Conquest of Illusion J. J. van der Leeuw

Theosophical Publishing House 1928

J. J. Van der Leeuw

Chapter 11  In the Light of the Eternal

He that knows what truth is knows what that light is; and he that knows it, knows eternity. Charity knows it. O eternal truth! and true Charity! and dear Eternity! Thou art my God, to Thee do I sigh day and night. --ST. AUGUSTINE.

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The Meaning of Life

We have then fulfilled our quest of Reality; our voyage of exploration is done. It is true we have seen but a little of that world of Reality which is wide and great as eternity, in which is all that ever was or can be. Yet our discoveries are more than a reward for the hardships we undergo when we leave that which is familiar for that which is unknown. We indeed did leave the world we knew so well and set out on a perilous quest for reality and living truth. And see, in the new world where we arrived, we found our old world back, but in its true and everlasting meaning, knowing which our old world can never be the same again. We have ascended the mountain of Reality and from its top we have seen the vision of things as they are. With that vision in our hearts we can safely descend and return to the valleys where men live, for wherever we go the vision of the mountain-top will be before our eyes and we shall see all things, even the most familiar, in the light of the Eternal. We have heard the song of eternal Creation and in that song even the harsher sounds of this world of illusions have gained a profound and lasting meaning, what to us appeared as suffering and evil is seen to be as much and as necessarily part of that eternal song as that which to us appears as joy and righteousness. Having seen the vision, having heard the song, we can live indeed.

But do not all men live, do we not share their life as they share ours? Truly, we have in common the life of the body, we eat and drink and rest and work, we provide that which is necessary to keep our body alive and in health, but that alone is not the fullness of life for man. Unless there is meaning and purpose in the life we live, unless we know why we suffer and rejoice, why we toil and exert ourselves why we live in this physical body, why first it rules us and then we learn to rule it, unless we can see all that in the light of Reality we do not truly live, we but exist.

Is it not strange how so many can live without knowing, without asking why? If we were to ask any one of these to undertake a task involving many hardships and yet did not tell him why, did not show sufficient reason to warrant the undertaking of the task, would he do it? Would any one of us undertake even a journey of a few hundred miles without knowing why, without having some purpose? And yet, so many of us live, undertaking not a chance task, but the great Task of life itself, going, not some chance journey, but the great Journey of Life itself, with hardships and sufferings greater than any mortal journey may bring, and yet we ask not why. If we can look upon our human life as from a mountain top it seems but a delusion of insanity in which the millions hurry to and fro, apply themselves to their daily tasks, live in worry and anxiety, or hope in joyful expectations, despair when they fail or exult in success, not knowing the meaning of their lives. When we go through the streets of some great city and watch the faces of the men and women whom we meet, full of concern, of worry and discontent, of unhappiness and even of anger and hatred, we may well wonder whence all this grim solemnity if they neither know purpose of life itself? What an empty show of hurry and bustle, our rushing to and fro in which we look as of the utmost importance, definite meaning in all this tremendous energy!

And looking from the faces of our fellowmen to the shops displayed products of their activity, the majority ugly and tawdry, a still greater majority useless and only a few beautiful and necessary in life, do we not stand amazed at the blind ignorance which can load down our lives with the burden of such superfluous ugliness? Truly certain things are necessary in life. We must have food and drink so our bodies may live, healthy and clean food, refreshing and wholesome drink, we must have clothing to protect ourselves against heat and cold, we must have homes in which our lives may be centred, where we can find a haven of rest and serene happiness, We need machinery, the technical perfection of our outer life, by means of which we can transcend our surroundings and control our material life. We need art and science, philosophy and religion, we need all that will make life deeper and more joyful, richer and fuller. But we do not need food which is but harmful and productive of disease, we do not want dress which is ugly and a mistaken gratification of vanity, we do not want homes which are so elaborate that they become centres of disturbance instead of harmony and rest, we do not want machinery and mechanical contrivances which destroy life instead of furthering it, which enslave humanity instead of setting it free. We do not want science that causes suffering nor art which is untrue and vulgar, we need no philosophy which is but a play of words, nor a religion in which a man-made God is served with man-made dogmas, obscuring the eternal message of living truth, which the great Teachers of all ages have brought to man. We need far less and at the same time far more, above all we need the understanding which will show us what is necessary and life-giving and what is superfluous and destructive,

When we realize the eternal meaning of life we can see how much there is in life that is superfluous and even harmful, we can see how much there is that can be spared and must be eliminated, but at the same time we can see how much is lacking, how much more we need. The simplicity of real life can truly manage with but a fraction of the manifold encumbrances and complexities of modern life, but at the same time it demands a far higher standard of beauty and utility in those things which are essential. Truly we cannot arrange our lives wisely unless we know the meaning of life; we shall but continue to seek our riches where no riches are, to waste our energies where they do but harm, forgetting all the while the wisdom of Ruskin's saying `There is no wealth but life.'

