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.

Service: Why Do We Help?

Service: Why Do We Help?

If you were to ask five different people of five different belief systems why it’s important to serve others, you’d probably get five somewhat different answers. For instance, a Hindu might say that it will accrue positive karma, a Christian that it’s to spread the love of Christ, and perhaps a scientific atheist might say that it simply reduces the amount of suffering in the world, and that is reason enough.

The teaching that we should serve others is almost universal in the various religions and wisdom teachings of mankind, although their stated reasons may vary, as one might expect. To most of us, it seems obvious that it is good to serve others, to help those in need. But as Freemasons, what is our explanation? Why do we help?

Freemasonry defines itself as an organization based on service to humanity, and masons throughout history have spoken on the subject of service to humanity extensively, and focused heavily on both charity and enlightenment. As with every other philosophy or belief system, our perspective on service is deeply rooted in the masonic perspective on humanity’s essential nature, and destiny.

An important caveat is necessary, here: technically, there is no single “masonic perspective,” because each mason chooses for him or herself how they think about any given topic. Freemasonry is a fellowship among truth-seekers, not an orthodox belief system. Therefore, the ideas presented here are in no sense meant to be understood as universally accepted by all masons.

The Vector of Human Evolution

888695607In Freemasonry, and the Western esoteric traditions in general, we do generally have a particular perspective on humanity’s purpose. We do not typically view it in the way that some religions might, which is often the idea that humanity was created merely to worship and please a deity, nor do we generally believe that humanity’s existence is randomly purposeless, a chance occurrence in an otherwise dead and meaningless universe, as might those skeptics who believe only what science can prove.

One of the most deeply-held core values of freemasonry is that humanity does in fact have a teleological vector, which is a fancy philosophical way of saying that we believe humanity has a purpose, a trajectory, an inherent potential which each and all of us are in the process of unfolding. We may have differing ideas about what that purpose entails, or what its ultimate goal is, but the common thread is that we believe a process is taking place which involves a perfecting or evolution of each person, so that we eventually become something more and better than what we were before, both individually and collectively.

In fact, it is this vector which underlies the current and overall purpose of Freemasonry. This is one understanding of what we term The Great Work, the progression towards the highest potential in the self, and in humanity as a whole.

Service in Context

So, what does all of this have to do with service, you might ask?

images-5If we believe that all people have this higher potential which is yet to be unfolded, then our chief task in this world must be to unfurl it in our self, as well as to do whatever possible to help the people we come into contact with to do the same. In other words, to catalyze and cultivate the process of human evolution towards our destiny. That is my attempt to encapsulate the essence of service, from the perspective of the esoteric wisdom teachings.

When most people think of service and charity, they probably wouldn’t think about contributing to our evolutionary process. We might simply think it’s the “right thing to do,” or that our compassion simply compels us to do so. People are suffering, so we do what we can to provide relief; many people are lacking in knowledge, so we do what we can to provide insight and enlightenment. If we are able, we help those who are not able. For many, it feels almost written into our DNA. Why do we need an explanation?

These reasons are good enough, insomuch as they spur us to action. However, in my opinion, the best possible understanding of the purpose of service must necessarily be embedded in, and in alignment with the purpose of our entire existence. To me, there is value in seeing things in the larger context of what we ultimately believe about ourselves, our species, and the universe itself.

Climbing the Pyramid

Any of us who are blessed enough to have found some measure of spiritual awakening in this life find ourselves in a peculiar situation, in respect to our relationship with the rest of humanity.

It is a fact of life, and has been for as long as there have been those who wake up to some degree, that the majority of humans exist in a state of confusion and suffering. This suffering is not purely economic, although poverty is a real problem. Those who have their basic needs taken care of, or even those who live in lavish luxury, can and do still suffer a great deal on an emotional, social, and soul level. And this is precisely the state which we ourselves seek to extricate ourselves from.

Yet, we know from the understandings handed down to us from various wisdom teachings that each of those confused and suffering people contains a divine spark, and the potential to ignite that spark, and transmute their suffering, thereby transforming into a vibrant, soulful, and purposeful human being. Whether we know it or not, I believe that this is the ultimate purpose of service, not simply to reduce suffering to reach some state of equilibrium, but to free up resources to realize a higher potential in each person.

1579917_origMany readers will be familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, perhaps from Psychology 101. For those who aren’t familiar, it is a model of human needs which arranges them in a pyramidal structure, grouped into levels, each needing to be satisfied before the next level can be advanced. At the base are the most basic, biological needs, and they transition up the pyramid into emotional and social needs, with the capstone being self-realization, the fulfillment of some transcendent purpose that is beyond all the others below it. The key idea is that one must take care of the needs in sequence, from bottom to top. If the basic needs are not addressed, the higher needs will remain unfulfilled.

So, if the capstone of that pyramid is equivalent to the destiny towards which we are moving, and which we hope to assist all of humanity in achieving, then helping those around us means helping them move beyond the level where they currently exist. For those whose basic needs still are unsatisfied, we would not necessarily hand the deepest teachings of soul wisdom. It may simply be that they need food to eat or a roof over their head. For yet others, mental/emotional stability may be their current requirement. Yet, in all of these, the reason we help is the movement towards that capstone of ultimate good, even transcendence.

In this way, if we wish to be good servants to our Creator and our fellows, it’s helpful to first be able to recognize which service is required, depending on where that person is at, and how we are best equipped to provide it. This begins with a concrete conceptual model of the hierarchy of needs, as well as the ultimate goal.

Tending the Garden

400017260I find the garden to be a useful metaphor both in inner work, as well as work with other people. To me, the relationship between those who wish to serve a higher purpose and the rest of life and humanity is similar to the relationship of a gardener to a garden. In this vein, we are not the sole rescuers or providers of the essential life processes. Rather, we should best view ourselves as Life’s humble and equanimous attendants.

We cannot make the garden grow, the flowers blossom, or the vegetables ripen, but we can water them, prune them, prop them up when they have fallen, and dig out the weeds. If more of us are wise, conscientious, and faithful stewards, then the garden of human civilization will be more sweet with the scent of compassion, bright with the colors of inspired expression, and fulfilling with the fruits of human self-actualization.