Aldous Huxley (26 July 1894 – 22 November 1963), one of the great modern thinkers, philosophers, and social commentators of the 20th century, is often hailed as an inspirational figure of the Human Potential Movement and the subsequent development of transpersonal psychology. His contributions to modern thought spanned many genres: novels, including the groundbreaking works Brave New World (1932) and Island (1962); essays, including the volumes The Art of Seeing (1942) and The Doors of Perception (1954); and philosophy, including The Perennial Philosophy (1945), a work often credited as one of the early pillars of transpersonal theory.
Huxley was a humanist, pacifist, and satirist. Huxley later became interested in spiritual subjects such as parapsychology and philosophical mysticism, in particular, Universalism. By the end of his life, Huxley was widely acknowledged as one of the pre-eminent intellectuals of his time. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in seven different years.
Born into a prominent family in England in 1894, Aldous Leonard Huxley was raised among intellectuals, including several great scientists, among them Huxley’s grandfather, Thomas Huxley, who supported and promoted the work of Charles Darwin. Huxley’s mother died when he was fourteen years-old and her death and the death of a sister in the same month were major sources of sorrow within the family. To cope with his grief, Huxley applied himself diligently to his studies.
The boy Huxley was known for his intellect from an early age and focused much of his attention and passion on literature and the written word. At seventeen, the budding scholar was stricken with keratitis punctata, a disease of the eye that left young Huxley nearly blind. Nonetheless, he enrolled at university at Balliol College, Oxford, having taught himself Braille to continue to read until his eyesight returned. Over the course of the next several years, Huxley regained enough of his eyesight to complete his studies and graduated in 1916 from Balliol with a degree in English literature. In his final year at Balliol, Huxley also published his first books of poems, The Burning Wheel (1916), which garnered the attention of literary circles and critics alike. Through these connections, Huxley established a relationship with Lady Ottoline Morrell. Her manor house, Garsington, was the site of many literary gatherings and the location where Huxley met many of his early influential friends including Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, and D.H. Lawrence, who would re-enter Huxley’s life in a profound way within a decade of the young writer’s entrance into this salon.
While pursuing the life of the mind, Huxley recognized that he would also have to tend to the realities of bodily needs. In order to pay off the debt incurred during his education, Huxley initially took a job as an administrator at the Air Ministry after graduation, but his heart was in the world of words and ideas rather than business and commerce.
Through his contacts at Garsington, Huxley finally joined the editorial staff at the Atheneum in London in 1919. There he wrote essays, travel journals, and critiques, which eventually propelled him into his career as a full-time novelist, travel-writer, and essayist-and later in life he also wrote plays and screenplays during his years in California. Through each literary style, Huxley developed his strong philosophical tendencies. His early work, including Chrome Yellow (1921) and Antic Hay (1923), were brilliant satiric social commentary, chronicling the excesses and intentional blindness of the upper social classes of contemporary London. His strong modernist voice established Huxley’s reputation as an important social thinker in post-World War I Europe.
During this period, from 1926 until D.H. Lawrence’s death in 1930, the two men were very close and shared much in common in the way of artistic motivation and philosophy. This early relationship clearly and profoundly influenced the later trajectories of Huxley’s work.
For a few years Lawrence’s influence drew him to a kind of vitalist limbo where, still declaring his faith in reason, he sketched out a philosophy of balanced living that went as far in constructing a moral system as possible without religious foundation. It did not go far enough for Huxley, who reasoned himself eventually into two drastic conclusions. First, he abandoned a cherished tradition of the Huxley clan by recognizing that the process of abstraction implicit in the scientific method actually diverted men from perceiving the realities of existence. This he derived largely from Lawrence. He also reached, as independently as a man of omnivorous reading ever reaches a mental goal, the conclusion that man’s miseries were due to the lack of a spiritual dimension to his existence.
As noted above, in response to the overwhelming positivism of the Enlightenment era, Huxley, under the tutelage of Lawrence, embraced an “irrationalism,” or a stance grounded in personal experience and corporeal knowledge. This bold stance contradicted the lineage of respect for and pursuit of scientific truth established by his family. However, it took many years and much more searching and experience before Huxley was able to synthesize and articulate his beliefs in The Perennial Philosophy (1945).
