Conquest of Illusion J. J. van der Leeuw

Theosophical Publishing House 1928

J. J. Van der Leeuw

Chapter 10  The Immortality of the Soul

The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven's light for ever shines, Earth's shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity. --SHELLEY.

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The Quest of Immortality

At all times man has abhorred the thought of an end to existence. It is true, humanity has ever clothed its desire to live on beyond physical death in the garments of revealed belief or philosophical truth; from the crude animism of primitive man with his spirit-belief and ancestor-worship to the measured logic of theological and philosophical argument the endeavour has always been the same-to justify the belief in a continued life after death and to eliminate the fear of an end. Yet the instinct, the desire, or even fear comes first, the justification by the intellect or by revelation afterwards; the instinct demands immortality, the intellect supplies it, complete with proof and argument.

We should ever be on our guard against doctrines which our instinctive fears and desires demand; here the investigating mind has not spontaneously discovered truth, but the desire for immortality has caused the intellect to furnish a doctrine of life and death that shall satisfy man's hopes and allay his fears. Of these fears the greatest, beyond question, has been and is that of death.

We love ourselves too well to be able to bear the thought that our beloved ego could ever cease to be; rather do we accept a miserable life than no life at all. Not to be is unthinkable to us; in the very fact of our existence now lies for us the promise and necessity of our continued existence through ages to come. Yet all appearance of the personality seems to vanish with the death of the body; if anything does survive it escapes our perception. The evidence of our senses therefore appears to deny us that very continued existence which we desire so fervently, as strongly indeed as we fear the possibility of an end to existence with the death of the body. We feel that our lives remain incomplete, unfinished, and we conclude that there must be a life after death in which is found the balance, so sadly lacking here.

There is, however, a loftier reason for the quest of immortality; there is in every one of us some dim perception of the fact that we are more than the body alone and that with the death of the body we do not cease to be. It is the vision of our eternal reality that inspires this conviction of immortality. Yet our intellect grasps but imperfectly what the vision means; where the experience of reality tells of our eternal being, the interpretation by the intellect becomes a doctrine of immortality for our temporal self, in its passing appearance.

Whether our quest for immortality is inspired by this dim apprehension by the intellect of our greater being, or by the fear of our petty self which desires immortality, there is ever the demand of immortality first and the proof of it by the intellect afterwards. Thus theology and philosophy have but too often lent themselves to minister to the demand of mortal man and have but too willingly provided proofs and arguments for that which man had already decided to be necessarily true by his very fear of the terrible prospects of the reverse. It is hardly to the credit of philosophy thus to be ordered to find truth, with careful instructions as to where exactly this truth will have to be found and what its nature is to be. It is the task of philosophy to go forth without fear or restraint and to discover things as they are, whether they may please man's instinctive fears and desires or not. To provide logical argumentation for a doctrine, solely because it would be such a terrible thing if that doctrine were not true, is as unworthy as it is unproductive of living truth.

Thus even the arguments for immortality of Kant in his Critique of Practical Reason are, when we come to analyze them, but a petitio principii. He argues that holiness or the perfect accordance of the will with the moral law demands an endless progress and that 'this endless progress is only possible on the supposition of an endless duration of the existence and personality of the same rational being ... the summum bonum, then, practically is only possible on the supposition of the immortality of the soul; consequently this immortality, being inseparably connected with the moral law, is a postulate of pure practical reason.' This is not a philosophical argumentation that inspires admiration, though it comes from no less a thinker than Kant; even agreeing that holiness is the aim of life it is not necessary to conclude that therefore endless progress is necessary in order to attain this holiness or perfect accordance of the will with the moral law. Even then, endless progress and endless duration are terms as meaningless as endless time. One cannot help feeling that the immortality of the soul had to be proved somehow and that it is not so much the discovery of an investigating mind as a preconceived notion which the intellect, willingly or unwillingly, had to support with argument and proof. Thus there is not one of the many philosophical and theological arguments for immortality which cannot be disproved with equal force and be opposed by an equally logical statement denying the first. One cannot help feeling about most of them that they are but eager attempts to prove that continued existence, for which man yearns with a desire that demands satisfaction.

