Zen Koan Discussion: “Linji’s Four Realms”

In the Zen tradition, koans are used as direct expressions of the truth of Zen. Examining the words of masters past allow koans to take on an awesome depth and join us on our inquiry to help guide us. Koans are a challenge to look at their truth for ourselves without turning away from our humanity. We can use them to come to our own understanding of Zen’s “Only Don’t Know,” an unraveling of our most basic assumptions and ways of looking at the world.

Looking at koans, I was initially confused and couldn’t really make sense out of them. A daily sitting practice has gradually shown me that koan answers are so precisely tuned that it’s easy to overlook them. Instead of molding koans to try to fit our expectations of them, we have to look at the koan and try to understand it on its own terms.

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The koan collection Entangling Vines, translated by Thomas Yuho Kirchner, is one the of the most valuable koan references I’ve found. It’s packed with intriguing details that enhance the original text, as well as a fantastic translation. I haven’t finished the whole book yet, but it has steadily become my favorite koan collection. One of the koans featured in Entangling Vines that struck me recently is called “Linji’s Four Realms.” After some biographical details, we’ll take a look at the main text of the koan, and discuss how it locks together to form an organic whole. Linji’s economy with his teaching is astounding, and he covers a lot of ground in a short span of time.

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According to Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and their Teaching by Andy Ferguson, Linji was the founder of the Rinzai school of Zen.

Linji Yixuan (d. 866) was a disciple of Huangbo Xiyun. Linji is a preeminent figure in the history of Zen. He came from the city of Nashua in ancient Caozhou (now the city of Dongming in Shandong Province). As the founder of the Linji school of Zen (in Japanese, Rinzai), his tradition remains, along with the Caodong school, as one of the two lineages that survive to the present day.
After taking the vows of a monk, Linji studied the sutras, the Vanaya, and the various doctrines that were carried on the currents of Buddhism in his era. Although he practiced under Guishan Lingyou, his enlightenment came about under Huangbo Xiyun, with the teacher Gao’an Dayu a key player in the drama.
 (173)

And according to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (PDB), koans such as these are extremely important to the Rinzai tradition:

[Rinzai was] one of the major Japanese Zen schools established in the early Kamakura period . . . After the decline of the Gowan monasteries, the Otokan lineage came to dominate the Rinzai Zen tradition during the Edo period and was the only Rinzai line to survive to the present. Despite the presence of such influential monks as Takuan Soho and Bankei Yotaku, the Rinzai tradition began to decline by the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. The monk credited with revitalizing the Rinzai tradition during the Edo period is the Myoshinji monk Hakuin Ekaku. Hakuin systematized the koan method of meditation, which is the basis of modern Rinzai Zen practice; it is also through Hakuin and his disciples that most Rinzai masters of today trace their lineages. (715)

The information on Linji quoted in the Ferguson volume contains a story about Linji’s interviews with monks Dayu and Huangbo. The first part of the story involves Linji asking for the dharma teaching in various ways. He only gets hit in response. I’ve included some of the text here for reference:

When Linji reached Dayu, Dayu said ‘Where have you come from?’
Linji said, ‘from Huangbo.’
Dayu said, ‘What did Huangbo say?’
Linji said, ‘Three times I asked him about the essential doctrine and three times I got hit.  I don’t know if I made some error or not.’
Dayu said, ‘Huangbo has old grandmotherly affection and endures all this difficulty for your sake-and here you are asking whether you’ve made some error or not.’
Upon hearing these words, Linji was awakened.
(174-175)

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Now let’s see the main text of “Linji’s Four Realms” taken from Entangling Vines:

Someone asked Linji, “What are the four realms of no-form?” The master said, “A thought of doubt in your mind and you’re obstructed by the element of earth; a thought of desire in your mind and you drown in the element water; a thought of anger in your mind and you’re scorched by the element fire; a thought of joy in your mind and you’re blown about by the element wind.”  Understand this, however, and you will no longer be tossed about by circumstances; instead you will utilize them wherever you go. You can appear in the east and vanish in the west, appear in the south and vanish in the north, appear in the center and vanish at the border, appear at the border and vanish in the center. You can walk on the water as though it is land and walk on the land as though it is water.  Why can you do these things? Because you realize that the four elements are like dreams, like illusions. (Kindle Version, loc  4848)

Like many koans, “Linji’s Four Realms” is structured in a question and answer format. In the first part of the koan, Linji is asked the question, “what are the four realms of no-form?” The question is used as a springboard to address Zen’s concerns in an honest and direct fashion. The question is usually set up to indicate that the student is looking for some kind of doctrinal answer, or is seeking clarification on some area of Buddhist doctrine. Linji twists this question around and breaks it down. The question also indicates the artistry called for in these responses, as the master uses the question to create something new and interesting, while still broadly reflecting the Zen tradition as a whole.

In the next part of the koan, Linji uses the concept of “four realms of no-form” and creates an outline based on the student’s question that uses doubt, desire, anger, and joy. This outline is used to show the student their own mind, and the consequences of thinking and feeling in certain ways. When we have thoughts of doubt, desire, anger, or joy, those thoughts suffuse our actions and we enact the corresponding state of mind. Since we have examined anger a little bit in a previous article, let’s use desire as an example of what Linji is talking about.

When we look into desire, several components of the experience come immediately to mind. There is an abstract longing for the desired object, in which we fantasize about situations with that object, and how by acquiring it we will make our current experience happier or more meaningful. There is a tendency, at least in my own experience, to abstract out the problems associated with acquiring and keeping the object. Desire perpetuates itself through any objects that exist at hand, and can readily shift between them. There is also a corresponding sensation that is stimulating or enthralling, like a compulsion that moves us closer to the object.

Based on this examination, we can see how when we fully give ourselves over to desire, according to Linji we “drown in the element water.” Once this happens, we no longer see the ephemeral basis of desire and drown in its elemental nature. Linji’s succinct analysis indicates that forms such as desire are unfounded, and in fact are empty as discussed in Buddhist texts such as the Heart Sutra. By showing us that emptiness is in fact the fabric of our own minds, Linji gives us the key to pulling down the entire structure. He ties this point into the last segment of the koan, how insight into this empty nature of thought helps us respond to change.

In the next sentence, Linji says that “you will no longer be tossed about by circumstances; instead you will utilize them wherever you go.” Once we see into the empty nature of mind and constant change, we no longer have to rely on rigidly controlling situations or relying on external situations for happiness. One of the realms of reality that Buddhism describes is the “realm of hungry ghosts,” in addition to “hell denizens, animals, and sometimes demigods or titans” (PDB, 677).  Read metaphorically, we are no longer hungry ghosts that chase after the ephemerality of our own minds. We become much more capable of utilizing the intelligence of situations to help others and ourselves.

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This is why Linji says we can “appear in the east and vanish in the west.” Understanding this passage was informed by my own deepening process of self-observation. Closely noticing my own behavior, I could no longer believe in a necessity to the way I did many things. My approaches were often limited and sometimes arrogant if they did not allow for change. For example, at my job my skill set was a mix of approaches built over time. Some of these I had fine tuned to deal with many of the problems that arise at work and take the form of flexible programs. Many others were subjective, allowed within the wide scope of the job but not correct in any absolute sense. Some of my methods seemed more neurotic, entangled with a variety of personal and idiosyncratic details and repeated only for their own sake.

Over time, I have used these insights to broaden my own situational awareness and change my behavior as needed. Within these situations a tremendous amount of potential exists. Knowing this can result in a much more childlike, playful sense of existence. We can do things that seem unlikely because we are no longer relying on following rigid lines of behavior. We can break out of these boundaries as needed while still understanding the value of rules and obligations to social life. After this, Linji says that “[we] can walk on the water as though it is land and walk on the land as though it is water.” Linji reflects this childlike attitude through playing with the concepts of land and water.

In the last sentence of the koan, Linji says “why can you do these things? Because you realize that the four elements are like dreams, like illusions.” It’s as if we thought that elements such as desire, anger, joy, and sorrow were the proper way to live our lives. We spent our time patterning things after their structure. But what if we want to experience a different dream? Can we see through Dogen’s “colors of the mind” to the thing that interlinks us all? Can we do this, through our own efforts and with the help of Zen students of the past and present?

Let’s pursue this question fully, with the help of koans such as these, to realize our true capabilities and our identity with the boundless universe.

The Foundation of the World – The Zohar, Parashat Noah

Due to the Zohar’s explicit usage of sexual symbolism in this chapter, this article may not be appropriate for work.  All quotations are taken from Zohar: Pritzker Edition Volume One, translated by Daniel Matt, unless otherwise noted.  

The Zohar continues to draw up secret meanings of Torah with it’s third chapter and analysis of the story of Noah.  Titled Parashat Noah, the beginning of the chapter focuses on a discussion of Noah, his sexual purity (he was born circumcised!), and how this allowed him to enter the ark.   In the symbolic system of the Zohar, the themes of righteousness and sexual purity gravitate around the area of the phallus on the sephirot, which is also described as the body of God. 

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In the Zohar, our level of reality is called Malkhut and is symbolically associated with the female.   Since Malkhut “receives” its energy from within God and its higher divine realms, it is characterized as female.  That flow of energy is given to the female, characterizing its expression as male. The give and take between these two realms is described in terms of a charged, erotic relationship.  Where does the Kabbalist fit into this schema?

