Traversing Transitions: Where Freemasonry and Tibet Meet

Traversing Transitions: Where Freemasonry and Tibet Meet

“It’s hard to have those conversations,” the palliative care doctor was saying. She was talking about telling a loved one that Stage 4 cancer is terminal, and all the discussions and decisions that surround such a prognosis. The patient, an 85-year-old man, had lived a good life and yet, because of his fear of death, of losing this life, he was in denial and angry. This caused him and his family pain and turmoil as he sought to find his way to some acceptance of his situation.

Conversations about death are hard because U.S. culture is steeped in the fear of death. One only needs to look at television or magazine ads to see this; a culture that prides itself on fitness, youthfulness, and acquiring things has little understanding of the true nature of death. Death is a skeleton to be feared, a lurker in the closet that should not be acknowledged. Many aged have lived a life of denial of death, waiting until perhaps the last possible moment to “find God” or think about “the other side.”

People fear dying, not death, in general. They fear the pain and suffering that comes with long illnesses. Who wouldn’t? Cancer is certainly not a pleasant state. We hope for a quick death or to die in our sleep. Death in this way removes the focus on the body, on the horrors of what happens to the flesh that decays. Westerners don’t spend a lot of time on what it means to transition in death; they mostly focus on the unpleasant physical effects of the dying process. What is fascinating is that if one steps outside of perhaps the standard Western religions, he sees a far greater world that is not only accepting of death, but embracing of death.

While the Egyptian Book of the Dead (The Book of Coming Forth By Day) is a book, or set of scrolls, that specifically addresses the stages of death and afterlife, it doesn’t speak to the reader in such a way as to make the stages of death clear. It is still, after all, a Western book, early (2670 B.C.E.) as it may be. The scrolls were lists of spells which were left in the tombs of the dead. Their purpose was to provide the deceased a way to navigate the afterlife successfully. A very good modern interpretation / translation of this book is titled “Awaking Osiris.”

The Bardo Thodol, or “The Great Liberation Upon Hearing in the Intermediate State” is a book which is written for the living to assist the dying and deceased to make the transition off the Wheel of Life to Nirvana. This book is also known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, although that is a fanciful 20th C. Western name.

Three bardos, or intermediate states between activities, are to be navigated, and success in these provides pathways toward different ends. A bardo may be any intermediate state, such as between birth and death, death and rebirth, even between something like sleeping and awakening. The guru or teacher sits with the person that is about to die and speaks to him of his journey, reminding him of his true being. He is prompted to enter the Clear Light, and thus, remove himself from the path of Earthly physical life. If he transitions to the second bardo, further instructions are given, and so on, until the soul either returns to Nirvana or back into a physical body, depending on the spiritual acumen of the deceased person. That all sounds a little complicated; in essence, it is assistance by the earthly person to the unearthly one, guiding him on his way to reincarnation or elevation.

“O Nobly Born, that which is death being called to thee now, resolve thus: “O this now is the hour of death. By taking advantage of this death, I will so act for the good of all sentient beings, peopling the illimitless expanse of the heavens, as to obtain the Perfect Buddhahood, by resolving on love and compassion towards them, and by directing my entire effort to the Sole Perfection.”

This section, from the First Bardo, is an example of the cultural views of death; not only its acceptance but total embrace to do what is best for the good of the collective humanity. This section goes on to remind the deceased that his life is in service to the greater good. The bardos continue in a cycle, all the while being guided by a guru, a “man of Faith,” a brother, or other person. The person acts as a guide from this realm to the next, allowing the soul to find peace by whatever means it finds possible. The thought of reading these beside the dying person is somehow comforting, perhaps as much to the speaker as to the “hearer.”

I think much of this same type of symbolism and instruction is provided to the Craft Mason, who winds through these bardos in the the rituals of all Craft degrees. Freemasonry, being an initiatory rite, seeks to impress on its membership the repeated lessons of life and death, until these ritual words and actions become very familiar to him. At first he is the recipient and later the provider. The nature of Freemasonry, the Service to Humanity, maybe partly this: imparting the ability to have each human experience a peaceful transition from this life to the next, and thereby improve the overall state of all beings.

