to the Jewish and then the Christian theologies as well.

There were three main periods of translation and commentaries of the Greek philosophical works into Arabic that took place roughly between 500 CE to 1100 CE, and although not true in all cases for the most part the work was undertaken to justify the words of the Qur’an and the Islamic notion of the tawhid (or the belief in the one true God), just as the Christian community and the Jewish community had done before them.  These translations and commentaries however did provide for a rich metaphysical foundation for the Islamic faith however, primarily falling under the category of wisdom, or hikma, rather than divinely inspired truth as the Qur’an was considered; a slight but important distinction.

Al-Kindi (801-873 CE) was first of the Muslim Peripatetic (Aristotelian) philosophers, and is also sometimes referred to as the father of Islamic philosophy.  He wrote in Arabic on topics as broad as physics, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, and mathematics as well as theology and metaphysics.  Although much of his work is lost, much of the Arabic semantic framework for metaphysics, theology and philosophy as described by the Greeks is very much attributed to him and the team of translators which he presumably led.  Some of the most lasting treatises translated under the name Al-Kindi are Aristotle’s Metaphysics, The Enneads (IV-VI) of Plotinus, Elements of Theology by Proclus, Timaeus of Plato as well as many other assorted works by Aristotle and other less well known Greek philosophers, making mainstream Greek philosophy available to the Arabic world for the first time.

Further translation and interpretations of Greek theo-philosophical works were done by Al-Farabi (c 872-951 CE) who was known as the “second teacher”, Aristotle being the “first teacher” speaking to the prestige within which Aristotle was looked upon even in the Arabic community some 1500 years after his death.  Al-Farabi created a program for philosophical education which included at its core Aristotle’s notion of being (being qua being) which included the phenomenon of the natural world, the theoretical sciences which included mathematics and logic, and the third which included the study of the immaterial which led to the study of the One, or the First, which lined up with the Muslim concept of Allah, further entrenching Islamic thought into a modified form of Hellenic philosophy and metaphysics.

Avicenna (c 980 – 1037 CE) followed Al-Farabi by a century or so and published many works on topics ranging from philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, logic, theology and medicine that were influential in the development of Islamic thought and science in general, not only philosophy and theology, particular in the field of medicine.

All of these Islamic philosophers, philosophers in the ancient sense of the term where their topics ranged much broader than pure philosophy as it is thought of today, significantly influenced not only Islamic thought down through the Middle Ages, but also the development of philosophy and theology in the West as a whole, but most importantly providing for the availability of the Greek philosophical texts to the Muslim world which had broad influence throughout the Mediterranean and Near and Far East in the 7th through 12th centuries CE and even down through modern times.

Materialism at some level did have its roots in the Hellenic philosophical landscape however, albeit one that did not dominate ancient thought as the Platonic, Peripatetic (Aristotle) and Stoic schools did, but one that had a place nonetheless and one that established if nothing else some of the semantics and language upon which modern science developed.  Namely in the Epicurean school founded Epicurus toward the end of the fourth century BC in Ancient Greece who expanded and expounded on the philosophical work of his predecessors Leucippus from the first half of fifth century BC and his student Democritus (c 460 – 370 BC) who postulated that all things of the world were made up of atoms which is an English word derived from the Greek atomos signifying “uncuttable” or “indivisible”.  In this school of thought, the atom represented the fundamental, indivisible building blocks of everything in the known universe, animate as well as inanimate, and originated out of the great void or ether.

This system of belief as passed down by Epicurus and his followers represents the first real materialistic philosophical school, materialistic in the sense that they did not believe in any teleological, or first principle, foundation of the universe or belief in any sort of creative or divine principle as put forth by Plato or his followers.  The Epicurean school sat in contrast to the Platonic and Peripatetic philosophical systems that still held that there was some core principle, or first cause, upon which the physical (and spiritual) universe sprung forth.  From the Epicurean standpoint, the world was made of objects, indivisible entities that interacted with each other than in their composite form made up the known universe and no further teleological explanation was necessary, rendering the idea of free will a mere human construct with no basis in reality.

But it was important to not confuse the Epicurean philosophy of atomism, what we might call today a form of materialism, alongside mechanism, or the belief that the known universe is simply a compilation of substances and corporeal objects that interact with each other and are governed by laws of science or mathematics.  This mechanistic philosophical development came much later, stemming primarily out of the work of Descartes (1596 – 1650 CE) and then followed by Newton (1642 – 1726) and then many other great philosophers, true lovers of wisdom, of the Scientific Revolution and who started to discover deeper laws of the natural order of the universe, laws based upon mathematical principles and the belief in empiricism, truth can indeed be known, as well as the discovery of laws that governed planetary motion which pointed to the earth, God’s penultimate creation itself, not being the center of the universe upon which the sun and stars revolved around, overturning and bringing into question centuries held belief that shook the very foundations of monotheism.

But Epicureanism, like its Ancient Greek theo-philosophical counterparts Platonism and Stoicism, was developed to attempt to primarily to establish a system of ethics and way of life based upon a more reasonable foundation than its mythical predecessors, a belief system which people could comprehend and understand, and a belief system that rejected the notion of any sort of divine creative principle.  It was an answer to why we’re here and what the point of it all is in a rational, reasonable framework providing for a rational foundation of ethics and morals in juxtaposition to the belief in mere god heads or straight mythology.  Plato attempted to answer the same questions, he simply presented them in their most lasting and open ended form, dialectic.  In its essential form, Epicureanism rejected the notion of the reality of gods (theos) at all, or even the existence of the soul, teaching its followers that the right and correct path was the pursuit of moderate pleasure, or the absence of pain, boiling life down to a pleasure optimization problem within which the notion of judgment upon death was absent.

In the words (translated from the Latin) of the renowned Latin Epicurean poet and philosopher Lucretius (c 99 – 55 BC), we see clearly the materialistic bent of this philosophical school:

And yet it is hard to believe that anything in nature could stand revealed as solid matter.  The lightning of heaven goes through the walls of houses, like shouts and speech; iron glows white in fire; red-hot rocks are shattered by savage steam; hard gold is softened and melted down by heat; chilly brass, defeated by heat, turns liquid; heat seeps through silver, so does piercing cold; by custom raising the cup, we feel them both as water is poured in, drop by drop, above.[2]

So in none of these ancient theo-philosophical systems, not even in the Epicurean school, could Charlie find this notion of true separateness which underlies today’s predominantly mechanistic world view, this notion that the world around us was distinct from the individual who lived and was.  Epicureanism reflected a belief in atomism for sure, that much was clear, but this atomistic philosophy underpinned a system of ethics that espoused a path of the greater good, or lesser evil, which implied a holistic view of man’s place in society and mankind’s place in the world around him.  Atoms were the indivisible component of the universe in the Epicurean view no doubt, and man and all animate creatures were made of these indivisible atomos, but this principle was subsumed in the ethical framework within which it sat rather than the primary driving force of the theo-philosophy as is the case with mechanism which predominates the thinking of modern man in today’s technologically advanced world.

