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The Perennial Philosophy

by Lisa VanOstrand

Man's eternal quest is for happiness. All experience is preceded by the desire for happiness. This is true regardless of whether the search is on a conscious level or not. Our search for happiness is fueled by an unquenchable thirst for objects or conditions. We crave objects or conditions that we believe will give us happiness and pleasure. But what happens? Haven't you had the experience, after receiving your heart's desire, of wanting more, or worse, yet, of losing it? No object or condition can ensure lasting happiness.

Change is the fundamental nature of the universe, and it is good. Whatever our initial reluctance to change, imagine if the universe or we, ourselves, were static! What brings happiness on this day will change or cease to exist the next. Thus, we become caught in an endless cycle of the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Various spiritual traditions remind us that happiness only comes from within ourselves, from the deep knowing that we are divine. Permanent happiness can only occur when we experience, ultimately, that we are God, whose fundamental nature is the happiness we crave. For most of us it is a great relief to know that what we are looking for already exists within us, as us.

The world's religious traditions offer different approaches to God-realization. While dissimilarities exist in their external aspects, internally all spiritual paths are remarkably similar. So much so that Aldous Huxley, a pioneer in the human consciousness movement, referred to this similarity as the Perennial Philosophy. It is called "perennial" because the same universal truths reveal themselves across different cultures throughout history. Ken Wilbur has so beautifully distilled the Perennial Philosophy into seven essential truths. These seven truths are listed here with slight modifications as I perceive them:

  1. One God exists.
  2. We are God.
  3. Most of us do not realize that we are God.
  4. There are paths to God-realization.
  5. Following these paths will ultimately lead to a direct experience of God.
  6. God-realization brings new understanding to suffering.
  7. God-realization results in unity consciousness or a deep awareness and compassion for all beings.

Vedanta, one of the world's earliest religious philosophies, contain the seven universal truths in the last part of the Vedas known as the Upanishads. The early Vedas, which were revealed between 1500 and 1200 BC, deal with ritual and theology. The Upanishads, which date to about 600 BC, explain the nature and truth of Ultimate Reality, or God and man's relationship to God. Vedanta states that our real nature is divine and that the objective of humanity is to unfold and express this divinity. Vedanta is the paradigm we will use for further exploration of the seven essential truths.

Vedanta, like all religions of the world, have the foundation of their knowledge based on direct experience. The mystic's experience of God realization is then revealed through the language of the scriptures. Yet how can Ultimate Reality ever be adequately conveyed through language? Sanskrit, as the language of the Vedas, aids the seeker in replicating the mystical experience because Sanskrit words are considered to be no different from the objects that they symbolize. The name of the object is the essence or vibration of the object itself. By repeating that name, we can experience the essence and true nature of the object. For this reason, I use Sanskrit rather than English terms here.

One God Exists

What do we mean when we say "God"? According to Vedanta, the highest Reality, or God, is called Brahman. The essential nature of Brahman is infinite existence, consciousness, and bliss, or satchidananda. Brahman is the principal of pure existence (sat); pure consciousness (chit); and pure bliss (ananda). Sat, chit, and ananda are not qualities; they are Brahman's true nature, as inseparable as wetness and water. The universe and all it's manifestations, both external and internal, arise, live, and then merge back into Brahman in the same way a wave rises, crests, and then dissolves back into the ocean. Vedanta considers Brahman to be both the instrumental and material cause of the universe. Brahman is the creator of the world and the material essence of the universe. Just as gold remains gold regardless of whether it is a ring, a coin, or a bracelet, so Brahman is not changed through the creation of the world. The individual self, which considers itself as separate, and the universe, have their ground of being in Brahman. Once you understand that Brahman is the ground of all being, you understand that you are not the individual you think you are, that the universe is not the universe that you think it is. Rather, the world and everything within objective experience is a manifestation of God, or Brahman.

We Are God

The Upanishads declare, "All is indeed Brahman." All forms are Brahman. Each form of Brahman is in a different stage of the evolutionary cycle. Whether mineral, plant, animal, or man, all sentient beings have God-realization as their ultimate destiny.

The Upanishads teach that human beings can find Brahman within. Vedanta says that Brahman dwells in the human heart as the divine Self, or Atman. In other words, we do not have to become Brahman. We already are Brahman. The true Self, the Atman, never born and never to die, is Brahman. That is Reality, that is the Truth of who we are and the meaning of the sayings, "Thou art That," and "I am That I Am."

Our "Thou" is "That," or Brahman. Our "I am," our individual Self or Atman, is That "I Am," the universal Self or Brahman. It is all One and the same, there is no difference. The goal of all life is to realize and manifest this divinity.

