Asian Philosophies And The “New Age”
The New Age is the name given to an amorphous mood elevation movement that mushroomed into Western pubic consciousness during the 1960s, and congealed in the 1970s as a wide array of commercial activities involving bodywork services, psychological counseling, and the marketing of literature, seminars and paraphernalia intended to vivify individual meditation.
The themes blended into the New Age movement include: metaphysics and the mysticism in major religious traditions, Western esotericism, self-help and motivational psychology, holistic health, herbal and hallucinogenic pharmacologies, consciousness research, parapsychology, environmentalism and Gaia philosophy, non-mathematical popularizations of quantum physics, and archeoastronomy. Wikipedia provides a nice summary of the New Age. (1)
Clearly, the label New Age can be stretched over a multitude of activities, with some that are admirably sacred, probing and intellectual, while numerous others are just banal hedonism, farcical psychobabble, and commonplace hucksterism. Thus, the phrase New Age lacks specificity, and both praise and criticism of the New Age in general lacks meaning. Only discussions and critiques of specific activities under the New Age label can be substantive.
This essay will describe a few of the streams of thought that contributed refreshing insights to the large pool of ideas over which New Age consciousness floats.
Esotericism has been a part of the intellectual histories of both Europe and the United States from their earliest times. During the early 20th century, popular esotericism in the United States was stimulated by the Theosophy of Helena Blavatsky, the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner, and the dervish-yoga combination of Caucasian and Indian ideas by George Gurdjieff, as described by the Russian writer Peter D. Ouspensky. Additionally, the public lectures on Vedanta (the ancient Hindu religious philosophy) given to Western audiences by traveling Indian swamis and teachers broadened public awareness of Eastern metaphysical thought.
However, during the fifteen years of the Great Depression and World War II, Americans were more focused on the immediate concerns of their economic and physical survival, so the study of esoteric and exotic philosophies was left to amateurs in secure personal circumstances, and university scholars. With the return of prosperity in 1942 as a result of the full-employment war economy, and then the victorious conclusion of the war in 1945, the American public was more financially secure to give attention to personal metaphysical thought, and more psychologically in need of philosophical insights to counteract the mental traumas and disappointments carried by war survivors.
I take the postwar release of American public consciousness from the immediacy of concerns of survival to be the beginning of modern popular interest in finding a sustaining and motivating personal metaphysics beyond the irrational trust (faith) in traditional Judeo-Christian formulas. Books, based on good scholarship, published to satisfy this interest can be seen as the secular scriptures of the intelligent portion of the New Age movement. A small number are described here.
In 1944, the Vedanta Society of Southern California published an English language version of the Bhagavad Gita, the renowned veda (Sanskrit sacred scripture) written between the 5th and 2nd centuries BCE. Swami Prabhavananda translated the Bhagavad Gita from Sanskrit, and Christopher Isherwood coauthored the rendering into English. Aldous Huxley wrote the introduction to the book. The Bhagavad Gita is a masterpiece of both Hindu philosophy and world literature. Its central lesson is of the life-affirming value of fully committed selfless action combined with a devotion to the appreciation of the ultimate reality (God or its equivalent in your philosophy), and an all-consuming effort to experience that ultimate reality. The Prabhavananda-Isherwood edition of the Bhagavad Gita was well received and remains a popular source of insights from ancient Hindu religious literature. Among the serious American students of the Bhagavad Gita was J. Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb,” who learned Sanskrit in 1933 so as to read the Bhagavad Gita in its original form. (2) (The Bhagavad Gita is described in greater depth in the article cited, which follows after this one.)
The I Ching is a Chinese book of divination, from the end of the 2nd millennium BCE (most likely), whose interpretation was expanded philosophically during the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE) to describe the dynamic balance of opposites and the inevitability of change in the phenomenal realm. Perhaps the most compelling translation of the I Ching into English appeared in print in 1950. This particular version began as a translation from the ancient Chinese into German by Richard Wilhelm guided by the Chinese scholar Lao Nai-hsüan, and was made during the years of World War I. In about 1927, Wilhelm’s friend the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung asked one of his American students, Cary F. Baynes (the former wife of Jaime de Angulo) who worked as a translator of Jung’s books into English, to translate the Wilhelm edition of the I Ching from German to English. This effort was slowed by the death of Richard Wilhelm in 1930, the death of Cary’s husband Helton Godwin Baynes in 1943, and dislocations resulting from the social turbulence of the 1930s and 1940s. The English translation was completed in 1949, and the book included an extensive forward by C. G. Jung explaining how to use the I Ching for divining the right course of action on a question of serious personal interest to the seeker.