Despite this ancient atomic worldview of the Epicureans, this relegation of the realm of the divine, religion as it were, as completely a figment of mankind’s imagination, this break between science and religion, was a much later development, a development whose roots could be found in the Age of Enlightenment which swept up the socio-political and intellectual establishment of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.  But Charlie found as he dug into the intellectual developments that occurred in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries in Western Europe, categorized by later historians as the Age of Enlightenment or Age of Reason, despite its strong anti-establishment and anti-religious roots, still did not profess true mechanism, which is a more modern term (post Newton) that implies a strong atheistic bent combined with a fundamental belief that all reality has a purely mechanical explanation.

Both Platonic philosophy and Aristotelian metaphysics both played a significant role in the development of theology and epistemology in the centuries that followed their published works, developing and maturing into what modern scholars call Neo-Platonism – “neo” in the sense that it represented an assimilation of some theological principles from both Ancient Judaic and Egyptian circles, combined with a broader interpretative and commentated tradition based off of the original work attributed to Plato or Aristotle exclusively.

Neo-Platonism, which in turn exerted a strong influence on the development of early Christian theology, as well as on Muslim and Jewish theology well into the Middle Ages, has its roots in the teachings of Plotinus (204/5-270 CE) and Porphyry (234-305 CE) in the 2nd and third centuries CE, some six or seven centuries after Plato and then Aristotle lived, taught and authored, speaking to the depth of their teachings and their fortitude.  The Neo-Platonic teachings represent the first truly deep metaphysical framework that center around monotheism, in much more direct and explicit way than in previous philosophical traditions which allude to and elaborate on a single unified creative principle, developments which ran parallel with the monotheistic developments that were occurring in the Mediterranean and Near East at the time with the spread of Christianity in the region.  [The primary reference text for Neo-Platonism is the Enneads, authored by Porphyry but essentially consisting of a compilation of Plotinus’s teachings with an introductory section on the life of Plotinus[3]In the Enneads, we find the first true monotheistic theological and metaphysical framework that rests alongside a system of ethics and morality based upon the concept of hierarchical system of virtues.]

Alongside Neo-Platonism which provided for the theological and metaphysical link between the theo-philosophical systems of the Ancient Greeks to Christian theology, it was the Peripatetic school founded by Aristotle which provided for the language and categorization of study of the pursuit of knowledge (epistêmai in Greek) in general, Greek categorization and intellectual frameworks which, translated into Latin, were used to provide an intellectual framework to students of the Middle Ages, providing for the underlying metaphysics for virtually all of the monotheistic traditions that followed.

To Aristotle, there were three main branches of knowledge, namely “theoretical” knowledge of which first philosophy (what became to know as metaphysics) and natural philosophy belong, “practical knowledge” which included the knowledge and intellectual pursuits in the ethical, moral and political spheres, and “productive knowledge” which included those disciplines that contributed toward the creation of beautiful and useful objects, of more practical consideration if you will.  And it was with Aristotle that we find the categorization of the fields of knowledge (or sciencia in Latin which is the translation for the Greek word epistêmai which is the word that Aristotle used in his writings) which carried down through the Middle Ages well into the Age of Enlightenment, providing for the semantic framework within which truth and knowledge itself was to be explored, providing the semantics in Greek which were translated into Latin and then the rest of the Romance languages that followed, English of course being the most relevant to Charlie.  Aristotle’s “epistêmai”, or “sciencia”, provides the basis for the categorization of the research that is performed branches of knowledge start to mature and evolve in the Age of Enlightenment, culminating from a natural philosophical perspective in Newton’s great work Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, or “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”, which marks the beginning of science as we know it today.

After the fall of the Roman Empire and into the middle and latter part of the Middle Ages in the West, mainly in the period from the 11th century CE until the end of the Renaissance and the advent of the Scientific Revolution (the beginning of which is marked most notably by the work of Copernicus (1473-1543) which upended some of the basic astronomical tenets that had survived for the prior three thousand years), the intellectual community and the preservation of the teachings of the Ancient Greek and Latin texts was primarily centered around Christian monasteries and Churches.  The establishment of true institutions of higher learning and educational reform occurred much later in the Renaissance, even though the curriculum was still very religious at its core and was propagated and sponsored by Christian Churches and monasteries and otherwise advocated and controlled by the Christian authorities.

Ptolemaic Planetary Model

Ptolemaic Planetary Model

During the Middle Ages, translations of the original Greek and Latin texts were not readily available to the public, and were most certainly not widespread, leading to the propagation of truth by the relatively few and the keepers of knowledge being representatives of various religious authorities rather than stemming from an independent intellectual community.  The standard cosmological and astronomical world view at that time was of course geo-centric of course and had its roots again in the works of the Greeks, most notable Aristotle and then Ptolemy from an astronomical perspective, which was then leveraged by Judeo-Christian theology to exemplify human kind’s special place in the universe as reflected in Genesis (which in turn Mohammad/Islam borrowed and incorporated).  Any idea that was put forth that opposed this Judeo-Christian world view where God created mankind in his own image, and where Earth was the center of the Universe, was not received well to say the least and in almost all cases led to excommunication and banishment, which of course makes the work of Copernicus all that more revolutionary given its controversial nature.

Although hard to generalize across all of Western Europe, during the Middle Ages, the mode of teaching is most commonly referred to as scholastic, including a curriculum that although Judeo-Christian in nature, included a critical review of the ancient Greek and Roman literature, including a core mathematical and logic aspect to it, but at the same time having a strong theological focus.  Although the term scholasticism is sometimes associated with a philosophical framework, in this context the term mainly refers to the method of teaching that was employed by academics during the late Middle Ages that involved positing various truths or theorems that were thought to be well established and putting them to rigorous rational test via dialectic means by the students and teachers alike, in some sense harkening back in some respect to the teaching modus operandi of Plato with respect to utilizing the opposing viewpoints on a particular subject to elucidate truth[4].  Irrespective of the means by which intellectual thought was taught throughout this time period, which extended well into Age of Enlightenment in the 16th and 17th centuries as universities became more prevalent in the West, it was nonetheless the Greek and Latin classics that were most prevalently used as the primary means of instruction, and it was Latin which was the predominant language for written texts and published works[5].