In many ways it is strange that man should be so eager for an endless continuation of an existence which, for the majority of men, holds more of suffering and disappointment than of joy. It might well seem that the continuation of such a life 'for ever and for evermore' would be far more terrible than its cessation. Even if we imagine an immortal life which is all joy and no suffering, which is full of the good things lacking in our present life, is it not even then an appalling prospect to think of such a life continued for ever and ever, without end? Have those who demand immortality so insistently ever tried to picture what a thousand or a million years of these so-called joys of life would mean?

It is but natural that the poor woman, who has to slave all her life to keep a husband and children clothed and fed, should think with longing of a heaven to come where she can 'do nothing for evermore.' But does she realize that after a few hours, to say nothing of a few million years, of this divine inactivity she would yearn for something to do even if it were only the mending of a pair of celestial socks? The ability to find spiritual joy without activity and continual change denotes an advanced stage of evolution. For most of us a holiday is but a time of increased exertions and activities; a heaven of eternal rest would be a horror from which we would devoutly pray to be delivered. Yet a heaven of activity would inevitably mean a repetition of the same activities over and over again which would be equally unsatisfactory. We speak so readily of endless life and ask for it, but it is only our inability to picture the endless life for which we ask which makes it possible that we should desire a thing which, if realized, would be a punishment more terrible than any pictured in Dante's Inferno.

Is it not rather that in our fear for the utter cessation of existence with the death of the physical body we crave a continued existence and, in our relief at not being extinguished altogether, do not worry ourselves unnecessarily about our possible feelings a few million years hence; our main concern is that the immediate fear has been allayed. It is not only in the affairs of our mortal life that we are ever willing to put off our difficulties of to-day by a loan or mortgage which will tide us over for a few years to come, and which will delay the day of reckoning. It always satisfies us to delay that day; as long as we can succeed in shifting it back again and again we are not much troubled by the fact that, when the fatal day finally does come, it will be far worse than our present predicament. Do not the mediaeval stories of men who sold their souls to the devil for a few more years of life (and what devil would drive such unprofitable barter?) show the same eagerness to defer the day of reckoning and to enjoy the present moment?

In our fear of death we are but too willing to accept anything in a remote future as long as we can overcome the immediate terror of an end to existence.

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The Denial of Immortality by Materialism

There is then much of lofty aspiration, but also much of craven fear in the demand for immortality, for an endless life. It is not only for the benefit of humanity that we desire our personality to survive, but for our own satisfaction we fear extinction. And more than that, in our attitude in the present life it is in many cases the fear of the unknown hereafter with its alternatives of dread pains or celestial joys, which makes us try to do good and to abstain from evil. Without the sword of this uncertainty suspended over their heads, many might well indulge in things which now they fear to do, since punishment may follow. It is not a noble conception of life that inspired these words of Luther: 'If you believe in no future life I would not give a mushroom for your God. Do, then, as you like! For if no God, then no devil, no hell, as with a fallen tree all is over when you die. Then plunge into lechery, rascality, robbery, murder! ' Surely if the fear of hell or of punishment in some form is the only reason why we should abstain from evil our morality is worth but little. Infinitely nobler is the story, which Tsanoff relates in The Problem of Immortality, of a Saracen woman who walked down the streets of Damascus with a pan of fire in one hand and a jug of water in the other. 'What are you about to do? ' a monk asked her,' Burn up Paradise and put out the fires of hell so that man may do good for the love of God.' The soul of Luther might well ponder this story in his celestial home.

In many ways our attitude towards death is the measure of our spirituality. Did not John Ruskin once suggest that the truest test of anyone's character would be his behaviour if he knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he had only a few months to live. If any of us had this inevitable prospect how would we live in the meantime? Would we make a futile, final attempt to extract as much pleasure and enjoyment out of life as our remaining days would allow? Would we spend the remainder of our lives trying to do good to others for sheer love of humanity? Or would we spend our time in incessant prayer, imploring God to have mercy on our souls and to treat us better than we have treated Him? It would indeed be a true test of our inmost aspirations, of our fears and hopes as well as of our beliefs and knowledge, if we had this choice to make.

