Understanding esoterism

Thomas

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Christianity – indeed any religion – is essentially a discernment between God and the world, between the Real and the unreal, the Absolute and the relative, the Eternal and the contingent. Following from this, religion is the union of the two.

Religions are exoteric to the degree that they are shaped by their sitz in leben ('setting in life'), the environment in which they appear and the conditions under which they take form.

They are esoteric in the sense that it is through these external forms – primarily scripture and its tradition – that is communicated the vivifying essence of that to which it attains. The esoteric is such to the degree that it is discreet, nevertheless implicit, in the forms. Thus Jesus said "To you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but to them that are without, all things are done in parables" (Mark 4:11) – this is not to say the knowledge of the kingdom remains hidden to the 'without', as He also said "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." (Mark 4:9, 4:23 & 7:16).

In that regard, the 'esoteric' is always and necessarily a complement to the exoteric, you cannot have one without the other; you cannot apprehend or make sense of the esoteric other than by its complementary exoteric form – it is the esoteric that makes sense of the form, and it is the form that transmits the sense of the esoteric. It is precisely through the forms that the formless makes itself known. The esoteric is like a fluid, itself shapeless, but which adopts the shape of the form into which it is poured – the shapes vary across the religions, the fluid is the same.

All authentic religions are, eventually and inevitably, apophatic, because they transcend the world of forms, the scope of knowledge. Thus we can speak of confessional esoterisms, as a constituent part of the expression of a tradition in all its forms, in its symbologies, for example, or its rites and liturgies – each religion giving rise to its own, to a greater or lesser degree 'transparent' from the standpoint of metaphysics.

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When one speaks of a confessional esoterism, this speaks of the loftiest, subtlest, most interior part of a doctrine (esoteric derives from the Greek ἐσωτέρω (esōtérō, 'further inside'), the 'spirit' with regard to the exoteric 'letter'. One is speaking of an integral doctrine in respect of its nature, leaving aside the necessary requirements of pastoral care (cf 1 Corinthians 3:1-3).

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Thus there is a distinction between 'Esoteric Christianity' and 'Christian esoterism' – the latter is talks of the distinction between the God and the world as such, according to the Revealed data of its extrinsic forms – scripture and tradition.

'Esoteric Christianity' has come to infer an absolute and formal distinction – a dualism and a dichotomy – commonly spoken of in 'esoteric circles' as a Johannine (esoteric) Christianity as other to and distinct from a Petrine (exoteric) Christianity. Nothing could be further from the two, as in fact Peter and John are one in Christ, as is clear from the mention of them both together no less than seven times in Acts, and Paul speaks of them (with James), as the 'pillars' of the Christian community (Galatians 2:9).

This distinction undermines the very essence of the Revelation in Christ – of the unity of spirit and matter (which itself can be traced back to Genesis) – and the nature of the Incarnation, with its consequent implication for humanity. Too often, and too easily, a syncretic grafting of various extraneous teachings and ideas are attempted to 'explain' Christianity whereas all this does is demonstrate a failure to properly comprehend and understand the true nature of the Revelation – something which the metaphysician recognises – for what it is, a Path unlike others in material detail, but alike and akin to them in essence.
 
Well, I'm all against any form of dualism - absolute or not. My own way of Pure Land Buddhism is (ideally) very egalitarian. Sincere trust seeks to make no distinctions. Esotericism as any form of distinct/secret teaching for some sort of "higher" group of people certainly for me leads away from any path towards empathy for all.

I always look for correspondences across all our world's faith traditions. Here is Dogen, as interpreted by Hee-Jin Kim

Mystery, in Dōgen’s view, did not consist of that which was hidden or unknown in darkness or that which would be revealed or made known in the future. Rather, it consisted of the present intimacy, transparency, and vividness of thusness, for “nothing throughout the entire universe is concealed” (henkai-fuzōzō). Nevertheless, the mystery of emptiness and thusness had to go beyond this: intimacy had to be ever penetrated (tōkamitsu)
 
As I was enjoying my burger and coffee in McDonald's I once more read the OP and then turned to the words (found in "Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist" by Hee-Jin Kim) that precede the quote already given. It involves the relationship between the "symbol" and the "symbolised", and Dogen - as always - sought to dissipate all dualism.

