The Kabbalah is an ancient Jewish mystical tradition that explains how the universe and life have come to be, as well as our purpose within the world. As mentioned in my previous post, the Kabbalah has a fascinating system of other worlds and realms of existence above our own. What lies at the base of the Kabbalah is the interpenetration of four different worlds and the Sephirotic tree of life that forms the basis of them all. The quote today is:

From Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi’s A Kabbalistic Universe (1977):
“As the image of God, man has the greatest possibility of realizing the Immanence present in the Universe. The World provides the conditions for man’s work towards perfection, and in return man aids the World towards its completion, so that which has been separated reunites.”

The Sephirotic Tree of Life, as depicted in the various image below, is a map of the universe, both the world at mediumand everything within it. Indeed, we can think of each human being as a sephirotic tree with each sephirot (the circles) corresponding to a different organ or system in the body. Likewise, the various principles in our souls can be mapped onto a sephirotic tree, as well as the planets in our solar system, the path of enlightenment, and the angelic hierarchies. The Kabbalistic tree can also be mapped onto the different Indian chakras of the body, the different hypostases in Neoplatonism, and the different worlds in esoteric Buddhism, but I won’t go into these other traditions here. There are many different interpretations of the Kabbalah, but I’m going to focus on what I’ve learned from Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi’s books as well as Manly P. Hall’s The Secret Teachings of All Ages.
Each sephirot in the tree is labelled by a different Hebrew words. They are often called ‘spheres,’ ‘sapphires,’ or ‘emanations.’ Keter is the crown, and it is from here that the others emanate. Binah and Hokhmah are the male and female principles, and Da’at corresponds to perfected knowledge. There are many interpretations about what each sphere stands for, and they are not mutually exclusive: they’re supposed to have many meanings. Each sphere, from Malkhut (the lowest) to Keter (the highest) corresponds to a different level of enlightenment/states of consciousness. During a spiritual seeker’s development, they will progress up the sephiroth (plural of sephirot) from their more impulsive animal nature to become a spiritual being. The sephiroth can all be seen as different worlds, where everyone in a lower level of enlightenment is in a lower world, unable to perceive the higher reality of existence around them. Those above encompass more worlds since they are beings of a higher spiritual dimension.

There are said to be 32 paths in the Kabbalah, corresponding to the 10 sephiroth and 22 letters (Hebrew alphabet), which are on the lines between the sephiroth. The sephiroth are unchanging principles that, as has been said, are instantiated in many different realms of being. The letters are variable, and there are many different ways to trace paths between sephiroth. By the flow of energy through the sephiroth, there emerges various processes as impulses flow from one sephirot to another. Indeed, the tree of life itself is created with the emanation from Keter as the initial impulse, giving rise to each letter and the subsequent sephiroth.

The sephiroth on the far left column comprise the pillar of Form, those on the right, the pillar of Force, and those in the centre, the Will or Consciousness, which unites force and form. Both of the two principles are necessary for life and evolution: form provides the structure, and force the energy to create it. Force corresponds to growth and expansion, and form to decay and constriction. Force is also called the Pillar of Mercy, and Form the Pillar of Severity. It is the task of our will to unite these two principles, keeping them both in balance. Form and Force are the Yin and Yang of Taoism, the Boaz and Jachin of Freemasonry: both are necessary, but one without the other will lead to imbalance and strife.

The Kabbalistic tree pictured above is actually one of four worlds. These worlds are called Azilut, Beriah, Yezirah, and Asiyyah. They are all interlaced to create one enormous tree of life with Azilut’s Keter at the top (see picture to the left). Azilut is also called Emanation, in that it is the first realm of being beyond that of absolute non-existence, which is the ultimate God. Each of the sephiroth in Azilut correspond to different aspects of the Divine. All these sephiroth, as well as the worlds beneath them, are produced by the emanation from the first sephirot as it expands its power. It is impossible to have the lower sephiroth without the higher ones above them, because they receive their existence from them, just like you can’t have the branches and leaves of a tree without its supporting trunk and roots. Indeed, the Kabbalah often uses the analogy of an inverted tree with Keter at the base and Malkhut at the top.

Beriah, the second world, also called Creation, emanates from the Tiferet of Azilut, forming another tree of life interspersed with the first. This is where time begins “as Creation moves away from the Eternal and Changeless Perfection of Azilut into expansion and contraction that are the essence of the Beriatic World of Creation.” This necessarily introduces imperfections, because with time, there is change, and even if things begin perfectly, they will necessarily become less perfect as time passes (because if they stayed perfect, they would not change, and time implies some form of change). Beriah, however, is very close to perfection, and its tree is often split into seven Heavens inhabited by Archangels that bring the further worlds into being and instantiate certain principles depending on which sephirot they correspond to. When these principles manifest in the lower worlds, they will correspond to physical laws (gravity and the like), karma, and the impetus behind cycles of growth and decay. Beriah also corresponds to Plato’s world of Forms, containing the archetypes of, for example, celestial phenomena, plants, and animals. There is no growth and decay in Beriah, but rather, it has the potential for existence that will actually come into being in the worlds below. These are the laws and the templates for beings that will be subject to the laws, a blueprint rather than a physical or spiritual substance. Indeed, Halevi says, “In the World of Creation only essences can exist,” and “in Beriah, although the destiny of each creature is determined, it cannot actually move through its stages, it cannot grow and manifest the different stages of existence.”

Moving along to Yezirah, which is also called Formation, we have a further emanation that creates the Yeziritic tree of life. In this world, things can now change their form, though they are still spiritual rather than physical beings. Allegorically, this is where the Garden of Eden lies, as well as the realm of Angels. It is still connected to Beriah, with the Tiferet of Beriah forming the Keter of Yezirah, and so the forms and laws of Beriah can be manifested in this world. Similar to the Archangels, the Angels of Yezirah have no will of their own, but operate according to the principles embodied by the sephiroth, with each angel residing on either the pillar of Force, Form, or Will. Complexity increases in the world of Yezirah, and although it still abides by the laws of the worlds above it, it derives more specific laws of its own, effective laws, one could say (e.g., like how Newton’s gravitational theory is an “effective theory” of Einstein’s more complete theory of gravity in general relativity).

