"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Condensed "Perrenial Philosophy"

Spiritual Teacher Ram Das (aka Richard Alpert)
In The Harvard Psychedelic Club, author Don Lattin traced the story of how Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert (soon to become Ram Das) and Huston Smith (soon to be the "dean" of Comparative Religions studies) clashed with Andrew Weil (soon to be America's health food and integrative medicine guru) and the"powers-that-be" over the now infamous psilocybin and LSD trials conducted at Harvard University, clinical and non-clinical trials which "ushered in" the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s. (A video of Lattin, at a book reading for the The Harvard Psychedelic Club is available here.)


Lattin is a chronicler of the ongoing spiritual revolution that was sparked in the 1960s. He is now working on  a group biography of English polymath philosophers Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard, together with American social pioneer, Bill Wilson. Huxley's 1954 book, The Doors of Perception, sparked the interest of Leary, Alpert and Weil in the possibilities of using psychedelic drugs to create a mystic experience. With his friends Gerald Heard and Bill Wilson (one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, although definitively not acting in that capacity), Huxley conducted further experiments with LSD as a method of gaining the enlightenment experience described by saints and mystics of all the world's wisdom traditions. (Wilson reportedly thought an LSD trip might potentially spark the vital spiritual experience that the Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, had identified as a possible curative for the disease of alcoholism.)

Bill Wilson was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential men of the 20th century, while Heard was a particularly well-known BBC commentator whose book, Pain, Sex and Time, Huston Smith credited with sparking his interest in religious studies. Nonetheless, it was Huxley, author of the immensely popular science fiction novel,  A Brave New World, who was the most recognizable and notable of the three.

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)
Huxley's most influential work may have been The Perennial Philosophy rather than A Brave New World, however. A study of how mystics, saints and sages from all the world's wisdom traditions describe their journey and attainment of mystic enlightenment, The Perennial Philosophy is in a very real sense an updated and cross-cultural version of William James' groundbreaking work, The Varieties of Religious Experience.

The Perennial Philosophy
has remained in-print and is still widely available, while Heard's Pain, Sex and Time has only recently been reprinted. However, the most succinct statement of what all three would have called "the Perennial Philosophy," is found in Huxley's introduction to a translation of the Bhagavad Gita, The Song of God, by their friend and compatriot Christopher Isherwood together with Swami Prabhavananda, a Vedantist monk. (The Song of God is still available through the Vedanta Society of Southern California, of which Isherwood, Prabhavananda and Huxley were all members.)

In the following briefest of words, Huxley describes the underlying message and findings of all the world's great religious and wisdom traditions:
"At the core of the Perennial Philosophy we find four fundamental doctrines.

First: the phenomenal world of matter and individualized consciousness - the world of things and animals and men and even gods - is the manifestation of a Divine Ground within which all partial realities have their beginning, and apart from which they would be non-existent.

Second: human beings are capable not merely of knowing about the Divine Ground by inference; they can also realize its existence by a direct intuition, superior to discursive reasoning. This immediate knowledge unites the knower with that which is known.

Third: man possesses a double nature, a phenomenal ego and an eternal Self, which is the inner man, the spirit, the spark of divinity within the soul. It is possible for a man, if he so desires, to identify himself with the spirit and therefore with the Divine Ground, which is of the same or like nature with the spirit.

Fourth: man's life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground."
It is these four ideas - known by most cultures, but forgotten by many - that were at the heart of the Western spiritual renewal that was kickstarted in the 1960s, and which continues (minus the reliance on LSD and other psychedelics, which turned out to be a bit of a dead end) with us today. While Huxley died in 1963, before he was able to see the revolutions (religious and otherwise) spawned in the crucible of the 1960s, the ideas of the "Perennial Philosophy" continue on in the various non-dual teachings of Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie, Andrew Cohen and so many others.

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