It cannot be denied that there is more true nobility in many a convinced materialist, who, never doubting his entire cessation at the death of the body, yet lives an unselfish, self-sacrificing life, than there is in the devout believer whose morality needs the fears of hell and the promise of heaven. There is a moral grandeur about a materialist philosopher like Epicurus, lacking in many an idealist. Though the term 'Epicurean' has come to mean a refined indulgence in the pleasures of the senses, Epicurus himself was far above such a sensual materialism. Both in his own life and writings as in those of his disciple Lucretius there is a sublime impersonality, almost reminiscent of Buddhism in its joyful acceptance of the extinction of personality. Does not Lucretius speak of his teacher as one who 'rescued life from such great billows and such thick darkness and moored it in so perfect a calm and so brilliant a light? ' However mistaken the philosophical materialist may be in his conviction that our life ends with the death of the body, there is far more true worth in his impersonal dedication to human progress than there is in him who ever clamours for immortality, who desires reward and fears punishment.

The same impersonal nobility distinguishes the positivist philosophy; a Comte would dedicate his life to the service of humanity in the firm belief that he would cease to be at death and that only his thoughts and actions would live on in the humanity he loved. And the words of a Charles Bradlaugh, who could say that it was enough for him if his life served but as a bridge across which humanity could march onwards to a better and happier future, surely showed a far nobler and more unselfish philosophy of life than the above mentioned outburst of Luther, characteristic of a morality rooted in fear of punishment and hope of reward. However mistaken may be his conviction that our life ends with the death of the body, yet the materialist, who willingly faces such a complete extinction and yet works for the well-being of humanity, giving of his best to the last, is far superior in attitude and aims than the groveling seeker after immortality, who, in pitiful concern for his own future is unable to give freely without bargaining with God for a return.

It is in the fear of death that Christianity has strayed sadly from the message of Christ. Surely, if ever a teacher proved in his life that man is more than his body and that the spirit can be triumphant even though materially the man may be conquered, it was the Founder of Christianity. It would almost seem as if He emphasized His teaching by coming among men without advantages of wealth, position, power or rank, surrendering all weapons and suffering Himself to be taken and killed by His enemies, that He might all the more abundantly prove the triumphant power of the spirit which lived and gained a world for Christianity. And yet there is no religion which nurses such a dismal fear of death than the Christianity which man made out of the teachings of the Galilean. Is not a Christian funeral in its melancholy gloom the very denial of Christ's message, is not a Christian cemetery with the inscriptions upon its tombstones, telling us that 'here rests ' the one we knew in life, but a monument of unchristian beliefs? Is it not incredible that one should hear Christians discussing the place where they will lie after death, choosing a beautiful spot as if they themselves were to lie under six feet of earth, sitting bold upright from time to time to take a look at the landscape? Is it not here also time that we made our choice, either deciding to become Christians, accepting the message of the Master and putting far from us the materialistic gloom and pious lies on tombstones, or else frankly declaring that we hold Christ to have been a -deluded one and that the body is all we are. There is no worse indictment of modern Christianity than the superstitious fear with which we surround the mystery of death, the hushed anxiety with which we speak of the one fact which is a certainty in the future of each one of us.

We can learn at least in this respect from those of other religions whom we are pleased to call heathens, but who in their attitude towards death are truer disciples of Christ than many Christians. See how the Hindu scheme of life, ordained thousands of years before our era, always had death in mind as the inevitable fact. The life of the Hindu of the higher castes is divided into four stages, those of the disciple, being prepared for life, the householder, doing his duty by the community in which he lives, the dweller in the forest who frees himself from the ties that bound him, surrendering possession and power and living the hermit life, and finally the wandering mendicant who has surrendered even the hermitage and is without a home, having renounced all that is of this world. It is true, but little remains of this organization of Hindu life, but even so death to the Hindu is a present reality in life and not a horrible phantom to be feared and, if possible, ignored. Instead of waiting for death to take from us, as we are pleased to express it, all that we hold dear and precious, the Hindu himself makes the surrender and, when death comes, man is ready and willing. However much modern India may have strayed from the laws of Manu even so Christian nations have still much to learn from the Orient which, in its implicit belief, nay, its certainty that the spirit lives even though the body dies, stands nearer to the teachings of Christ than our Christian civilization with its abject fear of death and its trembling hope of immortality. They might well ponder the words of the Bhagavad Gita:

Never the spirit was born, the spirit shall cease to be never;
Never was time it was not, end and beginning are dreams
Birthless and deathless and changeless remaineth the spirit forever;
Death hath not touched it at all, dead though the house of it seems

Modern Christianity is burdened by a materialism which is a direct contradiction of its central teaching, a materialism which lacks the nobility of the philosophical materialist, being fraught with fear and concern for our personal fate.

