That said, I have no desire to be obscure either, and within the limitations of language, I hope that some clarity will shine through this work, moving as it does between Indian creation myth, Christian mysticism, a take on non-duality, a direct gaze into the centre of human inhumanity, as expressed in the twentieth century’s own black hole on Earth, Auschwitz. In the shifts between these viewpoints and perspectives, we may experience turbulence of the mind and emotions – for this I apologise in advance – this essay is an experiment for me, an attempt to express some ultimate experience through relative words. We begin in India, with the text of the Kalika Purana and the creation of the world from Brahma’s contemplation of his own divine mind:
In the Hindu creation story known as the Kalika Purana the primary deities,(Brahma, the Creator who unfolds the universe from absorption in his own interior heat; Vishnu, the sustainer and maintainer of form and life flow and Shiva, who remains in divine withdrawal in the Void, until the time arises for him to dissolve the universe) undergo a number of interdependent slips and crises, precipitated through the goddess form and deep mother Maya ‘the charm by which life is forever seducing itself’ as Heinrich Zimmer called her. Maya is a Sanskrit word derived from ‘ma’ (Not) and ‘ya’ (That), and the name itself contains the basic ground of the paradox we will attempt to explore here. Interestingly, in another tradition born out of India, namely Buddhism, we are told that the mother of the Buddha was named Maya.
Rather than a planned, predestined creation fabricated on a time schedule, we see instead a creation process characterised by surprise, involuntary action, sudden shifts and about turns in the flow of events. Creation is not seen as a completed process or an ‘accomplished work’, but rather as a dynamic expression of forces in constant flux, pressed, formed, dissolved and remade in every moment, yet coherent a fresh within ceaseless rounds of change. Zimmer has named this expression of the creative urge as characterised by ‘compassionate paradox’, where omniscient beings arise and absorb within a field of infinite surprises. So Transcendent Reality and Ultimate Truth, expressed as Brahma, is itself surprised by the desire within its own innate nature – as embodied within the spontaneously arising and sublime form of Dawn, or woman. As she emerges from him, he confronts a new part of his nature and includes it within his perfect awareness – without recourse to judgment or denial (for this cosmic romance has none of the internecine psychodrama of the Greek gods). The story unfolds themes based upon acceptance and reconciliation of the self with paradox, balance within uncertainty.
Hence, as the tale moves, Brahma is drawn to deploy his surprise creation Maya, as the means by which to seduce remote Shiva, saying of her:
Maya – the World-Illusion of Vishnu himself, who supports both me and the cosmos! She is the motive principle of the universe. She is the one who will beguile him. She it is who is the intoxication even of the deepest vision of yoga. She is the genetrix of all being”
She is the ‘first-bloom of the universal day’, the primordial surprise, the ‘world-tholing mother’ from whom every form is born. She demonstrates to Brahma that he does not know the fullest extent of his own depths beyond the edge of his own self-ordering image. With this realisation the course of the cosmos goes immediately awry, lurches off the axle of a divine plan, and in so doing breaks forward into a clarity and depth beyond itself. Zimmer again:
The planner, the watcher, is compelled to become the endure, the sufferer. Such a metamorphosis into the opposite , into the absolutely alien, is what throws the knots that reticulate the net of the living whole and mesh the individual alive into the fabric
Wisdom names the surprise in the moment of recognising its nature – Brahma names Maya, names the urge to self-fulfilment and the impulse towards desire – something that is only possible because for Brahma, fundamentally, there is no fear – even as he releases a force that questions his own being and threatens him directly with annihilation (as in the form of the love god Kama with his flower-bow and flower arrows, a blind force acting without heed for consequences).
Children Of Maya
Leaving the cosmic picture for a moment, and focusing upon the individual, and especially the psychological architecture of ego consciousness, we can see clear thematic parallels with the Kalika Purana. To begin with, we are all familiar with the sense of life as a series of crises or catastrophes, or perhaps of profound uncertainties requiring yet resisting control – a work in progress, or ‘continuous creation’. Similarly, we are well acquainted with Maya in every conceivable form – her mortal desire and delusion, wisdom and ignorance entwined, the ‘Everlasting Divine Drunkenness of Dream’ is present in our lust and need, our manipulation and excess, our seeking and accumulating, the images we covet, secretly or overtly. Brahma is Atman, as they say, and each is unified within the field that Maya generates at ground level – as Chogyam Trungpa put it:
There is an absolute quality to the fact that we cannot fool ourselves… we cannot fool our essence. The ground we are sitting on cannot be fooled.
