Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Man and Religion
from Aldous Huxley

There are two main kinds of religion. There is the religion of immediate experience [shamanism]-- the religion, in the words of Genesis, of hearing the voice of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, the religion of direct acquaintance with the divine in the world. And then there is the religion of symbols, the religion of the imposition of order and meaning upon the world through verbal or non-verbal symbols and their manipulation, the religion of knowledge about the divine rather than direct acquaintance with it.

Let us begin with religion as the manipulation of symbols to impose order and meaning upon the flux of experience. In practice we find that there are two types of symbol-manipulating religions: the religion of myth and the religion of creed and theology. Myth is obviously a kind of non-logical philosophy; it expresses in the form of a story or, very often, in the form of some visual image, or even in the form of a dance or complicated ritual, some generalized feeling about the nature of the world and of man's experience in regard to it. Myth is unpretentious, in the sense that it doesn't claim to be strictly true. It is merely expressive of our feelings about experience. But although it is non-logical philosophy, it is often very profound philosophy, precisely because it is non-logical and non-discursive. It permits the bringing together in the story, the image, the picture, the statue, or the dance of a number of the disparate and even apparently incommensurable or incompatible parts of our experience. It brings them together and shows them to be an indissoluble whole, exactly as we experience them. For example, in Hunduism Kali is at once the infinitely kind and loving mother and the terrifying Goddess of destruction, who has a necklace of skulls and drinks the blood of human beings from a skull. This picture is profoundly realistic; if you give life, you must necessarily give death, because life always ends in death and must be renewed through death. Whether such myths are true or not is quite an irrelevant question; they are simply expressive of our reactions to the mystery of the world in which we live.

We find earlier non-logical mythical religions very frequently associated with what have been called spiritual exercises, but which are in fact psychophysical exercises. By use of chant and dance and gesture, they get a genuine kind of revelation. Here I would like to cite the French Islamic scholar Emil Dermenghem, who says that modern Europe (of course modern Europe includes modern America) is almost alone in having renounced out of beurgeois repectability and Puritanism the participation of the body in the pursuit of the spirit. In India as in Islam, chants, rhythms, and dance are spiritual exercises.

Religion as a system of beliefs is a profoundly different kind of religion, and it is the one which has been the most important in the West. The members of the official religion have tended to look upon the mystics [the religion of direct experience] as difficult, trouble-making people. Also, the religion of direct experience of the divine has been regarded as the privilege of a very few people. I personally don't think this is necessarily true at all. I think that practically everyone is capable of this immediate experience, provided he sets about it in the right way and is prepared to do what is necessary. We have simply taken for granted that the mystics represent a very small minority among a huge majority who must be content with the religion of creeds and symbols and sacred books and liturgies and organizations.

Belief is a matter of great importance. The tremendous fact of belief, which is so constantly cultivated within the symbol-manipulationg religions, is essentially ambivalent. The consequence is that religion as a system of beliefs has always been an ambivalent force. It gives birth simultaneously to humility and to what poets call the "proud prelate", the ecclesiastical tyrant. It gives birth to the highest form of art and to the lowest form of superstition. It lights the fires of charity, and it also lights the fires of the Inquisition.

Myths, on the whole, have been much less dangerous than theological systems because they are less precise and have fewer pretensions. Where you have theological systems it is claimed that these propositions about events in the past and events in the future and the structure of the univers are absolutely true; consequently reluctance to accept them is regarded as rebellion against God, worthy of the most undying punishment. And we see that in fact these systems have, as a matter of historical record, been used as justification for almost every act of aggression and imperialistic expansion. There is hardly a single large-scale crime in history which has not been committed in the name of God.

This strife-producing quality of religion as a system of theological symbols has brought about not only the jihads and crusades of one religion against another, it has produced an enormous amount of internal friction within the same religion. The theological hatred is notorious for its virulence, and the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were of a degree of ferocity which passes all belief.

