Linda Castellani (castle) Wed 8 Dec 99 14:23
Jay Kinney and Richard Smoley are the co-authors of _Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions_, an in-depth primer on Western religious traditions. Kinney and Smoley, former editors of the now-defunct Gnosis magazine, will be interviewed by writer John Shirley. Welcome to inkwell.vue, Jay, Richard, and John!
John Shirley (johnp-shirley) Thu 9 Dec 99 18:32
First things first. Why is Wisdom Hidden and how did you get it unhidden? And should it be? That is, if esoteric traditions were hidden, it was on purpose, wasn't it? Why is now the time to bring them into the public eye? A guide to the Western Inner Traditions...so what exactly is meant by "Western Inner Traditions"? Can a tradition really be "inner"? The book summarizes difficult esoteric ideas and methods with remarkable lucidity and deftness. How did you go about condensing and synthesizing what you'd say out of what could be volumes on any one of these subjects? What's your object in this book? Each chapter in Hidden Wisdom captures the essence--as far as is practical--of some esoteric tradition or system of ideas. Your contents page gives us: JUNG AND THE DISCOVERY OF THE UNCONSCIOUS; GNOSTICISM: THE SEARCH FOR AN ALIEN GOD; FINDING THE INNER CHRIST: ESOTERIC CHRISTIANITY; A LADDER BETWEEN HEAVEN AND EARTH: THE KABBALAH; MAGICIANS: SCULPTORS OF ASTRAL LIGHT; THE RETURN OF THE PAGANS; WITCHCRAFT AND NEOPAGANISM; SHAMANS: TECHNICIANS OF ECSTASY; THE GOLD OF THE PHILOSOPHERS: ALCHEMY AND HERMETICISM; THE WAY OF THE SLY MAN: THE TEACHINGS OF GI GURDJIEFF; SUFISM: THE POLES OF LOVE AND KNOWLEDGE; THE RUMOR OF THE BROTHERHOOD: SECRET SOCIETIES AND HIDDEN MASTERS; THE ETERNAL NEW AGE... This is an ambitious scope. What makes you gentlemen qualified to do this? How did you settle on this set of traditions? Some of these subjects in all probability complement each other; but others are sure to have cosmological/world views in contrast, as for example shamanism and mystical Christianity (or anyway more differences than real parallels). So I take it that you're not advocating one over arching system or set of linking ideas to connect them all--you'd have to be basically accepting each as "real" while you examine it, "for the sake of argument", in a way...Is that right? But doesn't that leave us wondering what's valid in all these points of view on the cosmic reality? Though they may have much in common at times they can't all be right. Is there some linking perennial philosophy connecting them? Can you say a little bit about those sources for this material which are more than just other books? Next posting will be on specifics!
Jay Kinney (jay) Thu 9 Dec 99 21:03
Whoa, John! One question at a time! We can probably occupy the next week just responding to your #1 post! So, let's see here...You asked: "Why is Wisdom Hidden and how did you get it unhidden? And should it be? That is, if esoteric traditions were hidden, it was on purpose, wasn't it? Why is now the time to bring them into the public eye?" Probably I ought to explain that esoteric spiritual traditions tend to be "hidden" in the same way that an apple tree is hidden in an apple. Or, to put it slightly differently, the way a nut is hidden in its shell. In many ways they are more structurally hidden than covertly hidden. True, there were mystics and gnostics who were persecuted by the Church, but that was largely because the institutional church couldn't fathom that, in many cases, the mystics were actually penetrating into the essence of Christianity. But because of such persecution, people who were delving into the inner essence of the religion tended to keep a low profile, out of a desire for self-preservation. The other thing keeping esoteric traditions hidden tends to be that they are simply beyond most people's interest or comprehension. In this sense, they could be out in plain sight (as many are today) and still be "hidden."
