Why Beauty? The Splendor of Truth

Why Beauty? The Splendor of Truth

Is beauty important? Why does it even exist in the first place? Everyone has a definition of beauty, and they are all different: A beautiful body, a beautiful painting, a beautiful sunset. It captivates and arrests the gaze. Beauty shines through the whole universe. When confronted by true beauty, one cannot turn away one’s eyes. We aspire to be beautiful so people will love us. It captivates all the senses, the soul and the spirit.

Maybe the question is not “what is beauty,” but “why is beauty?” Why is it any use to us at all? How do we know it? As Freemasons, we are taught that Beauty adorns all great and important undertakings. Beauty in the arts gives pleasure through inspiration. A gentle obsession with beauty is a source of much in our lives. Let us muse together on beauty.

How does one decide if something is beautiful or not? The Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato are said to have been the first who tried to define beauty. They thought that an object is inherently beautiful. Other philosophers argued that beauty is subjective. Beauty is not the quality of the object but it is an experience of our own, thus the popular phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” For example, after seeing a starry sky, a gorgeous painting, or a mystical rainbow, a person may feel wonder and awe by the beauty in it. But not everyone may feel the same way about those same things.

Is beauty objective or subjective? Does our perception of beauty define us?

Plato’s Ladder

Plato uses the symbol of a ladder to show different levels of beauty in his dialogue in The Symposium. Each rung of the ladder gives a different perspective. On the first step or level, a person loves a body, and then all bodies. By the third step, he relates to the beauty of souls over that of bodies. This leads to the love of laws and institutions, leading to the love of certain types of knowledge. It ends in the pursuit of knowledge, or the love of wisdom. Upon reaching this, the person will see Beauty in its purest form or Beauty itself.8154643392_20cf304518_z

Step 1 – A beautiful Body
Step 2 – All beautiful Bodies
Step 3 – Beautiful Souls
Step 4 – Beautiful Laws, Institutions
Step 5 – Beautiful Knowledge
Step 6 – Beauty Itself

Looking at this it seems that beauty is not just about pretty things, but it’s something much deeper and vaster. It involves some sort of process of transformation. There is a saying In Italian, “bello da morire” which means “beautiful to die for.” The presence of beauty creates the possibility for a shift in us. If we change too much, we die of our old selves. According to philosopher David Hume, “Beauty is no quality in things themselves. It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.”

I think that beauty is like love in that it is one of those big realities in our life. Our relationships may be complex and at times contradictory and difficult. For example, we know that someone who looks traditionally very beautiful could be very dreadful indeed.

Ultimately, we face a paradox. Beauty may be important because it has strength and the power to transform us. But there are parts of us that resist that; we are attached to our old images of ourselves, old dogmas, and habits, and therefore, we prefer not to let in too much to beauty. It can be dismissed or ignored, and life goes on anyway in quiet desperation.

Do we even dare climb the ladder to this ineffable beauty? Plato said that beauty is truth. For example, if a statement is true it will also be beautiful. But there is even a problem 3913221135_a6918bf8cf_zwith this. We might see a statement that is beautiful to us, yet if we test it we find out it is not true. Beauty is a very complicated relationship.

Beauty in Freemasonry

In Freemasonry, we learn the concept of beauty cannot only be of a material beauty. If we go deep enough we will indeed find out that beauty is the splendor of truth. Inner beauty is goodness, and inner goodness is beauty. At some point, comes a decision to tread the way and be a better person. Embracing beauty helps with that.

Plotinus, one of the most influential philosophers in the ancient world, talks about fostering an inner vision:

Cut away that which is superfluous, straighten that which is crooked, purify that which is obscure: labor to make all bright, and never cease to fashion your statue until there shall shine out upon you the godlike splendor of virtue, until you behold temperance established in purity in her holy shrine.

By making “crooked things straight,” it seems that we can begin to experience a portion of those beautiful truths. Raise your consciousness and beauty will unfold before you. Attending a beautiful masonic ceremony or engaging in the creative arts can be enlightening and so can eating a box of chocolates. Divine!

I recently was listening to an interview by the late poet John O’Donahue. Something in his words and in his haunting deep Irish voice touched my soul ever so beautifully. I closed my eyes to as if to pay homage to the gods of poetry and philosophy. It was one of those rare encounters with beauty. We have all had them. In a moment of sublime Beauty, we are all rendered speechless. Beauty is ineffable. Why Beauty? It conveys something Divine that book knowledge doesn’t. Beauty gives way to contemplation. Admittedly, the very heart of Beauty cannot be captured in words.