Taking a cue from the passage “righteousness and justice are the foundations of Your throne” (Psalms 89:15), the mystic becomes an integral part of the libidinal system.  Since our reality has been divorced from blessing through human action, the mystic is needed to correct this imbalance.   Through righteous action and creating interpretations of Torah, the Kabbalist unites the discord between the masculine and feminine God, reestablishing an optimal flow of energy and harmony.  They are the phallic link between the upper and lower, and allow this relationship to reach its fruition.  

Noah is associated with this level, and Parashat Noah elaborates on how this phallic symbolism relates to its discussion of the Ark.  A feature of the Zohar is its reading of Torah on multiple levels that create wonderful connections among all its verses.  The Ark is also read in this case as Malkhut (or Shekinah, the “divine presence”) and once Noah “entered” her, he enabled a new generation to flower after the Flood. Noah, like the Zoharic mystic, is considered a “husband” of Malkhut, wrapped around her in a loving embrace, forever joined to her.  

Noah entered the ark, bringing with him every species of the creatures of the world.  Truly Noah was a tree bearing fruit (Genesis 1:11), and all species of the world sprang from the ark, corresponding to the manner above.  

Come and see when this tree bearing fruit joins the fruit tree: all those supernal species!  Living great and small; countless species, each one unique, as is said: Living beings small and great (Psalms 104:25).  Similarly, Noah in the ark, all of them issuing from the ark, and the world was established, corresponding above.  So he is called Noah, husband of earth (Genesis 9:20), Noah, righteous man (ibid. 6:9) as they have already established.  (Zohar 1:62b, p. 362-363).  

Drawing the reader further into its dialogue on evil and moral responsibility, human sin was what brought on the waters of the Flood.  Another idea that is expressed numerous times in the Zohar is that through human action, God’s expression is biased towards Greatness (Compassion) or Judgment.  God gave humanity time to redeem itself after Adam’s initial sin, but this grace period eventually ran out and God’s judgment devastated the world.  In Parashat Noah, the Zohar elucidates these themes through its telling of the story of the Companions, the mystical brotherhood at the heart of the Zohar’s exegesis. As two of the Companions Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yose wander through mountains, they discuss the history of the Flood and its divine implications. In this dialogue, it becomes clear that the mountains are a grim monument to human sin:

Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yose were walking on the way.  They encountered the mountains of Kurdistan, where they saw traces of crevices in the earth dating from the time of the Flood.  

Rabbi Hiyya said to Rabbi Yose, ‘These crevices are vestiges of the Flood, preserved by the blessed Holy One ever since, throughout the generations, that the sins of the wicked not be obliterated from His sight.  For such is the way of the blessed Holy One: He wants the virtuous who do His will to be remembered above and below, their blessed memory unforgotten generation to generation.  Similarly He wants to the sins of the wicked, who fail to do His will, not to be forgotten, their punishment and evil memory remembered generation to generation, as is written: ‘Stained is in your iniquity before Me’ (Jeremiah 2:22).  

In the story of the Flood, God turned over judgment to “the Destroyer,” whose judgment was so immense that it cleansed the Earth.  The Destroyer is associated with the demonic, and when humans rely upon that evil taproot, it eventually corrupts and eliminates them. Evil in this sense is also linked to judgment, as its practitioners bring the judgments of hell upon themselves.  This interpretation allows for humans to take a place in the cosmos, choosing the blessings of righteousness or the punishments of sin for themselves.  

In one of its group dialogues on this subject, some of the Companions go into this further, describing how humanity’s sin ultimately caused the judgment of the Flood to manifest.

And I, I am about to bring the Flood, as we have established: to unleash the Destroyer upon them, since through him, they had defiled themselves.  

Rabbi Yose said, ‘Woe to the wicked who, having sinned, refuse to return to the blessed Holy One while still in the world!  For when a person returns, regretting his sins, the blessed holy One forgives him, but all those who cling to their sins, refusing to return to the blessed holy One, will eventually fall into Hell, never to be raised.  

Come and see: Since the entire generation of Noah hardened their hearts, desiring to flaunt their sins, the blessed Holy One executed judgment upon them in a similar manner . . . These wicked ones were obliterated from earth.  Obliterated?  How?  Waters gushed boiling from the abyss, rising and peeling off their skin, then their flesh, leaving nothing but bones, fulfilling the verse: They were obliterated from the earth (Genesis 7:23).  All those bones disjointed from one another, no longer together, so they were totally eradicated from the world.  (387-388)

A focal element of the Zohar, and part of what makes it such an engaging read, is its use of a central story to combine its themes and bring the reader through its rich interpretive processes.  The story element is particularly playful in the Noah chapter, with several characters coming and going.  The characters play with a variety of themes that include righteousness, judgment, and redemption that are hallmarks of the Kabbalistic story. They return to these motifs throughout Parashat Noah, building on them with increasing subtlety and grace. 

The Zohar also uses linguistic analysis to examine Torah on deeper levels.  This technique looks at the structure of letters and words in the Torah, and treats them as significant to understanding the divine story.  Since this approach describes a Torah that is infinitely rich in meaning, its analysis adds another level in which they can discover divine will and its secrets.

This element is frequently couched in the story element and is used to great effect.  While traveling in the mountains, Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yose meet a Jewish traveler.  The traveler proceeds through an exploration of the theme of judgment found in Noah.  Furthering on the Companions inquiry into the Flood, he provides a linguistic analysis of the use of the word “Elohim” in a certain passage:

When they reached the site of a certain field they sat down.  That man asked, ‘Why is it written: And YHVH rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24), whereas in the Flood it is everywhere written: Elohim, Elohim?  Because we have learned: ‘Everywhere it is written: And YHVH – this means ‘He and His Court.’ Elohim, unspecified, means Judgment alone.’  Now, at Sodom judgment was executed, yet not destroying the world, so He intermingled with Judgment, but in the Flood It destroyed the whole world and all those present in the world.  

Now you might say, ‘But look, Noah and his companions were saved!’  Come and see: Noah was hidden from sight, invisible! So everything present in the world It destroyed.  

Therefore: And YHVH – in the open, not destroying all.  Elohim – one needs concealment and must seek protection, for It destroys all.  So Elohim was alone.  (376)

Another significant dialogue is found with a child (interestingly named Abba, or Father), who proceeds to elaborate on further mysteries of Torah.  He uses a passage from Genesis that focuses on Noah after the Flood, and uses it to explore new meanings of the text. Emerging from the Ark after the Flood, Noah builds an altar and makes an offering to God.  To discover the verse’s secret meaning, Abba does a mystical reading of the verse, discussing how an offering done in this fashion quelled the divine wrath and allowed peace to return once more to Earth.  

Noah built an altar to YHVH, and took of every pure animal and of every pure bird, and offered ascent-offerings on the altar Genesis 8:20 . . . 

Of this is written:  They shall place incense in Your nostril (Deuteronomy 33:10), for fire returns to its site, and through that aroma the nose contracts inward, inward – till all is embraced, returning to its site, all drawn in toward thought, becoming a single desire.  Then (Reiah nihoah) a pleasing aroma, for wrath (nah), subsides, yielding (neyaha), tranquility – for smoke is absorbed, condensed in fire, grasping smoke, both entering within, within, until wrath subsides.  When all intermingles and wrath subsides, then tranquility, a single nexus named ‘tranquility’ – tranquility of spirit, joy of all as one, radiance of sparkling lamps, radiance of faces.  So it is written: YHVH smelled [the pleasing aroma], like one inhaling, drawing everything in to its site.  (412)

Unfortunately, the Flood was not enough to totally redeem those who came after.  The story of Noah effects another fall, this time from “the sacred to the secular.”  As we discussed earlier, this ensured that reality became more closely tied to the demonic serpent, and sin obscured the divine light.  And since Israel was not able to grant its blessings to the world and fulfill its cosmic vocation, Earth remained in its fallen state.  Furthering this turning away from God, the Companions discuss how Nimrod, “garbed in the garments of Adam,” used the power of the garments to draw worship away from God and towards other idols.  

Not even Noah could effect a redemption, as he was not prepared for what he was to find when he looked within the divine mystery.  Rabbi Shim’on, in typical head-exploding fashion, interprets Noah becoming drunk as becoming corrupted by the divine wisdom.  Since Noah was “saturated with the other wine” (or evil), his sons furthered this corruption and humanity’s fall.  Noah could not handle the divine energies he had unleashed.  The Zohar does justice to the possible corruption of spiritual practice, for when humans look within and are unprepared for the scope of their own freedom.  Moses was unique among the Patriarchs for his ability to explore the divine wisdom without becoming corrupt.  

Rabbi Shim’on said, ‘There is a mystery here in this verse.  When he sought to probe the sin probed by Adam – not to cling but to know, to mend the world – he was incapable.  He squeezed grapes to probe that vineyard, but as soon as he arrived, ‘he became drunk and exposed himself (ibid., 21), and was powerless to rise.  So, exposed himself, exposing the breach of the world that had been closed [by Adam].  Inside (oholoh), his tent (ibid.), spelled with a ‘he’: inside oholah, ‘her tent,’ the tent of that vineyard . . . Because the blessed Holy One brought secrets of wisdom down to the world, humanity was corrupted by it and sought to attack Him.  He gave supernal wisdom to Adam, and through that revealed wisdom he discovered rungs and clung to the evil impulse until the springs of wisdom vanished.  Afterward he returned to the presence of his Lord, and some was revealed, though not as before.  Later through that book of his, he discovered wisdoms, but then people appeared and provoked Him.  

