It can often be very difficult for us to navigate our way through our day-to-day interactions with other people. We were never given a user’s manual for our minds, and the need to protect our sense of self when interacting with other people can be the cause of much strain and suffering for ourselves and for others.
There exists a very skilful method which we can use to interact with people on a day-to-day basis, and it is based on the Buddhist Brahmaviharas (sublime attitudes) that I briefly wrote about in my post on equanimity. These Brahmaviharas are states that are said to allow a person to enter the divine abode. Or, looking at it from a different perspective, when we express these sublime attitudes in our interactions, we become like Brahma (divine/God).
These four Brahmaviharas (sublime attitudes) are as follows:
- Metta (Loving Kindness) – This is affection and care for all beings that does not include attachment or any form of controlling emotions.
- Karuna (Compassion) – This is an open, caring heart that is empathetic to the suffering of others, seeing the position they are in and caring about them and for them.
- Mudita (Appreciative Joy) – This is being happy when others are happy, allowing the joy of others to become our joy.
- Upekkha (Equanimity) – This is the ability to be balanced, not clinging and not pushing away.
It is said that the God Brahma has four faces and looks down on humanity with one of these faces as required, depending on the situation. We can emulate this by doing the same. We can love all beings without attaching to them or controlling them. We can accept the suffering of others and be empathetic to what they are going through. We can be happy for the successes of others without feeling envious or jealous. We can take the middle path and not judge based on what we like and what we don’t like.
The mind can often be very deceptive, making us believe we are experiencing one of these sublime attitudes when in fact we are not. Buddhists realised this and identified the state that is closest to the Brahmavihara but still rooted in ego as the “near enemy” and identified the complete opposite state of the Brahmavihara as the “far enemy.”
The “near enemy” of loving kindness is selfish affection and the “far enemy” of loving kindness is painful ill-will. We may feel we are in a state of loving kindness when in fact we are feeling selfish affection, which is rooted in attachment and a need to control.
The “near enemy” of compassion is pity and the “far enemy” of compassion is cruelty. We may feel that we are being compassionate when in fact we are feeling pity, which is rooted in our belief that the position another is in is below our own.
The “near enemy” of appreciative joy is exuberance and the “far enemy” of appreciative joy is resentment. We may feel that we are joyful with the happiness of others, but what we are feeling is an over-excited, unbalanced state of joy, which is exuberance.
The “near enemy” of equanimity is indifference and the “far enemy” of equanimity is craving and attaching. We may feel that we are being equanimous, but in fact are expressing the cold, careless attitude of indifference, which is rooted in fear.
If we are able to cultivate these states and apply them to our dealings with others and ourselves, how are we any different from Brahma himself?
"All we experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind, made by mind. Speak or act with a corrupted mind
And suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.
All we experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind, made by mind.
Speak or act with a peaceful mind
And happiness follows like a shadow that never leaves."
 Dhammapada 1-2
I have spent the last month talking about eastern concepts and would like now to take you on a journey westwards towards what has come to be known as “The Western Mystery Tradition.” The Western Mystery Tradition is something that is not often written about or discussed in the mainstream. A lot of its teachings are locked away in secret societies and are only revealed to initiated members who have sworn an oath to keep secret what they learn and the identity of other members. In the past 50 years, a number of these members have broken these oaths and published books revealing a lot of the inner teachings in these schools.
In response to the influx of eastern philosophies and teachings that came into the west through teachers such as Helena Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society, a number of prominent freemasons of the time, such as William Wynn Westcott and Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, wanted to show that the west also had a viable and valid spiritual tradition that could provide to aspirants a path that could take them to the enlightenment that eastern paths provided. These freemasons put together a syllabus that was supposed to take a student from aspirant to spiritual adept.
The syllabus consisted of:
- Hermetic Philosophy (The teachings ascribed to the semi-mythological sage, Hermes Trismegistus)
- Kabbalah (Esoteric, oral tradition passed down in Judaism)
- Ancient Egyptian Philosophies
- Neo-Platonism (Philosophies heavily influenced by the teachings of Plato)
- Other minor influences
Please note, this is a very brief introduction to The Western Mystery Tradition and I have not gone into the detail that is needed to truly express and explore the approach its aspirants adopt to adepthood, as they call it.
What I want to talk about in this posting is a teaching that can be found in the Hermetic tradition, the idea that “All is Mind.” Hermeticists hold the view that everything that exists in all the different planes of existence is a part of an underlying principle that they call The All. Other traditions may call this underlying principle names like God or Brahman, but the Hermeticists believe that the best way to describe this thing is to call it The All, as it is everything.
