Tag Archives: religion

Spiritual But Not Religious in 2012 – V

The Enlightenment often brusquely denied the possibility or importance of the transpersonal, yet it turned out itself to be the beginning of SBNR. It did scour away a lot of religion, especially the remains of Catholic hegemony in France. And Voltaire was a deist, not an atheist.

The Enlightenment brought in values of freedom to which SBNR holds and is beholden. It said: believe freely, although not without good reason, and don’t debar others from expressing different views. SBNR still says this. SBNR is founded on reasonable social principles.

It is partly Enlightenment empiricism itself that has lifted the ban on the transpersonal. If we experience something, it is reasonable to believe we experience it, especially when we can measure its correlates. That is the position of every NDEr, every Kundalini meditator, every Old Hag experiencer…

Of course we had no definite idea that these things existed when the Enlightenment set it all in train. We know now only because a lot of good people went to the trouble of finding out, and also because we have the freedom of speech to talk about it, itself a fundamental of the Enlightenment aims.

SBNR as a milieu isn’t possible without a certain degree of public freedom.

“Portal” by Qahira Lynn — click for more


Much ado about this quote:

Richard Dawkins: The thing that really baffles me about consciousness is that I can kind of see that one could program a computer to behave exactly as though it were conscious, to pass the Turing Test, and actually fool people into thinking that it was conscious, but I still have trouble believing it actually would be. And yet I think I have to be committed to the view that it would be.

… but the real parse of it is not forthcoming. This is a declaration of faith, by a man whose faith is immense. He would be tempted by thoughts from the devil to renounce that faith — thoughts that a computer doing an impression of a human being is very unlikely to be “more conscious” than one doing something else, perhaps, or is not “alive” in any case, in the sense an animal is, etc. — but his faith would triumph.


Having said I was writing less I appear to be writing more. This is the first “squib” — they will be mostly short like this and won’t interrupt regular Saturday broadcasting. Either they’ll take off or else… or else they won’t, you know.

Ceci n’est pas une religion

I’d like to thank one of my readers, kamatakki, for turning me onto this guy, S. N. Balagangadhara, putting patterns in place that solve problems I’ve had a long while but basically ignored. He’s rather irascible and sometimes wrong (Balagangadhara I mean, not kamatakki ^_^), but that doesn’t matter, because his most important points are evidential — and anyone can check him. This will not be a long post; follow up as desired.

I’ve always been worried about this week’s question, although never enough to actually do anything about it. Once, in China, I was talking to a local about the temples in Beijing and she said that one in particular was not Buddhist, but Taoist. But then she looked at me in a way that I could not parse. It seemed to be a glance of uncertainty, but what could that mean? She was not quite sure of what she was saying. But even more strangely, it seemed she wanted confirmation from me. How could that be? I was the stranger, she was the local, wouldn’t she know to which religion a particular temple belonged?

An easy assumption to make, but since then I’ve learned what is now quite common knowledge in academia although almost completely unknown outside it: much of what Westerners have been calling ‘religion’ in non-Abrahamic contexts really is their own invention. The Western model of “religions” based on texts and doctrines doesn’t travel.

To attempt to understand religion in China as several systems of doctrine is to read Western experience into a quite different set of circumstances.

– Thompson, Chinese Religion (1995)

The post-Christian Western idea is that doctrines drive everything, so at the base of spiritual traditions must be some belief system holding a relationship of equivalence to their creed — you don’t believe Christianity, so what do you believe? But this is false; it might not matter what you believe. And in China it most often doesn’t.

Thus the hesitation of my Chinese acquaintance was perfectly natural. I think she referred to the Dongyue temple, which is indeed “Taoist”, in the sense of having been built by followers of the Celestial Masters tradition of Daojiao (“Way-Teaching”, a term only extant from the 5th c. CE), but its presiding deity, Dongyue, “Great Emperor of the Eastern Peak”, has been thoroughly integrated into Confucian and Buddhist traditions too. Like earlier examples I gave, this deity has been quite a few things to quite a few people over time.

My Chinese interlocutor knew that calling a temple ‘Taoist’ labelled it with a creed which we Westerners expect, somewhat equivalent to the imported exclusivist Communism under which she lives. The supposedly underlying explicatory doctrine did not matter to her the way it did to Christian scholars. The deity concerned is associated with Taoism in this case (as often), but the temple in Beijing does not represent a model which is followed throughout China in association with Dongyue, or with Taoism. It doesn’t follow what we might call the ‘spiritual franchise model’ of Christian churches. You don’t have to ‘be a Taoist’ to enter.

I'd be careful who you call a religion...

(As for the incredible menagerie of other deities in that temple, check it out. You will love this!)

So the left-brain categorisings of reflexive Western understanding are not used by Chinese people — unless they are Chinese scholars aping Westernism of course, but as the economics continue to seesaw, the power to set agendas will slip away East.