He gave wisdom to Noah, who thereby served the blessed Holy One.  Afterward what is written?  He drank of the wine and became drunk, and exposed himself (Genesis 9:21), as has been explained. 

He gave wisdom to Abraham, who thereby served the blessed Holy One.  Afterward Ishmael issued from him, who provoked the blessed Holy One.  Similarly Isaac, from whom issued Esau.  Jacob married two sisters.  

He gave wisdom to Moses.  What is written of him?  Throughout My house he is faithful (Numbers 12:7).  There was none as faithful as Moses: he performed on all those rungs, yet his heart did not stray into desiring any of them; rather, he stood firm in supernal faith fittingly . . . 

Come and see: With fragments of wisdom discovered by these people from wisdom of the ancients, they antagonized the blessed Holy One, built a tower, and perpetrated all they did – until they were scattered over the face of the earth, lacking the wisdom to accomplish anything.  But in the time to come the blessed Holy One will arouse wisdom in the world, with which He will be served, as is written: ‘I will put My spirit within you and cause you’ – not like the ancients who ruined the world with it, but rather: ‘cause you to follow My Laws and carefully observe My rules.     433-447

The chapter concludes with the building of Babel, when God realized that if humanity united with a common language and singular will, they could no longer be judged.  Therefore God broke up humanity.  This furthered the corruption of the fall, and humanity would not receive the revelations of Torah, and the Ten Commandments until Israel’s exile from Egypt and their experience at Mount Sinai.  

I’m five volumes in and the Zohar has slowly come into its own, somehow masterfully combining insightful analyses, poetic language, the erotic, the mystical, an interesting story, and a relentless creativity into a book like nothing I’ve ever read.  The Zohar is a peerless work of spiritual literature, and I’m looking forward to doing further essays, as close re-readings bring out the true wonder that this text provides at every step.  

Next up is Parashat Lekh Lekha, “Go You Forth,” the Companions adventures starting with Genesis 12:1-17:27.  

You can purchase the Pritzker Edition Zohar from Stanford University Press here. You can also purchase it from Amazon here.

Practice Notes – Experiments in Concentration

 

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I’m currently working through Richard Shankman’s The Experience of Samdahi, as well as Shaila Catherine’s Wisdom Wide and Deep.  Both works examine concentration in the context of Buddhist meditation.  Concentration allows us to gradually let the mind further open to itself,  leading to an understanding of mind and body that is more nuanced, detail-oriented and case sensitive.  It also has incredible implications for self-awareness, potentially promising fundamental changes in how we understand our own minds and their attendant capabilities. 

For many years after I first began meditation, I simply sat, going out into the fringes of my own internal world to see what I could find.  I did not have any kind of end in mind other than not getting lost in thinking.   Doing this repeatedly changed my own internal processes.  Thought became a small part of reality that did not take on any importance beyond what I ascribed to it.  The value of this practice is the way that it began to subtly move my experience away from certain expectations and absolutes.  Life could open to me in ways that I had not understood with my closed body and mind.  

In the past year, I have been steadily building to more concentration based exercises in my mediation sessions, coupled with my original “free-play” style of attentional exploration.  Exposure to books such as Focused and Fearless (also by Shaila Catherine) and Right Concentration by Leigh Brasington piqued my curiosity about concentration-based practices.  I have come to view these practices as necessary for my ongoing study of Buddhist traditions in general.  In order to see for myself how this type of concentration affects the mind, I began watching the breath.  This is an important practice for developing concentration.  It involves focusing on breathing, noticing when attention becomes distracted, and redirecting it back to the breath.

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At the beginning, the mind can’t focus on the breath. The thought that it generates becomes like a space that the mind creates in order to experience pleasure, strategize, and avoid pain or boredom.  The mind is so habituated to associative thinking that attention must be brought back and focused on the breath.  That process gets repeated every meditation.  Seeing our limitations in doing this kind of practice lets us get creative each session and see if we can push our limits a little. This pushing of limits is extremely physical and demands our continued presence.  I’ve experienced a kind of nervous exhaustion as a result, which indicates that I’ve run aground and need to try again, maintaining that focus longer.

Progress in this regard is nonexistent at first, and this kind of attention unfolds very slowly, if at all.  Once this practice is done enough times, however, there begin to be very definite changes that take place in the character of the mind.  Rather than being dissolute and continually chattering, the mind becomes highly focused and quiet.  Concentration can then engage with whatever is present without being perpetually diverted.  This is useful because we are engaging with felt characteristics rather than what we think about them.  Rather than simply thinking about our problems, concentration starkly brings them out so that we can really feel them.  We can then use this concentration for our own purposes in helping us dissolve ingrained constructs of the mind.  

It also begins to free our awareness up to focus on things that really matter, priming us for better ways of understanding.  This understanding divulges what seems to be a common liability of the human mind:  the ways we are accustomed to using our attention serve only to cloud the issues and postpone actual solutions.  In Wisdom Wide and Deep, Catherine describes this process as beginning to take control of our own attentional biases.

Every person has a unique attentional bias that is reinforced by a lifetime of habit. Your habits may support you in one role but pose formidable barriers in other arenas of life. Sometimes these habits are highly trained skills —doctors are trained to focus on physical symptoms, soldiers are sensitized to signs of threat, parents become responsive to their children’s distress. As you train your mind to stay steady, calm, tranquil, and equanimous with the whole breath, you are not merely replacing one habit with another, more spiritual, pattern. Rather, through concentration practice, you enhance the flexibility and durability of attention as you gain control over the attentional bias of your mind. (Kindle Version, loc 1246-1255)

Recognizing these biases is the first step towards changing them.  A lifetime of socially encouraged self-construction has left us with maladaptive processes of every kind.  Our biases towards pleasure and status are like grasping at smoke in every moment, and are gone as soon as we obtain them.  With stronger concentration, we can see these mental and physical processes more clearly as they occur, and how quickly they disappear.  We can use these exercises to see that these types of behavior are often props that are obscuring a very rich vein of freedom that we are always embodying.

This is important to Buddhist practice because we sleep within our own illusions, telling ourselves stories about ourselves, others, and the world.   And it is through these illusions that we hurt others and crave the stability of comforting ideas and situations, done in the name of a ghostly and malformed sense of self.  Since Buddhist practice is aiming to bring us into a more complete understanding of ourselves, concentration is an indispensable part of realizing the phenomena that make up our bodies and minds.  With a thorough reckoning of this practice we will develop more of an understanding of the cause and effect nature of these bodies and minds, and how to use them to help others, finding our own liberation in the process.

Chaos and Void: Gnosis and Scientific Practice

Professor Farnsworth: And, now that I’ve found all the answers, I realize that what I was living for were the questions!
Fry: That stinks, Professor. Too bad the universe made it turn out that way and not some other way. I wonder why it did that.
Stephen Hawking: Probably magnets.

Futurama

Science is a discipline that involves personal and social inquiry into the nature of reality. While having its intellectual forebears, it truly evolved into its own in the past few centuries leading up to the modern age. Searching for material truth has led humanity to develop sophisticated systems that parse cause and effect towards finer control and repeatability.

Science shares space with other fields of human knowledge that make concepts, attempt to explain natural phenomena, and provide experimental knowledge. These other fields include religion and philosophy. While its claims are often presented with the ring of authority, its provisional character is less apparent. The same factors that influence personal works are at play in science’s quest for accuracy, including accident, intuition, and material design.

One of the most influential philosophers in the way I conceive science has been Paul Feyerabend. In his classic book Against Method, Feyerabend outlined a philosophical attack on “homogenous” reality, and attempted to subvert reductionist approaches to science and life. In the beginning “sketch of the main argument,” he said:

Science is essentially anarchistic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives. This is shown both by an examination of historical episodes and by an abstract analysis of the relation between idea and action. The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes. For example, we may use hypotheses that contradict well-confirmed theories and/or well-established experimental results. We may advance science by proceeding counterinductively . . . Neither science nor rationality are universal measures of excellence. They are particular traditions, unaware of their historical grounding. Yet is is possible to evaluate standards of rationality and to improve them. The principles of improvement are neither above tradition nor beyond change and it is impossible to nail them down.

Feyerabend refers to this methodology as “ad hoc,” and this opportunisitic approach to explaining cause and effect relationships has a lot to offer us. It envisions a kind of science in which all things are open to interpretation, experimentation, and meaning.

The experiment is often the nexus of scientific practice.  There are many factors that can affect how scientific experiments are designed and their results reported. These factors can include the subjects used in the experiments, intended applicability of the results, current limits of technology, use of materials and how they are set up within the system, how those materials interact, and the interpretation and assumptions of the scientists involved.

These assumptions can be particularly important for our investigation of scientific practice. Many times our theories are the best approximations we can make of complex phenomena, and those approximations allow us to make certain predictions and material designs. We also have to consider the use of the data we are working with. This is a strength of the practice as well as a weakness: what our data may lack in completeness allows us to manipulate the experiment more effectively. However, we should not confuse this with any kind of “ultimate” truth. The Wikipedia article for fluid dynamics states:

In addition to the above, fluids are assumed to obey the continuum assumption. Fluids are composed of molecules that collide with one another and solid objects. However, the continuum assumption assumes that fluids are continuous, rather than discrete. Consequently, it is assumed that properties such as density, pressure, temperature, and flow velocity are well-defined at infinitesimally small points in space and vary continuously from one point to another. The fact that the fluid is made up of discrete molecules is ignored.