Brave New World, one of the titles most closely associated with Huxley’s career was published in 1932. This dystopian, futuristic novel explored the ramifications of a world shaped by technology and homogenization. The grim vision of the future underscored Huxley’s move away from his earlier satirical tone toward an increasing commitment to pacifism, right livelihood, and conscious living that had developed during his relationship with Lawrence. Within two years of the publication of this novel, Huxley and another close friend Gerald Heard were becoming so committed to the pacifist movement in Europe as to give public speeches. During the dark days of the rise of Hitler, Huxley’s social commentary seemed almost prophetic in its nature.
The relationship between Huxley and Heard brought profound change into each man’s life. Deeply intellectual, thoughtful, and committed to being of service in the world, the pair often exchanged ideas and served as rigorous sounding boards for the other’s work. Heard also introduced Huxley to meditation and yoga, initially as practices to improve Huxley’s chronic ill health and insomnia. Through this inner work, Huxley’s spirituality began to blossom and much of his philosophical framework began to shift from commenting on the actions, foibles, and mistakes of institutions and the State, to explorations on the individual. “Both Huxley and Heard had increasingly come to believe that the most overlooked cure for social problems is actually the improvement of the individual citizen, and that cultures are only expressions of the collective consciousness of their people”. This shift in Huxley’s philosophy further influenced the direction of both his spiritual path and his writing.
In 1937, at the dawn of World War II, Huxley, his wife, Maria, and Heard embarked on a trip to the United States which had profound impact upon the trajectory of the latter half of Huxley’s life. The two men toured the country in support of pacifism and the tour was primarily a success. Upon his return to Los Angeles, Huxley took work as a screenwriter which gave him entree into the inner circles of Hollywood society and income to support his other pursuits.
From his inquiry into meditative practices, Huxley had developed a keen interest in mysticism and yearned to understand the concepts of enlightenment and unity with the divine. Huxley aligned himself with the Vedanta Society of Southern California and began a meditation practice under the guidance of the guru Swami Prabhavananda. Even though Huxley maintained ambivalence with regard to the adoption of a guru, he nonetheless strove to master his practice. In 1944, Huxley wrote the introduction to the “Bhagavad Gita: The Song of God”, translated by Swami Prabhavanada and Christopher Isherwood, which was published by The Vedanta Society of Southern California.
From 1941 until 1960, Huxley contributed 48 articles to Vedanta and the West, published by the Society. He also served on the editorial board with Isherwood, Heard, and playwright John van Druten from 1951 through 1962. Huxley also occasionally lectured at the Hollywood and Santa Barbara Vedanta temples. Two of those lectures have been released on CD: Knowledge and Understanding and Who Are We from 1955. Nonetheless, Huxley’s agnosticism, together with his speculative propensity, made it difficult for him to fully embrace any form of institutionalized religion. After the publication of The Doors of Perception, Huxley and the Swami disagreed about the meaning and importance of the Mescaline drug experience, which may have caused the relationship to cool, but Huxley continued to write articles for the Society’s journal, lecture at the temple, and attend social functions.
By 1942, Huxley had become closely aligned with Jiddu Krishnamurti, a contemporary mystic who shared Huxley’s resistance to formalized, institutional religion, but embraced the concept of an individual spiritual path for each person. The relationship between the two men further influenced Huxley’s burgeoning philosophical stance, which ultimately led to the publication of The Perennial Philosophy (1945). This treatise captured Huxley’s perspectives on mysticism: that there are experiences and aspects of practice common among mystics from all of the world’s religions and spiritual practices which reinforce the validity and importance of spiritual practice. Huxley describes his philosophy as:
“The metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being — the thing is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of the Perennial Philosophy may be found among the traditional lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions.”
In his own lifetime, Huxley held firm to his beliefs regarding the common path of the mystic and devoted the rest of his life to pursuing his own spiritual growth. In 1952, Huxley became aware of the pioneers in the scientific and experiential study of the use of psychedelic substances as catalysts for psychological transformation and healing. Among this group was Dr. Humphry Osmond, a researcher using mescaline in his studies. Huxley befriended the scientist and eventually became one of Osmond’s research subjects. Most of the early psychedelic research had been conducted on people with severe mental disturbances, so Huxley’s participation gave insight into the effects that psychoactive substances would have on those people engaged in spiritual practice and interested in mysticism. The results of this initial experiment were reported in Huxley’s book, The Doors of Perception (1954), which later became popular among the youth culture of the 1960. However Huxley’s research was by no means taken up in a blithe manner. The seriousness and devotion to keenly observe his own processes as he ingested psychoactive substances marked Huxley’s belief that “the experience is so transcendentally important that it is in no circumstances a thing to be entered upon light-heartedly or for enjoyment”.
