e g r e g o r e s

"Graciously bestow upon all men felicity, the summit of which is the knowledge of the Gods." [Julian, Oration to the Mother of the Gods]

Category Archives: cosmology

Kalachakra resources

The following list of links is offered in the hope that what happens at Kalachakra does not stay at Kalachakra! The last two items are especially intended for those who have taken the Kalachakra Empowerment and who live in or near the Washington, DC area.

1. Kalachakra Preliminary Teachings at His Holiness’ official website.

2. How to recite the Kalachakra Mantra, by one of the world’s leading experts: Ven. Kensur Jhado Rinpoche. (That link goes directly to the part in this youtube video when Rinpoche recites the mantra very slowly and clearly.)

The syllable "ham" in the Kalachakra mantra.

3. A very nice animated , clickable visual (Flash requited) guide and explanation of the Kalachakra mantra here at kalachakra.net.

4. Alexander Berzin’s Kalachakra and Other Six Session Yoga Texts (this handy little book sold out quickly at Kalachakra 2011).

5. Commentary on the Thirty Seven Practices of the Bodhisattva by His Holiness the Dalai Lama (The 37 Practices are a major reference point for the teachings than HHDL gives in connection with Kalachakra.)

6. Three Key Chapters of Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Stanzas on the Middle Way. (Since this one weighs in at $42, for or now I’m putting it on my “wish list”.)

7. ZONGCHOE KALACHAKRA TRADITIONAL INCENSE (Who knew there was Kalachakra incense? I didn’t!)

8. There are some really incredible pics from Kalachakra 2011 at the “Torma Film Blog” herehere , here, and here.

9. “Kalachakra Six-Session Guru Yoga Practice” July 30th, 2:30-3:30 pm offered at the Guhyasamaja Center in Reston, VA.
Description: “This will be a chance for those who’ve taken the Kalachakra Initiation to do the practice of the Kalachakra Six-Session Guru Yoga (which was composed by H.H. the Dalai Lama) together. The practice session will include some guided meditations on essential points in the practice, a discussion of the benefits of the practice, and a chance for questions.”
For more information see the Guhyasamaja Center website.

10. “The Union of Great Bliss and Emptiness” Retreat with Ven. Gyumed Khensur Rinpoche, November 7-13
Description: “Rinpoche will teach on how to actually engage in the practices of the generation stage and the completion stage of the Highest Yoga Tantra, group practice sessions, guided meditations, and opportunities for questions.”
For more information see the Guhyasamaja Center website.

>Pagan Cosmology: not quite random thoughts on Platonism, polytheism, monism, and so forth

>Toward the beginning of Plato’s famous treatise on Pagan Cosmology, Socrates says to his friend Timaeus (after whom this dialogue is named):

Socrates: Bounteous and magnificent, methinks, is the feast of speech with which I am to be requited. So then, it will be your task, it seems, to speak next, when you have duly invoked the Gods.


To which Timaeus responds:

Timaeus: Nay, as to that, Socrates, all men who possess even a small share of good sense call upon God always at the outset of every undertaking, be it small or great; we therefore who are purposing to deliver a discourse concerning the Universe, how it was created or haply is uncreate, must needs invoke the Gods and Goddesses (if so be that we are not utterly demented), praying that all we say may be approved by them in the first place, and secondly by ourselves. Grant, then, that we have thus duly invoked the deities.


Here is the original Greek:

τελέως τε καὶ λαμπρῶς ἔοικα ἀνταπολήψεσθαι τὴν τῶν λόγων ἑστίασιν. σὸν οὖν ἔργον λέγειν ἄν, ὦ Τίμαιε, τὸ μετὰ τοῦτο, ὡς ἔοικεν, εἴη καλέσαντα κατὰ νόμον θεούς.

ἀλλ᾽, ὦ Σώκρατες, τοῦτό γε δὴ πάντες ὅσοι καὶ κατὰ βραχὺ σωφροσύνης μετέχουσιν, ἐπὶ παντὸς ὁρμῇ καὶ σμικροῦ καὶ μεγάλου πράγματος θεὸν ἀεί που καλοῦσιν: ἡμᾶς δὲ τοὺς περὶ τοῦ παντὸς λόγους ποιεῖσθαί πῃ μέλλοντας, ᾗ γέγονεν ἢ καὶ ἀγενές ἐστιν, εἰ μὴ παντάπασι παραλλάττομεν, ἀνάγκη θεούς τε καὶ θεὰς ἐπικαλουμένους εὔχεσθαι πάντα κατὰ νοῦν ἐκείνοις μὲν μάλιστα, ἑπομένως δὲ ἡμῖν εἰπεῖν. καὶ τὰ μὲν περὶ θεῶν ταύτῃ παρακεκλήσθω.

Socrates refers to θεούς (“theous”), the plural, masculine accusative of θεός (“theos”), “God”. In his direct reply, Timaeus refers to θεὸν (“theon”) (singular masculine accusative), θεούς (“theous”) (pl masc acc), θεὰς (“theas”) (pl fem acc), and then again to θεῶν (“theon”) (sg, masc, acc). In other words these two fifth century BC Pagans make no (or vanishingly little) distinction between:

1. God (theos)
2. Gods (theoi)
3. Gods and Goddesse (theoi, theai)

And this is not just some random passage from just any old bit of classical Greek literature. This is from the pious invocation, at the urging of Socrates himself, leading into the most complete and definitive statement of classical Pagan theology.

Some hint at the importance of the Timaeus is indicated by the fact that almost eight centuries after it was written it served Julian as the model for the Pagan world-view which he contrasted, in his Contra Galileos, with the pathetically incoherent Christian attempts at cosmologically exegesizing the Jewish scriptures. And more than a century after Julian, Timaean cosmology was central to the philosophy of Proclus and the other Pagan diehards at the last remaining openly functioning Pagan institution of the ancient world: Plato’s Academy in Athens.

It is crucial to realize that the Timaeus also formed the basis for the cosmology of the Stoics (in addition to that of Platonists), and, moreover, that this cosmology was largely derived in the first place from Pythogreanism. This clearly indicates that the Timaeus is not some sectarian exposition narrowly representing one school of thought, but a masterful summation of a broadly inclusive Pagan cosmology.

Returning to the specific passage quoted above: What is the significance of the way in which Socrates and his young friend appear unconcerned with drawing bright lines between singular, plural, masculine and feminine references to the divine — distinctions that loom large in the small minds of those deemed by Julian “the creed making fishermen”??

A partial answer to that question was given by Gilbert Murray back in 1912, when he wrote the following, concerning the religious views of ancient Greek philosophers:

Indeed a metaphysician might hold that their theology [that of the Pagan Greeks] is far deeper than that to which we are accustomed, since they seem not to make any particular difference between hoi theoi and ho theos or to theion. They do not instinctively suppose that the human distinctions between “he” and “it”, or between “one” and “many”, apply to the divine.
[Four Stages of Greek Religion, Gilbert Murray, 1912, p. 90. Or p. 67 of Five Stages of Greek Religion, first published in 1935.]

