07 July, 2011

On Initiation. Again. Also, on Worlds and Such.

This subject seems to come up a lot. One might begin to think it's important or something. I won't go into the "initiation means 'beginning'" thing again (wait, I just did, never mind). Instead I want to look at the idea of various spiritual worlds and their relationship, if any, to esoteric initiation. The general reference here is this blog post: To be clear, the following should not be construed as a reply to this, even though I may touch on some subjects that are also in the above post. The following should also not be construed as entering into a dialogue about what theory of initiation is correct, a discussion I am supremely disinterested in. Rather, this was simply brought to my attention lately and I felt like posting something on the subject.

We good? Good.

I am attempting to look at the initiatory process from two related but different perspectives, that of Neoplatonism and that of a five-world kabbalistic model.

Typically, Neoplatonism, following Plato and especially, but not only, the Republic, divides reality into three levels. These are the world of images, the world of reason and the world of forms, which are coupled with the sub-lunar realm, the celestial realm and the super-celestial realm (and yes, there are more terms, like encosmic and hypercosmic worlds, etc., but they all refer to the same thing). We live down here in the world of images. Much as a photograph of a person is not the same as the person, that which we experience in the world of images is but a shadow of the true reality emanating from the world of forms. The next world up is the place of necessities (like a triangle having three sides, regardless of there ever having been a physical triangle) and the world upon which everything below is based. That's the short version, anyway.

R. Yitzchak Luria developed a five-world model of creation in his kabbalah (which was derived from the somewhat more common four-world model). The worlds are those of Asyiah (Action), Yetzirah (Formation), Beriah (Creation), Atzilut (Nearness or Emanation) and Adam Kodmon (The Ancient/Holy Human). For Luria, creation actually occurs below Asyiah, surrounded by the remnants of the Breaking of the Vessels, at least sometimes. BotV is an important concept in Lurianic and post-Lurianic kabbalah. Derived from the Zohar, this idea says that while emanating something went wrong and the vessels made to hold the divine essence shattered. Interestingly, everything below Atzilut (and sometimes even Atzilut itself) fell when this happened, each world sinking down a metaphysical level, with the exception of Adam Kodmon (and maybe Atzilut, or the supernal part of Atzilut).

Now, though kabbalah has, repeatedly, been demonstrated to have significant roots in Neoplatonism, and while there are similarities between the three NP worlds and the five kabbalistic worlds, they aren't exactly the same. At best one might make the following connections:

World of Forms - Olam Adam Kodmon/Olam Atzilut
World of Reason - Olam Beriah
World of Images - Olam Yetzirah/Olam Asyiah (and creation below)

So, the question, apparently, is how does, or at least how can, esoteric initiation link into these?

The short answer is "In a lot of different ways." I'm not interested in the "which is the 'right' way?" discussion, remember? Here are simply some of my ill formed thoughts on some ways in which this might work.

Iamblichus, in his De Mysterii talks about three different kinds of people: those whose theurgy must function on the physical level, those whose theurgy is silent and purely nonphysical and those in between. This is a mobile hierarchy; though there are (A LOT) more people on the bottom (physical theurgy) than the top (nonphysical theurgy), over time (as in over lifetimes, classical Neoplatonism was pro-reincarnation) and continued theurgic praxis, one would spiritually advance from one level to another. The implication is that each kind of theurgic practice is associated with one of three Platonic worlds. Iamblichus also posits that there are three Demiurgoi, one for each world. As theurgy is demiurgery, this makes perfect sense.

In Lurianic and post-Lurianic kabbalah the five-world model becomes greatly expanded. Ideology behind each of the five kabbalistic souls (nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chiah and yechidah) become enlarged. Originally they were connected to either specific sefirot or specific worlds, now they are connected to both: each world has its specific soul and each soul is divided into five parts. So, Olam Asyiah contains the nefesh and the nefesh is composed of a nefesh of nefesh, a ruach of nefesh, a neshamah of nefesh, a chiah of nefesh and a yechidah of nefesh. This continues on up the Tree of Life through to a yechidah of yechidah. Everyone starts out at the same place, with none of the above (in Lurianic kabbalah, other kabbalists would say we start with a nefesh and nothing else). We must earn each level of the soul through correct conduct and, presumably, through practices such as hitbodedut. Before a ruach can be acquired the complete nefesh must be attained and perfected.