The philosophy of the I Ching is of the organic unity and intrinsic appropriateness of the unforced unresisted phenomenal realm, or Nature, called the Tao; and the dynamic balance of opposites of every type, the ying and yang, whose ceaseless interplay give an illusion of duality, yet which dance is really just an alternation of images of the underlying eternal monism, the Tao. (3)
The purpose of the I Ching is to guide the seeker toward a proper psychological balance for the circumstances of the moment. Such balance is essential when making the significant decisions of a lifetime. The propriety of that balance is defined by a moral code that can be characterized as Confucian combined with Taoist flexibility. The I Ching was already ancient by the time of Confucius (K’ung Fu-tzu, 551-479 BCE) and the coalescing of formalized Taoism (traditionally 6th century BCE, more likely 5th-4th century BCE), which movement identified its founding text as the Tao Te Ching, a masterful collection of poetic logically ambiguous yet conceptually clear aphorisms ascribed to legendary author Lao Tzu. Modern scholarship is uncertain about the historical authenticity of Lao Tzu, and some scholars believe the Tao Te Ching is a collective work by now unknown authors. Regardless, the Tao Te Ching is one of the finest gems of world literature, philosophy and psychology. The Confucian school of thought is one of building up systems of social organization from simple elements and rules. Taoists see society as immersed in the organic whole of a phenomenal existence of infinite fractal complexity (4), hence impossible to systematize by reductionism. So, the interpretative commentaries that became attached to the I Ching during the Warring States Period were primarily written by Confucians, which infused the I Ching that has come down to us with sensible and honorable Confucian morality.
For the man or woman of today’s modern Westernized culture, more interested in utility that in airy metaphysical prattle, the I Ching can be used for practical divination by means of intuitive fuzzy logic (5): a way to reshuffle the imagination to see present circumstances from a fresh perspective, and then to visualize how these circumstances could change into a specifically different situation as a result of adopting a particular attitude or performing a recommended action. Rather than proceeding with an operational description of the I Ching as a decision-making tool, I recommend you obtain a copy of the Wilhelm-Baynes volume, read Jung’s instructional essay (“Forward”), and try it for yourself (seriously, not frivolously). The answer is in the question, and both — an illusory duality — come out of you.
Philosophies Of India
Heinrich Zimmer was an Indologist and historian of South Asian art who was purged from German academia by the Nazis in 1938. Zimmer, who along with Richard Wilhelm was one of C. G. Jung’s few male friends, emigrated to England and then the United States where he secured an appointment as a visiting lecturer of philosophy at Columbia University (in New York City) in 1940. Zimmer met Joseph Campbell, a scholar of mythology and a young professor at Sarah Lawrence College who attended one of Zimmer’s lectures early in World War II, and the two became good friends. After Zimmer died from pneumonia in 1943 at age 53, Campbell was given the task of editing Zimmer’s papers for posthumous publication. (6) Campbell worked at this for 12 years, converting Zimmer’s manuscripts and lecture notes into four books published between 1946 and 1955, the third of which was Philosophies Of India, which appeared in 1951. (7)
In his New York Times Book Review article on Philosophies Of India, Alan Watts wrote that “It is both the most complete and most compelling account of this extraordinarily rich and complex philosophical tradition yet written.” This book is an entire universe; it is deep, detailed and inexhaustible. Zimmer first describes the differences between Eastern and Western thought and the foundations of Indian philosophy; then the philosophies of temporal matters: success (politics, war, treachery), pleasure and duty; and finally more than two-thirds of the book is occupied with descriptions of the philosophies of eternity: Jainism, Sankhya (or Samkhya), Yoga, Brahmanism (which includes the Bhagavad Gita), Buddhism and Tantra. This is a great book: coherent, panoramic, deeply informed, richly detailed and absorbing.
The Way Of Zen
In his New York Times Book Review article on my favorite Alan Watts book, The Way Of Zen, published in 1957, Joseph Campbell wrote “No one has given us such a concise, freshly written introduction to the whole history of this Far Eastern development of Buddhist thought as Alan Watts, in the present, highly readable work.” This book is such a lucid account of both the history of Zen Buddhism and its manner of direct conscious experience of reality without abstract concepts or language as intermediaries. (8)
Alan Watts was an amazing autodidact who began teaching himself Chinese as a child by comparing the corresponding English and Chinese passages in a bilingual Bible. He became a popular writer and lecturer, the “guru of the hippies” until his death in 1973. All his books and recorded lectures on Eastern philosophy and particularly on Zen and Taoism are enlightening and refreshing. Watts brought out the core of insights from beneath the layerings of cultural ornamentation that most Westerners see when facing Vedanta, Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism and Zen, and he presented these liberating ideas in a way that made them relevant to our modern lives and psychological problems. Watts was not a professional academic teacher but instead a very talented seeker who allowed us to see out to farther horizons than most of us could ever have done on our own.