Unfortunately, Murray still manages to mangle things badly by insisting on embedding this observation in a stupid attempt to argue that the ancient Greeks, or at least the intelligent and philosophically inclined ones, were actually monotheists, or “near to monotheism”, after all. That, of course, flies directly in the face of the fact that Murray himself has acknowledged: namely, that the ancient Greeks understood the falseness of the dichotomy that pits “the one” against “the many” — and monotheism is rendered meaningless unless it means reverence for one and only one God, which, in turn, requires the explicit rejection and denigration of all other Gods — or even a denial of their existence as Gods.

In his essay Monotheism and Polytheism (written nearly a century after Gilbert Murray’s quote above), Egyptologist Jan Assmann sheds some light on this matter, as follows (emphases in bold have been added):

What is polytheism?

“Monotheism” and “polytheism” are recent words, not older than the 17th century CE, and they have different statuses. Monotheism is a general term for religions that confess to and worship only one God. “One God!” (Heis Theos) or “No other gods!” (first commandment) — these are the central mottos of monotheism. The religions subsumed under the term polytheism cannot, however, be reduced to a single motto of opposite meaning, such as “Many gods!” or “No exclusion of other gods!” On the contrary, the unity of oneness of the divine is an important topic in Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian, Greek and other polytheistic traditions. Polytheism is simply a less polemical substitute fo what monotheistic traditions formerly called “idolatry” and “paganism” (Hebrew aboda zara, Arabic shirk or jahilila). Whereas monotheism consitutes a self-description of religions subsumed under that term, no such self-description exists for polytheistic religions. Monotheism asserts its identity by opposing itself to polytheism, whereas no polytheistic religion ever asserted itself in contradistinction to monotheism, for the simple reason that polytheism is always the older or “primary” and monotheism the newer or “secondary” type of religion. Monotheism is a self-description, polytheism is a construction of the other. However, although polytheistic religions include a concept of divine unity, these religions undoubtedly do worship a plethora of gods, which justifies applying a word built on the element poly (many) to them. Unity in this case does not mean the exclusive worship of one god, but the structure and coherence of the divine world, which is not just an accumulation of deities, but a structured whole, a pantheon.
[Religions of the Ancient World, ed. Sarah Iles Johnston, 2004, p. 17]

To be continued ….

Pythagoreanism: the personal is cosmological

[This is the fourth part in a series on Cosmic Sympathy.]

Carl Hufman is one of the most important contemporary scholars of Pythagoreanism. While no writings of Pythagoras survive (and probably none ever existed in the first place), Huffman has produced editions of the extant fragments from the writings of the early Pythagorean philosophers Philolaus and Archytas, which are of inestimable value to anyone with any interest in Pythagoreanism.

Here is how Huffman describes the cosmology of Pythagoras (from his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry — Huffman also wrote the entries for Philolaus and Archytas):

It remains controversial whether [Pythagoras] engaged in the rational cosmology that is typical of the Presocratic philosopher/scientists and whether he was in any sense a mathematician. The early evidence suggests, however, that Pythagoras presented a cosmos that was structured according to moral principles and significant numerical relationships and may have been akin to conceptions of the cosmos found in Platonic myths, such as those at the end of the Phaedo and Republic. In such a cosmos, the planets were seen as instruments of divine vengeance (“the hounds of Persephone”), the sun and moon are the isles of the blessed where we may go, if we live a good life, while thunder functioned to frighten the souls being punished in Tartarus. The heavenly bodies also appear to have moved in accordance with the mathematical ratios that govern the concordant musical intervals in order to produce a music of the heavens, which in the later tradition developed into “the harmony of the spheres.” It is doubtful that Pythagoras himself thought in terms of spheres, and the mathematics of the movements of the heavens was not worked out in detail. But there is evidence that he valued relationships between numbers such as those embodied in the so-called Pythagorean theorem, though it is not likely that he proved the theorem.

Pythagoras’ cosmos was developed in a more scientific and mathematical direction by his successors in the Pythagorean tradition, Philolaus and Archytas. Pythagoras succeeded in promulgating a new more optimistic view of the fate of the soul after death and in founding a way of life that was attractive for its rigor and discipline and that drew to him numerous devoted followers.

Pythagoreanism, then, is a way of life, and both Plato and Aristotle refer to Pythagoras as a “founder of a way of life” (see Huffman’s online article). In this way of life there is no separation between ethics and cosmology, just as there is no separation between the nature of the human soul and the nature of the Cosmos and the Gods. The ethical principles that human beings should strive to implement in our lives reflect the moral order that can be observed at work in the cosmos. And in the same way, the human soul internally mirrors the external order of the cosmos and, therefore, the fate of the soul is bound up with our progress in aligning our lives with the cosmic order.

Christoph Riedweg (a Professor of Classics at the University of Zurich and Director of the Swiss Institute in Rome) is another scholar of Pythagoreanism. His Pythagoras: His Life and Teachings is now available in English. Here is how it begins

A peculiar kind of splendor surrounds the name of Pythagoras of Samos — a splendor probably due in no small measure to the fact that in his person enlightened modern science seems happily fused with ancient wisdom teachings and insights into the mysterious interconnections of the world. The first is presented by the Pythagorean Theorem that we all learn in school, a² + b² = c², … as well as by Pythagoras’ recognition of the mathematical character of the basic musical concords. The transfer of these musical proportions to the cosmos (the “harmony of the spheres”) and the use of music for therapeutic ends, and the transmigration of souls are key terms for the second aspect. Pythagoras has a guaranteed place not only in musicology, mathematics, and the history of science but also in the history of philosophy and religion….

Pythagoreanism’s tight integration of the cosmological and the personal is very similar to the Indian conceptions of Rebirth and Karma, as can be seen in what the modern Hindu sage Sri Aurobindo says here:

The one question which through all its complexities is the sum of philosophy and to which all human enquiry comes round in the end, is the problem of ourselves, — why we are here and what we are, and what is behind and before and around us, and what are we to do with ourselves, our inner significances and our outer environment. In the idea of evolutionary rebirth, if we can once find it to be a truth and recognize its antecedents and consequences, we have a very significant clue for an answer to all these connected sides of the one perpetual question. A spiritual evolution of which our universe is the scene and earth its ground and stage, though its plan is still kept back above from our yet limited knowledge, — this way of seeing existence is a luminous key which we can fit into many doors of obscurity. But we have to look at it in the right focus, to get its true proportions and, especially, to see it in its spiritual significance more than in its mechanical process. The failure to do that rightly will involve us in much philosophical finessing, drive on this side or the other to exaggerated negations and leave our statement of it, however perfect may be its logic, yet unsatisfying and unconvincing to the total intelligence and the complex soul of humanity.
[Rebirth and Karma, pp. 35-6]

Aurobindo is describing the Hindu concept of “evolutionary rebirth” which is remarkably similar to the Pythagorean concept of metempsychosis, the quintessential idea associated with the Pythagorean view of the “fate of the soul”. The close kinship of Pythagorean metempsychosis with Hindu karma/rebirth is further demonstrated by the very practical dietary conclusion that both traditions reach: the ethical necessity of vegetarianism.