So, what has been the attitude of the proponents of immediate experience [mysticism, shamanism] towards the religion expressed in terms of symbols? Meister Eckhart, one of the great mystics of the Middle Ages, expresses it in an extreme form: "Why dost thou prate of God? Whatever thou sayest of Him is untrue". This insistence on the inefficiency of symbolic religion for the ultimate purpose of union with God has been stressed by all the Oriental religions. We find it in the literature of Hinduism, in the literature of Mahayana Buddhism, of Taoism, and so on. Hui-neng says that the truth has never been preached by the Buddha, seeing that one has to realize it within oneself, and that what is known of the teaching of the Buddha is not the teaching of the Buddha, which has to be an interior experience. Then we get a paradoxical phrase: "What is the ultimate teaching of the Buddha? You won't understand it unless you have it. " The author goes on to say, "Don't be so ignorant as to mistake the pointing finger for the moon at which it is pointing" and he says that the habit of imagining that the pointing finger is the moon condemns all efforts to realize oneness with Reality to total failure. There were even Zen masters who prescribed that anybody using the word "Buddha" should have his mouth washed out with soap because it was so remote from the goal of immediate experience.

And what is the mystical experience? I take it that the mystical experience is essentially the being aware of and, while the experience lasts, being indentified with a form of pure consciousness, of unstructured transpersonal consciousness which lies, so to speak, upstream from the ordinary discursive consciousness of everyday. It is a non-egotistic consciousness, a kind of formless and timeless consciousness, which seems to underlie the consciousness of the separate ego in time.

Why should this sort of consciousness be regarded as valuable? I think for two reasons. First, it is regarded as valuable because it is intrinsically valuable, just as the experience of beauty is intrinsically valuable, but much more so. Second, it is valuabe because as a matter of empirical experience it does bring about changes in thought and character and feeling which the experiencer and those about him regard as manifestly desirable. It makes possible a sense of unity and solidarity in the world. It brings about the possibility of that kind of unjudging love and compassion which is so stressed in the Gospel.

There are other fruits of the mystical experience . There is certainly an overcoming of the fear of death, a conviction that the soul has become identical with the Absolute Principle which expresses itself in every moment in its totality. There is an acceptance of suffering and a passionate desire to alleviate the suffering of others. There is a combination of what Buddhists call Prajnaparamita, which is the wisdom of the other shore, with Mahakaruna, which is universal compassion. As Eckhart says, what is taken in by comtemplation is given out in love. This is the value of the experience. As for the theology of it, this is profoundly simple and is summed up in three words which are at the base of virtually all Indian religion and philosophy: "Thou art that", the sense being that the deepest part of the soul is identical with the Divine nature, that the Atman, the deep soul, is the same as Brahman, the Universal Principle, or in Eckhart's words, that the ground of the soul is the same as the ground of the Godhead. It is the idea of the inner light.

Now, very briefly, I must touch on the means for reaching this state. It has been constantly stressed that the means do not consist in mental activity and discursive reasoning; they consist in what is called "alert passivity", or what American mystic Frank Laubach has called "determined sensitivity". You don't do anything, but you are determinedly sensitive to letting something be done within you.

This attitude of spiritual masters is exactly the same as that recommended by the teacher of any psychophysical skill. The man who teaches you how to play golf or tennis, your singing teacher or piano teacher, will tell you the same thing: you must somehow combine activity with relaxation, you must let go of the clutching personal self, in order to let this deeper self within you, which you interfere with, come through and perform miracles.

In a certain sense one can say that what we are doing all the time is trying to get into our own light. Our superficial selves eclipse our deeper selves and so don't permit this light force, which is an impartial fact within us, to come through. In effect the whole of the technique of proficiency in every field, including this highest form of spiritual proficiency, is a dis-eclipsing process, a process of getting out of our own light.

Finally, we see that there is no conflict between the mystical approach to religion and the scientific approach, because one is not committed by mysticism to any cut-and-dried statement about the structure of the universe. You can practice mysticism entirely in psychological terms, and on the basis of a complete agnosticism in regard to the conceptual ideas of orthodox religion, and yet come to knowledge-- gnosis-- and the fruits of knowledge will be the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, and the capacity to help other people.

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