Jay Kinney (jay) Thu 9 Dec 99 21:13
You next asked: " A guide to the Western Inner Traditions...so what exactly is meant by 'Western Inner Traditions'? Can a tradition really be 'inner'?" I originally came up with the subtitle for GNOSIS Magazine as: "A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions." I meant several things by that. First, there were the wisdom traditions of inner work - of working on yourself, coming into fuller consciousness, being less asleep. That was one meaning for inner. Another was inner as in esoteric: the spiritual essence within outer religious structures. To use an example, this time from Islam, the Prophet Muhammad was said to have imparted his innermost teachings (those having to do with meditation, prayer, visionary states, and other inner phenomena) to his son-in-law, Ali. The Sufi orders, with only one or two exceptions, all trace themselves back to Ali and to these teachings. The esoteric or inner traditions tend to operate on a "need to know" basis, not unlike intelligence agencies. Most people are never going to bother trying to achieve a state of Union with God (or the All, or Allah, or whatever term you like), so why waste one's breath (and risk misunderstandings) trying to explain it to them. Rather, when the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear, as the old saw goes...
Jay Kinney (jay) Thu 9 Dec 99 21:23
OK, one more question before I take a break and/or let Richard take on a few of these... " The book summarizes difficult esoteric ideas and methods with remarkable lucidity and deftness. How did you go about condensing and synthesizing what you'd say out of what could be volumes on any one of these subjects?" I can only speak for myself on this. The chapters that I wrote were on subjects with which I was so familiar from years of study, reading, and experience, that I had already done a lot of sifting and concluding on my own. It was largely a matter of trying to figure out an outline for presenting my own conclusions. In addition, working with these subject areas, day in and day out, year after year, as we edited GNOSIS, led us to certain mutual conclusions about many of them. We also tried to read each other's chapters as if we were an outside reader, and we noted to each other if things seemed to be confusing at certain points. And, finally, we generally had several knowledgeable person read over the chapters as we finished writing them, to catch any errors and/or suggest how things might be better. (And I shouldn't forget that we also benefited from a good copy-editor at Penguin, who also made some good suggestions on cleaning it up.)
Jay Kinney (jay) Fri 10 Dec 99 06:49
OK, a night's sleep having passed, let's look at another question or two: "What's your object in this book?" Our goal was fairly simple. To provide a good readable overview of the variety of paths and traditions of inner work and spiritual inquiry that have developed over the centuries in the West. Our focus was on helping the reader rediscover the resources that have been available within our own culture, but often overlooked or ignored. Since Eastern traditions have gotten so much attention over the past few decades, we thought it would be worthwhile to shine some light on Western traditions that are valuable as well. All too often, the only Western religious or spiritual approaches that get attention in the media are either the fundamentalists or the wackos. The intellectual establishment in our culture has a severe allergy to seeing the spiritual quest as something to be taken seriously, with a few notable exceptions such as Tibetan Buddhism.
Jay Kinney (jay) Fri 10 Dec 99 10:30
And perhaps I'll take this moment in the proceedings to mention that "Hidden Wisdom" is available through the Well bookstore at this link: http://www.well.com/bookstore/index.html. And another related link is the GNOSIS website, which has details of GNOSIS back issues which are still available (but not for long!) That's at: http://www.gnosismagazine.com. And now, back to our previously scheduled programming...
Linda Castellani (castle) Fri 10 Dec 99 14:10
First, let me duck in quickly and add that if you are not on the WELL and have some questions for the authors, please send them to email@example.com. The hosts will post your questions for you. And, now back to the interview...