The trade off to making these assumptions is that scientific theories cannot possibly describe or account for everything. There are therefore multiple ways of doing different “taxonomies” of theory. How one organizes their information can affect the system in exciting ways. This is one of the first lessons I learned from the study of history – how the issues of perspective and assumption effect the kind of history we are writing. There is not necessarily one correct perspective in this regard. Manuel deLanda’s work A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History writes world history from three different viewpoints:  geological, biological, and linguistic.   All three are valid perspectives.

According to Amanda Geftner, a science journalist who wrote the great book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, we can’t really determine a “god’s eye view” of the universe in which there is one transcendent perspective for all subjects. She writes:

A participatory universe? Participatory, yes; a universe, no. It was one participatory universe per reference frame, and you can only talk about one at a time. Why the quantum? Because reality is radically observer-dependent. Because observers are creating bits of information out of nothingness. Because there’s no way things “really are,” and you can’t employ descriptions that cross horizons. How come existence? Because existence is what nothing looks like from the inside.

Earth is just one part of an incredibly complex, dynamic system that is continuously effected through interconnected levels. This generates questions that scientists are able to explore further. They are then able to make new creations by setting up interactions in ways that were not possible before. When we set up these interactions within experiments, interesting implications spontaneously emerge. These implications then have important bearings on how we can make and organize decisions.

Just as important for scientific practice are the moral implications of how one builds their world. This is where the importance of ethics come in, and which the spiritual attempts to address: the wider impact of human activity. For example, use of fossil fuel burning is beginning to shift, helping to drive alternatives to sustainable energy sources. While combustible engines are scientifically applicable, they are silent on the degree and morality of their use. This degree of use will also change based on present observations.

Spiritual practices, which aim at a gnosis that can’t be proven with science’s external instrumentation, attempt to put us more in touch with human subjectivity and morality. It is a knowing based on the fact of our own existence – and the profound questions that follow. It is a knowing that isn’t afraid of following those questions into interesting spaces for their own sake.

Speculating on why this might be the case – isn’t a universe in which constant discovery is possible preferable to one in which there are no longer any room for the subjective or idiosyncratic? A lack of transcendent law seems to be a way to make sure that each subject has the ability to contribute in their own way. This way involves participating in an unknown manner.  An episode of Futurama, from which the quote at the beginning of this article was taken, beautifully illustrates the necessity of unanswered and unanswerable questions to science.   Material answers point to the enormous question, also addressed in this episode, of why things are the way they are.

How we create life is a messy, complex, and unpredictable undertaking that cannot be revealed through only material concerns.  Following this undertaking requires luck, knowledge, and skill that develops over time, and in which we may need to dispense with to go forward.  Even a totally accurate theory may be rendered obsolete as the universe continues to develop.

This is because that universe is alive – breathing in, breathing out, and transmuting itself at every opportunity.

Exlibris – Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche

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It’s time to take another look at ourselves – to re – enliven our sense of what it is to be human, to breathe new life into ancient intuitions of who we are, and to learn again to celebrate, as we once did, our instinctive affinity with the Earth community in which we’re rooted. We’re called now to rediscover what it means to be human beings in a wildly diverse world of feathered, furred, and scaled fellow creatures; flowers and forests, mountains, rivers, and oceans; wind rain, and snow; Sun and Moon.
– Bill Plotkin

Exlibris is the beginning of a series that highlights literature that aids us in self-inquiry. Many authors from a wide range of disciplines will contribute to our transformative work. I would like to focus on books that aid us in diverse ways, that help shape the ground of experiment, and that bring us into an engaged and newfound dialogue with the ideas these authors present.

Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche, by Bill Plotkin, is a rich psychological work that aims to bring humans back into the fold of a vibrant world. It is essentially a handbook for creating healthy lives and societies. Its harmonious combination of the personal and the universal make it an apt addition to our personal search for truth. Through it, Plotkin catalogues the intelligences that humans possess and describes how we can best utilize them. Using self-study, we become able to integrate these intelligences into a wholistic way of life. His way of describing the human psyche mirrors natural order, and returns our attention to the stunning and beautiful world in which we participate.

Wild Mind’s ambitious work touches each level of what it is to experience the human. It creates a taxonomy that moves between what Plotkin calls the Soul, the Spirit, the Self, and the Ego. He also breaks these down further into the different categories that make a complete human being.

The Soul is what Plotkin calls “a person’s unique purpose or identity . . . Soul is the particular ecological niche, or place, a person was born to occupy but may or may not ever discover or consciously embody” (13). Spirit reveals our oneness with the universe, “the universal consciousness, intelligence, psyche, or vast imagination that animates the cosmos and everything in it – including us – and in which the psyche of each person participates.” (13). The Ego is described as “the locus of, or seat, of conscious self-awareness within the human psyche” (14).

The Self contains different resources that an increasingly conscious person can learn to express in healthier ways. Wild Mind implements these as four directions that directly correspond to various psychosomatic tools. The intelligences or modes of the psyche allow us to look within and traverse their connecting lines. We then use that functioning to actively shape human culture. We will look at these directions individually.

The North represents the human instinct to contribute to the lives of others  and is called the Nurturing Generative Adult. Plotkin describes how this facet is ultimately grounded in love:

Love. All four facets of the self begin with love, are anchored in love. Yet each facet features its own favored form of love. The North facet of the Self is rooted in a nourishing and boldly resourceful love, like Thomas Berry’s for the Earth, a parent for her child, a devoted teacher for his students, or a true friend for another . . . The north, then, is said to be the place of healing, service, caring, and creative thought – in short, nurturance and generativity. (35-44)

The South includes our intuitive connections to nature and the Earth, and is called The Wild Indigenous One. Here the human finds themselves as part of the earth, with each sense contributing to a rich lived experience. The South makes us physically remember that our original face, and ultimate home, lies in this reality, this earth, and this body. As Plotkin says:

The Wild Indigenous One is sensuous and body centered. We are embodied in flesh and are in communion with the world though our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin, as well as through our indigenous heart and wild mind. (57)

The East is the Innocent/Sage, where we express compassion and wisdom. The East is a highly complex and interesting door to qualities that we often find mentioned in religious literature. The natural associations of the East convey a sense of warmth and vitality.

The east, of course, is where the Sun rises, granting us light after the long night. The east, then, is commonly affiliated with beginnings, origins, and birth, and also with illumination and enlightenment, and, as a consequence, with Spirit, too. Beginnings and enlightenment suggest innocence and wisdom.
With the return of the light each morning, we can more readily appreciate the big picture, our world expanding beyond the immediate fears and concerns of our contracted night-selves. The east, then, is also allied with qualities that widen or sharpen our perception or understanding, qualities such as the simplicity of the Innocent, the wisdom of the Sage, the humor (‘lightening up’) and transcendent brilliance of the Fool, and the Trickster’s gift of paradox. (88-89)

The West is the last aspect, and is called the Muse/Beloved. Here is the “fruitful darkness,” where we sense the full capabilities of our imagination.

By imaginatively romancing the world and its endless unique wonders – both human and other – we keep our lives new, forever evolving, and in so doing, we participate in the ongoing evolution of the world itself. But personal evolution – individuation – necessitates a periodic reshaping of our lives that is often deeply challenging. By opening our hearts and imaginations to the daily mysteries, a romance with the world upsets our routines, making us vulnerable to the great changes destined in our Souls and in the Soul of the world, the anima mundi.
The West, then, is not only the place of romance but also the change place, the dimension of our human psyches that seeks and savors ecstatic and troubling transformations. (97-98)

Plotkin follows up this discussion with sections on what he calls the “subpersonalities.” Each direction receives a subpersonality which represents an unhealthy mode of functioning for that particular direction. They exist as that direction’s inverse and when we act from them, they prevent us from functioning in adaptive ways and turn us stagnant and neurotic. These subpersonalities are Loyal Soldiers, Wounded Children, Addicts and Escapists, and the Shadow and Shadow Selves, respectively.

One of the most welcome things that Wild Mind offers is the inclusion of exercises that develop each of these directions, as well as bringing attention to each of the subpersonalities. Integrating these personalities is imperative for achieving a more complete self-understanding.  The directions Plotkin gives are extensive and excellent and make this book even more useful. An example of this type of exercise is mentioned in the chapter on the South side, The Wild Indigenous One:

At any moment of the day, whether you’re at work in the shop or office or garden, at play on the field or court, at home with your family, or en route between one or the other, remind yourself of your wild, sensuous, emotive, and erotic indigenity. As you re-member yourself in this way, what do you notice about the way you physically move through your activities? What shifts do you notice in your relationships? What now feels most alluring or compelling? How’s it feel to be in your body? In your animate surroundings? What emotions are viscerally present? How’s it feel to be immersed in the land? Are you fully at home? How could you be more so? (69)

Framing these points as questions helps contribute to the book’s inclusiveness. Each person is free to use Plotkin’s maps to aid them in their search and discover on their own.

Once a person manages to further integrate themselves, they embody what Plotkin calls the “3-D Ego.” We are able to access the 3-D ego the more we take the time to study its components. A human with access to their inner knowledge comprehends themselves on multiple levels – from the individual to the group, the societal, and the cosmic. Wild Mind makes this understanding into a blueprint that draws from each of its directions and incorporates it into many levels of the Self.

