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ANCIENT WISDOM IN A CHANGING WORLD
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In a Sufi story, Jesus, son of Mary, met an old man on a mountain, who lived in the open air without shelter against heat and cold. "Why dost thou not build a house?" Jesus asked him.
"O Spirit of God," replied the old man, "prophets before thee predicted that I would live for only seven hundred years; therefore it is not worth my trouble to settle down."
This tale, told by Safuri, a writer of the fifteenth century, is a good reminder that time and change are extremely relative matters. For the old man on the mountain, seven hundred years were short, whereas for us moderns seven years would be long. The old man perhaps had the perspective of an everlasting eternity, which dwarfs all things of time, however enduring or valuable. We, on the other hand, measure by the number of changes that crowd a unit of time. We judge even eternity by the standards of interesting changes in time. We dare to wish for eternal life when even a Sunday afternoon drags too slowly for us!
Perhaps, however, the old man in the story misunderstood the nature of eternity as contrasted with time. Perhaps he thought of eternal life as a life of endless duration, as time that lasts forever, rather than as a state of being in time that is accompanied by the qualities of perception and love. Eternity is worth spending a little time to consider. Eternity—one can hardly utter the word without wonder, reflection, and inward silence. Whenever our contemplation deepens and our thought matures, what concerns serious people is eternity. Yet the pull of time, even with respect to eternity, is very strong.
The closing pages of Herman Hesse's novel Steppenwolf include the following dialog:
"Time and the world, money and power belong to the small people and the shallow people. To the rest, to the real men belongs nothing. Nothing but death."
"You mean a name, and fame with posterity?"
"No, Steppenwolf, not fame. Has that any value? And do you think that all true and real men have been famous and known to posterity?"
"No, of course not."
"Then it isn't fame. Fame exists in that sense only for the schoolmasters. No, it isn't fame. It is what I call eternity. The pious call it the kingdom of God. I say to myself: all we who ask too much and have a dimension too many could not continue to live at all if there were not another air to breathe outside the air of this world, if there were not eternity at the back of time; and this is the kingdom of truth."
In this passage, we have a hint of two distinct concepts of eternity. One is a continuation in time; this eternity means forever, endless, without break in time, ceaseless, everlasting. It is essentially a linear notion in which time is a quantitative extension to infinity. This is the common understanding of the word, wittily expressed in a popular cookbook as "eternity: two people and a ham!"
In the second understanding, unlike in the first, there is a qualitative difference between time and eternity. Eternal is thus timeless, not in the sense that it occurs in zero time, instantaneously, but rather in the sense that it pertains to a dimension of being (including consciousness and perception) other than that of time. This eternity is an attribute of being, but it is not a concept, simply because the mind functions only in time. One cannot think about eternity or timelessness—as Kant pointed out long ago, as have many others both before and after him. Jiddu Krishnamurti (Commentaries on Living 233) has rightly said, "Thought cannot know the timeless; it is not a further acquisition, a further achievement; there is no going towards it. It is a state of being in which thought, time, is not."
Everlasting and timeless are two understandings of what is eternal; and they lie in different spheres of experience. Everlasting is not timeless. Anything that is everlasting is still within the finite-infinite dichotomy, whereas timelessness transcends this contradiction, for the category of time does not apply to it (Ravindra, "Is the Eternal Everlasting?").
Why are we at all interested in ancient wisdom? Is our interest largely antiquarian? Or chauvinistic? Is something true simply or largely because it is ancient? Without question, great truths were enunciated in ancient times and at many places. But of course great truths can also be enunciated now or in the future.
To imagine, based on some theory of time cycles or yugas or revelation, that there cannot be a fresh revelation or a new manifestation of divinity or further profound enunciations of truth is to set quite uncalled for limits on the creative outpourings of the Holy Spirit. The fact that most of the followers of great religions and great prophets have behaved as if there were such limits on the Holy Spirit is an expression of ordinary human mentality, which wishes to possess a given form of Truth—in spite of the presence of great wisdom at all times.