Another law that Hermetic philosophy teaches is, “as above so below, as below so above.” This very simply means that the same laws govern all the levels of existence, from the lower material levels all the way up to the highest divine level. Through this law we can understand how the higher levels work and what they are by looking at the level we are in now.
Hermeticists teach that in the beginning The All existed, and for some reason that we cannot know or comprehend, it wanted to create. The question arises, how did The All create? What a hermetic philosopher will do is look at how a human creates and through correspondence will apply it to the higher levels.
Let’s follow this method:
One way a human creates is that it gets tools and materials external to itself and creates something new.
Is this how The All creates?
The answer has to be no. If The All is the entirety of everything, then there are no materials external to itself to create with and no space external to itself to create in and to have the creation exist in. So by this logic, we can conclude that The All does not create this way.
Another way that a human creates is that it reproduces.
Is this how The All creates?
The answer has to be no. If The All is to reproduce, then it will have to divide itself and create something that is other than itself. This means that it is no longer The All. So by that logic, we can conclude that The All does not create this way.
The only other way that humans create is through the mind. Humans can create amazing universes and characters in the mind that can be born, live and die within the blink of an eye.
Is this how The All creates?
The answer has to be yes. Following this way of reasoning we can conclude that the whole universe is a creation in the mind of The All.
It is very important that we do not confuse the human mind and the mind of The All. Humans create with a finite mind; The All creates with an infinite mind. It is said that aeons of universes are created and destroyed in the metaphorical blink of the eye of The All.
So, remember the Hermetic axiom,
“All is in The All, and The All is in all.”
One of the most skilful states of mind that one can attain is the state of equanimity. Equanimity is the ability to stay balanced and centred in the face of external events. I would like to explore the state of equanimity in this blog post.
I liken equanimity to a strong mountain, unmoving and unshaking in the midst of storms, or like a strong oak tree not being swayed by strong winds. In Buddhist teaching, equanimity is one of the four “Bramaviharas” (sublime attitudes), or the immeasurable states that are supposed to allow a person to enter the divine abode.
To really understand equanimity we firstly need to understand a number of truths about how our minds work. Our minds have developed a number of mechanisms that aid it in perpetuating the illusion of separateness. One of these mechanisms is “passing judgment.” We pass judgment on everything we can conceive or perceive, which leads to either clinging or aversion to things and events. We decide what we dislike and what we like. We spend our lives sliding between these two states that we have created for ourselves, while firmly believing that the feelings we have towards an object, person or event are inherent to that thing. This is an illusion, a trick our mind plays on us. The judgments that we pass on things are not inherent to those things. The judgments we pass are the mind’s way of creating a separate position for that thing in relation to itself. “This thing I like” (closer to me), “this thing I don’t like (further away from me). When we eat a chocolate cake, we may really enjoy the taste and get pleasure from eating it. Another person may eat the same cake and not like the taste. The person who enjoyed the taste will feel that the nice taste and pleasure he experienced from eating it is inherent to the cake, and the person who didn’t enjoy the cake will feel that the bad taste and disgust that he experienced is inherent to the cake. The truth is that neither is the case. Our judgments and feelings towards all things originate from us and not the things we are passing judgment on.
Another important thing we need to understand is cause and effect. Hindus and Buddhists call this Karma. In the western world, Karma is very misunderstood. Karma is not some sort of divine, universal system of justice; Karma simply means action. The concept of Karma teaches us that every action that we take bears its own specific fruits. These fruits are not inherently good or bad, they are just consequences of our actions. When we understand this correctly, we can really begin to see that our lives at the present moment could not be any different to what they are. Understanding this truth can be very liberating because it involves letting go of the need to try and control everything. This understanding will also give rise to mindfulness and being present in the moment, as we come to realise the importance of correct intention and correct action, and the fruits these intentions and actions produce.
When one can accept the current state they are in without passing judgment on it, when one can observe and be present in the midst of all things, people and events without labelling them as good or bad, this is what is called having an equanimous state of mind. So when things arise, we can be present and not approve or disapprove. If we can cultivate this state of mind, external events and thoughts cannot uproot us from the balanced position we have situated ourselves in. We become like the unmoving mountain in the midst of storms.
