The Perennial Tradition
We have been living on the legacy of the Perennial Tradition for over twenty-five hundred years, a heritage with which we are still basically unfamiliar. This Perennial Tradition is not taught in public institutions, for it is the inner, secret teaching concealed within every religion and philosophy.
As Augustine explained, "that which is called the Christian religion existed among the ancients and never did not exist from the beginning of the human race."
(Epistolae, Lib. I, xiii)
The Perennial Tradition has taken many names over the centuries such as Hermeticism, Philosophia, Neo-Platonism, Illuminism, Alchemy, Cabala, Magic, Gnosticism, Esotericism, Sufism. This Hidden Tradition is the single stream of initiatory teaching flowing through all the great schools of mysticism.
Certain expressions of the teaching have been perverted by bureaucratized, totalitarian institutions such as organized religions, but the core ideas and practices have persisted in every age, with teachers reinterpreting the esoteric discipline according to the needs of students at that time. While the essence of the teaching of the Perennial Tradition has remained the same, the expressions of the teaching and processes of teaching are adapted to the necessities of the particular time and place.
"The spirit of God is vigilant to note in every nation those who are able to receive light, and they are employed as agents to spread the light according to man's capacity, and to re-vivify the dead letter. Through these divine instruments the interior truths of the Sanctuary were taken into every nation, and modified symbolically according to their customs, capacity for instruction, climate, and receptiveness. So that the external types of every religion, worship, ceremonies and Sacred Books in general have more or less clearly, as their object of instruction, the interior truths of the Sanctuary, by which man . . . will be conducted to the universal knowledge of the one Absolute Truth."
Karl von Eckhartshausen, The Cloud Upon the Sanctuary, 1795
Because scholastics and sensation seekers adopt a totally different viewpoint and methodology, they cannot possibly comprehend a Perennialist teacher such as Plato, Jesus, or Shahabudin Suhrawardi. The uninformed metaphysician attempts to place the teacher on his scholastic Procrustean bed, assuming that he can get at the essence of the teacher's "philosophy" by analyzing the reports of his teachings by equally uninformed chroniclers and self-appointed "experts."
- Illustrated below are three of the most notorious instances of pompous scholastics trying to pick apart the shadow of an ember of the flame of a genuine earlier teacher.
"Was it the best thing for Athens that during all these years of foreign war and domestic tension Socrates should have spent day after day, not in a study but in public discussion, probing in his negative way the accepted principles of morals and showing their inadequacy? . . . We may realize that the enemies of Socrates had a case."
Sir Richard Livingstone, Introduction to Portrait of Socrates"In the following pages an attempt has been made to give a summary of the Mystical Philosophy of Shayk Muhyid-Din Ibnul'Arabi. . . . Nowhere in his numerous works can one find his mystical philosophy expressed as a whole or with any appreciable degree of coherence or order. The Fususu'l Hikam, perhaps, may be said to sum up the maturest form of his pantheistic doctrine; but what an unintelligible and disorderly summary! One has to do so much hunting through other books by Ibnul 'Arabi besides the Fusus, so much analyzing and synthesizing and gathering relevant points scattered haphazardly amongst masses of trivial or irrelevant details, before one can arrive at anything like a system."
A.E. Affifi. The Mystical Philosophy of
Muhyid Din-Ibnul Arabi
"Hujwiri was neither a profound mystic nor a precise thinker . . ."
The Kashf Al-Mahjub by Al-Hujwiri
Translated by and Introduction by R. A. Nicholson, Litt.D., Ll.D., F.B.A.
As illustrated above, most scholarly books written about Perennialist teachers assume that they can be understood only through scholastic methods:
- Analyzing specific doctrines in their teachings
- Collating doctrines shared with other teachers to determine intellectual lineage
- Creating vast systems of "interconnections"
- Ignoring the teachers' practices as irrelevant
- Omitting the organic element, i.e., that teachings are nutrients meant to be metabolized, not to remain in their original, unaltered state
It's refreshing when we read a book about a Perennialist sage written by a person who realizes that this teacher cannot be "explained" by scholastic concepts.