The last world is Asiyyah, the physical world. Arising from the Tiferet of Yezirah, its upper sephiroth are still connected to the spiritual world of Yezirah. Here, physical particles, galaxies, planets, and all forms of life reside. The “void,” or vacuum, from which particles and energy emerge is the higher dimension (Yezirah) that provides the spiritual essence of the physical world, which Halevi says “is of a metaphysical nature, that is, it is concerned not with substance so much as with laws.” So there is an emergence of something out of “nothing,” similar to what physicists have observed, a principle that is manifested throughout the entire interlacing tree of worlds.

A useful analogy for this series of emanations (in all worlds) is that of white light dispersing through a prism. White light is pure and colourless, but it has the potential to disperse into different colours. When it passes through a prism and splits into various colours, it is less “perfect” than it was originally because the many colours are each less than the source that they came from. The white light, however, is undiminished with the creation of many colours: it is the same before it enters the prism, and the colours can return to white light if they are combined. This is an analogy for the descent and eventual return to a higher state of being [to think of this a bit more scientifically: each of the colours has a range of wavelengths that is narrower than white light, since white light contains all visible wavelengths (e.g., red light is ~ 622 – 780 nm, whereas all visible light is ~320 – 780 nm) so white light can be seen to be more “complete” than the colours it comprises. Yet at the same time, if one were to combine the colours, they would have white light, so there can be a return to perfection if the multiple colours combine to become white again]. And likewise, since we cannot “see” white light (we just see what it is illuminating) as we can see coloured light, it appears that the coloured beams arise out of nothing, when in truth, they come from a higher level of existence that we, in the lower world, cannot perceive. Thus, it appears that particles can arise out of “nothing” simply because we cannot perceive the Yeziritic world with our physical senses.

The two pillars of force and form are also at work at the basis of the physical world. We can describe matter as either waves (form) or particles (force), but ultimately, matter takes on both characteristics. It may also be possible to match up different elementary particles to the sephiroth on the tree, though I won’t go into that except for saying, as regards the three pillars, protons, neutrons, and electrons (the primary constituents of matter), would fit onto the pillars of Force, Will, and Form respectively (as seen by their charges).

Planets and stars can also be understood in terms of the sephirotic tree, as well as plant and animal life. The development of more complicated forms of life eventually allows for the formation of consciousness. This, however, would not be possible without the higher worlds because the souls of humans (or other animals) arise from Yezirah, residing in the overlapping lower tree of Yezirah and upper tree of Asiyyah. Yet we still have the ability to reach the higher worlds, and this is ultimately the destiny of humankind. As the quote above says, man is called the image of God, which means that all four worlds are latent within us (the word “image” is used because we arise from the process of emanation that began from God originally, just as each colour is an imperfect “image” of the white light from which it was dispersed). This means that we have the potential to realize the powers of the higher worlds if we can raise our consciousness to them. This is the “Immanence” of the higher worlds that is present even in the lowest sephirot of Malkhut.

The allegory of the fall of man represents the spirit of man descending from Yezirah into the physical world of Asiyyah. However, in Asiyyah, evolution provides “a gradual ascent of matter toward Spirit,” and so since we are beings from Yezirah in essence (and really, if you trace the line of emanations upward, we are all essentially from Azilut), we can return to that state after the development in the physical world is complete. The key to human existence is consciousness, because with it, we can choose to return to the upper worlds. This is only possible because of the interpenetration of the different worlds, and the fact that humans have a complicated enough physical body to allow for a soul to incarnate within it (of course, other animals do too, but this book considers humans primarily).
The interlaced psychological and physical bodies of humans (corresponding to the Yeziritic and Asiyyatic trees) create the different bodily systems and mental faculties such as the Self and the Soul (read the book to see more details!). And as we know, our minds and physical bodies are always related, and when there is a disturbance in one, there is often a disturbance in the other.  

As has been seen in the descriptions of the worlds above, one of the main ideas of the Kabbalah is the interpenetration of different worlds. For example, the Keter of Asiyyah is the Tiferet of Yezirah. Every sephirot emanates from the Keter at the top of the corresponding tree, and are all contained within it (this is similar to dimensions, but all these worlds aren’t physical). The higher worlds are spiritual, and these can only be perceived by someone dwelling at that level of enlightenment. There are be traces of these higher worlds in physical world and within our own souls, but they are like projections of higher dimensions onto lower ones: if we shone a light on a sphere, we would only see a circle upon a screen because two dimensions can only show a projection of three dimensions rather than its entire image. Although our souls from Yezirah are present in Asiyyah, we often don’t notice the presence of higher worlds because of the constriction of matter in Asiyyah. And yet, since they overlap, it means that it is possible to reach higher levels of being/states of awareness because the potential is already inside of you. 

So these are the worlds and some details about the Kabbalah and the Tree of Life. Bear in mind that I have condensed everything A LOT, so there’s much that I’ve left out, but the main idea of emanation and the structure of the worlds is hopefully clear. And so the Kabbalah has much to offer us: it is a great tool to understand the world we live in as well as how it came into being and our place within it.


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Although the word “Christmas” derives from “Christ’s mass,” it is not only a Christian holiday, but one that relates to many traditions around the world. The word Christ originated from the Greek word Kristos (also spelled “Christos”), and represents the illuminated saviour of humanity. So for today’s quote, let’s return to that wonderful encyclopedic book The Secret Teachings of All Ages:

From Manly P. Hall's The Secret Teachings of All Ages (1928):
“This Christos, or divine man in man, is man’s real hope of salvation—the living Mediator between abstract Deity and mortal mankind…Since the Christos was the god-man imprisoned in every creature, it was the first duty of the initiate to liberate, or ‘resurrect,’ this Eternal One within himself. ”

The Kristos can also be seen as the solar power revered by different nations around the world. The Kristos has all the powers of the “Sun,” or the powers of God. For example, we have Ra, the supreme god in Egyptian religion, and Osiris, the son of Ra and the saviour sacrificed for humanity. The Kristos is the mediator between humans and God, and is at the same time, he is a human and God himself, thus representing the perfected human and the latent divinity in every person. So although there were particular incarnations of the Kristos throughout time to lead humanity to the light, his goal is ultimately to bring out that same divinity within us, as the quote says. That is the true “Kristos”: not only one man, but the potential for all of us to assume our true nature and “resurrect” the higher powers within ourselves and become a perfected human.