When I have talked about equanimity in the past with people, I have been asked the question, “how is being equanimous different to being indifferent?” I will let the monk Bhikkhu Bodhi reply to this (he uses the Buddhist term Upekkha to refer to equanimity):
“The real meaning of upekkha is equanimity, not indifference in the sense of unconcern for others. As a spiritual virtue, upekkha means equanimity in the face of the fluctuations of worldly fortune. It is evenness of mind, unshakeable freedom of mind, a state of inner equipoise that cannot be upset by gain and loss, honor and dishonor, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. Upekkha is freedom from all points of self-reference; it is indifference only to the demands of the ego-self with its craving for pleasure and position, not to the well-being of one's fellow human beings. True equanimity is the pinnacle of the four social attitudes that the Buddhist texts call the 'divine abodes': boundless loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity. The last does not override and negate the preceding three, but perfects and consummates them.”
The difference between equanimity and indifference is a very subtle one and can be clearly seen after a lot of internal contemplation. Indifference is rooted in fear, the fear of attaching and the fear of the consequences of attaching. Due to that fear one takes the attitude, “I don’t care.” Equanimity is different; it is the acceptance of the truth that we can remain in balance, not moved by fame and fortune, praise and criticism, pain and pleasure. We eliminate clinging and aversion. We are compassionate and care about the suffering of others but we accept the truth, that it is what it is.
All things that arise must eventually fall away; if we can truly see this and live this, then we can be balanced and in harmony with nature, ourselves and others.
One thing that we often take for granted is language. Without language and our ability to communicate with one another it is almost certain that human society would be very different. One thing that I have been thinking about recently is our use of language and how the use of language can cause an inconsistent view of reality and ourselves.
The thing I want to look at in this post is how we often mistake the reality of an object with the name we apply to it. A little anecdote that I heard a while ago illustrates this point well; I can’t remember where I heard it.
A teacher is sitting with one of his students and points to a cup that is on the table before them.
The teacher asks, “What is this?”
The student replies, “A cup.”
The teacher says, “No it isn’t.”
The student, confused, asks the teacher, “What is it then?”
The teacher picks up the cup and throws it at the student, hitting him on his forehead. As the student is rubbing his forehead from pain, the teacher says, “That’s what it is!”
The teacher was trying to illustrate to the student that the word he called the cup wasn’t the cup itself. “Cup” is a noise that comes out of one’s vocal chords and not the actual thing it refers to. Now this may seem rather pedantic but it is a very important point in deconstructing the illusory way we view the world.
Lao Tzu, in the Dao De Ching writes,
“Those who speak do not know. Those who know do not speak.”
The paradox is, he had to speak to say that! What Lao Tzu is trying to portray here is the simple truth that when we name something, we limit it. As soon as we have defined an object and labeled it, in our view that object ceases to be everything else it is and can be. Going back to the cup example, a cup doesn’t just have to be a cup, it can be an amalgamation of atoms, it can be glass, it can be a weapon as the teacher illustrated, it can potentially be a lot of different things. But as soon as we think that the name and definition we give it is what it actually is, we have limited it.
Please note, I am not saying Language is a problem and we should not name or label things, and I don’t believe Lao Tzu is saying all teachers should just keep silent and not teach. For us to function in a society and actually get things done we need to use language and to be able to define things. What I am saying, is for us to be able to view and understand the real nature of things we need to be mindful and aware of the difference between the label and the actual thing.
This relationship that we have with words and labels extends into the heart of our illusion of self. A person will have a name and over the course of their life, they are called by that name. In their own minds the reality of their existence becomes inseparable from the identity that is created around that name. Further to this they may have other labels: Doctor, Father, Mother, Sister, Brother, Son, Daughter, Friend, Teacher, Student, Poor, Rich, etc. All of these labels create the identity of the person, and most people live their lives trying to maintain that identity.
For a person who labels himself a father, being called a good father will further solidify and bring together that perceived identity and cause happiness. Being called a bad father will cause that perceived identity to be challenged which will cause suffering and maybe an attempt to prove the challenger wrong. A person’s life becomes a battle between the identity they have created being challenged causing suffering and that person trying to prove the challengers wrong by trying to impose their view of their own identity on others.
People spend their lives ebbing and flowing between suffering and joy, too busy battling away to see that the identity they are trying so hard to hold on to is not real, it is an illusion that limits what they really are. If a person’s label of father, son or mother is all that defines them, they are no longer everything else that they actually are.
I would like to leave you with a saying from Chuang Tzu, a 4th Century BC Daoist mystic.
"The universe is very beautiful, yet it says nothing. The four seasons abide by a fixed law, yet they are not heard. All creation is based upon absolute principles, yet nothing speaks."
A short while ago I wrote a post about the relevance of god to spiritual development and the understanding of truth. I wanted to write a post exploring one aspect of using god or a divine figure to further one’s own development.