"The time for an over-all interpretation [of Ibn 'Arabi] is far off; countless preliminary studies will still be needed before we can hope to orient ourselves amid all the aspects of so colossal an opus, the work of a spiritual genius who was not only one of the greatest masters of Sufism in Islam, but also one of the great mystics of all time. It is not even our ambition to make a 'contribution to the history of ideas.' A thematization of this kind often tends to 'explain' an author by tracing him back to his sources, by listing influences, and demonstrating the 'causes' of which he is supposedly the mere effect. In speaking of a genius as complex as Ibn 'Arabi, so radically alien to literal, dogmatic religion and to the schematizations such religion encourages, some writers have employed the word 'syncretism.' This is the summary, insidious, and facile kind of explanation that appeals to a dogmatic mind alarmed at the operations of a thinking which obeys only the imperatives of its internal norm but whose personal character does not impair its rigor. To content oneself with such an explanation is to confess one's failure, one's inability to gain so much as an intimation of this norm which cannot be reduced to a school or other collective conformism."
Henry Corbin. Alone With the Alone:
Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi
Many scholars or organizations come into proximity to the Perennial Tradition experience an intimation of something profound and imperishable, but miss its deeper significance. Some scholastics become fascinated by a single embodiment or theme, happening upon the Perennial Tradition in their efforts to support their particular religious credo.
- For example, in 1889, J. W. Hanson, D.D., a Universalist minister, wrote Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine Of The Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years." The purpose of this book," Hanson wrote in the preface, "is to present some of the evidence of the prevalence in the early centuries of the Christian church, of the doctrine of the final holiness of all mankind."
"The seat and center of Christianity during the first three centuries was Alexandria. West of Alexandria the influence of the Latins, Tertullian, Cyprian, Minucius Felix and Augustine prevailed, and their type of Christianity was warped and developed by the influence of Roman law."
- Hanson wanted to prove that the original Christian teaching had not included the need for salvation from eternal damnation and punishment. He stumbled on the Perennial Tradition in the life and writings of early esoteric Christians: Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Valentinus, and Marcion. Hanson found that these early Christian savants taught that all of humankind would ultimately experience enlightenment, which he expressed as "universal salvation."
"The deeper secrets and laws of our being are self-protected; to learn them requires an adaptation of character and purpose, and a humility of mind and spirit, inconsistent with those displayed by the perverse or merely curious enquirer. To understand, let alone practically to explore, the Hermetic Mystery is not for every one--at least, at his present state of evolutional unfolding. . . . Only to those whose spiritual destiny has already equipped them with a certain high measure of moral and intellectual fitness will even a rough notional apprehension of it be practicable."
Mary A. Atwood. Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy
- Hanson was quite correct, the early esoteric Christian teachers--Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Valentinus, and Marcion (among many others)--did hold a very different view of Christianity from the later heresies of the creeds (as we shall explore in more detail in chapter twelve). Scholastic dogmas set forth in the Nicene Creed and other later formulations were created after Christianity had been deformed into sacerdotalism in the service of the Roman state.
- Hanson happened on teachers of the Perennial Tradition and was pleased that they had taught, as he understood it, "universal salvation." But he was unable to understand that these Perennialist sages represented the embodiment of a tradition which had existed before Christianity, the unitary current of spiritual teaching running through all the historical schools of philosophy and mysticism. These Perennialists taught much more than "universalism." They engaged in real transformation of their students according to needs and insights of their time, just as the Perennialist teacher Jesus had during his lifetime.
- In Theosophy or Psychological Religion (1892), Max Muller points out that the Alexandrine "current of Christian thought was never entirely lost, but rose to the surface again and again at the most critical periods in the history of the Christian religion. Unchecked by the Council of Nicaea, 325 CE , that ancient stream of philosophical and religious thought flows on, and we can hear the distant echoes of Alexandria in the writings of St. Basil (329-379 CE), Gregory of Nyssa (CE 332-395), Gregory of Nazianzus (328-389 CE), as well as in the works of St. Augustine (364-430 CE)."
- Muller didn't recognize that this was not merely an "Alexandrine current," but a perennial heritage of transformative teaching.
- In his Omens of Millennium (1996), Harold Bloom surmises that "there seems to be a common, perhaps Hermetist, strand in Gnosis, Sufi theosophy, and Kabbalah, which," he says, "I have tried to develop here into a mode that might elucidate aspects of the uncanny that now interest many among us, skeptics and believers alike, as we move towards the twenty-first century."