The celebration of Christmas on December 25 corresponded to the date of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar. Having the birthdate of the Kristos on the shortest day of the year is significant symbolically: the saviour is born on the darkest day of the year, representing the time when humanity needs him most. After his birth, the days begin to get longer, and hope and life will soon be renewed with coming spring (though spring will take a while to come, at least if you’re in Canada…). The martyrdom and resurrection of the Kristos has also been prevalent throughout many religions, and is also related to astronomy, in particular, the Sun, which rises from the “tomb” of winter at the end of every year to illuminate and revive the world. Some of the saviours who are related to the Kristos and the crucifixion doctrine include Jesus, Prometheus, Apollo, Buddha, Atys, Adonis, Bacchus, Osiris, Krishna, Horus, Indra, Ixion, Mithras, Pythagoras, Quetzalcoatl, Semiramis, Jupiter, King Arthur, and Orpheus.

The Kristos is also known as the Divine Mind, which is personified in these saviours. Regarding the Divine Mind, Manly Hall says, “The Divine Mind offered Itself as a living sacrifice and was broken up and eaten by the world. Having given Its spirit and Its body at a secret and sacred supper to the twelve manners of rational creatures, this Divine Mind became a part of every living thing. Man was thereby enabled to use this power as a bridge across which he might pass and attain immortality. He who lifted up his soul to this Divine Mind and served It was righteous and, having attained righteousness, liberated this Divine Mind, which thereupon returned again in glory to Its own divine source.” And so the Divine Mind, or Kristos, is the bridge whereby we can reach the divine, and Christmas is the celebration of his birth into the world, the key to raising humanity to enlightenment.

As mentioned above, there have been many crucified saviours throughout history. Indeed, Thomas Macall Fallow, in the Encyclopedia Britannica, says that “The use of the cross as a religious symbol in pre-Christian times, and among non-Christian people, may probably be regarded as almost universal.” This includes Christians, pagans, druids, Tibetans, the Chinese and Japanese, Egyptians, the Central American Natives, and the Greeks and Romans. Although there is much that can be said about the cross symbolism itself, I’ll just look at how it applies to the universal saviours and their crucifixion.

For example, the first missionaries of the Christian Church, when trying to convert pagan Greeks and Romans to Christianity, tried to emphasize the similarities between Jesus and their own gods (“sons of Jupiter”) so that pagans would be more willing to accept the Christian doctrine.
Indeed, in the New Testament, Jesus is referred to being “called of God an high priest after the order of Melchizedek,” so that, as Manly Hall says, this makes “Jesus one of a line or order of which there must have been others of equal or even superior dignity.” Those of this order were priest-kings in ancient times, though little is known about them. This could very well be referring to the line of Kristos incarnations throughout history, which Jesus was a part of.

King Arthur also represents the Kristos in the Arthurian legends (though the historical Arthur has certainly been mythologized into a greater figure than reality). Various powers are associated with Arthur, including his tutelage under the magician Merlin, and the sword he pulls from the stone that establishes his divine right to rule. The creation of his Round Table and the moral codes and the legacy he left behind is characteristic of the Kristos. It is often portrayed that there were either 12 or 24 Knights of the Round Table, which signifies either the 12 zodiac signs (which also correspond to Jesus’ 12 apostles), or for 24, signifying each of the zodiac signs divided into two parts, one for the day and one for the night. Also, at the centre of the Round Table is a rose, symbolic of the resurrection. Arthur’s untimely death by those who disbelieved him (in this case, his son Mordred killed him) also follows closely with that of other saviours. Thus, Arthur can be seen as the Sun, his knights the zodiac, the Round Table the universe, and his sword Excaliber the sun’s rays with which he vanquishes darkness and evil. As Manly Hall says, drawing the sword out of the stone has alchemical symbolism of “the withdrawal of the sword (spirit) from the anvil of the base metals (his lower nature),” thus attaining the perfected state of the Kristos.

Krishna represents the Kristos figure in the East Indian religions. Krishna, while playing his flute in the forest, was crucified upon a tree by his enemies. He had previously known of his impending death, and had prepared himself for it by bathing in the river Ganges and praying to heaven. After his death, his disciples came to recover his body, but it had disappeared, and the tree upon which he had been crucified was covered with great red flowers.

Quetzalcoatl, the feathered snake god of the Central American Natives, is thought to have come out of the sea bearing a cross, and was also covered with red crosses on his garments. The cross has become a sacred symbol to the Mayas, and Quetzalcoatl was crucified and nailed to a cross (and is often depicted as being crucified along with two thieves). He was then cut into pieces and put into a cauldron. This is also similar to the Egyptian legend of Osiris, who was cut into pieces by Set and scattered about the world. Osiris is later resurrected by Isis, and as seen above, he also symbolizes the Sun.

And so the abbreviation “Xmas” might be a more fitting title for Christmas. “X” stands for the Greek letter chi, which is the first letter in the Greek word for Kristos (Khrīstos), and so with “Xmas” we are able to appreciate all the saviours that have sacrificed themselves so that we might come to attain a higher level of being, and ultimately, the sacrifice that must take place within each of us to become connected to our divine source.