The common impulse in all the Indian philosophies of eternity since the Vedic period (1700-1100 BCE) was to identify a unifying principle underlying all existence. The Hindu philosophies of Yoga and Vedanta grew out of the earlier Vedic religion, identifying Brahman as the fundamental undifferentiated essential underlying and immanent in all phenomenal existence. The aim of both Yoga and Vedanta was to break the hold on consciousness by the illusory multiplicity of the universe suggested by the ceaseless interplay of apparent forms; and to merge consciousness into unity with Brahman, thus experiencing eternity (nirvana). Buddhism is a revolt against both the extremes of asceticism and pleasure as paths to achieving unity with Brahman, it is the Middle Way. The liberation of consciousness from the illusion of duality is called Moksha, and achieving that is enlightenment.
The founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, was born in what is today Lumbini, Nepal (though other Indian sites also claim that honor) and he is estimated to have lived from 563 BCE to 483 BCE (though some scholars estimate a similar lifespan occurring about 80 years later). (9) The Middle Way of liberation taught by the Buddha (“the enlightened one”) sparked the growth of a movement that continues today. Buddhist teachings remained an oral tradition until the 1st century BCE, when the Pali Canon (the earliest of Buddhist scriptures) was written.
Between the 1st century BCE and the 2nd century CE, a more sophisticated concept of Buddhist practice had developed, called the Mahayana. The traditional practice, which was based on the Pali Canon, said little about the practical psychological difficulties of achieving nirvana.
Thus the great concern of the Mahayana is the provision of “skillfull means” (upaya) for making nirvana accessible to every type of mentality…The Mahayana distinguishes itself from the Buddhism of the Pali Canon by terming the latter the Little (hina) Vehicle (yana) of liberation and itself the Great (maha) Vehicle — great because it comprises such a wealth of upaya, or methods for the realization of nirvana.
By the 1st century CE, the practice of Buddhism had spread throughout the Indian subcontinent and along the Silk Route from northeast China to present-day Iran. (10) The awareness of Buddhist ideas had been carried along the trade routes west as far as the Greco-Roman Mediterranean. The Mahayana Buddhist way of achieving enlightenment by a proper concentration of the mind (samadhi) through meditation (dhyana) was adopted by Taoists in China, who devised a form of Mahayana Buddhism that used Taoist concepts to interpret existence and reality, and was better suited to Chinese culture. The idea that enlightenment could be achieved instantly, or suddenly, was developed in Chinese Mahayana Buddhism by the time of Tao-sheng (360-434), who stated the idea explicitly. This “sudden school” of Buddhist meditation believed samadhi could be naturally triggered after the mind had been prepared by meditation (later know as the Soto School), or caused by a teacher’s spontaneously skillful improvisation by word or deed taking advantage of the circumstances of the moment to jolt a seeking student into enlightenment (later known as the Rinzai School).
This “sudden school” formally emerged as Chán Buddhism in the 6th century CE and grew to become the dominant form of Chinese Buddhism during the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1297) dynasties. The Chinese word Chán is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyana, and is better known by its Japanese equivalent Zen. While Buddhism had been introduced into Japan during the 8th century CE, the separate schools of Zen Buddhism were only established in the 12th century CE, when Eisai introduced Rinzai Zen to Japan in 1191, and Dogen introduced Soto Zen in 1227. (11)
For us, the real fun and value of Zen is as a way to expand our awareness, to not miss out on really living. The value of reviewing Zen Buddhist history as summarized here is to realize that we can be just as free as the Buddhists of times past to modify the externalities of the vehicle carrying the life-affirming Buddhist insights, to suit our culture and psychology, so long as we not obscure, corrupt or lose those insights and the compassionate heart of the teaching. Lives conducted along these principles would help nudge humanity toward the better possibilities for a New Age.
Zen And Japanese Culture
Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki was Japan’s foremost authority on Zen Buddhism, authoring over one hundred books on the subject before he died at age 95, in Tokyo in 1966. Suzuki trained in the Zen monastery at Kamakura, and then began his literary career as an English teacher and translator (between Japanese, Chinese, Sanskrit and English). He worked in the United States as an editor and translator from 1897 to 1908, and in 1911 married Beatrice Erskine Lane, a Theosophist, with whom he founded the English language journal The Eastern Buddhist published in Kyoto. He spent most of the 1950s teaching, writing and speaking in the United States.
Susuki’s book, Zen And Japanese Culture published in 1959, is a modern classic. It is a revision and expansion of a collection of essays that had been published in Japan in 1938. The form of the book gives each chapter its own completeness, each is a unique meditation or tour through its subject such as Haiku, the tea ceremony (cha-no-yu) or swordsmanship (kendo), without the need for preparation by an earlier chapter, nor the burden of introducing a subsequent one. For this reason, one can open Zen And Japanese Culture at any page and become instantly absorbed, and later repeat that arbitrary beginning, to read the book in random order over any stretch of time.
The great psychological advantage of the Zen attitude to understanding — let us not be so bold as to say “being enlightened” — is equanimity. With this evenness of temperament, one experiences life as a self-motivated participant in this vast Tao of infinite fractal complexity unified by the “interdependence of all things.” (12) For too many people whose minds are glued to the temporal ying-yang of their ambitions and anxieties orbiting desires attached to externalities, Life — seen as an immense external separateness — can be an indifferent and arbitrary victimizer jerking them around. The benefit of the Zen attitude is being able to pass through the routines of daily life, as well as the occasional emergencies, while remaining cool, calm and collected. Also, for those who understand what they are doing, training in a martial art is simply a method of physical exercise for getting one’s Zen.