Only when we have seen life as from a mountain top do we know true values, true greatness. As long as we err in the valley of illusion we judge but by the illusory externals which loom so large in our sight, we see appearance, not reality. Does not our judgment of man bear witness to our worship of externals; would not most of us, if placed by magic in the time when Christ lived, look upon the Roman rulers of His age as men great and worthy, successful and important, would we not yearn for their approval and take in their every word? And would most of us not look with contempt upon the Man of Nazareth, poor and powerless, belonging to a despised race, daring to set himself up as an authority above the mighty ones of His day? Would we give Him the same attentive ear which we would give to those great in the public eye, with power over life and death, would we have been capable to see that He alone was worth listening to, that He alone was great and wise and powerful, and that in the light of His eternal greatness the impressive pomp and seeming power of even the greatest of Romans were but as nothing? Indeed, even after ages of Christianity, our judgment of values is but an unchristian one, we judge by the tinsel of outer appearance, and are blind and deaf to the wonders of reality within. We know not the meaning of things.

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Practical Philosophy

That meaning philosophy can reveal to us. Philosophy is, or at least should be, the most practical activity of man. It is true, but too often has philosophy been a play of abstract ideas, of profound interest in its subtle shades of meaning to the professional philosopher, but without practical meaning to the man in the street in his daily life. It is conceivable, therefore, that the average man has wondered at times how there could be those who would, as it seems to him, waste their time in abstract speculation while there was so much to do in practical life for the helping of mankind. And yet, if philosophy is what it should be, realization of life, it cannot fail to be of the most vital importance and interest to man in his daily life. It brings the experience of the meaning of life, and in that experience alone can we learn what is worth while in our activities, what of real value in our achievements.

If we rush into activity, without having this realization of philosophy, we are as a man who undertakes a long journey without first acquainting himself with the nature of the country through which he must travel and the road he must follow. If we were to offer such a man the help of our experience by explaining to him a map of the country through which he has to find his way, and if he disdained such help, saying that it was not practical, that only in doing the thing, practical reality could be found, we should surely look upon such an one as foolish. In a similar way, if a man were to voyage across the ocean and disdained to learn the principles of navigation and the use of the compass, saying that all such theory was but superfluous and unpractical and that the right thing to do was to set out and undertake the voyage, we should again consider such an one as unpractical and lacking in wisdom. Yet in our daily lives we do disdain the knowledge of the country through which we must all travel, we do disdain the map which philosophy can show us and we have no time to learn the navigation of life and the use of its compass which the experience of Reality alone can teach. How can we act unless we know what is worth achieving? How can we choose unless we know real values? How can we steer our ship across the ocean of life if we do not know whither we are bound and how to find our way?

Philosophy is of the uttermost practical value in the life of everyday; we cannot truly govern our lives without its help. Still less can we govern the life of nations; politics, without philosophy to inspire and to direct, are but a dangerous play with the fate of nations and not a conscious direction of their evolution. In another volume we shall see how the realization of the creative Rhythm, which philosophy brings, yields that knowledge of historical evolution which enables the philosopher-statesman to legislate for his country in accordance with its evolution instead of deciding his political measures by the clash and strife of the selfish interests of groups within the nation. Could anything be more unpractical than the unscientific government of nations which has landed the world to-day in its chaotic difficulties? Could there be more damning evidence for the lack of true philosophy in our politics than the catastrophes which have overtaken humanity of late? It is but ignorance of the forces at work in social life, national as well as international, and ignorance of the way to control them that causes these sufferings to mankind. A science of government, based not on a philosophy of abstract speculation, but on a philosophy of experience, would surely be infinitely more practical and more beneficial than the present unscientific government in which the blind do but lead the blind.

It is not enough to say that philosophy has practical value, we must acknowledge that the control of life, for the individual as well as for the nation, is impossible without the light of philosophical knowledge, as impossible as navigation without map or compass, as impossible as traveling without even knowing the direction in which the goal of our travels is to be found. Our very behaviour depends on our philosophy.

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World-Affirmation and World-Denial

Our practical behaviour in life is always the outcome of our attitude towards the world surrounding us, whether we are conscious of it or not. If we look upon this world as objective reality we shall seek our happiness in it, if on the other hand we see it as illusion or as evil, we shall fly from this world in our search for happiness. It is here that the experience of Reality alone can deliver us from the problem by which we find ourselves confronted as long as we do not know the measure of reality of this world of ours.