Anyone interested, really posted for my own sake, to return to later:-

The problem of the symbol and the symbolized is very important in Buddhist thought as in any other philosophical and religious belief system...... Metaphors, parables, and names constitute what the Buddhists call skillful means (upāya; hōben) which enable sentient beings to cross the river of birth-and-death to the other shore (pāramitā; higan) of ultimate reality. This view strongly suggests the instrumentality of symbol that must be transcended in order to attain truth. To be sure, Dōgen vehemently attacked those who were entrapped and victimized by the words and doctrines they themselves created; he abhorred a deadly literalism. And yet for him, symbol was to be realized as an expression of the symbolized. This was possible only when symbol was mediated, liberated, and reinstated by the symbolized. Here we see Dōgen’s creative and dynamic interpretation of the Buddhist doctrine of skillful means in which the means in question was not for the transcendence of duality so much as it was for the realization of it. The means and the end were not obliterated but undefiled....... Often the symbol and the symbolized are related to each other in terms of a certain likeness; the symbol is said to “point to,” “represent,” or “approximate” the symbolized. Rejecting such a dualism, Dōgen contended that “like this” (nyoze) meant that both “like” and “this” were emptiness and hence thusness (nyoze). Instead of saying, “Thusness is like this,” he said: “ ‘Like this’ is thusness.” “Like this” did not represent or point to thusness but was thusness. Therefore the symbol was the symbolized..........Dōgen’s view can be best understood in the soteriological context of his mystical realism. This is why Dōgen held: “The Buddha-dharma, even in figures of speech (hiyu), is ultimate reality (jissō)” ......The foregoing observations point to the fact that there is no metaphysical or experiential hiatus between the symbol and the symbolized. This becomes clearer when we examine Dōgen’s discussion of “intimate words” (mitsugo). Employing the combination of the two meanings, “intimacy” and “hiddenness,” in the Chinese character mitsu, Dōgen advanced an ingenious view of mystery. Mitsugo is ordinarily understood as “secret words” or “hidden words,” the secrecy or hiddenness of which can be removed by extensive learning, supernormal faculties, and the like. In opposition to this interpretation Dōgen said: The mitsu in question means intimacy (shimmitsu) and the absence of distance.
 
At first glance this stood out:
"... the symbol is said to “point to,” “represent,” or “approximate” the symbolized... "
This is not the traditional understanding of the symbol, that is how a symbol differs from a sign – a sign points to its object, or its end, whereas the end is present in the symbol.

Thus I regard his words
"... ‘Like this’ is thusness.” “Like this” did not represent or point to thusness but was thusness. Therefore the symbol was the symbolized"
 
I'm reading through - on and off, mainly off - the Collected Letters of Alan Watts. There is one addressed to a lady interested in Gnosticism, which is sometimes associated with some sort of esoterism, at least as a teaching for the "elite". Alan Watts warns her against this, and comes down heavy on its dualistic aspects, of seeing the world as inherently "evil" and to be shunned.

Anyway, from the letter:-

For contempt of bodily existence, the idea that one must rise superior to “mere” dust is that dangerous pride which forgets that God loves the dust. It imagines spiritual progress as man’s raising himself above the material level by his own power, whereas the only real spiritual progress comes from the acceptance of the descent of God to man.

There is, nevertheless, esoteric Christianity, but it has nothing in common with historic Gnosticism. Its esotericism does not consist in hidden or withheld information, but in (a) mystical intuition and (b) profound understanding of simple statements, such as the articles of the creeds. You find it in Dionysius, Eckhart, Ruysbroeck, Julian of Norwich, Nicholas of Cusa, John of the Cross (but scratch him deeply), Brother Lawrence, de Caussade, and, in our own times, R. H. J. Steuart, Berdyaev, and many another.


