What is the Role of Gender in Esotericism and Freemasonry?

What is the Role of Gender in Esotericism and Freemasonry?

Gender is in everything; everything has its Masculine and Feminine Principles; Gender manifests on all planes. ~ The Kybalion

It seems that gender is a matter of some controversy, these days. Many people wish to do away with the idea of gender altogether, or at least eliminate any concrete definition of it, as it applies to people, because they recognize a right of each person to flow back and forth between genders, choose whatever ratio of one gender identity to another that they see fit, at any given moment, or throw the whole idea away altogether. Meanwhile, others remain more traditional, as is always the case, and there is some contention over the matter.

Gender has also long been a matter of great significance in the occult traditions, as alluded to briefly in the seventh Hermetic Principle, quoted above. Many teachings in Western esotericism and the East alike teach about the gendered principles, and how they play out in our cosmos.

Freemasonry has traditionally been, and to a large extent is still an exclusively masculine or male organization, with the “appendant body” for women, reminiscent of Adam’s rib, known as the Eastern Star. In this appendant body, women are not given the full knowledge of the craft, and are overseen by a man. The exception, of course, is the more recent Universal Co-Masonry, which allows women as equals, and which we believe to be the next step in Masonry’s evolution.

So, what is gender, what is its role in esoteric traditions, and what should its role be in Freemasonry?

Gender from Archetypes to Biology

gender in scienceThe principle of gender, as described in The Kybalion, is something which goes beyond human gender identities, although they are one manifestation of it. We can see this idea at play in such commonly recognized dualities as yin and yang, the chalice and the wand, water and fire, or mother earth and father sky. Gender, thought of in this way, is a much more abstract quality or dichotomy which, being abstract, can be universally applied to everything in reality, according to the Kybalion, and other congruent teachings.

In this way, we can view the Principle of Gender as being very similar to the Principle of Polarity, which is that all manifest phenomena have polarities, and each of these apparent polarities are actually the same phenomenon in different degrees along a spectrum. Hot and cold are just different degrees of vibratory motion we call thermal energy, light and dark are just different degrees of photonic saturation of space, etc.

So, what should be gender’s place in our thinking about life, the universe, and everything? If we take the Principle of Gender to be true, then it must be helpful to recognize the abstract principle of gender, as each Hermetic Principle is thought to be a core pattern or design of reality. We see gender and polarity in the masonic lodge in many forms, and its symbolism plays a key role in the masonic rituals and teachings. Generally speaking, in most spiritual traditions, there is some acknowledgement of the masculine/feminine, active/passive dynamic.

We also see it in some scientific understandings of reality, such as in chemistry, which is essentially the interplay of masculine-positive and feminine-negative particles in chemical reactions. Since our bodies and all biological life are essentially chemical in nature, this means that we are all made up of some complex combination of this interplay, on the chemical level. Another example is electromagnetism and the magnetic poles, or sexual reproduction in biology, of course.

The False Equivalence Controversy

ddThe principle of gender in psychology is where things get a bit more enigmatic. Many of the aspects of our psycho-emotional being that have typically been gendered have been called into question, in recent times. For instance, rationality has traditionally been associated with masculinity, and emotionality with femininity, but over the past century that has changed to a large extent, with both genders proving they are perfectly capable of both, when freed from the expectations of their limiting cultural roles.

Simultaneously, there does seem to be an element of polarity to many of the dynamics at play within the human psyche. If we ignore these, we run the risk of missing a key part of understanding ourselves. However, if we embrace them too concretely, we run the risk of boxing ourselves and others into categories of identity, which can be traps.

Here, I think, is where much of the trouble we have in seeing and accepting the coexistence of opposites within each person can be found. To me, it seems that we have historically taken something that is abstract, gender, and conflated it with something concrete: the biological sex of a person. This is a major part of what the movement for gender transcendence is about, separating the concept of gender from it’s biological manifestation. While there is some biological basis for some of the gendered traits, there are also many people who do not neatly fit into the simple black and white, male and female, masculine and feminine dichotomy. 