Divine grace is a term used in religious circles to describe the interjection from divinity in the lives of humans to sanctify and assist in their development. A lot of the world’s major religions expound on the importance of divine grace and hold it to be an important step in entering paradise. In Islam, for example, according to Abu Huraira, prophet Muhammad once said,
"None amongst you can get into paradise by virtue of his deeds alone... not even I, but that Allah should wrap me in his grace and mercy.”
Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and many other world faiths have similar teachings.
So, what is so important about the concept of divine grace that it pops up in a lot of these major faiths? At first glance it can seem a rather contradictory and negative concept that enables religious institutions to control and manipulate their followers, because in essence the follower is being told that they can not gain salvation through their own deeds and efforts, that it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you must receive grace from god. It is not unheard of for institutions or cult leaders to use this concept to control people, because followers are told that the only way to salvation is through them. They say, if you want to attain the heights that we are teaching, you must do exactly as we say. When this concept is misunderstood, like it so often is, followers can be left open to abuse.
The concept of divine grace is actually a very important one, as it gets to the heart of the problem that seekers face when trying to work on removing that self or ego that we were looking at earlier. During meditation and contemplative prayer the seeker attempts to quiet the mind to observe the thoughts and processes that go on inside. As layer upon layer is removed, the “I” becomes sneakier and sneakier, disguising itself in many different forms. During introspection we face our thoughts, our feelings, our attachments. As these quiet down we face the observer, the listener, the centre. The deeper we introspect, the more levels of “I” we come across. The problem thus arises, how can one attempt to remove the ego when the act of removing is done by the ego? Furthermore, the ego itself being an illusion, how can an illusion get anything done? So we are left with one simple problem: we are attempting to remove the ego by action of the ego. As the philosopher Alan Watts describes, that is like trying to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. It is an attempt at futility.
In Pure Land Buddhism, which is a broad branch of Mahayana Buddhism widely practised in East Asia, the concept of divine grace is used to achieve liberation. The Japanese term used by practitioners is Tariki, which means “other power”. Pure Land practitioners recite the name Amitābha Buddha over and over again as a mantra and meditate on him. The belief is that Amitābha Buddha will gift them with liberation. The practitioner’s own ego does not get involved and through Tariki it is acknowledged that the practitioner cannot achieve anything him or herself.
The Muslim mystics, more commonly referred to as Sufis, follow a very similar idea. The Sufi mystic Sheikh Abu Saeed Abil Kheir writes,
“Until you become an unbeliever in your own self, you cannot become a believer in God.”
Sufis call their faith the way of love. They aim to slowly remove the illusion of self that they hold by falling in love with the divine or god. The more they lose themselves in their beloved, the more insignificant they become, to the point of what they call “Fana”, which loosely translates to annihilation. The self is annihilated in the divine and only the divine remains. Thus the illusion of self is overcome. History is riddled with stories of Sufi mystics who have been killed or executed for openly stating that they are god. The most famous being Mansur Al-Hallaj, a Persian Sufi mystic who was executed for his claims that he was god. In one of his poems he writes,
“I saw the lord with the eye of my heart,
I asked ‘who are you?’
He replied ‘you’”
Most orthodox Muslims took this as heresy, as they saw it as Hallaj claiming divinity and elevating himself to the level of god. The opposite is actually the truth: Mansur Al-Hallaj had awoken to the illusion of self. Hallaj stating that he was god was actually the humblest thing he could say, as he had removed all trace of himself. Mansur Al-Hallaj no longer existed; he was not worth acknowledging, as there was only god. Mansur Al-Hallaj had become a true unbeliever in himself, thus understanding the true nature of god.
Sufis believe that this is not something one can do through their own actions, as this would serve to further solidify the illusion of self. One needs to simply fall in love with the divine to the point where that love penetrates all things including the lover. When that happens, the lover and the beloved realise that they are the same thing.
I will leave you with this small quartet on the Sufi tradition from my poem “The Story of Mine”:
The aeons stand witness to my many beloveds
As I have lost myself in every single one
So beloved wine bearer let me bathe in wine
So that other and I are finally one.
 Sahih Muslim, Book 39, University of Southern California centre for Jewish-Muslim engagement
 Shaikh Abu-Saeed Abil-Kheir - 'Nobody, Son of Nobody' - Vraje Abramian
 Rumi’s metaphysics of the heart - Muhammed Rustom
Shkar Sharif is the head instructor at Tiger Crane Kung Fu in London. Any other questions, ask!