Zen And Japanese Culture imparts tranquility to its appreciative readers through writing of calm graceful clarity telling many delightful stories reflecting the influence of Zen Buddhism on aspects of pre-industrial Japanese culture: the philosophy of the samurai and their swordsmanship, mindfulness and its celebration with the drinking of tea, sudden ineffable awareness and Haiku, the appreciation of nature in its self-so essence (ziran or tzu jan), its innately right existence (13), and expressing this with effortless action (wu wei) (14) in the unforced fluidity of the calligraphy depicting it poetically and graphically.
A monk asked Daishu Ekai (Ta-chu Hui-hai), one of the T’ang masters, when Zen was in its heyday:
“What is great nirvāṇa?”
The master answered, “Not to commit oneself to the karma of birth-and-death is great nirvāṇa.”
“What then is the karma of birth-and-death?”
“To desire great nirvāṇa is the karma of birth-and-death.”
Memories, Dreams, Reflections
Erinnerungen Träume Gedanken is the title of Carl Gustav Jung’s autobiography, which was published the year he died, 1961, appearing in English as Memories, Dreams, Reflections. C. G. Jung was the famous doctor of psychic maladies (psychiatrist) and researcher into the human psyche (psychologist) who founded analytical psychology, and introduced the concepts of the collective unconscious, the archetypes, individuation, the introverted and extroverted personality types, the complex and synchronicity.
Jung’s father was a Christian minister, and Carl was always interested in understanding the psychology of religious experience, or “how to know God.” To plumb the depths of the human psyche, he attempted to analyze the dreams and remembered ramblings of minds half asleep and half awake in the dead of night (hypnagogic images), both of his patients and himself, and to classify this eclectic library of dreams into a smaller number of generalized thematic types, which in turn could be unified by a general psychodynamic theory.
Jung explored the occult and esoteric movements of Europe’s past (alchemy, astrology, gnosticism) to find useful archetypal concepts of human imaginings with which to categorize specific dreams (clinical data) into generalized types. He saw these earlier movements overtly as efforts by more primitive cultures to devise unified theories of material transformation, the mechanics of the universe, and the structure of humanity’s relationship to the divine, but he also saw these overt aspects as analogies with esoteric meaning, basing this interpretation on esoteric texts from those early times.
Jung interpreted esoteric alchemical, astrological and gnostic treatises as attempts to devise unified theories of the psyche. Basically, Jung assumed that the templates of ideas that erupted unconsciously out of the human minds of his day were identical to the unconscious conceptual templates of our ancestors. So, by a logical process of convergence, earlier streams of scholarship into the foundations of being and consciousness should have arrived at consensus on the archetypes of the unconscious, and these images would then be ubiquitous throughout each culture’s art and literature.
In digging down into the philosophical, psychological, metaphysical and folkloric literature of Christian Europe, Jung eventually (in 1916) burrowed into an underlying rhizome of Vedic imagery — the mandala. Geometric designs of circular symmetry are innate to all cultures because the circle with a focal center is an image innate in the human brain, being the entire focus of the infant seeking its mother’s breast. The rose windows of Gothic cathedrals are beautiful examples of circular symmetric designs used as symbols of the completeness of Christian theology, with Christ, God the Father or the Virgin Mary in the center light and surrounded by Biblical notables and works of creation each in its angular segment. However, when Jung sought to understand the meaning of the windows into his own soul, which he was drawing, it was the concept of the mandala of the Vedas and the Buddhists that he used.
Between 1912 and 1927, Jung was in a period of uncertainty and anxiety about his professional career, he had broken with Sigmund Freud’s school of psychoanalysis and was now on his own. During this period of mental turbulence, he recorded many dreams and fantasies into his famously secret, handwritten and illuminated Red Book. After 1916, he had fallen into the habit of drawing mandalas often to interpret them as momentary representations of his personality’s state of wholeness and vibrancy. By 1920 he had connected the mandala to Vedic and Buddhist ideas, and was experimenting with the I Ching. In the early 1920s, Jung met Richard Wilhelm, who completed his German translation of the I Ching in 1923.
In 1927, Wilhelm gave Jung a translation of a 12th century Taoist text on the practice of meditation as an inner alchemy, The Secret Of The Golden Flower. The golden flower in this text is a mandala representing the image held by the mind when perfectly concentrated on Brahman. Jung saw this Taoist book as validating his psychological interpretation of mandala symbols, and wrote a commentary to accompany Wilhelm’s translation (and that German publication of 1929 was translated into English by Cary F. Baynes, and published in 1931).
