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