The three bardos of death to rebirth transition, as explained in the book, are the Bardo of the Moment of Death, the Bardo of Experiencing Reality, and the Bardo while seeking Rebirth. To me, these mirror perfectly with the Craft degrees, where the lessons are told in with a Western slant. In some Masonic traditions, a chamber is used to create a space for the candidate to experience a true bardo, an intermediate state between activities, where reflection and change can take place. Symbolic in this world, perhaps these ritual trappings are faint shadows of the reality of our earthly transition.

It was said to me, recently, that Freemasons seem to be less afraid of death than perhaps the average Western human. If we listen to what Freemasonry is imparting, the Mason can’t help but put away the denial of his physical, transitory nature. We will die from this world. Freemasons may be better able to embrace the transcendence of being that marks the animus, the soul, the spirit, or whatever you wish to call the immortal principle in each living thing. Fear is the mind killer and is that which brings pain to what may not need to be a painful experience.

Freemasons are repeatedly provided the tools, symbolic and ritualistic, to learn to guide themselves and others through all the bardos of the human existence. It seems to me that all humans could use a lot more peaceful transitions into whatever intermediate state we find ourselves.

“Thine own consciousness, shining, void and inseparable from the Great Body of Radiance, hath no birth, nor death, and is the Immutable Light.” ~ Buddha Amitabha

The Great Race

The Great Race

RACE – noun

Definition of race (Merriam-Webster)

  1. a breeding stock of animals
  2. a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock
  3. a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics
  4. an actually or potentially interbreeding group within a species; also : a taxonomic category (such as a subspecies) representing such a group
  5. breed
  6. a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits
  7. obsolete : inherited temperament or disposition
  8. distinctive flavor, taste, or strength

The use of the word ‘race’ began about 1560, in Middle French, from the root word for “generation.” It comes from an older Italian word, razza, which, might be speculated, came from ratio, which originally meant idea or “conception of something.” The word does not have certain origin, but it certainly has certain meaning in our modern world.

Early American colonists struggled with race as much as we do today. With a radically different foundation of daily life, religion served as the basis for racial divide.

‘Race’ originally denoted a lineage, such as a noble family or a domesticated breed, and concerns over purity of blood persisted as 18th-century Europeans applied the term —which dodged the controversial issue of whether different human groups constituted “varieties” or “species” — to describe a roughly continental distribution of peoples. Drawing upon the frameworks of scripture, natural and moral philosophy, and natural history, scholars endlessly debated whether different races shared a common ancestry, whether traits were fixed or susceptible to environmentally produced change, and whether languages or the body provided the best means to trace descent. Racial theorization boomed in the U.S. early republic, as some citizens found dispossession and slavery incompatible with natural-rights ideals, while others reconciled any potential contradictions through assurances that “race” was rooted in nature.

Oxford Encyclopedia, The Idea of Race in Early America

While founding fathers could not get over this hurdle of the nature of “race,” the entire nation has trudged onward trying in several corners to face it, with very little success.

From Jim Crow laws stating “separate but equal” to the civil rights movement of the 60’s onward, people of all colors and backgrounds have struggled to be treated like human beings. Simply human beings. In the early 2000’s, racism, the idea of separation of peoples, is alive and well.

“What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind.”

The New Jim Crow

While the U.S.A. might have had an African-American President, we were quickly followed by this:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re not sending you, they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bring crime. They’re rapists… And some, I assume, are good people.”  — President Donald Trump

Well, then, let’s bring the subject out for discussion into the light of day.