As you might imagine, there are more people on the bottom of this mobile hierarchy than the top. Further, some of these souls are considered to be embedded in us, as it were, while the chiah and yechidah were never part of incarnation, shining down upon us and influencing us indirectly, as it were, and are not directly accessible via normal human consciousness. Sound familiar?

Transferring this ideology to an initiatory scheme provides us with some interesting ideas, I think. First, it suggests that as initiation rituals are rituals they largely function on the first Neoplatonic level, corresponding to Asyiah and Yetzirah. Initiation rituals, like all rituals, are massively multi-sensual experiences. There are smells and sounds and colors and shapes and tastes and touches all put together in various ways to have various affects on the candidate. There are invisible things as well, working on the etheric and astral levels (both of which would be part of the world of images), designed for the higher senses to partake of.

So, which world do they work on? That is going to depend on the ritual. Presumably, initial initiation rituals, those that bring a person into an a group or an "outer order" (or equivalent) would function largely on the level of Asyiah. A soul cannot progress to the ruach until it has completed the nefesh. So the real question might be when does a an initiatory schema move from one level to the next (this appears to be one of the main topics discussed in the above blog post)? This is an excellent question and one which I cannot answer for any other system of initiation. The point is that it is theoretically possible for a system of initiations to move from one level to the next.

Is it likely? I'm not sure, but I don't think so. The work of building the nefesh alone is the world of a life time. Further, a person on level one cannot, even through the might and majesty of initiation, raise someone to a level higher than themselves. Such a person would have no recourse to said higher level, but they could help raise someone to the same level as they are. This is one why Adepts perform initiations and Novices don't. It is, I suppose, possible for an Adept to be functioning at the level of ruach. In fact, I imagine that a fully trained Adept should be functioning at that level. So, theoretically, an initiation to Adept level by qualified adepts could help accomplish this. Maybe. Here's what I see happening:

An Adept may very well be functioning at the level of the ruach. Just. That "just" part is important. It implies that the fully functioning Adept (henceforth simply the Adept, the rest is a finger-full!) has mastery over the nefesh and the level of reality associated with it's demiurgos. Such a person can initiate into that world; they are it's master (theurgically speaking). But could they initiate into the next level, one of which they are only a novice (nefesh of ruach)? I don't think so; their mastery of that level is lacking.

The initiatory job of the Adept is to help raise candidates through the levels of the nefesh. Initiation doesn't do that alone, of course; there is a substantial amount of Work on the candidate's part involved. The pinnacle of the initiatory system is not, however, some super-evolved soul. You are not going to be functioning on the level of the neshamah through initiation, sorry. That's on a level that requires more than functioning on the world of images, remember? Chiah or yechidah? Straight out. Rather, the pinnacle is getting the Adept working on the level of the ruach and letting the ruach and it's associated daimon guide the Adept from there. Initiation brings them through the lowest level and their own work takes them through the cusp to the next.

Those, at any rate, are my thoughts on the subject.

26 April, 2011

Wealth and Poverty

I went to the Tenebrae service and mass at the parish of St. Michael the Archangel, of the AJC. No, I'm not a Gnostic, or a Christian for that matter, but they are my friends and brothers and sisters. One of the readings touched on the nature of Christ as servant, which lead me to thoughts of the nature of Malkhut and it's relationship to the rest of the sefirot.

Malkhut is called "poor" (Heb: dal, associated with the letter dalet) because though it receives, it but does not give. This is because there is nothing beneath it to give to, such is the nature of this culminating emanation. Humanity shares this nature with Malkhut. Just as Shekhinah cannot emanate, neither does humanity. At best we can create, and much of what we create becomes a kind of idolatry as we become infatuated with the things of our own making. Magically speaking, the Neoplatonist Iamblichus called this the thaumaturgy of phantasms.

But Torah tells us that humanity was created in the image of the Eternal, and after the Eternal's likeness. Within many of us, and this is in no way limited to those called to practice the theurgic art, is a longing to imitate the Eternal. This sympathia is the heart of theurgy and kabbalah. And so, in our own ways, we attempt to rise above our place in Malkhut, because although we live here, it is not the sole place of our residence.

All of which brings me back to the Tenebrae service, where many of those gathered did so not only in homage to Christ, but also in an attempt to imitate him. That wasn't me. Rather it caused me to reflect on my own actions and life. When I was younger my main pursuit was that of wealth. I have but recently noticed that this has not been my goal for some time now. One might argue that the majority of my education has moved in a direction more or less guaranteeing I shall never be wealthy. I can live with that.

