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
To 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
The 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
I 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.