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Our ideas about evolution are usually tied to the Earth, in particular, the living beings upon it. But we can also learn about the evolution of the universe at large: how it has developed over time to produce the world we live in. But what if this was all a small portion of what is really out there? What if the evolution of conscious beings took place across many different worlds in many universes? This is an idea from esoteric Buddhism, the inner doctrine of Buddhist philosophy that is usually hidden from the majority of monks (for more about esoteric Buddhism, see my previous post). The quote for today is:

From A. P. Sinnett's Esoteric Buddhism (1883):
“The evolution of man is not a process carried out on this planet alone. It is a result to which many worlds in different conditions of material and spiritual development have contributed…The system of worlds is a circuit round which all individual spiritual entities have alike to pass; and that passage constitutes the Evolution of Man.”

These worlds form what Sinnett calls a planetary chain, consisting of worlds into which souls can incarnate in living beings. There are seven worlds (planets, globes, spheres…call them what you will), each with differing degrees of spirituality and materiality. Although they are physically far apart (likely in different universes), they are “bound together by subtle currents and forces” that the souls can travel through. The first world is entirely spiritual: there is no matter in it, but only spiritual forms that will later take shape physically. I like to think of this as the world of Plato’s Forms, though Sinnett doesn’t mention that.

As you progress through the chain, the worlds become more physical with the introduction of matter, which life energies are bound up in. On our world (Earth), spirit and matter are approximately equal, so we are at about the middle of the chain (4th world). The picture on the right illustrates this with the spiritual worlds at the top and more material worlds at the bottom.

Throughout this planetary chain, there is a flow of souls which Sinnett calls the “human tide-wave,” though a better term would be the “soul tide-wave” because these souls don’t always incarnate in humans. In any case, the tide-wave is the flow of the majority of souls between the worlds. The tide-wave only occupies one planet at a time, though some rare souls break apart from the tide-wave and have their own wave of evolution. On each planet, the souls pass through a series of incarnations and are able to develop throughout their lives on that planet. When the time is right to move to the next world (after the souls have passed through a series of seven “races” of humans [and by races, I mean stages of development, like Neanderthals, homo sapiens, etc.]), the souls are all ferried to the next world to start the process again. There is a limit to how much we can evolve on any particular world, and so this series of worlds, all with different physical and spiritual properties, serves as the vehicle for higher evolution beyond that which a single planet can provide. As A.P. Sinnett said, “The Darwinian theory of evolution is simply an independent discovery of a portion—unhappily but a small portion—of the vast natural truth.”

We don’t pass through the chain merely once, but many times, so we will return to Earth again after our present evolution here is complete (though only after we pass through the other worlds…which takes a while!). At each new round, the souls will progress to a higher stage of their development even though the world they incarnate in is less spiritual. So “there is a progress downwards, so to speak, in finish and materiality and consistency; and then, again, progress upward in spirituality as coupled with the finish which matter or materiality rendered possible.” So to develop spiritually, there needs to be some form of matter (the progress downward) in order to go back upward spiritually. An artists needs to not only have the idea of a perfect sculpture (spiritual world), but they also have to be able to build it (physical world) to truly be an artist.
To use another silly analogy, it’s like a bouncy ball: it starts out at, say, the height of your chest, and then you throw it down to the ground. When it bounces up, it goes even higher than it was originally, most likely soaring above your head. So there’s a sort of “rebound” for souls descending into matter: although it seems that going into more material worlds is devolving, it allows for the possibility of attaining higher spiritual development.

So there is a co-evolution between matter and spirit, and although it’s hardly fathomable to us, it’s easier to grasp when multiple worlds are taken into consideration. So our view of evolution on the Earth is incomplete without recourse to the other worlds we came from and the ones we are headed toward. Indeed, Sinnett believes that the primary driving force of evolution is the spiralling progress of souls upward, and so the evolution we perceive on Earth, with natural selection and survival of the fittest, is only a subset of this. The impulse of the Earth to develop higher forms for souls to incarnate into is initiated by the tide-wave from the previous planet. Evolution begins with inorganic substances and progresses to all forms of life. It is about developing organized forms, going through the minerals (inorganic substances), vegetables (all plants, really), and then animals. It is only in the animal kingdom, however, that forms are progressed enough to support the development of souls. In the mineral and vegetable stages, there is just one undifferentiated spiritual “monad” directing the evolution of the world.

And so, “in the scale of spiritual perfection it [the soul] is constantly ascending.” A nice way to visualize this is to have each world as a point on a 3-dimensional plot with space on one of the lower two axes, the spectrum of spirituality and materiality on the other, and time on the vertical axis (see pictures below). Of course, this represents 1-D space because to have 3-D space, you’d need 5 dimensions (which I can’t draw for the life of me), so this is just an analogy.

Imagine starting at the pink world on the very bottom, the most spiritual world, as seen by its position on the spirituality/materiality axis. The grey dots represent the tide-wave of souls travelling to the next world after their incarnations on the previous world is complete. These are those mysterious “subtle currents and forces.”

We progress upward in the spiral as time passes, going from one world to the next. So the souls travel through the worlds in loops, and additionally, the progress upward is simultaneously a progress toward higher forms of life in each of the worlds. The different colours represent the different world cycles: the souls starting in the first planet, say, planet A, progress to B, and so on until G, after which they return to planet A again (shown by the start of a new colour). These waves continue on to the next planet to help prepare for the next stage of life.

Now, although there’s always a wave of evolution progressing through these worlds, each planet will at times go into obscuration. This is when the animal and plant life slowly devolve without the great tide-wave to spur its evolution forward. Eventually, the world returns to the state it was in before the tide-wave of souls incarnated in it. A world is left in obscuration for considerable periods of time while the tide-wave makes its way through other worlds in the chain. However, the world will not become totally devoid of life. Let’s say that the tide-wave is on planet C, and that D is in obscuration from the previous cycle. Once the fourth race on planet C is concluded, planet D will begin to prepare to receive the tide-wave. First, during the fifth race on planet C, the mineral kingdom on planet D begins to evolve out of obscuration, and during the sixth race on C, the vegetable kingdom begins to evolve, followed by the animal kingdom, etc. So when the tide-wave of souls is ready to progress to planet D, human evolution has begun and is ready to take the souls into human form.