- Bloom believes that there is an "American Religion" involving a personal knowing (gnosis) that our deepest self is a spark or particle of God. In his lifetime study of Shakespeare, Bloom has also encountered this "knowing" (gnostic) tradition. But Bloom has not discerned the elemental, consanguine Perennialist tradition, only its disparate appearances.
- During times of religious and political tyranny, it's been necessary for the Perennial Tradition to take on a clandestine aspect. Perennialists might then work through other organizations or activities, making their esoteric teachings available to tested initiates and divulging secret knowledge only as a student became capable of using and preserving this higher knowledge. This is why we now find tinctures and traces of Perennialist concepts and practices in such organizations as the masons and in such traditions as magic, sorcery, shamanism, and alchemy.
- Persons within these organizations or schools might be completely unaware of the Perennialist undercurrent, remaining on the surface because of their inability to qualify for esoteric instruction. Scholastics take great pride in pointing out what they call "mystical imprints" in these groups, complimenting themselves for discovering the hidden "mysteries." Often what they are tracking is only the spoor of a tradition in retrogression, a Lamp Shop which not only no longer contains lamps (illuminating elements) but contains no knowledge of what lamps are for or how to find a lamp.
Teachers in the Perennial Tradition, as distinguished from those who merely teach about the tradition, are not part of the orthodox religion of their time, even though some Perennialists such as Roger Bacon gave the appearance of being within the mainstream of the cultural religion. They always work within the esoteric or "secret" component of any religion or philosophy, because teachings concerning the development of higher states of consciousness can only be made available to select seekers who have completed initial training exercises.
- The only persons who deny any element of esotericism in Christianity and other mystical traditions are those scholastics whose biases prevent them from objective investigation. The Jesuit scholar Martin C. D'Arcy, for example, asserts that there was no esoteric strain in original Christianity.
"From the importance given to the clergy and from the habit in the early Christian Church of keeping certain doctrines secret from the pagan--the so-called disciplina arcani--some have assumed that Christianity too has a similar division [between esoteric and exoteric]. But this would be a mistaken conclusion. There is no esoteric as contrasted with an exoteric doctrine, and all are called to the same spiritual perfection. The reserve of the early Church was due to its fear of the coarse-minded pagan misunderstanding such spiritual doctrines as the Eucharist, the partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ. The wisdom of the other religions, on the other hand, is almost always a form of gnosis, something secret and hidden, and it belongs to a chosen few. Even amongst the few there are degrees of initiation, as there are in jujitsu, and the rare masters hand on their technique and their counsels and sayings to disciples who create a school and a tradition."
Martin C. D'Arcy, S.J. The Meeting of Love and Knowledge
- If we examine the overwhelming evidence of an esoteric tradition in original Christianity and other schools of mysticism, we find a wide diversity of sources which all refer to the esoteric nature of Perennialist teachings.
The Esoteric Tradition
Plato: "To find the Father and Maker of this universe is a hard task; and when you have found him, it is impossible to speak of him before all people."
Mark 4: "Then when they were by themselves, his close followers and the twelve asked about the parables, and he told them: 'The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those who do not know the secret, everything remains in parables, so that, seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand lest haply they should turn again, and it should be forgiven them.'"
"So he taught them his message with many parables such as their minds could take in. He did not speak to them at all without using parables, although in private he explained everything to his disciples." [Phillips translation]
Matthew 13: "The man who has ears to hear should use them"
"At this the disciples approached him and asked, 'Why do you talk to them in parables?
"'Because you have been given the chance to understand the secrets of the kingdom of Heaven,' replied Jesus, 'but they have not. For when a man has something, more is given to him till he has plenty. But if he has nothing even his nothing will be taken away from him. This is why I speak to them in these parables; because they go through life with their eyes open, but see nothing, and with their ears open, but understand nothing of what they hear."' [Phillips translation]
1 Corinthians 1: "We do discuss 'wisdom' with those who are mature; only it is not the wisdom of this world or of the dethroned Powers who rule this world, it is the Mysterious Wisdom of God that we discuss, that hidden wisdom which God decreed from all eternity for our glory."
"We interpret what is spiritual in spiritual language. The unspiritual man rejects these truths of the Spirit of God; to him they are 'sheer folly,' he cannot understand them. And the reason is, that they must be read with the spiritual eye. The spiritual man, again, can read the meaning of everything; and yet no one can read what he is."