But the pace and acceleration of thought really took hold in the West in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries with the more broad availability of texts via the advent of primitive forms of printing and this spread of a pseudo-university system that was established throughout Europe to teach the intellectual elite.  Although this intellectual development is not something that can be pointed to specifically at a place in time per se, it corresponds roughly to what later historians have called the Renaissance, which in turn drove the Scientific Revolution from which notable scholars such as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and then Newton emerged.  The works of these great intellects in turn drove the Age of Enlightenment which spearheaded thought and intellectual evolution across a wide range of disciplines in Europe and beyond, disciplines that ranged from the purely philosophical (metaphysics and the existence of God), to the ethical and socio-political which attempted to reconcile the role of the state/monarchy and its relationships to its people and subjects, all of which certainly going well beyond what we today call science.

During this time, the core curriculum in these universities if you could call them that was mostly made up of Platonic, Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, and other Greek and Roman scholarly work in the original Greek and Latin to provide the intellectual framework and semantics within which the world could be perceived beyond just a blind faith in God and its surrounding scripture, namely the Bible.  But make no mistake about it, these universities and their teachers were very much grounded in Christian faith and belief and the curriculum that was being taught had to align with these beliefs else excommunication and banishment was the norm, right up until the Age of Enlightenment came to a close, the end of which is marked by later historians in the publishing of the work by the eminent German philosopher Immanuel Kant in the treatise (in German), What is Enlightenment.

So even despite the passage of over a 1500 years after Aristotle and Plato and other Ancient Philosophers that came after them set down their teachings in Ancient Greece and then during the period of Roman/Latin influence, first with the advent of the Western Roman Empire in the first and second centuries BCE and then with the spread of Islamic and Arabic influence alongside the Byzantine/Eastern Roman Empire, and Platonic, Aristotelian and other theo-philosophical developments coalesced and evolved into Neo-Platonism, these ancient Greek and Latin texts and their associated commentaries still remained the primary objects of study for the intellectual community.  This trend continued straight on through into the Middle Ages, which saw the prevalence of the Latin texts for the most part, along with some of their Arabic translations.  These works, despite their aged heritage, formed the semantic and metaphysical structure within which intellectual development was pursued up until the Age of Enlightenment where the field of science first emerged as an independent field of study.  Even if these ancient works and writings were looked at as in contrast to or in exposition of the current way of thinking or what was to be taught, they still formed the basis of the dialogue.  Aristotle primarily set the table with respect to logic, metaphysics and the study of natural philosophy, Plato and his subsequent interpreters provided the intellectual connection between Christianity and philosophy and metaphysics in general (Neo-Platonism mostly), Ptolemy, Aristotle and Euclid provided the astronomical and geometrical foundations, and Plato’s mode of learning, namely dialectic, provided the main influence for the mode within which teaching occurred, i.e. scholasticism.

As previously noted, when Charlie started studying the time period and great thinkers from what modern day historians have termed the Age of Reason and the Scientific Revolution in the West, he wasn’t looking for an historical narrative per se but was searching for the roots of this mechanistic and altogether atheistic worldview, the roots of which he saw in the works of the notable philosophers and theologians of this period and yet still struggled to pinpoint its origins, despite the fact that it was very clear that the Ancient Greek and Roman literature provided for the academic foundation of the scholars of this period.  After much research, he saw the best way to frame the intellectual developments of this period of tremendous intellectual expansion was via the semantic and logical framework laid out by Aristotle some two thousand years prior, for this was the way the intellectuals of the period approached their studies primarily.  From Charlie’s perspective, the categories of knowledge or intellectual developments of this period were best categorized within the same intellectual context and categorization put forth by Aristotle, or epistêmai as Aristotle termed it.  And it was Aristotle’s categorization of the different fields of study, the classification of knowledge itself or epistemology, which remained the best way to classify the developments of the Age of Enlightenment and the branches of knowledge, of which science was one, which emerged from this period in our evolutionary history and has carried us through to the 21st century which is marked by deep specialization in all fields, a characteristic which was wholly absent from the intellectual pursuits of the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries in the West.

Although there were a variety of developments in thought and scholarship during the Age of Reason and Scientific Revolution, all of them shattered the very foundations of the belief systems that had been present for the prior two thousand years, namely that the world was created by an anthropomorphic God, that mankind was created in God’s image, that the Bible was to be taken literally with respect to its historical and mythological narrative, and that the Earth was the center of the universe.  All of these tenets were at the core of monotheism and the Abrahamic faiths, faiths which provided for the very cultural and socio-political foundations of Western Europe at the time.  These intellectual attacks if you could call them that, were three pronged from an Aristotelian perspective:

  1.  theoretical epistêmai / first philosophy: developments in metaphysics or first philosophy in an attempt to establish the existence of the One, or God, via rigorous rational and logical proofs.  These developments started mostly with a Neo-platonic and Christian theological bent but later morphed into more sound metaphysical systems which questioned the existence of an anthropomorphic God at all,
  2.  theoretical epistêmai / natural philosophy: the development and evolution of natural philosophy as a separate branch of intellectual pursuit with the emergence of the foundation of analytical geometry, algebra and calculus alongside developments in astronomy which not only toppled the geocentric conception of the universe but also the notion that mankind held a special place in the universe as was put forth in the Bible, and
  3.  practical epistêmai: developments in socio-political and economic theory that questioned the role of the state and the power of the Church and attempted to establish a science of individual behavior and an optimal form of government, all of which had a profound effect on the evolution and role of government in this period and drove several major revolutions in Western Europe and what was to become known as America.
Age of Enlightenment Philosophical Development

Age of Enlightenment Philosophical Development

The scope of intellectual developments during this period were very much aligned with the theo-philosophical developments that were trademarks of Hellenistic philosophical developments except the difference now was that with the proliferation or printing and the acceleration of intellectual exchange, developments along each of these intellectual lines could be done collectively and collaboratively at a much faster pace than could be done in ancient history, certainly not to the extent that peer reviews and collaboration occurs in the modern age with the proliferation of electronic modes of communication but certainly a marked improvement over what had been possible during the Dark/Middle Ages and the centuries that preceded them.