This means that the evolution on one planet is in direct connection to that on the next (and previous) planet. And since at each round, the souls progress to higher states of spirituality and refinement, despite obscuration, some developments from the previous cycle are preserved, for as Sinnett says, “there are processes of vital action which go on in the resting world even during the most profound depths of its repose. And these preserve, in view of the next return of the human life-wave, the results of the evolution that preceded its first arrival.” So there is some information, in the matter and spiritual properties of the world, that is preserved—or “remembered”—by the world through countless eons. We could thus say that the planet has a sort of memory, and perhaps (though this is more speculation) the beings that live in a particular world can tap into that memory and so learn of the previous cycles of life that have progressed on their planet. Indeed, perhaps this is how the Buddhist mystics discovered the planetary chain and the worlds that comprise it.

Currently, it is thought that we are in the fourth round of the tide-wave, and on Earth, we inhabit the fifth “race” of human beings (which supposedly began around a million years ago. The fourth race, according to Sinnett, was the Atlanteans). There are also seven sub-divisional races, and in each of these, seven branch races, which a soul incarnates in at least twice. So for each soul to make its way through all these incarnations takes a LONG time, especially considering that the soul goes into a state called Devachan between incarnations (which we won’t even get into in here!). Sinnett estimates that any given soul will have at least 800 lives (taking some other factors into account) on each world. Yet although these enormous periods of time are unimaginable to the human mind, this evolution does have an eventual end: it doesn’t go on indefinitely. To put it crudely, the end goal is for us to become gods.

Turning to recent times in this vast evolutionary scheme, physicists on our world have been grappling with the quantum world of subatomic particles and have postulated a multiverse to account for how quantum particles can appear to be in more than one place at the same time. But Buddhists (and the Ancient Greeks, and various other ancient cultures: see my previous post) already theories about a plethora of worlds well before modern physics came into existence. Although much of this is beyond that which we can hope to learn by scientific methods (e.g., how can we use physical science to learn about spiritual worlds when science is about understanding the physical world? This then falls under the realm of occult science, which deals with both), we might hope to catch a glimpse of it through our human science and philosophy.

So this is the general idea of the world cycles in esoteric Buddhism. It might sound far-fetched, but if those studying the occult sciences are correct, then the 200,000 years since humans have developed on Earth is hardly a drop in the vast ocean of all the lives that have existed and those that we are evolving toward in the future.


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The new movie Doctor Strange, besides being exciting and visually stunning, explores many fascinating ideas in philosophy, magic, and science, combining them all in an enormous mixing pot, and somehow, creating a great result in the end. There are many different ideas to discuss from the movie, but I’ll just focus on the nature of reality and time.

Note that everything written here is about the movie, not the comics (which I haven’t read), so it’s possible that some of these speculations are explored in more detail in the comics. And I won’t give away any (major) spoilers!

As the Ancient One* tells Strange, our universe is one of many in an infinite multiverse. This idea is not peculiar to contemporary physics, but has its roots in Buddhism and other cultures. For example, the ancient Buddhist text called the Avatamsaka Sutra (A.S.) describes countless “Buddha-fields” of worlds, each maintained by different gods/bodhisattvas. Some of these worlds are similar to our own, and others are vastly different. These worlds can also be seen as jewels in the metaphorical Indra’s net. Regarding Indra’s net, the A.S. says:

“Far away in the heavenly abode of the great 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…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…If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there 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.”

The multiverse is Indra’s net: all the worlds are connected and interdependent. There is no “source” of reality, but every world mirrors every other world in a fractalling pattern of worlds within worlds within worlds. This is the Buddhist concept of dependent origination (the lack of a source of reality, so all things are co-created with all other things) as well as emptiness (that physical worlds are just reflections of other worlds, which are all just reflections of other worlds…yet again, there is no source).

Thus, with all these worlds connected, if we can access their connections via portals, we can transfer energy between them. This was seen in the movie, with sorcerers channeling energy from other worlds in order to perform great feats of magic.

Other ideas about the multiverse crop up throughout history. Here are a few examples:

Again from the A.S.: “What worlds are there herein? I’ll tell you. In these seas of fragrant waters, numerous as atoms in unspeakably many buddha-fields, rest an equal number of world systems. Each world system also contains an equal number of worlds. Those world systems in the ocean of worlds have various resting places, various shapes and forms, various substances and essences, various locations, various entryways, various adornments, various boundaries, various alignments, various similarities, and various powers of maintenance.”

From the Greek philosopher Democritus (460 – 370 B.C.): “There are worlds infinite in number and different in size. In some there is neither sun nor moon, on others there are more than one sun and moon. The distances between the worlds are unequal…Their destruction comes about through collision with one another.”

From the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus (204 – 270): “The kosmos is like a net which takes all its life, as far as ever it stretches, from being wet in the water, and has no act of its own; the sea rolls away and the net with it, precisely to the full of its scope, for no mesh of it can strain beyond its set place: the soul is of so far-reaching a nature—a thing unbounded—as to embrace the entire body of the All in the one extension; so far as the universe extends, there soul is; and if the universe had no existence, the extent of soul would be the same; it is eternally what it is.”

From the Sufi poet Mahmoud Shabestari (1288 – 1340): “Know that the whole world is a mirror; in each atom are found a hundred blazing suns. If you split the center of a single drop of water, a hundred pure oceans spring forth. If you examine each particle of dust, a thousand Adams can be seen. A universe lies hidden in a grain of millet; everything is brought together at the point of the present.”

And one example (out of many) from current physics:

From Max Tegmark, physicist at MIT: “Accepting quantum mechanics to be universally true means that you should also believe in parallel universes.” (From this article)

Another important idea explored is the power which people have to change the world. Not just changing it via macroscopic cause and effect, but by altering the microscopic nature of reality itself. From what scientists have learned about the subatomic world, where quantum mechanics reigns supreme (as opposed to the larger world where we live in, where gravity is the master), we know that consciousness influences matter. We don’t fully understand how this happens, but it has been experimentally proven. For example, the very act of observation causes a particle to take on a precise value for its position, whereas normally, it is in no defined place, instead acting like a wave spread over a large region. There have also been experiments performed where people have consciously directed the outcome of a random event generator (see this book).

