Monday, 21 September 2009

The embodiment of deeds

Alison's camellia tree

I wrote last time about my new understanding that our deeds, thoughts and words create a spiritual reality and that that reality takes a form in the spiritual world, such as the form of a woman or houri. For me, I like to think of my houri as a garden, because gardens are things that you nurture (or neglect) and, over time, they develop and become fruitful (or wither and languish) and, in this way, are an everlasting source of sustenance. In this way, I now understand Baha'u'llah saying that: "The essence of wealth is love for Me; whoso loveth Me is the possessor of all things, and he that loveth Me not is indeed of the poor and needy." (Tablets p 156)

But I want to address another question about how this system works: what does it mean to say that our deeds take a form, or reflect an image, in the spiritual world? In finding an answer to this question, I discovered that the issue is at the heart of a great deal of Islamic mysticism. My quest has taken me back to Henri Corbin and his writing about the spiritual realm in which these spiritual images appear (for example, in his book "Spiritual body and celestial earth"). I always knew Corbin was famous for his writings on this subject among those interested in Sufism, but I've only just discovered why, as a Baha'i concerned with Baha'i theology and Baha'i mysticism, what Corbin has to say is important for me. In other words, how do I see what Corbin discusses as being related to what Baha'u'llah has to say? Finding that there is a connection has been quite a discovery for me because I've found that, in general, what Baha'u'llah says about mysticism sweeps away the Islamic take on it. That's because Baha'u'llah's revelation brings a fresh meaning to the term 'mysticism', as he explains in Tablet of the Son:

"For if God speaks a word today that comes to be on the lips of all the people, before and after, that word will be new, if you only think about it. Consider the word, "monotheism," about which all the manifestations of the Eternal Truth have spoken in each dispensation, and which all the adherents of the various religions have asserted. Nevertheless, in each dispensation it is an innovation, and its novel character can never be withdrawn from it. God breathes into each word he speaks a new spirit, and the breezes of life from that word waft upon all things outwardly and inwardly." Tablet of the Son, para 9

And this principle applies to the word 'mysticism' too. It is an innovation in the Baha'i revelation.

But I digress. The question is: what does it mean to say that our deeds take a form, or reflect an image, in the spiritual world? For much of the time I have been interested in mysticism - about 15 years - I had never read anything from Baha'u'llah that gave an explanation of images of ourselves appearing in the spiritual realm. The problem was a lack of English translations, I was given to believe. But about three years ago, by the grace of God, a fellow called Mehran Ghasempour was inspired to translate "Tablet of the Right of the People" (Lawh-i Haqqu'n Nas). I thank the Lord for raising him up to do this work, for it has helped me hugely to move forward in my understanding of mysticism.

The tablet came about because someone asked Baha'u'llah the following question: if person A wrongs person B and one person, or both, dies before the wrong is righted, how does God settle the matter in the next world? This is a problem because, as we witness, the world in which the wrong was done - that is, the physical world and its characteristics - ceases to exist for us when we die and, therefore, the means by which the matter could be settled disappears also. Added to this is the following principle: that God has undertaken to settle all matters relating to rights that exist between people. So if someone is wronged, the wrong is guaranteed to be righted by God. God may forgive a wrong done to himself but will settle justly a wrong done to a person. How then is this promise fulfilled in the next world if one or other person dies and the matter cannot be settled in the physical world?

In order to answer this question, Baha'u'llah has to explain how our deeds can 'exist' in the next world so that they can be sorted out; that is, so that right ones are rewarded and evil ones are punished. This takes him into exactly the territory I needed him to go for me to understand how our deeds take on a spiritual form in the spiritual world. Over four short paragraphs, Baha'u'llah gives a basic outline of how it works. The rest of the tablet is taken up with examples to flesh the argument out. For now, I'll deal with what Baha'u'llah says in those four paragraphs. Please bear in mind that the translation has been done by someone for whom English is a second language, so there is some awkward phrasing.

Paragraph 1: "Thus I express to thee that what thou hast seen and heard in this mortal world of limitations, by any name and character and by any form or descriptive attribute, in every one of divine worlds is manifested and witnessed in a manner suitable and proper to each world, which shineth forth and revealeth itself by another name, character, form and descriptive attribute."

This paragraph seems to outline a basic principle, which I'll call the central principle. The central principle states that everything we see and hear in this physical world, no matter what its name, form, character or attributes, has a corresponding name, form, character and set of attributes in every one of the divine worlds; and the features of that thing in the divine worlds is determined by the conditions of those worlds - hence a thing appears in a manner that is suitable and proper to each world. I assume that this principle does not just apply to what we see and hear but to what we experience in this world via all our senses.

Alison's flowering cherry

What this means - and this is where Corbin comes in in a big way - is that everything we experience takes on a spiritual form or image in each of the worlds of God. I can't overstate how important this principle is - all of mysticism seems to rest on it. I'm just looking now at my garden, and wondering what image it takes in the other worlds of God. Pondering this principle over the last few days caused me to think about the Kitab-i Iqan again. I can see now that all through that book Baha'u'llah is showing us how to look at the participants in religious history - the religious leaders, the prophets, the masses, the martyrs - in symbolic terms. And he teaches us to read some symbols, such as the sun, moon and stars. One could write a whole book on that subject.