Jay Kinney (jay) Fri 10 Dec 99 19:12
While we wait for Richard to hack his way through Well Engaged or figuring out Telnet, I might as well continue answering some of John's questions: "Each chapter in Hidden Wisdom captures the essence--as far as is practical--of some esoteric tradition or system of ideas. Your contents page gives us: JUNG AND THE DISCOVERY OF THE UNCONSCIOUS; GNOSTICISM: THE SEARCH FOR AN ALIEN GOD; FINDING THE INNER CHRIST: ESOTERIC CHRISTIANITY; A LADDER BETWEEN HEAVEN AND EARTH: THE KABBALAH; MAGICIANS: SCULPTORS OF ASTRAL LIGHT; THE RETURN OF THE PAGANS; WITCHCRAFT AND NEOPAGANISM; SHAMANS: TECHNICIANS OF ECSTASY; THE GOLD OF THE PHILOSOPHERS: ALCHEMY AND HERMETICISM; THE WAY OF THE SLY MAN: THE TEACHINGS OF GI GURDJIEFF; SUFISM: THE POLES OF LOVE AND KNOWLEDGE; THE RUMOR OF THE BROTHERHOOD: SECRET SOCIETIES AND HIDDEN MASTERS; THE ETERNAL NEW AGE... This is an ambitious scope. What makes you gentlemen qualified to do this?" A valid question. In answering, however, I need to point out that college degrees or academic positions are of little value in writing about these subjects. First, because the requirements of scholastic publishing insist on being able to credit a printed source for every statement, and second, because acceptable discourse within the Academy is largely hostile to most of these subjects, or is at least dismissive. Accordingly, the best credentials for writing about esoteric spirituality and the occult (an often misused word) are actual experience with those subjects and exposure to them over the years. That and common sense...
Jay Kinney (jay) Sun 12 Dec 99 12:31
We hear reports that Richard, who is in the deep outback of Brooklyn, NY, is still trying to upload his dispatches via the Mars Lander, but has been running into some trouble - possible due to the secret alien base there, hiding in the nostrils of the Face on Mars. Check back soon! In the meantime, I'll post some further answers to the initial questions, just as soon as I get back from the pet supply store with a cat piller. Stay tuned.
RICHARD SMOLEY (tnf) Sun 12 Dec 99 14:49
Date: Sat, 11 Dec 1999 10:08:16 -0500 Subject: <no subject> From: "Richard Smoley" <firstname.lastname@example.org> To: email@example.com X-Priority: 3 Well, I've finally made it... I suppose the Jreal question for me in what has been said so far is what is hidden in these traditions. In a way you could say that what is hidden is YOU, or, in my case, ME. One thread that seems to link all esoteric or occult traditions is that they are ways of unveiling the Self. Put this way, of course, this sounds like high-minded gobbledygook. What is this Self, after all? Don't I already know what it is? Actually I may not. What most of these traditions say, in one form or another, is that we customarily mistake ourselves for what we experience. That is to say, within me there is consciousness. It is the "I" looking out through the human telescope that is Richard Smoley. And there are the objects of consciousness: the external world, thoughts, feelings, images, etc. This consciousness is very subtle, and it is easily overlooked. In fact you can never see it because it is what is doing the seeing. This consciousness has another characteristic. Like Narcissus, it tends to fall in love with its own reflection. Thus I see a world out there, and I somehow think I am it. Or I experience a reaction to the world, joy, irritation, etc., and I think I am that as well. Much of esoteric teaching has to do with a subtle sense of differentiation between this "I" and "the world." Slowly detaching consciousness from the objects of consciousness. In the Lurianic Kabbalah, this is phrased in the charmingly obscure term of "liberating the sparks." Consciousness - envisaged as sparks of light - is seen as being embedded in everything, animate and inanimate. It is the work of the mystic to liberate these sparks, to draw out the consciousness in everything. But of course one must do it in oneself as well. Perhaps one can only do it in oneself. This also is the essence of alchemy, I believe - turning the "lead" of ordinary experience into the "gold" of consciousness. Now of course those who have read widely in these subjects will immediately Jcounter - "but isn't it all ONE?" It is, but I respectfully suggest that if you just going around saying it's all One because you read it in a book somewhere, you're not going to get much of anywhere. You first have to differentiate this "I" from "the world" - reuniting them comes at a later stage. This too, I think, is what the old alchemists are trying to tell us. Solve et coagula. "Dissolve and coagulate." (Sounds rather nauseating when translated into English.)