In many respects, the Age of Enlightenment is best known for its developments in socio-political theory, developments which led directly to the evolution/revolution of the political landscape in Europe and America marked most notably by the English Revolution in 1688, the American Revolution from 1775-1783, and culminating in the French Revolution in 1789-1799 which marks the end of the Age of Enlightenment according to most modern day historians.  These socio-political advancements, corresponding roughly to Aristotle’s practical philosophy and very much in the same vain as Plato’s Republic, drove not only greater freedom of thought and religious tolerance throughout the West, but also established separation of powers in these governments, separation of Church and State, as well as socio-economic optimization and collaboration as the underlying goal of government.

These socio-political developments in practical philosophy were most influenced by great thought leaders like the English Thomas Hobbes (1588-1689), who although supported the notion of sovereign authority developed social contract theory in his seminal work Leviathan, the empiricist John Locke (1632-1704) whose theories of mind, knowledge, and social contract theory influenced Voltaire, Rousseau and Kant among other Enlightenment thinkers as well as provided for some of the founding principles of the American Revolution, the renowned and prolific author Voltaire (1694-1778), who perhaps in many respects best synthesized many if not all of these socio-political developments of this time period in his writings, and the Scot Adam Smith (1723-1790), sometimes referred to as the father of modern economics and perhaps best known for his An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations establishing the basis for modern economic theory.

All of these authors and political and social revolutionaries all came from this period of history and did much to establish the foundations of Western government with its separation and balance of powers as well as set the stage for advancements in freedom of thought and exchange that ran parallel with and supported developments along Aristotle’s first and natural philosophical lines, i.e. the advancements of what we today refer to as science which formed the core of the Scientific Revolution which ran parallel to the Age of Enlightenment.  But these authors and their works were concerned about codes of ethics and systems of governance more so than they were concerned with the nature of reality and mankind’s place in it and so in this respect they were of less interest to Charlie other than the fact that without the advancements in these areas, developments in natural philosophy would not have had a chance to blossom as it did.  In other words, if the environment for free thinking had not been strongly established in Western Europe during this time period, it would have been next to impossible for the great scientific minds of this time to collaborate and build upon each other’s work to create the breakthroughs in metaphysics and science that emerged as part of what we now call the Scientific Revolution.   But it was developments in first philosophy and natural philosophy that were more interesting to Charlie, for in these areas you saw considerable and rapid developments across a variety of disciplines that fundamentally overturned mankind’s view of the world and his place in it, dovetailing into the mechanistic worldview that Charlie saw as endemic in modern society, the origins of which he was searching for.

Leaving the realm of practical / socio-political philosophy aside then, you had two major themes and areas of advancement of thought that rapidly evolved as civilization in Western Europe began to stabilize at the end of the Middle Ages that established the foundations of modern materialism/mechanism; one along the lines of metaphysics or first philosophy which explored the boundaries of knowledge (epistemology) and its relationship with the divine, the existence of God upon a more rational and reasonable framework and the moral and ethical implications thereof, and another along the lines of science or natural philosophy (astronomy and physics mostly) that radically challenged the conception of the universe and mankind’s place in it that had been prevalent for the prior thousand years or so and directly and forcefully called into question blind faith in Christian Scripture and the Church which had held such a strong chokehold on civilization since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE.

The scientific or natural philosophical developments are typically grouped together in the period known as the Scientific Revolution, which starts with the work of Copernicus (1473-1543 CE) in the latter part of the 16th century and culminates with the work of Isaac Newton (1642-1727 CE) some three centuries later[6].  This period is marked by significant advancements in mathematics, astronomy, biology, medicine and chemistry and did much to transform society’s views on the ability to explain and understand natural phenomenon, reinforcing the notion that simple faith in God and the underlying creation ex nihilo needed to be abandoned and replaced with a much more complex and rational worldview, one that had its foundations in logic, mathematics, and geometry.

The Scientific Revolution can be followed by the works of essentially just a few great thought leaders, although contributions were made by many others that remain obscured by history and the passage of time:

  • first and foremost you had Copernicus (1473-1543 CE) who was the first to formulate a heliocentric model of the universe,
  • then Kepler (1571-1630 CE) whose work on the laws of planetary motion provided for some of the foundations of Newton’s laws of gravitation,
  • Galileo (1564-1642 CE) who made marked improvements on the telescope along with observations which reinforced Copernican theories of heliocentrism,
  • Leibniz (1646-1716 CE) who made advancements in calculus, binary number theory and specific advancements to the mechanical calculator,
  • the French philosopher and naturalist Diderot who despite significant opposition from authorities was the chief editor of the first Encyclopedia entitled Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers in French or Encyclopedia or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts and Crafts which had profound influence on the dissemination of scientific knowledge throughout Europe,
  • and then of course culminating in the work of Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727 CE) who laid down the foundations for classical mechanics with his laws of motion and theory of universal gravitation.

All of these great thinkers and their associated intellectual advancements came under significant fire during their time from the established authorities which were still very much grounded in Christian fundamentalism, particularly in the early part of the Scientific Revolution which ran up into considerable resistance from the Church establishment which held a strong chokehold on the curriculum of the Universities of the time.  Suffice it to say that all of these philosophers, scientists and authors wrote and published at considerable risk of excommunication and banishment, Copernicus and Galileo most notably, speaking to their roles as not only philosophers and scientists, but revolutionaries as well.  These scientific developments were supported with philosophical developments and the advancement of systems of metaphysics during the same period, developments which attempted to provide a rational and empirical foundation for knowledge, or epistemology, which replaced centuries of blind faith and belief in the authority of God and Scripture, which overturned the Aristotelian notion what constituted matter and how the universe behaved, and completely overturned the geocentric worldview of Ptolemy which had prevailed for millennia.  All of these developments, revolutionary no doubt (hence the name of the period Scientific Revolution) did not altogether topple or completely cast aside the notion of existence of God, which was something that was surprising to Charlie as he studied developments during this period.

Although many intellectuals contributed to metaphysical developments during this period, there are four that Charlie found that put forward the most comprehensive systems of metaphysics and exerted the greatest influence on subsequent modes and arenas of metaphysical thought, all living and writing between the 16th and 18th centuries CE in Western Europe – namely the empiricist Francis Bacon (1561-1626 CE), the famous French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes (1632-1704 CE), the Dutch rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677 CE), and then the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804 CE) whose work in some respects summarizes and consolidates Enlightenment philosophy.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626 CE) was a successful politician in England the 16th and early 17th century who established and propagated inductive methods for scientific enquiry, providing for the foundations of scientific method which were leveraged not only by subsequent philosophers but also by the natural philosophers, or scientists, that followed him.  Although he was a prolific author and wrote works as broad ranging as socio-political theory, ethics, theology and medicine, he is probably best known for his work in natural philosophy/metaphysics than anything else and establishes the framework for attacks on scholasticism, the primary mode of teaching and scholarship of his time, and Aristotelianism in general which was a core part of this curriculum, as inadequate means of the acquisition and categorization of knowledge.