In Jung’s synthesis, the mandala of The Secret Of The Golden Flower linked two concepts, one Taoist and the other psychological. The Taoist concept was that of the highest inner alchemical refinement of consciousness achieved by Taoist meditation, the oneness with Tao, the Hindu nirvana. The linked psychological concept was of the central archetype of personality, the self, the totality of the psyche, which includes both the conscious and the more extensive unconscious of the individual. The ego is merely the center of the conscious part of personality.
Jung describes his realization of the archetype of the self, which was precipitated by his reading of The Secret Of The Golden Flower, as the pivotal experience of his professional life, and the end of his anxieties about it.
It was only after I had reached the central point in my thinking and in my researches, namely, the concept of the self, that I once more found my way back to the world.
The years when I was pursuing my inner images were the most important in my life — in them everything essential was decided. It all began then; the later details are only supplements and clarifications of the material that burst forth from the unconscious, and at first swamped me. It was the prima materia for a lifetime’s work.
It has taken me virtually forty-five years to distill within the vessel of my scientific work the things I experienced and wrote down at that time.
Jung saw the successful development of personality, what he called individuation, as the awakening in a person of the awareness of the nature of their psyche, that is to say recognition of the self and its four associated archetypes: the shadow, the anima, the animus and the persona. Achieving this perfected psychological awareness would also bring personal consciousness into the experience of the divine. Jung’s deepest motivation was that of the ancient Vedanta scholars: to know God. For Jung, psychological individuation is a modern Western approach to the eternal, so it coincides with the Hindu-Buddhist method of meditating to concentrate the mind and bring it into unity with Brahman.
My Stroke Of Insight
Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroanatomist who experienced a massive stoke at age 37 in the left hemisphere of her brain in 1996, and survived to write about it. Her book, My Stroke Of Insight was published in 2006. (15)
Taylor recounts her moment by moment loss of faculties during the course of her stroke: mobility, speech, reading, writing, and memory; and she recounts her increasingly desperate efforts to contact the outside world to get help. Taylor was the victim of a congenital defect she was unaware of, a malformed blood vessel in her brain’s left hemisphere had burst and a pocket of blood was being inflated to the size of a golf ball by her pumping heart, and pressing against the area of her brain where her speech, sensory, physical orientation and motor centers converged.
Taylor’s recovery rested on three essentials: excellent medical care (though she did have anxieties in the middle of her stroke about being taken to the “wrong” hospital because of the restrictions of her health insurance!), a devoted mother who had the ability and resources to nurse and re-educate Jill at home during her years of recovery, and Jill’s own resolve to return to full functionality and tell the world what she had learned from the experience.
During her stroke, Taylor experienced nirvana. The wondrous functioning of the human brain was such that her center of consciousness shifted from the logical hierarchical analytical left hemisphere of her usual clinical work to the sensory-affective integrative right hemisphere that always lives in the moment mediating our instantaneous contact with external reality though our senses and emotions. Taylor characterizes each brain half by comparison to computer architecture, the left being a serial processor and the right being a parallel processor. The two halves exchange information through a bundle of connecting fibers called the corpus callosum.
In shutting down the functioning of her left hemisphere, Taylor’s hemorrhage had unglued her consciousness from the myriad gritty piecemeal rectilinear and scheduled minutia of modern Western living, what we unthinkingly take to be “reality,” and had centered her consciousness in the right hemisphere’s endless moment of sensory integration with the enveloping reality of organic existence: Brahman, the Tao.
Taylor had to struggle against her ecstatic attraction to this state of bliss to maintain some contact with her left hemisphere so as to perform the many little tasks of now exceeding difficulty necessary to make a telephone call for help. After the immediate crisis, Taylor sought to maintain an ongoing connection to right-side consciousness for the rest of her life: “Frankly, I didn’t want to give up Nirvana.” Her book is a celebration of cosmic consciousness, which she describes entirely from biophysical brain science concepts, and which experience she endorses with touching sincerity and compassion because she knows how transformative and uplifting it can for the individual, and thus for the betterment of society.
To encourage the reader, Jill describes the many gentle and healthy ways she uses to induce right-brain centered consciousness, or even just simple tranquility. Her stroke of insight is that deep peace is possible for everyone, it lives in our own “right” minds, and accessing it is a portal to joyous living.
Is there a core truth common to all these schools of thought, which can be captured in a single phrase? What would you say to someone who asked for a simple answer?
The Buddha’s parting words were: “Work out your salvation with diligence.” Jesus Christ told his disciples: “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” Joseph Campbell (author of the 1949 classic The Hero With A Thousand Faces) is remembered for his advice: “Follow your bliss.” Each of these is good, but none can convey all the meanings we intend to those who have not already heard them.
I can think of two imperfect options, a ying and yang version if your will.
The first is to just smile and “keep calm and carry on” enjoying life.
The second is: “WAKE UP!”