But what am I doing, exactly? I am creating things. Art, to be specific. I paint and I write and occasionally I make some jewelery. I am especially interested in the creation of eikons and their relationship to theurgic symbolon or tokens. And what do I do with most of this? For the most part I give them away to friends.

I hadn't even noticed it, let alone thought about why. That's what occurred this last weekend. I not only saw it, but began to understand it. It is my small way of emulating the Emanator, Who gives all but receives nothing, for there is nothing the Eternal does not already have. Despite my place in Malkhut, receiving from the Divine with nothing to give in return, that is my little piece of tikkun, my bit of demiurgy.

Or at least it's an excuse as to why I'm usually broke.

05 February, 2011

Wherein I talk about doing stuff

Last night I "participated" (read: hardly said a thing) in a Gnostic skype conference call that some of you reading this may have also participated in. We talked about the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which, as it turns out, may or may not actually have been written by Gnostics. As you probably know, I'm neither a Christian nor a Gnostic, but a second cousin twice removed, a kabbalist and a Neoplatonist (it's up for grabs which of those should be listed first). That isn't entirely relevant, except perhaps an excuse as to why I seemed to approach the text as a relative outsider to it, because I am.

If you're not familiar with the Gospel, a translation can be found here (thanks to the conference call coordinator for the link):

At any rate, there were a few things that really interested me in this Gospel. First, there is some interesting political infighting it seems, between Peter and Mary/Levi. We see this sort of thing in other Gospels. For instance Kelber suggests Mark has a current of anti-Jerusalem Church (i.e. Jewish Christian Church) polemics in it. It was pointed out that the inter-community bickering in Mary is a little different, the disciples themselves are doing the fighting here. I point this out only because we often forget that our scriptures, though derived through divine inspiration, are certainly also products of humanity.

Second, there is a brief segment, surrounded by missing pieces, that mentions soul, mind and spirit. This is a very interesting, likely Platonic use of the terminology. The Gospel, through the mouth of Christ, tells us that visions are seen not my the soul but the mind. The Platonic mind, the Nous, is not the mind as we think of it today. The Nous, analogous to the Neoplatonic Demiurgos (but not the Gnostic Demiurgos), exists far beyond our conscious, rational, dialectical mind. That it is the mind that experiences the visions, not the soul, tells us something about the role of these logoi in the spiritual community of the Gospel's author, as well as the spiritual level whereupon Christ may be found.

Finally, there is a section, of which several pages are missing, that appears to describe the soul's spiritual ascent through . . . somewhere. In this description the soul encounters opposition; Desire, Ignorance and the seven forms of Wrath. The soul must overcome each opponent before ascending further. I was instantly reminded of Jewish merkavah mysticism, which would have predated the gospel but still existed while it was in circulation. More than this, though, I recalled the scholarship of Moshe Idel on ecstatic kabbalah and William Harmless on Christian mysticism. Both discuss how descriptions like these do not exist solely as theosophical texts; which is to say they are not simply descriptions of theological or philosophical constructs. Instead they typically represent the product of what we'd call mystical experiences. I.e. they are not just about talking, they are about doing.

It was brought up (not by me, by our esteemed coordinator) that the older Greek version of the MS (late 1st century or early 2nd century) is somewhat different from the later Coptic edition (5th or 6th century). The Coptic version puts the visions in the voice of Christ; it was he who described the experiences of the soul. The older version, however, gave Mary the experiences. Now, there are several possible reasons for the differences. I think that one of them is perhaps a change in Christianity between the 1st and 5th centuries. Not regarding the role of women (though that too probably happened to some extent) but the role of the practitioner in general. To me, and this is entirely speculation on my part, the differences in the texts demonstrates a difference in attitude as to who is capable of these experiences. The older text seems to tell us that you can (read: should) have these experiences. That having these visions, first of the ascending soul, then the Mind's beholding of Christ (in the context of the Gospel, your mileage may vary). But the important thing is to go out and do it, that living the spiritual life is living an active spiritual life, not a passive one. It suggests that we can sit and wait for revelation all we want, but, as per the kabbalistic axiom, action below stimulates action above.

Oh, and there's some interesting stuff on sin, and how it only seems to exist when we do it, but not in and of itself (sin is not ontological?).

Anyway, those are my muddle thoughts on last night's discussion. I think next time we'll be discussing part of the Gospel of Thomas.