Bacon espouses empiricism and inductive reasoning as the most effective means at arriving at knowledge or truth, and speaks to a more atomistic world view as laid out by the Epicurean school than the Neo-Platonic and Aristotelian schools which were part of core curriculum that he learned in college (Trinity College and Cambridge) as part of his scholastic training.  He believed that the human mind was not tabula rasa, or a clean slate, and the in order to prepare the mind for true knowledge it must be purged of what he referred to as intellectual idols.

Bacon’s philosophy does not exclude the notion of God or God’s will however, but he reduces the world into Two Books which he thinks should be kept separate – the Book of God which he believed reflected God’s Will and the Book of Nature which he believed reflected God’s Works, establishing a framework within which God could co-exist with science, and the laws of each could be kept separate[7].

The glory of God is to conceal a thing, but the glory of the king is to find it out; as if, according to the innocent play of children, the Divine Majesty took delight to hide his works, to the end to have them found out; and as if kings could not obtain a greater honour than to be God’s playfellows in that game, considering the great commandment of wits and means, whereby nothing needeth to be hidden from them.[8]

Rene Descartes (1632-1704 CE) follows shortly after Francis Bacon and not only establishes the foundations of analytic geometry (the Cartesian coordinate system bears his name), but also made significant contributions in philosophy and metaphysics as well.  His seminal work Meditations on First Philosophy written in Latin provided not only a detailed, rational and logical proof of the existence of God but also a metaphysical system which incorporated the science of human nature alongside the physical sciences.  He is most famously known for his phrase cogito ergo sum, or “I think therefore I am”, which comes from his work Discourse on the Method and Principles of Philosophy, signifying the close relationship between perception and existence in his metaphysical framework.  Descartes held an Aristotelian view of knowledge, reinforcing the notion that the field of philosophy embodied all knowledge, spanning all of the modern day disciplines that we now refer to as science: medicine, biology, psychology, etc.  Describing it thus in a letter he wrote to the French Translator of his Principles of Philosophy:

Thus, all Philosophy is like a tree, of which Metaphysics is the root, Physics the trunk, and all the other sciences the branches that grow out of this trunk, which are reduced to three principal, namely, Medicine, Mechanics, and Ethics. By the science of Morals, I understand the highest and most perfect which, presupposing an entire knowledge of the other sciences is the last degree of wisdom[9].

Descartes was more of a philosopher than he was a mathematician, and although analytical geometry was a later invention, his mathematical (mostly geometrical and algebraic) work was groundbreaking and was leveraged by later scientists/natural philosophers in their developments.  Furthermore, his principles of knowledge, or first philosophy, laid the groundwork for establishing the importance of mathematics in describing reality, a tenet that has been heavily leveraged in subsequent centuries and is one of the core foundational principles for the current predominant materialistic and mechanistic worldview, a key development and outcome of the scientific Revolution in fact; namely that the natural universe, material reality operates according to rational and reasonable laws that are best described by mathematics, the language of God if you will.

With Descartes, you have a heavy reliance and emphasis on reason and logic to arrive at truth and knowledge, at a more mature level than the ancient philosophers that came before him.   Descartes the mathematician, as well as the philosopher, attempted to apply the same rigors of inference and deductive reasoning that underpinned the laws of mathematics into the realm of philosophy, metaphysics, and even theology.  In his Meditations on first Philosophy, Descartes takes his concepts of reason and logic as pillars of truth and understanding to prove the existence of God and the soul through the use of the same techniques that he outlines in his Discourse on Method.

I have always thought that two issues – namely, God and the soul – are chief among those that ought to be demonstrated with the aid of philosophy rather than theology.  For although it suffices for us believers to believe by faith that the human soul does not die with the body, and that God exists, certainly no unbelievers seem capable of being persuaded of any religion or even of almost any moral virtue, until these two are first proven to them by natural reason.[10]

You could argue that it is with Descartes that you have the advent of reason and logic as the pillars of modern day thought and perception of the world around us, and the complete departure from the notion of blind faith, or belief in in things that could not be proved or reasoned out by logic.  Note that he did not intend nor did he postulate that God did not exist however, simply that his existence needed to be placed on firmer rational and logical foundations.

The next influential metaphysician of this period that Charlie thought contributed uniquely to developments of this period is Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677 CE), a 17th century Jewish philosopher and naturalist who challenged the authority of Scripture directly as well as Descartes’s mind-body dualism, and put forth an alternative metaphysics and moral and ethical framework that is best described as naturalism.  Spinoza believed that there was only one corporeal substance that permeated all of nature and it was all governed by a set of rational and universal laws, challenging the notion of free will and the existence of an anthropomorphic God, as well as the validity of Scripture and the possibility of miracles, all of which to say the least constituted very radical notions in his day.  His ethics was akin to Stoicism, and he prescribed the restraint of passions as the key to virtue and happiness.

His seminal work published posthumously entitled Ethics is a systematic critique of traditional conceptions of God and theology in general, mankind’s place in the universe, and the ethical and moral framework upon which these belief systems sat, advocating a life of reason and rationalism over the pursuit of passions as the key to the good or happy life and that all events and effects and outcomes of the world are entirely deterministic, i.e. reflecting the absence of free will in both the world of God as well as the individual soul[11].  Note that he did not altogether disavow or set aside the existence of God but rather case God as identified with the whole of nature rather than an anthropomorphic all-knowing deity as put forth in Christian dogma and Scripture, hence the naturalist interpretation of his philosophy.

In Spinoza’s metaphysics, the existence of God is set forth as the underlying substrata of the entire universe via a logical and rational proof which associates God with Nature and discards the notion of an anthropomorphic God, along with the existence of miracles, as human inventions and criticizes the literal interpretation of the Bible[12].  He then goes on to associate human beings with Nature, and not as holding dominion over nature, proposing a significant shift in the Christian theological view that upheld the special place of mankind in the universe that prevailed in his day.