1. New Age, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Age
2. Manuel García, Jr., “The Esoteric J. Robert Oppenheimer,” follows below.
3. I Ching, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Ching
4. Fractals, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fractal
5. Fuzzy Logic, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuzzy_logic
6. Heinrich Zimmer, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heinrich_Zimmer
7. Joseph Campbell, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Campbell
8. Manuel García, Jr., “My Favorite Classics,” http://www.swans.com/library/art18/mgarci51.html
9. Gautama Buddha, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gautama_Buddha
10. History Of Buddhism, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Buddhism
11. Chán Buddhism, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_Ch%C3%A1n
12. Pratītyasamutpāda, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prat%C4%ABtyasamutp%C4%81da
13. Ziran, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ziran
14. Wu wei, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wu_wei
15. Jill Bolte Taylor, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jill_Bolte_Taylor
The Esoteric J. Robert Oppenheimer
“We dream of travels throughout the universe: is not the universe within us? We do not know the depths of our spirit. The mysterious path leads within. In us, or nowhere, lies eternity with its worlds, the past and the future.” Novalis (Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, 1772-1801)
Julius Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) was the brilliant American theoretical physicist who guided the Manhattan Project during World War II (1942-1945) when it industrialized the technology of nuclear fission power and produced the first atomic bombs, including the only two ever used in warfare.
Immediately after the war, Oppenheimer advocated publicly for international control of nuclear arms, and against the urge for an arms race. This stance brought him into conflict with the political factions and economic interests that Dwight D. Eisenhower would call the “military-industrial complex” fifteen years later, and who were intent to revamp the economic engine that had pulled the United States out of the Great Depression and through World War II, into the war-machine industrialized economy Gore Vidal would call “the national security state.” This politics was Oppenheimer’s undoing as a national policy advisor, but the arguments used against him were phrased as doubts about his loyalty to the nation, and imputed deficiencies of character and judgement, not as political analysis and policy differences. Little has changed.
Every now and then when a new sensationalist book is published with a rehashing of the intrigues detailed in once-secret files of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) wiretaps, domestic spying and subterfuge, the question of “the real story” behind J. Robert Oppenheimer’s true loyalties and fate resurfaces. Having worked in the Livermore nuclear weapons lab (1978-2007), some have assumed I know more about that presumably untold story. However, I am too young to have gained any direct or even indirect knowledge about Oppenheimer or any of the bomb physicists of his generation. Beyond riding in a elevator with Edward Teller once (which he did not like, he wanted a private ride) I only know about these people by what I have read or seen on television, like everyone else. The wikipedia article on J. Robert Oppenheimer summarizes what I have read, heard and seen about Oppie. (1)
In 1933, Oppenheimer learned Sanskrit to read the Bhagavad Gita in its original language. The Bhagavad Gita is an ancient Hindu scripture (written between the 5th to 2nd centuries BCE), which is a masterpiece of philosophical integration as it combines the monism of the Upanishads, the dualism of Samkhya and the theism of Yoga.
The philosophy contained in the collected texts of the Upanishads (most written between about 1200 and 600 BCE) is called Vedanta, which asserts the existence of one absolute reality called Brahman, and urges seekers of truth to bypass ritual in favor of meditation governed by loving morality, as this will assuredly lead to blissful enlightenment. The 19th-century German Sanskritist Theodore Goldstücker found the philosophy of Spinoza to be a European equivalent of Vedanta, and Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) himself to be “a man whose very life is a picture of that moral purity and intellectual indifference to the transitory charms of this world, which is the constant longing of the true Vedanta philosopher.” (2)
Samkhya philosophy (which coalesced between the 5th and 2nd centuries BCE) asserts that reality is a duality of consciousness (Purusa) and material phenomenology (Prakriti), and that no God or other external influence exists. For the existentially trapped, a glue of desire bonds their Purusa to Prakriti, for example being a wage slave in the rat race to keep up with the Jones. Liberation (Moksha) is the ending of this bondage, when materialism no longer imprisons your consciousness and there is no distinction between your individual and the universal Purusa.
Yoga means union, and is a school of Hindu philosophy based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (written in the 2nd century BCE, codifying yogic traditions that originated between the mid 3rd millennium BCE and about 400 BCE). The aim is to use meditation to gain enlightenment and tranquility by merging with God, the ultimate and fundamental reality.
The Bhagavad Gita unfolds as a philosophical conversation between Prince Arjuna and his guide and charioteer Krishna, on the eve of battle in a fratricidal war. Arjuna seeks guidance from Krishna, who is an avatar of the preserver-god Vishnu. Krishna instructs Arjuna to proceed vigorously with fully committed selfless action (Karma Yoga), a compete devotional surrender to God (Bhakti Yoga) and finally to experience Brahman directly, which knowledge will carry him past his own desires and materiality (Jnana Yoga).
The Dharma, or law fitted to his nature, which Arjuna must follow is this linking of the paths of selfless action, devotion to and knowledge of the ultimate reality. These linked paths are yogas because Arjuna must unite with and embody selfless action and devotion to the sacred ultimate, and the experience of merging consciousness with It.