When we speak of the "ancient wisdom," the emphasis does not need to be on the word "ancient." Of course, truths that have stood the test of time naturally recommend themselves. Again and again, in varying forms and with shifts of emphasis, some truths are rediscovered and restated. For example, the truth that the major operating principles in the world, at least on the human level, are fear and craving has been seen and stated many times by great teachers. Each time the emphasis is a little different: Sometimes the root of our inner and outer suffering is said to be our fears and cravings; sometimes the very entity we call "myself" is said to be made up of our fears and cravings; sometimes our lower self or self-will or ego is identified with these, as distinct from the real "I" or Atman or Self. But in any case, the fact that we are driven by fear and craving remains. It is an enduring truth about ourselves; it is an eternal truth, in one of the senses of that word discussed above.
However much the world changes, the truth about fear and craving remains, simply because it refers to the cosmological level of our world and provides its psychological nexus. However many accelerated and wonderful changes have come about, and will no doubt come about in the scientific, technological, and sociological realms of the future, this truth will remain as a truth about ourselves. And whenever we, the greatly learned and innovative among us or the not-so learned and not-so "with it," are called or even forced to look at ourselves seriously, we see this truth. It does not matter whether our scientific paradigms are Newtonian, Einsteinian, holographic or anything else—this truth does not change; it defines our world and the underlying principle of its working.
What also does not change is our wish to be free of our fears and cravings—dimly felt often, strongly felt occasionally, and undertaken as a practical project rarely. We don't know what else can be, other than these; we cling to the security of this shore lest there be no other shore. On this very shore, we walk up and down, picking up this pebble or that for examination, changing this paradigm or that.
Clearly, at its own level, there is nothing wrong with this shore; it too is needed. There is nothing wrong with the enjoyment that one derives from the changing scientific and technological scene; this very world is after all the world of action. The question however arises: With what level of being—that is, with what degree of freedom from fear and craving—does one engage with the world and its varied and wonderful activities? All activities—scientific, artistic, social, and others—reflect our level of being, our fears and means for protection, our cravings and means for gratification. But, like Steppenwolf, some of us "have a dimension too many," a dimension not opposed to but different from that of time and action, the dimension of eternity and being.
Men's curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime's death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight.
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
(T. S. Eliot, "The Dry Salvages")
The major concern of wisdom, which itself is timeless but which has been since ancient times, is the point of intersection of the timeless with time. It is not opposed to time or the things of time. As the Maitri Upanishad (6.15) succinctly says, "There are verily two forms of Brahman (the Vastness and the Real), Kala (time) and Akala (timelessness)." Wisdom is concerned with freedom from the hold of time, from the conditionings of the past and the imaginings of the future. In that state of being, one can act freely and freshly in time, and see that Nirvana is kalavimukta: Nirvana is freedom from time. Thus, wisdom, ancient or modern or future, acts in time to assist the transformation of anyone who wishes and is able and willing to pay the price, so that one can act in time while being anchored in eternity. The blue god of the mysterious vastness, sometimes called Krishna, makes love to the pale Radha of time; and fecundates her with multiplicity and decorates her with wondrous ornaments!
We can easily see the reason why so many of the spiritual traditions, which naturally are concerned with wisdom, lay so much emphasis on paying attention to the present moment, on being here and now. "Now" is the point of intersection of time and eternity. "If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present" (Wittgenstein, proposition 6.4311). In practice, one sees the difficulty of staying in the present, the eternal now, in the face of the strong momentum of time. The greatest weapon Mara (the deadly tempter) has, in his war against anyone wishing to wake up from the hypnotic sleep in which we all live with fearing and craving, is time and temporal power and the enchanting imaginings transporting us away from the now and the real. A dialogue between a monk and a Zen master illustrates this concept:
Monk: In order to work in the Tao is there a special way?
Master: Yes, there is one.
Monk: Which is it?
Master: When one is hungry, one eats: When one is tired, one sleeps.
Monk: That is what everybody does; is their way the same as yours?
Master: It is not the same.
Monk: Why not?
Master: When they eat they do not only eat, they weave all sorts of imaginings. When they sleep they give rein to a thousand idle thoughts. That is why their way is not my way.
We live at a moment of great opportunity; it is difficult to remain parochial. A special sort of imperviousness and insecurity are needed these days, for us who live in the global village, to ignore the existence of other great cultures. There are various modes of approaching reality—other religions, other kinds of music, other visual sensibilities, other modes of thought—all quite different from those to which we are accustomed. Some are different at their very roots, others only partly so. In some, the same questions are asked but with unexpected emphases; in others, wholly different questions are raised. Some people brought up in other cultures wonder why we are preoccupied with the questions we ask and the practices we follow.