Most Of Us Do Not Realize That We Are God

Descartes, the French philosopher, said, "I think, therefore I am." According to Vedanta, this proposition is backwards and should be rephrased as "I am, therefore I think." First there is the "I," meaning the divine Self, not the mind. This divine Self or "I" exists before any thinking takes place. Since Brahman is the ground of everything, it includes the mind. The problem is that we identify ourselves with our thoughts and mental concepts believing we are who we think we are. "I am a man," "I am a woman," "I am thin," "I am fat," I am happy," I am sad," "I am __________. " You can fill in the blank. For most of us, this identification goes on ad infinitum in daily life and we never even notice it. When we identify with our body we fear sickness, old age, and death. When we identify with our thoughts we suffer from anger, hatred, fear, and the host of mental afflictions.

There Are Paths To God Realization

The Rig Veda declares, "Truth is one, sages call it by various names." As stated in the Perennial Philosophy, and as mystics of all ages, religions, and cultures have experienced and confirmed, and continue to tell us, that we, too, can realize this truth by following spiritual disciplines. Vedanta accepts all spiritual knowledge that is in harmony with reason and is verifiable through experience. From this perspective, the scriptures reveal the Truth, philosophical reason bears it out, mystics experience It, and then we realize it by following the prescribed spiritual disciplines. There are as many paths to God-realization as there are types of seekers. Each path is oriented to the seeker's natural tendencies. Some paths are oriented toward the practice of wisdom and knowledge, some toward love and devotion, and some toward selfless service. All help seekers get in touch with their inherent divinity in ways that are most natural to their personalities and dispositions.

Following These Paths To God-Realization Will Ultimately Lead To A Direct Experience Of God

Christ said, "The door is opened to him who knocks." It is through our intense desire and yearning to know the Truth that the Truth reveals itself to us. The knowledge and experience of the Supreme Reality is available when we can go deeply into the core of our being. It is there that we have the realization that "the One has become the Many."

Recalling that identification with the mind and body is the root of all suffering, the necessity of being able to still the mind is of the highest importance. The mind is the lens through which we view the world. It conditions our experiences. What we think is what we experience. That is why two people can be confronted with the same situation and react differently to that experience. Many a saint has declared, "The world is as you see it." In order to see Reality clearly, we must meditate. Through daily practice of meditation, the mind becomes clear and still, allowing us to perceive our innumerable thoughts and go beyond them to the source of all thought, to the subtle reality of our true nature. Over time meditation reveals the truth of Christ's declaration, "The kingdom of God is within."

During meditation, mantra repetition serves as a useful tool for appeasing the mind. "Mantra" is formed by two Sanskrit syllables, "man" which means "to think" and "tra" which means "to guide or lead." Remembering that Sanskrit words contain the energy or state of consciousness associated with the word, a mantra leads and supports the practitioner of meditation. A mantra can be chanted or sung out loud, repeated silently in meditation or throughout the day. You may have your own mantra. If not, you can repeat Satchitananda. It resonates with the essence of your true nature at the deepest cellular level. The Hermetic saying, "As above, so below" means that everything that exists in this world has its source in a higher world. Satchitananda ---Truth, Consciousness, and Bliss --- is who we are at our deepest, and highest, level. It is our identity with Brahman, our individual reflection of the One who has become many.

As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. Practice is everything! Rather than knowing the Truth as an intellectual concept, know It from the depths of your being. This is possible and inevitable from an evolutionary perspective. When we die the only thing we take with us is our consciousness; similarly, when we are born the only thing we bring with us is our consciousness. Know that, sooner or later, we will all manifest our divinity, for this is the greatest truth of who we are.

God-Realization Brings New Understanding To Suffering

There are countless examples of saints who despite persecution, physical deprivation, and disease maintained their conscious contact with God. It is likely that they felt pain, however the stories of Ramakrishna, Ramana Maharshi, Christ, Moses, the Buddha, Milarepa, and others demonstrate that in the face of such obstacles they continually celebrated God. It is important to understand that in this universe of name and form which is conditioned by time, space, and cause and effect, there will probably always be suffering. But this does not mean that we close our eyes to it and become complacent in the face of evil. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna urges a reluctant Arjuna to fight in the name of dharma, or righteousness, even though they both know suffering will ensue.

So-called evil in the world is simply ignorance, the profound forgetting of the truth of who we really are. We must understand that there is a great reality, a great love, wisdom, and power throughout the universe that is beyond normal human comprehension. We must attempt to find this within ourselves. We must allow ourselves to deeply feel our individual pain and the pain of humanity. When we know who we truly are we can hold the broader perspective that everything is happening exactly as it should, that "All is indeed Brahman."

God-Realization Results In Unity Consciousness Or A Deep Awareness And Compassion For All Beings

When you know your true nature, awareness of suffering is greatly heightened. With this awareness comes knowledge of the sacredness and unity of all life and respect for all beings as manifestations of God. Everywhere you look, there is only God. This is the meaning of Christ's saying, "Do unto others as you would do unto yourself." There are no others, only the One exists. The Bodhisattva vow so beautifully expresses the desire for the liberation of all beings: For as long as time and space exist and sentient beings remain, may I, too, abide to dispel the misery of the world.

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