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Friday, September 8, 2017

Esotericism and the Books on the Shelf

A new translation of the Zohar, puts it in reach of modern English Speakers. The work is an apocryphal work, purportedly written around the same time as parts of the Talmud, but actually possibly not written down til the late 13th century, it represents oral teachings handed down and later written down by Rabbi's and their disciples. Who knows how many? The Zohar, like much of Mahayana Buddhism, Tendai and Nichiren Teachings, represents the work of teachers following a contemplative tradition. The Jewish Authors may not have been monks (Buddhist or Christian) but their insights are part of a tradition of meditation and contemplation with roots from before either Christianity or Judaism took their present form. That is what makes the work interesting to me. This translation of the Zohar can be useful to anyone studying religion, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or non Jew. Arthur Green, in is review of the book illustrates some of why that is true. My book (if I ever finish it) explains why. At the very least folks should read his article:

Zohar Kabbalah & Mainstream Judaism

Coming to Esotericism as a Critic

My wife introduced me to Jewish Mysticism and I came to it as a critic, having learned about esotericism from the critiques of the Buddhist Monk Nichiren, and followed up by translations of critiques of later authors of the way that Nichiren's disciples incorporated esotericism into their own religion.

Parallels with Tendai, Shingon and Nichirenism

Nichiren had taken, and made exoteric, some core doctrines of the Mahayana tradition. In doing that he was following up on the work of the founder of Tendai, Saicho (Tendai). But he also was running afoul of disciples of Kobo Daishi (Kukai) and the Tendai Priest Jikkuku Daishi, who had incorporated those ideas into Tendai -- and kept their secrets. Tendai was so taken over by esotericism, that the Monk Nichiren, probably thought of himself as restoring the integrity of the key teaching of Tendai, which was supposed to be the Lotus Sutra.

Zohar and Shingon

Shingon bases itself on the explicitly esoteric teachings of Tantra:

Mahāvairocana Sūtra (Japanese. Dainichi-kyō 大日経),
the Vajraśekhara Sūtra (Kongōchō-kyō 金剛頂経),
the Adhyardhaśatikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Rishu-kyō 理趣経),
the Susiddhikara Sūtra (Soshitsuji-kyō 蘇悉地経)
All of Which are Tantric, not narrative
Tantra is esoteric practices created by "interweaving of traditions and teachings as threads" into a text, technique or practice." And usually this requires a master/disciple interaction over a long period of time. Tantra's tools are mantras (prayers/meditations), Mudras (hand signs), and Mandalas (visual representations of the divine centered). Those practicing tantra get benefits from doing so.

What is Esotericm

Esotericism requires a lot of time and so is elitist and secretive by design. The ideas of esotericism are usually not available to common folks. Most esoteric traditions operate like the Masons, with degrees or levels, devotees plow thru over a period of years. In the meantime esotericism parasitizes (or is commensual) with exoteric religion. The issue with esotericism is usually the teachers of esotericism dumb down religion for all but the initiated. For example, the sutras mentioned above read like magic texts or mythology to the uninitiated. Teachers of esotericism indulge or even encourage the illusion that their teachings are magical, their teachers magicians. Teachers coming out of the esoteric teaching often act cynically, even when they understand the deeper insights. And those who understand esotericism partially often cause havoc because they become deeply cynical.

The PaRDeS And the Zohar

I wrote a Book, whose soft copy I lost, but I think I found my original hard copy. [I found the table of contents yesterday] Called "The PaRDeS." By the time I copyright it I'll probably have to pick a different name. But it was founded on the guidelines to studying esoteric and exoteric teachings that were taught in the PaRDeS and used as a text to teach Rabbinical students about the perils and joys of Religious Study. For more on this see my post on the PaRDeS from 2015: PaRDeS & the Treasure Tower. The Zohar and the Talmud, through the story of the PaRDeS lay out the risks and rewards of deep study, meditation and practice of religion. When I wrote the book, Rabbi's wouldn't talk about this openly. Now they do. The story is a warning on the risks of religious study. It is repeated, or rather retold, in the Zohar, which is:

Although the Zohar purports to be a record of conversations among rabbis wandering the Galilee in the second century, scholars (following Gershom Scholem, the founder of modern research in this field) now believe it was composed in late-13th-century Spain. It weaves together tales of these rabbis and their adventures with a remarkable series of homilies they share with one another, woven around biblical verses. Ingeniously reinterpreting every word of the ancient scriptures, they create a new symbolic language that offers remarkable depth and spiritual resonance to every aspect of the Jewish tradition.

Religious Literature is Great Fictional Literature

Religious literature can be great literature. The dirty little secret of modern religion, is that nearly every great religion starts with great fiction. Jewish scholars know that the Torah (the 5 books of Moses) probably went through an extended period as an oral teaching. There is little evidence it was written down until late in the period when there was a King in Judah. There are anachronisms in the writing that suggest that, no matter when the parts were written down, they were cobbled together and edited much later. Whenever you hear an "old name" for a place and a reference to a place name from years later, that is a tell that editors were either working from oral records or cobbling together still older texts. The oral origins of texts are explicit in most writings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is also a feature of Buddhism.

Don't know who the Father is? Must be God.

Moreover, authors writing years later (hence the word authority) often borrowed people, places and material from years early. Too humble to take credit for their own work, they often crafted great fiction and claimed someone else wrote it long before they ever lived. If no author could be found, scribes sometimes ascribed the author to be God himself. If a modern person does this, it is called plagiarism or even forgery, but great religious ideas stand the test of time. And they are highly abstract, metaphorical, allegorical, illustrative and meant to be typical or define archetypes of idealized or generalized behavior. That is they are great fiction.

"It doesn't matter whether the Fox ever lived to the story of the Fox and the Grapes."

I a Text is great, it may as well be authored by God. I've written poetry that coming back later I'm astounded that I wrote. I couldn't have written it. It came from some divine location deep in my psyche. This is the psychological side of attributing authorship to God. If enough people agree that a work "must have come from God." Well maybe HE did. I don't know. A prophet can't always be sure that God is actually talking to him (or her) or if he/she is nuts. Sometimes both attributes might be true. They aren't mutually exclusive.

The Zohar as Great Fiction

Thus, while the Zohar, is almost certainly fiction, it amounts to great fiction. Whether the "dream" side of existence has any reality outside of our wet little sack of neurons doesn't really matter. Heaven or hell, meditative ecstasy or retributive hell. It doesn't really matter if it is real in the material sense. It is real to ourselves. We experience it literally, in dreams, in fugue or similar states. And we hope that their is some reality beyond the vale of this material world that we might experience once this journey is over. Kaballah comforted Jewish people through some pretty hard times. The case can be made that Jewish Esotericism sparked both the enlightenment taught by teachers like St. Teresa of Avila, the entire dark enlightenment of Spinoza and his many disciples. And more. We should never be afraid of truth. Nor of enjoying fiction we know is probably fiction.

The Books on the Shelf

The Zohar is esotericism, as are much of what is in the main oral teachings of Judaism, Buddhism, etc... But the student should know, that the enlightenment they seek, is in them all along. The books make sense when the student is ready to understand them. Life is a mystery tour.

I've got a lot more to say on this subject....

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