Thursday, April 24, 2014

Harmony of the Spheres: Om and Mantra Meditation

"Om" in Tibetan Script with Bodhi Tree leaf from Bodhgaya

Mantra meditation is the bread and butter of Yoga. Through recitation of what are termed "bija" or seed syllables such as "Om" or "Hrim" (for Goddess followers), we can turn the mind to the deeper sources of Ultimate Being. "Om" recitation is central to Hindu, Buddhist and Jain meditation practice. But does mantra meditation also extend to the West in a version adapted to Western philosophy and religious prayer? Many have argued that the Jesus prayer: "Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner" (sounds less daunting and self-denigrating in Greek) is an adoption/independent innovation of Buddhist/Yoga mantra meditation, but I would search for a connection to Greek/Hellenistic/Roman philosophy before tagging the correspondence to Buddhist-Christian interactions. 

What is prototypical about mantra meditation is its use of sound to arouse and shift consciousness into a meditational state of mind. The Neoplatonists, like Plotinus, actually sought for ideas from India to fertilize their philosophical ideas and contemplative practices. The Indian emperor Ashoka in his 250 BCE edicts  used the word eusebeia as a Greek translation for the Buddhist, Jain and Hindu concept of "Dharma". Eusebeia means good reverence or good awesomeness or or good spiritual worship and, in the Buddhist context, includes right moral action.
If reverence for the Divine includes the production of sound syllables then we are in good company.  John Coltrane is his Jazz paean to Nature, "A Love Supreme", also repeats the core melody "A Love Supreme" with riffs by solo horns and woodwinds. Iamblichus, the Neoplatonist philosopher, also heard music as a symbol of divine harmony. He asserts, "Music is moving and sensuous, and that the sound of pipes causes or heals disordered passions...sounds and tunes are properly consecrated to each of the gods, and kinship is properly assigned to them in accord with their proper orders and powers, the motions of the universe itself and the harmonious sounds rushing from its motion." (Iamblichus, On the Mysteries, Emma Clarke, John Dillon, and Jackson Hershbell, trans., (Society for Biblical Literature, Atlanta, Ga, 2003, 118-119). So, according to Iamblichus, "Hrim" connects us to the Goddess, "Om" to the ultimate ground of Being, "Brahman" and the Jesus Prayer to Christ.
Music and mantra meditation are then quick avenues to cosmic harmony.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Night of Crimson: Blood Moon and Mars

Lunar Eclipse 4-15-14
It is hard to convey the peaceful energy of a midnight lunar eclipse. The reddening of the moon's globe, Mars is just nearby--at once both spurring and becalming the soul. The ancient Stoics developed a cosmology in which everything in the universe is interconnected and unified through pneuma, "breath of life", if you will. So, Hellenistic astrology sought for correspondences between planetary and lunar attributes and the vicissitudes of the human soul. The moon was a ruler of a maternal embodiment and Mars, a master of impulsive drive. 
To me, gazing at the sky and resonating with heavenly characteristics is not an attempt to overcome fate through astrological micro-management, but a means for experiencing the interconnection of all things, my particular brand of pantheism. One prominent Neoplatonist, Plotinus, rejected Hellenistic astrology, believing that the human soul could rise to God or the One without intermediaries. But most Neoplatonists after him rejected the hubris of doing it alone and incorporated some form of ritual or slow cultivation of virtue to attain a relationship to the Divine. 
The Transcendentalist, Emerson, and some Unitarians of the 19th century tended to line up with Plotinus asserted the inherent goodness and reflective capabilities of human beings while the Universalists seem more akin to the Stoics believing that humans are nursed and nurtured by a good universe. Well tonight, around midnight, I feel nurtured by the crimson sky.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Are You a Redwood or a Rhododendron?

 I frankly recoil whenever I see one of those online personality tests purporting  to tell me what food I am or what what color--it is as though we could be confined to a single term to describe ourselves fully to others. Well, on a recent walk in Sequoia Park in Eureka, I decided to cave. Transfixed by the afternoon shadow play of light, glinting trees and  splashy rhododendrons, I figured out that people were either redwood or rhododendron types--massive, steady and self-contained or variegated pink and rosy flourishes of inspiration. 
The 18th century philosopher, Edmund Burke, contrasted the aesthetic idea of the sublime to the beautiful. He wrote:

"For sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small: beauty should be smooth and polished; the great, rugged and negligent; beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly; the great in many cases loves the right line, and when it deviates it often makes a strong deviation: beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy: beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive. They are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain, the other on pleasure; and however they may vary afterwards from the direct nature of their causes, yet these causes keep up an eternal distinction between them, a distinction never to be forgotten by any whose business it is to affect the passions." 

So, if you're sublime, then you are awe-striking, a bit melancholic and domineering in your emotional influence on others while, if beautiful, like our rhododendrons, your emotional style is quainter and quieter, perhaps kind and sanguine in relationship and mood.  Later philosophers and poets opposed the sublime nations of Northern Europe to the beautiful Mediterranean in a way to bolster Romanticism over Classicism in artistic and literary style. Could our Unitarian Universalism, like the bifurcated Yang and Yin of Chinese cosmology, also echo the contrast between the sublime and the beautiful, the unity of God to the varied manifestations of Universal Love?
Maybe, just maybe, I can retract my initial hesitation to categorize. More like emotionally tinged ideas and root guiding metaphors, we are sublime or beautiful, not in character, but in experience--each moment diving us into majesty or love whenever we enter a state of deep contemplation. We are both redwoods and rhododendrons.