Beauty does not linger, it only visits.
Yet beauty’s visitation affects us and invites us into its rhythm,
it calls us to feel, think, and act beautifully in the world:
to create and live a life that awakens the Beautiful.

– John O’Donahue     

 

Know Thyself: The Ship of Thieves

Know Thyself: The Ship of Thieves

“I am not the person I was.” We hear that a lot, especially when it comes to growing older and, one hopes, wiser. Indeed, we’re not the same person we were. Over the course of time, our cells die, regenerate, add, delete, change, morph, and eventually we have all new cells. But we retain our name, our memories, our lives. Are we not the same person?

One would argue that of course we are. Or are we? Really?

We cling to our identities like dryer sheets to hot cotton shirts. In our minds, we are who we always have been. We are that twelve-year-old child who swam in the lake as well as that adult who had their first job in fast food. We remember events, creations, or possessions and claim them to be ours.

Conversely, we claim our “self” to exist because of those things. We do not change, or if we do, it is at a glacial pace. We affix our identity in time and space, and like an astronaut, place a flag on it and proclaim it to be ours, to be “true” identity: knowing who we are.Theseus_Helene_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_2309_n2

In a recent conversation with a fellow Mason, I was discussing the Ship of Theseus. The paradox is quickly explained in this video: The Paradox of the Ship of Theseus. In essence, the question is this: at what point does the ship cease to become Theseus’ ship and become something else?

If we take one plank from the ship and replace it, we generally can agree that the ship is still Theseus’ ship. At what point, however, do you fix enough broken pieces that the ship becomes something else? My colleague was convinced that the ship remained and always remained Theseus’ ship. For him, the idea of identity stays with the generally recognized “thing” even if the sum of its parts is not original.

Conversely, the argument is this: if I am a thief, and I slowly steal the pieces of Theseus’ ship, replace them with identical parts,  take the original parts, and put them together in my backyard, who has the ship of Theseus? The original owner, or me?

My friend said that the original owner did. I disagree. If I take a painting from the Louvre, and replace it with an identical painting, and everyone recognizes it as the “painting,” who has the “real” painting? In my colleague’s eyes, then, have I really stolen anything?

identityI contend that I have, if nothing else, I have stolen the certainty of the Ship of Theseus. I have stolen, or potentially stolen, the idea of the ship. But these painful musings do have a purpose: they help us work out our identity – the answers to the question of: Who am I?

A brilliant article on this is found on Brainpickings. I would encourage you to watch the other short videos on this site: not only is the one on Who Am I thought-provoking, but there are links to life’s other huge questions. How do I know I exist? What is the Nature of Reality? But, I digress.

The question is, at what point is our self no longer “us?” Is it when all the cells in our body have replaced themselves? What about new neural pathways or brain cells? If we replace a leg or arm or heart, are we the same person? 

Freemasons live by an adage of “Know Thyself,” which also adorned the Oracle of Delphi  at the Temple of Apollo. We must first understand what it is that makes up our “self” and when does that “self” become something else. I think this is a life long exploration and, since the self is constantly undergoing change, are we always who we were? Perhaps not.

But then, where did “we” go? Does our identity persist? If it does so, how? What makes us, us?fingerprint

I asked my fellow Mason about clones, which sent us down an entirely different path, discussing identical twins, and the like. Does time make a difference? If a plank is rotten on Theseus’ ship, and it is replaced, does that make identity linger, as opposed to replacing a “new” plank? If I change my mind about how I feel about something, am I still the same person? What if I create new habits? What then?

We are ever seeking to understand our true natures; yet, our true nature is ever-changing. Freemasonry teaches us about the cycles of life, death, rebirth, nature. and science. It teaches us all of Life’s Mysteries. If stagnation is death and change is life, how can we ever be the same person moment to moment? Perhaps that is the mystery that we must ever follow: a constant, persistent discovery of who we are, and what we are doing.

Doubt on the Path: Lessons from the Buddha

Doubt on the Path: Lessons from the Buddha

Big doubt, big enlightenment; small doubt, small enlightenment; no doubt, no enlightenment.

That’s what the saying is in the Buddhist Lonji tradition of Chan. The spiritual life has always been a quest for meaning and for answers to the two existential questions: “Who am I?” and “Why am I?” A quest for truth, a quest for “what is,” a quest for purpose; these are the foundations of the spiritual way. Too often life’s paths seem paradoxical and confusing. Doubt and perplexity play a vital role in the journey to enlightenment.

Are there lessons from the Buddha that can help us sort out the contradictions?