In a time where there is an increased consciousness about humanity’s future, Bill Plotkin’s book is a timely and necessary addition to psychological literature. Since the personal and the universal coincide, any changes we make in understanding ourselves have larger ramifications for our world. A psychology that attends to human needs and helps change our lived perception is a necessary ingredient for changing reality. Wild Mind provides a guide that helps us discover ways to understand ourselves, how we can fit into natural communities, and how best to use our collaborative resources.

You can purchase Wild Mind from the publisher here.

The Collective, The Expanse, and the Imagination of Earth

Welcome to the churn.
– The Expanse

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In the introduction to #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader, Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian state:

Such convenient extremist caricatures, however, obstruct the consideration of a diverse set of ideas united in a claim that a truly progressive political thought – a thought that is not beholden to inherited authority, ideology, or institutions – is possible only by way of a future-oriented and realist philosophy; and that only a politics constructed on this basis can open up new perspectives on the human project, and on social and political adventures yet to come. This assumption that we are at the beginning of a political project, rather than at the bleak terminus of history, seems crucial today in order to avoid endemic social depression and lowering of expectations in the face of global cultural homogenization, climate change and ongoing financial crisis . . . The new possibilities it opens up for the human conceived not as an eternal given, fated to suffer the vicissitudes of nature, but as a historical being whose relation to nature (including its own), increasingly mediated through technical means, is mutable and in motion. [4-11]

In light of the challenges that humanity faces, it is beginning to transition further away from archaic, all-encompassing ideas. Conceiving of new paradigms is a challenge to orthodox ways of imagining the world. Books such as Inventing the Future (linked to #Accelerate) take up this challenge and attempt a reversal. In this book, the authors argue for building a liberal hegemony, instead of the current Left’s retreat into what they describe as “folk politics.” These political methods use local models of self-sufficiency and resilience but fail to account for capitalism’s larger networks. The liberal hegemony this book describes embraces technology as a means to make cultures that are “utopian without apology.”

We have entered a space that resists our more limited descriptions of reality. Part of humanity’s current project is to create new conceptions of self and the world. This project is tied to our inner work. Both need us to be brutally honest with ourselves if we are to create realistic change. Through sitting, we exhume more and more of our experience that is shared with others: aggressive thoughts and impulses, overriding selfishness, and the nadir of human experience which is our birthright. Humanity will need to take stock of it’s own tendencies toward aggression and violence in order to shift its cultures to more beneficial ends. Past lessons on corruption, power, and environmental disintegration will hopefully serve us well as we make these changes.

These lessons are a necessary part of humanity’s journey, both individually and collectively. In St. John of the Cross’ book The Dark Night, he describes the process of mystical purgation and union with God. In order for the aspirant to realize this, they must be tried in the fires of contemplation. He brilliantly describes this process:

Similarly, we should philosophize about this divine, loving fire of contemplation. Before transforming the soul, it purges it of all contrary qualities . . . [it] brings to the fore the soul’s ugliness; thus one seems worse than before and unsightly and abominable. This divine purge stirs up all the the foul and vicious humors of which the soul was never before aware; never did it realize there was so much evil in itself, since these humors were so deeply rooted. And now that they may be expelled and annihilated they are brought to light and seen clearly through the illumination of this dark light of divine contemplation. [417]

Here St. John is describing something that religious teachers and mystics have long been aware of: the transformation inherent in meditation. Contemplation, observation, and meditation are all part of spiritual praxis. By undertaking these practices, you will begin to discover different ways of perceiving. Observing oneself is a gateway, for in knowing ourselves we can act in ways that are less clouded by conditioning. Through these practices, we can better change our understanding as well as the world at large.

This enlarging of understanding ourselves is often reflected in popular culture. After finishing the first season of the TV show The Expanse, I am amazed at how well the show conceives of new offshoots of the human experience. It allows us to rethink how humanity is leaving the confines of adolescence for the open spaces of its adulthood. Through cultural artifacts like The Expanse, we are better understanding the power of human ingenuity and imagination. Currently, I think humanity is edging closer to removing the barriers of its past. As we leave old mythologies behind, we become more capable of engineering the planet, and possibly, any worlds beyond. This dissolution is painful and frightening, like the dark night, as we begin to build an understanding that can better accommodate our freedom.

This kind of understanding starts within us. Instead of existing on a higher plane, it instead sprouts up out of the earth through us. It is saturating our world with increasing awareness. In doing the work to understand ourselves, we can realize and accelerate the Great Work of humanity: knowing and increasing our collective ability to shape the world

Creative Experimentation and the Philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari

Thought is a ‘witches’ flight’ in the sense of carrying us to beyond the frontier of what the body and the mind have been presumed able to do.
– Joshua Ramsey

A book I am currently working on is called Hands-On Chaos Magic by Andrieh Vitimus. Throughout the sections I’ve read, the author lists many exercises that develop visualization and concentration skills. The book uses these examples to encourage an open source approach to its exercises, inviting the reader’s participation in making their own magical frameworks. It has us adopt a questioning attitude and develop exercises that are effective and have meaning to us.

This book feels like a natural extension of developing individual, creative approaches. Interestingly, I think this kind of experimentation prevents its practitioners from too narrowly channeling their creativity. Rather than focusing all of our efforts on a particular form of art, any circumstance becomes creative. We become a kind of craftsman, but for all of life, and through a kind of inquisitive play with existence, new solutions emerge. Although there is much that is outside of our control, we can experiment in every moment. By nurturing the details of our lives, we find novel and often beautiful possibilities.

This kind of free play is present in the work of some of the twentieth century’s most important philosophers, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. They carve out the still-beating heart of the Entrenched Position, giving it over to the cascades ever in the process of desiring-production. Deleuze and Guattari provide us with concepts that allow us to think differently, shifting away from a blind insistence on our possession of Truth. Their concepts, collected under terms like schizoanalysis, provide a pivot for creative experimentation and expansion in our own lives.

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I will try to focus on some important concepts from their studies in A Thousand Plateaus. By observing how these concepts relate to each other, we can then grasp what Deleuze and Guattari are offering us when we work to understand it. They give us a truly rare and wonderful thing. Not only is their conceptual system coherent, it also adheres to lived experience. By being highly realistic, and not necessarily idealistic, its range of practical applications is enormous.

Two of Deleuze and Guattari’s most useful concepts are the rhizome and the assemblage. The rhizome offers a model for connections within reality between what are referred to as heterogeneous elements. These can be understood as aspects that occupy a network of connections that constantly fluctuate, connect, and re-connect. In A Thousand Plateaus, it is described as “[passing] between things, between points.” [505]. In its process of connection, the rhizome creates new realities of its own.

The assemblage expands upon this, offering us a way to understand provisional collections of these heterogeneous elements. An assemblage:

[extracts] a territory from the milieus. Every assemblage is basically territorial. The first concrete rules for assemblages is to discover what territoriality they envelop, for there is always one: in their trash can or on their bench, Beckett’s characters stake out a territory. Discover the territorial assemblages of someone, human or animal: ‘home.’ The territory is made out of decoded fragments of all kinds, which are borrowed from the milieus but then assume the value of ‘properties’ . . . [504]

The environment organizes itself in particular ways, pulling itself together into coherent groups that make an assemblage. Depending on how these differences are brought together changes the territory and therefore the assemblage. This process of constitution is elaborated on with Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts of territorialization and deterritorialization.

These territories have certain exit points within them to other states of being and intensity, called lines of flight. Since the territory occupies a certain level of organization, when we change how that matter organizes, we begin moving along these lines towards deterritorialization. These are transitions that embrace the fount of possibility and our ability to move along different paths at any time. Interestingly, Deleuze and Guattari describe two different parts of this process. The first is when we move outside of a territory but “reterritorialize” on a different one. The second is when we reach the “plane of consistency,” an extremely abstract and difficult concept to describe. The plane of consistency underlies all universal order and allows it to exist, but it is more fluid and potential. If we transition from more rigid conceptions of order, we can reach the plane of consistency and find more creative freedom.

I think this understanding helps shed light on human habits. For example, we tend to move in default patterns of thought, behavior, and organization. This can be conceived as a territory. It is a particular state of energy that we occupy at any given time, with tendencies to move in certain directions, whether intellectual, verbal, etc. This can be observed in children, with a more chaotic creativity limiting itself over time to the construction of a personality. However, this cuts both ways, and we can follow our personality back across time, along the paths of its formation, and sense its limitations. This is to realize our freedom. It is helpful, once we recognize that incredible freedom, to understand the balance of crafting and dissolving transitions along the flux of events. Our territories contain “lines of flight” that describe other possible states of becoming and how we may best follow them.

These ideas all tie into the concept of a body without organs. A body without organs is a process of reality in becoming, of how we each give shape to a life’s work. As I understand it, the body without organs is how each of us shape actualities in accordance with our deepest desires in ongoing experiment. It “pulls” potentials into existence. Set in motion, the body without organs constructs itself through the events of our lives. Since reality is processual, it necessarily follows that any moment we express opens onto multiple dimensions, including the full scale of heavenly bliss and hellacious suffering. The body without organs teems with possibility and danger, that we may not survive beyond this moment to carry on this grand experiment.