There is a period in the evolution of man when he is wholly identified with that world, when he is but part of nature and lives its life, following the impulses and desires of his body like any other animal. Such a life may be beautiful and full of joy, as the life of an animal may well be, but it is a life in which man is entirely subject to the world of nature and does not know his own slavery, exulting in his bondage. This is the true Paganism, where man is natural man, one with nature since he has not yet learned to know himself.

There comes a time when this unconscious and dream-like unity is lost, when man, in the separateness of individualism, feels himself apart from the world that surrounds him, separate from his fellowmen. In that duality he becomes conscious of the bondage which he did not realize before, he will feel in himself the body with its desires and the mind with its aspirations. In the inevitable struggle which follows he will seek to learn the meaning of the world surrounding him and will either affirm it as supreme reality or else deny it as a snare and a delusion. If he affirms it in theory and in practice then in his practice of life he is but a natural man, rejoicing in a belated Paganism which can never bring lasting satisfaction, since ever again the voice of the spirit within will speak and assert its aspirations, its claims. On the other hand, he may deny the world surrounding him, proclaiming it to be illusion, or even the very abode of wickedness, the seat of evil. Thus we see the Indian yogi, dead to the world, living in utter renunciation, suppressing every claim of the body so that the spirit may live. Thus we see the Christian ascetic fleeing from the world of evil into the peace of the hermitage, chastising the body, so that its desires and passions may be crushed out. In this denial of the world and all that is of the world, man seeks salvation by putting all that is worldly far from him, looking upon those who pursue worldly aims as lost in darkness and bound for destruction.

World-affirmation and world-denial may at this stage well seem the only two alternatives. If there is an objective world surrounding us from all sides we must either affirm it, recognizing its reality and its claims, or else deny it either as non-existing, as illusion, or as a snare and a wickedness, evil incarnate. It is true we may attempt a compromise and what else is our conventional morality but such a compromise-in which we recognize the claims of the spirit within and of the world without and try to give each its due. The life of compromise, however, leads nowhere; we dare not enjoy material life to the full, without regret; we dare not reject that world and seek the spirit for fear that we may abandon happiness and riches for an uncertain bliss.

The aspirations of humanity have ever swayed to and fro between world-denial and world-affirmation; even now the West is representative of the one and the East of the other. Does not our Western civilization glory in its physical power, in its dominion over this world? Has it not asserted the reality of this world even to the exclusion of the world within, forgetting that man cannot live by bread alone? And has not the East, in its assertion of spiritual reality within, rejected the world without, disdaining to gain power, knowledge and control of that world and thereby becoming, at least materially, a prey to the nations of the West? It is true, both in East and West there have been those who have found Reality and whose mode of life has borne witness to their supreme experience. The Buddha taught the Middle Way which was neither world-denial nor world-affirmation, still less a compromise. Even so taught Christ, nor can He be held responsible for the misrepresentation of his message by disciples and followers who, lacking the experience of Reality, limited the message of their Teacher to the measure of their own minds. The extravagance of Christian asceticism is not the fruit of Christ's teaching, nor the self-seeking materialism which in so strange a manner claims for itself the sanction of the Christian Church. Still less did Christ teach a life of compromise, even though conventional morality too seeks its refuge in the teachings of Christianity.

On the whole, however, the West has affirmed the world, the East has denied it. The strength of the one is the weakness of the other; the West is as powerful in the noisy clamour of outer activity as the East is in the silent ` inactivity ' of the spirit. The achievement of each seems but as emptiness in the eyes of the other; the East has a good-humored smile for the illusory achievements of the West, just as the West has a hardly concealed contempt for the inactivity of the East. And yet there is value and meaning in each. We of the West do not always recognize the power of silence and of inactivity, our inactivity is but too often laziness; our silence ineptitude. But there is a silence more eloquent than the most impassioned oratory, there is an inactivity more powerful than the most frenzied action. Is it not the silent man, measured in his words and actions, who is often the strongest leader in a time of crisis? And do not our deepest emotions defy expression in words, are we not speechless in our greatest sorrow as well as in our greatest joy? We do not speak in the presence of death, neither do we speak when we meet the long lost friend after many years of sorrowful separation, and yet, our silence is infinitely more expressive than words could possibly be. There is power to be gained in world-denial as well as through world affirmation, but which are we to choose?

