Wednesday, January 09, 2013

orthodox spirituality compared and contrasted with other religious traditions

digilander | Development of the Soul

Although to describe in more detail how would take us too far afield, all three traditions are pretty much in agreement about the nature of the passions of the soul in its fallen, contra-natural, or samsaric (Yoga and Buddhist term roughly equivalent to both "external man" and "world" in St. John the Apostle's sense) state. All three would agree there are two kinds of virtue: practical or ethical and intellectual or contemplative. There is also some agreement about the nature of the ethical and intellectual virtues of the soul (mind). Each tradition would recognize as a form of ethical virtue what the others would regard as a form of virtue.

As indicated, there is agreement about the nature of the intellectual faculties of the soul (mind) and about the nature of the intellectual virtues of these two faculties in their higher forms of development, which we will not get into detail now.

Spiritual Practice

Corresponding to the consensus about the various powers of the soul and their developmental possibilities, it is no surprise that there is a superficial agreement about the nature of their training within a spiritual practice. According to both the Buddhist and Hindu tradition, the Eightfold Path and the Eightfold Yoga of Patanjali are also described as the threefold spiritual practice. In both these traditions, this threefold spiritual practice is also seen as a twofold training mainly of the will (and its affections) and of the mind, or, a training in the ethical virtues and in the intellectual virtues.

In Buddhism and Yoga, the threefold practice is sila, prajna, and samadhi. Sila is the training of the will and affections of the soul by the practice and cultivation of the moral virtues. Prajna is the dianoetic training of the reasoning, conceptualizing, logical part of the mind into its peak virtue. As indicated, samadhi is the noetic training of the power of consciousness or pure awareness to be increasingly intense degrees of self-concentrated states of non-distraction and self-awareness.

The Hesychast tradition can be schematized along very similar lines. There is a twofold training of the soul's capacities for ethical virtues or praxis, and of the soul's powers for intellectual virtues or theoria. But praxis and theoria can also be schematized as a threefold spiritual practice. The threefold schematization of the Hesychast way is comprised of praxis, diakrisis/sophia, and enstasis/hesychia. Again, praxis is the training of the will, affections of the soul, and their cultivation into the ethical virtues. Diakrisis/sophia is the training of the dianoia into virtuous form. Enstasis/hesychia is the training of the nous into a self-lucent and self-concentrated state of wakeful non-distraction.

There is also agreement between all three traditions about how these three intially separate lines of training mutually interact with each other and reinforce each other's development. So, while beginning as apparently three separate lines of effortful developmental training, in more advanced phases their mutual augmentation becomes increasingly effortless and spontaneous unified way of being. But it is at this point that the really crucial differences are made clear, and thereby, reveal the fundamental differences that were there, under the surface, all along.


It is to these differences between Hesychasm, Buddhism, and Hindu Yoga that I now turn.

To best understand why there are these vitally important differences and what they mean, let us follow the Fathers of the Church, according to whom, there are the following possible three states of human existence, of the soul, and all its faculties. These three states are:

(1) the sub-natural or contra-natural state, also known as the "contrary to nature" state, and fallen subsistence,
(2) the natural state, also known as the "according to nature" state, and life as created in the Image, and -
(3) the supra-natural state, also known as the "beyond nature" or "according to grace" state of ascending participation in the Uncreated Energies, and deified eternal life after the Likeness.
There are two things to point out about these states. First, originally, we were created in the natural state in the divine Image but were meant to grow in synergy with the Uncreated Energies into the deified Likeness of God.

Second, we are in the contra-natural state. So, of course, it is the better known state. The natural and supra-natural states are less well known, even to the Fathers of the Church. Accordingly, there is more agreement between all three traditions, not surprisingly, about the nature and problems of the contra-natural state than there is about the natural state or about our ultimate supra-natural destiny. As a result, while there is much agreement about the nature and problems of the beginning stages of the spiritual life from the contra-natural state to the natural state, this consensus rapidly disappears. Despite the alleged superficial and deceptive similarities of the peak of the spiritual life that has been created by those who engage in highly selective quoting and juxtapositioning of bits and pieces of texts from various mystical traditions in an effort to support the view that all religions are one at the top, what we actually find is that both the nature and purpose of the more advanced phases of the spiritual life are topics where there is an increasing divergence of opinion. But as we can see with the Fathers, particularly in how the Cappadocians treat and weigh what is true and of value in Greek philosophy, and following their lead, especially with the Syrian Fathers dealing with what was true and what was error in Buddhist practice (as represented in Bactria), even the agreement about the nature of the contra-natural state is more limited than is apparent at first sight. This is because you can only fully agree about exactly how the contra-natural state is contra-natural only if there is shared knowledge of what the original design plan of purpose of human life intended us to be.

Differing conceptions of the ultimate nature and purpose of human life provide differing cures for the contra-natural disease we all suffer from. But as the meaning of the Greek word "pharmakon" reveals in ancient Greek medicine, depending on the exact nature of the disease as diagnosed in terms of some exact conception of health, the very same substance or treatment can either serve as a medicine (pharmakon) or poison (pharmakon). To be a medicine, a substance or treatment has to be given in the right amount, at the right time, and under the right conditions for a correctly diagnosed disease in order to have the right effect. The same holds true for spiritual treatments, techniques, and cures. We need to understand the vastly different purposes, serving different diagnoses of what is wrong, based upon different views of what human life is supposed to be, that similar, or even, exactly the same spiritual techniques are made to serve. It is not similar techniques that we need to look at but their purpose, their actual function within a larger operational context, and thus, their intended effect.