And, as Maya, that ground is ultimate, is bliss, is the clear light of so many traditions – though refracted into a self-hypnotising samsara, the terrible round of existence, birth, death and suffering that muffles the ‘white music blossoming’ at the heart of the universe (as Hindu/Sufi saint Kabir gave image to the mystery). Put another way, in the beginning was the Dao and the Dao was with god and the Dao was god – no longer Logos (the Graeco-Hebrew concept of ‘Word’ expressing divine reason), but Dao, or ‘divine way’. Whichever way we cut it, whether supremely transcendentalist or in the full embrace of immanence, the insight develops from the sense that each individual only finds true (full) expression of being in the being of beings, the beingness itself. From such a viewpoint one can see, for instance, (as Father Johanns author of ‘To Christ Through Vedanta’ did) that Christ is also Atman, embodying salvation from sin-as-illusion; or one can see through Marx in his pronouncement that Communism aims to ‘realise the essence of man’ in a classless society as an expression of the deepest Christian intention; or one can see with the eyes of the Awakened One and know that Form is Emptiness, Emptiness Form.
Such is the paradox of being, and the gift of Maya – that truth is so pliant, beauty so plastic, meaning so necessary that humans seemingly cannot bear too much of it, yet have no means of escaping its totality. I think, psychologically speaking, that in this sense Maya operates as what we often name Ego. She is both obstructer and enabler, the path and the closed gate, the means and the ends. Our lives are, in Keats’s phrase, in ‘perpetual allegory’ – purposeful only insofar as they point beyond themselves to somethingmore. Like Plato’s cave where flickering images of truth all too often become taken for Truth itself, taking root in the techniques of idolatry. As Bede Griffiths points out
Scientific materialism in the modern world is the precise counterpart of pagan idolatry in the ancient world; it is the substitution of appearance for reality. For science as such is only concerned with phenomena, that is, with things as they appear to the senses: its function is, in the Greek phrase, to “save the phenomena”… but of the reality which underlies the appearance of the real nature of things, science can give us no knowledge at all. We only begin to awake to reality when we realise that the material world, the world of space and time, as it appears to our senses, is nothing but a sign and a symbol of a mystery which infinitely transcends it. That is why images in Palaeolithic caves were painted in the dark; it is only when we have passed beyond the world of images that we can enter into communion with the mystery which lies beyond.
And so it is in the psyche – in the play of appearances, the dance of thought and sensation and feeling, of intuition and imagination as ordered through the ego function. We take ourselves literally at our peril, believe our own patterns at our own risk. Innately we sit in an ocean of uncertainty, perforated with endless gaps between our Maya/Ego-driven fantasy of separateness, and confrontation with the emptiness or void that simply is. Our challenge is to ‘forget who we think we are’ as Adyashanti puts it. The forgetting becomes the means of waking up – salvation, enlightenment, awakening – whatever we call it, the process has a nature based upon emptying out, letting go, releasing, reducing, removing and demolishing. There is nothing new to be acquired, and yet our pull is towards exactly that acquisition – less is more, but too much is never enough. This is how Maya works – pulling to show us a glimpse of ultimate Truth, but allowing us to dive again into our delusions. So, Who Am I? I don’t Know. Truth not as a final conclusion or absolute but also as a relativity – the truth now or, as Adyashanti terms it, the truth-field. As a method, to paraphrase the words of St John of the Cross: ’to find the unknown in you, go by a path unknown to you and stay there’. There is a wildness in this, a wilderness even – the untamed, unknown, unexperienced places inside that call to us but fill us with terror. Can we move to such places, not as tourists but as natives, as indigenous souls, fully at home?
‘Mercy Deaths’ & the Outer Nightmare
In earthly terms the dream is often directed towards truly nightmarish depths – we can all identify many such in our own lives and in the collective effulgence we call human history. It is as though the dream-state here is directed at outer objects, as if through a model of the psyche moving between a Freudian (sex/survival drive) and an Adlerian (power drive) operation – conceived in Indian philosophical terms as an oscillation between the base and solar plexus chakras (or Muladhara and Manipura, between the root-place and the city of shining jewels). This observation, made by Joseph Campbell, points towards the deep need for the experience at the level of the heart, the Anahata chakra, (or, mystically the ‘place of the sound not made by two things striking together’) – because only here can the dream begin to know itself as one. Without that ground or the perception of a whole, without heart, we remain in the cycling of desire and power and our tendency is to act outwardly upon ‘objects’ and others. At times we may even make others into objects by means of this cycling – and it is here that things begin to darken. Let’s use the most extreme example for illustration, let us consider for a moment the Holocaust wrought by the Third Reich upon those it deemed subhuman – Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, the politically undesirable, the socially dangerous (for instance, homosexuals) and to begin with, the infirm and mentally ill. It is intriguing to note that, in Richard L Rubenstein’s words
The first extermination program of the Nazi government was initiated on the very day that war broke out, directed not against Jews but against all mentally incompetent Germans, who were granted ‘mercy deaths’
The Holocaust was an expression of the most significant political, moral, religious and demographic tendencies of Western civilization in the Twentieth Century
He calls Auschwitz ‘the most thoroughgoing society of total domination in human history’ and draws our attention to the way in which doomed human beings were systemically recast as things and, if not selected for immediate gassing, were worked as slaves whose only way of staying alive was to submit within a schedule finally calculated to kill them. Their exploiters included the greatest corporations of the day, the researchers of the medical and scientific establishment, the ‘military-industrial complex’, as we might term it today. He also notes, most chillingly, that
No laws were broken, no crimes committed at Auschwitz. Those who were condemned to the society of total domination were stripped of all protection of the law before they entered. Truly the twentieth century has been the century par excellence that is beyond good and evil.