Anyway, I was reminded of this thread.

Just to say that these Letters are a revelation, certainly so in respect of anyone casting Alan Watts aside as some sort of light-weight. His reading in depth of so many Christian mystics (and its various theologians) is evident. Again, his conclusions are very life affirming.

 
Interesting – I shall regard him in a new light purely on the strength of this citation!

I favour the term 'Christian esoterism' only to distinguish between authentic esoteric currents in the Tradition and the many historical appearances, from the 2nd century on, of syncretic pseudo-esoteric Christianities.
 
Interesting – I shall regard him in a new light purely on the strength of this citation!
Reading through his Collected Letters is quite astonishing. I knew that at one time he had been ordained as a Priest in the Anglican Church (in the USA) but tended to think that this was all a bit of a game. But the letters suggest and tell a different story. Immense study and involvement in theology - all leaning toward the various "Catholic" forms.

Here on mysticism:-

Certainly the genuine mystic attains a standpoint that is in some sense universal and beyond confessional boundaries; but we have bodies as well as souls needing transfiguration and redemption, and a body is a definite thing with a local habitation and a name. A completely amorphous religion having no roots in the earth is rather like a thin wine; it has no body, and is thus not fully satisfying. The function of an institutional religion with its concrete fellowship, its rites and sacraments is to provide that necessary element of earth and body; and perhaps one reason why Buddhism, for instance, has taken no true root in the West is that it exists among us in bodiless form. It has no temples but drawing rooms, and no ritual but conversation and discussion.

And here:-

The origins of Christianity, and the relation of those origins to the present Church is an interesting problem. The trouble with what we loosely call the Church is at present a prevalent lack of spiritual insight, of fire, of mysticism, of vital and productive union with God......In certain circles it is a dogma, an article of infallible truth, that there is an abysmal and fearful discrepancy between the faith (not just the practice) of the Catholic Church and the original message of Christ. I have searched anxiously for this discrepancy; I have wanted to find it terribly badly. Still more I have wanted to find out just what the different and more esoteric message of Christ was. I have consulted the latest researches of modern critical scholarship to find out. I have also tried to get a line on this discrepancy from the deep insight of the mystics. But the further I investigate, the less discrepancy I find. Of course there is a discrepancy between Christ and the Catholic faith when the latter is understood crudely and naively, and especially when it is not put into practice. But you don’t have to understand it in that way, no, not even as a member of the Church.

Again:-

I used to think that the highest conception of God lay in some kind of pantheism.......I felt that God as a person was a limited and inadequate God, a mere caricature of the unthinkable mystery of reality. But I have found that this reality is still more caricatured by an idea which denies to it even the attributes of man — intelligence, consciousness, personality — and makes God look something like an electric current, a thing undoubtedly inferior to man, a thing which could never have produced man.

There is much more, and for me it relates to Dogen's "life koan" of WHY, if the Mahayana teaching of Original Enlightenment is true, then WHY practice, why is there need to do anything? In Christian terms, if Grace is pure gift, given, then what part do we play?

Obviously, we all evolve. The subsequent life of Alan Watts after leaving the Church seems full of shady involvement with drugs and all sorts! All I can say for now is that his Letters offer a counterpoint to his later book "Beyond Theology: The Art of Godmanship" which I have mentioned elsewhere. This book I am now reading through for a fourth time.

I asked the boy beneath the pines
He said "The masters gone alone
Herb picking somewhere on the mount
Cloud hidden, whereabouts unknown."


Anyway, sorry, I have perhaps knocked this thread off course.
 
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I don't think so ...

Oh yes......I now spot the word "esoteric" embedded in one of the quotes!!