Huxley died on November 22, 1963 (the same day as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy) just as he had lived: in an experiment of expanding consciousness. He battled throat cancer for several years, so on his deathbed he was unable to speak. By writing a note, he asked his second wife, Laura, to administer LSD to him. She honored his wishes and also engaged in a ceremonial farewell to her husband which she described later in her biography of him:
“Light and free you let go, darling; forward and up. You are going forward and up; you are going toward the light. . . .You are doing it so beautifully, so easily. Light and free. Forward and up. . . .You are going toward a greater love than you have ever known. You are going toward the best, the greatest love, and it is easy, it is so easy, and you are doing it so beautifully.”
His serene exit was entrenched in the written words of his final work, Island—a novel dealing heavily with Buddhist philosophy and psychedelic exploration through “moksha medicine.”
“All five people in the room said that this was the most serene, the most beautiful death. Both doctors and the nurse said they had never seen a person in similar physical condition going off so completely without pain and without struggle,” writes Laura Huxley.
As noted above, Huxley’s life and work has had a profound impact on modern thought, social criticism, and contemporary movements in psychology and philosophy. As the transpersonal field has grown and developed over the past thirty years, scholars have engaged with Huxley’s material; some embrace his perspectives and have built upon his work, including the integral philosophy of Ken Wilbur. Recently, transpersonal scholars have initiated a debate regarding the wholesale acceptance of Huxley’s perennial philosophy, noting, instead, the importance of “participatory spiritual pluralism”. Nonetheless, the rich, complex work and ground-breaking contributions to modern thought continue to influence and inspire the study of Huxley’s life, works, and metaphysics.
As experimentation with psychedelics increased over the next decade, Huxley became peripherally involved with Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and Ralph Metzner for several years, but ultimately distanced himself from Leary due to philosophical differences over the value and ultimate purpose of psychedelic use. Huxley explained his perspective and beliefs in his final novel entitled Island (1962). Within the novel, the inhabitants of the eponymous island seek personal spiritual growth which subsequently leads to a Utopian society. The novel, while at times criticized for diminished literary merit in light of his earlier work, is often viewed as a summation of the latter half of Huxley’s life, detailing a commitment to personal growth as the path to greater serving and improving the society.
For an interesting article on Huxley, Mysticism, and Buddhism by a Buddhist teacher, see:
Some quotes from Aldous Huxley:
“It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘Try to be a little kinder.’”
“Too much consistency is as bad for the mind as it is for the body. Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead. Consistent intellectualism and spirituality may be socially valuable, up to a point; but they make, gradually, for individual death.”
“The course of every intellectual, if he pursues his journey long and unflinchingly enough, ends in the obvious, from which the non-intellectuals have never stirred.”
“Proverbs are always platitudes until you have personally experienced the truth of them.”
“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.”
“The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm.”
“One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them.”
“At least two thirds of our miseries spring from human stupidity, human malice, and those great motivators and justifiers of malice and stupidity, idealism, dogmatism and proselytizing zeal on behalf of religious or political idols.”
“’There are quiet places also in the mind’, he said meditatively. ‘But we build bandstands and factories on them. Deliberately — to put a stop to the quietness. … All the thoughts, all the preoccupations in my head — round and round, continually What’s it for? What’s it all for? To put an end to the quiet, to break it up and disperse it, to pretend at any cost that it isn’t there. Ah, but it is; it is there, in spite of everything, at the back of everything. Lying awake at night — not restlessly, but serenely, waiting for sleep — the quiet re-establishes itself, piece by piece; all the broken bits … we’ve been so busily dispersing all day long. It re-establishes itself, an inward quiet, like the outward quiet of grass and trees. It fills one, it grows — a crystal quiet, a growing, expanding crystal. It grows, it becomes more perfect; it is beautiful and terrifying … For one’s alone in the crystal, and there’s no support from the outside, there is nothing external and important, nothing external and trivial to pull oneself up by or stand on … There is nothing to laugh at or feel enthusiast about. But the quiet grows and grows. Beautifully and unbearably. And at last you are conscious of something approaching; it is almost a faint sound of footsteps. Something inexpressively lovely and wonderful advances through the crystal, nearer, nearer. And, oh, inexpressively terrifying. For if it were to touch you, if it were to seize you and engulf you, you’d die; all the regular, habitual daily part of you would die … one would have to begin living arduously in the quiet, arduously in some strange, unheard of manner.”