The problem surely is not one foreign to daily life, it is the very foundation of our behaviour, the basis of our morality. Are we to recognize this world surrounding us alone as real? Then let us plunge into its activities, enjoy to the full its pleasures, not pausing to consider, never stopping to think. Let us then seek achievement and power in that world, let us try to be great there, amass its riches, grasp its pleasures. If on the other hand that world is not real, or, worse even, if it is the power that eternally opposes us, the power of evil, then let us put far from us this world and its temptations, let us forsake it, renouncing the pleasures it holds out and seek the solitude within, the spirituality which there we can find.

Truly, without the vision of the Real the problem is as difficult as it is momentous and yet there seems no alternative, either we must live the life of the world or else the life of spirituality, unless we consent to surrender to a life of compromise which is empty of meaning.

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The Practice of Reality

Let us then once again analyze our problem and see whether or not it is capable of solution. We speak of world affirmation and of world-denial. But what is that world which we seek either to affirm or to deny? It is the world which we see around us, the world which appears as an objective reality, distinct from the life within. But that world is only an image in my consciousness; it is but my interpretation of Reality. It is true, I externalize that world image, believing it to be a reality outside my consciousness, but that does not make it the reality it appears to be. Neither can I say that it is all illusion, that it does not exist at all and that, therefore, it should be ignored and rejected in the practice of daily life. We cannot say of the externalized world-image either that it is real or that it is unreal; it is both real and unreal. It is real in so far as it is our interpretation of Reality, it is unreal in so far as it is not Reality itself, but only our interpretation. The illusory part of it is that we dissociate from our consciousness that which is only image in it and proclaim it to be independent reality.

To deny that externalized world-image is as impossible as to affirm it; in denying it we deny the fact that in our consciousness the world of Reality produces an image which we externalize and call ` the world.' To affirm that world as reality is equally impossible; at its best it is but our interpretation or image of reality, never the objectively real world which we believe it to be.

Our universe then is no objectively real world which we can either affirm or deny. The whole problem of world-denial and world-affirmation is but born of the illusion in which we place outside of our consciousness as objective reality that which is but image in it, caused by eternal Reality. Our problem is once again born of illusion and incapable of solution. We cannot affirm our objectivated world-image as reality, we cannot deny it as illusion, still less as evil and wicked. We can only try to understand it as it really is and treat it accordingly.

In the experience of reality we know things as they are, since we are all that is. That real world, the reality of things, can neither be affirmed nor denied; we are that supreme Reality ourselves, sharing the eternal being of all things. When from the experience of Reality we return to the dream of our world-image we no longer identify ourselves with it, thinking it to be the only reality, neither do we shrink from it as from a world of evil, or ignore it as a mere glamour of illusion. We can now see it all the time as that which it is-the image produced in our consciousness by eternal Reality, our interpretation of things as they are. Such an attitude is neither world-denial nor world-affirmation, it is the contemplation of our world-image in the light of the Eternal. The great change brought about by our experience of Reality is that we can now see our world-image as interpretation of Reality; we can see the appearances of daily life as phases or moments of that eternal Reality which we know within.

In the light of that Reality the passing appearance gains a new meaning, a new dignity, which without the vision of the Real it could not have. Round us we see all the time forms that are changing, nothing abides, all is in a process of eternal becoming. These ever-changing phases are but meaningless if seen by themselves, they become full of a wonderful meaning when seen as our realization of eternal Reality. This is a revelation of Reality, affecting life so deeply that no words can describe its meaning to one who has not seen his world in the light of the Eternal. What takes place is truly a transmutation of our world, without any change in that world itself, but merely by virtue of the fact that we can now all the time see our world-image as interpretation of eternal Reality. It is perhaps the greatest gift of the philosophy of experience that all things in their time illusion, events in life as well as problems of life, are now seen in the light of the Eternal.

When we have seen the vision of Reality our world is changed, utterly and almost beyond recognition, and yet nothing has changed in things as they are, it is but that we have gained a new vision. Ugliness and suffering, disharmony and evil only exist for us as long as we see our world image as an objective reality, as long as we see things by themselves. The moment we can see the objects and events of our world as the interpretation by us of Reality, the eternal meaning of the thing in itself is revealed through its appearance in our world; we see the changing object, the passing event in the light of the Eternal. In that light they can no longer be ugly or evil; they all share the grandeur of eternal Reality. Does not Shelley describe in the Prometheus Unbound how, with the fall of Jupiter, King of Illusion, the whole world is changed?