On a smaller scale, of course, this variety has always existed. There have been other peoples, many much more intelligent and serious than ourselves, whose concerns and ideals have been different from ours. Yet our neighborhood is now, for many of us, considerably enlarged, bringing us into contact with diverse ways of being in the world and other points of view shaped by different environments, histories, languages and traditions. For that reason, a fundamental and radical self-questioning is more necessary and perhaps a little easier.
If we do not dismiss those who are different from ourselves simply as stupid, insensitive, misguided, or damned, our cultural and religious self-exile can be justified only by our ignorance, or by a conviction that we are already in possession of the ultimate truth or the way to it, or by a lack of energy and a real wish to examine and understand our own culture and thereby ourselves. We can hardly know ourselves in isolation from others; we can hardly know our own culture, in its presuppositions and preoccupations, without encountering other cultures. As between individuals, so between cultures: Real knowledge of the other and thereby of oneself, arises and flourishes largely in a state of love. Otherwise, it is difficult to escape the covert control of one by the other, whether the control and manipulation are religious, economic, or conceptual.
What is true of other human beings and other cultures is true also of other times. In the midst of the present-day cultural pluralism, when all levels of texts, practices, and techniques are available from various cultures and times, it is easy to lose objectivity, with respect to oneself or others. It is clearly silly to assume that we have the truth and others don't, an underlying assumption of all missionary attitudes; but it is also naive to believe that other cultures, groups, or times have the truth and we don't. Similarly, whereas it is patently absurd to imagine that wisdom began with Copernicus (a well-known scientist once asked me with some surprise, "You mean, it didn't?")—as if the ancients were just savages—it is certainly merely romantic to imagine that all the ancients were full of wisdom and harmony, but now we have lost it all.
One can focus on a macroscopic view of another culture or time and compare it with a microscopic view of one's own. Similarly, one can maintain an ideal picture of another religion and contrast it with the actual reality of one's own. This perspective indicates a lack of appreciation of the seriousness of our common human difficulties, as well as of the scale of the forces at work. This view can lull us into thinking that the transforming of our times, our cultures, or ourselves can be done quickly, by fixing this or that fault, of which we have become aware by comparison with others.
Human beings everywhere, at all times and in all civilizations, seem to be constantly subject to vast forces, crisscrossing in their upward and downward tendencies. In general, the mass of any civilization drags its center of gravity downwards, only occasionally to be lifted up by the spiritually wise who understand their mission, involving effort and suffering for the sake of maintaining the right cosmic order.
As in our own time and culture, so in others: They too, at their best, respond to the call from above; and, exactly like us, they too often forget the flame of truth, repeat rituals and slogans mechanically, give way to baser passions, and live in exile from grace. There are some among them, as there are some among us, who claim that they are in exclusive possession of truth or salvation. But also, there are some among them so manifestly wise, compassionate, and farseeing that they compel our attention and respect.
In addition to the manifest pluralism of our times, one outstanding feature of the contemporary world is juxtaposition without coherence. All things, all teachings, and all information are available, but we don't know their right significance or place. In the midst of the total availability of everything, there is total disorder—externally and internally. The external disorder is largely a reflection of our internal disorder and chaos. A manifestation of our internal incoherence is that we value both others, of different times or cultures, and ourselves alternately too much or too little.
Cultural styles come and go; we accumulate more or less knowledge about this or that; we live a little longer or a little shorter. All this does not matter very much. The depth is in altogether a different dimension. To be sure, there are cultural styles, institutional forms, or varieties of education that can be more conducive to certain depths, whereas others are less conducive. But the quality of this depth, or the lack of comprehension about it, or the general societal conspiracy of evading it, are not essentially different today than they were in the days of the Buddha or the Christ, nor are they any different in America than in China. They are intimately connected with the well-nigh universal human condition: our persistent wish to live in a dream about ourselves and about others.
All social reforms seem to be essentially attempts to rearrange the contents of our dreams by altering the social institutions that maintain a particular set of these dreams for larger or smaller cultural units. Different cultural units have different dreams, some more pleasant than others, but still they are dreams. What is needed is a questioning of these dreams, a questioning of the very state of dreaming, a questioning of ourselves in our entirety—in relation to the cosmos, to other people, and above all to ourselves.
Excerpted from Science and the Sacred by Ravi Ravindra. Copyright © 2002 Ravi Ravindra. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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