There are many people who would argue that they are not racist. I disagree. Everyone is racist to some point or another; whether it be national pride, cultural or heritage pride, seeing yourself as a separate from another human being in any way is racism. We all have, in our heads, the idea of “other,” whether it is gender, cultural, language, sexuality, skin color, or what have you. Human beings separate themselves in order to find security. Surely someone who is “not other” will protect and care for us, keep the tribe safe. We look for security in our chaotic world and in a sea of humanity, we cling to what we know.

Even Freemasonry has been subject to racism, and continues to be so. In 2009, the racism of some Georgia Masons was brought to light in Masonic and Civil courts. The rituals and foundations of Freemasonry are not racist; in fact, its precepts are strictly very non-discriminatory. Several Freemasonry orders admit people of all genders, races, creeds, and religions, including atheists. Yet, grand ideals and all, like any institution it too can be subject to human bias.

The question is, “what do you do with this sense of ‘other?'”Are we even aware that we have a sense of “other?” We all have preconceptions of traits, habits, or mores of certain peoples that are not of our own “tribe.” We have ideas and thoughts about other human beings from different places, different regions of the world. To say we don’t shows an ignorance of our own upbringing. My parents were not openly racist but my grandparents were – and they were active Freemasons. How could those traits have not been passed down to my parents? How could they not have been passed down to me, consciously or not? You don’t get all the good and none of the bad.

I would state this unequivocally: it’s our responsibility as decent human beings to treat everyone fairly, equitably, and justly, regardless of what is in our thoughts. Perhaps despite our thoughts.

It is the actions of people which determine their active racism. A middle-aged couple walk on the other side of the street to avoid a group of young African-American men walking towards them. A white man sitting on the bus who ignores an aged Hispanic woman who is standing and holding heavy grocery bags, yet offers his seat to a well-dressed white woman. People who blatantly ignore a group of Asian families waiting to get onto a train and push right past them.

We see these acts all the time, sometimes several moments in a day are filled with them. Maybe we do them. These could be the acts of people who are just horrible human beings, treating other human beings with contempt. They could be the acts of the completely ignorant. They could be racist acts. Only the human being committing them knows. Consciousness requires a lot of self-reflection. If the perpetrator isn’t clear about how they move through their day, they will continue to effect human beings with racist, demeaning, or fearful actions. Fear, the great motivator, is rooted in ignorance.

For those that think they are not racist, or that we don’t live in a racist society in most of the world, one would ask why these acts still happen? Racists and decent human beings come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. They come from all religions, all creeds, all countries. They are educated and uneducated; they are Presidents; they are businessmen, farmers, doctors, and Wal-Mart employees. We are surrounded by decent and indecent people. And yet, these acts still happen. Do decent people stand up and say something?

It seems like it might require the sound of voices to rise up when these acts of ignorance are being committed. It takes courage to overcome ignorance. It may be our own education that needs to be rounded out. It may be spending time with “another” to get a sense of what it’s like to walk a mile in their shoes. To say that one should be “colorblind” is ignorant and unnecessary. We should not be colorblind; we should be aware, conscious, and active in our support that all human beings are the same, regardless of any thing that took place before we met them, regardless of who their parents were, what gender they were born with or are now, and regardless in whom they place their trust, their destiny, or their faith. We need to stop being afraid. Tolerance is not homogeneity; acceptance does not mean giving up identity. There is nothing superior about acting so.

Only one sort of racism should be tolerated: the human kind. However, our cats may have something to say about that.

“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fear: the Mind Killer

Fear: the Mind Killer

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Frank Herbert, Dune

In our youth, we rail against the unfairness of the world. In developing our philosophies, we also develop our fears. In a recent discussion group regarding specific symbolism of Freemasonry, the question was asked, how do we get rid of fears, which are really false gods? Fear, one person postulated, is that which motivates negative behavior. Another postulated that fear motivates all behavior. After much discussion, we never really came to a solid conclusion about how to mitigate fear.

Fear is the unpleasant sensation caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, threatening, or likely to cause pain. That definition is ripe with opportunity for dissection, to pull apart the chunks that create philosophical reasons for fear.