In order to address this, some people want to throw out the idea of gender altogether, as a “socially constructed” fiction, an idea sometimes found in postmodernism. The danger, it seems to me, is that in attempting to remove this conflation, we also delegitimize the abstract principle, which is a key to understanding how reality regenerates itself. Must we throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater, in order to achieve this personal freedom from culturally sanctioned gender norms? Must we also refuse to acknowledge that this principle of gender does manifest itself concretely in biology, even if we also have the choice to alter or transcend that biological manifestation?

A Most Engendered Paradox

masculine and feminine
Part of the teachings on the Principle of Gender is that it is a paradox which is necessary to manifest or
generate (coming from the same root word) reality itself. Taoism teaches a similar idea with perhaps the most well-known symbol of gender and polarity, the Yin and Yang. Ingeniously, they built into the very symbol itself a hint at the paradoxically unitive nature of these opposites, which represents a unity in all polarities.

Polarity, and by extension Gender, can then be seen as an essential and paradoxical quality of all manifest reality. Just as all diverse phenomena of the universe are an illusory manifestation of one fundamental unitive reality, these polarities are the structure of the illusion itself. Remember here that illusion doesn’t mean “not real,” it actually means, “not what it seems to be,” just as a magician pulling a rabbit from his hat is very real, but simultaneously an illusion. If you peaked beneath the table, you would see through to the reality. Perhaps it may behoove us to look at Gender somewhat the same way.

Bringing this cosmic abstraction back into the realm of gender politics, what does it say about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the concept of gender, as applied to people? It seems to me that, quite appropriately, this too is a paradox. Gender is simultaneously essential, and illusory; like all polarity, it is the essence of the illusion, and therefore of life itself, hence its place among the seven Hermetic Principles. We cannot escape it, so long as we dwell within manifest reality, but we can transcend it to some degree, and choose of our own free will what gender balance we wish to have in each of us.

Gender, Psyche, & Freemasonry

esoteric genderEsoteric traditions have long taught that both masculine and feminine exist in every person, regardless of biological sex, and that uniting these opposites within the self is one of the keys to transcendence. My favorite manifestation of this idea is in the psychology of Dr. Carl Jung, who was certainly influenced by esoteric teachings in his theories on the human mind, and integrated them in a way that is compatible with modern thought.

Jung theorized that we all contain all polarities within us when we are born; as we develop and adapt to our social milieu, whatever we identify with becomes part of a complex of ideas in our waking consciousness called our ego, or sense of self, and whatever we do not identify with become unconscious complexes, which then come to affect us in our daily life as the people we interact with reflect them.

Therefore, every person who has identified with their gender, whatever that might entail given their personality and culture, has within them an aspect which represents all that is the opposite to them, called their anima or animus. The anima is a man’s internal unconscious woman, and animus is the internal unconscious man in a woman. Every relationship we have is some interaction with this opposite-gender complex, and the uniting of the conscious ego with this other-gender part of ourselves is a major step towards individuation, or what we might call self-actualization, the process of becoming whole and fully human.

If we look at the history of Freemasonry, much like the history of humanity in general, it has been highly masculine-dominated, to the point of only allowing men to have the true knowledge. Yet, simultaneously, it has carried within it the keys of a higher understanding woven throughout the masonic symbolism that there can be a balance of the genders, and that our sisters in humanity may join us as brothers of the craft. In so doing, not only does the other half of humanity get to share in the divine knowledge, but they also bring a greater degree of the more abstract universal principle of femininity, which they are (often) inherently more connected to, to balance the craft.

self actualizationPerhaps we can see the Freemasonry of old as being like the man with an unconscious feminine aspect. From this view, the Eastern Star is his psychological anima, dwelling in the darkness, literally not allowed to partake of the symbolic light of the teachings. When a man does not have a connection to his anima, he also does not have as much of a connection to the mystical side of life, the magic and spirit of human existence, which is typically manifested more in the feminine. The result is that he will be dry, intellectual, and lacking in the vital essence of soul connection.

Brothers and friends, I believe it is time for Freemasonry to evolve, and step further into its own individuation, to embrace both people of the female biological sex, and in a more archetypal sense, the feminine aspect of spirit and mystical union, rather than mere intellectualism and charity work, noble though those may be. If the goal of Freemasonry is to make us better and more complete humans, then surely this is a necessary step toward that great and noble ideal.


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.