There is no exact word corresponding to English ‘religion’, in China. Our modern assumptions see religion everywhere but initial European observations were quite different. The outflowings of this fact are ridden to exciting destinations by Balagangadhara, who is Indian, but whose ideas link with China (and pagan Europe.) One simply has to observe that:

A standard Chinese response to being queried on “religion” in China is to say that the Chinese do not have one.

– Paper, The Spirits are Drunk (1995)

(Paper’s book is recommended to spiritual explorers wanting academic info on Chinese religion, since he has transpersonal experience and knows how that fits in to his subject — most scholars are still flat-footed on this, including Balagangadhara.)

The Chinese then, even once some word has been found to translate the concept of “religion”, do not recognise it. And interestingly, early Christian encounters often also say, “the Chinese have no religion”, on the record, which may be checked. This is Balagangadhara’s evidential point since the same thing happened in India — the first European arrivals there were clear that no religion was to be found, and in fact it was much the same story with the rest of the world as they encountered it.

Balagangadhara (“Balu” to friends and admirers) simply suggests: if the locals thought they had no religion, and the visitors too, why disagree with them? They were right.

And I think that’s a very good way to look at it. By the time more imperialising assumptions that “everyone has religion since it is a natural instinct” have been unpicked, not so much remains in the Western concept that is mirrored in the non-Western ones. Traditions all over the world do a whole lot of different things, often connected, but those things may in toto certainly be neither equivalent to, nor felt similarly to, what Abrahamic religion does. So it may not be appropriate to call them all “religions”, a Western word which since Christianity bludgeoned Roman pagan religio into submission really has meant ‘something like scripture-based doctrinal Abrahamism’.

So much clicks, then. We as Westerners used to make a distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ ritual in China, for example — conveniently ignoring the fact that the Chinese never made such a distinction. which is valid only for our culture. Chinese rites are more accurately seen as ‘agnostic’ (Paper p. 27), with the emphasis on the actions themselves, not on any object they have in view. The interesting Michael Saso, a Westerner ordained as a priest in a Taoist sect, agrees (1990) that “Chinese religion is not a belief system.”

Other implications… “Interfaith dialogue” for one is probably an Abrahamic model — having participated once I can testify to the falseness of the equivalences it assumes between traditions, although I had no clue why at the time; but if most “religions”, to the extent they even exist as such, can’t really be called ‘faiths’, much is explained. The famous “Belief-O-Matic” quiz over at Beliefnet which claims to be able to stream you into the correct religion on account of “what you believe” is operating on false and falsified assumptions too. The name hints at the link between those false assumptions and the mechanised universe it is still heresy to believe we don’t live in.

Many neopagans have likewise known for a long while that they were after “orthopraxy not orthodoxy”, and I hope many will be proud to say that what they do is neither equivalent to nor necessarily competition for Abrahamism. The initial category equivalence between ‘pagan beliefs’ and ‘Christian beliefs’ was drawn by Christians and was a major plank of the either/or conversion process.

Often, left to themselves, non-Christians would historically be happy to include Christ alongside other deities in a multiplicity. One saw this desire in India as Balu points out — in China too — and one sees the actual living result in the Greece of a century ago according to Lawson, whose book is absolutely invaluable although often overlooked. If pagan traditions were belief systems/worldview-faiths this natural instinct to include Jesus of Nazareth alongside other gods could not arise.

I also mention again my previous review of Versluis’ wonderful and unique book on the nature of inquisitions, with its concept of ‘ideocracy’, rule by correct ideas, acting as driver of a belief-based absolutism and happy to torture those who dare to think differently. Reading him alongside Balu, it becomes far clearer why inquisitions flourished under a “religious” system (and why totalitarianisms are indeed well seen as religions in Balu’s sense and could take over the inquisitions). It’s simply that ideocratic systems claim to own and describe the world for our and its good. One may extrapolate reasons why over-dogmatic dualistic absolutisms are at the root of a lot of the mental difficulties of the modern de-religioning West, which mental health professionals have to deal with. It all fits.

(One may often hear a person speaking of ‘religion’ who is unable to make these distinctions; under questioning they may not only have trouble defining their subject, but also realise they had not even realised they had trouble.)

Meanwhile I will interpret a writer like Patanjali much as Glenn did — psychologically and philosophically. That is my real interest, not “religion”, hence this may well be my last post on the subject of “religion” itself, which I’m sure will please many. :) I may read a little further on the question of “heresy” to see if it bears out the above (there is something similar in Confucian traditions I’m told), but I honestly think that’s a minor point best understood in light of the psychological necessity of individuation.