RICHARD SMOLEY (tnf) Sun 12 Dec 99 14:49
Date: Sat, 11 Dec 1999 10:25:27 -0500 Subject: <no subject> From: "Richard Smoley" <firstname.lastname@example.org> To: email@example.com X-Priority: 3 In regard to credentials: I must say I agree completely with what Jay just said. I've had the chance to meet or at least see a good number of the leading figures in this field, and I have to say that I don't think there's a very clear correlation between public esteem and quality. Most of the people I've met who struck me as being at high levels of knowledge are completely unknown to the public. Some of them just don't care about fame. They do what they do, and it usually just has to do with a small number of people. Others have gone out of their way to conceal themselves. This actually is quite relevant to the spiritual search. Because people sometimes seem to think, "Gee, if I could just hang around Famous Mystical Teacher X, wouldn't that be great! I'd have it sewn up." Famous Mystical Teacher X may well do a lot of good work. But he or she probably is so busy with speaking engagements, book writing, etc., that he may not have much time for you. You would probably do better to find a teacher who knows you, can work with you personally, and give you guidance that's specific to your needs and situation. And I don't think there are many teachers who can do this with more than, say, a hundred people at a time. At a maximum.
Jay Kinney (jay) Sun 12 Dec 99 15:13
Welcome to the discussion, Richard. Thanks for passing along Richard's postings, David. Hopefully, within a day or so, Richard can join us by more direct means than astral travel. My next posting will return to some of the questions. I intended to do so in this posting, but I think I have the memory allocation set too low on this copy of NCSA Telnet, because the buffer ran out for containing all of the postings in topic #58... Back shortly...
Jay Kinney (jay) Sun 12 Dec 99 15:42
OK, John asked: "Some of these subjects in all probability complement each other; but others are sure to have cosmological/world views in contrast, as for example shamanism and mystical Christianity (or anyway more differences than real parallels). So I take it that you're not advocating one over arching system or set of linking ideas to connect them all--you'd have to be basically accepting each as "real" while you examine it, "for the sake of argument", in a way...Is that right? But doesn't that leave us wondering what's valid in all these points of view on the cosmic reality? Though they may have much in common at times they can't all be right. Is there some linking perennial philosophy connecting them?" I think the perspective that Richard and I utilized in the book was that the various traditions covered share the context of having developed within Western culture as well as having helped shape it. We were not advocating any single tradition as correct or right, per se, but were trying to tease out their specific characteristics so that the reader would have an informed basis for judging what interested them the most. You noted: "Though they may have much in common at times they can't all be right." I'm not sure that I agree, although that may depend on how we define 'right'. My own metaphysical perspective is that no single religion or spiritual tradition or path can successfully encompass the totality of reality. Moreover, each tradition exhibits limitations in its worldview, its methodologies, and its proponents that are due to the unique cultural time and places in which it arose and through which it has been handed down to us. What's more, our own individual personalities and psychological histories predispose us to respond more favorably to some approaches instead of others. Actually, the Traditionalists, such as Rene Guenon and Frithjof Schuon have constructed a 'perennial philosophy' which attempts to validify the major world religions, both exoterically and esoterically, in a way that assumes that each is 'right', so to speak. Huston Smith is perhaps the best present exponent of this perspective. However, although I think we were influenced to a limited degree by the Traditionalists, that is not the perspective from which we wrote the book, exactly. Our perspective, to put it very briefly, was that all of these traditions can be of value for proceeding with inner work and development, but that doesn't mean one should bounce from one to the next to the next, nor that they will all bring you to the same place, in the end.