Fundamental to the entire Buddhist philosophy is the idea that everything depends upon the mind. To help us understand that we are not just what we are thinking, Buddhist teachings make a distinction between what is called “small mind” and “big mind.”  Small mind is the rambling, limited, distorted, distracted, often out-of-control ordinary thoughts of the mind. Big mind is what we call Buddha-nature. This is our true inner nature — the pure boundless awareness that is at the heart, and part, of us all — still as the surface of a mountain pool… calm, lucid, empty, clear and at peace.  

Wat SuthatIn the great Tibetan Monasteries of Lhasa, monks seek to purify their minds and study the subjects of awareness and consciousness. Through understanding the nature of the mind and the process of cognition, inner peace can be attained.

The Buddha often described the nature of existence to be impermanent. One of the most frequently quoted passages from the Mahayana Buddhist Sutras is this short verse:

So you should view this fleeting world,
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

Perhaps existence is not really what we think it is?  So how do we know what is real and what is unreal? How do we know what is illusion and what is truth? 

Most of us who enjoy philosophy are always seeking answers to the big questions. Fortunately, searching for more meaning is considered a desirable human quality. The French writer André Gide once wrote, “Believe those who are seeking truth. Doubt those who find it.”

The Three Stages of Doubt

Wat Suthat 1We are always doubting.  A doubting consciousness is defined as a knower having qualms in two directions. Doubt can tend towards one side of an issue or another, or it can be completely undecided, but it is always accompanied by an element of uncertainty. 

In the book “Mind in Tibetan Buddhism” by Lati Rinpoche, he describes three types of doubting consciousness. For the purpose of illustration, I will give an example.  We might have a statement like: “Sound is impermanent.” Also, let us say this statement is true or fact. Then, you might entertain three stages of doubt about it.

  1. Tending towards the fact — You might think that “Sound is probably impermanent.”
  2. Tending toward distortion — You might think that “Sound is probably permanent.”
  3. Tending towards both equally — You might not be able to make up your mind and wonder whether sound is permanent or impermanent.

Lati Pinpoche says that doubt can be beneficial in that it is an initial step in weakening the wrong view. This begins the process toward developing correct understanding. One of the basic requirements for all Chelas is an open-minded point of view.  No Chela is expected to accept, untried or unsubstantiated, any statement made to him in the course of his training.  The point is not to just “believe in” the teachings, but to evaluate them, understand them, and test them against our own experience. Awakening comes through a direct experience, not through beliefs and dogmas. Although there are benefits in questioning, doubt is still considered in Buddhism an afflicted state of mind. It can be undesirable if the Chela is constantly questioning if this is the right road or not, which makes it hard for him to arrive at his destination.  

Wat Suthat 2

Beyond the stages of doubt, there are states of higher awareness and what is called “correctly assuming consciousness.”  One wonders about the consciousness of the Bodhisattva or the person who has attained Buddhahood and lives the vow to liberate all sentient beings. Here we might find Wisdom and Compassion mutually supportive, and totally inseparable. The Light of Wisdom is clear, precise, sharp and sword like. Compassion is warm, nurturing, and open-hearted. These are complementary facets of the heart-jewel of Bodhicitta or the heart of enlightened mind. How incredible!  

The Search for “Suchness”

Recently, I was reading some Zen literature that described enlightenment as “suchness.” What in the world is “suchness?”  “Suchness,” like love, is a way of being in the world or Tathata. In the words of Eckhart Tolle, we might say “The Power of Now.” You just have to stop thinking. Then you will be in a state of “suchness”: the suchness of the moment, beingness, the as-is-ness. 

Wat Suthat 4“Suchness” is such a quintessentially marvelous word to represent the quality of living an enchanted life. Each moment, each breath, is unique. The sacred, the magical, and the radiant are not somewhere else. They are all right here, where we are. “Suchness” is a refusal to let life descend to a cycle of worry about the past or the future and the mundane. Instead, we find sparkle and wonder in the present — this I feel is truly living the spiritual life. 

The wonderful thing about doubt and healthy skepticism is that it can be the propellant that fuels the spiritual engine towards “suchness.” When you experience your own doubts — and almost everyone has doubts — you will wonder what to do and where you go with your questioning. In my own spiritual practice in Freemasonry, I have several times struggled with doubts about many of my beliefs. I have found that it is through doubting on the path that I have come to see both the something and the nothing of existence. With “suchness,” we allow both perceptions to coexist. Anything we can know with this body or this mind, through our senses, may be fleeting, ephemeral, and insubstantial … or not??

From the great Chinese Philosopher Chuang Tzu:

I dreamt that I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke.

Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I butterfly dreaming that I am a man?