... mais il existe des alternatives au combat! Thanks to Cryhavok

My life as predicted has been speeding up and I also have a lot of new transpersonal insights to digest, so some posts upcoming may be shorter in the sense of fewer words, but actually will cover more ideas more tersely. As ever thanks for reading, and I appreciate your thoughts if you want to share them, whether here on the ‘Box or in private.

Best wishes,


Not so fast!

Human energy knowledge is a precious resource -- click for artist Olver Sorin's facebook page

Ch’i exists — fine. It travels through the body in meridians, which the yogis call nadis — fine too, but a map of the nadis doesn’t look like a map of the meridians. Now my feeling here is that if in doubt, they’re both right, and I’ll back that up this week, in other words I’m arguing anti-exclusivism, but I’m also going to argue anti careless syncretism.

Subjects like these are touchy for some which prevents clarity, so I can’t say how grateful I’ve been for independent scholarship on religious and transpersonal issues — the secular is one of the best things ever to have happened to the spiritual.

Taiji Symbol

Let’s take a nice one — yin and yang and how they manifest creation. I was talking of Tao last week, and most will know its close relation, taiji. We learn in Tao Te Ching ch. 42 that: “Tao produces one, one produces two…” etc. Now stop me if you’ve heard this one:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…

Personally I see a connection there. Division into or generation of two different things as the beginning of generating everything else is a feature of so many cosmic beginnings I’ve happened across that it looks like a definite pattern. Would you expect this if a prime unity comes at the apex of much mystical experience? Well yes, but the division into two is never of two things the same. There are two definitely different substance-principles and they seem to differ in consistent ways. Genesis has more right away — when God has created light, he goes on to separate it from the darkness, and then he has to separate the upper waters from the lower waters, etc.

Lao-tzu of course is not myth, but the god Wenchang is more mythically Chinese and also happens to be one of the few gods of whom we can read the autobiography, which begins:

When Hundun first divided into opaque and clear,
In the astral quarter of the Southeast the phosphors shone sharp and bright.
In its midst were contained the billowing energies of the Great Monad.
I was already in secret correspondence with the quintessence of creation.

– Terry F. Kleeman tr., see A God’s Own Tale (1994)

More of Wenchang next week, but again there’s that division, this time into ‘opaque and clear’. Those are standard attributes of yin and yang. “Hundun” is the primordial Unintelligibility/Chaos.

In the Babylonian Enûma Elish, there’s a primal deity named Apsu who represents fresh water and is male. He mixes his waters with Tiamat, who amongst other things is the salt ocean, is connected with primordial chaos, and is female, to produce ‘sky above and earth below’.

In the Greek Orphic theogony, Ananke, whom we met last week, is a primordial player. She was serpentine and spread her limbs through the universe. She mated with Chronos, or time, male, also serpentine in form. In some versions they enwrap the egg of the cosmos and split it into two. Out of that came Phanes, a being of Light, who was married to Night.

The Vikings how ‘before the dawn of time’ there were two regions — Niflheim, dark and cold, and Muspelheim, hot and fiery. In between was Ginnungagap, the great void. The cold mists of Niflheim and firesparks from Muspelheim met in Ginnungagap and produced an elixir which dripped down to form a humanoid shape: Ymir, the first of the giants.

(Now don’t get me started on those giants.)

I myself have not yet seen a vision of the actual formation of the cosmos, although some I know have, but am rather experientially familiar with the yin/yang thing and its differentiation and marriage. If I were to sum up the relevant terms above, carefully hoarded down the ages in 5 very different places, I’d have something like:



What happens if we say all of these look related?

One has only three options at that point, and I’ll skip over the first, which is to say this is all just cultures passing stories to one another along with “coincidence”, as simple whimsical materialism. These records are prized because someone “sees”, and their vision concerns the nature of the universe rather than just the inside of shamans’ heads. Such visions coincide because they were each, in a different way, seeing something which actually is in a more-than-symbolic way “at the root of the universe”.

So we have two options left. I’ll call the first Hard Perennialism. If I were doing Hard Perennialism I’d say things like: the Light produced by God was called the Great Monad in China, and Phanes in Greece, whilst the direction of Southeast is equivalent to fire in China or Muspelheim to the Norse where ‘phosphors sharp and bright’ were said to exist, etc… gradually I produce a composite story with terms from the multiple cultures. I’ve gone from seeing a connection to seeing identity.

This sort of thing is a) sometimes enlightening, b) useful in that it makes a transcultural space, and c) fun. It goes back a long way. Zosimus of Panopolis, the first Hermetic Alchemist of whom we have record (3rd-4th c. CE), was a master synthesiser, but I can’t be the only one today who finds his zippings-together a little awkward at times:

In the original hieratic language the first man… is designated Thouthos. The Chaldeans, the Parthians, the Medes and the Hebrews call him Adam… the Adam of flesh is called Thouth with respect to the visible outer mould, but the Man within him, the Man of Spirit… is Phos, and from this it follows that men came to be known as “photes”…

On the Letter Omega, Howard M. Jackson ed./tr. (1978)

… etc. The Adam of Genesis and the Egyptian god Thoth both happen to be namers in their respective mythologies, so Zosimus can blend them for his particular practice — Hermetic alchemy.