Richard Smoley (smoley) Mon 13 Dec 99 11:43
Well, I seem to have finally made it in somewhat more direct a fashion... I don't know. Maybe these different paths do bring you to the same place in the end. One thing that has led to much more tolerance over the past century is the fact that people began looking at the experiences of mystics and visionaries across many religions and realizing that they were all quite similar. Or at any rate that there were far more similarities than differences. There's been a lot of warning against spiritual dilettantism, against people dabbling in other religions and then moving on to something else. Or taking up new religions as they might take up fashions. It's true that there is something innately comic in this phenomenon, but I find myself asking what's the alternative? Do we want everybody stubborning clinging to their traditions, insisting that theirs is the best and that everything else is garbage? That was the way it was until very recently; in many places and with many people it still is the way it is. I think the dilettantism has actually had a very positive aspect. It's better to be fascinated with some alien tradition, to dabble in it even, than to ignore or despise it as something contemptible, such as was done with what are called "Native" religions until very recently. No, I think bouncing from the next to the next, however absurd it may seem, is actually performing a positive function at this particular phase of history. A kind of cross-pollination. You may counter by saying, "Yes, but isn't that a kind of spiritual stalemate? Doesn't that keep you from progress on the spiritual path?" To which one can only respond that that is for the individual to decide. Generally such assumptions are based on the consideration that "other people" are just wasting their time and not really getting anywhere. Which may well be true. But then it's their time to waste and for them to decide whether they're getting anywhere or not.
John Shirley (johnp-shirley) Mon 13 Dec 99 14:44
Richard--you and Jay are responding ably and I thank you. I know what you mean about the value of cross pollination in so called spiritual dilettantism. And of course presumably one tests a bit of this and that flower till one finds the pollen that makes the right honey for one's own type. And then one returns to that flower consistently. HOpefully, it works out that way. But of course there are also a great number of silly people, who've been satirized in lots of places, including the tv show Absolutely Fabulous, who are addicted to the leap from one thing to the next, addicted to superficial stimulation, and don't want (or know they need) the deeper challenges and the suffering that goes with those deeper challenges. Some would say the kaleidoscoping of all these attractions constitutes a kind of spiritual darwinism--separating out the worthy from the unworthy. (Not that I know that *I'm* worthy!) So--to ask a question I asked before more directly: Can you talk about spiritual teachers who've influenced you, in creating this book, in terms of direct face to face contact, and how that worked? For example, I'm sure Rosemonde Miller, of the Gnostic ecclesia in Palo Alto (a fascinating teacher of real integrity with an intelligently guided church) was influential in the Gnostic material. I'm always captivated by anything that gives real solid-seeming information about old time secret societies and lodges and brotherhoods, 'invisible' or otherwise. (Few know that CS Lewis, doctrinaire Christian though he was, came into contact with one of these through a close friend who was also a fantasy writer...and who died young.) Your chapter on these groups quotes Gurdjieff's assertion that the Fourth Way (ie, the method of the Wise) emerges when it's needed and in many guises. Through this and other hints I seem to glean that you're implying that some 'colleges' or secret societies may be not only 'invisible' in the sense of hidden, but may be in sense literally invisible. That is, a kind of spiritually-existing lodge of, perhaps, masters who've passed on, who're influencing us...as well as those who're mortal and do it through means passed on by oral tradition...?
Jay Kinney (jay) Mon 13 Dec 99 16:42
As far as face-to-face influences go, my list of people in the book's acknowlegements is largely that. Most of the influence has been in the context of friendship, of comparing notes and providing feedback to each other. My two primary influences on interpreting Gnosticism have been Rosmaonde Miller, as you mentioned, and Stephan Hoeller, who has written several books on the subject. (I'm going to have to finish answsering this later, my connection to the net has slowed to a crawl, for some reason...)