First of all, it’s an unpleasant sensation, and humans hate unpleasant feelings. No one really wants to feel icky, and yet, that icky feeling is built on a belief ― it is not necessarily based in fact or reason. It is simply a belief. By definition, a belief is a “trust, img_0142faith, or confidence in something.” Taken apart and put back together, we can say that fear is an icky feeling caused by a trust, faith, or confidence that someone or something is out to cause some kind of harm to our person, our connections, or perhaps, our way of life.

This explanation is not to trivialize fear, or some major manifestations of fear, like post-traumatic stress syndrome. This is simply to discuss common fears that most, if not all of us, experience. Are fears founded? Some, yes. Some, perhaps not. In the face of an immediate disaster, fear is certainly appropriate. Sigmund Freud said, about real fear vs. neurotic fear:

You will understand me without more ado when I term this fear real fear in contrast to neurotic fear. Real fear seems quite rational and comprehensible to us. We may testify that it is a reaction to the perception of external danger, viz., harm that is expected and foreseen. It is related to the flight reflex and may be regarded as an expression of the instinct of self-preservation. And so the occasions, that is to say, the objects and situations that arouse fear, will depend largely on our knowledge of and our feeling of power over the outer world…   

Proceeding now to neurotic fear, what are its manifestations and conditions…? In the first place we find a general condition of anxiety, a condition of free-floating fear as it were, which is ready to attach itself to any appropriate idea, to influence judgment, to give rise to expectations, in fact to seize any opportunity to make itself felt. We call this condition “expectant fear” or “anxious expectation.” Persons who suffer from this sort of fear always prophesy the most terrible of all possibilities, interpret every coincidence as an evil omen, and ascribe a dreadful meaning to all uncertainty. Many persons who cannot be termed ill show this tendency to anticipate disaster.

That is, fear is simply the lack of feeling powerful over our own world, whether it is caused by an oncoming tornado or by feelings of inadequacy. What we’re concerning ourselves with here is what Freud called neurotic fears. Yet, the basis for our reactions, that lack of control, does come from the same “fight of flight” process of survival. Both have their roots in control.

It was once explained to me that all vices – Sloth, Envy, Greed, Avarice, Gluttony, Pride, and Lust – are all major manifestations of fear. Aristotle, in Nichomachaen Ethics, made similar statements – explaining that virtues and vices were a spectrum, and deficiencies were the expressions of the ends of the spectrum. Management courses in many places talk about how to address employees fears with some of these same techniques but, again, no one really gets to the heart of dealing with fear head on. So, we know what fear might be and how it manifests, but how do we actually deal with it?

In younger days, I read a series of books based on “The Michael Teachings.” These teachings are channeled thoughts on life and living, how and why people do what they do, and general human relations. One aspect that stayed with me had to do with fears. Many people have a dominant negative attitude which they must overcome in their lives.

Some examples of these are 1) self-depreciation, 2) self-destruction, 3) martyrdom, 4) stubbornness, 5) greed, 6) impatience, and 7) arrogance. Many of us go through all of these at some time in our lives but, in general, we stick with one (maybe two) when we’re tired, depressed, feeling overwhelmed, or just not working at our peak. When our sense of comfort, our inner child, is attacked or feeling vulnerable, we resort to these attitudes which are really manifestations of fear.

These are born from our childhood and are placed there by our reactions to environment and experiences. Each of these blocks is based in a very specific fear and can be overcome, with conscious effort. These are the dominant negative attitudes with their spectrum of manifestation, to use Aristotle’s idea of a sliding scale of virtues and vices.