After posting this I trawled through the Kindle Amazon Book Store and found
"Alan Watts: A Journey Through Cosmic Consciousness" which charts the life story of Alan Watts right into his association with drugs. A snip at £1.47 (less than the cost.of a McDonald's coffee!) This is all making me think again of an exchange of letters between Thomas Merton and Aldous Huxley, where Merton spoke of true mysticism needing to be a "contact of two liberties" and such was precluded (as he saw it) by the use of drugs. So much is a spiral rather than linear progression.
 
Maybe i´m over simplifying but think that is simply the distance between mystic and religion, religion as you said is exoteric , is social, and is about building a moral. Mystic is individual and not translatable easily to social and cultural context, the distance between the 2 is huge, and a lot of times very dangerous for the mystic.
 
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It's a common aphorism that mystics 'think outside the box' of their respective religions, a poipular one, but invariably starkly at odds with the evidence. The mystics themselves tend to remain very much within their respective traditions.

I would rather say the mystic thinks deeper into the box, rather than outside of it ... it's a categorical error to assume that a religion is a box in the sense that it is defined purely by doctrine and dogma. These, and especially the latter, work as preservers and pointers to eternal truths in a world of relative and contingent necessity, rather than as a limitation of the truth as such.
 
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Is there a very powerful reason for the mystics to find that their respective traditions are correct, if they dont say that, they trend to be killed :D
 
well reading the books and the life of many mystic saints in Spain, they were VERY scared of being seen as heretical. So they, in the level they could, tried to keep quite separated from the standard apparatus of the religion. And the establishment was ever suspicious about them, ever vigilant. It sounds like the mystics as the good revel boys of spirituality, but have to say that the suspicious approach from the establishment had well founded reasons. the mystic practices are full of dangers and errors, and trough that practices can come not only positive influences but a lot of times evil ones or even extremely evil ones.

The relation between mystic and religion is ever tricky and difficult to achieve.
 
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The relation between mystic and religion is ever tricky and difficult to achieve.
I think it's internal too. The form protects the inner essence.


Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.

1Corinthians 9:19-21
It's the map. But one who has found the way has gone past relying on the map?


Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn't, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn't. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.

Before you embark on any path ask the question: Does this path have a heart? If the answer is no, you will know it, and then you must choose another path. The trouble is nobody asks the question; and when a man finally realizes that he has taken a path without a heart, the path is ready to kill him. At that point very few men can stop to deliberate, and leave the path.

A path without a heart is never enjoyable. You have to work hard even to take it. On the other hand, a path with heart is easy; it does not make you work at liking it.


Carlos Castanada
Perhaps God hears the heart that prays more than the words?
 
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well reading the books and the life of many mystic saints in Spain, they were VERY scared of being seen as heretical.
Are you talking of the Inquisition in Spain – I would agree, a time of aberration with regard to Christianity.

OTOH, the Spanish Mystics such as St. Teresa of Ávila, St. John of the Cross and St. Ignatius of Loyola were major influencers and reformers, even though St John was persecuted by certain authorities within Spain, this was more a case of political infighting within the Carmelite Order rather than an institutional church against a mystic as such ...

The same for Meister Eckhart (never formally condemned), who died before he could defend himself against charges of heresy. The consensus is he would have been exonerated – although a contemporary, Marguerite de Porete, author of "The Mirror of Simple Souls", was burnt at the stake for refusing to recant her 'heresies' in 1310. Much of what she has written was in a similar mystical vein to that of Eckhart. Cleraly a massive injustice.
 
Is there a very powerful reason for the mystics to find that their respective traditions are correct, if they dont say that, they trend to be killed :D
Killed?

Can you cite many in our lifetime?

I see mystics as often rocking the boat and venturing with a hand out of their safe borders.

Now definitions of mystic may vary....but inwould include the likes of pope John Paul, Merton, Thich Nhat Hanh, Spong, they all spoke of their beliefs within their religions and reached to join hands without. They all pushed boundaries which upset the more orthodox followers of their respective traditions. And were not killed.
 