Clement of Alexandria (died 220 CE)
- "The Lord . . . allowed us to communicate of those divine Mysteries, and of that holy light, to those who are able to receive them. He did not certainly disclose to the many what did not belong to the many; but to the few to whom He knew that they belonged, who were capable of receiving and being moulded according to them. But secret things are entrusted to speech, not to writing, as is the case with God."
- "Many things, I well know, have escaped us, through length of time, that have dropped away unwritten."
- "Even now I fear, as it is said, 'to cast the pearls before swine, lest they tread them underfoot, and turn and rend us.' For it is difficult to exhibit the really pure and transparent words respecting the true Light to swinish and untrained hearers."
Maurice Nicoll. The New Man
- "In the esoteric schools of which we can see traces in ancient literature, many very severe disciplines existed before a candidate was allowed to receive esoteric knowledge. He might have to serve in a most menial position for years, subject to insults that were a test on the side of being. If he passed these tests successfully and developed in himself strength and patience he was allowed to receive some knowledge. But if he broke, if he pitied himself, if he complained, if he was weak in his being, if he lied, if he behaved maliciously, if he took advantage of others, if he was resentful, if he thought he was better than other people, he received no knowledge."
- "In spite of the fact that the Kingdom of Heaven - that is, the highest possible level of a man - is said to be within, and to be the object of final attainment, they think that it refers to some state after death, in future time, and not to a state attainable or at least to be striven after, in this life on earth - a new state of themselves that actually exists as a possibility now, as something above what one is . . ."
Ouspensky. A New Model of the Universe"Esoteric knowledge can be given only to those who seek, only to those who have been seeking it with a certain amount of consciousness, that is, with an understanding of how it differs from ordinary knowledge and how it can be found . . . This preliminary knowledge can be gained by ordinary means, from existing and known literature, easily accessible to all. And the acquisition of this preliminary knowledge may be regarded as the first test. Only those who pass this first test, those, that is, who acquire the necessary knowledge from the material accessible to all, may hope to take the next step, at which point direct individual help will be accorded them. A man may hope to approach esotericism if he has acquired a right understanding from ordinary knowledge, that is, if he can find his way through the labyrinth of contradictory systems, theories and hypotheses, and understanding their general meaning and general significance. This test is something like a competitive examination open to the whole human race, and the idea of a competitive examination alone explains why the esoteric circle appears reluctant to help humanity. It is not reluctant. All that is possible is done to help men, but men will not or cannot make the necessary efforts themselves. And they cannot be helped by force."
The Perennial Tradition is an esoteric tradition. All genuine religious and mystical schools distinguish between the exoteric, or public, and the esoteric, or secret, teachings. The exoteric teachings are available to all alike, recorded in the various scriptures and other public spiritual writings. The esoteric concepts are reserved for those who assimilate the public teachings and then continue beyond into the secret wisdom.
"The occult is what is hidden. But not to everyone. Wherever there is something hidden, there is necessarily someone who knows. Nor is the occult something that is merely ignored. It has, by implication, been concealed, by some agent and to some purpose, to all except those same inevitable knowers. Thus to ignore the occult would be folly, the equivalent, in parabolic terms, of failing to submit a bid on the Pearl of Great Price.
"The occult is doubly occult: it is a hidden knowledge of hidden truths or powers. These latter were concealed, it is agreed, by the Maker of Truths who appears to have been generally reluctant to cast his Pearl before swine, while those who possess them are careful to keep a close guard on their treasure. Indeed, in many societies those 'knowers,' who everywhere and always constitute an elite, banded together in guilds and brotherhoods to stand guard over the extremely useful and valuable knowledge that was theirs.
"The secret knowledge these adepts possessed--gnosis for the Greeks, hikmah to the Arabs--was more than useful; it was highly sensitive and indeed dangerous, having passed, as it did, from the dimension of the divine, the Other, into the realm of the human."
Francis E. Peters, "Hermes and Harran: The Roots of Arabic-Islamic Occultism," Intellectual Studies on Islam
- It sometimes seems that the Perennial Tradition is reluctant to help seekers, but it only seems that way because, as Meister Eckhart explained in his writings, "If you haven't the truth of which we are speaking in yourselves, you cannot understand me." It's not a matter of the Perennial Tradition making things deliberately arcane, it's simply the fact that unless you have made a truth a part of your being you have no capability of understanding it.