Writing half a millennium after Pythagoras, Ovid produced a poetic explication of metempsychosis and vegetarianism that is a monument to the impact of Pythagoreanism throughout Greco-Roman culture. In the concluding book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pythagoras himself appears after being introduced as

…. the first
to speak against the use of animals
as human food, a practice he denounced
with learned but unheeded lips.
[Book XV, Allen Mandelbaum’s translation is used throughout in the following.]

And then Pythagoras himself begins to speak, and his very first words are

O mortals, don’t contaminate your bodies
with food procured so sacrilegiously.

After a long and passionate exhortation to vegetarianism, Ovid’s Pythagoras proclaims that “I’ll reveal the truths of heaven, all the oracles that highest wisdom holds.” Central to what Pythagoras now reveals is that

all things flow; all things are born
to change their shapes. And time itself is like
a river, flowing on an endless course.
Witness: no stream and no swift movement can
relent; they must forever flow; just as
wave follows wave, and every wave is pressed,
and also presses on the wave ahead;
so, too, must moments always be renewed.
What was is now no more, and what was not
has come to be; renewal is the lot
of time.

But this is still just a very general statement about the constant state of becoming that is the essence of the physical universe. A little further on, Pythagoras/Ovid gets down to details:

Just so, our bodies undergo
the never-resting changes: what we were
and what we are today is not to be
tomorrow. Once we were but simple seeds,
the germ from which — one hoped — a man might spring;
we dwelled within our mother’s womb until,
with hands expert and wily, nature willed
that we not lie so cramped in narrow walls…

But even this is only birth, not yet is there mention of rebirth. The poet/philosopher goes on to describe the arc of life from birth to old age, but then, at death’s door as it were, he suddenly returns to the broader theme of impermanence in general — as opposed to mere human mortality. Indeed, we are now told that “[n]ot even things we call the elements persist”, and this serves as an introduction to a brief digression on the transformations of “earth, water, air, and fire”. Pythagoras is obviously shifting back and forth between, on the one hand, the personal, individual experience of life, death and impermanence, and, on the other hand, the infinite dance of beginningless and never-ending transformations as seen from a cosmic perspective.

Having reminded us (of what we knew even before we were born, according to Plato’s “doctrine” of anamnesis) that birth, death, and all other forms of transformation are not just our own personal fates, but the fate of all that is, Pythagoras reveals the connection between impermanence and immortality:

There is no thing that keeps its shape; for nature
the innovator, would forever draw
forms out of other forms. In all this world —
you can believe me — no thing ever dies.
By birth we mean beginning to re-form,
a thing’s becoming other than it was;
and death is but the end of the old state;
one thing shifts here, another there; and yet
the total of all things is permanent.

I think there’s nothing that retains its form
for long: the world itself has undergone
the passage from the age of gold to iron.
And places also change: for I have seen
what once was solid land turn into sea,
and what before was sea turn into land.
Seashells lie distant from the oceanside;
old anchors have been found on mountain tops,
and waters flowing down the slopes have made
plains into valleys; and the force of floods
has carried mountains down into the sea;
what once were marshlands have become dry sands,
and lands that once were parched are now wet marsh.
Here nature has new fountains flow, and here
she blocks their course; the tremors of the earth
at times make rivers rush, at times obstruct
and curb a stream until it’s seen no more.
The Lycus, swallowed by the yawning earth,
emerges at a point far off, reborn
in other guise; the Erasinus’ flow
is swallowed by the soil and glides along
beneath the earth until it surfaces —
a mighty stream — in the Argolic fields;
and, discontent with its old banks and source,
in Mysia the Caicus changed its course;
whereas the Amenanus, bearing sands,
at times will flow through Sicily and then,
at other time — its sources blocked — dries up.

Ovid’s Pythagoras goes on (and on – remember, this was long before cable) stating and restating this strangely positive teaching of impermanence and immortality, but he eventually decides that perhaps he has finally succeeded in driving the point home, or that perhaps his audience is in danger of loosing sight of the forest for the trees:

But lest I gallop far beyond my reach
and, so, forget what I had meant to teach,
know this: the heavens and all things beneath
the heavens change their forms — the earth and all
that is upon the earth; and since we are
parts of the world, we, too, are changeable.
For we’re not only bodies but winged souls;
and we can dwell in bodies of wild beasts
and hide within the shapes of cows and sheep.
And so, let us respect — leave whole, intact —
all bodies where our parents’ souls or those
of brothers or of others dear to us
may well have found a home; let us not stuff
our bellies banqueting, as Thyestes.

And so finally the connection between metempsychosis and vegetarianism is laid out in no uncertain terms. Thyestes, of course, was famously tricked into eating the cooked flesh of his own sons. And the fact that he did not realize this at the time made it no less horrific when he discovered the truth (as we all inevitably must)!

1. To learn more about Pythagoreanism in general, in addition to Riedweg’s book mentioned above also check out The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library by Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie and David Fideler, and also Charles Kahn’s Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism: A Brief History.
2. The striking image at the very top of this post is from the cover of Mary Zimmerman‘s 2002 Metamorphoses: A Play. Zimmerman’s theatrical adaptation actually doesn’t mention either Pythagoras or King Numa, the person being addressed by Pythagoras (although they were both, naturally, included in all their Ovidian glory in the complete free-verse translation by David R. Slavitt, which was the basis for Zimmerman’s play). However, Zimmerman did insert the story of Eros and Psyche, which is not in Ovid at all but is rather from our old friend Apuleius of Madaurus! And of course Apuleius’ book, from which the story of Eros and Psyche was taken, was also titled Metmorphoses
(the story is found in Books Four, Five and Six). When asked why she put Eros and Psyche in the play Zimmerman’s very reasonable explanation was simply that “I love it [ApuleiusEros and Psyche] so much I just had to put it in.” As far as I know no one has asked why she took Pythagoras and King Numa out, but I suspect that a long harangue on vegetarianism was not what she had in mind for the play’s ending.

"the Milesian view that the whole world is alive"

[This is the third part in a series on Cosmic Sympathy.]