Nature is always the same, and its virtue and power of acting are everywhere one and the same, i.e., the laws and rules of nature, according to which all things happen, and change from one form to another, are always and everywhere the same. So the way of understanding the nature of anything, of whatever kind, must also be the same, viz. through the universal laws and rules of nature.[13]

His answer to the question of how is one to live if the prevailing religious dogma of the day was not to be trusted and the universe was simply a composition of natural objects interacting according to natural laws, mankind being just another aspect of Nature with no special place in it per se, subject to the passions and wills of the natural order of the universe like all other corporeal and non-corporeal substances, was to minimize the effect of these passions by the pursuit of true knowledge and virtue, and to focus on how the natural world reflects the unified essence of God, and thus subduing those passions that lead to misery, pain and suffering – in many respects echoing the sentiments of the Stoics of Ancient Greece as well as the philosophies of the East.  It is the pursuit of knowledge that he professes in his works, in a very Greek and Stoic way despite the dominance of Judeo-Christian thought of the times:

The more this knowledge that things are necessary is concerned with singular things, which we imagine more distinctly and vividly, the greater is this power of the Mind over the affects, as experience itself also testifies. For we see that Sadness over some good which has perished is lessened as soon as the man who has lost it realizes that this good could not, in any way, have been kept. Similarly, we see that [because we regard infancy as a natural and necessary thing], no one pities infants because of their inability to speak, to walk, or to reason, or because they live so many years, as it were, unconscious of themselves.[14]

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804 CE) was a philosopher and anthropologist who lectured and wrote in Germany at the end of the 18th century and in many respects culminates and synthesizes the philosophy and metaphysics of the Enlightenment period.  He argued that human perception structured natural laws and that morality and ethics had their foundation in a reasonable and rational framework, proposing an alternative to the skepticism as put forth by David Hume (1711-1776) that theorized that objects must conform to our perception rather than the other way around and that which could be known was limited by our capacity to understand.  Kant’s major work published in German, Critique of Pure Reason, outlined a human centric view of reality where all experience is shaped through the filter of our minds and aimed to unite rationalism with empiricism to move beyond what he took to be limitations of the metaphysical systems laid out by his philosophical predecessors.

Kant took the work of Descartes and others to another level from a philosophical and metaphysics standpoint, attempting to bridge the gap between the blossoming field of science, which argued that knowledge and truth can only be derived from direct and verifiable experience and results, i.e. empiricism, and the field of philosophy and metaphysics which maintained that reason and innate ideas existed a priori as espoused by Plato and Aristotle, i.e. rationalism.  The empirical view asserted that all knowledge comes through experience and the rationalist view maintained that reason and innate ideas were prior and existed independent of experience.  Kant argued that experience and reason were both required to come to an understanding of the true nature of reality and that using reason without applying it to experience only leads to theoretical illusions with little basis in that which is real or true.  Upon this metaphysical system he constructed a code of ethics and morality which upheld the doctrine of free will and the existence of God.

Kant’s treatment of the concept of God and religion in his critical philosophy, however, does not consist merely in this negative result that we must block reason from taking us along the theoretical paths that rationalist metaphysics had claimed will lead to a proof of God’s existence. He argues that once we have disciplined human reason to stay off that theoretical path, we are then in a position to make an affirmation of God on the basis of what he terms the practical, i.e., moral, use of reason. As he writes in the Preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (1787), “I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” He thus proposes what has come to be known as his “moral argument” for God and the immortality of the soul. In connection with this argument he also develops the concept of “moral faith.[15]

On the natural philosophical side of development, the beginning of the Scientific Revolution starts with Copernicus, who is the first Western philosopher and astronomer who challenges the long held notion that all celestial bodies revolve around the Earth, a notion that underpinned Western civilization’s view of mankind’s place in the cosmos for at least a thousand years.  Although there had been authors and mathematicians that had proposed a heliocentric view of the universe in late antiquity, most notably by Aristarchus in the 3rd century BCE and then Seleucus of the 2nd century BCE, it was the geocentric models expounded by Plato and Aristotle, codified in Ptolemy’s Almagest in the 2nd century CE, that served as the standard astronomical textbook throughout the Middle Ages up until Copernicus challenged its fundamental assertions and underlying mathematics.

The association between astronomy, astrology and religion, or the priesthood, had a long tradition dating back to the dawn of Western civilization, as reflected in Ancient Babylonian, Egyptian Greek and Roman cultures.  It was with Copernicus however that the break between these two disciplines, religion and astronomy, was initially torn, solidified more completely over the centuries following Copernicus with the work of Galileo, Kepler and then Newton, all who built upon and confirmed Copernicus’s thesis and established the foundations of modern science and its correlation with mathematics.

As noted, the curriculum that was taught throughout the institutions of higher learning throughout the Middle Ages and into the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries was greatly influenced by the Church, and the Church and its associated dogma which asserted that mankind was created by God in his own image, rested very dearly upon the principle that the Earth was the center of the Universe.  When Copernicus questioned this assumption, based primarily upon mathematical problems he encountered in Ptolemy’s work, the Church did not receive this criticism lightly to say the least.

Copernican heliocentric planetary model

Copernican heliocentric planetary model

Copernicus (1473-1543) most influential work which laid out his case for a heliocentric model of the universe was authored in Latin and called De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, or On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres or simply On the Revolutions.  It was published just before his death in 1543 and set out to demonstrate that the observed motions of stars, planets and other celestial bodies can be explained without having the Earth be the center upon which all else revolves.  It being published posthumously kept Copernicus out of controversy for the most part, but as is work was picked up and expounded upon by subsequent authors and teachers of the Scientific Revolution, most notably Galileo, the rift with the Church manifested quite forcefully.

Galileo (1564-1642), sometimes referred to as the “father of science”, was the first to publicly defend Copernican’s thesis that the Earth revolved around the sun, despite Copernicus’s On the Revolutions being officially condemned pending correction in 1616.  Galileo defended the Copernican system in his work, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (which was published in 1632 in Italian and translated into Latin in 1635) which compared the Copernican and Ptolemaic systems directly and laid out his case for a heliocentric model of the universe.

In 1633, in no small measure due to his popularity, Galileo was condemned, convicted of heresy, forced to recant his heliocentric views specifically, and was subsequently forced into exile and spent the rest of his life under house arrest, where he ironically he produced perhaps his most profound work, Discourses Concerning the Two New Sciences (published in Italian in 1638).  In the Two New Sciences, Galileo outlined an entirely new framework for natural philosophy, arguably transforming the field closer to what we today call physics, as described by his two new sciences, namely “strength of materials” and “motion of objects”.  In the Two New Sciences Galileo lays the foundation for the work of Kepler and Newton among others to follow him and provides the framework for modern physics, where celestial and terrestrial matter obey the same laws, and where the language of mathematics is called out specifically to be the greatest form of universal expression, the Bible being relegated by Galileo as a subsidiary to science, a revolutionary concept indeed.