“The surest way to work up a crusade in favor of some good cause is to promise people they will have a chance of maltreating someone. To be able to destroy with good conscience, to be able to behave badly and call your bad behavior “righteous indignation” — this is the height of psychological luxury, the most delicious of moral treats.”
“You can’t worship a spirit in spirit, unless you do it now. Wallowing in the past may be good literature. As wisdom, it’s hopeless. Time Regained is Paradise Lost, and Time Lost is Paradise Regained. Let the dead bury their dead. If you want to live at every moment as it presents itself, you’ve got to die to every other moment.”
“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.”
“The trouble with fiction… is that it makes too much sense. Reality never makes sense.”
“The more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards the religion of solitude.”
“Defined in psychological terms, a fanatic is a man who consciously over-compensates a secret doubt.”
“We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies—all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.”
“There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.”
“Man is so intelligent that he feels impelled to invent theories to account for what happens in the world. Unfortunately, he is not quite intelligent enough, in most cases, to find correct explanations. So that when he acts on his theories, he behaves very often like a lunatic.”
“Jehovah, Allah, the Trinity, Jesus, Buddha, are names for a great variety of human virtues, human mystical experiences human remorses, human compensatory fantasies, human terrors, human cruelties. If all men were alike, all the world would worship the same God.”
“Why did it occur to anyone to believe in only one God? And conversely why did it ever occur to anyone to believe in many gods? To both these questions we must return the same answer: Because that is how the human mind happens to work. For the human mind is both diverse and simple, simultaneously many and one. We have an immediate perception of our own diversity and of that of the outside world. And at the same time we have immediate perceptions of our own oneness.”
“More than twenty-five centuries have passed since that which has been called the Perennial Philosophy was first committed to writing; and in the course of those centuries it has found expression, now partial, now complete, now in this form, now in that, again and again. In Vedanta and Hebrew prophecy, in the Tao Teh King and the Platonic dialogues, in the Gospel according to St. John and Mahayana theology, in Plotinus and the Areopagite, among the Persian Sufis and the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance — the Perennial Philosophy has spoken almost all the languages of Asia and Europe and has made use of the terminology and traditions of every one of the higher religions. But under all this confusion of tongues and myths, of local histories and particularist doctrines, there remains a Highest Common Factor, which is the Perennial Philosophy in what may be called its chemically pure state. This final purity can never, of course, be expressed by any verbal statement of the philosophy, however undogmatic that statement may be, however deliberately syncretistic. The very fact that it is set down at a certain time by a certain writer, using this or that language, automatically imposes a certain sociological and personal bias on the doctrines so formulated. It is only in the act of contemplation when words and even personality are transcended, that the pure state of the Perennial Philosophy can actually be known. The records left by those who have known it in this way make it abundantly clear that all of them, whether Hindu, Buddhist, Hebrew, Taoist, Christian, or Mohammedan, were attempting to describe the same essentially indescribable Fact.”
“The original scriptures of most religions are poetical and unsystematic. Theology, which generally takes the form of a reasoned commentary on the parables and aphorisms of the scriptures, tends to make its appearance at a later stage of religious history. The Bhagavad-Gita occupies an intermediate position between scripture and theology; for it combines the poetical qualities of the first with the clear-cut methodicalness of the second… one of the clearest and most comprehensive summaries of the Perennial Philosophy ever to have been made. Hence its enduring value, not only for Indians, but for all mankind.”
“At the core of the Perennial Philosophy we find four fundamental doctrines.
First: the phenomenal world of matter and of individualized consciousness — the world of things and animals and men and even gods — is the manifestation of a Divine Ground within which all partial realities have their being, and apart from which they would be non-existent.
Second: human beings are capable not merely of knowing about the Divine Ground by inference; they can also realize its existence by a direct intuition, superior to discursive reasoning. This immediate knowledge unites the knower with that which is known.