Thoth. on the right in ibis-headed form

Ultimately he also seems to claim more: to know the “actual meaning” behind it all, what Adam and Thoth “really were” all along. That’s what Hard Perennialism tends to do — “I get what these people were all driving at, now it can be revealed.” But in actual fact it often makes a new belief system entirely, by pointing up similarities but completely ignoring differences. The ibis-headed Thoth, associated with baboons and the moon, is a deity, magician, peacemaker, and judge of the dead, and had originally precisely dingo’s kidneys to do with Adam, the biblical first human being. They coincide at one point but differ at most others. Not even a Jungian could elide them on archetypal grounds.

Spiritual vision is a funny thing, reports of it even funnier. Connection does not equal identity — necessarily. Sometimes there is no doubt – — sometimes a lot. Tao is not necessarily “God”. They may be the same, it depends upon human choice and perception. (There are Taoist religious movements, of very long standing, that make Tao a personal-style god and re-imagine Lao-tzu as its incarnation BTW.) Ginnungagap is never said to have produced Muspelheim and Niflheim but was used by them to form an elixir. In what sense was God’s light “married to” the darkness from which he separated it, as Phanes was married to Night? Tao produced one, one produced two, but then two went ahead and produced three which is a whole different kettle of tilapia. And so forth.

Are these differences important? Actual practices tell us much here. Broadly, yang is said to exist on the right of the body and yin on the left, across cultures — but not absolutely always, and there are plenty of people making the opposite way work right there. This is not intellectual; actual exercises and energies are used involving ch’i in relation to the body, and these have a considerable effect on it, and on the mind. It is very easy to see these ideas as the same conceptually, but sometimes the actual use of them is dead opposite. Practice trumps theory.

When two ways conflict but are both right, this is tricky to Hard-Perennialise. It happens quite a lot. Glenn’s system of stacking the elements, for example, is the usual one in Budo and Mikkyo Buddhism, which puts the element of fire below air at the solar plexus, whereas the Westerner Bardon puts fire at the top, above air, in the head — following, say, Robert Fludd (in the first illstration on this page, note the elements at the bottom of the monochord with their latin names). Both can’t be right, if we’re looking for some kind of complete match, yet both absolutely are right, in that both systems have been shown to work. They have actual effect on bodies and souls, more than enough to prove the underlying visions are at least to some extent real rather than mere fancy.

So the seemingly simple ideas of yin and yang division or 4 elements are actually multiple, and filtered through cultural windings into systems and ways that don’t always correspond. Each is a truth. They may be at odds when seeming to chime, or to chime when seeming to be at odds.

That’s why I say not so fast! to Hard Perennialism. I tend to go with what I call Soft Perennialism, which means acknowledging things are the same and also different, which they tend to be, and which knits together terms admitting that one particular kind of sense may not be the only kind. (Zosimus’ Adam was not nonsense in context, but was nothing a rabbi would want to go with.)

Creative use of mythic and visionary materials is very important, and can turn up great stuff — I’ve always held the Jungian attitude in high esteem, for example, and the shadow/anima concepts combine very well with Glenn. But, “true” though this stuff is in the sense of ‘it corresponds to the symbols and works in practice’, one can’t look at it as ‘the truth’. Jung’s alchemical psychology is a great use for the material but alchemists like Zosimus and his successors weren’t psychologists, in fact used chemicals and laboratories as well as spiritual techniques, and were often interested in some very physical results. There is no ‘one true answer’ about used of the four elements, about yin and yang.

Perhaps there’s one more reason to prefer Soft Perennialism — it leaves the aesthetic of the original intact. Take the Viking cosmology, wedded to the Iceland landscape. Kevin Crossley-Holland goes wild with the descriptions of the beginning of the universe, with his ‘yeasty venom, ‘dismal hagger and rime’ and so on. He may go a little past his sources, but what he’s saying is that these people were of their land, and it was a tough one in a tough time, a time for tough people who took the evil of the world for granted and snarled at it. Many modern will say things like, “We don’t grovel before our gods, or they wouldn’t think we were worth listening to.” I value that, the particular flavour of something adapted to a particular niche, something not universal but particular to certain individual cultures, just as much as anything general to be abstracted therefrom.

Now I’ve brought in gods again… today we’ve had Yahweh and Tao-as-divinity, we’ve had Wenchang, we’ve had Thoth. But what are these ‘god’ things anyway? That’s my topic next week.


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