In that regard, the 'esoteric' is always and necessarily a complement to the exoteric, you cannot have one without the other; you cannot apprehend or make sense of the esoteric other than by its complementary exoteric form – it is the esoteric that makes sense of the form, and it is the form that transmits the sense of the esoteric. It is precisely through the forms that the formless makes itself known. The esoteric is like a fluid, itself shapeless, but which adopts the shape of the form into which it is poured – the shapes vary across the religions, the fluid is the same.
Nice.

It is also true of exoteric world views which are not conventionally understood as "religion"- the secular, scientific one, for instance, is highly "exoteric". But each person who engages this world view will find meaning in it, for themselves.

In this way, it is maybe more of a feature of what makes us human, than a feature of esoteric religion.

Thus there is a distinction between 'Esoteric Christianity' and 'Christian esoterism' – the latter is talks of the distinction between the God and the world as such, according to the Revealed data of its extrinsic forms – scripture and tradition.
Of course, the esoteric currents in all religions have produced their own scriptures and traditions, and Christianity is no exception here. What do you think?

Here's something I feel you didn't yet touch on, either of you: the role of initiation, or transmission. Beyond all the scriptures and traditions and rituals and exercises, becoming conscious of initiation, is very often reported, or attempted at being reported, among followers of the esoteric.
 
It is also true of exoteric world views which are not conventionally understood as "religion"- the secular, scientific one, for instance, is highly "exoteric". But each person who engages this world view will find meaning in it, for themselves.
Indeed.

In this way, it is maybe more of a feature of what makes us human, than a feature of esoteric religion.
Agreed.

Of course, the esoteric currents in all religions have produced their own scriptures and traditions, and Christianity is no exception here. What do you think?
I think it's necessary to discern authentic esoteric commentary and practice, and commentaries / practices that owe more to snycretism and misunderstanding, and sadly 'Christian esoterisms' that are little more than anti-institutional propaganda.

Here's something I feel you didn't yet touch on, either of you: the role of initiation, or transmission. Beyond all the scriptures and traditions and rituals and exercises, becoming conscious of initiation, is very often reported, or attempted at being reported, among followers of the esoteric.
In the Christian Tradition it is the Sacraments (or 'Mysteries' as the Orthodox world refers to them) that fulfil the elements of an initiatic rite and process, even though they appear to lack a clear and definitive 'guru-disciple' relation that is an absolute necessity in some other traditions.

Guenon held a very poor opinion of the Catholic Sacraments – he saw them as 'empty gestures' – whereas others. notably Schuon and Pallis, were more insightful.

Guénon believed that Christianity had lost its esoteric nature in the 3rd/4th centuries, and that its 'central teachings' and 'mysteries' were kept alive in secret initiatic organisations such as the Templars, Free-Masons and various Guilds; he also believed such organisations possessed the ability to provide a valid initiation—a secret initiation of which the Church was unaware – although he broke with most of these, as 'pseudo-esoteric' when he was himself initiated into a Sufi order.

Schuon disagreed with each point of Guénon’s thesis. Schuon wrote: “In Christianity, it is baptism, confirmation, and communion that constitute what can be termed initiation; the total character of these sacraments excludes the existence, alongside them, of more or less secret initiatic rites that could be superimposed on them – initiatic rites such as are found in Orphism... ” (letter to a Christian correspondent in 1955).
Elsewhere: "The inspiration I had when I wrote ‘Mystères Christiques’ [‘Christic Mysteries’] was twofold: Firstly, that Catholics should pray the rosary fervently, with reference to the old teachings; and secondly, that the sacraments as such are initiations.” (letter to Titus Burckhardt, 1949).

An essay by Marco Pallis: The The Veil of the Temple: A Study of Christian Initiation has a lot to say on the topic.

I'll happily pull out bullet points if you or anyone's interested.
 
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