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The Relation Between Body and Soul

The materialist looks upon the soul or consciousness as a temporary by-product of the body and its functions, ceasing with the death of that body; consequently immortality has no place in his philosophy. Yet it does not require much introspection to discover that we cannot be the body or a result of its functions. The very fact that we can restrain and control the body, override its desires and tendencies, make it do what it does not want to do, work when it wants to rest, go without food when it wants to eat, drive it on pitilessly when it wants to surrender and in supreme sacrifice even give its life to save another's, shows that we are not the body, much less a by-product of it, but rather the power that moves it from within. Were we the body such a thing as self-restraint or self-control, moral struggle or self-sacrifice would be a philosophical impossibility. We can only control that which we are not; 'not-self control' would be a more appropriate term than 'self-control,' which does but express our identification with the body through which we work.

This does not mean that we are not dependent on the body for our harmonious expression in the physical world; should it become incapable of expressing our nature or be damaged in its functioning our own manifestation through it will be inhibited to that extent. We may well look upon the defective human being, such as the congenital idiot, as one whose bodily instrument is so damaged as to prevent the normal expression of the individual behind. When we alter the functions of the body, as for instance by the extraction or implantation of glands the possibilities of expression through the body will be changed so profoundly that we seem to be confronted by a human being different from the one we knew before. But to conclude from this that, consequently, the living individual is but a by-product of the body and to exclaim with a triumphant and unholy joy that now, at last, we have proved that the body is primary and man in his aspirations and creative effort is but secondary, is as unthinking and unfounded as it would be to say that the artist is but a by-product of his violin since, when a string is missing, the possibilities of his artistic expression are changed forthwith.

Yet we must not ignore the importance of the bodily instrument and its perfect functioning in the production of the soul's music. It is strange that, even though most of us unthinkingly identify ourselves with the bodies that are our instruments, we yet lack the good sense to take such care of these instruments that they will be capable of expressing us to the full.

Realizing, then, that we are not the body we use, but the living individual behind that body we must try to understand in what relation we stand to the body we use in the process of our evolution. In the chapter on 'Spirit and Matter' we have seen that there is no fundamental duality in the universe, but that, according to our place in the scale of eternal creation, a thing appears to us as matter or as spirit, as life or as form. Thus our body appears as matter to us; yet in the light of Reality it is not fundamentally different from that which we are ourselves, but it belongs to a group of manifestations at a lesser level than we ourselves are.

We gain self-realization through our contact with these lesser manifestations, with which we subsequently identify ourselves. That identification is incarnation, the association of man with a lesser and to him material mode of being, which will afford him the limitation and separateness necessary for the fulfillment of his cycle of evolution.

In the earlier stage of his evolution man is entirely identified with the body and in that identification is but part of nature, this being the level of manifestation to which the body belongs. As a vague memory of his true being begins to stir within man there arises the awareness of duality, life within and body without, there begins moral struggle with its failures and triumphs, there begins conscious effort and aspiration, which finally lead to reality. When that is attained man knows that he and his body are one indeed in essence, but that the body is a lesser manifestation of eternal Reality, to be controlled and guided by him who uses it in the process of his evolution.

We therefore, are not our body, it is the instrument we use, through which we learn, through which we express ourselves. Neither are we essentially different from this body, it too is part of eternal Reality, though a lesser manifestation than we are. Since we are not our body our continued existence does not depend on the life of this body or cease at its death. This is not a proof of the immortality of the soul; it does but show that the life of the soul is not dependent on the life of the physical body, even though for its manifestation in this physical world, such a body is necessary to it.

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Survival Not Immortality

Continued existence after death is not immortality. However fully spiritualistic phenomena may prove the survival of our personality after death this but shows that, when the physical body dies, we live on in the after-death world, where we assimilate the experiences of the life through which we have just passed.