In the movie, we see this power of consciousness in the magic wielded by the sorcerers, as well as when the Ancient One tells Strange that “At the root of existence, mind and matter meet. Thoughts form reality.” This is something common to Buddhism (A.S.: “Mind is like an artist able to paint the worlds”), and is coming to be accepted in physics as well. At the base of reality, there is just energy, which can vibrate and produce particles with mass (thanks to the equivalence of mass and energy: E = mc^2).
Yet what is different in the movie is that the power the sorcerers wield arises not just from the power of their minds and the energies from this world, but accessing energies from other worlds through certain portals. Regarding this, the Ancient One says, “Through the mystic arts, we harness energy and shape reality.”

We also saw the astral body explored in the movie. The astral body is a spiritual duplicate of the human body. It is usually contained within the body, but it’s possible for it to detach from the body and travel elsewhere, temporarily or permanently (if permanently, then death will result). For more about the astral body, see my previous post. Here's an example of the Ancient One jolting Strange's astral body out of him:
Astral projection is found in many different spiritual traditions (as well as Buddhism! e.g., the A.S. says about great sages, “To all lands in the cosmos, countless, they can travel by projection, their bodies most subtle, beyond comparison.”) and many people have been able to today (e.g., see this video). The trick, of course, is to control this skill, and it is only then that people can develop the powers shown rather simplistically in the movie.

Time is where the most confusion arises. I think it’s fair to say that Doctor Strange is a real Time Lord. By using a special device, he is able to manipulate time around particular objects and locations. For example, he experimented with bringing an apple backward and forward in time, causing it to be eaten and rot, then return to being whole. Likewise, he turned time back in an entire block of a city in Hong Kong, though he and a few other sorcerers are able to escape the effects of time.

Many issues arise from bending time in this manner. First, if you’re able to go forward or backward in time, what happens to your memories? It seems that the people who are subject to Strange’s time magic have no recollection of the future that Strange had “undone,” yet Strange and the other sorcerers are not subjected to this. They exist in a sort of temporal bubble where they physically go back in time with the rest of the people, but retain their memories and are not forced to “backtrack” whatever movements they have previously done.

This is either just some sort of magic, or, as I like to think, there are two sorts of time: the physical time, which is what our bodies are bound to as we progress through life, and which Strange can manipulate, as well as the mental time, which is the successive series of our thoughts, sensations, and memories that make us who we are. It could also be considered to be our “soul time”, since each soul has its own personal timeline that cannot be distorted by the physical events around it. So although most people, when subjected to a temporal back-track thanks to Doctor Strange, have their mental and physical times linked, meaning that their memories of the future are erased, sorcerers who can split their mental and physical timelines are able to physically turn back time without being affected by it mentally.

There is also the timeless world that the evil sorcerer Kaecilius wishes to find, where there is no death, etc. (typical promised land sort of thing), but if there really is no time whatsoever, then things can’t change. If there is no distinction between physical and mental time, then going to a timeless world would be the equivalent of entering an extreme coma: yes, your body is preserved, but you can’t think or sense anything. Thus, in order for Kaecilius’s wish to make sense (and maybe it just doesn’t: maybe he hasn’t thought it through), it has to be that he wants to go to a physically timeless world where his body will be preserved, but not a mentally timeless world, so that he will retain his sensations and consciousness and be able to interact with the world around him (albeit in a limited sense, since the physical objects can’t change).

Then there’s also the typical question of determinism and free will. If we travel to the future, is it to one of many possible futures, or is it to a certain future? And if you change the future, was that determined? Likewise, if you change the past, did that happen the “first time around”? We don’t really get any of these answers in the movie, but if the series continues (and it’s a Marvel movie, so of course it will), then hopefully we’ll see more about the effects of manipulating time and what it means for the conscious beings within it.

Well, there’s some food for thought. And that’s to say nothing about the dark dimension and Dormammu. To that end, I will end with a quote from the Ancient One:

“This universe is only one of an infinite number. Worlds without end; some benevolent and life-giving, others filled with malice and hunger. Dark places where powers older than time lie, ravenous and waiting.”

* The Ancient One is the master who teaches the protagonist, Doctor Strange. She is a sorcerer at the temple in Nepal.

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The Chinese philosophy Taoism emphasizes the harmony of the universe and following the Tao, or the "Way." The Tao can be understood as the pervasive spirit of the universe that we must align with in order to live a good life. Also prevalent in Taoism are Immortals (hsiens) who have transcended physical limitations, attaining superhuman powers and the ability to travel to other worlds. The idea of immortality, however, has changed over time. In particular, there is what we can call "worldly immortality" as well as "otherworldly immortality." The change of otherworldly immortality to worldliness is explained in this paper:

From "Life and Immortality in The Mind of Han China" by Ying-shih Yu (1965):
"The whole development of immortality both as an idea and as a cult from its beginning in the late Warring-States period down through Han times may be best characterized by one word: worldliness...The process of the worldly transformation of immortality is particularly well illustrated by the changing views on the life of hsien immortals. In pre-Ch'in literature the hsien is portrayed only as a secluded individual wandering in the sky, in no way related to the human world. But in Han literature we begin to find that the hsien may sometimes also enjoy a settled life by bringing with him to paradise not only his family but also all his chattels of his human life."