For most people, in the 17th Century as well as today, Galileo was and is seen as the ‘hero’ of modern science. Galileo discovered many things: with his telescope, he first saw the moons of Jupiter and the mountains on the Moon; he determined the parabolic path of projectiles and calculated the law of free fall on the basis of experiment. He is known for defending and making popular the Copernican system, using the telescope to examine the heavens, inventing the microscope, dropping stones from towers and masts, playing with pendula and clocks, being the first ‘real’ experimental scientist, advocating the relativity of motion, and creating a mathematical physics. His major claim to fame probably comes from his trial by the Catholic Inquisition and his purported role as heroic rational, modern man in the subsequent history of the ‘warfare’ between science and religion. This is no small set of accomplishments for one 17th Century Italian, who was the son of a court musician and who left the University of Pisa without a degree.[16]

Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion

Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), the German mathematician, astronomer and astrologer, followed in the footsteps of Copernicus and Galileo and is best known for his three mathematical laws (outlined in his treatises Astronomia nova and Harmonices Mundi) that describe orbital/planetary motion around the sun, grounding Copernican heliocentrism in sound mathematics and providing for one of the core foundations for Newton‘s theory of universal gravitation[17].

Throughout the period of the Scientific Revolution there was no clear distinction between astronomy and astrology, although there was however a strong division between astronomy, which was typically covered in the field of mathematics, and Aristotelian physics, a branch of natural philosophy.  Kepler’s work, built off the foundations laid out by Galileo before him, broke down the distinctions of these two fields however and created an even larger divide between theology and science, although Kepler, consistent with the philosophers that preceded him, did not abandon religion altogether (atheism) but encapsulated theology and the belief in an anthropomorphic Creator in his works, arguing that mathematics, reason and logic, were the tools used by God to create and maintain the universe, further entrenching rationalism and empiricism into the intellectual developments that followed him.

It’s with Newton (1642-172) however that we see celestial and terrestrial mechanics become completely integrated in a holistic system, and the solidification of mathematics as the tool best suited to describe God’s creation.  Newton, best known for his principle of universal gravitation which underlies his three laws of motion which govern the interaction of all mass and bodies in the universe, provided the final blow to the Ptolemaic/Aristotelian geocentric model of the universe as well as the subjugation of the Judeo-Christian view of the universe as God’s willful creation to the mathematical and theoretical models that he proposed and in turn verified for the most part via empirical data and observations.  Newton’s mechanics as it is referred to today, dominated the scientific view of the physical universe for the next three centuries and arguably still represents the primary mode within which most of us understand our relationship to the physical world around us even today[18].

What Charlie found most fascinating about Newton though, when you looked under the covers a bit and tried to step back from the laws of physical motion that he was most known for, was that he was an interesting and diverse character with a wide range of interests in a far ranging set of fields both scientific and theological.  For example in astronomy he invented the first reflecting telescope, and in the field of optics he was the first to demonstrate that light can be decomposed into a spectrum of colors via a prism.  And clearly he made significant contributions in mathematics[19] but he also was a serious student of alchemy[20], and some scholars even believe that it was his work with alchemy that provided the inspiration for the concept of universal gravity.  John Maynard Keynes, the famous economist, after purchasing many of Newton’s extant alchemical treatises, is reported to have noted; “Newton was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians.”

But Newton, as with his predecessors, did not abandon faith in God.  Although he was unable to accept the beliefs of the Church of England (and according to some scholars believed that the Church had deviated from the teachings of Christ over the centuries), he was required as a Fellow of Trinity College to take holy orders, i.e. follow the curriculum and guidance of the Church with respect to what he could research, write about or teach.  The Church of England however, was more understanding and sympathetic to the ideas of Newton than Galileo, and King Charles II issued a royal decree excusing Newton from the necessity of taking holy orders saving Newton from the hardships and censorship that Galileo had to endure.[21]

What Charlie found interesting then in looking at the life of Newton, and considering all of his works and contributions to many branches of thought, was that Newton must have had a very broad view of the nature of reality that incorporated the mystical and theological, as well as the implicit belief that the world of physical objects around him could be explained mathematically.  Moreover, he must have been driven by the belief that there existed fundamental laws of the universe, laws which could be described by mathematical equations and relationships, laws which could be arrived at by inspiration (the establishment of a premise or hypothesis) combined with experimentation and measurement to validate the theories that were postulated, a belief system and process no doubt at least to some extent inspired from his alchemical studies.  From Charlie’s perspective, to look at the conclusions that Newton came to with respect to the world of classical mechanics without considering his beliefs and work in theology and alchemy, would be like tasting a salad without dressing – yes it would be the same salad without the dressing, the same underlying physical and chemical structure of lettuce, but it would lack flavor, and all of the subtleties and intricacies of the taste of that very same salad with the dressing.  And it’s Newton’s alchemical, theological and philosophical beliefs that were the dressing to the salad of his work in classical mechanics and mathematics.

Ever since the time of Plato and Aristotle in Classical Greece then, mankind has created semantic and metaphysical paradigms within which the nature of existence can be discussed, and the order within which the heavens and the earth and all its creatures were described and categorized.  The common thread for the Western models of reality, since ancient history then, has been empiricism to a greater or lesser extent, the models and branches of study evolving as the data and tools within which the world could be perceived evolved, culminating to some extent from a metaphysical standpoint to the rationalism of Kant who attempted to bridge science and theology with a single metaphysical framework.  Empiricism in this context is defined as the process of the development of hypotheses about reality, and then the process of testing these hypotheses, ultimately evolving into what we call scientific method as taught today.

This Western civilization and its associated philosophy emerged from the cultural melting pot that began with the Persian and then Greek empires which spread throughout the Mediterranean and Near East in the first millennium BCE, the rise of the Roman Empire at the end of the first century BCE which at its height in the first few centuries AD extended as far West as modern day Portugal, Spain and North Africa (Morocco) and as far East as modern day Afghanistan and, and then Muslim conquests in the 6th century AD which stretched from the orders of China and the Indian subcontinent throughout the Middle East, Iberian Peninsula all the way back to far Western reaches of North Africa.  All of these imperial conquests brought with them a forced assimilation of cultures that drove theological and metaphysical developments as a bi-product, as schools of learning sprung forth not only in Athens, but in Rome, and Alexandria in Egypt as well.