In his An Introduction to Ancient Philosophy Arthur Hillary Armstrong, probably best known for his masterful translation of Plotinus’ Enneads (used in the Loeb edition of Plotinus), talks about the early development of Greek philosophy in Ionia, that is, the Greek city-states along the western coast of Anatolia (modern day Turkey), which at the time were “probably the richest and most highly civilized of the Greek communities.”

The early Ionian philosophy is represented by a succession of three men, Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes [the first, Thales, was born sometime around 625 BC, and the last, Anaximenes, died around 528 BC], all from Miltetus, at that time the richest and most powerful of the Ionian cities. Hence the group collectively are sometimes called the Milesians. The first, Thales, by tradition one of the “Seven Wise Men” of Greece, seems to have written nothing and our scanty knowledge of his teaching depends on a tradition which goes back no further than Aristotle, and though the other two each seem to have written a work in prose, these works have perished, and Aristotle is again our earliest source for their teaching. Our knowledge of it therefore is uncertain and fragmentary …. There do, however, seem to be a few things about the three men’s personal interests and activities and about the picture of the universe they put forward of which we can be fairly certain. First of all, they were much concerned with those technical skills which along with magic and astrology formed the substance of the ancient priestly wisdom of Babylonia and Egypt, and which the Ionians introduced into the Greek world, mainly from Babylonia. They were practical astronomers, land-surveyors and geographers. Thales predicted eclipses, Anaximander is said to have invented the sundial, made the first map, and been responsible for several important astronomical discoveries. They were greatly interested in the ‘meteora’, the phenomena of the regions above the surface of the earth, the weather and the movements of the heavenly bodies…. Practically all that we know about the philosophy of the Milesians concerns their cosmogony, their account of how the world came into being. They postulate as the first reality a single living stuff, indefinite in extent and character, from which the world and all things in it develop spontaneously. Thales called this ‘moisture’ or more accurately ‘the moist’ (to hugron0, moisture being the principle of life according to simple observation and primitive common sense. Anaximander called it the ‘Apeiron’, a word which means either ‘indefinite’ or ‘unbounded’ rather than ‘infinite’. He may have thought of it as spherical like the Orphic world-egg; for later Greek geometers the sphere was ‘apeiron’. Anaximenes called it air or breath. It appears that, like many other ancient philosophers, he held that the life of the universe resembled that of man, with air, the breath of life of which the human soul is made, for its principle. This stuff they call ‘divine’ by which they probably mean no more than that it is living and everlasting, two characters which it must have if it is to be for them a sufficient explanation of the cosmic process. [pp. 1-4]

One very important thing to emphasize about Milesian cosmogony is that it starts with some kind of pre-existing material, and the rest of the cosmos “develop[s] spontaneously” from that. In other words their approach is exactly the opposite of the Christian notion of “creation out of nothing”. Another crucial thing to note is that the “first reality” (as Armstrong calls it) is already living, in addition to being everlasting and uncreated. This is the exact opposite of the modern secular humanist view of “dead matter”. The conclusion is pretty obvious: these ancient Greek Pagans had a view of the world utterly different from either Christians or modern day atheists/secularists. Theirs was a cosmos that required no “Creator” in the Christian sense, nor did it require an explanation for how life could “evolve” from dead matter. Theirs was a cosmos that had always existed, and had always been alive.

The following is from the entry for Presocratic Philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philsophy (the author of this entry is Patricia Curd, a philosophy Professor at Purdue University):

The pattern that can be seen in Thales and Anaximander of an original basic stuff giving rise to the phenomena of the cosmos continues in the views of the third of the Milesians, Anaximenes. He replaces Anaximander’s apeiron with air, thus eliminating the first stage of the coming-to-be of the cosmos (the something productive of hot and cold). Rather, he returns to an originating stuff more like Thales’ water. In 13A5, Aristotle’s associate Theophrastus, quoted by Simplicius, speculates that Anaximenes chose air because he agreed that a basic principle must be neutral (as Anaximander’s apeiron is) but not so lacking in properties that it seems to be nothing at all. Air can apparently take on various properties of color, temperature, humidity, motion, taste, and smell. Moreover, according to Theophrastus, Anaximenes explicitly states the natural mechanism for change; it is the condensation and rarefaction of air that naturally determine the particular characters of the things produced from the originating stuff. Rarified, air becomes fire; more and more condensed, it becomes progressively wind, cloud, water, earth, and finally stones. “The rest,” says Theophrastus, “come to be from these.”

It is significant that the last of the three Milesians, Anaximenes, settled on air/breath as the most basic “stuff” of the cosmos. Stoics did not adopt this view exactly, but they did keep the idea that the entire cosmos is everywhere permeated with pneuma, and that it is by way of this everpresent, continuous pneuma that the effects of cosmic sympathy are transmitted. Cicero, in his De Rerum Natura (I.10.26) says that Anaximenes called air “the divine”. Thomas McEvilley in his The Shape of Ancient Thought says that Cicero believed that Anaximenes “may have been influenced by the belief that air, or breath, is soul-stuff, that is the carrier of consciousness. The universe, on that account, is a pantheos which has the divine air element as its breath-soul.” McEvilley then links this to later Pythagorean thought:

The Pythagoreans, not long after, would teach similarly that the universe is a living organism which breathes one vast breath … the universe was viewed as a living god.
[p. 34]

Origins of the concept of Cosmic Sympathy

[This is the second part in a series on Cosmic Sympathy.]

Katerina Ierodiakonou provides a very handy overview of the ancient Greek philosophical concept of sympatheia, in her article The Greek Concept of Sympatheia and Its Byzantine Appropriation in Michael Psellos, which appears as the second chapter in the anthology The Occult Sciences in Byzantium, edited by Magdalino and Mavroudi (here is the book at googlebooks – most of this chapter can be viewed there):

A. In ancient Greek sympatheia has different, though obviously interrelated, meanings: it is used in medical writings, as for example in the Hippocratic corpus (De alim. 23.1), to refer to the fact that when a part of the human body somehow suffers another part may be affected, too; it is also used to talk about the fact that people may share the feelings of their fellow citizens, for instance in Aristotle’s Politics (1340a13); finally, it is used to refer to the supposed phenomenon that all beings on earth and in the heavens are inextricably linked together. That is to say, the ancient notion of sympatheia indicates a close connection between things which are parts of some kind of a whole, either at the same level, as different parts of the body are in relation to the body as a whole, or at different levels, as the body and soul are in relation to the living being as a whole. Thus sympatheia could refer to the close connection between different parts of the same body as a whole, or the close connection between everything in the world as a part of the world as a whole, or between the body of the world and its soul as parts of the world.
[p. 99]