At any rate you have one (or several). It’s not so much that it preexists or comes ready-made, although in certain respects it is preexistent. At any rate you make one, you can’t desire without making one. And it awaits you; it is an inevitable exercise or experimentation, already accomplished the moment you undertake it, unaccomplished as long as you don’t. This is not reassuring, because you can botch it. Or it can be terrifying, and lead you to your death. It is nondesire as well as desire. It is not at all a notion or a concept but a practice, a set of practices. You never reach the Body without Organs, you can’t reach it, you are forever attaining it, it is a limit. [149-150]

Understanding these concepts clarifies Deleuze and Guattari’s purpose.  These concepts are not held in a death grip.  Instead, they energize and reconnect language from within, allowing us to conceive and feel other dimensions of existence. Their writing mirrors this, teeming with the associations, loops, and spirals of life. We can observe new connections forming and see what can be drawn from them. We then enter and better effectuate processes of change. An application of this philosophy is how best to use this framework to liberate ourselves. Through it, we continuously work to realize a much broader and diverse experience of life, a “nomad science” and philosophy of freedom.

The Unbounded in Creativity, Ethics, and Philosophy

The tree of life is precisely in the middle of the garden, conveying all waters of Creation, branching below, for that flowing, gushing river spreads into the garden, whence waters branch in many directions. Receiving them all is the ocean, from which they emerge in numerous streams below, as is said: watering all beasts of the field (Psalms 104:11). Just as they emerge from that world above, watering those towering mountains of pure balsam, subsequently upon reaching the tree of life, they branch below by paths in every direction.
– The Zohar

Broadly understood, meditation and spirituality ask for exacting individual scrutiny. We uncover the dark soil inside, leaving nothing untouched by contemplation. Here we find something seething, gibbering, and incredibly complex. This complexity, vibrating in time, destroys any chance we may have of a reality that conforms to our expectations, plans, and ideas. However, this is simultaneously a rent that allows us to choose new moments and new questions. This feeling of universal complexity and change has revised my understanding of the human domains of creativity, ethics, and philosophy. I would like to explore how this has occurred and how it helps illuminate our own capabilities. This is found in every moment: participation in raw creation with the entire universe.

Paying attention to our experience can result in the apprehension of universal unfolding. Eihei Dogen referred to that state as “the flowering of the unbounded,” using the metaphor of “flowering” to describe the persistent expression of all phenomena. He describes the flowering of space as part of Buddhist truth in his essay, The Flowering of the Unbounded. Alternately translated as “Flowers in Space,” this essay ranks among other essays in Shobogenzo as some of the most significant contributions ever made to global religious literature. Dogen describes these blossoms as follows:

Seeking the radiance and form of this blossoming is what your investigation through your training should be all about. What Bodhidharma calls ‘the resulting fruit’ is something that one leaves to the fruit: he describes this as ‘what naturally comes about of itself’. ‘What naturally comes about of itself’ is his term for mastering causes and being conscious of effects. There are the causes of the whole universe and there are the effects of the whole universe; there is our mastering the causes and effects of this whole universe and there is our being conscious of the causes and effects of this whole universe. One’s natural self is oneself. This self, to be sure, is ‘you’, that is to say, it is the four elements and the five skandhas of which you are comprised. Because Bodhidharma is allowing for ‘a true person devoid of any rank’, he is not referring to a specific ‘I’ or to some ‘other’. Therefore, that which is indefinable is what he is calling ‘a self ’. This natural state of ‘being as it is’ is what he is acknowledging. The natural state of ‘being as one is’ is the time when the Single Blossom opens and Its fruit results: it is the occasion when the Dharma is Transmitted and one is rescued from one’s delusions.It is within this context that the World-honored One spoke of the flowerings within Unbounded Space . . .

On the other hand, those folks who pay attention to very little and see even less are unaware that petals and blossoms with their varied hues and brilliance are to be found within everything . . . Only the Buddhas and Ancestors have known about the blossoming and falling of the flowers of Unbounded Space as well as that of earthly flowers. Only They have known of such things as the blossoming and falling of the flowers within the human world. Only They have known that such things as the flowers in Unbounded Space, earthly flowers, and the flowers within the human world are all Scriptures; this is the standard by which we investigate what Buddha is. Because what has been taught by the Buddhas and Ancestors is this flowering of Unbounded Space, the realm of Buddha and the Teachings of Buddhas are therefore synonymous with the flowerings of Unbounded Space. (Shasta Abbey Translation, 554-555)

This feeling emerged more strongly the more I practiced and reflected, and concepts cannot do it justice. The blossoming of space mentioned by Dogen is around us, continuing the primordial creation. Light dapples on every surface, constellating itself into beautiful shapes. Each breath effloresces with every mouth speaking in tongues. Experience points back to itself within the foam of becoming.

The moments in that experience frequently shift its potentials. New frontiers branch in innumerable crystalline patterns. Existence pulsates with creative discoveries as we are delivered over to a sweeping movement beyond ourselves. Creativity itself seems to follow this free-form growth. Associations reach out and interpenetrate as unique opportunities present themselves. Returning different each time, creativity sloughs itself and redounds. Creation simultaneously embraces and presses against barriers and divisions of every kind. This is what it means to be a creative agent -choosing, enacting, flowing like a spring. We are an “infinite ocean of effulgence” and these choices matter, given unceasing weight and force.

There are authoritarian strains that slither into our minds, offering us transcendence. They attempt to install their own process as the sole operation, attracting converts and changing them into vectors. The result is their world as the logos, of their opinions becoming the basis of shared reality. What is not discussed is that these beliefs and methods are a haphazard creation like any other. The construction of experiments, interpretation, and chance turns all contribute to the process. Anomalies make every situation unique.

However, what if we wish to return to the process to obtain another result? The author’s continued mining of their own potential creates their style. However, since these can naturally be limiting, the author may need to transform themselves again and again. There is always the chance of removing artistic limits and crashing the gates of what we had only assumed. Rekindling the act of creation is a fire that inheres in every form. The surface moves like a porous net, sliding us through into being, carrying us to the other shore.

Art is the minister of nature, nature is the daughter of time.
– The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz

Authors and musicians are not the only ones who can be considered creatives. We all create, in the sense that our actions take on their own life and effect others. Although meditation helps us dispense with a continuous, transcendent law, it seems that the more we notice the effect of our actions the more important they become. Our actions embrace all existence. Every cruel word or deed fashions itself into a crown of thorns for us to bear, nailing others to a possible cross of suffering.

We must take responsibility for the reality we are helping to make. The importance of ethical behavior in this regard becomes even more clear. Seeing events growing in time like a child, our ethical needs may change in an instant. Ethics emerges spontaneously, with branches into other configurations of experience. It is therefore important to question our own assumptions about the behavior of others, as humans are not carved out of our ideals. We cannot expect a person to act similarly in any given moment. However, if we look in the present to see the individual needs of others, we may have a better idea how to proceed.

In unbounded space, philosophy also takes on a different meaning. Since philosophy reflects on and engages existence, it buds out of dynamism, creating different ways of understanding. Other forms of culture help philosophy reinvent itself at each stage of development. Philosophy embodies the unbounded through a liberation of its own refractory potential. Explanations become multivalent, capable of changing themselves depending on one’s perspective and situation.

Philosophy can order or deform depending on its conceptual applications. The complexity of universal processes have no need for uniformity. Each person may have individual desires that allow for unique solutions. To create a “perennial” philosophy relevant for all times and persons thus seems unnecessary. Other elements of the cosmos may remain, eclipsed in unknowing, or utilized in unpredictable ways. Philosophy “opens the sieve to allow chaos in,” if chaos becomes a placeholder for disintegration and freedom past the bounds of our conception.

Unbounded space is this freedom at its purest. The universe consumes, alters, and expands its own connections simultaneously. These connections create unique spaces for diversity and accession, which we are able to partake in. This is the freedom found in ethics, philosophy, and any creative enterprise we set in motion. To find this freedom to create is part of our potential, as well as that of the unbounded, blossoming forth as time and space.

A Path Unknown To Any Vulture

Turning away and touching are both wrong, for it is like a massive fire.
– Dongshan

One crack and all knowledge is dissolved.
The struggle is over.
I follow the ancient Way, not lapsing into doubt.
Dignified bearing and conduct
that is beyond sound and form;
no trace remains of my passing.
Those who have mastered the Way
call this unsurpassable activity.
– from “Xiangyan’s Great Enlightenment”

Coming to Zen is to come to a basic unknowing. There are no texts that structure the kind of insight Zen offers. It is a rupture that evades thought, indicating the place at which the practitioner and the rest of existence co-occur. Zen brings the entrails of time and space squirming into the light.

It is interesting and highly symbolic that becoming a monk is known as “home-leaving.” To take up Zen is to leave home in more ways than one. It is not only leaving one’s family and former life. We also leave our projections behind. What is constitutes itself instantly as “a path unknown to any vulture.” There is a depth to that path that cannot be known or understood through theory. Instead, we forsake theorizing to begin our own unique inquiry.

When they seek the source of this practice, the student is often thrown into a more confusing position than before. Confronting the behavior of experienced Zen monks, and the lack of belief system, easy answers do not materialize. No respite is offered. We are told to simply sit in position, breathe, and follow the room exhaling in tandem.

These sitting periods compound our questions. Zen deals with these questions in surprising ways. It does not deny their importance for the spiritual seeker. Rather, it sees them as superficial and incomplete. Zen does not succumb to grand theories. Its questions arc interminably with no explanation of existence as a guarantee. Many metaphysics amount to a story we have provided for ourselves, and little more.