There is thus no improbability or impossibility whatsoever about the communion with those whom we are wont to call the dead. They are, of course, no more dead than we are, in fact, they can only be more alive, being temporarily freed of the limitation which identification with the physical body brings. This does not mean that the spirit announcing himself to an awed audience as Julius Caesar or Napoleon, uttering platitudes which even a mediocre mind would disdain, is necessarily the one he claims to be. There are many influences at work at a genuine spiritualistic séance, from the subconscious and dramatizing minds of those present, vagrant thoughts and ideas and possible non-human entities, to the occasional manifestation of a human individual who has gone through the change we call death. Even when the words spoken at a spiritualistic séance come from one who has passed into the next world, there is no reason to receive them with a mysterious awe as if they contained great wisdom; the person who has passed into the next world is not necessarily any wiser than he was when he departed from this world; his words do but prove that man survives the death of the body.

Important though this fact is, it is no argument for the immortality of the soul. Even the fact that we live through many hundreds of lives in the completing of our cycle of evolution does not imply immortality; since the end is return to the unity whence we came we may even say that there must necessarily be an end to our life as an individual since there was a beginning. Philosophically it does not matter whether our span of life is sixty years or, in our greater evolution, sixty million years; since an end must come we cannot speak of immortality.

The facts of spiritualism and the doctrine of reincarnation, however, change our attitude in so far, that we come to look upon death as but a normal change in our greater life, a change through which we, as individuals, have passed many a time and through which we shall pass many a time to come. Thus there is nothing to be feared in death, neither can we speak of those who have passed over as being in any way less alive than we are. In fact, we might well remember Shelley's lines:

Peace, Peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep
He hath awakened from the dream of life
'Tis we, who, lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance strike with our spirit's knife
Invulnerable nothings ..

We must then change our attitude with regard to the mystery of death and eliminate from our Christian civilization the dismal gloom with which, in such unchristian manner we surround the death of the body. In bringing about that change of attitude the fact of the survival of the individual beyond the death of the body, and the understanding of our life as but part of an age-long evolution, have indeed a profound value. But they do not prove immortality; the end of the individual's life is but postponed.

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The Illusion of Immortality

Is immortality then philosophically possible; are we not again in the throes of a wrong question which no ingenuity can ever solve? Let us analyze how the question originates and see what elements enter into its nature.

To some extent we all identify ourselves with the bodies through which we are manifest in this particular life; when we think of ourselves we imagine our physical appearance, associating with it our thoughts and feelings; that to us is our real self. We think of ourselves with the name we bear and the face we have, the virtues and the shortcomings that are ours, and it is for that self that we ask immortality. It is true, we expect that in some miraculous way our vices and infirmities will fall away from us when once we enter the heavenly realm, and that all our virtues and excellencies will be enhanced, so that we shall indeed be glorified editions of what we are in this earthly life. Yet it is this earthly personality for which we claim endless existence, immortality; when we think of ourselves as living on for ever and ever in the heaven world or in the infernal regions, we think of ourselves as the personalities that are ours now, with the appearance we have here. The claim for immortality, therefore, is made for the personality we feel ourselves to be in this life.

Furthermore we ask our question in the conception of time as an endless succession of events. Only in the idea of time as an objective reality, continuing forever and ever, can we think of immortality. Immortality implies endless life, endless life implies endless time and endless time is a philosophical absurdity.

Time is not the objective reality we hold it to be in the illusion of our externalized world-image; time is but our realization of eternity. The illusion of a time which either begins and ends, or else is endless, is but an outcome of our illusion of time as an absolute, objective reality. From that illusion is born our problem of immortality; when we overcome that illusion our problem is overcome also.

