Eastern Sages, Western Secrets: What Has Vedanta to Do with Freemasonry?

Eastern Sages, Western Secrets: What Has Vedanta to Do with Freemasonry?

Like unto that of a man blindfolded and carried away by robbers from his own country is a man’s condition. The folds of cloth over his eyes being removed by a friend, he recovers the use of his eyes and slowly finds his way home, step by step, inquiring at each stage. So also, the good teacher instructs the seeker of Truth and helps him to unloose his bonds of desire. ~ From the Chandogya Upanishad 6:14:1/3

As a young seeker of Truth, I found the wisdom of the East long before I found the hidden wisdom of the West. After I had turned away from the exoteric religion of my upbringing, and briefly embraced the alternative orthodoxy of nihilistic materialist scientism, I began to seek truths beyond the tiresome antagonism of the “religion vs. science” debate, and it was not long before I discovered the Bhagavad Gita, Taoism, Buddhist teachings, and Western interpreters like Alan Watts and Ram Dass. Of all the Eastern traditions, Vedantic philosophy (rooted in the Vedas, Upanishads, and related texts) has influenced my worldview more than any other system of thought.

Now, as a newcomer to the Western wisdom tradition of Freemasonry, and to some extent also Theosophy, Alchemy, and Hermeticism, I am struck by the similarity in essence, but difference in expression between East and West. Although I still have much to learn, I sense that the one great Truth, described by Aldous Huxley as the Perennial Philosophy, is fundamentally the same in the Western traditions as in the East, but is clothed in secrecy and symbolism, and in some ways emphasizes certain values over others. The contrast between East and West is particularly interesting to me, as they are two halves of humanity’s collective mind, just as they represent two poles on our globe.

Torch Bearers from the East

eastern wisdomTo begin with, we can be fairly certain that the connection between East and West goes back at least as far as all of Western history, as we know it. The history of great Western philosophers is also in part a history of those who journeyed to the East, learned, and came back with new insights which had to be clothed and couched in the prevailing worldview of whatever Western culture they were returning to, in order to be understood and accepted; even then, they were often rejected, sometimes violently. Bearers of the torch carrying light from the East are notoriously persecuted upon their return to the West, and often meet a gruesome end.

Some think that none other than Jesus of Nazareth is one such example, although this is still a highly controversial theory, with inconclusive evidence that he visited the East during his “missing years.” Another is Pythagoras, who is thought to have traveled extensively in his youth, at least as far East as Persia, and who also was killed by the ignorant. One that is more recent, and therefore also more certain, is that of H. P. Blavatsky, one of the founders of Theosophy and originators of Victorian spiritualism, which also preceded and influenced much of what people consider to be “new age” or “new thought” ideas, today.

In general, I think that we underestimate the degree to which people traveled, and teachings were shared or spread via the Silk Road and other trade routes between East and West, throughout our history. It doesn’t help that our mainstream historians are hesitant to acknowledge Eastern influence on Western thought. So, with all this cross-pollination, why are the West and East not identical?

Wisdom in Contrast

east and westThe most striking difference to me between East and West, in terms of the mysteries, is that in the East they simply aren’t mysteries. There isn’t much secrecy in Vedantic, Buddhist, or Taoist traditions, teachers are prone to publicly say things like, “So long as God seems to be outside and far away, there is ignorance. But when God is realised within, that is true knowledge [Sri Ramakrishna].” The volumes of Vedantic and other Eastern teachings are filled with things like this, which in the West might be merely scoffed at today, but in the past, could have led to a burning at the stake or crucifixion, for speaking so blasphemously.

Here, we arrive at what seems to me to be the chief reason for the secrecy of the Western traditions, which is the millennium of history in which the desert religions of Abraham turned from their mystic origins to the darkness of fanaticism and ignorance, and dogma spread like a plague, reigning over the West with the fiery whip of religious persecution for roughly one thousand years. While our history lessons often breeze over this period as the “Dark Ages,” with some discussion of feudalism and monarchy, the harsh reality is that Western culture underwent an intellectual and religious cleansing, where all ideas that ran contrary to the dogmas of the church (or the mosque) were punished by torture, imprisonment, and gruesome death.

No wonder, then, that those who held the wisdom of the ancient traditions of the West were forced to seek shelter in organizations like operative freemasonry, which provided secrecy, as well as a highly effective organizational structure, and fertile ground for the symbolic coding of wisdom in the tools and principles of masonry. Meanwhile, our Eastern neighbors, safeguarded by distance, geographical features like the himalayas, and their own kingdoms and power structures, held the wisdom passed on from ancient times, and continued teaching it in a relatively open manner. This is an oversimplification, but is generally more accurate than not, I would say.