Gazing into our thought for long enough gradually reveals our ignorance. The Koan is one of Zen’s most important tools in helping to show us this. Since the mind hungers for explanation and security, the koan seems confusing on the surface. Continued practice, however, reveals their depth and breadth.

The Koan may display some of Zen’s insights in action, or present us with a situation to which we are asked to respond. They grab us and our base assumptions by the throat. Many Zen koans that I have read place emphasis on one’s present, concrete reality. That moment is a source of freedom, explanation, or experience. These koans are directing our attention to that moment:

Yuezhou Qianfeng was once asked by a monastic, ‘Bhagavans in the ten directions have one path to the gate of nirvana. I wonder, what is the path?’
Yuezhou drew a line with his staff and said, ‘It’s right here.’

Discussions such as these are attempting to approach the student in way that does not appeal to reductionist, idealistic thinking. Masters try to show us this in experiential ways. Rather than getting entrenched in a discussion on gradations or paths, Yuezhou hits the student with a physical, embodied answer. This is displayed in Zen literature frequently. An example of this, from Cultivating the Empty Field, utilizes a gorgeous description of natural detail:

A person of the Way fundamentally does not dwell anywhere. The white clouds are fascinated with the green mountain’s foundation. The bright moon cherishes being carried along with the flowing water. The clouds part and the mountain appears. The moon sets and the water is cool. Each bit of autumn contains vast interpenetration without bounds. (41-42)

The present that Zen teachers want us to appreciate is not capable of being fully understood. Beneath our opinions is something immense, which can be intuited through examination. Unknowing is explicitly demonstrated in Shitou’sAsk the Pillar”:

Shitou was once asked by a monastic, ‘What is the significance of Bodhidharma’s coming from India?’
Shitou said, ‘Ask the pillar.’
The monastic said, ‘I don’t understand it.’
Shitou said, ‘I don’t understand it either.’

Integral to this understanding is what has been referred to as suchness. Suchness does not designate a stable entity that we close ourselves around.  It reflects our intuition into a more consistent effort. Zen teacher Taigen Dan Leighton elaborates on how this word describes an adjustable, engaged practice:

Known in Sanskrit as tathata, this suchness is described in Indian Buddhism as ultimate truth, reality, the source, or the unattainable. Experientially, this suchness might imply the direct apprehension of the immediate present reality, harking back to early Buddhist mindfulness practices of bare attention. So, in varying contexts suchness may refer to our clear perception of reality, or else to the nature of that reality itself. (9)

No codification can hold us at this point. Suchness is to practice at the precipice, existing in transformation. As described in a line of the Four Great Vows: Dharma gates are countless, I vow to wake to them. Dharma gates demonstrate the truth, allowing us to awaken in every lineament of the entire world.

A grove of trees invites us in. They speak in melodies, in the thrum of sun and wind, and the throb of blood in universal channels. This time we brim with compassion for all things. Reality fills itself in a newly imagined flood, each act merely a beginning. Our center dissipates throughout the universe and we come once more to unknowing. For when we really begin to question, all dividing lines begin to crack. Thoughts, opinions, and beliefs become like gossamer strands.

As streams of fluid chaos, we navigate what we are in every sensation. Zen takes hold of this movement, and everything flourishes without our understanding.

The Concealed Of All Concealed – Haqdamat Sefer ha-Zohar

Yet perhaps above all else, it was the worldview of the Zohar – through its establishing a reciprocal relationship between the world of humanity and the world of divinity – that left an indelible impression on the hearts of its readers. In this ever-changing, constantly evolving relationship, the divine flow seeks to be revealed and to saturate the world of humanity; and humanity, for its part, seeks to attain, to take part in, and to cleave to the divine world. Indeed, the Zohar created a view of reality that bestows upon humanity the ability and the responsibility to rectify, constitute, and beautify over and over again the figure of the Godhead-and in so doing, itself and the world. (Loc. 81-87).  

 – Melila Hellner-Eshed

In addition to essays with original content, this site also seeks engagement with a variety of world philosophical theory and practice. In this engagement, theory and practice are as fused and complementary as two sides of the same coin. These concepts ask to be experienced anew and perhaps even be called into being. They are reminders of the delicate, fluid web of cause and effect, and the paramount importance of our beliefs and actions.

I can think of no more fitting place to start this exploration than the Zohar, the 13th century Jewish mystical text. Combining stunning poetry with exacting biblical analysis, the Zohar provides a basis in which to effect the healing of creation. Reconnecting male and female elements of the divine, the Kabbalist helps to make “the world that is to come.” Although God is often shrouded in mystery, the Kabbalist nevertheless tries to understand and participate in His continuing revelations. Humanity’s own efforts when waking to the mystery of God help determine the course of His creation.

In honor of this great work of ages, I would like to do a series on some sections of its writings. Connecting it to diverse scholarship on the Kabbalah, I hope to help shed some light on this challenging text. The Zohar’s view of the religious life is difficult to match in its density of interpretation and depth of feeling, so each section will try to elaborate on some of its diverse themes. How we then attempt to practice these concepts is up to each of us. Reading the Zohar is a charged experience, and we may be drawn into its rapturous heights as we ascend further into its world.

Excerpts are from the first volume of Daniel Matt’s Pritzker Edition, unless otherwise noted.

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In its first section, the Zohar frequently discusses the mystery of existence and of God. This exploration of mystery generates some of the Zohar’s most amazing passages, describing the summiting of the inner life to probe the beginning of all. Some of these passages also refer to something called Ein Sof. As mentioned and explored in a previous essay, this is the infinite, unnameable source out of which all existence flows. It means “there is no end.” The One God that is wrapped up in all created things emerged from Ein Sof, and is intriguingly labeled “the Concealed of all Concealed.” God can be known in some ways, but there remain forever untapped and unknown dimensions of the absolute. This God gradually began to divulge itself in and through the shaping of the universe:

When Concealed of all Concealed verged on being revealed, it produced at first a single point, which ascended to become thought. Within, it drew all drawings, graved all engravings, carving within the concealed holy lamp a graving of one hidden design, holy of holies, a deep structure emerging from thought, called ‘Who,’ origin of structure. Existent and non-existent, deep and hidden, called by no name but ‘Who.’ . . . Seeking to be revealed, to be named, it garbed itself in a splendid, radiant garment and created ‘these.’ ‘These’ attained the name: these letters joined with those, culminating in the name ‘Elohim.’ Until it created ‘these,’ it did not attain the name ‘Elohim.’ . . . Through this mystery, the universe exists. (8)

Interestingly, God is named “Who,” as much a question as a designation. God emerged out of a dark, primal Unknowable, and will always remain so. In this understanding, God represents the origin of existence, yet His ultimate meaning and full potential remain uncharted. The Zohar truly brings the reader into an encounter with that arcane causa sui of existence. Even though it follows the emergence of everything from the initial point of divine incandescence, it still acknowledges that this beginning is veiled in secrecy. This is expressed in an incredible passage worth quoting in full:

The holy hidden one engraved an engraving in the innards of a recess, punctuated by a thrust point. He engraved that engraving, hiding it away, like one who locks up everything under a single key, which locks everything within a single palace. Although everything is hidden away within that palace, the essence of everything lies in that key, which closes and opens. Within that palace stand gates built cryptically, fifty of them. Carved into four sides, they were forty-nine. One gate has no side. No one knows whether it is above or below; it is shut. In those gates is one lock and one precise place for inserting the key, marked only by the impress of the key, known only to the key. Concerning this mystery it is written: Be-reshit bara Elohim, ‘In the beginning God created.’ Be-reshit is the key enclosing all, closing and opening. Six gates are contained in that key that closes and opens. When it closes those gates, enclosing them within itself, then indeed: Be-reshit – a revealed word combined with a concealed word. Bara, ‘Created,’ is always concealed, closing, not opening.

As long as the world was locked within the word ‘bara,’ it was not, did not exist. Enveloping everything was ‘tohu,’ [Chaos], and as long as tohu reigned, the world was not, did not exist. When did the key open gates? When was it fit to be fruitful, to generate offspring? (17-19)

So beginning is both revealed in the universe we find ourselves in yet is also concealed from human knowledge. The “single key” is the rune of existence, in which all speculation becomes obscure. This is the “closing” of speculation. One finds the last gate shut, unable to be opened to comprehension. Concepts no longer avail the seeker at this place. Here stretches out the gate to all, at the same time nothing, an impenetrable darkness. However, this creation or tree of life also expounds itself in certain ways which constitute our shared existence. This is “the tree bearing fruit with its seed in it.” The “revealing” is the same creation, seemingly endless in its manifestations.

The Zohar understands this revealing of creation as an emanation from that blazing point of divine light. In divulging some of Himself, progressive attributes of God make themselves known. These parameters, known as sefirot, help determine how God comes to be known to His creation. The sefirot are admirably described in the book A River Flows From Eden:

The Zohar assumes that its reader is familiar with descriptions of the structure of the divine world as they had crystallized in the circles of the first kabbalists in Provence and Gerona, beginning at the end of the twelfth century. These teachings assume the existence of an infinite, abstract divinity termed Ein Sof. From it emanate ten sefirot, constituting the world of active divinity. They are able to be comprehended in different ways. The sefirot are qualities or nodes of operation of the divine outside its incomprehensible and indescribable mysteriousness. They are characterized as masculine or feminine, and the relationships between them are dynamic and (hetero)sexual. (Loc. 215-221)

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The sefirot form a complex understanding of reality. They do not solely chart the known aspects of God. They also form a representation of meditative practice, in which the practitioner climbs the “rungs” of the sefirot to the apex of nothingness. The sefirot also reveal how the world progressed out of Ein Sof, and the hidden dimensions that this reality contains.