The Bhagavad Gita has resonated with the stirrings in many souls, besides that of J. Robert Oppenheimer, for over two millennia because each of its readers is always Arjuna forever on the eve of the battle for the salvation of his or her soul.
Oppenheimer followed the path of selfless action in guiding the Manhattan Project because he was motivated to prevent the globalization of fascism, and he was motivated to use his physics knowledge and personal charm to develop technology that under international control could checkmate the aggressive impulses of dictators, and prevent the recurrence of massively destructive and profoundly tragic wars like World War II. In reference to Heinar Kipphardt’s 1964 play In The Matter Of J. Robert Oppenheimer, which he disagreed with, Oppenheimer stated:
“I had never said that I had regretted participating in a responsible way in the making of the bomb. I said that perhaps he [Heinar Kipphardt] had forgotten Guernica, Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden, Dachau, Warsaw, and Tokyo; but I had not, and that if he found it so difficult to understand, he should write a play about something else.”
Guernica, Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo are cities which suffered merciless aerial bombardment; Dachau was the site of a Nazi concentration camp; and Warsaw was the scene of the Jewish Ghetto Uprising of 1943 (a resistance to the population transfer to Treblinka), and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, when the Nazis defeated the Polish Resistance Home Army and destroyed the city during 63 days of fighting while the Red Army waited encamped 5 minutes flying time east of the Vistula River (which runs through Warsaw).
Since I, too, have an interest in Eastern philosophy (Buddhism), I can identify with Oppie as both a “hard” science guy and a person of poetic sensibility and mystical inclination, always at odds with simplistic thinking and narrow vision.
I would suggest that Oppie’s mystical-poetic side was akin to the sensibilities of the esotericists Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925, metaphysics out of late German Romanticism, “anthroposophy”) and Peter D. Ouspensky (1878-1947, psychology out of Gurdjieff esotericism). I assume that sensibilities of this sort would have seeped into Oppie’s subconscious by cultural osmosis, as he was a New York Jew born of cultured and prosperous German immigrant parents early in the 20th century (1904), and his own personality was naturally refined and thus easily receptive to esoteric thought. The way he worked out bringing these subconscious metaphysical currents into the foreground of his conscious mind was to invoke the conceptual structures and language of Hindu philosophy, and specifically that of its philosophical and literary jewel the Bhagavad Gita.
The popular awareness of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s was likely to be a result of exposure to esotericism based on borrowed Asian ideas, such as with the theosophy of Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891), and the dervish-yoga collage of George Gurdjieff (1866-1949); and more accurately through the traveling or immigrant Vedanta teachers like the swamis Vivekananda (1863-1902), Prabhavananda (1893-1976) and Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952), and the writer and speaker Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986).
Oppenheimer flourished in the highest strata of American and European academia, and could easily interact with Sanskrit, Indology and Sinology scholars. So, it was an unusual commitment for him to learn Sanskrit to independently read and interpret the Vedas (the Sanskrit scriptures) instead of just relying on the lectures and scholarly translations by his fellow academics. But, he was thus better informed.
A highly regarded and popular translation into English of the Bhagavad Gita by Swami Prabhavananda appeared in 1944, it was coauthored with Christopher Isherwood, and its introduction was written by Aldous Huxley. In describing the yoga of knowledge, Krishna tells Arjuna:
“Die, and you win heaven. Conquer, and you enjoy the earth. Stand up now, son of Kunti, and resolve to fight. Realize that pleasure and pain, gain and loss, victory and defeat are all one and the same: then go into battle. Do this and you cannot commit any sin.”
A book retelling an ancient teaching of selfless action during the conduct of war, published near the end of World War II; I wonder if Oppenheimer read it?
Consider the following projections of how Oppenheimer might have internalized Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Jnana Yoga.
Commit to swinging the sword and letting the blood flow. This is your unique time and place in the universe, your dharma, and to gain the enlightening insight that can be taken as the purpose of life it is necessary to learn from the consequences of your acts, your karma. So, lay down the best karma you can trail in the wake of your actions by being unattached to personal gain from them. Fulfill your duties and act out your existentially appointed role in a selfless manner, for the noble though temporal purpose of defeating fascism, and for the higher and eternal purpose you are now aware of. You cannot moan that “the world is a mess” because for all men and women at all times and places the world is and has always been a mess. It is forever imperfect and filled with suffering and injustice. You are of this world, this realm of phenomenal existence, and cannot remake it. What you can do is to change yourself from a being trapped by lack of awareness of the ultimate reality, and your own true nature as part of that ultimate reality. Do not run from the unavoidability of karmic diffusion that material existence entails, but instead merge with your karma selflessly, and realize you are the ultimate unrecognized. Then you will begin to see that ultimate, and transcend karmic diffusion.