Jay Kinney (jay) Mon 13 Dec 99 22:10
Regarding the material on Sufism, I've been immersed in its study for a number of years and my main influences there have all been friends, some of whom likely don't want their names blithely given out to the world at large. Two of them, in particular, are Turkish friends - a doctor and a pharmacist - who have shared much with me from their own experience. John, your next question (or comment) was, in part: "Through this and other hints I seem to glean that you're implying that some 'colleges' or secret societies may be not only 'invisible' in the sense of hidden, but may be in sense literally invisible." That's a controversial area and one where the question of what is objectively real and what is one's imagination is very much to the point. I'll just say that I used to think that most religions were putting out superstitious nonsense when they'd speak of invisible entities (whether angels, demons, or the "communion of saints", etc.). But I've come to the conclusion, over the years, partly based on my own experiences and observations, that there is individuated consciousness outside of bodily existence and that one can speak of beings being stratified in different planes of existence. And there may even be some form of communication possible between different planes. Now whether this is, in fact, desirable or not, is another question. One of my problems with the tendency some people have to give unquestioning credence to "channeling" from unseen entities is that, as I understand it, just being out of a body and claiming to be wise, is no guarantee of anything. I think it is quite possible to channel mischievous (or worse) disinformation, even while the being who is holding forth is claiming all sorts of virtuous motives. So, this leaves open the question of if one were to contact an "invisible college," whether one was, in fact, contacting a wisdom school or the inner plane equivalent of the P2 Lodge in Italy. It appears that the Solar Temple folks who committed group suicide were, in part, doing so on the advice of "inner plane" Rosicrucians or Templars. I'd consider that a dubious bunch to make contact with, myself.
John Shirley (johnp-shirley) Mon 13 Dec 99 22:43
I heard the SOlar Temple suicides were the victims of a military mind control experiment--but who knows what the truth is. Maybe they simply succumbed to a charismatic pathological liar. As many others have--and probably will in the turn of the millenium. Speaking of charismatic liars, your book is fairly generous to Madame Blavatsky, but wasn't she definitely and without ambiguity caught at defrauding people, setting up fake spiritualistic phenomena etc? Does this make her other descriptions of the unseen likely to be fabrications or fantasy? Is credibility an issue with the sources of Hidden Wisdom? I note in several places Hidden Wisdom stops to offer cautionary advice--in brief, it's true, but still, it seems a concern. Although doubtless many sources are describing something real, isn't the entire esoteric study problematic respecting credibilty, at least fairly often? Then there's the issue of how much a teacher's character flaws may cast doubt on the rightness of his teachings...For example, Gurdjieff seems to me to be right amazingly often, yet he fathered numerous children out of wedlock to numerous women, many of them followers. (Although he was from the Caucasus area, like Murat Yagan, who, as I recall, claimed that in that area it is believed that some of the spiritual achievements of the father can be passed on to the offspring through the semen! Could Gurdjieff have justified it to himself that way?)
Richard Smoley (smoley) Tue 14 Dec 99 09:01
My chief spiritual discipline IN THIS VERY MOMENT is to refrain from making a snide response to the claims mentioned in the paragraph above (no offense, John). Mme. Blavatsky, it is true, was accused of psychic fraud. I don't know specific details of this, other than that some Englishman was shipped off to India to investigate her and came back with the proclamation that she was in fact doing some shenanigans that were more than a tad deceptive. On the other hand, she did accomplish some extremely important work. I would say that she is the most influential religious figure in the West over the past century, bar none. Because what she almost single-handedly did was open the mind of the West to the spiritual wisdom of the East. If you do Buddhist meditation, if you do hatha yoga, if you even drop words like "karma" and "chakra" into ordinary conversation, you bear the marks of Mme. Blavatsky's influence. I'm not a Theosophist or a follower of Blavatsky, but the more I look into these things, the more I see that the influence she had was truly far-reaching. Like all legacies, there is a certain ambiguousness in it. She definitely fed the craze for occult parlor tricks of all kinds, and the kind of ditzy seeker that John was talking about a couple of posts back also bears the mark of Blavatsky's influence. Not that she was a dilettante, but that Theosophy has seemed to encourage this kind of airheadedness at various points (this is particularly true of Blavatsky's successors). As for the question of a teacher's character, I think it does have real bearing on the quality of the teaching. The Gurdjieff legacy is also an ambiguous one, and much of what passes for the Fourth Way today seems either fradulent or ossified (now there's a charming choice to have to make). And yet I certainly have received a great deal of benefit myself from Gurdjieff's ideas. The "bottom line," as we like to say in America today, is that nobody is perfect and we are all in the same boat. The more somebody denies being in the same boat as everyone else, the more in the same boat he is.