First of all, for a sense of context, the Han dynasty was the second imperial dynasty of China that lasted from 206 BC to 220 AD, though much of what is spoken of here is applicable to other periods of Chinese history.
To understand immortality, we must first look at longevity. Longevity is one of the most ancient desires sought after by the Chinese people. They have studied longevity and have striven to create drugs and other practices to prolong life, such as certain exercises (e.g., what is known as fetal breathing), abstaining from certain foods, meditation, and, strangely, by metamorphosing into a bird. This, however, is not the same as the later concept of a Taoist Immortal. Longevity is about extending your life to enjoy earthly things, even if it involves helping others or learning more; it is not about leaving the world to go to a higher place.
Such is the concept of "worldly immortality," extending our mortal life and what we have in it. It may involve living for long periods of time, hundreds of years, perhaps, though not indefinitely, so it's technically not immortality, though it was still called immortality in some periods. Magicians and philosophers such as the fangshi (see my previous post on the fangshi) were highly sought after by Emperors and princes who wanted to prolong their life, offering them such things as "drugs of no death" and promises of becoming immortal if they followed the guidance of the fangshi.
In contrast, "otherworldly immortality" involved becoming a true Immortal. Taoists believed that the Tao, or Heaven, produces life, and that the Earth nurtures it. The Earth is often associated with Te, or virtue, which is the way people must act in order to live in accordance with the Tao. Te is our inherent nature, which is tied to morality. When we truly live in accordance with our inner nature, we can become immortal, because the Tao is eternal, and aligning to the Tao can lead to personal immortality. Those who sought otherworldly immortality wanted to eventually leave Earth and live as a hsien immortal in higher worlds. These sages studied the esoteric arts, the hexagrams of the I Ching, and most often became recluses living away from human society in mountains or caves as they meditated and reflected upon the world. They could develop super-human powers, such as the enlightened monks who practice kung-fu, as commonly seen in movies where they have super-powers including the ability to fly.
The most well-known Immortals are the Eight Immortals, seen in the picture below:

The Eight Immortals appear in many Chinese legends, and have wild and fascinating stories written about them. They all, however, began their journey on Earth before attaining immortality, which they achieved by learning from a teacher such as the founder of Taoism, Lao-Tzu, studying themselves, and by using powerful devices such as a magical sword. There are also legends about immortals wandering about the sky and riding dragons and clouds. Of course, much of this is just legends, but the idea of attaining immortality is seen throughout Taoist philosophy.

The idea of true immortality came into existence much later in China than longevity, around the fourth century BC. Some people believe this idea was imported from other cultures (India? Egypt? I'm not entirely sure), though others hold the belief that it arose from extending the prevalent ideas of longevity. Attaining immortality and longevity often involved similar practices, such as meditation, martial arts, and the exercises previously spoken of. Yet otherworldly immortality focused on leaving the world rather than extending one's life within it. There is, however, a large overlap between the two notions.
During the Han period, the concept of worldly and otherworldy immortality blended together, largely due to the popularization of immortality by the fangshi, with promises that people could live forever by taking elixirs or engaging in peculiar activities. Thus, the otherworldly immortal became more "worldly," as we saw in the quote. Much of the spiritual nature of true immortality was lost by those engaging in elaborate means to become immortals while still retaining all their power and wealth on Earth. There was little interest in the otherworldly life of the true immortal. For example, the emperor Ch'in Shih Huang thought that there was a land of immortals past the Eastern sea, which he sent envoys to search for. This is different from the traditional idea of hsien immortality, which was not about finding a place of immortality on Earth, but ascending beyond it. In addition, Emperor Ch'end-ti had 683 sacrificial halls built with the hopes of meeting gods and hsien there. It is also thought that Emperor Han Wu-ti expanded his empire westward in order to find Mount K'un-lun where immortals lived, and he went to conquest the city Ferghana because they supposedly had "Heavenly Horses" which he believed could communicate with the hsien immortals for him. The traditional view of a reclusive, ascetic immortal was thus changed to someone who could still pursue worldly pleasures. So, as the author says, "the demarcation line between otherworldly and worldly immortality had become increasingly blurred." Indeed, even people who lived exceedingly long lives were often called immortals, which only furthered the shift of otherworldly to worldly immortals.

Yet despite this tension between the desire for worldly and more transcendent immortality, the concept of the true hsien immortal has been carried down through history. It is also similar to many other traditions that depict spiritual adepts with superhuman abilities, including the ability to live forever, in some cases, remaining in this world, or, in the ideal case, venturing beyond to a higher place.


Click here for more posts in my Quotes of Wisdom series.

Most ancient religions and philosophies have a secret "esoteric" doctrine revealed to a select number of initiates, as well as an "exoteric" doctrine that is revealed to the common people. When it comes to Buddhism, the esoteric and exoteric principles are very similar, though there are some details of esoteric Buddhism that you won't see in most Buddhist texts, for example, what is known as the Septenary Constitution of Man, or the seven principles that constitute a human being. I read about this in the book Esoteric Buddhism by the Theosophist A. P. Sinnett. One particularly interesting quote is:

From A. P. Sinnett's Esoteric Buddhism (1883):
"All things, not man alone, but every animal, plant, and mineral have their seven principles, and the highest principles of all--the seventh itself--vitalizes that continuous thread of life which runs all though evolution, uniting into a definite succession, the almost innumerable incarnations of that one life which constitute a complete series."

So first of all, what are the seven principles? Although they can be listed out as distinct principles, they are all intertwined, so bear in mind that listing them out fails to capture the connections between them. I'll call them by their English names and give the Hindu words in brackets:

1) The Body (Rupa)
2) Vitality (Prana or Jiva)
3) Astral Body (Linga Sharira)
4) Animal Soul (Kama Rupa)
5) Human Soul (Manas)
6) Spiritual Soul (Buddhi)
7) Spirit (Atma)

The first principle is simple: it's just the body, containing our organs, the molecules out of which they're formed, all the way down to the basic constituents of matter (mostly protons, neutrons, and electrons). On this level, everything is material: it is the matter that forms a human, the same matter that forms all physical objects such as plants, human or animal bodies, ice-cream, mountains, the air.

The second principle, vitality, is the start of life. It is organic matter. Like the body, it is still physical: it is the energy or force of a human. If we think of matter (m) and energy (E) as interchangeable (thank you, Einstein: E = mc^2), then the principle that vitalizes the body isn't distinct from the body, and is material as well. When the body of the living creature dies, the vitality is no longer united in the body but dissipates among the particles out of which the body was formed. This is because the higher principles that "hold the human being together" leave the body to reincarnate elsewhere, whereas the vitality doesn't undergo reincarnation.