... and soon
Those ugly human shapes and visages
Of which I spoke as having wrought me pain,
Past floating through the air, and fading still
Into the winds that scattered them; and those
From whom they past seemed mild and lovely forms
After some foul disguise had fallen, and all
Were somewhat changed, and after brief surprise
And greetings of delighted wonder, all
Went to their sleep again; and when the dawn
Came, wouldst thou think that toads, and snakes, and efts,
Could e'er be beautiful ? yet so they were,
And that with little change of shape or hue;
All things had put their evil nature off ...

It is in the new vision, which is born when man is freed from the tyranny of illusion, that the whole world is changed and appears radiant with love and beauty, apparently utterly changed, though the change really is in man himself alone. When we can see the world around us, our world-image, in the light of Reality every detail of it is suffused by the light of the Eternal and in that light gains a new beauty and a profound meaning. It is in ourselves that the key to our world image is to be found; with our fuller realization that image changes until it is truly seen as ` the shadow of Beauty unbeheld.' In the deep realization of the poet, which was Shelley's, he expresses the liberation of man from the bonds of his self-created illusions in words which no philosophical expression of truth can attain:

The painted veil, by those who were, called life,
Which mimicked, as with colours idly spread,
All men believed and hoped, is torn aside;
The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains
Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man
Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,
Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king
Over himself; just, gentle, wise; but man
Passionless? no, yet free from guilt or pain,
Which were, for his will made or suffered them,
Nor yet exempt, though ruling them like slaves,
From chance, and death, and mutability,
The clogs of that which else might oversoar
The loftiest star of unascended heaven,
Pinnacled dim in the intense inane.

'The man remains,' and in him is found the secret of Reality.

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In the Light of the Eternal

It is only while we still see our world-image as an objectively real world that its appearances can be to us objects of desire and that we can pursue them, intent on possession. Desire is but the expression of the belief in our world-image as objective reality; we pursue in a vain attempt at possession those images which arise in our consciousness and inevitably experience disillusion when we discover that they are but appearance. Equally vain is the repudiation of that world image, we cannot escape it, as little as we can desire it; our attempts at escape will but bind us all the closer to the world from which we fly. To put from us the world, proclaiming it to be full of illusion and wickedness is not true spirituality; it is but the outcome of error and can only cause suffering to those who make it their goal.

The spirituality born of the experience of Reality is very different. In it we neither desire the appearances of our world-image, nor do we reject or fear them; we know them for what they are, images produced in our consciousness, and see them as our interpretation of the Eternal.

When we enter the world of Reality and become established in it, desire becomes superfluous since we are all that is and there is nothing to desire outside Reality. How can we want a thing when we are all things, and experience all things as our own being? In the peace of the Eternal desire grows silent and that, which we never could possess while we pursued it in our world-image, is ours eternally, since we are that thing itself. The play of desire is but the play with our own world-image as externalized reality; when we are That which produces the world-image such play becomes superfluous.

Our joy in the beauties of our world-image, the world we see surrounding us, will now be far greater than before, since in all that surrounds us we can see that deeper beauty, that greater joy-the Eternal shining through the veil of time. In real spirituality, therefore, we do not desire the forms of the world-image since we are one with the Reality that produces them, neither do we shrink from them since we see them in the light of their eternal meaning. We can thus live in the world and yet not be of the world; we can do our work in the world to the best of our ability, concentrating our energies and our powers on it and yet be free from attachment to that which is but our experience of Reality. There is no need to seek holiness in poverty and solitude; there is holiness wherever we find ourselves placed in our daily life, since everywhere is the Eternal.

Such is the sanctification of the world. We no longer need the seclusion of the church to find God and to serve Him, we see Divinity in the faces of our fellowmen, and hear its music in the voices of nature. Our daily life has become the cathedral in which we revere the Eternal, while the common activities of our human existence have become the ceremonial in which we worship the Reality which in them is manifest.

In the light of Reality there is no word or action that is not part of Eternity, since all are our realization of the Eternal. It is truly as if a Light from within now illumined our world-image; every object in it, every creature has a profound and eternal message when seen in the light of the Eternal. The world of time has become the symbol of eternity; in the light of the Eternal time itself is eternalized. It is only as long as we are bound in illusion that things can appear as meaningless, as wrong, as lost in chaos; when we have seen Reality there is not a grain of dust which has not a sublime meaning, since it is for ever part of the Eternal.

We ourselves derive a new meaning from this Partnership; we now may walk in time, but we live in the Eternal, we may behold illusion, but we know Reality. Such are the fruits of the Vision of the Eternal, such is the practice of Reality. To see Reality is to live; to become It is to have achieved.

In that achievement alone is Peace and Liberation.

[ end of book ]

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