Aside from being hidden vs. open, what else separates West from East? Perhaps there is a more essential difference, due to differences in temperament and culture of the two peoples, shaped in part by their climates. I could make an argument that the harsh climates of Europe, mostly in the North, bred a spirituality more focused on action, intention, and the overcoming of obstacles, while mostly tropical Eastern environments, particularly in India, bred a spirituality with a more passive focus on meditation and surrender. This theory may have some merit, but ultimately we’ll never know for sure. It does seem to me that the West is more focused on building and actively working to perfect the human, while the East is more about dissolving, letting go, and becoming free from attachment.

At the risk being accused of over-simplifying neuroscience, the general dichotomy of the left and right sides of the brain could also be said to correspond to the same principle. In many ways, West and East are akin to the left and right. The West/Left is all about clearly defined logic, boundaries, and places a greater emphasis on intellect; the East/Right is more about direct perception, dissolving boundaries, and places greater emphasis on intuitive realizations. With all these differences, is there common ground? What is the corpus callosum of East and West?

The Bridge and the Stairway

philosophyI would say absolutely, and as the beginning of this post alludes to, there are striking similarities, at times, between the teachings of the Lodge or Western esotericism in general, and that of the Swamis. Both speak of the human condition as a state of darkness and ignorance striving for light; both design their sacred structures to resemble the human body; both tend towards idealism, or the belief that consciousness rather than matter is fundamental; both ultimately teach that God dwells within.

The commonalities are surely greater than the differences, and the essence, I believe, is one. In many ways, co-masonry in particular may be an excellent bridge between the two systems, with its close ties to theosophy, a much more Eastern tradition than many of the other Western systems, and its focus on adopting the feminine into the masculine lodge. Whatever the bridge we use, it seems clear to me that we must blend East and West, right and left, action and contemplation, intellect and intuition, if we are ever to rise above, and climb the stairway to a greater truth, some transcendent gnosis.

Ultimately, I believe that we are all approximating this same truth, like a middle point of a circle which both East and West circumambulate in their own ways. The classical human mystical experience, which all these traditions are ultimately based on, seems to be more-or-less universal across cultures, and to differ only in it’s interpretation post-experience, and the cultural context which either allows it to flourish, or forces it to hide and conceal itself. Either way, the truth will out, and the light will not be concealed for long, for it is what every human on this planet thirsts for, in the depths of their soul.

Finding the Middle Path: Esoteric and Non-Esoteric Freemasonry

Finding the Middle Path: Esoteric and Non-Esoteric Freemasonry

There are two groups in Freemasonry, the so-called “Esoterics” and “Non-Esoterics,” who too often do not get along. They should. After all, they need each other.

This, to my mind, is best illustrated by an image I have observed floating around the Internet for a decade. It’s the High Priestess card in the Rider Waite tarot deck with the Kabbalistic “Eitz haChayim” (עץ החיים) or, in English, The Tree of Life, superimposed upon it.

My own version of it is pictured above, along with a box of cigars. Because, as in the statement often is attributed to famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. It does not really matter if Freud ever said or wrote that. The point is that things are not always metaphors or symbols for something else.

That said, I think it’s equally possible for them to be and not to be – all at the same time.

My observation of the High Priestess Card and Tree of Life pairing is that individuals, especially those esoterically inclined, who see the connection for the first time, generally experience a kōan moment. That is to say that their minds are completely blown. There is a good deal to be gained in such a moment, i.e. when the mind is absolutely blank. That seems to be the aim of a good portion of esoteric study, inside Freemasonry and out. The aim being to assist the neophyte in unraveling hidden or higher truths deep within themselves and stretching outward to farthest reaches of the Universe.

The image itself supposedly originated with an unknown individual, possibly the late Paul Foster Case, who noted that if you draw circles around the pomegranates on the card and then draw lines between them the image drawn resembles the Tree of Life. The problem is that the tree of life cannot actually be constructed through the process. As is the case with many of these studies, this exercise breaks down under non-esoteric scrutiny.

There are no pomegranates on the card to represent the lower Sephirot, namely Yesod and Malkuth. Thus, the High Priestess’ knees and toes, along with one end of the crescent moon, must be pressed into service. A circle around the cross at the center of her chest also is required. Without those pomegranate-free circles, there is no Tree of Life on the card. The decision to accept any part of the picture, in an exercise to connect an image, leaves us open to circles, squares, and other doodles on the card.

Tree of Life

The Kabbalistic Tree of Life

In my observation, the esoterically inclined Brother may declare that, simply by making that perfectly reasonable observation, the non-esoterically inclined Brother is just not open to the experience and not worthy of the special knowledge imparted. The non-esoterically inclined Brother may reply that the whole thing is nonsense and then try to turn the subject toward something practical, such as an upcoming fundraiser.