Jay Kinney (jay) Tue 14 Dec 99 09:08
One *does* have to watch out for pathological liars in the spiritual field, as in any other. In some cases they can get farther in spirituality than in, say, investment banking, because they often make claims that are unverifiable. Thus the rule of thumb that I mention in the Afterword to maintain a healthy skepticism about claims and worldviews until one has personally verified them oneself. That said, there *is* a whole category of teachers, including Blavatsky and Gurdjieff, who seem to concoct "teaching stories" or myths that are quite attractive to people but, quite possibly, not literally true. Perhaps these serve a similar function to the slight-of-hand tricks that tribal shamans employ: they engender a kind of open "anything is possible" state of mind which can help bust through the individual's normal defenses. If this is then used for the individual's betterment, fine. But it can also be used to take them to the cleaners. Paul Johnson, in his two books on the subject, makes a reasonably convincing case that Madame Blavatsky's "mahatmas" were amalgams and/or stand-ins for real people who served as her advisors. Much of the hocus-pocus about their materialization and dematerialization, etc. may have been a smokescreen to direct attention away from who they may have really been. But, even if this is so, it doesn't negate some the value of some of the advice they imparted nor does it lessen the concrete effect they (and she) had on the world.
Indra Sinha (indra) Tue 14 Dec 99 10:18
Hello, this promises to be a fascinating discussion. Jay, you said: >I think the perspective that Richard and I utilized in the book was >that the various traditions covered share the context of having >developed within Western culture as well as having helped shape it. How do you define Gnosticism, for the purposes of your book? I always thought of it as one of those traditions whose ideas were shuttlecocked back and forth between east and west.
John Shirley (johnp-shirley) Tue 14 Dec 99 14:15
Your chapter on Hermeticism, Alchemy, et al, was fascinating--you guys have (perhaps through practice at Gnosis as well as talent) a gift for rendering difficult ideas and complex historical backgrounds with that glorious combination, insight and brevity. That makes the book so very valuable. About alchemy--isn't there, kind of, two parallel tracks in alchemy...One, a kind of occult chemistry, trying to make the philosopher's stone, etc, and the other an inner work which uses the traditional alchemical experiments as symbolism? Sort of like what you said about that final enigmatic Hiram ritual in Masonry--all those enactments and seemingly concrete measurements and designations are just indirect ways of describing work in the heart: the work of learning detached compassion, higher receptivity and self denial. This work is transformative--it makes a rough stone into a polished block of the temple or lead into gold. Gurdjieff and Mouravieff speak of creating 'gold' or a special energy (or spiritual evolution) which the cosmos requires of us through the inner 'furnace', the productive conflict of transforming forces, eg Conscious Suffering utilizing the Law of Three--isn't that what alchemy is really about? Could the actual lab work be a too-literal distortion of the real teaching? (There are parallels in Chinese alchemy and Taoism--Lao Tzu's Taoism the real teaching, Chinese alchemy a distortion of it). You describe divination well in its various forms--but underlyingly, how does it work? Why should cards with symbolic pictures give us insight into now and glimpses of what is to come? YOu hint of this in various places--perhaps synchronicity is involved--but do you have some sense of the actual mechanism with which Tarot achieves what it achieves when it achieves it? Finally--in the excellent chapter on Gurdjieff, you say that all traditions use mindfulness but Gurdjieff places it (mindfulness and use of attention and the relationship of these to the movement of esoterically-understood energies) at the center of his Work and makes a sort of art of it, provides more specific methodologies. Seems true to me. I see in the chapter on ritual magic that attention, total focus, is important there too--attention is the axis of mindfulness, perhaps. And attention--a refined, "buffed up" attention--seems to be a fundamental tool of many esoteric traditions, maybe of all of them. Is attention itself--within the field of mindfulness-- an almost-palpable magical thing in itself?