These cultural forces in the Western world accelerated with the advent of printing and intellectual exchange, characteristics that were hallmarks of the Age of Enlightenment, a period of tremendous intellectual progress which encompassed not only the evolution of robust systems of metaphysics that emphasized rationalism, empiricism and even skepticism to a lesser extent, but also drive socio-political developments which fueled political revolutions that rested on principles of free thought and balance of power, and of course the Scientific Revolution itself which from Charlie’s perspective had to be looked at as the source of mechanism and atheism, although not (yet at least) an abandonment of theology and a belief in some sort of anthropomorphic creator that spoke to the soul of man, a concept which Charlie thought albeit at some level inconsistent with science still played a fundamental role in the development and feeding of the soul, a principle that played a central part in the metaphysics, and religions, of all the great theo-philosophical systems that evolved up until the 20th century or so.

During the Age of Enlightenment, the supremacy of rationalism and empiricism became firmly established in the intellectual community no doubt, but the rational order of the universe as a divine emanation of an anthropomorphic God was still very much present in the works of the great philosophers and (what we would today call) scientists of the Age of Reason, despite their view that reason and empirical evidence as gathered and assimilated from the natural phenomenon of the world around us was to be held in the highest regard and the one and only tool for enlightenment and knowledge – higher than revelation, scripture or even faith in God itself.


[1] The Rig Veda is one of the oldest extant texts in any Indo-European language.  With philological and linguistic evidence indicating that it was composed roughly between 1700–1100 BC, known as the early Vedic period.

[2] Lucretius, De Rerum Natura; Book I, lines 487-496.  ‘De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) is a didactic poem intended to explain Epicurean philosophy to a Roman audience. The poem, written in some 7,400 dactylic hexameters, is divided into six untitled books, and explores Epicurean physics through richly poetic language and metaphors.  In it Lucretius presents the principles of atomism; the nature of the mind and soul; explanations of sensation and thought; the development of the world and its phenomena; and explains a variety of celestial  and terrestrial phenomena. The universe described in the poem operates according to these physical principles, guided by fortuna, “chance”, and not the divine intervention of the traditional Roman deities.’  – from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_rerum_natura

[3] Porphyry tells us (Cf. Life of Plotinus, chapters.24-26) that the First Ennead deals with Human or ethical topics; the Second and Third Enneads are mostly devoted to cosmological subjects or physical reality; The Fourth concerns about Soul; the Fifth to knowledge and intelligible reality; and finally the Sixth has for topics Being and what is above it, the One or first principle of all.  Outside of his Enneads, Porphyry was prolific author and philosopher in his own right.  He wrote an introductory work on ancient philosophy and logic called the Isagoge for example, which in its Latin translation form represented the standard textbook on logic and philosophy that was taught to students well through the Middle Ages and even into the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment in the West.

[4] Arguably the pinnacle of scholastic thought is encapsulated in the work by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 CE) called Summa Theologica authored in 1265-1274 CE.  Although unfinished, it basically was an instructional guide for theologians of the day and included topics on the existence of God, Creation and mankind’s place in it, and of course the teachings of Christ and of scripture.

[5] The first institutions in the West to be considered universities were established in Italy, France, Spain and England in the late 11th and the 12th centuries for the study of artslawmedicine, and theology, such as the University of Salerno, the University of Bologna, and the University of Paris.

[6] The philosopher and historian Alexandre Koyré coined the term Scientific Revolution in 1939 to describe this period in Western civilization.  While the start and end dates of the Scientific Revolution are debated, the publication in 1543 of Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres” and Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica, “On the Fabric of the Human body” are often cited as marking the beginning of this period, sparking follow on developments in science along many lines.

[7] For more on Bacon’s philosophy and theory of Idols and theory of Two Books, see the entry on Francis Bacon in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/francis-bacon/.

[8] Taken from Klein, Jürgen, “Francis Bacon”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/francis-bacon/&gt;.  Quote from Blumenberg, Der Prozess der theoretischen Neugierde, 1973.

[10] Meditations on First Philosophy, Rene Descartes, Third Edition, Letter of Dedication, pg 1.

[11] In his own words, “That eternal and infinite being we call God, or Nature, acts from the same necessity from which he exists Spinoza, Ethics, Latin version only.  Part IV, Preface.

[12] The English-American political philosopher and activist Thomas Paine (1737-1809 CE) also authored a influential treatise specifically aimed at undermining the faith in scripture entitled The Age of Reason which attacked the authority of the Church and validity of the Bible, emphasizing reason and rationalism over blind faith in authority or the Church.

[13] Nadler, Steven, “Baruch Spinoza”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2012/entries/spinoza/&gt;.  Page 22.

[14] Nadler, Steven, “Baruch Spinoza”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2012/entries/spinoza/&gt;.  Page 27.

[15] Rossi, Philip, “Kant’s Philosophy of Religion”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/kant-religion.

[16] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The Metaphysics Research Lab, Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford University, Galileo Galilei, by Peter Machamer.

[17] Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion specifically are 1) the orbit of each planet is elliptical with the sun being one of the two foci of the ellipse, 2) a line joining each planet and the sun sweeps out along the elliptical orbit in equal areas during equal intervals of time, and 3) the square of the orbital period of a planet is proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kepler%27s_laws_of_planetary_motion for a more full account of the mathematics underlying his laws.

[18] Newton’s three laws and principle of universal gravitation are laid out in Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, published in Latin in 1687.  For a more detailed account of the Life and Works off Isaac Newton see https://snowconenyc.com/2012/10/21/classical-mechanics-the-life-and-times-of-sir-isaac-newton/ by the same author.

[19] For a history of Calculus and specifically the controversy surrounding its discovery between Newton and Leibniz see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_calculus.

[20] Alchemy is an influential philosophical tradition whose early practitioners’ claims to profound powers were known from antiquity. The defining objectives of alchemy are varied; these include the creation of the fabled philosopher’s stone possessing powers including the capability of turning base metals into the noble metals gold or silver, as well as an elixir of life conferring youth and immortality. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alchemy.

[21] More specifically the decree specified that, in perpetuity, the Lucasian professor, which was the title given to the incumbent of the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge (widely regarded as one of the world’s most prestigious academic posts even to this day, currently held by the famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking), was exempt from holy orders.

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