"The heart of "esotericism" has long been centered around the belief that certain spiritual (or religious) teachings are best transmitted to others only after sufficient preparation and initiatic training. Such preparations are regarded as requiring long periods of discipline and often special empowerment rituals. Historically, such knowledge has not been accessible in popular formats nor readily available for study without membership in a relatively small circle of usually male practitioners. Further, esoteric traditions have tended to develop often in contrast to more orthodox and "external" paternal religions whose orthodox members have tended to regard esotericism with some suspicion and, at times, have attacked such societies with strategies of repression. Such tactics suggest an additional layer of meaning in the concept of "esoteric" as teachings or practices that resist orthodox interpretations and are "hidden" because of issues of political or religious persecution. A third meaning of the term stems from an extrapolation of this tension between the "known" or commonly accepted orthodoxy of a religious tradition and the "unknown" (or institutionally unrecognized) teachings or practices of various esoteric groups within that religious tradition. The status or such groups is often marginalized by the refusal of the parent religion to recognize the legitimacy of various non-conventional interpretations or practices. In the third sense, esoteric means "unsanctioned" or "unrecognized" by majority practitioners of a local conventional religious tradition.
"Often these three aspects of esotericism intersect, creating a group mentality that is hierarchical (thus initiations are given in stages, from masters to disciples), socially secretive (because of disruptive pressures from more orthodox factions of a related major tradition) and relatively unknown or marginalized by a conservative majority."
Lee Irwin, "Western Esotericism, Eastern Spirituality,
and the Global Future"
Perennialist teachings are preserved in an esoteric state to protect them from a hostile environment.
"The wisdom of the Mysteries is like a hot-house plant, which must be cultivated and fostered in seclusion. Any one bringing it into the atmosphere of everyday ideas brings it into air in which it cannot flourish."
Rudolph Steiner, Christianity as Mystical Fact
The esoteric Perennial Tradition instructs deserving students in the science of achieving a higher state of being.
We live in a state of sleep or amnesia, not aware that what we imagine to be our "selves" is "concocted from beliefs put into us by others and is not ourselves at all."
We totally identify with our physical self, unaware that we also have a spiritual self which is our ultimate reality. Spiritual teachers remind us who we are and assist us in learning how to "come awake" or "remember ourselves."
According to the esoteric tradition, man in his present state is unfinished; he is a seed.
What in a seed would keep it a seed?
- A seed may remain a seed - and enjoy a seed existence - or
- A seed may die and become a different kind of being - a plant.
- The assumption that its present state of being is complete and final
- Fear of what it means to die as a seed
- The presumption that it is already a plant
(There are many seeds pretending to be plants.)
- Suspicion of the idea that seeds can become plants
- Complete satisfaction with its present state as a seed
- Laziness, lethargy, obsession with seed-pleasures
An esoteric tradition such as the Perennial Tradition never evangelizes, never tries to convince people they ought to achieve a higher state of being, never argues with a seed that it should become a plant.
The Perennial Tradition simply makes available the knowledge that a seed can become a plant - if it learns how to die to being a seed.
To be able to hear about the Perennial Tradition, a seed must realize that:
- It is a seed, an unfinished being with a potential for a higher state of being
- It does not now have the capacity to understand what plants are or how to become one
- It must study itself to see what keeps it a seed - what conditionings limit its being
- Knowledge of an esoteric tradition is not a right but a privilege earned by effort
- There is no automatic development - correct desire must be followed by sustained effort
"The esoteric teaching about knowledge and being refers to the fact that knowledge cannot be understood unless there is a corresponding development of being. A man may know a great deal and understand nothing because his being is not equal to his knowledge. As a consequence, no inner union can take place between his being and his knowledge . . . The man of poor being and great knowledge can only give out meaningless material that leads nowhere. And not only this, but he can only complicate everything and make it unintelligible . . . The conditions of knowledge are no longer understood because the side of being is ignored."
M. Nicoll. The New Man The Lineage of the Perennial Tradition
The "secret teachings" were passed from generation to generation through the line of transmission within the Perennial Tradition.