The Zohar introduces one of its major themes in its first part – the idea of God separated from itself. Although this work discusses more of its creation story in a later commentary, it touches on this in the first chapter. A passage discussing this theme reads:

As soon as He departed, the flow flowing from above ceased. ‘He,’ as it were, ‘smote’ them, destroying and obliterating them, and the Holy Throne fell, as is written: ‘And I was in the midst of exile’ (Ezekiel 1:1) – that rung, called ‘I’ was ‘in the midst of exile.’ Why? ‘By the River Kevar’ ibid.), River of Already, on account of the river gushing and flowing, whose waters and springs ceased, so that it did not flow as before, as is written: ‘A river dries up and is parched’ (Job 14:11). ‘Dries up’ – in the First Temple; ‘is parched’ – in the second . . . All the lights illumining Israel darkened. (39)

God is disconnected from Himself and the nourishing springs that flow down from the celestial worlds and out of Ein Sof. This metaphor is discussed several times throughout the Zohar’s first section. Mentioned later on is the distinction the Kabbalists draw between the masculine God and the feminine God, with the feminine half referred to as Shekhinah. Shekinah, equated with Earth, is separated from the healing radiance of the divine, ravaged by evil forces and the wages of sin. Her state mirrors that of Israel, God’s chosen people, with its Temple destroyed, and exiled among the demonic tribes of other human nations. It is the Kabbalist’s responsibility, through their actions, to restore this lost bond and unleash the healing potency of divinity. We will return to this description again, and in greater detail, as we look at some of the Zohar’s later sections.

Humanity thus occupies a hugely important role in healing the wounds brought on by existence and separation. These wounds are understand cosmically as part of the divine reality, in which humans are an indelible part. Humans can come to these feelings of esteem and protectiveness by engaging in certain kinds of practice. These include contemplating holy works which expose hints of the universal narrative; participating in creative and edifying interpretations of Torah; and resolving their inner conflicts of good and evil.

One of the most useful perspectives on evil in world literature is found in the Zohar, in both its description and emphasis on human action. It interweaves an incredibly rich mythology that describes how humans ultimately perpetuate evil. Demons continually try to inhere in human expression and occupy “a dual earth, dualized by darkness and light.” (63)

Some of the Zohar’s most inspired lines comes out of these intense experiences of darkness:

In darkness they turn into the image of the two-headed serpent, moving like a serpent, then swooping into the abyss, bathing in the vast ocean. Reaching the chains of Uzza and Azazel [fallen angels] they agitate and arouse them. These then leap into the dark mountains, thinking the blessed Holy One is about to call them to judgement. These two officials swim the vast ocean and fly through the night to Na’amah, mother of demons, after whom the primordial deities strayed. They intend to approach her, but she leaps 60,000 parasangs, transmogrifying herself into countless figures confronting human beings, so that they stray after her. These two officials fly and roam throughout the world, then return to their abode, arousing those descendants of Cain to generate offspring by the spirit of evil impulses. (63-64)

The demonic is sometimes referred to in the Zohar as “the Other Side” and exists as a necessary corollary to the divine. Evil existed as an outgrowth in the beginning of creation and became a shell encasing the divine light. In order to access this light, one must penetrate through the shells around it.  Bringing evil into awareness allows humanity access to its creative role without fatally being drawn into the Other Side. This is to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. According to an article by Paul Levy:

From the Kabbalistic point of view, evil brings into the world the possibility of choosing between sin and virtue, which is to say that evil is the very origin of the possibility of the highest good. Freedom of choice is a necessary postulate for responsibility, morality, and the creation of values. Evil becomes the condition for free choice, and hence, the condition for the full realization of good. As if the revelation of everything is through its opposite, an idea is only complete when it reveals its opposite to be inextricably linked to its very significance, e.g., darkness is only known through light, just as light is only known through darkness. According to the Kabbalah, the world and the soul of humanity are partly immersed in the “Other Side,” which is to say that the evil impulse can’t be banished, but needs to be harnessed for the good. To quote Jung, ‘You can’t reject evil because evil is the bringer of light.’

Seeing the evil in ourselves is part of our recognition of the unity of God and the necessity of our restorative work.   The Zohar places a great deal of emphasis on righteousness in this regard. It describes its adherents as “sturdy pillars.” It describes “the world that is to come,” the potential experiencing of ourselves and our creative place in reality with new eyes. This is an arduous and lifelong task. It is also a rousing call to action:

O high, hidden, concealed ones, open-eyed, roaming the entire world, gaze and see! O low, sleeping ones, close-eyed, awake! Who among you turns darkness into light, bitter into sweet, before arriving here? Who among you awaits each day the light that shines when the king visits the doe and is glorified – declared King of all kings of the world? Whoever does not await this each day in that world has no portion here. (21-22)

Since this knowledge of our facility for good is found within an interior pilgrimage, the Zohar refers to it is “hidden.” We must remind ourselves of this fact as the world proliferates its own darkest impulses in its confusion. Our imagined separation is part of the separation of God, and access to this knowledge becomes lost as humanity falls prey to the Other Side:

Since [your goodness] is hidden within you, it plays no part in this world that I am about to create, but rather in the world to come. Furthermore, because your goodness is hidden within you, the gates of My Temple will sink, as is written: ‘Her gates, have sunk, into the earth (Lamentations 2:9). (15)

This understanding is finally remembering the overwhelming generosity of the Holy Ancient One.

How great is the precious, supernal goodness the blessed Holy One intends to lavish upon humanity – for the supremely righteous, dreading sin, engaging in Torah – when they enter that world! The verse does not read ‘Your goodness,’ but rather ‘Your immense goodness.’ Who is that? ‘The memory of Your immense goodness they express’ (Psalms 145:7) – joy of life flowing from the world that is coming to Vitality of the Worlds, who is ‘the memory of Your immense goodness’ – ‘immense goodness for the house of Israel . . . ‘ – Isaiah (63:7).

Your goodness’ – the light created on the first day. ‘That you have hidden away for those in awe of You,’ for He concealed it for the righteous in that world. (44-45)

The last theme we will discuss ties into and develops the others to such an extent that it will make a fitting conclusion to our discussion on this first section. In the process of investigating what lies hidden within the Torah’s wings, the Zohar requires its practitioners to expound new and interesting ways of interpreting these canonical texts. Creativity is expressed in the Torah as a communion that all its adherents must enter. This is not numbing repetition for its own sake, but ecstatic discovery. Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead described something similar in his opus Process and Reality:

It follows from the first category of explanation that ‘becoming’ is a creative advance into novelty. It is for this reason that the meaning of the phrase ‘the actual world’ is relative to the becoming of a definite actual entity which is both novel and actual, relatively to that meaning, and to no other meaning of that phrase. Thus, conversely, each actual entity corresponds to a meaning of ‘the actual world’ peculiar to itself.

The novelty of each moment is unique to that situation, and cannot necessarily be predetermined arbitrarily. The novel is defined relative to the situation at hand. Becoming is the entire universe changing into the new, perennially changing the meaning of “the world.”  Interpreting the Torah in new ways is to participate with the becoming of divine creation. The broadening of the Torah’s meaning is brought out in the Zohar’s exegesis of “let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures” (Genesis 1:20). This creativity makes new methods of swimming in the waters of the world.

The Torah then comes alive, a matrix of associations branching into unique places. Interpreting the holy text becomes a religious imperative, as the Kabbalist makes new heavens and participates as the world. One’s connection to the Torah is thus extremely important. In creating new interpretations and new “heavens” for humans to dwell in, we add to the aesthetic beauty of the universe. We also devise enduring opportunities for salvation. These new heavens become part of “the supernal crown” and the glory of God. “The waters swarm” with the results of this abundance. Humanity’s religious goals become re-centered in expanding the image of God.

How vital it is for a human being to engage in Torah day and night! For the blessed Holy One listens to the voice of those who occupy themselves with Torah, and every word innovated in Torah by one engaged in Torah fashions one heaven . . . All the words of the Ancient of Days are words of wisdom, conveying supernal, concealed mysteries . . . So each and every word of wisdom is transformed into a heaven, existing enduringly in the presence of the Ancient of Days. He calls them ‘new heavens,’ newly created heavens, hidden mysteries of supernal wisdom. . . (25-26)

The Zohar is a paean to humanity’s deep creativity and the effects of that creative urge on all the worlds. God is permanently linked to humans through the consequences of our combined actions. These actions join us to the divine reality, as we add to creation, finding our own beauty, wonder, and awe.

The sixth commandment: to be fruitful and multiply. For whoever engages in this causes that river to flow constantly, it’s waters never ceasing, and the sea is filled from every direction. New souls are innovated, emerging from that tree, while above, numerous powers increase along with them, as is written: ‘Let the waters swarm with a swarm of living souls [and let birds fly above the earth]’ (Genesis 1:20.) This is the holy sealed covenant, a river streaming forth, its waters swelling, swarming with swarms of souls for that living being. (87-88)