Note the three different uses of sumpatheia (and also note that Ierodiakonou states that these three uses are “obviously interrelated”): (1) in medicine to describe the relationship between different parts of the body, (2) to describe shared feelings among human beings, and (3) to describe the phenomenon by which everything in the universe is inextricably linked together. Ierodiakonou calls this last kind of sympatheia (which includes “the close connection … between the body of the world and its soul as parts of the world”) cosmic sympatheia, about which she says:

B. The notion of cosmic sympatheia was introduced by the Stoic philosophers in the Hellenistic period. Some scholars have attributed the full development of this notion to Posidonius at the end of the second and beginning of the first century BC [see especially K. Reinhardt, Kosmos und Sympathie], but there is no doubt that even the early Stoics, and in particular Chrysippus, believed in a close affinity among the different parts of the universe; and for this close affinity they most probably used the term sympatheia, as well as the nouns synecheia or synochem symphyia, symmone, sympnoia, syntonia, and the corresponding verbs and adjectives. According to the Stoics there is nothing particularly mysterious about sympatheia, and especially about the relation between the things in the heavens and those on earth. In Stoic physics the whole cosmos is presented as a perfect living body whose parts, though, are imperfect, insofar as they are not self-sufficient and autonomous; for they cannot function by themselves and always depend on their being parts of this whole and its other parts. What holds the system together is a certain internal tension, a tonos, created in the universe by the so-called pneuma, which consists of a mixture of fire and air and permeates the entire world as its soul, sustaining everything. Thus the Stoics thought of the world as a unified living organism, a zoon: just as pneuma permeates a human body and makes it as its soul a living and organic whole, with each single part grown together in a close connection with all the rest, in the same way the whole world is permeated and given life by pneuma; this pneuma the Stoics identified with God who, in creating the world, becomes its soul.
[pp. 100-1]

Ierodiakonou has packed quite a lot into that paragraph! First she states the commonly held (and more or less correct) position that sumpatheia is a Stoic concept. And then she reports, without endorsing, the commonly held (and more or less misleading) position that the “full development” of sumpatheia is due to Posidonius, for which she cites the work of Karl Reinhardt. As Ierodiakonou correctly points out “there is no doubt that even the early Stoics, and in particular Chrysippus, believed in a close affinity among the different parts of the universe; and for this close affinity they most probably used the term sympatheia.” Posidonius is routinely cited as the first clear cut case of a philosopher using the term sympatheia in the sense of “cosmic sympathy”, but, as Ierodianokou strongly implies, this is almost certainly an artifact of the extremely fragmentary nature of the extant primary sources from earlier (prior to Posidonius) Stoics.

Here is what P.A. Meijer has to say in his Stoic Theology on the concept of sumpatheia and its origins, based on the writings of Cicero and Sextus:

C. There is an elaborate argument which develops the idea of the coherence of the universe, because there is everywhere the all encompassing power. It unites the things in this world and the natural events, which follow each other in an eternally repeating ordered motion.

We have this argument in Sextus and a limited version in Cicero. Scholars more or less agree that this argument is to be ascribed to Chrysippus [one of the early founders of Stoicism, predating Posidonius by about a century]. This most interesting argument is not only important as a typical piece of Stoic philosophy, but it has largely influenced later Greek philosophy, i.e. Neoplatonism, by its stressing the unity in this world. Unity as a consequence of the influence of the One was a favorite theme in Plotinus.
[pp. 85-6]

And here is part of the passage from Sextus (his Against the Physicists, I 78 ff.) that Meijer is referring to (see Meijer, or the original, for the complete passage):

D. Of bodies some are unified, some are formed of things conjoined, some of separate things. Unified bodies are such as are dominated by one structure, such as plants and animals. Those formed of conjoined parts are such as are composed of adjacent elements which tend to combine into one main structure, like cables, turrets and ships. Those formed of separate things are such as compounded of things which are disjoined and isolated and existing by themselves. like armies and flocks and choruses. Since the cosmos is also a body, it is either unified or of conjoined or of separate parts.

But it [the cosmos] is neither of conjoined nor of separate parts, as we proved from the sympathies it exhibits. For in accordance with the waxings and wanings of the moon many sea and land animals wane and was and ebb-tides and flood-tides occur in some parts of the sea. And in the same way, too, in accordance with certain risings and settings of the stars alterations in the surrounding atmosphere and all varieties of change in the air take place, sometimes for the better, sometimes fraught with pestilence. And from these facts it is obvious that the cosmos is a unified body. For in the cases of bodies formed from conjoined or separate elements the parts do not ‘sympathize’ with one another, since if all the soldiers, say, in an army have perished (save one), the one who survives is not seen to suffer at all through transmission; but in the case of unified bodies there exists a certain sympathy, since when the finger is cut, the whole body shares in its condition. So then, also the cosmos is a unified body.
[p. 86]

In his De Natura Deorum (II 19) Cicero speaks of “the harmony, unanimity, and unbroken affinity in nature” and then provides several examples of this, such as “the diverse courses of the stars [being] maintained in the single rotation of the entire heavens” and then he says “these processes could not take place through harmonious activity in all parts of the universe, unless they were each embraced by a single divine, all pervading, spiritual force [pneuma]”.

Although it offers fewer details, Meijer is right in saying that Cicero’s version is more “typically Stoic in that it describes the superior divine power as breath, pneuma. Pneuma is the Stoic element that causes structure in the inorganic, forms the psyche in animals and is also responsible for the mind in men. So it is the cause for the coherence of all things.” Meijer also adds that this “concept of pneuma is characteristic of Chrysippus’ thought.” The point of this being that we needn’t (and probably shouldn’t) view cosmic sympathy as some later innovation by Posidonius, but rather as part of the foundational teachings of Stoicism qua Stoicism.

Returning now to Ierodiakonou (the passage labeled B above), she goes on to say that “there is nothing particularly mysterious about sympatheia, and especially about the relation between the things in the heavens and those on earth.” Ierodiakonou doesn’t tell us precisely (or even approximately) what she means by “mysterious”, but later on (see passage E below) it will become evident that she is here imposing her own anachronistic (mis-) understanding of Stoic physicalism — in particular she is conflating the very subtle ancient conception of physicalism (shared, in different forms, by the Stoics and Epicureans) with the much more narrow and crude modern conception of materialism. At the same time she is trying to draw a straight bright line between the supposed “dualism” of the Platonists and the physicalism of the Stoics, with the assumption that Stoic physicalism is not “mysterious” whereas Platonic “dualism” is.

After her cursory exorcising of all “mystery” from Stoic sumpatheia, Ierodiakonou goes on to write that “In Stoic physics the whole cosmos is presented as a perfect living body whose parts, though, are imperfect, insofar as they are not self-sufficient and autonomous.” This is not only a correct statement about Stoic physics, it is also practically a direct quote from Plato’s Timaeus. A little further down she acknowledges that the cosmological view that “the universe is a unified whole” in which “even parts of it which are separated by a large distance may affect each other in a conspicuous way” [see passage E below] is to be found in Plato’s Timaeus. However, she fails to point out that Plato also wrote in the Timaeus that the universe as a whole is perfect and self-sufficient, while the parts of the universe are not. The Stoics are also in agreement with the Timaeus in that the universe as a whole is divine. In a word, Ierodiakonou, even while acknowledging some of the similarities, systematically exaggerates the differences between Platonic and Stoic cosmology.