Third: man possesses a double nature, a phenomenal ego and an eternal Self, which is the inner man, the spirit, the spark of divinity within the soul. It is possible for a man, if he so desires, to identify himself with the spirit and therefore with the Divine Ground, which is of the same or like nature with the spirit.
Fourth: man’s life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so to come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground.”
“Suso has even left a diagrammatic picture of the relations subsisting between Godhead, triune God and creatures. In this very curious and interesting drawing a chain of manifestation connects the mysterious symbol of the Divine Ground with the three Persons of the Trinity, and the Trinity in turn is connected in a descending scale with angels and human beings. These last, as the drawing vividly shows, may make one of two choices. They can either live the life of the outer man, the life of the separative selfhood; in which case they are lost (for, in the words of the Theologia Germanica, “nothing burns in hell but the self”). Or else they can identify themselves with the inner man, in which case it becomes possible for them, as Suso shows, to ascend again, through unitive knowledge, to the Trinity and even, beyond the Trinity, to the ultimate Unity of the Divine Ground.”
“The second doctrine of the Perennial Philosophy — that it is possible to know the Divine Ground by a direct intuition higher than discursive reasoning — is to be found in all the great religions of the world. A philosopher who is content merely to know about the ultimate Reality — theoretically and by hearsay — is compared by Buddha to a herdsman of other men’s cows. Mohammed uses an even homelier barnyard metaphor. For him the philosopher who has not realized his metaphysics is just an ass bearing a load of books. Christian, Hindu, Taoist teachers wrote no less emphatically about the absurd pretensions of mere learning and analytic reasoning.”
“The unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground has, as its necessary condition, self-abnegation and charity. Only by means of self-abnegation and charity can we clear away the evil, folly and ignorance which constitute the thing we call our personality and prevent us from becoming aware of the spark of divinity illuminating the inner man.”
“The spark within is akin to the Divine Ground. By identifying ourselves with the first we can come to unitive knowledge of the second. These empirical facts of the spiritual life have been variously rationalized in terms of the theologies of the various religions. The Hindus categorically affirm that Thou art That — that the indwelling Atman is the same as Brahman. For orthodox Christianity there is not an identity between the spark and God. Union of the human spirit with God takes place — union so complete that the word deification is applied to it; but it is not the union of identical substances. According to Christian theology, the saint is “deified,” not because Atman is Brahman, but because God has assimilated the purified human spirit in to the divine substance by an act of grace. Islamic theology seems to make a similar distinction. The Sufi, Mansur, was executed for giving to the words “union” and “deification” the literal meaning which they bear in the Hindu tradition. For our present purposes, however, the significant fact is that these words are actually used by Christians and Mohammedans to describe the empirical facts of metaphysical realization by means of direct, super-rational intuition.”
“In regard to man’s final end, all the higher religions are in complete agreement. The purpose of human life is the discovery of Truth, the unitive knowledge of the Godhead. The degree to which this unitive knowledge is achieved here on earth determines the degree to which it will be enjoyed in the posthumous state. Contemplation of truth is the end, action the means.”
“Because machines could be made progressively more and more efficient, Western man came to believe that men and societies would automatically register a corresponding moral and spiritual improvement. Attention and allegiance came to be paid, not to Eternity, but to the Utopian future. External circumstances came to be regarded as more important than states of mind about external circumstances, and the end of human life was held to be action, with contemplation as a means to that end. These false and historically, aberrant and heretical doctrines are now systematically taught in our schools and repeated, day in, day out, by those anonymous writers of advertising copy who, more than any other teachers, provide European and American adults with their current philosophy of life. And so effective has been the propaganda that even professing Christians accept the heresy unquestioningly and are quite unconscious of its complete incompatibility with their own or anybody else’s religion.”
“Many Catholic mystics have affirmed that, at a certain stage of that contemplative prayer in which, according to the most authoritative theologians, the life of Christian perfection ultimately consists, it is necessary to put aside all thought of the Incarnation as distracting from the higher knowledge of that which has been incarnated. From this fact have arisen misunderstandings in plenty and a number of intellectual difficulties.”
“Human beings are not born identical. There are many different temperaments and constitutions; and within each psycho-physical class one can find people at very different stages of spiritual development. Forms of worship and spiritual discipline which may be valuable for one individual maybe useless or even positively harmful for another belonging to a different class and standing, within that class, at a lower or higher level of development.”