The other element in our quest of immortality is our illusion of being this temporary personality through which we are manifesting. If one were to ask, ' do you believe in the immortality of the soul? ' It would be quite impossible to answer that question with ' yes ' or ' no.' We should first have to ask 'what do you mean by the soul; do you mean yourself as you appear and exist now, with the characteristics associated with the personality that bears your name? If so the answer is no; that personality is of one life only and will cease to be, just as the many personalities through which we have expressed ourselves in past lives have ceased to be. If, therefore, you identify yourself with that personality you must cease to be with it. If, on the other hand, by the word 'soul' you mean the reincarnating individual, the true Ego, who lives through many hundreds of lives on earth, then the answer is that in this individuality you will certainly survive the death of the body as you have survived the death of many bodies in the past and will survive the death of many more in the future. In so far, therefore, as you identify yourself with that more permanent self, the death of your present body and the dissolution of your present personality will matter but little; you will live through all that. But even that is not immortality, that Ego too must cease to be. The Ego was born at individualization, and will cease to be when the creative Rhythm has been perfected, and we reach the at-onement in which we become all that is. Thus even the reincarnating self is not immortal; though its life may stretch through many hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years there must come an end to it also. If, finally, by soul you mean your eternal being, which unchangingly abides, then again we cannot say that there is 'immortality for this being. We here enter the world of Reality, where the terms and structures of our world-image no longer apply.

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Eternal Reality

If we would experience truth we must disengage ourselves from the illusions that bind us and enter the world of Reality. When, in its light, we view the problem of immortality it loses all meaning and importance, since in the world of the Real the illusions, from which the problem was born, no longer exist. Here we no longer experience time as one thing after another; in this world of Reality we experience Eternity, in which all time is unchangingly contained.

In the eternal, past and future are a present reality, and we are that reality. How, then, can we demand immortality when we are eternal? In our real being we are a reality which has never begun and which will never end, a reality which is unchanging. The idea of immortality is but a distortion, in the illusion of our world-image, of that eternity which we experience in the world of the Real; it is but a misinterpretation of that supreme Reality in the terms of an objective-time illusion. How can we be concerned about our future after death, when we know ourselves as the Eternal which is future and past in abiding reality? In the Eternal we know that we cannot cease to be, because we are; an end is as impossible in the Eternal as would be a beginning, and the demand for an endless life is but a contradiction in itself.

How futile and unworthy seems this demand for immortality, with its attendant hosts of arguments and proofs, when once we have experienced ourselves as the Eternal and, in that experience, have gained a certainty which disdains argument and needs no proof. Truly the experience of our own eternity leaves us with nothing more to fear and nothing more to hope; what place is there for hope or fear when we have certainty? There is no possibility of trembling anxiety, of hope for the best or fear for the worst, when we know ourselves as the Eternal, past and future, in unchanging reality. Yet it is not we who are that reality, what we call 'ourselves' in the illusion of our world-image is but our changing experience of eternal Reality.

Our eternal being is not a far-off hope, not an uncertain heaven which may become our part; we are the Eternal now, at this moment, as at all moments of what we call 'time.' We always seek in the wrong direction, we always want more time; we demand even endless time in our quest of immortality. Yet the infinitely greater Reality is ever ours to enter if we but will whereas the lesser claim is but an illusion, born of illusion. We do not want more time, we want eternity in which all time is; we need to strike out in a different dimension altogether. Instead of wanting ever more and more of our time-experience we should, at this very moment, pierce through the veil of time and enter eternity, which can be found in fullness at every moment of our time. Instead of yearning to go on to the next moment, the next experience in time, we should go into the moment, into the present, and here and now enter eternity. The depth of the Eternal is in every instant of time, and we shall find it if we will but abandon illusion and enter reality. We need not wait for some glory to come, the Glory is here, now, if we will but realize it. How unworthy seems the demand for immortality when we experience eternity!

In that experience we are no longer the separate self, we are no longer what we call 'we ' in our daily life. Not only are we our entire being, past and future, in that sublime experience of eternity, but we are the reality of all that is, was, or shall be, we are That. Knowing this, the demand for immortality of the separate and passing self appears even more vain; it is almost blasphemy that the shifting phase of a creature in the illusion of its world-image should demand for itself an endless continuation of its illusory experience. When we read of man's fear and trembling in his search for immortality, of his petty concern for his own small self, of the meaningless arguments and proofs which, through the ages, he has called in to defend the phantasm which he dare not think untrue, it is with a feeling of liberation that we shake off this complicated ingenuity with which man constructed his castle of errors and enter the pure air of the world of Reality. There, in the world of the Real, in a divine simplicity, we experience ourselves as that Eternity, in the light of which all fears and hopes become superfluous. We are freed from the entanglements of illusion with its problems and from our vain attempts to solve them. We no longer seek immortality; we know the Eternal.

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