Now here is one last passage from Ierodiakonou:

E. The Platonists were influenced by the Stoic notion of cosmic sympatheia to such an extent that it is only possible to fully grasp their use of the notion against its Stoic background. They also, following in this Plato’s Timaeus, stressed the fact that the universe is a unified whole, and they also assumed that even parts of it which are separated by a large distance may affect each other in a conspicuous way, while the intervening parts seem unaffected. Plotinus, for instance, like Plato and the Stoics, thought of the world as living organism. Nevertheless, the Platonists’ understanding of cosmic sympatheia significantly differs in certain respects from that of the Stoics. For their supreme God is transcendent and not part of the world, the way the Stoic God is immanent. In addition, on their view there is a sharp distinction between the material and immaterial world, of which the material world is a living image. Hence the Platonists strongly opposed the Stoics’ doctrine of a direct commingling of the Divine with matter; they claimed that the Divine rather employs in the formation of the world certain incorporeal powers.
[p. 102]

First of all Ierodiakonou clearly overstates the Stoic “ownership” of the concept of sympatheia — and she does so in a very bizarre way. Apparently forgetting that she has previously acknowledged that Plato’s Timaeus already contained a similar concept to sympatheia, Ierodiakonou now claims that later Platonists must have been “influenced” by Stoic sympatheia. In fact, by the time of Posidonius the situation was increasingly just the opposite: Stoics were more and more being influenced by Platonism. A. A. Long has expressed the opinion that Posidonius marked a transition from “Platonizing Stoics”, who appropriated Plato’s words and ideas for their own (Stoic) purposes, to “Stoicizing Platonists”, who, like Posidonius, significantly blurred any clear distinction between the two schools.

The details of Ierodiakonou’s arguments are what makes it so bizarre. In his Timaeus, Plato presented a view of the cosmos in which everything is inextricably linked to everything else. Obviously Plato presented this idea in the context of a universe containing both physical and non-physical “stuff”. The Stoics, however, took Plato’s cosmological vision, and retooled it to fit into their purely “physical” universe. Therefore when later Platonists, from Plotinus to Proclus (etc) are found to have had a notion of cosmic sympathy of the sort found in the Timaeus (that is, in a cosmos comprised of things both physical and non-physical), this doesn’t at all imply that these later Platonists have “modified” the Stoic, physicalist, notion of sympatheia — it only means that they are consistently Platonic in their cosmology. Plotinus, et al, may certainly have borrowed and built upon some of the Stoic refinements to the conception of cosmic sympathy, but nothing more than that is at work.

To understand late antique Platonism it is necessary to study Stoicism. At the same time it is absolutely essential to study Plato in order to be able to have any grasp of Stoicism. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the theory of cosmic sympathy: it turns out that Stoicism and Platonism are inextricably intertwined with each other, like everything else in the cosmos.

Wonderful World, or, the Pagan Value of Basic Goodness

Basic Goodness refers to the belief that our fundamental nature as human beings, and also the fundamental nature of the cosmos itself, is, well, basically good.

In her Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Age Vivianne Crowley wrote:

Wicca honors the Gods, but like our Pagan ancestors, Witches believe that our religion should be a celebration of the life force. Wicca also teaches that we should not fear death; for Wicca teaches reincarnation. We will live not just once, but many times. Life is considered to be a journey of many stages, not just one. Death is not the end, but a new beginning.

Like other religions, Wicca accepts that there is a non-material as well as a material reality, but it does not believe the non-material is superior to the material. Matter is not regarded with horror and the emphasis is on the joy of the flesh rather than the ascetics’ view of flesh as sin. This is not to say that Wicca is hedonistic, but rather that we are followers of a middle way. Our time in physical incarnation is a gift from the Gods. However, we must also seek spiritual growth that expands our consciousness and allows us to live on levels beyond the physical.

Wicca is a religion that looks to the good in human beings rather that to the evil and seeks to bring out that good rather than dwelling on people’s faults. It does not seek unrealistic sainthood, but rather makes the best of what is there. It does not divide people into the chosen and the damned but sees people as being in different stages of struggling towards the same end – that of unity with the Divine.
[p. 5, emphasis added]

The idea of basic goodness is found in many, but not all, religious traditions. Almost 2400 years ago, Plato, a deeply religious Pagan philosopher, wrote in his Timaeus that the entire cosmos is beautiful (kalon), good (agathon), blessed (eudaimona) and divine (theon). He also wrote that the cosmos is an interconnected whole that is alive, deathless, ageless, and that, as a whole, it possesses not just consciousness, but an intelligence vastly superior to ours. Plato further wrote that the physical universe is ensouled “throughout”, so that just as the entire cosmos is alive, so is even the tiniest bit of matter. The “body” (material part) and “soul” (non-material part) of the cosmos are described in the Timaeus from 27c through 37c, using Stephanus numbering. Here is a handy online version of the Timaeus with both the original Greek and English translation.

In most schools of Mahayana Buddhism it is taught that all beings possess Buddha-nature, that is, the potential for perfect and complete enlightenment. But this has not always been the case, for the idea of universal Buddha-nature was rejected during the early days of Buddhism in China, over 1500 years ago. At that time, one monk, named Tao-Sheng (ca. 360-434 AD), insisted that absolutely all beings everywhere throughout all space and time possess inherent Buddha-nature and are capable of achieving enlightenment. But the orthodox view of Chinese Buddhism was that there is a class of beings, called icchantikas, who are completely devoid of Buddha-nature, and, therefore, these beings are doomed to eternal ignorance and suffering. Most Chinese Buddhists were quickly won over to Tao-Sheng’s point of view, although before that happened he was briefly forced to leave the monastic community because of his “heretical” ideas (he was never arrested, thrown in prison, tortured, or burned at the stake, though – just shown the door and sent on his way).