That, in turn, frustrates the esoterically inclined Brother, who sees the upcoming fundraiser as meaningless compared to the exploration in search of answers about life, the universe, etc. The Brothers with opposing viewpoints might even start squabbling at this point, each implying that the other should be more like themselves.

That argument generally leaves those individuals in the middle thinking both of the original points is valid and worth considering. They may wonder why those on either side cannot get along.

To be clear, as a historian in Freemasonry I have endured my own share of being annoyed with esoterically inclined writers who, to my mind, flippantly make up historical events to bolster their own writings. Quite recently, I heard an operative alchemist claim that medieval architecture originated with the Templars, stating it as a fact without supporting documentation, something more academically minded Templar scholars would have no trouble refuting.

Robert Lomas and Christopher Knight, who were big deals when I came into Freemasonry about a decade ago, have been seen by some to invent things to bolster the message and lessons they want to get across.

Which, I think, is the point. For esoteric writers, the focus is on the message or lesson they are trying to teach not necessarily about the complete historical accuracy of the facts underlying their arguments.  They may ignore some historical data or information if it is seen as cumbersome, irrelevant, or diminishing to their argument. 

Non-esoteric writers may prefer to establish their messages and lessons in well-documented and verifiable historical analysis. To do otherwise, may seem to these writers as “making up history.” They also might express a certain irritation that esoteric books far outsell non-esoteric tomes.

Both points of view are valid, but both sides also often also forget to take a hard look at themselves.

I suppose it might be helpful, even this late in the blog, to define the term “esoteric”, which is no easy thing. Merriam-Webster lists the popularity of the word “esotericism“as being in the bottom 30 percent of popular words and defines it as “the quality or state of being esoteric.”

Spheres Dante

The Concentric Spheres of “The Key to Dante’s Divine Comedy,” by Augustus Knapp

The same source defines “esoteric” as pursuing something “designed for or understood by the specially initiated alone” (my emphasis) or “requiring or exhibiting knowledge that is restricted to a small group.”

To be “non-esoteric,” in Freemasonry and without, would be not to be part of that specially initiated group or to not have that knowledge restricted to the small group. Or, I suppose, to reject all that.

Brothers on both sides live in the same place. They really do, but they fail to recognize the concentric spheres spheres that share the same center – which make up that place. In Freemasonry, there are those who labor in the Inner Order, they who keep the Light; and those who labor in the Outer Order, they who keep the lights on.

There is no point in making sure the power bill is paid to keep the lights on if there is no Light to keep; and the Light cannot very well be kept if the power bill is not paid to keep the lights on.

There are Brothers who prefer the Outer Order. They enjoy the sumptuous banquets, the social functions, and getting out into the world to show how good Freemasons can be. The Outer Order excels at financial planning, in setting aside trusts for the future, for that is where the Outer Order lives. They are careful to remember the past and plan for the future.

The Brothers of the Inner Order live in the Now. They see Freemasonry as a body of individual seekers of Light, an heir to the ancient mystery schools, and a system to impart morality, ethics, and the benefits of mutual service. The Inner Order tends to dismiss the past as unimportant and reckons the future will take care of itself. For them, clarity and correctness about the past and future is a secondary concern to the now.

Ancient Mysteries

Ancient Mystery School Symbolism

Then there are those achingly tolerant Brethren, “hybrids,” who can pass between the spheres and see value in both. They historically have been in the minority in Freemasonry but, in my observation, their numbers are increasing. I see them as Brothers deeply rooted in the center. I wish there were more of them.

I am not the first to observe this disharmony between the spheres. Bro. Robert Davis, in his 2010 paper “The Path of the Esotericists Among Us,” pointed out that “no sincere adept’ would force truth on someone not prepared to contemplate it. “We all know Masons who believe with all their heart there is nothing spiritual about the rituals of Masonry,” Bro. Davis wrote. 

There are those who claim there is nothing to learn beyond the ritual words. There are even more who are appalled when it is suggested that Kabbalistic, Alchemical, or Hermetic associations might be made from a study of the Degrees of Masonry. Never mind that every aspirant is told before he receives the very first Degree that Masonry is a course of hieroglyphic instruction taught by allegories. Oh well. As obvious as this may seem to the esoteric minded among us, there is little to be gained by arguing with those who aren’t listening.

I would add to Davis’ point that there *is* a middle path. It is worth seeking, and Esoterics and Non-Esoterics need to tolerate, if not respect, each other.

Until we can all be there, I continue to hope that Brothers of the Inner and Outer orders will learn to respect and tolerate each other. I hope that they will try – please try – not to encroach too much into the opposite sphere. At least not until they are ready to do so harmoniously and fully recognizing that the Brother in the opposite sphere who does not get you and who is not open to your experience is the Brother who makes sure that you do and are.