Completing the nightmare, Rubenstein shows us how the Reformation itself, by some traumatic thrust of the law of unintended consequences, sets the conditions in motion that will lead in due course to the Final Solution; the withdrawal of the Creator from his creation in a system of faith-based radical transcendence gives rise to the radical disjointing of ‘God and the world’, and a sort of vacuum into which alienation and secular-rational materialism move. Hence ‘bureaucratic murder’ and ‘rational genocide’ emerge as evolutions (unconscious at first, then made self-evident) of the traditions of western liberal thought and belief. That energy which expressed through reforming Protestantism, liberating and freeing in so many ways, textual and analytical, rigorous and scriptural too, seeds as well the deepest collective traumas. Maya brings nightmare through dream even as we act within the dream to make the dream appear ‘better’. We lack a centre to our being, or rather, we have forgotten it and need, as Blake said, to remember that ‘I give you the end of a golden string, Only wind it into a ball’.
The End of the World is Immanent
And if we do, if we follow that golden string through febrile illusion and utter despair, high ideal, zealous belief, passionate desire, to the highest peak and the foulest dungeon, the steepling heights of transcendent longing and the most devastating intimacy of the immanent, even to the concrete floor of manufactured death – then, exhausted and finally stopped, we may encounter something directly of the mystery:
The whole universe is a sacrament, which mirrors the divine reality; each created thing, though nothing in itself, is of infinite value and significance because it is the sign of a mystery, which is enshrined in the depths of its being. Then every human being is known to be not merely an isolated individual carried along on the flux of time and doomed to extinction, but a member of a divine society, working out its destiny in space and time and subject to all the tragic consequences of subservience to the material world, but destined to transcend the limitations of time and space … we are like people who hear snatches of music which they have no means of relating to the symphony as a whole… the very name ‘God’ is only a convenience of speech.. (pointing to) an unfathomable mystery, the power that moves the sun is indeed a power of love and it is this that lies at the heart of our human existence and shapes our lives
This is the account of Bede Griffiths, whose journey spanned a lifetime and moved from the unconditioned revelation of nature, through the intellectual and aesthetic dimensions of a quest for understanding, into a renunciate mode as a monk, and deeper still into full synthesis of forms, the catholic monk in India discovering the cosmic aspect of Christ in a non-linear, heart-wide-open ongoing encounter, marked with the absolute paradox of the certainty of faith and the radical uncertainty underlying form. A similar theme comes, even clearer, through the mystic poetry of Kabir – another grand synthesiser on the Mother-soil of India, this time in a blending of Sufism with Vedanta. Kabir says in the Songs (LVI), here in Rabindranath Tagore’s translation:
He is the real sadhu, who can reveal the form of the Formless to the vision of these eyes:
Who teaches the simple way of attaining Him, that is other than rites or ceremonies:
Who does not make you close the doors and hold the breath and renounce the world:
Who makes you perceive the Supreme Spirit wherever the mind attaches itself:
Who teaches you to be still in the midst of all your activities.
Ever immersed in bliss, having no fear in his mind, he keeps the spirit of union in the midst of all enjoyments .
The infinite dwelling of the Infinite Being is everywhere: in earth, water, sky and air:
Firm as the thunderbolt, the seat of the seeker is established above the void.
He who is within is without: I see Him and none else.
When you put relative and absolute truth together and they become one unit, it becomes possible to make things workable. You are not too much on the side of absolute truth, or you would become too theoretical. You are not too much on the side of relative truth, or you would become too precise. When you put them together, you realize that there is no problem. The combination works because it is simple and dynamic. You have hot and cold water together, so you can take a really good shower.
I hope to return to explore all the themes raised here more fully in a future piece, and to develop their psychological resonance further, through the work of transpersonal synthesis.
Joseph Campbell – lecture on Creativity in The Eastern Way (Audio Collection), 2003 ed
Bede Griffiths – The Golden String, 1980 (ed) & SMN lecture1992 ”The Vision of Non-duality in World Religions’ (SMN Archive)
Heinrich Zimmer – The Corpse & The King, 1947
Richard L Rubenstein – The Cunning Of History, 1975
Chogyam Trungpa – Collected Works, 2004
Kabir – (trans. Rabindranath Tagore), 2008 ed