Metaphysics and the Perennial Philosophy

This is a transcript from a lecture given by Martin Lings at the Temenos Academy.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ll just begin my talk by mentioning – and this refers to the talk is actually called: Metaphysics and the Perennial Philosophy, metaphysics coming first, that is, but that’s not an important detail, but it explains why I begin by mentioning – that René Guénon only once – as far as I know – entered into the academic world, which he did by answering an invitation from the Sorbonne University in Paris, to give a talk on metaphysics and in that talk, which was entitled: La Métaphysique Orientale, he began by saying that it would perhaps be better just to say metaphysics; la métaphysique, without any epithet, because, pure metaphysics; being beyond all form and all contingencies, is neither Eastern, nor Western, it is universal. He meant by beyond form, of course, beyond any particular religious form, and by contingency the demands of perspective and the demands of human capacity: Metaphysics. He objected also to the english ‘s’, on the end of metaphysics, he said: Why do you not call it metaphysic, why this plural? It is not really a plural, of course, it means that it comes after physics; metaphysics. Now, Guénon would have accepted – as a partial synonym for metaphysical – the word suprarational, only on condition that suprarational means ‘beyond this world’, and microcosmical speaking beyond body and soul. Frithjof Schuon sometimes speaks of the metacosm, in the meaning ‘the next world’, rather than this world and metacosm – in this sense – is the lowest domain of metaphysics. The highest domain being at the divine level itself, and the summit being the absolute. Metaphysics comprises all these domains from the Absolute Infinite Perfection of the Divine Essence, to the lowest of the Paradises of the Next World. To go back to that summit, which is sometimes called the Divine Essence, Tradition is universal in this. In Hinduism: Brahman, the neuter form, or word and also: Ātmān, which means Self. They denote this absolute, infinite perfection and in Hinduism, both Brahman and Ātmān are expressed by the divine mono syllable: Om (AUM).
They are referred to as: Tat, which means ‘that’. This oldest living esoterism is identical in its metaphysical doctrine with Sufism, which is the youngest living esoterism. Here, the divine essence is also absolutely beyond duality; beyond duality is what the Hindus mean by: Advaita. Advaita Vedānta is the Hindu equivalence therefore of Sufism, and in Christianity Meister Eckhart insisted that beyond God – in the ordinary sense – there is the Godhead, and he insisted on making this distinction, which created a certain scandal in the Vatican. According to metaphysics, this one metaphysical doctrine; only Absolute Infinite Perfection, is real, all else is Illusion. In Hinduism, the word ‘Maya’ is used for illusion; in Islam – in Sufism that is – it is called ‘The Veil’: Hijab and in both traditions, Illusion begins already at the divine level, as soon as there is any question of duality, that is, of manifestation or creation. The monoistic religions speak of Creation – on the inward side – esoterically. Sufism, like Hinduism speaks of manifestation. Everything that exists is a manifestation of the Absolute Infinite Perfection. Creation or manifestation is the first hint of relativity, that is, of illusion and this begins at the level of the personal god. For the ancient Greeks; for Plato this absolute was: Agathón; the good and Saint Augustine said: “It is in the nature of the Good to communicate Itself”. There is a saying in Islam, where God speaks on the tongue of the Prophet: “I was a hidden treasure, and I loved to be known, and so, I created the world to manifest -understood – my hidden treasure”. Here is the beginning of illusion; it is a mystery that the Infinite Absolute Perfection remains immutable; it cannot change; it is not effected by its own manifestation, which is illusion and which proceeds from him, just as it proceeds from him, it returns to him. Schuon sums this up wonderfully in the words: “Being what it is; the Absolute cannot not be immutable, and it cannot not radiate immutability or fidelity to it self, and radiation, or gift of it self. There lies the essence of all that is”. In one of the great Algerian Shaykh Ahmad al-Alawis poems, he speaks of Illusion, the Veil, that is, everything which proceeds from God. He says: “It is hidden in its own outward manifestation, where in it thus appear as veil after veil, made to cover its glory”, that is, the Truth. The reality is hidden in its own outward manifestation, and it appears in this outward manifestation as veil after veil, made to cover its glory. Now, as I said, the lower boundary of metaphysics can be placed at the lowest of the Paradises; and the barrier between the next world and this is represented in many ways, and here again – in the different expressions of metaphysics in the different traditions – the same symbols are used, for example, in Genesis we have the words: “The spirit of God breathed on the face of the waters and the waters were divided”. Now, Hinduism also speaks of the Upper Waters and the Lower Waters. The division of the waters is the distinction between this world, the Lower Waters and the next world, which is the Higher Waters, and the boundary between the two is what I’m just going to speak about now for the moment. In Islam you have also in the Koran mention of the two seeds; one, salt and bitter – that is the Lower Waters of this world – the other, fresh and sweet; the next world, that is; the world of the heavens and the paradises. In ancient Greece, you have another very striking symbol: “The Symplegades”; “the clashing rocks”. When the Argonauts went in search for the Golden Fleece, the clashing rocks were held apart by the goddess Athene, to allow them to pass. The Golden Fleece is clearly representative of all that man had lost at the fall. The Koran says: “If you would pass beyond the boundary of heaven and earth, – by ‘heaven’ here doesn’t mean the heaven of the next world, it means simply the sky – do so, but you cannot pass without authority1

  1. Authority – Authentic, Genuine. In Greek – Authentikos – Its essential meaning is “Having the authority of the original creator”.()
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  • Confession

    She, my Belovèd, is a wondrous day;
    And I, who love Her, I am life and death
    And storm and lightning, and my word is wine;
    The world lies in my blood and in my breath.

    O thou who seekest me, do never ask
    Which is my homeland, nor what is my name;
    The Universe is made of Light and Love,
    And from this Light and from this Love I came.

    - Frithjof Shuon