Devote yourself to the appreciation of the ultimate reality by delving into the workings of phenomenal manifestations. Unfolding these for the understanding of others raises the amount of such appreciation among men and women, and inspires others to follow along similar paths of discovery, bringing more souls toward self-realization. This is so different from chicken-scratching in the dirt of reality to peck out some hidden nugget, some secret recipe, to be used in petty schemes of self aggrandizement and in temporal power plays. Devotion to the ultimate reality is that “moral purity” which elevates you to “intellectual indifference to the transitory charms of this world.” This is completely beyond conventional social morality, which is entirely a matter of seeking acceptance, currying favor and maintaining social standing. All that is about keeping Purusa glued to Prakriti. Devotion to the ultimate and indifference to the temporal are liberating, they are Moksha.
Oppenheimer used his considerable intellectual talent to pursue this goal of “knowing,” which paradoxically is unattainable by the conscious effort of abstract thinking alone. Jnana Yoga is like Zen, the direct experience of the ultimate, or “cosmic consciousness” as Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) called it. This is knowledge by direct experience, not the mere thinking in abstractions, which is so much of theoretical physics. The understanding of quantum mechanics and general relativity is not the same as the experience of cosmic consciousness. Still, such abstract thinking on philosophical concepts can prepare you to recognize when the plunge into cosmic consciousness envelops you. One usually seeks the experience by some form of meditation, or is jolted into it by the force of circumstances. Rather than trying to tease out a verbalization of the experience of the ultimate, from distortions of Vedanta in European languages, Oppenheimer learned Sanskrit to burrow down into the primary references in their original language. Is this not Bhakti Yoga, a devotion to the appreciation of the the ultimate? Is this not Karma Yoga, a selfless merging with the task to be done for the greater purpose of complete enlightenment, the merging with “the one,” Brahman?
“The true philosophical Act is annihilation of self; this is the real beginning of all Philosophy.” Novalis (1772-1801)
I can only assume that Oppenheimer experienced his true self at some point, and perhaps several times during his eventful life. Certainly, we will all merge with eternity eventually when we die, though sadly so many will pass through still unrealized.
Oppie was a man of much keener vision than the average Joe, so from the perspectives of mundane viewpoints comfortably settled within conventional thinking and behavior he was always seen to be on the edge intellectually, psychologically, morally and politically. To those of straightforward robotic thinking at the service of monomaniacal ambition within the bureaucracies of the US military-industrial-political complex, Oppenheimer would be instinctively perceived as a threat. It was inevitable that people like Lewis L. Strauss, Edward Teller and Leslie Groves would oppose Oppenheimer in 1954, during his security clearance hearing. In 1945 they had loved him because he enabled their ambitions and because he was acknowledged as “absolutely essential” to the gargantuan Manhattan Project.
It just so happens that people with any psychological similarity to Oppenheimer tend to be Democrats (or far more leftist), and people like Oppie’s psychological opposites tend to be Republicans. So, at the time there was also a partisan divide on the matter of Oppie’s security clearance, which struggle was entirely about allowing the arms control perspective to be given a place in the councils of government or suppressed, and was framed as an argument over the degree of policy-forming power that Oppenheimer was to be given or denied. Today as then, the battles over what types of ideas and thinking are to hold sway in the making of government policy are couched as arguments over the personal merits or deficiencies of selected high-profile individuals. Oppie “lost” his security clearance (one day before it was to expire anyway) because he was a high-profile symbol of the type of prewar East Coast urban leftist Jewish intellectual New Dealer who was now being excessed, since the war was won, in favor of a new generation of guardians of concentrated wealth, in the tradition of Robert A. Taft (1889-1953), the establishment white Christian grand bourgeois managers of post-war corporatism.
Was Oppenheimer subversive? Did he betray the trust put in him? Oppenheimer’s marital life was complicated, being interspersed with extra-marital affairs. But then, so are the lives of billions of other husbands of all political persuasions. His marital fidelity or infidelity was really of matter of concern best left to his wife Kitty Harrison, who remained with him till he died in 1967. However, on the matter of national security the record is clear, Oppenheimer never passed any classified information to the Soviet Union (based on the Vassiliev notebooks of KGB archival material), and even removed Los Alamos scientists whom he suspected of excessive Soviet sympathies from the Manhattan Project. He did not break trust in his technical-academic nor public-technocrat lives. (3)
Oppenheimer was a “subversive” only in the sense of being opposed to, and opposed by, the postwar military-industrial corporatists. These included J. Edgar Hoover who would use the federal policing agency he lorded over to undermine Oppenheimer’s postwar political standing, rather than protecting him from intrigue as the FBI had been required to do during the war, when Oppenheimer was “absolutely essential.”
1. J. Robert Oppenheimer, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._Robert_Oppenheimer
2. Vedanta, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vedanta
3. Alexander Vassiliev, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Vassiliev
Asian Philosophies and the “New Age” originally appeared at:
Asian Philosophies and the “New Age”
5 November 2012
The Esoteric J. Robert Oppenheimer originally appeared at:
The Esoteric J. Robert Oppenheimer
22 October 2012