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

Friday, April 1, 2011

What Is Our Essence?

"As a man thinketh . . . so he is."
What is the "essence" of a "human being?" It is a question that has haunted philosophers, metaphysicians and psychologists for millenia.

Etymologically, or looking at where our words come from, we can see certain similarities between the two concepts. "Essence" and "being" have similar roots in Latin, Greek and Old French (discussed below); whereas "human" is related to ancient words for both "man" and "ground."

The word "human" is related to both the Latin 'homo', meaning 'same,' and to 'humus' meaning 'ground.' Is this a reference to so many creation myths that have G_d forming the first man from clay, and then bringing the clay model to life; or is it a recognition that all humans are a part of the same "Ground of Being" that has been used to denote the Absolute throughout the history of the "perennial philosophy"? I prefer the latter, but it is probably an admixture of both meanings, and other factors that are not clear at first blush.

The origins of "essence" is much clearer. "Essence" means at once 'substance,' 'existence' and 'being.' It means "that by which a thing is what it is;" and its Latin root is 'esse,' its Greek root 'ousia' - both of which mean "to be."

Hamlet's immemorial self-scrutiny led him him to observe: "To be, or not to be? That is the question." And, like all good questions, the answer is implicit in it: a triumphant "to be!". The "essence" of a "human being" is simply "being," his or her "essence" within the "Ground of Being." And the sages and seers of all ages have spoken to this truth.

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche
The Buddhist master, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, remarked:
"Buddhas become awakened because of realizing their essence. Sentient beings become confused because of not realizing their essence. Thus there is one basis or ground, and two different paths."
[Tulku Urgyen Rinpoch,"As It Is," vol. 2, page 43.]

In the same vein, the great Sufi teacher and polymath, Idries Shah, observed:
Idries Shah (1924-1996)
'. . . (A)ll dervish teaching is based not on the concept of God, but on the concept of essence. . . "He who knows his essential self, knows God." Knowledge of the essential self is the first step, before which there is no real knowledge of religion.'
[Idries Shah, "The Sufis," page 309.]
 It is thus no mere cryptic abstraction that the words "Know thyself" were said to be carved over the doorway to the Temple of Delphi; for he who comes to know his higher "Self," beyond the lower "self" of the ego, comes to know much about his own "essence," the essence of G_d and how to "be" in the world.

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