According to Tao-Sheng the only real problem faced by humans is ignorance of our basic goodness, our Buddha-nature. There is nothing that we lack, but we are nevertheless like someone who has hidden a great treasure, but who not only doesn’t remember where it is hidden but has forgotten ever possessing the treasure in the first place! In his Short History of Chinese Philosophy, Fung Yu-lan describes Tao-Sheng’s view of Buddha-nature like this:

[E]very sentient being has the Buddha-nature; only he does not realize that he has it. This ignorance (Avidya) is what binds him to the Wheel of Birth and Death. The necessity, therefore, is for him first to realize that he has the Buddha-nature originally within him, and then, by learning and practice, to “see” his own Buddha-nature.
[p. 251, emphasis added]

Chogyam Trungpa, a modern teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, made “basic goodness” central to his efforts to teach the Buddha Dharma to westerners. Trungpa explicitly contrasted the approach of basic goodness to that of “original sin”:

Buddhist psychology is based on the notion that human beings are fundamentally good. Their most basic qualities are positive ones: openness, intelligence and warmth. Of course this viewpoint has its philosophical and psychological expressions in concepts such as bodhichitta (awakened mind), and tathagatagarbha (birthplace of the enlightened ones). But this idea is ultimately rooted in experience—the experience of goodness and worthiness in oneself and others. This understanding is very fundamental and is the basic inspiration for Buddhist practice and Buddhist psychology.

Coming from a tradition that stresses human goodness, it was something of a shock for me to encounter the Western tradition of original sin. It seems that this notion of original sin does not just pervade western religious ideas. It actually seems to run throughout Western thought as well, especially psychological thought. Among patients, theoreticians and therapists alike there seems to be great concern with the idea of some original mistake, which causes later suffering—a kind of punishment for that mistake. One finds that a sense of guilt or being wounded is quite pervasive. Whether or not such people actually believe in the idea of original sin, or in God for that matter, they seem to feel that they have done something wrong in the past and are now being punished for it.

The problem with this notion of original sin or mistake is that it acts very much as a hinderance to people. At some point it is of course necessary to realize one’s shortcomings. But if one goes too far with that, it kills any inspiration and can destroy one’s vision as well. So in that way, it really is not helpful, and in fact it seems unnecessary.

According to the Buddhist perspective there are problems, but they are temporary and superficial defilements that cover over one’s basic goodness (tathagatagarbha). This viewpoint is a positive and optimistic one. But, again, we should emphasize that this viewpoint is not purely conceptual. It is rooted in the experience of meditation and in the healthiness it encourages. There are temporary, habitual neurotic patterns that develop based on past experience, but these can be seen through. It is just this that is studied in the abhidharma, the Buddhist teachings on psychology: how one thing succeeds another, how volitional action originates and perpetuates itself, how things snowball. And, most importantly, abhidharma studies how through meditation practice this process can be cut through.

The attitude that results from the Buddhist orientation and practice is quite different from the “mistake mentality.” One actually experiences mind as fundamentally pure, that is, healthy and positive, and “problems” as temporary and superficial defilements. Such a viewpoint does not quite mean “getting rid” of problems, but rather shifting one’s focus. Problems are seen in a much broader context of health: one begins to let go of clinging to one’s neuroses and to step beyond obsession and identification with them. The emphasis is no longer on the problems themselves but rather on the ground of experience through realizing the nature of mind itself.

When problems are seen in this way, then there is less panic and everything seems more workable. When problems arise, instead of being seen as purely threats, they become learning situations, opportunities to find out more about one’s own mind, and to continue on one’s journey.

Through practice, which is confirmed by study, the inherent healthiness of your mind and others’ minds is experienced over and over. You see that your problems are not all that deeply rooted. You see that you can make literal progress. You find yourself becoming more mindful and more aware, developing a greater sense of healthiness and clarity as you go on, and this is tremendously encouraging.
[Shambhala Sun, November 2002, emphasis added]

One also finds the concept of basic goodness in Confucianism. Fung Yu-lan (see above reference concerning the Buddhist Tao-Sheng) writes that the 4th century BC Confucianist philosopher Mencius (ca. 372-289 BC) “developed the theory for which he is most famed: the original goodness of human nature.” [p. 69]

All men have a mind which cannot bear [to see the suffering of] others…. If now men suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they will without exception experience a feeling of alarm and distress…. From this case we may perceive that he who lacks the feeling of commiseration is not a man. The feeling of commiseration is the beginning of human-heartedness. The feeling of shame and dislike is the beginning of righteousness. The feeling of modesty and yielding is the beginning of propriety. The sense of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom. Man has these four beginnings, just as he has four limbs…. Since all men have these four beginnings in themselves, let them know how to give them full development and completion. The result will be like fire that begins to burn, or a spring which has begun to find vent. Let them have their complete development, and they will suffice to protect all within the four seas. If they are denied that development, they will not suffice even to serve one’s parents.
[Mencius, IIa, 6, as translated in Fung Yu-lan, p. 70]

A modern Hindu teacher, Sri Karunamayi, teaches that our most fundamental nature, Atman, is pure and perfect (and in doing so she is simply expanding on the ancient pronouncement of the Chandogya Upanishad: tat tvam asi (You are that):

Sweet children, you yourself are eternity; you yourself are infinity and you yourself are immortality. Experience this especially during the Navaratri festival time. Meditate. Contemplate more and more on your supreme Self. All forms are nothing but your supreme forms only. You are Atman. You are so sweet. All sweetness is nothing but comes from Atman only. Be always in eternal peace. Be always in that Consciousness. Be always in the Oneness experience only. Experience your Atman. Experience every living being as only nothing but your Self only. Atman is beauty, Atman is perfection. Atman is knowledge, wisdom, Consciousness.
[Navaratri message, 2008, emphasis added]

Sri Karunamayi’s words of encouragement to her English speaking devotees early in 21st century are very similar to what Swami Vivekananda had to say to an audience in the American Midwest late in the 19th century:

Where is the spirituality one would expect in a country which is so boastful of its civilisation? I have not found it [that is, in America]. “Here” and “hereafter” are words to frighten children. It is all “here”. To live and move in God even here, even in this body, all self should go out, all superstition should be banished. Such persons live in India. Where are such in this country? Your preachers speak against dreamers. The people of this country would be better off if there were more dreamers. There is a good deal of difference between dreaming and the brag of the nineteenth century. The whole world is full of God and not of sin. Let us help one another, let us love one another.
[Swami Vivekananda, Christianity in India, lectured delivered in Detroit Michigan, March 11, 1894, emphasis added]

According to Julia Annas in her Morality of Happiness, ancient Stoic philosophers made the ultimate nature of the universe, which she calls “cosmic nature”, central to their entire philosophy, including especially ethics. The result is strikingly similar to Tao-Sheng’s Buddhism:

Since cosmic nature comes up in many contexts, they [the Stoics] regarded it as a unifying feature of their philosophy, a point brought out by identifying cosmic nature with many other things, notably reason, fate, providence, and Zeus…. For it is a firm part of Stoic ethics that our final end is living in accordance with nature, and some texts make it appear as though we do this by first finding out about cosmic nature and its requirements, and then conforming ourselves to those requirements. The view this suggests is clearly foundational, since to be virtuous we first have to discover nature, then follow it. Moreover, what seems to be foundational is not human nature, but cosmic nature, of which human nature is a mere part.
[p. 159, emphasis added]

We need not, in fact we must not, take Crowley’s, or Plato’s, or Tao-Sheng’s, or Trungpa’s, or Mencius’, or Karunamayi’s, or Vivekananda’s , or the Stoics’ word for it. Each of us possesses our very own personal laboratory in which to investigate the questions of (1) what is the fundamental essence of human nature? and (2) what is the fundamental nature of the cosmos? For me this laboratory is me, for you this laboratory is you. What we believe about human nature is first and foremost a reflection of what we believe about ourselves. What we believe about the cosmos as a whole is first and foremost a reflection of what we believe about ourselves.

