In this essay we'll examine the conception and application of "esoteric knowledge" in the Perennial Tradition. The concept "esoteric" includes all the connotations to the right. |
The concept and reality of esoteric knowledge (esoterikos gnwsis) are used by groups in accordance with whether they possess a spurious or genuine nature.
Use of the Concept and Reality of Esoteric Knowledge
Groups With Pretense of Knowledge Only
Groups With Genuine Knowledge
To create invidious distinctions such as
"those who know the secret" and "those unworthy of the secret"
To protect unprepared persons from knowledge that might be perilous to them and others
To fool persons into believing that the cult leaders are magnanimously allowing them to be included in a supposedly "secret" or "magical" organization
To protect genuine esoteric knowledge from misuse by intellectually, morally, or spiritually unprepared persons
To program and condition the victims, using the spurious "esoteric knowledge" (actually mumbo-jumbo and cant); to delude victims into believing the cult has "secrets" or doesn't have "secrets"
The use of knowledge which possesses the power to produce psychic upheaval in a prepared mind and transport that mind to a higher dimension, effecting a transmutation of the person from one state of being to another
Gullible simpletons waste countless hours in useless rituals, memorizing twaddle posing as Truth.
The Roman Catholic Church keeps these mind conditioning stratagems "secret," in the sense that they claim not to brainwash their supplicants and deny that they have any "esoteric" knowledge whatsoever. Roman Catholic scholars asserts that there never has been an esoteric strain in 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." 1
It is certainly true that the Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman Catholic "brands" of orthodox Christianity possess no genuine esoteric knowledge, since they have all devolved to mere sacerdotal autocracies bilking their parishioners.
Preparing for Esoteric Knowledge
Certain knowledge within the Perennial Tradition is made available to people in general, knowledge that allows serious students to prepare for later, esoteric knowledge.
| "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."
In the general context, "esoteric" refers to knowledge available only to a narrow circle of enlightened or specially trained people. "Esotericism" involves an additional requisite element of initiation. Such knowledge may be kept secret not through the deliberate intention of its protectors, but by its very nature. For example, esoteric knowledge may be accessible (of interest to and understandable by) only to those with the necessary intellectual, moral, or spiritual capabilities.
| "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." 2
Esoteric knowledge within the Perennial Tradition instructs deserving students in the science of achieving a higher state of being.
Perennialist sages teach certain ideas and exercises to the general public. These exoteric teachings can be read and practiced by all who are interested. Advanced, esoteric teachings must be reserved for the tested initiate for a number of reasons:
- Only a qualified initiate has the specific skills and personality traits which make it possible for her to understand the esoteric teachings:
- Moral qualities which make it possible to discern what is being taught (e.g. a psychotic killer cannot understand the sanctity of human life)
- Moral qualities which make it safe for her to be allowed to hear about extraordinary ideas and participate in advanced exercises (just as certain physical skills are required by a coach before allowing a person to engage in a rigorous sport)
- Intellectual and philosophical skills which make it possible to understand advanced material
- 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 Perennialist teachers 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.
- Only a qualified initiate has a genuine interest in advanced teachings and can therefore appreciate their value; to the merely curious or the scholastic, advanced teachings seem commonplace and lackluster
- There is danger in proceeding on one's own because the mind and active imagination are very tricky, and other entities can appear disguised as one's guide or Angel. Only a Perennialist teacher of inner development can instruct the aspirant in the genuine procedures for testing and banishing these tricks of imagination.
During times of religious and political tyranny, it's 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 hermeticism, 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.
If we place esoteric knowledge in the context of ordinary knowledge it is misinterpreted by unenlightened persons as common, familiar information. As Rudolph Steiner says in his Christianity as Mystical Fact, "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."
The Esoteric Tradition
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."
An esoteric tradition such as the Perennial Tradition never evangelizes, never tries to remonstrate with people that 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 esoteric knowledge within 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
Hakim Sanai, The Walled Garden of Truth
"Unself yourself . . .
until you see your self as a speck of dust
you cannot possibly reach that place;
self could never breathe that air,
so wend your way there without self."
Hakim Sanai, The Walled Garden of Truth
This esoteric passage refers to a Perennialist theurgic rite in which the initiate is led into a "death" state (the unselfed self breathing spiritual air) and then introduced to a hidden capability of traveling ("wend your way") to other spiritual domains ("that place").
Both Sufi and Hindu teachings refer to this esoteric practice dealing with the human breath:
"God stops their very breathing, imprisons their breath within them so that their life's breath circulates only in God, and they are, as it were, made one with him. This is but part of the science of Unification which God indicates to His chosen." 3
"And there are even others who are inclined to the process of breath restraint to remain in trance, and they practice stopping the movement of the outgoing breath into the incoming, and incoming breath into the outgoing, and thus at last remain in trance, stopping all breathing. Some of them, curtailing the eating process, offer the outgoing breath into itself, as a sacrifice." 4
This reference to an esoteric teaching within the Perennial Tradition may give you some idea of the possible danger involved in such teachings.
Know Yourself: Esoteric Knowledge and Dialectical Interchange
Esoteric knowledge is personal information about you, knowledge which possesses the power to produce psychic upheaval in you and transport you to a higher dimension, transmuting you from one state of being to another
Such esoteric knowledge originates from an advanced teacher analyzing your reaction 5 to her ideas and distilling the essence of what your reaction reveals about you. Such esoteric knowledge is potentially dangerous, so it's not shared with you unless you request the information and the teacher judges that you are capable of:
- Receiving the information without negative effect: e.g. emotional turmoil
- Using the information to positive effect: e.g. personal transformation
We attain self-awareness through this kind of esoteric knowledge most comprehensively in Dialectical interchange by co-participants utilizing a common language of spiritual inspiration. Dialectic becomes a continuing mode of relating and interchanging with others, particularly those capable of philosophical understanding. The extra-normal element of Dialectic comes into play when participants realize that they are co-creators of ontological events and other phenomena.
If esoteric knowledge were made available to some debilitated persons, they might allow themselves to become so despondent about their intellectual, moral, or spiritual state that they would harm themselves. In a less extreme reaction to esoteric information, they might judge themselves to be of no worth.
Some debased persons might misuse esoteric information as a pretext for rejecting the teacher or the esoteric information, when carefully considering the teacher's knowledge would be the only real chance the individual had of ever achieving enlightenment or personal transformation.
Esoteric knowledge is the essence of Dialectical Interchange: participants sharing esoteric information with one another. This is why Dialectical Interchange is perilous and why an advanced teacher only allows persons to participate in it who are of a specific level of spiritual attainment.
Esoteric knowledge within the Perennial Tradition allows us to realize union with our Higher Self. Perennialist teachers treat such Higher Knowledge with the respect it deserves, never allowing it to be debased or distorted by unprepared, heedless persons.
1 Martin C. D'Arcy, S.J. The Meeting of Love and Knowledge
2 Francis E. Peters, "Hermes and Harran: The Roots of Arabic-Islamic Occultism," Intellectual Studies on Islam
3 The Personality and Writings of Al-Junayd
4 Bhagavad Gita, 4:29
5 The reaction is most often an unenlightened knee-jerk rejoinder or tirade, not a measured or considered response.