“I have tried to show that the Perennial Philosophy and its ethical corollaries constitute a Highest Common Factor, present in all the major religions of the world. To affirm this truth has never been more imperatively necessary than at the present time. There will never be enduring peace unless and until human beings come to accept a philosophy of life more adequate to the cosmic and psychological facts than the insane idolatries of nationalism and the advertising man’s apocalyptic faith in Progress towards a mechanized New Jerusalem. All the elements of this philosophy are present, as we have seen, in the traditional religions. But in existing circumstances there is not the slightest chance that any of the traditional religions will obtain universal acceptance. Europeans and Americans will see no reason for being converted to Hinduism, say, or Buddhism. And the people of Asia can hardly be expected to renounce their own traditions for the Christianity professed, often sincerely, by the imperialists who, for four hundred years and more, have been systematically attacking, exploiting, and oppressing, and are now trying to finish off the work of destruction by “educating” them. But happily there is the Highest Common Factor of all religions, the Perennial Philosophy which has always and everywhere been the metaphysical system of prophets, saints and sages. It is perfectly possible for people to remain good Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, or Moslems and yet to be united in full agreement on the basic doctrines of the Perennial Philosophy.”
“The Bhagavad-Gita is perhaps the most systematic scriptural statement of the Perennial Philosophy. To a world at war, a world that, because it lacks the intellectual and spiritual prerequisites to peace, can only hope to patch up some kind of precarious armed truce, it stands pointing, clearly and unmistakably, to the only road of escape from the self-imposed necessity of self-destruction.”
“To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large — this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual.”
“To see ourselves as others see us is a most salutary gift. Hardly less important is the capacity to see others as they see themselves.”
“You never see animals going through the absurd and often horrible fooleries of magic and religion. . . . Dogs do not ritually urinate in the hope of persuading heaven to do the same and send down rain. Asses do not bray a liturgy to cloudless skies. Nor do cats attempt, by abstinence from cat’s meat, to wheedle the feline spirits into benevolence. Only man behaves with such gratuitous folly. It is the price he has to pay for being intelligent but not, as yet, quite intelligent enough.”
“And suddenly I had an inkling of what it must feel like to be mad.
‘Is it agreeable?’ somebody asked.
‘Neither agreeable nor disagreeable,’ I answered. ‘it just is.’ Istigkeit – wasn’t that the word Meister Eckhart liked to use? ‘Is-ness.’ The Being of Platonic philosophy – except that Plato seems to have made the enormous, the grotesque mistake of separating Being from becoming and identifying it with the mathematical abstraction of the Idea. He could never, poor fellow, have seen a bunch of flowers shining with their own inner light and all but quivering under the pressure of the significance with which they were charged; could never have perceived that what rose and iris and carnation so intensely signified was nothing more, and nothing less, than what they were – a transience that was yet eternal life, a perpetual perishing that was at the same time pure Being, a bundle of minute, unique particulars in which, by some unspeakable and yet self-evident paradox, was to be seen the divine source of all existence.”
“Every individual is at once the beneficiary and the victim of the linguistic tradition into which he has been born – the beneficiary inasmuch as language gives access to the accumulated records of other people’s experience, the victim in so far as it confirms him in the belief that reduced awareness is the only awareness and as it bedevils his sense of reality, so that he is all too apt to take his concepts for data, his words for actual things. That which, in the language of religion, is called “this world” is the universe of reduced awareness, expressed, and, as it were, petrified by language.”
“I strongly suspect that most of the great knowers of Suchness paid very little attention to art.… (To a person whose transfigured and transfiguring mind can see the All in every this, the first-rateness or tenth-rateness of even a religious painting will be a matter of the most sovereign indifference.) Art, I suppose, is only for beginners, or else for those resolute dead-enders, who have made up their minds to be content with the ersatz of Suchness, with symbols rather than with what they signify, with the elegantly composed recipe in lieu of actual dinner.”
“Given the nature of spiders, webs are inevitable. And given the nature of human beings, so are religions. Spiders can’t help making fly-traps, and men can’t help making symbols. That’s what the human brain is there for – the turn the chaos of given experience into a set of manageable symbols.”