Jay Kinney (jay) Tue 14 Dec 99 21:00
Welcome to the discussion/interview, Indra. You asked: "How do you define Gnosticism, for the purposes of your book? I always thought of it as one of those traditions whose ideas were shuttlecocked back and forth between east and west." I tend to look at Gnosticism (with a capital G) as the label for various early Christian groups (and some of their precursors) who placed an emphasis on "gnosis", i.e. on the individual's knowledge (or knowing experience) of divine reality. Some of the groups were dualist and some not (or at least less so). They tended to collect around different mystics or visionaries who sometimes claimed to be the recipients of a secret teaching passed along from Jesus. The other gnosticism (with a small g) I tend to think of as later efforts to recapture or promulgate the spirit or teachings of the early Gnostics. Or, in other instance, I use the term to refer to groups are people who emphasize gnosis, but aren't necessarily linked with the early Christian groups. It is quite likely that there was interplay between eastern and western ideas, concepts, and theology in ancient times, and that possibly had an effect on the Gnostics. However, as I note in the book, it strikes me as likely that the reason similar concepts and myths pop up in different cultures is that they derive from trying to communicate inner experiences that are quite similar. While not ALL instances of mystical union are the same, enough of them around the world are similar that they may produce similar efforts to portray them.
John Shirley (johnp-shirley) Tue 14 Dec 99 21:56
I read somewhere--re the remarks on interplay between eastern and western ideas in ancient times--that there was trade between India and the Middle East before and during the time of Jesus. There is at least one book claiming Jesus was a Buddhist. Wanted to add one thing to the Blavatsky discussion before it becomes an utter non sequitur--Richard traces the stream of "Western" interest in Vedantic (and so forth) teachings to Blavatsky and associates and no doubt she was a significant tributary to that river, but it seems to me that Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists were there first; that Vivekananda was not a Theosophical functionary and was quite a force on his own for the dissemination of such ideas in the West; that Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley and Kerouac were important in the mid 20th century in bringing some notion of 'the dharma' et al here including talk of karma and so forth; and that the real force of the present-day current of interest flows more from the psychedelic revolution, via Tim Leary and even LSD itself...I wonder if what was accomplished was not the 'agenda' of the Theosophists...but of those who found the Theosophists useful...But that's just speculation. Anyway--Blavatsky's ideas about the ancient past of man are not supported by archaeology, anthropology, carbon dating, or probability. Just had to put my anti-spiritualist prejudices on display, didn't I?
Richard Smoley (smoley) Wed 15 Dec 99 08:32
No, but then neither are Gurdjieff's, Rudolf Steiner's, or anyone else's in this field, for that matter. There is one area, however, in which Blavatsky's views are remarkably striking and apparently accurate. This is where she discusses the time scale of the cosmos. Like modern science (and also like ancient Hindu tradition), she frames this in terms of billions of years. During her day, as I recollect, even the most forward-thinking of scientists only believed the universe was only 100 million years old. The ideas about the ancient past of man are admittedly perplexing. Nearly all of these occult visionaries seem to view the human past in terms of different levels of manifestation. That is, these ancient races of humankind were different from ours not in being more chimplike but in being less palpable; Blavatsky even jocularly refers to one of them as "pudding-bags" for this reason. I don't know how you could either validate or refute such a view, since even if it were true, there could be no material evidence for it. I do think it important to stress one point about archaeology that was made by Thucydides in the fifth century B.C. He pointed out that the Sparta of his day was one of the great powers, but if it should be "deserted and nothing left of its but its temples and the foundations of its other buildings, posterity would, I think, after a long lapse of time, be very loath to believe that their power was as great as their renown." We have to consider the possibility, I think, that there may have been ancient civilizations whose achievements were spectacular - though not necessarily technical - and which may have not left any archaeological residue. And yes, it's true that there have been other popularizers of Eastern wisdom. But I would still argue that they would not have had the reception they had if Blavatsky hadn't tilled the field.
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