The third principle, the astral body, is a step away from physicality. It is the etheric duplicate of the physical body, present in all living beings. It guides the second principle to form the shape of a human (or whatever other being it is), and it is in turn vitalized by the higher principles. The astral body only leaves the physical body at death, where it remains disembodied for a brief period before perishing. In some cases, mediums can separate their astral bodies while living, yet if it leaves the body permanently, the body will cease to be connected to the higher principles above and will die. This isn't, however, what is commonly known as "astral projection": in astral projection, the higher principles also travel out of the body, not just the etheric double of the body.

The first, second, and third principles all perish when a human being dies, though the higher principles, which we will look at shortly, are reincarnated in this world or another, continuing our spiritual life.

The fourth principle is the animal soul, also known as the vehicle of will. It isn't developed in living beings like plants, but only in animals (and hence, us). It includes emotions, passions, instincts, and sensations. It is focused on the material world and how we can gain pleasure and avoid pain. It is the instinctual part of our mind, the "id" if we're using Freudian terms. There is no intellectual thinking here, just instinct born of the natural world we live in.

The fifth principle, the human soul, involves thinking and individual consciousness. This is where our reason and memory lie. Those who are more enlightened have a more fully developed fifth principle. Most people are unable to connect with this part of themselves, or if they are, then it is rather as a slave to their fourth principle than as the rightful master over it. Yet just as individual people can be more fully evolved than others during the same time period, so too does the human species as a whole develop by evolution, and so as a whole, our species is still in the process of developing our fifth principle. 

The sixth principle, or spiritual soul, is our spiritual consciousness that connects us to everything in the world, as well as forming the source of our morality and compassion. It is our individual soul, our "higher ego". Since our fifth principle is undeveloped, it goes without saying that our sixth principle is as well. The spiritual soul is the vehicle for the seventh principle, so can be seen as a more individualized spirit, because as we go down to lower principles, we become more individualized and more material.

The seventh principle is the spirit itself. It is undifferentiated, and in essence, is the same spirit in everything. It could also be considered to be God, Buddha, or the One, the most abstracted part of us. We cannot describe it, for to describe it as anything but simple and pure would be to assign characteristics to it, and as it has no counterpart in the physical world, we will always fall short in our descriptions.

There is much more that can be said about each of these principles, but this is the general idea.
Now, the quote above touches upon how the principles are linked. The seventh principle, the universal spirit, is what binds the principles within us. What makes all these principles constitute a human being (or whatever other creature your higher principles are incarnated in) is the seventh principle, because the lower principles can be seen as particular instances of the universal spirit. The higher principles are bound together through multiple incarnations, though the three lower ones (body, vitality, astral body) are different for particular lives.
To use a common analogy from many occult traditions, it is like white light being dispersed by a glass prism: although it is in essence pure white light, it can be split into many colours. Likewise, the universal spirit can be "dispersed" into many spiritual souls, which can then be further dispersed into human souls and so on. Although things like plants and minerals don't have their human and spiritual souls developed, these principles are still present, only in a dormant form.

Later on, Sinnett says that "matter exists in other states besides those which are cognizable by the five senses." This might make you wonder how we could call it "matter" at all, for matter is something that occupies space and volume, though spiritual substances do nothing of the sort. However, although "occupying space and volume" is our dictionary definition of matter, that doesn't mean that we understand the whole story. Similarly to how Newton's equations to describe gravity were found to be a simplification of Einstein's laws, it is very possible that the physical objects we see around us are only a small part of a more encompassing spectrum of things that exist. I won't call them all "matter," because the soul and spirit are included too, but they can all be considered to be on a spectrum.
Perhaps a good way to think about this is with electromagnetic radiation. We have always been able to see light, which is the visible region of the electromagnetic spectrum. But in reality, that is only a small part of what's out there. There is radiation of all other wavelengths, as seen below:

We know that these gamma rays, X-rays, UV rays, infrared rays, microwaves, and radio waves are just as real as visible light even though we can't see them. We just need other tools to detect them, "senses" other than sight. In this case, we have to rely on instruments to detect them, such as Geiger counters (for X-rays and gamma rays), radio antennas, phototransistors (infrared radiation), and many other more sophisticated technology.
Likewise, when it comes to matter and the spirit, it could very well be that matter is analogous to the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum, something we can perceive with the five physical senses. But this is very limited, because there is so much more out there that we can't perceive. Instead, we have to develop spiritual senses to detect them (which is analogous to the technology we had to develop to perceive other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum). These tools are spiritual senses cultivated through spiritual practices such as meditation, astral projection, visions, etc. This is what Sinnett calls the "missing link between materialism and spirituality," namely, that nothing in the universe is wholly material and nothing is wholly immaterial, but all are linked as in a spectrum (he didn't make the spectrum analogy, but I don't think he would have objected). So these seven principles of man are, in essence, the same thing, though have different qualities based on where they are in the spectrum.
This also provides the answer (at least, part of the answer) to the age-old question of how something immaterial (e.g., the soul) can interact with something material (e.g., the body). It is because they are all made of the same "stuff", but just in different proportions, with matter at one end of the spectrum and spirit on the other. This is what Sinnett referred to as matter existing in other states that we can't perceive by the five senses. And since the same kinds of thing can interact with themselves, as we see in the physical world where matter interacts by the four forces (gravity, electromagnetism, strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force), the different principles can also interact with one another.

So we shouldn't be surprised that human beings are so much more than simple matter and energy. Once we, as a species, come to understand what these mystics and philosophers have discovered, we can more fully appreciate our place in the universe and where we are headed in our spiritual evolution.

*Note: The book I quoted from is available online for free here. It's a fascinating book and I'd highly recommend it. One thing to bear in mind is that some other writers make the distinctions of seven principles slightly differently, with the astral body before the vitality, but I think Sinnett's classification makes more sense.

"A Soul Wanderer never knows. He wanders; he makes his own path through the
heights of the universe."

-Sio Larwick

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The Printer's Devil
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