"Once he has recognized his invisible guide, a mystic sometimes decides to trace his own isnad, to reveal his spiritual genealogy, that is, to disclose the 'chain of transmission' culminating in his person and bear witness to the spiritual ascendancy which he invokes across the generations of mankind. He does neither more nor less than to designate by name the minds to whose family he is conscious of belonging."
Henry Corbin. Alone With the Alone:
Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi
- Semitic and Persian sources.
- Oriental sources:
- Gautama, the Buddha (563-483 BCE)
- Shankara (510-478 BCE) (788–820 CE)
- Western Sources
- Hermes (indeterminate) [see chapter on Hermes]
- Pythagoras (died 497 BCE)
- Empedocles (492-432 BCE)
- Socrates (470-399 BCE) [see chapter on Philosophia]
- Plato (427-347 BCE) [see chapter on Plato As A Perennialist Teacher]
- Jesus of Nazareth (4 BCE-29 CE)
- Paul the Apostle (7-67 CE)
- Dionysius the Areopagite
(1st century CE)
- Marcion (85-144 C.E) [see chapter on Jesus as a Teacher In the Perennial Tradition]
- Valentinus (second century CE) [see chapter on Jesus as a Teacher In the Perennial Tradition]
- Clement (150-220 CE) [see chapter on Jesus as a Teacher In the Perennial Tradition]
- Origen (185-252 CE)
[see chapter on Jesus as a Teacher In the Perennial Tradition]
- Plotinus (205-270 CE)
- Boethius (475-525 C.E)
- Geber (721-766 CE)
- Gerbert d'Aurillac (Pope Sylvester II) (born 940 CE)
- Hujwiri (died 1063 A.D) The Revelation of the Veiled
- El-Ghazali (1059-1111 CE)
- Shahabudin Suhrawardi (1145-1235) Gifts of Deep Knowledge [see chapter on Illumination]
- Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi (1154-1191 CE)
The Wisdom of Illuminism [see chapter on Illumination]
- Ibn el-Arabi (1164-1240 CE)
- St. Francis (1182-1226 CE)
- Frederick II (1198-1250 CE)
- Rumi (1207-1273 CE)
- Albertus Magnus (1206-1280 CE)
- Roger Bacon (1214-1294 CE)
- Raymond Lully (1235-1315 CE) (pictured right)
- Meister Eckhart (1260-1329 CE)
- John Colet (1467-1519 CE)
- Thomas More (1478-1535)
- Paracelsus (1493-1541 CE)
- St. John of the Cross (1542-1591)
- Giordano Bruno (1548-1600 CE)
- William Shakespeare (1564-1616 CE)
- Jacob Boehme(1575-1624 CE)
- Benjamin Whichcote (1609-1683 CE)
- George Fox (1624-1691 CE)
- William Law (1686-1761 CE)
- Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772 CE)
- William Blake (1757-1827 CE)
- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882 CE) (pictured right)
- Mary A. Atwood (1817-1910
- Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862 CE)
- Frank C. Laubach (born 1884 CE)
- Paul Brunton (1898-1981)
- Betty White (d. 1939) and Stewart Edward White (1873-1946)
- Rufus Moseley (mid 20th century)
In the first edition of this book, I had included Idries Shah (1924-1996) as a representative of the Perennial Tradition. I have since revised my opinion of him, relative to my own experience and published reports of his ideas and behavior by such persons as J.G. Bennett, Witness (1974), L. P. Elwell-Sutton,"Sufism and Pseudo-Sufism," Encounter, Vol. XLIV No. 5, May 1975, pp. 9-17, Peter Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon (Conclusion), and James Moore, "Neo-Sufism: The Case of Idries Shah," Telos, Volume 6, Number 4, Autumn.
- I now hold the opinion that Idries Shah was a clear example of a conduit teacher and cult leader. I studied with Shah a short time beginning in 1971, but discontinued in 1972. Idries Shah was a writer who was able to transmit valuable information about spiritual matters but seems not to have been positively affected by the knowledge he conveyed. I continue to find useful ideas in his writings despite the unfortunate flaws in his personality and behavior as documented by the sources referenced above and as borne out in my own experience.
As we explore Perennialist teachings in the following chapters, we will review specific themes and many of the individual teachers listed above.