In the examples Baha'u'llah gives further on in the tablet to illustrate this principle, he explains that the world of sleep is very like - is the 'brother' of - the world of death - by which, I understand him to mean the world we pass on to when we die. A little further on, he gives the example of the famous dream that Joseph had that illustrated what would happen to him in the future. "Lo! I saw eleven stars and the sun and the moon - I saw them prostrating themselves unto me." (Qur'an 12:4) This dream uses the symbols of the stars, sun and moon, which correspond to Joseph's 11 brothers (the stars), and his father and mother (the sun and moon). Baha'u'llah asks his reader to ponder what is the world in which family members appear as sun, moon and stars, and conversely, what is the world in which sun, moon and stars appear as family members? There is one thing we can say about the world of the sun, moon and stars: it is real; it isn't a product of the chemicals in our brain or a function of our imagination. It is a spiritual reality. (I think this must be the reason that fiction and movies are so popular, because they create a world of images, something we all consiously or unconsciously can relate to - I guess this would be true of all art.)

Corbin famously says we use our "Active (or Creative) Imagination" (that is, Imagination with a capital 'I') to 'see' these images in the spiritual realm - what he calls the 'Imaginal realm'. He gives the word 'imagination' a capital 'I' in order to distinguish it from what we usually mean by the word 'imagination', which is a world of illusion. When I was thinking about this the other day, I was suddenly reminded about this from a hidden word: "Never shall mortal eye recognize the everlasting beauty…" (PHW 10) In other words, to link into the Imaginal realm, on which one will see the 'beauty' of Baha'u'llah, one cannot do so by using one's physical eyes. We have to learn to use the Active Imagination that Corbin talks about in order to see the spiritual image and know how to interpret it.

In paragraph 2 (of the 4 paragraphs I mentioned above), Baha'u'llah says: "This death that thou hast heard of in the world, referreth to the outward appearance and the garment, and not to the truth and the inner essence. Certainly the realities of things, through different appearances and various manifestations, truth after truth, shine forth and reveal themselves in every world. The sages of mature wisdom who have drunk from the mystic choice wine - God requite them - have believed in the embodiment of deeds."

Expanding on the central principle, Baha'u'llah goes on to explain that, when we die, our outer garment dies but not our inner essence and "truth". The realities things - presumably, our essence and truth, plus the reality of our deeds and so forth - appear in each world of God in the form appropriate to them. Then he says that wise people have always believed that our deeds are 'embodied'; that is, they take on a body or form in each of the spiritual worlds. This paragraph seems to take the central principle beyond its initial boundaries; that is, it is not just what we experience via our senses that is embodied in the spiritual realm but also ourselves as a person, for we are a 'thing' in the world, and our deeds, which reflect how we interact with other things in the world. I would argue that the principle also applies to our words and thoughts, which is why it is important that we keep our thoughts pure.

In paragraph 3, Baha'u'llah confirms that each of us is judged according to our deeds: "The All-Glorious saith: 'God will reward them for their attributions!'. The Dawning-Place of revelation, the All-Merciful, hath said that people are recompensed according to their deeds; reward for good and punishment for evil." And in paragraph 4, Baha'u'llah brings his argument together, explaining that our deeds do indeed go with us into the spiritual world so that God can recompense each person according to their deeds.

"Thus it becometh evident that a deed will remain and every attribute will exist until recompense is given according to the deed and attribute itself. Therefore, any deed and any attribute that appeareth from any person hath a form in every world and unveileth itself "that God may reward every soul what he hath earned; verily, God is swift in reckoning."

Here, the central principle seems to be extended again to hold that 'any attribute' from a person is embodied in the spiritual world. This then would include inner things such as aspirations, loves, hates, goals, desires and so on.

Further on in the tablet, Baha'u'llah explains how this process of recompensing people according to their deeds can also take place in the physical world. In a karmic way, things can happen to us as a direct spiritual consequence of our deeds. The example Baha'u'llah gives of this is interesting. He says that, for example, a person may lose their wealth, but this might be an act of kindness on the part of the Lord because wealth is "the garment of fate and afflictions". Moreover, if a robber steals your money, then the only thing the robber has achieved, from a spiritual point of view, is to load themselves up with fate and afflictions. Hence, the recompense for the deed for the robber is hidden in the deed itself.

1 comment:

ruhiwarrior19 said...

Wonderful post. This isn't a subject I have spent much time on, but in what little reading I have done on the ideas you talk about here, I have found the visions of Emanuel Swedenborg to be really useful. He had this magical worldview, in which things work very much like they would in a fairy-tale, just one set in Christianity. This can make his ideas seem to be far simpler than they are. One of the things I think might be revealing is his particular take on the physicality of the next world. The next world is spiritual, not material, but spirit is still experienced through physicality, thus angels perceive things like love and gratitude the way me and you perceive heat and chair.

> There is one thing we can say about
> the world of the sun, moon and stars:
> it is real; it isn't a product
> of the chemicals in our brain or a
> function of our imagination. It
> is a spiritual reality.

This is an icky false dichotomy, kinda an extreme counter-reaction to scientism. God created chemical reactions and imagination, why should spirituality be somehow "above" them. Just as the body is the physical expression of the soul, can't spiritual realities find expression via neurological reactions? Baha'u'llah's first vision of the Maid of Heaven came when He was starving, in extreme pain and discomfort, and without any social support structure in the Siyah Chal. Sounds like a textbook description of the sort of brain ready to start hallucinating. In the same vein, Muhammad's visions are described in ways we can now identify (arguably) as epileptic seizures, another common place for hallucinations. I'm a child of a schizophrenic and a temporal epileptic, two groups identified as having a greater tendency towards supernatural experiences/beliefs, and despite being raised as an atheist with no religious influence, I have believed in a higher power as long as I can imagine. Coincidence? Probably not. Maybe providence. The material can be the vessel for the expression of the spiritual.

God Bless,