——————

Note: Images are from Wat Suthat Thepphaararam, a Buddhist temple in Bangkok, Thailand

 

Eritque Craticula Usque ad Tenebras

Eritque Craticula Usque ad Tenebras

The precipice of Winter. The hollow wind of Autumn. We humans are always on the edge of something. In this case, we are on the edge of seasonal change. As we slip from the warm days of Summer into the chillier nights of Autumn, we sense that change is imminent. We are on the edge, slipping from one day to the next, seasons rushing by in a flowing, ever changing stream. A stream, I must add, upon which we are always standing on the edge.

Nature teaches us a great deal of how to be in the world; most of the time, we just choose not to listen. Cement jungles are no place for the breath of the Green Man or the dance of a water nymph. Yet, Nature finds a way to express herself. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, this is expressed as Yin and Yang. A Taoist concept, everything contains Yin and Yang. Yin and Yang are two opposite yet complementary energies. Although they are opposite in their individual qualities and nature, they are interdependent. They are never separate and cannot exist without one another. The hard Yang of the cement contains in it air and space, Yin, in which it yields to the grass growing in its cracks. The meadow is dotted with hard boulders, unyielding and yet grounding to the lush, loamy soil.

silhouette-cliff-man-tree

The traditional translation of Yin-Yang is Dark-Bright, which in turn translate to the traditional Chinese icon we see for it – two tear drops, intertwined, with a dot of the other deep in their bellies. Saying they are opposites is a faint allusion to their true natures. They are complex and rich for as simple as they appear. Both are archetypes and ideals, where simple human words are inadequate modifiers. They may be translated as “the shady side of the mountain (yin)” and “the sunny side of the mountain (yang).” Yin may also indicate the feminine, the moon, softness, passivity, sinister, darkness, overcast, or even treacherous. Yang, the “opposite” indicates masculine, the sun, hardness, assertiveness, open, overt, relief, light, and positivity.” There is always a bit of one in the other, a taste which makes them less opposite and more like polarities. Neither is good or bad, they just exist; intertwined for eternity in a dance of possession.

Chapter 42 of the Tao Te Ching (about 500 B.C.E. by Lao Tzu) is where the duality and Yin-Yang are found:

“The Way gave birth to unity,
Unity gave birth to duality,
Duality gave birth to trinity,
Trinity gave birth to the myriad creatures.
The myriad creatures bear yin on their backs and embrace yang in their bosoms.

They neutralize these vapors
and thereby achieve harmony.”

This may be interpreted that while the Way (Tao) gave birth to all of material life, it is contained within that life in the form of this duality. Thus, all matter, of animal, plant, or mineral contains yin and yang. All of Nature contains within it opposing truths, a constant tug of each end of the living spectrum. Being of Nature, we should be intimately at ease with the duality of our natures, right?

260px-Yin_yang.svg

Relative and absolute. We see absolute as our eternal goal – absolute truth. Is this not what the philosopher strives to attain? Is this not what the Freemason seeks? Absolute is the Truth which we hold as dearest, that which give us “rightness” of whatever we are understanding. Yet, relativity is important to our personal lives. We make judgments and choices about the relative Truths we perceive with our senses every day. How does that green shirt go with those pink pants? Does the omelet need more salt? Are we thirsty? These are truths, however small, in which we are always seeking answers and using our senses, our knowledge of duality, to provide answers. We are always on the edge, wondering if we are being deceived, somehow, by falsehood and ignorance. Curiosity is a sword to slay our own ignorance. Curiosity is not sheathed in ego.

The philosopher sees the duality in the people and situations around him. We recognize that there may be two sides to a situation: yours and mine, his and hers, etc. Without this sharing, we cannot see more Truth. We have to stand on the edge of reality, with another human being, and accept that this truth might fill in our blanks. Once we let judgement of Truth go, there is vast chasm in front of us. It is in recognizing duality that the pieces start to come together. Unity. We realize that we cannot have the whole picture. We may not ever have the absolute truth; yet, we may have relative truth to share. In heaps and bounds.

Thus, we are always on the edge of true understanding. Of knowledge. Of peace. Thus, perhaps we are always at an equinox within our natures. Halfway to Darkness. Halfway to Light. Eritque craticula usque ad lucem ac tenebras. A motto of change? A reminder of being on the edge? Perhaps we need not be so afraid of the darkness and the change, go out into nature, and learn what living really means. We can find Nature in everyone we meet, sharing in a brief bit of harmony by seeking to understand. Enjoy this Equinox, with balance and joy, understanding that the world will keep turning, seeking balance and yet, always on the edge. The Darkness is coming. So is the Light.

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