Relationship With a Teacher
A seeker within the Perennial Tradition follows either of two primary paths:
- Learning with a physical teacher--as in the case of Jesus' disciples learning from him while he was in physical form
- Learning with an inner or invisible teacher--as illustrated in Jesus' immediate and contemporary disciples learning from him while he is in spiritual form: disciples such as John in the Acts of John or Rufus Moseley, a twentieth-century disciple of Jesus.
In the Sufi expression of the Perennial Tradition, seekers who learn from an inner or invisible teacher are said to be in the Uwaysis tradition. The name derives from Uways al-Qarani, a seeker who was contemporary with Mohammed who had no visible human guide. He is said to have known Mohammed without ever having seen him during his lifetime. Abu'l-Hasan Kharraqani (died 1034 CE), an Iranian Sufi referred to the Uwaysis tradition in this manner:"I am amazed at those disciples who declare that they require this or that master. You are perfectly well aware that I have never been taught by any man. God was my guide, though I have the greatest respect for all the masters."Those in the Sufi lineage who learned from an inner, invisible teacher include:
- Ibn'Arabi (disciple of Khidr)
- Fariduddin Attar of Nishapur (guided by the "being of light" of Mansur Hallaj)
A number of the Perennialists we will review in this book, including Betty and Stewart Edward White, Rumi, and Rufus Moseley, learned from inner, invisible teachers.
"I was never meant to be disciple of any disciple; I can only be a disciple at first hand of the Teacher of Teachers. . . . I cannot be anything other than an immediate disciple of Jesus and the Spirit of truth, getting my orders direct from the Source, not through imperfect and too often blind guides."
Rufus Moseley. Manifest Victory
The Higher Orthodoxy of Perennialist Teachers
"There is thus a ground of psychological experience, potential in all men, actually realized in a few, common to all mystics of all lands and times and accountable for the similarity of their reports. But upon that common basis we need not be surprised to see them also erecting various superstructures in accordance with their particular tenets of philosophy or religion. At bottom, their actual experiences, at the highest point at least, will be amazingly alike, but their theories in regard to what has happened to them may be radically different."
Paul Elmer More. Christian Mysticism
We derive great benefit from the life and writings of Perennialist teachers, for each of these provides a lesson in developing spiritual awareness. Such adepts as Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi, Jesus of Nazareth, and Meister Eckhart show us how one can live the Perennialist life even amidst the rigid orthodoxies of Islam, Judaism, and Roman Catholicism. In many instances, autocratic, non-spiritual, vicious "religious" tyrants judged Perennialist teachers to be subversive and sanctimoniously murdered these spiritual geniuses.
Many masters within the Perennial Tradition were condemned as seditious because they not only taught concepts heretical to orthodox ears but also revivified orthodox teachings by recasting them in the image of their own deep, inner experiences, assisting others to discover hidden truths contained in them within their own souls.
One of the hallmarks of Perennialist teaching is an insistence that a teacher (or leader of any kind) should try to work herself out of a job--that is, the seeker should learn to experience truth within herself and should learn to discover truth for herself as soon as possible. This idea is anathema to any ecclesiastical organization which desires to retain perpetual control over believers.
Many teachings which seem to have become trite and hackneyed appear new and dynamic in the hands of Perennialist teachers because they do the unexpected: they take them seriously--and literally.
We should concentrate on whatever teachings help us realize the unitive state, not on the differences in the ways various teachers attained or taught the mystic art or on what is deemed "orthodox" by this year's self-appointed religious inquisitors or popularizers. Almost all teachers and teachings possess extraneous features which can trip us up: quirks of character, unusual means of expression, extraordinary methods of realizing unity, etc. Always, the important point is to concentrate on who and what can assist us in achieving the illuminative state of union with God.
Plato defined mysticism as the art of union with Reality. We know persons or objects best through uniting or assimilating with them, a commingling of them and ourselves. The patriot knows his country because he has surrendered himself to it; the artist merges with his art, the lover with his beloved.
We can attain union with Reality only when we realize that most of the time we are not united with things as they really are, but with preconceptions, myths, images, notions, conditionings.
If we follow this path of the Perennial Tradition we can ultimately attain union with Reality.
"Who looks out with my eyes?
What is the soul?
I cannot stop asking.
If I could taste one sip of an answer,
I could break out of this prison for drunks.
I didn't come here of my own accord, and I can't leave that way.
Whoever brought me here will have to take me home."