“Nobody needs to go anywhere else. We are all, if we only knew it, already there. If I only knew who in fact I am, I should cease to behave as what I think I am; and if I stopped behaving as what I think I am, I should know who I am. What in fact I am, if only the Manichee I think I am would allow me to know it, is the reconciliation of yes and no lived out in total acceptance and the blessed experience of Not-Two. In religion all words are dirty words. Anybody who gets eloquent about Buddha, or God, or Christ, ought to have his mouth washed out with carbolic soap.”
“For every traveller who has any taste of his own, the only useful guidebook will be the one which he himself has written.”
“The man who wishes to know the “that” which is “thou” may set to work in any one of three ways. He may begin by looking inwards into his own particular thou and, by a process of “dying to self” — self in reasoning, self in willing, self in feeling — come at last to knowledge of the self, the kingdom of the self, the kingdom of God that is within. Or else he may begin with the thous existing outside himself, and may try to realize their essential unity with God and, through God, with one another and with his own being. Or, finally (and this is doubtless the best way), he may seek to approach the ultimate That both from within and from without, so that he comes to realize God experimentally as at once the principle of his own thou and of all other thous, animate and inanimate.”
“Give us this day our daily Faith, but deliver us, dear God, from Belief. Faith is something very different from belief. Belief is the systematic taking of unanalyzed words much too seriously. Paul’s words, Mohammed’s words, Marx’s words, Hitler’s words—people take them too seriously, and what happens? What happens is the senseless ambivalence of history—sadism versus duty, or (incomparably worse) sadism as duty; devotion counterbalanced by organized paranoia; sisters of charity selflessly tending the victims of their own church’s inquisitors and crusaders. Faith, on the contrary, can never be taken too seriously. For Faith is the empirically justified confidence in our capacity to know who in fact we are, to forget the belief-intoxicated Manichee in Good Being.”
“The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out. He will be wiser but less sure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend.”
“Nobody can have the consolations of religion or philosophy unless he has first experienced their desolations.”
“The more a man knows about himself in relation to every kind of experience, the greater his chance of suddenly, one fine morning, realizing who in fact he is…”
“Most lead lives at worst so painful, at best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and has always been one of the principle appetites of the soul.”
“To be enlightened is to be aware, always, of total reality in its immanent otherness – to be aware of it and yet remain in a condition to survive as an animal. Our goal is to discover that we have always been where we ought to be. Unhappily we make the task exceedingly difficult for ourselves.”
“The Beatific Vision, Sat Chit Ananda, Being-Awareness-Bliss-for the first time I understood, not on the verbal level, not by inchoate hints or at a distance, but precisely and completely what those prodigious syllables referred to. And then I remembered a passage I had read in one of Suzuki’s essays. ‘What is the Dharma-Body of the Buddha?’ (‘the Dharma-Body of the Buddha’ is another way of saying Mind, Suchness, the Void, the Godhead.) The question is asked in a Zen monastery by an earnest and bewildered novice. And with the prompt irrelevance of one of the Marx Brothers, the Master answers, ‘The hedge at the bottom of the garden.’ ‘And the man who realizes this truth,’ the novice dubiously inquires, ‘what, may I ask, is he?’ Groucho gives him a whack over the shoulders with his staff and answers, ‘A golden-haired lion.’
It had been, when I read it, only a vaguely pregnant piece of nonsense. Now it was all as clear as day, as evident as Euclid. Of course the Dharma-Body of the Buddha was the hedge at the bottom of the garden. At the same time, and no less obviously, it was these flowers, it was anything that I—or rather the blessed Not-I, released for a moment from my throttling embrace—cared to look at.”
“I was sitting on the seashore, half listening to a friend arguing violently about something which merely bored me. Unconsciously to myself, I looked at a film, of sand I had picked up on my hand, when I suddenly saw the exquisite beauty of every little grain of it; instead of being dull, I saw that each particle was made up on a perfect geometrical pattern, with sharp angles, from each of which a brilliant shaft of light was reflected, while each tiny crystal shone like a rainbow. . . . The rays crossed and recrossed, making exquisite patterns of such beauty that they left me breathless. … Then, suddenly, my consciousness was lighted up from within and I saw in a vivid way how the whole universe was made up of particles of material which, no matter how dull and lifeless they might seem, were nevertheless filled with this intense and vital beauty. For a second or two the whole world appeared as a blaze of glory. When it died down, it left me with something I have never forgotten and which constantly reminds me of the beauty locked up in every minute speck of material around us.”