I’ll end this with my all-time favorite expression of Basic Goodness, which is not from Greek or Chinese philosophy, or Buddhism, or Hinduism, or Wicca. It is Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World:

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They’re really saying I love you.

I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world.

Fractal Buddhism: The Avatamsaka Sutra

This post, with the beautiful, and beautifully appropriate, title “To See the Universe Whole”, by Nonlinear Scientist Extraordinaire Raima Larter over at Complexity Simplified prompted me to collect my thoughts and some of my favorite references concerning the dreaded Avatamsaka Sutra. The good news about the Avatamsaka Sutra is that it’s all in there. The bad news about the Avatamsaka Sutra is that it’s ALL in there. If you know what I mean. The Avatamsaka was also totally fractal long before being fractal was cool.

The Avatamsaka Sutra is famous for its teaching of “unobstructed interpenetration”, which can be explained by way of a famous image: the Jewel Net of Indra, “which has always been a favorite … method for exemplifying the manner in which things exist”:

Far away in the heavenly abode of the God Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of Deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each “eye’ of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars of the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring…. [T]his image … symbolizes a cosmos in which there is an infinitely repeated interrelationship among all the members of the cosmos. This relationship is said to be one of simultaneous mutual identity and mutual causality.
[Cook 1973, p.1]

In Buddhism the Sutras are the sacred texts that contain the actual teachings of the Buddha in his own words. Each Sutra gives a time and place when and where it was spoken, and some idea of the circumstances, including who was there to listen.

The Avatamsaka Sutra was the very first teaching that the Buddha gave, still sitting on the spot where he attained enlightenment. Beings from across the earth and from across the Universe gathered in a great Cosmic Assembly to hear the first utterance of the Awakend One. Some people question the so-called “historicity” of the Avatamsaka Sutra and insist that it does not contain the words of the Buddha at all, and that it was written by others centuries after the Buddha had died. Technically speaking the Avatamska Sutra does not really make a “historical” claim so much as it claims to transcends ordinary space and time completely, not just in the meaning of the teaching it contains, but in the manner in which this teaching was delivered!

The Avatamsaka Sutra, which is also known as the Hua-Yen Sutra, therefore represents the most direct and complete expression of the Buddha’s teachings. As such, this teaching is very advanced and difficult to understand, and so for the rest of his career as a teacher the Buddha tried various approaches to restating these teachings in ways that were more accessible.

A closely related Sutra is the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, which can be considered something like a Readers Digest Condensed Version of the Avatamsaka. The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment became part of the standard core curriculum for study among Zen Buddhists in China and Korea, but for some reason it faded to relative obscurity in Japan. This might be because the Hua-Yen and Zen schools were, technically, rivals – but in China and Korea Zen Buddhism developed a more syncretic attitude toward rival schools than the (at least somewhat) greater sectarianism in Japanese Zen. This is not limited to Hua-Yen Buddhism, but is also reflected in the attitude toward Pure Land and Esoteric/Tantric teachings as well, which are far more seamlessly syncretized with both Chinese Ch’an and Korean Soen than they are in Japanese Zen.

There are three standard English works on the Avatamsaka/Hua-Yen Sutra:

Entry into the Inconceivable: An Introduction to Hua Yen Buddhism by Thomas Cleary

The Buddhist Teaching of Totality: The Philosophy of Hwa Yen Buddhism by Garma C.C. Chang

Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra by Francis H. Cook [quoted above]

Two English language versions of the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment (also known as the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment) are also available:

Complete Enlightenment: Translation and Commentary on the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment by Master Sheng Yen [this is far more accessible than the next one!]

The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment: Korean Buddhism’s Guide to Meditation (With Commentary by the Son Monk Kihwa) edited and translated by A. Charles Muller

Also, the wikipedia entry on the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment is actually not too bad, and it talks briefly about it’s relationship with Chinese Hua Yen Buddhism. That entry also contains a direct link to Charles Muller’s English translation of the Sutra of Perfect Englightenment – including the complete text of Muller’s brief but very informative Introduction.

But what about the Sutra itself?? The only English translation of the complete Avatamsaka Sutra is Thomas Cleary’s 1,643 page tome, which has a list price of $100, but Amazon currently has it deeply discounted down to a mere $63. If you buy books by the pound, it’s a pretty good deal:

The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra Thomas Clearly.

I love google image searches, don’t you? If you do a google image search on “avatamsaka” the very first hit is the beautiful picture of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva illustrating this post (taken from here). He is a key figure in the Avatamsaka Sutra, and like all Great Bodhisattvas and other “persons of note” he has his own wikipedia entry.

Plato’s Timaeus

“The very properties that constitute goodness in the cosmos also do so in human life: order and proportionality. Timaeus’ ethical recommendation is therefore that through cosmology we can imitate the order of the universe in our own souls and thereby become more virtuous and happier.”
Plato’s Natural Philosophy: A Study of the Timaeus-Critias Thomas Kjeller Johansen (p.3)

“[the Demiurge] found that, among things that are by nature visible, no work that is without intelligence will ever be better than one that has intelligence … and moreover that intelligence cannot be present in anything apart from soul [psyche]. In virtue of this reasoning, when he framed the universe, he fashioned reason within soul and soul within body …. This, then, is how we must say, according to the likely account, that this world came to be … a living creature with soul and reason.” Timaeus 30a-c [Cornford translation]

“[W]e may conclude that Plato’s Demiurge, like the human craftsman in whose image he is conceived, operates upon materials which he does not create, and whose inherent nature sets a limit … on his work.” Cornford Plato’s Cosmology p. 37

“This was his [the Demiurge’s] intent: first that it might be in the fullest measure a living being whole and complete, of complete parts; next, that it might be single, nothing being left over, out of which another might come into being; and moreover that it might be free from age and sickness [!!!]. For he perceived that, if a body be composite, when hot things and cold and all things that have strong powers beset that body and attack it from without, and they bring it to untimely dissolution and cause it to waste away by bringing upon it sickness and age. For this reason and so considering, he fashioned it as a single whole consisting of all these wholes, complete and free from age and sickness.” Timaeus 32c-33b