  1. Self-depreciation is the fear of not being good enough – manifests as Humility (positive) to Self-Abasement (negative).
  2. Greed is the fear of not having enough – manifests as Egoism | Desire (positive) to Voracity | Gluttony (negative).
  3. Self-destruction is the fear of losing control – manifests as Self-Sacrifice (positive) to Suicide |Immolation (negative).
  4. Martyrdom is the fear of not being worthy – manifests as Selflessness (positive) to Victim Mentality (negative).
  5. Stubbornness is a fear of change, of new situations – manifests as Willfulness |Determination (positive) to Obstinacy (negative).
  6. Impatience is the fear of missing or losing opportunities – manifests as Audacity (positive) to Intolerance (negative).
  7. Arrogance is the fear of being vulnerable – manifests as Pride (positive) to Vanity (negative).

In taking a deeper look into our own behavior, it may be easier to see how a reaction to one situation or another traces backward to one of these negative attitudes, and the fear which grounds it. When one swings from pride in a job well done to believing that the job done was the best job anyone has ever seen, there might be some fear going on there. That line that separates the two extremes can be different for different people, and it is clear that we all have different levels of tolerance and abilities to process reactions when we encounter fear. When we start delving beyond the surface of our own psyche, introspection uncovers, perhaps, those negative attitudes based in experiences of childhood.

Children create, depending on environmental experience and personal proclivities, distorted world views. We all create these distortions (big and small) and they eventually become our personal myths. Think: “I’m ugly,” “I’m stupid,” or “I’m not going to eat tonight.” Repeated situations or traumatic events reinforce this myth. Driven by a deeply-held fear, and steered by a distorted worldview, the emerging, dominant negative attitude springs into action in their lives, even unto adulthood.

The child thinks for instance, “I will stop life from hurting by taking control of my pain. I will hurt myself more  than anybody else can.” The child’s chosen survival strategy involves some sort of conflict, a war against self, against others or against life. It is a defensive behavior pattern which looks irrational from the outside but from the child’s perspective is perfectly rational. As we mature, we must address these dominant negative attitudes or they will endanger any chance of self-improvement. They hide our true nature. *

–  Excerpt from, The Michael Teachings

When someone lashes out, at me or others, I believe the reason is always fear. Fear is not the motivator of all activity we do. It always seems, though, that fear is the core of truly negative and destructive behaviors. Hatred, lies, and fanaticism are true fear-based reactions and attitudes. In dealing with these reactions in the world, we need to keep in mind that fear is the motivator, and that perhaps by making the person feel safe, by letting them air their real fears, healing can begin.

At another study group, we discussed fear and how to use it to unravel truth. It struck me then that Freemasonry provided us opportunities to run up against our own and other’s fears. From speaking in front of a group to taking charge of ritual work to providing leadership for volunteer work, Freemasonry offers us a chance to continually transmute fears into relationship gold by providing the types of experiences that test us and force us to face those fears.

Why does the Freemason care about fears? There is a lot of the world that runs on a steady diet of fear. The only way to find a better world and improve humanity is to rise above those things which cause us to live a base, irrational, and mundane life. By addressing and recognizing when people are moving in fear, we can possibly stop the cycle for them and for ourselves.

Additionally, Freemasons strive to be leaders. Leadership is about learning what motivates people; by learning their fears and helping them maneuver around them, we find talents and skills waiting to be uncovered. Leadership is shedding light on that which holds people back from being the very best they can be. Addressing fears is difficult unless we create true, honest dialogue. Freemasonry provides an environment to express honesty and be supported.

This honest dialogue extends to ourselves. What are our fears? What is our dominant negative attitude. and how does it affect me, my family, and my connections? What relationships are healthy and positive and which are not?

Asking “why” is a good start. Perhaps by looking at the motivations within us which cause us to have painful relationships with others, we can come face to face with our fear. In order to do that, we need to be able to actively look at our behavior, assess any damage we cause ourselves, and like Paul Atriedes from the Dune Series, turn an inner eye to the path it has taken, and find ourselves in its wake.

Try looking into that place where you dare not look!

You’ll find me there, staring out at you!  

― Paul-Muad’Dib to the Reverend Mother, from Frank Herbert’s Dune