Tarka #008

On Perennial Philosophy


On Perennial Philosophy

Perennials are plants that die back each year and then sprout new growth in the spring.  These are often hearty plants that, with little care, offer beauty and stability to landscaped grounds and to the bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds that depend on them for food.  Similarly, the idea that there is perennial wisdom or spiritual insight that is shared across different cultures and religions provides a foundation and connection between diverse people.  We are connected through our humanity and in our search for meaning and this insight, though at times forgotten, resurfaces to ground us in peace.

At the heart of perennial philosophy is the wager that there is a common spiritual ground that is shared by the many religions of the world.  Perennial philosophy is the (sometimes forgotten) backbone of the “spiritual but not religious,” and “new age” philosophies.  Simultaneously, it is one of the most inspiring and widespread influences in modern spirituality and also one of the most fervently critiqued approaches to religious pluralism and interreligious dialogue.  This month’s Tarka explores perennial philosophy from a number of perspectives, including historical study, practice-based non-duality, and interreligious reflection.

Opening this issue Jeffery D. Long’s, “Eternal and Universal Truth: The Idea of the Perennial Philosophy,” delves into the work of Aldous Huxley and the connection it has to the Hindu religious philosophy, Vedanta.  Long also situates perennial philosophy in the context of religious pluralism and revisits some of the concepts introduced in his October 2018, Tarka article, “Celebrating the Diversity of Perspectives: An Overview of Pluralism.”

Next, “Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, and the Perennial Tradition,” by Christopher Bamford, reminds readers of the tremendous influence that H.P. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society has had upon contemporary spirituality, including the legacy of Rudolf Steiner and Waldorf education.  Bamford discusses the evolution of Anthroposophy from Theosophy and notes that both drew from science and religion to form a kind of “metareligious spirituality.”

Subsequently, in an excerpt from his book, Seeing, Knowing, Being, John Greer situates the contemplative practice of non-dual awakening in the context of perennial philosophy.  “The Myth of Duality,” highlights shared mystical practices and experiences (across varied traditions) that point to “knowing by being rather than by thinking and believing.”

“Seamless Robes,” by Mary Reilly Nichols, points to the image of Christ’s seamless robes portrayed in historical carvings and noted in the Gospel of John (19:23).  She relates this symbol of unity to instances in Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras, Tantric teachings, and early childhood development to evoke a practice of non-dual contemplation.

Next, Jay Michaelson’s “Vedanta and Kabbalah: Nonduality East and West,” looks at the concept of nonduality in Judaism and in Hinduism’s Advaita Vedanta, including a discussion of Neo-Vedanta, Kabbalah, Hasidism, and Neo-Hasidism.   In doing this, Michaelson attends to differences and similarities across traditions and across eras, thus he challenges and expands the perennialist narrative.

“What is Wrong with the Perennial Philosophy?” by Jules Evans, outlines some of the primary critiques of the perennial philosophy while still promoting an approach to spiritual practice that is derived from it.  This is an insightful, and playful, read for anyone raised in an era of “one mountain, many paths.”

Writing from a Buddhist perspective, Isa Gucciardi’s, “Perennial Wisdom to help us Parent more Consciously,” takes up the concept of perennial, that is, long-lasting and timeless, knowledge.  Conscious parenting is a relatively new idea that draws inspiration from particular practices of Buddhist mindfulness training.

Returning author, Mary Lahaj, offers another perspective on contemplative practice and religious identity.  Having experimented with Transcendental Meditation, Lahaj returned to her Islamic faith to rediscover how Islam cultivates contemplation through the five pillars.  This particular look into contemplative practice in an Abrahamic tradition challenges the idea the “all religions are saying the same thing,” yet also affirms that diverse traditions do intersect in meaningful ways.

Another diverse take on contemplation is offered in Katy Jane’s “Nothing Can Be Taught: The Un-Contemplated Veda.” Jane considers ṛta, the eternal rhythm, that is learned through the kinesthetic experience of studying the Vedas by learning Sanskrit and Sanskrit chanting.

In the final article Mary Reilly Nichols returns to the concept of non-duality and shared symbols that exist across traditions.  In “The Three Bears,” Reilly looks at “triadic symbols,” that, in her words, “all point to a common truth: that perfection, wholeness, and holiness are found at the heart of the union of opposites.”

This issue of Tarka complements the four module online course, “I Am That: The Pervasive Nectar of Non-duality,” taught by Mary Reilly Nichols. It also connects to the online course, “Religious Pluralism: Navigating Diverse Worldviews,” taught by Jeffery Long. Both of these offerings can be found in our course catalogue at embodiedphilosophy.com/learn.

Perennial philosophy, attractive as it is flawed, promoted direct experience and the hope of unity between diverse traditions. Yet, unity that ignores diversity ultimately furthers division.  Non-dual contemplation highlights a modern approach to perennial philosophy.  It is rooted in a particular worldview, like all approaches to contemplation. Perennial philosophy can evolve and continue to inspire, all the more so, if it is coupled with an appreciation for diversity and for contemplative practice across traditions.

~ Stephanie Corigliano, TARKA Managing Editor